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!"
Alafair Burke's new stand-alone thriller, If You Were Here, finds crime reporter McKenna Jordan investigating a mysterious heroine who clearly wants to keep her identity a secret. The unknown woman saved a boy from an oncoming train—and then vanished. However, the woman's face, caught in a brief snippet of video, resembles McKenna's former best friend—and McKenna just can't let a mystery like that go.
Many fans love Burke for her Samantha Kincaid and Ellie Hatcher series, so we wanted to know what makes McKenna Jordan stand out. Burke's answer, plus some fascinating insight into the real world of criminal investigation, can be found in our 7 questions interview:
"McKenna, in contrast, endures more trauma and drama than most people experience in a lifetime, which allows her to make enormous discoveries about herself in one little book. She's also incredibly tenacious, for better or for worse."
Reddish blond hair pulled into a ponytail at the nape of her neck. Long-sleeved white sweater, backpack straps looped over both shoulders. Despite the train's lurch, she typed with two hands, stabilizing herself against the bounce with her core strength.
Maybe that should have been a sign.
He stepped one foot into the car, grabbed the phone, and pivoted a one-eighty, like he had 50 times before. He pushed through the clump of angry riders who had followed him into the car and now stood before him, all hoping to secure a few square feet on the crowded train before the doors closed.
Had he known what would happen next, maybe he would have run faster for the staircase.
It wasn't until he hit the top of the landing that he realized he had a problem. Somehow he heard it. Not the sound of the shoes but the sound of surprised bystanders reacting.
What the . . .
You lost your shoe, lady!
Oh my God, David. We have to leave the city.
Nicky sneaked a glance behind him to see the woman kicking off her remaining ballet flat as she took two steps at a time in pursuit. She had looked sort of average middle-aged through the subway doors, but now she had a crazy look of determination on her face. In her eyes. In the energy of her forearms as they whipped back and forth at her sides.
Stay tuned for lots of mystery coverage throughout Private Eye July!
With his debut novel, Hour of the Red God, Richard Crompton introduces a new, wholly unique mystery hero to the scene: a Maasai cop, Detective Mollel. Whodunit columnist Bruce Tierney calls Mollel "outwardly ritually scarred, inwardly emotionally scarred and always a bit at odds with fellow cops (especially the higher-ups) and his own family."
In Little Mombasa in Nairobi, the mutilated body of a Maasai woman has been found. Detective Mollel knows this is more than just a dead prostitute, so set against the backdrop of Kenya’s turbulent 2007 presidential elections, he seeks the truth.
We chatted with debut author Crompton about the gritty Nairobi setting and his warrior protagonist in a 7 questions interview.
Read on for an excerpt from the first chapter of Hour of the Red God (via):
Mollel is vaguely aware of a display of bicycles inside, but he is watching the reflection suspended upon the glass. A group of teenage girls, all gossip and gum, mobile phones wafting like fans, handbags slung over shoulders like bandoliers. And from the shadows, other eyes—hungry now—emerging. Watching without watching, getting closer without moving in, the men nonchalant yet purposeful, disparate yet unified, circling their prey: hunting dogs.
—Go inside the shop, Mollel tells Adam. Stay there till I come back for you.
—Can I choose a bike, Dad? Really?
—Just stay there, says Mollel, and he pushes the boy through the store’s open door. He turns: it’s happened already. The group of men are melting away: the girls are still oblivious to what has just taken place. He clocks one of the guys walking swiftly from the scene, stuffing a gold vinyl clutch bag—so not his style—under his shirt.
Mollel takes off, matching the hunting dog’s pace but keeping his distance, eager not to spook him. No point in letting him bolt into a back street now. Pace up a beat, narrow the gap. Quit Biashara Street. Cross Muindi Mbingu. Weave through traffic—ignore the car horns. Busier here.
The hunting dog is in his late teens or early twenties, judges Mollel. Athletic. His shirt has the sleeves cut off at the shoulders, not to expose his well-developed arms, but to ease its removal. The buttons at the front will be fake, Mollel knows, replaced with a strip of Velcro or poppers to confound any attempt to grab the bag-snatcher’s collar, leaving the pursuer holding nothing more than a raggedy shirt like a slipped snake skin.
While he weighs his strategy—a dive to the legs rather than a clutch at the torso—Mollel realises the thief is heading for the City Market. Got to close the gap now. Lose him in there, he’s gone for good.
Taking up an entire city block, and with more ways in and out than a hyrax burrow, on a day like this the market’s dark interior is thronged with shoppers escaping the sun. Mollel considers yelling Stop, Mwezi! or Police!—but calculates this would lose him precious time. The thief leaps up the steps and deftly vaults a pile of fish guts, pauses a moment to look back—showing, Mollel thinks, signs of tiring—and dives into the dark interior. Mollel’s gaunt frame is just a few seconds behind, heart pounding, gulping lungfuls of air with relish, even as his stomach rebels at the powerful reek of fish. He hasn’t done this for a while. And he is enjoying it.
It takes his eyes a moment to adjust. At first all he can see are tall windows high overhead, shafts of light like columns. Noise fills in what eyes cannot see: the hubbub of negotiation and exchange, the squawking of chickens, the multitudinous laughter and chatter and
singing and hustle and bustle of life.
And amongst that hustle and bustle—a bustle, a hustle, that should not be there. He sees it now, as well as hears it, just a few stalls ahead. Figures tumbling, voices raised in protest.
Through a gap in the crowd, Mollel sees the thief. He’s scattering people and produce behind him in an attempt to obstruct his pursuer. No point going down that aisle. He looks left and right, plumps for right, rounds a stall and starts to run down a parallel row. Although he’s keeping up with his prey, Mollel’s not going to catch him this way. Ahead, he sees sacks of millet stacked loosely against one of the stalls. It’s his chance. He bounds up, one, two, and is atop the stall, balancing on the boards which bound the millet.
A howl of protest rises from the woman behind the stall, swiping at his legs with her scoop. —Get down from there! But he is already gone, leaping to the next stall, hoping the rickety wood will take his weight—it does—and run, leap, again—it does.
A better view from here, and clearer run—despite the efforts of stallholders to push him, grab him, drag him to earth. He rises above the hands, above the stalls, intent only on the pursuit.
The fresh, clean smell of peppers and onions cuts through the dusty dryness of millet. Easier to negotiate. He bounds across the stacked vegetables, skipping, skimming, recalling chasing goats across mountain scree when he was a child. Momentum is everything. Each footstep expects you to fall: cheat it. Be gone.
Outraged yells fill his ears but he feels like the great hall has fallen silent: there is no-one in it but him and the fleeing man. Distance between them measured in heartbeats: arm’s reach; finger’s grasp.
And then he is out of the door.
Mollel suddenly finds himself standing on the final stall, surrounded by furious faces. They barrack him and block him; hands reach for his ankles. He sees the back of the thief’s head about to melt into the crowd outside the market. He sweeps his arm down; feels hair and hardness—coconuts—beneath his feet. Another goat-herding trick: if the animal is out of reach, throw something at it.
The coconut is out of his hand before he even thinks about it. It describes a shallow parabola, over the heads of the stallholders, through the square, bright doorway. He even hears the crack, and relaxes. He has time now to produce his card and clear the way to the
doorway, where a circle has formed.
The crowd is now eager, anticipatory. The rear doorway of the city market is inhabited by butchers’ stalls, and the metallic smell of blood is in the air.
They part before him, and Mollel steps into the ring. The thief is on his knees, gold handbag dropped to the ground, one hand dazedly rubbing the back of his head. The smashed coconut has already been snatched by a pair of children, front of the circle, who suck on the sweet flesh and grin at Mollel. Free food and a floorshow. What more
could you want?
—You’re coming with me, says Mollel. The thief does not respond. But he staggers groggily to his feet.
—I said, says Mollel, you’re coming with me. He steps forward and takes the thief by his upper arm. It is wider than Mollel can grasp and as hard as rock. He hopes the guy’s going to remain concussed long enough to drag him downtown. If only he had cuffs—
—and then the arm wheels away from his, Mollel just having time to step back to take a little force out of the blow which lands on the side of his head. No concussion—the faintness feigned—the thief now alert and springing on his heels. A lunge—missed—at Mollel. The crowd cheers. He is strong but top-heavy, this fighter, and the policeman
judges that a swift shoulder-ram would push him once more to the ground. Mollel seizes his chance, head down, body thrown at his opponent’s chest, but he misjudges the timing, and the thief parries him easily. Mollel feels a sharp, agonising pain in his head—everywhere—stabbing and yanking, the pain of capture, and of submission.
His opponent laughs, and a roar of approval comes from the crowd. No partisans, these. Mollel feels his head jerked from side to side, up and down. There is nothing he can do.
—I have you now, Maasai, laughs the thief.
He has put his thumbs through Mollel’s earlobes.
Finland’s best-selling international crime writer isn't actually Finnish. While he has lived in Finland for 15 years, James Thompson is actually a Kentucky native—but that hasn't stopped him from becoming a Nordic noir favorite.
The newest book in his Inspector Vaara series is Helsinki Blood (featured in our April Whodunit column). When an Estonian woman finds down-and-out Vaara and tells him that her daughter with Down syndrome has gone missing and is perhaps now in the clutches of sex slavers, he sees it as a chance for redemption.
Helsinki Blood is actually the final book in a trilogy (including Lucifer's Tears and Helsinki White) set within the Inspector Vaara series. So while this book is the finale of a storyline, fans have plenty more Vaara books to look forward to.
Check out our 7 questions interview with James Thompson, who shared insight into dark, gritty thrillers:
"Dark stories are for those who want to re-examine the world and themselves, to hold up a mirror to the world and themselves and ask themselves what they see. For those who want to question the truth of themselves and the world around them."
July eleventh. A hot summer Sunday. All I want is some goddamned peace and quiet. Now my house is under siege, I have an infant to both care for and protect, and I’m forced to do the last thing I wanted to do: call Sweetness and Milo, my colleagues and subordinates, or accomplices—the definition of their role in my life depends on one’s worldview—and ask them for help.
I’m shot to pieces. Bullets to my knee and jaw—places I’ve been shot before—have left me a wreck. Only cortisone shots and dope for pain enable me to get around with a cane, speak and eat without wanting to scream. I’m still recovering from a brain tumor removal six months ago. The operation was a success but had a serious side effect that left me flat, emotionless.
My feelings are returning as the empty space where once a tumor existed fills in with new tissue, but I only feel love for my wife and child, and intermittent like for one or two others. My normal state and reaction toward others is now irritability. My wife, Kate, suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder and has run away from home, out of control of her own emotions, and abandoned me.
These combined problems, any one of which would drive a person to distraction under the best of circumstances, cloud my judgment and affect my behavior. My judgment and behavior were already clouded. I feel so certain it will all end badly that it seems more a portent than an emotion. Auguries and omens of catastrophe seem all around me, just out of sight, but every time I turn to face them, they disappear like apparitions.
Have you checked out James Thompson's Inspector Vaara series?
Seriously, what's going on with with Denmark, Finland, Sweden—really, any of the Nordic countries? It seems like our whodunit column almost always features a mystery from some Scandinavian country. And we've chatted with several of them: here, here and here.
Whatever they're doing, we're paying attention. This month, whodunit columnist Bruce Tierney recommends Jussi Adler-Olsen's newest thriller, The Absent One, which stars Copenhagen cold case investigator Carl Mørck and a 20-year-old murder:
"The prime suspects were the progeny of some of Denmark’s most prestigious families, all classmates in a high-dollar (er, kroner) boarding school. Most of said suspects went on to become contemporary Danish movers and shakers. One, a “poor relation,” went to jail for the murders. And one, Kimmie—who knows that the convicted murderer was nothing more than a paid scapegoat for his wealthy friends—is living on the streets, furtively plotting her revenge on the band of sociopathic socialites. Somehow, Mørck will have to find a way to bring the miscreants to justice before Kimmie has the opportunity to administer her altogether more Old Testament style of retribution."
Who's your favorite Scandinavian thriller writer?
There's just something about the Amish. Something about their culture that makes for touching romances and tales of friendship (not to mention a hilarious vampire mash-up). And there's something about all that hard work and neighborly compassion that makes for a really gritty murder mystery series.
Linda Castillo's Gone Missing is the newest installment in her Amish thriller series and our Top Pick in Mystery. Writes Whodunit columinst Bruce Tierney, "With its wonderfully conflicted protagonist, and its incisive look into a society most of us know little about, Gone Missing is the unquestioned high point of one of the most compelling series in modern suspense fiction."
Check out our 7 questions interview with Castillo, where she shared why Amish country inspires her thrillers:
"Ohio’s Amish Country is a peaceful and bucolic place of rolling hills, farms and quaint towns. The Amish make it unique—there’s no place like it in the world. I think the element that makes it such a terrific setting for a thriller is the juxtaposition of the beautiful setting and the introduction of evil into it. That contrast is one of the things that prompted me to set my books among the Amish."
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?
Our Mystery of the Month is original, twisted and gruesomely fascinating. Sorry by Zoran Drvenkar is a thriller unlike any other, in which a murderer manipulates an agency called "Sorry" that specializes in cleaning up other people's mistakes.
BookPage Whodunit columnist Bruce Tierney writes, "Dark, demented, radical and grotesquely humorous, Sorry upends every convention of modern fiction craft, and brilliantly. Indeed, Sorry might well be the Mystery of the Year!"
In a 7 questions interview with BookPage, German novelist Zoran Drvenkar shared a handful of his favorite books and some excellent writing advice.
Does this dark thriller sound like your type of creepy read?