A conversation with mystery writer Hank Phillippi Ryan

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Mystery novelist Hank Phillippi Ryan likes to tell people that she began conducting research for her books more than 40 years ago. Not coincidentally, that's when she became an investigative journalist.

"I have wired myself with hidden cameras and confronted corrupt politicians and gone undercover and in disguise. I've had people confess to murder. I know what people look like when they're lying. I know what the inside of a prison looks like and the back rooms of a courthouse. I've been to fires and murders and had tear gas used on me," Ryan said.

As a longtime investigative reporter for Boston-based WHDH-TV, Ryan has earned plenty of accolades for her coverage, including 34 Emmys and 14 Edward R. Murrow Awards. But her journalistic work has done more than win her industry acclaim; it has also helped fuel her second decorated career. Her 10 mystery novels, which have collected five Agatha Awards, among other honors, draw heavily from her beat. She doesn't compromise any sources, mind you.

"I don't take my investigative stories and make them into fiction. That's not what it is at all. [It's] a snippet from here and an anecdote from there and an experience from there, braided together into a brand-new reality," she said.

Her latest book, "Trust Me" (Forge Books, $25.99), is a standalone psychological suspense thriller that pairs a journalist with an alleged murderer. How does Ryan find the time to write these novels while maintaining her journalism career?

"Out of absolute necessity, I'm extremely organized and very goal-oriented and ridiculously driven. When I get a good idea for a story, whether it's an investigative story or a novel, I'm just compelled to tell it," she said.

She has lists and charts and calendars on her desk to track and advance her progress.

"My key is that I set myself a task that's achievable, and when I complete that task every day, I succeed. I allow myself to succeed every day at the task I've set for myself. So, at the end of the day, I win, and then I'm energized to win again the next day," she said.

Her emphasis on success began at a young age.

"I guess I liked getting gold stars when I was a little girl," she said. "I've sort of developed a way to give myself gold stars as an adult."

On Thursday, March 14, from 6:30 to 7:30 p.m., Ryan will participate in the Bennington Banner's Conversation Series at the Northshire Bookstore in Manchester. Ryan answered some questions about her favorite books in advance of the event. Her responses have been edited for length.

Q: What is your favorite Agatha Christie novel?

A: My favorite Agatha Christie novel, today, is "The Murder of Roger Ackroyd." And my second-favorite is, "Murder on the Orient Express." I can tell you exactly why. Agatha Christie was one of the reasons that I fell in love with mystery writing, and she's also one of the reasons that I fell in love with investigative reporting. I know that sounds odd, but what her books taught me, and those two books especially, is that there's always another way of looking at a story and that what we believe to be true isn't necessarily true, that it's all about perception and spin and manipulation and deciding what we want to believe. Someone said to me once, "If you know what you're looking for, that's what you'll find." That's what drives a good mystery: I want to mislead you as a reader into thinking one thing when something else is really true. That's the essence of "Trust Me," as well. My books are all about perception and truth and misdirection and mind games and a good puzzle, and that's what Agatha Christie is, too.

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Q: Who are some of your other favorite mystery novelists?

A: Mystery to me is crime fiction, not just whatever mystery it might be. So, Sue Grafton, Lisa Gardner, Michael Koryta, Sophie Hannah, John Lescroart. This is not fair because there's no way to pick that! I'm now looking at my bookshelves. For thrillers, Nelson DeMille's "Charm School" and Frederick Forsyth's "The Day of the Jackal," those two books are perfection to me. Sue Grafton's thoughtful, emotional, complicated mysteries with a real personality guiding the reader — she was life-changing for me. [Ryan later mentioned Anthony Horowitz and Dorothy L. Sayers.]

Q: What is your favorite book about journalism?

A: "All the President's Men" [by Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward], certainly. You could read that right now, and it's fabulous and on-point and wise. I just read Katy Tur's book ["Unbelievable"] about covering the [2016] election. I loved — this is going to date me like crazy — but I loved all of "The Making of the President" books [by Theodore H. White]. And the Katharine Graham autobiography ["Personal History"] — I lived in Washington during Watergate, and it took me right back there. [Ryan later added "Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail '72" by Hunter S. Thompson to her list.]

Q: What is your favorite book set in Massachusetts?

A: All the Dennis Lehane ["Mystic River," "Shutter Island," "Gone Baby Gone," among others], and all of the Robert B. Parker books.

Q: What books are currently on your nightstand?

A: My nightstand has "Bad Blood" by John Carreyrou. I'm fascinated by narrative nonfiction. That's my latest craze, my latest obsession, because "Trust Me" is about a journalist who writes a narrative nonfiction book and begins to wonder, "How can you write true crime if you don't know what's the truth?" I'm also reading Sophie Hannah's "The Next to Die," which is a wonderful British mystery. I'm sort of on a Sophie Hannah kick. She also took over writing Hercule Poirot, so she's the new Agatha Christie. I'm reading her brand-new, "The Mystery of Three Quarters," and Lisa Gardner's "Never Tell" and the new Harlan Coben ["Run Away"]. I'm interviewing him in two weeks, so I'm preparing.

Benjamin Cassidy can be reached at bcassidy@berkshireeagle.com, at @bybencassidy on Twitter and 413-496-6251.

If you go ...

What: The Bennington Banner's "Conversation Series," with Hank Phillippi Ryan "A master of suspense"

When: 6:30 to 7:30 p.m., Thursday, March 14

Where: Northshire Bookstore, 4869 Main St., Manchester Center

Cost: This event is free, but registration is suggested. Register at: https://bbmjconversationhank.eventbrite.com


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