By Kay Kendall
TRUTH BE TOLD is the latest thriller by Hank Phillippi Ryan. Deemed “the incredible master of plot” by Suspense Magazine, Ryan combines foreclosure fraud, a twenty-year-old murder case, and a secret romance between a reporter and a cop into a fascinating and plausible tale. In a rush of snappy prose she brings to life believable characters set against a backdrop of financial and political shenanigans in Boston.
This is the third novel in Ryan’s series featuring investigative reporter Jane Ryland. The first title was The Other Woman, released in 2012, in which Jane Ryland and detective Jake Brogan cross paths in their respective professional capacities and romantic sparks ignite. This book won the MWA/Mary Higgins Clark Award. Its sequel, The Wrong Girl, won both the Agatha for Best Contemporary Novel and the Daphne du Maurier Award earlier this year.
Ryan burst onto the mystery/thriller scene seven years ago with Prime Time, which won the Agatha for Best First Novel. TRUTH BE TOLD is now her seventh book, and was just named a Library Journal Best of 2014. All her thrillers win rave reviews, awards, and nominations. Her fame and readership have grown with each successive book. She offers a helping hand to aspiring writers as a founding teacher of the Mystery Writers of America University and has served as president in 2013 of the national organization Sisters in Crime.
When you consider that Ryan has become a well-read, highly regarded author on top of an enormously successful and busy journalism career, then the mind does boggle. Since 1983 she has been the on-air investigative reporter for WHDH-TV, NBC’s affiliate in Boston. To date she has won thirty-two Emmy Awards and twelve Edward R. Murrow Awards for her investigative and consumer reporting. And still, she had time to be interviewed for ITW’s THE BIG CHILL.
Welcome, Hank. Your career as an award-winning TV journalist would keep most people busy enough. But in 2007 with twenty-eight Emmys already on your shelf, your first thriller, Prime Time, was published. It went on to win the Agatha Award for best first novel. What propelled you to add a second career?
I love how you ask about “adding a second career” as if that’s something a person could plan. So much of it is luck. And timing, and being at the right place at the right time. And recognizing that. Plus hard work. And—luck.
I grew up in really rural Indiana, so rural you couldn’t see another house from our house. In fact, picture this, my sister and I used to ride our ponies to the library. We’d fill up our saddle bags with books and the read in the hayloft of the barn behind our house. (I was quite the geeky loner.)
But turns out, that was such a valuable time of growth for me! My friends were all in books, Sherlock Holmes and Nancy Drew and Hercule Poirot. So many of us began that way, right? Tess Gerritsen says at age seven or so, it seems like people self-select to be authors. I know that’s what happened to me.
My parents were incredibly supportive, and my adventures in books and literature have changed my life. I was allowed to read everything! Even though I remember having to sneak Marjorie Morningstar and Failsafe and Seven Days in May. I fell in love with storytelling! The architecture of the mystery, and the power of suspense. “Once upon a time,” you know?
My mother was also very wise in that she always encouraged me to look for answers. I would always ask “why” and she would say go and find out! Ask for yourself! See what you can discover.
And then I think I was born both the mystery author and the investigative reporter. Because both are about storytelling.
Suspicion arises that you must require less sleep than most people. When (or how) do you fit your writing into your journalistic career?
Ha. Sleep. I love sleep. A while ago, maybe 2005, when I was in the midst of writing Prime Time, I realized I had no idea what I was doing. I called my Mom, as we all do if we are lucky, and I said, “Ah, I’m baffled. I love my book, but I’m not sure if I know how to finish it.” And she paused, and then said, “You will if you want to.”
And I think of that every day. We do what we want to, right? And we make it work.
Your own experience as a reporter gives you a wealth of stories to draw from, including announcing on-air the Boston Marathon terrorist attack last year.
Yes, that was a terrifying time. I got a call from the executive producer to come to the newsroom and report breaking news. What happened? I asked. We’re not quite sure, he said.
Three minutes later, they’d clamped a microphone on my lapel, and told me: “There have been two explosions at the Marathon. And you’re on the air in five, four…”
I will admit my knees were shaking. And I told myself—Hank, you’re a storyteller. Just tell the story as it unfolds.
Is it difficult to keep your two jobs separate?
It’s so funny how we use different parts of our brains. Truth and fiction? Easy to separate when I’m writing.
I’ve been a TV reporter for forty years! I’ve covered fires and hostage situations and crime scenes and high-speed chases and hurricanes… And I have written news stories in the rain, sitting on the curb of the sidewalk or in the back of a careening news van.
In the newsroom, with its raised voices and clattering computers and blaring television monitors, I can bang out a script, no problem. Just the truth. Just the facts.
But when I am in the midst of writing a novel, I’m at home, at my desk, looking through the bay window at a gorgeous maple tree. And it has to be completely quiet! No talking, no music, no interruption. My mind is completely involved in the new made-up world of my book, and the time goes by amazingly. I’ll look up, and three hours will have passed!
There’s a special mental writing place where authors go, which I never would have believed it if I hadn’t experienced it myself. I guess that’s called imagination!
Do you think your work during the Boston Marathon investigation may somehow inspire the plot for a future thriller?
Oh, well. Hmm. My motto is: You never know. Every one of my thirty-two Emmys represents a secret, you know? A secret someone didn’t want me to reveal. I’ve wired myself with hidden cameras, confronted corrupt politicians, chased down criminals, gone undercover and in disguise.
Certainly the plot of TRUTH BE TOLD came from one of my real-life investigations. My photographer and I were covering an eviction—you know what they look like, lots of deputies inside, and lots of trash in the front yard. It was incredibly sad. I did not know who owned the home. We were simply getting video for a story I was working on about mortgage fraud.
At one point a deputy came to the front door, and I saw his silhouette outlined in the doorframe. His whole body language seemed so emotional, so sad. And I wondered… What if he just found a body in a back room?
Remember the deputies had been there for hours, cleaning out the house. And I thought—as a crime fiction author, of course—wait. The law-enforcement officers themselves have been inside, tramping around, touching everything, throwing stuff away, cleaning up, sweeping.
I thought—what if they have ruined the crime scene! The cops ruined their own crime scene!
And the more I thought about it, the more I thought that would be the terrific beginning of a thriller. And now readers will see that is exactly how TRUTH BE TOLD begins.
In investigative reporting and in crime fiction one story always leads to another. And it’s those dominoes falling that make them so interesting.
In real life, they didn’t find a body, of course.
But in real life, our stories resulted in people getting their homes out of foreclosure, millions of dollars in refunds and restitution, and three new laws passed. In TRUTH BE TOLD, a massive bank fraud and murder plot are revealed. It’s all about a good story!
And now TRUTH BE TOLD has been named as a Library Journal BEST BOOK of 2014.
Here are two things I’ve always wondered about—one: how did you come by the handle of Hank?
Oh, because it’s just us. I will tell you my real name is Harriet Ann. When you’re eight and all the cool girls are Debbie and Linda, Harriet is awful. Someone in college made up Hank, and it’s been that way ever since.
This late in life, I have come to embrace Harriet. But I guess it is too late to change.
And what was it like working for Rolling Stone in the seventies?
Well, it was fabulous of course. I worked with Richard Goodwin on the Politics section of the magazine, and on a Washington, D.C. insider-y column called Capitol Chatter.
I also worked with Hunter S. Thompson, helping him with his coverage of the 1976 presidential election. I traveled a lot with him, and it was hilariously and memorably wonderful. (Once in Miami, he showed me how to breathe fire by inhaling lighter fluid and then lighting a match as you breathe out. I refused to try it.)
I also did a big project with Richard Avedon, traveling the country to photograph people who he selected as the most influential in the US. It became a gorgeous and historic article, a gallery of Avedon portraits in Rolling Stone.
He took one of us together! It is one of my treasures.
Now? I should be writing. I have to finish What You See in less than a week. Oops. Since I don’t use an outline, I hope I get an idea pretty soon.
But please click here for my schedule!
I’m traveling like mad for TRUTH BE TOLD (did I tell you it was just named a Best Book of 2014 by Library Journal? I did? Well, I’m so thrilled it bears repeating…) and I’d love to meet you all!
Hank Phillippi Ryan is the on-air investigative reporter for Boston’s NBC affiliate. She’s won 32 EMMYs, 12 Edward R. Murrow awards and dozens of other honors for her ground-breaking journalism. A bestselling author of seven mystery novels, Ryan has won multiple prestigious awards for her crime fiction: three Agathas, the Anthony, Daphne, Macavity, and for THE OTHER WOMAN, the coveted Mary Higgins Clark Award. National reviews have called her a “master at crafting suspenseful mysteries” and “a superb and gifted storyteller.” Her 2013 novel, THE WRONG GIRL, has the extraordinary honor of winning the Agatha Award for Best Contemporary Novel and the Daphne Award for Mainstream Mystery/Suspense, and is a seven-week Boston Globe bestseller. Her newest hardcover, TRUTH BE TOLD, is a Library Journal BEST BOOK OF 2014, Library Journal Editor’s Pick and RT Book Reviews Top Pick, with starred reviews from Booklist and from Library Journal, which raves, “Drop everything and binge read!” She’s a founding teacher at Mystery Writers of America University and 2013 president of national Sisters in Crime.
To learn more about Hank, please visit her website.