Consider the stereotypical author: tweedy and erudite, disheveled and caffeine dependent, or alcohol swigging and morose; spending hours alone, feverishly pounding out prose. Isn’t there something just a bit... not quite right about all that plotting and solitude?
“Writers can be seen as antisocial, introverted—it’s a solitary profession,” says Cindy Hwang, v-p and editorial director at Berkley. “Psychologically, it’s very interesting; they play mental chess as they plot out a book, always thinking ahead. Invariably, they think: If I were a killer coming up with a plot, what would I do? How could I get away with it?”
With that in mind, here’s a look at forthcoming thrillers that depict the seamy side of literary life.
In August, Berkley will publish Jesse Q. Sutanto’s I’m Not Done with You Yet, which stars a faltering midlist author who is surprised to see a creative writing classmate’s name at the top of the bestseller list. She takes off across the country to confront her formerly missing friend about the bloody night she last saw her.
Sutanto’s adult fiction has tended toward the light and comedic—her Aunties mystery series as well as the forthcoming Vera Wong’s Unsolicited Advice for Murderers (Berkley, Mar.), which PW’s starred review called a “cozy with substance”—but the author, who has written YA thrillers for Sourcebooks Fire, is also drawn to the dark side, Hwang says: “The more deaths, the happier she is.”
Novelist Dorothy Koomson can relate. “Thinking of ways to murder people was quite fun,” she says of writing her latest thriller, My Other Husband (Mobius, May), in which a crime novelist turned scriptwriter is framed for murder. “When people connect with your characters, or see things that they recognize from real life, they think you must have gone through what your characters went through.” She adds that the truth is more mundane: authors are far likelier to get their inspiration from shameless eavesdropping than from cold-blooded killing.
Life may imitate art, or vice versa, a little too closely in Nathan Oates’s A Flaw in the Design (Random House, Mar.), which PW’s review called a “gripping psychological thriller.” Gil, a flailing creative writing professor, takes in his 17-year-old nephew, Matthew, after the death of the teen’s parents. Matthew is charming, troubled, and boasts a multimillion-dollar trust fund, and when he turns in creative writing assignments detailing violent demises—of his parents, of Gil’s family—his uncle wonders: Is Matthew a sociopath, or are Gil’s creative frustration and envy leading him to place suspicion where none is due?
Literary license to kill
The typical author-reader relationship is comfortably distant; when fandom turns to unhinged obsession, we get Stephen King’s Misery and, more recently, Meg Elison’s Number One Fan. In Taylor Adams’s The Last Word—which PW’s starred review praised for its “spectacular plot twists”—the dynamic inverts: an isolated housesitter casually leaves a one-star review for a poorly written horror novel, only to find herself stalked by the outraged author. “When you pick up a book, you read the flap copy, plunk down your money, and there’s a contract between author and reader there,” says Jennifer Brehl, senior v-p, executive editor, and director of editorial development at Morrow, which is releasing the book in April. “It can be a fraught relationship. In Taylor’s book, the writer takes a bad review as a personal attack, and therefore has to set things straight”—and then some.
In Cayce Osborne’s debut, the Crooked Lane release I Know What You Did (July), an author seeks a different sort of justice. A woman named Petal finds her greatest trauma—the death of her childhood best friend—the subject of a bestselling novel, and herself accused as the murderer. Some of the uneasy appeal of these writerly stories, editors say, is the behind-the-scenes peek into an often opaque industry. As Crooked Lane publisher Matt Martz puts it, “Book people like to read about book people.”
Julia Bartz mines a staple of publishing insularity with The Writing Retreat, a February release from Emily Bestler Books and, per PW, an “audacious psychological thriller debut.” Alex is among the young hopefuls invited to an elite writers’ retreat at the home of a horror writer, where they must meet a punishing daily word count and, at the end of 28 days, produce a completed manuscript. The potential payoff is irresistible—the best manuscript garners a sizable advance and a contract for publication—but one of their number goes missing in a blizzard, and Julia begins to lose track of what’s real and what’s fiction.
A remote estate lorded over by an author with a penchant for gore is ripe for psychological thrills; with the Putnam release How Can I Help You (July), Laura Sims brings suspense to the stacks. Small-town librarian Margo has managed to keep her corpse-strewn past a secret. Then Patricia, a failed novelist, joins the staff, and becomes suspicious of the somewhat sinister Margo after a patron with a host of overdue fines is found dead in the library bathroom.
“There have always been popular books about libraries, but they’re usually cozies and rom-coms,” says Putnam editor Danielle Dieterich. “Setting a slow-burn thriller there is a fresh take. It explores the dichotomy between a local library—a place you feel safe—and suspense.”
In May, the Penzler Publishers imprint Scarlet will release I Didn’t Do It by Jaime Lynn Hendricks. It’s set at the fictional Murderpalooza thriller writers’ convention, where a popular author is found dead in her hotel room; four more may be next. Penzler editor-in-chief Luisa Cruz Smith notes that though a thriller convention is essentially a hotel full of people who think about crime and plotting all day long, crime fiction writers are the least likely murderers in publishing. (She may be biased—her father is Martin Cruz Smith, the Gold Dagger award–winning author of Gorky Park.)
Still, Smith offers reassurance that despite what some of the newest genre titles imply, thriller fans have nothing to fear from their favorite writers: “The bloodier the book,” she says, “the sweeter the author.”
Liz Scheier is a writer, editor, and product strategist living in Washington, D.C., and the author of the memoir Never Simple.
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