Thrill hounds, make room in your collections next to Archer Mayor and Don Bredes for a third standout author of gritty Vermont mysteries. Bennington County's Eric Rickstad is increasingly distinguishing himself as an author of dark, page-turning procedurals with topical twists.
If you know Rickstad's name from his debut coming-of-age novel Reap, set in the Northeast Kingdom and published in 2000, you can be assured he's still covering some of the same territory, geographically and emotionally. Now, however, his protagonists are detectives rather than frightened youths caught up in rural crime, and they're reaching a new audience.
Rickstad's thriller The Silent Girls, published in 2014, landed on the New York Times and USA Today best-seller lists. His new novel, Lie in Wait, takes place in the same town — Canaan, Vt. — a few years earlier. Specifically, it's November 2010, and passions are running high about a pending (fictional) marriage-equality court case.
An ambitious Canaan lawyer has drawn local ire by taking up the cause of a gay couple seeking to wed. When a teenage babysitter is found brutally murdered in his home, suspicions immediately go to certain prominent Take Back Vermont activists. But small-town detective Sonja Test, facing her first murder case, doesn't want to jump to conclusions.
Rickstad's third-person narration takes us into the minds of characters on opposing sides of the debate, heightening both empathy and suspense as the murder investigation unearths a wider-reaching tragedy. While not as gothic as The Silent Girls, Lie in Wait proves satisfyingly twisty and harrowing as it races to a startling denouement. Tying it all together is the likably stubborn and perspicacious Test — a mother of two young children who's determined to take an active role in the case rather than ceding it to a senior state police detective.
Seven Days quizzed Rickstad via email about his grim, compelling and not always geographically literal visions of Vermont.
SEVEN DAYS: Your first novel, Reap, was characterized as "literary." When and how did you decide to start writing thrillers? How different are the two genres in your mind?
ERIC RICKSTAD: I believe most books are characterized or categorized by people other than the writer. Reap was literary, but, I thought, also very suspenseful, if a slower burn than my "thrillers."
Genre is a peculiar beast. After Reap, I perhaps got lost in trying to be too "literary" and lost sight of what I love most: a good story that keeps me up late at night or causes me to be the last person to get off a plane.
I had always written about crime; the social, economic, psychological and emotional factors that lead a person to violent crime or murder intrigue me, as does the aftermath, the emotional ruin for family and friends and community. But I also love a page-turner. I guess the difference between "literary" fiction and "genre" is that genre isn't afraid to put the story out there, create a constant tension and suspense in nearly every sentence that makes for compulsive, addictive reading. So, basically, I went from writing "literary" novels about crime to writing "crime" novels with all the literary chops and personal style I could bring to them.
SD: Did you expect The Silent Girls to sell as well as it did? Have the strong sales opened new opportunities for you as a writer?
ER: I didn't know what to expect. I hoped it would do well. But even if I'd had expectations of good sales, those expectations would have been far exceeded by how strongly readers have responded to it, both in North America and around the world. To have it be a New York Times, USA Today and international best seller for many weeks, continue to find readers after a year and half, and to be translated in several languages is crazy to me. Good crazy...
Lie in Wait has done very well out of the gate. It was an international best seller its first four weeks in stores and is up for an International Thriller Writers Award. To be able to go to conventions and meet or be on panels with writers such as Chris Pavone, Gillian Flynn, Paula Hawkins, Lawrence Block and Walter Mosley, that's pretty fun.
SD: A few characters from Reap appear in Lie in Wait. Why did you decide to connect the two books?
ER: Lie in Wait decided for me. I was shocked as I wrote those characters in and discovered they were a part of Lie in Wait. Shocked and saddened, because what occurs is pretty tragic, heartbreaking, I think. I never know what is going to happen when I sit down to write each day. I don't have a clue. I don't outline. I am as surprised when a twist comes as the reader hopefully is. When I write a novel, it's as if I am the first reader of a novel no one else has read yet. I possess the only copy, and it's all in my mind. Of course, the first several drafts are pretty lousy reading. But, eventually, it improves.
SD: Do you have a particular town in mind when you think of Canaan, or is it a composite?
ER: I grew up fishing and hunting up there [in the Northeast Kingdom] and loved it then and now. I love the beauty of it, and the contrast of that beauty with the severity of the place, the weather and remoteness, and the difficulties of making a go of it in such an isolated area. The stresses and pressures it can impose on people, as it also offers relief and serenity.
I wanted a very isolated and remote sense of landscape, physically and psychologically and emotionally for a setting, so Canaan having Canada for its north border and New Hampshire to its east was perfect. I also love the name itself. It's a biblical reference. I use many place names that resonate for me, that actually exist, but the geography is way, way off. Lost Nation Road, Forgotten Gorge, Unknown Pond, Avers Gore. I love the sounds of these places and the atmosphere they create. But my map is in my head, and anyone who ever used that map to try to get around in the NEK would be lost very quickly and probably end up driving down the wrong dirt road and never be seen again.
SD: What kind of research did you do to portray a small-town detective?
ER: I know a few police officers who have been irreplaceable to me. I bounce ideas off of them and ask them if what I've written is remotely accurate. I met and emailed with one detective who'd been in homicide and narcotics for 25 years in New York City. Another one is a writer whom I more recently befriended. He was the detective sergeant in homicide in the Portland, Maine, force for more than two decades. I've already sought his advice for my latest novel. It's invaluable.
SD: Your two thrillers both broach contentious issues. What kind of role do you see your writing as having in relation to politics?
ER: I often write from a place of outrage. Political or social. For instance, I am outraged when I learn from a news piece that a perpetrator of a recent murder or rape or violent crime against a woman has made a life of this behavior. Has been in and out of jail for repeat offenses and, to my mind, should have still been in jail and not free to harm again. For me, I find it impossible to write about crime without drawing from social injustices or social/political hot-button issues to which I have a strong visceral and emotional reaction. It also makes for great tension and suspense.
SD: What's next?
ER: I am finishing up the sequel to The Silent Girls within the next month or so. I also have another novel completed, and three others in the works, with a couple hundred pages of each down so far. And a short-story collection that's being tidied up. I'm keeping pretty busy.