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In Conversation: Hank Phillippi Ryan and Rachel Howzell Hall

Forge authors Hank Phillippi Ryan and Rachel Howzell Hall both have new books out this year, so we got them together to chat about writing characters who keep secrets, guessing plot twists, and more!


Place holder  of - 57Both of your books feature women pretending to be someone they’re not — why were you drawn to write about them? Do you have personal experience with pretending to be someone else, or projecting a different image?

HANK:Oh. Daily. (Laughing.)  But I have been a television reporter for more than 40 years. I’ve wired myself with hidden cameras, and gone undercover and in disguise.  It’s very stressful, and I’ve learned that the only way to be successful is to have most of yourself convinced that you really are who you say you are–is that method acting? And only keep a tiny sliver of your brain free to remember your real goals. That way your behavior and reactions seem authentic. Still, there’s always that one track of your brain that’s thinking: did I get a wide shot? Did I get a shot of his face? Is my camera working? What will I say if I get caught?

(I’ve only gotten caught once.  My “hidden” camera was not hidden well enough, and that’s not good. But it all worked out fine.)

RACHEL: Nothing as exciting and as fascinating as Hank, ohmigod. But as a woman, I’ve pretended plenty throughout my fifty years–that I’m more brave than I am, dumber than I look, a wanton seductress and an intellect that surrounds herself in books. It depended on the situation, of course, but playacting is something I think we all have done. I’ve also seen up close women who leave fabulous public lives–friends, successful jobs, bubbly and vibrant personalities–go home to a mess and a family life in tatters. They’re being abused–or act as abusers. Toxic and raggedy, but no one expects that that woman’s being hit? Or that woman’s cursing like a sailor and is mean as a snake? No, because she and the kids roll out the next morning with fresh clothes, forced smiles, and for her, makeup hiding the bruises or perfume hiding the stench of brimstone.

And last, as an African American woman, (and I’ve talked about this plenty), I’ve pretended that I didn’t hear the racist comment, or that I’m fine with the phrase, “I don’t see color,” a phrase that I absolutely hate because nothing is wrong with me being black and by not seeing that, you fail to recognize that my color has influenced and shaped everything about me. That’s like saying, I don’t see food types. Tacos are wonderful. So is roast beef. So is spaghetti. There’s nothing wrong saying, “I love Mexican food.” End rant.

Which comes first when you’re writing these complicated characters – the real character or their pretend identity?

HANK: The real character. Then I think: What does she want, and how far will she go to get it? Because when a book feels real, Poster Placeholder of - 9like the character is a real person–they do things for a reason. So in THE FIRST TO LIE, I knew that at least one character had a driving,  obsessive, and understandable motivation for her desire for revenge. Then, understanding that, I had to figure out how she’d accomplish her goal successfully.

RACHEL: With AND NOW SHE’S GONE, I think the character came first. Because I’ve seen women in jeopardy, women who want to leave, and they do, only to be pulled back. I wanted to see that in a book but this time, I want her to actually get away… but not really. And like Hank, I also wanted to write about how far a character will go to get it–but with two women. One who has successfully managed the trick of disappearing and the one who is tasked with finding her.

What is compelling about writing about people with secrets? What about you, can you reveal any of your own secrets/what do people not know about you, or what do they think about you that is dead wrong?

HANK: Every thriller is about secrets–who has a secret, and what it is, and who else knows it–and what will happen if the secret is revealed. And what will the character do to protect that bit of knowledge? That’s truly the fun part of writing–sometimes my characters reveal secrets that even I didn’t know they had!  “The first line of the first chapter of THE FIRST TO LIE” is “Lies have a complicated half-life.” Because it’s not only about concocting the lie, and telling the lie, but remembering it.

Secrets about me? Do I even have any? Ah–I’m a terrible singer? But I know all the words to the Beatles songs, and endless Broadway musicals? That I wanted to be a disc jockey when I grew up? And oh–I am the world’s worst driver. The worst.  I was a majorette in high school–!!–but I was so terrible, the band director told me to march in the middle of the back row, and just pretend to twirl.  What do people think that’s dead wrong? Ah–maybe that I’m super-confident. Trust me, I am terrified with nerves at every appearance.

RACHEL: I refuse to believe that Hank is terrified EVER — okay, maybe when she was caught undercover but other than that? Bah.

Big secrets are exhausting–anyone who keeps them is constantly thinking about them. Holding their breath anytime a subject comes up. Keeping secrets is a mental thing but it’s incredibly visceral. And that makes for exciting writing. And we all relate to these stories because we’ve all kept secrets–not necessarily embarrassing, life-changing ones but secrets nonetheless. From love and loyalty to actually hating that movie or not knowing the words of the Black National Anthem, people have things they’ll hold to their chests until they die.

Those who don’t know me assume that I’ve always led a quiet, middle-class life filled with books and videogames. Books and videogames, yes. But I’ve seen violence up close, gunshots all around me. I’ve had more than six surgeries and my drawers are filled with the nice, treaded socks hospitals slip on your feet before procedures. I have secrets and they fuel my writing. One funny secret that I’ll share: when I was in 7th grade, my mom picked me up from school. I needed to pee really, really bad but she needed me to go into the drug store for something. I protested but I had to go–and so I went into that Sav-on. And I peed in the aisle. And ran out, not telling the manager that I peed in Aisle 7.

What did you find surprising in your writing process?

HANK: I have no idea about the endings of the books. Or, for that matter, the middles. I have no idea what comes next until the next sentence, and the next paragraph, and then, whoa the next scene. SO people say wow, the ending of THE FIRST TO LIE really surprised me! And I say, yeah, wasn’t that a surprise?  Talk about a surprise ending. I surprise myself. Every time!  But that’s what gets me to the computer every day–I have to find out what happens next. And the only way to do that is to write it.

I must say–I do not recommend this method.

RACHEL: But you do it so well, Hank!

I’m surprised that it continues to be hard. That I continue to be scared–of writing a complete story that makes sense, that makes a reader want to turn the page. I guess that’s a secret–that I fear that I’m no good at this and that I’ll never become the Beyonce of Hank Phillippi Ryans because I suck. LOL. My big secret, writing-related, is that I’m scared to death that I will never be successful. So, it’s a big thrill when someone reads my books, or when I’m nominated for an award. Part of me thinks that happens out of pity or because someone is being nice to me. On my most confident days–Monday through Wednesday–I know that’s not true. I know that I have interesting stories to tell, that it’s fine that my voice is different than Hank’s or Attica’s or Steph’s, that this isn’t a zero sum game and that my stories deserve a place on a bookshelf somewhere. I keep writing in hopes that I will someday get it right.

Hank, do you have a bank of endings that you haven’t used and that you aim to use one day? I have, like, two or three…

HANK: Ha. Ha ha ha. Rachel, you are a funny funny person. I have NO spare endings. I don’t even have the ending I need for the book I’m working on now.  (And aw, Rachel. Thank you.) But wait. Rachel. You KNOW the endings of your books before you start? Do you know the whole story?

RACHEL: As a child of pop culture, growing up in the 80s, television as your babysitter, I love good endings–and the best endings for me were always from The Twilight Zone. There was always something special on holidays because of the TZ marathons, and we’d watch all day and the endings still resonated even though you’ve watched that ‘Anthony sending people to the cornfield’ episode 100 times. So, that desire to leave readers with a good ending–not one of those ‘gotcha’ ones but a very lovely, organic end to things… Yes, sometimes I do know the endings, although Land of Shadows–I didn’t know that ending until I wrote it. The ending for And Now She’s Gone, I did know. But I didn’t know the whole story.

You’ve both written series and are now writing stand-alones – what drew you to these stand-alone stories?  Were there plots that didn’t fit with your series that you have adapted into stand-alones?

HANK:  So different to write a series and a standalone. Because in a series, the main character isn’t going to die–Jane Ryland will be back! So the suspense has to come from something other than the mortality of the main character. So there’s a crime, it’s solved, and you can go on to the next adventure.  But in a standalone there’s this amazing knowledge that anything can happen. Anyone can be good, anyone can be bad, anyone can be guilty, and anyone–anyone!–can die. When I realized that, it felt so powerful.

So to me, a standalone means: here is the single biggest and most compellingly important thing that will ever happen to these people. And watch out readers–anything goes.

RACHEL: Writing mystery and crime, we’re blessed (or cursed) with an abundance of story ideas. And I want to get to at least thirty percent of those. I can’t really do that if I’m solely writing a series. I want to hop in different characters’ heads–Lou Norton is different than Miriam Macy, and Grayson Sykes and Isabel Lincoln are different than Lou and Miriam. Of course, I could’ve Rube Goldberged plots to fit into a Lou Norton story or a missing woman plotline, but I didn’t want to do that. I wanted each woman to have a say and to be featured and to have her life examined.

Hank, since you’re an investigative reporter, are there too many stories vying for attention. “Write me! Write me!’ How do you narrow down what you wanna write?

HANK: I have often said to my husband on my writing days: If I can have just ONE good idea a day, I’m happy. One! But that elusive gorgeous idea for a novel? That’s such a great question, Rachel. I have this weird faith or trust or belief  that when I need a good idea, it will  come. But that is the most difficult part of writing–to get that one gorgeous core gem of an idea. I absolutely remember when it happened for THE FIRST TO LIE. But if I reveal it, it will give it all away.

But Rachel, you honestly have an abundance of ideas? Sigh. Does your writer-brain just decide: This is the one? Or is it a theme?

RACHEL: I do! I have about ten stories that I’ve started and stopped, simply because I don’t know how to write them yet. And I have an Evernote filled with news articles of future stories. I only decide which ones to write only when I can’t stop writing it, when I’m not frustrated or bored by it. I do know that I have to be excited about the idea–and that I’m clear on what I want to say about that issue. It took me more than ten years to figure out the story that eventually became And Now She’s Gone.

Are either of you good at guessing other people’s twist endings? 

HANK: Ha! I constantly guess. My husband and I will be watching TV, and I’ll say–The sister did it! Or–she’s pregnant. Or–oh, it’s the daughter. And Jonathan asks–can’t you just watch it? And I say–no, I can’t. I have to guess.

But here’s what’s a little annoying. If we’re told there’s a twist, then we’re looking for it. And reading every single word looking for clues. And sometimes, instead of enjoying the book, our brains race ahead, trying to beat the author to the answer. I wish I could stop doing that. Maybe we should even stop saying that books have twist endings. Just let ‘em be a surprise.

RACHEL: Amen, Hank! I’m already looking for the trick, and with the ‘with the ending you don’t wanna miss,’ I can’t just enjoy the story. As a writer, I like starting simple and have the reader look up and realize that they’ve been caught up in a delicious tangle. I hate twist endings for the sake of twist endings. I think after The Sixth Sense, everyone had to have these crazy contortions in their stories. I think life in itself offers enough twists without having the ‘he was always dead’ ending. I mean, who would’ve guessed 2020 would shape up (or down) like it has? I’m hoping for a twist ending, though. The good kind, though.

HANK:  Agreed, dear Rachel.


Preorder And Now She’s Gone, coming September 22, 2020!

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Order a copy of The First to Lie, now on sale!

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The Heroines of Hank Phillippi Ryan

By Alison Bunis

Around here, we really love our Hank Phillippi Ryan. If you’ve got to ask why, that means you haven’t read her books, in which case, you should probably read them right now.

Still need convincing? Well, they’re incredibly thrilling mysteries with more twists than you’d think possible. Plus, the books are always led by remarkable women. Hank really knows how to write a compelling female character. To help give you a little more incentive to dive into her books, here’s a quick roundup of some of Hank’s top heroines, and the books they’re in.


Poster Placeholder of - 87Trust Me: Mercer Hennessy

Mercer Hennessy is a shell of her former self when Trust Me begins. She’s still mourning her husband and their young son, both of whom were killed in a car crash. Her career as a journalist has been put on hold―perhaps permanently. But then her editor offers her the chance to cover a trial from her living room: no people, no leaving her house, no putting her grief on display. And best of all, it’s the trial of Ashlyn Bryant, accused of murdering her young daughter Tasha Nicole. Grieving mother Mercer cannot imagine anyone who would intentionally kill their own child and is desperate for Ashlyn to get the justice she deserves. But covering this case spins wildly out of control, and as Mercer’s life turns into a dangerous cat-and-mouse game, she has to ask…who can you trust when you can’t even trust yourself?

Placeholder of  -16The Murder List: Rachel North

Rachel North is living a good life, and she’s earned it. She’s a smart, hardworking law student with a fantastic internship at the Boston DA’s office. Her husband is faithful, devoted, and a lion of the Boston defense bar. Their plan to open a practice together when she passes the bar is her dream come true. The problem is, everything Rachel knows to be true is based on a lie. And the battle for justice is about to become a fight for survival.

Image Placeholder of - 80The Other Woman and others: Jane Ryland

Jane Ryland was a rising star in television news, until her refusal to reveal a confidential source ruined her career. Now she’s a newspaper journalist, and Jane isn’t content to work on the puff pieces that get thrown her way. In five books, starting with The Other Woman, Jane takes on everything from dirty politics to foreclosures to campus sexual assault. She’s a tough reporter who’s no stranger to dangerous investigations, tight spots, and telling the stories that need to be told.

Place holder  of - 35The First to Lie: …who knows?

Now, here’s the thing about The First to Lie: who is really the heroine here? Whose story is it? We don’t really know. So instead of revealing any spoilers about Hank’s newest book (this is a strictly spoiler-free post), here are a few of the options:

Brooke: an affluent daughter of privilege.  Lacey: a glamorous, manipulative wannabe. Ellie: a determined reporter, in too deep. Margaret: Ellie’s suspiciously eager assistant. Nora: a pharmaceutical rep who isn’t what she seems. After a devastating betrayal, one of them sets off on an obsessive path to justice, no matter what dark secrets are revealed. But she isn’t the only one plotting her revenge.

Want to figure out who the true heroine is in The First to Lie? Pre-order a copy now!

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Excerpt: First to Lie by Hank Phillippi Ryan

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Bestselling and award-winning author and investigative reporter Hank Phillippi Ryan delivers another twisty, thrilling cat and mouse novel of suspense that will have you guessing, and second-guessing, and then gasping with surprise.

We all have our reasons for being who we are—but what if being someone else could get you what you want?

After a devastating betrayal, a young woman sets off on an obsessive path to justice, no matter what dark family secrets are revealed. What she doesn’t know—she isn’t the only one plotting her revenge.

An affluent daughter of privilege. A glamorous manipulative wannabe. A determined reporter, in too deep. A grieving widow who must choose her new reality. Who will be the first to lie? And when the stakes are life and death, do a few lies really matter?

The First to Lie will be available on August 4th, 2020. Please enjoy the following excerpt.


Chapter 1: Nora

Lies have a complicated half-life. Nora—for now—tried to calculate the life span of her most recent one as she waited on the corner of Tremont and Union Park, the evening’s first snowflakes beginning to accumulate on her new—to her—black cashmere coat. Boston was new to her too, with its treacherous weather and confusing streets and wary response to newcomers. They’d warned her, laughing, not to ask for directions. You can’t get there from here, people told her. Now, after just three weeks as a sales rep, she knew it was true, all of it. But this was the right corner, and Douglas had said he’d lived here for years, so she could rely on him for directions. Geographical, at least. The other directions—those he’d take from her. That was the plan. She could, indeed, get there from here.

Douglas would arrive soon, and he’d be happy to brush the snowflakes from her shoulders, take her someplace private and scotch-infused. She closed her eyes with the rhythm of her process. With keeping her balance. Not crossing a line.

Behind her, a horn beeped. She turned, carefully casual. Nothing. She checked for surveillance cameras: none. A seemingly oblivious passerby pinged her inner alarm, but the guy with the backpack was too focused on his phone to be a threat—someone following her, or watching her. The interior lights came on in a maybe-Volvo parked half a block down the street.

Nora eased, slowly, into the lee of the streetlight, keeping to the shadows. But it was just a mom, or nanny, extricating a baby from a car seat in the back. Nothing about Nora.

“Nora? Ms. Quinn?”

She whirled as the voice came from behind her. So much for her detective skills.

“Douglas,” she said, softening her face into Nora’s face, relaxing her smile into Nora’s welcoming smile, opening her arms like Nora did. Establishing first names. But had she already failed? Douglas might notice her artifice. How she’d first flinched at his voice.

He did.

“Did I scare you?” He came toward her, leaned to her, his breath puffing in the early evening chill. “I couldn’t wait to see you. Am I early?”

Yes, you scare me, Nora wanted to tell him. You’re a monster. “Of course not, Doctor,” she said, using his title on purpose, teasing, proving her admiration. She slid her hand through the bend of his elbow to avoid his clumsy attempt to kiss her. She was Nora, she’d be Nora, she had to stay Nora.

A turning headlight grazed his face then slipped past, leaving the memory of paisley and camel hair, of gray at the temples and Ivy League posture. Chin up, shoulders back, privilege confidently in place. Nora tried to match him stride for stride in her ridiculous-but-necessary suede heels, but she stumbled on a jagged shard of sidewalk.

“Oh!” she cried, suddenly precarious, grabbing his sleeve. A reflex, not a tactic. Her heels, inappropriately but deliberately too high, would be ruined.

“Gotcha.” Douglas caught her, collecting her with a paternal chuckle, preventing her from landing on the cold and gritty concrete below. “Have you already started on wine?”

“No, silly.” Gotcha? Really? Nora ignored his patronizing tone then pivoted to cash in on her unintentional damsel-in-distress moment. “Oh, no! Look at that!”

She extended her bare leg from under her coat, pointed her toe, so daintily, and pretended to pout. Sometimes it was scary, honestly scary, that this came to her so easily. “These poor little shoes are probably the worse for wear.”

“Nice leg,” Douglas said.

You idiot, she thought. Gotcha.

They walked arm in arm toward the hip South End restaurant he’d chosen, Calabria. Nora had scouted it in advance, all dripping ferns and dark wood and sophisticated stained glass and subdued lighting, with high-backed mahogany booths for those who needed privacy, and spotlighted center tables for those who needed to be noticed. Dr. Hawkins has selected a booth, the obliging maître d’ had informed her. Perfect.

She’d met Hawkins earlier this morning in his clinic office, where he’d been flat-out fifty-three minutes late for their appointment. She’d hung her coat on the rack, then kept track of every passing minute, using the calculation to intensify her resolve. Doctors. So many of them thought they were the important ones. That the women waiting, appointment-bound, fidgeting in hypoallergenic chairs and carefully choosing glossy magazines from the glass-topped coffee table, were merely supplicants. Needy. They should be grateful for the eventual attention, for whatever medications the doctors chose.

As if the doctors had known about these medications on their own. As if they’d chosen them without the persuasion of a salesperson like Nora. She’d patted her square black briefcase, as if to reassure herself that all her ammunition was still at the ready. Notebooks, pamphlets, dosage instructions. Samples. Those she’d taken from her personal storage unit this morning. Carefully counted, making sure, then locking the unit again. Nora wasn’t the only one with a key. Her new employer, Pharminex, could have their security goons check her supplies any time they wanted.

The other women in the doctor’s waiting room, leafing through the array of magazines or glued to their phones, some even wearing sunglasses, all needed the good doctor. They’d realized, maybe, with the gasp of mortality or a push from a spouse, that their window of time for having a child of their own, a biological child, was slipping away. Now they waited; some hopeful, yearning, optimistic. Some fearing failure.

A dark-haired prospect, wearing the expensive Uggs and pill-free leggings, wrapped a cashmere shawl closer around her shoulders and flipped at her cell phone screen with a manicured finger. Her feet betrayed her, though, one toe tapping persistently on the thin-piled beige carpeting. A weary blonde, posture sagging and dark circles not hidden even by too-big sunglasses, cocooned on an ivory tweed club chair next to Nora, studying the floor.

The zipper of one salt-edged brown boot was not fully closed. Not her first time here, Nora thought. Maybe her last.

Their eyes met in a flash of sisterhood, maybe, or sympathy. She’s probably evaluating me, Nora thought. Good luck with that. It’d be impossible for anyone observing her to reach the correct conclusion.

Was she a possibility? Nora might point out her unzipped boot, maybe segue into the weather, and then see where the conversation went. Strange that infertility clinics like this felt like safe spaces, Nora thought, filled with instant sisters. A sorority no one wanted to be in.

The best way to start a conversation was to find common ground, go from there and see what she could find out. Trying to chat with women, strangers, in doctors’ offices like these, she needed to be careful, subtle, intruding gently on their personal space. Probably easier at a pediatrician’s, where squabbling children and maternal choices might engender instant camaraderie. But easy wasn’t the point. She knew to wait until it felt right. Scout for a possible victim. And then take the first step.

Announced by a gentle ping of the door chime, a new patient arrived in the waiting room, this one bundled in black wool against the lingering March winter, revealing only red lipstick and fatigued eyes. The woman scanned the room and chose a spot on a maroon leather love seat, spaced as far away from each of the others as possible. Aloof, solitary, wary. Not a possibility, Nora decided.

Each woman here, reading, or texting, or simply staring at the soothing butterscotch walls, possessed the same hopes and the same fears.

Except for Nora.

“Could you hand me that magazine?” Nora said to the woman in the boots. “I don’t want to reach over you to the table.”

The woman handed her the outdated Newsweek with a wan smile.

“Oh, dear,” Nora said, flipping the pages. “I’ve read this one.” She chuckled softly. “Guess I’ve been here too often.”

“Once is too often,” the woman said.

“Got that right.” Nora nodded, sympathetic. Commiserating. “It’s so hard, but we just want, I mean, I just . . .” She let her voice trail off, wistful. “Never mind, sorry to bother.”

“Oh, no, no bother.” The woman shifted in her seat, turned to her, wrapped her cardigan closer. “You okay? You look sad.”

“We all look sad, right?” Nora shrugged. “You can tell the ones who . . .”

“I know.” The woman pressed her lips together.

“Could I ask—I mean . . .” Nora looked at the ceiling, then moved closer to her, whispering. “Were you . . . surprised? At anything? Was it like they said? Or different? I don’t mean to intrude, and I know I’m kind of being inarticulate, but I only—”

“It’s awful,” she said. “My husband is so disappointed, and I am too, but we’re hoping they can—” She closed her eyes, opened them again. “That’s what I’m here to find out.

Supposedly. I’m sure it’ll be fine. They can fix anything. I tell myself that. I’ll try anything.”

“They’re supposed to have a miracle drug here,” Nora whispered. “Well, not a miracle drug, I guess. But something that really works.” She paused, deciding how far to push. “Is that why you’re here? Did they say they could help you get pregnant?”

She nodded.

“Did they?”

The woman’s eyes welled.

“Not yet,” she whispered. “And maybe not . . . ever. But I can’t think about that. I won’t.”

When the white-coated receptionist called her name—“Nora?”—she was so focused on the other woman’s story that it took a moment before it registered, and she remembered Nora was her. The others had lifted their eyes as the receptionist stood, eager. Then they exchanged embarrassed glances, as if to say, Oh, not yet? She’s first? Oh, okay. I’m okay.

Nora had acknowledged them all with a commiserating half smile as she picked up the brass-latched sample bag she’d tucked under her chair. You’ll be fine, she tried to telegraph.

“I am so sorry, that’s me,” Nora said. She should have gotten the woman’s contact information, or even just her name, but there was no time now. Damn. Nora reached into her jacket pocket, pulled out one of her cards. She touched the woman’s arm, a split-second gesture, kept her voice low. Handed her the simple white rectangle, as she’d done several times before with other women like her. “Call me if you want to talk. I’ll be thinking of you.”

“You too,” the woman murmured. “Thank you.”

Douglas Hawkins, MD, had been almost an hour late. Craggy, experienced, congenial. White coat and stethoscope. Since he knew she was a pharmaceutical company salesperson pitching him, he didn’t bother with bedside manner. Nora had been instantly forgiving of his tardiness, brushing aside his perfunctory apologies. Negotiations could be delicate, and it was best to start with sympathy on your side. Points for politeness, her mother had always told her.

“Thank you so much,” Nora had said. “I’m brand new to this and to Boston, so I’m grateful for your time. And truly, I simply want to leave you with some materials about our company’s latest—”

Hawkins didn’t let her finish her sentence.

“Sure,” he said. “I have fifteen minutes. I’ll check my email while you prepare.”

He gestured her to one of the navy-blue upholstered guest chairs across from his desk. Strange, she thought as she took her seat, for a doctor’s office to look more like a lawyer’s or banker’s. Syracuse, Johns Hopkins, Massachusetts Board of Registration in Medicine—the framed parchment credentials were placed precisely at a visitor’s eye level. Nora set her sample case at her feet and clicked it open. She’d expected the usual exam room, white-walled and glaringly fluorescent. And was relieved she didn’t have to endure one of those again. Maybe this inner sanctum was where he and his patients conferred, where he presented his news, happy or sad. Where there was room for a spouse, if there was one.

“Ready?” Hawkins glanced again at his computer screen, then back at her. Seemed to take her in, her now-auburn chin-length hair, pale green eyes and severe dark suit. She looked like a Nora Quinn; she’d planned it that way.

“Fourteen minutes now.” His tone had changed, now almost amused or welcoming. She noticed his wedding ring, a conservative gold band. “But who’s counting?”

“Thanks.” She pretended to wince, drawing in her shoulders, looking at him with apprehension in her eyes. “Like I said, I’m new, so you probably have a lot more experience than I do in this . . .” She kept talking, pitching, hardly looking at her detail sheet, careful to portray nothing but business. It fascinated her, the way some men—not all, but some—believed so devoutly in their authority. Forgetting how quickly one can go from king to pawn.

Though Dr. Hawkins was already a pawn. Poor thing. After she started talking, he hadn’t looked at his computer again. Not once. Nora was good at what she did. That’s who “Nora” was.

The glow of the restaurant now beckoned down darkening Appleton Street, coppery lights warm through the dark wood entrance. Douglas reached out to open the restaurant door for her. Nora walked through, and when she turned, she saw he was smiling.

Gotcha, she thought.

 

Copyright © Hank Phillippi Ryan

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Eight Mysteries We Can’t Wait to Solve This Year

Eight Mysteries We Can’t Wait to Solve This Year

By Alison Bunis

The new year is finally here. Take a deep breath and savor the clean slate. But what’s that scent drifting in? Is that…new book smell?? Of course it is! Forge has a whole new lineup of fantastic mysteries for 2020, and they’ll be bringing you all the new book smell, mysterious thrills, and page-turning plot twists your heart could ever desire. To get you excited, here are just a few of the books you can look forward to this year from Forge. On your marks…get set…read!

 

Blame the Dead by Ed Ruggero (3/3/20)

Poster Placeholder of - 4The nurses of the US Army’s Field Hospitals contend with heat, dirt, German counterattacks,  and a flood of horribly wounded GIs. At the 11th Field Hospital near Palermo, Sicily, in the summer of 1943, they also live with the constant threat of violent assault by one of their own—until someone shoots Dr. Myers Stephenson in the head. Former Philadelphia beat cop turned Military Police lieutenant Eddie Harkins is assigned the case, and he has no idea how to investigate a murder. But Eddie is determined to get to the truth. As his investigation gets more complicated and more dangerous, it becomes clear that this hospital unit is rotten to its core, that the nurses are not safe, and that the patients who have survived Nazi bullets are still at risk in this place that is supposed to save them.

Gone By Midnight by Candice Fox (3/10/20)

Image Place holder  of - 2It’s every parent’s nightmare. Four young boys are left alone in a hotel room while their parents dine downstairs. When Sara Farrow checks on the children at midnight, her son has disappeared. Distrustful of the police, Sara turns to Crimson Lake’s unlikeliest private investigators: disgraced cop Ted Conkaffey and convicted killer Amanda Pharrell. For Ted, the case couldn’t have come at a worse time. Two years ago a false accusation robbed him of his career, his reputation, and most importantly, his family. But now Lillian, the daughter he barely knows, is coming to stay in his ramshackle cottage by the lake. With Lillian at his side, Ted must dredge up the area’s worst characters to find the missing boy. The clock is ticking, and the danger he uncovers could put his own child in deadly peril.

Do No Harm by Max Allan Collins (3/10/20)

Image Placeholder of - 21The latest book in the Nathan Heller series picks up in 1954, with Heller taking on the Sam Sheppard case: a young doctor is startled from sleep and discovers his wife brutally murdered. He claims that a mysterious intruder killed his wife. But all the evidence points to a disturbed husband who has grown tired of married life and yearned to be free at all costs. Sheppard is swiftly convicted and sent to rot in prison. But just how firm was the evidence…and was it tampered with to fit a convenient narrative that settled scores and pushed political agendas?

Dead West by Matt Goldman (6/2/20)

Place holder  of - 78In Matt Goldman’s fourth standalone entry in the Nils Shapiro series, Nils accepts what appears to be an easy, lucrative job: find out if Beverly Mayer’s grandson is throwing away his trust fund in Hollywood after his fiancée’s tragic death. But nothing is what it seems in Los Angeles. Nils quickly suspects that Ebben Mayer’s fiancée was murdered, and that Ebben himself may have been the target. As Nils moves into Ebben’s inner circle, he discovers that everyone in Ebben’s professional life—his agent, manager, a screenwriter, a producer—seem to have dubious motives at best. With Nil’s friend Jameson White, who has come to Los Angeles to deal with demons of his own, acting as Ebben’s bodyguard, Nils sets out to find a killer before it’s too late.

Of Mutts & Men by Spencer Quinn (7/7/20)

Placeholder of  -41Get ready for another canine crime caper, narrated by the world’s fluffiest PI: Chet the dog. When Chet and his human, Bernie Little of the Little Detective Agency. arrive to a meeting with hydrologist Wendell Nero, they’re greeted by a shocking sight—Wendell has been killed. What did the hydrologist want to see them about? Is his death a random robbery, or something more? Chet and Bernie, working for nothing more than an eight-pack of Slim Jims, are on the case. As Chet and Bernie look into Wendell’s work, their search leads to a struggling winemaker who has received an offer he can’t refuse. Meanwhile, Chet is smelling water where there is no water, and soon Chet and Bernie are in danger like never before…

The First to Lie by Hank Phillippi Ryan (8/4/20)

We all have our reasons for being who we are—but what if being someone else could get you what you want? After a devastating betrayal, a young woman sets off on an obsessive path to justice, no matter what dark family secrets are revealed. What she doesn’t know—she isn’t the only one plotting her revenge. 

An affluent daughter of privilege. A glamorous manipulative wannabe. A determined reporter, in too deep. A grieving widow who has to choose her own reality. Who will be the first to lie? And when the stakes are life and death, do a few lies really matter?

And Now She’s Gone by Rachel Howzell Hall (9/22/20)

Isabel Lincoln is gone.

But is she missing?

It’s up to Grayson Sykes to find her. Although she is reluctant to track down a woman who may not want to be found, Gray’s search for Isabel Lincoln becomes more complicated and dangerous with every new revelation about the woman’s secrets and the truth she’s hidden from her friends and family—even as Grayson is forced to confront secrets from the past she thought she’d finally left behind.

A Resolution at Midnight by Shelley Noble (10/13/20)

It’s Christmas in Gilded Age Manhattan. For the first time ever an amazing, giant ball will drop along a rod on the roof of the New York Times building to ring in the New Year. Everyone plans to attend the event. But the murder of a prominent newsman puts something of a damper on the festivities. And when a young newspaperwoman is the target of a similar attack, it’s clear this is not just a single act of violence but a conspiracy of malicious proportions. Really, you’d think murderers would take a holiday. Something absolutely must be done. And Lady Dunbridge is happy to oblige.

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Hank Phillippi Ryan & Paddy Hirsch Sit Down for a Conversation On Journalism & Writing Fiction

Hank Phillippi Ryan & Paddy

Placeholder of  -44Two of our favorite authors at Forge are journalists, and what better way to get the scoop on NPR star Parry Hirsch’s historical financial thriller Hudson’s Kill (now available in paperback) than to ask our TV investigative reporter star Hank Phillippi Ryan (The First to Lie) to interview him! As always, Hank uncovers exactly what readers need to know.

HANK PHILLIPPI RYAN: So much of your life has been just-the-facts journalism (and more about that coming up) but when you decided to take on fiction, did you worry that you’d have trouble making stuff up?

PADDY HIRSCH: Not really – I’m Irish after, all! No, but seriously, how does that old saying go … there is nothing new under the sun? Combine that with another old saying, truth is stranger than fiction, and you have all you need to make stuff up: just keep an eye on the news. Journalists are very well placed to write fiction, because part of our job is to read or listen to or watch everything that happens in the news, which means taking a ringside seat to the human circus and observing the entire panoply of crazy human behavior. Some of the stories I’ve come across in 20 years of journalism are far more brutal, hair-raising and bizarre than anything I’ve read in fiction, so all I really need to do to create a good story is mash a few real events together and change a few details. The real challenge is grafting that storyline onto characters, who way too often have their own ideas about what should happen. In short, making it up is not an issue: making it fit is a whole other kettle of fish.

HANK: The thing I love about training in journalism to write fiction is that both are all about story-telling. And no matter if the story is true or imagined, it’s still has the same necessary elements. Have you found that to be true?

PADDY: Absolutely. I work as an editor at NPR, producing a daily show called The Indicator from Planet Money. That means I help reporters shape news stories about business, finance and the economy. And it’s remarkable how the same questions I ask myself about my fiction work come up over and over when I’m editing these news stories about the economy: Where’s the drama? Where’s the tension? What’s the arc of this story? Why should the listener care about this? What’s at stake? And then the mechanics of storytelling: Use active verbs; write short; make every word count; don’t let the story slow down; find good characters and let them speak; don’t use too much exposition at any one time; be creative about helping the listener understand the complicated parts of the narrative. The same things that keep you glued to a news story about a financial fraud or a merger gone bad are the same things that keep you turning the pages of a thriller.

HANK: And you’ve made such a wonderful name for yourself with your Whiteboard videos–cleverly and brilliantly explaining complicated concepts in a relatable and entertaining way. How does complicated-into-entertaining inform your fiction?

PADDY: That’s so kind of you, Hank, thank you! I loved producing those Whiteboard explainers, and in fact my debut novel, The Devil’s Half Mile, actually started out as a non-fiction extension of that work. I’d already written a book called Man versus Markets, explaining how markets work, and wanted to write a follow up about stock exchanges, and how and why the New York Stock Exchange was created. I found the research process fascinating, but I didn’t find it easy writing a compelling narrative. In fact, frankly, what I was writing was deadly dull, and I found myself writing less and less. So, to keep my hand in –  and to spice things up – I decided to write a murder into the story. It was much more fun to write, of course, and it gave me a way to put some color into the otherwise rather colorless topic of financial regulation! This isn’t a new thing, to be sure: fables do exactly the same thing, by using a simple fictional narrative as a vehicle to deliver a moral or practical message. I do the same thing with my explainers, and I’m enjoying doing the same thing in my novel series, each of which has some kind of business shenanigans at its core.

HANK: Your newest book, Hudson’s Kill, is getting rave reviews… Congratulations! You transport the reader to what one reviewer called “the powder keg” of New York in 1803. I always start with one gorgeous core of an idea for my books, do you? What was that core for Hudson’s Kill?

PADDY:  The aim of the series is to have some kind of business or financial wrongdoing at the core of very book. In Hudson’s Kill, it’s the wild speculation that went on when the plans for the development of the island of Manhattan were being drawn up in secret in the early 1800s. While I was researching the effects of that speculation on marginal communities in New York, I stumbled upon a story about what was likely the first Muslim community in America – made up of men and women sold into slavery in West Africa, and sold to plantation owners in the Carolinas. These slaves were particularly valuable to owners in that area because they had a very specific skillset – the ability to farm rice. So valuable to one plantation owner, in fact, that he allowed them to practice their religion  – or at least turned a blind eye to it. This story fascinated me, and became the germ of an idea that became a central part of Hudson’s Kill.

Poster Placeholder of - 98HANK: I started to say: “the research must have been so much fun!” And then I realized… Some people don’t like research. But you do, don’t you?

PADDY: Oh I love it. I get lost in it. I love the big stuff, like who did what, and how, and when, but I’m particularly attracted to the research of what the British historical novels Antonia Hodgson calls “street history”, that is winkling out the details of how people lived at ground level back then: what they wore under their clothes, how much sugar they put in their tea; how often they bathed; what they used to clean their teeth; where they went to the loo when they were caught short in the middle of the day etc etc.  I love those details, and I think they really bring a story alive. I also love researching how people used to speak: argot and slang are fascinating to me, which is why I love Lyndsay Faye’s work so much: her book The Gods of Gotham is in some ways all about language. And again, argot is another way to really transport a reader and add color to a narrative. It does make a glossary vital, however!

HANK: In true Paddy Hirsch style, you include an explainer in Hudson’s Kill, a way to make sure that readers understand the language differences. What was it like to live back then, do you think?

PADDY: I think it must have been incredibly hard to live back then – especially if you were poor, as most people were. The pace of life would have been a lot slower, of course, so that might have been a bit nicer, but staying alive to enjoy that slower pace would have been a challenge. If you didn’t die early from some disease that no-one understood, you still had to navigate a world that was cruel and unstable for those without some kind of financial cushion. There were hardly any rules governing commerce or the workplace; there were no protections for the poor; and the rule of law was capricious and wielded in favour of the rich. One mistake could tip you out of your dwelling and into the street, and if you didn’t have money to buy your way out of a problem, your life would likely become severely truncated.

HANK: In historical fiction, there is always the balance —in that you know what actually happened, and the characters don’t. How does that inform what you write, if it does?

PADDY: I think it depends on the frame you’re writing in. You always know what the timeline of events was, but how your characters react to those events and the way they interact is the most important part of a work of historical fiction, just as it is in any other novel and you have almost completed freedom there. It does mean that you can’t frame your story too tightly, of course. I try to have as accurate a frame as possible, but I keep the boundaries pretty wide and don’t hem in the characters too much. It also helps that there’s not much written about the early 1800s in New York, so I can get away with a lot more!

HANK: How does Hudson’s Kill–the experience of it, the writing of it, the research for it— color how you see financial New York now?

PADDY: I was stunned when I saw the first map for the development of New York, produced by a man named Joseph Mangin in 1801. At that time, New York hadn’t even been but as far as Canal Street. But Mangin envisaged a city that occupied the whole of the island of Manhattan, and apart from the addition of landfill and the city’s parks – including Central Park – his plan looks almost identical to the map of New York today. It’s incredible to me that politicians then had kind of foresight and courage, when it came to making long-term plans. Today politicians can’t think beyond the next election cycle, which precludes that kind of planning on a grand scale. As for financial New York, it showed me that little has changed on Wall Street. The lack of transparency in any business or civic plan inevitably results in speculation, and without any kind of check or balance, speculation can lead to individual ruin and institutional collapse. That’s an argument for simple but firm regulation in financial markets, something that was being wildly debated then, and continues to be debated today.

HANK: We always talk about how a book’s main character must change in a good novel. But how do you want your readers to change?  After they read the book’s final words, close it, and think about it?

PADDY: I’d like my writing to raise questions in people’s minds about the big themes in my books: slavery, immigration, gender equality, religious tension, financial regulation. The tension in these issues is what drives my characters, so I’d love to hear whether they make people see a side to those issues than they might not have considered before.

HANK: Do you remember how you felt about writing fiction before you started, and how you feel now? Are you… Proud of yourself? Surprised? Thrilled?

PADDY: I’m a bit stunned, to be honest. I’ve always loved fiction – everything from spy thrillers to classic murder mysteries – and I’d tried my hand at writing a novel a few times before. Those efforts were….not very good, to be honest. So I convinced myself that I’d never be able to sell anything as a novelist, and I focused on my non-fiction work. But the creative work just kept calling, like an itch I had to scratch, and eventually I quit my job to see if I could complete a manuscript and sell it. I would never have been able to do that without the support of a host of people, in particular my wife, who gave me the space and encouragement I needed, and the occasional spur. Now that my second book is going out, I feel proud and grateful and excited all at the same time. This has opened a door for me that I never thought would open, and that’s an incredible gift. Frankly, I feel more lucky than even an Irishman has any right to be!

HANK: Yes, we’re both lucky to be living the writing—and reading—life! Congratulations, Paddy, on a wonderful novel!


HANK PHILLIPPI RYAN is on-air investigative reporter for Boston’s WHDH-TV, winning 36 EMMYs and dozens more journalism honors. Nationally bestselling author of 11 thrillers, Ryan’s also an award-winner in her second profession—with five Agathas, three Anthonys, the Daphne, and the coveted Mary Higgins Clark Award. Critics call her “a master of suspense.” Her novels are Library Journal’s Best of 2014, 2105, and 2016, and her highly-acclaimed TRUST ME was chosen for numerous prestigious Best of 2018 lists. Hank’s newest book is THE MURDER LIST. The Library Journal starred review says, “Masterly plotted—with a twisted ending—a riveting, character-driven story. A must-read.”

PADDY HIRSCH has worked in public radio at NPR and Marketplace for ten years. He came to journalism after serving for eight years as an officer in the British Royal Marines, and lives in Los Angeles. While The Devil’s Half Mile is his fiction debut, Hirsh has also written Man vs. Markets, a nonfiction book explaining economics.

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