Print Friendly, PDF & Email

By Sandra Parshall

Robin Burcell’s 27 years in law enforcement as a uniformed officer, detective, and forensic artist lend an unmistakable authenticity to her two crime fiction series, one featuring San Francisco Inspector Kate Gillespie and the other starring FBI Special Agent and forensic artist Sydney Fitzpatrick. Sydney is back in THE DARK HOUR (December), racing against time to prevent a biological nightmare that could kill millions around the world. When you finish THE DARK HOUR, you’ll want to reach immediately for the next in the series, THE BLACK LIST, out this month.

Recently Robin talked about her latest thrillers and offered a glimpse of the training she received from the FBI for her work as a forensic artist.

You deal with complex global issues in these books. Where did the seed of each story come from? Do you take ideas from the news and give them your own twist? Do you have brainstorming “what if?” sessions, alone or with others? Do you bounce your ideas off anyone before you even approach your agent and editor?

Quite often, the news will spark my imagination, especially if it’s something that involves national security and the government. The way my mind works, I have a difficult time explaining the idea to anyone else, and so I have to sit down and write, then see where it takes me. It usually evolves into something else along the way.

The jumping off point for THE DARK HOUR was inspired by an investigative segment I saw several years ago on 60 MINUTES. The U.S. was actually considering turning over the management of several major seaports to a foreign country. We’re already vulnerable to terrorist attacks in our ports due to lack of funding and oversight. Imagine if we allowed someone else to be in charge of security? And, since I often touch on conspiracy theory, imagine if it was someone here in the U.S. who was behind the privatization of port security for their own nefarious purposes…

In THE BLACK LIST, I was researching money laundering and wanted to know how possible it was for a charitable organization to siphon off funds for terrorist activities. As is usually the case, I ran across a real world news article that discussed how a number of U.S. charities make a substantial profit from sponsoring refugees to be resettled into the U.S. At the time this book was written, the government actually suspended part of the program temporarily, due to widespread fraud, not only with money, but with who was  being allowed to enter the U.S. There were other issues, such as the inability to properly identify someone prior to entry, then track them once they entered the country through this program, which makes it easy for a terrorist to enter the U.S. via the refugee resettlement program.

Do you believe the scenarios in these two books could happen in the real world?

Not only could they happen, they have.  As mentioned above, there was the very real prospect that our nation’s ports were going to be privatized, thereby diminishing our nation’s security. And, as mentioned above, there’s the fraud and ability for someone to illegally enter the U.S. via the refugee resettlement program. What I’ve done is added a twist to show what might happen if terrorism (be it homegrown or foreign) became involved.

Do you think it’s best for an author of international thrillers to be apolitical, open to anything, or to start with passionate beliefs?

Probably a bit of both. If you’re not passionate about something, it might be hard to convince the reader. But the last thing you want to do is preach and turn a reader off. I’m not here to preach about any one thing. But I hope to give the reader a rollercoaster of a ride while I point out some vulnerabilities in U.S. security should the perfect storm of events occur.

Why did you make Sydney an FBI agent rather than an officer with a city or state law enforcement agency? What can you do with her as an FBI agent that you couldn’t do in a more restricted job setting?

Funny you should ask! I used to write San Francisco based police procedurals, since my background is in law enforcement. But police are very limited in the geographic scope of their investigations, and I wanted a broader canvas. In these days of budget cuts, I don’t see a lot of police departments sending their investigators to Europe, or even across the country, so I decided to move to the FBI to gain some latitude (and longitude!) in my investigations.

You were a uniformed police officer and a detective. How and why did you become a forensic artist? Was that a fulltime job or something you did in addition to other police work?

I had always hoped to use my artistic skills for something like a sketch artist, and so when I found out that the FBI had a program to train forensic artists for law enforcement agencies, I applied. Once I was accepted, they flew me out to Quantico, and I actually was housed at the FBI Academy for the duration. There are actually very few full time artists in the nation. Most were like me, part time, something we did in addition to our regular duties.

Do many local police departments have their own forensic artists, or would we find them only in the larger departments with bigger budgets and in major agencies like the FBI?

For many years, only the very large agencies had a forensic artist. The FBI sought to change that. They paid for the training. In exchange the artist must be available to the FBI should they need any sketches for their federal cases. (And over the years, at least when I was working, they needed several!) It was a win-win situation. This allowed them to have an artist in about every state, and they wouldn’t have to fly their own artist out when there was a crime that fell under their jurisdiction.

Are all forensic artists in the U.S. trained by the FBI? Would you tell us about the training you received? Artistic talent is a requirement, I assume. Did you have to pass a test to be accepted for training? How were you taught to produce accurate drawings from verbal descriptions?

Not all artists are trained by the FBI. (I believe there may be some private individuals who offer classes.) The FBI requires that anyone trained by them must be employed by a law enforcement agency. Formal art training is not a prerequisite, but they did make me submit examples of my art prior to being accepted.

Some of the subjects they covered include cognitive interview techniques, facial aging, photo retouching (in the days before Adobe Photoshop!), and the forensic aspect (dead bodies, how to create a sketch from a skull), etc.

Being able to draw is only one tool for the artist. One needs the proper interview skills, along with empathy. Quite often, the only time an artist is called out is for a major crime, usually violent. Imagine sitting down with someone who has been recently traumatized, be it a witness to a murder or perhaps a rape victim, then having to walk them back through the crime so that they can come up with verbal description of the suspect for the artist to work with. In other words, you’re making them relive the crime again. But that is part of the cognitive interview technique, and it’s a delicate balance being able to gain the information you need, without further traumatizing the victim or witness. (And on an aside, something that most people aren’t aware of is that it can take 2-3 hours for a drawing to be complete. It’s not a quick sketch like you see on TV.)

It’s always a great feeling when, after the suspect is caught, you see that your drawing is right on the money. Unfortunately, they’re not all “hits.” As I like to say, the drawing is only as good as the witness. Some witnesses are better at verbally describing faces (or anything else). One of the most amazing things for me was when the witness remembers something that seems insignificant to him or her at the time, but it actually ends up being a key detail in the case later on. So it’s important to be an active listener. Those little details can sometimes end up playing a significant role when solving a case, or when it finally ends up in court.

What kind of person is Sydney Fitzpatrick? What are her best qualities and her worst? If she knew that someone close to her, a sibling or a lover, was guilty of a crime, would she turn him/her in?

Sydney is the type of investigator I wanted to be on my best days. (I mean really, if given the choice between writing a traffic ticket or saving the world, which would you pick?)  She is determined to do the right thing, make the sacrifices for the greater good. She is a champion of the underdog. Her worst quality, one she is aware of and is trying to change, is that she tends to be a very rigid rule follower. She is, however, finally learning to bend the rules. The old Sydney, the black and white Sydney, would have immediately thought that if someone close to her was guilty of a crime, then yes, she’d definitely turn him/her in. (Although I think if ever faced with such a situation in reality, she wouldn’t do it without a great deal of thought. And it depends on the crime and the person, I’m sure). Now, however, she is learning to work within the gray areas. It’s not easy for her.

You’ve been writing Sydney for a while now. How has she changed over the years, and how has her life changed? Are you letting her age naturally, or do you prefer to ignore the issue of age?

I actually thought long and hard about this when I started the second in the series, THE BONE CHAMBER. How much time should I let pass?  And should I tie the stories together?  Or should I simply offer another day in the life of Special Agent Sydney Fitzpatrick? Since each book can be read as a standalone, I chose to set them closer together, taking place just a few weeks apart. Each book is like a week-in-the-life, but for the faithful reader, I added a secondary story arc that runs throughout. So, since we’re dealing with months, not years, Sydney’s growth is not as significant as one might see in a series that spans a longer time period.

Does Sydney have a fatal flaw or weakness that sometimes threatens to interfere with her professional duties?

Her fatal flaw would be championing the underdog and her need to protect her family and friends. In my current work in progress, she’s helping just such an underdog, and then is faced with the life and death choice of sacrificing that person in order to save thousands of lives. How can one possibly make that decision?

You get Sydney’s family into the picture very early in THE DARK HOUR. Do you feel that her personal life is vital in making her a believable, rounded character? Does the balance of the personal and professional in a story come naturally to you, or do you have to work at maintaining a brisk pace?

I think adding a family life gives the novels more depth, but there is a balancing act to keep up the pacing. So the glimpses we see of her family are more of a way for us to understand some of her background and know a bit about what makes her tick. Had you asked me this question twenty-two years ago, before I had kids (and had I written the series back then), I would have given a different answer. Sydney’s family would have played a different role in the books back then. The best way to explain why is how I looked at things when I was a young cop. I rarely bothered to lock my patrol car when I got out. The shotgun (and later the AR15) could only be accessed with the vehicle key. In fact, the only thing of value that could be stolen was my briefcase buckled into the passenger seat, which contained my police report forms, clipboard, spare pens, whiteout, etc. Basically a portable desk. So what if someone stole it? I could always get a new one. (Anything of value was locked in the trunk, which one needed a key for.)

This all changed after my first daughter was born and I started carrying a small baby book with her photos in my briefcase. Suddenly it was very important that I lock the car. Seems sort of silly, as they were only photos, but it was a turning point in the way I viewed the world, and naturally, my characters also began to view the world differently. It’s also the reason why I never give my main protagonists any children of their own. With the cases they work, especially if I needed them to jet off to a foreign country at the drop of a hat, I’m not sure they could concentrate fully while they’re worried about who’s taking care of their kids.

You’ve said that you sometimes turn to former colleagues in law enforcement for help with research. How long have you been off the job? How much has changed since you started working as a cop? What resources do officers have now that you didn’t have?

I officially retired December of 2009, after twenty-seven years of working in law enforcement. Since I haven’t been gone all that long, there aren’t a lot of resources now that I didn’t have in the last decade. That being said, technology and police procedure changed drastically from when I was first hired to when I left, and it’s still evolving. For instance, when I started, cell phones weren’t even in existence, and now, in addition to cell phones, there are computers in many patrol cars.  Back when I started, if there was something that dispatch wanted to pass on to you that was too involved for radio traffic, you were required to drive to the nearest phone booth and radio the phone number for dispatch to call you on the payphone. So to me, the single biggest resource that really made a difference was the advent of cell phones.

Do you have FBI contacts who answer questions for you?

I do!  My good friend, George Fong, used to be a supervising FBI agent and worked out of the FBI headquarters in Washington. I believe he’s helped in almost every book I’ve written. And of course I belong to and use the considerable resources on Crimescenewriters, a Yahoo! Group filled with experts, many in the law enforcement or medical profession, who will either answer your question right there, or point you in the direction of someone else who knows the answer.

What is the greatest compliment anyone has ever given you about your writing?

I’ve received many compliments from law enforcement officers who have read the book and liked it very much. And so hearing praise from someone in my own profession is always great. But honestly? The best compliment ever is when someone tells me that they didn’t get enough sleep the night before because they couldn’t put the book down. What writer doesn’t want to hear that?


Robin Burcell was a police officer in California for twenty-seven years. During that time she worked both as a detective in the Investigations Division and as a patrol officer. She was a member of the Hostage Negotiation Team and was the FBI-trained forensic artist for several different law enforcement agencies in her county. She lives in Northern California with her husband and three children.

To learn more about Robin, please visit her website.

Sandra Parshall
Latest posts by Sandra Parshall (see all)