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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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 Dawn Ius
Judy Penz Sheluk has no illusions about the hard work required to make a name for herself in the competitive and ever-changing publishing industry. For the release of her new book—SKELETONS IN THE ATTIC—Sheluk embarked on an aggressive word-of-mouth campaign, including writing an impressive 18 guest blogs that were set up months in advance.
Her efforts paid off. Sheluk reports that her new novel, the first in her Marketville Mystery series, set pre-order records with her publisher. The mystery centers on Calamity (Callie) Barnstable who is surprised to learn that she’s the sole beneficiary of her late father’s estate, including a house in Marketville that contains more than memories. In order to claim her inheritance, Callie must move into the house and solve the mystery of her mother’s murder.
With a hook like that, who wouldn’t want to blog about it?
“I think it also helped that Imajin Books put SKELETONS IN THE ATTIC on Kindle as a .99 promo (regular price is $4.99),” she says. “I also made several Facebook and Twitter posts that I created. Some had the advance reviews on them (from amazing authors like Annette Dashofy, Catriona McPherson, Ellen Byron, Jeff Buick and Diane Vallere, plus one from Midwest Book Review), and some had a brief excerpt from the book which I ran each Tuesday as a ‘Tuesday Teaser.’ There’s an old adage: the harder I work, the luckier I get. It’s a motto I live by, and in this case all the stars (or is that skeletons?) seemed to align.”
Speaking of lucky, The Big Thrill had the pleasure of interviewing Sheluk this month, where she speaks candidly about writing, marketing, and what inspired this exciting new series.
By Wendy Tyson
Readers familiar with Nora Abbott from Shannon Baker’s popular Nora Abbott mystery series will be delighted with the new heroine Baker introduces in STRIPPED BARE—Kate Fox.. Gutsy and smart, Kate loves her life in Frog Creek, a cattle ranch in the stunning Nebraska Sandhills, her own bit of paradise. But when Kate’s sheriff husband is shot, another family member murdered, and Kate’s niece goes missing, suddenly things are not so heavenly—and it’s up to Kate to find a killer.
Described as a contemporary western in which Longmire meets The Good Wife, STRIPPED BARE is a fast-paced, suspenseful ride through Nebraska’s cowboy country. A long-time resident of the Nebraska Sandhills, Baker is no stranger to the West. And she moves around. She’s now firmly rooted in Tucson, Arizona, after time spent in other Western cities. Baker’s love and respect for the West’s rugged landscapes come through in her novels.
She recently took some time from her busy schedule to sit down with The Big Thrill.
Congratulations on the upcoming release of your new book, STRIPPED BARE, the first in the Kate Fox mystery series. Please tell us something about the book that is not on the back cover.
Thanks Wendy and ITW. The Nebraska Sandhills, where STRIPPED BARE is set, is a unique place. It’s home to four of the ten least-populated counties in the country, and where cattle outnumber people by more than fifty to one. More than most places, the people in the Sandhills live life on their own terms, which creates lots of opportunities for humor, quirkiness, and danger. Even though everyone knows everyone, with so much space, there’s room for lots of secrets. And there are so very many places to hide bodies.
STRIPPED BARE features Kate Fox, a woman as tough as the environment in which she lives. In fact, Kirkus Reviews said about STRIPPED BARE, “Baker serves up a ballsy heroine, a colorful backdrop, and a surprising ending.” Please share with us a little about Kate. What events from Kate’s past helped make her the woman she is today?
I love that Kirkus calls Kate ballsy! Kate is smack in the middle of nine kids, raised—or not—by a bipolar artist mother and a father gone for days at a time on the railroad. She’s learned to take care of herself, and often her brothers and sisters. Being the ultimate middle child, she’s also used to a certain invisibility, and likes it that way.
As a thriller writer, my Judeo-Christian roots are on display every time I create the classic Good v. Evil scenario inherent in the genre. I love playing with the idea of justice, and choosing whether or not the good girl or guy will win in the end. And I really enjoy the process of creating a memorable bad guy or girl.
My goal as I craft thrillers is to come up with an antagonist worthy of Police Chief Jo Oliver—my protagonist. Nothing makes my heroine look better than pitting her against a skilled antagonist. Nothing makes my readers respect her more than watching her put herself in harm’s way in order to protect others from a cunning adversary. Creating bad guys—and girls—who are smarter, stronger, and maybe just a step or two ahead of Chief Josie makes my heart sing. And when my heart sings, my stories sing.
Ever wonder where ideas for creating killer characters come from? Join me for dinner sometime! One of my favorite conversational questions is this little beauty: if you could kill someone and get away with it, how would you do it? I’ve posed this question to dinner companions; seatmates on planes, trains, and automobiles; and recently to a man I met on an ocean kayak tour. Once the initial shock wears off, you’d be surprised at the number of thoughtful answers I’ve received over the years!
The killer in my second book came to me as a result of one such dinner conversation. I knew I wanted to create a seemingly trustworthy foe, and throw Chief Josie under the bus of suspicion early on. The killer instincts of this particular adversary unfolded as the story developed, contrasting nicely with unexpected character traits like loyalty, wisdom, and perseverance.
By Kay Kendall
THE PARIS LIBRARIAN is number six in the thriller series starring Hugo Marston, chief of security at the United States Embassy in Paris. The series debuted in 2012 with The Bookseller, which Oprah Winfrey called “un-putdown-able.” In his latest adventure, Marston searches for the killer of a friend who died in a locked room at the American Library in Paris, even though police say the death was from natural causes. To prove he’s right, Marston returns to the scene of a decades-old crime.
The Big Thrill recently checked in with Mark Pryor to learn more about his work and what lies behind his peripatetic life’s journey.
Even though I had read only two previous novels in your Hugo Marston series, I had no difficulty jumping into this sixth one. That is no mean accomplishment for the writer of a series—congratulations. How did you manage to let the reader know enough about Hugo’s background—former F.B.I. profiler and the current security chief at the United States Embassy in France—without dropping spoilers for previous books? Are you willing to share your tricks of the authorial trade?
Thanks for saying that, I try hard to make each book a stand-alone for anyone who happens across it and hasn’t read others in the series. I think that gets easier to do as I get to know the characters better and better. It feels so simple and natural to drop in a few little details about them to show who they are. And of course they do a lot of that revelation themselves in their interactions with each other.
The other thing, and more about this later, is that Hugo is one of those guys who’s not that easy to get to know. I think new readers can sense that pretty quickly, so they maybe don’t feel like they’re missing out. In each book, though, I try to tease more out of him, show more of his deeper character, so hopefully people will be drawn to him and then keep on reading the series to find out more.
Your books display an extensive knowledge of the look and feel of Paris. Where does your familiarity with France come from? Your biography states that you were a journalist in England, and I know you are now an assistant district attorney with the Travis County District Attorney’s Office in Austin, Texas. Did you perhaps have a gap year in Paris when you spent time hanging around iconic cafes smoking Galois cigarettes? Please share how you became so closely acquainted with Parisians and France.
When I was a kid growing up in England, my family used to spend the Christmas holidays in Switzerland, and we’d always drive through France on the way, staying the night in some small hotel along the route. Always an adventure. As the years passed, I grew to love France, and about twenty years ago, my parents moved to a lovely stone house in the Pyrenees Mountains. I suppose all told, I’ve been to Paris 15 times, and to France twice that many.
Of course, these days when I go I take a wee notebook and keep my eyes wide open for the moments I like to put in my books. Most of the snippets of atmosphere you see between the covers of a Hugo book are things that I’ve actually seen.
Susan M. Boyer’s Lowcountry romantic mysteries reflect both her childhood love of mysteries and a teenage flirtation with her mother’s romance novels. The fifth in her series, LOWCOUNTRY BOOK CLUB is a charming southern mystery that takes place on a small island near Charleston, SC, an area Boyer knows well. It’s a warm and cozy town, made no less familiar by the fact that you won’t find it on any real-world map.
Boyer describes protagonist Liz Talbot as “a private investigator with a weakness for Kate Spade bags and shoes”—but there’s so much more to her than that. Liz is capable and compassionate. Her relationship with her husband and business partner is refreshingly respectful. Boyer knows how to build tension and conflict without relying on bickering between characters.
This month, Boyer agreed to talk to The Big Thrill about her latest book. Please join me in welcoming her.
Congratulations, Susan! Why don’t we start with a little bit about your writing journey and how you came to be a mystery writer?
Thank you so much—and thank you for having me! I’ve loved reading mysteries my whole life, and have always wanted to write. When contemplating careers and college majors, I couldn’t see a clear path to a steady paycheck writing novels. I didn’t want to major in journalism—I’ve just never had an interest in reporting. So, like many, I chose something more “sensible.” Fast forward to 2003 when the company I worked for went out of business. My husband, who well knew my dreams, said, “Why don’t you give the writing thing a try?” I pulled the beginnings of a novel out of a drawer and never looked back.
Reviewers have called your books “Authentically Southern.” What do you think they mean by that?
I have never lived anywhere other than the Carolinas. Of course I’ve visited many other wonderful places. But I’m a product of my environment. I speak with the cadence and common turns of phrase used in the South, so I guess it’s natural that I write that way as well.
Kyoto, 1565: A ninja named Hiro Hattori brings murderers to justice, with the help of a Portuguese Jesuit priest, Father Matteo. This is the premise of the engrossing Shinobi Mystery Series written by Susan Spann. Her acclaimed 2013 debut, Claws of the Cat, was followed by Blades of the Samurai and Flask of the Drunken Master.
In the fourth book, THE NINJA’S DAUGHTER, an actress is found dead on the banks of Kyoto’s Kama River, and no one seems to want to get to the truth—except for Hiro and Father Matteo.
We caught up with California native Spann, whose interests range from martial arts to seahorses, to find out more:
For the setting of a novel, what drew you to mid-16th century Japan as opposed to other time periods in that country?
My original inspiration for the series was “most ninjas commit murders, but Hiro Hattori solves them.” Real, historical ninjas (also called “shinobi” in Japanese) reached the apex of their power during the 16th century, which made it a natural place to set the series. I also wanted to include a Portuguese Jesuit as Hiro’s partner sleuth and to offer a “Westernized” filter for Japanese culture. Japan was closed to foreigners for much of its history, but Portuguese priests and traders lived and worked in Japan during much of the 16th century. Fortunately for the series, the timing worked from both angles.
What do other novelists writing books set in Japan sometimes get wrong that drives you crazy?
Fortunately, many of the authors currently writing novels with Japanese settings have an excellent grasp of the history and culture, so I don’t find much to criticize. (In particular, I love Barry Lancet’s Jim Brodie novels and I mourned the end of Laura Joh Rowland’s Sano Ichiro series.)
One cultural issue I notice a lot in other places is the misrepresentation of ninjas in popular culture. Real ninjas were spies as well as assassins and weapons experts—much more interesting than the black-pajama-clad supermen you see in movies and TV. While the Hollywood variety is fun in its own way, I prefer to represent the shinobi more realistically in my novels. The truth is actually far more exciting than popular culture’s version!
Last summer, at the opening reception of ThrillerFest X, I noticed a young woman standing alone in the crowd with a somewhat lost expression on her face. “Is this your first ThrillerFest?” I asked. Her eyes widened in mock mortification. “Is it that obvious? I should’ve been here last year when my book came out but I didn’t know about it.” Two nights later at the awards ceremony, everyone in the room would know Laura McHugh when her book The Weight of Blood was named Best First Novel.
ARROWOOD, her second novel, will not disappoint the many fans of her debut. Set in a small Iowa town on the Mississippi River, Arden Arrowood inherits her run-down childhood home twenty years after she witnessed the kidnapping of her young twin sisters. Upon her return, she is confronted with a discovery that forces her to question her own memory of that traumatic summer. Some called McHugh’s first novel rural noir, while others referred to it as literary suspense. ARROWOOD could claim both labels as well, although an element of the paranormal has been added to the genre mix.
“I didn’t have any labels in mind when I wrote The Weight of Blood—I just wanted to write something that would keep the reader turning pages,” McHugh admits. “I didn’t plan any haunting in ARROWOOD aside from the sense that Arden is haunted by her past. But the story moved a bit in that direction and I didn’t shy away from it. I personally love books that blur the lines between mystery/suspense, science fiction, horror, paranormal.”
So it should come as no surprise to learn that McHugh counts works by Ray Bradbury and Stephen King as early influences, with a special nod to Shirley Jackson. “We Have Always Lived in the Castle has long been one of my favorite books,” she says, “and a house features prominently there as well. I love the narrator, the horrible family secret and the way it is slowly revealed, and the fact that the true surprise is not the revelation of who poisoned the family, but how the survivors reacted afterward. It’s one of the few books I go back and re-read periodically.”
I was struck by similar anthropomorphic qualities of Jackson’s Hill House and McHugh’s historic home Arrowood—although the two are very different. Whereas Hill House is a malevolent presence, Arrowood seems to bear an uncanny empathy for Arden. I wondered if McHugh had any personal experience with haunted houses.
By J. H. Bográn
Sara Sheridan’s mysteries have been published in the U.K., and they are now heading to America. In OPERATION GOODWOOD, a glamorous racing driving is found hanged in a burning flat on Brighton’s seafront. His neighbor, Mirabelle Bevan, finds herself conflicted by the apparent inconsistencies in the stories surrounding the driver’s death. His father is barely grieving, his friends appear to have fallen out with each other, and no apparent reason can be found for the golden boy’s suicide. Mirabelle follows the trail to Goodwood’s famous racetrack, where she uncovers a web of deceit, shameful secrets, and an unraveling family mystery that the people involved will go to any lengths to cover up.
How did the idea of OPERATION GOODWOOD originate?
It’s the fifth entry in the Mirabelle Bevan Mysteries series, so my antenna is honed for ideas that chime with 1950s England. When I visited the Goodwood Estate a couple of years ago and saw their collection of vintage photographs from the 1950s—especially those from the car racing track—I knew Mirabelle had to visit. It was just so glamorous—all the fast cards and aristocratic misadventures. Perfect!
What can you tell us about Mirabelle Bevan in her latest mystery?
Before I started writing the series I had never had returning characters before. I’ve got to know Mirabelle pretty well by now. She started, in 1951, at the age of 37 (which was considered well past the prime for women during that era). She was heartbroken and grieving and had had a tough war, from which she (like many women of the era) hadn’t really recovered. The series, in a way, is the story of Mirabelle cheering up. So by OPERATION GOODWOOD she has a nescient (if stormy) relationship with Detective Superintendent Alan McGregor and has gained a lot of self-confidence. In short, she’s blooming.
What has drawn you to the fifties?
It was a period we didn’t cover when I was in school—so when I started, my knowledge of the decade was drawn from Grease and some Agatha Christie. I love the 1950s now. I’m fascinated by it. It’s the decade my parents met (at Edinburgh at a tennis party), as well as the time my father did his national service and my grandparents’ heyday. It’s the era that founded my family, I suppose. That’s what fascinates me most about history—you can’t go forward, I think, without understanding where you came from.
Shaun Harris doesn’t like Hemingway. “I don’t like his stories. I don’t like the way he writes. I don’t like the way he treated women, or the way he treated his friends. I decided this guy needs to be taken down a peg or two. This guy should not be an American hero.”
Not that he wanted to do a hit job on Hemingway. “The guy had a lot of issues. People hold him up as this idea of masculinity… He was a PT Barnum type. He recut his Red Cross uniform so that it would look like a military uniform…Selling his writing meant selling himself.”
Harris was inspired to write THE HEMINGWAY THIEF , his debut novel, while watching the movie Wonderboys. Michael Douglas’s character has just lost a huge manuscript, and utters a throw-away line about how Hemingway’s first wife, Hadley, lost a suitcase full of Hemingway’s stories. Harris researched the event: in Paris, 1922, Ernest Hemingway asks his young wife, Hadley, to pack up every last scrap of his work into a single suitcase and join him in Switzerland. While Hadley waited for her train in the Gare de Lyon, the suitcase containing a year’s worth of Hemingway’s stories, vanished, never to be seen again.
Harris’s novel, set in the present day, uses that event as a jumping off point. Henry “Coop” Cooper is a successful writer of vampire romances. He’s got the formula down but he’s sick of it. He’s hidden out in a flea-bag Mexican hotel to find a way to kill his pseudonymous self. Once the press reports his alter-ego’s death, Cooper plans to restart his career writing more great literary books under his real name..
He’s distracted from this plan when he and Doyle, the hotel owner, have to rescue another hotel guest from two goons who are beating him to death. The goons want the Hemingway suitcase, and the young man knows where it is.
The three men travel across the desert in search of the suitcase, in the process up-ending every manly trope we know from adventure novels and movies like Treasures of Sierra Madre and Indiana Jones. “Growing up, Indiana Jones was my hero. I’m afraid of snakes, like him. I wanted to be an archeologist, like him, until I figured out that [what Indy does] is not what archeologists do.”
Creating a Strong Character, Chanel Suits and All!
By Wendy Tyson
Cara Black first introduced us to the stylish, spirited Aimée Leduc in Murder in the Marais. In Cara’s most recent release, MURDER ON THE QUAI, readers go back in time to learn how Aimée began her career as an investigator. Booklist says, “Finally we have the prequel we’ve been craving… A treat for series fans.” Indeed, MURDER ON THE QUAI’s fast-paced, satisfying plot and evocative Parisian setting will keep readers turning pages long after dark.
Cara recently sat down with The Big Thrill to chat about her character’s evolution, researching the City of Light, and the next installment in the popular Aimée Leduc Investigation series.
Congratulations on the recent release of your new book, MURDER ON THE QUAI, the 16th book in your New York Times and USA Today bestselling Aimée Leduc Investigation series. The series has been a remarkable success, and Aimée has been hailed as a chic, openhearted, sassy heroine. In MURDER ON THE QUAI, readers learn how Aimée got her start as an investigator. What are the benefits of going back to your character’s origins? How did you know now was the time?
Great question. I never thought I would write a series, much less 16 books. I’m incredibly lucky. For me it’s become stimulating to keep Aimée’s Paris world (set in the 90s) familiar yet fresh. Actually at the end of Murder on the Champs de Mars life-changing things happened to Aimée Leduc and to someone close in her life. I couldn’t see much further ahead for her except from the emergency room in the hospital where this person close to her, who betrayed her (she believes) and was shot, is fighting for their life. Conflicted, heartbroken, all I knew was that Aimée was at a crossroads. I didn’t know where she’d go from there.
My editor asked me what would happen to Aimée, and I think I mumbled I hadn’t much of a clue where Aimée’s life would take her now. Perfect segue for a prequel, my editor said in that brilliant way she has. She said she’d always wondered about Aimée’s origin story, on her younger days, what made her into the private detective (apart from inheriting the agency from her father) she’d become. Where did her dog, Miles Davis, come from and how did she find her partner, René Friant, and how did her vintage Chanel style emerge? Also, she asked, couldn’t we have a chance to meet Aimée’s father, Jean-Claude, who we’ve heard about for 15 books and see him together with her mother and glimpse that love and attraction that drew these two very different people together?
So in MURDER ON THE QUAI, we get to meet her father, whose death has affected her in the rest of the series. We also meet her grandfather, Claude, who I’ve sort of fallen in love with—he’s a bon vivant, loves good food and haunting the art auctions and has a mistress. Plus the music! I made a playlist to take me back to 1989 including some songs which Aimée hears in the story:“99 Luftballoons,” “Oh Champs Elysèes,” “Love Shack” by the B-52’s, music by Duran Duran and Madonna. Also hearing wonderful old Parisian songs from the 1940s by Edith Piaf, Yves Montand, Charles Trenet that brought to me another era and had me dancing around the laptop.
Stephen Morrill was born into an army family, served there himself, and wandered the world for thirty years, living in twenty-one cities in six countries. He tried his hand as a reporter for a wire service, penned several thousand magazine articles, worked as a magazine editor, and wrote several Florida travel books.
“When it came time for me to pick a place to settle down, I wanted water activities and beaches,” Morrill said. “I also decided to live and work in a place everyone else dreams of retiring to. It’s a decision I’ve never regretted.” And settle down he did, “like a barnacle holding fast to a piling in Florida,” he proudly quipped.
A modern-day Hemingway, Morrill lives alone and writes on the Florida shores, where he sails almost every day, canoes the waterway, and scuba dives on just about every reef and shipwreck in the area.
With a veteran pen, he writes about a small Florida town called Mangrove Bayou, located in the heart of the Ten Thousand Islands/Everglades National Park region. DEATH AMONG THE MANGROVES (the second book in a series after Mangrove Bayou) promises to enthrall a loyal following with its plot twists and quirky characters. Troy Adam, mixed-race, ex-Army vet, is fired from his job as a Tampa cop. Mangrove Bayou’s reluctant town council hires him on probation. After surviving a hurricane and solving a crime involving a local citizen’s death, Adam figured the council would have a positive opinion of him, but they remained circumspect. Determined to prove his merit by solving a case involving a missing vacationing college student, Adam is forced to deal not only with a skeptical town council but also overwhelming press attention and a powerful judge.
In the following interview, Stephen Morrill shares with readers of The Big Thrill different aspects of his exotic personal and creative life.
DEATH AMONG THE MANGROVES is the second in your police procedural mystery series. How many more books do you foresee Chief Troy Adam starring in?
No idea. I have four more in the pipeline and I only paused because I was outrunning my publisher. I see no reason to stop at six, though. I collect news stories that I use to plot future books. Most of the plots are things that actually happened and I just save stories from the newspapers and modify them to my needs. In Florida there’s no need to invent crimes; there’s no end to odd crime or Florida weirdness. I also have a P.I. series in the works but not yet published, and that has some crossover with the police procedural series.
All mysteries, at their core, represent a puzzle to be solved. In the classic whodunit, the detective solves the crime by sifting through clues to find the thief or murderer. In the traditional thriller, the hero races against time to uncover the truth and prevent tragedy from striking anew.
Archaeology, the study of past peoples and how they lived, is also a puzzle, albeit one that can never truly be solved. Archaeologists walk fields looking for artifacts, excavate sites with trowels and shovels, and screen tons of soil in search of elusive bits of pottery, bone, and stone tools. And that’s just the start, as everything collected needs to be cleaned, labeled, measured, typed, and analyzed. The final report is usually published years after the final bit of fieldwork has ended.
Archaeology in the real world has very little to do with golden idols, lost tombs, or national treasures.
For me, the past has always held a great sense of mystery. Because of the similarities in detective work and archaeological research, I always thought that an archaeologist would make a fine amateur sleuth. SUNKEN DREAMS began, fittingly enough, while I was conducting archaeological fieldwork in eastern Wisconsin. In the project file, I read about another archaeologist who had drowned in a boating accident years earlier while conducting a survey in the area. I started to wonder what might have happened if it hadn’t been an accident. What if the archaeologist had been murdered, and the crime disguised to look like an accident? Who might be curious enough to investigate such a mystery, other than another archaeologist? I realized it would make an interesting premise for a mystery novel, and within a short time I began writing.
Archaeological fieldwork involves a lot of time on the road, spending days and weeks in hotels, far from home. It can get pretty boring. Fortunately, it does leave you lots of time for writing, in the evenings and when heavy rains keep you inside. At first, I focused on different scenes that I wanted to include in the novel, and then I developed a formal outline that tied the story together. Writing SUNKEN DREAMS became a major part of my off-duty hours, and it took many years of writing, editing, and revising before the manuscript was finished.
By R.G. Belsky
Ellie Stone—the feisty, funny reporter in James W. Ziskin’s highly acclaimed series of thrillers—is a young woman in her 20s who works at a small-town newspaper and solves murder mysteries back in the early 1960s.
Author Ziskin is a man who has worked mostly in cities like New York and Los Angeles and was barely alive more than half a century ago, during the time period of his books.
So what was Ziskin’s inspiration for creating such a unique character as Ellie—who is back this month with HEART OF STONE, the fourth book in the series?
“I loved the time period but only settled on it for some practical reasons involving the first book in the series, Styx & Stone,” said Ziskin. “I needed a setting close enough to the end of World War II to allow for memories that were still fresh, yet far enough removed to blur the focus.
“The decision to make my reporter a young woman was an easy one since I wanted constant conflict for my main character. So I thought of writing about a woman and giving her a job women didn’t often hold in those days. Men are constantly dismissing Ellie’s competence and reminding her that she’s ‘just a girl.’ But the fact that people underestimate her is actually an advantage for Ellie. She uses it to great effect in her investigations.”
Ziskin writes the Ellie books in the first personwhich certainly presents some challenges for a male author. But he says it’s the best way for him to connect with the character of Eleonora “Ellie” Stone, a self-described “modern girl” who—despite the straight-laced times of the early ‘60s—likes to drink and occasionally ends up in bed with a man.
“I’m trying get into her head,” he said. “If I wrote her in the third person, I doubt readers would have the same emotional connection with her. And of course all writers observe people and create characters from their experience. These characters can’t all be the same sex as their authors. So maybe it’s a good thing once in a while that a male author creates a female narrator and tries to climb inside her skin.”
By George Ebey
Annette Dashofy brings us the next installment in her Zoe Chambers mystery series, WITH A VENGEANCE.
Chambers and the rest of rural Monongahela County’s EMS and fire personnel are used to wading into the middle of trouble to rescue the sick and the injured. But when someone with an ax to grind seeks retribution by staging accident scenes and gunning down the first responders, Zoe finds herself forced to not only treat her own brethren of the front lines, but also, in her role as deputy coroner, seek out whoever is killing her friends.
The Big Thrill recently caught up with Dashofy to learn more about her series and what it takes to write an effective suspense story.
What first drew you to writing stories involving mystery and suspense?
I’ve always loved writing stories and I’ve always loved puzzles. Writing mysteries seemed a natural progression for me. I’ve tried writing other genres, but I still always end up with a dead body, so why fight it?
Tell us about your character, Zoe Chambers. What has her journey been like up to this point?
Zoe’s a paramedic, and she’s been good at that job right from the start. But she’s also taken on the position of deputy coroner, which has been a challenge and not at all what she expected. Over the course of the series, she has struggled with whether or not to continue with the coroner’s office. It’s been fun for me to take that journey with her, and for the first three books, I honestly wasn’t sure of how it was going to work out either! And of course, she’s still trying to figure out her relationship with Police Chief Pete Adams. Will they or won’t they? Stay tuned!
What elements do you feel are essential for a good suspense story?
Above all else, I think emotion. If the reader doesn’t get emotionally involved in the characters and the circumstances surrounding them, the most intricate plot won’t mean a thing. Also, I like a smart villain. If the protagonist doesn’t have a worthy opponent, I tend to lose interest. And in my own writing, if my villain isn’t clever enough, I sense something’s wrong in the story.
Mark Adduci, writing as J. M. LeDuc, is a native Bostonian who transplanted to South Florida in 1985. His first novel, Cursed Blessing, won a Royal Palm Literary Award in 2008 as an unpublished manuscript in the thriller category and was published in 2010. Sin, the first book in his Sinclair O’Malley series, introduces an exciting protagonist. O’Malley, called Sin, was recruited by the FBI straight out of Quantico for her intelligence and attitude and released by the bureau for the same reasons. Then they needed her back! Sin returns in PAINTED BEAUTY.
Where did you get the idea for PAINTED BEAUTY?
When I began thinking of where to take Sinclair O’Malley in book 2, I knew I had to escalate the tension from the first book. Well, that was a tall order, considering Sin dealt with human trafficking and corrupt government officials in book 1. I wanted her to face a killer so twisted and psychotic that even the killer had no control over his or her actions. I wanted the villain to tread the fine line between genius and insanity. That’s where the “artistic vision” of the character came from. I also wanted to hint at more of Sin’s past and the reasons she had originally been kicked out of the FBI. Finding and entwining William Blake’s Songs of Innocence and Experience was a God-send. The words and meaning behind his poetry ended up being the driving force of the novel. From those basic premises, the other plot lines wove themselves in as Sin and the rest of the characters spoke to me.
How did you get into the mind of a twisted killer to write that character?
It was difficult at first. I did a lot research on serial killers and psychoses, as well as what personality traits and quirks they had in common. Once I came up with the underlying MO, it was easier to get into the mind of the character.
What kind of research did you do with the FBI and police?
I’m lucky in that regard. I still have a few contacts within the agencies from way back when. I’ll just leave it at that. The toughest part for me was that Sin is not a rule follower, so I had to have her break from protocol, while making it realistic.
Connie DiMarco is well known for her Soup Lover Mystery series published by Berkley, writing as Connie Archer.
Now writing under her own name, she has started the Zodiac mystery series featuring professional astrologer and amateur sleuth Julia Bonati.
DiMarco is happy to turn from lighter cozies to “cozy noir.” It’s closer to the kind of books she liked to read when she was in high school: the James Bond series by Ian Fleming. She loved the James Bond character so much that she learned how to play baccarat.
Bond always finds a way out of any desperate situation. “James bond has all these gadgets and doodads,” she says. “But when push comes to shove, its always mano-a-mano for him. All the artificial things drop away and James is on his own.” The book that impressed her the most was On Her Majesty’s Secret Service. ”That was the book in which James questions if he wants to continue [as a secret agent]. He falls in love and his wife is killed. It was so out of keeping with the usual fare, James was heartbroken and vulnerable. The shock of her death has always stayed with me.”
DiMarco found her agent, Paige Wheeler (at that time with Folio Literary), after cold-querying with an initial darker novel. While waiting for her own book to sell, Wheeler asked her if she would be interested in doing a work-for-hire. “I didn’t even know that that was,” says DiMarco. “But it was for Berkley, so of course I said yes.” Berkley sent her a concept, a one-page bible, and asked her to write some sample chapters. “They wanted the soup shop in Vermont, but the plot as they outlined it had a very dark tone. The protagonist had just lost her parents, it started in the darkest, deadliest part of winter. I decided that what the series needed was a little humor. They liked that and hired me to write the series.” She used the name Connier Archer, as Penguin retained the rights to the author name.
“In a series it’s important to have your characters evolve, not just chronologically, but emotionally.” The Soup Series amateur sleuth is Lucky Jamieson, the owner of a soup shop who has a personal relationship with most of the village’s residents. This gives her a natural “in” when it comes to solving murders. “I was a total novice when it came to writing a series. This is what I did, almost unconsciously: in each book, when evil arrived in the village it came from the outside. But it was connected to one of the core characters and some of [that character’s] secrets are revealed. A main character is introduced in the first book and some secondary characters, and one of the secondary characters becomes the lead in the next book and so on.”
By Dawn Ius
When a $4 million Stradivarius violin is stolen from the locked room of a bed and breakfast in Wisconsin, retired cop-turned private investigator Rushmore McKenzie is once again called into action.
But as he soon learns, this case is far from typical. Not only does the foundation that owns the violin refuse to buy it back from the thief (or thieves), the violinist who has played it for the past 12 years is desperate for its return—even if it means fronting the reward money himself.
To get back the invaluable instrument, McKenzie must go against the local police, the insurance company, the FBI’s Art Crime division, and his own lawyer’s advice. With his 13th novel in the series, author David Housewright pits his protagonist against some of his biggest challenges yet.
In The Big Thrill this month, Housewright takes us deeper into the world of his series protagonist, and shares what inspired this page-turning mystery.
Having not read the synopsis, I was pleasantly surprised to learn that the “countess” is a $4 million violin. What was the inspiration for this book?
I wrote a book called Curse of the Jade Lilly dealing with art theft. During the course of my research, I learned about some of the things that so-called “cat burglars” like to steal including priceless objects like Stradivarius violins—that no one hears about because the victims often quietly make deals for the safe return of the objects. I just kept it in my pocket until I had a story to tell.
I had no idea a violin could be worth $4 million, certainly not one that would be played and not preserved in a museum. What kind of research was required for this story?
Actually, $4 million is at the low end. Some Stradivarius violins—and cellos—go for much more. And of course, I had to learn about that and many other things as well. It wasn’t that difficult, though. STEALING THE COUNTESS is my 18th novel, and over the years I’ve built a pretty reliable cadre of sources including cops, FBI agents, and district court judges that I can call on.
By Eyre Price
It’s not often that a writer is more heroic in real life than the characters he creates on the page, but E. Michael Helms is exactly that. A Vietnam combat veteran, it was his harrowing all-too-true adventures that first brought Mr. Helms to the printed page and earned him the critical acclaim and devoted readership that has followed him over the course of his career.
Recently, I had the pleasure and honor of asking Mr. Helms about his heroic past, his tough-as-nails fictional alter ego, and other topics.
Your debut as an author was with 1990’s The Proud Bastards, a memoir of your experience as a Marine in the Vietnam War. What are your reflections of that publishing experience?
That book was tough to write, and it was only after I sought help for PTSD in the mid to late 1980s that I was able to get it out. It began as journaling, part of the therapy I and other combat vets in our group underwent. I’d done some freelancing for a New York editor who oversaw several gun and ammo magazines, and also Vietnam Combat magazine. My “journal” had begun to take on a book form. I submitted a couple of chapters as standalone articles for the mag. He told me to send him the entire manuscript when I was finished. I didn’t know at the time that he also dabbled as a literary agent. He made a quick deal with Kensington/Zebra, and suddenly I was a published author
DEADLY DUNES is the latest in your Mac McClellan series. What do you see as the advantages and disadvantages of writing a series?
I really enjoy the familiarity of the reoccurring characters, watching them grow into their roles as well as individuals. Not only the big players such as Mac and Kate, but also those regulars who give the writer the option to let them take on bigger or lesser responsibilities within any given story. Each has his or her own life outside the limelight of whatever particular case Mac is grappling with at the time.
As for the disadvantages of writing a series, keeping all your ducks (characters and details) in a row, remembering the “who, what, when, and where” of each, can be a challenge. There are readers out there who will remind the author if he stumbles or fumbles with even the smallest character or factual detail. But it’s fun and keeps you on your toes to fact check as you write.
Murder at the 42nd Street Library is Con Lehane’s first book in an irresistible new series that introduces librarian and amateur sleuth Raymond Ambler, a doggedly curious fellow who uncovers murderous secrets hidden behind the majestic marble façade of New York City’s landmark 42nd Street Library. The story opens with a murder in a second-floor office of the iconic, beaux-arts flagship of the New York Public Library. Ambler, the curator of the library’s crime fiction collection, joins forces with NYPD homicide detective Mike Cosgrove in hopes of bringing a murderer to justice. So we had to ask . . .
Libraries have always been special places for writers, but what inspired you to set a mystery in New York’s landmark 42nd Street Library?
On my web page is a short piece I wrote for Mystery Readers Journal called “On Becoming a (Fictional) Librarian.” In it, I describe my first visit to the New York Public Library. Scholar that I am, I went there to meet a girl, a lovely girl, whom I still remember. This isn’t the conscious reason I chose the 42nd Street Library as the setting and a librarian—actually, a curator—as my detective. I believe the idea was buried in my consciousness, waiting for the right time. The right time came when my publisher decided not to continue my Bartender Brian McNulty series. My editor, Marcia Markland, at Thomas Dunne Books suggested the 42nd Street Library as a setting and a librarian as a character. The rest was up to me.
We often think of amateur sleuths as falling into the “cozy” ranks of mystery writing, while you tend to add a bit of grit to your storytelling. Where does Murder at the 42nd Street Library lie on the scale from cozy to hard-boiled. And does it matter?
I’m not much of an analyzer of where I am on the crime fiction spectrum. I hold an MFA in fiction writing and at one time thought I was a literary writer (though I have no idea what one of those is either). I became a mystery writer—and a mystery reader—late in life, first as a fan of The Maltese Falcon, because of the movie. I finally read all of Hammett’s books in a row after that. A while later, I was working on a construction crew, building a bar in Hartford, Connecticut, where I would tend bar. I mentioned Hammett to one of the carpenters, who told me Raymond Chandler (whom I’d never heard of) was better, so I read The Big Sleep and then all of Chandler’s books one after the other. A year or two later, I discovered Ross Macdonald, and read … well, you get the picture. Those were my influences. I found many others since then. I’d say (with great trepidation) that I’m closest to Ross Macdonald in sensibility, though I wouldn’t say it out loud. However, my first book, Beware the Solitary Drinker, was first published in France by Rivages/Noir, so I was first categorized as a noir writer. I had to look that up, too, to find out what one was … and was pretty quickly disabused of the notion that I was a noir writer (though I love Jim Thompson, David Goodis, and most of the other noir writers) when I sat on a panel with Eddie Muller soon after my U.S. publication.
By George Ebey
Author Robert D. Kidera is back with GET LOST, the latest installment of his Gabe McKenna mystery series.
What do you do when the dead come back and your loved ones disappear? All Gabe McKenna wanted was a new floor for his barn. What he got was seven corpses, all long dead. Seven rich men, missing from New York. One of his closest childhood friends is gunned down in an Albuquerque casino. With time running out, McKenna must uncover the connection and prevent his loved ones from joining the growing ranks of the dead. From New Mexico to New York to a lonely cliff once home to an ancient people, McKenna struggles against a bloodthirsty criminal enterprise for whom money matters more than any man’s life.
The Big Thrill recently caught up with Robert to learn more about his characters and what it takes to write good suspense fiction.
What first drew you to writing stories involving mystery and suspense?
I began reading mysteries as a child, all the way back with the Hardy Boys, Sherlock Holmes, etc. I like solving problems, riddles, puzzles. Later in my life I read Raymond Chandler. From then on, I knew my bent for writing would propel me in his direction and genre. I love tension and the resolution of tension, danger and uncertainty and how a person deals with the challenge. Those are the types of stories I find the most compelling as a reader. When I began my writing career, choice of genre was a no-brainer.
Tell us about your character, Gabe McKenna. What has his journey been like up to this point?
When we meet Gabe McKenna at the beginning of Red Gold, my first novel, he is a broken man. A widower, he is on leave from his teaching career, with no direction except for the shortest route to the nearest bottle. Red Gold is at heart the story of his rediscovery of himself along with the treasure he seeks. It ends on a hopeful note, with a new direction, new love, and new possibilities.
I met Larry Sweazy at the Southern Kentucky Book Fair, where we sat at adjoining tables and shared anecdotes while hoping to attract new readers. I left with a copy of Rattlesnake Ridge, his first western mystery featuring Texas Ranger Josiah Wolfe. It reminded me of my favorite Louis L’Amour novels, and I was hooked.
Sweazy’s latest project, SEE ALSO DECEPTION is a beautifully written and authentically researched mystery with a complex heroine. The sole caregiver for her severely disabled husband, Marjorie is a believable combination of strength and vulnerability, loneliness and stoicism. She’s someone I’d definitely like to see more of.
I asked Larry to talk with us about his new book and his writing process, and he generously agreed.
Thanks for joining us, Larry. Can you tell us a bit about your journey as a writer?
I fell in love with reading and stories early in my life. I had the requisite difficult childhood and I escaped into books whenever I could. After discovering theater in high school, I flirted with becoming an actor, but after reading so many great books, it occurred to me one day that I could write, I could tell stories for a living. From there, my journey was long and curvy. I wrote a lot, read a lot, worked a lot of different jobs, gathered a ton of rejection slips, and then managed to sell my first novel (the seventh one I had written) when I was forty-seven.
Your books are pretty research-intensive. What’s the most frightening thing that’s happened to you while researching a work-in-progress?
The difficult thing about research is knowing when to stop. I think you have to be completely obsessed with an idea for it to be worthwhile. And that’s the hard part for me. Becoming so obsessed about something that I lose sight of the book I’m writing. I wish I could give you an example of some harrowing adventure that went awry, but most of the time, I end being lost in a book instead hung out on a ledge somewhere.
A Reporter Who Storms Off the Ladies’ Page
By E.M. Powell
Reading a well-crafted historical mystery is always a pleasure and with A FRONT PAGE AFFAIR, Radha Vatsal delivers precisely that. The novel is set in 1915 in a New York City that is going through turbulent times, with shocking events on its own doorstep such as the shooting at J.P Morgan’s mansion, and tragedies abroad: the sinking of the Lusitania and the outbreak of the Great War. In this pre-television, radio and social media world, newspapers play a vital role in relaying the news of the day.
Enter Vatsal’s Capability “Kitty” Weeks, a young woman of privileged background who has little time for the restrictions of her class and gender, and who would love nothing more than to report on the important stories. But serious journalism is only for male reporters. A deeply frustrated Kitty is confined to writing about fashion and society gossip on the Ladies’ Page.
Fate provides Kitty with a gruesome opportunity when a man is murdered at a high society picnic on her beat. She is given the story and is soon embroiled in its solving and in a wartime conspiracy that threatens to derail the United States’ attempt to remain neutral in a world at war.
Kitty is a likeable and courageous heroine who isn’t afraid to push all sorts of boundaries. Vatsal says she partly drew inspiration for her from contemporary women who were real life boundary-pushers. “Kitty has characteristics like courage, persistence, and love of adventure that she shares with the action-film actresses of the 1910s, like Pearl White, whom she admires.”
The reader gets a real sense of Vatsal’s affection for the city and her deep interest in its past. And although she lives in New York, it hasn’t always been her home, which partly informs Kitty’s character. “Like me, Kitty went to boarding school and comes to New York with an outsider’s perspective.” Vatsal uses this to her advantage. “I think I ask more questions and I don’t take anything for granted. I want to know why things are the way they are and how they came to be that way—in that respect also, Kitty’s character is similar to my own. New York is a fantastic city to write about, because every little detail seems to have an unexpected story behind it.”