Oregon native makes a name for herself with thrillers

For an author who cut her teeth writing romance novels, Lisa Gardner's thrillers aren't very girlie. But men still won't pick up her best-sellers.

"I'm still predominantly women," the Hillsboro native said last week from Mississippi, where she was book-signing her latest chart-topper, "Love You More."

"It is difficult to get men to pick up a female author. Women will read men, but men won't read women. (Suspense author) Joseph Finder ("Killer Instinct") did a really nice review of 'Love You More' in which he kind of flat-out said, for all you guys out there who don't think you can read a woman writer, read this book, give it a chance, you'll like it."

Inspired in her writing by Erle Stanley Gardner (no relation; Gardner is not her real name), Robert B. Parker, Lee Child and Elmore Leonard ("I swear the guy says more in three words than the rest of us can in an entire novel"), Gardner believes in lean prose.

"I don't like a lot of introspection," she said. "I like action. Clever dialogue — at least that's my goal at the time. Procedure. ... I like some angst in my characters, but they're thrillers. People want things to happen."

And with "Love You More," her 14th suspense novel and fifth in the Detective D.D. Warren series — the fourth, "Live to Tell," is just out in paperback — Gardner is getting some of the best reviews of her career.

"I think people really respond to 'Love You More' because it has a theme that's universal," she said. "It gets to you. Everyone out there who's a parent reads this book and responds — and it's a fun book. 'Live to Tell,' is tougher, it talks about a bunch of kids you can't really help so it's a little harder to read. 'Love You More' is more the parental fantasy.

"I think if you're a mom or dad and you've just heard on the nightly news about a child abduction or some terrible thing that's happened, you can't help but lay there in the middle of the night thinking, 'Well, if someone touched my kid, this is what I would do.' And (state trooper) Tessa Leone is a mom who also happens to be trained in firearms and hand-to-hand combat. ... They will be sorry they messed with her kid."

While Gardner grew up in Oregon, she went east to go to the University of Pennsylvania, where she majored in international relations, and graduated to become a management consultant.

Hated it.

She started writing romance novels under the pseudonym Alicia Scott, later switched to suspense and became successful enough to quit the day job. For the past two decades she's lived in New England, where her books are based.

As to why she gave up romance for rape and murder, Gardner said, "I've always been fascinated by darker humor and emotions, and I would say the transition into suspense really was the evolution of that. I became more intrigued by the psychology of crime. What is the nature of evil? And because it's depressing if you think of that alone, you have to think of the psychology of the people who fight crime.

"It's kind of the yin and yang that fascinate me. That for all the evil men do, there are also people who work obnoxiously long hours and sacrifice their personal lives because it is a calling — if they don't keep our streets safe, if they aren't there to advocate for and save beaten women and children and murder victims, who will?

"Postapocalyptic novels tell you that in the future there is some great war. I would tell you that most cops say that it's going on right now."

Gardner writes one book per year, typically spending three months on research, six months writing and three more months rewriting.

"The most fun for me," she said, "is that I do love the research. I don't have a background in any aspect of crime or law enforcement. All I've really ever done is write since I was 17, so I don't know anything about anything. For me to do a novel, I have to talk to people who know things. And what keeps me in suspense is that I am a crime aficionado."

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