Author Lisa Black makes no bones about it. On her home page she declares that she “spent the happiest five years of my life in a morgue.” Fed up with a secretarial career, she re-tooled at Cleveland State University and got a job as a forensic scientist at the Cuyahoga County Coroner’s Office, where she analyzed gunshot residue on hands and clothing, hairs, fibers, paint, glass, DNA, blood and many other forms of trace evidence, as well as crime scenes.
This idyll came to an end when her husband grew weary of Ohio winters and wanted to move to Florida. Now she is, as she says on her site, “a latent print examiner for the city of Cape Coral, Florida, police department, working mostly with fingerprints and crime scenes.” She also lectures on her profession at writers’ conferences.
Oh, and, by the way, she is also the author of the critically acclaimed fast-paced thriller series featuring Cleveland forensic scientist Theresa MacLean. First in the series, Takeover, appeared in 2008 and made it to Booklist’s Top Ten Crime Novel Debuts list for the year. Booklist also noted of this book, “A tautly plotted, relentlessly suspenseful debut. Let’s hope [Black] writes another scorcher-and soon.” And she did. The following year saw publication of Evidence of Murder, an “intelligent, well-thought-out crime thriller,” according to Kirkus Reviews.
For her third novel, Trail of Blood, just out, Black sends her protagonist, MacLean, on a search into the past to find the killer who terrorized Cleveland during the Great Depression. “The fast-paced action hurtles to a breathless conclusion,” declared Publishers Weekly of this series installment.
Lisa, it’s great to have you with us on Scene of the Crime. Thanks for taking time during your busy promotion for Trail of Blood to stop by.
I am a native of Cleveland, lived there from birth until I was 36. I’ve been in Florida for ten years now, but I return to Cleveland at least every other month to visit my mother and sisters.
What things about Cleveland make it unique and a good physical setting in your books?
Cleveland has everything—hills, trees, inner-city, rivers, a lake, very wealthy neighborhoods and very poor neighborhoods, industry, and culture. It also has a lot of history, beginning as the westernmost territory in the new United States at one point, progressing to the turn of the last century when Rockefeller and Carnegie had mansions on Euclid Avenue.
Did you consciously set out to use Cleveland as a “character” in your books, or did this grow naturally out of the initial story or stories?
I’m what I call ‘spatially oriented’…not sure what it means, but it sounds good…and places can capture my imagination more than people or colors or smells or current events. I like to put scenes in powerful surroundings, large buildings, sweeping plazas, freezing cold lakeshores. It seems to make the action more intense, even if it’s a sunny day in the park. Maybe the bright sunlight makes her eyes more blue (or shows her wrinkles).
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?
My character is a crime scene specialist, so she’s normally at the place where the crime took place, so naturally she’s going to look at that spot very carefully, what else is there, means of egress, what sort of people are found there, whether it’s inherently dangerous on its own. I like to pick a spot with lots of dramatic appeal for the climax of the book, so I have to introduce it early on, explain it, describe it so that the reader is good and familiar with it by the time the heroine has her final confrontation.
How does Theresa MacLean interact with her surroundings? Is she a native, a blow-in, a reluctant or enthusiastic inhabitant, cynical about it, a booster? And conversely, how does the setting affect your Theresa MacLean?
She’s a native, and like me, really likes Cleveland and its history. Cleveland has had tough times in the past and is having them now, so there’s a feeling that you have to be a strong person to live there, and not just because of the cold winters. She feels like Clevelanders are the rag-tag band of misfits who are destined to save the universe in the final reel.
Has there been any local reaction to your works?
Have you ever made any goofs in depicting your location or time period? Please share–the more humorous the better (we all have).
I make intentional goofs, which are probably worse—I’m not always consistent about using real places. Most of the time I try to be as accurate as possible, but sometimes I make things up, sometimes I’ll change the name if I think there’s the slightest possibility that the real owners will get mad at me, and sometimes I’ll use the names of places that are no longer there just because I was fond of them. (I shouldn’t do that, because then readers think I don’t know what I’m talking about.)
Of the Theresa MacLean novels, do you have a favorite book or scene that focuses on the spirit of place? Could you quote a short passage or give an example of how the location figures in your novels?
Takeover takes place almost entirely in the lobby of the Federal Reserve Building, built in 1921 with a vaulted ceiling and Italian marble. There are only twelve Federal Reserves in the country. It’s a gorgeous place. In my book, armed robbers take over the lobby, while the cops and hostage negotiator set up shop in the Cleveland Public Library across the street. So I got to spend a whole book with two of my favorite buildings at once.
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?
Jeffrey Deaver, Tess Gerritsen, Alastair MacLean (who wrote spy stories, so he always had some exotic locale). Kathy Reichs usually has her scenes in the outdoors (the bodies have to get down to skeletons, after all…).
Trail of Blood uses a true-life story from Cleveland History: that of The Torso Killer, who was more or less America’s version of Jack the Ripper. He was very bloody, very brutal, and never identified. He killed at least twelve people and probably twice that. This was during the Depression, and Eliott Ness was the Safety Director in Cleveland (after he cleaned up Chicago). Most of the bodies turned up around the train yards, so I could place scenes in the yards.
Lisa, thanks again for taking the time to talk with Scene of the Crime.
For more information about Lisa Black visit her author home page.