Kevin O’Brien achieved a milestone with the publication of July’s The Bad Sister—his 20th book (and 23rd year) with Kensington Publishers. Before making the New York Times bestseller list with his first thriller, The Next To Die (2001), he spent 17 years traveling the country as a railroad inspector, working by day and writing by night. That book marked his first as a full-time novelist, and he hasn’t looked back since.
The Bad Sister marks another milestone, as well—O’Brien’s first continuation novel, following last year’s The Betrayed Wife. That book introduced the O’Rourke family, scandalized by the unexpected appearance of husband/patriarch Dylan’s (unknown) teenage daughter, Eden, by another woman. The Bad Sister picks up two years later, as Eden and her half-sibling, Hannah, accept scholarships to a Catholic school north of Chicago; murder and madness once again ensue.
Recently, O’Brien—profiled in the forthcoming Holiday Issue (#166)—spoke to Mystery Scene about the makings of a sequel.
John Valerie for Mystery Scene: The Bad Sister is your first sequel (or continuation novel). What did you find most challenging about writing a follow-up story vs. a standalone? Conversely, what was the most liberating aspect of revisiting a familiar framework?
Kevin O'Brien: When I started writing The Betrayed Wife, my editor suggested it be the first of two related thrillers, which we ended up calling The Family Secrets Series. One reason I write standalones is because I like giving the reader a good ending, where everything is neatly wrapped up. So it was a real challenge to finish the story of The Betrayed Wife and leave a few things open-ended—enough so that the reader might hope for a sequel of sorts.
For The Bad Sister, I took two characters from the first book, and focused on them. My biggest challenge was presenting their backgrounds as established in The Betrayed Wife. I didn’t want to bore loyal readers with all this backstory they’d gotten in the earlier book. But I didn’t want new readers to be in the dark about these two characters and what they’ve been through together, because it was essential to the plot of the new book.
At the same time, I didn’t want to spoil The Betrayed Wife for anyone who hasn’t read it yet. I walked a very fine line. I had to extract certain vital information from a 454-page book, and condense it into a few pages of dialogue that was entertaining and realistic—and didn’t have Expository Scene! stamped all over it. I must have rewritten and re-polished that scene about 20 times. Hopefully, I pulled it off! The fun part of this sequel was that when I started it, I already knew these two principal characters. I really enjoyed fleshing them out some more, and putting them in this completely new situation.
Here, you shift the focus from the parental figures to half-sisters Hannah and Eden as they head off to college. Why did you decide to make them the primary characters—and how does their relationship dynamic lend itself to an inherent sense of drama and mistrustfulness?
Eden was the character who “got the ball rolling” in The Betrayed Wife. After her mother’s apparent suicide, 16-year-old Eden showed up on the doorstep of her birth-father, who didn’t even know she existed. She’s a stranger to him and his family. When she moves in with them, unsettling things start happening in the house—especially to Eden’s new stepmother. The main characters in the story were the father, Dylan, and his wife, Sheila. Of their three kids, the teenage son, Steve, emerged as another principal character. But Steve has a younger brother, Gabe, and an older sister, Hannah, who is the same age as Eden.
Hannah is a typical pampered teen—obsessed with her phone, her looks and her social status at school. I patterned her slightly after the oldest daughter in Modern Family. She immediately clashes with Eden, a hard-edged goth-type. For the most part, Hannah was in the background of The Betrayed Wife. So it was a real treat to give her more depth and throw her together with Eden in The Bad Sister.
The action picks up two years after The Betrayed Wife ends. Hannah has matured. But the girls still don’t get along. They managed to live under the same roof by avoiding each other as much as possible (one had her bedroom in the basement and the other’s bedroom was on the second floor). But the family has fallen on hard times, and when the girls are both awarded scholarships to a small Catholic college north of Chicago, they go off to school together. I liked how these two bickering, totally different half-siblings have to join forces in order to survive in their new—and it turns out, sinister—surroundings.
The story largely plays out against the backdrop of a small Catholic school in the Chicago area. How does this setting enhance the narrative—and in what ways are you able to juxtapose the (supposed) sanctity of religion with the savagery of the crimes?
For The Bad Sister, I needed to create a small campus that had been the setting for a rash of grisly murders back in 1970. I figured an all-woman Catholic college would be the perfect hunting ground for a serial killer. Now it’s 50 years later, and about 30% of the college’s students are male (as is the case for several one-time women-only private schools). There is also a copycat killer recreating the crimes from a half-century ago.
I set the college in a fictional suburb along the lakeshore, north of Chicago (Risky Business, Ordinary People, and Ferris Bueller territory), near where I grew up.I wanted these two half-sisters from Seattle to be in totally new surroundings. I drew a detailed map of the fictional campus, which I called Our Lady of the Cove, and the fictional town nearby, Delmar. The campus has an old and new section. The older part of the campus is more charming and beautiful—with gardens, religious shrines, statues and stately, but slightly decrepit buildings. One character in the book likens this section of the campus to an old cemetery—beautiful and serene during the day, and creepy as hell at night.
My half-sister heroines don’t live in a traditional dorm, but in one of the underclassmen “bungalows.” They’re next door to a garden patch with a statue of the martyred St. Ursula. But 50 years ago, there was a bungalow in that spot; and it was the site of a brutal double murder. I think this Catholic setting is ideal, because there’s so much good vs. evil in religion. Plus there are so many gruesome deaths found in the history of the saints. There are reminders of this all over the Our Lady of the Cove campus. As one character in The Bad Sister points out: “You can’t throw a rock around here without hitting a statue of some martyred saint.”
To expand on that: Eden disappears on the 50th anniversary of the “Immaculate Conception Murders”—an occasion that seems to inspire a copycat killer. Tell us a bit about these crimes. Were they based on actual events or people or were they born wholly from your imagination?
Since these fictional serial killings took place at an all-women Catholic school, I wanted to give the murders a moniker that had some religious connotations and sounded creepy. In the story, back in 1970, over a period of a couple of weeks, five students and a teacher were murdered. The “Immaculate Conception Killings” were somewhat influenced by the Boston Strangler murders, but also by how Ted Bundy seemed to prey on young women at the University of Washington.
By the way, I have a true story from my dentist, who attended the University of Washington back in the late '70s. He had a study date with a girlfriend. She showed up to his apartment, saying she wanted to drop off her books and come right back in a couple of minutes. A man with his arm in a cast needed assistance hauling something out of his VW Bug, parked nearby, and she wanted to help him. My dentist told her that the guy was probably hitting on her, and she just should stay put. “Let him ask a guy for help,” my dentist suggested. She took his advice. That night, another young woman fell for Ted Bundy’s routine, and she went missing from the UW campus. According to my dentist, his friend sends him card every Christmas, and thanks him for saving her life.
You also introduce journalist/professor Ellie Goodwin, who sees a story that others refuse to. In what ways did writing her character allow you to both explore and circumvent the ethical dilemmas and perception biases that are associated with that profession (reporter)?
I studied Journalism at Marquette University, so I’m a big fan of journalists. This is the second time I’ve had a reporter as the main character in one of my books (the first was in Final Breath). This is a tough time for journalists. So many people get their news online or on TV, and newspapers are downsizing. This is what has happened to Ellie, which is why she has ended up teaching a Journalism class at Our Lady of the Cove. But she hasn’t abandoned her investigative reporter roots. When she sees a connection between current incidents and what happened exactly fifty years before during the Immaculate Conception killer’s reign of terror, she’s compelled to look into it. As I said, I’m a big fan of journalists; and now, more than ever, we need honest, unbiased reporters to help get us through these really tough times.
Your third person narration alternates between characters that include three young(ish) women and “the bad guy.” How do you endeavor to get into these characters’ heads—and in what ways does this set-up heighten the overall suspense?
The 18-year-old half-sisters, Hannah and Eden, are radically different. And my thirtysomething journalism teacher, Ellie, is unlike both of them. So, I think it kept the narrative fresh to get those diverse points of view in various scenes (but never within the same scene; I’m always surprised—and sort of put-off—when an author “head hops” from one character to another within the same scene; it stops me cold when I come across it, because it’s confusing). It’s always difficult to get into “the bad guy’s” head, but it’s often necessary—in order to show the reader his/her intentions.
I like the third person narrative, because you can give the reader certain information that the main character doesn’t have. That kind of setup creates suspense. I think of that scene in The Birds, in which Tippi Hedren sits and smokes a cigarette while the crows gather on the jungle gym behind her. She’s oblivious, but we see what’s happening and the suspense is unbearable. We know something she doesn’t. You can’t write a scene like that in the first person.
What do you see as the overarching themes of this saga—and how did the continuation of story lend itself to further development?
Well, first, SPOILER ALERT, here. At the end of The Betrayed Wife, it’s implied that Eden has a permanent home with her birth father, Dylan O’Rourke, and his family. It’s also implied, not too subtly, that Dylan might have another daughter that he doesn’t know about. Now, I can never write a thriller that has just one story line running through it; and The Bad Sister, is no exception. So while the book focuses on the copycat killer terrorizing a campus, another theme/story emerges about the half-sisters and a potential third sister.
Kevin O'Brien's first thriller The Next to Die (2001) became a USA Today bestseller. Three more USA Today bestselling thrillers followed, and then came The Last Victim (2005), which hit the New York Times Bestseller list and won the Spotted Owl Award for Best Pacific Northwest Mystery. He's written 21 novels and his books have been translated into 14 languages. O'Brien served on the board of Seattle 7 Writers, and occasionally teaches writing classes at Hugo House (www.hugohouse.org). He lives in Seattle.