The Bookshelf: Monsters, Survivors, and Lisa Gardner's 'Never Tell'
One night, Evie Carter returns home to find her husband has been shot and killed in his home office. Her response? Destroy his laptop. She's arrested for his murder. Sergeant Detective D.D. Warren is on the case. Warren remembers that Evie Carter was also cleared more than a decade earlier for accidentally shooting her father. Does lightening really strike the same location twice? And what does confidential informant Flora Dane know about Evie Carter's husband?
New Hampshire author Lisa Gardner's new thriller takes us deep into the lives of three women whose lives have been altered by violence. It's called Never Tell and it's out in stores next week. NHPR's Peter Biello spoke with with Lisa Gardner at her home in Jackson. Scroll down to read a top five list of Lisa Gardner's reading recommendations and a transcript of the interview.
Lisa Gardner's Top Five Reading Recommendations:
1. The Bone Garden by Tess Gerritsen. “Tess is one of my favorite authors—all of her books her excellent—but I particularly like this medical thriller that includes nineteenth century medical practices in Boston. For example, the thriving business of stealing corpses for reputable medical schools because there weren’t any available cadavers. Basically gruesome crimes were committed in the name of science. What’s not to love?”
2. The Nowhere Man by Gregg Hurwitz. “It’s about a government-trained assassin who’s now trying to redeem himself by being the mysterious man who comes out of nowhere and makes your problems go away. Kind of like the Equalizer meets Jason Bourne. Excellent action sequences, but you also genuinely care for the main character. He knows a hundred ways to get away with murder; now he’s attempting the much more difficult task of learning how to be human.”
3. Winter Garden by Kristin Hannah. “I love historical fiction, and this riveting tale of family secrets includes flashbacks to the siege of Stalingrad during WW II. The Russian experience during the war is not something Americans spend much time studying. It’s completely heartbreaking—people stripping off wallpaper to eat the glue, mothers pricking their fingers because all they have to offer their starving children is their own blood. I also loved War of the Rats by David L. Robbins which covers the legendary sniper battles in Stalingrad. Some of the best Russian snipers were women. My kind of kick ass heroines, and they existed in real life!”
4. Cop Town by Karin Slaughter. “Karin is up there with Tess Gerritsen as one of my go-to authors. A thriller novelist with the last name Slaughter, of course she’s excellent! Cop Town is set in 1974 Atlanta and covers the desegregation of the police force, as well as the inclusion of female officers. Karin writes of the tension and violence with the skill of a surgeon. On the streets, in the break room, her two female officers have to watch every step. From riveting plot twists to memorable characters, this book will grip you to the very last page.”
5. Final Girls by Riley Sager. “This debut novel won Best Thriller of the Year in 2018 and deservedly so. The setup is riveting—three women who are lone survivors of three separate massacres are dubbed the Final Girls by the press. They don’t know each well and aren’t sure they even want to be sharing this dubious distinction. Until one by one, they start being killed off. I flipped open this book standing in the mudroom of my home, mildly curious about a novel by a new author. An hour later, I was still standing there, reading away. It’s that good."
While reading Never Tell one of the questions that kept coming up for me, and I think it may have kept coming up for you is the idea of the monster. Especially with the character of Jacob Ness. He says he was a monster, he did monstrous things, but he said he didn't like being a monster. And so, it made me think about the nature of that kind of evil. Are you born with it? Is made? Where do you fall on that?
So it's interesting to me. Someone once said that we read suspense as a kind of mental preparedness. We all hope certainly in our lifetime we would never meet a predator or a psychopath, but still being surrounded by news stories where the worst seems to happen. There is some kind of vicarious thrill to reading these novels and thinking, "Okay, maybe if I understood monsters better, if I encountered one, I would know what to do." And I certainly think for me every single suspense novel I've written has been trying to answer this fundamental question: What is a monster? What is the nature of evil?
From what I can tell working with a variety of law enforcement contacts it really is a spectrum. There is the evil that's made—the cycle of violence. In my free time I do some work with at-risk kids. I think that's the kind of evil we actually have a chance to make an impact and a difference on, if we had better social services. But there is also the evil that's born. Ted Bundy is a great example. I think Jacob Ness wasn't interested in reform. He wasn't interested in being anything different. If anything to me he was whiny that why wouldn't society accept him for who he is.
I could see that. He whined that he didn't want to be a monster, and yet he was, and it didn't seem to make any efforts to reform himself. He just kind of embraced the monstrousness.
It's interesting to me how many lifelong criminals, particularly when you read a lot of the FBI profiler interviews that they did in the 70s, really feel like they are the victims. Like it's just one of these kind of interesting things that they victimize so many people, but really if society would just accept them if they were better understood. You know, they're in the wrong.
Sounds like what you're getting at is the idea of empathy and where people fall on their their capacity to feel empathy.
Absolutely. Now what's interesting when you read about long-term abduction scenarios because I did a lot of research for Flora Dane's situation. You know she was kidnapped and held for 472 days and never tells the aftermath. What does your life become after that? For all his monstrousness, like a lot of those long-term abductors, Jacob Ness was capable of nice things. He brought for her her favorite movie or TV shows—she liked Grey's Anatomy. They would play games in the car. When you read about the three girls that were held forever in Ohio, basically he had pizza night for them. He would sometimes reward them with alcohol and they almost pretended they were a family. Because the other interesting thing about most predators who identify themselves as monsters—they're also really lonely. And some of these long-term kidnapping situations are their way of basically trying to force a relationship because they're just not capable of a normal one.
That's a fascinating interpretation because what you were describing made me think that maybe these people want to convince themselves that they're not all bad.
So, look at the good things I'm doing with pizza night and with this movie.
Well, a lot of it is is they want total control, but they also, again, they don't want to be the bad guy all the time. They want, like anyone else, to be liked. And part of one of the things Flora does that enables her to survive, but it gives her a lot of guilt afterwards, is she becomes Jacob's friend. She listens, she becomes his confidant, becomes someone he wouldn't want to let go. Because the truth is, every day he's threatening to kill her, and at any moment he could. He has that kind of power. And a lot of survivors will talk about that's how they endure.
Really what Never Tell and some of these books are about is the psychology of survivorship. A lot of the things you do to get by are also the same things that make you feel guilty later. "Why didn't I resist?" "Why wasn't I more difficult?" And when we really talk to a lot of experts they will tell you, "Because then you would be dead. You survived. That is strength. Don't second guess."
Flora makes a firm distinction. She says, I'm not a victim, I'm a survivor. Why do you think stories of survivors are so fascinating to you?
I think we all want to know what it takes, and would we ourselves have that courag. But the truth is we are surrounded by these really high profile cases in the news. You know Jayme Closs...
She just got rescued like a week ago. Her poor parents were killed in the middle of the night and he took her, hit her under his bed with weighted boxes, and she just freed herself. So she's now joining also this very small, very elite club of survivors. And given the extent like again this is a story it's just going to get played out in the news for a while and we're surrounded by it and makes us anxious. And one of the cures for anxiety is feeling like you have an answer or a solution or feeling it can be survived. So I think a lot of examples like Elizabeth Smart and she's become such an amazing example of someone who is stronger, who's become this fabulous advocate for victims. And when you see someone like her that has gone through such a terrible ordeal that she has pulled her life together. She's done these absolutely just riveting media interviews where her strength of character just shines. It kind of gives you hope for all of us.
This story has a variety of I don't know if twists and turns are the right words, but perhaps the best way to describe it is just a lot of facets. You've got this crime in the present. You've got the crime in the past. You've got a variety of different characters coming into the story with different personal motivations. I'm wondering how you keep track of all of that. You make it easily comprehensible in the book, but I imagine putting it together is quite difficult. What do you think?
Well, actually, to tell you the truth, I'm one of those writers they call a "pantser"—writing by the seat of your pants.
Meaning you don't have a plan?
I don't have a plan. I do a lot of revision work, but in this particular case most of my books have been written on something in real life. And Evie Carter's character was based on a real life case, I believe the only mass murdered we've had in the U.S. whose female. And the case actually originates in Massachusetts. Amy Bishop. So when she was young she accidentally shot and killed her older brother.
And then she went on to shoot people who were colleagues at her University in Alabama, right?
Yeah, so then 30 years later, 20 years later, she was denied tenure at a university, sat through an entire meeting, and at the end of it pulled out a gun and opened fire on everyone. So The New Yorker ran a fabulous article on it. Did she get away with murder the first time? I mean, it feels like these two events have to be connected. I mean, what are the odds that you have someone who did an accidental shooting when she was young and then becomes (again to the best of my feeble knowledge) one of the only female mass shooters in the entire United States?
And the article was really well done. She still swears the shooting was accidental. But there were some interviews with her parents that were absolutely chilling and that they were almost so New England. They gave the same answer almost word by word over and over again till you're like all these years later, I think no one actually knows what happened that day with her brother. They've repeated a story to themselves so many times. If it wasn't the truth, it is now. And I believe they could pass a polygraph.
But she spent another five years living in a house sitting at the kitchen table right where her brother died. His room untouched. The New Yorker somewhat implied, "Is this what happens when you don't resolve trauma?" I mean she didn't go through any of the work that ironically enough Flora is going through. Who am I now? What does it take to be human now? Her family did the kind of whitewash: We're just going to pretend this never happened. And then of course something way worse happened. But that psychology is what I love and that became the basis of this book. One woman, two accidental shootings, or two shootings. Again, what are the odds?
Is that where you usually get story ideas from, the news?
Yes. But actually what really got the story going for me was because we're getting all of these crimes, the FBI has started a whole new division (that now has carried through many of these books) for victim advocates. Because when you have these huge, long-term situations, you need something like a plan for re-entry.
It used to be, particularly in suspense, you caught the bad guy. The story's done. But in these mass casualty events, these long-term abduction cases, terrorist attacks...often we even know the bad guy. It's the beginning of a whole nother process, healing, story. The law enforcement aspect, the trials take years. So the FBI and law enforcement are even now having to adapt to this whole world order where arresting is not the end.
And families really do need support and someone to help them even understand. And what you do when People magazine is now parked out on your front lawn. What do you do when Entertainment Weekly is saying: "You talk to us, or you know no one will ever hear your story again." You also become almost a celebrity. How does a normal person going through such a trauma deal with that? And these are all very real world issues and they're the kind of things you read articles on, and they fascinate me, and fiction is how I work them out.
What was your what was your career before you started writing fiction full time?
So I am unique for suspense novelists. I wrote my first book at 17. I sold it when I was 21. So I've actually been at this 25 plus years now, meaning I don't have a lot of real world experience. I have to hope this writing gig works out because I'm not sure I'm employable.
Pretty sure it's going to work out for you, I think.
I worked briefly as a research consultant for a major consulting firm right out of college. Because even though I was published, all writers will tell you in the beginning it's for love, not money. And one of the big things I learned being a research analyst that has helped me in my career is research. And in particular, back in those days (because I'm so old, this was pre-Google) you called to get information. There was no database you could enter into and one of the first things. They taught us as research analysts to cold call, because in consulting you're always trying to recruit business information and the only way to get it is to call and really, now we call it social engineering. You know, play nice, try to see if you can get someone to talk.
When I went to write my first thriller, one of the things that came up was that you have to do research now. People want the story to be kind of over the top but they want the procedure to be real world. The reader wants to feel they're in an authentic universe. I come from accountants, so it's not like I had a Rolodex of people to call, but thanks to being a research analyst, I did. I cold-called the FBI. I actually, this isn't a great example, but I cold-called Walpole Prison and said I wanted to write a book where serial killers keep prison could they help me learn how. That didn't go over well. I've gotten better since then.
I did want to ask you about an aspect of research. In the acknowledgements in your book, you say you worked with the Carroll County Sheriff's Department for this. How did they help you?
A lot of just basic investigative techniques. I had some excellent contacts in Boston and Never Tell is actually dedicated and even refers to this fabulous Detective Wayne Rock, who sadly passed away from cancer a year ago, and he was often my go to.
He and I met probably, gosh, ten years ago when he was a detective with the Boston Police Department and his loss was very sad. So often I have a lot of just basic investigative procedure and the Carroll County Sheriffs being local is often a great place to start. I also love how the sheriff's departments work in New Hampshire. We have a very unique structure. We have one of the most empowered sheriffs departments in the United States because we're so rural.
What are they allowed to do?
So they can actually write up warrants and execute them on their own with the acknowledgement being that they are sometimes too far away that by the time you got back to a courthouse filed an affidavit or a warrant and got all the way back, the moment would have passed. Now they're still headed to higher standard. Later, if the warrant is not properly written, it can also be thrown out.
So on the one hand it sounds like the Wild Wild West. On the other hand, they're held to the same legal standards. It's just like most of our sheriff's investigators have to know the law and they will tell you in their free time they're reading legal articles as much as say articles on evidence search or proper protocol.
The other thing I love about New Hampshire policing again because it's a lot of rural situations is still a lot of kind of true old fashioned interpersonal skills for detectives versus you know D.D. Warren will tell you being a Boston cop, there's cameras everywhere. It's kind of both one of the best and worst things that's happened to policing. You can really actually, if you want, spend all your time behind a desk scanning images. And yet you also have to as we get more data and data available. There's also a lot more combing through it versus you know the old fashioned days where you've got a suspect who got in the interrogation room when you just grilled them.
The problem we all have to some extent, right. So much information the efforts now trying to figure out which information is most relevant to what you're trying to do. So a question about what you just told me about the sheriff's office and how it would relate to fiction. So because New Hampshire is unique and because it makes it easier for the police to sort of do their job in one particular way, does that make it not great for fiction?
Well, if anything, it makes them have to be more knowledgeable. So often when I contact them, they even give me legal answers as well, because they always have to know both sides of the equation. And also they have interesting work-arounds because, again, if you're going to be on your own a lot and you might have back up that's two hours away...
I like to argue our New Hampshire law enforcement are very self-sufficient and kind of almost the MacGyvers of police. They also don't have the toys. In fact, I was talking to one of the lieutenants and he's says for the last sting operation they had all the departments had to basically did an e-mail loop. Each department had one piece of equipment that if they pooled them all they could actually pull off the sting operation. So again there's a certain amount of ingenuity. And I like that for D.D. I mean there's no great fiction writing in "And then for four days you sat in front of a computer monitor and stared at videotapes."
Yeah I can't imagine that's compelling.
So, how do you get answers faster? How do you get someone to talk using again just plain old interpersonal skills? I think that is more exciting and I like the cleverness. I do think in New Hampshire law enforcement they have to be smart. Their resources are not like what a major urban department has. And readers like smart. I think it's one of the first contracts when you're writing a suspense novel for a reader. The police have to be doing their best work. No one wants to be reading some novel where they screwed up and that's why the bad guy got away.
They're smart, but they're also human like D.D. is human. She's got a family and her husband and her kid and her kid's dog. She's got that vulnerable side, but she's doing her job quite well.
I like to write characters that are relatable because again the situation in a book like Never Tell, a pregnant woman who shot her husband and maybe even murdered her own father years ago, hopefully that's not something we can relate to. Hopefully that's unique. But you want the characters to feel real. Detective D.D is such a workaholic and she is so confident in that domain. Her challenges almost by definition have to be personal.
So tell us about how you went about naming a certain character in this book because apparently there was a contest for a reader to name a character, right? Tell us about that contest.
So absolutely if you go to my website, each year I run the "Kill a Friend, Maim a Buddy"Sweepstakes. They don't always die. Sometimes I maim them. Some people have been dismembered. One of the winners years ago, she's like, "Yeah, definitely kill my husband, but make him a bad ass first." It's like "Okay." And I had someone who killed himself, but he wanted to put up a good fight. So if you go to the website, you can nominate the person of your choice. It's a very popular sweepstakes I have to say. Every July a winner is chosen. Or I had a woman a year ago, she actually wanted to honor her daughter and she didn't want her daughter to be killed, so we made her daughter a neurosurgeon. It's meant to be fun. It's meant for everyone to have fun.
How does that change the relationship you have with your readers?
I think it's nice when you can offer up something that's fun and interactive. And it's always interesting to me, if you go to writers' conferences, you want to hang out with a suspense novelists because we by far are the most fun. And I think suspense readers have by far the best sense of humor.
Why is that?
I don't know. I think we spent so much time you know in fictional homicide. In real life, we're much more chill.
Well, I'm going to AWP next month, so I'll see if I can find the suspense writers.
We're the loud, rowdy ones at the bar.