Up Close: Don Helin
Eye-Opening Vacation Inspires
By J. H. Bográn
The chain of events that reaches climax in the so-called roof of the world in Don Helin’s new thriller begins with the murder of an elderly woman in Virginia—the Death Angel has paid a visit to her home. Readers will immediately wonder what this old woman can know that merits such an exit from the world of the living. Turns out she’s the mother of a leader in the resistance movement against Chinese control of Tibet.
The US can’t stand idle and allow foreign assassins to operate under their nose, and Colonel Zack Kelly is tasked to investigate—thrust in a whirlwind of intrigue and an endless army of assassins.
Five years ago, Helin and his wife visited Tibet, Nepal, and Bhutan. The trip lasted 19 days and became a real eye-opener for them.
“As we traveled around Tibet, we heard about native Tibetans’ problems,” he says. “For example, having to go through checkpoints to get into their temples, children taken from them and put in schools taught by Chinese, and efforts by the Chinese to silence monks gave me pause. Ever since we returned from our trip, I’ve had a book about Tibet on my mind. Now with the added emphasis of our rocky relationship with China and the fact the Dalai Lama is aging and the Chinese plan to appoint the next Dalai Lama, I felt now was the time.”
That book became ROOF OF THE WORLD.
During his trip, Helin had the opportunity to visit all of the sites in Tibet, Nepal, and Bhutan featured in the novel. It helped him to provide the necessary realism when describing the locations. He accumulated additional information on Tibet by interviewing religious leaders as well as reading many Tibet-related books.
Being the fifth entry in the series, the main character, Colonel Zack Kelly, has changed considerably since the first installment.
“At the beginning of the series, Kelly is divorced and a workaholic assigned to a task force assisting the president’s national security advisor,” Helin says. “His ex-wife becomes depressed and begins taking drugs. She was arrested and is now serving a two-year jail sentence. His 17-year-old daughter comes to live with him, and he must take on the role of a single parent, balancing her needs—she wants him as a soccer coach—versus his need to work long hours for the president’s national security advisor. In the next book, she falls for a rock star who is exactly the opposite of Kelly, and he must deal with that.”
Helin admits the new novel has a more personal streak. With Kelly’s travels in the military, he’s never had a chance to see how all of his high school classmates are doing, particularly his old sweetheart, Bonnie. He decides to attend his 20th reunion.
Unbeknown to him, one classmate is involved in an international conspiracy. And during the reunion, a sniper hits one of the classmates he was talking to. Everyone—including the FBI—believe the sniper was aiming at Kelly. Who ever said school reunions had to be boring?
Helin’s own military experience has come in handy while writing the series. He spent almost nine years in the Pentagon and went on overseas tours in Vietnam and Germany. He’s also learned about firearms, helicopters, and military maneuvers such as hostage rescue.
“This has enabled me to bring on-the-ground realism to my novels,” he says.
In addition to writing, Helin serves as a mentor with the Mystery Writers of America.
“I’ve had so many talented writers help me along the way—I was an ITW debut author, for example—and now I can pay it forward and help others improve their writing skills and perhaps help set them on the road to publication,” Helin says. “I’ve worked with three so far and have maintained a relationship with each of them.”
Everybody has a different path when it comes to answering the call to writing. Helin shares his own: “When I retired from the army, I attended a travel writing symposium from The Washington Post and started travel writing. When I began writing novels, I quit travel writing, only to take it back up about five years ago.”
He wrote for The Burg, a news magazine in central Pennsylvania for about five years. When he and his wife moved to Lancaster, his editor prompted him to write articles on Lancaster.
“It’s been a lot of fun,” he says, “meeting new people, marketing myself, and building a community for my novels through travel writing.”
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