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Guest Post by Aaron & Charlotte Elkins, Authors of "The Art Whisperer"

51UZi7d0MFL[1]Aaron and Charlotte Elkins, best-selling husband and wife author duo, of The Art Whisperer, gave us insights into what’s true and what’s not in four different crime scenarios. Can you guess the truth?












Question: What is wrong with these pictures?

Pic.1 Pic.2Pic.3

Answer: What is wrong is that all these actors are outrunning explosions (Antonio Banderas and Hugh Jackman are so cool that they're outwalking them.) But can you really outwalk an explosion? Nope.  Can you outrun one? Not a chance, and here's why:

The Olympic record for the hundred yard dash is about 11 yards per second.  Let's err on the generous side, though, and assume there's someone somewhere that might actually be faster. So say we're looking at 15 yards per second.

And how fast does the shockwave of an explosion travel? 1.5 miles per second. Even Tom Cruise (the guy in the Iron Man suit) can't beat that.


The most spectacular art theft of the twentieth century occurred in 1911, when a workman named Vincenzo Perugia walked out of the Louvre with the world's most famous painting, the Mona Lisa. (A ironic note: at the time, he had been employed in building a protective box for Mona.) Two year later the painting was recovered and returned to the Louvre, where it remains today.

We think. 

But how do we know that the painting that came back is the very same one that was taken? The Mona Lisa has been copied thousands of times, often by highly competent artists. The great Andrea del Sarto, a contemporary of da Vinci's and a fellow-Florentine, was himself commissioned by Francis I of France to make six of them--of which the whereabouts of none are known today.

The Mona Lisa is unsigned.  It is undated.. (Francis bought it from da Vinci in 1517, years after it had been painted.). Why it had been painted is unknown. There is no record of a commission, nor any reliable record of who the sitter was. Many people believe she is Mona del Giacondo, the wife of a Florentine merchant, but real evidence is lacking, to say the least. She wasn’t even called the Mona Lisa until three hundred years later.  Until then it had no name, being referred to in the court records of Francis simply as “a portrait of a Florentine lady.”        

Question: So how do we know for sure that the picture now in the Louvre is the very one that Leonardo da Vinci painted five hundred years ago?

a) We don't.

b) A fingerprint in the lower right corner definitely identified as Leonardo's.

c) A strand of feather, embedded in the paint, that exactly matches a stuffed owl that he had in his studio.

d) A faded shred of red fabric, embedded in the paint, and shown to come from  the bookmarking ribbon of Rubens' personal copy of Manutius's printing of the Hypnerotomachia Poliphili.

Answer: (a). Not even today's wonderfully advanced forensic techniques can prove that this or any other picture was painted by da Vinci. Or del Sarto, for that matter. Forensics are terrific at proving that an old painting is a fake--the wrong pigments, the wrong age, the wrong kind of canvas (e.g., made by machine instead of hand-woven), etc. But how would you  prove that a painting is the real thing, as opposed to an expert copy made during the artist's lifetime, e.g., one of del Sarto's?  Thepoplar wood panel would be the right age, the pigments, fixatives, and varnishes would be the very ones used at that time in Florence, and so on.

There is, in nutshell, no way of establishing absolute certainty that we have the right Mona Lisa.  Ninety-nine percent certainty? You bet. You have faith in the integrity and competence of the Louvre in this matter, right? So do I. But would you bet your life on it?

Me neither.

Flash: This very morning, a kindly dealer in antique photographs sold us this amazing picture: the only known photograph of Peruggia in the act of stealing the painting. We're very excited!


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Excerpt from "Death of a Cozy Writer" by G.M. Malliet

41TYMVMNfsL[1]Agatha Award winning author G.M. Malliet, gives us an excerpt from her award winning book Death of a Cozy Writer.

About Death of a Cozy Writer: From deep in the heart of his eighteenth century English manor, millionaire Sir Adrian Beauclerk-Fisk writes mystery novels and torments his four spoiled children with threats of disinheritance. Tiring of this device, the portly patriarch decides to weave a malicious twist into his well-worn plot. Gathering them all together for a family dinner, he announces his latest blow – a secret elopement with the beautiful Violet... who was once suspected of murdering her husband.

Read the first 25 page of "Death of a Cozy Writer" (PDF)

Guest Post by T.R. Ragan, Author of The Lizzy Gardner Series

Untitled-4T.R. Ragan, New York Times and USA Today bestselling author of The Lizzy Gardner series, shares the backstory to her famed character Lizzy Gardner as well as a few of her favorite kick-butt female protagonists.

Lizzy Gardner’s Story

When Lizzy Gardner was only seventeen, what should have been the perfect night became the perfect nightmare. Kidnapped just blocks from home after a romantic evening with her boyfriend, Jared, she woke up to find herself at the mercy of a depraved serial killer. Imprisoned and tormented for months by the maniac she came to know as Spiderman, Lizzy narrowly escaped, the only one of his victims to survive. But Spiderman escaped too, outwitting police and cursing Lizzy to spend her life looking over her shoulder…

Fourteen years later, Lizzy is a private investigator who teaches self-defense to teenage girls in her free time. She does what she can to help others protect themselves and to forget the horror of her ordeal, yet fears she will always be known as “the one who got away.” Then she receives a phone call from Jared, now a special agent for the FBI, with grim news. The killer has resurfaced, this time with a very specific target—Lizzy. And he’s made it clear that she will not escape him again. So begins a chilling game of cat-and-mouse, a terrifying, heart-pounding hunt that only one will survive.


T.R. Ragan’s Kick-Butt Female Protagonists Recommendations

I have always loved strong women characters in movies and fiction. I grew up with my mother and four sisters. No brothers. Although we didn’t chase criminals, when Mom decided to add on a room, we learned how to frame, install windows, and wire for electrical. We weren’t afraid to get dirty and get the job done. In my stories, I strive to make my female characters strong-minded and daring enough to kick some ass if need be. In the end, my tough female protagonists are like most women I know—compassionate beings who happen to be really good at multi-tasking.

A few of my favorite thrillers with kick-butt female protagonists include.

1. The Killing Hour by Lisa Gardner. Rookie FBI agent Kimberly Quincy must stay one step ahead of a killer if she wants to save a life. Quincy is ultra clever and she breaks some rules.

2. The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo by Stieg Larsson. Above all, Lizbeth Salander is a survivor. She is also young, smart, and sympathetic, but you better get out of her way.

3. The Hunger Games. Katniss is yet another strong female character I admire. Like all great protagonists, she has flaws, but she can kick some serious butt using her brains and a bow.

4. Allison Brennan’s Lucy Kincaid is a wonderful female protagonist who just keeps getting stronger, smarter, better. Start with Love Me to Death and work your way through to the most recent in the series, Dead Heat.

Guest Post by Tasha Alexander, Author of the Lady Emily Mysteries

TashaImageTasha Alexander, New York Times bestselling author of the Lady Emily Mysteries, walks us through her inspiration for the series and the Counterfeit Heiress Lady Emily.

My parents’ house is full of enormous stacks of books, and one of my favorite things when I was a little girl was having my father take me through our shelves and tell me about the volumes that filled them. Writing has always seemed to me a natural extension of reading, one in which the story turns out precisely the way you want it to, and by the time I was ten, I had spent many an hour scribbling extremely bad short stories.

As I got older, I continued to write, but life (read: the quest to pay rent) kept me too busy to make an attempt at doing much beyond dashing off a paragraph here and there. When (eventually) I realized that the universe was not going to conspire to provide me a convenient opportunity, circumstance, or—heaven forbid—a room of my own, I decided it was time to get serious and make the time to start and finish writing a book. I paged through the notes I had saved and came across a paragraph I had written describing a young, Victorian woman standing on the cliff path in Imerovigli on the Greek island of Santorini. Those few lines provided me with the starting point I needed for what would become my first novel. By asking questions about the woman—Why was she in Greece? How had she come to have the freedom and fortune that allowed her to travel?—I started to form a discernible image not only of her character, but also of what I wanted the book to be about, the parts that would extend beyond the narrative of a single novel and carry through the entire series—the parts of a story that make me love to read.

One of the things that has always appealed to me about Victorian England is the seemingly endless supply of iconoclasts and eccentrics who populated the era. The Industrial Revolution played an enormous role in catalyzing the social changes of the late nineteenth century, providing those with strong personalities the opportunity to push for women’s suffrage, child labor laws, and compulsory education, among other things. It takes more than charismatic leaders or idealists to bring about wholesale social reform. To achieve that, the iconoclasts need to have convinced a significant number of members of the old guard to support them.

What would motivate a young woman of high birth, in possession of a fortune and freedom to decide to rebel against the only society she knows? What would lead her to begin to recognize injustice and to see a broader world? How would she fight for change? The exploration of these questions in a manner that was true to the time period has fueled my writing from the beginning. It is very easy for us to sit back and judge what we (rightly) see as repressive Victorian mores, but it is also important to try to understand how social change actually happened during the era. The late nineteenth century bears a strong resemblance to our world today. They had violent anarchists instead of terrorists, but like us they argued about income inequality and social services, education and human rights. Contemplating these things in the context of historical fiction gives us the distance to consider them without feeling as if we are judging ourselves, and perhaps that can help us to form opinions we can later apply to contemporary life.

Or not. A large part of the joy of reading is that we can take what we want from our enormous stacks of books, choosing to be entertained or enlightened or both as we see fit in the moment. Very few things in life are so richly accommodating. What more, really, could we want? Which reminds me: it’s time to find something new to read...

Guest Post by Barry Eisler, Author of the John Rain Series

BarryEisler_ImageBarry Eisler, best-selling author of the John Rain series, walks us through the thrills of this writing process and how real life events play a role.

I’ve always found the scariest thrillers are also the most realistic, so realism is key to all my novels. The tradecraft is what I was taught in a covert position with the CIA. The martial arts are what I learned earning a black belt at the Kodokan in Tokyo, and training elsewhere.

It’s also critical to me that I get the atmosphere and details of the setting right. I want my readers to know that when I describe a place, I’m describing it not just as it really exists, but as I’ve personally found it, and that means visits to all the places I write about. So in the course of my research, I’ve had to visit Bali, Bangkok, Barcelona, Hong Kong, Istanbul, Macau, Manila, Paris, Phuket, Vienna, and some other great places, too. I try not to complain about my work.

As for plots, I get my best ideas from what’s actually happening in the world. In this regard, I find myself frequently disappointed with the Ticking-Time-Bomb and Terrorists-Trying-To-Kill-Us-In-Our-Beds plotlines that are both cause and consequence of America’s post 9/11 hysteria. After all, you’re far more likely to die in a traffic accident, or from the flu, or by being struck by lightning, or via drowning in the bathtub than you are in a terror attack. So writing a thriller predicated on something that’s almost certainly not going to happen can risk veering off into the cartoonish.

And of course, when it comes to realism, there’s nothing like expert advice. If I’m ever unsure about anything I’ve written regarding unarmed combat sequences, shooting sequences, surveillance and counter surveillance, electronic counter measures, and so on, I run it past people I know in the FBI, the CIA, Special Forces, Federal Air Marshals, and other organizations in the military, law enforcement, and intelligence communities. Initially these were people I knew before I was published. As the books caught on, though, more and more people from these organizations started contacting me to provide valuable insights and information.

As one small example, I had a friend who’s a veteran agent of the FBI review the Winner Take All manuscript. There’s a shooting scene in the book, and I described the rounds ricocheting off the concrete floor and knocking loose chunks of concrete. My friend said, No, you don’t get chunks in a situation like that, you get dust. And I thought, man, imagine knowing something like that first hand! Which this guy does.

More than anything else, my sources help me get the emotional backstory right. Killing is not a joke in my books. Violence has serious consequences, not just for the person being targeted but also for the person carrying out the attack, and there’s a heavy cost to taking a human life. In this regard, I’m indebted to former Ranger and current author Dave Grossman for his book On Killing:  The Psychological Costs of Learning to Kill in War and Society. I’m particularly indebted to two Vietnam veterans I’m honored to count as friends—one who was a Ranger and LRRP (Long Range Reconnaissance Patrol), the other an intelligence officer and Silver Star winner. These guys have killed at close range and they live with the consequences every day. It’s important to me that, in their eyes at least, I’m getting things right.

And if, despite all my efforts, I wind up getting something wrong, I can usually count on a fan to point it out. I try to fix those mistakes in subsequent editions and updates, but I like to point them out on the Mistakes section of my website. It helps keep me honest and my readers seem to enjoy it, too. I figure if you don’t make the occasional mistake, you’re not trying hard enough.

Guest Post by Dan Mayland, Author of the Mark Sava Spy Novels

DanMaylandDan Mayland, author of the Mark Sava Spy Novels, walks us through one of his favorite spy series, James Bond and the movie adaptations.

Ian Fleming wrote twelve Bond novels. Each was made into a movie, and it’s those movies we’re considering now. The short-story adaptations aren’t allowed in the contest. They wouldn’t win anyway.

I love all twelve movies. And yes, I’ve seen Moonraker (1979)—fine wine it’s not, but it gets the job done. So picking a favorite is tough.

I’m tempted to call it for Casino Royale (2006). Having spent a good chunk of my 1980s-era adolescence with my nose buried in musty Bond paperbacks, I humor myself with the idea that I know a good Bond when I see one. Daniel Craig is damn good. The script is also terrific—faithful in spirit to Fleming’s novel but deftly replacing a Cold War villain with a thoroughly modern evildoer. But there’s one book-based Bond movie that, though flawed, is better still.

It’s not On Her Majesty’s Secret Service (1969). That’s where Bond, played by George Lazenby, briefly gets married. But I’ll give it an honorable mention.

As for all those Roger-Moore-as-Bond movies, four of which were adapted from the novels? Well, I’m grateful to Mr. Moore for enlivening my teenage years, but the spy I know from Fleming’s books is made of far rougher stuff; he’s a man of “decision, authority, ruthlessness” with a “cruel mouth” and a “scar down his right cheek.”

Which brings me the novel From Russia With Love, from which those descriptions were lifted. The premise is simple: a beautiful Russian honey trap wants Bond to help her defect with a Soviet decoding machine. Bond agrees to do it despite the risk. Madness ensues.

It’s a taut, blisteringly fast read that’s also deeply political; the villains work for SMERSH, which Fleming, a former British naval intelligence agent, claimed was real and described as, “the official murder organization of the Soviet government.” Fleming also wrote freely of Soviet atrocities—“mass executions of the 1930s…bloody genocide in the Central Caucasus…” There’s a reason, beyond the descriptions of scantily clad women, that John F. Kennedy famously listed the novel as a favorite.

The 1963 Sean Connery movie that was based on the novel, however, tries not to be so overtly political. Nuclear war between the US and Soviet Union had almost broken out during the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis, and Albert Broccoli, the film’s producer, didn’t want to poke a hornets’ nest. So instead of the Soviets being the bad guys, in the movie it’s SPECTRE, an apolitical criminal organization led by archvillain Ernst Blofeld. He’d be the guy who’s always stroking a white Siamese cat.

This was unfortunate. While the villain update in Casino Royale worked perfectly, the Austin Powers/Dr. Evil cat-stroking scenes have a pasted-on, fig-leaf quality to them. Yes, SPECTRE was Fleming’s creation and played a huge role in the later Bond books. But the movie’s title—it’s From Russia With Love, not From SPECTRE With Love—suggests the change was halfhearted. Most of the villains remained, not coincidently, Russian. Wink, wink! The good news is that the pasted-on parts are short and the bulk of the movie—much of it filmed on location in Istanbul—is just stunning.

When I say stunning, I’m thinking of scenes like the one where ex-SMERSH dominatrix Rosa Klebb (remember the brass knuckles and bottle-bottom glasses?), kicks madly at Bond with her spiked shoe; or the scene in which Corporal Tatiana Romanova (played by a former Miss Universe runner-up) appears in Bond’s bed wearing only a black-velvet choker; and I’m thinking especially of that breathtaking scene where Bond and a master assassin beat the piss out of each other on the Orient Express. The dim night lights flicker, the sound of fists hitting flesh blends with the steady throb of the train bumping over rail joiners on the track…it’s transcendent. And when I watch it, I think, this is Bond at his best.

So From Russia With Love it is—my pick for the best Bond book-to-movie adaptation. Just pretend SPECTRE is SMERSH when you watch it and all will be well.

If you’ve had your fill of Bond, though, here are two more fantastic book-based spy movies:

Syriana (2005). Adapted from See No Evil the eye-opening memoir by ex-CIA operative Bob Baer. Sure, it doesn’t have a plot—but with George Clooney in the lead, it doesn’t need one. Expect thrilling and realistic glimpses into the intelligence underworld.

Three Days of the Condor (1975). Adapted from the novel Six Days of the Condor by James Grady. All hell breaks loose when a low-level CIA analyst, played by Robert Redford, stumbles upon his murdered colleagues. Moral ambiguities abound.

Q&A with Marcus Sakey for "A Better World" and Blake Crouch for "The Last Town"

Crouch_Sakey2Bestselling authors Blake Crouch and Marcus Sakey are the Ben Affleck and Matt Damon of the crime fiction genre. These two write, research and even make s’mores together. Learn more about their bromance writing styles and friendship.

Blake Crouch: So the second book in your Brilliance Saga was just published. It's called A BETTER WORLD, and I think it's even better than the first, BRILLIANCE, so congrats!

Marcus Sakey:  Thanks!  I’m really proud of it.  It picks up a couple of months after the first, and since I’ve always imagined the saga as a trilogy, I think of it as my The Empire Strikes Back.  Like that film, you don’t need to have seen the first to enjoy, although it’s more fulfilling to start at the beginning.

This is actually the first time I’ve written a series, and it’s an interesting challenge.  There are some great things about writing a sequel, like knowing the characters and having plot forces in play.  But there are also real frustrations, like trying to seed in backstory from the last book.  That must have been particularly tricky in your new book, THE LAST TOWN, given that it’s the third in a series--and that it starts in a pretty intense way.

B: It was really challenging. I would even go so far as to say that THE LAST TOWN (which is the third and final book in the Wayward Pines Trilogy), was the hardest book for me to write, and I've written twelve.

M: Showoff.  Why was this one the hardest?

B: The bonuses you mentioned to writing a series are great.  But there comes a point where you've just had enough of this world and you're kind of ready for a hot new thing. At least that's how I felt by the time I type "the end" on this series. Not that I didn't have an absolute blast writing it, but three years in one world with one set of characters is a lot.

M:  That’s why I’ve only written stand-alones in the past.  As much as I dig my characters, by the end of a book, my feeling tends to be, “Thanks, see you, don’t let the door hit you on the imaginary ass.”

And man do I know what you mean about the hot new thing.  Whenever I’m in the middle of a book, I find that ideas for other novels are almost unbearably sexy.  They’re whispering in your ear, telling you that they’ll meet you at the motel on the highway, that no one needs to know.  But at least for me, I know if I cheat on the book I’m writing to romp with a new one, chances are I’ll end up screwing it up with both.  Do you feel that way?  Or can you see other ideas?

B: No, once I've committed to an idea, I stick with it. I played that game early on in my career where I was three chapters in and then another idea came calling. But the problem is, it's not the new idea that's so attractive, it's the relief it promises from having to actually figure out the book you're writing. But you'll have to figure out that idea as well, so I've found it's always better to stick it out. Believe in the idea you committed to.

M:  Exactly.  When I come back to the hot new ideas later, they never seem as sexy.

B:   To wrap this up, we should share with people how we came up with the ideas for Brilliance and Wayward Pines.  We were together when it happened….

M:  Yes we were.  At 14,000 feet in the Colorado Rockies.

B:  You had come to visit me in Durango, Colorado, for a camping trip.  We didn't realize it at the time, but we were both in between books and trying to figure out what our next projects would be.  So we hiked up to this gorgeous lake and we were talking the entire time about how we wanted our next books to be different, bigger, world-building.

M:  The intention was to be hardened mountain men and spend several nights in the backcountry--

B:  But you wimped out.

M: You wimped out!

B:  I merely suggested that our brainstorming session (which is what the trip was turning into) might be more productive over steaks and martinis and soft mattresses instead of sleeping bags….

M: I will confess that my arm didn’t need twisting.

B: At any rate, we spent the next several days in a scenic little mountain town in southwest Colorado, coming up with the bones of Wayward Pines and Brilliance.  

M:, Now the trips are part of that tradition.  You came out to Chicago a couple of months ago when we were both between books, and we did the same thing.

B:  Minus the mountain.

M:  Minus the mountain.  But the same process, only informed by what we’ve done before.  Hey, there’s our adorably clever ending--we’ll get meta on it, and point out that we’re making our careers into a series.  


Guest Post by Janet Evanovich and Lee Goldberg: Favorite Crime-Fighting Duos

LeeandJanetAny great series, or standalone book, start with interesting characters in compelling situations; these people and their relationships inspire us, often make us laugh, and through their interactions we understand the more about who they are and the world they are in than any description ever could.  With this in mind we asked Janet Evanovich and Lee Goldberg, authors of the Fox and O'Hare series, starring their crime-fighting duo Nicolas Fox and Kate O’Hare, to tell us about their favorite duos:

Janet Evanovich:

Nick and Nora Charles –Dashiell Hammett’s detective duo in his best-selling and last novel, The Thin Man.  It was written in 1934 and is as much a comedy of manners as a mystery novel.  I love that it’s a boozy reflection of pre-prohibition America.

Spenser and Hawk –When I decided to leave romance and move into crime fiction, this was the series that inspired me.  I loved Robert B. Parker’s clean construction and tough, wise-cracking characters. 

Elvis Cole and Joe Pike –This is like the west coast Disneyland version of Spenser and Hawk.  And this is said by someone who LOVES Disneyland.  Bob Crais gives us clever dialogue, fast action plot lines, and ups the ante with an evolving main character.

Uncle Scrooge and Donald Duck –I’ve been reading these comic books since I was a kid.  If anything gave me a love of adventure it was Donald, Huey, Dewey, and Louie.  They took me to the moon, the Amazon, the Klondike, and led me to Aztec ruins.  All in full color.  If only I could get them on e-book life would be perfect!

Lee Goldberg:

Nero Wolfe & Archie Goodwin  - Rex Stout's Nero Wolfe is a brilliantly eccentric, outrageously fat detective who (almost) never leaves his New York brownstone and Archie Goodwin is his good-natured, resourceful, out-going legman, who brings the suspects and clues to his boss.  It's their wonderful relationship and Wolfe's marvelous speeches, more than the sometimes half-baked mysteries, that are the great pleasures of these books. 

Encyclopedia Brown and Sally Kimball - Donald J. Sobol's Leroy "Encyclopedia" Brown is a 12-year-old detective whose brilliant deductions constantly befuddle and enrage his adversaries. He'd probably get beat up every day if not for Sally Kimball, his defacto assistant and bodyguard. I fell in love with mysteries thanks to these short, but clever puzzles that always played fair with the clues.  

Jim Hardman and Hump Evans - They are the best detective team you've never heard of, the heroes of a terrific series of out-of-print 1970s paperbacks by Ralph Dennis. Hardman is a disgraced ex-cop and his African-American buddy Hump is a former pro-football player sidelined by a knee injury who work together as quasi-PIs in Atlanta...and who aren't above breaking the law to make a buck. Hardman is Spenser without the self-confidence or moral superiority, and Hump is Hawk, only not so fearsome and homicidal. 

Patrick Kenzie & Angela Gennaro - Dennis Lehane's Boston detective team won't ever be mistaken for Nick & Nora Charles. Their complex, realistic relationship evolves, sometimes in heartbreaking and infuriating ways, over the course of the gritty, complicated cases that they tackle and that always emotionally affect them... and often haunt them...for years.



Guest Post by Blake Crouch, Author of the Wayward Pines Series

Blake_crouch_author_photo_2013Blake Crouch, author of The Wayward Pines Series, talks about his favorite thrillers set in remote locations and small towns:

I’m definitely more of a thriller than a mystery guy. I love huge, high-concept ideas, supported by a breathless pace. There is something uniquely terrifying and claustrophobic about taking a huge story and placing it in a small town, in the middle of the forest, or a post-apocalyptic wasteland.  When you can’t just call for help and have the entire might of the NYC police force rush to your aid, the stakes somehow feel higher, and hope is suddenly in short supply. Here’s my top 6 list for these kinds of thrillers that have set the bar for everything else I read:

Testament – David Morrell

If you think James Dickey’s Deliverance is the ultimate man against nature/survivalist thriller, check out Morrell’s second novel about a family on the run in the mountains of Wyoming. Unrelenting and not afraid to delve into the darkest of places.

Vertical Run – Joseph Garber

What if you went to work one day and everyone you saw tried to kill you? I’m such a sucker for setups like that and this thriller pays it off in spades. Also, the book’s framing device, which takes place in the remote, High Sierra, is some of my favorite writing of all time.

Jurassic Park – Michael Crichton

Will this high-concept thriller about dinosaurs brought to life in our time ever be topped? I’m not holding my breath. Intelligent, scary, lightning-paced, and all in support of the coolest idea ever put to page. This is the thriller all other thrillers want to be when they grow up.

The Road – Cormac McCarthy

So unbelievably sad and so gorgeously written. Much of it is just a father and son wandering through a post-apocalyptic wasteland, covered in ash, but when McCarthy turns up the juice, your heart won’t be able to stand the tension.

Shutter Island – Dennis Lehane

A paranoid, WTF-is-happening thriller if ever there was one, and the reveal at the end, so rare in novels like this, will leave your jaw on the floor.

The Girl Next Door – Jack Ketchum

I hesitate to even put this novel on the list. You shouldn’t read it. It’s dark, dark, dark, upsetting, and did I mention dark? But something about this story of a young girl who’s being kept in a basement in an otherwise quintessential American neighborhood is the most compelling thing I’ve read in a decade.


Guest Post by Karen Harper: Small Towns Are Scary

91rRsF9%2B8KL.__AA300_[1]New York Times bestselling author Karen Harper walks us through the twist and turns of her romantic suspense novels that take place in small towns where eccentric characters abound and the enemy is too often “us.”  It’s someone the heroine knows and trusts, someone who is keeping deadly secrets.  What a great contrast:  a charming Americana ambience vs. fear and terror.  And often, with a small police force, average citizens must help solve crimes which seem worse in a rural than an urban setting.

In my new Appalachian suspense novels, small town, rural settings really up the ante for an average woman facing fear and crime.  When a murder or kidnapping occurs in such a charming place, the shock is magnified over that of urban crime, where we almost expect something to go wrong.  A long-deserted, picturesque barn can provide a setting more scary than an empty urban apartment building.  Many Americans long to escape to the country, but danger lurks there too, the kind that seems more dreadful set amidst fields and forests, quaint stores and down home restaurants.    

In Shattered Secrets, the first book in The Cold Creek trilogy, (with Forbidden Ground and Broken Bonds to follow at two-month intervals) danger hides in the tall cornfield surrounding a charming, old farmhouse.  Appalachian foothills loom over the rural area and small town of Cold Creek where young girls have been disappearing for decades. 

I love setting terrifying events in lovely settings because being pushed into a grain silo can be as deadly as a bullet in my suspense novels.  Fear is much more primitive and unsettling.  In a way, this is Stephen King territory, but in my books, there is a dangerous love story also woven throughout and an uplifting ending.

 Although strange people and unique criminals can certainly abound in the big, bad city, I have found small town and rural characters to be more eccentric, unique and therefore, fascinating.  Often the villain is someone known to the main characters, which means betrayal and treachery on an intimate, personal level.  Sadly—tragically—the enemy is too often “us,” someone trusted and perhaps loved. 

I’m always thrilled when readers tell me they had no clue who the murderer or kidnapper was until the last chapter.  One of my favorite reviews said it best: “Harper, a master of suspense, keeps readers guessing about crime and love until the very end.”  (Booklist, starred review, on Fall From Pride.)

The isolation of people in small towns and the surrounding rural fields and forests means help is not just a quick phone call away as in the city.  In some rural areas with rolling hills, especially in the Appalachians, cell phones don’t work.  Even with moonlight and starlight, it can be intensely dark in the country at night, and, of course, really dark scenes work well too.  I’ve also written two trilogies set among the Ohio Amish, who only use lanterns and don’t want to call the police, even if they have a public phone nearby.  And getting help in a horse and buggy can mean a long ride on a dark road.

 Police in rural areas can be a great distance away, even if someone in danger can get through to them.  In my Maple Creek trilogy, my Dark Road Home trilogy, and now in the new Cold Creek trilogy, the small police force tries its best, but danger seems much more terrifying in what should be a safe setting, especially if the heroine, with the hero’s help, must save her own life. 

An old, abandoned insane asylum, a defunct coal mine, an Indian burial mound—you may never look at small town and rural life the same way again if you read a Karen Harper romantic suspense novel!  Keep the lights on at night and your window locked.  Enjoy!