All Her Little Secrets

              Most of us keep secrets from those we love—whether it’s simply misdirection about how much that new dress really cost or an outright lie like what really happened at the work party your partner couldn’t attend.

              But in Wanda Morris’s All Her Little Secrets, attorney Ellice Littlejohn has taken it to a new level. Sure, she graduated from an Ivy League Law School and she’s extremely bright and hardworking. She’s also the only Black lawyer at the company where she works. Indeed, she is just one of a few Blacks working there at all. Which explains why there’s a constant stream of protestors outside the company’s building protesting their hiring practices.

              But who is Ellice? She’s not from Atlanta, Georgia like she tells everyone. Instead, she grew up in a poverty-stricken small town where she lived with her alcoholic mother and sadistic stepfather.  She did attend a prestigious boarding school, but it was as on an academic scholarship not because she was a rich kid like most of the other students. And no, she’s not an only child, but her brother Sam, who she dearly loves, has been in and out of jail. That’s not the kind of back story Ellice has created for herself. It doesn’t go with the fancy condo, expensive clothes and car that define her Atlanta lifestyle, one she’s perfected to keep others from finding out about her past including what exactly happened to her stepfather whose body has never been found.

              All these falsehoods start to unravel when she takes the elevator up to the 20th floor to meet with Michael, her boss, for one of their all-too frequent early morning meetings. But Michael’s dead, an apparent suicide and Ellice instead of calling for help, leaves.

              Michael is also her long-time lover. The problem, at least it would be for some women, is that he’s married. But Ellice isn’t sure if she loves him nor is she certain she wants to take over his job when offered that plum promotion. She’s been keeping secrets for too long to know what she wants or how she feels.

              As complicated as all this is, it becomes even more so when the police discover Michael was murdered. To add to the stress, Ellice’s brother Sam was caught on camera using his sister’s ID to get past security at the office. Did Ellice have Sam kill Michael so she could get his job and his plush office (redecorated, of course), or did she kill him herself? And why won’t the police believe her when she tells them that Michael had discovered criminal activity on the 20th floor?

              Morris, who has held positions as an attorney in several Fortune 100 companies, says she thinks both her work as Black female lawyer and her fascination with thrillers helped shape the story.

              “Ellice’s experiences are an amalgam of what many women experience in their lives,” says Morris, who is married with three children and lives in Atlanta. “Think about it, you are the only women working in a predominantly white male space and your colleagues despise you simply because of your race and/or gender and put obstacles in front of you.”

              A fan of mystery/thriller writers like Karin Slaughter, Lucy Foley, Walter Mosley and Joe Ide, Morris wants readers to see the distinctive viewpoint Black female writers can bring to the genre.

              “I’ve always enjoyed books by other thriller authors like John Grisham and Joseph Finder, but I couldn’t find many books like theirs with female protagonists who liked me,” she says. “Black women should be able to find themselves in all types of books including thrillers with smart, sophisticated Black women chasing down bad guys through dark office towers at night without a gun or an ounce of regret.”

‘True crime’ inspires fiction thriller

“I’m destined to disappear,” Rachael Bard tells the listeners of her true crime podcasts.

Eliza Jane Brazier

For Sera Fleece, whose life is tumbling down around her as she dwells upon each of her many perceived failures and seldom leaves her home, her time is totally focused on every episode — each one dedicated to a missing or murdered woman. She thinks in terms of the episodes and absorbs the details Rachel reveals about her personal life. Sera knows she lives on Fountain Creek Ranch in the yellow house somewhat distant from her parents’ home and the barns, stables and quarters for the campers who fill the ranch in the summer.

And then, one day it happens. There are no more podcasts and no more social media posts. Rachel has disappeared.

“I know, the first 48 hours are crucial,” Sera tells herself. (After all, she doesn’t talk to anyone else — not her ex-husband who still cares, or her parents, or even the clerks she interacts with when she finally is able to get herself out of the house to buy tea.) “And every hour you don’t update, I think, ‘Something is wrong.’ I think, ‘The case is going cold.’”

So begins “If I Disappear” (Berkley Hardcover 2021) by Eliza Jane Brazier, which follows Sera as she drives to northern California in search of Fountain Creek Ranch.

“I will use the things you told me,” she says to Rachel, promising to find her.

But it doesn’t look promising. Somehow she missed the turn for the ranch, and stopping in the little town where Rachel went to school and where her best friend disappeared when they were high school students, she finds that no one will even mention its existence.

Turning back, she finds the ranch’s entrance, noticeable because what is supposed to be a tourist attraction has signs reading “No Trespassing” and “Beware of Dog” posted on the drive.

“The setting came from a job I took in northern California that got weird at an isolated dude ranch. I won’t go into details, but the truth is very nearly stranger than fiction,” Brazier said when I ask about the eerie setting she created. “The emotion came from finding myself single again after my husband died. And the hook came from my love of true crime.”

Like Sera, Brazier says she was looking for answers but in a different way than most.

“After my husband died, I found that the grieving process really replicated true crime podcasts: you are searching for answers,” she said. “I found a lot of comfort in them and still do to this day. For me it’s about facing your fears, making order out of chaos and also about control. In true crime, you know the bad thing is coming. It can be a way to address trauma and feel less alone in it.”

Playing detective, Sera is hired by the Bards to work with the horses, a job that allows her to search for clues to Rachel’s disappearance. Her searching arouses suspicions but startlingly, she realizes that no one seems concerned about Rachel’s disappearance besides Sera. Rachel, she learns, has disappeared before and will do so again. At the ranch, Sera finds meaning not only in her investigation but in working with the horses and her developing romance with the ranch manager.

Yet that doesn’t stop her search for Rachel, or the overwhelming feelings that there are many dangerous unknowns surrounding her. Was Rachel involved with the ranch manager and what happened to his wife? Did she really go back to Texas like he says. Is it possible he’s a murderer?

Brazier, a screenwriter and journalist who lives in Los Angeles, is currently developing “If I Disappear” for television and writing another mystery.

“It’s a brutally funny thriller about very bad rich people,” she said.

Online events

This story previously appeared in the Northwest Indiana Times:

https://www.nwitimes.com/entertainment/books-and-literature/books-true-crime-inspires-fiction-thriller/article_acce7dc7-16c5-5e85-8824-7862f579cf62.html

The Request: We All Have a Friend We’d Rather Forget

“Even the person closest to you has a secret they don’t want you to know,” says author David Bell. “I think
we’ve all had the experience of thinking we know someone really well but people can still surprise us, no matter what.”

“We all have a friend from our past who is a lot of fun when we’re young but when we get older
and get settled that person is someone you want to leave behind,” says David Bell, explaining the idea behind his latest mystery-thriller The Request (Berkley 2020; $11.99—Amazon price). “And I wondered what would happen if that friend showed up and even more if that friend knew something about you that one else knows.”

That’s what happens to Ryan Francis. Years ago, Ryan was involved in a car accident that left a
young girl seriously injured. It was his fault his best friend Blake Norton tells Ryan after he wakes up in the hospital, the memory of the accident completely gone.

Since that time, Ryan has rebuilt his life, marrying, starting a successful business and is now the
father of a young child. He also carries the guilt of knowing he’s harmed someone and has stealthily left large sums of money in the girl’s mailbox to help with her ongoing medical expenses.

But things are coming undone. The girl’s sister confronts Ryan, demanding a large amount of
cash or else she’ll reveal the truth. But she’s not the only one wanting something from Ryan. Blake is
back and he needs a big favor—break into his ex-girlfriend’s home and steal letters Blake wrote her that she’s threatening to show his current fiancé. And though Ryan refuses, Blake won’t take no for an answer. If Ryan won’t get those letters then Blake will reveal the truth of what happened all those years ago.

It’ll be easy, Blake assures him. But, of course, it’s not. Letting himself into the house when
Blake’s ex is supposed to be at yoga class, Ryan can’t find the letters—they’re not where Blake said
they’d be. But much, much worse, the Blake’s ex never left the house to go to yoga. Ryan stumbles across her body—she’s been murdered. And at the same instant, his phone lights up, the woman lying dead at his feet has just asked him to become her Facebook friend.

Blake disappears, stealing Ryan’s laptop, a strange man tries to break into their home while his
wife and baby are there by themselves and the police zero in on Ryan—and his wife–as a possible
suspects. It seems that others besides Ryan and Blake have their secrets as well.

“Even the person closest to you has a secret they don’t want you to know,” says Bell. “I think
we’ve all had the experience of thinking we know someone really well but people can still surprise us, no matter what.”

DAVID BELL is a USA Today bestselling, award-winning author whose work has been translated into multiple foreign languages. He’s currently an associate professor of English at Western Kentucky University in Bowling Green, Kentucky, where he directs the MFA program. He received an MA in creative writing from Miami University in Oxford, Ohio, and a PhD in American literature and creative writing from the University of Cincinnati. His novels include LayoverSomebody’s DaughterBring Her HomeSince She Went AwaySomebody I Used to KnowThe Forgotten GirlNever Come BackThe Hiding PlaceCemetery Girl, and The Request.

The Times of Northwest Indiana Entertainment.

How Quickly She Disappears

            Intrigued by the tales his grandparents told of living in Tanacross, a small Alaskan village back in the late 1930s, Indiana author Raymond Fleischmann has woven a mystery set in that time frame and location.

            “I grew up hearing their stories about Alaska, the cold, the isolation, the long days and the long nights,” says Fleischmann, the author of the just released How Quickly She Disappears.  “So, the setting is very real though my characters are fictional and not based on my grandparents at all who were very much in love and married for over 60 years.”

            That part is probably good as Fleischmann’s novel is about Elisabeth Pfautz who is living in Alaska with her husband and young daughter. The marriage is joyless, but her daughter is her delight and, more forebodingly, a reminder and connection with her twin sister, Jacqueline, who when she was eleven, disappeared. No one has seen or knows what happened to her since then.

              Haunted by her lost sister, experiencing reoccurring dreams of 1921 and the circumstances of the disappearance and saddened by the state of her marriage, Elisabeth is drawn to Alfred, a substitute mail pilot who lands in Tanacross. Elisabeth, who grew up a small German community in Pennsylvania, feels a kinship of sorts with Alfred, who is also of German heritage. But then things turn distinctly weird and terrifying. Albert murders another man, apparently in cold blood. But he also knows, he tells Elisabeth, what happened to her sister, something he will reveal to her at a cost.

            Fleischmann says he’s always been drawn to novels that are propelled by relatively simple, often violent acts, but do so in a way that’s careful, human, and deeply examined. From Alaska in 1941, Fleischmann takes us back to 1921 where we meet Jacqueline as well.

            “I thought it was important for people to know about her as well,” says Fleischmann, who earned an MFA from Ohio State University, “To me, at the time of her disappearance, Jacqueline is a lonely and somewhat stunted child who is having difficulty navigating the transition from adolescent to adult, just like many of us. So is Elisabeth and Jacqueline’s disappearance has left a big void in her life. As an adult she still feels very much alone without her sister and appears to suffer in many dysfunctional ways.”

            All this makes her vulnerable to Alfred’s cat and mouse game as does the voice she seems to hear, that of Jacqueline urging her to “come and find me.”

REPUTATION: Everybody’s got something to hide

“Reputation is a book about different members of a university community and how they react to a school-wide email hack– and a subsequent murder,” says Sara Shepard, author of the New York Times best seller, Pretty Little Liars. “There are a lot of different perspectives, a lot of scandals, and a lot of twists, but the crux of the novel deals with two estranged sisters, Willa and Kit, and how they come together again in a time of crisis. “

               Sitting in the bar of a posh hotel, Kit Manning-Strasser fumes that the Hawsers, the mega donors she flew into town to wine, dine and hit up for a huge donation to the university where she works, canceled at the last minute. Back at the offices of Aldrich University Charitable Giving, her subordinate Lynn Godfrey is also angry. She’s the one who spent hours and hours grooming the Hawsers for the big kill but it’s Kit who’ll get the credit when the check arrives.

Sara Shepard

               A text flashes on Lynn’s phone. Get ready, it reads and as she’s pondering its meaning and who sent it, every computer in the office goes dark. They’ve been hacked and their data stolen. But as disastrous as that is, there’s opportunity as well. For one quick moment a master list containing every file for every employee appears. Does Kit have secrets she might be able to use, Lynn wonders, as she click to open her file.

               And so begins Sara Shepard’s latest novel, Reputation, a take on modern technology and the old fashioned premise that everybody’s got something to hide.

               “Reputation is a book about different members of a university community and how they react to a school-wide email hack– and a subsequent murder,” says Shepard, author of the New York Times best seller, Pretty Little Liars. “There are a lot of different perspectives, a lot of scandals, and a lot of twists, but the crux of the novel deals with two estranged sisters, Willa and Kit, and how they come together again in a time of crisis. “

               Willa is Kit’s younger sister, who scarred by an incident in her hometown, took off for California when young. Throughout the years, Willa has avoided returning to her college town or having any semblance of a real relationship with her older sister, who followed the more traditional path, remaining at home. Marrying, Kit had two daughters and then became a widow. But from the outside, anyway, she appears to have upgraded her life to a bigger house, great vacations and a cushy life, with her remarriage to a wealthy doctor.

               “But maybe it’s not all that it’s cracked up to be,” says Shepard. “It’s Kit’s husband who ends up being murdered because of rumors about him that come out in the hack– and suddenly, all eyes are on Kit, wondering what she might have done. But did Kit kill her husband? And maybe Willa is hiding a dark secret no one in her family knows, too.”

               Shepard conceived of this book at the newspapers were filled with stories about the Sony hack.

“I couldn’t believe that people’s run-of-the-mill emails were suddenly broadcast everywhere for everyone to read,” says Shepard. “It got me thinking about what I’d do if my emails were on a similar server– or emails inboxes of people I knew. We all have things we aren’t proud of, you know. As for setting the novel in a college town, it seems like colleges are a big target for hackers– and for scandals. Try Googling “college scandal.” You’ll get so many varied results, your head will spin! And terribly, I remember pitching an idea of an unethical coach before the whole Larry Nassar / USA gymnastics scandal broke. It was eerie– and terrible– to see an imagined scenario come true.”

Though she’s never had to deal with the intense scandals her characters have endured, Shepard says she tries to relate to how they feel.

“We’ve all been betrayed,” she says. “We’ve all felt watched and judged. We’ve all felt lost and small and scared. We’ve all felt the complications of motherhood and marriage and, perhaps, being with a partner we don’t entirely trust– or, at the very least, someone who turns out differently than what we imagined.”

Ifyougo:

What: Sara Shepard in conversation with New York Times and USA Today Bestselling author Mary Kubica.

When: Thursday, December 5 at 7 p.m.

Where: Anderson’s Bookshop Naperville, 123 W Jefferson Ave, Naperville, IL

Cost: This event is free and open to the public. To join the signing line, please purchase the author’s latest book, Reputation, from Anderson’s Bookshop. To purchase please stop into or call Anderson’s Bookshop Naperville (630) 355-2665 or order online.

FYI: 630-355-2665; andersonsbookshop.com

The Mykonos Mob

              In The Mykonos Mob, the tenth book of the Greece-based mystery-thriller series written by New York Times bestselling author Jeffrey Siger, Chief Inspector Andreas Kaldis finds himself face-to-face with the nation’s top crime bosses, all of whom are as perplexed as he is about who’s responsible for the murder of a corrupt former police colonel who ran the island’s protection rackets. In the meantime, Kaldis’ s wife, Lila, is trying to find an identity for herself beyond wife and mother and teams up with an ex-pat with a shady side. The two decide to mentor exploited young island girls, a charitable act that unknowingly negatively intersects with her husband’s investigation.

              Siger, who left a lucrative career as a partner in a Wall Street law firm to write mysteries, says that Greece provides an inexhaustible source of material for the two central elements of his series–the serious, modern-day issues his characters need to confront and overcome, and a perspective on those issues found in the ancient past.

“There is no place on earth more closely linked to the ancient world than Greece,” he says. “It is the birthplace of the gods, the cradle of European civilization, the bridge between East and West. Spartan courage, Athenian democracy, Olympic achievement, Trojan intrigue—all sprung from this wondrous land.”

It’s also a place he knows very well.

“Each year I live on Mykonos longer than any other place on earth, and have for about a dozen years,” says Siger, noting that he first visited the island 35 years ago at a friend’s suggestion who thought he’d love Greece. “She was right. From the moment I stepped onto the tarmac at the Mykonos airport, I felt as if I were home. That very first day I happened to pass by a jewelry shop on my way into town from my hotel, though I forget how the proprietor lured me inside. Unbeknownst to me, I’d stumbled upon the most loved man on Mykonos.  A consummate gentleman and fervent booster of the island, he had an extraordinary circle of local, national and international friends, all of whom made a point of regularly stopping by to say hello to him.”

Becoming an insider almost immediately has helped him craft stories about the workings of the islands both from a political and social viewpoint.

“My ideas come from the strangest sources, often unexpected,” says Siger. “More bizarre than where they come from is how often my fictional plots have an unnerving tendency to come true. For example, my second novel in the series, Assassins of Athens featured a character in the mold of Greece’s current Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras years before his rise to power; my third book, Prey on Patmos, anticipated by seven years the current turmoil involving Mt. Athos, the Russian government, and the Patriarch in Constantinople, and many of the details surrounding the fictional assassination serving as the backstory latest book, were just reported by the Greek press as key details of an actual assassination that occurred long after The Mykonos Mob was written.”

For more about Jeff Siger and his books, visit jeffreysiger.com/

The Border: A Novel (Power of the Dog)

          “I’ve long and often said that the ‘Mexican Drug Problem’ is really the American drug problem,” says Don Winslow who recently completed The Border, the third book in his Cartel Trilogy.

          While Winslow is writing fiction, his New York Times bestselling books are all too real.

          “We’re the consumers and the ones funding the cartels and fueling this violence because of our demand for drugs,” says Winslow. “And then we have the nerve to point to Mexico and talk about Mexico corruption. What about our corruption?  If there’s anyone who should be building a wall, it’s Mexico to protect themselves from our demand.”

          Winslow’s fast action paced books, written in a style he describes as “close third person,” are good reads on several levels, including the enjoyment of a well-researched thriller about Drug Enforcement Agency undercover operative Art Keller and his long struggle in a harrowing world amidst Mexican cartel power struggles, traffickers, drug mules, teenage hitmen, families seeking asylum to escape the drug wars, narcos, cops and political corruption on both sides of the border as well as attorneys and journalists.

          The other level is the indictment of what he views as a failed policy by the U.S. to stem the tide of drugs.

“We’ve had a War on Drugs for almost 50 years and last year more people died of drug overdoses than ever before,” says Winslow. “We’ve already had this lab experiment and it was called Prohibition. As long as you have people wanting drugs, you’ll have people selling drugs. The way to end the violence and crime that goes along with drug use is to legalize drugs and treat them as the social health problem they are.”

Whether you agree with Winslow, whose books have been acquired by FX Networks for television, his writing is compelling as he takes us into a world he has inhabited since his first book, The Power of the Dog, was published. He intended to end the series with The Cartel, his second book about Keller, which he sold to Fox for a seven-figure amount.

“I swore that was my last book—I was done,” he says. “But the difficulty was that the story wasn’t. The violence in Mexico is increasing, the heroin epidemic in the U.S. is killing more people and the immigration issue—there was more to discuss. Like in my first two books, I had more to say through the medium of crime fiction.”

Winslow says the escalating violence in Mexico is amazing. In 1998, the big news was the murder of 19 people in a Mexican village that was drug related.

“By the time I was working on The Cartel, that kind of incident wouldn’t even be in the papers, it’s such a low body count,” says Winslow, noting that the difficulties in writing his earlier books was finding people involved in the drug trade who were willing to talk. “By the time I got done writing The Cartel, people who had been hiding their crimes were celebrating them.”

But Winslow says he’s seeing a definite groundswell of change.

“Cities are doing some really interesting and forward thinking about it,” he says. “We have a 2.2 million prison population behind bars and 20% of that is drugs; we have 181,000 in Federal prison and around 90,000 of those are drug related. We are the market for drugs. We’re 5% of the world’s population and we use 80% of the opioids. We need to be doing something different.”

Though he says he’s done with the Cartel Trilogy, Winslow acknowledges it was weird when he sent off his final manuscript.

“That was 20 years of my life, a total of one-third of my life,” he says.

Visit Don Winslow.com

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