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. . . ]
According to our latest Reader Survey, BookPage readers enjoy mysteries more than any other genre. After hearing this news, we decided to give you an extra dose of suspenseful reading suggestions. In the July edition, look for an extended Whodunit column, highlighting six new novels—all written by women.
Longtime Whodunit columnist Bruce Tierney writes:
Hard-core grittiness and violence are now the norm in female-penned suspense novels; romance-laden cozies are no longer the province of the Women of Mystery—if indeed they ever were. So move over Andrew Vachss, step aside Lee Child: There's a new sheriff in town—and he's a she!
What's your favorite thriller of the year, so far?
I was happy to see in Publishers Marketplace that Christopher Pavone, the author of The Expats—one of my favorite thrillers of 2012 (so far)—is writing another book. The Expats was so good because it asks the reader a provocative question: How well do you know your spouse? (In this case, the spouse in question leads a double life as an undercover spy for the CIA.) The novel had everything I look for in a thriller: a fast pace, intriguing characters, an unusual setting (Luxembourg!). If you haven't yet discovered this novel, read an interview with the author from the March edition of BookPage. Do you agree with Pavone's assertion that "most people have no idea what their spouses do all day long"?
Pavone's new book is called The Accident. It, too, is about a CIA agent—a veteran agent "tracking an anonymous manuscript with a shocking secret." I'm looking forward to it. What about you?
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?
The Professionals by Owen Laukkanen
Putnam • $25.95 • ISBN 9780399157899
March 29, 2012
Some of suspense fiction's finest—writers like Lee Child, C.J. Box and Jonathan Kellerman—have sung this novel's praises. It's no surprise, then, that the pages practically turn themselves, and all you can do is hang on for the ride once the action gets going.
Here's an excerpt about the ringleader's philosophy on kidnapping:
Of all his worries, it was greed that kept Arthur Pender awake at night. It wasn't his own greed that bothered him; Pender was happy with sixty-thousand-dollar scores. He worried, though, that the long grind would wear on his team.
Most would-be kidnappers treated the job like a Hail Mary. Tried to knock down some CEO, some pop star, tried to make ten million and disappear after one big haul. One shot for all the glory. To Pender, that kind of thinking was stupidity, plain and simple. Those heroes who aimed for the big scores always attracted the big crowds. Police. Feds. TV cameras. Publicity like that made it impossible to remain anonymous. Publicity like that meant investigations, manhunts, Wanted posters. Ultimately, publicity like that meant jail or death. Nobody got away from the Big American Machine.
Far better, then, to pull quick scores. Lower numbers, but higher volume. The Pender method. Snatch guys like Terry Harper, Martin Warner. Midlevel executives, hedge-fund managers, guys with enough cash to make the job worthwhile, with families to pay the ransoms, but with no glamour to their names. No romance. Anonymous upper-class fellas who just wanted to see things return to normal.
Our February Mystery of the Month, Defending Jacob by William Landay, taps into a parent's worst nightmare. No -- worse.
Assistant D.A. Andy Barber's son seems the most likely suspect for a neighbor's brutal murder. Andy finds himself desperately defending his son, holding his family together and keeping at bay that tiny nagging doubt. Writes Whodunit columnist Bruce Tierney, "Defending Jacob is one of the most disturbing books of the year, and soon to be one of the most talked-about."
Check out an excerpt from Chapter 1, when Andy is being questioned by the prosecuting attorney:
In the grand jury room that morning, the jurors were in a sullen, defeated mood. They sat, thirty-odd men and women who had not been clever enough to find a way out of serving, all crammed into those school chairs with a teardrop-shaped desk for a chair-arm. They understood their jobs well enough by now. Grand juries serve for months, and they figure out pretty quickly what the gig is all about: accuse, point your finger, name the wicked one.
A grand jury proceeding is not a trial. There is no judge in the room and no defense lawyer. The prosecutor runs the show. It is an investigation and in theory a check on the prosecutor’s power, since the grand jury decides whether the prosecutor has enough evidence to haul a suspect into court for trial. If there is enough evidence, the grand jury grants the prosecutor an indictment, his ticket to Superior Court. If not, they return a “no bill” and the case is over before it begins. In practice, “no bill”s are rare. Most grand juries indict. Why not? They only see one side of the case.
But in this case, I suspect the jurors knew Logiudice did not have a case. Not today. The truth was not going to be found, not with evidence this stale and tainted, not after everything that had happened. It had been over a year already — over twelve months since the body of a fourteen-year-old boy was found in the woods with three stab wounds arranged in a line across the chest as if he’d been forked with a trident. But it was not the time, so much. It was everything else. Too late, and the grand jury knew it.
I knew it, too.
Only Logiudice was undeterred. He pursed his lips in that odd way of his. He reviewed his notes on a yellow legal pad, considered his next question. He was doing just what I’d taught him. The voice in his head was mine: Never mind how weak your case is. Stick to the system. Play the game the same way it’s been played the last 500-odd years, use the same gutter tactic that has always governed cross-examination — lure, trap, f*ck.
Does it sound like your type of thriller?
guest post by Jaden Terrell
Readers never tire of reading about their favorite characters. Sherlock Holmes' fans were so insatiable that his author killed him off and was forced to resurrect him through a series of prequels. When I started my first Jared McKean novel, I hoped to inspire the same passion in readers. I knew that most successful series characters have the following traits in common, so before I sent the book into the world, I tried to make sure Jared possessed them.
They are vulnerable. We love an underdog, and a character’s vulnerabilities give readers a reason to root for him. Jared is still in love with his ex-wife, who is married to another man. He has family ties that leave him emotionally vulnerable.
Just like real people, they are flawed. Jared is impulsive and quick to throw a punch. He’s a sucker for a woman with fluttering lashes and a hard luck story. But that’s okay. A character’s flaws can provide plot complications and add emotional depth as he struggles to overcome his weaknesses.
They are strong. Vulnerability must be balanced with competence and strength of character. Jared is an accomplished marksman, horseman, and martial artist. He does what he thinks is right, even at terrible costs.
They are complex, with backgrounds and connections that lead to complications. Working undercover in vice and later as a homicide detective, Jared cultivated skills and contacts that make him an effective PI but have left him with enemies. His connections with family and friends give him support but often lead to entanglements and even physical danger. He’s spent his life trying to live up to his father, a war hero turned patrol officer who was killed while intervening in an armed robbery. Jared is a former homicide detective—a man’s man—but his tough-guy demeanor is tempered by compassion. He nursed his mother through her losing battle with cancer, cares for a friend with a terminal disease, rescues horses, and is the loving father of a child with Down syndrome. These things give him added dimension and—I hope—make readers care about him.
Will readers love Jared as much as I do? Only time will tell. In the meantime, I’m off to spend the afternoon with my good friend Jared McKean.
Jaden Terrell is the author of Racing the Devil (Permanent Press), the first in a series featuring Nashville private detective Jared McKean, and is a contributor to Now Write Mysteries, a collection of writing exercises published by Tarcher/Penguin for crime fiction writers. Terrell is the executive director of the Killer Nashville Crime Literature Conference and the recipient of the 2009 Magnolia Award for service to the Southeastern chapter of Mystery Writers of America. Learn more at on her website, jadenterrell.com.