Africa Scene: Johan Jack Smith

Not Your Average Serial Killer Book

By Michael Sears

Johan Jack Smith’s new novel, ZOLA, starts off as a classic serial killer police procedural: the horrendous murder of a young woman, followed by the police captain and his partner rushing to the scene and starting to understand what they’re up against. But from there it becomes something very different.

Captain David Majola is a black officer mentored by a hardline racist white policeman with a dreadful past from the apartheid days, while Warrant Officer Jason Basson is an old school white policeman who lost the promotion to the less experienced Majola. There is tension between them, but also a fragile friendship.

In this The Big Thrill interview, Smith shares insight into the inspiration for his latest page turner, and what he’s working on next.
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Africa Scene: Oyinkan Braithwaite

A Unique Take on the Serial Killer Formula

By Michael Sears

Oyinkan Braithwaite’s debut, MY SISTER, THE SERIAL KILLER, is an extraordinary novel. The premise is that two sisters are so close that the elder, Korede, covers up the younger’s killings. Initially, Korede believes them to be in self-defense, but is eventually forced to accept that they’re actually murders. It’s a very different take on the usual serial-killer formula, but just as gripping, and gives insight into the tortured depth of family ties.

The novel won the LA Times award for best crime thriller, was long listed for the Booker Prize, and short listed for the Women’s Fiction Prize. A stunning accomplishment for a debut thriller author. The New York Times said MY SISTER, THE SERIAL KILLER was “…a bombshell of a book—sharp, explosive, hilarious. With a deadly aim, Braithwaite lobs jokes, japes and screwball comedy at the reader. Only after you turn the last page do you realize that, as with many brilliant comic writers before her, laughter for Braithwaite is as good for covering up pain as bleach is for masking the smell of blood.” The New York Times was not alone.
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Africa Scene: Chris Abani

Lagos Featured in New City Noir Collection

By Michael Sears

On a recent trip to Botswana I picked up a copy of LAGOS NOIR, an anthology edited by well-known Nigerian author Chris Abani. It’s unusual to feature short story collections in this column, but this one is quite special—and when I discovered it was published in the US by Akashic, I was keen to chat to Abani about it.

The stories run the gamut from atmospheric pieces with a vicious twist in the tail, through to mini thrillers and some unusual police procedurals. All are set in Lagos, and although the sense of place is strong across the collection, the authors’ styles are quite different. It’s one of the most interesting collections I’ve read in the genre.

If there is a theme that runs through the collection, it’s that people believe what they want to believe—reality has little to do with it until it catches up with them. If it does. Before we get into the interview, here’s a whistle-stop tour of the book:
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Africa Scene: Louisa Treger

Turning Real Life into a Convincing Mystery

By Michael Sears

Louisa Treger was a classical violinist until she turned to literature and earned a doctorate in English. Her critically acclaimed debut, The Lodger, is a fictional account of the life of writer Dorothy Richardson, a central figure in the emergence of modernist fiction. The New York Times called it “an evocative, beautifully written first novel,” and The Washington Post said, “It’s an impressive feat to make the act of writing as exciting as a love affair.”

Treger’s second book, THE DRAGON LADY, was released in the US last month. Set largely in Southern Rhodesia (modern day Zimbabwe) in the 1950s, it’s based on the life of Lady Virginia (Ginie) Courtauld, a remarkable person and most unlike the conservative upper-class British people whose attention she apparently craved. The book’s title comes from a nickname referring to the snake tattoo that wound up one of her legs.

Taking a real life that is little known and turning it into a convincing novel is a challenging undertaking, especially when it starts with a violent crime. But in THE DRAGON LADY, Treger builds an intriguing mystery, and at the same time has revealed a memorable and complex character.

The story of Ginie’s extraordinary life starts in the Italian Riviera of the 1920s where she marries an Italian count. After her divorce, she moves to England and marries Stephen Courtauld, the wealthy son of a textile merchant. After the Second World War, they move to colonial Rhodesia. Despite her privilege, her life was not always easy. She lived largely in isolation both because of her refusal to conform and her disgust with the treatment of black people, which won her no friends among the whites.

In this interview for The Big Thrill, I asked Treger about Lady Courtauld and how she came to tell her story.
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Africa Scene: Tony Park

Strong Female Characters Drive Narrative
in Park’s 16th Thriller

By Michael Sears

Tony Park is the acclaimed author of 16 thrillers all set in southern Africa, as well as six biographical books. His latest novel, SCENT OF FEAR, features intriguing characters (some of them canine!) and plenty of twists to keep the reader guessing and the pages turning.

The book addresses the current poaching crisis, where big money from the Far East chases rhino horns, lion bones, and ivory. In that way it’s similar to Michael Stanley’s new book Shoot the Bastards, but while Stanley chose an outsider to become embroiled in the issues, Park focuses on them through the people right at the front.

An Australian, he has worked as a reporter, a press secretary, a PR consultant, and a freelance writer. He also served 34 years in the Australian army reserve, including a tour of duty in Afghanistan. Park and his wife, Nicola, now split their time between two homes—one in Sydney, and one in South Africa near the Kruger Park.

The Times of London has described Park as the “spiritual heir” to Wilbur Smith, while Publisher’s Weekly said he “excels at capturing the wilds of (Africa), as well as its political and commercial pressures.”

Park will be speaking on a panel, “Drones, Tanks or Special OPs? Today’s Military Thriller” at ITW’s ThrillerFest this month. Catch up with him there—but first, check out this The Big Thrill interview.
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International Thrills: Ashley Dyer

Exploring Murder as an Artform

By Dawn Ius

Nearly 200 years ago, Thomas De Quincey published the controversial essay “On Murder Considered as One of the Fine Arts”—a fictional, satirical account made to a gentleman’s club concerning the aesthetic appreciation of murder.

In 2013, New York Times bestselling author David Morrell further explored the context of Quincey’s essay in a three-book Victorian mystery/thriller series that kicks off with Murder as a Fine Art. He certainly wasn’t the first to do so, and over the years, writers, TV producers, and filmmakers have continued to manipulate this macabre theme.

The latest exploration of “murder as art” comes from Ashley Dyer’s THE CUTTING ROOM, in which detectives Ruth Lake and Greg Carver must stop the Ferryman, a diabolical serial killer whose victims become the centerpieces of gruesome public tableaux.

Dyer—the pseudonym for UK authors Margaret Murphy and Helen Pepper—says the book was inspired by the fallout from their debut, Splinter in the Blood, in which Detective Carver survives an attack and is recovering from a serious brain injury.

“Carver has had a number of scans since his brain injury, and MRI scans loomed large in my own life, for a time,” Murphy says. “There’s something simultaneously beautiful, troubling, and deeply compelling about the detailed cross-sectional images of the brain produced by an MRI. Like the Rorschach ink blots used in psychological assessments, they take on the appearance of distorted butterflies—symmetrical, ethereal, weird. Very like a piece of art, I thought.”
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Up Close: Michael Stanley

Balancing the Line Between Fact and Fiction

By Dawn Ius

More than a decade has passed since Michael Stanley—pseudonym for the acclaimed writing team of Michael Sears and Stanley Trollip—published A Carrion Death, the first book in what would become the popular Detective Kubu series.

With the seventh novel—Facets of Death­­—slated for release later this year, the authors have shifted into publicity mode to promote their forthcoming standalone thriller SHOOT THE BASTARDS, a book that touches on the international issue of poaching, and introduces Crystal Nguyen, a Vietnamese-American journalist torn between cultures and driven by her quest for truth.

When her friend goes missing while researching a National Geographic story on rhino poaching and rhino-horn smuggling, Crystal wrangles an assignment that will hopefully lead her to him so she can help finish his important story. But before long, she finds herself in the middle of a war between poachers and conservation officers where she quickly becomes one of the hunted.

In SHOOT THE BASTARDS, award-winning authors Sears and Trollip expose one of southern Africa’s most vicious conflicts in a story that will have you turning pages, pining for the safety of the world’s dwindling rhino populations, and questioning the line between fact and fiction.

Answering as Michael Stanley, the authors share with The Big Thrill some of the inspiration behind this thriller, and what fans of the Detective Kubu series can expect from this intriguing new heroine.
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Africa Scene: Max Annas

A Cheetah in Book Form

By Michael Sears

Max Annas is a German journalist who lived for a time in East London, a coastal city in the Eastern Cape province of South Africa. His US debut, The Wall, is a satire with some hilarious parts, but also the action of a thriller. Despite the humor and his light touch, Annas shows us a pessimistic view of the modern culture in South Africa.

Berlin-based newspaper Die Welt said of the German original, “The Wall is a fantastic, yet very funny novel…Fast, hard and dangerous. A cheetah in book form.” The book went on to win the German Crime Fiction Prize in 2017.

In it, Moses is looking forward to an afternoon with his girlfriend when his car breaks down outside The Pines, a guarded enclave. In search of a vague acquaintance he hopes will help him, he sneaks into the walled estate, hoping to remember the address once inside. But the local security guards see him as a threat—for no other reason than that he’s a young, black male, and dressed in work clothes. After an initial altercation, he runs—eventually for his life—but he’s trapped by the walls around the suburb like a rat in a maze. Finally, the guards are reinforced by police, and an intense manhunt follows with shocking consequences.

In this interview for The Big Thrill, Annas provides insight on what motivated him to write The Wall and what we can look forward to from him next.
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Africa Scene: Peter Church

Nothing as it Seems in
Dark and Racy new Thriller

By Michael Sears

Cape Town author Peter Church’s debut Dark Video was released in 2008 and he was acclaimed as the best new mystery writer in a long while. His writing has been called “dark and racy,” and that sums it up pretty well. His new book CRACKERJACK, released this month in South Africa and the US, is a page turner in the same mold.

Daniel Le Fleur is a reformed hacker and very successful day trader. Against his better judgement, he’s sucked into the search for a missing businessman, who has disappeared taking his company’s money with him, by an attractive executive of the company, Carla.

What seems like an easy assignment leads to a fight for their lives. Was the man murdered and his body thrown into the sea, was he kidnapped, or has he fled to South America with the shareholders’ money?

All is not as it seems. In fact, nothing is as it seems.

With a background in IT and a successful career in the industry, Church brings his knowledge to bear in his thrillers. He has quite a different take on Cape Town.
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International Thrills: Harriet Tyce

Marriage, Murder, and Plenty of Questions at Heart of Thrilling Debut

By Dawn Ius

Harriet Tyce knew she wanted to create a character who was fully human—not only with good and bad aspects, but also a transgressive nature that wouldn’t be punished in a way that so many women are in psychological thrillers.

She succeeds with Alison Wood, the decidedly unlikeable protagonist in her chilling debut BLOOD ORANGE, a domestic thriller that twists and turns down a dark rabbit hole of suspense toward an explosive ending that will stick with readers long after they turn the page.

On the surface, Alison has a perfect life—a doting husband, a precocious young daughter, and a thriving career as a London barrister who has just landed her first murder case. But it’s evident within the first few pages that Alison’s perfection is only a mirage—she’s an alcoholic who is both unfaithful to her husband, and negligent to her beautiful daughter.

She knows what she’s doing is wrong—she just can’t stop.
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The Very Least by Ken Kuhlken

By Basil Sands

Ken Kuhlken’s THE VERY LEAST: A HICKEY FAMILY CRIME NOVEL, about a journalist who runs afoul of crime bosses, politicians, and tycoons on both sides of the U.S.-Mexico border, is a fast-paced suspense story that’ll keep you reading all night long.

Kuhlken is the author of numerous award-winning novels, stories, articles, poems, and essays. His impressive list of honors includes a National Endowment for the Arts Literature Fellowship, a PEN Ernest Hemingway Award, and a Private Eye Writers of America Best First P.I. Novel award, as well as several San Diego Book and Los Angeles Book Festival awards. His 2006 novel The Do-Re-Mi was a finalist for the Shamus Award for Best P.I. Novel.

The Big Thrill recently caught up with Kuhlken to discuss his long-running Hickey Family series, which reaches its 10th installment with THE VERY LEAST.
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Africa Scene: Paul Hardisty by Michael Sears

Closing The Book On A Powerful Series

By Michael Sears

Paul Hardisty has made a name for himself with his powerful issue-driven thrillers featuring Claymore Straker, a South African who discovered the horrible truth behind South Africa’s war in Angola.

In the first two novels The Abrupt Physics of Dying and The Evolution of Fear, we follow Straker as he tries to find his way after those traumatic events. In Reconciliation for the Dead, he attempts to resolve—unsuccessfully—his issues by relating his story to South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission. ABSOLUTION is the final book in the set, and Claymore has to find a purpose to carry on.

Hardisty has worked in environmental engineering for more than 25 years, so he knows and understands the issues that he cares about so deeply. He is currently the chief executive officer of the Australian Institute of Marine Science.

Here, Hardisty talks to The Big Thrill about the final chapter of this powerful series and what readers can expect from him next:
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Africa Scene: Stephen Holgate

Exploring an Island of Ghosts

By Michael Sears

Not many authors start their careers being compared to Graham Greene, John le Carré, and Alan Furst. Stephen Holgate’s two novels—both set in Africa—have reached that mark. Tangier was published last year to acclaim, and MADAGASCAR was released a few months ago.

I’ve visited Madagascar and this is not an easy culture to weave into a book. Holgate has done so with sympathy and affection, at the same time constructing a dramatic thriller with rich characters and subtle humor. Publishers Weekly—in a starred review—said: “Holgate has created a memorable lead character and made MADAGASCAR, where the ‘implausible is not only possible, it is mandatory,’ palpable. Le Carré fans won’t want to miss this one.” I have no quarrel with that assessment.

Stephen Holgate is a fifth-generation Oregonian who served as a diplomat at American embassies in France, Madagascar, Morocco, Mexico, and Sri Lanka. He lives with his wife in Portland.

You spent several years in Madagascar as a diplomat and your understanding of the island and its culture comes through everywhere in the book.  How much of the novel is based on your own experiences in the country?

I didn’t entirely trust myself to capture the singular qualities of Madagascar with wholly invented incidents. So, more than I have in the past, I based many elements of the novel on stories I’d been told or things I had seen myself. For instance, a story told by a Fulbright scholar about her time in a small village, studying the phenomenon called “tromba women” and the possibility that they might actually be possessed by the spirits of the dead, is based on a conversation I had with a Fulbrighter. Likewise, a visit Knott makes to a rather loopy Malagasy publisher is practically a transcript of a conversation I had with such a man. Finally, the willingness of Malagasy prison guards to let burglars out at night to ply their trade, and the unintended consequences of the guards’ actions, are accurate.
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Africa Scene: Jeff Dawson

No Ordinary Thriller

By Michael Sears

Jeff Dawson is a well-known journalist and author of non-fiction. He is a long-standing contributor to The Sunday Times culture section, writing regular A-list arts features that include interviews with the likes of Robert De Niro, George Clooney, Dustin Hoffman, Hugh Grant, Angelina Jolie, Jerry Seinfeld, and Nicole Kidman. He is also a former U.S. Editor of Empire magazine.​

Jeff is the author of three non-fiction books — Tarantino/Quentin Tarantino: The Cinema of Cool (Cassell/Applause, 1995), Back Home: England and the 1970 World Cup (Orion, 2001), which The Times rated “Truly outstanding,” and Dead Reckoning: The Dunedin Star Disaster (Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 2005), which was nominated for the Mountbatten Maritime Prize, and introduced him to southern Africa.

Turning his hand to crime fiction has been no less successful. NO ORDINARY KILLING, his debut novel, takes us to the Cape at the time of the Boer War and seamlessly weaves historical mystery and thriller. It became an Amazon Kindle best seller when it was released. I think we’ll be hearing a lot more about Jeff’s fiction.
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Africa Scene: Toni Kan

When Trust Is a Shapeshifter

By Michael Sears

Toni Kan is a creative writer, biographer, editor, and public relations expert. Kan, who was educated at the University of Jos and the University of Lagos, became a magazine editor at the age of 26. He lives in Lagos and has explored his city in poetry and short stories, culminating with THE CARNIVOROUS CITY. He was the recipient of the NDDC/Ken Saro Wiwa literature prize, awarded by the Association of Nigerian Authors (ANA), in 2009.

Abel Dike leads a quiet life as a teacher in a regional town when he receives a brief message that his brother, Soni, is missing. He knows that Soni is a criminal—and a very successful one—and they have an ambivalent relationship, but he immediately heads for Lagos to try to discover what has happened. He takes on the carnivorous city. Although he moves into his brother’s mansion, over the next few days he is exposed to the extremes of Lagos. I asked Toni Kan about his concept for this riveting crime novel.

THE CARNIVOROUS CITY has a powerful sense of place—in fact, it’s really a book about Lagos. Did you conceive the novel as an inside look at the city through the eyes of an outsider, or did this develop with the story?

The intention was to write a love song to Lagos, which I have called home for the last 25 years. Lagos has always fascinated me just like other cities have fascinated other writers: Dickens with London, James Joyce with Dublin, Doctorow with New York, Hugo with Paris.
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Africa Scene: Karin Brynard

Beauty, Violence, and Redemption

By Michael Sears

Karin Brynard grew up in the Northern Cape and many of her books are set in that dramatic, semi-arid landscape. She was a journalist and editor for several of South Africa’s major newspapers before she became freelance to concentrate on her writing.

Her novels—originally written in Afrikaans—have been translated into several languages, and she has won a variety of literary and crime fiction prizes. Her next book, Tuisland (the Afrikaans version of Homeland), shot up to number one on the South African best seller list when it was released in 2016.

We chatted about OUR FATHERS, her latest book available outside South Africa.

OUR FATHERS is a book that tackles big themes in South Africa—the decay of family units, alienation by place as well as race, and different views from different groups as to the relationship between races in the country. Did you set out to address these, or are they the issues that will almost inevitably arise in contemporary South African crime fiction?

If you try and shadow one ordinary cop in the South African Police Service for a day, you will most likely stumble across every one of the “big themes” of this country.

Cops stand at the coal face of all the realities of life here, ranging from racism to the rape of babies and beyond. And that’s where my stories happen too, so addressing the “issues”  becomes sort of inevitable.
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Africa Scene: Rupert Smith

Spinning a Thriller From Corruption

By Michael Sears 

Rupert Smith spent 25 years as a successful corporate lawyer in Johannesburg before joining a coal mining company as part of its senior management. By the time he retired, he knew the mining industry from the inside–how things are supposed to be; how they are presented publicly; and how they actually are.

Most people are content to retire after a long career of hard work and concentrate on Sudoku puzzles (he is an expert), but Rupert decided to share some of his experiences in a novel with a coal mining company as a backstory.  STEAL A FEW CENTS was released last year by Roundfire Books and has just had its South African debut. Well-known local author Tim Butcher said it “spins an all too convincing thriller out of a South African setting of veld, mining and corruption.” Butcher has it spot-on for my money.

Mpho Mamela, a young accountant for the coal mine, is found horribly mangled by a massive conveyer belt that transports the coal. He had no reason to be in the area, and what is at first accepted as a tragic accident starts pointing to a homicide as Stephen Wakefield, the in-house lawyer, puts together the case for the inevitable state inquiry. He discovers that Mpho’s lover was jailed for “stealing a few cents,” while Mpho himself seems to be involved with a senior figure stealing a few millions.

I asked Rupert how he came to write his debut novel.
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International Thrills: Sara Blaedel

By Layton Green

During a recent book festival in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, I was chatting to a fellow author on the way to dinner. I discovered through conversation that she was a Danish crime writer named Sara Blaedel, but she was so humble that it was not until I Googled her work that I discovered she was the Sara Blaedel—quite literally, the most popular author in Denmark, and a No. 1 international bestseller. She’s the only author to ever win the Martha Prize (The Danish Reader’s Favorite Author award) four times, and in 2014, she won Denmark’s most prestigious literary award, the Golden Laurel.

Sara was on tour in Winston-Salem to promote the release of a brand-new trilogy that is somewhat of a departure from her popular Louise Rick series. In this interview, we discuss her past work and a tough period in her life that inspired the new direction, the life of a bestselling Danish crime novelist, and other topics. I hope you enjoy, and please check out Sara’s work!

Thanks for taking the time to chat, Sara.  This column is all about focusing on the world’s best international crime writers, and our readers love to learn where the authors call home. Can you tell us a little bit about your background?

I am a native of Denmark. My writing career started in journalism and TV production.  I founded a Danish publishing house 26 years ago; I published only crime fiction.  I’ve always been a huge fan of the genre, though it was not particularly popular yet in Denmark when I started my press.
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Africa Scene: Paul Mendelson

Engulfed in Turmoil

By Michael Sears

Paul Mendelson is a man of many talents: writer, interviewer, actor, script-writer for theatre and television. He is also an expert on bridge and poker, and has written more than a dozen books as well as regular newspaper columns about them.

Mendelson is passionate about South Africa and he’s been visiting Cape Town for 25 years, so when he decided to write a crime fiction novel, he chose Cape Town as the setting.

“The cultural and political background of the country is fascinating for an author and, despite my characters seemingly facing increasing problems, I remain optimistic for South Africa…” he says.

His debut Vaughn de Vries thriller—The First Rule of Survival—was described by Lee Child as: “An excellent, uncompromising crime thriller made even better by its setting.” The First Rule of Survival was an immediate success and was shortlisted for the most prestigious U.K. crime fiction award. It was followed in 2015 by The Serpentine Road and The History of Blood in 2016.

Last year the fourth in the series, APOSTLE LODGE, came out. A group of boys discover the body of a woman who seems to have been abused and then starved to death in an empty house, Apostle Lodge.  Because of the circumstances, Vaughn immediately suspects that it’s not a single crime but part of a series. He finds it hard to attract the focus the crime deserves because a terrorist bomb blast has recently shaken Cape Town and the police are hunting for the perpetrators. As the cases progress, Vaughn finds himself sucked personally into both of them.

If you think serial killer thrillers are formulaic, APOSTLE LODGE will change your mind. It’s a very different and intriguing take on the subgenre.
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Africa Scene: Michael Niemann

Where Global Forces Meet Ordinary Lives

By Michael Sears

For more than 30 years, Michael Niemann has been interested “in the sites where ordinary people’s lives and global processes intersect,” and he has traveled and written widely about Africa and Europe as part of his academic work in international studies. Along the way, he has helped students of all ages and backgrounds to understand their role in constructing the world in which they live and to take this role seriously.

So it may seem strange that Michael turned to writing thrillers, but his experiences—particularly in Africa—inform his work and lend a richness to his characters.

His debut novel, Legitimate Business, first published in 2014 and reissued last year, featured Valentin Vermeulen, an investigator for the UN. It’s set against the sandy hopelessness of Zam Zam camp in Darfur. The sequel, Illicit Trade, also released last year, addressed human trafficking from Kenya. This month the third Vermeulen thriller, ILLEGAL HOLDINGS, comes out. It takes place in Mozambique against the backdrop of the vexed issue of land rights. Vermeulen is auditing a small aid agency, which has apparently misappropriated five million dollars, but the corruption goes much further than the missing money.

You are clearly familiar with Mozambique and understand its complex issues. What made you decide to set one of your novels there?

Mozambique was the second African country I ever visited. I spent time at the Centro de Estudos Africanos in Maputo, the capital, as part of my dissertation research. While there, I also had a chance to roam the city. Despite the poverty and deprivations of the civil war that was still going on, I met some of the most warm and generous people there. It’s also a country with a fascinating history. Before colonization, it was part of a vast Indian Ocean trading world. Colonization by the Portuguese was brutal and began earlier than elsewhere in southern Africa. Their first settlements there predate even the arrival of Jan van Riebeeck in Cape Town. Its struggle for independence was led by Eduardo Mondlane, an assistant professor of anthropology from Syracuse University.

The second reason was the worrisome development of foreign land acquisitions on the African continent after the 2007/08 crash. Mozambique is one of the countries where biofuel companies, hedge funds and others have bought vast stretches of land. I thought that was a suitable topic for a thriller.
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Africa Scene: Martin Steyn

Fascinated By the Darkness

By Michael Sears

Martin Steyn got into writing because of Stephen King’s The Dark Half, and then into writing crime fiction because he was fascinated by what motivated serial killers to hunt strangers for pleasure and how they did it. He began by reading books on the subject, while scanning the local paper for reports on a serial killer dumping the bodies of young boys in the dunes not far from where he lived.

Martin studied psychology and criminology at the University of South Africa. After that he studied serial killers and profiling in earnest, following it up with research into the investigation of violent crime in South Africa.

In 2014 Martin’s first crime novel set in Cape Town, Donker Spoor, was published in Afrikaans and the following year it was awarded an important prize for South African suspense fiction. Earlier this year the English version, DARK TRACES, came out in South Africa, and it has just been released in the US.

Martin places a premium on realism, and it shows in the book. But his character study of his protagonist, Jan Magson, and the people caught up in the killer’s wake are riveting.
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International Thrills: Polina Dashkova

Each New Novel Is the First And The Last

By Layton Green

I’ve never met anyone who loves books and isn’t a fan of Russian literature, to some degree. Who doesn’t love Crime and Punishment, War and Peace, The Master and Margarita, or watching the classic film version of Doctor Zhivago after reading the novel? It must be quite daunting to be a Russian novelist, with all that greatness swirling in the air, but I’m thrilled to present someone this month who is a living embodiment of that great literary tradition.

Dubbed the “Russian Crime Queen,” Polina Dashkova is modern-day Russia’s most successful author of suspense novels (and possibly the most successful, period). She’s sold 50 million copies of her books, and her work has been translated into German, Chinese, Dutch, French, Polish, Spanish, and English. She’s also a fascinating person to interview, and our discussion ranged among topics as diverse as serial killers, her literary influences, advice for writers, and Polina’s new release in English, MADNESS TREADS LIGHTLY.

Polina, thank you so much for taking the time to chat. First off, I’m curious about your background. Are you from the same area of Siberia in which MADNESS TREADS LIGHTLY is set?

Thank you for your questions. No, I was born in Moscow.

How did you get your start as a writer?

I began to write poems and fairy tales when I was six.

I graduated from the Maxim Gorky Literature Institute. When I was a student, I wrote an epic poem with lots of characters and a complicated plot. My poetry teacher told me that one day I would write novels and become a very famous novelist.

Maxim Gorky Literature Institute

I wrote my first big novel when I was 36, a thriller, Blood of the Unborn. I took out the telephone directory and phoned a few publishing houses. One of them invited me to bring in my manuscript the next day. The editor, a slim, very tired man, took my thick, typewritten manuscript and told me to wait a month or two. They’d call me. They called three days later and said they’d publish my book.

The book appeared three months later, and the next day I woke up famous.

You’ve sold over 50 million books! That’s incredibly impressive. Have you changed as a writer now that you are so phenomenally successful?

Yes and no.

Yes—because life is always changing.  I write each new novel as if it were the first and the last. Every novel changes me. Usually when I finish, I feel happy, tired, devastated, and afraid I won’t be able to start the next novel. But time passes, and step by step, word by word, page by page, the next novel begins.  Each time it’s not just a new story, but a new me.

No—because I have my own writing style and certain principles. For example, there has to be a happy ending.

Polina Dashkova

Why do you think your work resonates so well with readers?

Success is a mysterious thing. All I know is that I try to do my best and I respect my readers.

I’m a huge fan of Russian literature. I think most of us are! Who are some of your favorite modern Russian crime writers, and who do you consider your literary influences?

To tell the truth, my favorite Russian crime writers are not very modern: Fyodor Dostoyevsky with his Brothers Karamazov, Demons, and Crime and Punishment; Anton Chekhov with The Shooting Party; Mark Aldanov with The Key and The Escape; and Vladimir Nabokov with Laughter in the Dark, The Eye, and King, Queen, Knave.

As to literary influences, when I began writing novels, my idea was to write as nobody before ever had.

Can you tell us a bit about your body of work? How many novels have you written, and do they follow a common theme?

I have written 18 novels, all very different. Five of them are about serial killers, including two about the years of Stalin and his repressions, the beginning of the Second World War (surely Stalin and Hitler were the main mass serial killers in the world).

I wrote spy, political, and historical thrillers about the Cold War, the Russian Revolution, and the Civil War. I studied a huge number of archival documents and memoirs. In my novels, the past intertwines with the present, and real historical events seem incredible.

MADNESS TREADS LIGHTLY is a fantastic book, and I understand that you have a special connection to the story. Do you care to elaborate?

Thank you so much! When my readers think I have a special connection to the story, that’s the highest praise. It means I really did my best.

A heavier question: Has your perspective on serial killers changed in any way after researching and writing MADNESS TREADS LIGHTLY?

Yes. I’ve understood the huge difference between real and literary or cinematic serial killers.

Marian Schwartz (Translator)

I understand that you once visited Siberian prisons. How did that experience affect you? Did it help inform the novel?

The smell of that place was very special—the smell of hopelessness, but eventually it stopped affecting me, at least no more than any life experience.

For you, what is the hardest part of crafting a novel? The easiest? 

The hardest part is the beginning, the first 20-30 pages; the easiest is reading and editing the written text.

What do you like to do when not writing?

I like to laze, meet my friends and chat, walk around the city or in the parks, watch movies, travel, read on the couch the whole day. Sometimes, when I’m very tired or nervous, I like to do something with my hands—sew or knit. It calms me, like meditation. I learned how to do those things in the Soviet era, when I was a young girl and getting clothes was a great problem.

Do you have any advice for new writers?

If you want to write, write.

You can write every day and force yourself to produce. That’s not bad, but if you write under compulsion, too much and too rapidly, you are sure to lose quality.  Sometimes it’s better to take a break.

Leo Tolstoy said, “If you can live without writing, don’t write.”

How would you like to be remembered as a writer?

If anyone 50 years later opens one of my books, reads it to the last page, and doesn’t regret the time spent, that will be enough.

What can you tell us about any upcoming releases? What new projects do you have planned?

I’m writing a new novel, a historical thriller. The plot is based on real events that took place in Moscow in 1977.



Africa Scene: Kwei Quartey by Michael Sears

Murder Close to Home

By Michael Sears

Kwei Quartey is the author of the Darko Dawson series that follows the exploits of a police detective in Accra, Ghana.  He is a doctor who lives in Los Angeles, but he spends a lot of time in Ghana researching his novels.

Kwei’s books have been praised by critics as well as leading mystery writers like Michael Connelly, who said of his work: “Kwei Quartey does what all the best storytellers do. He takes you to a world you have never seen and makes it as real to you as your own backyard.”  Kwei’s debut, Wife of the Gods, was an L.A. Times best seller, and was followed by Children of the Street, Murder at Cape Three Points, and Gold of Our Fathers. All reflect strong local themes—witchcraft, homeless children, oil, gold—and have taken Darko to different places in Ghana. In DEATH BY HIS GRACE, everything happens in Accra itself, set against the hyper-religious atmosphere of the Pentecostal churches. In fact, the murder is much too close to home as far as Darko is concerned, in more ways than one.

DEATH BY HIS GRACE is a “classic” mystery in the sense that Katherine Vanderpuye’s body is discovered in the house with no sign of forced entry. Darko immediately deduces that the murderer is known to her. It now becomes a matter of discovering who had motive and opportunity, and narrowing it down from there. It’s a rather different style from your previous books, Kwei. Did you set out to do something different, or did the story just naturally develop that way?

I wanted to do something different. I felt I needed a change in style and substance from the previous novels in the series to “shake things up.” I find it fascinating that my editor at Soho Press, Juliet Grames, had independently pictured the format of the book the same way I had decided to structure it.
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International Thrills: Britta Bolt

Lonely Funerals in Amsterdam

By David Swatling

On holiday in the Canary Islands, German lawyer Britta Böhler sat on a balcony gazing out to sea, nursing a Rosé and reading a Nicci French thriller. Suddenly she thought: “Why not?” She wanted to write crime novels, but maybe not by herself.  “I immediately thought of Rodney (Bolt) as a partner,” she says, “even though we had never talked about it and I had no idea if he wanted to write crime books as well. I thought he would probably think I was crazy.”

Little did she know, Rodney Bolt also secretly harbored a desire to write crime fiction. “I never quite took the step, because I was nervous about my ability to come up with good plots,” he says, “and my lack of background in the field.” A South African writer of travel stories and biographies, he and Britta had met years before through a mutual friend in Amsterdam, where they have both lived since the 1990s. So when Britta’s email proposition arrived, completely out of the blue, Rodney replied within minutes. “Fantastic idea,” he wrote. “Let’s do it!”

And that’s how the collaborative author Britta Bolt was born in 2010. Two years later, the first book in the Posthumus Trilogy was published—first in Dutch under the title Heldhaftig. LONELY GRAVES, the English version, was released in 2014. (Although originally written in English, the book was translated when a Dutch publisher made the first offer, and has since also appeared in German.) Lives Lost (2015) and Deadly Secrets (2016) completed the trilogy.
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Africa Scene: Frank Owen

Writing a Game Changer Together

By Michael Sears

Frank Owen is the writing partnership of Diane Awerbuck and Alex Latimer, both South African authors well-known for their work in other genres. Diane has won the Commonwealth Writers Prize (Africa and the Caribbean) for her novel Gardening at Night and is a teacher, reviewer, and poet. Alex wrote The Space Race for adults, and also writes and illustrates children’s books. An unlikely combination to write a dystopian and totally scary alternative history thriller set in the United States? Don’t judge until you’ve read SOUTH. Lauren Beukes and Sarah Lotz loved it—Lotz called it a “post-apocalyptic game changer.”

This is a U.S. where the civil war didn’t happen until much later, when unification of the North and the South became more a matter of political ambition than of policy. By the time the war does happen, it has many modern warfare horrors available and spirals into germ warfare. The North uses the wind and multiple mutated viruses to destroy the South, and also builds a wall across the continent to enforce the separation. The world that Diane and Alex build on this foundation is as real and bitter as McCarthy’s The Road.

You both come from rather different backgrounds. How did you come to write together, and what motivated this unusual premise for a novel set in the U.S.?

AL: When I was releasing my first novel, The Space Race, I’d just finished reading Diane’s heavy-hitting but wonderful book, Home Remedies, and so as a fan, I asked her to interview me at the launch. With some bribery, she agreed. We do come from different backgrounds, but we realized early on that our interests are quite similar. The idea to write together was just for fun, initially, because it’s difficult to know how that process works without getting into it.

The premise for SOUTH came from chatting over coffee during a particularly cold and windy Cape Town winter. Everyone was sick and had been for what seemed like months. The idea of wind-borne viruses was literally in the air. But at the same time, I think the premise of building walls and keeping people apart was also floating about in the global zeitgeist. We built our wall across America three years before Trump used it in his election campaign. Fiction has a hard time keeping up with reality.

Alex Latimer and Diane Awerbuck

As one-half of a writing couple myself, I’m naturally intrigued to know how you actually write together—by chapter, character, draft? And is there any significance behind the name Frank Owen?

DA: Frank is a name from a side of my family, and Owen came from Alex’s. So the ancestors are doing their bit there.

AL: I don’t really think of our collaboration as two writers writing the same story. Diane’s writing style and my writing style are quite different—so the process was more about combining my skills with hers rather than sharing the load. I’ve always been intrigued by pace and plot, whereas Diane’s writing is much more lyrical. We tried a few ways of working, but in the end we’d just chat about where the story was going and then I’d put down the first draft of a chapter and Diane would double it, concentrating on character and atmosphere. We wanted a fast-paced action narrative told in a “literary” style.

Your lead characters Dyce and his brother are heading for the sea on the run from a powerful family, while Vida is trying to save her mother and her mother’s knowledge of natural remedies. They have different agendas, but join forces from necessity, despite the ongoing tension between them. Is it an axiom that this type of thriller needs to be more character driven than plot driven?

DA: Most of us readers are interested in characters as people. I definitely read novels because I hope to find answers to all sorts of dilemmas. Complex, believable characters are a way to talk about serious issues without tub-thumping.

AL: We were quite conscious about spending time doing both character and plot. My default would be plot first— but then who cares what happens in a novel if they don’t care about who it’s happening to? It’s a tricky balance.

The Wall

SOUTH is a dark vision. People are automatically suspicious of any stranger who may be the carrier of a new and usually fatal disease. There is little cooperation with the exceptions of one community which protects itself and generally excludes strangers, and a hospice-type community where everyone is already sick. Yet many of your characters—including Dyce and Vida—are trying to help and support others. Would you call yourselves optimists about human nature, and was exploring the behavior of intrinsically good people in intolerable circumstances part of your theme?

AL: I’m certainly an optimist about human nature. Why can’t we all just get along? For me apocalyptic fiction is all about whittling away the parts of life that are non-essential. There’s no dry-cleaning to be done, no dog food to buy, no peeling fascia boards that need attention. You get right into the essence of a person. But as dark as that sounds, we realized early on that every single character in the book had to be hopeful in some way—because without that hope they’d already be dead. It’s a lovely space to explore human nature and the will to survive.

DA: It’s something that fascinates me, and the only answer I’ve found is Viktor Frankl’s, in Man’s Search for Meaning. What makes one person give up, and another keep fighting? Even medical doctors call it the will to live: they don’t know exactly what it is, either—but we all know it when we see it.

The forcibly divided country you envisage in the novel is somewhat reminiscent of apartheid South Africa before the democratic elections. Was this a deliberate part of the construction of SOUTH?

AL: It was deliberate and unavoidable. As South African authors there’s really no getting away from the things that have shaped us. We were quite torn about setting this book in the U.S.: on one hand, we obviously wanted a wider readership and an American setting provides that. But we also liked the idea of exploring the relatively familiar themes of Apartheid through foreign eyes. What does a divided society look like when you lay it over the familiar American landscape? And can that provide new insights into segregation, generally?

DA: We’re writing what we know, of course. But America has its own fine history of officially legislated and socially present prejudice, and we’re seeing that recidivism happening again because it’s condoned by people in power.

Mushrooms, anyone?

A lot of research went into making SOUTH coherent and believable. It needed to cover geography, viruses, mushrooms, climate. How did you handle this aspect?

AL: Geographically, we relied on Google Earth and Google Street View. To be able to click on an open stretch of forgotten highway and be transported right there was valuable— and something you can’t get from books. You get these strange atmospheric details, like how far the fences are from the road, what sort of architecture you’d see, how dense the foliage is, what sort of trees there are, what color the dirt is, the power lines and streetlights, what color the road markings are.

We also did extensive research into the kinds of plants and trees you’d find in specific areas of Colorado—so that as the characters move through the landscape, the landscape changes with them in a realistic way.

But I feel that the foundation of all of the research was this very strong sense that America is a genre of its own. The whole world has been culturally colonized by the US. We’ve all grown up with prairie landscapes, Coke ads, The A-Team, Mount Rushmore, Clint Eastwood. It’s often the case that we know more about America than we know about our own country. So we’re not starting from zero when we set a book in the U.S. The research we do is a fleshing-out of that innate knowledge of America.

DA: We also have tame American beta-readers to catch any egregious errors, and so far we have been absolutely spot-on. But the thing is the feeling, after all. Readers will forgive a minor detail if it’s happening in a coherent and cohesive internal universe.

Could you tell us about the music you commissioned for the book?

DA: One of the ways people escape the present or hold on to the past or imagine the future is through music, and we were listening to a lot of lonesome cowboy songs when we were writing. It took me back to the South African stuff from the eighties and nineties—Afrikaner protest music, Die Gereformeerde Blues Band and Valiant Swart—that hardcore, quite literary but also folky music with its direct bloodline going back to the Dutch guys writing a hundred years before that, and the beautiful melancholy that went with it. And then we thought: We know musicians! So we ended up commissioning some of that dirty cowboy vibe from the vastly talented Gene Kierman. Two songs are on our, but he’s also the front man for Miss Texas 1977.

Despite the wall, it seems there’s an escape to the North. Or is there? Is NORTH in our future?

AL: We always saw this story as exploring both sides of the wall. I think there’s wonderful intrigue built into SOUTH, where everything they know about the North is rumor. Everyone hates the North so much, but there’s also a sense of it being a kind of futuristic heaven—and that’s difficult to hate. A huge part of these books, for me, was the ending. We had the ending for NORTH right from the very start—right from when we were beginning to plot SOUTH. So of course we had to write it. NORTH will be released in 2018.

DA: Keep an eye on the website—and do listen to the absolutely brilliant original music we commissioned from Gene Kierman.

Frank’s Twitter handle is @FrankOwenAuthor.


Africa Scene: Arthur Kerns

Finishing the Job

By Michael Sears

Arthur Kerns writes thrillers set around the world and featuring a free-lance protagonist, Hayden Stone, who gets into a lot of trouble trying to sort out the bad guys. His methods are often unconventional, so the trouble is as much with the powers-that-be as the terrorists themselves. Both want him out of the way. Currently there are three books in the series: The Riviera Contract, The Yemen Contract, and THE AFRICAN CONTRACT, all published by Diversion Books.

Following graduation from college, Arthur did a stint with the U.S. Navy amphibious forces, and then joined the FBI with a career in counterintelligence and counterterrorism. After the FBI, he consulted with the intelligence community and other U.S. government entities. His foreign assignments for them have taken him all over the world. I asked Arthur about his career and how it led to his writing.

You have firsthand experience of the type of work that you write about. How much has that experience helped you with your novels, and how much did you need to brush aside to keep things fast-paced and exciting?

My plots and story lines are original and I make an effort to avoid using any cases I worked on or had any knowledge of. The last thing I want to do is unintentionally reveal any sources or methods that might put a person’s life in jeopardy. That said, I do enjoy bringing in the flavor of intelligence work and use many of the problems and challenges people in the intelligence game face on a daily basis as a background. Much of the work can be deadly boring, like sitting in a car on surveillance or listening to a wiretap. Then when the action begins, things get interesting.
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International Thrills: Israel Centeno

A Literary Thriller Taking on Venezuela

By Layton Green

A long time ago, in what now seems like a galaxy far, far away, I was a young lawyer in a corporate law firm writing a novel in what stolen hours I could find, usually late at night or on weekend mornings.  Chasing the dream, I decided to quit my job and move to an island off the coast of Venezuela. The island was called Isla de Margarita, a little slice of troubled paradise that has provided a lifetime of literary fodder. But that’s a story for another time. I fell in love with the country and finished a good bit of my novel in the four months I lived there. When I learned that a decorated Venezuelan novelist—a political exile living in the United States—had written a literary thriller set in Caracas called THE CONSPIRACY, I jumped at the chance to interview him. Though my expectations were high, the novel exceeded them, as did the dialogue with the author. Israel Centeno has given us a frank and fascinating glimpse into his literary career, the circumstances that led to his exile, and the state of affairs of modern Venezuela.

Thanks for taking the time to chat, Israel.  We’re thrilled to have you.  Can you tell us a bit about your background and how you came to live in the United States?

Caramba! That’s a complicated story. To make it simple, I have been a writer for over 30 years. For a long time I made literature in my own country. My first book came in 1991, my first political thriller. At that moment instead of causing me problems, that novel launched me, it won me the equivalent of our national prize for literature, and established me as a writer. That’s how my career as a published writer began, and that’s continued now for a long time, though I’ve had  a lot of challenges. I’ve written more than just thrillers; I combined many genres to participate in the writing of the modern novel. Critics have called it gothic realism. A realism where elements of gothic literature appear in the story. More classical elements. Later, at some point in 2000, it occurred to me to write a novel about someone who had come to power based on the promise of leftist revolution. Really I was thinking a lot about how Hitler came to power, and about Chavez too. Something I had begun to address in my book Exile in the Bowery. About how the radical left had raised arms and essentially become as fundamentalist as the far right. Writing that book had consequences for me. The president himself used it as proof that people had it out for him. A government minister I knew thought that I was relishing in an attempted assassination attempt on him in the 1960s. I was labeled as a traitor, with all that means. In leftist Venezuela, being labeled a traitor is like being called that by the mafia. I was beaten in the street, they attempted to stab me, they threatened my daughters, and broke my electronics when I would return to the country from literary conferences. I was a dangerous man. They considered me a rat. I had no other option but to leave my country and seek exile. That’s how I came to the United States, where I came into contact with City of Asylum, Pittsburgh, a nonprofit organization that has been essential to my stay here, and which commissioned the translation of this novel into English.
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International Thrills: Anne Holt

A Touch of Clairvoyance

By David Swatling

Among Norway’s most popular exports are thrillers written by Jo Nesbø. And yet, English readers had to wait almost 20 years to become acquainted with author Anne Holt, who Nesbø calls “the godmother of Norwegian crime fiction.” Her first book translated into English, 1222, was shortlisted for Edgar, Shamus, and Macavity Awards in 2012, but it was actually her eighth novel featuring lesbian police officer Hanne Wilhelmsen. Holt has also written several standalone thrillers and another series, which follows the duo Johanne Vik and Adam Sturbø. One of these books, Fear Not, was recently adapted for Swedish television as Modus.

Her latest release is ODD NUMBERS, the ninth and penultimate installment of the Hanne Wilhelmsen series. With the explosive start of a deadly bombing directed against the Islamic Cooperation Council headquarters in Oslo, it’s a race against time to identify those responsible before another attack—perhaps during the 17th of May Constitution Day celebrations. Her in-depth exploration into extremism in all its forms gives the complicated storyline a powerful urgency. Not surprising with Anne Holt’s background as a journalist, a lawyer for the Oslo Police Department, and even a brief stint as Norway’s Minister of Justice.
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Africa Scene: Michael Niemann

Telling a Captivating Story

By Michael Sears

Michael Niemann kicked off his career as a mystery writer with a story featuring UN investigator Valentin Vermeulen, “Africa Always Needs Guns,” which was published in the 2012 MWA Anthology. In his previous life as a university professor, he wrote a book on regionalism and numerous articles on global and African issues. He has traveled widely through Europe and Africa. A native German, he now lives in southern Oregon with his wife, who keeps him grounded, and his dog, who gets him up early (presumably to write).

His debut novel, Legitimate Business, first published in 2014 and reissued this year, continues the exploits of Vermeulen. It’s a tight thriller set against the sandy hopelessness of Zam Zam camp in Darfur. The sequel, ILLICIT TRADE, is just out in the U.S. Vermeulen is now based at UN headquarters in New York, and it looks as though he’s settled down to a quiet life. But forged UN letters of introduction for several Kenyans to get visas for the US alert him to the illicit human trade.

Michael, you have published in a variety of respected academic publications. What motivated you to turn from your academic writing to fiction?

It was a gradual shift. Writing academic pieces definitely has its rewards. Creating a logical argument in support of a proposition can be as much fun as plotting a thriller. After I took two creative writing courses from my colleagues, I understood the importance of telling a captivating story. I missed that in academic writing. Another downside to academic writing is that one’s audience is rather narrow, mostly colleagues in the same specialized academic field. As writers, whether academic or fiction, we want to reach readers because we hope our story resonates with them. Writing fiction allows me to get out of the confines of academia and reach readers who wouldn’t have looked for my articles. I still do research for each book, but I enjoy the storytelling aspect in fiction a lot more.
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Seconds to Midnight by Philip Donlay

By Myles Knapp

They say “write what you know.”  Philip Donlay takes this a bit further.  “Write what you’re passionate about.”  He’s been flying since he was 16, jets since he turned 20. Google tells us that if he started today at the age of 20, he’d be one of the youngest jet pilots in the world. But he started years ago and spent the ensuing time piloting almost anything with a jet engine—big-to-small—around the world.

When Donlay writes about flying, be it a jet, fixed or rotary wing plane, he knows what he’s doing. And if he describes a place like the frozen Canadian lake near Manitoba—featured in SECONDS TO MIDNIGHT—which is less than five hundred miles south of the Arctic Circle, he has likely been there, smelled the air and caught fish in the lake.

Better still, Donlay has, as this reporter’s old boss used to say, “Gotta nose for da story.”

SECONDS TO MIDNIGHT could have been inspired by the headlines in January’s news. And that’s where our conversation started.

“Did you know that scientists who control the Doomsday Clock just moved the countdown to potential global catastrophe 30 seconds closer to midnight?” Donlay asked.
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