Bonjour, fellow readers and scribes. Bruce Robert Coffin here with a real treat. This month I’m pleased to introduce friend, author, and former crime fighter Brian Thiem.
Brian, author of the acclaimed series debut Red Line, spent 25 years with the Oakland Police Department, working Homicide as a detective sergeant and later as the commander of the Homicide Section. He also spent 28 years of combined active and reserve duty in the Army, retiring as a Lieutenant Colonel. His final assignment was a tour in Iraq as the Deputy Commander of the Criminal Investigation Group (CID) for the Middle East. His second novel, Thrill Kill, was released last month. So, without further ado, here’s Brian Thiem!
Tell us a bit about your latest novel, Thrill Kill.
Cops in Oakland seldom meet people whose lives are going well. That’s certainly the case when homicide sergeant Matt Sinclair recognizes the dead woman hanging from a tree as a teenage runaway named Dawn he arrested ten years before. And as Sinclair and his partner, Cathy Braddock, soon learn, many of Dawn’s clients, not to mention the local and federal officials who protect them, will go to any length to keep the police from digging into her past. Then the killer goes public, and Sinclair and Braddock must race to uncover the secrets Dawn was killed to protect before the killer unleashes a major attack on a scale the city has never seen before.
You’ve written two books in this series, Red Line and now Thrill Kill. How did this series come to be? Was it envisioned from the start as a series or were you thinking one off? Please tell us a bit about the origin.
I always liked reading series. Two of my favorites were Michael Connelly’s Harry Bosch novels and John Sandford’s Lucas Davenport books, so when I began writing my first novel in a writing workshop years ago, the idea of a series was always in the back of my mind. However, I never dreamed a publisher would be interested in one of my books, much less a series. I felt I had a great character in Matt Sinclair, and when I finished the novel that would eventually become Red Line, I knew Sinclair was strong enough to carry a series. I was thrilled when my agent, Paula Munier, and my publisher, Crooked Lane Books, agreed.
What do you feel are the main theme(s) of each book?
There’s an overarching theme of justice will always prevail in every book because that’s what Matt Sinclair is all about. He is a sort of modern-day knight, a protector of the weak, which in a homicide case is often the deceased victim. He must speak for the dead and achieve justice on their behalf. But he has an even higher purpose—that of bringing the killer to justice because when people can murder with impunity, society crumbles. An additional theme in Red Line centers on regrets from our past. Partly because of Sinclair’s alcoholism, he failed to solve a past murder, which may have been a reason for the murders occurring in this story. Questions that arise include: can one make amends for past misdeeds, are we responsible for every consequence of our past actions, and can one forgive himself for things he’d done. These same themes come into play in Thrill Kill, in addition to Sinclair’s need to save the people he’s sworn to protect and serve in a city where murder is a fact of life.
Why do you feel this is important, and what would you want a reader to take away from reading these books?
I’m careful not to force feed anything to readers. However, at the same time, I don’t apologize for writing books where cops are the good guys. I hope readers get a glimpse at what it’s like to be a cop in a violent urban environment, the toll it takes on those who carry a badge and gun for a living, how they struggle to maintain their humanity amidst the violence and despair, and how they somehow step up and fight the heroic battles when called upon to do so.
I understand you’re working on the third book in the series. What can you tell us about it?
Detective Matt Sinclair will stop at nothing to find the killers of his former partner in Shallow Grave. When the coroner’s office uncovers a body buried in a shallow grave, homicide sergeant Matt Sinclair expected to find the body of one of the city’s drug dealers, probably eliminated by a rival. Instead, the victim was Phil Roberts, his former partner and the present commander of the department’s intelligence unit. Police brass want a quick clearance and to pin the murder on a dead member of an outlaw motorcycle gang, but Sinclair and his partner, Cathy Braddock, aren’t satisfied. As Sinclair uncovers the details of Roberts’s past, secrets from his work and personal life come to life—secrets that some people will go to any length to keep buried. But Sinclair won’t stop until he finds the truth, even if it means sacrificing his career and destroying his former partner’s reputation.
What makes a good book or engaging story?
Jeez, I wish I knew the secret formula. I know there must be a main character that readers care about. That is doubly important for a series. Readers come back and read future books in the series to find out more about Matt Sinclair and his friends, see how their lives are going, and how they will solve the next murder they’re assigned. Unlike the real world where I didn’t solve every murder case I was assigned, I prefer my books have a more “happy ending.” I think readers of crime fiction like a world that’s set right again in the end, so Sinclair solves the murder in every book and brings the killer(s) to justice, either in handcuffs or a body bag. And in a future book, he might even get the girl in the end.
You’ve already had two very distinguished careers. You’ve served overseas in the military and at home on a police force. Do you think these experiences have added depth to your writing? How?
Gosh, yes! There are very few of us, Bruce Robert Coffin is one of the others, who can write authentic cop thrillers because we lived the life. If I write about my character searching a dark house for an armed man, I know what it feels like. I know what it’s like to work a case for days on end, living on a few hours of sleep and caffein, with the brass constantly on me for a quick clearance. I know Glocks don’t have safeties and revolvers don’t have clips, and I know what it’s like to having your life depend on how well you can use them. I know how cops think and act, how cars behave when taking a corner too fast in a pursuit, and what it feels like to fight for your life and to be afraid to die. I try to inject that in my writing.
Are there writers with similar themes to yours? Who are your influences (can be writers, or even artists, musicians, or others) and what is it about their work that attracts you?
I’ve already mentioned Michael Connelly and John Sandford. I like books with heroes who are thrust into difficult situations and rise to the occasion no matter the odds. Two authors in the military/counter terrorism thriller genre who do that extremely well are Brad Thor and Brad Taylor, and two of my favorite Maine crime series authors are Paul Doiron and Kate Flora. All of these main characters have a creed by which they live their lives. It’s why they do what they do.
Is storytelling mostly entertainment, or does it serve other functions? Do you have particular goals other than telling a good story?
We’ve already touched on this when you asked about theme, but I think good fiction must first be entertaining. That’s why most people read fiction. I think writers must be careful if they’re trying to use fiction to educate readers or sway them to their way of thinking. Few readers want to be lectured to or feel as if they’re being indoctrinated in a political philosophy. However, my point of view character is a big city homicide detective. He sees the world as good guys (cops) and bad guys (crooks). He acknowledges there are bad cops, but they’re a small percentage of the profession, so if readers believe all cops are racists who strive to kill innocent people because they saw a few instances of such on the news, they should probably be reading another genre.
Any other goals you’ve set for yourself, professionally or personally?
Play a round of golf with no greater than double bogie on my worst hole. No, seriously, I just try to do the next right thing. I’ve found that when I do that and leave the outcome to someone else, the results are better than I’ve ever achieved when I try to run the show.
Some writers write fast and claim not to rewrite much. Do you do this, or painstakingly revise? When you send the book off to the publisher, are you happy with it, or just tired of it?
Neither. I painstakingly plot my novels, so when I finally sit down to write, I know where they story is going and what the next scene is. It changes and evolves as I write, but if it gets too far from the plot I had outlined, I revise the plot. Once my first draft is finished, the story is pretty solid, so rewrites primarily consist of layering in descriptions, character thoughts and feelings, and word and sentence changes to improve clarity. When I send it to my publisher, I’m tired of it. In the previous month, I’ve read it through three or four times and need a break from it. When my editor sends it back a month or so later with editorial comments, I’m excited about it once again and ready to revise it to make it better.
Do you have good editors, and if so, how do they help you? Do they look for particular things? Do you have different people for different editing levels?
I use my writers groups for parts of the story I know are either incredibly good or a disaster. When my story is finished, my agent reads it and tells me what it needs—normally more action and emotion. My publisher has wonderful editors. They tear it apart and give me suggestions on how to make it better. After I revise it, the publisher has a copyeditor go through it, and I go through the hundreds of edits and comments the copyeditor came up with.
If an aspiring writer came to you for advice, what words of wisdom would you offer?
Read a lot and write a lot. Find people who can offer constructive criticism, either through writers groups, writing workshops, or university writing programs. Make sure you know why you write. If it’s to seek fame and fortune, find another pursuit.
Stories can be told using a variety of different mediums. Can you see your book as a film, audio, etc.? How would that alter the telling?
My books come out in audio as well as print and e-books, and I don’t think there’s any altering necessary. If my books ever make it to Hollywood, I’ll take the advice of a bestselling author—drive to the California border, accept the check and throw your book to the other side. If one of my books is made into a movie or TV series, it’s no longer my book, it is merely a book that inspired a film.
What’s the next step in your writing world? Where do you hope to go from here?
Ask my agent and publisher. I do what they suggest.
Where can folks purchase your novels?
They’re carried in most bookstores, but since I’m not an A-list author, most only stock them for a few months after release. Of course, they’re available online through Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and others.
Web page: www.brianthiem.com