Hank Phillippi Ryan's debut Charlotte McNally novel, Prime Time, about a television reporter chasing down a big (and dangerous) story, earned the author an Agatha Award for best first novel in 2007. The Emmy Award-winning investigative television reporter for WHD-TV in Boston, hasn't slowed down since, penning another ten of her smart, socially incisive, female-powered novels to date, including five Jane Ryland thrillers, three more McNally books, and her first standalone, Trust Me (2018).
Her latest book, Trust Me, a psychological suspense, is a standout and possibly her best one yet. As in previous books, it features a reporter protagonist, but with a twist. Mercer Hennessey is commissioned to write a true crime bio of the sensational story of Ashlyn Bryant, a woman accused of murdering her young child. It's a tale about motherhood, murder, the sometimes elusive nature of 'truth.'
Robin Agnew for Mystery Scene: I loved Trust Me so much and think it is by far your best book. How did it feel when you were writing it? Did it feel different?
Hank Phillippi Ryan: Thank you! And you are so wise—Trust Me felt different from moment one. First, my initial impetus for the book was not plot, and not character, but theme. And that’s completely different from any of the other nine books I’ve written.
Then, when I began page one, words and emotions appeared in a voice that was different from any I had written before. I wondered: Who is this talking? And where did this come from? That feeling of doing something special, of presenting someone special and distinctive and textured, lasted through the entire book. And at the moment Mercer and Ashlyn connected? I could not type fast enough.
And as my first psychological standalone, wow. The freedom of a standalone was breathtaking. Anyone could lie, anyone could be guilty, anyone could die. Absolutely everything goes on the table, and every loose end gets tied up. That’s very different from series writing, and though it took a while to understand the realities of it, I soon devotedly embraced the challenge—as well as the freedom and the power.
It's a slippery and deep dive into the nature of truth. Where did the inspiration for this theme come from?
Quick background: my husband is a criminal defense attorney, and one Sunday morning at the kitchen table, he was practicing his closing argument in an especially grim and dreadful murder case. He was so compelling, and so convincing, and so persuasive! I said, “Sweetheart, you are brilliant. You have woven the perfect truth using the evidence presented in the trial.” I told him: “This is a slam dunk acquittal.”
And then I thought about the prosecutor’s wife, listening to her husband practice his closing argument in the same case. Did she say to him “Sweetheart, you are brilliant. So persuasive, so convincing. You have woven the perfect truth using the evidence presented in the trial”? Did she then say, “This is a slam dunk conviction”?
That was so profound to me. How could there be two truths?
Then I decided what really happened in the murder it was probably something different from either one. And that’s when I thought: There are three sides to every story: yours and mine and the truth. I knew—this was my book. And that’s the essence of Trust Me.
And think about the real-life trials that end so jaw-droppingly: O.J. Simpson, Casey Anthony. Will we ever know what truly happened in those cases? We probably won’t, and I’m fascinated by that.
Plus, and forgive me for this: What is truth, anyway? Is it what we believe? It is it what someone tries to convince us is true? Is there a true truth? I know that sounds lofty, but as a reporter, I think of that constantly. So as a crime fiction author, it made sense to continue to explore it. Writing this book changed my life as a reporter, and changed my life as a writer as well.
In each book you draw on your experience as an investigative reporter, which lends so a lot of credible detail to your books. How else has your experience helped your writing?
Oh my goodness, there’s no better experience for writing crime fiction than being a reporter. My entire career, I’ve explored motivation, and conflict, and goals, as well as desire, and manipulation, and rationalization. I have seen the darkest of the dark side, and the saddest of the sad. My stories have led to new laws, and changed people’s lives. Nothing happens to my fictional reporters that wouldn’t happen in real life, and, sure, often there are things that actually happened to me. I feel very lucky to be able to use all of that.
Plus, if a reporter is doing the job properly, viewers will have no idea how they really feel about the story, right? Are they afraid, skeptical, reluctant, obsessed? So I loved allowing readers to get inside Mercer’s head, and to understand what she thinks about the murder trial she’s covering, compared to what she actually writes.
Trust Me is one obsessed journalist and one troubled mom, facing off in a psychological cat and mouse game to prove their truth about a terrible crime. But which one is the cat, and which one is the mouse?
Let's talk about your book tours. You and Jenny Milchman are tied, I think, for the longest book tour, but no one does it like you do. You are everywhere. How do you pull this off while still working as a reporter, and as a novelist? What's your secret? No sleep?
Oh no! I love to sleep! It is one of my favorite things. And happily, I can sleep anywhere. My secret to good book tour? I enjoy it! Completely. (Thank you, Forge Books.) I pull my little wheelie bag through airport concourses and sing "Magical Mystery Tour." (Softly. To myself.) How lucky can anyone be to get to do this? So even when things go a little bit wrong, I still think, Wow, this is great.
Do you have a favorite story about a signing or appearance?
You know when you give a party, how there’s always the moment at two minutes ‘til seven where you think, Oh no! No one will come! My best moments are the ones when I peek out of the green room door, and the every chair is filled. It’s unbelievably reassuring, almost brings tears to my eyes, when I see a room full of people.
The worst, oh, I try to find some sort of positive, even in the ones that—and this really happened—take place during an gigantic blizzard, when the governor has declared a snow emergency, but the bookstore owner insists on having the event anyway, saying “Our attendees always walk.” When I said, “Well, probably not in a blizzard,” she insisted they would. They didn’t.
Actually, one person was there. I gave her my all, since everyone gets 100 percent, no matter what. When I thanked her for coming she said, “Well, I was just waiting for the bus, and watched for it out the window as you spoke.”
You have now have 10 books under your belt, which includes, as it does for most writers, a change of publishers. What have you learned about publishing in your time in this rapidly changing business?
Oh, the change of publisher was because Forge was incredibly enthusiastic about The Other Woman (Forge 2012), so I was thrilled to sign up with them. Although MIRA was terrific. What have I learned about publishing? To write the very best book I can, no matter what the circumstances, because “the circumstances” are so often out of my control that it would be a waste of time to try to force the universe to be the way I want it to be.
The only constant in my publishing world is me. My passion, and my desire, and my obsession.
I have been a television reporter for 43 years. Can you believe it? And I think one of the secrets to career longevity is to work hard, and then work harder, and do the best, the utterly best you can, on every story.
What makes you excited when you sit down to write?
I can’t wait to find out what happens next! I have no outline or plan, and I have no idea who did it or who is lying, or who will get killed, or why. So I am my own Scheherazade, keeping myself curious every day. So when people say to me, “Wow, the end of Trust Me! You really surprised me!” I reply, “I know, wasn’t that a surprise?” Talk about a surprise ending, I surprise myself. Every day. Sue Grafton used to call that the magic, and I think of her, and that, every day.
Your books keep getting better and better and better. What are some of the most noteworthy things about writing you've learned?
Thank you! (And, between us, I agree, though I still adore Prime Time, something about each books gets better.) What I learned, and I hope this doesn’t sound strange, is that a writer can get better. I learn something at every conference I attend, and in every class I teach. Specifically, I’ve tried to become more precise in my writing, more present, more focused. To probe more deeply, unearth more motivations. I think precision has become a Holy Grail for me, to choose the perfect words. And not to waste any of them.
What's coming up next for you? Can you talk about your next book?
My next book? I can’t begin to describe how much I love it. It’s called The Murder List. Here’s what I can say without giving anything away:
Law student Rachel North will tell you the absolute truth as she knows it. She’s smart, diligent, savvy, and determined. She’s married to a hotshot defense lawyer, a good guy from moment one. Her summer internship with the crusading district attorney is her fast track to big-time career. Problem is: she’s wrong. What’s the murder list? Who’s the next person on it? And who is the woman on the cover? She will change everyone’s lives.
Again, The Murder List is different from anything I’ve ever written. So, crossing fingers.
I read a memoir by one of Picasso's wives that related the story of him taking his paintings into the Louvre and putting them next to paintings by Delacroix (who drove him nuts, because Picasso thought he was so great). Who is Delacroix for you? Whom do you admire?
Such a great story! And revealing, too, in that even the masters can envy talent on the canvases of others. As for non-master me, and talking about writers who I might actually be on the shelf with? Ah. Such a cruel question, because I cannot list everyone. I’d adore to have the skill and talent of Megan Abbott, Michael Koryta, John Lescroart, Lisa Gardner, Ruth Ware—oh and certainly Anthony Horowitz. Clever, fair, boundary-breaking, fearless—every book they write is reliably wonderful and reliably different. In the bigger picture? Edith Wharton, Stephen King, Shakespeare, Mark Helprin, Tom Wolfe, Hunter S. Thompson. Those authors changed my writing life and continue to do so.
Hank Phillippi Ryan has won five Agatha Awards, in addition to the Anthony, Macavity, Daphne du Maurier, and Mary Higgins Clark Awards for her bestselling mystery novels. As an investigative reporter, her work has resulted in new laws, criminals sent to prison, and millions of dollars in restitution for victims and consumers. Along with 34 Emmys and 14 Edward R. Murrow Awards, Ryan has received dozens of other honors for her groundbreaking journalism. A former president of Sisters in Crime and founder of MWA University, she lives in Boston with her husband, a nationally renowned civil rights and criminal defense attorney.
Jonathan Putnam’s Lincoln and Speed Mystery Series features Abraham Lincoln and his best friend, Joshua Speed, who met as young men and remained lifelong friends. The books take place in what was then the frontier town of Springfield, Illinois, and give you a whole new picture of Lincoln as well as life on the frontier. The mystery part is pretty great too! These are really enjoyable reads as well as being informative about the time and place.
Robin Agnew for Mystery Scene: What turned you from the law to mystery novels?
Jonathan Putnam: I was a trial lawyer for a large, international law firm in New York City for 20 years before deciding I wanted to become a novelist. A trial lawyer, like a writer, is at bottom a storyteller. My job was to assemble the known facts into a compelling narrative that was interesting and believable and convinced the judge and jury to find in favor of my client.
I enjoyed my time as a lawyer, but after a while I started to get tired of telling someone else’s stories (that is, my clients’). I wanted to tell my own stories.
Are you a greater fan of mysteries or of Abraham Lincoln?
At this point, I’m a huge fan of both, but I can’t say I’ve always been a Lincoln scholar. When I was just starting to think about writing, I was brainstorming about famous lawyers in history around whom I could build a historical mystery. Lincoln was one obvious possibility. Then my sister, who’s a real historian (Chair of the History Department at the University of Pittsburgh), suggested that I could have Lincoln’s roommate narrate his story. I had never heard of Joshua Speed, but as soon as I started to look into him, I said to myself, “I’ve found my Watson!”
Mystery wise, who are your influences?
Among my favorite mystery writers are Dick Francis, Tony Hillerman, and (of course) Agatha Christie. Scott Turow is probably my favorite legal thriller writer. I find David Liss’ historical thrillers to be consistently excellent. And The Alienist by Caleb Carr is probably the single book that has influenced my writing the most. Like my books, The Alienist features a future president in a real-life pre-presidential role (in his case, Theodore Roosevelt as New York City’s police commissioner, although my Lincoln plays a more prominent role in my books than does his Roosevelt in his).
You write about the young Lincoln and a time that many people may not know as much about, so along with the mystery element, there's plenty of interesting history to learn. Do you have any difficulty tempering the research and knowledge you have to prevent overwhelming the book with historical detail?
People’s image of Lincoln is overwhelmingly focused on his final, presidential years. When I give book talks, I ask the audience to form a mental picture of Lincoln and then ask if he’s bearded in that mental image. Nearly every person in every audience nods. I tell them that that image is necessarily of his presidential years, as Lincoln didn’t grow a beard until he was running for president in 1860.
Now, the five years when Lincoln was president were incredibly consequential, for the man and indeed for our nation, but they were only five years of his life. That man came from somewhere. My books allow readers a close look at Lincoln much earlier in his life, as a young adult who drifted from job to job and finally made a go of it as a prairie trial lawyer in Springfield, Illinois. There is an incredibly rich tapestry of history to draw from in filling in the details around the central mystery and illuminating the life and times of the young Lincoln and Speed.
At the same time, I always remember that I’m telling an engaging mystery story, and the story has to come first. In libel law, there’s an old saying: “The truth is an absolute defense.” That is, if you write something derogatory about someone, but what you say is true, you can’t be sued for it. In writing, I’ve come to the opposite maxim: The truth is not a defense. Just because something actually happened, or some historical tidbit might seem irresistibly interesting, doesn’t make it effective storytelling.
I always include a “Historical Note” at the end of each book, so my readers know what in the book is true to life and what’s made up. The large majority of my plot points and characters are drawn from the actual historical record, but sometimes I put them together in ways that serve my fiction.
You have three books out now, and a fourth scheduled for this summer. What arc do you have in mind? How far will you take Lincoln on his journey? I think he must meet Mary Todd in the next book.
Lincoln and Speed lived together for four years in Springfield, Illinois, when both were young, unmarried men—from 1837 to 1841—and they remained lifelong friends. The three books so far, These Honored Dead, Perish from the Earth, and Final Resting Place, have been set in 1837-38. The new one, A House Divided (to be published in July 2019), is set in 1840, and you’re right: Mary Todd is a major character. In real life, Mary arrived in Springfield in the fall of 1839, and as a smart, beautiful and politically savvy young woman she made a big splash. Lincoln, Speed, and many other men in town vied for her hand. She’s a fascinating character, much more interesting and sympathetic than her historical reputation (which is overwhelming based on Lincoln’s presidential years and thereafter), and I think readers will really enjoy getting a new perspective on her in the book.
As far as the series goes, Lincoln and Speed remained lifelong friends and had a number of notable interactions with each other even after they stopped living together. I’d like to use the series to trace the entire arc of their friendship, in tandem with the arc of the country over that same time as it tumbled towards Civil War. Since the two men were, at least initially, on opposite sides of the slavery debate (Speed came from a wealthy slave-owning family in Louisville, Kentucky), their friendship embodied all of the conflicts and contradictions of that period in our nation’s history.
What would you say to folks who aren't especially fans of Lincoln (though who could that be?) to convince them to read your books?
My books can be read as the historical adventures of two best friends on the American frontier in the 1830s, a lawyer named Abe and a shopkeeper named Joshua, who investigate murders that occur in their community. It just happens that both of them, as well as most of my other characters, are based on historical figures. Personally, I think anyone who enjoys history or historical mysteries will enjoy the books without regard to the fact that one of the characters is Lincoln.
I'm also fascinating by the frontier aspect of the books. Springfield, Illinois, was really at the edge of the United States at the time you are writing about. Can you talk about what makes that historical period come alive for you as you write and how you get it across to a reader?
The American frontier of the 1830s and 1840s was a remarkable place and time, although very little is remembered about it today. The railroads still years away from the region, so to get anywhere you had to travel by stagecoach, horseback, or—if you were near to mighty Mississippi, or any of the other great rivers—by steamboat. It was a time of much violence and much turbulence, spectacular fortunes and spectacular crashes. The customs of the society were very much like ours today in some ways, and very different in others. For example, I have a vignette in Final Resting Place about the way that unmarried men and women courted in Springfield that seems a million years away from the dating scene today.
I definitely wouldn’t have wanted to live on the frontier of the 1830s, but it would have been a fascinating place to visit. That’s the experience I try to give my readers in the books.
As a writer, what makes you excited to sit down and get to your writing every day?
It’s the best job in the world. I love crafting stories that readers will get lost in. There’s nothing better than hearing a reader tell me one of my books kept them up all night reading.
As a now veteran writer with three books to your credit, what do you think you've learned about publishing and writing along the way?
Just write. I think way too many writers spend way too much time worrying about how they’re going to sell their book and to whom. I’m sure I’ve been guilty of that, too. But until you’ve got a compelling manuscript, you’ve got nothing to sell. And once you’ve got that, the rest will take care of itself. As a writer, you should spend 99 percent of your time (99.9 percent would be even better) just writing. It’s all you have control over.
Finally, what book was a transformational read for you? What book set you on the path to becoming a reader and/or writer?
In addition to The Alienist, which I mentioned earlier, I’d identify two books by Scott Turow. One L is his account of his first year at Harvard Law School; I read it during my own first year there. The following year, I read Presumed Innocent, his first legal thriller. Turow wrote that book while working as a big-firm lawyer in Chicago, and as I read it during law school, I thought to myself that maybe I’d try to do something similar, one day.
Jonathan Putnam is a writer and attorney. His books in the Lincoln and Speed Mystery Series include Final Resting Place (2018), Perish from the Earth (2017), and These Honored Dead (2016). He is currently working on the fourth book in the Lincoln and Speed Mystery Series, A House Divided, which is slated for publication in 2019. Jonathan has been active in a number of charitable causes relating to children and access to higher education for less fortunate kids. He is also the much-criticized commissioner of his family's fantasy football league and a back-of-the-pack marathon runner, having completed marathons in New York, Chicago, London, Paris and Las Vegas. He and his wife, Christin Putnam, have three sons. They live in London and New York.