'Thriller': Mystery authors to discuss art of making page-turners


By Kurt Anthony Krug
Legal News

David Bell likens outlining his novels to a roadmap.

 “I have a pretty detailed outline before I start the book,” explained Bell, author of “Bring Her Home” (Berkley $16).  “I definitely know what I think will be the beginning, the middle, and the end. I like having that because it’s like having a roadmap on a long car trip – I feel like I know where I’m going and I can’t get too lost. If I do get lost, I can just look at the map. But, sometimes, even with a pretty detailed outline, as I’m going along, surprises come up, characters change in ways I didn’t expect them to, things happen at the end of the story that I didn’t expect to happen. The outline is just a suggestion, but I can take detours, I can get off the highway and check out that roadside attraction if I want to.”

Bell, along with fellow mystery/thriller authors Stephen Mack Jones, of Farmington Hills, and Karen Dionne, of Shelby Township, will participate in a panel at the 15th Annual Kerrytown Bookfest in Ann Arbor on Sunday, Sept. 10. The panel, “Page Turning Thrillers,” will occur at 3:30 p.m. and will be moderated by Elizabeth Heiter, of Bloomfield Hills, also a mystery/thriller author.

“My focus will be on how each of the authors approaches creating those thrillers. You’ll get a personal introduction from everyone before I dive into the interrogations – I mean interviews,” said Heiter, tongue-in-cheek. “I’m preparing questions specific to each author, as well as general questions on what sparks their ideas, how they handle their research, and what they like best about writing thrillers. I suspect they’ll also bounce off of each other’s comments, and I’ll leave time for questions from the audience, too.”

Bell, an English professor at Western Kentucky University, is considered an up-and-coming voice in the domestic thriller genre. His novels revolve around the theme of missing persons and family dynamics.

 “I’ve just always been fascinated by missing persons cases and unexplained disappearances,” said Bell. “When someone dies, even if it’s a violent death, usually we’re able to figure out something about what happened to the person – they got shot, they got stabbed, whatever. But a missing persons case that remains unsolved has this open-endedness to it. We don’t know what happened to this person. Are they alive? Are they dead? Did they run away? Did they choose to have this happen to them? Are they suffering wherever they are?”

He continued: “To me, the open-endedness and the unknowability are particularly fascinating to me, and I think that’s why I’ve always gravitated to those stories. Also, the idea that a person can disappear without a trace, that a human being will just vanish and we don’t know what happened to them as though they’ve just been zapped out of the air – that’s really terrifying to me. That’s why I tend to write these kinds of stories.”

In “Bring,” Bill Price is still reeling over the tragic death of his wife from a freak kitchen accident the year before. His only child Summer, 15, and her best friend Haley disappear. Several days pass and they’re found in a city park. Haley is declared dead at the scene, while Summer is beaten within an inch of her life, her face battered beyond recognition. As he sits vigil by her bedside, Bill begins to suspect that this girl isn’t his daughter.

“We all come from a family, even if it’s dysfunctional or non-traditional – we all come from a family,” said Bell. “It’s a universal experience everybody has. Families shape us. They make us feel at home, feel very loved, feel very safe, but they can also be sources of great frustration and great difficulty. I think the universal nature of coming from a family and having that experience of a family makes it ripe material to write about. You can write hundreds of novels about any one family because there’s so many layers and complications to family life. It’s just something I return to again and again because I think it’s just loaded with good stuff.”

Robin Agnew, co-owner of Aunt Agatha’s in Ann Arbor, has compared Bell’s work to that of New York Times best-selling novelists Harlan Coben and Linwood Barclay, both of whom are considered masters of the domestic thriller. Bell stated he’s “honored and flattered and humbled” by such a comparison.

“(Bell) is one of the most gifted psychological suspense writers at work at the moment. He has the suspense chops of (Coben) and (Barclay) and the nuance of Tana French – a perfect combination,” said Agnew.
“August Snow” (SOHO $26.95) is Jones’ debut novel. Snow – the titular character – was a cop forced out of the Detroit Police Dept. by a cabal of corrupt cops and politicians. However, he won $12 million in a wrongful dismal suit, earning him many enemies along the way. He currently works as a private investigator.

Grosse Pointe business magnate Eleanore Paget wants to hire Snow to investigate some suspicious activity at her bank, but he initially declines. However, Paget is found dead the next morning of an apparent suicide, something Snow doesn’t believe. Therefore, he takes it upon himself to investigate her suspicious death, only to find himself running afoul of Detroit’s most dangerous, most notorious criminals.

Jones is also an award-winning playwright and poet. Some of his plays include “Back in the World,” “American Boys,” and “Cadillac Kiss.” The latter two plays – which received good reviews from the Chicago Tribune and the Chicago Sun-Times – were instrumental in helping him win the prestigious Kresge Arts in Detroit Literary Fellowship in 2012.

“It’s a stunning experience. It’s just an amazing experience. Just when you think there aren’t really any benevolent organizations out there, you find Kresge whose sole mission is to support local artists. That’s their sole mission without any strings attached. It’s a marvelous organization that’s done great work supporting local artists. I was just privileged and honored to be a part of that group,” he fondly recalled.

“August” has received critical acclaim from the Wall Street Journal, The Chicago Tribune, and The Boston Globe.

“The reviews are wonderful but what really makes me happy is this book that I wrote to both amuse and inform myself is having a ‘like’ effect on other people,” said Jones, a Michigan State University alumnus.

Dionne’s “The Marsh King’s Daughter” (G.P. Putnam’s Sons $26) – considered her break-out novel – occurs in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, an area where the author once lived.

“I’ve always wanted to set a novel in the UP, but had to have the right story,” she said.

The Marsh King is an infamous child abductor who escapes from a maximum security prison in the remote wilderness of the U.P. An intense manhunt ensues. However, the police cannot find him since they don’t know the terrain the way their quarry does. So they recruit Helena Pelletier, the daughter of this master criminal and the teenager he abducted. He kept both mother and daughter hidden in an unchartered area of the U.P. for several years. “I didn’t know we were captives until we were not,” per Helena’s dialogue.

“Daughter” was inspired by the Ariel Castro kidnappings. Castro held three young women – Amanda Berry, Michelle Knight, and Georgina DeJesus – captive in his Cleveland home, committing unspeakable acts to them, until Berry escaped on May 6, 2013. The other two were subsequently rescued by authorities. Castro committed suicide in prison on September 3, 2013.

Fairy tales provided the backbone of the story, according to Dionne, particularly Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Marsh King’s Daughter.” In fact, there are excerpts from Andersen throughout Dionne’s novel. It took her two years to write it. The opening sentences of the novel came to Dionne while she was asleep, jolting her awake in the middle of the night.

“I almost feel I didn’t create her. It’s more like I channeled her; she arouse out of my subconscious.”

Translation rights have been sold to approximately 20 different countries. Additionally, movie rights have also been optioned. Agnew called “Daughter” the “must-read of the year.”

“It’s very exciting for a Michigan girl who’s lived in the U.P. for 30 years that my book set in the U.P. is gonna be read all over the world,” said Dionne.

Heiter and Bell are looking forward to Kerrytown.

 “I’m really honored to be invited to Kerrytown. Ann Arbor is a beautiful town, and I’ve always been impressed by the number of bookstores and the literary community there. I'm looking forward to meeting readers and my fellow writers,” said Bell. Added Heiter: “I think this is going to be a fantastic panel. We’ve got a debut author who’s also a poet, playwright, and Kresge Fellowship recipient; an international bestseller whose latest book is set in (the UP and ) making waves around the world; and a Prix Polar International de Cognac winner whose latest book is a Target Emerging Authors selection (Bell)… I suspect that after hearing them talk about their writing, everyone who isn’t already will want to become familiar with their work.”