Kelly Parsons is a board-certified urologist with degrees from UPenn, Stanford University and Johns Hopkins, and he takes all that surgeon's knowledge and puts it to better use (in my opinion, but I'm biased) with his debut medical thriller, Doing Harm.
We meet chief resident Steve Mitchell, a rising star with a bright surgical future who our reviewer calls "engagingly flawed." But then a patient dies of mysterious circumstances, and the killer starts toying with Steve, threatening his career, his marriage and even his life. And with an actual surgeon behind it, Doing Harm is the perfect blend of authentic hospital atmosphere and tense life-and-death moments.
To find out more about the high-stakes hospital world, we chatted with Kelly Parsons in a Q&A about patients, medical school and the fascinating character of Steve Mitchell—who we're reluctant to trust, or even like. And Parsons agrees:
"Readers shouldn’t necessarily trust Steve. They certainly don’t have to like him. But what I hope they do, on some level, is relate to his dilemma. I want readers to understand why he makes the choices he makes, however flawed those choices may be. The story is essentially about Steve’s moral journey. With some help along the way, Steve finishes the book a much different individual than when he began it."
Doing Harm is out today! Will you check it out?
This fall's publishing season has a lot of abduction thrillers, an especially creepy trend considering the real-life stories of the three women in Ohio who were found this year after being held in captivity for a decade. One of the best of these abduction thrillers is Carla Norton's debut, The Edge of Normal, the story of a former kidnapping victim who uses her experience to help a fellow victim.
Norton is also the author of the true crime bestseller Perfect Victim: The True Story of the Girl in the Box, which details the true story of Colleen Stan, a 20-year-old girl who was kidnapped and tortured in captivity for seven years. Norton's true crime expertise and research into a real kidnapping situation set her apart from most other authors of abduction thrillers, so I hoped a Q&A with Norton would help illuminate the "why" of this trend.
Check out my Q&A with Norton, where we discussed the nature of evil, the process of writing true crime vs. fiction, the exploitation of victims and much more. Norton didn't hold back:
Do you look at the world any differently after writing these books?
I suppose writing about crime heightens your paranoia. And while some of my characters may not like certain legal institutions or members of law enforcement, I have tremendous respect [for] those who give up their time to do their civic duty and those who risk their lives in law enforcement. When a killer comes through your window, who do you call? Who is going to come to help? Seriously, those people face dangers we don’t even want to see on the page.
Also, true confession: I keep a copy of Perfect Victim in my car. When I spot the occasional female hitchhiker, I offer a ride on the condition that she’ll read the book, and then I lecture sternly about the perils of hitchhiking.
It’s often said that a writer must have compassion toward all of their characters, but Duke is a villain of the vilest sort. How were you able to write about a person who will elicit absolutely no empathy from the reader?
This might be the biggest difference between writing fiction and nonfiction. I found Duke very entertaining, so maybe it’s not a question so much of having “compassion” for your characters as it is enjoying some aspect of them. Hannibal Lector would have been repulsive in real life, but he’s fascinating on the page.
While you wouldn’t personally want to spend time with these people, you want to create fearsome villains to drive the story. Character is revealed through conflict, so you want to set your protagonist in opposition to a frightening antagonist—a David-and-Goliath-type dynamic—and that’s what I was aiming for with Reeve and Duke.
Read more here. The Edge of Normal is out today! Will you check it out? Do you read abduction thrillers?
I always love finding out what an author's research process is, so when I learned that writer Ingrid Thoft actually attended and graduated from the University of Washington private investigator program, I simply had to see how that helped her pen her debut crime fiction novel, Loyalty.
Loyalty is the story of P.I. Fina Ludlow, a kick-butt heroine who's the black sheep of a super-powerful, super-dysfunctional Boston family. When her brother's wife goes missing, the cops assume the husband's to blame, so Fina is called it to figure out what really happened. Fina's digging reveals so family secrets no one expected her to find, and as Whodunit columnist Bruce Tierney writes, "Her allegiances will be tested, as will her detective skills, for it is likely that someone close to her is singularly undeserving of her loyalty."
I just love Thoft's answer about the coolest thing she learned in the P.I. program:
"One of the cases that stands out was part of a presentation done by a scientist from the Washington State Police crime lab. She discussed trace evidence and the idea that we all leave things behind wherever we’ve been and pick something up from that location as well, whether it’s fiber, hair or residue of some sort. Her example was ash from the Mount St. Helen’s eruption. The ash that was deposited into a suspect’s car filter could only have come from a particular place at a particular time. Suspects can be fastidious and cunning, but you can’t outsmart Mother Nature!"
I am unofficially declaring this thriller week at BookPage, what with our awesome giveaway of 10 (count 'em!) suspense novels, our thriller-themed BookPageXTRA and two new interviews with popular mystery authors. Also, it doesn't hurt that The Twelve is finally on sale today.
BookPage Assistant Editor Cat Acree interviewed Norwegian sensation Jo Nesbø about his new novel, Phantom. BookPage mystery columnist Bruce Tierney calls this book "one of the finest suspense novels to come out of Scandinavia to date."
In the Q&A, Nesbø explains how he has to "be the psychopath" in order to write about dark characters. He says, "It might be scary sometimes, but that's what you have to do. Humans are complex; you'll be able to find most things within yourself. Just use your imagination."
Read the full interview here.
At the Southern Festival of Books last weekend, I was scheduled to interview local thriller author J.T. Ellison on the Chapter 16 Stage. Due to dangerous wind gusts, the live interview was cancelled—but I was still able to sit down and chat with Ellison.
In a spirited conversation, Ellison told me about the very hands-on research she has done to write books about homicide lieutenant Taylor Jackson and medical examiner Samantha Owens. The author has gone on ride-alongs with the Metro Nashville Police Department and even completed four autopsies. Ellison also told me about some of the painful real-life events that inspired her latest book, a forensic thriller called A Deeper Darkness.
You can read the full interview here.
_ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _
"I love mysteries and thrillers because they transport me into a place that gets my heart pumpin and nails bitten."
"Mysteries and thrillers are the books that make me lose all sense of time as my thoughts are consumed with the puzzles that they provide."
"I love a mystery and always have. It isn’t so much the solution that intrigues me, but how it is arrived at that grips me."
"I love tightly written mysteries and thrillers that give clues to figure it out, but enough twists and turns that you couldn’t possibly predict the actual conclusion. The best is when I’m totally surprised and have to turn back and find those spots that I read as one thing when actually it was something totally different. The best!!"
The July issue of BookPage features a special extended column on six must-read mysteries—all written by women. In today's edition of BookPageXTRA, we called out a seventh terrific thriller: Hell or High Water by Joy Castro.
The novel takes place in post-Katrina New Orleans, and stars Nola Céspedes, a reporter for the Times-Picayune. Nola is assigned a story on missing registered sex offenders in the city. She soon discovers they might be linked to an outbreak of abductions.
BookPage interviewed Castro about the subject matter of her novel, the challenges of writing a thriller and why she loves New Orleans. Here's an excerpt:
Hell or High Water is very vividly set in New Orleans, after Hurricane Katrina. On your website you explain that your husband is from Louisiana, and you’ve been visiting the city for 20 years. Why does post-Katrina New Orleans make a good setting for a crime novel?
Thank you! Katrina hit in August, 2005, and the book is set in April, 2008.
Hell or High Water works particularly well in post-Katrina New Orleans because the novel looks specifically at sex crimes, which have a long aftermath. There’s the initial trauma, and then there’s the long, difficult, uncertain process of coming back, of healing. Just because offenders are caught and convicted—and often they’re not—does not mean the damage is somehow magically healed. Recovering is a process. It takes time, and it’s frustrating and painful to the survivors, who often don’t get the help they need.
You’re probably already anticipating the analogy. The city of New Orleans, which is still wrestling with the aftermath of Katrina’s devastation, experienced a similar story writ large. The storm itself was over by September, but its fallout, both in terms of the emotional trauma and the practical difficulties of rebuilding, has lasted for years.
No matter how committed they are, survivors can become exhausted, frustrated, heartbroken, fed up. That’s the story I wanted to tell: the story of aftermath. [Read more. . . ]
There's plenty of talk of summer reading lists as the days grow warmer and longer, but this time, I'm suggesting you add a whole series to your stack. Start with David Downing's Zoo Station and make your way through the adventures of Anglo-American journalist/author/spy John Russell, then grab Downing's newest, Lehrter Station.
This series is best enjoyed from the beginning, and historical suspense fans will agree with Whodunit columnist Bruce Tierney, who insists "Downing’s deft weaving of fiction and real-life WWII history is second to none."
We chatted with Downing about the fifth installment in the story of John Russell, and I loved his answer to this question: "If you could travel back in time to any decade, where would you go and what would you do while you were there?" Read his answer.
Will Lehrter Station make your summer reading list?
The April Whodunit column features four standout suspense novels (including "hands-down the best gangster thriller in years"), but my favorite is probably the one about under-employed college grads who turn to . . . kidnapping to pay the bills. Everything's going swimmingly for the characters—their business plan is all about low-ransom, high-volume kidnappings, and they never hurt the victims—until they nab the wrong guy: a man whose wife has mafia connections. Before they know it they're being chased by both the FBI and the mob. I mentioned this book, The Professionals, in a "What we're reading" blog post a couple of months ago, and today it's finally on sale!
I interviewed debut author Owen Laukkanen because I was curious about his unusual background; he's worked as a poker journalist, and now he's a commercial fisherman. I also wondered if he had any good advice (that doesn't involve illegal activity) for young graduates.
Laukkanen gave great answers to my questions. Here's a preview; read the full Q&A on BookPage.com.
What’s the riskiest career option: playing poker, fishing or writing fiction?
Great question! Fishing, writing and card playing are all tough ways to make a living, but with writing, at least, the money tends to dwindle, rather than flat-out disappear. In poker and fishing, there's always the chance that luck will lay a beating on you, and in those instances it's very easy to lose tremendous sums of money very, very quickly.
Fishing, meanwhile, combines those high financial stakes with the very real possibility that you'll injure yourself, or, well, die. It's riskier than poker, but a heck of a lot more fun than hanging out in a casino, and you can take plenty of time off to write.
What career advice would you give a group of recent college graduates who are frustrated with the job market?
Learn a trade. There's this idea that every smart kid in the world needs to go to college to succeed at life, but I really don't see any shame in becoming a plumber or a pipefitter or anything like that. Where I live, at least, there are still plenty of jobs for skilled tradespeople.
For those of us dead set on our arts degrees, though, I think an open mind and a willingness to relocate are pretty important. There are still a lot of fun jobs out there; they might just be in Alaska or Texas and not down the street.
I would not advise anyone to turn to crime, particularly kidnapping!
Psychological thriller Bleed for Me by Michael Robotham is our March Mystery of the Month! Whodunit columinst Bruce Tierney says it combines "the insights of a trained psychologist; the savvy street smarts and irreverent observations of a retired cop; and intricate plotting from a first-rate author."
BookPage chatted with Robotham in a 7 Questions interview, where he shares insight on writing, his experiences with Jackie Collins and what he's working on next.
Read on for an excerpt from Chapter 1 of Bleed for Me, when psychologist Joe O’Loughlin questions a boy whose mental health is being reviewed (Dr Naparstek is the boy's psychiatrist):
If I could tell you one thing about Liam Baker’s life it would be this: when he was eighteen years old he beat a girl half to death and left her paralysed from the waist down because she tipped a bucket of popcorn over his head. As defining events go, nothing else comes close for Liam, not the death of his mother or his faith in God or the three-years he has spent in a secure psychiatric hospital – all of which can be attributed, in one way or another, to that moment of madness in a cinema queue.
‘It’s been a while since I saw you last, Liam. Remind me again why
‘I did a bad thing, but I’m better now.’
There it is: an admission and an excuse in the same breath.
‘So why are you here?’
‘You sent me here.’
‘I must have had a reason.’
‘I had a per...per...personality disorder.’
‘What do you think that means?’
‘I hurt someone, but it weren’t my fault. I couldn’t help it.’ He leans forward, elbows on his knees, eyes on the floor.
‘You beat a girl up. You punched and kicked her. You crushed her spine. You broke her jaw. You fractured her skull. Her name was Zoe Hegarty. She was sixteen.’
Each fact resonates as though I’m clashing cymbals next to his ear, but nothing changes in his eyes.
‘What are you sorry for?’
‘For what I d-d-did.’
‘And now you’ve changed?'
‘What have you done to change?’
He looks perplexed.
‘Hostility like that has to come from somewhere, Liam. What have you
done to change?’
He begins talking about the therapy sessions and workshops that he’s done, the anger management courses and social skills training. Occasionally, he looks over his shoulder towards Dr Naparstek, but I ask him to concentrate on me.
‘Tell me about Zoe?’
‘What about her?’
‘What was she like?’
He shakes his head. ‘I don’t remember.’
‘Did you fancy her?’
Liam flinches. ‘It w-w-weren’t like that.’
‘You followed her home from the cinema. You dragged her off the street. You kicked her unconscious.’
‘I didn’t rape her.’
‘I didn’t say anything about raping her. Is that what you intended to do?’
Liam shakes his head, tugging at the sleeves of his shirt. His eyes are focused on the far wall, as if watching some invisible drama being played out on a screen that nobody else can see.
‘You once told me that Zoe wore a mask. You said a lot of people wore masks and weren’t genuine. Do I wear a mask?’
What about Dr Naparstek?’
The mention of her name makes his skin flush.
‘How old are you now, Liam?’
Tell me about your dreams.’
He blinks at me.
‘What do you dream about?’
'Getting out of here. Starting a n-n-new life.’
‘Do you masturbate?’
‘I don’t believe that’s true, Liam.’
He shakes his head.
‘You shouldn’t talk about stuff like that.’
‘It’s very natural for a young man. When you masturbate who do you
‘There aren’t many girls around here. Most of the staff are men.’
‘G-g-girls in magazines.’
‘Dr Naparstek is a woman. How often do you get to see Dr Naparstek? Twice a week? Three times? Do you look forward to your sessions?’
‘She’s been good to me.’
‘How has she been good to you?’
‘She doesn’t judge me.’
‘Oh, come on, Liam, of course she judges you. That’s why she’s here. Do you ever have sexual fantasies about her?’
He bristles. Edgy. Uncomfortable.
‘You shouldn’t say things like that.’
‘She’s a very attractive woman, Liam. I’m just admiring her.’
I look over his shoulder. Dr Naparstek doesn’t seem to appreciate the compliment. Her lips are pinched tightly and she’s toying with a pendant around her neck.
‘What do you prefer, Liam, winter or summer?’
‘Day or night?’
‘Apples or oranges?’
‘Coffee or tea?’
‘Women or men?’
‘In skirts or trousers?’
‘Long or short?’
‘Stockings or tights?’
‘What colour lipstick?’
‘What colour eyes does she have?’
‘What is she wearing today?’
‘What colour is her bra?’
‘I didn’t mention a name, Liam. Who are you talking about?’
He stiffens, embarrassed, his face a beacon. I notice his left knee
bouncing up and down in a reflex action.
‘Do you think Dr Naparstek is married?’ I ask.
‘I d-d-don’t know.’
‘Does she wear a wedding ring?’
‘Maybe she has a boyfriend at home. Do you think about what she does when she leaves this place? Whether there is someone waiting for her? What does her house look like? What does she wear when she’s at home? Does she sleep naked?’
Flecks of white spin are gathered in the corners of Liam’s mouth.
Dr Naparstek wants to stop the questioning, but the Judge tells her to sit down.
Liam tries to turn but I lean forward and put my hands on his shoulders, my mouth close to his ear. I can smell the sweat wetting the roots of his hair and see a fleck of shaving foam beneath his ear.
In a whisper, ‘You think about her all the time, don’t you, Liam? The smell of her skin, her shampoo, the delicate shell of her ear, the shadow in the hollow between her breasts . . .every time you see her, you collect more details so that you can fantasise about what you want to do to her.’
Liam’s skin has flushed and his breathing has gone ragged.
‘You fantasise about following her home – just like you followed Zoe Hegarty. Dragging her off the street. Making her beg you to stop.’
The Judge suddenly interrupts. ‘We can’t hear your questions, Professor. Please speak up.’
The spell is broken. Liam remembers to breathe.
‘My apologies,’ I say, glancing at the review panel. ‘I was just telling Liam that I might ask Dr Naparstek out to dinner.’
Will you pick up Bleed for Me? It's out now!
I've mentioned before how much I enjoy Laura Lippman's smart thrillers, so any book that she recommends with a blurb is naturally going to catch my eye. Even better when that book is delivered to BookPage inside an over-sized milk carton (read this blog post to see what I mean).
I stated reading Alison Gaylin's And She Was with high expectations, and I was not disappointed. First of all, the thriller has an interesting hook: Missing persons investigator Brenna Spector has Hyperthymestic Syndrome, a rare, real-life condition that causes a person to have a perfect autobiographical memory. In other words: She can remember every moment from her life.
For example, you probably went to the dentist, oh, 10 years ago. Do you remember exactly what the receptionist said to you, exactly what the waiting room sounded and smelled like, exactly what you wore? Well, Brenna can remember details like that from her life, no matter how insignificant, important or tragic. It's a helpful quality for an investigator, but also a hindrance. Would you really like to have every memory from your life automatically playing on loop in your mind?
Brenna's sister disappeared when she was a child, and that's what triggered the disorder to kick in. As an adult, she is called to investigate the disappearance of a woman named Carol, and that case is connected with the disappearance of another young girl that happened years before, and to Brenna's past.
I interviewed Gaylin for BookPage.com and asked her whether a perfect memory would be a blessing or a curse. Here's what she said:
Having a pretty good memory myself, my first response was, “That must be awful!” I honestly think that the ability to forget—to let the past fade into soft focus and recede in your mind—is one of the great tools of survival. How can you forgive and forget if you can’t forget? How can you move on at all, if the past is just as clear and visceral as the present? How can you truly be with the people around you, if your mind is full of everyone who is no longer in your life?
After editing five crime anthologies, Rosemary Herbert joins the mystery-writing ranks with her first novel, Front Page Teaser (Down East Books).
Describe your book in one sentence.
Set in Boston, and following the adventures of a gutsy, underdog, tabloid newspaper reporter on the trail of a missing mom, Front Page Teaser: A Liz Higgins Mystery is not just a fast-paced puzzler, but a love song to the news reporting life.
What's the best writing advice you've ever gotten?
“Think tabloid.” My first editor at the Boston Herald told me this with a wink, because she did not mean to suggest that I write as if I were reporting for the National Enquirer. What she did mean was to cut to the chase, keep the pace lively, write with attitude and verve, and especially to get to the heart of the matter. When I was young, my creative writing teacher, Mr. Alfred Haulenbeek, told me to believe in myself and to “grow in the appreciation of fine language.” Put these pieces of advice together and you have a winning combination.
How would you earn a living if you weren't a writer?
As a librarian. I have worked as a reference librarian at Harvard University and as a children’s librarian in Maine. In fact, subplot in Front Page Teaser is drawn from my library experience. When my reporter-sleuth Liz Higgins asks librarians to reveal the reading habits of a missing woman, the librarians stand as bastions protecting the privacy of library patron circulation records. I added this to my book as a tribute to librarians and librarianship.
What was the proudest moment of your career so far?
Being nominated for an Edgar Award by the Mystery Writers of America for The Oxford Companion to Crime & Mystery Writing. I served as editor-in-chief for this volume.
If you had to be stranded on a desert island with one fictional character, who would you want it to be?
Nancy Drew. I’m sure she would get us out of the desert island “scrape” with pluck and aplomb. Meanwhile, we could trade some clever sleuthing clues.
What are you reading now?
Tony Hillerman’s Landscapes (Harper) by his daughter, Anne Hillerman, with photographs by Don Strel. Because Tony Hillerman is not here to celebrate the recent paperback publication of our book A New Omnibus of Crime (Oxford University Press), I have been missing him. Anne’s book makes me feel closer to Tony and his work.