Lisa Black — a real-life forensic scientist and a book excerpt

Lisa Black, Kensington, Jan 2018

Welcome back to Lisa Black, a real-life forensic scientist and a heck of a thriller writer, with a great example of how real-life events inspire novelists. Read on for Lisa’s explanation and an excerpt from Perish, A Gardner and Renner Novel, new from Kensington Books. 

Why did the world’s economy crash in 2008? Well, as a Wall Street exec explains to my detectives in Perish:

“Remember way back when banks used to issue mortgages, knew who they were lending to and had incentive to make good loans? Then came computerized credit scores so consumers could shop around and get better rates. Then Lew Ranieri took these assets that weren’t liquid—mortgages take a long time to pay back and you can’t cash them out quickly—and turned it into something that could be bought and traded in the short term.”

“Securitization,” Maggie said.”

In the 1970’s Lew Ranieri of Salomon Brothers invented mortgage-backed securities. Mortgages are common and steady income, but have some qualities that make them unattractive to investors: they might be paid off early, ending the interest stream; at the same time thirty years is a long time to wait for an investment to trickle back; and since one pays down the principal every month, the amount of interest income decreases over time; and that the buyer might default and abandon the house (default).

“With securitization, mortgages were grouped together to create a pool of collateral and bonds are issued based on that collateral. The bonds are divided into ‘tranches’ based on risk—the top tranch will not suffer if any of the loans default, but the bottom tranch people agreed to a higher risk (and, not coincidentally, a higher return) and could lose their shirts. All quite aboveboard and fair, but there remained a flaw no one saw for nearly thirty years, as the exec explains:

“The two detectives sent her funny looks, but Bowman barely paused. “Exactly. This wasn’t a bad idea—even if housing prices fell in one city, they wouldn’t fall in all cities. Until they did. But instead of spreading the risk, it dispersed the disease.”

Bowman leaned back in the swivel chair, one ankle across one knee, then partially turned so he could look at the detectives, the sky outside, and the managers at their desks with only the slightest shift. “They based everything on the assumption that at the absolute worst defaults would hit six percent. They had historically been one percent. People get very attached to their homes.”

            “Ya think?” Riley said.

            “So that even if the entire bottom tranch, say twenty percent, defaults, the two top tranches are one hundred percent safe. Except that housing had never seen the leaping increases that occurred in the first ten years of the new century. So historical data might not have been the best indicator, but no one wanted to think about that. People took out home equity loans or bought houses on spec based on the assumption that the value would keep shooting up. Construction workers and waitresses were trying to become real estate moguls. But every market eventually saturates, and defaulting on an investment is not as wrenching as suddenly being out on the street.

“So banks finally realized their mistake and a bunch of mortgage lenders went out of business or got bought by other banks and they all tightened up their lending practices. All our budding real estate moguls couldn’t sell their investments and couldn’t even pay for their own, as values dropped and all these balloon payments came due and those adjustable rates that sounded so good at first jumped up and tripled their monthly bill. The housing market crashed like a pelican diving for a fish, and the economy followed.”

“Interesting,” Jack said. “But why is Joanna Moorehouse dead?”

Lisa Black has spent over twenty years in forensic science, first at the coroner’s office in Cleveland Ohio and now as a certified latent print examiner and CSI at a Florida police dept. Her books have been translated into six languages; one reached the NYT Bestseller’s list and another has been optioned for film and a possible TV series. Visit her website, http://www.lisa-black.com , and follow her on Twitter, @LisaBlackAuthor.

Wednesday Writing Quote — Ursula LeGuin on making art

“Writing can be [self-expression, therapy, or a spiritual adventure], but first of all — and in the end, too — it’s an art, a craft, a making. To make something well is to give yourself to it, to seek wholeness, to follow spirit. To learn to make something well can take your whole life. It’s worth it.”

— Ursula LeGuin, American novelist, essayist, and teacher (1929-2018)

And, American goddess. 

The Saturday Writing Quote

“And that is what the best writing is—a witness to the human experience, a companion that lets readers know you’re not in this alone. You’re not the only one. Love, hate, rage, failure, success, disappointment, despair, elation, fear—we’ve all been there. And sometimes, for me at least, the way forward through writing is to let all that unfold without worrying about beats and steps and aha moments, but through recording—as a witness, as a companion—the story I need to tell.

I’m not saying that writers can write and rules and advice be damned; of course not. All great books are based on a solid foundation of structure and craft even when they appear seamless. But I am saying that sometimes relying too much on advice and how-tos can distract from the main purpose of writing fiction: To tell a story that says something about human experience.”

– novelist Kathleen McCleary, Writer Unboxed, 8/16/17

Mixed media by Leslie

The Saturday Writing Quote

“A writer — and, I believe, generally all persons — must think that whatever happens to him or her is a resource. All things have been given to us for a purpose, and an artist must feel this more intensely. All that happens to us, including our humiliations, our misfortunes, our embarrassments, all is given to us as raw material, as clay, so that we may shape our art.”

— Jorge Luis Borges, Argentinean writer (1899-1986)

(hat-tip to PJ Coldren)

The Saturday Writing Quote — the power of story

“Q: How does writing help an individual cope with life’s setbacks?
A. I’s been my experience that as writers we tend to process life events (positive and negative) through story. It’s often on a subconscious level, hovering below the surface of our thoughts and then woven into the fabric of our stories. And it helps This is how our brains are wired to process life. By creating story we can deal with the unexpected curve balls life hurls our way.”
– Debbie Macomber, The Writer, June 2014

The Last Best Book — Top Reads of 2017

The Last Best Book — an occasional series highlighting books I’ve loved. 

It’s a bit disheartening to see how many books on my 2017 reading list were published in 2015 or 2016 — I’m always playing catch-up! But I suspect you are, too, so my list of top reads in 2017 isn’t confined to those actually published in 2017.

Best Mysteries (in no particular order):

Magpie Murders, Anthony Horowitz (2017) Horowitz created two much-loved mystery series for British TV, Midsomer Murders and Foyle’s War, and his knowledge of the genre helps make this mystery-within-a-mystery smart, clever, and fun. I read it over the holiday break, and the cat was thrilled because it actually kept me in my chair for hours at a time.

Fogged Inn, Barbara Ross (2016) One of the best contemporary cozy series. In this installment, Ross sets herself a well-met challenge and flips a convention of the genre in a surprising but utterly satisfying way.

Wicked Girls, Alex Marwood (2012) I went searching for books that wove together past and present story lines, and this was one of the best. The ending still chills me — not for physical horror but for its internal impact on the protagonist.

Sunburn, Laura Lippman (2018) Watch for this book, a bit of a departure for Lippman, in February.

Best First Mystery: Hollywood Homicide, Kellye Garrett (2017) Not your typical cozy — more caperish, with a fun premise and an appealing protagonist.

Best Other Fiction: Not surprisingly, all three weave together past and present story lines, although the lapse of time varies from several hundred years to just a few months.

Truly, Madly, Guilty, Liane Moriarty (2016) If you enjoy audio books, this performance will knock your socks off.

The Savage Garden, Mark Mills (2008) Travel by armchair from 1958 England to Italy in 1958, at the end of WW II, and during the Renaissance. Pop the cork on a nice Italian wine and be doubly happy.

Love and Other Consolation Prizes, Jamie Ford (2017) Did you know Seattle hosted two worlds fairs, in 1909 and 1962? Ernest, an accidental immigrant at four who becomes houseboy to an infamous madam, then loyal husband and father, attended both. Ford, author of The Hotel at the Corner of Bitter and Sweet, really shines in the voice of a young boy.

Here’s to another happy year of reading! What were your favorites of 2017?

The Saturday Writing Quote — on revision #5

“I love revision. To me that feels like art[,] pulling the thread of your ending all the way back to the beginning, to work on the grace and fluidity and architecture of a story, that is your real art. Slogging through a first draft is like hoeing a row of corn. You’re just happy when you get to the end.”

– Barbara Kingsolver, quoted in the Missoulian 11/22/09, in an article reprinted from the Minneapolis Star Tribune