A conversation with Ashley Dyer

Splinter in the Blood: A Novel Cover ImageIf you like mysteries with lots of twists you need to read Splinter In The Blood, the debut novel by Ashley Dyer.

The story starts out with a bang, literally, with a scene in which Detective Chief Greg Carver, the lead investigator of a serial killer named the Thorn Killer has been shot. He is sprawled on his seat in his own home. OK, maybe there are other mysteries that have started this way.

But I’m not done setting the stage because Carver remembers the shooter standing in front of him. Soon, by the end of the next chapter, he has remembered who shot him: His partner, Sgt. Ruth Lake, who after shooting him takes away his files, compromising the crime scene.

As the book proceeds there become two investigations: Who shot Carver and who is the Thorn Killer? Lake, of course, doesn’t tell anyone what she did, and is not supposed to be working on the former investigation but can’t stay away.

Gradually, we began to understand her motives, her disdain for Carver as a person and as an investigator. And Lake and the Thorn Killer are both fascinating characters.

Ashley Dyer, who is actually two different people working together, agreed to an email interview. One part of the writing duo is Margaret Murphy, a Writing Fellow and Reading Round Lector for the Royal Literary Fund, a past Chair of the Crime Writers Association (CWA), and founder of Murder Squad. A CWA Short Story Dagger winner, she has been shortlisted for the First Blood critics’ award for crime fiction as well as the CWA Dagger in the Library. The other part is Helen Pepper, a Senior Lecturer in Policing at Teesside University. She has been an analyst, Forensic Scientist, Scene of Crime Officer, CSI, and Crime Scene Manager.  She has co-authored, as well as contributed to, professional policing texts. Her expertise is in great demand with crime writers: she is a judge for the CWA’s Non-Fiction Dagger award, and is Forensic Consultant on both the Vera and Shetland TV series. Thanks to them both for chatting with us, and you can read more about them on their website.

Scott Butki: How did you two decide to join up and work together?

Helen Pepper:  I’d done a lot of work with Ann Cleeves. Ann is a member of Murder Squad, a group of crime writers from the north of England, which was founded by Margaret. So we’d met a few times at writing events. Margaret told Ann she was looking for a forensic advisor and asked if I might be interested. I was VERY interested, because I knew Margaret was such a great writer.

Margaret Murphy: I’d written a one-page outline (more of a blurb, really) for Splinter In The Blood in 2014, but it wasn’t until 2016 that I started working on it in earnest. I knew, by this time, that Ruth Lake, one of the two main protagonists, was a former CSI, so naturally, Helen came to mind. You’ve seen her bio, so you will have guessed that she has an ability to bend time – how else would she fit so much into a day? Even so, I was apprehensive that a collaboration of this kind might be a project too far, and I was delighted when she agreed.

SB: How did you go about working together? Some writing partners alternate chapters, others have one do the writing while the other checks the details, for example.

HP: I’m not a writer, Margaret’s the driving force there. What happens is Margaret will come up with an idea, then we’ll get together and talk it through. My job is to come up with ideas as to how we can use forensic science in the story, both to move the story along and maybe to create a few red herrings!

I also advise on police procedure and how things are done in real life, which quite often involves pointing out that, yes, there might be a really fancy piece of kit that will get us a result, but there’s a really straightforward inexpensive way to get to the same result, and police forces don’t have an endless budget.

Margaret then disappears to write the book (a minor job!). Whilst she’s writing we bat ideas back and forth and she sends me completed chapters to check. I love this part of the process, it’s so exciting to see how Margaret makes the story come to life.

MM: When I feel that I have a story idea we could run with, I usually write a short, two-to-three-page synopsis. After that, we bat ideas back and forth, talking about story, forensic procedures that might come into play, police approaches to particular categories of crime, and so on. One example of Helen telling me I can’t have a jazzy piece of kit to do forensics goes like this (no spoilers): I found an academic paper on the use of laser technology to create a 3-D holographic image of a fingermark inside a clear block of material. I took it to Helen, very excited about it, and proud of myself. ‘You could do that,’ she said, ‘but you probably wouldn’t have such an expensive piece of kit, and anyway, why would you, when you could just take a strong flashlight, shine it at an angle through the block, then take a photo?’ (Collapse of stout party.)

After we’ve talked story lines and forensic elements, I mull for a bit, then start on the full outline, which may be 20,000 to 40,000 words long.

SB: How would you summarize the plot and protagonist?

MM: The story begins with an image: a woman standing over a shooting victim; he lies sprawled in an armchair in his own home. She’s holding a gun. By the end of the next chapter, we know that the shooting victim is Detective Chief Inspector Greg Carver and the woman holding the gun is his trusted partner, Detective Sergeant Ruth Lake. By this time, Lake has systematically removed or destroyed evidence and recreated the scene.

For the past year, Carver and Lake have been investigating a series of bizarre, ritualistic killings: five female victims, all tattooed – even the soles of their feet. Over a period of weeks, the “Thorn Killer” inks strange patterns and eyes on the victims – some opened, some closed. Even more cruelly, the ink contains a paralytic which slowly suffocates them. Carver wakes from a coma some days later, and as he struggles towards recovery, he experiences strange hallucinations and ‘auras’ – a form of synaesthesia – caused by the injuries to his brain as he lay near death.

He is lying about how much he remembers and Ruth is lying about what she did at the crime scene – can they catch the killer when they’re lying to each other and everyone around them?

SB: What do you hope readers will take away from your book?

HP: Enjoyment, and a need to read the next book!

MM: All of the above, and also one or two instances when they think, ‘Well I didn’t know that!’ Hopefully, akin to the sudden ‘Aha!’ moments in my background reading, when I want to dash out of my office and grab the next person I see to tell them all about it. But I’ve learned to be very careful with those moments as a writer – you don’t want your readers to feel they’re being lectured to – and excitedly approaching a stranger in the street with my latest scientific factoid, doesn’t always end well…

SB: Helen, I’m guessing that as someone who has been an analyst, forensic scientist, scene of crime officer, CSI and crime scene manager you must cringe when watching tv crime shows. Is it thus therapeutic to work on the Vera and Shetland tv series to ensure they got it right?

HP: I don’t watch too many TV crime shows – they tend to make my teeth itch! Though since I’ve been working on Vera and Shetland I’m a little more forgiving than I used to be. I started out thinking that we could make everything absolutely accurate, but it’s just not possible. In real life there’s a huge team, each of whom each make a small contribution. The senior investigator sits in an office juggling budgets and authorizing overtime and detectives spend an awful lot of time filling out forms and writing reports – which doesn’t make riveting TV viewing. So now I see it as my job to guide writers towards realism, but still keeping it interesting.

SB: Margaret, what was the adjustment like going from writing crime fiction on your own versus as a partner?

MM: I’d worked on a few TV and online scripts and story lines in the past which involved ‘round-table’ discussions with visual artists, producers and writers. Although none of these projects were commissioned, I did enjoy the process, so I was looking forward to working with Helen – and she’s made the transition very easy for me.

SB: What were the advantages and disadvantages of co-writing this?

HP: For me there’s only advantages. Working with Margaret gives me an insight into how the writing process works and allows me into a whole different world. I think one thing that CSIs and writers have in common is that we are really nosey – we like poking around in other people’s lives. I love finding out how the writing works, and I adore meeting ‘real’ people at writing events. You might need to talk to Margaret about the disadvantages!

MM: It’s fun being able to share interviews, podcasts and book tours with someone else – it can be lonely on the circuit, staying in motels and watching bad TV for entertainment. From the performance point of view, I can be excitable and expressive, a bit of a mimic, too – whereas Helen is relaxed and very droll, so we riff well off each other, and audiences enjoy the balance.

Disadvantages: Helen has a ‘proper’ job, teaching police and CSIs of the future to solve real crimes, so I sometimes have to curb my need to know something NOW! Immediately! Without delay! while she fulfills her other responsibilities.

SB: Who are some currently working crime fiction writers you’d like more people to check out?

HP: I think Margaret could answer this better than me. I don’t get to read much crime fiction. I’m a judge for the Crime Writer’s Association non-fiction dagger, so I read an awful lot of non-fiction crime. I’m also a university lecturer, so I have to keep up to date with what’s happening in academia – not to mention the TV scripts and Ashley Dyer reading. I have to say, though, that the murder squad writers are all really excellent. Although they all write crime fiction their approaches are really different, so however you like your crime, one of them would have something for you to enjoy.

MM: Dennis Lehane is a master on so many levels. I feel a strong connection to the recurring theme in his books – both series and standalone – that violence has consequences that are individual, generational and societal. But he is able to do all of this in the most stylish, entertaining narratives you will ever find in crime fiction.

Richard Montanari writes menace like no one else. His books are all very different, yet all have a tension and page-turning pace to envy. I’m usually a slow reader, but his prose, sometimes hard edged, sometimes lyrical always has me reading way past my bedtime.

AJ Finn – his debut is a lovely, twisty take on the domestic noir. Though he explores well-recognized tropes, he does it in a fresh, intelligent and witty manner. The Woman in the Window has hugely enjoyable Hitchcockian references and more than one playful nod towards noir films, and the ending is deeply satisfying, too.

SB: What’s it like having publicists comparing your work to Netflix’s Mind Hunters, BBC’s Broadchurch and American TV’s Criminal Minds?

HP: Pretty mind-blowing! It’s such a great feeling when people like what you’ve done.

MM: One word – gratifying.

SB: Are you already working on the second book? How far do you have this planned out?

HP: The second book’s all finished (and it’s an absolute cracker!). We’re just starting out on book three, and I’m really looking forward to it.

MM: Helen has a more objective view (and I hope she’s right!) As a writer, I’m always terribly anxious about submitting a book. We are awaiting our editor’s verdict as we write this…

BTW, we both microblog on our Facebook page @AshleyDyerNovels (we do giveaways and competitions, too!). We’re on Twitter as @AshleyDyer2017 and we even do forensics and background-to the-story videos on YouTube as Ashley Dyer Author – do come and join us!

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SCOTT BUTKI’S INTEVIEW WITH CHERYL A. HEAD

Cheryl Head is a fresh voice whose mysteries include references to diversity and tolerance, in addition to humor and good plot twists. This is all on display in her new book, Wake Me When It’s Over, the second in her Charlie Mack Motown Mystery series.

The new book is set in Detroit as Charlie Mack’s team of investigators is hired to try to head off any attempts at terrorism during the annual Detroit Auto Show. The book is full of rich characters, a good plot and surprises.

Cheryl Head readingCheryl Head is originally from Detroit but now lives in Washington, D.C. Before writing this series she worked as a writer, television producer, filmmaker, broadcast executive and media funder.

Cheryl, herself a women of color, explores race as part of the mysteries, which feature Charlie Mack, who is black and a lesbian. At one point, for example, a character notes she does not know why terrorists might attack but is “glad that Mack woman is in charge of this. Because in America, I know black people have way more experience with terrorism than white people.”

Her first book in the series, Bury Me When I’m Dead, was a finalist for the 29th annual Lambda Literacy Award for Lesbian Mystery.

Cheryl was kind enough to let me interview her via email.

Scott Butki: How did this story develop?

Wake Me When It's Over (Charlie Mack Motown Mystery) Cover ImageCheryl Head: I’m a real fan of the mystery/thriller genre.  I read quite a bit of it (but there are so many good novels I’m finding it hard to keep up) and I love to watch movies/TV programs in the genre.  I lived in Detroit almost 40 years. I’m quite aware of the city’s influence of my world view on culture, politics, social issues as well as how the city has shaped my personality.  There are cultural events in Detroit that have always brought together a broad cross-section of people who live in the region-one of those events is the North American International Auto Show; known by most as the Detroit Auto Show. It’s a big deal in the city…and in the automotive world. Since my books are set in the mid 2000’s in Detroit, I began doing research on the 2006 Super Bowl.  Detroit had a huge opportunity with the Super Bowl XL to promote a different view of the city at a time when it’s reputation was dismal. It occurred to me that the auto show, a month before the world’s spotlight turned on Detroit for this global sporting event, would be a temptation for people who are up to no good, to create serious mischief. That’s how Wake Me When It’s Over came to be.

SB: What kind of research did you do for this book? Had you been to the auto show before?

CH: Yes, I’ve been to the Detroit Auto Show many times.  Growing up in Detroit, it was the place where anyone could go and see the best cars in the world, and dream about owning one.  The Auto Show brings in three-quarters of a million people during its run, but it also feels intimate. You can touch the cars, see the latest concept cars, breathe in the new car smell, feel the power as you sit behind the steering wheel of a truck. I did a lot of online research on what models and technology were available in 2006. I spoke to a former convention executive to hear what goes into producing a show of this scale, and I made a visit to the area around the Cobo Convention Center, the home of the Detroit Auto Show. Cobo has undergone massive renovation in the last five years, but the area around it wasn’t different, and the show’s general schedule, hype, and activities haven’t changed. What was of great interest to me, and became a plot point in the novel, was 2006 was the first time a Chinese automaker had exhibited at the Detroit Auto Show.

SB: The press materials for your book says you often have “themes of diversity in the broadest sense, acculturation and tolerance, sometimes with a bit of danger and always with a lot of humor, food and music.” I love that. Why did you decide to include those themes in your book?”

CH: I believe race and class are still critical elements of the American story.  I’m also an African-American woman of a certain age, and my experience has been colored (no pun intended) by how I am perceived by the people I interact with in life.  I believe my work as a writer is to provide a fuller picture of what it means to be a person of color in America. I have consciously chosen this path, and my goal is to do this without being didactic. I’m also a lesbian and that brings with it further perceptions, and misconceptions, by people I see, meet, and speak with. I know tolerance and civility and empathy are the values our country needs to embrace right now, and I think that comes with knowing, more intimately, the stories of people who are not like us. I’m writing fiction but my characters are composites of people I know or have witnessed. On humor, food, and music?  You don’t grow up in Detroit without having a street Ph.D. in all those subjects.

SB: What made you decide to use fiction as a way to explore these and other ideas?

CH: I’ve been a non-fiction writer most of my adult life.  I worked in public TV and radio for more than 30 years in Detroit and Washington, D.C., writing scripts, news stories, proposals, magazine articles, reports to Congress, that kind of thing.  I’ve always been a storyteller. I was working as a national executive in public broadcasting when Ken Burns produced his acclaimed documentary series on World War II. What I was struck by at the time was WWII stories always seemed to focus on the heroic acts of courage in battle. Of course, those dramatic stories are important, but those were not the stories I’d heard from my father, and others in the black community, about their WWII experiences. Their stories were of faithful service far away from battlefield glory. Their courage was exemplified in their steadfastness and pride in doing a good job in a segregated, and discriminatory, U.S. military environment.  Regardless of their uniforms or ranks, they were often relegated to a second-class status. I wanted to tell the story of black, U.S. soldiers-men and women-whose acts of valor were carrying out their duties under those demoralizing conditions. That’s why I wrote Long Way Home: A World War II Novel. I self-published this book, I couldn’t find a publisher who would take it on at the time. It went on to become a double finalist in the Next Generation Indie Book Awards in the African-American Literature, and Historical Fiction award categories.

SB: What do you hope readers will take away from these books?

CH: First, and foremost, I hope readers of my books will be entertained. I really do laugh at myself, I don’t take myself too seriously, and I want readers to see and enjoy my writing where it pokes fun at various aspects of the human condition. Not every situation has glimpses of humor, but many do. I also hope to reveal the power of empathy. I often acknowledge to myself that I am writing for white readers. That was certainly the case in Long Way Home.  I wanted to provide an insider’s look at what it’s like to grow up as a black person in rural America in the 1940’s. In my Charlie Mack Motown Mystery Series, I hope I’m attracting a broad audience. Not just readers of lesbian fiction (that’s the primary audience of my publisher) but readers who like a complex mystery or thriller. I want to create a puzzle about how human nature and human frailty can create chaos, and then proffer a world in which an African-American woman can be the protagonist in solving these puzzles.

SB: Can you talk about the work you do around diversity? Is it as a speaker, a writer, an organizer?

CH: My diversity work has changed since I formally retired from my corporate work. Before, I was a regular speaker about the merits of a diverse workforce. I wrote position papers, and funded media projects with a focus on diversity and inclusion.  As a volunteer, I’ve been an organizer and board member for organizations doing diversity work. Now I consult, formally and informally, on diversity activities including writing diverse characters, serving as a so-called “sensitivity reader”, and employee recruitment. 

SB: I understand you serve as the Golden Crown Literary Society Director of Inclusion. Can you say more about what that is and why you do it?

CH: The Golden Crown Literary Society (GCLS) is the premier, non-profit membership organization focused on supporting and recognizing lesbian-themed literature.  I applied for this position to help GCLS broaden and diversify its membership, and to increase the inclusion of younger, and more diverse attendees at the organization’s annual conference.  I’m doing that by assisting GCLS in identifying new partnerships and advising on internal processes and practices.

SB: How has your background in public broadcasting helped you as a fiction writer?

CH: I had amazing opportunities in public media to travel.  My writing themes are a culmination of my experiences growing up in Detroit, and the insights I’ve gained through the national and international travel I’ve done.  I’ve been in the room, and often at the table, with national politicians, heads of state, celebrities, academics, community organizers, educators, artists, and engaged citizens who have shifted my paradigms, and expanded my interests.  I’ve been on both sides of the microphone/camera in public (and commercial) media but the best part of that has been to sweeten my powers of observation, and increase my intention to be an active listener.

SB: What are you working on next?

CH: The second book in the Charlie Mack Motown Mystery series, Wake Me When It’s Over has just been released and is in launch phase now. I’ll be doing a small book tour this summer. Book 3 in the series is completed, and under contract with my publisher, Bywater Books. It is about an investigation of a series of heinous crimes against homeless people in a neighborhood of Detroit. I’m currently writing the fourth book in the series; it’s set against the backdrop of a grand jury trial.  I’m organizing a dozen short stories –not mysteries — to be published in a collection. I’ve been included in a couple of recent anthologies, and I’ve begun to explore the possibility of re-issuing Long Way Home: A World War II Novel with a publishing house that can give the book more air. I wrote that book five years ago, and I’m still getting requests to read from, and talk about the book. The Amazon reviews also continue to trickle in. It’s amazing to me how much WWII books resonate with the reading public.

SCOTT BUTKI’S INTERVIEW WITH RUTH WARE

Ruth Ware’s fourth book, The Death of Mrs. Westaway, is another one of her great psychological thrillers.

The Death of Mrs. Westaway Cover ImageWare previously wrote three excellent novels: In a Dark, Dark Wood, The Woman in Cabin 10, and The Lying Game. The latter two were on the top ten bestseller lists of The New York Times and the U.K.’s Sunday Times. All three books have been optioned for screen.

This book is good, similar fare full of twists and suspense. The story revolves around Hal, a young tarot card reader, down on her luck. She attends the funeral of a woman who has left her a mysterious inheritance. But it appears Hal was not truly the intended recipient which leads to many complications, plot twists and difficult situations

Ware was nice enough to let me interview her by email. My sister, Ellen Butki, helped me formulate the questions. Thanks to both of you.

Scott Butki: How did this story about this young woman develop?

Ruth Ware: I always find it hard to unpick all the threads that come together to make a story, but I suppose that having written three books about women who found themselves in a life changing situation mostly through no fault of their own, I wanted to write something about a character who brings the action down on themselves – someone who sets out to commit a crime. But I found it impossible to write Hal as a true anti-hero. She makes some questionable decisions, but I liked her more and more as the book went on. 

Image result for ruth wareSB: What do you think of those who compare you to Agatha Christie, as both of you not only are famous for twists but also for putting characters into situations that can lead to paranoia and violence?

RW: I take it as a huge compliment! I’m a big fan of Christie and I think her plots are pretty much second to none – so many of the features we take for granted about the genre today, she more or less developed. I would be very happy if I wrote something even a quarter as twisty and genre-defining as And Then There Were None.

SB: In your writing process, which do you see first: the overview (characters/setting/plot), the ending, or the major twist?  Do you add more twists while editing?

RW: It’s really hard to pick apart because they all come together more or less at the time, and different books develop differently. With Cabin 10 I had the ship first of all – the first image that came to me was of a woman waking up in the middle of the night in a locked cabin and hearing a splash. But who that woman was and what happened next developed at the same time, because the one influenced the other.

In a Dark, Dark Wood the physical entity of the glass house only came to me quite late on, about a quarter of the way into the book – but again the motives of the protagonists and their particular characters developed hand in hand. Character is plot, and plot is character. What we do and why is shaped by who we are – and vice versa. The twists are a bit separate – I have to figure those out as I go. Sometimes the pieces don’t fall into place until really quite late.

SB: Identity seems to be a common theme in your books. Is that intentional? Do you want readers to take away something about identity or some other lesson while reading your books?

RW: Do you know, I had never really thought about this before, but you are right! I am not sure why that is – except that I’m endlessly fascinated by people and the versions of themselves that they show to the world versus the people they are inside. I guess it’s that fascination showing. I don’t really write with an intentional lesson or message in mind – I would never presume to dictate to my readers what they should or shouldn’t find in my books, though of course there are always subjects I’m interested in, and I suppose I do often hope to make people think and question some of their assumptions.

SB: Do you believe that deeply buried secrets will/must always be revealed (in books and/or in life)? Where does this belief stem from?

RW: Actually, I am a firm believer in healthy repression 😉 Of course in books secrets usually come out – it’s back to that Chekovian idea of a gun above the mantelpiece. If you reveal that a character has a deep dark secret, there’s no point in putting it in the plot unless it’s going to come out at some point, otherwise you may as well not bring it up at all. In real life, though, we all have secrets – large and small – and bringing things out into the open isn’t always the right course of action. I think my books often show the enormous damage that can be done when secrets surface.

SB: What are you working on next?

RW: Another book of course! It’s a bit too early to talk about it though – I don’t want to jinx myself.

Interview with Brad Meltzer

Brad Meltzer has written another great thriller, this one called The Escape Artist. It is about Nola Brown, an army sergeant, who is presumed dead as the book begins in a strange airplane crash that begins the book. But while the government has confirmed her death a mortician, Zig, who knows Nola and feels an obligation to help her figures out that she is alive and on the run,  

The Escape Artist Cover ImageMeltzer has a varied career, not just writing thrillers but also writing books about heroes (Heroes for My Son and Heroes for My Daughter, I Am Amelia Earhart and I Am Abraham Lincoln) and writing comic books (including Justice League of America), for which he won the Eisner Award.

Brad agreed to do another email interview about his new book.

Scott Butki: How did this story come together?

Brad Meltzer:  Zig is named to honor a real Zig, but he’s an amalgam of all the amazing morticians I met at Dover. These are men and women who rebuild hands (rather than giving a fake prosthesis), so that a mother can hold her son’s hand one final time…or who spend fourteen straight hours wiring together a fallen soldier’s shattered jaw, then smoothing it over with clay and makeup, just so they could give his parents far more ease than they ever should’ve expected at their son’s funeral. A few of them, like my fictional Zig, will never put in for overtime. Heart. Heart. Heart.

Image result for brad meltzer

SB: Can you speak to what you say in the preface about how this book was partly inspired by a USO trip?

BM: Years ago, I went to the Middle East with the USO, then a few months back, I took another trip to entertain our troops. Dover Air Force Base is a place I never thought the government would let me into. The Dover scenes in the book are all based in reality: Dover is home of the mortuary for the US government’s most top-secret and high-profile cases. On 9/11, the victims of the Pentagon attack were brought there. So were the victims of the attack on the USS Cole, the astronauts from the space shuttle Columbia, and the remains of well over fifty thousand soldiers and CIA operatives who fought in Vietnam, Afghanistan, Iraq, and every secret location in between. In Delaware of all places, at Dover Air Force Base, is America’s most important funeral home.

In their building, as you see in the book, they make sure our most honorable soldiers are shown the dignity and respect they deserve. In addition, the people there know details about hidden missions that almost no one in the world will ever hear about. Dover is a place full of mysteries…and surprises…and more secrets than you can imagine. As someone who writes thrillers, it was the perfect setting for a mystery.  Plus, in today’s world, we need real heroes. The people here are the real deal. I knew I found my hero.

SB: I’ve heard the last chapter you wrote for The Escape Artist was actually the first chapter. That sounds counterintuitive. Can you explain?

BM: By the time I reach the end of a book, I always have a new view of the beginning. And as I looped around, I saw that opening scene so clearly. It needed the extra punch in the beginning.

SB: Can you tell us about the protagaonist, Nola Brown, and why she is your favorite protagonist? Do you agree with praise that says she could go toe-to-toe with Bob Lee Swagger, Jack Reacher, Lisbeth Salander and others? This is the first of a new series, right?

BM: I appreciate those compliments, but they’re not fair to Jack Reacher, Lisbeth Salander and the others. To me, Nola is Nola. She was born on a specific trip. We were filming the very first episode of our TV show, Lost History and were in the HQ of one of the most obscure jobs in the Army: The Artist in Residence. Since World War I, the Army has assigned one person—an actual artist—who they send out in the field to…paint what couldn’t otherwise be seen. It’s one of the greatest traditions in our military—they call them war artists. They go, they see, and paint, and catalog victories and mistakes, from the dead on D-Day, to the injured at Mogadishu, to the sandbag pilers who were at Hurricane Katrina. In fact, when 9/11 occurred, the Artist in Residence was the only artist let inside the security perimeter. From there, Nola came to life in my head. Imagine an artist/soldier whose real skill was finding the weakness in anything. The Escape Artist started right there. And yes, she’s coming back

SB: What does it mean to you to reach the 20 year mark as a published author?

BM: It means I’m old. And it means I can do one of two things: 1) assume I’m amazing at this and keep doing it…or 2) take a hard look at all I’ve done and try to get better. For this book, that’s what I aimed for: I looked back at which books of mine I liked best. The answers all had one thing in common: amazing characters. So I wouldn’t start this book until I had Nola.

SB: You’ve now done all kinds of different ventures from your thrillers to books about adult heroes for boys and girls do you work on television. How do you keep it all straight and which of those is your favorite to do?

BM: I love them all. The kids books are my soul in book form. But the thrillers are the house I build with my own hands. There’s nothing like building an entire world from scratch.

SB: The quote before the book starts is: “1898, Jon Elbert Wilkie, a friend of Harry Houdini, was put in charge of the United States Secret Service. Wilkie was a fan of Houdini and did his own tricks himself.  It is the only time in history that a magician was in control of the Secret Service.” Can you explain the meaning and/or foreshadowing of that quote?

BM: Let me just say it: I loved that detail. It just haunted me for years. And I also loved when I found out where Harry Houdini donated all his magic books after he died. You’ll see in The Escape Artist. I didn’t make that up.

SB: You did a tremendous amount of research about the Dover Air Force Base. What do you want readers to learn and understand about the place?

BM: It’s so easy to see deaths as just numbers in a war. But it never is. When you’re done with The Escape Artist, you’ll never look at a soldier – or a war — the same way again.

SB: What do you want readers to take away from this book?

BM: For twenty years now, all I’ve been doing is telling my own story. Over time, I’ve realized that: 1) my life takes on new hardships and 2) I’m more honest with myself and my readers. So yes, Nola and Zig—and the broken parts of their souls—are a reflection of my own worst moments and fears. Fortunately, their lives are far more devastating than mine. But their paths out of loneliness and sorrow are exactly the same: It’s the story at the center of every life. We all need to love and be loved. It’s the only way Zig and Nola will ever pull off the hardest magic trick of all: coming back to life after a tragedy.

SB: What are you working on next?

BM: We do have the I am Gandhi graphic novel in May. My new Superman story with artist John Cassaday also comes out in May for Action Comics #1000. Then I am Neil Armstrong comes out in September. And as for the new thriller, I can’t shake Zig and Nola. They talk to me every day. So yes, you’ll see them again soon.

Scott has interviewed about 25 authors a year for more than 10 years. You can see an index of the interviews here.

Steven Saylor on writing about history, crime, & more

Steven Saylor’s Ancient Roman detective, Gordianus The Finder, finally takes on the biggest murder of his time in The Throne Of Caesar. He will be discussing it at BookPeople on February 22nd, but our Scott Butki got in some early questions in concerning writing about history and work in the future.

MysteryPeople Scott Butki: Let’s start by talking about how you came up with this seed of an idea that became this novel. You got the idea at a cocktail party with scholars?

Steven Saylor: I was invited to speak to a group of Classical scholars meeting at Baylor—a long way from Rome!—and a professor named James O’Hara, having heard me bemoan the “impossible challenge” of writing a mystery novel around the Ides of March, said to me, “Make it about…X.” In the Author’s Note to The Throne of Caesar, I fill in the blank, but it would be a spoiler to do so here. The point is, I am so lucky to be linked in and to get insights and feedback from some world-class experts on the ancient world. Sometimes all it takes is a single word, as in this case, to get me over the stumbling block and out of the starting blocks.

MPSB: As someone writing about Ancient Rome did you feel you had to write, at some point, about what you call “the most famous murder case in history”?

SS: Once I realized that my first novel Roman Blood (set in 80 B.C.) would become a series, getting to the assassination of Caesar in 44 B.C. seemed a natural goal. It’s such a huge watershed event, a real before/after moment in world history.

MPSB: If anyone thinks they already know how this story will end—it being so famous after all—what would you tell them?

SS: As in most of my novels, there are two plot lines running parallel and simultaneously—the plot on the surface, and the invisible plot. You know how one will turn out, but hopefully the other will give you a surprise.

MPSB: How did you decide how much of Shakespeare to quote in the book?

SS: There’s only one direct homage to the Bard, when a certain character speaks a line lifted directly from Julius Caesar. I reveal the details of that in Author’s Note. It’s a line that works one way in Shakespeare’s play, and a different way in my version, so it’s loaded with irony, and one of many in-jokes sprinkled throughout the book that may amuse history buffs and Shakespeare lovers.

MPSB: Let’s back up now. Why did you start writing novels about Ancient Rome in the first place?

SS: I give a great amount of credit to the sword-and-sandal movies of my childhood, chief among them Cleopatra, written and directed by the great Joseph Mankiewicz. The tale of Caesar, Antony, and Cleopatra became one of the central myths of my imagination. The assassination scene in that movie is pure cinematic genius, unforgettable. I went on to study Classics and history at UT Austin, and then years later had the idea to turn Cicero’s first murder trial into a crime novel; that became Roman Blood. The book found a readership, and I suddenly had a whole career ahead of me.

MPSB: Why did you decide to write erotic thrillers under a different name, Aaron Travis?

SS: That was back in my slacker twenties, which are a bit of a blur now. Hormones ruled my life, and the erotic was my muse. I’ve kept those works available in e-editions for the discerning connoisseur, but I must warn readers that they are not for the faint of heart.

MPSB: When I last interviewed you you said, “I would like to write another historical epic set in Austin some day, about the early days of the Texas Republic.” Is that still on the radar?

SS: Hmmm, off the radar for now, I would say. I have a current project that’s consuming all my research and storytelling. (More about that below.) But every now and then I find myself musing about Mirabeau Lamar and Sam Houston and their competing visions for the Republic of Texas. I still collect books about that period. You never know.

MPSB: As both a graduate of University of Texas and a part-time Austin resident, what are some of your favorite spots around Austin?

SS: My Austin is all about swimming, running, Tex-Mex and BBQ—working up an appetite at Barton Springs, Deep Eddy, Hippie Hollow, the trail around Lady Bird Lake, and the Barton Creek Greenbelt (but not all in the same day!) and then eating at Maudie’s, Green Mesquite, Chuy’s, or The Iron Works. For culture, I love the Blanton Museum; I’m eager to see Ellsworth Kelly’s “Austin” structure. And I still drop in on the occasional lecture on the UT campus.

MPSB: What would readers be most surprised to learn about you?

SS: I’ve been with the same guy for well over forty years now, since Rick and I were both at UT back in 1976. Now we’re legally hitched. Such long marriages are not so common these days. I’m very lucky to have had so much emotional continuity in my life. I’ve also had the same editor and agent since forever. I’m very loyal, I suppose.

MPSB: What are you working on next?

SS: My next novel will be the third volume in my family saga series, to follow Roma and Empire. It’s a big chunk of history, taking the family from the philosopher-emperor Marcus Aurelius and his no-good playboy son Commodus (notorious from the movie Gladiator, though my version will be very different) all the way to Constantine the Great, who made Christianity the state religion. Along the way we meet the sun-worshipping, drag-queen emperor, Elagabalus. His reign was quite short, I’m afraid, but he made quite an impression.

Q&A with Alex Berenson

Alex Berenson’s John Wells espionage series often uses the headlines or predicts them for novels dealing with our county’s involvement in the geo-political game. His latest, The Deceivers, has John and his team dealing with a Russian plot to put their man in the White House. Alex will be joining us at 2PM on Saturday, February 10th with fellow thriller writer Don M. Patterson. MysteryPeople’s Scott Butki intercepted him earlier for a one on one interrogation.

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MysteryPeople Scott Butki: How did this story, the latest about John Wells, come about?

Alex Berenson: Over the last few years I’ve grown increasingly interested in false-flag operations, where an intelligence service tries to carry out an attack and blame it on another country or a third-party. False-flags are obviously tricky, but if they succeed they can wreak havoc. In The Deceivers, the false-flag comes with a twist – the Russian spy agency isn’t trying to carry out the attacks itself. It wants to use Americans against the United States in attacks that will look like Muslim terror. And to do so the Russians need some buy-in from semi-witting Americans. I tried to make the Russian scheming plausible, and I hoped I succeeded.

MPSB: This has a ripped-from-the-headlines feel (that’s a compliment), where you took some current issues, like the question of whether the Russians meddled and influenced the election and took it to a larger but, hopefully, fictitious level. What was it like dealing with current events in your plotting?

AB: From The Faithful Spy, I’ve always dealt with current events. I like to say my books are reality-adjacent. In some cases they’ve turned out to be surprisingly prescient – notably The Secret Soldier, which focused on succession in Saudi Arabia – six years before the current crisis.

MPSB: As a fellow former newspaper reporter for, among other publications, The New York Times, i’m curious how your background affected your work as a novelist? Was that background helpful when dealing with current events in this novel?

AB: I do like to make my novels feel as real and authentic as possible, and I think being a reporter drives that impulse. Sometimes I have to remind myself the books are an escape, and Wells occasionally needs to. In general, I research my books thoroughly; over the years I’ve traveled nearly everywhere I’ve written about, including Afghanistan, Lebanon, Egypt, and Iraq. I’ll talk to folks in the intelligence community (though they are more likely to be retired than active employees, given the risks people face if they discuss classified information).

MPSB: Do you miss being a journalist?

AB: Only when I see a really, really good story that I wish I could tell.

MPSB: What was the timing on this book? You definitely captured the anti-Muslim fervor of politicians including President Trump. Was that happening – those speeches -while you were writing the book or did you accurately guess that it’d be happening more often

AB: I started writing the book in the summer of 2016, so Trump’s comments were in the news by then. There are a lot of reasons Trump won the presidency, but one is the attacks in Paris in November 2015 – which propelled him to the top of the Republican polls. The Orlando attack clearly helped him too.

MPSB: As someone who wrote about government intelligence, what do you think of how Trump has famously refused to hear part or all of his intelligence briefings, treated intelligence officers awfully, etc?

AB: Trump isn’t entirely wrong that a lot of intelligence work is throat-clearing and that sometimes leaders just have to go with their gut instincts. But the disdain with which he treats the intelligence community is unconscionable – and bad for US national security.

MPSB: How did you go about researching this book?

AB: As with all my novels, a combination of traveling to the most important locations in the book, a ton of Internet research and reading, and finally talking to people in the intelligence community (though I don’t want to overstate how much they will say).

MPSB: Do you want readers to take away something from this book? If so, what?

AB: I wouldn’t presume to tell my readers what they should take away from my novels.

MPSB: Should people read your John Wells books in order or can they start with this one, the 14th in the series?

AB: The 12th! He’s not that old yet. I write each new book knowing that some readers will be new to the series, so anyone who happens to pick this one up first will be fine.  That said, I tell readers who have read one of the books and feel committed to the series that they should go back to The Faithful Spy and read the rest in order – the books do build on each other, so reading them that way will give them the best idea of how John became who he is.

MPSB: What is a question you wish people would ask you? Here’s your chance to ask and answer it.

AB: What’s harder, journalism or fiction? Fiction, I think, because as a journalist you can always just return to the facts – as a novelist you have to look within yourself.

Interview with Robert Crais

Robert Crais has been publishing great mystery-thrillers for more 30 years and with his new book, The Wanted, he’s as good as ever. He consistently has mixed well-developed characters in books with good plots with excellent plot twists.

I last interviewed Crais here for MysteryPeople for a book, The Promise, where he mixed his usual protagonist, the always cool private investigator Elvis Cole and his partner Joe Pike with some new characters in a prior book and it gelled nicely.

For The Wanted it’s back to the usual set up of Cole and Pike fighting some bad guys and some good folks who have made, let’s say, bad life choices.

As the book starts a single mother hires Elvis Cole to help with her troubled son who for inexplicable reasons suddenly has lots of cash and she’s worried he’s dealing drugs. A little investigation and Cole realizes that the son and two of his friends are responsible for some high-end burglary. Gradually it becomes clear that a pair of fascinating, disturbing bad guys are on the tail of the burglary threesome. Will Cole be able to find the three and save them before they are harmed by pair? You’ll have to read to find that out.

Crais was nice enough to let me to interview him by email.

Scott Butki: Thanks for the interview. How did you come up with the story for the latest novel featuring my favorite detective duo, Pike and Cole?

Robert Crais: Lots of crime in Los Angeles these days – burglaries and home invasions are on the rise, and many of these crimes are perpetrated by teenagers and young adults.

Elvis Cole is attracted to cases where he believes he can make a real difference, and the idea of helping a single mom find out the truth of what’s going on with her son and save him is right up his alley.

SB:  I always like how you do dialogue and humor in your books. Do you think your early work writing for TV shows including “Hill Street Blues” helped you write dialogue and humor? What are other ways your TV writing help you as a novelist?

RC:  I’m just a funny guy. TV writing helped me block out a scene, visualize the action, write authentic dialogue.  It helped me to shape a story.  It helped me to see how much more I could do as a novelist.

SB:  Having written for TV – including “Miami Vice” and Cagney and Lacey, Quincy, and Baretta – I assume you pay attention to current TV shows.  What are some of your favorites and why?

RC: My taste in TV shows is all over the board. Loved “Breaking Bad,” “Mad Men,” love “Game of Thrones” (duh!), “Stranger Things,” thought “Handmaid’s Tale” was incredible.

SB: The book deals with loyalty, unconditional love and what it means to be a parent. Is there something you hope readers take away from the story?

RC: I hope readers are entertained and connect with the characters.  Most parents have experienced the feeling of unconditional love. In this story a mother is forced to imagine the worst case scenario.  If her son has committed a terrible crime, will she still love him?  How much can a parent forgive?  

SB: Why did you decide to dedicate your book to Otto Penzler? 

RC: Otto has been a friend, fan and supporter of mine since my first book, The Monkey’s Raincoat.  In a way, all my books are dedicated to him.

SB: I enjoyed, if that’s the right word, your terrible pair of dangerous, perverse guys, Harvey and Stemms. How did you come up with those characters?

Villains need to be as fascinating and as formidable as your hero. I wanted to create “bad guys” that had real personalities, who were many-sided, and who were also interesting.  These guys, like Elvis and Joe, have history together, have shared a lot of adventures.

 

Thanks to Robert Crais for answering our questions. His new book, The Wantedis on our shelves now!