Brian Freeman is the international bestselling author of psychological suspense novels featuring detective Jonathan Stride. Set in Duluth, Minnesota, Freeman’s books have been sold in 46 countries and 17 languages and have won kudos from people such as bestselling author Michael Connelly, who noted of Freeman, “This guy can tell a story.” Ditto from Nelson DeMille, who wrote, “Brian Freeman is a first-rate storyteller.”
Freeman took the Macavity Award for his debut thriller, Immoral, and has not looked back since. His second thriller, Stripped, hit the bestseller lists in Canada and was dubbed “a knockout” by the Baltimore Sun. Next came Stalked, a novel described by Publishers Weekly as “chilling…a strong narrative crammed with twists and studded with sex and violence; a mysterious, even mystical, sense of place; and a well-crafted set of characters and relationships.” Fourth in the series, In the Dark, earned him a fistful of starred reviews, with Publishers Weekly calling it “harrowing and heartrending.” Out this month is Freeman’s fifth in the series, The Burying Place, and it has already been lauded by Booklist for its “crisp dialogue, steady suspense, and a cast of original characters,” while London’s Guardian praised ‘Freeman’s emotional literacy, sense of place and an uncanny ability to wrong-foot the reader and produce a wholly unexpected ending.”
Brian, welcome to Scene of the Crime.
Okay, convince us to love the setting of your novels. I mean, I get the chills just thinking of Duluth. What’s your connection to the place?
My books are mostly set in the frozen landscape of Duluth, Minnesota, on the shore of Lake Superior. I live a couple hours south of Duluth in the Twin Cities and usually travel to Duluth several times a year for research and book events. I first visited Duluth back in college, when my soon-to-be-wife and I took a trip up the north shore. As we drove through the city, I remember thinking, “This would be a great place to set suspense novels.” Twenty years later, that’s exactly what I did.
What things about Duluth make it unique and a good physical setting in your books?
I think extremes enrich the drama of suspense novels, and Duluth has a wonderful combination of extreme elements. You’ve got the great lake. You’ve got thousands of square miles of wilderness encroaching on the city from the north. You’ve got crazy, steep, San Francisco-style streets that don’t seem to belong anywhere in the Midwest. Plus, Duluth has a culture of faded glory from its moneyed past, with massive old Victorian homes on the terraced streets, many of them now in a state of decay. It’s a city that sometimes seems frozen in an earlier time by the bitter weather. Add it together, and you have layers of physical and emotional struggle that perfectly reflect the plots and characters of my books.
Did you consciously set out to use Duluth as a “character” in your books, or did this grow naturally out of the initial story or stories?
Yes, I always wanted Duluth to be as much a part of the books as the characters themselves. When you have a distinctive locale, I don’t think you can separate it from the people living there, because the setting influences who they are and what they do. When you live in a place like Duluth, where the weather is so punishing, you can’t escape the physical realities of the city in your day-to-day life.
How do you incorporate location in your fiction? Do you pay overt attention to it in certain scenes, or is it a background inspiration for you?
When I’m outlining each book, I usually leave the location open for the individual chapters. Then I go to Duluth and scout out locations the way a film director would, hunting for specific settings in the city that maximize the suspense and drama of each scene. I take notes on the locale so that I can drop the reader in the middle of it, and they feel as if they’re “in” the scene themselves. I’ve had readers tell me they follow the books with Google Earth to check out each location!
How does Jonathan Stride interact with his surroundings? Is he a native, a blow-in, a reluctant or enthusiastic inhabitant, cynical about it, a booster? And conversely, how does the setting affect him?
Jonathan Stride is very much a creature of Duluth. He’s a man who has been shaped by the challenges and bitterness of the environment around him. It’s a city that requires determination to live there and maybe a little fatalism. Stride is a realist about Duluth, but it’s his home; it’s in his genes. In my second book, Stripped, I took Stride and sent him to Las Vegas to explore how he would fare in a locale worlds apart from the place he knows. You could say that Stride battled Vegas to a draw – but in the next book, Stalked, he was back home in the snow and ice of Duluth.
Has there been any local reaction to your works?
I particularly like the description from the Minneapolis Star Tribune, which said about my book In the Dark that it “reminds readers that life may be brutal and cold, but, in Minnesota at least, we shore ourselves against these truths and we endure.” That’s the lesson of my settings.
We’ve published the books in 17 languages around the world, and I’ve found that readers who have never even heard of Duluth respond to its extreme location. I think there is a certain romance about a cold, remote place like Duluth, much the way Americans feel about places like Scotland and Ireland. That same kind of setting – in all its bleakness – is driving the popularity of many Swedish crime writers now, too.
Of the Duluth novels, do you have a favorite book or scene that focuses on the place? Could you quote a short passage or give an example of how the location figures in your novels?
Duluth shoulders onto the pages in all of my books, but I will always have a special place in my heart for Stalked, because I think it captures the intensity and character of the Minnesota winter. I always tell readers to keep an extra sweater handy for that one. I spent all of January 2006 in a little cottage out on Park Point, jutting into Lake Superior, while I did the research for Stalked. So if you read it and feel like you’re really out in the middle of a blizzard, with ice balls hanging from your eyelids, well, that’s because I was out on the beach in a storm with my voice recorder, taping my impressions. My wife thought I was nuts.
I think my favorite line from Stalked is where Stride drives onto a frozen lake as the storm pummels him: “The blizzard was a banshee here, a woman in white stretching to the sky and screaming for the dead.”
Who are your favorite writers, and do you feel that other writers influenced you in your use of the spirit of place in your novels?
One of my favorite writers is the Canadian author Peter Robinson. He captures the essence of Yorkshire in his Alan Banks series, in much the same way I hoped to do with my Duluth books. I certainly consider him an influence.
What’s next for your protagonist?
My fifth book to feature Jonathan Stride, The Burying Place, arrives in stores on April 13. When the book was released in the UK in December, London’s Daily Mail called me the discovery of the year in crime fiction and said: “Fleshed-out characters, high tension and terrifying twists put Freeman up there with Harlan Coben in the psychological crime stratosphere.” Now that’s what I like to hear.
This book also features one of the creepiest locales I’ve found in the Duluth area…a ruined school in the middle of farmland that is the perfect setting for some very dark events.
Brian, thanks once again for taking time from your busy schedule to be with us on Scene of the Crime.
Visit Brian Freeman’s Web site for more information on the author.