Sue Coletta is passionate about crime. Her research is meticulous, which gives her novels a chilling reality. In her latest novel, “Wings of Mayhem”, her female heroine, Shawnee, just can’t help herself but provoke the murderer, which heralds the beginning of a deadly game of cat and mouse. As the body-count piles up, your blood pressure will too. Sue Coletta explains why she loves all things crime, and what inspires her when she writes.
"Wings of Mayhem" is the first novel of yours I have read, so I am not sure if you always have a strong female protagonist, and Shawnee Daniels is nothing short of a great female protagonist.
Do you always have strong female protagonists and why?
It’s not a rule of mine to always use strong female protagonists, but I do tend to include them. I’m not sure why, actually. Maybe it’s because I relate to them, so it’s my natural inclination to lean toward a strong female hero when I’m crafting a story.
What inspired you to create a character who straddles both sides of the law: a woman who is a cat burglar at night but works for the police force by day?
That’s one of the things I love most about Shawnee.
After dinner one night she popped into my head. I can’t really say what inspired her. She seemed to come out of nowhere. That night, I scribbled a few notes about who she is and what she does (cat burglar). Back then, she didn’t have a day job. The next morning I got started, and I wrote that novel in three weeks. It just poured out of me; her voice was so loud. I was a pantser then. Planning my novels in advance wasn’t something I did. Now, however, I wouldn’t dream of writing a story without a well-mapped-out plan, because my stories tend to include symbolism and cryptic clues. Especially Wings of Mayhem. If you were to read it a second time, now knowing the ending, you might catch all the tiny details that add to the overall theme.
Anyway, the early book was nowhere near Wings of Mayhem. Different killer, different murder MO, different storyline. I wasn’t published then, either, however, the early buzz was amazing. Everyone loved Shawnee. That first Shawnee Daniels novel (I wrote 4) won every contest I entered. Still, I set the book aside. Something wasn’t right, and until I figured out what that was, Shawnee had to wait.
Then I wrote MARRED, Book 1 in the Grafton County Series, and that book scored my first publishing deal.
It wasn’t until after MARRED released that I was chatting with my dear friend Larry Brooks, and I mentioned how much I loved Shawnee and how it was time for her to make an appearance. But I needed a plausible way for her to meet Det. Levaughn Samuels, and he suggested having them meet at a day job. Instantly, I loved the idea. The next thing I pondered was, I needed to give her a job that remained true to her personality, yet gave her some authority. To give her a menial job wouldn’t fit her personality. Allowing her to run the computer lab at the Revere Police Dept. seemed perfect, though.
Your novel is very well research, which gives it authenticity. Have you worked for the police force? Or is your knowledge based purely on research?
No, I’ve never worked for the police, but I do have numerous homicide detective friends. My love of research allows me to get lost for days on the details to ensure my stories ring true. It’s also the basis behind my crime resource blog.
If based on research, do you visit forensic labs and morgues to get a feel for the work that goes on there, not to mention the atmosphere of such places?
As of yet, I haven’t visited the morgue, but I have taken several courses...hacking, forensics, blood spatter analysis, entomology, death investigations, forensic psychology, ballistics, fingerprints, undercover ops, etc. I’m also not shy about calling the state Medical Examiner, Sheriff’s Dept., local and/or State Police. Also, like I mentioned earlier, some of my closest friends are detectives. If I need an answer quickly, I can go to them. I try not to bother them too much, but I’ve been known to drill them for answers that aren’t normally available to the public, like the interactions between officers, department politics, dealing with dispatch, jealousy and/or cooperation between agencies, that sort of thing.
"Wings of Mayhem" has some particularly gruesome murder scenes. Yet, you do a great job at making Jack Delsin, the murderer, rather human, for example, when he spills some blood and gets a natural sponge to clean it up, you can hear he’s annoyed with himself for making a mess. How important is it to you to create the villain as human as possible?
Extremely important. All of us, whether we’re good or evil, have a past that’s helped to shape us. And sometimes, that past causes us to adopt certain traits. For Jack, you’re right. He hates when things aren’t in order, especially messes like the blood. But he also cares about the environment. Hence, the natural sponge.
Showing the character’s humanity is especially important for villains. No one is all bad, regardless of the sinful deeds they commit. By showing their softer side and their personality traits, they come alive on the page.
The pace of your novel reminds me of some of the early Noir writing. Have you been influenced by some of these earlier crime writers such as either Raymond Chandler or James Ellroy?
Chandler and Ellroy both helped pave the way for future crime writers. Here’s how I look at influences in writing. We need to create our own style that’s distinct to us. If fans see hints of their favorite authors in our writing, that’s wonderful. Everything we read, watch, touch, hear, taste, smell, and experience influences us to some degree. It can be something minor, like clouds morphing into a horse, galloping across a summer sky, or a major event, like the Boston marathon bombing or 9-11.
And if so, who is your favourite crime writer?
Tough question. There’s so many talented authors out there. A few of my favorites are Thomas Harris, Jeffrey Deaver, Robert Lyndsay, early Patterson, Katia Lief, and Karin Slaughter.
Out of all the genres, what turned you to crime writing?
I’ve always been fascinated by crime and how the criminal mind works. It’s this endless curiosity that forces me to delve deeper and deeper into the dark abyss, to where evil resides, and it’s my passion for discovering why and how people kill—the ultimate truth, if you will—that compels me to write about it.
Feature by Rachel Boser