Saturday, August 31, 2019

An Interview with Bernard Schaffer by E. B. Davis

In this brilliantly chilling follow-up to The Thief of All Light, veteran police officer Bernard Schaffer digs deep into the past—and the haunted psyches of the detectives who search for truth . . . at any cost.

 “There’s a thousand scavengers in these woods.”

Before being promoted to detective, Carrie Santero was given a rare glimpse into the mind of a killer. Through her mentor, Jacob Rein—a seasoned manhunter whose gift for plumbing the depths of madness nearly drove him over the brink—she was able to help capture one of the most depraved serial killers in the country. Now, the discovery of a small human foot buried in the Pennsylvania woods will lead her to a decades-old cold case—and the darkest secrets of her mentor’s youth.

“Nobody trusts an animal that tries to eat its own kind.”

Thirty years ago, a young girl went missing. A police officer was murdered. Another committed suicide. The lives of everyone involved would never be the same. For three agonizing decades, Jacob Rein has yearned for the truth. But when Detective Carrie Santero begins digging up new evidence, she discovers some answers come with shattering consequences.

I don’t know why I downloaded this book. It isn’t really my go-to read. It sure isn’t cozy. But I was hooked as soon as I started reading. An Unsettled Grave is the second book in the Santero and Rein Thriller series. That word, “thriller,” usually turns me off. To me, it defines the reader as someone who has to get vicarious thrills, like a bystander at a traffic accident. So not me. But the reader is drawn into this story, not sidelined to bystander status at all.

Perhaps it’s due to the main character being a young female detective. Carrie Santero has her job to do, but as the only female detective on the county’s force, it’s an uphill battle doing her job without ticking off her boss, whose ego might interfere with his brain function, or the rest of her colleagues. Perhaps it’s because Jacob Rein’s life and family played an integral part in the case. Perhaps it’s because Schaffer pulls the reader back thirty years to when the cold case started.

After reading this book, what did I really wish for? That I’d found out about the first book before I read this one. There’s an interesting backstory and beginning to this series that I know I missed out on. So, I’ll pack The Thief of All Light for beach reading soon.

Please welcome Bernard Schaffer to WWK.                                                                                                         E. B. Davis
Preamble Questions:

Before we get into the book, I want to satiate my curiosity. You’ve written a lot of books from children’s books to nonfiction police procedure. When did you start to write?
At a very early age. I was a voracious reader and that’s where it starts for any author. You love to read and at some point, you decide to try creating stories of your own.
My first efforts at getting published were between high school and becoming a police officer. In those days I was strictly a short story and comic book script writer. I didn’t have the confidence to try anything more substantial.
I had this big electric typewriter I used to lug around to various dead-end security jobs. One was at a trash dump, and I’d sit in the security office at night writing while rats raced past the windows.
I was so broke at the time that I used to type on both sides of the pages to save money on paper. This was back in the old days where you did everything by mail and had to wait six months to know if you’d been rejected or not. It was a nightmare.
So I kept writing but ultimately the impending threat of starving to death and living on the streets convinced me to get a real job. Getting married and having two kids convinced me to keep it.
In 2010 my ex-wife and I separated and to keep from going crazy, I decided to do something I’d never done before. Write a novel. That was Whitechapel.

As a full-time police detective, how do you have time to write? Is writing therapy?
I’ve written in police cars at four AM. I've written in trash dumps. I write now when I’m getting into bed exhausted after a long day, but then am suddenly struck with such a perfect piece of prose that I have to get back up and stagger toward my computer. The point is, a writer finds time to get it in.
I'm no different than those who came before me. Elmore Leonard used to write inside a desk drawer at a crappy office job, until they caught him and fired him for doing it on company time. Harlan Ellison used to write in the toilet stall while he was in boot camp. Stephen King used to write in the laundry room with his typewriter balanced on a bucket, or something.
As far as whether or not writing is therapy, I’m not sure. It’s just who I am. Writers write for various reasons. To fight back against the darkness. To expel their demons. To make money. To preserve literature. To show the world they're the best of their time. Maybe I do it for all of those reasons and maybe none. I think therefore I am, and I am therefore I write.

How did you get endorsements from writers such as Lee Child, Lisa Scottoline, JA Konrath, Meg Gardiner?
Getting blurbs is one of the worst things. It’s really humiliating to have to approach established authors and go through the whole begging process. Some make it easy and some don’t.
Lee Child is an incredible guy who is incredibly generous. I met him at my first Thrillerfest and then got in contact with him later. He agreed right away and gave us such a great blurb they used it on the cover of The Thief of All Light.
I’d worked with Joe Konrath before. I spent six years in the indie world and Joe and I crossed paths and co-wrote some pieces together. Joe actually introduced me to his agent, who then became my agent, and now we share a publisher in Kensington. That was pretty easy. Joe has made a second career out of guiding others through the indie publishing world.
Lisa Scottoline is the Queen of Thrillers. I love that lady. She’s from my area and when I met her she beat me to punch and said, “Do you need a blurb?” We stay in touch and see each other at conferences. I really love Miss S as a person and as an author.  
The craziest story is David Morrell.
He not only gave us a great blurb, he suggested we change the entire ending to THE THIEF OF ALL LIGHT. I laughed and said yeah, okay. The book is done. It’s edited and we got our final payment and it’s on its way to the printer. My editor, Michaela Hamilton, wasn’t laughing.
Needless to say, we changed the ending. And David Morrell was right.

An Unsettled Grave Questions:

When Carrie was still in uniform, she made more money than now as a detective. Isn’t being a detective a promotion?
Not always. In some departments it’s a promotion, in others it’s an assignment that can be taken away at any moment. That’s happened to me.
In Carrie’s case, she isn’t promoted to detective. She leaves her agency and goes to work for the county and has to start over in terms of their pay scale and seniority and whatnot.

When a young woman driving home from the gym is pulled over and raped by a man who identified himself as a cop, Carrie asks the officers on road patrol to submit DNA. Her boss, Harv Bender, immediately pulls her off the case and sends her to the boonies to investigate what looks like a dead-end cold case. Wouldn’t asking for DNA for elimination be a standard response and procedure? I know from the quote above, “Nobody trusts an animal that tries to eat its own kind.” But what if a cop is responsible? Getting a bad cop out of the job should be a priority, shouldn’t it?
It should be. If I came to your house right now and said, hi, I’m from the government and we want your DNA maybe you’d give it and maybe you wouldn’t. Cops tend to react poorly when it’s suggested they’ve done something wrong. There's a herd mentality. Part of the reason is, cops all over the nation are punished when a cop in some distant part of the country does something wrong.
How many times have you seen people protesting in New York for something that happened on the west coast or the south, and the cops wind up getting hit with bottles and rocks and everything else? I'm not here to say what's right or wrong about it. I'm just saying, everything evolves over time, including that mentality.

Carrie defines patrol officers into two groups: Road dogs and traffic cops. What are they? What’s the difference? And are these groups real? Are the differences due to individual temperament or are the differences cultivated by the supervisor/county directives?
Every police agency has its own culture. Bucks County, where I work, has over 50 different departments. Different bosses, procedures, sizes, and cultures.
Carrie’s observation about those groups is consistent with my own.
Some guys get a perverted thrill out of wrecking some blue-collar worker’s life with six hundred dollars in traffic tickets. Some guys don’t.

What is a SANE nurse?
A Sexual Assault Nurse Examiner. They are trained to forensically exam victims of sex assaults and secure evidence.

What is Blue Flu? Is it real?
It’s a situation where cops protest by sicking out and not showing up for work. It can really wreak havoc, especially if a department doesn’t have the resources to cover the open shifts. If your entire nightwork shift calls out sick, especially a few nights in a row, you could have a real problem on your hands. It doesn’t happen often. Police officers are generally a very dedicated and professional group. But it has happened.

I’ve seen those “We Buy Gold” shops. How do they feed off the heroin trade?
Mainly just by existing. They allow anyone to walk in and sell jewelry and don’t ask any questions. Heroin addicts need a constant supply of heroin, so they need a constant source of money.
Those gold places melt the gold almost immediately so it’s not like victims can go and look for their missing items. Priceless family heirlooms. Rings an elderly woman was given by husband decades ago in Paris. All of it sold for pennies and melted into scrap for dope money.

Having not read the first book, I assume Jacob Rein has been either let go or is on administrative leave from the force. Why do he and Carrie stay in touch?
They have an experience in TOAL that binds them together. Rein is her mentor and maybe also a warning of what happens if she lets the job consume her.

Vieira County, which I assume is fictional, is located somewhere in southwestern Pennsylvania, but its jurisdiction extends into parts of West Virginia and Ohio by “agreement.” Is that true? Sometimes legal jurisdiction doesn’t follow state lines?
There are agreements of mutual aid that let agencies share borders, so a bad guy can’t just step over the state line and start mooning the cops chasing him. Those other states are just the PA border in that area.

When Carrie finds the old case files buried in the police station’s basement safe, she doesn’t have the equipment or chemicals to analyze it. Rein encourages her to do it herself. Is it true that there is only one police lab in Pennsylvania? What does Carrie have to do to analyze the evidence?
There is only the PA State Police crime lab in that area for specific types of examinations. They have various satellite offices around the state that do different things. DNA, fingerprints, and whatnot. Philly has its own lab. I’m not sure if Pittsburgh does also. And there are several private labs for DNA, blood evidence and analysis. But none of them work together and you need the PSP lab for almost every major case.

Curiously, Carrie discovers the police chief, who was the original investigator of the case, is named Oliver Rein. She finds a subsequent letter from a new police chief, Walter C. Auburn, writing about Oliver Rein’s suicide, but Auburn’s death date is the same date as on the letter. What does Carrie think about that?
I think that’s for the reader to infer. I’m an adherent to Hemingway’s iceberg theory. The more I stay out of the way of the author, the more the reader has to bring the character forward on their own.

Why does Carrie hate illusions, especially those created by people?
One of the themes that developed while I was writing the book was the difference between the genuine and artificial. What we perceive and subscribe to versus what actually occurred. In the book you see that the town throws an annual parade for a dead police chief, who Carrie later learns, wasn't the hero everyone thinks. She has to decide whether or not to preserve and use that illusion for her own ends, which just happens to be the greater good.

Jacob’s father Ben suffers from PTSD after coming home from Vietnam. What motivates him to compartmentalize, switch it off, and go into soldier mode?
I’d have a hard time explaining that without spoiling the book for people, I think. I can only speak from my own experiences with PTSD. From what I've heard, it's likely my grandfather had PTSD from WWII and raised my father in a very violent way. My dad likely also has PTSD, both from his upbringing and the almost thirty years as a police officer.
I've probably experienced it as well. For a long time, I experienced Exploding Head Syndrome, which is an amusing sounding condition, but freaked me out until I finally started asking questions about it.
Like most things, it went away after I learned what it was. It doesn't bother me anymore.

Why are police badges designed to look like shields?
Legend has it that they are shaped like the shields of soldiers in ancient times because it was their job to protect the people. It's a symbol that you can stand behind me when the bad guys come through the gate and I won't let them have you.

Is Harv occasionally a good cop when he isn’t lazy?
He’s got his moments. He certainly cares. I’ve known plenty of Harv Bender’s, both in and out of police work. Men I don’t like, and don’t respect, but who I know would come running with guns blazing if you needed them.
He's not unique to law enforcement. There are plenty of people I've arrested and had problems with, but I have no doubt that if I got run over by a car or was getting beaten up in the street, they'd still come to help. A few might not. Some would. I hope.

“Rein,” she said, touching his wrist before he could get out. “What changed your mind?
Why are you letting him work on your case?”
“I’ve been thinking a lot about the people who died to make me what I am, he said.
“I still owe.” (Kindle Loc. 3331)

What does Rein mean by that?
Although each of the books are standalones, and you can enjoy them without needing to read the others, people who do read them all will have a more complete understanding of the story. I definitely want you to read them all.
In this particular case, I think Rein realizes that he has an ability to do things that most people don't. Those abilities were forged by great suffering and sacrifice by the ones he loved. He still owes them for what he can do, and the way he pays it is by doing it.

Carrie eventually solves the rape case by becoming a near victim, but her gun saves her. Is this a message to women?
Violence against women was very much on my mind during the writing of the book. It comes out of nowhere and they are specifically targeted just because they are women.
I’m not a gun advocate or gun fetishist by any means. Just a realist.
In the book, a predator attacks Carrie with overwhelming violence and she can either fight or die. She wasn’t going to karate kick her way out of that. A gun is a tool, designed for a specific purpose. Police carry them to accomplish a specific function. Carrie did what she had to do.

What’s next for Carrie and Rein?
Blood Angel releases in 2020. My editor always said most series only go three installments, so at least we went the distance. My goal with each of the Santero and Rein books was to improve each time. We’re starting to hit pretty high levels, so if we decide to do more I am going to have my work cut out for me.
Thank you so much for having me on Writers Who Kill! 


  1. Congratulations on your series. What comes next?

  2. Welcome, Bernard. Thank you so much for the interview, but also for agreeing to teach the SinC Guppies on Police Procedure next year! I think your class will be popular and well received.

  3. Nice to read about what goes on in the world of police written by a real police officer.

    Definitely a series I'd like to read.

  4. Great interview! I'll keep this series on my radar.

  5. Margaret: Thank you so much. The third book, BLOOD ANGEL, comes out next summer. It's got an incredible cover that I can't wait to show everyone!

  6. EB: I really appreciate you having me on the blog and I cannot wait to teach the class. It's going to be one of the highlights of my year. I think people will especially enjoy the chance to solve their own criminal investigations!