It shouldn’t be a big surprise that Allison Brennan grew up to write thrillers and mysteries. After all, her mother named her for a character in a best-selling crime novel.
“She was pregnant, and she was reading an Ed McBain novel – I don’t know which one,” Brennan said over a recent lunch at Ernesto’s in midtown Sacramento. “There were characters named Allison and Matthew, and she really liked those names. So, if I’d been a boy, I would have been Matthew.”
Ernesto’s is one of Brennan’s favorite hangouts from the days when she worked as a legislative analyst at the Capitol, and she still meets some of her former colleagues there from time to time. But for the past decade, the Elk Grove mother of five has been making a living as a novelist.
Her books, including the eight-books-and-counting Lucy Kincaid series, have been translated into Japanese, Norwegian, German, Spanish, French and Italian; her first novel, “The Prey,” made the extended New York Times best-seller list; her fourth book, “Speak No Evil,” made the Times’ print list.
Brennan’s 24th novel, “Notorious,” will be published by Minotaur Books on Tuesday, the first book with her new heroine, Maxine “Max” Revere, an investigative journalist who solves cold cases. It’s also her first novel to be published in a hardcover edition rather than as a mass market paperback, and marks her move to yet another level as a best-selling author. An ebook-only novella, “Maximum Exposure,” which tells part of the character’s backstory, was published Feb. 4.
Max is back in her Bay Area hometown for the funeral of an old friend when she’s asked to investigate the unsolved murder of a young man at a construction site on the grounds of her old prep school. As she looks into the case, she discovers information that leads her to think perhaps the murder is connected to another murder a decade and a half earlier – one in which her dead friend was charged, tried and acquitted – and she’s immediately on the trail.
“I was born and raised in the Bay Area and went to a school just like the prep school” in “Notorious,” Brennan said. She even name-drops Kepler’s Books, a Menlo Park bookstore that she has always loved.
And, if she hasn’t had to do the 9-to-5 thing since her first book sold in 2004, don’t assume that success has come easy for her.
“I’ve always been a reader,” Brennan said. “I get that from my mom – she’s sometimes read a book a day.”
Brennan started writing as a teenager – not your typical, angst-y poetry, but stories she describes as “sort of Nancy Drew-ish mysteries.” She continued to write for years – after two years at college, and then her move to Sacramento to take a job with the Legislature – but said that she never finished anything.
“I’d start something, but I’d be like Dory in ‘Finding Nemo’ – ‘There’s an idea! There’s another idea!’ ” she said. On her computer, she found files with more than a hundred unfinished projects.
And then her life happened: marriage, a mortgage and children. It wasn’t until Brennan was on maternity leave with her third child that she noticed how much her life had changed.
“The older two children were in school, and it was just [the baby] and me,” she said. “I ended up reading 77 books during my four-month maternity leave. I realized, wow, I haven’t been reading like I used to read. And I realized that I’d stopped writing.”
Brennan decided to make some changes. She stopped bringing home work to do after hours, and she gave up watching television. She started writing every evening after the children were in bed.
“I realized that if I ever wanted to be published, I had to finish a book,” she said.
So she did. Then she sent queries for that first book to 50 agents. Brennan was so convinced it would knock them off their feet that she immediately started a second book.
“I got rejection after rejection after rejection,” she said. Only one wanted to see the completed manuscript – which is still a better result than most first-time novelists get – but the agent returned the cover page with one word written on it.
“Superficial,” said Brennan. “That was it.”
But with her second book done, she wasn’t about to give up. So off the queries went to another 50 agents. This time, three of them asked to see the full manuscript. She was definitely on the right track.
“The third book had a great premise,” Brennan said, “but I didn’t know what to do with it.” The fourth book was a new genre – a futuristic spy-thriller – and it, too failed to sell.
“The Prey,” her fifth book, sold to Ballantine. By then, she’d given birth to a fifth child, and after her return to work, she asked for part-time hours, planning a schedule that would allow more time for writing. When her supervisors refused her request, she quit.
“They didn’t really think I’d quit, and frankly, I didn’t, either,” Brennan said. “I was scared, because that advance had to last for 15 months before the first book came out.” To save money, she took her two toddlers and infant out of day care (her two oldest were in school).
“Then I discovered I couldn’t write while they were at home because they actually needed my attention, you know?” she said. “My youngest was only 6 months old.”
She returned to her schedule of writing at night after the children were asleep, “because stay-at-home mom is a full-time job.” Eventually, as it became clear that her books were indeed going to sell well, she decided to put the youngest children in day care three days a week.
One might ask how such a nice, suburban mom can write novels with such nasty villains – serial killers, rapists and sociopaths of all stripes – and such sizzling, sometimes graphically sexual, romance.
“It’s fun!” Brennan said. She noted that most murder victims are killed for a very basic reason by someone they know, and the conflict in a mystery comes from figuring out the motive and identity of the killer. In a novel of the thriller type, the conflict comes from unpredictability of the danger and the threat of violence that hangs over the main character.
And because the motives for thriller villains go beyond the typical triad of love, money or sex, there are more creative possibilities, not to mention more action. But don’t imagine it’s all relentlessly grim.
“There are so many unhappy things out there, why not give readers a satisfying ending?” Brennan said. She strives for a resolution that will satisfy her readers with justice served and hearts aflame.
“I figure if they took the time to read my book and send a message, they deserve a response,” she said.
After all, if it weren’t for the people who read her books, she’d still be working at something she doesn’t love like she loves writing.