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Unmasking the Whodunit: Gary Braver's Art of Crafting Unpredictable Whodunits
From:
Norm Goldman --  BookPleasures.com Norm Goldman -- BookPleasures.com
Montreal, QC
Wednesday, August 30, 2023

 

Bookpleasures.com extends a warm welcome to Gary Braver, the master of suspense and intrigue.

With kudos such as being hailed as "one of the best thriller writers in America," Gary has carved an indelible mark on the world of literature.

His captivating novels have transcended language barriers and enthralled readers in seventeen languages. Three of his works have attracted Hollywood's attention, with adaptations for the silver screen in the works, including Ridley Scott's acclaimed Elixir.

Amazon's customers have spoken - all three of Gary's books were among the top 10 highest-rated thrillers! That's seriously impressive!

His ability to enthrall readers with every twist and turn is a testament to his storytelling prowess..

As we eagerly await the impending release of his latest masterpiece, RUMOR OF EVIL, which Publishers Weekly has described as an "unpredictable whodunit," Gary's writing continues to grow, captivating and surprise."

 

 

This talented author has more to offer than what meets the eye. Gary Braver, who writes thrilling narratives, is actually the award-winning Professor Emeritus of English at Northeastern University, Gary Goshgarian..

His literary contributions go beyond his captivating novels, as he has affected students across continents with his passion for teaching..

Come unravel the mind behind thrilling tales, explore literary creation, and gain suspense insights with remarkable Gary Braver.

Norm: Good day Gary and thanks for taking part in our interview.  

Your upcoming novel, RUMOR OF EVIL, delves into both police procedural and character-driven high school drama. Can you tell us more about how you interweaved these two threads to create an "unpredictable whodunit" as mentioned by Publishers Weekly?

 

Gary: There are two narrative lines in RUMOR OF EVIL. The present day story is told from the POV of Detective Kirk Lucian who with his partner Mandy Wing is investigating the murder of a woman found in the opening scene.

The other narrative is set two decades earlier and is told in the first person POV from an adolescent Morgan Bolt who was witness to the events that led to the brutal death of a Romany exchange student, Vadima Lupescu. 

That back story is a cold case connected to the present day murder victim who may have been killed as a cover-up to what really happened to Vadima.  

There are 56 chapters in the book, 19 of which are Morgan's narrative. By interspersing hers with those of Kirk's, clues mount up as well as red herrings as to who killed whom and why.

By the time we get to the end of Kirk and Mandy's investigation, there are three murder victims and 8 possible suspects, dribbled out over the chapters and driving the reader to keep turning the pages.  

Only Morgan knows who the killer is, as the police eventually catch up to what she knows at the very end. So the alternating chapters keep building the mystery and suspense while inviting the reader to keep turning the pages.

What makes for the character-driven aspects of the novel is the point of view. 

Anchoring the back story in the first-person POV ("I" and "me") of an adolescent Morgan immediately draws the reader into her thoughts and feelings which change over her chapters.  

That closeness at first creates sympathy for her as well as her adolescent friends who all become suspects in Vadima's death. 

So, while Kirk and Mandy are doing their investigation, we become intimate with Morgan, her family members, and her high school friends, all of whom have motives for killing. 

Norm: Your novels have been praised for their high-concepts and page-turning momentum. How do you approach crafting these high-concept premises, and what do you believe sets your thrillers apart from others in the genre? 

Gary:   High concepts really mean the kind of fantasies and fears that would appeal to a broad audience. 

Several of my past novels are bio-medical thrillers centered upon some hot fantasies: development of an anti-aging drug (ELIXIR), boosting the IQs of "slow children" (GRAY MATTER), curing Alzheimer's Disease in an aging world (FLASHBACK), getting a famous face you were not born with (SKIN DEEP), and a scientific attempt to determine if there's an afterlife (TUNNEL VISION).  

And with each is the caveat: Watch out what you wish for. (I taught Science Fiction for 40 years, and a course staple was Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, the progenitor of cautionary Sci Fi). 

Except for the police forensics (e.g., autopsies) in RUMOR OF EVIL, there is no hard science.

However, there are baffling murders in the present that connect to a brutal murder of the 16-year old exchange student, Vadima Lupescu, two decades ago.  

This cold case might be considered a "high concept" since it involves an innocent adolescent being sexually abused, rumors of witchcraft, the scourge of adolescent bullying, and the kind of paranoia that fueled the Salem witch trials of 1692. 

And today the dangerous attitudes and conspiracy theories regarding outsiders, particularly immigrants.

As for page-turning momentum, I was influenced by a lot of movies.

I grew up just a few blocks from a theater in Hartford, Connecticut where every Saturday my friends and I watched double features of science fiction, horror, western, and cops-and-robber movies. 

So on some deep level, I absorbed the motifs, structures, and strategies of these that left us panting for the next scenes. 

Also, for over 40 years at Northeastern, I learned to look at other writers' books the way a carpenter looks at a house—how they structure their stories; how they get in and out of scenes; how they economically create characters through action, dialogue, interior narratives; how important info comes across in dialogue not info dumps; and how they end chapters with cliff-hangers to keep you turning the pages. 

All those contribute to the narrative thrust that I hope distinguishes my novels.

Norm: The novel introduces detectives Kirk Lucian and Mandy Wing. Can you discuss their characters and dynamics, and how they contribute to the investigative process in your story? 

Gary:   Kirk is a 21-year veteran detective.  He is smart, sensitive, thoughtful, and crazy about his wife with whom he is estranged.  

Eighteen months before the book opens, he and Olivia lost their 15-year old daughter to a hit-and-run driver who was never caught. 

That loss created such a deadening depression in Kirk, that he could not address Olivia's own grief.  

By profession Kirk is a protector, and, thus, he suffered debilitating guilt which led to their estrangement and eventual separation. So at the onset of the novel, Kirk is three-months separated and desperate to win Olivia back.  

Mandy is impulsive as a detective, so was partnered with Kirk to keep her on the rails.  

She joined the police force out of outrage over violence against women—a byproduct of her upbringing by a mother who was raped by her biological father and who died of a drug overdose.  

Although scarred, Mandy has a conciliatory core, and she encourages Kirk to get out of his grim funk and get a social life including dating other women. 

That helps considerably, and eventually he and Olivia are back together and in marriage counseling.   

So their personalities complement each other.  

Norm: The concept of "gypsy powers" and curses adds a unique supernatural element to the plot. What inspired you to incorporate these elements, and how do they affect the overall tone of the story? 

Gary:  Actually, there is no supernatural element in RUMOR OF EVIL. However, those "gypsy powers" are the rumors in the novel—rumors that kill.

I got the idea from a disturbing 2014 news story from Wisconsin: Two 12-year-old girls were arrested for the brutal knife attack of a 12-year old girlfriend. Their reason: 

They wanted to appease Slender Man, an Internet cartoon character--a long, thin, black-suited featureless male rumored to stalk, kidnap and terrorize kids. 

According to police, the two girls had convinced themselves that Slender Man would kill their families if they didn't murder their friend. Fortunately, their victim survived; and the two attackers are still in a psychiatric institution.     

That story got me fascinated with adolescent bullying, a very real scourge that threatens the emotional health of school-age children.  

According to studies, the most common characteristic of bullied victims is they're "different." In appearances, they might be overweight, small, gangly, disfigured, or unattractive.  Also their behavior is "odd"—they talk with a lisp or accent, they're shy, insecure, and appear weak.  Sometimes they're from a different social, ethnic, religious or economic status; or they were kids who were considered bad luck and friendless. In short, they're outsiders to the accepted adolescent "norm."

Drawing from such characteristics, I designed the bullied victim for RUMOR OF EVIL: Vadima Lupescu, a dark-skinned 16-year-old Romany exchange student.  

Although attractive, she arrives in upscale Lexington, MA from a rural Slovakian pig farm in uncool outfits, traditional Eastern European braids, and speaking English with an accent. She also has strange customs—like taking off her shoes when entering a home or standing up when the teacher enters a classroom. 

At first, her American peers have fun Americanizing Vadima—taking her to the mall to get her cool outfits, introducing her to peanut butter and jelly, Mexican food, backyard barbeques, and getting rid of those braids. 

They also give her a cool nickname--Lulu. 

But things needed to turn dark, so I exploited some sadly degrading myths about Romany people.  At a pizza-party, Lulu does some palm-reading which starts off as fun but suddenly turns weird. 

Then bad things happen to her friends and their families—things that get rumors flying: Romany people are "gypsies" who put curses on people; in olden times they spread diseases like the Black Plague; they drank the blood of Christian babies; they worshipped Satan. And aren't they really witches in disguise.

Yes, all damning racial myths, but I was trying to reflect the superstitious adolescent mindset, reminiscent of the paranoid young females who triggered the 1692 Salem witch trials.   

Centuries later, the dangerous phenomenon of bullying and scapegoating persist today. You can see it in some attitudes regarding outsiders, particularly immigrants. 

As for the actual crime, I didn't have to strain my imagination.  The history of witches during the Middle Ages had one brutal punishment—being burned at the stake. And therein lay my "cold case."

Norm: Your last book, CHOOSE ME, was a collaboration with Tess Gerritsen. How did this collaborative process differ from your solo writing, and what did you learn from this experience? 

Gary:  It differed in several ways.   I wrote only half of the book—those chapters narrated by Jack, the male half of the illicit love affair. And Tess wrote the female POV chapters—those of Taryn, Jack's student lover, and Frankie, the female detective.   

Tess and I have known each other for nearly 30 years. We both wrote in the same genres and admired each other's works. In fact, she gave me some rave endorsement on my early books. 

She also was a frequent guest in my Modern Bestsellers course where I adopted some of her novels  It was at a holiday party a few years ago at the height of the #MeToo Movement when we decided to co-author CHOOSE ME. 

In alternating chapters, our objective was to explore the gray areas of a forbidden relationship and to examine the complex make-up of two flawed and needy characters. At the same time we wanted to make them realistic and sympathetic.  

Because we respected each other's talent, the entire book was done via emails in 18 months with the exception of two telephone calls. 

I came up with the story idea of a married college professor having an illicit affair with one of his female students. I sent Tess a first chapter to which she responded with a second. And that was the way the book came together.

Because of the subject matter, we each learned how men and women think differently about sex and romance.  

And since Tess had a large following (mostly females over 50 years of age), I had to tone down some of Jack's attitudes and expression.  The same with Tess in her chapters.    

Interesting fact: Two-thirds through the book we had 5 suspects in the murder of Taryn, but could not decide who her killer was.  That's when we went to the phones. Something we both shared from past experiences: 

That writing was rewriting.  Once we eventually decided who the killer was, we had to go back and redo several earlier chapters until everything finally made sense by the surprise ending.  

So, besides being a fascinating challenge, the collaboration was a learning experience that paid off greatly. 

Norm: Many of your novels are grounded in medical or scientific contexts. How do you research and balance the technical aspects of these subjects while maintaining accessibility for readers who might not be familiar with them? 

Gary: Seven out of ten of my novels are grounded in medical and scientific contexts. 

Research is deceptively seductive.  You learn so many cool things from experts and readings that you have to resist including too much that would slow down the narrative thrust and blind the reader with details.  

So, the secret is getting out just the right amount of details while moving things along. In short, balance. 

I have an undergraduate degree in physics, so I have an innate love of science which helps when interviewing technical experts. 

And person-to-person research is especially helpful because you learn stuff you don't get from dry articles or books, especially personal insights. 

I also have the advantage of living in Boston which is the medical hub of the world and teeming with experts. 

I also had the added advantage of teaching at Northeastern University where I could consult with colleagues in the various technical departments including the School of Criminal Justice where I got help on police matters. And nearly everybody I consulted likes to talk shop.  

And being an English professor and not a professional scientist, I developed a sense of what technical stuff was just enough to inform the general reader and not to bore or lose them in the weeds. 

Norm: With RUMOR OF EVIL, you've published your tenth novel. How has your writing developed over the course of your career, and what challenges or rewards have you encountered as an established author? 

Gary: One major development is that I no longer outline. I used to do long formal chapter-by-chapter outlines which took weeks and sometimes went on for a hundred pages. 

 I stopped doing that because midway through the actual writing I decided to veer off in different directions.  So all that outlining proved a great waste of time. 

For the last few novels, I just jot down the basics: What's the crime? by whom? on whom? for what reasons?  and how will things end?  

Then I list the sequence of plot points to get down the bones of the book which I plot in a three-act structure. 

I always begin with a dramatic opener (most always a crime); and before I wrap things up in Act 3 where justice prevails, I always make the very end of Act 2 the lowest point in the novel for the protagonist. 

In all my readings, that is a universal--an absolute.  

Challenges:  There are several challenges, especially primarily coming up with the next high-concept story. So, I look to news headlines, interesting issues and baffling crimes, and hope to fashion a tale for the next novel.

There is one particular challenge characteristic to detective series of which RUMOR OF EVIL is the first.  

Since I decided to anchor the main narrative in the POV of Det. Kirk Lucian, I have to come up with some personal issues he tries to resolve while solving the crimes.

Every piece of fiction, from fairy tale to epic novel, has two quests for the protagonist—the Outer (professional) Quest and the inner (personal) Quest. In detective novels, the Outer Quest is, of course, solving a crime. 

The Inner Quest—which usually kicks in about a third of the way into the story--is resolving some personal crisis: guilt, loss, addictions, fears, or whatever other psychological issues that serve as baggage and make them human and, thus, sympathetic to readers.  

The problem is to keep coming up with new personal issues that beset Kirk while trying to solve the crimes. Anyone who writes series knows that challenge. 

Rewards:  As for rewards, besides cashing royalty checks, getting great reviews.  It's especially gratifying when critics and readers compliment me on the writing, the craft, not just the storylines or how they kept readers guessing.

Norm: Your background in teaching fiction writing, science fiction, and horror fiction is impressive. How has your experience as an educator influenced your own writing, and do you find that teaching and writing inform each other? 

Gary:   From teaching other people's books for over 40 years, I learned how to read and write. 

As I said, I studied how other writers get in and out of scenes; how they economically create characters through action, dialogue, interior narratives; what they look like and wear; how they think in their interior narratives; how they express themselves in phrases that distinguish them from other characters. 

How they end chapters in cliff-hangers to keep you turning the pages. In short I studied their strategies in creating their stories. It's the same advice I've been passing on to my writing students for over 40 years. 

I should add that teaching other authors' novels taught me 10 basics of a successful mystery—what I still pass on to my writing students:

  1. Begin with a crime, not an info dump.   

  2. Artful dialogue succinctly renders character.  

  3. Details of setting create the atmosphere. 

  4. Each novel has two quests—one public (solving the crime), one private, (dealing with personal baggage, past failings). 

  5. Drama, plot twists, and narrative thrust are essential. 

  6. Mysteries and thrillers teach us secrets, inside information—e.g., workings of the FBI, CIA, crime scene forensics, medical autopsies, criminal minds, and the best poisons to kill. 

  7. Readers emotionally relate to point of view of characters who are underdogs, with the most to lose.  

  8. Research details create credibility. 

  9. Villains give a story plot, and detectives give a story character.

  10. Protagonists change by the end of their quests—often emerging sadder but wiser. 

I also pass on the often-confused distinction: Mysteries are about crimes that happened and are driven by puzzle-solving; Thrillers are about crimes that are about to happen and, thus, are driven by dread.

Norm: Your books are killing it! They've been optioned for movies and you've got three of them in the top-10 highest rated thrillers on Amazon.com at the same time! 

What do you think makes your work resonate so strongly with readers, and how do you balance literary success with the expectations of the thriller genre? 

Gary:  I try to write the kind of books I like to read—interesting story, with interesting and layered characters, lively pacing, and resonating messages. 

And maybe it's the English teacher in me, but I try to write with an accessible style, not hack-simplistic, but in a thoughtful and evocative narrative with telling descriptions in original language, while maintaining a momentum that keeps reader turning the pages. I work hard to give my characters depth, including the villains whose motives are credible and in their minds justifiable.  In fact, I love my villains as much as my protagonists. If it weren't for them there would be no story. 

Expectations:   I don't have any particular expectations of the thriller genre, but I have noticed in some recent thrillers and mysteries that the writing has gotten weaker. 

There is less attention to the craft, and characters seem under-developed and sacrificed to plot. I'm not saying current writers should try to write like William Faulkner, but I do think some material is highly formulaic and lacking in sensibility.  

I also find the villains particularly flat. No real villain looks at his or her face in the mirror and say, "That's the face of evil."  

 They have clear reasons for doing bad stuff—being at odds with their parents, the law, society, nature and/or God. Good villains always have solid though morally flawed justifications for mayhem. And that's what's missing in some recent thrillers. 

Norm: As we wrap up this interview, what is next for Gary Braver and where can our readers find out more about you and your books? 

Gary: The next book is called HEAT OF THE MOMENT. It's the second in the Kirk Lucian/Mandy Wing detective series. 

The story revolves around the nasty murder of a charismatic English professor who has offended 5 unrelated individuals all of whom have convincing motives for killing him.  And perish the thought that I'm someway getting back at former colleagues.  

Norm: Thanks once again and good luck with all of your endeavors

TO LEARN MORE ABOUT GARY FOLLOW HERE

 Norm Goldman of Bookpleasures.com

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