A Writer Who Defies Expectations
Alex Kava’s literary career is a beautiful paradox. In addition to great writing, a series of accidents, surprises, and unintended consequences have helped bring us some of the most beloved mystery thrillers being written today. On the eve of the release of her latest novel, RECKLESS CREED, Kava spoke to The Big Thrill about her surprising journey.
To begin with, Kava didn’t set out to write thrillers. In fact, genre was not a consideration at all.
“When I wrote my first novel, A Perfect Evil, I wanted to capture the raw emotions of a small-town community held hostage by a killer,” she says. “My killer was loosely based on serial killer John Joubert. I worked for a newspaper during Joubert’s killing spree in the fall of 1983. He kidnapped and murdered two Nebraska boys before his capture.”
Surprise number two: Although she worked on the paper, she was not a journalist but a paste-up artist and part-time copy editor. Still, being in the building, she learned more about the case than the general public. So when she decided to write a novel, she was able to use bits and pieces from the Joubert case. By then she had already committed to writing after 15 years in marketing and advertising.
“I quit my job as director of public relations for a small college. I’d always wanted to write novels. I even had one in my bottom desk drawer that had received 116 rejections from literary agents.”
That novel remains unpublished, but she moved full steam ahead into the next, doing whatever she had to, to give herself time to write.
“I taught part-time, delivered the Omaha World Herald on the weekends, and ran up my credit cards to help pay the mortgage and living expenses while I wrote A Perfect Evil.”
With so much marketing experience, you might think she sold that novel easily. Well, not exactly, but she was sharp enough to see the lesson in her 116 rejections.
“There were too many comments in the margins that said stuff like, ‘This is too harsh to be a romance,’ or, ‘The suspense is good but you need to tone down the violence,’ or ‘Add some romance,’ ” Kava says. “I suspected that the literary agents expected a romantic suspense novel from Sharon Kava, which is my real name.”
Taking a Series to New Heights
Anyone who has attended ThrillerFest knows Jon Land, award-winning author of bestselling novels and nonfiction, including his series featuring Texas Ranger Caitlin Strong. They’ll also recognize him as a tireless whirlwind of energy, whose larger-than-life personality matches his increasingly action-packed thrillers. His latest is certainly no exception.
I met Jon Land at ThrillerFest 2012 when he gave a CraftFest session on pitching a book to agents. His advice: Speak from the heart about why your story means so much to you as a writer, why it demanded to be written. So I thought it would be fun to turn the tables and ask him to give us a pitch for STRONG COLD DEAD.
What makes the eighth story in his series as compelling as the first?
Wow, making me think right off the bat—that’s not fair! Okay, how about this: ISIS comes to Texas and only Caitlin Strong can stop them from unleashing a deadly weapon on American soil, somehow connected to a long-buried mystery on a shadowy Indian reservation. Does that make you want to read the book? As for the second part of your question, what makes STRONG COLD DEAD as compelling as Strong Enough to Die is that the characters are facing different challenges. Caitlin’s surrogate son Dylan, for example, has fallen in love with a Native American girl who may or may not be setting him up. As for Caitlin, well, she has a personal history with one of the book’s primary villains.
You’ve talked in previous Big Thrill interviews about how you developed the character of Caitlin Strong to fill a gap in the market re: women in action thrillers. Now she faces growing competition. Do you have a strategy for keeping her “strong”?
That’s another great question! As the series has progressed, the books have spiraled out into the more traditional action thriller form. The action scenes have gotten bigger, the villains badder, and the plots more devious and potentially devastating—in other words, the stakes have gotten higher across the board and that includes emotionally for the characters. I think it’s fun watching Caitlin deal with the fact that she’s become a living legend. Keeping her “strong” isn’t just about her prowess in bringing down the bad guys, it’s also about how she negotiates the politics of law enforcement and deals with the emotional demands of her lifestyle.
Why We Never Tire of “Saucy Jack”
By Dawn Ius
It’s been 128 years since the East End was terrified by a sadistic killer who mutilated prostitutes and, in the midst of his reign of terror, signed his taunting letters to the London newspapers “…From Hell.” But in some ways it seems like yesterday.
Otto Penzler, the award-winning editor of anthologies on everything from Sherlock Holmes to zombies, has compiled an impressive new book, The Big Book of Jack the Ripper.
It’s big. Yes, it is.
This anthology of true crime essays, previously published stories, and new fiction from bestselling authors such as Jeffery Deaver, Stephen Hunter, Lyndsay Faye, and Loren D. Estleman, weighs in at a whopping three pounds and rounds out at just under 1,000 pages—each thrilling line dedicated to the most infamous serial killer in the world. The book also includes Jack the Ripper’s alleged letters, eyewitness statements, an d breaking newspaper accounts.
“When I finished the Sherlock Holmes book, I thought I was done—I had nothing else in mind,” Penzler says. “I can’t even tell you how Jack the Ripper came into my head, but my brain began wandering off…”
And the result is a weighty tome of compelling stories that will satisfy not only the most dedicated Ripperologist, but also the millions of people that remain fascinated—if not disgusted—by what Penzer describes as “one of the most singularly vile creatures ever to degrade the planet.”
In his insightful introduction, Penzer writes, “While the world has had no shortage of murderers, with Cain wasting no time in getting humanity started on its bloodstained path, none has imposed himself more on the public consciousness as indelibly as Jack the Ripper.”
By Anne Tibbets
CHILLS begins with an unexpected snowstorm at the onset of summer, in a small town in Connecticut. Police detective Jack Glazier finds a body that appears to have been the focus of a ritual murder. As the snow continues to fall, isolating the town from the rest of the world, Glazier teams up with Kathy Ryan, an occult crime specialist. Together they must uncover the secret behind the sacrifices, or die trying.
“CHILLS itself is a standalone novel,” author Mary SanGiovanni says, “however, that being said, my plan is to use those characters—particularly Kathy Ryan—in other books in the future. Since a lot of my work crosses back and forth between thriller and supernatural horror, a specialist in the occult could appear in future books of either type.”
SanGiovanni, with a dozen horror and thrillers publications under her belt, treats the occult, and all that surrounds it, as a treasure-trove of inspiration.
“I think occult spirituality and religions are a great gray area for writers, because so much has been shrouded for centuries in mystery and the suggestion of the unknown. Many religions that fall under the occult speak of monsters as either a literal or figurative representation of evil, temptations, fears, and punishment. Therefore, the occult makes a pretty good backdrop for the kind of story CHILLS is.”
The trick to using the occult in fiction, SanGiovanni says, is in the use of factual details.
“To make the occult group and their practices in the book more believable, I provided a mix of truth and credible fiction, things people have heard of or think they’ve heard of. Part of it was consistency: religions that deal in the supernatural believe strongly in an order or logic to how the supernatural works. I think any fictional occult religion needs to have its own consistent internal logic, certain immutable tenets around which all else is created.”
By Jon Land
Writing and publishing a first novel kind of reminds me of the great line from Samuel Johnson about a dog walking on its hind legs: “It is seldom done well, but you are surprised to see it being done at all.”
Well, Barbara Nickless does it, and very well at that, in BLOOD ON THE TRACKS. Her debut thriller makes splendid use of both primary and secondary research in fashioning a well-executed tale that features a unique backdrop. Nickless’s style is reminiscent of Nevada Barr, but I also saw some traces of C.J. Box and even the late great Tony Hillerman.
Indeed, these days building your brand as a thriller writer means staking out a ground and making it your own. That’s what Nickless does in taking us into the little known world of railroad cops, and the kind of work they do beyond securing AMTRAK stations from potential terrorists. I sat down with Barbara recently to pick her brain about where the idea originated and how she assembled such diverse material into a coherent story.
I have to start with the whole notion of making your hero/heroine a railroad policeman. Could you tell us why you did and where you got the idea?
A few years ago, I read a book by modern-day hobo Eddy Joe Cotton (called, appropriately, Hobo), and I became fascinated with the homeless people who catch out on freight trains and ride them all around the country. Every hobo is familiar with the bulls—the railroad cops. When I learned that railway police have the same jurisprudence as traditional police, it was a eureka moment. I’ve always loved crime fiction; now I had an idea for a police procedural, but with a gritty twist.
Plot wise, BLOOD ON THE TRACKS delves into the notion of a cultish band of killers, kind of like murderous hobos, who call the rails home. That’s actually based on fact, isn’t it?
There really is a gang called the Freight Train Riders of America. FTRA was likely started by a group of Vietnam vets as a way to create camaraderie among rail riders. A wonderful idea. But at some point, the group was hijacked by criminal elements. A lot of FTRA’s members have been linked to crimes ranging from fraud and theft to serial murder.
Ten Misconceptions About Psychotherapy in Fiction
By Bryan E. Robinson, Ph.D.
There is no shortage of schools of thought about psychotherapy, but if what you know about psychotherapy comes from novels, you might have some misguided notions about what really goes on in a practicing psychotherapist’s office. In fiction, psychotherapists are often portrayed as incompetent hacks, more disturbed than their clients. Some scenes are good, some bad, and others downright comical. There are numerous myths about psychotherapy that continue to show up in the written word and on the screen. Here are ten of the most common ones:
People who go for psychotherapy are weak, mentally ill, or crazy. Untrue. Nowadays if you seek treatment, it’s viewed as a sign of resourcefulness. The average therapy client struggles with many of the same problems we all struggle with on a daily basis: relationships, self-doubt, confidence, self-esteem, work/life stress, life transitions, depression, and anxiety. The preferred designation for the person in therapy is “client,” not “patient,” for that very reason. Over my 20 years of experience, I’ve often said that the folks I treat in therapy are mentally healthier than some people walking the streets.
Therapists sit behind desks taking notes while you lie on a couch. This is rarely the case. Trained clinicians know that the arrangement and distance between them and the client are critical for a safe and workable therapeutic alliance. Psychological or physical separation from the client can create subtle authority and intimidation and an inability on the client’s part to fully connect and disclose information pertinent to treatment. The typical therapeutic setting is much like your living room where both parties sit in comfortable chairs without barriers between them. Good therapists often ask if the distance is comfortable and refrain from taking notes until after the session so they can be present with clients.
By Wendy Tyson
Leslie Budewitz cooks up a tantalizing mystery with her latest in the Spice Shop series, KILLING THYME. Set in Seattle’s lush Pike Place Market, KILLING THYME is a feast for the senses—with a murderous twist. Spice Shop owner and amateur sleuth Pepper Reece discovers that a Market newbie is a friend who disappeared years ago. When this friend is murdered days later, Pepper is determined to find the killer, only her search for the truth could have deadly consequences.
Leslie recently sat down with The Big Thrill to chat about the cozy genre, the marriage of food and fiction, and her (excellent!) advice for aspiring authors.
Congratulations on the upcoming release of KILLING THYME, the third of the Spice Shop mysteries, a series Suspense Magazine calls “Pure enjoyment.” Please tell us something about KILLING THYME that is not on the back cover.
Readers will learn about salt pigs, art cars, ghost nets, and a troubled time in Seattle’s history. They’ll discover a dozen new recipes using thyme, and find out Pepper’s real name.
Setting is an important aspect of your novels. You write another popular series, the Food Lovers’ Village Mysteries, set in a fictional town in your home state of Montana. The Spice Shop Mysteries, on the other hand, are set in Seattle. Why did you choose big-city Seattle? What have been the challenges of choosing a real-life locale as the backdrop for your books?
The urban cozy is less common than its small-town sibling, but I love exploring a city through the cozy lens, because to me, the focus of a cozy is the community. Cities all have communities within the community, and the Pike Place Market is the perfect example. Imagine a year-round farmers’ market, 200 artists and craftspeople who rent day stalls, 200 owner-operated shops and services, and 100 restaurants, plus 350 residents—all on nine acres. The Market is a microcosm of Seattle, as well as its stomach and a key part of its history and landscape. I fell in love with the Market and the city as a college student nearly 40 years ago, and when I decided to start a second series, it seemed perfect.
The Search for Transformation
What does mention of the year 1918 mean to you?
To Cat Winters, it means the Spanish Influenza, the devastation that was WW I, and the new social spaces that developed for women as a result.
These concerns, leavened with a healthy but skeptical interest in Spiritualism, color all her books to date, starting with In the Shadow of Blackbirds, a supernatural mystery for young adults that featured all of the above.
“I always wanted to write historical fiction. When I started my journey toward publication, I’d written one that I was shopping around. It was set in the 1890s and I was madly in love with it. I submitted it to agents, rewrote it, got rejected. Finally I signed with one agent who sent it out, but historical fiction was a tough sell at the time.”
Winters parted ways with her first agent and tried her hand at contemporary fiction, a suburban satire for adults about a woman married to a vampire. This book led her to Barbara Poelle, the agent she has now. “The plot was a commercial idea, but no one knew what to do with that book. It crossed several genres. It pitched like chicklit but I’d written it in this literary voice. A lot of editors gave me feedback, I rewrote following their notes, but none of them bought it and I ended up hating the book.”
But one of those editors said the only paranormal she was taking was historical paranormal. Winters pitched a book she has already started about WW I, the Spanish influenza, and spiritualism, a book for adolescents. That became In the Shadow of Blackbirds, the first of a series of similarly themed books for young adults (she’s just handed in the manuscript for her fourth, Odd and True).
After she’d written two of the young adult books, an editor from Harper Collins picked up In the Shadow of Blackbirds, read it on the plane, then contacted her agent and asked for an adult book. “That became The Uninvited – the book I was invited to write. And that’s how I started publishing adult fiction. It sounds like an overnight success story, but in reality, it took me two decades to break in.”
Winter’s adult books have their own flavor, different from young adult, which have more of a horror bent (Blackbirds was nominated for the Bram Stoker Award). “My YA books are more traditional horror, my adult books are more psychological horror.”
The Uninvited has now been followed by YESTERNIGHT. Both of her adult books have a few elements in common: “They really focus on people who don’t have the best past. They are trying to reconcile with their past and make new futures for themselves” at a time of great historical turbulence.
By David Healey
In our connected age, it’s usually easy to reach an author for an interview, unless that author happens to be leading a group of teens on a backpacking trip in the wilderness. When Benjamin Dancer returned to the things we take for granted—such as electricity, running water, and the internet—he answered a few questions about his new thriller, PATRIARCH RUN. Dancer’s book just happens to envision what could occur in a world where we might all be on a kind of extended backpacking trip if civilization’s infrastructure falters.
Thrillers such as yours require a fair amount of research to make them plausible. What fact did you discover in your research that stood out for you?
That’s a great question. PATRIARCH RUN won high praise from Lt. Col. Dave Grossman, the author of On Killing, for getting the psychology of combat right. The story also won praise from national security experts for its realistic depiction of an underreported, existential threat to America. That threat is what stands out most to me.
One of the things I learned in writing this story is that our civilization has unwittingly evolved to become absolutely dependent on a vulnerable critical infrastructure. What I mean by that is that if the power grid were to go down today and not come back up again most of us would die.
To contextualize a statement as bold as that it might be helpful to go back a hundred years to when there were only 76 million Americans. At that time, you didn’t need electricity to meet the basic needs of the population. Food was grown outside the urban centers, and just about everybody ate locally.
Fast forward to today. There are 325 million Americans and that number is growing. Many of our urban centers have outstripped the carrying capacities of their surrounding landscapes. As a consequence, food and basic goods are shipped over long supply lines, all of which are powered by refined fuels which, of course, are manufactured with electricity.
So how is it we’ve managed to expand, in the last 100 years, the carrying capacity of the planet from about 2 billion to about 7.5 billion people? Ironically, the answer is electricity. The advent of reliable, widely-available electrical power has made possible several key technologies that have allowed us to expand Earth’s carrying capacity. Those technologies include fertilizers, pesticides, mechanical irrigation, refined fuels for farm machinery and transportation, infrastructures for clean drinking water, infrastructures for sanitation, advanced medical care, etc. Everything in that list is made available through electrical power.
So imagine a large urban center devoid of electricity. No food. No safe drinking water. No sanitation. No transportation. What we’re talking about is an apocalypse.
What’s really scary is that there are several mechanisms of destruction that have a realistic potential of bringing about that apocalypse, including a sophisticated cyber-attack, which is what the bad guy is up to in PATRIARCH RUN.
By Don Helin
Edgar-finalist Lisa Turner is a Southern mystery author who is fascinated by good people who do wicked things. She explores human nature set against the rich backdrop of Memphis and the Mississippi Delta. Her second novel, The Gone Dead Train, delves into long buried secrets of Memphis’s civil rights struggles and the power of Santeria magic.
In the third book, Homicide Detective Billy Able is called to a bizarre crime scene on the outskirts of Memphis. A high-society attorney has been murdered—while dressed in a wedding gown. When her death exposes illegal practices at her family’s prestigious law firm, the scandal is enough to rock the very roots of the southern city’s social world. Turner’s third outing is a tale about the remnants of Old Southern aristocracy and entitlement, twisted by greed and vengeance. Detective Able must confront the secrets of his own past to solve the murder of the girl he once knew.
Turner’s characters fall victim to the tentacles of their Southern identity and are dragged into a world of blues, murder, and heartbreak. “I’m a story archaeologist,” she says. “I keep digging into my characters until I strike the bone.” Which she does with skill and insight.
I had the opportunity to catch up with Turner the other day and ask her a few questions.
Is there anything special you’d like to tell us about DEVIL SENT THE RAIN?
I was all set for my detective to learn toward the end of the book that he had a half brother. By the second draft, I realized the brother idea was too much, like eating a second piece of pie after a big meal. Cutting out the brother was going leave me with a weak ending, and my detective would gain nothing personally.
The solution came when a friend told me she’d spent the summer reconstructing a cabin that had been in her family for a hundred years. There’s a lot of strength in the act of reclaiming a home, especially when your only relative has kicked you out, which is what had happened to my detective. Having him reclaim his childhood home was a better ending and it made the book. That and the instructions I’ve included for a world-class mint julep.
How well do you know the person you love and live with—the one lying bed next to you as you sleep?
There’s nobody you’re closer to, physically or emotionally. And nobody who could hurt you more. That’s the landscape that British thriller author Lisa Hall explores in TELL ME NO LIES.
It’s the second novel for Hall, who lives in the small village of Kent with what she calls her towering To Be Read pile of books, a “rather large brood of children, dogs, chickens, and ponies,” and her husband.
As a young girl, Hall said she dreamed about becoming an author or a librarian. Now she’s living that dream.
What inspired you to write a novel, and in particular a thriller?
With my first book I didn’t set out to write a thriller, it kind of just ended up that way.
The ending of that book was the first part of the novel that came to me, and it wouldn’t go away until I wrote it down.
With TELL ME NO LIES the idea was kicking around in my head for a long time and I knew the only way to write it was as a thriller—it wouldn’t have worked any other way.
How is TELL ME NO LIES different than your first novel?
The first book was very much focused on other peoples’ perceptions of what goes on in a relationship—the idea that behind the perfect façade that we present to others the true nature of a relationship can be very different.
TELL ME NO LIES takes a look at things from inside the relationship, and asks who exactly can you trust?
By Don Helin
Gigi Pandian’s latest book covers a lot of ground, from a lost work of art linking India to the Italian Renaissance and a killer hiding behind a centuries-old ghost story, to a hidden treasure in Italy’s macabre sculpture garden known as the Park of Monsters. Moving from San Francisco to the heart of Italy, treasure-hunting historian Jaya Jones is haunted by a ghost story inexorably linked to the masterpieces of a long-dead artist and the deeds of a modern-day murderer.
Pandian is the child of cultural anthropologists from New Mexico and the southern tip of India. She spent her childhood being dragged around the world, and now lives in the San Francisco Bay Area. She writes the Jaya Jones mysteries, the Accidental Alchemist mysteries, and locked-room short stories. Her fiction has been awarded the Malice Domestic Grant and Lefty Awards, and been nominated for Macavity and Agatha Awards.
I had the chance to meet with USA Today Bestselling author Pandian and ask her a few questions.
Is there anything special you’d like to tell us about MICHELANGELO’S GHOST?
The book is my sixth mystery novel, and the one that brings me full circle in my mystery-writing career. When I was a little kid, I loved Scooby-Doo so much that I wrote my own Scooby Doo stories. Remember how in those cartoons the Scooby gang always unmasked a bad guy who was pretending to be a ghost? As I wrote MICHELANGELO’S GHOST, I realized it was my Scooby Doo book. There’s even a midnight chase scene at a spooky sculpture garden.
Did any particular event inspire the plot?
It wasn’t an event, but a place: the Park of Monsters. The Renaissance sculpture garden is located in Bomarzo, Italy, a small town between Florence and Rome.
The sculpture garden was built by Italian nobleman Vicino Orsini in the 1500s. He oversaw the creation of macabre stone sculptures set across a desolate Italian forest, with oversize creatures ranging from fighting giants to my favorite—a giant ogre whose mouth is a doorway that leads into a stone room with a picnic table.
Debut author Alexis Gordon hits the right notes with MURDER IN G MAJOR. Stranded without luggage or money in the Irish countryside, African-American classical musician Gethsemane Brown accepts a less-than-ideal position turning a group of rowdy schoolboys into an award-winning orchestra. The perk? Housesitting a lovely cliff-side cottage. The catch? The ghost of the cottage’s murdered owner haunts the place. Falsely accused of killing his wife (and himself), he begs Gethsemane to clear his name so he can rest in peace.
Alexis Gordon won her first writing prize in the 6th grade. After establishing her medical career in El Paso, she returned to writing fiction. Her other interests—the symphony, art collecting, embroidery, and ghost stories—are star attractions in her novels.
MURDER IN G MAJOR features a small town in Ireland. Do you have a special connection to the area?
I am a Hibernophile. I love all things Irish—the music, the pubs, the whiskey, the accent, the language, the landscape. I visited the eastern part of Ireland several years ago and I’m returning to visit the southwestern parts this month, a present to myself to celebrate the publication of my novel.
Sounds as if Gethsemane Brown might be taking a road trip in an upcoming novel. I understand you love descriptions that transport you into the story. Can we expect to find your Irish town becoming a character in your books?
I do love stories where the place is as much a character as the people. Where would Alice be without Wonderland? Yes, I see my village as a character. I want readers to feel as if they are actually in Dunmullach with Gethsemane, O’Reilly, Grennan, and the others.
When I slip my writer hat off and slip on my reader one (which isn’t as often as I’d like) I enjoy losing myself in a cozy mystery. Give me a country house, or a village, or some other tight knit community with a murderer running loose and I’m a happy girl. So I’m delighted to be interviewing Joyce about her Brew series.
Is the Allegheny Brew House based on an actual brewery?
It’s a figment of my imagination. In the first book, To Brew or Not to Brew, Max buys a building in which to open her brewpub, that had been part of the old Steel City Brewing Co.—which is fictional, too! There really is an Iron City Brewing and I lifted a bit of their history and gave it to Steel City.
And is the brewing festival based on any festival you’ve been to?
Pittsburgh has a lot of festivals, but I don’t think we’ve ever had one with brews and burgers. We seem to keep the food festivals and the beer festivals separate. I’m not sure why.
I’m not either. In the UK we’d make sure the two were together.
What inspired you to start writing crime stories? Was it your career as a police secretary?
I’ve always liked to write. I was jotting down stories well before my part-time job as a police secretary. In seventh grade—this was back in about 1969? (I don’t do math—I’m a writer!)—we had to compose our autobiographies and extend them to the year 2000. I may have had the writing bug before that, but that’s the first example I can think of. It was a wonderful piece of fiction, by the way.
By Alex Segura
The murder of a young nun would raise eyebrows during any time period, but is especially combustible in the late ‘50s, on the cusp of one of the most tumultuous decades in history. It’s December 1959 and Detective Jack Callum and his colleagues must discover the truth as the shadow of guilt falls on a local and dashing priest.
The case is a lightning rod for the small English town, mobilizing the local leaders and regular folk to speak out against the crime. The added attention only piles on the pressure on Callum: this case has to be solved, and quickly. Then the post-mortem results arrive, and the entire neighborhood is left spinning.
So begins FOR HER SINS, Maynard Sims’s third Jack Callum novel and perhaps her most taut and fast-paced. Unafraid to explore the complex and controversial, FOR HER SINS pulls back the curtains on Callum’s home, and what’s revealed causes more violence to erupt.
Callum’s sharp intellect and old school values take center stage in the book, which is smartly set in a time before forensics were able to reveal every minute detail of a crime. Sims (the pen name of co-writers Len Maynard and Mick Sims) manages to weave issues that are not only vibrant for the time but also extremely relevant today to create a compulsively readable mystery. We had the chance to chat with Mick Sims about the latest Callum book over email.
How would you describe the Jack Callum crime novels to a newcomer?
They are an ongoing series of crime novels set in the England of the 1950’s, moving into the 1960’s. They all feature Detective Chief Inspector Jack Callum, his family and his team of colleagues. They all have the twin focus of hard to solve, often violent crimes, and the developing family life of Jack and the changing morals and attitudes of the post War period.
For years, Stephanie Osborn wanted to write a ghost story along the lines of The Hound of the Baskervilles. In her mind, the ideal setting was a haunted castle somewhere in Europe. Then came a trip to New Orleans.
“I suddenly realized ‘the most haunted city in the USA’ was right in front of me. Why did I need to set the ghost story in a European castle?”
FEAR IN THE FRENCH QUARTER is the sixth adventure in Osborn’s Displaced Detective series. The series begins with Dr. Skye Chadwick observing alternate realities often populated by those we consider only literary characters. One of her favorites to view was continuum 114 where a certain Victorian detective was to have died along with his arch-nemesis. Reflexively Skye intervenes, rescuing her hero who inadvertently flies through the wormhole that connects his universe to ours.
Osborn has this to say about FEAR IN THE FRENCH QUARTER: It’s a fun romp through New Orleans with Sherlock Holmes as all hell is about to break loose—exponentially increasing paranormal activity, strange interactions with said paranormal events, and an impending cosmological disaster, all complicated by an approaching Category 4 hurricane! And realize—this is not your father’s Sherlock Holmes!
When asked how much of the novel she had before starting to write, Osborn replied, “Okay prepare to laugh—the night our friends took my husband and me on a whirlwind tour of the Quarter about three years ago, we were walking down Pirates’ Alley hard by the cathedral…when I suddenly “became aware” that the Holmeses were also walking along the Alley in their universe, and having a bit of an adventure with a would-be fortune teller. As we progressed down to Bourbon Street and thence to our restaurant for dinner, so did they…and I was “aware” of their experience along the way!
“The next day, I pulled out some note paper and a pen and started scribbling down what I’d “seen” as we walked. That’s all I had at that point—just the realization that they were visiting New Orleans. A quick discussion with some fellow writers, and I had the book’s title—FEAR IN THE FRENCH QUARTER.
“I knew I was going to take that modern haunting idea and transfer it to America, to New Orleans…that was it—the book had shape.
By George Ebey
New this month is author Christina Hoag’s SKIN OF TATTOOS, a harrowing thriller set in the world of inner-city gangs.
Los Angles homeboy Magdaleno is paroled from prison after serving time on a gun possession frame-up by a rival, Rico, who takes over as gang shotcaller in Mags’s absence. Mags promises himself and his Salvadoran immigrant family a fresh start, but he can’t find either the decent job or the respect he craves from his parents and his firefighter brother, who look at him as a disappointment. Moreover, Rico, under pressure to earn money to free the Cyco Lokos’ jailed top leader and eager to exert his authority over his rival-turned-underling, isn’t about to let Mags get out of his reach. Ultimately, Mags’s desire for revenge and respect pushes him to make a decision that ensnares him in a world seeded with deceit and betrayal, where the only escape from rules that carry a heavy price for transgression is sacrifice.
The Big Thrill checked in with Hoag to learn more about this story and her thoughts on the craft of suspense.
What first inspired you to write a thriller set in the gang underworld of Los Angeles?
The genesis for SKIN OF TATTOOS came from interviews I did for a magazine story in El Salvador on gang members deported from Los Angeles to San Salvador, which most of them really didn’t know because their families had emigrated when they were infants. It was a classic “fish out of water” story. They neither belonged in El Salvador nor in the United States. Their story stayed with me because I moved around the world as a child so I know the feeling of not really belonging anywhere. The novel grew out of that, plus my general interest in gangs as a subculture within our larger society. I also co-wrote a nonfiction book on gang intervention called Peace in the Hood: Working with Gang Members to End the Violence.
Tell us about your character, Magdaleno Argueta. What has his journey been like up to this point?
When we meet Mags, he’s pretty hopeful about his future. After doing time, he wants to put his gang days behind him. He’s smart and he desperately wants something more out of life. But circumstances stack up against him: a criminal record, a lack of work experience and job skills, an unsupportive family. He becomes disillusioned. On top of that, he can’t escape the gang because not only are his homeboys around physically, but they’re his best friends. He misses them, he misses being somebody. The final nail is that his nemesis, Rico, has taken over as shotcaller, or gang leader. Mags, who had seen himself as shotcaller, falls victim to his pride. He wants revenge. And revenge doesn’t lead to good places.
Margo Kelly made a striking impression on the young adult thriller scene with her 2014 debut Who R U Really?, about a teenage girl who becomes dangerously involved with an online stalker. Inspired by Kelly’s family’s own harrowing experience with an Internet predator, the book earned praise from reviewers and readers alike for its sobering take on a very real problem.
At first glance, UNLOCKED might seem like a tamer beast. Kelly’s second published novel, out October 1 from Merit Press, is steeped in supernatural horror and gothic suspense tropes—a far cry from the ripped-from-the-headlines realism of her debut. The plot centers on Hannah, a seventeen-year-old girl who experiences bizarre visions after undergoing hypnosis at a state fair. But when the story takes a surprisingly grim and all-too-relatable turn, readers are once again in Kelly’s familiar purview: a dark, paranoid tale of a teenager girl who must navigate the terrifying fallout of a seemingly inconsequential action.
Kelly sat down with The Big Thrill to talk about crafting psychological suspense for young readers, offer pointers on juggling a large cast of supporting characters, and share her thoughts on the legacy of YA suspense queen Lois Duncan.
I understand your first novel, Who R U Really?, was inspired by your family’s own disturbing experience with an online stalker. Do you have any sort of personal connection with UNLOCKED?
When I was in college I attended my first hypnotism show.
In an auditorium along with a couple hundred other students, I watched as fifteen guys and girls went on stage and participated in the show. The audience laughed and clapped and hooted when the hypnotized students did ridiculous things such as quack like ducks or sing like rock stars. It was great. Terrific. Until the end.
While the participants were still completely hypnotized, the hypnotist turned to the audience and spouted his political views. He didn’t even try to hide what he was doing. He spoke clearly and abruptly. The people to my left and to my right sat in shock. My own mouth dropped open in disbelief. The hypnotist went so far as to tell everyone exactly how to vote in the upcoming election. I was dumbfounded. I felt like my trust had been violated, and I wasn’t even on the stage. I was not hypnotized. I was not in any sort of suggestive state. But those students in the show still were. And I bet there were plenty of others sitting in the audience who were impressionable from watching the hypnosis being performed.
Colleen Thompson is the author of 28 books—from fast-paced romantic thrillers to action-packed historical romances. Her books have garnered many awards and made several different best-eller lists.
Thompson is back with THE OFF SEASON, a novel that follows heroine Christina Paxton who has left her familiar Texas environs to spend the winter season on the New Jersey shore. On a dark, stormy night, her two-year-old daughter begins speaking of things in the past that she couldn’t possibly know—and calling Christina by a name she hasn’t heard in 30 years.
This month, Thompson shares more about this chilling romantic suspense in The Big Thrill.
You set THE OFF SEASON on the New Jersey shore in winter, rather than your usual Texas setting. Why?
After moving to Texas years ago, I fell in love with my oversized adopted state, with its varied landscapes, its rich history, and its fascinating people. But more recently, my thoughts have turned to the things I loved growing up in small-town southern New Jersey, especially the tiny shore communities, which take on an eerie, almost haunted beauty when all the visitors leave during the winter months. I wanted to capture how it feels, walking on a deserted beach with the cold wind blowing off the Atlantic, or catching a glimpse of a fog-shrouded deserted lighthouse in the distance.
Your heroine, Dr. Christina Paxton, is emotionally vulnerable at the start of THE OFF SEASON. Is her mindset different than in your previous books?
As with the characters in all of my other stand-alone romantic thrillers, Christina begins the book at a point of transition, shortly after returning with a two-year-old to her tiny hometown following the sudden death of her much older husband. Housesitting one of the huge beachfront Victorians her real estate agent mother manages during the off season to keep it looking lived in, Christina is struggling to adapt to the feeling of being an outsider in her own hometown. I find the notion of returning home after years away really interesting—the idea of dealing with the fact that your time away has changed you in such a way that it forever shifts your old relationships.
By Matt Ferraz
Kate Moretti’s THE VANISHING YEAR has been called a Dark Places meets The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo—and though her story differs from both, Moretti says she was certainly influenced by the authors.
“This was actually the pitch we made to my editor for my next novel, The Remainders, and my agent liked it so much he put it in the Publisher’s Marketplace listing,” Moretti says. “I adored both of those books and my aim was to infuse the idea of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (a woman trying to extricate herself from a crime while in hiding) and the mood/concept of Dark Places (a woman is famous for a crime in her childhood.) The public comparison makes me horribly nervous, both books are somewhat both iconic in the genre. My agent has a lot of faith in me.”
Clearly so do her fans. In this The Big Thrill interview, Moretti talks about her latest tale of suspense—the thrilling story of a wealthy woman with a mysterious past—and how her work as a scientist fits within her already successful writing career.
Did you ever expect to become a New York Times bestseller?
No. True story. I would not have checked the newspaper. I got a Facebook message from my (now) agent asking me to call him. I thought it was a joke, but I called. He asked if I knew my book had hit the New York Times bestseller list. Of course I hadn’t! He offered representation and I said I’d have to call him back. I called my mom. I called my husband. I waited (days!) for the list to be published and double checked to make sure I was actually on it. Then I called him back and accepted. It was still the craziest week of my life.
Have you already made the big move and quit your day job to become a full time writer? How was it like?
No. I like my job. I work for Johnson & Johnson and I enjoy it. I mostly do technical writing now. I work a lot from home. I’m part time, though. That was a nice reprieve, to actually be able to devote hours on my “days off” to writing and reserve the rest for my family. Before, I was shoving writing in the cracks of my life, early mornings and late nights and talking into a microphone while I commuted, to be transcribed later. It was choppy and inefficient.
Set in New York, 1976, police reporter Coleridge Taylor is about to uncover a new wave of crime in the third book of author Rich Zahradnik’s Coleridge Taylor series.
“Taylor is investigating the murder of a Westchester housewife whose body is pulled from New York Harbor with bricks of heroin strapped around its waist,” Zahradnik says. “Taylor thinks he’s on to a war between the Italian mob and a Chinatown tong over heroin distribution in the city. This is going on as the massive Bicentennial celebrations are taking place in the harbor and around the city, celebrations that keep pulling Taylor from the crime story he really wants to peruse.”
The Big Thrill chatted with the author this month to get his story, along with his thoughts on writing award-winning thrillers.
Coleridge Taylor has been described by reviewers as “a reporter with a heart”—what sort of man is he?
Taylor wants to get the stories no one else is going after—about the victims no one cares to cover. He thinks if he writes their stories, the victims will have some kind of a voice. He is pretty single-minded in his focus, but at the same time can to talk with anyone. Because that’s what great interviewing is—a great conversation. He’s been chastened since Last Words. In that book, he had to get his job back by proving he didn’t invent a story about a nine-year-old heroin addict. In book 2, Drop Dead Punk, the paper he’s worked for his whole career folds. That shakes him up pretty good.
Taylor has the help of his now girlfriend Samantha Callahan. How does their relationship change the dynamic of this book compared to Drop Dead?
Samantha is an ex-cop whose own story was wrapped up in Drop Dead Punk. In that book, she doesn’t trust him for the longest time—most cops don’t trust reporters—and they don’t really work together until late in the book. Now they’re in a relationship and she helps him out (as she will continue to), since she’s better at the physical end of handling bad guys.
The series is set in New York in the 70’s. What was it about this setting that drew your series here?
I lived north of New York and was there as a teen in the 70’s. But really, I wanted to write a story that didn’t have any of the instant-DNA typing, video cameras everywhere and facial recognition in nine seconds of the modern mystery. Television in particular has trained the audience this is all real, even though much of it is sci fi. I wanted a shoe-leather investigation. Phone booths not cell phones. That being my guiding philosophy, I picked 1975 for the first book simply because that’s the year the Vietnam War ended. Since book 1, I’ve brought other events into play as I’ve moved forward in the decade: the near bankruptcy of New York City, the punk rock revolution, the Bicentennial.
When you’re writing a fast-paced crime thriller, how do you balance excitement and mystery? Is it important for you to keep your readers guessing, or do you concentrate on keeping them on the edge of their seats?
I want them to be in pursuit of the mystery along with Taylor without figuring it out before him. I want there to be shocks of action and excitement throughout with a real edge-of-seats finale. In this book I tried something new. Almost the entire third act is a chase, rather than having the big boom come in the last two chapters, as I did in books 1 and 2. That took some work, given that mystery resolution was going on during the long chase.
Both Last Words and Drop Dead received fantastic praise and recognition. Did you find this put pressure on you when writing A BLACK SAIL, or does the success of the earlier books spur you on?
Confidence as a writer is hard to come by when you’re toiling by yourself with no agent, editor or audience. The awards were one of those nice signals that said, “you got it right this time,” which then gave me confidence as I wrote. Confidence improves craft, if not overdone. I will admit that writing A BLACK SAIL had me a little worried because I did some things in Drop Dead Punk I could not do again.
Which authors have inspired you in the past and are there any you’re currently excited about?
Michael Connelly, Derek Raymond, Tony Hillerman, Georges Simenon, Ray Bradbury, William Gibson, Charles Dickens, Graham Greene.
I just read Patrick Lee’s The Runner, the first book in his Sam Dryden series (and his fourth overall). A great thriller. Radha Vatsal’s first book, A Front Page Affair, is excellent, as is R.G. Belsky’s Shooting for the Stars. They both feature journalists as protagonists—in different eras than the 70’s—so I guess you could say I’m a little journalism obsessed.
What’s next for Rich Zahradnik? Are you planning on another instalment in the series?
I’m just finishing a thriller set in the present day called The Causeway, in which three people witness a drug murder as a hurricane is about to strike a barrier island off of New Jersey. With the storm wreaking havoc, they race to get to the Causeway off the island before the bad guys can get them.
The next Taylor novel will be set during the months in 1977 when the serial killer Son of Sam was on a killing spree and a July blackout resulted in thousands of arrests and millions in damage. Exactly what crime Taylor will be chasing I’m working out.
Rich Zahradnik is the award-winning author of the critically acclaimed Coleridge Taylor Mystery series (A Black Sail, Drop Dead Punk, Last Words).
The second installment, Drop Dead Punk, won the gold medal for mystery/thriller ebook in the 2016 Independent Publisher Book Awards (IPPYs). It was also named a finalist in the mystery category of the 2016 Next Generation Indie Book Awards. Last Words won the bronze medal for mystery/thriller ebook in the 2015 IPPYs and honorable mention for mystery in the 2015 Foreword Reviews IndieFab Book of the Year Awards.
“Taylor, who lives for the big story, makes an appealingly single-minded hero,” Publishers Weekly wrote of Drop Dead Punk.
Zahradnik was a journalist for 30-plus years, working as a reporter and editor in all major news media, including online, newspaper, broadcast, magazine and wire services. He held editorial positions at CNN, Bloomberg News, Fox Business Network, AOL and The Hollywood Reporter.
In January 2012, he was one of 20 writers selected for the inaugural class of the Crime Fiction Academy, a first-of-its-kind program run by New York’s Center for Fiction.
Zahradnik was born in Poughkeepsie, New York, in 1960 and received his B.A. in journalism and political science from George Washington University. He lives with his wife Sheri and son Patrick in Pelham, New York, where writes fiction and teaches kids how to publish newspapers.
Rick Oller is on a roll with great reviews and great noir thrillers. The title of his new book—Mad Dog Barked— is enough to make someone pick it up out of curiosity, and then stay to appreciate the surprises and the story.
Oller chats with The Big Thrill this month to talk about the inspiration behind his new release, the meaning of “noir”, and his advice for aspiring writers.
Please tell us what MAD DOG BARKED is about.
I never want to write the same book twice (or more). MAD DOG is my private investigator book, about an arrogant man who gets results by doing things his own way. He prefers to work on cases where he’s going against an aggressive prosecution but here he finds his way onto something when he takes a large retainer from a rich man who then disappears, leaving behind a cryptic and mysterious letter.
Your excellent website pegs you as a dynamic noir author. Do you see yourself that way and what does noir mean for your writing?
Noir to me means your protagonist starts out screwed and ends up more screwed. I don’t think I’ve written a noir book yet that fits my definition. The protagonists may not be in a good place at the end of the book but they’re often more messed up than they were in the beginning. But people, innocent and good people, have often been hurt by his actions. So there are elements but I agree with Bill Crider’s review of MAD DOG BARKED when he said it “wasn’t quite noir” to him. Not quite to me, either, but there are certainly elements.
I love the Ed Gorman review for your work: “This has the power to hurt you.” What did he mean by that and how has that worked in your writing?
When I saw that I thought, “Ed so gets me.” I want to make the reader feel the characters’ pain in the books. In addition to increasing tension and suspense, involving the reader with an emotional response helps set the hook deeper and deeper. Ed wrote that about my previous book and if that book will “hurt” the reader, I want the reader to finish MAD DOG and feel like they want to come after me with a 2 x 4.
A Searing Stand-Alone Thriller on Legal Conscience
By Dawn Ius
In the seventh grade, a young Robert Dugoni delivered a speech that would forever change the course of his life.
Assigned to write an essay on the topic of slavery, Dugoni chose to take the position of an apologist—a person who offers an argument in defense of a controversial topic. He worked hard on the paper, digging deep into the research and carefully crafting the words he was sure would impress his teacher, Sister Kathleen.
At the end of his speech, she silently curled her finger back and forth, motioning for him to follow her out of the room, where his peers clapped as he retreated from one class to another, delivering his speech for a second time, again to a virtually speechless crowd of his peers.
It was then that he came upon two realizations: he had written something pretty impressive; and, writing was something that he wanted to do for the rest of his life.
Unfortunately, Dugoni was the middle-ish child in a family of ten “compulsive overachievers” who were either studying to become doctors or marrying doctors, and rather than cop to his true passion, he “wrote” his way into law school with journalism, and eventually embodied the career that satisfied his family’s expectations.
A “charade” that lasted more than a decade.
“The desire to write never went away,” Dugoni says. “But the idea of writing a novel while practicing law seemed so impossible to me—unless you’re Scott Turow. I couldn’t do both.”
So, in the midst of one semi-tipsy evening of self-reflection, Dugoni impulsively called the local theater company and signed up for…acting.
A Journalist on the Hunt for a Killer
By Dawn Ius
R.G. Belsky knows his way around a newsroom.
Now, with the release of the new book in his Gil Malloy mystery thriller series, Belsky deftly demonstrates that he also knows his way outside of the newsroom, delivering another gripping story featuring his hard-driving reporter with a penchant for breaking stories on the front page of the New York Daily News.
In BLONDE ICE, Malloy is inadvertently caught up in the hunt for a devious killer—a fair-haired femme fatale who is killing men for thrills.
“Serial killers are such a staple of so many things,” Belsky says. “But one thing I noticed—especially in fiction—is that there are so few women serial killers. I thought it was a fresh concept.”
Definitely, though writing about women is almost old hat to Belsky, whose previous works have included several female characters, often in a lead protagonist role.
“I find writing about women easier in some ways,” he says. “I had a lot of fun putting myself in the character’s head space. It makes it more unique, and the story flows better. If the writing was hard, I wouldn’t want to write the book.”
To loosen the process, Belsky begins with excellent character development, which is what he first looks for when reading the works of his peers. Once settled into point—or points—of view, Belsky is ready to take his cast on an epic journey of twists and turns that ultimately shape the plot.
By Basil Sands
Best Selling author Diane Capri has two action packed books coming out back to back. First is Book #7 of The Hunt for Jack Reacher Series DEEP COVER JACK. Then comes BLOOD TRAILS, a new series. Diane Capri is the New York Times, USA Today, and Amazon bestselling author of numerous series, including the Hunt for Justice and Hunt for Jack Reacher series and the Jess Kimball Thrillers .A former lawyer, she now divides her time between Florida and Michigan. Capri has been nominated for several awards, including the International Thriller Award, and she won the Silver award for Best Thriller e-Book from the Independent Publishers Association. She is currently at work on her next novel.
Diane, you’ve got two books coming out. Tell us about them.
In DEEP COVER JACK, FBI Special Agents Kim Otto and Carlos Gaspar pick up where Lee Child’s “Persuader” leaves off in The Hunt for Jack Reacher. In this exciting follow-up to the ITW Thriller Award nominated “Jack and Joe, Otto and Gaspar will wait no longer. They head to Houston to find Susan Duffy, one of Reacher’s known associates, determined to get answers. But Duffy’s left town, headed for trouble. Otto and Gaspar are right behind her and powerful enemies with their backs against the wall will stop at nothing to keep the secrets Reacher left behind.
Hunting Jack Reacher is deadly business — and lots of thrills. As Lee Child put it when this series was being conceived, “Who in their right mind would go looking for Reacher?” Otto and Gaspar are on the hunt and have lived to share their adventures with us — so far.
BLOOD TRAILS, a completely different series, tells the story of Michael Flint, an heir hunter of last resort. A forensic genealogist and former clandestine agent specializing in high-end private investigations, he promises clients he can find anyone, anytime, anywhere—dead or alive. Laura Oakwood stands to lose more than $50 million in mineral royalties if she’s not found within seventy-two hours. But she presents an extra challenge: she’s been running from the law due to her involvement in a deadly armed robbery twenty-eight years ago.
What can you tell us about your book that we won’t find in the jacket copy for the Hunt for Jack Reacher series?
It’s very difficult to write this series, and Deep Cover Jack was no exception. My books in this series have a long list of rules and coloring inside the lines is quite a challenge. In Deep Cover Jack, Otto and Gaspar are battling one of the biggest blizzards to hit the east coast on Thanksgiving weekend while they attempt a rescue from a remote location on the Maine coast, a fortress Reacher breached in Persuader. Reacher survived then. Everything about this story was a challenge.
By Dawn Ius
“Write what you know” and “begin with the character” are two common—perhaps clichéd—pieces of advice most writers hear throughout their career. For Renee James, those words of wisdom culminated at a crucial point in her personal life, a time when she had finally come to terms with her true identity and was struggling to decide whether she wanted to live the rest of her years as the man she was born as, or the woman she is.
Inspired by her wife’s sage advice, James ultimately decided to keep her true self private, instead exploring her emotions through a fictional journal that imagined what life could have been like if she’d made the decision to fully embrace the change.
That diary turned into a 50,000-word character study that became the back story of Bobbi Logan, one of the most successful transgender women in Chicago—and the protagonist of James’ Bobbi Logan Crime series.
“Bobbi’s origins were really my own coming out story,” James says. “A way for me to process my feelings, and even imagine what life would be like for me as a woman.”
That first book—originally published as Transition to Murder and then re-published as Coming Out Can Be Murder in Chicago—was admittedly light on plot, but achieved exactly what James intended from a character standpoint. For A KIND OF JUSTICE, James focused more on plot.
Within the space of a few weeks, Bobbi’s thriving salon goes bankrupt, her ex-wife is in dire need of her help, and a hateful police officer is hell bent on convicting her of a crime she didn’t commit—the murder of John Strand, a pillar of the community and a sexual predator.
“I write in first person with the hope that the non-transgender community can identify with Bobbi, for at least as long as it takes to read the books,” she says. “She is intelligent and witty, someone you could respect.”
By Kent Lester
What is the price of justice? That is the question posed in Allen Eskens’s new novel, THE HEAVENS MAY FALL. In the case of two longtime friends, detective Max Rupert and attorney Boady Sanden, the price may be too high to bear. Max is convinced that Genevieve Pruitt was killed by her lawyer husband, Ben Pruitt. Boady, having worked with Ben in the past, is equally convinced of his innocence. In the normal course of a murder investigation, their difference of opinion would matter little. But in this particular case, tragic circumstances from both men’s pasts will make it hard for them to maintain their professional objectivity.
Max Rupert is still struggling with the death of his wife four years earlier, and the mysterious nature of the Pruitt murder has stirred up painful memories for him. Meanwhile, Boady Sanden hasn’t tried a defense case in years, ever since the death of an innocent client, a man Boady believes he could have saved but didn’t. Now, he returns to court in hopes of redeeming himself for his past failure. But to reach a successful verdict, Boady may have to expose the pain of Max’s loss, which could endanger their friendship forever. It’s the type of delicious conundrum that keeps the story moving and the reader guessing.
THE HEAVENS MAY FALL is Allen Eskens’s third novel, and it shows. The story is told with a taut and realistic style honed by his previous two best-sellers, The Life We Bury, and The Guise of Another. THE HEAVENS MAY FALL is a sequel of sorts, reintroducing three characters from The Life We Bury. The story is told through the unique perspectives of Max and Boady. This change in point of view gives the reader an intimate sense of each character’s logic and illustrates how context and bias can lead to wildly different conclusions about guilt and innocence. Allen keeps readers guessing until the last possible moment.
As a practicing defense attorney, Allen Eskens brings a reality to the story in the best tradition of other practicing legal thriller authors like Scott Turow or John Grisham. His journey from lawyer to writer took a circuitous path. Growing up in the hills of central Missouri, Allen’s propensity for writing was first noted by his first grade teacher when she wrote an assessment to his parents saying, “Allen daydreams too much when work needs to be done in school.”
By E.M. Powell
Thrillers set in the world of sport can be among the most exciting. But if that thriller is about the biggest prize in US horseracing and is penned by a writer with the surname Francis, then you know you’re on to a winner. And so it is with TRIPLE CROWN, the third outing for Felix Francis’s Jeff Hinkley.
Hinkley is an investigator for the British Horseracing Authority who has been seconded to the fictional US Federal Anti-Corruption in Sports Agency (FACSA). There’s a mole in FACSA who is tipping off those under suspicion of illegal practice, and Hinkley’s task is to find out who it is. But things take a lethal turn when three of the most favored Kentucky Derby horses fall sick and a FACSA raid linked to the Derby ends in murder. Hinkley goes undercover as a groom to try to find answers—and discovers far more than he bargained. His life is now on the line as those who seek one of the biggest prizes in world sport, the Triple Crown, will stop at nothing to win it. It’s a fast, gripping read and immerses the reader deep into the complex world of professional horseracing.
For those who don’t know, the Triple Crown consists of a trio of races—The Kentucky Derby, the Preakness Stakes and the Belmont Stakes— for three-year-old horses and it’s run in May and early June of each year. Only twelve horse have won in nearly a century. As Francis explains, “The Triple Crown is the absolute pinnacle of American horse racing. To win a Kentucky Derby is the stuff of dreams, to add the Preakness and the Belmont as well is beyond dreamland, it makes history and puts the horse into the ‘legend’ status.’” Francis had been to three Kentucky Derbies and this provided his inspiration. “Having decided to set my 11th novel in the United States, it was the obvious event to include and the other two followed naturally.”
While we’re on the subject of legends, Felix Francis is the son of the late Dick Francis, the bestselling author of horseracing thrillers for more than 40 years who achieved worldwide sales of well over 60 million books before his death in 2010. Francis took over writing books under the Dick Francis brand and provides a fascinating personal account of how this came about.
“Back in 2005 my father’s literary agent asked me to lunch to tell me that we had a major problem—my father’s backlist was going to go out of print. Not that the 39 novels weren’t good enough, just that there had been no new novel for five years and people were forgetting. What we needed, the agent said, was a new novel, to stimulate backlist sales. Well, I said, you aren’t going to get one. My father was now 85 and my mother, who worked on the novels with him had died. The agent was actually asking me if I would give my permission for him to approach an existing crime writer to write a new ‘Dick Francis novel’ by so-and-so.”
A Terrifying Crime Close to Home
Before Sookie Stackhouse there was Aurora Teagarden. Charlaine Harris published Real Murders in 1990, about a young librarian who is a member of a club that gathers to study famous unsolved crimes. The series won devoted fans, but Harris’s Teagarden output slowed when she launched the Stackhouse character, a telepathic waitress attracted to vampires, and HBO created True Blood, which became a sensation. Harris immediately followed it with the Midnight, Texas trilogy, about a collection of people–some of them with supernatural gifts–gathered in a very small town. She’s also written the Shakespeare mysteries, the Harper Connelly mysteries, and the Cemetery Girl mysteries.
But now Aurora Teagarden is back with a vengeance. In ALL THE LITTLE LIARS, the newly married, pregnant Georgian librarian is hit by a disaster: four kids have vanished from the local soccer field, including her 15-year-old nephew. “Harris weaves a complex tale of difficult family dynamics that highlights the horror of being a teenager,” says Publishers’ Weekly. “Aurora, a smart and witty protagonist, possesses all the Southern charm necessary to carry this entertaining series.”
Harris carved out time to talk to The Big Thrill about her new book.
How has Aurora Teagarden evolved as you have written this character?
Aurora has grown up a lot, both chronologically and emotionally. She’s dated a variety of men, she’s been married and widowed, she’s become secure in her own skin, and she’s outgrown being intimidated by her mother. She’s a strong, confident woman with her own point of view. But she always loves to read . . . always.
When the book begins, Aurora is at one of the happiest points of her life. Was it difficult on any level to turn that joy into fear and trauma?
No. That’s practically my stock in trade. Happiness isn’t exciting in a mystery; fear and trauma is. I think that echoes life. Pure happiness is elusive, and can be soiled in the blink of an eye. The world always intrudes. In Aurora’s case, it simply intrudes more drastically.
BLOOD OF BROTHERS, recently released by Black Opal Books, is set in the steamy jungles of Nicaragua during the country’s civil war. Fortunately for us, Richard Edde had not tucked himself away in such a secluded location, and willingly talked with The Big Thrill about his latest work.
What got you interested in the Nicaraguan civil war?
I have always been interested in jungles. As a child I was fascinated by the Tarzan movies. Still watch them as a matter of fact. I’m intrigued by their exotic locales and the danger that lurks within them. During the Vietnam War, my friends returned with tales of the jungle. Civil wars are always interesting—people struggling for democracy and freedom, for a better way of life. In writing a novel with a historical backdrop, it just seemed natural to combine the two.
What were the different factions at the time in Nicaragua?
After the fall of the Somoza regime, there were two rival groups vying for power and control of the Nicaraguan government. In 1961, the Sandinista National Liberation Front (Frente Sandinista de Liberación Nacional, or Sandinistas) was founded and the group took its name from Augusto Cesár Sandino, who led a Liberal peasant army against the government of U.S.-backed Adolfo Díaz and the subsequent Nicaraguan government in the late 1920s and early 1930s. Inspired by Fidel Castro’s Cuban Revolution, the group sought to be a political-military organization whose objective was the seizure of political power through the destruction of the bureaucratic and military apparatus of the previous Somoza dictatorship.
Throughout their rule, the Sandinistas became more radicalized, especially in times of crisis. For example, in 1981, the Sandinistas announced new economic policies designed to weaken the private sector grasp on farmland. They also confiscated businesses that ostensibly threatened the revolution, and took control of the finances of those who had been gone from Nicaragua for at least six months. In 1982, after Argentine-trained rebels blew up two bridges, the Sandinistas declared a state of emergency, and, among other things, restricted the Nicaraguan press.
Within a year of the Sandinistas’ capture of power, those opposed to the regime began to engage in violent actions. In the summer of 1980, crude organizations of fighters were seeking to start a counterrevolution. These disparate groups comprised former National Guardsmen, ex-Sandinista soldiers critical of the new regime, and peasants and farmers upset with Sandinista land policies. Nicaraguan exiles, including former guardsmen and members of the Conservative Party, gathered in El Salvador, Honduras, Guatemala, and Miami and discussed the prospect of both unarmed and armed opposition to the Sandinistas. Many exiles came to see armed resistance as the only feasible means to moderate Nicaragua; two of them formed a political-military alliance that would come to be called the Nicaraguan Democratic Force (FDN), the main contra faction.
Industry Focus: On the Frontlines
ThrillerFest attendees are still buzzing from this year’s memorable conference. We kicked off the week with a day at the FBI where participants were fortunate to meet canine agent, Iris, a specialist in discovering electronics and computers, along with several human agents whose expertise ranged from counterterrorism to gangs to cyber crime.
We held a record eight classes for Master CraftFest where authors studied with New York Times bestselling authors Steve Berry, Grant Blackwood, David Corbett, Meg Gardiner, Heather Graham, Andrew Gross, and Gayle Lynds, in addition to screenwriting instructor Richard Krevolin. And we have exciting news to share from CraftFest Director D.P. Lyle M.D. about next year: “Master CraftFest will again offer eight classes, each with a maximum of 10 students. This unique, all-day, hands-on school will be held on Tuesday July 11th, 2017. It’s always a long but very rewarding day. We have many excellent mentors lined up already, including Steve Berry, Lee Child, Gayle Lynds, Grant Blackwood, Meg Gardiner, and Andrew Gross. Plan to spend the day with one of these best-selling authors and gifted teachers.”
ITW works hard to provide exceptional schools for teaching the craft of thriller writing. We want to support authors at every level, helping them reach their personal dreams and career goals. As Lyle comments, “For over a decade now we have worked to fulfill this vision. 2016 was yet again a great success and now we are preparing our 2017 line up of teachers and classes. As always, CraftFest will have four tracks that for 2017 will run all day Wednesday, July 12th, and for two hours on the morning of Thursday, July 13th. Many of your favorite teachers will return and other exceptional authors and teachers will be added as we continue to evolve and improve.”
We have also completed our second year of CareerFest, which focuses on the business side of writing. Jeff Ayers, Kathleen Antrim, and Jon Land work tirelessly to put together the best of the best in publishing to keep our attendees up-to-date on all the latest innovations for publicity, marketing, and career success. As Jon Land comments, “Along with all of ThrillerFest for 2016, CareerFest reached new heights. Panels highlighting the world of traditional publishing, landing an agent, and finding success in Hollywood attracted large, engaged audiences attracted by the specificity of topics aimed at helping writers establish and build their careers. Tilted as much to the independent leaning author as the author seeking a more mainstream road to success, CareerFest seeks to help all authors find the best and most viable routes to success.”
Exploring the Inevitability of Fate
By Joanna Penn
Clare Mackintosh’s debut novel, I Let You Go, was a Sunday Times Top Ten bestseller for 12 weeks, and was the fastest selling title by a new crime writer in the UK in 2015. It also won the Theakston Old Peculier crime novel of the year award for 2016. Translated into more than 30 languages, it has sold over 500,000 copies.
Clare’s latest book, I SEE YOU, is for sale now.
You were in the police for 12 years. How does that experience shape your crime writing?
I loved my police career, particularly the variety. I spent time as a community beat officer, a detective, a custody sergeant, shift sergeant, and operations inspector, including qualifying as a public order commander. I worked in communities I would never otherwise have had experience in, which gives me much more breadth of knowledge for my writing. Working in the police obviously also gives me a head start in terms of building authentic police characters and settings, as well as feeling comfortable writing about police procedure and forensics—although there’s still a lot I have to check.
More than anything, I think that there is a commonality between being a police investigator and being a storyteller. In the police my job was to get to the truth; to write down witness accounts and victims’ statements, to interview suspects, and to present as full a picture as possible to a court. I go through the same process as a writer; I pull together all the different threads of a story, and present them to my readers. It’s their job to get to the truth, just as a judge and jury have to. I Let You Go was inspired by a real-life case—a hit and run in Oxford, England—although the story that unfolds is pure fiction.
You’re British and much of I Let You Go is set in Wales. How did the landscape shape the story ideas?
A huge amount. My main character, Jenna Gray, is traumatized by the hit and run that happens at the start of the book. She is grieving for her son and runs to a rural village in Southwest Wales to try and put her life back together. This part of the book is set in a real place called Three Cliffs Bay. It’s the most beautiful sandy beach, encircled by three high cliffs, with a caravan park at the top. Jenna feels safest and happiest when she is outside, anchoring herself with bare feet on sand, or hands against rock, and she builds an income by taking photographs of messages written in the sand. In this way the setting is an integral part of the story, and as Jenna’s past catches up with her the landscape becomes much more threatening.
When Murder’s In the Recipe
With a master’s degree in adult education, Sally Andrew was a social and environmental activist before she and her partner decided to move to the Klein Karoo. Now they live on a nature reserve with a giant eland and a secretive leopard for company. Along the way, Andrew created Tannie Maria, a delightful character, fixated on cooking, who has to give up her recipe column to become the local newspaper’s agony aunt. She finds she has a talent for that too, but it leads her into a nasty series of murders. Andrew’s debut novel, RECIPES FOR LOVE AND MURDER, became an instant success around the world. Alexander McCall Smith said it was “a vivid, amusing and immensely enjoyable read” and called it “a triumph.”
Andrew’s Recipe for Murder is:
1 stocky man who abuses his wife
1 small tender wife
1 medium-sized tough woman in love with the wife
1 double-barreled shotgun
1 small Karoo town marinated in secrets
3 bottles of Klipdrift brandy
3 little ducks
1 bottle of pomegranate juice
1 handful of chilli peppers
1 mild gardener
1 fire poker
1 red-hot New Yorker
7 Seventh-day Adventists
1 hard-boiled investigative journalist
1 soft amateur detective
2 cool policemen
1 handful of red herrings and suspects mixed together
Pinch of greed
Throw all the ingredients into a big pot and simmer slowly, stirring with a wooden spoon for a few years. Add the ducks and chillies and brandy towards the end and turn up the heat.
By R.G. Belsky
Robert E. Dunn’s last book was a horror novel about motorized monsters in a small town. His previous novels have featured aliens and zombies. He’s also published an erotic romance novel. And he has written TV scripts for commercial spots, documentary productions and travelogues.
So why did he decide to put out a thriller now?
“I love horror but a diet of French fries, no matter how much you love them would become both boring and stifling,” Dunn said when we asked him about A LIVING GRAVE, the first book in his new Katrina Williams thriller series.
“I don’t see much difference between horror and thriller except the adversaries and the rules of the fictional world. In a thriller you have real world rules with adversaries who must operate how the world operates. Granted they may get shot once a week with no ill effects or know every secret thing from hotwiring a car to hacking computers that control world money markets in five minutes, but the things they do can mostly be done. In horror the rules are different. People may be able to transform into bloodthirsty animals or the dead walk around eating people.”
Dunn’s main character in A LIVING GRAVE is Katrina “Hurricane” Williams, a cop just hanging on to her job as a Sheriff’s Detective in the rural Ozarks – ten years after a horrible assault by fellow soldiers in Iraq left her emotionally damaged and disillusioned. While investigating the brutal murder of a teenaged girl, she learns that she is a suspect in a military investigation into her painful past.
“Even as she fights to clear her own name, Katrina begins falling for Solomon, a fellow veteran turned painter, who is keeping devastating secrets,” Dunn explained. “Spiraling and barely under control, she follows the murder case into a place of utter darkness that hides a figure who may or may not be real. At the same time, another murder leads to connections between mobsters, bikers, and Solomon.
“Dragged down by death, guilt, and uncontrolled anger, Katrina hits bottom. Forced to confront the demons that control her, she finally chooses to fight for a life worth living and a love she desperately needs. But she may be too late. In one long night of loss and violence, she pushes aside the secrets in hopes of saving Solomon from his own dangerous choices.”
By Anne Tibbets
Tony “Red” Harmon’s life is a lie. In RECALL, Red discovers the hidden truth – he’s not a construction worker and suburban father – he’s a special ops veteran for an elite military squad with a dormant memory. Now, when tragedy strikes, Red’s buried skills are put to the test and he must rejoin his old team to prevent an international incident.
Veteran, U.S. Air Force Academy grad, and author David McCaleb isn’t messing around when it comes to writing military action – his love of the genre runs deep.
“I’ve always gravitated toward thrillers and action-adventure movies,” says McCaleb. “My father held a deep regard for the military and helped instill it in me. I feel my military background is more a reflection of my personality and upbringing, as is my love of writing black ops thrillers. What specifically I love about this genre is that war – armed conflict – is one of the greatest tests of man. And to follow my characters through an operation, documenting their thoughts, actions, and emotions, is, well…thrilling. I don’t know exactly how it’s going to turn out, so I want to hurry up and write the next chapter as much as I hope my reader wants to read it.”
Complete with action, tech, and weaponry, RECALL never lets up, taking the reader on a fast-paced ride from page one. McCaleb’s attention to detail in each scene adds to its authenticity, and proves just how seriously he takes his research – especially with weapons.
“Figuring out what tool is best for the job, learning how it works, how it performs, and how people interact with it. Does the plot call for a shoulder-launched anti-aircraft missile? What does it need to acquire its target? A heat signature or radar? What can throw it off? Make it fail? How reliable are they? Does the character have access to the latest model, or are they stuck with a Vietnam era weapon that may prove as dangerous to its operator as the target? All that said, weaponry isn’t what carries a thriller. Characters are, by far, the most interesting part of any novel, commercial or literary. Weapons are simply an extension of them.”
And McCaleb is quick to point out that weapons are only useful if you’ve got a solid battle strategy first.
Humanity has always embraced new and exciting ways to inflict harm upon itself. How long did it take for the first bow-and-arrow hunters to turn their aim against a fellow Stone Age man? The over/under has to be measured in months, if not weeks. Which came first—the ploughshare or the sword? And let’s not even get started on atomic energy.
We embrace the new with gusto and quickly turn it against one another, even if we don’t know all that much about it. Remember, there were a few scientists out there who thought there was a chance, however small, that the A-bomb would fry the world’s atmosphere. We used it anyway.
These themes of novelty, responsibility, power and destruction were all swirling in my head when I sat down to write MJ-12: INCEPTION, the first in the series of MAJESTIC-12 spy-fi novels that’s coming out this month. For a long time, I had wanted to marry two of my favorite literary genres—spy thrillers and science fiction—in a single work, and this book was the result.
What would happen if, after World War II, ordinary individuals developed paranormal abilities? And how long would it take for the U.S. and the Soviet Union to try to weaponize them, even when the origins and extent of those abilities were still in doubt?
In my book, it took about three months for the U.S. to get started.
I wrote MJ-12: INCEPTION as a rollicking spy adventure, leveraging the MAJESTIC-12 alien conspiracy myth for a completely different story with many of the same players. I wanted James Bond and the X-Men in equal measure. And I’d like to think I got that—exotic locales, crazy action, super-cool superpowers. There’s excitement, a bit of romance, lots of twists and turns, heaps of conspiracies, all awash in shades of gray and noir with a big-band swing playing on a crackling radio and cigarette smoke creating a haze under the dim lights.
Paul McGoran’s chronicle of the elegant but toxic Chitworth clan continues in THE BREASTPLATE OF FAITH AND LOVE (New Pulp Press)—his follow-up to the 2015 noir thriller, Made for Murder. The action begins in old-money Newport, then shifts to a contrasting pair of upscale and hardscrabble neighborhoods in San Francisco.
While the new novel stands alone as a psychological thriller/murder mystery combo, it also marks the start of a series featuring P.I. Stafford Boyle, a small-time gumshoe from Rhode Island. His keynote is a kind of sophisticated naivety. He’s the kind of fellow who relates his clients and their cases to his favorite film noir plots and the actors who starred in them. He’s also a dogged sleuth.
Stymied at first by a job that has him chasing down a promiscuous reality-show winner and a missing fiancée, Boyle is refocused when the trail leads to Dismas Cottage, the gilded-age mansion of the wealthy Chitworths. Under a mandate from Ivan and Claudia Chitworth to conduct a ‘discrete’ investigation of their west coast relatives, a reluctant Boyle departs the cozy confines of Newport and flies to San Francisco where he confronts:
- A pair of socialite sisters haunted by scandal;
- Two ex-cons battling over an extortion scheme;
- A family stonewalling the cops about a corpse on the staircase; and
- A youngster pondering the legacy of his serial killer daddy.
It’s a hell of a mess, but it’s all connected, and Boyle must figure out how. When the last piece of the puzzle locks into place, he’ll be forced to abandon his client and break the law to protect the life of an innocent child.
THE BREASTPLATE OF FAITH AND LOVE has a spooky sound to it. What does your title refer to?
In the novel, it’s the name of a storefront mission in San Francisco. Beyond that, it symbolizes the strength found in truth and forgiveness, something my cast of confused and volatile characters needs to contemplate. The phrase goes back to St. Paul in the New Testament.
Paige Tyler’s previous paranormal romance thrillers have earned slots on the New York Times and USA Today bestseller lists. She returns now with her special blend of realism and dark fantasy in HER ROGUE ALPHA, a tale of a scarred serviceman, a beautiful shapeshifting heroine, and their life-threatening new mission.
Bestselling author Cynthia Eden has noted that Tyler offers “Non-stop action and thrilling romance.”
That’s evident in this latest in the X-OPS series, as the story opens on a battlefield in Kabul where a mission goes wrong for Special Forces Lieutenant Jayson Harmon, scarring him and killing his special ops teammates.
Stateside, 15 months later, Jayson finds himself in love with Layla Halliwell as he recuperates while operating a Department of Covert Operations gun range and battling prejudice against shapeshifters.
Soon, the mission that will take both Kyle and Jayson into harm’s way arrives, and the adventure really gets underway.
Tyler took some time to answer a few questions for The Big Thrill recently about HER ROGUE ALPHA.
Jayson, your protagonist, suffers terribly on the battlefield, and he’s conflicted and in emotional pain when we pick him up stateside. How did you go about crafting realistic emotions for him and making his pain seem so authentic?
My hubby (who is my writing partner) is retired military, so he’s seen and read a lot about soldiers enduring the emotional and physical trauma that comes with being severely injured. We used those experiences as reference as we wrote Jayson’s story.
What research did you do or what went into creating Jayson’s wounded-warrior pain and struggles?
We spent a lot of time researching the facts and figures of shrapnel wounds and PTSD just like we researched what Walter Reed looks like and how an injured soldier is medically separated from the service. But that’s all just window dressing. The real process of bringing Jayson’s pain and struggles to life meant putting ourselves in his head and living there for a while. To do that, you have to try to understand what it means to have a sense of self-worth so completely wrapped up in what you’re physically capable of doing. That’s where most of Jayson’s pain comes from—not the scars and damage, but the inability to do those things he believes make him a man and make his life worth living.
By Ron Parham
FESTIVAL OF FEAR is my third novel in the Paxton Brothers Saga, a series about an ordinary American family who find themselves caught up in extraordinary circumstances. FESTIVAL OF FEAR is actually a prequel to the first two novels in the series, a story about the Paxton brothers as kids growing up in rural Iowa in the early sixties. It’s unusual in that the protagonist in the first two novels, Molly’s Moon and Copperhead Cove, is only three years old in FESTIVAL OF FEAR. Thus, the reader of the first two novels starring Ethan Paxton will get to witness what his childhood was like. Confused? Let me explain further.
Molly’s Moon, my first published novel released in 2014, takes place during 9/11, in 2001. It follows Ethan Paxton as a businessman in his early forties that was stuck in Europe when the World Trade Center buildings came down. With America’s airports closed for days, he had to find a way to get into Mexico where his teenage daughter had been kidnapped by sex traffickers.It’s a fast-paced thriller with multiple points-of-view, including that of the kidnapper and the kidnapped daughter. My second novel, published in 2015, was Copperhead Cove, which takes place in 2003, two years after Molly’s Moon. Ethan Paxton is now in his mid-forties, helping his older brother, Bo, through a nightmare involving the Chicago mob, dead college basketball coaches, deadly snakes and all sorts of redneck characters.
Got it yet? Here’s where it gets a little weird, and hopefully interesting. My third novel, FESTIVAL OF FEAR, takes place in 1962, during the Cuban Missile crisis, when the fear and anxiety of the Cold War has the entire country on edge. Ethan Paxton, only three years old, is the youngest child of Clint and Eloise Paxton, who live in a small town in southwest Iowa. Ethan has two older brothers. Bo, who we met in Copperhead Cove, is seven, and oldest brother Nick, a new character to the series, is fifteen, a sophomore in high school and a football star. He is in love with a pretty blonde cheerleader who, unfortunately, is targeted as the next victim of a serial killer of young teenage girls that has been terrorizing the area. Nick is the protagonist, with his football coach, John Walters, playing a prominent role. Little Ethan and Bo are in the background, doing what small children do, even during a crisis. But their personalities are showcased so that the reader of the first two novels can relate to them. Like I said before, it’s a prequel to the first two novels.
Marissa Garner is celebrating the release of WANTED, the third book in her sexy, edgy FBI Heat series. Although each story stands alone, readers will enjoy reconnecting with several favorite characters from Hunted and Targeted.
In WANTED, Special Agent Dillon O’Malley teams up with a fascinating heroine, Kat MacKenzie, the woman who left him at the altar (literally) two years ago. The thrilling action revolves around the sabotage of a nuclear power plant, but readers will also be holding their breath to see if Dillon discovers why Kat originally abandoned him, and whether their second chance at love will lead to a happy ending.
Like Hunted and Targeted, WANTED required careful balance of the suspense and romance. Garner’s editor—who’s been in publishing far longer than the author—called the story not just good, but great. As is characteristic of this series, the subject matter is uncommon in the romance genre. Computer hacking and nuclear power plant sabotage are subjects more often considered by national security experts than found between the covers of a romance novel. As Garner’s tagline says, she writes “romance to titillate your mind as well as your libido.”
Most authors have fascinating anecdotes about research for their books. Garner is no exception. If she didn’t attract the FBI’s attention with her in-depth questions and Internet searches about dirty bombs and Muslim clothing for Targeted, she figures her research into nuclear power plants and computer hacking definitely put her on someone’s radar. When she toured a nuclear power plant, she was careful not to mention that she was more interested in weaknesses susceptible to sabotage than in normal operating procedures. She still expects to find men in black suits and shades on her doorstep one of these days.