Please take a moment to review Hachette Book Group’s updated Privacy Policy: read the updated policy here.

Why I Write Thrillers (And, Maybe, Why You Read Them)

Give a big welcome to Gregg Hurwitz! He dropped by our site to share with us an epiphany he had while writing his novel Don’t Look Back, which was published in August by St. Martin’s Press.

OaxacaA friend of mine introduced me to the beautiful Mexican state of Oaxaca, where Don’t Look Back takes place. He gave me access to all the experts and adventures my evil thriller writer mind required. I hiked through ruins. I learned how to drink mezcal properly—with orange slices and salt made with ground-up worms. I ate crickets and desiccated caterpillar. I stepped on giant snakes. I enjoyed some fairly dangerous runs on a Class IV white-water rafting trip through the jungle. Just before we launched the raft, I got stung on the eyelid by a still-not-identified wasp which made my eye swell up to cartoonish proportion. In Mexico, this doesn’t elicit sympathy; it means you get made fun of more. I learned how to make soap and mezcal. I walked (carefully) through crocodile lagoons and got close to a few snaggle-toothed monsters. I went horseback riding across beaches. I dodged a marching line of millions of sweeper ants devouring everything in their path. You can see that this setting has everything a novelist wants. It was a great blend of adventure and manic fun. I always want the reader to have a front-row seat to the action and in order to do that for Don’t Look Back, I had to experience everything myself so I could bring to life the sights, scents, and sounds of this unique part of the world.

As you can see, I loved researching and writing this one. But this book also holds a very personal meaning for me. Smack in the middle of my last tour, my wife was told she had to have brain surgery. I remember exactly where I was when I found out: heading into a literary event in Berkeley where I was expected to address a room full of devoted readers. So the things I was called to do that night—talking to readers (which I love) and being patient (with which I have been known to have my struggles)—were even harder for me.

What was at stake if the surgery went wrong was my wife’s memory—to be precise, her short term memory conversion. So what we were looking at if things went badly was basically Memento (without the tattoos) or 50 First Dates (without Adam Sandler and a ukulele). Though I suppose in the latter instance, if one has to contend with Adam Sandler and a ukulele, one might prefer to have some short-term memory challenges.

My wife’s surgery went as well as it could have. She retained her memory—in fact, her most recent MRI noted that she has an “unremarkable brain,” which I believe is the only context in which that is flattering. I also try to remind her of this when we disagree, though it doesn’t go over quite as well as you might think. But there was a protracted period during which we didn’t know what would happen, so for a while we were really peering into the abyss. That changes you. It made me reconsider the past—how I spent my time, what choices I made and would I make them again. It made me view the present differently—each breath unique, every moment freighted only with the meaning we ascribe to it, good or bad, if we choose to notice it at all. And it made me look at the future differently, as something you can’t wait for, can’t count on, can’t plan for with any measure of confidence. Because at any moment, it can sweep in—a car crash, a hurricane, a cavernous hemangioma—and wipe out any version of your future self.

I get asked all the time why I write thrillers. And why people read them. What’s the allure? Who wants to be scared when there’s so much uncertainty and tragedy in real life? And we get the usual answers—I’ve given them myself: Order out of chaos. Finding meaning in the seemingly pointless. But going through this crisis with my family made me realize that there is something more literal about the relationship we have between the lives we live and the stories we devour.

In thrillers, we meet characters when they’re thrust into crises such that their world hums like a live wire. They, too, are reconsidering their past, the choices they made that landed them here. They are viewing the present differently, breath to breath. They are reimagining a future they hope to survive to see, and they are redefining themselves in the process. And most often, they are fighting to emerge intact for their children, their families, and themselves. Some of us have been through that ourselves. All of us have loved ones who have. And this book is dedicated to my wife for going through it and coming out the other end.

Don’t Look Back features my first female protagonist, Eve Hardaway. She’s recently divorced, is a single mother to a seven-year-old boy, and has recently switched jobs. But the daily grind is wearing her down, and she’s losing track of herself, of who she used to be. She and her ex had long-standing tickets to celebrate their ten-year anniversary, a trip to a small eco-lodge way up in the jungles of Oaxaca, cut off from civilization.

Rather than cancel the trip, she decides, nine exhausting months after her husband has left her for a younger woman, that she’s going to go anyway. She’s going to leave her son in the care of his beloved nanny for a week, travel alone, and rediscover herself in the jungle.

Now because I’m me, I can assure you: This will not go smoothly for her. On her first day, she strays from the group into the jungle and sees something she’s not supposed to see. And it involves A Very Bad Man.

He clues in to the fact that she saw him. Just as he starts to zero in on her and this small band of tourists at their eco-lodge, a tormenta blows in—a tropical storm that can dump up to a meter of rain a day. When you’re in one, it’s hard to find the air in the air. And Eve, single mother and nurse from the suburbs, finds herself pursued through the jungle in the middle of a storm by a brutal man who can outflank, out-fight, and overpower her. She realizes that if she ever hopes to get back home and see her son again, she is going to have to find that unbreakable part of herself, outlast, and prevail. As I said above, at different times in our own lives, we’re all called to do that in less obvious and more commonplace ways. But for now, I’m content to leave it to Eve Hardaway.

Gregg Hurwitz is the New York Times bestselling author of fourteen thrillers, most recently, Don’t Look Back. His novels have been shortlisted for numerous literary awards, graced top ten lists, and have been translated into twenty-two languages. He is also a New York Times bestselling comic book writer, having penned stories for Marvel (Wolverine, Punisher) and DC (Batman, Penguin). Additionally, he’s written screenplays for or sold spec scripts to many of the major studios, and written, developed, and produced television for various networks. Gregg resides in Los Angeles. Find him on Twitter at @gregghurwitz

Visiting Inspector of the Dead: The Killing Ground of Constitution Hill

David Morrell’s Inspector of the Dead is set on the harrowing streets of 1855 London. A gripping Victorian mystery/thriller, its vivid historical details come from years of research. Here are photo essays that David prepared about the novel’s fascinating locations. Read the first post about Mayfair and Belgravia.

Almost every day for many years, Queen Victoria’s schedule included a carriage ride at 6 p.m. Her timetable was printed in London’s newspapers. Her route was usually the same. The carriage left Buckingham Palace, turned left onto Constitution Hill, rode up to Hyde Park, veered left into the park, came back to Constitution Hill, and returned to the Palace.

Constitution1

This is Constitution Hill as it appears today. Buckingham Palace is to the left, out of sight.

Constitution2

In the 1840s, four men took advantage of Queen Victoria’s predictable schedule and shot at her from this approximate spot. In fact, one of them (Edward Oxford) shot at her twice, and another (John Francis) tried to shoot at her two days in a row. All told, from 1840 to 1882, seven men tried to attack her.

Continue reading “Visiting Inspector of the Dead: The Killing Ground of Constitution Hill”

Visiting Inspector of the Dead: Mayfair and Belgravia

David Morrell’s Inspector of the Dead is set on the harrowing streets of 1855 London. A gripping Victorian mystery/thriller, its vivid historical details come from years of research. Here are photo essays that David prepared about the novel’s fascinating locations.

Much of Inspector of the Dead takes place in London’s wealthy Mayfair district. Ironically, in the 1600s, it was a disreputable field where drunken May Day (or May Fair) celebrations were held. By the 1700s, as London expanded westward, Mayfair became a fashionable area, its impressive residences acquiring a uniform look because of the Portland stone that was used to construct them.

 

This is Half Moon Street, off a major street known as Piccadilly. In the novel, several shocking murders occur in one of these magnificent buildings.

Continue reading “Visiting Inspector of the Dead: Mayfair and Belgravia”

What Do You Do With A Pile Of Jim Thompson Books?

We sent Rob Hart, the associate publisher of MysteriousPress.com, all 25 of the Jim Thompson paperbacks that we reissued in August. He wrote in to report on what he did with them.

Working in publishing comes with a few perks.

Say, for example, you’re grabbing breakfast with a pal and you profess your love for Jim Thompson. Turns out, that pal masterminded the re-release of a good portion of Thompson’s oeuvre in paperback and eBook.

Then one day you come home from work to find this pile of beauties sitting on your doorstep: Pile of Jim Thompson books

That is a lot of Jim Thompson. And it begs the question: What exactly does one do with such a giant pile of books? Not wanting to miss an opportunity, I came up with a couple of ideas… Continue reading “What Do You Do With A Pile Of Jim Thompson Books?”

Creeping Up Your Spine

This week’s  guest blogger is James Grady, author of Six Days of the Condor, among other classic thrillers. He shares a few thoughts on paranoia—just reading his stylized commentary has us peering over our shoulder!

You feel it. Paranoia.

They’ve got your number. It’s personal. You’re reading this. Looked at that. Took a chance, did something, or hell: they just think you did. You stood up for yourself. Stood out. You’re in their way: your boss who knows you know what really happened, your lover who wants you gone. Footsteps behind you. You’re in the shower.

You’re just a number. It’s not personal. It’s “just.” Like in justice. Or not. You’re just in the wrong place at the wrong time. A crazed Mommy in the grocery store grabs a cleaver. You’re part of the Matrix. Visiting a friend in the World Trade Towers. Ebola. Dr. Strangelove smiles. It’s not a movie witch that’s melting.

Life is out to kill you. All you want is to be left alone.

That’s the beating heart of paranoia: you’re all alone.

That’s true. You were born, nobody really knows you, you die and that is you, just you.

That’s false. It’s not just youWe all live, we all die.

Paranoia determines how we live and die.

McLuhan and the mushroom cloud moved us all into a global village, but our global compound fosters warring tribes. Yesterday it felt easier to know who “us” was. And to trust us: yeah, Big Brother, but of thee I sing.

Trust is the shimmer between prudence and paranoia. You wear your seatbelt yet strap yourself in a crushable metal box.

So how can you find the line between just being smart and being just scared?

“Facts” are not enough. “Facts” are who furnishes them. J. Edgar HooverOsama bin Laden. Fox News vs. MSNBC. The candidate who wants power. The housewife in the TV commercial. The guy who says: “Everybody knows….”

What helps you see the line between prudence and paranoia is fiction.

Fiction reveals possibilities. Fiction is our safe mirror. Fiction—in lines of prose or poetry, in the lyrics of a song, through the actors on stage or screen—is not “real.” Or so we can believe. And that belief lets us see the universal reality of a character “just like me…that happened to me.” Or “I wish that were me…if that were me….” Fiction glides us into what could be, gives us a world where we learn archetypes of who & what to trust without penalty, without pain. The what could be we experience with fiction helps us see the shimmer between factual forces and fantasy fears in our world of flesh and blood.

The “truth” may set you free, but the “lies” of fiction may be your best chance to escape paranoia, to perceive who and what to trust so you can best use our life’s terrifying freedom.

Author James Grady won France’s Grand Prix du Roman Noir, Italy’s Raymond Chandler medal, and numerous American literary awards.  A former investigative reporter, he lives inside D.C.’s Beltway and in February, will publish Last Days Of The Condor, a sequel to his Robert Redford adapted novel.

Horror Reading, Then and Now

Andrew Pyper, the ITW Award–winning author of six bestselling novels, has read a lot of horror stories. Here he writes about one novel that truly got under his skin.

The other night, drinking in my backyard with some other writers, some of whom write thrillers and horror as I do, the question came up as to when was the last time we read something that really and truly terrified us. Not a piece of writing we admired for the way it constructed its scares, not something we found unsettling or offputting or creepy, but the real gut-level deal. Bona fide horror in book form.

It took me a while to come up with my answer. Partly because there are so many horror novels I’ve read over the years that I have admired and found unsettling or creepy, but not to the point of slapping the covers closed with a scream. Partly because I think I’ve always read thrillers for the ideas or mythologies they can uniquely explore, as much as the thrills themselves.

While we all cited different titles in the end, what my writer friends and I had in common was that the last books that truly scared the bejesus out of us were ones we read as young people. Why? We worked up some theories. They all seemed to boil down to immersion. Back then, we could dive all the way into the worlds we read. There was no EXIT sign at the end of the dark hallway, no call of “Time out!” that had the power to return our disbelief from wherever it had been suspended. These were books that possessed us. Ones we believed in.

Salem's Lot by Stephen KingFor me, that book was Stephen King’s Salem’s Lot. Which is kind of funny, as I’m not much of a vampire guy when it comes to favorite horror sub-genres. I like pondering whether I’d drink the blood of innocents in exchange for immortality as much as the next goth, but to me vampire stories too often present their monsters as pompous dandies, suave seducers, poor man’s Hamlets. Vampires invite the campy in ways many writers have found irresistible.

But when the 12-year-old me read King’s story of a small town besieged by the ravenous undead, I was all in. It was his particular version of vampires that did it: savage and single-minded, relentless and recognizable. But it was also, I think, the way the town of the novel reminded me of my own small town where I grew up. The monsters of the fiction lined up with my own neighbors, the tree-shaded streets were my streets, my imagination seeing the darkest possibilities in the everyday just as the world of the book did. It wasn’t just a good vampire story. It was personal.

Reading ‘Salem’s Lot was the last time I could check off each of the points in the unholy trinity of horror reading: I was young, the fictional setting and circumstances directly matched up with my own, and the monsters were presented not as fantastical, but possible.

The thing is, while I treasure the experience of reading that book, I’m not sure I’d like to return to it. What I mean is that I’d be happy to read it again today, but not transported to my reading of it then. It’s simply too dangerous. Who knows how close I came to being lost in it for good? How real could I have made it? What would have happened if a vampire had come scratching at my window and instead of pulling the covers over my head I got up and let it in?

Andrew Pyper is the author of six bestselling novels, most recently The Demonologist, which won the International Thriller Writers Award for Best Hardcover Novel.  His new book, The Damned, is to be published in February 2015.

“A Prisoner of Time” by Lucian E. Dervan

Hofstra Law School's Mystery Short Story Contest“A Prisoner of Time” by Lucian E. Dervan is the winning story of Hofstra Law School’s Mystery Short Story Contest, which invited participants to write a short work of fiction featuring a lawyer as a main character. You can read more about the contest from Alafair Burke. Thank you to all the writers who did the legal thriller genre proud with their entries. And congratulations to Lucian Dervan!

The years passed faithfully, each one much like the last, and yet each distinctive and filled with its own memories.  George Duncan, known simply as Duncan since his first year of school, sat in his large recliner.  Though the chair was old and tattered, the fabric was woven with far too many memories to discard.  Duncan, currently in the eighth decade of his life, had never felt the cold beneath his skin as he did now.  But, somehow, sitting in his chair, gazing through the window, and thinking about the past seemed to warm him as the sun set outside.

Duncan’s mind often wandered over his decades as a feared criminal defense attorney.  On some days he would laugh out loud as images of a floundering witness succumbing to his blazing cross-examination replayed in his mind.  Other days were filled with deep reflection on those few times during his career when mistakes had led to perpetual recollection and regret.  Despite the innumerable and varying memories from which to select, one image drifted uninvited into his mind more than any other during the many days he spent in that timeworn chair, the face of his client Billy Brandon.  As that face flickered in his consciousness once again, Duncan’s hands clenched in anger and anxiety.

“Duncan.  Duncan, dear,” his wife, Martha, called from the kitchen.  “It’s time for dinner.”

“Just a moment,” Duncan responded as he unbound his hands and strained to push himself up from his seat.

Once standing, he paused and gazed out the window for a final second.  Then, turning to face a large bookcase at his side, Duncan reached out and withdrew a massive leather bound edition of a Dostoyevsky classic.  After using both hands to lower the literary masterpiece onto a small library table, Duncan lifted the front cover to reveal the book was actually a safe.  Reaching into the hollow middle, he pushed aside a piece of paper and withdrew a heavy black revolver.  Holding the gun in his hand and spinning the chamber, he took note of the four bullets and two empty shells still lying in the cylinder.

“After these many years,” Duncan said aloud, yet in a whisper, “my representation will finally come to an end.  Until tomorrow, Mr. Billy Brandon.” Continue reading ““A Prisoner of Time” by Lucian E. Dervan”

Hofstra Law School’s Mystery Short Story Contest

Hofstra Law School's Mystery Short Story Contest

Not too many years ago, an influential editor told me that the “legal thriller was dead.” Readers were bored. They wanted to read about “real people,” not a bunch of lawyers.

Well, since then, readers have proven that editor wrong. They have fallen in love with Michael Connelly’s Mickey Haller, watching the defense attorney struggle to redeem himself in the eyes of a daughter who does not understand how her father can put dangerous people back on the streets. They could not put their books down as William Landay told the masterful story of Defending Jacob, about a prosecutor who comes to fear that his own son committed a grisly murder.

I often joke that the term “legal thriller” is an oxymoron. Most of my time in a courtroom was spent waiting around, the New York Times crossword puzzle tucked discreetly into my case file. “Objection!” and “Hearsay!” do not make for good dialogue. So why do we keep following stories about lawyers?

Lawyers are investigators. Their job is to ask the right questions and let the answers lead them to the next step. They think critically and analytically. They know—and are supposed to keep—our darkest secrets: our family situations, our finances, our worst sins. They owe duties of loyalty to clients, even when they don’t want to, and despite the demands of their own moral compass and those of the people they care about.

The work and lives of lawyers remain fascinating. To highlight that fact through fiction, the Maurice A. Deane School of Law at Hofstra University sponsored a mystery short story contest, calling for submissions of stories featuring lawyers. The only rules were that submissions had to be original, previously unpublished short works of fiction (under 3,500 words) featuring a lawyer as a main character. I was honored to serve as a judge, along with Lee Child, the #1 New York Times bestselling author of the Jack Reacher series (and a law school graduate!), and Marcia Clark, the former OJ Simpson prosecutor who has written a highly-praised series of novels featuring a Los Angeles prosecutor named Rachel Knight.

We received 137 submissions from around the world, depicting the legal profession from perhaps every conceivable angle. We were impressed by the quality of storytelling and the depth of knowledge about the lives of lawyers. Choosing the winners was not an easy job.

The Maurice A. Deane School of Law at Hofstra University is happy to announce the three finalists of our writing contest. Continue reading “Hofstra Law School’s Mystery Short Story Contest”

Ten Famously Gruesome Murders

Blood Royal by Eric JagerEric Jager knows we have a thing for historical mysteries. His new book, Blood Royal, tells the riveting true story of murder and detection in 15th-century Paris. In this case, the victim is Louis of Orleans, but his is not the only murder that has shocked and engrossed a nation. In the following guest post, Jager shares with us ten truly grisly murders that will send thriller writers racing to their history books for inspiration.

The (mainly) historical murders listed here are not just gruesome but also involve high-profile victims whose violent deaths were political acts and often dramatic public statements by the killers. Many other cases, including the Lizzie Borden and Jack the Ripper murders, are thus omitted.

1. Agamemnon

Woodcut illustration of Clytemnestra and Aegisthus murdering Agamemnon

According to Greek myth, this king of Argos and victorious commander of the Greeks survived the ten-year Trojan War only to die at home by the hand of his wife. Returning with his captive and concubine, Cassandra, Agamemnon was stabbed in the bath by his jealous and vengeful wife Clytaemnestra, who during his absence had taken her own lover. (Sources: The Oxford Classical Dictionary and Aeschylus, The Oresteia.)

2. Holofernes
Judith Beheading Holofernes

According to biblical apocrypha, this Assyrian general was slain by the Jewish heroine Judith. She beguiled him in his tent, then beheaded him while he slept, hiding his head in a bag and tricking his guards into letting her leave. Returning to Jerusalem in triumph with her trophy, she rallied her people against their enemies. (The Book of Judith)

3. Edmund, King of East Anglia

Statues of St. Edmund in Stone and Steel

In 969, he refused to fight the Vikings. Unimpressed, they shot him full of javelins (or arrows) until he looked “like a porcupine, or Saint Sebastian,” then cut off his head and threw it into a forest. A wolf miraculously guarded the king’s head, which cried out to a search party sent to find it, “Here! Over here!” The reassembled body of the martyr-king was then properly buried. (Aelfric, The Passion of Saint Edmund)

4. Thrain (the Slain)

Njal saga

Caught in a legendary feud, Thrain was killed in a battle on frozen river ice (c. 990). His attacker leaped onto the ice and “shot forward with the speed of a bird. Thrain was just about to put on his helmet as Skarp-hedin bore down on him and struck at him with his axe, ‘Battle-Troll.’ The axe came down upon his head and split it right down to the jaw, so that his jaw teeth dropped out onto the ice.” (Njal’s Saga, trans. Bayerschmidt and Hollander) Continue reading “Ten Famously Gruesome Murders”

What Tozer Plays: A Playlist from She’s Leaving Home by William Shaw

She's Leaving Home by William Shaw

London, 1968: the time and place evoke strong sense memories, but in William Shaw’s new novel, not everything is swinging. The police are called to a residential street in St. John’s Wood where an unidentified young woman has been murdered. Detective Cathal Breen and policewoman Helen Tozer, two investigators on opposite sides of a generational divide, must work together to solve the case. Shaw describes what WPC Tozer would listen to in his note below.

Police culture was very different in 1968. A lot of this was to do with the fact that the police lived communally, in police flats or section houses.

WPC Tozer lives in Pembridge House, the Women’s Section House just off the Bayswater Road. She shares a room with another policewoman. They squabble over what records they put on. Her roommate likes Cliff Richard and Engelbert Humperdink. She like The Beatles, but doesn’t think much of The White Album.

When she’s alone, this is what Tozer plays. You can listen to some of these songs through the Spotify player above.