SO CLOSE Takes the Page 69 Test

Marshal Zeringue does a very cool series of blogs with many crime fiction novels called the Page 69 Test. The idea is that what happens on Page 69 can be a vital moment in the story arc. It's amazing how often this is true.

Here is the examination of SO CLOSE:

Page 69 of So Close the Hand of Death is from the point of view of a crime blogger who is the first to realize something dreadful is happening all across the country. Colleen Keck is her name, and the blog is called FelonE. Colleen is a vital character to the story, the vehicle through which multiple plot points are tied. She popped onto the screen nearly unannounced, in an early draft, and I didn’t know the who, what or where about her. But as I got to know Colleen, a single mother whose cop husband was killed in the line of duty, I realized how important she was. Colleen holds all the keys, and if Taylor can put aside her own vengeful path for a moment, she’d see that.

In this scene, Colleen has just heard about a shooting in North Carolina, and the memories of her past and hurtled to the surface. She’s overwhelmed, but so strong, and so resourceful, that she’s able to pull herself together. I like Colleen’s character a great deal, admire her strength and resilience to go on after she’s lost her husband. She truly is the lynchpin to the story. And in a fun twist, she was named for an auction winner, so I am doubly grateful to the real Colleen Keck for allowing me such incredible license with her name.
"Update, there are seven officers involved in two separate shootings. We have a total of seven down. We need extra personnel, my location. Send out a BOLO on a black Lincoln Town Car, North Carolina plate, state owned, numbers to come. Suspects are armed and dangerous, repeat, armed and dangerous. Last seen heading west on Highway 64. Put roadblocks in place all the way out to 95. Switch to channel eighteen, code three, code three. Switching channels now." The scanner went dead. They'd switched to a private channel to avoid people like her. It wouldn't have mattered if the voice had continued, she wasn't hearing anything but the roaring in her own ears.

Oh, my God.

Colleen's breath came short, and she gagged a little, unable to resist a brief glimpse into her own hell after hearing the words officers down. Seven cops hurt in the line of duty. Seven families torn apart. Seven.

The memories assailed her anew, and she barely made it to the bathroom in time. She vomited in the sink, tears mingling with sudden beads of sweat that popped up on her forehead.

Oh, Tommy. Why did you have to leave me? Why did you have to be so freaking brave?

After a few minutes, her cries died down, and she gathered herself. She rinsed her mouth out with cool water, splashed some on her face, which managed to smear her already desiccated day-old mascara even further. She swiped furiously at the dark smears with a bit of toilet paper. Weakness was not allowed.

Here are a few more blog tests I've done for Marshal over the years:

My Book, The Movie: the Taylor Jackson series.

Check out the complete list of books in the Page 69 Test Series

The Page 69 Test: All the Pretty Girls.

The Page 99 Test: 14.

The Page 69 Test: 14.

The Page 99 Test: Judas Kiss.

My Book, The Movie: the Taylor Jackson series.

The Page 69 Test: The Cold Room.

My Book, The Movie: The Cold Room.

The Page 69 Test: So Close the Hand of Death.

Brett King Interviews Me For THE BIG THRILL

J.T. Ellison’s latest novel, So Close The Hand Of Death, pits Nashville homicide lieutenant Taylor Jackson against her greatest enemy. The Pretender is a brilliant psychopath who kidnapped and tortured her mentor and father figure, Sergeant Pete Fitzgerald, in Ellison’s previous novel, The Immortals. The killer returns in her latest book, this time working with disciples recruited to execute a series of disturbing crimes that echo the work of the Boston Strangler, the Zodiac Killer, and the Son of Sam. Isolating herself to protect her loved ones, Taylor Jackson is “tripwire-tense and ready to snap” as she prepares for an inevitable showdown with The Pretender.

Beginning with her debut novel in 2007, Ellison has written six books in her series and her work has been published in 21 countries. Bookreporter raved, “What J.T. Ellison has done with the city in her award-winning Taylor Jackson books is magnificent….Lovers of mystery and suspense fiction could not ask for more.” A former White House staffer, Ellison lives with her husband and a “poorly trained cat” in Nashville. I had the chance to visit with J. T. about her fascinating characters as well as her new book.

The Pretender made an appearance in your previous novels, 14 and The Immortals. Did you gain new insights into the character as a result of his collaboration with his disciples?

The Pretender has finally become the killer he set out to be. He’s a mimic, has never had a style all his own. That makes him incredibly dangerous, and hard to track. And now he wants to play a game, a game that leads to Taylor Jackson’s door. He’s turned the tables from his role in 14 – instead of being the apprentice, he is now the master. This book was five books in the making, and I’m excited that the showdown between Taylor and the Pretender has come at last.

But of course, unmasking him involves finding out who he really is. That was the fun part, finding out his underlying motivations, why he chose Taylor, why he’s a mimic. The why of the killer – it’s the reason I write these kinds of books. The psychology behind them fascinates me.

It’s clear that The Pretender regards Taylor Jackson with a twisted mix of respect and contempt. What does he understand about her that she doesn’t know about herself?

He knows she will stop at nothing to protect the ones she loves. Nothing. He’s counting on the fact that she doesn’t realize she is capable of the level of hatred it takes to step into the abyss alongside him.

On your website, you’ve written an interesting piece on “How to Build A Character.” In that spirit, what do you strive for in creating a compelling and terrifying antagonist?

He or she must have some redeeming qualities, and their motives must be understandable. I think it’s much more frightening to see a regular person pushed over the edge into murder than a gore-fest. They must tread in a world that is foreign to us, and at the same time, touch on the little bits of anger and frustration that we’ve all experienced. They must be human, fully actualized, and believable, not caricatures of the mwa-ha-ha villain. Evil resides in the most benign packages. Tapping into that can be terrifying.

Your passion for music seems to play a critical role in writing your novels. If you had to pick one, what song best captures Taylor Jackson’s personality and/or her journey?

Gosh, what a great question. Each book has it’s own individual soundtrack, so it’s hard to say. I’ll steal one from the October 2011 book, WHERE ALL THE DEAD LIE – by One Republic and Sara Bareillas – COME HOME. It’s a culmination of the struggles she’s faced, and faced with John Baldwin at her side. She’s a hard woman to love, and has a difficult time giving herself completely to her relationships. Her character has grown so much over the series, and this song is all about forgiveness and understanding, moving forward together. She’s not complete without Baldwin, and she’s finally come to understand that he is the most important thing in her life. When I heard the song for the first time, I was in tears, sobbing, in the car, this crazy light bulb shining over my head. I must have looked daft, but everything she was going through suddenly made sense.

What song best symbolizes Taylor’s relationship with FBI Special Supervisory Agent and profiler Dr. John Baldwin?

Baldwin always manifests himself in classical for me. The adagio from Rodrigo’s Concerto de Aranjuez was my initial inspiration for him. It’s wonderfully seductive, which is, at its most basic, Baldwin’s real purpose in the story. He’s her seduction, both as a lover, and into the criminal world he resides in. Rachmaninoff’s Concerto #2 is also a big, sprawling, romantic piece that embodies their whole relationship for me.

Have you ever dreamed about any of the characters in your books?

Absolutely. Especially when I’m getting close to the ¾ mark of writing the book, and things are incredibly intense. My daily word counts are rising, and I’m truly living the story. I’ll dream I’m Taylor, and part of the plot will work its way into the dream, and I’ll wake with the next day’s material ready to go. I wish it happened more, but it does happen quite a bit. The plot of the first book, ALL THE PRETTY GIRLS was a dream as well, from start to finish. Mine the dreams, I always say.

Your novels contain rich psychological themes. Did you take psychology classes at Randolph-Macon Woman’s College? Full disclosure: I’m a psychology professor, so please don’t break my heart and say you hated psychology!

I loved psychology, and did take a few classes. At the time, I think it was lost on me, but as I’ve grown older, I’ve returned to it. Maybe it’s that early training making it’s way in, or the latter day work, but I always feel like I need to study more. I just look at people’s motivations and extrapolate the worst.

Extrapolate the worst?

I’ve found that in real life, people’s motivations for doing cruel things to one another are generally borne out of ignorance and conceit. People don’t always think about their actions, their statements. They don’t look at how their actions might affect the people near them because, let’s face it, we’re all the stars of our own plays. But in the fictional realm, I can take those careless moments and turn them into pure evil. Imagine a slight you’ve felt recently. Maybe a friend neglected to invite you to a dinner where other friends were gathered. Probably a simple oversight. But what if that slight was because your friend did it on purpose? That she was really getting together a group to talk about you, or maybe… to think up the best way to murder you?

Overactive imaginations are a requirement for writers, I’m afraid.

Given your background in politics, it makes all kinds of sense that you would write a novel with political intrigue. Do you have plans for a political thriller in the future?

Never say never. I have all sorts of ideas, for all kinds of books. It’s my most fervent wish that I’m allowed to continue experimenting and growing as a writer. It’s a wonderful job. But many other writers do political books, and do it incredibly well. I think I’ve found my niche in dark psychological thrillers, with and without serial killers.

Name a favorite novel that you wish you had written.

Goodness, that’s a hard one. I have so many writers that I admire, who I read and walk away shaking my head at their brilliance. I don’t think to myself I wish I’d written that book so much as I wish I had that kind of mind, to invent that kind of world. Worldbuilding is so vital to great storytelling. I aspire to creative worldbuilding, a la Suzanne Collins. How’s that?

Works for me. Can you share a little about the next book in the Taylor Jackson series?

I can only share a little – it’s called WHERE ALL THE DEAD LIE. It releases October 1, takes place in Scotland, Memphis Highsmythe is back, and it’s not a thriller, but a Gothic suspense. It’s a revolutionary book for Taylor, I will say that.

Brett King is an award-winning psychology professor at the University of Colorado at Boulder. His debut novel, THE RADIX, appeared in May 2010. New York Times bestselling author Jeffery Deaver calls it, “A topnotch thriller! Part Da Vinci Code, part 24, The Radix is roller-coaster storytelling at its best.” The second book in the series, THE FALSE DOOR, will be released in Fall 2011. King is currently writing his third novel.

Of Pirates and Baked Goods

I was interviewed this week by the Dread Pirate Roberts - no, that's not right. It's my OTHER favorite pirate -  Captain Jack Sparrow!!! I must say, it's one of the most unique transcripts I shall ever show you. Plus, at the end, you'll see the most glorious vision - SO CLOSE THE HAND OF DEATH rendered in cupcake form. Really, when your book is made into baked goods, you've got much to cheer about. Oh, and Sparrow? All those pesky "questions" about him? True. All true. He really is a cool chick novelist who lives in Nashvlle called CJ Redwine. Take that, Disney.

Ready? Steady... Go!


Would you classify yourself as a pirate or a member of Her Majesty’s Royal navy? Why?

Pirate at heart, definitely, though many would assume otherwise. It’s the showering, don’t’cha know. Dreadlocks just don’t look good on me. And when no one’s looking, I like to admire myself in my cutlass. But on the outside, prim and proper, full to the brim with proper etiquette and gentle smiles.

  *admires self in cutlass* My apologies. Were you saying something? I got distracted by the shiny. What’s your favorite thing to do in Tortuga?

See, there was this one time, in Tortuga, where we drank all the rum punch we could hold and might have made off with some guy’s yacht. Wait, that wasn’t Tortuga. That was freshman year of college. Crap. No wonder I did so poorly.

  As much as I admire the drinking of the rum punch and the absconding with someone's yacht, I find myself wanting to tie you to the yard arm so as to guard the fate of my own lovely vessel. I’m offering you free passage aboard my ship to anywhere in the world. Where shall we go, love?

The Greek Iles, the Dalmatian Coast, Monaco, Venice, the Riviera, the Amalfi Coast, around Cape Horn, the Panama Canal, the Hebrides… think you’ve got enough ship for me, sir?

  Darling, I have more than enough ship for you and every other willing wench this side of the Caribbean. Who is the hero of your story most like: me (savvy, debonair, and unquestionably smooth with the ladies), the insufferably honorable Will Turner, or that deceptive little minx Elizabeth?

John Baldwin ... Jack Sparrow. Let’s see. Absolutely like you, but taller, with better teeth, fresher breath, cleaner hair and a bigger... whoops, what was that? A parrot? He doesn’t have a parrot… now I’m yours!

  If you were trying to distract me from the fact that you nearly cast aspersions upon the size of my telescope, you'll have to do better than ... a yacht? With rum punch? Ooh. Shiny. Rum? Or more rum?

What? No grog? I prefer shards of glass in my rum, thank you very much.

  Who doesn't? Which leads me to the age old question: Why is the rum always gone?

It’s the rum mice. They sneak in and sip at it whilst you’re busy looking after your parrot. Naughty mice. Naughty parrot! Naughty, naughty pirate.

  Stop. I'm blushing. What’s the most piratish thing you’ve ever done?

Outside of vomiting rum overboard? Let’s see… once, in a fight for truth, justice and the American way, I… wait, that wasn’t piratish, that was Royal Navyish. I’ve got it. Rescued a kitten from the pound right before it was about to be put down. (What, you don’t think pirates love kittens? We do, we really, really do!)

  If they can vanquish undead monkeys, I adore them. Are they rules? Or more like guidelines?

The only rules are those you create and impose upon yourself. The rest are merely suggestions, like stoplights in Italy.

  My dear, you had me at kitten. Oh, wait. That was a different question. I understand you’re a story-teller. Any undead monkeys in your stories?

Come to think of it, no. I must remedy that immediately.

  Oh, bugger it. Only if you find a way to kill him off. Permanently. Any curses in your story? Heartless monsters? Irritating women who insist on taking matters into their own hands?

Curses, absolutely! My previous book, THE IMMORTALS is predicated on a curse, a calling from the netherworld, a summons to the dark angel Azræl, death himself. Once Azræl is a participant, bad things happen to good little boys and girls. And of course, Taylor Jackson seeks to thwart their evil plan.

  If I've learned anything in life, it's that a wise man ignores all calls from the netherworld. One of my favorite words is “egregious.” Care to share one of yours, love?

Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious, love. Really, did you have to ask?

  I'm stunned into near silence by your use of such a bombastic travesty of the English language. I don't believe that even IS a word. Maybe it looks like a word through the wrong end of a mug of grog? I've seen plenty of THOSE words myself. Parlay? Or draw your sword?

It’s depends. How badly have you insulted me? A stain upon my honor, or a presumption against my honor. You pick.

  *stares at your cutlass* Darling, I fear you've  misunderstood me. I adore your choice of supercalifragi listi--whatever it was. Adore it. No need to avenge your honor on my account. You’ve got a crowd of cursed sailors and a nasty sea monster on your trail. How do you escape?

Close the book, silly.

  That only works in my world if said beasties have their heads between the covers of said book. Romantic night in? Or adventure on the high seas?

Adventure, without a doubt. The best nights are ones where romance is found, not created.

  Here's hoping you find stealing a vessel from Her Majesty's Royal Navy romantic, then. It's at the top of my To Do list tonight. My personal motto is: Take what you want, give nothing back. What’s yours?

“When you are content not to compare or compete, everyone will respect you.” Lao Tzu, who was something of a pirate himself, if you stop to think about it. Arrrrrgh!

A poetic cupcake rendition of SO CLOSE THE HAND OF DEATH featuring Belle Meade Mansion. Brilliantly rendered to scale by Mr. CJ Redwine. We are impressed.


I can hardly believe I’m saying this…

It’s that time again. I have a new book coming out on Tuesday. SO CLOSE THE HAND OF DEATH is the sixth book in the Taylor Jackson series, and the sequel to 14. The Pretender is back, and finally making his move on Taylor.

When I started this series, I planned to avoid any and all tropes from the thriller genres – damaged heroines, lurking serial killers, brilliant villains, skeletons in the closets, the works. And guess what? My naïveté was astounding. Over the course of six novels, I’ve come to realize that these are the many characteristics of the genre. They aren’t tropes, but instead vital, exciting vehicles for both character and series growth. Who wants a character who is too perfect? Who wants a villain who is simply a blunt instrument? Who wants the whole story laid out for them from day one, with no hope for growth, or opportunity for falling down?

Not me. Not anymore.  As I’ve grown as a writer, as a world builder, I’ve come to understand some of the fundamental truths about storytelling. The most basic of those truths is this – as long as it’s grounded in an element of reality, it’s going to work.

Is it possible for a serial killer to target a homicide cop? Of course it is. Permission granted, ma’am. Sally forth and murder at will.

Oh, if it were only that easy…

We’ve talked at length about the writer’s journey, about how sometimes you just have to get out of your own way and let the story do what it’s meant to do. I had to do just that with So Close.

Because, you see, So Close sees a different side of Taylor Jackson. She is her own anti-hero – not noble, not just, and certainly not worth looking up to. She is driven by a force out of her control, one that taps into the edge of darkness she treads along so very carefully. That force is revenge.

Revenge is a tricky thing when you’re working with a hero. Especially a hero you’ve set up to be militantly GOOD. Good people don’t plan to murder. Plain and simple.

And yet, here I am, with a book about a militantly good person who is planning the demise of another human being.

I blame James Bond.

I was struggling with the facts of the book. In order to make things go the way I wanted, I had to allow Taylor to drop her goodness, even if just for a fraction of a second, and contemplate taking another life on purpose. The minute you decide to let a character out of their proscribed box, the blackbirds descend, cawing incessantly. You can’t do that.

Caw - People will hate you for it. Caw - They’ll hate Taylor. Caw - No. Caw caw - The answer is definitively no.

Hey, blackbirds? Fuck off! My book. MINE.

And so it went, for several Sisyphean writing months, until one night, late in the evening, after all sane people had gone to bed, I was watching Casino Royale and Quantum of Solace for the umpteenth time. I’m a big fan of Bond in general, all things Ian Flemingish. I’m a Connery girl. I always thought I’d hate a blond Bond. Boy was I wrong. I think Daniel Craig is a brilliant addition to the mythos. He has that caged fury that is so necessary to an assassin. Yes, he’s suave and debonair. Yes, the ladies all want him. But this Bond recognizes that an element of his soul is black, and instead of running from it, he embraces it.

In Quantum of Solace, Bond is out for revenge. He’s going to take down the people who stole his lover from him. Irrational, yes. Ill-conceived, absolutely. People around him begin to get hurt. And yet he strives onward, never looking back. No regrets.

And we cheer him.

We laud him

We understand.

And we wish we could do the same.


So at two in the morning, I realized that yes, by God, I could allow Taylor to follow her instincts. I could allow her out of her box, unleash her on the world, to hunt the man who has been hunting her. Even a cop can succumb to vigilantism, especially when the people around her are getting hurt.

I finished the book. It worked, and I think, worked well.

Lots of crazy things happened while I was writing  SO CLOSE. We had a title change. We had a date change. But most notable was the loss of my editor, Linda McFall. There is nothing, nothing! worse than losing your original champion. I hated to see her go. We’d formed a very symbiotic relationship, one that needed only nudges in red to get points across. So I was lost, both career wise and book wise, for several months while we decided who would take over editing me.

I was thrilled when Adam Wilson, my assistant editor of the first four books, took up Linda’s mantle. I turned the book in and we began the journey of revising together, each learning from the other, until this puppy was whipped into shape. I think Adam’s touch on this book made it what it is. He wholly embraced the concept of Taylor as vengeful angel, owned it with me. Together we found the exact right path to lead her down.

Taylor as vengeful angel. How far we’ve come in three short years.

SO CLOSE THE HAND OF DEATH officially goes on sale Tuesday, though there are certain online retailers who have it available already. The audio book, coming March 1, is performed by Joyce Bean, and a true tour de force. I hope Joyce gets major recognition for her work on this book – she’s taken my words and created a world I never knew existed. It’s an intense experience listening to your own work . Usually I have to stop after a few chapters, cringing at word usage or phrasing, lamenting my purplish, bruised prose…. But on this? I forgot the book was mine and got caught up in the story – she’s that good. Digital copies are available for all your ereaders. And to celebrate, for a limited time, SWEET LITTLE LIES is on sale for just 99 cents. And if you send me a copy of your receipt for SO CLOSE, I’ll send you SWEET LITTLE LIES for free. And you'll have a chance to win a new Kindle.*

I forget sometimes how exciting it is to have a new baby out in the world. Whether it’s simply distraction, worrying about the next book, and the next, a self-defense mechanism in case of bad reviews, or a concern with overloading my fine friends and readers with BSP, I haven’t been going all out shouting this one from the rooftops. But I’m here now, asking you – please, buy the book. Read it. Let me know if you think Taylor is wrong.

I bet you don’t.

Because we all need someone to play the hero.

And a little extra incentive today – tell me you’re favorite hero or anti-hero and I’ll send one commenter a signed copy of the book.

Wine of the Week: Veuve Cliqout, to celebrate the baby's arrival in the wild.

Talent borrows. Genius steals. Evil delegates.

It's a hideous echo of a violent past. Across America, murders are being committed with all the twisted hallmarks of the Boston Strangler, the Zodiac Killer and Son of Sam. The media frenzy explodes and Nashville homicide lieutenant Taylor Jackson knows instantly that The Pretender is back...and he's got helpers.

As The Pretender's disciples perpetrate their sick homages – stretching police and FBI dangerously thin – Taylor tries desperately to prepare for their inevitable showdown. And she must do it alone. To be close to her is to be in mortal danger, and she won't risk losing anyone she loves. But the isolation, the self-doubt and the rising body count are taking their toll: she's tripwire-tense and ready to snap.

The brilliant psychopath who both adores and despises her is drawing close. Close enough to touch....

"Ellison’s sixth novel featuring homicide lieutenant Taylor Jackson is arguably her best book to date. A tense thrill ride filled with secrets, raw emotion and death, newcomers will love it as much as her longtime fans. After completing this one, you will scream for the next book."
- Romantic Times, 4 1/2 Stars TOP PICK!

Read an Excerpt of SO CLOSE THE HAND OF DEATH here

Listen to the soundtrack of SO CLOSE THE HAND OF DEATH here

* Click here for more details on this special offer

Soundtrack! Excerpt! Giveaway!

Every book has its own rhythm. Mine are driven by music: songs that inspired me, rocked me, and took me to new worlds while I was writing. These songs kept me on track, informed the story, and as you can see, helped with the theme. We're all Pretenders, in a way. Aren't we?

Here's the soundtrack for Taylor Jackson #6 - So Close the Hand of Death.


Angel -  Sarah McLachlan      

All My Life  -  Foo Fighters  

Blood Makes Noise -  Suzanne Vega           

The Pretender -  Jackson Browne        

Smile - Dalton Grant 

The Great Pretender  - The Platters  

Superman (It's Not Easy)  -  Five for Fighting       

Everywhere -  Michelle Branch       

Little Lies -  Fleetwood Mac         

The Pretender  -  Foo Fighters  

Kill Me Carolyne -  The Whigs     

Bittersweet Symphony -  The Verve     


And if you're interested in a teaser, click here for an excerpt.

So Close the Hand of Death officially goes on sale March 1, 2011 (though you'll be able to buy it in stores starting February 22....)

In the meantime, leave a comment here and you'll be entered in a little contest. The prize? A galley of So Close, of course! (who says I don't love you?)

I'll do the drawing Sunday January 23.