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As a real life forensic pathologist, people always ask me about the violence in my books. I thought I’d take this opportunity to talk about the softer side of what are, admittedly, two pretty dark thrillers.
When I started writing crime fiction, I wanted a protagonist who was a regular guy, not some musclebound, invulnerable superman. Jenner, the hero of a series that began with my first book, Precious Blood, is a brilliant forensic pathologist. He’s a good man, but an ordinary one: he doesn’t have sixpack abs, and he couldn’t handle a gun to save his life.
Of course, he isn’t a complete mope – women are attracted to him both because he’s decent, and because he has a sort of “lost boy” quality to him. And, though Jenner isn’t really conscious of it, he is a handsome man (my movie rights agents and I like Timothy Olyphant for the part). But despite these assets, he hasn’t done well in his relationships. I find his basic incompetence with women entertaining – Jenner does all the right things, and his heart’s in the right place, but in his hunger to connect, he reliably makes the wrong choice.
As Precious Blood begins, Jenner is a mess. He's shut himself away in his New York City loft, retired from forensics, burned out after the nightmare of 9/11. He gets dragged back into the world when a serial killer targets his best friend’s niece Ana, a college student.
Jenner has been alone since losing his old girlfriend to his nemesis, Steve Whittaker, the Deputy Chief Medical Examiner. When Ana ends up staying with Jenner, the arrival of another damaged soul into his life proves too much for him to navigate ethically, and the two start a relationship.
Now, many readers will recognize their situation for what it is – two lonely people coming together out of desperation – but their relationship upset some readers. After all, Jenner is over 40 (barely!), and Ana is only in her early 20's. She has narrowly escaped death, she’s being stalked by a killer; Jenner is supposed to look after her, but, instead he…
I understand their dismay – it is an unhealthy relationship. But in real life, how many relationships are actually healthy? The fact is, hurt individuals find hurt partners, and this is exactly the type of doomed, anguished connection that people make at times of crisis; it's something I saw time and again after 9/11.
By the start of A Hard Death, Jenner has learned his lesson – but only partly. After the ordeals of Precious Blood, he's in survival mode, working out, lifting weights, running – he's even bought a gun. But his emotional isolation, driving his intense need to connect with someone, is an enduring weakness. When a beautiful woman waves him on, Jenner ignores the clear warning signs and plunges in.
And he suffers for it – Maggie Craine is a classic noir femme fatale, a beautiful, drowning woman who’ll drag anyone with her to the bottom if they try to rescue her. Of course, for Jenner, the emotional damage she inflicts upon him is every bit as painful as the violence he endures.
Of all the female characters I’ve written, Maggie is the one most modeled on someone I knew. Over time, ex-girlfriends have asked me, “So… Ana – she’s me, right?”, or “Was I the inspiration for Deb Putnam?” I always smile, and say, “Yes. Yes, that was you.” I’m really interested to see if anyone will claim Maggie…
- Jonathan Hayes
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