Up Close: Hilary Davidson

The Dark Side of Travel Writing

By Dawn Ius

Hilary Davidson has traveled the world writing positive, upbeat articles about some of the most beautiful places on the planet. She got paid for that work, too.

It sounds like an ideal gig for a journalist—and for a while it was. Until she started having darker thoughts about the places she was visiting and had no venue to “voice” those thoughts.

“I wasn’t necessarily looking for dark stories, but there are all kinds of scams that happen on the road,” she says. “And travel journalism is a bit of a different beast. You’re not allowed to write negative stories. I was literally censored by the magazines. But I’d come across something—a scam, a shady detail, and it would spark something. I started putting these dark thoughts into function.”

She began with short stories, and then in 2010, launched the first book in her Lily Moore series, The Damage Done. The novel debuted well, earning Davidson a coveted Anthony Award for Best First Novel and the Crimespree Award for Best First Novel. The Damage Done was also a finalist for the Arthur Ellis and Macavity awards, firmly establishing Davidson as a crime writer to watch out for.

But it wasn’t until last year’s One Small Sacrifice—the first in Davidson’s Shadows of New York series—that her career really started gaining traction. Davidson attributes the book’s popularity to a couple of factors.

Davidson with the late Lois Duncan, after presenting the legendary
author with the Mystery Writers of America Grand Master Award in 2015.

“People loved the multiple viewpoint format,” she says. “Literally, my best friend said, ‘This is the best book you’ve ever written.’ It was so much more complex, and the pacing really stepped up.”

The second factor, Davidson notes, is that she switched publishers, moving from Forge to Amazon’s Thomas & Mercer, where she says she has “so much more support than I ever had, even starting with the editing. It was wonderful working with an editor that really got the book and helped me make it better. My first publisher and editor believed in me, but mystery wasn’t what they were focussing on. It was almost like an experiment. And so it was really different going to Thomas & Mercer.”

Davidson remains at Thomas & Mercer for the highly-anticipated Book 2 in the Shadows of New York series, DON’T LOOK DOWN.

Davidson with Jar of Hearts author Jennifer Hillier at a Noir at the Bar event in New York City’s Greenwich Village.

When NYPD partners Sheryn Sterling and Rafael Mendoza find a man murdered in his own home, all signs point to Jo Greaver as the suspect—a young and ambitious beauty industry entrepreneur with a dark secret she would seemingly do anything to keep buried.

It’s not a spoiler to say that Jo was the victim of a sex trafficking ring, but as Davidson points out, that’s not something she should be ashamed of. So what could she possibly be hiding, and why is someone blackmailing her?

“It really made me dig deeper into the psychology of the character,” Davidson says. “We live in an age where people talk about just about everything—but there are limits to that. Thinking about that really got me to the core of Jo’s character.”

Not to mention the opportunity to revisit her series protagonist, NYPD Detective Sheryn Sterling. Davidson says when she started writing One Small Sacrifice, she didn’t intend for it to be a police procedural. But having lived in New York for so long—she moved from Toronto when she and her American husband got married—she’s met a lot of people. Good people. Including many police officers who are doing great work in sometimes-harrowing circumstances.

“I have amazing access to people here,” she says. “Sheryn was born out of many hours of interviews, talking about the challenges of modern policing. The police here are facing a lot of external pressures, and I’ve been fascinated by looking at that and seeing it evolve. And I’ve been really fortunate in having a lot of people tell me stories.”

Davidson at the New York City book launch party for her 2019 thriller
One Small Sacrifice.

Some of them aren’t good stories, Davidson admits—as with all police departments across the country, NYPD has its controversies—but she really wanted to create a character that didn’t fall into some of the procedural tropes found in crime fiction. The cop with PTSD, drowning his demons with a bottle of scotch. The officer with anger management issues, taking out his frustrations on his spouse. The detective with a broken past and lots of present-day family dysfunction.

“It’s not realistic,” she says. “The job takes a toll on people, and there are a lot that shouldn’t be doing it. But the idea of a broken-down drunk magically solving a case? That’s not going to happen.”

Davidson incorporates another cop’s point of view in DON’T LOOK DOWN: Sterling’s partner, Rafael Mendoza. Fans of Davidson’s first book might recall that Mendoza is badly injured in One Small Sacrifice—and he carries that injury into this new story.

Davidson with author Kellye Garrett just before the 2018 Anthony
Awards ceremony. Both authors walked away with Anthonys that night: Davidson for her
short story “My Side of the Matter,” and Garrett for her novel Hollywood Homicide.

“I hadn’t considered the possibility of writing a character from the perspective of a cop with disabilities,” she says. “There’s this real macho culture, where no one wants to come back and be on desk duty. It really made me look at a lot of things for me—it was kind of a discovery for me as I was writing.”

Sterling and Mendoza rely on similar intuition and discovery as they work to solve the gruesome case in DON’T LOOK DOWN, further cementing a partnership that will (hopefully) continue to grow over a number of books down the road.

A third Shadows of New York book is certainly in the works, but next up for Davidson is a yet untitled standalone thriller about a woman who knows her sister has been murdered. As well, one of Davidson’s stories will be publishing in the upcoming crime anthology The Swamp Killers.

“I’m so grateful that I get the opportunity to write these crazy characters,” Davidson says.

As are we.

 

Dawn Ius
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