PTSD in Policing: A Story of Survival

By Brian Thiem:

Retired Oakland P.D. Lieutenant Rachael Van Sloten is one of the strongest women I know. When I was retired and working on my first novel, I reached out to Rachael, then working as a detective sergeant in Homicide, to help me create an authentic woman homicide detective character. She’s remained one of my most trusted beta readers, one I can trust to ensure my female characters are realistic and my stories hold together.

I first met Rachael in the mid-1990s when I was a lieutenant at Oakland PD and a watch commander on the swing shift. One evening, after having completed the field training program, she reported to my lineup briefing for her assignment as a beat cop. My first thought was wondering if this cute, little, blonde woman had what it takes to survive as a cop on the streets of Oakland.

As the watch commander, I was a worrier. The evening shift had around a hundred officers and a dozen sergeants, about half of them working any given day. And I worried about every one of them. I normally ended my briefings with the immortal admonishment of that old, crusty sergeant on Hill Street Blues, “Be careful out there.”

I knew every officer at OPD was exceptionally qualified. Only 2% of those who apply are hired. Many are weeded out in the academy, and more don’t make it through the field training program. I learned Rachael was a graduate of University of California (Berkeley), a school that only accepts the best, and she held a black belt in martial arts. Despite my initial concerns, her sergeants reported she was smart and tough and did a great job.

A while later, Rachael found herself in a fight for her life. The following is in her words.

On this day 25 years ago, 11-24-97, I was working patrol in west Oakland, when an officer put out he was about to do a car stop for a minor traffic violation. I responded to assist. Within seconds, the vehicle took off and crashed into a driveway and the driver fled on foot. I took a perimeter position.

My life changed that night—from wide-eyed rookie officer to fighting for my life. Twenty-five years later and I can remember every moment of that incident. I can describe details for you but not what was going through my head nor what my body was feeling. I remember those feelings vividly, but it’s too difficult to describe.

The suspect jumped out from over a fence where I was standing. Other officers believed he was running in a different direction. I tried to put it out but couldn’t broadcast over the emergency traffic on our outdated radios.

I had him controlled—I thought—but the tables turned quickly. He was a very experienced fighter. He had fought the police on many prior occasions, I learned later.

One second I was standing, the next second he had body slammed me to the ground, ripped my radio mic off my shoulder so I couldn’t call for help, kicked me in my face, shattering my nose, and kicked me multiple times in my ribs as he stood over me. Then he went for my gun, which was now holstered and thankfully secured with the snaps. I had holstered my weapon when I saw he was unarmed, and I was switching to a less lethal tool. That was the moment when he attacked me. Was that a mistake? Probably.

I remember thinking, this is just a fight. Then I felt the tug on the grip of my gun and heard the security snaps on my holster snap open. That was when, deep inside me, I knew he was going to try to kill me. This was not just another fight—this was a fight for my life. I had seen these fights on police videos where the officer is getting beat and screaming for his life. They are horrible to watch. I was about to experience it. This man was not armed, and I was about to die. He was winning this fight, and if he won, I would be dead.

But only if he succeeded in getting my gun. I knew I could survive broken bones but not a gunshot to my head. I had been taught gun retention in the academy, and somehow in the middle of all this, my body remembered what to do. I knew I had to hold onto the holster where the snaps were, and I squeezed around the holster so the man could not rock my gun back and pull up. He was trying so hard to do that. But I held on. I held on as he lifted me off the ground by the grip of my own gun as he tried to get it from the holster. I held on as he slammed me into the cement over and over again, chipping a bone in my shoulder. I held on as he kicked me over and over again, damaging some of my ribs.

I held on while he spoke to the crowd of citizens who surrounded us. He kept saying, “Don’t hurt me, officer! Don’t hurt me,” as he beat on me and tried to get my gun. It made no sense. He was playing for the crowd, and they cheered him on. They yelled as I fought to survive, “Kill her, go on kill her.”  Those words still echo in my head. Why was no one helping me—a 100 lb., 5’2” woman? It was because I wore the uniform. I was new to the job. They did not know me. I hadn’t earned their respect yet, so I guess in their minds, I was not worth saving. Even worse and sadly, in their minds, I was worth killing.

At one point, I rolled over my radio mic which was underneath me. I heard it broadcast my screams for help. And yes, I screamed for help. I remember screaming, “Get off me.” I remember screaming other officers’ names. Hoping they would hear me and come help. No one heard me. No one helped me. They didn’t know where I was. When I rolled over the mic again, I yelled “I’m north of you, he’s trying to get my gun.” This fight continued for 3.5 to 4 minutes. It felt like it would never end. I wasn’t sure I would survive, but I wouldn’t let go of the holster. He kept trying to get the gun. Later on, we would learn he had cut his hand when he jumped over the fence, and his bloody prints were on the security straps of my holster and his bloody palm print on my gun grip.

 I couldn’t grab for other weapons—my baton or pepper spray—because if I let go of my holster, he would have my gun, and I would be dead. I did what I had to do. I bit him. Gross, yes, but when you think you are about to die, you do what you need to survive. I remember that I just kept biting at him. That was my only weapon I could use without letting go of my holster. Somehow that worked. He took off running.

The adrenaline was so strong, I got up and chased after him. I was an officer and that was my job. A lieutenant approached me, got me to take a breath, got me focused again. Other officers arrived. They set up a perimeter and ultimately caught him. We arrested him without incident (without injury). I went to the hospital and that is when I realized I was badly hurt. The adrenaline had helped me survive, but when it left my system, the emotions, the pain of what just happened hit hard. I was told not to cry. I did not cry—I bottled it up—shoved it deep down.

Rachel’s nose was shattered, and she had surgery that week. Most rookie officers would’ve reassessed their decision to become a police officer, but it never occurred to Rachel to quit. She returned to work a month later. She later had surgery on her shoulder, as a bone fragment had shifted, causing her shoulder to lock up. She ended up with four surgeries on her nose, and to this day still can’t breathe right. She had three surgeries on her shoulder, and many more on other parts of her body from other injuries and the wear and tear of the job.

She never told anyone back then how scared she was. She never told anyone about the nightmares. She just pretended everything was okay and continued to work. She was later promoted to sergeant, and I remember how proud of her I was when I saw the photo of her and her family at her promotion ceremony.

She went on to work Homicide, where she saw more death and misery than any person should have to in a lifetime. She handled the murder of four Oakland officers who were killed in the line of duty during one tragic incident, a mass shooting where seven people died, an artist warehouse fire that killed thirty-six, and scores of other horrendous incidents.

In 2014, Rachael was diagnosed with cumulative PTSD. Although Oakland PD had a peer support unit and a free and totally confidential professional counseling service, there remained a stigma over seeking help, but she found help on her own. She again returned to work and eventually was promoted to lieutenant. She retired last year.

Rachael and I have spoken many times about PTSD among law enforcement officers. All departments need to do more for their officers. She is not alone in still thinking about the traumatic experiences she had experienced. The things we experience affect us. They change us. And all too often, they destroy us. How police organizations treat their officers after traumatic incidents affect them. Police departments can do better.

Talking about it can help. Telling our stories to others show them they are not alone in feeling the way they do. And, as Rachael says, “Letting people know there is light on the other side of the darkness can help.”

Rachael is doing well today in retirement. She’s supported by a loving husband and parents, three wonderful children, and many friends. My first impression of her nearly three decades ago as that cute, little, blonde rookie was so very wrong. She’s one of the toughest, fiercest, strongest women I know. And she’s a survivor.

Interview of Novelist Rich Zahradnik

Please join me in welcoming award-winning New York based crime novelist Rich Zahradnik to the blog. Occasionally, we at Murder Books will interview a favorite author in order to help get the word out about a great new book. And it just so happens that Rich’s latest thriller, The Bone Records, was released on November 1st. Having had the honor of reading an advanced copy, I can tell you it is fabulous.

Rich Zahradnik

Rich spent twenty-seven years as a journalist. During that time, he worked as a reporter and an editor—both online and in print media—holding editorial positions at CNN, Bloomberg News, AOL, and The Hollywood Reporter. Rich uses those twenty-seven years to inform his award-winning novels. Currently, Rich provides guidance to the Pelham Examiner, the first community newspaper in the State of New York managed, edited, reported, and written by people under the age of eighteen!

Shamus Award Winner

In addition to winning the prestigious Shamus Award for Best Paperback Private Eye Novel for Lights Out Summer, Rich has also received three independent press awards for the first three books in his Coleridge Taylor mystery series. A Black Sail was named best mystery in the 2017 Next Generation Indie Book Awards. Drop Dead Punk received the gold medal for mystery ebook in the 2016 IPPY Awards. And Last Words won the bronze medal for mystery ebook in the 2015 IPPYs, and an honorable mention for mystery in the Foreword Reviews competition.

First off, Rich, congratulations on your latest release, and welcome to the blog.

Thank you for having me, Bruce!

  1. One of the things I really enjoyed about The Bone Records was the setting. What inspired you to set your mystery novel in and around Coney Island?

The idea for the book started with the bone records, which were bootlegs of American rock ‘n’ roll songs cut from X-rays in the Soviet Union from 1945-1963. I loved the idea of including bone records in a story, but I didn’t want to set the book in the Soviet Union in, say, 1962. In Brooklyn, several neighborhoods are called Little Odessa because of the large proportion of Russian immigrants that live there. Older immigrants living in these neighborhoods—Coney Island, Sheepshead Bay, Gravesend—would know about the discs, so I set the novel there. It helped that I’m a huge Coney Island fan, with many visits over the years.

  • I very much enjoyed your protagonist, Grigg Orlov. Where did the inspiration for Orlov originate?

I wanted an outsider in an insular community. Grigg’s father came from Russia and his mother Jamaica, which pretty much does the trick with the Russians in his neighborhood, given the racism in that community. He tried to become cop, but his knee was permanently injured when he was jumped by white supremacists at the police academy. That gives him just enough knowledge of police procedure to make him dangerous, but also shows—I hope—that seeking justice—rather than vengeance—is a part of him before his father is murdered. 

  • Coming as you have from a long and storied career in the field of reporting and editing, did you find the transition to fiction author difficult?

Yes, I did. My first failed manuscript failed because I tried to be too accurate, to be a journalist rather than a storyteller. There’s a huge difference between accuracy and the truth. You and I have talked about how this idea applied when you became a novelist after your career as a detective sergeant. You have to use what you know to create the world, but at some point, you have to diverge from how things actually work to create a page-turner of a story. It’s dicey.

  • Prior to The Bone Records you wrote an award-winning four book series. Is The Bone Records strictly a standalone or might this be the start of a new series?

I started out thinking it was a standalone because I wanted one of those on my resume. But I really started to like Grigg Orlov and can see a way to continue his career as some kind of private investigator if the book does well enough.

  • After writing Coleridge Taylor for four books, did you find it difficult to acclimate to an entirely new cast of characters? 

By about the third book in the Taylor series, I knew so much about my main characters that the writing then did become easier—though never easy—because I’d made so many decisions about those people. So yes, creating the new cast and making decisions about each character for the first time was more work than my last couple of Taylor novels.

  • Every novel presents its own unique challenges (at least mine have). Were there any obstacles you faced when writing The Bone Records? 

I’m not sure your blog’s server is big enough for this list. More seriously, switching from a newspaper reporter as protagonist to, in essence, an amateur—the son of the victim though one who may soon be the next victim—required I work a lot harder on motivation for his actions. Keeping him believably in the game when it’s not his job as it would be with a reporter—and with the NYPD and FBI involved with far more capability to solve a crime—required thinking, planning, writing and rewriting. Grigg knows a lot less than he should to take on the case and so I had to find ways to give him assistance that made sense in the story.

Another challenge was the novel’s timing. It takes place in the six weeks before the 2016 election. I have a subplot about that, and my characters can’t help but notice news of what’s going on in one of the wildest presidential campaigns in history. The key for me was to make this work in the story without it seeming a political thriller. The Bone Records is a hard-boiled mystery that takes place in that place and time.

  • Do you have any words of wisdom to share with others who might be thinking about wading into the deep end of the literary pool? 

Writers write. Don’t say, “I have an idea for a story.” Sit down and write. As much time as you can afford as many days as you can afford. Writers revise. Some of what I consider the best decisions I’ve made in my books came during revision. They call it a first draft for a reason. Writers read. Read in the genre you’re writing in and read outside it. Read read read.

  • Is there anything you did early on in your novel writing career that, now armed with hindsight, you would have done differently?

As I mentioned above, had I been thinking more about what’s true, rather than creating an accurate depiction of the journalism business, I might have gotten going further faster with a first novel that worked. Because after that, I lost years in workshops trying to become a literary novelist—which I am not. About 120,000 words worth of false starts until Last Words, the first Coleridge Taylor book, came along.

  • Which authors would you credit with having had the greatest influence on your writing? 

Michael Connelly (for everything), Derek Raymond (for really bringing the black to noir) and Tony Hillerman (for making setting a character in each of his books in a way that is intrinsic to the mood).

  1. I’ve read many different mystery/thriller series over the years and, for me, keeping the characters fresh and interesting over the long haul seems to be a major consideration in maintaining readership. What’s your secret?

I think the main characters need to change in ways that fit with who they are, and more importantly, by learning from life’s experiences. If a character is going to change her mind or attitude about something, you need to either build up to that by planting little things earlier in the story or have a believable life shock cause an emotional reaction and a cognitive rethink. I’ve changed life experiences in my series—Taylor’s newspaper goes out of business in book two—used some romance, which can have ups and downs, though at least in that series, I kept him with the same person from book two on. For me, anyone aside from the hero can die—except the dog, readers won’t forgive you—and that brings change, which I hope keeps it interesting.

  1. You’ve had success as a novelist, a reporter, and an editor. Is there one career that has brought you the most joy? Or do you find them equally gratifying?

Definitely novelist. Don’t get me wrong. I love getting scoops and still do when the Pelham Examiner wins them, but at my core I am a teller of stories who just took some time to get here.

  1. What can readers expect to see next? Are you working on any other projects? Is there a movie in the works?

I’ve started a new novel called Ghost Paper. I wanted to write a story that dealt with the 2,500 newspapers that have gone under since 2004 in America. I’m telling that story through the murder of one newspaper. It’s also a conventional murder mystery, of course. People die too.

Rich, thank you so much for taking the time to share your insights with our readers. Best of luck with your new book, The Bone Records!

Rich Zahradnik is a member of Mystery Writers of America and International Thriller Writers.


To learn more about Rich, visit his web site at http://www.richzahradnik.com.

Rich Zahradnik was interviewed for Murder Books by Bruce Robert Coffin.

The Peanut Butter Theory of Police Staffing

By Brian Thiem

Years ago, when I was working Homicide in Oakland, the department initiated another reorganization to address rising crime amid budget cutbacks. They moved units and responsibilities around and shifted resources from one part of the city to another. They decentralized investigations to make detectives accountable to neighborhoods and later moved all investigations back under a centralized investigative command structure for greater efficiency.

One of our homicide investigators was especially profound one day as we all sat around with our morning coffee working out the problems of the department, the law enforcement profession, and the world. He introduced, in an especially philosophical manner (we homicide detectives were deep thinkers about the human condition and society’s ills), the peanut butter theory of police staffing. It goes like this—if you are given a big gob of peanut butter and a loaf of bread, you can either slather all the peanut butter on one slice of bread, or smear a little bit on a dozen slices. But no matter how you spread the peanut butter, it doesn’t change the amount of peanut butter you have.

In press conferences around the country, we hear police chiefs and local politicians during crime surges announce that they will increase police patrols. Working cops cringe when they hear that. Do regular citizens really think police departments have a bunch of police officers sitting around the station doing nothing, just waiting for a crime spree so they can put on a uniform and go to work?

For a multitude of reason, which I won’t get into here, most police departments today are understrength, and most law enforcement professionals recognize the authorized (budgeted) strength of most departments is insufficient to meet the needs of their communities.

So, when police chiefs “increase patrols,” I always wonder where the officers are coming from. Sometimes, patrol officers are shifted from one part of the city to another. For instance, a few officers might be pulled from every police district and sent to District 5 to address the rash of violent crimes plaguing that area. Although that might help the immediate crime problem in District 5, the rest of the city is now shorthanded. They are not able to handle the calls for service in a timely manner and do little or no preventative patrol. Thus, crime increases there. It becomes like a game of whack-a-mole, where crime pops up in the districts with fewer police, and officers are pulled from other areas to address that, and the process continues in a never-ending battle. Remember, there is a limited amount of peanut butter.

Other times police chiefs announce officers are “pulled from the building” and put back in uniform to address the rising crime. Few departments today have sworn officers doing clerical work—those positions were civilianized decades ago. Therefore, the chief might pull detectives and put them back in uniform, which means some cases will never be investigated, leaving suspects unidentified and at large to continue to burglarize houses and cars, or to rob, rape, and murder citizens.

Or in-service training might be cancelled or postponed—critical training on hot-button topics such as handling mentally ill subjects, force de-escalation, active shooter response, or racial bias. Most of the police misconduct instances we see on the nightly news can be attributed, at least in part, to inadequate training, and policing experts agree that officers need more training, not less. Whenever officers are moved to patrol from other units, some important police functions will not be accomplished. And in the long-term, the communities suffer.

There’s no simple (or cheap) fix to dealing with rising crime, but “increasing patrols” or “pulling officers from headquarters” is not a long-term solution. That’s because, no matter how you spread the peanut butter between the slices of bread, it does not change the amount of peanut butter.

30 DAYS IN THE HOLE

It’s a pleasure to be here sharing my first post on the Murder Books Blog. Thanks to the crew for letting me contribute.

You might know that I worked in prisons for the better part of thirty years. You get to know a bit about how the system works and a great deal about those who end up there—on both sides of the bars.

At the risk of dating myself, there was a popular song back in the day called, 30 Days in the Hole by Humble Pie. The lyrics talk about a drug-addled, jailhouse-bound guy destined for thirty days in the hole to mend his ways. A cool song that made you want to avoid going to the “hole,” but like most pop culture, it doesn’t paint an accurate picture of life behind bars.

For a few years, I worked in what you might call the “hole.” One of the most common misconceptions about what happens behind the wall is that a cop can throw someone in the “hole” for the slightest reason. And it’s always portrayed in movies as a dank, dark, moldy dungeon.

The reference to the “hole” comes from the Black Hole of Calcutta where upwards of 100 British prisoners died overnight in a small dungeon in the 1750s. Since those historic times, the legend of the “hole” flourished. The first American prisons were built upon the principle that isolation and silence would lead to penitence—marking the penitentiary movement in the 1800s.

Over time, prisons shifted away from isolation and used the practice sparingly to separate disruptive inmates from the general population. In correctional systems across the country, removing an inmate from the general population and placing them into restricted housing comes with a list of procedural safeguards and due process rights.

And it starts with the reason for placement. Contrary to what you’ve seen on television, an officer can’t toss an inmate in “the hole” as a punishment for minor infractions, or to mess with them.

In California, removal from the general population isn’t taken lightly. Placement in limited Administrative Segregation beds is reserved for inmates who pose a risk to staff or other inmates. 

Think of it as a jail within a jail. If you commit a crime in prison—say stabbing another inmate (something frowned upon in polite prison society), you will be removed from the general population and placed in Administrative Segregation (Ad/Seg) pending a disciplinary hearing.

The Security Housing Unit at Corcoran State Prison.
  • You’ll have the right to a written notice of the charges against you.
  • A lieutenant must approve the initial placement, and it’s reviewed by a captain or higher management level staff member within 24 hours.
  • You have the right to a timely hearing on the charges.
  • You have the right to call witnesses.
  • You have the right to have a staff member collect evidence for you.
  • You have the right to appeal Disciplinary Hearing Officer’s finding.

So, what happens if they find someone guilty of an in-prison offense, like that pesky stabbing assault? What are they going to do? Send them to prison? Well, yes. Yes, they are.

A guilty finding for that offense could earn a 12-month term in a Security Housing Unit (SHU). Think maximum security units, like Corcoran, Pelican Bay, or Supermax Florence, Arizona.

Main Corridor at Pelican Bay

Confined to a cell for 22 hours a day, the inmate may have dayroom access with their cellmate. SHU doesn’t mean solitary confinement. They have access to a small exercise yard, a law library, visiting, medical and mental health treatment, and purchase items from the canteen. The SHU inmate may even have their television in the cell.

Working in a unit of violent inmates in SHU is considered a high-stress assignment. You know what you’re dealing with and what you can expect from them. Throwing urine through the cell bars at officers as they pass a food tray into the cell is far too common. We all wore stab-resistant vests on the tier because you never knew when the next assault attempt would happen—and it will happen.

The idea is to remove the most violent, disruptive influences from the general population to allow those on the mainline to do their time without threats of violence or extortion.

Going to the “hole” isn’t arbitrary. You earn your way there and you can earn your way back out, starting with keeping sharp stabby objects away from others.

James L’Etoile uses his twenty-nine years behind bars as an influence in his novels, short stories, and screenplays. He is a former associate warden in a maximum-security prison, a hostage negotiator, facility captain, and director of California’s state parole system. He is a nationally recognized expert witness on prison and jail operations. He has been twice nominated for the Silver Falchion for Best Procedural Mystery and Best Thriller, as well as The Bill Crider Award for short fiction. His published novels include Dead Drop, Black Label, At What Cost, Bury the Past, and Little River. You can find out more at www.jamesletoile.com 

Setting: Real or Fictional

By Brian Thiem

My wife and I were on vacation last week, and whenever I visit new places, the writer in me can’t help but think about using these settings in stories. The ideal setting for my characters’ romantic getaway, or the perfect place for a murder (I do write crime fiction after all).

We were at a mountain resort on Lake Lure in North Carolina. Much of the movie Dirty Dancing was filmed here, even though the story took place in a fictional resort in New York’s Catskills. The resort had a lake, large mountain mansions, lake-front homes, condos along the golf course, and a quaint town nearby. Everything necessary for fictional characters to run wild in stories. Perfect places to dump a body. Secluded spots to plan killings. Unique places to murder—beating to death with a golf club on the 16th green, where a Dirty Dancing scene was shot; stabbing through the neck with a broken pool cue in the clubhouse; weighting a body and dropping it off a pontoon boat in the lake; pushing the victim off a cliff on a Chimney Rock hiking trail.

My first series took place in Oakland, California, a city I knew well after working there as a cop for twenty-five years. I find most police procedurals are set in real places. Michael Connelly’s Harry Bosch feels incredibly authentic partly because it takes place in the actual Los Angeles. The stories of triller writers such as Brad Taylor and Mark Greaney feel so authentic because they’re set in locales around the world that the authors actually visited.

Cozy mysteries are usually set in fictional places, possibly best epitomized by Cabot Cove, the fictional Maine coastal village where Jessica Fletcher solved hundreds of murders. I just sent a manuscript to my agent about a story taking place on a fiction island in coastal South Carolina. Although it was fun creating my fictional locale, creating a fictional setting was also more work than I had imagined.

A writer friend recently called me for some cop-stuff advice. She wanted to write a story where a detective resigned from policing in one state and took a job as a cold case investigator in Atlanta. Of course, a fiction author can write whatever they want (it’s called fiction after all), but large police departments don’t hire cops from another state as detectives. They must go through another academy then work uniformed patrol for years before they can get assigned to investigations. All cops know this, as do many readers.

If I were to write a novel about a detective working at Atlanta PD, I would need to do extensive research about the department before writing. As an alternative, I might change the setting to a fictional small town. A small department might more likely hire an experienced detective from another agency as a detective.

Although there is more flexibility when setting a story in a fictional locale, unless it is fantasy or such, real-world rules still apply. For instance, it must still be hot and humid in August in my fictional coastal South Carolina setting, and although I love a romantic scene of a white Christmas sitting in front of a roaring fire, if my characters want to experience that, they must head north or into the mountains for the holidays. And even in a fictional setting, an NYPD detective won’t be directly hired as a homicide detective in California.

When writers consider whether to set a story in a real or fictional place, they must choose between research and designing. Both methods require work. Although I spent thirty years in law enforcement, I did a few “ride alongs” with detectives from a local South Carolina police department and worked with the sheriff’s cold case team, because policing is not the same here as in California. What I learned allowed me to not only ensure my police characters acted authentically, but it also helped me “design” a realistic fictional sheriff’s department in which my main character works.

Although many writers enjoy creating a fictional local and like the freedom it gives the story, in many ways it’s less work to set a story in a real place. I remember sipping my morning coffee on the back porch of our rental condo overlooking Lake Lure last week, as the sun rose and birds woke. It was still chilly enough that I had to pull on a fleece jacket. In my fictional South Carolina locale, my character will have to settle for overlooking the salt marsh and will have to wait for October before it’s cool enough to wear a fleece jacket in the morning.

Murder Books Interviews James L’Etoile

Please join me in welcoming Sacramento based crime novelist James L’Etoile to the blog, literally. Occasionally, we at Murder Books will interview a favorite author in order to help get the word out about a new book, but this interview is even more special because Jim is joining our Murder Books team! Beginning August 14th Jim will post the first of what we hope will be many blogs for Murder Books.

Jim spent twenty-nine years behind bars. Okay, full disclosure, he is a former associate warden in a maximum-security prison, a hostage negotiator, facility captain, and director of California’s state parole system. He is a nationally recognized expert witness and consultant on prison and jail operations. Jim uses those twenty-nine years behind bars to influence in his novels, short stories, and screenplays.

L’Etoile’s crime fiction has been recognized by the Creative World Awards, Acclaim Film, and the Scriptapalooza Television Script Competition. His novel BURY THE PAST was a 2018 Killer Nashville Silver Falchion Award finalist for best procedural mystery of the year. He is a frequent contributor to top short story collections. Jim’s most recent novel, Dead Drop, was released on July 19th. And as I can attest—thanks to an early reading—it is superb.

First off, Jim, congratulations on your latest release and welcome to the blog!

Thanks for hosting me today and I’m honored to be a part of this incredible blog. Who knew, some guy fresh from the slammer would get to come and contribute?

1. I know there has been a lot of attention paid to immigration issues over the past decade. What made you decide to set your mystery novel at the southern border?

Immigration policy and border politics are certainly in the news. There was one event that stuck with me which eventually turned into Dead Drop.

There is prison near San Diego, California, and it’s so close to the international border, you can see the wall from the prison yard. Migrants making their way north used mountain trails to the east to avoid roadblocks and immigration checkpoints. During one visit to the prison, there was a bit more frantic energy around the place than usual because the early morning count didn’t “clear.”

Prisons run on a regular schedule of counts—it’s one of the basic missions of an institution—knowing how many prisoners you are supposed to have and account for every single one. In this instance, the prison’s minimum facility couldn’t clear their count because the number of inmates in their bunks didn’t match central control’s count. Escapes from minimum facilities are common, but they come with inspector general investigations, initiating escape protocols, and notifying local law enforcement and stakeholders all the way up to the governor’s office. It’s not a warm and fuzzy experience…

After a series of re-counts using photographs to identify every prisoner, the problem was found and it was a bit unusual. The minimum facility’s count was “Plus 1”—there was one more body in a bed than they were supposed to have.

As it turned out, an undocumented migrant on the trek north was so cold and hungry that he “broke into prison” for a place to sleep. That set of circumstances settled in my unconscious mind and eventually led to Dead Drop. The journey over the border must be grueling if going to prison is the best option.

2. You have written both a series and a standalone. Is Dead Drop the start of a new series?

I have written series and standalone novels. They both have their benefits. I do enjoy a series because you really get to open up the characters and dive a little deeper into their stories. Dead Drop is the first book in a new Detective Nathan Parker series. I’m looking forward to seeing where the series takes him.

3. I am always happy to see a fellow law enforcement professional successfully transition from behind the badge onto the page. How long have you known that you wanted to write professionally?

I didn’t begin to write commercial fiction until after I retired from the prison system. Two roadblocks stopped me—one, I didn’t think I had the chops to write the kind of stories people would want to read, and two I didn’t think I had the time to sit down and write.

I was wrong on both counts. I thought back to one of the first jobs I had as a probation officer where I’d prepare pre-sentence reports for the sentencing judge. I interviewed the convicted person in jail, talked with the detective, read all the investigative reports, spoke with the victims, and cobbled all of that together in a narrative for the judge, recommending a sentence. I didn’t realize it then, but I had been writing crime stories all along. I knew how to do this. As far as not having the time to write—that’s a priority issue. Watch fewer episodes of Stranger Things and go write. I needed to make writing a priority and carve out the time to make it happen.

4. I very much enjoyed your Dead Drop protagonist, Detective Nathan Parker. Where did the inspiration for Parker come from?

Thanks, Nathan was fun to write and his story came out of a few people and events from my past. Part of Parker’s backstory, and we learn this early on, so it’s not really a spoiler, is his partner was murdered and Parker’s sense of justice and survivor’s guilt takes a toll on his life. Unfortunately, I’ve known too many officers who’ve witnessed their partner being assaulted, stabbed, or killed. That’s something that never goes away and how you deal with an all-encompassing darkness is no easy task. And it isn’t for Parker either.

5. Your vast knowledge of the inner workings of the prison and probation systems is impressive. How much of a leap was it to embark on a border novel? Did you avail yourself to fact checkers from ICE or CBP?

I do use sources to fact check. Some of the details relating to immigration and border management came from as assignment I had in the prison system, overseeing the system’s “Deport Units.” In the 1990’s we had over twenty-thousand inmates serving time for various felonies, but they all had one common factor—they were also foreign nationals who entered the country illegally. They came from every country on the globe, but California being a border state meant a large majority were from Mexico, Central, and South America.

The Deport Units were within prisons located in Southern California (Calipatria, Centinela, and San Diego) where inmates transfer to in the last month of their sentence. Immigration Judges at these facilities held hearings to decide if the inmates would be deported after their prison terms expired, or released on parole.

The stories these men told were harrowing, but they weren’t the same people we see in the news being separated from their families. These were violent felons who had also broken federal law by illegally entering the country. Still, they had the same hopes, dreams, and ambitions to make a better life up north. They chose to do it with a gun, or with violence…

6. Every novel comes with its own unique challenges (at least mine have). What were some of the obstacles you faced when writing Dead Drop?

There were a couple of challenges presented with this book. The first was the setting, in and around Phoenix and the Sonoran desert. I’m up in Northern California, so I can’t look out my window for desert inspiration. I spent a lot of time in Arizona over the last few years, driving around to some of the more remote desert locations. The highway between Phoenix and Tucson is particularly stark. The other challenge was maintaining the storyline—Parker, Billie and what they encounter. I didn’t want this to become a co-opted tale of the migrant experience. That’s not my story to tell. I’ve observed the impact of undocumented migrants firsthand, including a mother who was prepared to surrender her “green card” expecting to face deportation because her daughter was arrested for shoplifting. We can all identify what her fear, hopelessness, and resignation felt like.

7. Do you have any words of wisdom to share with others who might be thinking about wading into the deep end of the literary pool?

Get a snorkel and dive in. I’ve found a number of writers who believe they are destined for overnight success. Lo and behold, instant gratification isn’t bestowed upon them and they become disillusioned and give up. Writing is all about the long game. You need to put in the hours, learn the craft, and put yourself out there. Nothing happens quickly, except maybe rejection. Coming to terms with rejection and not taking it personally is key.

8. Is there anything you did early on in your writing career that, now armed with hindsight, you would have done differently?

I wish I had started earlier. There are so many stories and characters out there, and I won’t have the time to capture all of them…

9. Which authors would you say have had the greatest impact on your writing?

That’s a tough one, because I’ve learned so much from reading great authors. As a writer, I read differently now, looking at structure, character development and dialogue. I appreciate the work that goes on behind the story. I’d have to say Joseph Wambaugh, Elmore Leonard, and Michael Connelly were initial influences. Jennifer Hillier, Karen Dionne, and J.T Ellison are masters of the thriller genre and I learn something every time I pick up one of their books. But there’s one author who shall remain nameless who pushed me to write because it was while reading their book (it was awful) that I told myself, “I can do better than this.”

10. I’ve read many different mystery/thriller series over the years and, for me, keeping the characters fresh and interesting over the long haul seems to be a major consideration in maintaining readership. What’s your secret?

As a reader, I know what I’m drawn to. It’s all about character. I try to give readers a character they can get invested in. They want to see how things turn out for them. I’ve found that readers in general (me included) won’t remember a plot months after reading a book, but when a character sticks with you—that’s magic.

11. You’ve had success both as a novelist, a short fiction writer, and a screenwriter. Is there one format that brings you the most joy? Or do you find them equally gratifying?

Wow. Each format presents its own challenges. I’d have to say the novel is the most rewarding. Telling a story with depth and nuance over 400 pages requires a real investment from the author. When it all comes together and that book goes out into the world, it’s a feeling of relief, pride, and accomplishment.

12. What can readers expect to see next? Are you working on any other projects? Is there a movie in the works?

Dead Drop just hit the shelves and I’m revising the sequel (as yet untitled) now. I like where the second book in the series takes Parker and how he responds to the new challenges coming at him. I have two novels out on submission, so we’ll see where they end up. I’m always working on a project, a short story, or a novel or two. While I’ve had some talk about movie options, nothing’s stuck yet. Fingers crossed.

Jim, thank you so much for taking the time to give us the benefits of your thoughts. Best of luck with your new book, Dead Drop. And most importantly, welcome to Murder Books!

James L’Etoile is a member of Mystery Writers of America, International Thriller Writers, and the International Screenwriters Association.


To learn more about Jim, visit his web site at http://www.jamesletoile.com.

James L’Etoile was interviewed for Murder Books by Bruce Robert Coffin.

Police Media Relations

By Brian Thiem

Like many people, I’ve been following the Uvalde school shooting. Many friends have asked me to weigh in on the police response, but I’m reluctant to critique other officers when I wasn’t there and know only a little. Additional details came out a few days ago, which significantly changed the narrative of the police response. I’m sure more will be made available to the public in the days to come.

Although there will certainly be reviews of the police tactics at the scene, preparations that had or had not been done by the school and law enforcement to prepare for critical incidents, command and control of multi-agency major incidents (who was in charge?), and police-media relations.

When I worked for Oakland Police Department, all officers were permitted to talk to the press. However there were rules and protocols. For instance, when I was a Homicide investigator, we were allowed to talk to the media about the homicide we were the primary investigator of. When I commanded the Homicide unit, I was permitted to talk to the media about all the homicide cases we investigated and homicides in general.

I dealt to the media a lot. After a major incident, it was not unusual to see my serious face (only psychopaths smile when talking about murder) on all four major network news programs and read my quotes in the next day’s Bay Area newspapers. Here are some things I learned about police-media relations.

The Media was not my friend—but they weren’t my enemy either. They have a vital role in a free society, and that role is not the same as law enforcement’s. Even though I knew our objectives were sometimes at odds, many journalists became friends—friends I still keep in touch with in retirement. When I took over the Homicide unit, relations with the media were strained, so I reached out to the local affiliates of the major TV networks (ABC, CBS, NBC, FOX) and local papers (San Francisco Chronicle and others), and invited their journalists and news directors to my office. I asked what I could do to make their job easier and to improve our relationship. I took many of their suggestions.

Never lie to the Media. That didn’t mean I had to answer all their questions whenever they asked. I wouldn’t tell them, for instance, the caliber of a murder weapon because it could compromise the integrity of the investigation. I wouldn’t tell them a murder victim’s name because they coroner had to first notify the next of kin. When cops lie to the media, they immediately think we’re covering up something. Not only will they then dig harder, but they will also lose any trust they had with the police.

Don’t be afraid to say you don’t know. Many times, I rolled up to a major scene and was quickly surrounded by reporters with microphones and cameras in hand asking me what happened. My standard response was, “I just got here—I don’t know,” as I ducked under the yellow tape. Once things settled down and I had handled my job managing the scene, I’d return and tell them what I could.

Admitting you don’t know seems to be an uncommon response to the media these days. There often appears to be a competition among public official at major incidents scenes over who can get the most facetime with the media. I understand it to a degree with politicians who are constantly running for reelection. Getting their faces on TV or their names in print for free beats the cost of campaign adds.

But as professional law enforcement officers, we should not get sucked into this race for information to feed the media. When I see politicians and the heads of law enforcement agencies providing details about a critical incident to the media shortly after a gunman is neutralized, I cringe. In my experience, you can get quick information or accurate information in the aftermath of a critical incident, but not both

.

Explain our processes. I can’t blame the media for wanting to know everything immediately, but it is incumbent upon us in law enforcement to pass on only what we know. Don’t guess. Don’t pass on preliminary information as verified facts. And set realistic expectations. Explain that dozens of officers were on the scene performing dozens of different tasks, and until someone can read and analyze their reports (reports that aren’t written while they’re still working the scene), many details are unavailable. Witnesses need to be interviewed and formal statements taken. Crime scene technicians need to process the scene and collect evidence, which can take days after a major incident. Radio logs, police body cams and cell phone video must be reviewed.

The Uvalde incident was very complex. I counted at least ten law enforcement agencies at that scene. It will take time to sort out exactly who did what and when. It will take even longer to answer the many whys. The details will come out, and it will surely result in some lessons learned and some procedures that can be done better in the future, not only about a police response to and tactics at school shootings, as well as command and control of major incidents, but also about how to better work with the media during and after major critical incidents.  

CrimeConn

Happy Monday to you all. Bruce Robert Coffin here, manning the helm of Murder Books this week.


I just returned from a fabulous weekend away attending CrimeConn, a New York/Connecticut-based mystery lovers’ conference. If you haven’t attended, trust me when I tell you it should be on your to-do list. The conference, held at the beautiful Ferguson Library in Stamford, Connecticut, was sponsored by the New York Chapter of Mystery Writers of America and Friends of the Ferguson Library.


Despite an unfortunate scheduling conflict overlapping CrimeConn and ThrillerFest, Stamford had a formidable A-list of guest authors, many of whom jumped back and forth between the two conferences. CrimeConn attendees included New York Times bestselling author Tess Gerritsen (who is resurrecting Rizzoli & Isles with a July release of LISTEN TO ME), Reed Farrel Coleman, Wendy Walker, Desmond Hall, Alison Gaylin, Chris Knopf, Chandra Prasad, Jill Fletcher, Charles Salzberg, Wendy Corsi Staub, Deborah Goodrich Royce, Shari Randall, Michelle Clark, George Dawes Green, Emily Arsenault, Lauri Faria Stolarz, Bridget Brisnahan, Joaquin DeOliveira, John Valeri, and yours truly.


The panels covered a variety of topics with the central theme being The End of the World as We Knew It. That might sound like a buzzkill, but it wasn’t. In fact, all the panelists shared personal challenges and successes experienced during the past several years. We talked about what has changed and what hasn’t while writing crime fiction during these crazy times. We shared tricks and habits that have allowed us to continue to create. I picked up a few helpful ideas myself. More importantly, it was simply fun and inspiring to be back in the company of scribes and fans of the genre. And there were plenty of fans, both in person and virtual.


My personal thanks to Chris Knopf, Jill Fletcher, Michelle Clark, and the rest of the MWA-NY crew for inviting me to take part.


If you haven’t had the pleasure of attending CrimeConn, whether in person or virtually, it’s high time you did!

Investigating War Crimes

By Brian Thiem: Watching the nightly news over the past weeks, I was glad to see film showing investigators and “war crimes prosecutors” at the scenes of civilian massacres in Ukraine. Although there is plenty of talk about prosecuting Vladimir Putin and other Russian officials for war crimes, all successful prosecutions must begin with a thorough investigation.

Nineteen years ago, I arrived in Kuwait ten days before the US-led Coalition invaded Iraq. I had been called back to active duty by the Army and was assigned as the deputy commander of the Army CID (US Army Criminal Investigation Command) Group for Iraq and the Middle East. I was also designated the OIC (Officer in Charge) of the War Crimes Investigation Team (WCIT), a special team of military criminal investigators, lawyers, and intelligence analysts tasked by a DoD Special Order to investigate the Iraqi regime for war crimes and crimes against humanity.

We were starting from scratch with little more than intelligence reports and unverified rumors of atrocities the Iraqi regime had committed over the years—atrocities resulting in the deaths and burial in mass graves of as many as 300,000 civilians.

War Crimes Investigation Team, Baghdad, Iraq, 2003

As with the situation in Ukraine, we did not know what entity (if any) would prosecute and try those responsible. After the completion of the major combat operations, there was no longer an Iraqi government, and therefore there were no law enforcement organizations, no courts, and no legal system in place. It would be more than a year until a new constitution was adopted and new laws passed in Iraq.

Since a nation’s constitution and criminal statutes provide the framework for the manner in which criminal investigations are conducted, we were often operating on our own. We had CID special agents participating in the interrogations of captured Iraqi military, many of whom had knowledge of the war crimes that had been committed and some who were responsible for committing or ordering the acts. Would the new Iraq constitution and laws require an advisement of the right to remain silent and the right to an attorney, as in the US? If their laws would not require it, would we lose a lot of testimonial evidence by advising those in custody they did not need to talk to us? Those, and many more questions we had to answer for ourselves.

CID agents traveled the country to the sites of mass graves while fighting was still ongoing. The agents interviewed the population in the nearby towns, and later, accompanied by military and civilian forensic pathologists and forensic anthropologists, excavated the mass graves and exhumed remains.

Although there are many challenges to conducting criminal investigations in a war zone, the basic job remains the same. Investigators process the crime scene, collect evidence, interview witnesses, and document their investigative actions. When I left Iraq toward the end of 2003, we were beginning the process of turning over our documentation and evidence to the interim Iraqi government. Our reports and evidence were part of cases against Saddam Hussein when he and eleven other senior leaders of the Iraqi regime were charged by the Iraqi Special Tribunal for crimes against humanity in 2004.

Although plans to prosecute Putin for war crimes through the International Court of Justice or the International Criminal Court are premature, it is refreshing to see investigators in Ukraine collecting evidence and documenting the scenes at this time, because a thorough criminal investigation is always the first step toward a successful prosecution and criminal trial.

Murder Books Interview with Hannah Mary McKinnon

Please join me in welcoming bestselling author Hannah Mary McKinnon back to the blog. Hannah is an accomplished novelist who specializes in psychological suspense. She is the author of the rom com Time After Time, and thrillers Sister Dear, Her Secret Son, The Neighbors, and You Will Remember Me. And coming May 24th from MIRA (HarperCollins NA) Never Coming Home, a novel that New York Times bestselling author Lisa Unger calls “Fiendishly clever and deeply chilling.”

Hannah Mary McKinnon

Born in the UK and raised in Switzerland, living in Ontario, Hannah is the former CEO of an IT recruitment company, mother of three, wife of one, and co-creator of First Chapter Fun with Hank Phillippi Ryan.

First comes love. Then comes murder.

Lucas Forester didn’t hate his wife. Michelle was brilliant, sophisticated and beautiful. Sure, she had extravagant spending habits, that petty attitude, a total disregard for anyone below her status. But she also had a lot to offer. Most notably: wealth that only the one percent could comprehend.

For years, Lucas has been honing a flawless plan to inherit Michelle’s fortune. Unfortunately, it involves taking a hit out on her.

Every track is covered, no trace left behind, and now Lucas plays the grieving husband so well he deserves an award. But when a shocking photo and cryptic note show up on his doorstep, Lucas goes from hunter to prey.

Someone is on to him. And they’re closing in.

Bruce: First off, congratulations on your upcoming release, Hannah. It must be gratifying to see the early praise Never Coming Home is getting.

Hannah: Thank you so much, Bruce. I’m absolutely thrilled with the reactions so far. Never Coming Home was such a pleasure to write—I found Lucas to be hilarious—and thank you again for your help in making him even more wicked.

Your life has taken you on quite a journey, living in different countries, managing different careers. When did you first know you wanted to be a writer/novelist?

To be completely honest, writing novels wasn’t on my radar at all until we moved from Switzerland to Canada in 2010. When we arrived here, and my HR start-up company failed, it catapulted me into deciding what I truly wanted to do, and whether I would seize the opportunity to reinvent myself. Although I hadn’t written creatively for years, I realized it was what I wanted to do. I’m so pleased I made that decision because I can’t imagine doing anything else now.

What made you decide to write psychological suspense novels?

My debut was a rom com called Time After Time (2016) a light-hearted story about paths not taken. When we were on submission with that book (meaning my agent had sent it to publishers to see if there was interest), I started writing The Neighbors. It felt much darker and grittier than Time After Time and I realized I wanted to write more suspense novels. I enjoy putting ordinary (fictional) people in extraordinary circumstances and exploring what happens to them, and what they do. Let’s not explore what that says about me as a person…

Your books are full of twists and turns. One would think it might be difficult to keep things straight when plotting. Do you create a detailed plot line of the story ahead of time? Or are you more of a seat of your pants author?

Yikes, just thinking about pantsing an entire book makes me shudder. I’m 100% a plotter. I’m very structured in my approach because I need to know where the story’s going, otherwise I’ll meander around for months trying to figure it out.

In terms of process, my novels start with an idea—something that pops into my head such as a news story for You Will Remember Me, or a specific type of character for Never Coming Home. I noodle the thoughts around for a while as the main characters take shape. The next step is to write an outline. I start by jotting down the big picture plot points, which I then use as stepping-stones to build and write the rest of the outline. I fill out personality questionnaires for my main characters to understand them better, and search for photos on the internet to build a gallery.

Next, I write a basic manuscript that’s a little over two-thirds of the final word count, then layer and develop until I’m happy calling it a first draft, ready for my editor’s eyes. That stage is incredibly exciting because I know the story will become a thousand times better with her expert input.

Favorite book?

You must be joking! There’s no way I can pick one. Recent favorites include Woman on Fire by Lisa Barr and Things We Do in the Dark by Jennifer Hillier. Both are incredible.

Can you give us examples of authors who have influenced your writing? How so?

I’ll tell you a story about my great friend Jennifer Hillier. Years ago, while waiting for my son at our local library I spotted her debut Creep on a shelf. Intrigued by the cover, I picked it up, read the blurb, took it home and couldn’t put it down. It was a turning point in my writing career. When I was younger, I mainly read thrillers, but after a personal tragedy in my early 20s, I could only stomach light-hearted reads. Creep reminded me of my love of thrillers and gave me that final push I needed to cross over to the dark side while writing The Neighbors.  

Fun fact: a few years later I met Jennifer at Boucheron, and that encounter led to us meeting for coffees and dinners as we live in the same town, and a wonderful friendship ensued. Jennifer is an inspiration, fiercely talented, and I devour her books. I’ll read anything she writes! Blurbing her latest novel Things We Do in the Dark was definitely a highlight of my writing career thus far.

What advice do you have for authors who are considering writing a psychological suspense novel?

Whatever the genre, I’d advise you to read as much and often as you can and listen to audio books. I wrote an article about how the latter make you a better author here. Write, even if you think it’s terrible, because an empty page is impossible to edit. Also, I was advised to read my manuscript out loud. Every. Single. Word. Doing so helps avoid repetition, improves cadence, and zaps stilted dialogue. And share your work. It can be scary, but it’s the only way you’ll get feedback and improve your craft.

I was going to add specifically for psychological suspense, that you should make sure you’re driving the plot forward with every scene and end each chapter on a mini cliff-hanger. Mind you, that’s true for every genre, isn’t it? Whatever you’re writing, give the reader every reason to keep turning those pages, and zero reasons to put the book down.

You embarked on your writing career in 2011. Is there anything you did early on that, given your later experience, you would have done differently?

Honestly, at the beginning I had no clue what I was doing. I had an idea for a novel, and I went for it. I made a ton of mistakes along the way (submitting to agents too early, and not being patient are two examples) and I should have taken creative writing courses far earlier to hone my craft. It probably would have saved me a lot of time and quite possibly rejections from agents. I was naïve in my approach, but I think not knowing how hard it would be was beneficial in some ways because I kept my head down and carried on.

As a series writer I find it pleasant to revisit my characters and their locale with each new novel. I would think that the most difficult part of writing stand-alone novels, as you do, would be getting to know the characters. Do you find that to be the case?

I do a lot of character backstory development during the plotting stages and because I write in first person, I really get into my characters’ psyche. It takes over a year from initial idea to 100% finished product, time interspersed with working on other novels that are at different stages, so get to know my cast well and oftentimes miss them when the book is done.

Have you any plans for a series?

I haven’t written a series thus far, mainly because I feel my stories are complete when they end (although I’ve had multiple requests for a sequel to Sister Dear and You Will Remember Me). I enjoy creating new characters and the worlds they live in, how they’ve become who they are when their story starts. It’s a fun process I don’t think I’ll ever tire of. Will I ever write a series? I’m not sure but never say never!

You’ve had success both as a novelist and a short fiction writer? Which format brings you the most joy? Or do you find them equally gratifying?

Definitely novels. They’re a thousand times harder but the satisfaction is immense. I wrote the majority of short stories during writing workshops, and had fun doing so, but all of my time is now devoted to my novels.

Worst writing advice you’ve been given? Best advice?

Worst: write what you know. It’s incredibly limiting and that’s what we have our imagination for. It’s my job to make stuff up. For example, I know nothing about murdering people (I promise!) but I do so all the time in my books. That being said, you have to research what you don’t know, ask the experts for input, and be very careful and respectful when dealing with characters who have a different background to your own. Having sensitivity readers is so important! My motto is: if in doubt, leave it out.

Best: someone once suggested skipping ahead if I couldn’t get a grasp on a chapter or scene, that I should focus on another part of the manuscript and trust myself enough to backfill later. It was revolutionary, and it beats the heck out of staring at a blank page or shoving my hand in the cookie jar. Nobody said your manuscript has to be written in the order it’s read.

Over two years ago you and Hank Philippi Ryan started a fun promotional opportunity for authors called First Chapter Fun. I and many others have enjoyed watching you both read from other author’s novels. You’ve got quite a following now. Did either of you ever imagine it would become so popular? Do you plan to continue FCF?

It’s been an absolute joy to see—one of the good things that came from the pandemic. I’m beyond thrilled by how it’s grown considering it all started on a whim. Back in March 2020, when Covid first hit Canada, a group of us were discussing how we could help promote one another and give our books a boost. I half-jokingly offered to read the first chapter of their novels live on Facebook and Instagram, a few weeks later Hank joined me, and here we are with 250+ episodes.

You’ll find us in the Facebook group http://www.facebook.com/groups/firstchapterfun and http://www.instagram.com/firstchapterfun. Hank and I read twice a week, every Tuesday and Thursday on both platforms simultaneously at 12.30 pm ET, and already have readings scheduled until summer 2022. All the previously aired episodes are saved and can be viewed at leisure.

It’s a wonderful community where we share the love of books and introduce new and/or new-to-you authors twice a week. Our goal is to keep your “to be read” pile completely out-of-control and, or so we’ve been told, we’re succeeding.

The one thing that surprised me the most about the writing industry is how genuine, welcoming, and helpful authors and readers are. This project is a way of paying it forward.

I’ve spoken with many writers about the “pandemic effect” on their writing. Have the challenges of the past two years changed anything about the way you write, or subject matter explored in your writing?

I’m very fortunate because our sons are older, so them attending school online from home had very little impact on my writing. I certainly wouldn’t have been able to work at the pace I do if Covid had hit a decade ago.

In terms of subject matter, it’s a funny one. I mention the pandemic in Never Coming Home, but only in a couple of sentences. I have no intention of writing a book about a pandemic or incorporating it heavily into any of my stories. I’m hoping for brighter days when it’s all finally behind us for good.

What’s next for you? Do you have another novel in the works?

I certainly do  Book 7 (slated for 2023) is another psychological thriller. It’s about a woman named Frankie who has some anger issues, and writes a list of people she could work to forgive as a therapy exercise. She thinks nothing of it when she loses her list in an Uber, until one by one the individuals become victims of freak accidents. Frankie desperately tries to determine if the tragedies are indeed accidental, and if not, who’s behind them before someone else gets hurt, especially as one of the names on the list is her own… I’m so excited for this next novel and can’t wait for you to meet Frankie and the rest of my cast.

Bruce: Hannah, thank you so much for taking the time to give us the benefit of your thoughts and experience. Best of luck with your new book, Never Coming Home!

Hannah: It’s been a pleasure, Bruce. Thank you!

Hannah Mary McKinnon is a member of International Thriller Writers, Sisters in Crime, and Crime Writers of Canada. To learn more about Hannah, visit her website at https://hannahmarymckinnon.com

Hannah Mary McKinnon was interviewed for Murder Books by Bruce Robert Coffin.