How would you describe your work? Do you write within a specific genre?
With a degree in psychology and literary preferences that drift toward the macabre, I am particularly interested in stories that explore the darker side of the human psyche. My first two novels, The Absence of Mercy and The Forgetting Place , have been described as works of psychological suspense, and it is within this genre that I feel most at home. But there are elements of other genres brewing, as well. Part medical thrillers, with a touch of horror thrown in for good measure and a slight literary lean, all make for a richer, more textured read. Or so I hope. But let the stories speak for themselves. Reach out and take their hands. Run your fingers along their leathery skin. Let them whisper in your ear for a while. And if their grip seems to tighten as the lights grow dim, nestle into their embrace. If you're lucky, the morning will come soon enough. But for now, enjoy your time in the darkness.
Where did you get the idea for The Absence of Mercy ?
The Absence of Mercy follows the story of a small-town pathologist who becomes involved in the investigation of a series of murders occurring in the quiet, midwestern community in which he lives. As the plot unfolds and it becomes evident that a serial killer lurks within their midst, the pathologist becomes increasingly concerned for the safety of his own family. The questions before him are many. Should he continue to assist the police in their investigation, or should he and his family leave town until the murderer is apprehended? What are his professional and moral obligations to the victims, to the police, and to the inhabitants of the community in which he lives? How do those duties stack up against his responsibilities to his family? What should be done, the story asks the reader to consider, when the stakes are high and none of the options in front of us are good—when every choice seems wrong and the lives of family, friends, and innocent people hang in the balance?
The idea for the story was born shortly after the birth of my own daughter. As almost any parent can attest, there is a fundamental change that occurs within an individual with the birth of his or her child—a sense of new-found responsibility and purpose, yes, but also something more basic, more primitive. From the moment the child enters the world, we are struck with the realization that here is another human being for whom we would sacrifice everything to protect—including our life, if necessary. This realization emerges not as the result of careful consideration and deliberation, but simply arrives as an idea fully-formed, self-evident, and absolutely irrefutable. The nature of such unquestioning love and dedication fascinated me. To what measures would we go, I wondered, to protect our own children? What are we truly capable of? Is there anything we would not do? The novel explores these questions and others, challenging the reader to consider their own conflicting loyalties: to justice, morality, family, and self.
The Absence of Mercy takes place in eastern Ohio. Why set the story there?
The majority of the novel is set in a small town in eastern Ohio. I have never lived in this area of the country, but I have driven through the region many times on my way to other places. In the late fall or early winter, there is a certain cold, quiet gray that descends upon the landscape, settles in as if it has every right to be there, and does not relinquish its hold until mid-spring. We experience it also in Maryland where I grew up, but in the Midwest it somehow seems worse—thicker, more unrelenting, more persistent. The emotional response it often invokes in me is a sense of restlessness and mild foreboding, a sense of something about to happen—like the last silent, pregnant hours before a winter storm. Such a setting, I thought, reflected the tone and atmosphere that I wanted to capture in the novel, and the small town, with its familiar, unassuming nature—where everyone knows one another, or at least thinks that they do—is a great place for secrets that run like contaminated rivers just beneath the surface of people’s daily existence. Part of the intrigue of The Absence of Mercy , I feel, is discovering those rivers, and then following them with a mounting sense of apprehension to wherever they might lead.
What can you tell us about your second book, The Forgetting Place ?
The Forgetting Place is a mix of medical and psychological suspense. The story is set in a correctional psychiatric hospital in Maryland—a facility that houses patients who've been deemed either incompetent to stand trial or not responsible for their crimes by reason of insanity. Told primarily from the perspective of one of the hospital's psychiatrists, the novel explores what can happen when such a place becomes corrupted, and how the dangers of the outside world pale in comparison to the horrors of the human mind.
What authors were influential to your development as a writer?
As a child, I was an avid fan of the Hardy Boys mystery series, written by a series of ghostwriters under the collective pseudonym Franklin W. Dixon. The stories captivated me, pushing me onward well into the night, my eyes racing across the pages, my heart pounding at the chapters' cliffhangers. During that time, I discovered the joy of reading, but I also became addicted to stories that elicited a certain visceral response. Fear, suspense, intrigue, sadness—I sought out stories and characters that touched me on an emotional level, that made themselves relevant by becoming real, even if only for the space of time that I was lost in their pages. As I matured as a reader, authors such as Jack London, William Golding, John Steinbeck, Mark Twain, George Orwell, Edgar Allen Poe, J.R.R. Tolkein, and J.D. Salinger seemed particularly adept at creating those worlds—ones I could feel in my gut as well as appreciate in my imagination.
Some of my favorite contemporary authors include Stephen King, Dean Koontz, Dennis Lehane, Gillian Flynn, Linwood Barclay, Ace Atkins, Anne Rice, Joe Hill, Lionel Shriver, Heather Gudenkauf, William Landay, Mary Doria Russell, and the late Michael Crichton. All of them have influenced my work in some way.
You went to medical school and trained as an emergency medicine physician. Do you still work in an emergency department?
Yes, I still work clinically. It's a very satisfying aspect of my life—something tangible I can contribute to relieve suffering and to hopefully make a few people's lives a little better.
How can I get a signed copy of your book?
Signed copies can be ordered from Bookshop Santa Cruz at:
The Absence of Mercy: www.bookshopsantacruz.com/signed/the-absence-of-mercy
The Forgetting Place: www.bookshopsantacruz.com/signed/forgetting-place
Do you have any upcoming speaking engagements or book readings?
Please refer to the What's New section of this website for a list of upcoming events. For details regarding speaking engagements and appearances, please contact Danielle Bartlett at Danielle.Bartlett@harpercollins.com.