Up Close: Bruce Robert Coffin

A Killer Hiding Within Plain Sight?

By K. L. Romo

A staged body missing its head sends Detective Sergeant John Byron of the Portland, Maine, police department on a chase for the killer. In WITHIN PLAIN SIGHT, author Bruce Robert Coffin takes readers into a murder investigation that has plenty of suspects with motive—but few clues.

With a new police chief breathing down his neck, Byron is on the hunt for the person who murdered a young woman and cut off her head, which they haven’t yet found. The MO is eerily similar to a rash of slayings in Boston by a serial killer dubbed The Horseman. Although the press jumps to the conclusion that the killer is the same, Byron and Detective Melissa Stevens know the danger of making assumptions. Keeping an open mind is the key to solving murders. Assumptions could not only lead them in the wrong direction, but could get them killed.

And there is a leak somewhere in the Portland Police Department.

As the investigation continues, the list of suspects grows. Who had the most to gain from killing this woman, and who had the most to lose if they left her alive? The killer has left them a riddle that proves hard as hell to solve.

Is the killer a “deadly voyeur, hidden within plain sight?”

While hunting down justice, Byron battles his own demons. He’s been sober for six months and must continually remind himself what a blessing it is by reading To Thine Own Self Be True etched on his AA sobriety coin. It was “just a coin. No more, no less. It meant nothing really, no more than the others had, and yet he knew it meant everything.”

Coffin’s 2018 novel Beyond the Truth was nominated for the Malice Domestic Agatha Award for Best Contemporary Mystery. He’s pictured here with fellow finalists Hank Phillippi Ryan (left) and Annette Dashofy at the 2019 awards ceremony near Washington, DC.

Coffin is well versed in the art of police investigation. Having been a detective sergeant with the Portland, Maine, police department supervising all homicide and violent crime investigations, and working counterterrorism with the FBI, he uses intimate procedural details learned and practiced on the job.

Is John Byron a fictional portrayal of your life in law enforcement, or is he totally a product of your imagination?

John is an amalgam of the many men and women I had the pleasure of serving with over the years. While there may be a sizable portion of me lurking within Detective Sergeant Byron, he is largely a construct of fellow officers, possessing the good and bad traits prevalent in law enforcement.

Coffin speaks to undergraduate students at Maine’s Saint Joseph’s College in 2018.

Is the murder investigation in WITHIN PLAIN SIGHT reminiscent of one of your real investigations?

Not the murder case itself, but, as in each of the John Byron novels, I draw heavily on my experiences from a number of real-life investigations. Most readers of this series are surprised by the sheer number of roadblocks erected during a murder case. It probably shouldn’t be surprising, given the magnitude of what’s at stake. Murder is the ultimate theft—the taking of a life—the killer and those trying to catch him are driven beyond anything experienced in normal everyday life.

Does the WITHIN PLAIN SIGHT title include your trademark double meaning?

Indeed, it does. I wondered when someone would catch that. And I’ve made it my rule, at least for this series, to carry on with the ironic double entendre titles. In this case, the first meaning pertains to where a body is discovered, while the second is—well, I’ll let the readers figure it out.

Besides thrilling entertainment, is there a message for readers in the book?

I think every tale contains an underlying message. The trick is to impart some knowledge or lesson upon the reader without becoming preachy. In the debut Byron novel, Among the Shadows, the message was about the fruitlessness of trying to outrun your past. The message in WITHIN PLAIN SIGHT is one of not allowing distractions to knock you off course. And whether we are discussing personal or professional distractions, staying on course is the point, and challenge, of every murder investigation.

Coffin (left) at the 2018 New England Crime Bake in Woburn, Mass., with guest of honor Walter Mosley.

What was the most baffling homicide investigation you ever conducted?

The most baffling of cases are those never solved, but the Amy St. Laurent murder was probably the one I worked with the most unbelievable twists and turns. They say that truth is stranger than fiction. In real life, the manner of death and the reasons for it are often convoluted. Had Amy’s murder been a fictional story, most editors would shake their heads. Finding Amy, a book written by Kate Flora and Joseph Loughlin, gives a firsthand accounting of the case.

Is there a particular thriller or mystery writer who has inspired your Detective Byron series and writing thrillers in general?

Believe it or not, I didn’t dare dive into reading thrillers until I was halfway through writing my second Byron novel. I was afraid that I would lose my own writing voice if I read the works of other thriller writers. Since then, I’ve been making up for lost time, devouring thriller and mystery novels. Besides the plethora of accomplished Maine mystery/thriller authors, I’m also hooked on Child, Connelly, Cleeves, Krueger, Lynds, Burke, and Sandford, just to name a few.

Coffin at the Camden Public Library in Maine, shortly before a 2018 appearance.

What is the most important advice you could give other writers?

Write honestly. There is so much great writing advice floating around out there in the literary ether, but the one that transcends genres, and will have the greatest impact on your writing, is to write honestly. While the stories themselves are the entertaining piece of a novel, the reader’s ability to relate to the characters is even more important. Relying on our own feelings and experiences to flesh out the characters in our books will create empathy and a necessary connection between character and reader. It is this connection that keeps readers coming back for more.

The most important piece of advice I ever received came from my mentor Kate Flora who, when I was just starting out, told me to be careful what I wished for. She wanted me to enjoy every single moment of the ride up to publication; after that, she said there would be this thing called deadlines. Pretty sound advice.

How do you like to read books—electronically or traditional paper?

While I avail myself of both, I prefer paper. There is just something magical about the feel and heft of a bound copy that doesn’t exist in digital format. And I like to know what page I’m on. Nobody has ever asked me what percentage of the book I’ve read. My other fave, being on the road so much, are audiobooks. A well-narrated audiobook can add pleasure to any journey.

Coffin, a former professional artist, with his painting of FBI Special Agent Edwin C. Shanahan, the first agent killed in the line of duty.

Tell us something about yourself your fans don’t already know.

Prior to my return to writing, I was a professional artist. Working in watercolor and oil mediums, I painted everything from portraits to seascapes. Several original pieces depicted police themes and are on display in various law enforcement agencies, including my former department. In 2008, while working on a Joint Terrorism Task Force, I was commissioned to paint a portrait commemorating the 100th anniversary of the Federal Bureau of Investigation. The portrait I created was of Special Agent Edwin C. Shanahan, the first agent killed in the line of duty, who was shot while trying to apprehend a car thief in Chicago on October 11, 1925. The painting, titled Fidelity, Bravery, Integrity, is on permanent display in the Boston Field Office of the FBI.

 

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