Retired forensic psychologist Ben Long is lured out of his academic retreat by old friend D.A. Sidney Kingsley to perform a competency evaluation on Junior Torrence, charged with killing his brother’s fiancee, Amber Coolidge. Torrence’s attorney, who fifteen years earlier defended the man who killed Long’s mother, has hired Long’s former practice partner to prove Torrence mentally retarded, which would prevent him from getting the death penalty.
Kingsley wants Long to prove otherwise. He assigns a middle-aged law clerk named Paula Paige to help Long. She finds this difficult, because–besides being brilliant–Long has Asperger’s Syndrome, a form of high-functioning autism. Paula has to learn to cope with Long’s eccentric and occasionally bizarre behaviors as he explores Junior Torrence’s mental functioning.
Slowly they begin to question not only Torrence’s competence, but also whether he actually committed the murder. And, if he didn’t, who DID kill Amber Coolidge?
The author was kind enough to answer a few questions about his book.
Richard, your new book THE UNRESOLVED SEVENTH, is a wonderful thriller and certainly has enough twists and turns to keep a reader flipping pages. Ben Long, your main character sounds interesting, if for no other reason than his medical infliction – Asperger’s Syndrome. The story line is exceptional, but tell us why you decided to give Long this illness and how you researched it.
I was a practicing forensic psychologist in North Carolina for almost a quarter century before retiring completely from active practice in 2005 to work for the state community college system. Besides my forensic practice, I carried a regular caseload in the local child/youth treatment program at the mental health center. There, I did hundreds of evaluations on students referred from the local school systems for emotional and learning disorders. Some of those referrals had symptoms included in the ‘spectrum’ of developmental disorders such as autism, pervasive developmental disorder, and Asperger’s Syndrome. Working with these children, I became very interested in the underlying causes of Asperger’s, and how it affects the emotional and social lives of people who have it. The idea of a fictional psychologist who has a disorder that severely impairs his social functioning intrigued me, so I ran with it.
Let me put you on the spot here, give us the old ‘elevator pitch’ for THE UNRESOLVED SEVENTH.
A brilliant but socially impaired psychologist reluctantly comes out of retirement following a tragedy to help the local prosecutor prove that a murder defendant is competent to stand trial. With a frustrated law clerk assigned to assist him, he begins to question not only the suspect’s ability to stand trial, but whether he actually committed the crime.
Every writer hears this, but I have to ask because this is your fifteenth book, how did you come up with the story line for THE UNRESOLVED SEVENTH?
In 2004, I drove from my home in North Carolina to Toronto for Bouchercon. On the way back, I listened to the audiobook of Mark Haddon’s THE CURIOUS INCIDENT OF THE DOG IN THE NIGHTTIME, which features a sixteen year old protagonist who has Asperger’s. It’s a remarkable book, and as I listened I decided that I’d like to write a mystery with a detective who has the syndrome. When I got home, I wrote the first thirty thousand words of the book in about two weeks, and then set it aside to concentrate on my Judd Wheeler novels. I picked the book back up around 2008, and finished it in about a month and a half. I was so involved in the character that much of the book practically wrote itself.
How much of your writing is taken from your years as a forensic psychologist?
At the time I started THE UNRESOLVED SEVENTH,I had just retired two years earlier from active practice as a psychologist, and was working as an educator, and I had done a fair share of competency evaluations during my forensic career, so that seemed like a good jumping-off point for a book. The case around which the book is built wasn’t based on any particular case I worked during my career, but I was intrigued by a new Supreme Court decision (Atkins v. Virginia) which held that execution of mentally retarded criminals constituted cruel and unusual punishment. All of the tests that Ben Long employs in the book are the tests I used during my forensic practice years, and the court procedures reflect my own experiences testifying in over 2000 court hearings over the years.
Most of us only see TV characters as forensic psychologists, but you’ve been there and done that, so how do you judge these portrayals in TV and movies? Close to reality or just entertainment? Pure Hollywood?
Absolutely Pure Hollywood. I tried to watch CRIMINAL MINDS when it first came out, but it was filled with so many inaccuracies and wildly improbable leaps of logic that I finally gave up on it. Of course, if a television show did attempt to capture the real work of the average forensic practitioner, it would last about half an episode. Huge portions of the typical work week are filled with testing and writing reports. There is a very strong art factor mixed in with the science of forensic psychology, but that art is largely intuitive on the part of the psychologist, built on years of experience sitting across from people with all levels of psychopathy and other psychological issues, and wouldn’t make for very exciting high-ratings TV. It’s exciting to live it, but I don’t think it would be very thrilling to watch.
You have already published a number of books, a couple of series among them. Will this be the first in a Ben Long series?
I don’t know. I’ve been toying idea for a second Ben Long book in which he is asked to evaluate a teenager accused of killing his parents, whom the DA wants to try as an adult. It would be based partly on the Christopher Pittman case in South Carolina, and might even include some version of the ‘Zoloft defense’ that Pittman’s attorneys employed. It’s all pretty nebulous at this point, though, and I have a bunch of projects stacked up ahead of it. When I first wrote THE UNRESOLVED SEVENTH, I didn’t intend for it to be the vanguard of a new series. I mostly wanted to write a novel built around a crime, but mostly focusing on the relationship between an extremely quirky protagonist and the female law clerk (Paula Paige) who tries to understand and cope with his eccentricities. I haven’t decided yet whether Ben Long’s story has been told completely, and in the end a series needs a character who has some kind of story arc that runs through all the titles. Ben Long, at this point in his life (he’s in his early fifties) is probably so set in his ways that his Asperger’s will make actual growth or change unlikely. I don’t know if there is anywhere for him to go at the end of the book, and any future titles might have to focus on Paula Paige’s struggle to relate to and work with Long. I might even consider writing a second book—should I go in that direction–in first person, with her as the narrator.
When do you know, or decide, that a new book will be a first in a series or a stand-alone?
Usually by the time I finish the first book. If I am left with unanswered questions about the protagonist, or if I want to know what path his/her life takes after the last chapter, I explore it further in another title. This is what’s happening in my Judd Wheeler series (SIX MILE CREEK, THUNDER MOON). Wheeler is a deeply damaged man still coping with a major tragedy in his life, and the urban sprawl that is slowly eroding the town he’s called home for almost forty years. While the community sees him as stable and heroic, he carries a lot of emotional baggage from his youth and a bushel basket of insecurities and introspective doubt. He has a compelling story arc, which I don’t think I’ve explored completely, so I’m writing a third novel for him (working title, CAROLINA BLUE). I’ve also mapped out a fourth novel in that series, so I suspect we will see more from that series.
I’m still waiting for that feeling with Ben Long, so I may let his story end with THE UNRESOLVED SEVENTH. On the other hand, I have other series that I do want to continue. I’m working, for instance, on the fifth book in my New Orleans-based Pat Gallegher series (PAID IN SPADES), which I see covering a six book story arc that concludes with Hurricane Katrina.
Last year you won the 2011 ITW award for best short story for THE GODS FOR VENGEANCE CRY in ELLERY QUEEN MYSTERY MAGAZINE. The story was also nominated for a number of other awards. Do you find short stories or novels easier to write? Or do they each have their own special requirements?
This really strange. For years I told myself that I couldn’t write short stories. I was used to taking my time to develop characters and setting, and I wasn’t sure I could tell a story in five or ten thousand words. I do have three Shamus Award nominations for my novels, but my short stories have six nominations (four Derringers, one Macavity, and one Thriller), and three wins. At some point, I may need to come to grips with the reality that I’m actually a short story writer who sometimes pumps out a novel. Wouldn’t that be weird? I don’t know whether I find writing short stories easier. I do know that they’re different. I usually find that I over-write my short stories, turning them into mini-novellas, and then have to cut them way back. I’ve cut as much as six thousand words out of a short story’s first draft, and in then end it made it much better—tighter, ‘crispier’, and a more compelling read. With the novels, I use as many words as I need to tell the story, and while I do major cutting and rewriting with them as well, I don’t feel as much pressure to stuff them into a word-count template. They’re just different approaches to writing. I like doing both, and I’m lucky enough to not have to depend on writing to buy the groceries, so I write the kind of story on any given day that my whimsy tells me to write.
That brings up another question, you have a couple of stand-alone novels mixed in with your series. Is it more difficult to keep a series running or to write a stand-alone novel?
I think it’s terribly difficult to keep a series fresh and interesting from one title to another. So many authors try to keep a series going because there is a consumer demand for it, but in the process the books become sterile and unfulfilling. I know of several series that the authors have been able to sustain—Reed Farrel Coleman’s Moe Prager books come to mind here—but once you get a character ten or fifteen titles down the line, I have a hard time imagining what else he or she has left to say. I just sent my publisher a standalone PI novel set in Havana in the last days of the Batista regime in 1958, which features a new character named Cormac Loame. I really think I tell his whole story in that one book, and I don’t think I have anywhere else to go with him, so I’ll probably leave it with one title. I’m satisfied with that, which must mean that I tapped him out in the one book.
Where do you find the time to write short stories?
I have the absolute strangest writing work ethic in the business. I am a college professor in Charlotte, NC, and my obligations to the school really occupy almost all my time during the academic year from August to May. One nice thing about teaching is that I get most of May and all of June and July off. During the school year, I outline future books, write down snippets of dialogue or plot twists as they occur to me, and even write the occasional chapter segment, and store all of them in a working file for each title I have in the queue. Then, during my ten weeks off in the summer, I type like mad. It’s almost as if the stories gestate during my nine months of teaching, and then on May 15th I go into labor and start pushing them out onto paper. I average about one hundred thousand new words over the course of the summer, and usually I can crank out about a book and a half. Sometimes I steal some time during infrequent lulls in the school year to produce a first draft of a short story, and then let it sit for a few weeks and edit during the holiday breaks. I’ll retire from fulltime teaching in three years, and I’m not at all certain what impact that will have on my writing process. Not certain yet whether I’ll be able to keep up the level of productivity that I do now during the summers. It’s going to be fun to find out, though!
What’s on your horizon?
I have a shelf of books in the pipeline right now, including the fifth and sixth titles in my Pat Gallegher series (PAID IN SPADES; HELL’S BELLS), the third book in my Eamon Gold series (BRITTLE KARMA), the third and fourth Judd Wheeler novels (CAROLINA BLUE; A KIND AND SAVAGE PLACE), an untitled international thriller set in the Mediterranean, a thriller set in the Mojave Desert (LEFT FOR DEAD), and a few other outlines that are begging for attention. I have a noir novella in the works called THE SQUEEZE. I just finished a short story called BUSTING RED HEADS which I’ve sent to EQMM. I’m working on a traditional mystery set in Charleston.
I also have a couple of other long-term projects that aren’t mysteries or thrillers. One is a historical novel set in Europe during World War I, and the other is—of all things—a cookbook. One of my other all-consuming interests is gourmet cooking, and I am putting together a cookbook based on a popular mystery series, using all-new recipes that I’ve tested in my kitchen at home.
I have about five short-stories queued up, including two in a new series featuring a fake psychic and a beleaguered police detective who has to tolerate him; a couple of shorts about an aristocratic man-about-town in Charleston (SC) and his working-class detective cousin; and an Eamon Gold short involving an embezzling polo rider who has gone missing.
On top of all that, I’m an avid woodworker, and I need to find time this summer to finish a quartersawn white oak Stickley Morris chair I started last summer, a maple curved-leg floating-top table I’ve roughed out, and to start working on a Maloof-style sculpted rocking chair that will be constructed with black walnut lumber from a tree that was felled on my late father-in-law’s farm.
Busy busy busy. I’m pushing sixty now, but I have no intention of slowing down or taking it easy. I’d like to leave behind at least thirty books, and a slew of short stories.
Erik Erikson said that, in middle age, people begin to focus on generativity, or the legacy they will leave behind. People find generativity in all sorts of enterprises, from building businesses that bear their names, to producing great works of art, literature, or music, or even in raising happy, healthy children into successful adults. My kids are grown and making their own marks in the world now, and I’ve very proud of them, so I feel that I was generative in that sense. Now I’m focusing on writing books and stories that I hope people will continue to read long after I’m gone, and building furniture that people will find comfortable and beautiful three or four generations (or more) down the road.
My lovely wife Elaine has claimed for decades that I work primarily to support my hobbies. What I know is that all of the endeavors in my life of which I’m most proud have centered on creativity—tapping into that weird, strange, right-brain synthetic process and letting it flow through my body and into my work. I hope to be able to continue to create for years to come. If I do, I can’t imagine anything that would make me happier.
After retiring in 2002 from active practice after two decades as a forensic psychologist, Richard Helms began a new career as a college professor in Charlotte, NC. He has been nominated three times for the PWA Shamus Award, four times for the SMFS Derringer Award, and once each for the Macavity and Thriller Awards. He is the only author ever to win the Derringer Award in two different categories in the same year (2008). He won the ITW Thriller Award for Best Short Story in 2011. THE UNRESOLVED SEVENTH is his fifteenth novel.
To learn more about Richard, please visit his website.