The word is out—renowned FBI Profiler Karen Vail is back. When an elderly woman is found raped and brutally murdered in San Francisco, Alan Jacobson sends her west to team up with SFPD Inspector Lance Burden and her former task force colleague, Detective Roxxann Dixon. Clues ultimately lead them to the most unlikely of places: a mysterious island ripped from city lore whose long-buried, decades-old secrets hold the key to their case. Alcatraz. The Rock. It’s a case that has more twists and turns than the famed Lombard Street.
Praise runs high for this intelligent thriller that bridges time and space. Clive Cussler deemed it “a powerful thriller, brilliantly conceived and written.” The San Francisco Chronicle raves it’s “another rippin’ good ‘Alan Jacobson read’! Jacobson researches his books like a good newspaper reporter, and then pushes the envelope into reality more thoroughly than the typical crime novel could ever allow.” And New York Times bestselling author James Patterson says, “Karen Vail is as compelling a character as any created by Patricia Cornwell, or yours truly.” Truth be told, the list of big name thriller writers who have endorsed Jacobson’s work is impressive.
A National Bestselling author of six novels, Jacobson’s books have appeared on numerous “Best Books of the Year” lists, including the “Top 10” for Library Journal, The Strand Magazine, Suspense Magazine, and the Los Angeles Times, and two of his novels are currently under development in Hollywood. Intrigued, The Big Thrill contributing editor, Christine Goff, took the opportunity to catch up with Jacobson and ask a few questions.
Your first two books, FALSE ACCUSATIONS (1999) and THE HUNTED (2002), are standalone novels. What brought you to develop the Karen Vail series: THE 7TH VICTIM (2008), CRUSH (2009), VELOCITY (2010) and INMATE 1577 (2011). Were you initially drawn to the character, or was it the subject that prompted you to write THE 7TH VICTIM?
It all happened by accident! I met FBI Profiler Mark Safarik in a blood spatter pattern analysis course. We hit it off and kept in touch and often spent hours on the phone talking behavioral analysis and serial killers. A few months later, Agent Safarik invited me out to Quantico. It was the first trip of many over the next 18 years, an experience that was, and still is, unprecedented for an author. That access and education formed the basis of the Karen Vail character and the stories that I tell through her.
But in the “Man plans and God laughs” category, I never intended for Karen Vail to become a series. My goal was for The 7th Victim to become a classic, ala Silence of the Lambs. In fact, Robert Ressler, one of the founding FBI profilers, called The 7th Victim exactly that, so I feel like I succeeded.
But here’s the unexpected part: my publisher sat me one day when I was in New York for Thrillerfest and told me the advance response to Vail was so strong that they wanted me to turn her into a series character. I was reluctant at first—I once swore I’d never write a series because I’d seen a lot of authors get stale with their series characters—but I knew it was ill-advised to say “no” to your publisher. After much thought and discussions with Lee Child and Michael Connelly about their characters—and then more navel gazing—I figured out how I’d write a Karen Vail series. The priority was, and is, to keep her fresh for both the reader and myself from book to book. The last thing I’d want to do is write a boring novel, just for the sake of putting out another one in the series. I would never insult my readership that way.
A key was challenging Vail (and myself, and the reader) in ways and in settings she’s never encountered. Sometimes that meant bringing her to a place with a strong, hidden culture (the Napa Valley, in Crush), and other times that meant pitting her against foes more dangerous than the killers she goes after (Velocity); for Inmate 1577, she’s battling both time and place (more on that later)—another departure for her, as the profiler…and for me, as the author.
FBI Profilers are prolific in crime fiction these days. It’s clear from the reviews and responses that Karen Vail stands out. What makes her different?
First, you’ve got my knowledge of the subject matter; it’s not “textbook,” but as close to on-the-job as one can get without being a profiler. That understanding of how the killers think, what they’re capable of, brings authenticity to the character. It took me years to “get it.” Sure, anyone with a keen imagination can make up all sorts of sick things an offender can do to a victim…but if you stay true to the subject matter, it enables the reader to get not just an entertaining story that grips them—this can really happen!—but it sets the tone for how Karen Vail is going to approach this offender. It’s rooted in fact, so you almost get the sense you’re reading a real story. The reader thus gets drawn into the action and Vail’s thought process as they go after this killer.
And that brings me to the second difference. I developed an unusual point of view to tell these stories. I’d like to say it was a stroke of genius, but it was another one of those lucky accidents. Without going into details, the result is a third person narrative that’s got a first person sensibility, bringing Vail very close to the reader. The reader feels like s/he’s in Vail’s head, seeing things through her. Dozens of readers have made that same observation.
And then there’s Karen Vail the person. One of the (real) profilers has said that I didn’t make Vail a “superhero profiler,” and to him, that was very important. He’s prodded me over the years to “keep it real,” to respect the victims of these violent crimes and the profilers who really do this work. I’ve worked hard to make Vail human—that is, she makes mistakes; she struggles with the problems that real people struggle with. We relate to what she feels when she screws up, or says something that doesn’t go over well, or has regrets about something she did that, in retrospect, was a poor choice. It happens to all of us in life. We can relate to stuff like that.
Vail is also the first female profiler, so there are issues within her unit that she has to deal with. These story elements, which came to a head in The 7th Victim (but crop up from time to time) come from my work with “the real Karen Vail,” Supervisory Special Agent Mary Ellen O’Toole, who has been terrific over the past 14 years in helping me understand what issues Vail faces in the BAU. Agent O’Toole has also helped me explore Vail’s profiler-serial killer relationship—based on her real life experiences.
Your goal to keep things fresh and different is particularly evident in INMATE 1577, which is a bit of a departure for you.
Yes. I bring my standalone mentality to each book I write. So I look at the blank slate and think, how can I tell this story differently? Sometimes the setting does that for me, and in the case of Inmate 1577 that’s certainly true—but it goes beyond that. Inmate 1577 brings Vail back to the west coast, where she’s the least comfortable—in fact, she’s had some really tough times there (see Crush and Velocity) and has no desire to return. But…there’s no fun for us in keeping her in her comfort zone, right? So Vail finds herself in San Francisco dealing with the sexual homicide of elderly females. This is not your run-of-the-mill serial killer, for sure—but that’s only the launch pad for a great deal more. The events propel her to a mysterious island where secrets buried for decades emerge and threaten to really screw things up. The island? The Rock. Alcatraz.
Inmate 1577 is also different for me because it’s part historical novel (with half the book set in the 1950s/early 60s) and part contemporary thriller. The story told in the past obviously has substantial ramifications for Vail and her SFPD task force in the present day. It’s a wonderful story, with a villain unlike others that we typically see in thrillers.
Crime fiction, thrillers in particular, have traditionally been plot driven. Now, the proliferation of series characters adds an extra challenge for the writer. What do you find the most challenging elements of thriller/suspense writing?
There are so many! I’ve been writing novels for almost 19 years, and my approach has changed over time. Writing a series character accelerated that change because it’s so different from starting with a blank slate (new people, with diverse backgrounds, etc.). Standalones require a different thought—and planning—process. When you’re grounded with a series character, the challenge, as I’ve said, is to keep things fresh and different from what you’ve done before. So I adapted my creative process to accomplish that.
But the bottom line is that whether you’re writing series or standalone, you have to tell a good story and develop new and different characters—even if they’re in supporting roles, like the killer or the homicide detectives that work with Vail. I’ve worked to create a cast of characters that come in and out of Vail’s life from book to book. This gives the reader the sense of visiting with family and friends, so that when a particular character appears, it brings a feeling of familiarity and warmth.
The top challenges that I face can be summed up as creating engaging characters; telling new and different stories; and maintaining seamless pacing—all while ensuring that my writing is fluid and inspired, with wit and good old tension to make the reader turn those pages to find out how everything is going to end.
What comes next? Another book in the Karen Vail series, a new standalone, or something altogether different?
Next up is Hard Target, projected for a late December release. I love this novel…kind of a series/standalone hybrid for me. The driving force behind the story is a new character—Uzi, the head of the Washington, DC Joint Terrorism Task Force—partnered with Hector DeSantos, who debuted in my standalone The Hunted (recently re-released on all e-platforms), and who teamed with Vail in Velocity (which hit several “Best Books of the Year” lists). DeSantos and Uzi—along with several appearances by Vail—drive the plot. It’s a terrific story that gives us a window into some things I haven’t had the opportunity to explore in the Karen Vail series.
And next year, I plan to bring Vail back, partnered with DeSantos, in a story set in England.
What type of promotional events/tours do you have planned for INMATE 1577?
This will be the first time I’m not touring for a novel. It feels strange not going on the road, but tours have always been questionable in terms of “Is it really worth two months of writing time and tens of thousands of dollars?” The publishers by and large don’t think so, particularly with Borders now history and Barnes & Noble on the block. There just aren’t that many places to go…and with bookstore foot traffic severely down and so many other entertainment options knocking…it’s a high risk/high cost endeavor.
I’ll be doing mostly online promotion. I have two Facebook fan pages—one “official” group and one fan-started and run. I spend time on both, so it gives me great opportunities to correspond with my readers. In fact, there’s something in Inmate 1577 that arose directly from conversations I’ve had with my readers on Facebook. My publisher also interacts with them (is this a different time, or what?) and the readers have absolutely loved that.
I’m also active on Twitter (handle: @JacobsonAlan). A new Twitter handle, @AJacobsonFans, has just been started by the readers behind the “Fans of Alan Jacobson” Facebook page.
Lastly—I co-authored a free personal safety booklet with FBI Profiler Mark Safarik. It’s a terrific publication full of tips for staying out of the cross hairs of violent criminals. And it’s totally free. Go to my website and download it for yourself—as well as those you care about.