The Chesapeake Bay rarely freezes, but when it does, the ice halts global shipping companies and Smith Island fisherfolk alike from making a living. With their deadrise workboats locked in ice at their piers, the people of Smith Island take to the frozen wastes on foot, on skates, and even on golfcarts, to experience this freak weather phenomenon. Blackshaw is not immune to the lure of the ice, but on his sightseeing trek, he discovers the frozen corpse of a woman. Blackshaw and his neighbors bring the dead body to an abandoned restaurant on Smith Island and place the remains on an old picnic table inside. Only then do they realize the woman was shot at close range, then tossed into the Chesapeake days before the bay froze.
A neighbor boy dashes into the makeshift mortuary with shocking images captured by his drone’s camera. There are eight more corpses still out there frozen in the ice. Blackshaw and his neighbors bring the other bodies inside. Several of them wear life preservers labeled Penelope, which is the name of a massive Liquid Natural Gas transport frozen in the Chesapeake’s main shipping channel. Every corpse shows signs of foul play.
As night falls, Blackshaw and Knocker Ellis decide to patrol through the worsening blizzard to the ship to investigate. Before they leave, LuAnna finds a microscope slide stashed in the first corpse’s clothing. The slide contains a blue fluid, which they quickly identify as a sample of horseshoe crab blood. They soon tie the murders of the Penelope’s crew to a plan set in motion by Big Pharma which wants to destroy the entire Chesapeake Bay fishery.
Blackshaw’s frenemies from the FBI, Agents Molly Wilde and Pershing Lowry, soon join the mission, which involves keen detective work, as well as several bloody skirmishes aboard an LNG tanker wired to explode. Blackshaw, LuAnna, Ellis, and friends must defuse the plot before Washington, DC is devastated, and life in the Chesapeake Bay is poisoned for decades to come.
The Big Thrill caught up with author and award-winning screenwriter Robert Blake Whitehill to learn more about his latest novel, the sixth Ben Blackshaw thriller, BLAST:
Was there anything new you discovered or that surprised you as you wrote this book?
I discovered that, in addition to the action set pieces, that Blackshaw now has a powerful internal quandary going on about whether to engage with the antagonist in the first place. You see, Blackshaw became a father at the end of the last book, Dog & Bitch Island, and now the stakes are much higher if he is maimed or killed on a mission. His son, Callum, grows up without a father. His soulmate, LuAnna, is a widow and a single mom. Like never before, now Blackshaw faces devastating consequences if his risk-taking goes sideways.
Which took shape first: plot, character, or setting?
The protagonist character set was established in the first five Blackshaw thrillers. I love making up new bad guys. Since each book starts with a murder victim in the first paragraph or so, I knew I wanted the body to be found in the frozen wastes of the Chesapeake Bay. From there, the plot evolves.
No spoilers, but what can you tell us about your book that we won’t find in the jacket copy or the PR material?
Blackshaw’s friend, Knocker Ellis Hogan, disappears, apparently deserting our hero in the middle of the mission. This abandonment is hurtful, dangerous, and abjectly perplexing to Blackshaw, who has to refigure the entire mission as a lone operator.
What authors or books have influenced your career as a writer, and why?
I have always enjoyed Lee Child, Jules Verne, Alafair Burke, James Lee Burke, Scott Smith, Patricia Cornwell, Lawrence Block, Alistair MacLean, and John D. MacDonald. They throw their characters into tremendously difficult straits, but the characters always persevere with enormous heart and emotional authenticity. The action isn’t simply a task sequence with these authors. The action is suffused with self-doubt, anxiety, fear, weakness confusion, physical and moral injury, and temptation, all the genuine emotions that we all bear along with us as we go through our daily trials. The emotional realism mixed in with creative action is what makes these authors my mentors.
What attracts you to this book’s genre?
I have always read thrillers, and so for me, it was natural that I would emulate my betters in hopes of bringing a quickened heartbeat to my readers.
Can Blackshaw casually risk his life the same way in Book Six as he did in Book One?
The answer is yes, he does still take risks, because the consequences of balking are life or death; now he weighs the consequences before he jumps in, and those worries are distracting and bring him closer than ever to failure and death.
What was the biggest challenge this book presented? What about the biggest opportunity?
I usually finish a rough draft in about five months and edit like crazy from there. But several commitments to feature film producers meant stopping the novel writing process over and over to attend to script rewrites, some of which were quite involved. Then there was a bout or two with COVID tearing through the household which knocked everyone back on their heels. All this was devastating to my usual Blackshaw thriller production schedule. The biggest opportunity was getting to experience writing a first draft over a longer span of time. Now I know. I definitely prefer a shorter first draft process and my usual longer editing process.
Robert Blake Whitehill is a Maryland Eastern Shore native and an award-winning screenwriter at the Hamptons International Film Festival and the Hudson Valley Film Festival. He is also an Alfred P. Sloan Foundation award winner for his feature script U.X.O. (Unexploded Ordnance). In addition, he is a proud member of International Thriller Writers. He is also a contributing writer to Chesapeake Bay Magazine and The Audiophile Voice. Deadrise, Nitro Express, Tap Rack Bang, Geronimo Hotshot, Dog & Bitch Island, and BLAST are the first six novels of the Ben Blackshaw series.
To learn more about Robert and his work, please visit his website.
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