Wednesday, July 22, 2015

Interview with J.T. Ellison - What Lies Behind - Review

I'm so pleased to present NY Times Bestselling author J.T. Ellison's interview plus my review of her newest thriller, What Lies Behind. I met JT several years ago when Bouchercon was in St. Louis and I was thrilled to be able to moderate a panel with her and two other mystery authors,  Hank Phillipi Ryan and Julie Compton.
Since then JT has become one of my very favorite thriller writers who keeps me on the edge of my seat from page one until the end.
Enjoy our Chat!

ISBN-13: 9780778316503
Publisher:  MIRA
Release Date: 05/26/2015
Length: 400pp
Buy It: B&N/Amazon/Kobo/IndyBound/Audible


Critically acclaimed New York Times bestselling author J.T. Ellison delivers another riveting novel featuring the incomparable Dr. Samantha Owens
Waking to sirens in the night is hardly unusual for Samantha Owens. No longer a medical examiner, she doesn't lose sleep over them, but a local police investigation has her curious. When her homicide detective friend, Darren Fletcher, invites her to look over the evidence, she realizes the crime scene has been staged. What seems to be a clear case of murder/suicide—a crime of passion—is anything but. The discovery of toxic substances in hidden vials indicates that something much more sinister is at play…
Read an Excerpt:

Georgetown Washington, D.C. 
Tuesday morning
They'd drunk too much, gotten too loud, too boisterous. Mr. Smith's kicked them out a few minutes past midnight, and they stumbled into the Georgetown night, dragged themselves up Wisconsin and loped across M Street, tripping and clutching each other to stay upright, cackling hysterically, their heels an incoherent tattoo on the sidewalks. People watched them, their antics greeted with amusement or derision, depending on the mood of the observers.
"I can't go on, I can't. Stop, Emma, please, stop."
Emma, ponytailed, blonde and lanky, fiddled with her tights with one hand, tugged on Cameron's arm. "I gotta pee. We can't stop now, Cam, it's just a few more blocks."
"My feet hurt. And my head." Cameron slipped, landed hard against the plate-glass window of Starbucks. "Bump!" That set them off again, the giggles turning into guffaws.
Emma yanked on the door to the darkened store. "Nuts. They're closed."
"Why are they closed?" Cameron whined.
"'Cause it's midnight. The witching hour. And you're not a witch, you're just a bitch. Tommy's place is just ahead. Can you make it there?"
Cameron squeezed her eyes closed, chanting the rhyme under her breath. "Not a witch, just a bitch, not a witch, just a bitch."
"You really are screwed up, aren't you? Come on." Emma dragged her to her feet, off down the darkened street.
Georgetown never truly sleeps. Even when the bars close, there are still people about—joggers, the ubiquitous construction workers, musicians and homeless, dog walkers and students, lovers and mistresses. A stew of incessant liveliness, perfect for the college-aged and the cuckolded. The romantics and the hardened.
They made it a block before Cameron stopped dead. She grabbed Emma's arm, nails digging into the soft flesh. "Did you hear that?"
Emma strained, but one block up from M Street and two blocks over, all she heard was the tittering of the night birds and the whooshing of tires on pavement, maybe some faint, masked music. "Hear what?"
Cameron shook her head. "I thought I heard something. Someone shouted. I'm drunk. Where are we?"
Emma glanced at the sign on the corner. The numbers and letters weaved together. She shut one eye and the familiar N floated into range.
"We're on N Street. One more block up. Come on already."
They started off again. "How are you going to get in? I thought you two broke up. Didn't he take back his key?"
"We're not broken up. Just on a break. There's a difference. He's so busy now, with school and working. He just took on another new project. He needed some space. I understand."
"Oh. I see. You understand why you're not important to him anymore. Big of you."
"Bitch." But there was no heat behind the word.
She heard footsteps. Straightened in time to see a jogger cross the street in front of them, legs pounding out a steady rhythm. Chick could move. Emma wasn't a runner. She played tennis, quite well, but the idea of running for the sake of running was boring to her. At least on the courts there was a tangible goal.
She realized she was alone, looked over her shoulder. Cameron had stopped again, was leaning woozily on a trash can.
"Come on," Emma said, her tongue getting stuck on the words. She bit back a giggle and held out her hand. "We're almost there."
"Gotta rest."
"Fooocuuuus, Cameron. Don't make me leave you behind in the dark, all alone. Whooooo. Big nasty dark gonna eat you alive."
Cameron flipped Emma the bird and stumbled back to her feet. "Lesgo."
A car turned the corner, engine purring as it disappeared behind them. Now they were truly alone.
One block, turn right. Twenty steps more, then the basement apartment railing appeared on her left. Emma fished the key out of her bra. She'd known they were going to be drunk tonight. Thought a little booty call would be appropriate, even though she and Tommy had, in essence, broken up. Not because he didn't dig her; he did, she knew it. It was just school was tough on him.
She knew Tommy would be home studying, late into the night, working on some random epithelial cell or DNA splicing theory, as he always seemed to be. Medical school was hard. Hell, undergrad was hard. Harder than she'd expected. Life was hard, too, especially for a pretty young thing with just enough smarts to make it into Georgetown, but maybe not quite enough to stay there. Her parents would freak if she failed out.
Tomorrow, I'll stop drinking and partying and really study.
But for tonight, everyone needed to blow off some steam, get a little nookie. Sex was good for the brain. Raised the levels of oxytocin, serotonin, melatonin, all those tonins Tommy liked to talk about.
Emma shook her hair free of its ponytail so it would fall in a sultry mass about her shoulders, sloppily freshened her lip gloss, licked her lips and shot Cameron a look. Cam seemed like she was about to pass out. Her eyes were half-shut, the smile on her face dreamy and stupid.
Emma slipped as she went down the five stairs to Tommy's front door. She grabbed the railing with both arms, clung on, the metal biting cruelly into her rib cage. She managed not to drop the key, but one sky-high platform peep-toe clattered toward the door, hitting it with a thump.
"Whoops," she said, laughing. Cameron hooted like it was the best trick she'd ever seen.
Emma put a finger to her lips. "Shhh. God, you're gonna wake the whole street." She righted herself with dignity, squared her shoulders and put the key in the lock.
"Aren't you going to knock?" Cameron asked.
"Why?" Emma replied, jiggling the key, then turning the knob. The door swung open into darkness.
"Darn it. He's asleep," Emma said, looking back over her shoulder. "Better be quiet, Cam. Can you be quiet?"
"Go in, for Chrissakes. I need a drink."
Emma took off her other heel and stepped inside, the straps looped on her index finger. It was dark, so dark she couldn't see anything. She ran her hand along the wall by the door, found the light switch. The lamp in the foyer cast its yellow glow into the hallway. Tommy's bike was leaning against the wall. Careful not to knock it over, she pulled Cameron inside and shut the door. Made her way down the hall into the living room.
Turned on the light. Saw red, and it took a moment for reality to penetrate her margarita-fogged brain.
Not red.
Blood, everywhere. The sofa, the floor, the wall by the two-seater bar.
Emma stood frozen, unable to move. Cameron was busy getting sick behind her, gagging and choking. Only then did the smell of the blood hit her, meaty and raw, like steaks left too long in the refrigerator, their surface shiny and green.
Want to run, want to hide, want to go away.
Something kept her rooted to the spot. "Tommy?" she called.
There was no answer.
"Stay here," she told Cameron, an unnecessary direction. Cam was on her hands and knees, moaning, trying and failing to scrabble backward away from the living room and the vomit. She bumped up against the hallway wall and ducked her head into her hands, eyes squeezed tightly shut. She wasn't going to be of any help.
Careful to avoid stepping in the blood, Emma moved along the edges of the living room. Tommy's bedroom was down the hall. It was dark. There were no sounds but Cameron's low keening, which sent shivers down Emma's spine.
"Please," she said, uncertain to whom the plea was directed. Please don't let this be Tommy's blood. Please don't let him be hurt. Please don't let him be dead.Please please please please please.
His door was shut. She steeled herself, took two deep breaths. The smell was worse here, tighter, fresher. Almost alive in its awfulness.
She opened the door, flipped on the light.
Over and over and over again. Screams.

• *
The wailing jolted Dr. Samantha Owens from sleep. She listened for a moment, heard them growing louder. They were close. Too close. Several of them, caterwauling through the night as they came near. Instead of peaking and fading, blue lights suddenly flashed on the opposite wall of her bedroom, rotating frantically. The sirens ended with a squawk, but the lights continued their alternating strobes. Based on the angle of the flashes, they'd stopped on O Street.
Her home in Georgetown was generally quiet and calm in the darkness. A few drunk kids every once in a while, hollering as they wound their way back to campus, but rarely something like this.
Clearly, something terrible had happened.
Sam was used to sirens. Living in the city meant they were a regular, nightly, daily occurrence. Sirens used to be the precursor to her part in the festivities, so she always registered their noise. Sirens used to mean her phone was going to ring, and she'd have to drop everything and rush to a crime scene. But that was another life, in another city. One she tried very hard to put behind her.
Her phone wasn't going to ring, but habits die hard. She glanced at the clock—one in the morning.
She got up, pulled a brush through her shoulder-length brown hair, slipped a warm cashmere sweater over her thin T-shirt, pulled on black leggings and a pair of leather ankle boots. Grabbed a pashmina and tossed it around her shoulders.
Autumn was in full swing, and the late-September temperatures had dropped precipitously over the past week, making D.C. shiver. The bedroom, too, was cold, empty of Xan-der and his internal furnace. He was on assignment, a close-protection detail with one of his old Army buddies, Chalk. Trevor Reeves Worthington III on his driver's license, but Chalk forever to his Army mates, named for his propensity to write everything down.
It had only been three weeks since Xander and Chalk had hung out their shingle, made the business official, and they'd already been in high demand. She was glad to see Xander reengage with the world, though she had to admit, it was a bit of a shame. She liked the idea of him up in the woods with Thor at his side, doing his best Thoreau, leading the occasional fishing party, hiking solitary through the woods. The new gig was intense, all-hours, and took him away too much for her liking. Plus, his main job was to throw himself in front of a bullet should the need arise, and she wasn't at all comfortable with the thought.
She started down the stairs, whistled for Thor. The German shepherd was waiting for her already, ears pricked. She knelt beside him, buried her face in his fur. He was warm, like his daddy, had been curled in a ball in his sheepskin bed, dreaming doggy dreams. He nuzzled her and licked her on the nose gently, then went to stand by the door, alert and ready.
"Let's go out the back, baby."
He hurried to her side, and she fastened his lead. She opened the back door, was rewarded with a gust of chilly air, and the voices that carried from the other side of her privacy fence.
You have stooped to a new level, Owens, trying to eavesdrop on a crime scene.
But she went to the far fence, skirting the eternity pool, Thor stuck to her leg like glue. Put her head against the wood. If she turned slightly sideways, she could see through the double slats.
It was so familiar, the shouts and calls. The first responders were there, the police, too. An ambulance was parked on the corner. As she watched, EMTs scrambled toward it with a stretcher. One was kneeling on the gurney itself, straddling a body of indeterminate sex, performing CPR with single-minded intensity.
The open doors of the ambulance blocked the rest. Moments later, they slammed shut and it left in a hurry, sirens wailing. The fire trucks followed, calm now, big beasts rumbling into the night.
The police stayed.
Definitely not a good sign.
She wondered if her friend Darren Fletcher, the newly minted homicide lieutenant, would show. She didn't know why she assumed it was a homicide, or an attempted homicide, given that someone had been brought out at a rush. It could be anything. More than likely, at this time of night, it was a simple domestic dispute. Someone was punched, had a bloody nose, a black eye, then things got out of control. She ran through the neighbors she knew on O Street, people she'd waved to when walking Thor, imagining them in various states of fury and undress.
Maybe a heart attack. Or a stroke. Embolism, aneurysm, overdose.
God, you are cheery, aren't you?
She heard one of the cops say, "Hernandez, while you're at it, go ahead and call the OCME. We'll need them."
And she knew. Something inside her gave a little buzz. Death comes in all forms, from all directions. Expected or by surprise, it was the greatest common denominator, the great equalizer. She felt an affinity with the grimness, couldn't help that. But she had a choice, now. A choice to walk away from the carnage, from the horror. To face death on her own terms, especially since she'd agreed to work with the FBI on their more esoteric cases. A deal made all the more tantalizing because they wouldn't be dragging her out of bed in the middle of the night to parade, yawning, to a crime scene, where she'd face death in all its incarnations, as she had for so many years as a medical examiner.
She had a more immediate choice, as well. She could open the gate, walk around the block, stand with the crowd of neighbors who'd come to watch the show. Or she could go back inside and return to bed. She'd be able to get several more hours of sleep if she went inside now.
You're not the M.E. anymore, Sam. She stepped away from the fence.
Thor took advantage of the nocturnal walk to do his business, then she followed him into the silent house, feeling strangely hollow. As she closed the door behind her and watched Thor scoot back to bed, something made her pull out her cell phone and send Fletcher a text.
What's up on O Street?
She knew it wasn't too late for him; he was a night owl, especially now that he was seeing FBI Agent Jordan Blake. He'd be up, one way or another. She sent another, this time to Xander.
Miss you.
She poured herself a finger of Ardbeg, thought about it, brought the bottle with her to the couch. Sat down. Took off her boots.
Didn't know exactly what she was waiting for.
She spared a glance at the file folders on the coffee table in front of her. She'd left them scattered carelessly in frustration before climbing the stairs to bed. Crime scene and autopsy photos spilled out of the manila folders, coupled with her notes and Baldwin's notes and toxicology reports, all jumbled together on the smoky glass. She'd pulled all the autopsy reports from the files and stacked them neatly on the side table; they were her reading material and were proving to be an even bigger frustration than the case itself. This massive, sprawling, unnamed and unacknowledged case.
There were so many pathologists, coroners, methods, regulations, jurisdictions. No one did a postmortem exactly the same, much less were handling several of the individual cases as if there was a criminal component. She'd begun to feel she was interpreting without a Rosetta stone.
When John Baldwin had talked her into coming on board the FBI as a consultant to the behavioral analysis unit, BAU II, to work with his infamous group of profilers, he'd promised she could pick her cases. True to his word, he'd brought her to Quantico, gotten her set up with passes and emails and paperwork galore, then set her loose in the BAU file room. They had so much work, and so few people to handle it, any help was welcome.
And whether she was trying to prove her worth to her new team, or to herself, she'd chosen the big daddy of them all. A stack of files that were getting dusty, because no one could manage to link them, even though there was a single similarity between each victim—every woman was from the same hometown. New Orleans.

JT Hi! Welcome back to chat at The Reading Frenzy
It’s wonderful to be back! Thanks for having me!

You’ve recently published your 4th Dr. Samantha Owens novel, What Lies Behind. Tell my readers a little about what Sam is up to in this novel.
What looks like a domestic murder suicide is anything but, and Sam is fighting her biggest nemesis yet: an unknown villain planning a bioterror attack on the United States, using a mutated hemorrhagic fever similar to the Ebola virus. But this fever works must faster, and it’s much more deadly. The book is equal parts mystery and thriller, and takes place in only 24 hours.

The plot was very timely and frightening. Where did you go for novel research on this one?
Everywhere I could, actually. I read several books on African viruses, and talked at length to a virologist who was hugely instrumental in helping me figure out how I could morph a virus of this type into a weapon. It’s easier than you’d think, scarily enough.

I was more than halfway through writing the novel when the African Ebola outbreak happened, and as the virus, and the story, continued to spread, I kept having to change the book so it didn't look like I'd stolen the story from the headlines. Because I, apparently, am simply too prescient when it comes to writing about current events.

I’ve heard a rumor that you’re going to write your first stand-alone.
Was there a particular catalyst that made this happen now?
It’s not a rumor, it’s a fact! It’s called No One Knows, and it’s out March 22 from Gallery.  I worked on this book for 4 years, in between contracted novels. I’ve always wanted to write a standalone, spread my wings, and I’m so excited that Simon & Schuster picked it up. It’s in line with Liane Moriarty and Paula Hawkins and Gillian Flynna domestic suspense.

What’s the novel going to be about and will it differ from the writing voice of yours we know and love?
No One Knows is about a young widow, Aubrey Hamilton, who is trying to get over the loss of her husband, Josh, who went missing five years earlier and is presumed dead. The book opens the day she receives the letter from the State of Tennessee declaring Josh legally dead. She has one last chance to find out what happened to him before his insurance policy is paid out, and now there is another man hanging around who bears an uncanny resemblance to her deceased husband. 
I think you’ll find my voice quite apparent in this. No matter what I do, I have a propensity toward suspense. This could be seen as an extension of what I already do, just from the victim(s) perspective instead of the cop investigating the crime. It was incredible to write, and I’m really excited for March!

And what about your two current series?
Trucking right along. The next Nicholas Drummond book with Catherine Coulter, The End Game, comes out September 15, and I will be releasing the prequel to the Taylor series, Crossed, sometime this summer as well. It’s currently in the Sweet Dreams boxed set, but when that goes off sale, I will get Crossed out again there for everyone.

Speaking of The Brit in the FBI series, what have Nicholas and Mike gotten themselves into in The End Game?
Nicholas and Mike are deep into an investigation of COE—Celebrants of the Earth—a violent group known for widespread bombings of power grids and oil refineries across the country. And of course, things turn for the worse, and evil people pop up, and they have to thwart an attack on the administration. It’s great fun and very topical.

JT your novels are dark, some darker than others but the things that always stand out to me is the lightness the romance aspect injects into them, it doesn’t make them lighter but it does brighten the darkness.
Is this on purpose or are you just a romantic at heart?
I don’t know that I’d even use the term romance, since many of my books, like What Lies Behind, don’t have any sort of physical relationship between the characters. It’s more . . . love alleviating the darkness. To me, the love between friends is as important as that between lovers. The friendships in these books are incredibly importantSam and Taylor, for example, having known each other all their lives; Sam and Fletcher and the respect they have for each other; Taylor’s relationship with her teammates in Homicidethese interactions drive the story almost more than the romantic relationships. Love in all its many forms is the answer to all ills, I think. Love combats evil, head on, and wins every time.
That said, I am married to a very romantic guy who finds himself portrayed in all my novels—as the hero, and the lover, and the friend, so yes, I am a romantic at heart.

When I had the pleasure of meeting you in 2011 during your attending Bouchercon in St. Louis you had just released that very month Where All The Dead Lie #7 and the last, so far, in your Taylor Jackson series.
Tell us what’s the biggest difference between JT then and JT now?
I am much more comfortable with myself, my books, my thought process, appearing in public, writing, everything. I’ve grown up during the writing of these books, had two big birthdays, and have really found a groove I’m quite happy with. I used to be scared of messing up, of upsetting someone, saying or doing the wrong thing. I’m more relaxed now, about everything, and I’m able to have a great time doing what I love. It’s truly been a blessing. 

JT, do you write on a schedule, 9-5 Monday thru Friday?
I have changed my methods over the years, though I’ve always had the 1000-words-a-day plan intact. Right now, I read the headlines, do email and social media, then read a book while I’m eating breakfast. I have my manuscript open by 10:00 a.m., write until noon or 1 p.m., depending on how things go, then take an hour lunch, where I either read or watch something. I am at my most productive in the late afternoon, so I try for a second writing session from 2:00 p.m. – 4:00 p.m. or 5:00 p.m., then do yoga, make dinner, watch movies or TV with my husband, go to bed and read, then wash, rinse, repeat.  
Some days aren’t quite that perfect, of course. I like to meet friends for lunch, and in the warmer months I golf a couple of days a week, so those days the schedule is reversed or abandoned altogether.

JT Thanks so much for taking the time to answer my questions. Good luck with all your projects! Meeting up with you again someday is on my bucket list!
Are your events listed on the website?
They areyou can see everything I have going on here:
Thanks so much for having me back, Debbie! Love to you!

My Review of What Lies Behind
Where do I start telling how wonderful this was, do I start by giving it the 6 out of 5 stars it deserves? Do I start by saying what an adrenalin rush this nail biting, page-turning, one-sitting tale is so that by the end readers will need to breathe into a brown paper bad to stop hyperventilating? Or do I start by saying how incredible the characters are, how three dimensional, how vividly each one portrays his or her, good guy or bad guy roles? Maybe I should start by saying how the fast paced, in-your-face dialogue, a mix of cop & doc speak adds not only to the excitement but gives it that indelible authentic feel too. Or maybe it's the author I should start with, how everything that comes out of her fervent, incredibly creative, albeit a bit morbid brain never ceases to amaze me and that she gets better with each story she tells. Or I know Ill say how incredibly explosive the ending is, how the entire book happens in one event filled day and how theres a mind blowing cliffhanger right before; The End! Yeah thats what Ill say!
JT, wow, you amaze me, utterly and unbelievably!!!

Former medical examiner, newly minted FBI agent, Dr. Samantha Owens along with her friend DC homicide detective, Lieutenant Darren Fletcher have just been handed the most baffling, bloody case by her new boss, John Baldwin, also her best friends fiancée. What at first appears to be a domestic dispute gone deadly is really something all together different. They discover the victims; a dead undercover FBI agent and an expelled medical student barely hanging on to life apparently unlikely partners on an anti-bioterrorism unit for the US State Department, and whats meant to look like a murder suicide is in reality all staged by the killer. What the murder was about and what the killer was looking for is what Sam and Fletch need to find out because theyre afraid the body count could rise. Unfortunately the red tape and smoke and mirrors DC is famous for is tying their hands and adding questions instead of supplying answers.

Meanwhile Sams love, former Army Ranger, Xander Whitfield and his new partner  are on their first personal protection assignment, theyre protecting a British industrialist in the states for business  and find themselves involved in taking out a sniper with a long ranged gun pointing at their client. Its a good thing they stopped the bad guy because the alternative would be very bad for business. But now they need to see if the sniper was working alone and just who wants their client dead and why.

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MEET JT:JT Ellison is a New York Times bestselling author of thirteen critically acclaimed novels, including WHAT LIES BEHIND, WHEN SHADOWS FALL and ALL THE PRETTY GIRLS, and is the co-author of the A Brit in the FBI series with #1 New York Times bestselling author Catherine Coulter. Her novel THE COLD ROOM won the ITW Thriller Award for Best Paperback Original of 2010 and WHERE ALL THE DEAD LIE was a RITA® Nominee for Best Romantic Suspense of 2012. She is also the author of multiple short stories, and her novels have been published in more than twenty countries.

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  1. Okay the whole concept and even thought, of that virus is terrifying! I love that this takes place over only a 24 hour period. Definitely sounds like a fast paced thriller!

    Great interview!!

    1. OMG Ali, you have no idea what JT does to my pulse rate when I read one of her novels. This one is fabulous!!!

  2. The premise for this one ..has me oh so curious. Epp..adding to my list!

  3. What she's trying to do with this plot is indeed scary to ponder. Forget the zombie apocalypse, what if a large scale plague hits us?! Smallpox v 2.0. *shivers*

    1. yeah, can you say biological warfare = armageddon
      Thanks Braine

  4. Oh Debbie you have been tempting me with these. That sounds like a pretty good daily schedule for writing. I so need to get myself on a schedule. I really do. Whew!