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The Company We Keep: Five Relationship-Driven Mysteries


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When I was in college, my dad had a plaque on his desk at work, with the saying,

“Tell me what company you keep and I’ll tell you what you are.” – Miguel de Cervantes.

I can’t even guess how many times I read that plaque. But I was eighteen and its wisdom was lost on me. And after a while those words merely became part of the landscape of my father’s office. Just words. I was too young to understand—or care—about a deeper meaning. 

It would take me decades to understand why my father, a college professor, kept that plaque on his desk and to understand the message he was trying to share with all the young people who passed through his office, to understand how impacting our relationships are, and how life-enhancing—or detracting—the people can be that we choose to have in our orbit. Because, once we pass a certain age, we do choose. We choose who comes in and we choose who stays, and to live a healthy, balanced life, we’d better choose wisely.

For better or worse, the people who fill up our lives have a subtle yet powerful influence to shape who we become, to drive our actions, and to become our motivation.  

As a mystery author, my job is to create and build those relationships. To make them, simultaneously, both subtle and powerful—a delicate balance, just like real life. And if those relationships don’t ring true, readers will not be drawn in. They simply won’t care.

It is the characters who drive the book and the relationships are what drive the characters. What makes a great and memorable mystery are the people who make up the story. 

When I was working on Where Secrets Live, I wanted the relationships to be the force behind the motivations for each character. The most obvious one, of course, was Liz, the protagonist, driven to find her sister’s killer. But each relationship intertwined with the others and those relationships were the impetus that kept my characters moving.

The books below are some of my favorites. Each author has created that balance in the relationships among the characters that move the story forward, that drive their actions, and ultimately, what makes me care about each person in the novel.

If you haven’t read any of these books you might want to give them a try, because the writing and the characters are some of the best.

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Six Years, by Harlan Coben

What topic is more universal than a lost love?

Harlan Coben does a masterful job of bringing out in a palpable way all those emotions that come to life when someone we’ve deeply loved walks out of our lives. 

The story begins six years after Natalie, the woman Jake Fisher has fallen head over heels in love with, has left him—six years since he watched her walk down the aisle and marry another man. 

He moved on, but never forgot. And when circumstances lead her back into his peripheral vision, all those feelings of loss and love come back with a vengeance.

And that love, that loss, that once-in-a-lifetime relationship is what drives him to risk his own life to find the truth and to find Natalie, no matter what the cost.

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The Red Dragon, by Thomas Harris

Before The Silence of the Lambs there was The Red Dragon.

Almost everyone knows who Hannibal Lecter is, but not everyone knows it was FBI agent, Will Graham, who put Dr. Lecter, the serial killer, in prison; or that finding Lecter to begin with was almost Will’s undoing as he fought for his life and his sanity at the hands of the sadistic psychopath. 

But when Will is called upon to come out of retirement to hunt down another monster, it is Hannibal Lecter that he must turn to. It is Hannibal Lecter on whom he must now rely, because Hannibal the Cannibal is the only one who can help him find the Red Dragon—one monster hunting another. Will must place himself, once again, in the hands of a murderous genius and it is there that Will slowly begins to unravel, because not all of our relationships are life-enhancing. Some of them will just plain kill you.

The Beekeeper's Apprentice

The Beekeeper’s Apprentice, by Laurie King

Laurie King took a much-loved character from fiction, Sherlock Holmes, and re-introduced him to us through the eyes of fifteen-year-old Mary Russell. 

King took an icon from mystery fiction and created a part of his life beyond the one we all knew. We meet Sherlock Holmes in retirement, content to study the bees he raises in his apiary. Until he meets Mary Russell and his life takes yet another turn.

In The Beekeeper’s Apprentice, Sherlock Holmes meets his intellectual equal in Mary Russell, a scholar in her own right, and the relationship that develops between these two strong-willed characters is provocative. 

Sherlock Holmes believes he is becoming her mentor, but as they delve into a mystery, it’s evident that Mary Russell might not need a mentor as much as a sparring partner.

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Past Crimes, by Glen Erik Hamilton

Past Crimes is the first book in the Van Shaw series.

When Van’s grandfather, Dono, a career criminal and the man who raised him, calls him home unexpectedly, Van knows something very serious is going on. Dono never asked for help.

Upon his arrival, Van finds his grandfather beaten and unconscious in his house. And as Dono fights for his life in the hospital, Van sets out to find the person responsible for bludgeoning the old man. The story weaves the past and the present together to show the strength of the love between a stubborn old man and the grandson who rebelled against him.

Although, we never meet Dono, we know him intimately through the grandson who is willing to go to any lengths for his grandfather as he seeks to discover what had been going on in the old man’s life that brought him to this place.

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The Last Thing He Told Me, by Laura Dave

Stepparent and stepchild relationships can often be complicated and sometimes sticky. 

In The Last Thing He Told Me, husband and father, Owen Michaels, is the character we never meet, yet we come to know him through the love and dedication of his wife, Hannah, and his daughter from a previous marriage, Bailey.

Before Owen disappears, he sends a message to his new wife, Hannah, that simply says “Protect her.” 

Hannah knows that Owen is asking her to protect his daughter, Bailey, but she doesn’t have a clue what Bailey needs to be protected from.

Bailey, resentful of her new stepmother, is not an easy one to protect, but Hannah does what she’s been asked to do and the two of them soon find themselves in a dangerous maze. With Owen gone, they quickly learn that they must cling to each other, because now, there is no one else to hold onto. 

***

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Michael Neff
Algonkian Producer
New York Pitch Director
Author, Development Exec, Editor

We are the makers of novels, and we are the dreamers of dreams.

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