Robin Burcell knows plenty about how cops work, having invested 26 years in a law enforcement career, retiring in 2009. Of course, the protagonists in her two mass-market paperback series of mystery-thriller novels know just as much.
Burcell spent 18 years at the Lodi Police Department, where she was the first female officer. There, she was a patrol officer, a detective and an FBI-trained hostage negotiator and forensic artist. The next 8 1/2 years were spent as a criminal investigator for the Department of Human Assistance for Sacramento County.
Burcell's first novel was "When Midnight Comes" (1995), a time-travel romance and finalist for two Romance Writers of America awards.
In Burcell's four-title "Kate Gillespie" series (1999-2004), the star is a homicide inspector with the San Francisco Police Department. Her four-title "Sydney Fitzpatrick" series (2008 to present) features an FBI special agent-forensic artist. "The Kill Order," the fifth in that series, will appear in late December.
She's working on her sixth "Sydney" novel "and thinking of bringing Kate Gillespie into it to get some crossover."
Collectively, Burcell's books have won two Anthony mystery awards and were nominated for two others.
Burcell and her husband live with their three children in Lodi. She is a member of Sisters in Crime, a national group of mystery writers and readers.
Visit her at www.robinburcell.com.
You were writing while you were a police officer. After your romance novel you turned to mystery.
I'd had twins, so romance was not on my radar at the moment. Somebody told me, "Look at your job. You should be writing mysteries." I didn't watch cop shows on TV or read mysteries. I was reading anything that would take me away from what I did. A friend kept urging me to read (crime novelist) Patricia Cornwell, that I would be great at writing something like that. So I read her and it was "Wow!" That's when I penned my first mystery, "Every Move She Makes."
Why did you end the mystery series and go international with the thriller series?
I wanted to do something with forensic art and I wanted to go to Europe. I told my friend (thriller novelist James Rollins of El Dorado Hills) that I wanted to bump up the pace of my books and turn them into thrillers as opposed to mysteries, but I needed a good idea. He said, "You need to mix 'The Da Vinci Code' with 'The Silence of the Lambs.' " I changed gears in the middle of "The Bone Chamber" and turned it into an international thriller with a covert-ops team.
Since then, you and Sydney have traveled to Europe.
We've been to Amsterdam, England and Venice. We went to Rome and Naples for "The Bone Chamber." I wrote the book before I actually went there. Then I went over and visited every place Sydney visited to make sure the stuff that happened in the book was really doable. I found out some of the scenes I'd written were physically impossible, so I had to do a lot of rewriting when I came home.
Your law-enforcement career is the source material for your novels. Procedure-wise, how accurate are cop books by other writers?
Some are so far off the mark it's laughable, and some are fairly close. Sometimes you have to tweak the truth for purposes of plot and excitement. Readers want the story to be realistic, but I gloss over the real stuff so they can get to the stuff they care about action and character inter-action.
It's poetic license. My characters never spend time writing reports; they're always on to the next case. And they're always killing somebody or involved in shootings. If that was real life, they'd be yanked off the street and given desk jobs. "You're going to get us sued!"
As a forensic artist, you were partly responsible for the apprehension of a lot of criminals.
Sometimes I got called out to other agencies, so I had a lot of hits over the years. I'd get a phone call in the middle of the night "We just had a murder" so I'd grab my briefcase and drive off to wherever it was.
There was one occasion I set up shop in a morgue because they had a body that needed to be identified. They put the poster out, but (the victim) wasn't identified until two years later when they finally put my drawing on (a TV show). A woman in Sonora recognized her granddaughter.
Why are thrillers and mysteries so popular?
They bring order to chaos. (Usually) there is resolution and the affirmation that right comes out on top.
You know how law enforcement operates, and you know the criminal mind. That knowledge would be invaluable if you ever went to the dark side.
I could make a really good effort to commit the perfect crime, but there are so many things you have to do to cover your tracks. That's so hard to do in this age of the Internet and cellphones, being able to trace calls and track movements and such. I think it's a lot more fun trying to write the perfect crime than trying to commit it.
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