'Empty Rooms' takes emotional toll Author publishes 53rd novel, a mystery-thriller in Detroit

By Kurt Anthony Krug

Legal News

Penning his 53rd book "Empty Rooms" a dark mystery-thriller set in Detroit circa 2009 when the auto industry collapsed was quite the change of pace for novelist Jeffrey J. Mariotte.

"'Empty Rooms' is a straight thriller, whereas most of my books (with the exception of his crime thriller 'The Devil's Bait') include horror/supernatural elements. (It's) more of a procedural, and the horror is in the things human beings do to each other. We don't need supernatural help to be pretty terrible," explained Mariotte, 59, who's also written of novels based on TV series including "Buffy the Vampire Slayer," "Angel," "Star Trek," "CSI," et al.

In "Empty Rooms," Frank Robey an ex-FBI agent who's joined the Detroit Police Department is obsessed with the case of a missing child. He collaborates with ex-Detroit cop Richie Krebbs, who unearths a clue to this child's whereabouts in one of Detroit's many abandoned homes. Both men encounter depths of depravity neither could have imagined. Not only must they solve this case, but also hold tight to their humanity.

"Empty Rooms" was inspired by Mariotte's non-fiction book called "Criminal Minds: Sociopaths, Serial Killers & Other Deviants," a true-crime book describing the real story of every criminal mentioned in the first five seasons of the TV series "Criminal Minds," as well as some who weren't mentioned but whose crimes inspired various episodes.

"It took a ton of research, and that research led down some pretty dark avenuesâ?¦ While I was immersed in that real-life horror, a writer friend suggested that I watch comedy movies to bring myself out of the depths. That got me wondering how people who have to deal with these things in real life as opposed to us who just read and write about it maintain some sense of their own humanity while they're surrounded by inhumanity day in and day out," explained Mariotte. "So I did some research about that and have talked to some of the cops I've known about it. Then I thought about the darkest, most horrible type of crime I could imagine and set my characters against that, so that keeping a grip on their own humanity and basic decency would become a genuine struggle. Predators who prey on children are, I think, pretty much as bad as it gets."

For Mariotte, the hardest part of writing "Empty Rooms" was dealing honestly and respectfully with the sexual abuse of children.

"I didn't want to come across as exploiting a very personal and tragic issue, but I did want readers to understand just how bad it is, and why (Krebbs and Robey) have trouble dealing with it emotionally," he said. "I've been told by people who would know that I did a good job of walking that tightrope, for which I'm grateful."

Mariotte confessed that writing this book took a toll on him.

"I was living inside some very dark places for a long time," he said. "I have fairly recently realized that I've struggled with depression for years also an issue for (Krebbs and Robey) and that got worse during the period I was writing 'Empty Rooms' and after. I did what the characters do: listened to music, read comics and other books that took me out of my own head for a while, watched movies, lived life and tried to embrace it. But spending months and months neck-deep in the horrible things people do was tough, and I don't recommend it to others. Instead, they should just read this book, which despite the way I've described it does have its lighter moments and I think is ultimately uplifting."

The author related to Krebbs the most.

"(He) was pretty much me at the time. Having finished the 'Criminal Minds' book, my brain was full of facts about just about every known sociopath and serial killer there is because even if I didn't write about them, I had to study them to figure out if episodes had been based on their crimes. And I wasn't particularly happy about giving up full-time writing to take a day job. So a lot of the employment-related frustrations Richie experiences though in his case, authentic to the Detroit of the time and not to my particular situation were mine, as was the sense of being a walking encyclopedia of crime and criminals," said Mariotte.

He doesn't recall where he got the name Krebbs, but confessed he knew that Robey would call him Maynard after Maynard G. Krebs, Bob Denver's beatnik character on "The Many Lives of Dobie Gillis," which aired from 1959-63.

Robey is Krebbs' opposite number. Whereas Krebbs is relatively young, impulsive, Robey is older, more settled, with a long career in law enforcement with the FBI and DPD. One of Robey's hobbies, as well as his release valve, is collecting comic books a medium Mariotte knows well, having been an editor and writer for DC Comics and Image Comics.

"I've never really written about comics. So (Robey) is a big comic book fan and collector of comics and original comic book art. I wanted to use him to talk about the medium from various perspectives," said Mariotte.

A native of Park Forest, which is outside Chicago, Mariotte explained why he set "Empty Rooms" in Detroit.

"These two Midwestern cities were once the crown jewels of American business, each a real powerhouse in its own wayâ?¦ I'm fascinated by urban planning and policy in general, and have been watching Detroit from afar for a long time. It was tragic to see it largely implode and heartening to see it coming back, though it still has a long way to go," he said. "In many ways, Detroit's story echoes that of my characters. The city has to do a lot of self-reflection to figure out what it is, what it wants to be, and how to make that happen. It went through some very dark times, and it looks like it'll come out again, obviously changed and reinvented in many ways. And it had a lot of the physical elements I needed, like the long-abandoned house that really kicks off the plot."

For research, Mariotte made two trips to Detroit.

"I did talk to a city councilman (which was) the closest I got to the political establishment. That was okay, though, because mostly I wanted to see the city and environs for myself. I knew some of the locations I wanted to use, and knew that I wanted to discover others," he said. "When possible, I like to go to the places that I write about. You can do a lot of research online and through books and I did, as well as becoming a regular reader of Detroit newspapers and blogs but that usually doesn't tell you what you smell or hear when you're standing on any given corner, or what you can see from there: the things that ground a novel in reality."

Mariotte also shared his impressions of Detroit.

"Detroit is a great city. When I was there, it was largely the skeleton of a great city, but the bones were still there," he said. "The economic hits it has taken were severe... And it was tragic to see some of the beautiful buildings and fantastic old homes crumbling with neglect. I loved wandering its neighborhoods, though, seeing what I could, admiring some of the incredible architecture and meeting really nice people everywhere I went. I'm glad to see the auto industry picking up steam again and more business moving in."

So far, "Empty Rooms" has been receiving good reviews. Mariotte was humbled that New York Times best-selling novelists Michael Connelly and T. Jefferson Parker have praised his novel.

"Those two are part of my pantheon of crime/thriller writers, people I truly look up to and respect, so to have them write admiringly of my work was a genuine honor," Mariotte recalled fondly. "When he was finished with the book, (Connelly) asked if I was from Detroit because he felt like I had really captured it."

Mariotte continued: "His full blurb didn't end up on the book, but it was: 'Empty Rooms' is a searing, no-holds barred journey into darkness. (Mariotte) knows the key is character, character, character and has delivered a story about men who relentlessly work the case at the same time the case works them. I was pulled in from the start on this one and it never let up. I highly recommend it.'

Parker said, "'Empty Rooms' is as good and moving as a thriller can be. Keenly observed and deftly written, it's something you'll want on your shelf as long as you have one. Mariotte's characters come off the page at you, and through them, the author spins a tale truly of our time. I couldn't put this one down.'"

Published: Fri, Dec 26, 2014