When Hallie Ephron was ten years old, living in Beverly Hills with her screenwriter parents and three sisters, an extraordinary event in her own community seized her imagination: Cheryl Crane, the 14-year-old daughter of Lana Turner, stabbed her mother’s lover, Johnny Stompanato, to death.
Young Hallie devoured all the information she could find about the case—“My parents never censored our reading; they just encouraged us to read and ask questions,” she said in a recent interview—and decades later it became the starting point for NIGHT NIGHT, SLEEP TIGHT, a thriller coming out this month.
NIGHT NIGHT, set in 1986, isn’t a retelling of the Cheryl Crane story, but a similar murder figures prominently in the background of main character Deirdre Unger. When Deirdre arrives in Beverly Hills to help her father sell his dilapidated house, she finds him dead in the swimming pool. At first, his death appears accidental, but soon the police are calling it murder—and Deirdre is a prime suspect. In search of the truth, Deirdre follows threads that lead back to 1958, when her best friend, Joelen Nichol, confessed to killing her movie-star mother’s boyfriend. Deirdre was in the Nichol house that night, and suffered a personal tragedy in the aftermath of the murder. The more she digs into the past, the more she suspects those distant events are related to her screenwriter father’s death.
Library Journal called NIGHT NIGHT an “entertainingly suspenseful read with its mix of movie stars, scandal, gossip, and mystery.” Booklist praised the author’s vivid recreation of old Hollywood in a “fast-moving tale, with building suspense and the price of fame at its center,” and Kirkus Reviews described it as a “page-turner with juicy Hollywood insider details.”
Hallie emphasizes that she didn’t know Lana Turner and her daughter, yet the story had a strong effect on her. “Of course, I wasn’t mature enough to fully grasp it, [but] I was in awe of Cheryl Crane. I thought she was courageous, heroic even, to take on a bully to protect her mother. And then, of course, she paid the price. Imagine, after that every person she met would know the story and what she’d done. She sacrificed her privacy and anonymity, precious commodities even in Hollywood where fame is so highly prized.”
The Hollywood era in which Hallie set the novel is one she knew well. “I grew up there in the 50s and 60s and went back from time to time. I saw the impact of the collapse of the studio system—my parents were screenwriters at 20th Century Fox and overnight they were out of work. By the 80s most of the studio had been bulldozed and turned into Century City. So it’s an interesting place and time period to set a story.”
STIFF PENALTY, released in February by Kensington, is the sixth book in the Mattie Winston mystery series by Annelise Ryan (the pen name of author Beth Amos). Like so many writers, as a child Amos usually had her nose in a book and dreamed early on of being a writer. Like perhaps not so many, she wrote hundreds of short stories and has saved all her rejection letters to prove it. Doubting her ability to support herself through writing, Amos decided to pursue a career in nursing. She never stopped writing, however, and at the age of forty sold her first full-length novel, Cold White Fury, to Harper Collins. Amos was off to the races. In addition to her first novels with Harper Collins and the Mattie Winston series, she writes the Mack Dalton mystery series under the pen name Allyson K. Abbott.
STIFF PENALTY is edgy, smart, and crisp, the characters distinctive, sometimes quirky, but always believable. The tension and suspense so expertly crafted by Amos are enhanced by a good dose of wry humor, and her medical knowledge lends rich credibility to her story. When you visit her website, be sure to take a look at her workshops on building characters, suspense, and other valuable writing tips. She’s got a lot of good advice!
Amos took time to talk with The Big Thrill about the writing life.
Medical Examiner Mattie Winston, your central character, is six foot tall, insecure about her looks, politically incorrect, and has a quite active libido—somewhat different from most female protagonists. What was the inspiration for her character and is there a message you want your readers to grasp?
Despite her differences, I think Mattie is in many ways the universal woman. We all have insecurities about how we look, and we all have naughty, politically incorrect, or even mean-spirited thoughts at times. Mattie is tall because I’m tall and the difficulties and insecurities that go along with that are something I know. Mattie often says the things I wish I could say. And I think Mattie’s desire to be loved and appreciated is a universal need that most women can relate to. Mattie has insecurities, but she’s a strong, independent woman who learns to trust her instincts, live with her shortcomings, and make the most of her strengths. She has a strong sense of who she is and what she wants, and she’s not afraid to go after it. Okay, maybe she’s a little afraid, but her fear empowers her in many ways. If there is a message of any sort in there, it’s that we’re all okay the way we are, and we shouldn’t be afraid to reach for those goals and desires.
By Dawn Ius
Jack DeWitt knows hot rods and custom cars.
From the likes of Duane Steck’s homebuilt Moonglow ’54 Chevy to Bob McCoy’s Raked and Flamed ’40 Ford Sedan, and almost everything in-between, DeWitt has researched cars, driven them, customized them, and written about them in various articles, blog posts, books, and even, poems.
His latest published work, DELICIOUS LITTLE TRAITOR, featuring Varian Pike, has little to do with hot rods, but it is certainly written with the same meticulous research for which DeWitt is known.
DELICIOUS LITTLE TRAITOR begins quietly in December 1953 when rugged WWII vet and now private investigator Varian Pike looks into the disappearance of a missing young girl and lands in the middle of a war between federal agencies. Along the way he finds that almost everyone has a deep secret and a grudge to settle—especially the girl.
Pike isn’t much of a talker but “he is very good at what he does, not because he has any special mental or physical abilities, but because he just hangs in there,” DeWitt says. “He has tried hard to simplify his life: Do the job. Be loyal to those who deserve loyalty. Stay in the shadows. Hide the scars. He loves jazz and movies. In fact, his worldview is almost entirely taken from Hollywood.”
An intriguing perspective, given that the book is set in the fifties, a period in time that represents a distinct dividing line in culture. As DeWitt notes, the fifties hardly age.
“James Dean, Elvis, and Marilyn Monroe are still used to sell stuff without any sense they are historical figures,” he says. “The clothes I wore in the fifties, I still wear today and I don’t look weird—khakis, boat shoes, crew neck sweaters, tweed sports jackets. Johnny’s motorcycle jacket from The Wild One is still in fashion. People are modifying fifties cars or building earlier models as fifties hotrods. This is an odd and fascinating phenomenon.”
THE LYNCHPIN is the second novel in Jeffrey B. Burton’s Agent Drew Cady mystery series. Its predecessor, The Chessman, came out in 2012 to some excellent reviews, including a starred one in Publishers Weekly, and went on to sell to publishers in Germany, The Netherlands, Turkey, and the U.K.
The novel begins with Agent Cady having turned his life around. He’s waved goodbye to Washington, D.C., and ten-plus years of chasing violent felons for the FBI’s Criminal Investigative Division. He’s moved to Minnesota to be with his fiancée, and now works on the FBI’s Medicare Fraud Strike Force. Life could not be better.
However, Cady’s tranquility is short-lived. He is ordered to help the local authorities investigate the murder of a young woman whose body was pulled from Lake Superior, then his workload doubles when his former boss kills a fellow agent and stands accused of being a spy. Cady’s plans of living the dream dissolve into a nest of killings and foreign intrigue.
Jeffery Burton sat down for an interview with THE BIG THRILL to discuss the second entry into his series.
What does THE LYNCHPIN refer to?
The term refers to a high-level traitor—a mole that’s burrowed his or her way deep into one of our intelligence services and runs numerous cells from that perch. I grew up during the Cold War and, even after the collapse of the Soviet Union, figured it might be a bit of wishful thinking to assume that those involved in the spy trade handed the ball back to the referee, shook hands, and went their merry way.
By Jeff Ayers
Jon Wilson dives head first into the mystery/thriller genre with his latest novel, CHEAP AS BEASTS.
Like most soldiers, Declan Colette lost his fair share in the war—in his case a sailor, drowned off Iwo Jima. Since then he’s been scratching out a living as a cut-rate PI, drinking too much, and flirting with danger. Then a girl arranges to consult him, only to be murdered en route, and the cops tag Colette as their prime suspect. To save his neck he’ll need to find the real killer, a quest that pits him against a rival detective firm, a dangerously rich family, and a desperate foe whose murdering ways started back during the war.
Could this be the case he’s been waiting for? Catching the killer could make his reputation. Failing, could cost him his life.
Either way: win-win.
Jon took some quality time to chat with The Big Thrill.
What compels you to write?
An innate inability to do anything else. Life has shown me to have no aptitude for any job that requires I rise at a decent hour.
Also, I’ve always written stories and loved books—or at least since I was old enough to know what they were. I’ve actually dreamt my whole life of becoming a published author and I’m a little perturbed that it took so long. Well, better late than never I suppose.
By Wendy Tyson
In Merry Jones’s newest thriller, IN THE WOODS, Harper Jennings and her husband are enjoying a child-free camping trip in a Pennsylvania State Park when Jennings stumbles on a body in the woods. Neither she nor the park ranger believe the death was an accident, and when a fellow camper’s husband goes missing, Jennings begins her own reluctant hunt for the killer.
Jones, who lives near Philadelphia, has authored a number of works, including the Zoe Hayes mystery series, and the Elle Harrison and Harper Jennings thriller series, as well as several humor and nonfiction books. I recently had the good fortune to catch up with Jones for The Big Thrill.
Congratulations, Merry! What can you tell us about IN THE WOODS that is not on the back cover?
IN THE WOODS is densely plotted. It’s partly about personal betrayal and revenge. But, it’s also about “larger” issues—issues of the environment, use of energy resources, weapons control, even domestic terrorism. It touches on legends and superstitions about Yeti/Bigfoot-type creatures. And, as tension and danger escalate, all of these elements combine, so that the plot attains an undertone of semi-absurdity.
Through it all, the protagonist, Iraq war veteran Harper Jennings, remains strong and resilient. But readers will also see her softer side emerge as a mother and wife who needs to redefine herself as her family grows.
By Diane Kelly
Characters with Claws
Developing unique, realistic, and engaging characters is always a challenge. When has quirky gone too far? How “real” do fictional people have to be to maintain credibility? Just how flawed can a writer make a character before the person becomes too irritating or unlikable? As I discovered when writing my K-9 cop series, developing a realistic and engaging non-human character poses these same challenges.
Recognizing that animals are sentient creatures with emotions and the ability to reason is critical to creating a well-developed non-human character. Both instinct and intellect are common to all creatures great and small, from dogs and cats to goats and horses and humans. While those who are unfamiliar with animals might accuse a writer of anthropomorphizing their non-human characters, they would be wrong. Anyone who has spent any appreciable amount of time around animals know that each animal, while sharing some traits with others of its species, will have its own individual behavior patterns, preferences, and idiosyncrasies, just as we people do.
As with their human characters, writers must be careful not to make their non-human characters too stereotypical. My shepherd-mix K-9 cop Brigit has many of the typical shepherd traits. She’s smart. Protective. Loyal. Had these been her only characteristics, though, she would have been a rather bland and predictable secondary character. To give the canine character some teeth, I gave the dog flaws that became critical points of contention between her and her human partner, Officer Megan Luz.
“There was no reason for Elizabeth Knoebel to suspect that this was going to be the last day of her life.” That’s how L. T. Graham’s THE BLUE JOURNAL begins: a promise of a murder, but this taut and exciting psychological thriller delivers so much more.
Knoebel’s body is found naked in bed and it’s clear to Lieutenant Detective Anthony Walker that the victim knew whoever put a bullet in her brain. Walker, a former NYPD detective, now works for the Darien PD, a wealthy bedroom community in Connecticut, where a year’s worth of crime would barely fit into a twenty-four-hour timespan in the Big Apple. With ten years on the job in NYC, Walker has seen it all, and at first this case seems to be a straightforward homicide. But like the well-heeled people in this town, appearances are not what they seem. And after reviewing the victim’s salacious diary, he finds he has more murder suspects than a country club cocktail party.
Elizabeth Knoebel’s diary lays out in explicit detail all her sexual exploits—including the husbands of the women in her group therapy sessions. She would pick her prey, seduce them, humiliate them, then throw them away. Knoebel had made lots of enemies. The murderer could be any one of her jilted lovers. Or one of the vengeful wives. With little concrete evidence to go on, Detective Walker must unravel the tangled relationships, decipher fact from fiction, all the while navigating the shifting sands of small-town politics and gossip, the power plays and treachery.
I took Jeanne Matthews’ new novel, released January 2015, to read with me on an idyllic family holiday. You know the kind: everything is perfect but by the end you all want to throttle each other. Escaping into someone else’s dysfunctional family was sheer delight.
This is the author’s fifth novel in the Dinah Pelerin series, featuring the globetrotting cultural anthropologist. The title refers not to physical bones but the lies that Dinah and her family and her heroic new boyfriend, Thor, flounder through, embellish and accommodate. These are not just any old lies. They range from the domestic to those laden with potentially fatal freight.
I hadn’t read any of Jeanne’s prior books and I found myself chuckling away as aspects of her characters’ lives are dropped in with deadpan aplomb: “Margaret Dobbs had aged considerably since her murder trial…” and “…maybe she was reluctant to speak ill of the man she’d killed.” I love the acerbically twisted Margaret: “She exuded a bitterness that lowered the ambient temperature like a block of dry ice…” And of Dinah: “Some people aspire to crime, some have crime thrust upon them.” The heroine has a liberating streak of larceny through her soul.
All the central characters are extremely well drawn, from the charming, kitten-heeled and elusive mother, Swan, to the bitter Margaret, to the playgirl-centerfold-handsome Thor. We’ve all had a scary but handy caretaker-figure in our lives like Matthews’ nocturnal Geert, whose helpfulness extends to offering to rip people’s eyes out.
By Ovidia Yu
Before coming to NUN TOO SOON, let me say I love the personalities in your earlier books—Giulia, her boss/ partner/husband, and the rest of their friends and office staff. Do they all reappear in NUN TOO SOON, which is being marketed as the first in the Giulia Driscoll mystery series rather than the fourth in the Falcone & Driscoll series? Are these characters based on real people? And why the change in the series name?
Thank you! Yes, Giulia, Frank, Sidney, and their friends and significant others are all in the new series. When Henery Press and I discussed the series, we decided on a reboot, in essence. We have a short story available for free on Amazon, iTunes, Google Play, and Kobo that bridges the gap between Veiled Threat, the last in the old series, and NUN TOO SOON. It’s called “Changing Habits.” Giulia has a mystery to solve, of course, and (SPOILER ALERT!) at the same time she’s dealing with all the craziness of her upcoming marriage to Frank.
In the new series, Frank’s rehabbed his knee and is back as a detective on the police force. Giulia is running Driscoll Investigations on her own, with Sidney as her assistant and a near-genius MIT geek named Zane as her new admin.
Frank and Giulia are both strong personalities, and jointly running the business caused a lot of friction. Sidney was about to give them boxing lessons as a Christmas gift. So they came up with the current solution, which has saved both the business and their marriage. That’s why the new series uses Giulia’s name alone—she’s in charge.
None of the characters are based on real people. Well, the Superior General in Back in the Habit may possibly have been loosely based on my former Superior General. But without the drug-running and other nasty illegal goings-on. But other than that, no. The characters are all out of my crowded head.
Demystifying the Mystery
What makes a good mystery? Could there be a simpler question? On the flipside, could there be a more broad-based question? Each reader has his or her tastes and opinions, as does every writer. I can’t—and won’t— presume to have the answers. What I will do is share some aspects of what I believe, as a reader, makes a good mystery, and what works for me as a writer.
A good mystery is plot-driven.
Without a well-paced and intriguing plot (storyline), the mystery is dead in the water. You’ve heard it a million times, but it’s worth repeating again: you must pull the reader into the story, and the sooner the better. In my first Mac McClellan Mystery, Deadly Catch, the opening sentence sets the stage:
The first cast of the day turned my dream vacation into a nightmare.
Short and sweet, but doesn’t it make you want to read more and find out why?
Had I opened with back-story, how Mac had recently retired from the Marine Corps and traveled to the Florida panhandle for a fishing vacation, you might have kept on reading for a while hoping the pace picked up. Personally, I would’ve thought, “Ho-hum.” Before the third chapter of Deadly Catch ends, Mac discovers a body, is suspected of murder, and warned not to leave the area by the local sheriff. Information important to back-story can be fed in by piecemeal as the story progress, but keep that plot moving! And speaking of moving, it’s the characters that drive the plot! Every scene, every action, every sentence or phrase of dialogue, must be used to reveal character or propel the storyline forward. If it doesn’t, it doesn’t belong.
By Jeremy Burns
Jana Hollifield may be a new name to the mystery field, but it shouldn’t remain an unknown one for true fans of the genre. Hollifield’s follow-up to her debut The Problem with Goodbye, THE PROBLEM WITH SECOND CHANCES, just hit store shelves, and the second in her Ryan McCabe series looks to make quite an impression on fans new and old alike. The author sat down with THE BIG THRILL to take readers behind the scenes of her latest book.
Tell us a little about yourself.
I live in a tiny coastal town in picturesque northern California where five cars ahead of you at a stoplight is considered heavy traffic. The natural environment here is a steady draw for artists of all kinds, including my relatives. I was born into a family of very creative people and for many years pursued an interest in painting until my desire to write became irresistible. The Problem with Goodbye, first in the Ryan McCabe series, was my debut novel.
Tell us about your new book, THE PROBLEM WITH SECOND CHANCES.
With his girlfriend out of town, lonely Ryan McCabe never expects ex-flame Holly Kemp to show up at his doorstep begging him to persuade his best friend, Portland homicide detective Ollie O’Neill, to clear her cousin in the brutal slaying of his fiancée. Holly’s cousin Sam seems a viable murder suspect, until he and Ryan meet. Convinced of Sam’s innocence, Ryan and Ollie find themselves embroiled in a disturbing murder mystery that claims yet another life. As they narrow in on the truth, inexplicable acts of violence begin to plague Ryan, and Ollie worries his closest pal may be next on the killer’s list.
It has been said that there is no story that has not already been told, that is not old and familiar. It is in the telling, however, that a story is raised to a higher level. That is precisely the kind of story telling Suzanne Chazin has accomplished with her latest novel LAND OF CAREFUL SHADOWS. With pitch perfect prose, she offers an intimate glimpse into the world of undocumented immigrants in a moving and psychologically complex murder mystery. The tension never stalls in this unflinching and searing examination of the human heart.
Suzanne Chazin is a former journalist whose work has appeared in The New York Times, Ladies Home Journal, People, Money, and other publications. She is a former senior editor and writer for Reader’s Digest and has taught writing at New York University, Sarah Lawrence College, and the Smithsonian. Her Georgia Skeehan mystery series, published by Putnam, is about a New York City female firefighter turned fire marshal. LAND OF CAREFUL SHADOWS is the first in the new Jimmy Vega series.
Your volunteer work with Hispanic immigrants became the inspiration for your latest novel, LAND OF CAREFUL SHADOWS. Was there a story or common refrain that particularly touched you?
I live in Westchester County, New York, in a suburban area that has seen a very large increase in Latino immigrants over the past two decades. I live three miles from a train station where day laborers often gather, and I was struck by this obviously needy group of people so desperate for work. As the daughter of immigrants myself, I felt drawn to their situation and began volunteering at outreach centers in the area. I got to know some of the immigrants and found them to be humble, decent, and resourceful people who went about their struggles with quiet determination. I felt their story hadn’t been told––or at least not in a readily accessible way to mainstream audiences.
Hope Clark, author of The Carolina Slade Mysteries, has a new release and a new series. MURDER ON EDISTO is book one of The Edisto Island Mysteries from BellBooks. When her husband is murdered by the Russian mob, Boston detective Callie Jean Morgan suffers a mental break and relinquishes her badge to return home to South Carolina. She has no idea how to proceed with her life, but her son deserves to move on with his, so she relocates them to the family vacation home.
But the day they arrive on Edisto Beach, Callie finds her childhood mentor and elderly neighbor murdered. Her fragile sanity is threatened when the murderer taunts her, and the home that was to be her sanctuary is repeatedly violated. Callie loses her fight to walk away from law enforcement as she becomes the only person able to pursue the culprit who’s turned the coastal paradise into a paranoid patch of sand where nobody’s safe. But what will it cost her?
MURDER ON EDISTO is a new series for you. What made you decide to change venues and characters instead of continuing your Carolina Slade series?
Actually, my publisher strong-armed, um, suggested that I create a new series to more clearly demonstrate the depth of my talent. I was flattered and scared to death at the same time, because I adored Carolina Slade. I had envisioned myself writing her stories like Sue Grafton and her alphabet mysteries, until I ran out of little communities in South Carolina to set each Slade escapade. My editor gave me sort of a full rein on the direction of the series but asked that I design the second series at least around three issues: (1) the protagonist could not be an amateur sleuth (she had to be law enforcement), (2) the story had to include a heavy-handed dose of family drama like any good Southern family, and (3) the series had to take place in one locale in South Carolina. The Carolina Slade series took place all over the state. So I set the Edisto Island Mysteries completely on Edisto Beach, a place I’ve escaped to many times. I went into the project begrudgingly, just ask my editor.
I was surfing the Internet looking for ideas for my third book when I came across this sentence: “There are more slaves in the world today than at any other time in human history.” It was followed by a number: thirty million.
As a writer, I’ve learned to listen to the little voice that says pay attention to this. Even though my books are set in Nashville and seemed far away from the things I reading about, I knew there was something here I needed to explore.
The number was an estimate, for obvious reasons. Modern-day slavery takes place in the shadows, with many of its victims unaccounted for in any census. But other experts and law enforcement agencies reported similar numbers, and a detailed document published by the International Labor Organization in 2005 reported ten million slaves in Asia alone. A UN report released in 2004 showed 700,000 children forced into domestic labor in Indonesia, more than half a million in Brazil and more than a quarter of a million in Haiti and in Pakistan. In Port-au-Prince, Haiti, Benjamin Skinner, the author of A Crime So Monstrous, was offered a ten-year-old girl for fifty dollars.
Human trafficking is not only a third-world problem. Victims of both sexual and domestic servitude have been discovered throughout the United States, with high-profile cases in Florida, California, New York, and even sleepy New England. Nashville isn’t immune. A report released by the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation revealed that trafficking cases have been identified in almost every county in the state. Nashville, with its convergence of three major interstates, is a hub for all manner of trafficking—drugs, guns, and humans.
Did you ever have one of those days? You know the kind, when nothing seems to go right? Richie has.
In DEATH AND WHITE DIAMONDS, Richie’s girlfriend suggests a romantic getaway, promising him a weekend he will never forget. So why can’t he remember what happened, when he finds her lifeless body on the beach? Richie is fairly certain he didn’t kill his girlfriend, but his memory is hazy. One thing, however, is clear. When Lorraine’s body is found, he’s going to be the prime suspect in a murder investigation. Disposing of the body turns out to be harder than Richie could have imagined. Losing it, however, is easy.
When he’s not writing or at his day job, you can find Jeff Markowitz blogging. In doing a little research, I stumbled upon a most interesting post. On March 3, 2014, he wrote:
Some of you are familiar with a writing exercise that I refer to as finding the dead body. It is an exercise in finding story ideas. Over the years, I have found dead bodies in all sorts of settings—an elevator at the Kennedy Center, a middle-eastern bar on M Street in Georgetown, at O’Hare, floating in the water off of Fells Point, on Amtrak, and on the beach in Cape May. Each time that I find a body, I write a couple of sentences and file it away. Later, it might become a story. Or not.
New York Times-bestselling author Robert Dugoni writes legal thrillers with heart. “These aren’t what some might expect in a traditional thriller novel, all action and dialogue. I work hard to develop my characters. I try to write honest characters, people who have self-regard for their own well-being. If I can get my characters to care about themselves, readers will care also, and be more invested. Then I can put my characters in peril.”
Dugoni practiced law for thirteen years in San Francisco before becoming a full-time writer. His novels in the critically-acclaimed David Sloane series are THE JURY MASTER, WRONGFUL DEATH, BODILY HARM, THE CONVICTION and MURDER ONE, which was a finalist for the Harper Lee Award for literary excellence. He has also written the bestselling standalone novel DAMAGE CONTROL, and THE CYANIDE CANARY, a non-fiction book. His latest novel, MY SISTER’S GRAVE, landed the number one spot on Amazon’s Kindle Bestseller List, knocking out GONE GIRL, and was named as Library Journal’s top 5 thrillers of 2014.
In MY SISTER’S GRAVE, Dugoni introduces Tracy Crosswhite, a former high school chemistry teacher turned Seattle police detective. Tracy has spent twenty years questioning the facts surrounding her sister Sarah’s disappearance and the murder trial that followed. She doesn’t believe that Edmund House—a convicted rapist and the man condemned for Sarah’s murder—is guilty. Motivated by the opportunity to obtain real justice, Tracy has dedicated her life to tracking down killers.
When Sarah’s remains are finally discovered near their hometown in the northern Cascade Mountains of Washington State, Tracy is determined to get the answers she’s been seeking. As she searches for the real killer, she unearths dark, long-kept secrets that will forever change her relationship to her past—and open the door to deadly danger.
BLACK KARMA opens with a somewhat seedy police inspector asking for Bai Jiang’s assistance as a souxan (people finder) in tracking down Daniel Chen, a man they believe is behind a botched drug heist that resulted in the death of a police officer. Bai, who believes the police just want Chen dead, finds her investigation takes her into a world of international intelligence agencies and merchants of war that deal with death, drugs, and high-jacked information: A world where nothing is what it seems.
Against this backdrop, Bai is juggling a somewhat complicated love life. There is her ex—the father of her child and a triad assassin, the rather brazen young man who finds her irresistible, and a suitor for an arranged marriage whose mother thinks Bai would make an excellent successor to the family empire.
This is Bai’s compelling world of San Francisco’s Chinatown.
Thatcher Robinson, the man behind the WHITE GINGER series, has always been comfortable with the Asian culture. His friends since childhood have been Asian, he’s married to a Japanese woman, and has two Chinese godchildren. “I don’t know why I fit more comfortably in the Asian community. I just do.”
In BLACK KARMA, Bai weaves her way through boxing clubs, arranged marriages, and the power of the triads.
Robinson continues, “I did quite a bit of research on triads, which are mostly made up of street thugs who make their grift through extortion or kidnapping. When compared to the Yakuza of Japan, they have neither the organization nor financial infrastructure to be a major player in the criminal underworld.
Most writers excel at one genre, but E. Michael Helms has successfully tackled memoir, historical fiction, and mystery. He is not only versatile, but prolific as well, with four books published in the last two years. Helms is a former marine who served in Vietnam. He was awarded the Purple Heart, Combat Action Ribbon, Presidential Unit Citation, Navy Unit Citation, and the Vietnam Cross of Gallantry, and was honorably discharged in 1969. His harrowing memoir of that war, The Proud Bastards, has been in print for over twenty years.
THE BIG THRILL caught up with Helms and talked with him about the writing life and his newest novel, DEADLY RUSE, a riveting page-turner and the second in the Mac McClellan mystery series, due for release this month by Seventh Street Books.
Your historical fiction and mysteries seem to have been published within weeks of each other. Do you work on both at the same time and, if so, what challenges does that pose?
That was simply a fluke, or good timing. My agent had been trying to place Of Blood and Brothers a while, and finally made a sale. Originally written as one long saga, the publisher asked me to break it into two sections; hence OB&B: Books One & Two. While that process was taking place, I decided to try my hand at mystery writing, something I’d wanted to do for quite some time. I completed Deadly Catch: A Mac McClellan Mystery in a few months and my agent quickly sold it to Seventh Street Books. OB&B: Book One was published in September 2013, and Deadly Catch followed in November. So, the answer is no, I don’t work on both at the same time (except for edits and other follow-up chores).
Do you prefer one genre to the other?
My first book, The Proud Bastards, was a memoir about my tour in Vietnam as a combat Marine. That was a very trying experience dredging up all those emotions and ghosts. Of Blood and Brothers is a Civil War saga, and I relied on my own combat experiences to bring reality to the battle scenes. That wasn’t a very pleasant experience either.
By E. A. Aymar
New York Times and USA Today bestselling novelist Vincent Zandri has been an important voice in crime fiction since 1999, when his debut As Catch Can (now titled The Innocent) was published to terrific reviews. Since then, he has written at an exceptionally prolific rate and has published fifteen novels, including eight in the Dick Moonlight PI series.
The latest thriller in that series finds Moonlight, along with an overweight Elvis impersonator as his sidekick, investigating the suicide of a young woman. But this suicide is especially troubling to Moonlight, since the victim may have been raped by the son of his new boss.
New readers to the series will find a lot to like in Zandri’s dark, formerly suicidal, pained-romantic protagonist as he hunts for answers through the streets of Albany. And new readers to Zandri will latch on to his tight plotting and noir-fused prose. He was kind enough to take the time to talk about his work as a writer, photographer, and musician, as well as what the future holds for Moonlight.
How do your different interests (particularly your work as a photographer and musician) influence your writing?
I fell into photography as a freelance journalist when editors seeking to save a few bucks would ask me if I didn’t mind taking pictures. Of course, this became more prevalent as the digital age took over, and a writer who can also take pictures is a far more valuable commodity than one who doesn’t have an eye. But in terms of art, the photos taught me to capture a moment in time that is then recreated in the mind of whoever looks at it. I try and do the same with my writing. Recreate a moment or moments in time that make the reader feel like what’s happening on the page is happening to them.
By Dawn Ius
Of the many ingredients that go into writing a great thriller, there is one that New York Times bestselling author Lisa Scottoline believes is the key to her success—keeping things fresh.
Which might seem a tad ironic, since in her twenty-third novel, BETRAYED, Scottoline returns to the characters that first launched her career, the women of her popular Rosato & Associates series.
“I’m thrilled to be writing about these characters again—they feel like old friends,” she says. “It’s great to examine the way their personalities change over time and the way their life events change them. I love to write books that mirror the life of everyday people, on many different levels.”
Relating to readers is important to Scottoline, who makes herself accessible for feedback. She reads her reviews, albeit with the thick hide all authors must develop, and pays attention. Though she admits, no one could compete with her worst critic—herself.
“I’m always thinking of my readers, every page, every word,” she says. “I love love love books that move fast, have high stakes, and are told with an eye towards the listener or the reader. In other words, the pacing never lets up. I’d die before I would bore a reader.”
In BETRAYED, the second high-stakes, fast (and certainly not boring) thriller in the Rosato & Associates spin-off series, Rosato & DiNunzio, Scottoline turns the spotlight on one of her less-featured lawyers, Judy Carrier.
“She’s somebody that doesn’t get as much face time as she should as a main character, so I felt that was overdue,” she says.
More importantly, however, Scottoline felt no other character could tell this story. In her twenty-five years as a successful novelist, Scottoline has learned that character, plot, and voice are the same thing—which, when boiled down, really means that “when I think of the plot, the character chooses the plot.”
By J. H. Bográn
LAST WORDS opens with New York City on the brink of bankruptcy, rumbles in the Bronx, and newsman Coleridge Taylor roaming police precincts and ERs in search of a story that will rescue his career. A break comes at Bellevue, where Taylor views the body of a homeless teen picked up in the Meatpacking District. Taylor smells a rat: the dead boy looks too clean, and he’s wearing a distinctive Army field jacket. Time is not on Taylor’s side. If he doesn’t wrap this story up soon, he’ll be back on the obits pages—as a headline, not a byline.
Rich Zahradnik offers an interesting setup for a promising series set in a decade usually overlooked, probably due to its disco connection. Still, Zahradnik dives right into the middle of seventies and never looks back. THE BIG THRILL had the opportunity to question him about LAST WORDS.
What can you tell us about Coleridge Taylor?
Taylor was a top police reporter at the New York Messenger-Telegram until he was accused of inventing a story about a nine-year-old heroin addict. In fact, he was set up. He was demoted to the obituaries desk, an assignment where he deals with the dead all day but can’t pursue the real stories behind their deaths. He’s using all his spare time to find a crime story so good that his editors will give him his old job back. He’s also trying to track down the little addict he interviewed to prove the story was real.
Taylor, who’s thirty-four, joined the paper as a seventeen-year-old copy boy after growing up in Queens and moving up to reporter four years later, a traditional career path in newspapers still available in the late fifties. Now it’s 1975, and newspapers are hiring college grads from places like Columbia. These younger, better-educated reporters make Taylor insecure. Taylor isn’t sophisticated about the job. He doesn’t believe in the New Journalism or interpretive reporting. He believes in facts. If he can get all the facts, he’ll get the story. He quotes John Adams on this, “Facts are stubborn things; and whatever may be our wishes, our inclinations, or the dictates of our passions, they cannot alter the state of facts and evidence.” He lost his brother in Vietnam and his mother to cancer. His father is an alcoholic English professor at CUNY he’s not very close with.
M. C. Grant is Grant McKenzie, an award-winning screenwriter, editor, and novelist. He is the author of SWITCH and NO CRY FOR HELP (both published by Bantam TransWorld UK).
His short stories have been featured in the FIRST THRILLS anthology edited by Lee Child (Tor/Forge), and Out of the Gutter and Spinetingler magazines. His first screenplay won a fellowship at the Praxis Centre for Screenwriting in Vancouver.
As a journalist, he worked in virtually every area of the newspaper business, from the late-night “dead body beat” at a feisty daily tabloid to editor at two of Canada’s largest broadsheets. Born in Glasgow, Grant currently resides in Victoria, British Columbia.
Here’s a short synopsis of M. C. Grant’s exciting new novel, BEAUTY WITH A BOMB.
After witnessing the gruesome death of an immigrant, Dixie Flynn is on a mission to tell the woman’s story. Acting on a tip, Dixie learns that young immigrants are vanishing…and they’re not runaways. Hooking up with a group of Polish women who are hell-bent on finding their sisters and cousins, Dixie is all too willing to wield a gun and stalk the shadows where human traffickers ply their trade. But crossing paths with smugglers takes its toll, especially when the desire to rescue becomes a thirst for retribution that leaves blood on Dixie’s hands.
What can readers expect from BEAUTY WITH A BOMB?
Thrills, chills and a few laughs along the way. This is Dixie Flynn’s third adventure, and picks up a short time after the events of DEVIL WITH A GUN. Like her first two adventures, BEAUTY WITH A BOMB starts out with what Suspense Magazine calls “one of the most dramatic and shocking scenes I have ever read.” Dixie is also quite a bit different from the stand-alone thrillers that I write as Grant McKenzie. For one, Dixie is written in first-person, present-tense, female perspective, while my thrillers are third-person, past-tense. I also try and have more fun with the Dixie books by including more humour and quirky, fun characters. With that said, however, the plots can be dark and dangerous, but only because I know Dixie can handle them.
By Ian Walkley
Rex Burns once said that he wanted to write about the people who wouldn’t rate a footnote in a book but whose stories portray the dark reality of the common man. Based in Boulder, Colorado, Burns is a first-rate storyteller and is still writing at a remarkable rate at age 79. Critics rate him among the best fictional police writers, with a hardboiled style, a keen eye for procedural detail, and superbly drawn characters.
His latest offering, CRUDE CARRIER (October, Mysterious Press), is the second in his current series, which follows the adventures of a father/daughter team of private investigators of James Raiford and Julie Campbell, operating as Touchstone Associates. Burns’ first series introduced Gabe Wager, the Denver police detective, and his debut novel THE ALVAEZ JOURNAL won an Edgar Award. A second series featured a private detective in Denver, Devlin Kirk, who specialized in industrial security. The Touchstone Associates series was launched in 2013 with BODY SLAM, which focused on the world of professional wrestling.
In CRUDE CARRIER, a sailor dies under unusual circumstances on a supertanker. When the shipping company stonewalls the investigation, the sailor’s parents contact Touchstone. James Raiford joins the “Aurora Victorious” as an electronics officer, and Julie digs into the proprietors’ shadowy background. They quickly discover that international oil shipping is a ruthless business, and its secrets run as deep as the ocean itself.
Firstly, Rex, why a story about international oil shipping?
I wanted a setting and case that would be somewhat unusual for Raiford and his daughter, so I gave her London and him an oil tanker. But also, I like ships and deep-water cruises—even on troop ships. And since I’d found fascinating information about the merchant marine in my research, I hoped to share that subject with readers. As for the London setting, well, it was a pleasure to re-visit some of my favorite corners of a city with so many literary echoes.
By Mary Kennedy
Recently, I sat down with Carolyn Hart to talk about GHOST WANTED, the fifth book in her Bailey Ruth series. Ms. Hart (who also writes the enormously popular Death on Demand series) has come up with an unlikely recipe for success: take one amateur sleuth who happens to be a ghost, add a heavenly supervisor who sends her on a mission to earth, and mix a healthy dose of humor and an engaging plot. Now stir well and enjoy this delicious concoction.
GHOST WANTED is the fifth in the Bailey Ruth series, and the heroine is as irrepressible as ever. I’m intrigued by her relationship with Wiggins, her straight-arrow supervisor at Heaven’s Department of Good Intentions. Bailey Ruth is known to be something of a loose cannon and I remember she was operating off the grid occasionally in book four, GHOST GONE WILD. I wondered if Wiggins is ever exasperated with her? Or is her feistiness part of her charm?
In GHOST WANTED, Wiggins hopes that Bailey Ruth’s imagination and kindness will rescue the reputation of the library’s resident ghost who has a special place in Wiggins’s heart. We discover the heartbreak of World War I and hope that Bailey Ruth can reunite lovers parted on the battlefield.
You once said that writers enjoy creating recurring characters because “the author knows the terrain and understands the characters’ mores.” I think you were talking about Annie and Max Darling in the Broward’s Rock series, but does it hold true for Bailey Ruth? Will she ever push the envelope on her missions to earth and defy Wiggins?
Bailey Ruth is always on the edge of catastrophe but so far she has managed through charm to avoid a precipitous return to Heaven when she incurs Wiggins’s displeasure. I am currently writing next year’s Bailey Ruth and she is at the moment fending off The Rescue Express.
By Daniel Friedman
Steph Cha’s feminist neo-noir novel FOLLOW HER HOME introduced Juniper Song, a Korean-American private investigator with an Ivy League degree, a troubled past, and a bottle within reach at all times.
In Cha’s second novel, BEWARE BEWARE, Song takes what seems like a simple surveillance job tailing the cokehead long-distance boyfriend of a worried New York artist. But the boyfriend gets tangled up in the murder of a movie star, and Song’s job gets more complicated as she delves into twisted celebrity affairs in order to try to exonerate her client.
Meanwhile, Song’s roommate Lori Lim is pursued by an amorous gangster who won’t take “no” for an answer.
Reviewing BEWARE BEWARE in the Los Angeles Times, novelist Paula Woods wrote that Cha conjures up “more diversely mean streets than the masters of noir could have imagined” and that “Nathanael West and Raymond Chandler would be proud.”
Cha agreed to answer some questions about Juniper Song and her new book.
James Ellroy said in the Paris Review that “Chandler wrote the kind of guy that he wanted to be, Hammett wrote the kind of guy that he was afraid he was.” Song idolizes Chandler’s detective, Philip Marlowe, but in this book, she makes some decisions that Marlowe, in a similar situation, probably wouldn’t. What kind of person is Song, to you?
I started writing Song as an amateur detective, and it was important to me that she retain some measure of authenticity as a person in the world who reacts to events in realistic, relatable ways. Obviously, there’s a wide spectrum of ordinary human behavior, but I didn’t want to write her into an action hero, or an incorruptible savior. I like Song. She’s far from perfect, but she’s smart and competent, with a good, loyal heart. She’s tough but not untouchable, and things wear down on her. Marlowe lived by a code, and I fell in love with that character because of his core integrity and bruised idealism. Song also admires Marlowe, but she is not above things like fear and compromise. She’s unsympathetic at times, but probably someone I’d want to be friends with in the end.
Grab a cup of coffee and settle in for a page-turning tale of murder and betrayal small town style. DEAD BROKE IN JARRETT CREEK is the third in the mystery series featuring the lovable Samuel Craddock, former chief of police. The fictionalized town of Jarrett Creek, Texas has its share of secrets and a cast of characters to rival any soap opera. Recent financial troubles have caused the town to totter on the brink of bankruptcy and left it unable to pay for a full-time police force. When Gary Dellmore, a man with as many flaws as enemies, turns up dead, the town looks to Craddock to return to work and solve the murder. Craddock’s investigation reveals that Dellmore was a philandering husband, a crooked businessman, and an indiscreet banker. The fun begins as we ride along with Craddock to the front porches and cozy kitchens of his Texas neighbors as skeletons fall from their closets and illicit liaisons are revealed.
THE BIG THRILL caught up with author Terry Shames and we chatted about her latest book and her life as a writer.
Samuel Craddock is a character you want to sit down and have coffee with. He’s smart, honorable, and doesn’t take himself too seriously. Is he based on a person you know or did he materialize completely out of your imagination?
Samuel presented himself to me full-blown. He’s a combination of many men I’ve known in my life. As a kid, I always liked to hang around men—I thought they were more interesting than women, because women always talked about babies, clothes, and dieting. When I grew up, I joined the ranks of the women, but my early education in hearing stories was through men. In particular, Samuel is a combination of my grandfather, my father, my husband, and my dear friend Charlie, who died a few years ago. Incidentally, my grandfather’s name was Samuel, but everyone called him Sam—and that’s one reason I never call Samuel Craddock “Sam.”
By John Clement
Being the resident “cozy-ologist” here at THE BIG THRILL, I’m accustomed to talking with writers of cozy mysteries, so my questions tend to lean in the same direction as well, like “Where do you find your recipes?” or “What’s your favorite color?” But ten pages into James Lilliefors’s newest book, THE PSALMIST, and I knew I had to change my game. Lilliefors is an award-winning journalist and novelist who grew up in the Washington, D.C. area. His work has appeared in Runner’s World, The Washington Post, The Miami Herald, The Boston Globe, and The Baltimore Sun, and his novels include BANANAVILLE, a mystery, and THE LEVIATHAN EFFECT and VIRAL, both geopolitical thrillers.
Published by Harper Collins this past July, THE PSALMIST is the first installment in the new Hunters and Bower mystery series. It’s hard-edged, compelling, and just a tiny bit cozy, so I knew in this case I needed to get right down to the nitty-gritty.
Without giving too much away, what is the story of The Psalmist?
THE PSALMIST tells the tale of a small, close-knit community on Maryland’s Eastern Shore that is visited one morning by an inexplicable crime. Luke Bowers, head pastor at the old wooden Tidewater Methodist Church, discovers a dead woman seated in the sanctuary of his church, her eyes open, her hands clasped as if in prayer. The woman clearly was murdered, although there is nothing at the scene to identify her or to explain why she was left there—other than a series of numbers carved into her right hand, which Luke begins to think may be a reference to the book of Psalms. As the strong-willed homicide cop Amy Hunter investigates this bizarre crime, she begins to find links to other murders in the mid-Atlantic region—and eventually to a more sweeping crime targeting the United States government.
The Psalmist is really a story about predators, which may come in the form of an unknown killer who strikes after dark or a sinister idea spread invisibly by the government—but may also be the neighbor next door or the friendly clerk who sells us our groceries.
This debut novel never lets the reader off the edge of the seat—the mark of a great story. When college student Joe Talbert decides to interview a convicted rapist and murderer for a class assignment, he finds himself thrust into a web of lies and deceit that put his and other lives in grave danger. Talbert’s anguished relationship with an alcoholic mother and his deep tenderness for an autistic younger brother make him a sympathetic and fully formed protagonist. Eskens manages to weave intricacies of the justice and prison systems into the story while maintaining a tight grip on the pace and tension.
Eskens is a practicing criminal defense attorney with an undergraduate degree in journalism and a J.D. from Hamline University School of Law. He has participated in the Minnesota State University M.F.A. program as well as classes and seminars at the Iowa Summer Writing Festival and the Loft Literary Center in Minneapolis.
He took time from his busy practice and current writing project to speak with THE BIG THRILL.
Tell us how long you’ve been writing and what inspired you to write this first novel.
I began writing immediately after graduating from law school. Although I was a first-class legal writer, that didn’t translate into good fiction, so I started reading books like THE HERO WITH A THOUSAND FACES by Joseph Campbell and ON BECOMING A NOVELIST by John Gardner. When books were no longer enough, I began attending classes at the Loft Literary Center in Minneapolis and the Iowa Summer Writers Festival. That eventually led to me enrolling in the MFA program at Minnesota State University.
Born and raised in Carrickfergus, Northern Ireland, writer Adrian McKinty has lived across the globe. He left his home country to study politics and philosophy at Oxford. From there, he landed in New York where he spent seven years living, and struggling, in Harlem. Life then took another turn, this time to Denver, where he taught high school English. Today, McKinty lives in Australia.
Despite his travels, it was the return to his roots in Ireland that brought him success. McKinty is regarded as one of the brightest lights in Irish crime writing, garnering numerous literary awards and comparisons to storied crime writer Raymond Chandler. Publishers Weekly has called him “one of his generation’s leading talents.”
From 10,000 miles away at his home in St. Kilda, Melbourne, McKinty graciously agreed to answer a few questions for THE BIG THRILL.
First off, please tell us a little about your new book, THE SUN IS GOD.
It’s based on a true story of German intellectuals who set up a nudist colony on a remote South Pacific island in 1906. They believed that worshipping the sun and eating only coconuts would make them immortal. Alas, it didn’t and one of them was murdered on the island. The German authorities went to investigate and that was the basis for my novel.
Your Sean Duffy series has been so well received, why the departure from the series to write THE SUN IS GOD?
The story was just too crazy not to do. I was flabbergasted when I read it and amazed that no one had written it up as a true crime book or a novel. True crime seemed like a lot of work (getting all the facts right, etc.) so I wrote it up as a novel instead.