Thriller fans need to check out Jess Lourey’s Salem’s Cipher, her first foray into the thriller genre. It has hidden puzzles that must be solved to avert a national, if not international, incident. It has secret societies that have been manipulating history for decades. It has villains worthy of the name. Better yet, if you are like me, it keeps you guessing.
Lourey may have decided to make Salem’s Cipher a thriller because thrillers are “consistently good sellers,” but she found herself falling in love with the style of writing. “Every other book I write, there are some scenes that are a joy to build, and others that feel like a chore. When writing Salem’s Cipher, every scene felt breathless. I couldn’t wait to write it.”
One of the things that sets Salem’s Cipher apart from many first thrillers is its pacing. Lourey realized the importance of this and to help her prepare she immersed herself in some of the best writing out there. “Three standouts that really helped me internalize the delicate dance between pacing and character development are Alison Gaylin’s And She Was, Chelsea Cain’s The Night Season, and Catriona McPherson’s The Day She Died. I am an outliner, and so I needed my pacing to be tight before I even started writing. Those three books gave me ideas of how to do it.”
Lourey started with several goals for Salem’s Cipher. She wanted to explore the ramifications of a child’s parent committing suicide. Second, “Like most people, I spend a lot of time worrying about saying the wrong thing, ruining everything, and generally not fitting in. I wanted to explore that in my fiction in the hopes of releasing some of it. Third and finally, I love puzzles. My brain cracks and pops like a mad dancer when it gets a chance to crack a code, solve a riddle, find a treasure. I wanted to create a book like a playground for minds like mine. Salem’s Cipher is the result.”
The characters in Salem’s Cipher are not run-of-the-mill. Lourey said she had the book’s concept before she had the main character. “I asked myself what kind of woman would be at the center of this story. She had to be smart, imperfect, and real, with a reason to solve puzzles. Meet Salem Wiley: Genius cryptanalyst and reluctant heroine of the series. You learn early in the book that Salem’s father killed himself, she feels responsible and she’s been agoraphobic ever since. I also dumped all my social fears into Salem so I could figure out how to overcome them. Finally, I made her a cryptanalyst to feed my hummingbird brain.”
Salem and her best friend Bel were more challenging to write than the protagonist of Lourey’s humorous Murder-by-the-Month series, Mira James. Mira is easy to write since she and Lourey share a number of personality traits. Bel and Salem are “much more challenging to write because they are cut of whole cloth and because both of them go through such a transformation in the book.”
Lourey has not neglected the villains in this tale either. “Reed Farrel Coleman gave me the best antagonist-writing advice of my career: the villain is the hero of his own story. I aim to write the bad guy with as much depth and motivation as the hero. The only difference is that a lot of the antagonist’s story happens off the page so the pacing doesn’t get bogged down, but so s/he is believable and complex when s/he walks on scene.”
Besides creating a villain (Jason) with face-shifting abilities and extraordinary knife skills, Lourey managed to create an organization that functions as an additional character in Salem’s Cipher. “I needed a memorable single villain around which to coalesce the fear in the first book but also an organization to hand the devilry off to in the next book. In the third book, you’ll really see the vastness of the conspiracy played out across the geography and history, coming together in one horrifying realization.”
Lourey spent the better part of three days researching sideshow performers and physical abnormalities to come up with a reasonable theory behind Jason’s face-shifting ability. “Man, was that fascinating, haunting research.” And for someone who loves puzzles, Lourey researched all the history and facts concerning cryptology contained in Salem’s Cipher, admitting she will have to re-research it all when she writes the second in the series as it was “apparently dis-acquired.”
“If I could marry research, I would. Diving into dusty books, exploring the corners of the Internet, making connections between seemingly disconnected bits of information captivates me. I ordered and read most or all of twenty-some books plus hundreds of articles online. I didn’t know what I was looking for at first, beyond knowledge of cryptanalysis and threads of unexplored conspiracy. I find if you dig into research with an open mind and trust that there is a story there, it all comes together.”
When asked if she was able to focus on the novel-in-progress to the exclusion of other ideas, or if she worked on more than one project at a time, Lourey replied, “Here’s the deal: I wrote three books this year, plus teaching full-time, raising two kids, getting married, and moving to a new city. It’s absolutely crazy. I would love to focus on one project at a time. Someday this writing will be my full-time gig, but in the meanwhile, I juggle like a monkey. I’m currently working on edits of March of Crimes, the eleventh book in my Murder-by-Month mystery series, promoting Salem’s Cipher, preparing for the fall semester at the college where I teach, and putting online a version of my upcoming how-to book called Rewrite Your Life. I’m pretty excited about that as it combines my passions: writing and teaching.”
Lourey developed an editing trick for Salem’s Cipher that she calls the ARISE method—Action, Romance, Information, Suspense, and Emotion. To belong in the book, a scene has to provide one of the five. If the scene can provide more than one “or jeez, all five, it’s a home run. Tagging each scene based on how many of the five it was bringing to the story turned editing into a game, one I enjoyed because it created tiny victories and easy fixes throughout.”
History and timing have also affected Salem’s Cipher as the novel features an assassination plot to kill the first viable female presidential candidate in the history of the United States.
Salem’s Cipher is the first of three planned titles in the Witch Hunt series (Mercy’s Chase and Mary’s Truth). Given the planned ending in the Mary’s Truth, it is hard to envision a fourth.
To learn more about Salem’s Cipher and its creator, visit Lourey’s web site.
Jessica (Jess) Lourey is best known for her critically-acclaimed Murder-by-Month mysteries, which have earned multiple starred reviews from Library Journal and Booklist, the latter calling her writing “a splendid mix of humor and suspense.” Jessica also writes sword and sorcery fantasy as Albert Lea and edge-of-your-seat YA adventure as J.H. Lourey, and is branching out into magical realism, literary fiction, and thrillers under her given name. She is a tenured professor of creative writing and sociology at a Minnesota college and a recipient of The Loft’s 2014 Excellence in Teaching fellowship. When not teaching, reading, traveling, writing, or raising her two wonderful kids, you can find her dreaming of her next story. SALEM’S CIPHER, the first book in her thrilling Witch Hunt Series, hits stores September 2016.