PHILADELPHIA — For an author who cut her teeth writing romance novels, Lisa Gardner’s thrillers aren’t very girlie.
But men still won’t pick up her bestsellers.
"I’m still predominantly women," she said recently by phone from Mississippi, where she was book-signing her latest chart-topper, Love You More.
"It is difficult to get men to pick up a female author. Women will read men, but men won’t read women. (Suspense author) Joseph Finder (Killer Instinct) did a really nice review of Love You More in which he kind of flat-out said, for all you guys out there who don’t think you can read a woman writer, read this book, give it a chance, you’ll like it."
Inspired in her writing by Erle Stanley Gardner (no relation; Gardner is not her real name), Robert B. Parker, Lee Child, and Elmore Leonard ("I swear the guy says more in three words than the rest of us can in an entire novel"), Gardner believes in lean prose.
"I don’t like a lot of introspection," she said. "I like action. Clever dialogue — at least that’s my goal at the time. Procedure. ... I like some angst in my characters, but they’re thrillers. People want things to happen."
And with Love You More, her 14th suspense novel and fifth in the Detective D.D. Warren series — the fourth, Live to Tell, is just out in paperback — Gardner is getting some of the best reviews of her career.
"I think people really respond to Love You More because it has a theme that’s universal," she said of the tale of a murder and a missing child. "It gets to you. Everyone out there who’s a parent reads this book and responds — and it’s a fun book. Live to Tell, is tougher, it talks about a bunch of kids you can’t really help so it’s a little harder to read. Love You More is more the parental fantasy.
"I think if you’re a mom or dad and you’ve just heard on the nightly news about a child abduction or some terrible thing that’s happened, you can’t help but lay there in the middle of the night thinking, ‘Well, if someone touched my kid, this is what I would do.’ And [state trooper] Tessa Leone is a mom who also happens to be trained in firearms and hand-to-hand combat. ... They will be sorry they messed with her kid."
Gardner grew up in Oregon, came east to go to the University of Pennsylvania, where she majored in international relations, and graduated to become a management consultant.
She started writing romance novels under the pseudonym Alicia Scott, later switched to suspense novels and became successful enough to quit the day job. For the past two decades she’s lived in New England, where her books are based.
As to why she gave up romance for rape and murder, Gardner said, "I’ve always been fascinated by darker humor and emotions, and I would say the transition into suspense really was the evolution of that. I became more intrigued by the psychology of crime. What is the nature of evil? And because it’s depressing if you think of that alone, you have to think of the psychology of the people who fight crime.
"It’s kind of the yin and yang that fascinate me. That for all the evil men do, there are also people who work obnoxiously long hours and sacrifice their personal lives because it is a calling — if they don’t keep our streets safe, if they aren’t there to advocate for and save beaten women and children and murder victims, who will?
"Postapocalyptic novels tell you that in the future there is some great war. I would tell you that most cops say that it’s going on right now."
Gardner writes one book per year, typically spending three months on research, six months writing, and three more months rewriting. "I can only write one book at a time," she said, "because I am developing the plot as I write.
"I do have a child, so I have mom’s hours. I write Monday to Friday, pretty much 9 to 3.
"The most fun for me," she said, "is that I do love the research. I don’t have a background in any aspect of crime or law enforcement. All I’ve really ever done is write since I was 17, so I don’t know anything about anything. For me to do a novel, I have to talk to people who know things. And what keeps me in suspense is that I am a crime aficionado.
"I am fascinated by forensics. I am fascinated by the criminal justice system. For Love You More I got two days to go to the Body Farm (a famous anthropological facility at the University of Tennessee), and I don’t know what normal 40-year-old women want, but that has been a lifetime dream of mine. ... They granted me permission last year, and I pretty much crafted a book around the idea that I was finally getting to go. I loved it. The research that’s being done there, the bone collection, Death’s Acre, the facial reconstruction they do — I could have spent weeks there and been quite happy with myself."
Gardner’s research for Love You More also brought about another realization.
"I realized that in 20 years of writing I’d never interviewed a uniformed officer," she said. "I knew what homicide detectives and FBI agents did, but I didn’t really know what your uniformed cop does. So I made outreaches there, I got to do a drive-along with a female police officer and I learned that I do not have the temperament to be a cop at all. I was strung out all eight hours. I have the imagination for every dark alley, and the less that happened, the more strung out I became."
But the research gave Gardner new insight into what it’s like to be a policewoman.
"I had this notion that if you’re a female cop," she said, "your problem would be in the locker room, getting respect from your fellow cops, being a woman in a man’s world and struggling to have guys take you seriously, but that wasn’t the case. In fact, they do very well interacting with men; the problems are the women. Other women in uniform can be very tricky, and when you do a traffic stop, it’s the soccer mom who’s going to give you [grief]."