By John Clement
Being the resident “cozy-ologist” here at THE BIG THRILL, I’m accustomed to talking with writers of cozy mysteries, so my questions tend to lean in the same direction as well, like “Where do you find your recipes?” or “What’s your favorite color?” But ten pages into James Lilliefors’s newest book, THE PSALMIST, and I knew I had to change my game. Lilliefors is an award-winning journalist and novelist who grew up in the Washington, D.C. area. His work has appeared in Runner’s World, The Washington Post, The Miami Herald, The Boston Globe, and The Baltimore Sun, and his novels include BANANAVILLE, a mystery, and THE LEVIATHAN EFFECT and VIRAL, both geopolitical thrillers.
Published by Harper Collins this past July, THE PSALMIST is the first installment in the new Hunters and Bower mystery series. It’s hard-edged, compelling, and just a tiny bit cozy, so I knew in this case I needed to get right down to the nitty-gritty.
Without giving too much away, what is the story of The Psalmist?
THE PSALMIST tells the tale of a small, close-knit community on Maryland’s Eastern Shore that is visited one morning by an inexplicable crime. Luke Bowers, head pastor at the old wooden Tidewater Methodist Church, discovers a dead woman seated in the sanctuary of his church, her eyes open, her hands clasped as if in prayer. The woman clearly was murdered, although there is nothing at the scene to identify her or to explain why she was left there—other than a series of numbers carved into her right hand, which Luke begins to think may be a reference to the book of Psalms. As the strong-willed homicide cop Amy Hunter investigates this bizarre crime, she begins to find links to other murders in the mid-Atlantic region—and eventually to a more sweeping crime targeting the United States government.
The Psalmist is really a story about predators, which may come in the form of an unknown killer who strikes after dark or a sinister idea spread invisibly by the government—but may also be the neighbor next door or the friendly clerk who sells us our groceries.
Where did the idea for the story come from?
I was listening to an inspirational sermon on my iPod while running and began to wonder what the preacher’s message might be if he had to respond to a sudden crisis close to home. What if a crime occurred that involved his church? What if it tested the faith and patience of his congregation, his community, his family, himself? That was where the story started. Then I let the characters and the locale take over. The story was also inspired by memories of the Eastern Shore, where my family vacationed when I was growing up in the D.C. area.
What was the inspiration for the characters? And is there any one character that is most like you?
The book started with Pastor Luke Bowers and his wife (and their mixed lab retriever Sneakers). But Amy Hunter, the young investigator who heads the State Police Homicide Unit for Maryland’s Tidewater County, soon became the driving engine of the book.
Hunter and Bowers are both in the good-and-evil business, although in very different ways, and they act as foils for one another. One deals with manmade laws, the other with the laws of scripture. They have dissimilar styles and problem-solving methods but their dissimilarities somehow mesh. There’s a bit of Hunter and Bowers in everyone, I think.
Which character is most like me? Not sure. Probably Sneakers, who observes and tries to keep out of trouble.
There are a number of other characters in the book, some of whom were inspired by people I’ve known in small towns over the years. Donald Rumsfeld, who has a home on Maryland’s Eastern Shore, makes a cameo appearance.
I’m curious about your writing process: did you plot out the book before you began writing, or did that happen as you went along?
I started with the idea mentioned above and then the characters took over, steering the story where it needed to go, and often surprising me. Amy Hunter in particular had some strong ideas about this case and I found myself having to get out of her way—although the book’s villains weren’t so accommodating.
Do you keep a set schedule for your writing in terms of daily or weekly goals?
I write most every day. I try not to set goals because I’m not very good at meeting them.
What does the future hold for the world of THE PSALMIST?
Amy Hunter and Pastor Luke Bowers will return in THE TEMPEST (to be published next April). This second book in the series involves a famous stolen painting, Rembrandt’s Storm on the Sea of Galilee, and several murders in the Northeast that may or may not have to do with efforts to find it. The antagonist of THE PSALMIST makes a brief appearance in this book.
Is there anything else you’re currently working on?
Yes, I also have a geopolitical espionage series featuring Charles and Jon Mallory and am working now on the third installment. Charles is a private intelligence contractor, formerly a CIA case officer, and Jon an investigative journalist. In the first book of the series, VIRAL, they contend with a biologically based threat to alter world demographics. In THE LEVIATHAN EFFECT, the second, they combat efforts to use weather-manipulation as a weapon (a science that is being vigorously pursued in China and Russia, by the way). The new book involves a plot to permanently cripple U.S. credibility around the world with a few carefully orchestrated events.
And finally, just for the record, what’s your favorite color?
James Lilliefors is a novelist and journalist who grew up in the Washington, D.C. area. He is the author of the geopolitical thriller novels VIRAL and THE LEVIATHAN EFFECT and the new Luke Bowers/Amy Hunter mystery/crime series (THE PSALMIST and THE TEMPEST, both set in the Maryland community of Tidewater County). Lilliefors is also the author of three nonfiction books.
To learn more about James, please visit his website.