Go Down to the Basement: MysteryPeople Q&A with Meg Gardiner

Meg Gardiner comes to BookPeople to launch her latest on Monday, June 26, at 7 PM. She’ll be in conversation with Jeff Abbott. You can find copies of UNSUB on our shelves starting Monday, June 26th – one day before the official release date!

Molly Odintz: You have a Hemingway-esque talent for communicating far more about your characters than would seem possible from the word count—how do you balance creating fully formed characters with the need to always move a thriller’s plot forward?

Meg Gardiner: Plot is what the characters do. Characters spring to life when I put them into action, in conflict, under pressure. What do they want? What do they fear? What will the heroine do when the antagonist threatens the people she loves? In UNSUB, young cop Caitlin Hendrix is hunting a legendary killer. The choices she makes when she’s put to the test—and the choices everyone in the novel make—reveal their character. Revelation is always most powerful when it unfolds through action.

And I’m honored by the comparison to Hemingway. I can only strive to approach the vivid economy of his writing.

MO: There’s a lot of grisly creativity that went into your latest. How did you come up with all those different murder scenarios?

MG: I took what frightens me and turned it into fiction. Slithering things. Sharp blades. Creepy dolls. Betrayal. I also reread a lot of classic literature. Epic poets, I tell you—they wrote some bloodcurdling stuff.

I follow Stephen King’s advice: “Go down to the basement.” Dredge up the dark stuff. Put it on the page. There, it can give readers the kind of thrill they get on a roller coaster.

MO: My favorite character in your latest was the internet savvy housewife who spends her time tracking down serial killers—what was your inspiration for the character?

MG: Thanks to the internet, amateur crime enthusiasts can now run sites dedicated to solving cold cases. Zodiology—the study of the Zodiac killings—is a world unto itself. I’m impressed by the dedication of these online sleuths. They inspired Deralynn Hobbs, the mom in UNSUB who runs FindTheProphet.com. Deralynn is committed to tracking down the killer—maybe obsessed with it—but her heart is in the right place.

“In UNSUB, a legendary killer returns after 20 years. The evidence in the cold case is old. And it’s analog. Memories have faded. Witnesses have died. Physical evidence has been lost or stolen. And the killer is sophisticated enough to turn 21st century technology against the cops.”

MO: UNSUB takes us through reworking a 90s case with current tech—how has crime-solving changed since the initial Zodiac murders, and how did those changes affect your latest?

MG: DNA profiling has irrevocably changed criminal investigation. DNA evidence is definitive—you can’t hide from your chromosomes. Criminals know this, of course. If the Zodiac ever writes another letter to the papers, I doubt he’ll lick the stamp.

Today, video cameras are ubiquitous. Computer forensics can trace a cyber trail across the globe. But CCTV, blood spatter analysis, and cell tower tracking haven’t eliminated crime. Human nature compels some people to keep on killing.

In UNSUB, a legendary killer returns after 20 years. The evidence in the cold case is old. And it’s analog. Memories have faded. Witnesses have died. Physical evidence has been lost or stolen. And the killer is sophisticated enough to turn 21st century technology against the cops.

Criminals have worn masks for centuries. In UNSUB, the killer learns to slip on a new, digital disguise. It puts Caitlin and her fellow investigators at a disadvantage.

MO: You’re a writer who’s done numerous stand-alones, each distinct, yet always featuring a strong female protagonist for your thrillers. I love the focus on strong female characters, and it seems to me there can sometimes be a lack of strong female protagonists in thrillers. As someone who’s immersed in the genre, what do you think is the state of representation of women in the genre today?

MG: The thriller genre has created some exceptional female characters recently, and readers love them. But I want talk about the term, “strong female protagonist.” A friend thinks it’s often shorthand for “Not a girly story.” It can imply that the protagonist is a hard-ass who just happens to be a woman. But I think “strong” means something different. It means the protagonist has brains, guts, skills, and emotional intelligence that she uses to solve problems. It means she has empathy—and that her empathy spurs her to courageous efforts to bring about justice.

My novels feature plenty of action. And my heroines jump into the fray. But “strong” doesn’t mean coldhearted. It doesn’t mean brutal. In UNSUB, it certainly doesn’t mean that Caitlin takes bad guys down without feeling the human cost. In my books, “strong” means that the heroine is resourceful, decisive, and loving—to the point that she’ll risk herself to help others.

My female characters must dig deep and rise to the occasion. That’s what strong means in my book.

MO: Do you get a lot of reader response to your work? From an author’s perspective, what do thriller readers care about most?

MG: Thriller readers love suspense, but they only consider a book nail-biting when they care about the characters. A novel can have car chases, skyscraper shootouts, and explosions, but if readers don’t care about the characters’ pain and longing, the book fails. If readers don’t care about the characters’ desperate attempts to put things right, then it’s just shallow spectacle. A boring one.

“My novels feature plenty of action. And my heroines jump into the fray. But “strong” doesn’t mean coldhearted. It doesn’t mean brutal. In UNSUB, it certainly doesn’t mean that Caitlin takes bad guys down without feeling the human cost. In my books, “strong” means that the heroine is resourceful, decisive, and loving—to the point that she’ll risk herself to help others.”

MO: You started writing crime fiction when you were living in England, if I’m correct—does Texas provide a different kind of inspiration for your writing?

MG:The vast scale and diversity of Texas encourage me to open up my storytelling—to expand its scope, its immediacy, its sweep. At a nitty-gritty level, if I work late, I know Torchy’s Tacos is open until 10 p.m. That spurs me to keep going. And when I go hunting for tacos, Gary Clark Jr. will be blasting on the radio.

Sections of the novel I’m currently writing are set in Austin. How’s that for inspiration?

MO: So I frequently describe your novels as hard to put down, and I’m wondering if you’ve ever gotten a particularly amusing response from a reader in terms of what they missed out on in their own lives when they were busy finishing your books.

MG: One reader wrote to me, saying she got so involved in my novel, she forgot to feed her children. I told her that warmed my heart.

MO: Take us through fact checking for your novels. Do you have a bunch of cops and hackers on speed-dial, ready to answer all your questions? How much does your legal background factor in to your writing?

MG: To get it right, I call on lawyers, internet wizards, rock climbers, pararescue jumpers, psychiatrists, martial artists, and, though you can’t tell anybody this, a couple of spies.

My background as a lawyer gives me a solid understanding of how the court system works. And it’s taught me to write persuasively. Every legal case is a story, and lawyers must tell their clients’ side in a compelling way, to convince the judge or jury of the justice of their case.

MO: It seems to me (without giving away any spoilers) that the end of UNSUB sets us up for a (highly anticipated by me) follow-up novel. Will you be continuing with the same characters, or will you be bowled-over busy with plans for a TV adaptation? (I saw CBS bought the rights—congrats!)

MG: Thanks! I’m thrilled about the CBS deal. I’m currently finishing the sequel to UNSUB. It’s titled Into the Black Nowhere. Caitlin Hendrix is recruited by the FBI’s Behavioral Analysis Unit, and engages in a cat-and-mouse game with a charming, devious killer as she hunts him across the west.

Meg Gardiner joins us for the official book launch of UNSUB on Monday, June 26th at 7 PM.We’ll have copies of UNSUB for sale a day earlier than the official release date of June 27th – if you’d like an early bird copy of UNSUB, pre-order now or stop by the store on Monday, the 26th.  She’ll be in conversation with Jeff Abbott, so those who’d like to meet Austin’s two most eminent thrillerists, come on by for what promises to be a fascinating evening. 

A Dangerous Game of Espionage: MysteryPeople Q&A with Barry Lancet

  • Interview by MysteryPeople Contributor Scott Butki

Barry Lancet has done it again: he’s written another thriller that crosses from America to Japan to North Korea and China, educating readers about cultural and political issues in the four nations.

The Spy Across the Table is Lancet’s fourth in his series about Jim Brodie, who works as an expert on Japanese art (often selling it to rich Americans) and runs a detective agency in Japan that he inherited from his father. As with the other books in the series there’s plenty of hooks, twist and surprises in addition to a variety of interesting characters.

One of the things I like about Lancet’s series is he has a section in the back of each book called About Authenticity, separating truth from fiction. As a former journalist who likes his fact and fiction kept separate this is a move I’d like to see more writers doing.

As this book starts Brodie has arranged for one of his American friends to meet a Japanese friend of Brodie’s. After their meeting, both are found murdered. Despite his shock, Brodie pursues the killer and others responsible, a chase that will take him across several countries. Meanwhile, the First Lady, a college roommate of one of the victims, enlists Brodie to find the killer.

Lancet was kind enough to be interviewed for his new book. I previously interviewed him here for his prior book, Pacific Burn

Scott Butki: How did you come up with this story for this book?

Barry Lancet: I asked myself what’s keeping me up at night? As an American expat living in Tokyo on the far edge of the Pacific, I didn’t have far to look. The North Koreans were once again rattling their sabers and spouting off about going nuclear, while the Chinese were grabbing new territory, paving over uninhabited atolls to build airstrips. Everyone in Asia was on edge, though the rest of the world paid attention only sporadically. That was 18 months ago. I had no idea that these two countries would soon be grabbing major U.S. headlines as they have of late.

SB: Would you set the stage for readers?

BL: Jim Brodie is at the Kennedy Center in D.C., attending a special performance of a Kabuki theater troupe from Tokyo. He introduces his Hollywood set-designer college buddy to the renowned Tokyo stage designer of the Kabubi show, who Brodie also knows. As Brodie takes in the play, his two friends go backstage to talk shop and are inexplicably gunned down.

Brodie goes into shock and vows, using all his connections in the U.S. and Japan, to track down the killer, then unexpectedly finds himself dragged into a dangerous game of espionage. Trying to sort through the intrigue, he stumbles onto a covert plot by North Korea and China to grab the personal secrets of America’s most influential leaders—secrets so damaging the foreign governments will stop at nothing to get them.

SB: I last interviewed you for Pacific Burn, which alternated between the U.S. and Japan. What made you decide for this one to also include action in North Korea and China?

BL: I wanted to pull away the curtain and show readers what’s really going on in North Korea and China. How and why the countries are at loggerheads. I also wanted to lay out the nightmarish plight of every North Korean defector once he or she decides to escape. For starters.

SB How did you research this book, especially the North Korea and China parts?

BL: I visited South Korea for the fourth time and went to the DMZ, a frightening place. It’s worse than the Berlin Wall and Checkpoint Charlie were. There’s a sequence in the book that captures the intensity of the place. I talked to experts on North Korea. And, of course, I made the rounds in Japan as well. I toyed with the idea of going to North Korea but everyone in Japan talked me out of it, since snatching American visitors seems to have become a new North Korean pastime.

SB: How similar are you to the protagonist, Jim Brodie?

BL: We both speak Japanese. We both have gotten into our share of scrapes. We have many of the same interests (travel, art, a general curiosity about most things). His daughter is younger than mine, and I have a son as well. He has fewer fillings than me…I think.

SB: For your last book you mentioned that “many readers have told me that they learn something along the way, and they’re happy. For me, I offer that as a bonus to what I hope is an intriguing, fast-paced story.” Are there educational parts in this book? Do you try to keep it historically accurate?

BL: Yes to both questions, but it’s all woven into the meat of the story and I promise you it’s painless. Through Brodie’s eyes, you’ll be able to get inside the head of the Chinese and North Koreans and into the two countries’ extraordinarily tense relationship. There are plenty of surprises.

SB: What would you hope readers take away from this book?

BL: First and foremost, I want to write an entertaining story. Along the way I add things I’ve seen in my travels and life abroad. I hope some of the deeper details will resonate long after they close the book.

SB: I understand you have a planned Brodie back story? What’s the status of that one?

BL: It’s in the works. It’ll answer a number of lingering questions, such as the last days of Brodie’s father in Tokyo, how the top yakuza enforcer known as TNT came to be in Brodie’s debt, and much more

SB: What’s the status of a movie adaptation of one of your books?

BL: Abrams held onto the option for two years for a proposed TV series, then he was swallowed whole by the Star Wars franchise and rumor has it that only his doppleganger has been sighted since. At the moment, my agent is in touch with another Hollywood producer, though I haven’t signed on the dotted line as yet.

SB: What are you working on next?

BL: Aside from the Brodie prequel, I’m working on a standalone novel with a new main character, living in a new place and wrapped up in an entirely different world.

You can find copies of The Spy Across the Table on our shelves and via bookpeople.com.

Check out Scott Butki’s blog for more interviews with great mystery writers. 

MysteryPeople Q&A with Don Winslow

  • Interview by Crime Fiction Coordinator Scott Montgomery

This week fans of crime fiction or good fiction in general will be hitting bookstores in droves for Don Winslow’s eagerly awaited masterpiece (and our MysteryPeople Pick Of The Month) The Force. This story – both intimate and epic – focuses on Denny Malone, a New York cop who heads up an elite unit and who’s corrupt practices catch up with him. The book gives a detailed view of today’s New York through police eyes. Don was kind enough to talk to us about the book and the world that inspired it.

 

MysteryPeople Scott: The Force shares some DNA with Seventies-era NYPD books and films like Serpico, Prince Of The City, and The Seven Ups. What was the main difference of the of the police force at that period and the post 9-11 one you write about?

Don Winslow: I was really influenced by both the books and the films of The French Connection, Serpico and Prince of the City. They’re part of the reason I became a crime writer. In some ways, things haven’t changed – police work is still police work and cops are still cops. But 9/11 did change things, especially in New York City. As the primary target of that attack, the city shifted a lot of resources from organized crime to anti-terrorism. Because of that the Mafia, which had been on the verge of extinction, made something of a comeback. Another major change has been one that has impacted society as a whole – computer-generated data. Police have largely adopted the ‘metrics’ that we see in business and sports, using sophisticated crime statistics to assign personnel, patrols and other resources to high-crime areas. The other major change is also technologically driven – the rise of personal cameras in mobile phones. Police used to work in relative obscurity, but now everyone is a journalist, putting police under an intense public scrutiny which has changed the public perception of police. Police shootings and brutality have always existed – the difference now is that they’re on social media.

“Police used to work in relative obscurity, but now everyone is a journalist, putting police under an intense public scrutiny which has changed the public perception of police. Police shootings and brutality have always existed – the difference now is that they’re on social media.”

MPS: It may be unfair, but you’re often associated with Southern California. Did the New York setting effect your writing or the story any different?

DW: I don’t think it’s unfair, I love Southern California. However, I was born in New York, have worked in New York at various times during my life, usually on the street. So those streets and alleys are part of my DNA as a writer. I was on those streets long before I was on the beach. I’ve always wanted to write a New York cop book. But of course location affects style – the language – the music, if you will – of SoCal and NYC are very different and I wanted to make sure I had the voice right, the feel right. It had to be more clipped, more terse, edgier, tighter. It wasn’t hard – New York City is extremely evocative for me, I hear that voice, that music, in my mind.

MPS: You really feel the lives and the world of these policemen. What kind of research did you do?

DW: In some ways I’ve been researching this book my whole life. I’ve worked with cops, hung out with cops, with their families. I used to frequent a few bars in New York where you couldn’t turn around without bumping into an off-duty cop. But specifically for the book I talked to cops, sat down for drinks and dinners. I went out on the streets with them. I listened to their stories, their frustrations, their victories and defeats, their hopes, their disappointments, their fears. I read a lot of books, a lot of journalism. And I spent time in New York, prowling the neighborhoods in which the book is set.

MPS: Denny is a character full of contradictions. As a writer, how do you approach a character like that, so they don’t read like inconsistencies?

DW: A cop’s life is full of contradictions. They both love and hate the public they serve. They’ll break the law to uphold the law. They’ll commit violence on some people to save others from violence. If they’re undercover, they often feel more connected to their targets than their bosses. Denny is more conflicted than most, but it’s the conflicts that make him interesting for a writer. I don’t find the conflicts difficult to write because internal conflict is part of the human condition. We always torn between our best and worst instincts, but it usually isn’t a simple matter of choosing good or evil. Sometimes we’re tempted to do ‘bad’ things on the service of a greater good – a constant struggle for cops. The difficult characters to write are the ones with no conflicts, no internal contradictions. They become monochromatic, robots. And I tend to push back against this demand for consistency. I think editors are more concerned about that than readers. Readers get it – people are complex, we do contradictory things. It drives me nuts when editors ask me, especially about a criminal character. “Why would he do that? It makes no sense?” Prisons are full of people who have done things that make no sense. Believe, I’ve talked with a lot of them. I’ve knows guys who escaped when they had literally a few weeks left to serve. You ask them why and they shrug. I know one who robbed a gas station on his way home from prison, twenty minutes after he’d been released. Why? Shrug.

“I’ve always wanted to write a New York cop book. But of course location affects style – the language – the music, if you will – of SoCal and NYC are very different and I wanted to make sure I had the voice right, the feel right. It had to be more clipped, more terse, edgier, tighter. It wasn’t hard – New York City is extremely evocative for me, I hear that voice, that music, in my mind.”

MPS: The main drug in the book is heroin, which is coming back. Has the return of the old narcotic changed the narcotics trade at all?

DW: Yeah, ‘meet the new boss, same as the old boss’. The heroin trade is the same as it was before in the sense that it relies on prohibition to produce a profit. So when marijuana was universally illegal, it was a profitable drug to export. When it was legalized in several states, the profit went out of it and the cartels turned back to heroin, largely because the market had already been created by pharmaceutical opioids and the cartel could undercut by lowering price and increasing quality. The heroin trade has changed in the sense that the drug being produced now is more potent than it was before. An addict can get high for less of the drug and less money, but the danger lies in the heightened danger of overdose. Also, the cartels are competing to raise the potency of their product, so they’re increasingly mixing in fentanyl – increasing the potency by a factor of fifty –and other synthetic drugs. In the past few months, for instance, we’re seeing elephant tranquilizers mixed with heroin. So an addict who thinks that he or she is shooting one product might be shooting something much stronger, which is why we’re seeing an explosion in the number of overdose fatalities. The current chaos in the Mexican drug world, a by-product of the demise of Joaquin Guzman and the Sinaloa Cartel, means that there will be no product consistency (as we saw, for instance, with methamphetamine when the cartel took it over) for the foreseeable future.

MPS: What do you hope people who read The Force take away about the police?

DW: It goes back to your question about contradictions. Society demands that police do contradictory things: We want perfect security at the same time that we want absolute privacy; we want the police to protect us from vicious people by using the techniques of saints; we want them to enforce some laws and ignore others; we want them to be incorruptible in a sea of corruption. The contradictory demands are impossible.
I hope that readers see that the demands have a real effect – cop genuinely feel things, (even as they’re forced to pretend that they don’t) they take their work home with them. Day after day they deal with the worst parts of our society, they do the things that we don’t want to do, and it takes a toll.

You can find copies of Winslow’s latest on our shelves and via bookpeople.com

MysteryPeople Q&A with Jen Conley

  • Interview by Crime Fiction Coordinator Scott Montgomery

Jen Conley is one of the hardest working writers in crime fiction. An editor on the famed (or is that infamous) webzine Shotgun Honey, she had been knocking out some of the best short work out there, and has the admiration of both readers and her peers alike. Her work follows working class folks on both (and in-between both) sides of the law, examining morality when lives veer far from plans. This is encapsulated in her widowed patrol officer Andrea Vogel, who she has used in several stories. Last year a collection of her work, Cannibals, was released by Down & Out Books. We caught up with Jen to discuss the art of the short story, character, and her stomping ground.

MysteryPeople Scott: While you have many great twists in your work and the internal logic of your stories is perfect, character is the over riding element that drives them. Do you think the people you write about share something in common?

Jen Conley: Probably survival. All my characters are strapped by finances, whether I point that out or not, and getting through life is difficult for them. The lack of money straps people of choices and when you throw a crime in there, a moment where something might get screwed up, there’s a chance there’s no coming back from that.

MPS: Is there a story in the collection that is particularly close to your heart?

JC: I would say “Debbie the Hero.”

When I first started writing short stories, I was drawn towards male characters. But as I kept writing, I moved closer to female characters and female topics. I wouldn’t say Debbie is a tough character but she’s a woman caught in the changes of society. She came of age in the 1970s, when women were fighting for equality and the right to choose, but at the same time, there was that old school view that women were supposed to yield to their men. After all, when they were first married, Debbie’s husband bought their house without consulting her. This, to me, is completely foreign for my generation but I think it wasn’t foreign at all for many women of the baby boomer generation, even the younger baby boomers, which is what Debbie is. And now she is faced with a choice of whether to help her granddaughter, an eighth grader, get an abortion or not. Debbie’s daughter, Lauren, is suddenly against abortion and this not only surprises Debbie, but confuses her. It’s as if Debbie is confused that her own daughter has sort of acquiesced to the new boyfriend, someone who has probably bought into this new right wing view of a woman’s place in the world. I think Debbie is a woman caught in the confusion of women’s roles and she has to decide to whether she’s in her right to overstep Lauren to save her granddaughter or to let Lauren, whom she thinks isn’t a good mother, make the decision. The other underlining thread is that Debbie realizes her own daughter is actually a terrible parent and I think that in itself is a heartbreaking realization. So it’s not really a crime story in the traditional sense but more a crime story in the ethical and moral sense. And because as a writer I’m completely driven by the question, “What is the moral answer?” I think this story sums up how I feel about not only my characters but my own life, and that makes it close to my heart.

MPS: Officer Andrea Vogel is the lead is several of these stories. What makes her a character worth coming back to?

JC: I actually just roughly outlined a novel about her. It took me a long time to come up with an arc but finally I figured it out and I think I never gave up because I like her so much. I think I keep going back to her because she is stoic and tough, someone who has a lot of compassion but also extremely lidded with her emotions. I’ve always been fascinated with stoic people, people who don’t reveal too much of themselves and I guess I find her almost mysterious.

MPS: As well as a writer you edit for the online crime zine Shotgun Honey. How do both of those sides influence you?

JC: I think reading other people’s stories is always a great way to improve on your writing. Good writing rises to the top and I think because I read so many stories, I’ve come to understand the difference between a great story, a good story, an adequate story, and a bad story. The other thing is that when I see a story with real potential, I can usually figure out quickly what can be done to tweak it to make it better. It’s almost like I’m training myself for what works and what doesn’t.

MPS: You work is often set in your home state of New Jersey. What do you want your readers to know about it?

JC: It’s difficult to write about New Jersey because you are fighting some pretty old stereotypes about the state. We’re rude, we’re loud, we all have mob connections, we all live near a toxic waste dump…Actually, that last part isn’t far off. I write about where I grew up and still live, Ocean County. It’s pretty blue collar and middle class, but also almost rural and backwoods. It’s such an odd mix of second and third generation of former New Yorkers and people from North Jersey but also old timers, Pineys as they are known. New Jersey has become so expensive to live in that Ocean County feels like the last of the blue collar worlds that used to surround Manhattan. I don’t agree at all with the popular right wing political views of this area—I get very frustrated and I’ve gotten into my share of arguments with former classmates online—but I do feel there is a grittiness and authenticity that is fading away in many parts of the state as it gets more and more gentrified.

However, in my opinion, I think “Jersey Shore” definitely hit the nail on the head. Seaside has always been like that in some form or another.

MPS: What do you think the key to a good short crime story is?

JC: Character. As a reader, I can’t go forward with a story if I don’t have a connection to the main character. I’m not one who likes too many twists and turns in a story. I like things to stay in reality. I think a good crime story bases itself in the lack of choices the main character is presented with. Where they have to make—and here I return to my go-to—the moral decision. I like to sink into someone’s world, into their mind, and then I like to see their views tested. I like character flaws but I don’t always like the usual. I like when a character is almost broken and when they are either trying to solve a crime or they are committing one, I want to see their soul. I guess even in a crime story I want to be moved somehow. I want to care.

You can find copies of Jen Conley’s Cannibals on our shelves and via bookpeople.com. 

MysteryPeople Q&A with Cara Black

Cara Black joins us here at BookPeople to speak and sign her latest Leduc Investigation, Murder in Saint-Germain, this Monday, June 12th at 7 PM. You can find copies of her latest on our shelves and via bookpeople.comCara Black was kind enough to answer a few questions about her latest before her upcoming event.

*Warning: those who have not yet finished Murder on the Champs de Mars will find a spoiler in the following interview, although there are no spoilers as to the contents of Black’s latest. 

She’s a Parisian. Politics and discussion are in the air all the time. She doesn’t trust the government, the police or sometimes her concierge but she’d do her civic duty because she’d like liberté, égalité and fraternité to be real!

Molly Odintz: Your previous novel in the series, Murder on the Quai, was a prequel, and the book before that in the series, Murder on the Champs de Mars, left readers with a bit of a cliffhanger after a shocking denouement! Was it tricky to figure out how to continue the series and keep up the momentum with Murder in Saint-Germain?

Cara Black: Good question! After the denouement in Murder on the Champs de Mars, I didn’t know what would happen to the characters. This was a game changer. But I had no clue where to go. My editor Juliet said that’s a perfect time to write a prequel and explore Aimée’s origins, how she became a detective, got her dog Miles Davis and meeting her future business partner René. Take her back to 1989 and her year in pre-med and when her father was alive so we finally get to meet him after hearing about him in so many books.

For Murder in Saint-Germain, the challenge was to forge ahead in Aimée’s ‘present’ life in 1999, her real time, and see how she was dealing with being a single mama, having an eight month old and balancing work and the man in her life. And still be a fashionista. But once I started, I just picked up with her life and put her in a hot rainy July on the Left Bank working at the Ecole des Beaux Arts and with her baby sitter going on vacation; then the story took off.

MO: Murder in Saint-Germain has Aimée Leduc juggling a number of different cases, including an investigation into Balkan war criminals, a private security concern, and her continuing investigation into her parents’ secrets. How did you balance all her different cases, and what was your inspiration for these interlocking cases?

CB: Yes, it seemed like a balancing act, but then after being a mother I understood those pushes and pulls. After all Aimée has to butter the family baguette by taking on projects and running her business, her everyday world if you will. Nothing in life or work can be counted on to run smoothly, as I found out in my own experience, and you do the best you can. On top of this work at Ecole des Beaux Arts, where she dips into a scandal, the primary story came from a top female policewoman (I’d met) who’d worked in an elite squad and served on an international team from the Hague to investigate war crimes in the Balkans. This woman fascinated me and as respected and proficient as she was, her time there traumatized her. I knew that Aimée would owe a big favor to a woman in a similar position and do her best while trying to manage everything else in her busy life. Her parent’s secrets well…more to come!

MO: France has just emerged from a contentious election, with more votes for the far right than in Aimée’s time (and the heyday of the elder Le Pen). What would Aimée think about French politics in the moment?

CB: Zut alors! She’s a Parisian. Politics and discussion are in the air all the time. She doesn’t trust the government, the police or sometimes her concierge but she’d do her civic duty because she’d like liberté, égalité and fraternité to be real!

MO: I liked getting to know the younger Aimée in Murder on the Quai, but was pleased to explore the mature Aimée’s life once more, including her complicated relationships with Melac, Morbier and with her new bebe. How have the birth of Aimée’s new baby and the death of her father changed her character?

CB: She’s developed, as she’s needed to, grown up – mostly – and motherhood has changed her. Given her another view into life, relationships and try to cope with the loss of her father, which has still left a big hole in her life. She thinks about what he taught her, how he’d show her a way and that is how she keeps his memory alive and what she can impart of him to her own daughter.

MO: Aimée has a cell phone, but she’s still cut off from using many of the technologies we take for granted today, although she’s on the cutting edge of tech for her time period. Do you plan to take her far enough into the 21st century that she has to use the internet? Has she ever used Minitel services to solve a case?

CB: She’s used the Minitel. So has her partner, René and they still use dial up because it’s the 90’s. But René, a computer hacker geek, is kind of genius at what he does and his friends in Zeelakon Vallee (Silicon Valley) send him stuff to beta test ie a precursor of Google maps in Murder on the Champs de Mars.

MO: You’re recently returned from a trip to Paris – were you researching your next Leduc investigation?

CB: Yes, and I’m excited about the next story!

Cara Black joins us here at BookPeople to speak and sign her latest Leduc Investigation, Murder in Saint-Germain, this Monday, June 12th at 7 PM. We’ll also be discussing her first in the series, Murder in the Maraisat the Murder in the Afternoon Book Club on Monday, June 19th, at 1 PM on BookPeople’s third floor.

Supernatural Meets Psychological: MysteryPeople Q&A with Andrew Pyper

  • Interview by MysteryPeople Contributor and Blogger Scott Butki

“I felt like I could isolate the characteristics of the three general types of modern monsters – Undead, Parasite, Psychotic – and trace them back to three novels, namely Frankenstein, Dracula and Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. From there, I asked myself: What if one figure combined all three of these characteristics, and directly, personally influenced the authors of those books?” – Andrew Pyper

Andrew Pyper has written a fascinating, disturbing, horrifying, engaging novel, The Only Child. For me, at least, horrifying and engaging rarely go together but they do in this book.

The brilliance of the novel (and the reason I agreed to an interview even before I started the book) stems from this premise: The female lead character is a forensic psychiatrist who often interviews violent psychotic criminals. Then she meets a man who tells her he is more than 200 years old, and was the inspiration behind Frankenstein, Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, and Dracula. Oh, and he lets her know that he is her father who can answer questions about why her mom was murdered when she was a child.

Now THAT is a hook. And the book lives up to that great premise.

Scott Butki: How did you come up with this story?

Andrew Pyper: By reading. I was following a curious thread in my mind about where our idea of monsters come from and working my way through some of the early gothic tradition, when I had this Eureka! moment. I felt like I could isolate the characteristics of the three general types of modern monsters – Undead, Parasite, Psychotic – and trace them back to three novels, namely Frankenstein, Dracula and Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. From there, I asked myself: What if one figure combined all three of these characteristics, and directly, personally influenced the authors of those books? What if he was alive today? What would he want? How would he live? And to me, most interesting of all: What would it be like to be truly unique, truly alone, yet move among humanity as if you belonged?

SB: Which came first: the main character or Lily or the plot?

AP: I think the questions and curiosities I mentioned above came first. After a time of pondering those, characters arrived to embody them, answer them.

SB: How would you describe the main character, the one who says he inspired Frankenstein, Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, and Dracula?

AP: Though he exists without ever being named (in the sense that most of us are given a name at our births, a legacy, a signature) he calls himself Michael (after the warrior angel). Michael is a character who is a combination of characters – part historian, part searcher, part killer. He is someone who has come to justify his existence – and the damage he has done – by way of his singularity, the cost he (and all of us) must pay for the persistence of myth. He is a monster, a real one. But he is also our creation, something of human making, the ghoulish side effect of storytelling itself.

SB: Sorry, but I’m not familiar with your earlier work. How does this new novel compare to the past?

AP: I would describe my body of work as belonging to the psychological thriller tradition. I’ve only written standalones so far, and they are all quite distinct. More recently, however, I’ve more deeply and openly explored the supernatural and its mythologies: demons (The Demonologist), the afterlife (The Damned), monstrosity (The Only Child).

SB: Is this a standalone or is it going to be the first in a series?

AP: A standalone. But never say never…

SB: How did you go about researching this book?

AP: I read a lot. And traveled to every place where the book goes.

SB: What’s it like getting advanced praise including from Megan Abbott, who I understand is one of your own favorites? She wrote, “Andrew Pyper has concocted a darkly entrancing tale that sweeps you off your feet from its first pages. Filled with deliriously clever nods to the grand Gothic tradition, The Only Child is also fiercely original, wildly provocative and utterly satisfying, beginning to end.”

AP: It’s deeply gratifying when a colleague as accomplished as Megan Abbott endorses your work. Writing is solitary, and plagued with uncertainties, so when someone whom you admire says “You’re on the right track” the doubt is (at least temporarily) lifted.

SB: Do you ever get scared or surprised writing your own books?

AP: Yes. The characters surprise me all the time. But what scares me is when I bump up against moments when the events of the story feel like they could be real, that they’re being reported more than invented.

SB: I understand four of your five previous novels are in active development as movies. What’s that like?

AP: Exciting, but also fatiguing. When you’re used to being in charge – I’m the novelist around here! – being a small cog in a huge machine requires the embracing of one’s powerlessness.

SB: Here’s your bonus question: What is something you wish I asked you? Here’s your chance to ask it and answer it.

AP: Will the Toronto Maple Leafs win the Stanley Cup next year? I’m so glad you asked! Why yes, they will!

You can find copies of The Only Child on our shelves and via bookpeople.com

MysteryPeople Q&A with Lori Rader Day

  • Interview by Director of Suspense Molly Odintz

Lori Rader-Day first appeared on our radar with her first crime novel, The Black Houra wicked tale of murder in academia that pleased every member of the 7% Solution Book Club when discussed. Her second foray into the genre, Little Pretty Things, takes us into a high school reunion from hell as a former student athlete investigates the murder of her recently returned frenemy, and won the Mary Higgins Clark Award.

In her third crime novel, The Day I Dieda handwriting expert with secrets to hide is recruited to analyze the ransom note left behind after a toddler’s disappearance. Soon, her son’s investigation into his own past and budding teenage rebellion will put this handwriting analyst on a collision course with her own past, leading to a denouement with a surprising amount of both action and heart. The Day I Died is an IndieNext pick for May and Lori Rader-Day will be here at the store to speak and sign her latest this Wednesday, May 31st at 7 PM. 


Molly Odintz: When I first picked up your writing, your voice, more than any plot point, was what initially drew me in. Your books explore ordinary settings in the most hard-boiled of language – did you set out to contrast the banality of the ordinary with the darkness that lurks within?

Lori Rader Day: I set out to tell a story and entertain myself. I never thought of my language as “hard-boiled.” That’s fun. But I do enjoy ordinary settings—Midwestern settings—being tainted by violence. Darkness within that leaks out into bad decisions and bad deeds.

I see what you mean about the hard-boiled language now.

MO: I’ve read a series of books recently exploring the instability of female identity and the dynamics between female friends – you go beyond the Bechdel Test in your latest to use a mystery to investigate one woman’s relationship, not with other women, but with herself at different stages. What did you want to explore about our changeable natures?

LRD: You are giving me a lot of credit here, but I like your interpretation. I wanted to write about a person willing herself into another identity—a strong woman character, we call them, right? But she’s so strong and so good at separating herself from the path she’d been on that there’s nothing in front of her. The future is wide open but by that, I mean it’s empty. I wanted to write about a character who is strong enough to survive the worst and then also doubt her choice.

MO: Atmospheric setting plays an important part in The Day I Died – which came first, the setting or the story? How did the setting influence the story (or vise versa)?

LRD: The story came first, because this story started as a short story. Thirty pages, forty. And then when one of my writing instructors told me it was a novel instead of a short story, I had to figure out what the story would be beyond the ending of the short version. For a long time, I didn’t know the setting would be so crucial to the plot. I know at one point I was shopping around for a location to set Anna’s hometown but then realized I knew exactly where it should be. I based the town on a place I had been vacationing for years in north Wisconsin, way up where it’s easy to disappear, which fed me all kinds of ideas about how Anna would feel about her home and about not being there.

MO: The Day I Died is certainly a mystery, but it’s also a book about motherhood, and the extremes to which one will go to protect one’s child (or someone else’s child). With May the month of Mother’s Day, what did you want to say about parenthood with your latest?

LRD: I’m in awe of people who become parents and take it seriously, like my friends and my sister. I’m no one’s mother. I have a dog. I started writing this story ten years ago, so maybe I was exploring the what-if of parenthood that I was not choosing.  Probably more likely, I was looking around at what my friends were choosing, and thinking what-if… that’s how the writer-brain works. You write what you know but you write what you don’t know, too.

MO: Without giving away anything about the ending, it seems like the theme of the story is personal change. Your main character has transformed her identity before, but the act of running has, in a way, restricted her identity into a mere alias, while those characters the reader expects to be frozen in time have actually changed significantly over time. To ask the broadest question possible, can any of us really change?

LRD: I think we can, in some ways. Just as a for-instance, I used to be very shy. I would have done anything to avoid public speaking. At one point I had given up writing for five years, just by letting time pass me by. And now my daily life is that I write fiction and then go talk to strangers about it.

In the book, I was careful (I hope) to leave some of these calls up to the reader. Anna doesn’t make these judgments, either, but she makes room for the judgments to be made.

MO: Your main character has an intriguing profession – why a handwriting expert, and what kind of research did you do to prepare your character for the role? Should I be glad I’m typing these questions to you rather than hand-writing them?

LRD: Back in 2007 when I was in my master of fine arts program in creative writing, I went to the library to troll for story ideas and came out with a book about handwriting. So handwriting was the origin of the entire story, and the character and everything else came after. I read that book and did some online research. Since the book was written, I’ve had the chance to talk to a handwriting specialist—who says I got it right, good news—but I never took any classes in the subject or anything. I feel like I’m disappointing people when I admit this. So you can send me a handwritten note and I won’t analyze it—I don’t know how.  

I can tell you that when I was deep in the middle of the research, my own handwriting suffered a bit. It sometimes still happens that I’ll be writing something and, mid-word, will get self-conscious and muff whatever I’m writing. Sometimes it’s my own signature.

MO: I’ve followed your crime fiction for a few years now, and I’ve watched your name become increasingly prominent. What did it feel like to win the Mary Higgins Clark award for Little Pretty Things?

LRD: It was amazing, of course, to stand on the Edgars stage accepting an award (the first year the Mary Higgins Clark was given out at the Edgar Awards). I was especially humbled because I had read all the nominated books. Reading Mary Higgins Clark books was part of my writer’s education growing up, so it was extra special to me for that reason.

MO: Your main character has suffered in her past, and in ways that (if I interpret the novel correctly) were known to her small town, yet her neighbors failed to provide her with assistance in confronting the brutality in her life. What did you want to explore about small town violence, and secrets that aren’t really secrets?

LRD: I’m really interested in small towns, having grown up in a few, but also small communities of any making, how they operate, how they break down. If violence and tragedy can bring out the best in us, it can also bring out the worst, or at least cause us to freeze and withdraw into the isolation that’s so easy out in the country. Oh, sure, we’ll have opinions, but we might not voice them, because we’ll have to live with the fall-out. So…isolation or making nice. That’s the Midwestern way, anyway. Maybe Texas does it differently.

MO: You can start to see the main character’s tattered past in the ways she reacts to the present, even before the reader is given concrete details about the character’s past – her stunted reaction to the kidnapping of a young child, and potential sympathy for the kidnapper, immediately makes her a more interesting character (to me, anyway). Which came to you first, the present-day kidnapping or the character’s backstory?

LRD: I started writing this story as a short story in 2007, so forgive me if the details of construction are a little hazy. I know I started with the handwriting and then gave that job to the character, but I think Anna’s backstory developed alongside her present self simultaneously. I enjoy ironies and parallels in my characters, so when I decided the story would be about a kidnapping, I went searching for ways that Anna might have encountered kidnapping before. I probably chose her backstory from there because it was the most complex. Writers like to give ourselves interesting assignments; I gave myself such a difficult assignment, in fact, that I had to put the book away and let my skills develop for eight years before I could write it the way I imagined it. And now I’ve given away all my writing secrets.

You can find copies of The Day I Died on our shelves and via bookpeople.com. Lori Rader Day comes to BookPeople to speak and sign her latest on Wednesday, May 31st, starting at 7 PM.