Pub 2.3 Anatomy of a Thriller-Part I

Play Podcast: Pub 2.3 Anatomy of a Thriller-Part I (13:30)

Many a thriller features the misdeeds of the mob. But Isn’t organized crime a thing of the past? Not so, according to Brian Bardsley, Jr., Chicago Police SWAT Team leader and medical response specialist, who was in town for our last joint Gateway to Publishing conference in June, 2018. It has merely gone respectable, although not quite legit.  Over a half-century ago, after the FBI, the Kefauver Commission and RICO, the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act, dismantled the existing crime syndicate, many of its operators carried on, acquiring legitimate businesses, conducting illegal rackets all the while, underground and out of the public eye. Still, you may be wondering how I selected this well-worn theme and got into writing mysteries in the first place.

My parents, both Chicagoans, were great mystery fans. They knew a lot about the Mob and its gruesome history. But they sheltered us kids from it.  They were both skilled publicists, good writers and mystery fans. They shared good books they had they had read around the family. Even on vacation, when we had adjoining rooms, Dad would speculate on ways one could commit a murder, exit through the adjoining doors and leave undetected. Later as an architect, when skullduggery occasionally came to light on one of our development sites, or within public agencies we were working for, I found it a fertile field for crime fiction. After all, who in the general public really knows the obscure bureaucrats who often manage millions in our public infrastructure and construction funds?

Who even knows what they do?

Know Your Main character

When I informed my Irish cousin Patrick in Cork I was creating a mystery character, a daring amateur sleuth—a lover of beauty, fine old things and fine young women. son of hard-working Irish parents—he jumped at the chance to name him. Paddy, as my cousin called himself, was a devout Catholic who spent much of his life serving the local priests. But he had a fertile imagination, was inspired. My cousin thought he deserved, a noble Scotch-Irish name.“I love him; I want to be him—Patrick MacKenna!” he declared..+

Then I mentioned to the manager of our local Barnes & Noble bookstore, after writing a series of biographical memoirs, I was starting a mystery series. She got a pained look on her face and said, “Look at all these shelves full of mysteries. How are you going to distinguish yourself among all these successful authors?” That set me to thinking about this very basic question, which required a good answer.

Identify Your Genre and Author Platform

I recalled what I had learned about an author’s platform. After reading numerous definitions and much stewing over this term, I knew it requires recognized standing or authority in some area of expertise, and enough personal following or celebrity to guarantee a ready audience for your ideas, your works and indeed for yourself. I concluded that an author platform is “a virtual place to stand before the crowd.”

author Platform

Then I had an “aha” moment. By now most of us have learned that the best way to distinguish oneself in a crowded field is to specialize in a limited category. It dawned on me: “That’s why there are so many sub-genres in crime and suspense fiction!” They include romantic suspense, historical mystery, amateur sleuth, medical mystery, police procedural, even scrapbooker mystery, and new genres are being created every day. I wondered how many authors are writing architectural mystery and suspense, It turns out there are very few. They include S. J. Rozan, creator of the absorbing Bill Smith and Lydia Chin series; Charles Belfoure, author of The Paris Architect, and Erik Larson, who wrote The Devil In the White City. So my answer to the book seller’s question was to classify the series as Architectural Mystery, as a sub-genre of both crime fiction and romantic suspense.

Once I had clearly identified that I was writing architectural mystery featuring an amateur sleuth who had continual woman problems, I was on my way.

Know your main character

I turned my thoughts to Patrick MacKenna, the main character in my mystery-thriller series, who helps his parents on weekends in their popular downtown pub. He has a foothold on an architectural career, with some help from his uncle, a successful but successful but opportunistic building contractor. Patrick has it made, or so he thinks.  Although it is the third mystery I have written featuring him, the prequel Chicago’s Designs is really the natural introduction to the Patrick MacKenna series.

Architectural Mystery, Chcago's Designs, cover image

One of my favorite beta readers and colleagues, T.W.  Fendley, Author of The Zero Time Chronicles reviewed and described this latest work, perhaps more concisely than I could express it at the time:

When a womanizing young architect meets a mobster with a multi-million-dollar casino project and a beautiful daughter, what could go wrong? For Patrick MacKenna, “Chicago Joe’s” plan to go legit is the career break he’s been looking for, and dating the mobster’s daughter is icing on the cake. Then Patrick finds himself attracted to a lovely barmaid fresh from Ireland, jeopardizing the deal and maybe even his life. With a murder investigation already linked to the casino property, Patrick turns amateur sleuth to find out who’s responsible. This intriguing glimpse into Patrick’s early years brings together fast-moving action, architecture and romance in a satisfying prequel to the Patrick MacKenna mystery-thriller series.

When I met S.J. Rozan at Bouchercon 2011 in St. Louis, we chatted as we toured the brewing facilities at Anheuser-Busch. “The trouble with architectural mystery,” she said, “is the length of time from the beginning to the end of the project. It’s about as interesting as watching paint dry.”

“But what if the crime occurs during a natural disaster,” I argued, “such as of flood, an earthquake or a typical violent shift in the Midwestern weather? It’s the architect’s knowledge of how buildings and infrastructure will behave that can come to the rescue.”

She allowed that such a premise might work.

Architects can also visualize and draw, supply sketches of remembered faces, describe unidentified places and even recognize hiding places within buildings and infrastructure unknown to the general public. In my work, we can even learn about architectural practice history, as in Chicago’s Designs, when part of a day’s work is unrolling huge bath-towel sized sheets of starched linen inscribed with lines in India Ink, showing the elevation drawings for the façade of one of the firm’s famous 1890’s twelve-story “skyscrapers.”

An early chapter of Chicago’s Designs describes a typical day at the office, with its environmental distractions, constant interruptions and all the human, humorous and tragic frailties. Patrick learns one of the secretaries, returning to her beautiful new sports car parked in a downtown garage, discovers her bucket seats missing and must call her brother to come and drive her home. The chief draftsman chats with the beautiful, although married, receptionist on the office phone about “working late” tonight. He calls his wife to inform her and peels a few bills off a roll he keeps locked in his desk drawer for that evening’s cozy dinner. A spiteful young draftsman abuses Patrick over his perks yet can barely complete his own assignments. And a visit from police can turn a peaceful day at the office entirely upside down. Patrick laments his situation:

Every other month you wonder if there isn’t some easier way to make a living. Then your phone rings, someone shows up at the door and there stands a new face with a new problem, a new unmet need and a little bit of money. “Come in Mr. Snaggletooth. What can I help you with?”

Just like today, when Uncle Mike called him and offered him the opportunity of a lifetime.

–Chicago’s Designs, P. 27

Use setting as a character

I am often inspired to write by the mood of a particular environment. Sometimes, as in Crimes of Design, the setting even acts as a character.

Foul weather compounded their troubles. Lightning and thunderstorms had unnerved St. Louisans for months.  The newsmen called it another “rain machine.” As in 1993 it had settled over the sprawling Mississippi basin in early spring and stayed. The stationary front, anchored by low-pressure over the Great Plains and a high-pressure system in the southeast sent storm after storm down a virtual railroad track across the Midwest, creating a new lake in North Dakota, swelling the Platte, the Kaw, the Missouri, the Illinois and finally the Mississippi out of their banks and reclaiming large chunks of the continent for their waters. The monster flashed its eyes, let out angry growls and kept coming, flooding the land.              

Crimes of Design, Pp,15 and 16

Dorothy L Sayers’s The Nine Tailors opens with Lord Peter Wimsey running his car into a ditch near Fenchurch on a snowy New Year’s Eve, in the marshy fens of Essex east of London—thus the flood plain terrain creates the story’s inciting incident. In my own Fatal Designs, members of Erin MacKenna’s canoeing party are separated by an earthquake, which roils the river and capsizes some of the canoes.

n Chicago’s Designs, a sudden summer thunderstorm disrupts a formal groundbreaking ceremony for Patrick’s new casino-resort project and causes an important pivot in the plot. Later, after a discouraging meeting with Uncle Mike and Chicago Joe, he returns to the office through the rain:  

He trudged blindly back through the steady downpour. The rain on his face mingled with tears as he walked the four blocks back to his office.

The streets were jammed with taxis jockeying for position, blocked drivers honking their horns and buses stopping to let drenched passengers clamber onboard and out of the rain. The few remaining walkers reminded him of how he looked—alone, forlorn and abandoned, in a hostile climate on streets with no respite from the danger, isolation and hostility of the uncaring city.

This was Chicago at its most dismal. Comfy if you were sitting by a blazing fire, snug and warm, watching the scene through a window. But if you were outside—exposed, desperate and lonely—the pelting rain, a penetrating chill and the mournful moan of a foghorn on the lake combined to play a dirge of impending doom.     —Chicago’s Designs, P. 163

All of these elements are critical to the pace, intrigue and suspense of thriller writing. Taken individually they are not difficult for a competent fiction writer to master.

But that’s only half of the story. Read on or listen on for more:

Pub. 2.4 Anatomy of a Thriller-Part 2

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