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Police Brutality, Protests, and a Girl Gone Rogue

By Robert Rotstein

New York Times best-selling author David Bell is back with his 16th novel, TRY NOT TO BREATHE, a fast-paced thriller that also explores family conflict, love, and loyalty—and one woman’s attempt to overcome her deepest fear. Bell treats these sensitive topics masterfully while keeping the clock racing.

After quarreling with her domineering father—an ex-police officer who believes it’s okay for cops to shoot unarmed civilians—Anna Rogers leaves college to attend a protest against police brutality. Unbeknownst to Anna, a violent stranger is stalking her. Upset at her father, she ignores the family’s frantic calls and texts. So her estranged older half-sister, Avery—also an ex-cop, who left the force after a traumatic event—reluctantly agrees to try to find Anna before the stalker does. In the course of this perilous quest, Avery not only risks everything but also discovers a shocking truth about the Rogers family.

Author Bell kindly sat down with The Big Thrill to discuss the novel. He tells us that the biggest challenge in writing his books is always to make the characters interesting. And he’s nailed that goal in TRY NOT TO BREATHE. Each character is complex—a bit rough around the edges, somewhat flawed, and entangled in difficult and tenuous relationships.

David Bell
© Glen Rose Photography

At the heart of the novel is the strained relationship between the two sisters. Although they live only about 10 minutes apart, they don’t speak. Avery resents Anna, the child of their father’s second marriage, while Anna has always looked up to Avery and can’t understand why the older woman has snubbed her.

The sisters’ estrangement finds its roots in how their larger-than-life, domineering father has shaped their lives. Russell Rogers is a heroic cop who was wounded and disabled in the line of duty. Avery followed in his footsteps—quitting the police force only after she nearly lost her life in the line of duty. Now relegated to working as a campus security guard and mocked by unruly students, she feels that she’s let her father down.

David Bell and his wife Molly McCaffrey at the Edgar Awards in New York City. April, 2022

In contrast, after Anna learns about some of the rougher, highly questionable tactics Russell used in the line of duty, she becomes a rebel, partying constantly and almost flunking out of school. Ultimately, she leaves her college for a protest, triggering Avery’s harrowing search to save her.

When asked whether any part of the novel’s plot arose out of actual events, Bell says, “There’s a big twist late in the book involving the two sisters that, let’s just say, I have experienced within my own family.” And indeed, that twist is huge—but no spoilers here.

Along with the masterful characterization, the story’s Kentucky setting plays a central role in driving the plot. The book starts in a college town (when not writing, Bell is a professor of English at Western Kentucky University, where he founded the MFA program in creative writing); transitions to the big city; and ends up in a remote rural area where some of the residents cultivate marijuana and where caves scour the landscape.

David Bell speaking at the Capitol Arts Center in Bowling Green, KY. Fall, 2022.

Asked to describe his writing process, Bell says he likes the security of outlining, although the final book will vary from the original conception. He writes at different times and places because he still teaches, and his schedule varies. A native of Cincinnati, Ohio, it’s no surprise that he roots for the Reds baseball team. He stresses that he’s most productive in the early afternoon when there are no baseball games on the radio to distract him.

And like most successful authors, he’s an avid reader, naming A.J. Quinnell, Jack Higgins, Helen MacInnes, Walter Mosley, Lawrence Block, Bill Granger, and David Hagberg, among his favorite thriller writers; and Jhumpa Lahiri, Octavia E. Butler, David Drake, and Rosemary Sutcliff as favorites who write in other genres.

David Bell promoting KILL ALL YOUR DARLINGS at Kentucky Humanities. Summer 2021

Bell has already completed his next novel, The Midnight Driving Club, which tells the story of a town that doesn’t allow young people to drive when they’re in high school, so the kids form their own secret driving club after dark. Bell describes the novel as Footloose crossed with Fight Club but with vintage cars and 70s rock on the radio. He’s also finishing his next adult novel, tentatively called Storm Warning, about a group of folks trapped in a crumbling apartment building on a barrier island about to get walloped by a hurricane. As Bell puts it, “They’re trapped with a murderer—or two—and the protagonist is the one person who can try to keep everyone alive.”

Finally, readers of TRY NOT TO BREATHE will wonder whether he intends to feature Avery Rogers in a future novel. “The door is open to that,” he says. “I like Avery a lot. And she’s good at getting into and out of trouble, which makes her an interesting character. I guess we’ll see…”

We fans of David Bell and Avery Rogers hope to see that sequel!

Robert Rotstein
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