Updated: Aug 13
ATLANTA LIVING & ARTS By Suzanne Van Atten Aug 12, 2022
Crime thriller sequel tracks mayhem across Atlanta landmarks.
When Atlanta author Christopher Swann wrote his 2020 novel “Never Turn Back,” he assumed it would be a one-off like his other crime thrillers. But one of the characters got under his skin: Susannah Faulkner, aka Suzie.
“She’s the main character’s sister,” said Swann. “The first scene I wrote with her, she’s 10 years old and there’s a family dinner. I’m writing her eating peas and in my head, she crossed her arms across her chest and said, ‘No.’” The more Swann, 52, tried to make his pint-sized character do what he wanted, the more she resisted.
“It wasn’t a huge scene or anything, but I was stuck, so I said, “Fine, do what you want.’ And in my head, she said, ‘Thank you.’ And the writing went on from there.”
Suzie made such an impact on Swann that for his latest book, “Never Go Home” (Crooked Lane Books, $27.99), he decided to return to her character, who’s now all grown up.
“I thought, let’s see if this middle age guy can write from the point of view of a twentysomething woman who’s sexually fluid and whose personality is pretty much the opposite of mine,” he said.
The result is a taut, action-packed thriller centered on a self-avowed “high-functioning sociopath” who’s put that part of her “to good use.” To that end, the jumpsuit-wearing, motorcycle-riding badass wields pepper gel spray, a 9mm semiautomatic handgun and, most notably, a baton as she dispatches the baddies of the world as a crime fighter for hire. But when Suzie’s estranged brother Ethan, a school teacher, and her surrogate father, Uncle Gavin, face a baddie of their own, she reluctantly returns to Atlanta to come to their aid. Along the way, her calloused heart cracks open a smidge — just enough to welcome in the possibility of love. So how exactly how did Swann get inside the head of a young woman to write “Never Go Home”?
“I’ve been lucky enough to teach high school a couple of decades now, and I have gotten to know a lot of strong young women … I took from them and the older, now grownup versions of them that I know,” he said, adding that two of his former students now teach with him in the English department at Holy Innocents’ Episcopal School.
He also leaned on his wife and editor to help him keep it real.
“I wanted (Suzie) to sound authentic rather than being some kind of political statement from, again, this middle-aged white guy … I didn’t want her story to become simply, oh this guy’s just writing some kind of woke message about women’s empowerment,” he said. “What’s important is her and her story and the trauma she’s dealing with and how she views the world.”
One of the pleasures of a Christopher Swann book for local readers is spotting the Atlanta landmarks that populate his books. Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport, Grady Memorial Hospital, MARTA and The Bluff all make appearances. One of the book’s most action-packed scenes takes place on top of Stone Mountain. It was inspired by a family hike Swann took last year.
“It was early morning, it was foggy. It was really neat but kind of creepy,” Swann recalled. “People were coming into the mist and disappearing into it. And I thought, this could be a fantastic setting for some kind of chase.”
Swann. Karin Slaughter. Brian Panowich. Thomas Mullen. Georgia is thick with successful crime writers these days. I asked Swann if he had a theory as to why.
“The South is a great, messy, horrifying, beautiful place — mostly physically beautiful with some beautiful history and some tragic, horrible history that hasn’t all been reconciled,” he said.
“There’s a whole lot of tension that comes from that. That’s really fertile ground for any kind of writer.”
While he proudly owns the label crime writer, Swann trusts that readers recognize there’s more going on in his books.
“Brian Panowich is a friend of mine, and we talk about, yeah, we write about crime, but crime is like a big loose term. We’re not writing police procedurals,” he said. “I’m writing books that are crime novels, thriller based, but I want to tell stories that are about characters.”
Swann points to one of his literary heroes, Pat Conroy.
“He wrote beautiful novels but also there was a thrilling component to most of them. ‘The Great Santini,’ ‘Lords of Discipline,’ especially, and ‘Prince of Tides.’ They all deal with crime in a way, and they deal with thrilling plot and subplots.”
Books need an engine to drive the narrative, and there’s no denying crime is a good one.
“Crime fiction is a great way to break a world open and see the underside of a society,” said Swann.
As someone who writes harrowing scenes depicting an array of frightful human behaviors, what scares Swann, I wondered.
“Sharks,” he said without a pause. “I never swim alone.”
Friends & Fiction
Swann appears with Karin Slaughter, who’s promoting her upcoming book “Girl, Forgotten,” on Friends and Fiction, the Facebook Live show presented by authors Mary Kay Andrews, Patti Callahan Henry, Kristy Woodson Harvey and Kristin Harmel on Wednesday, Aug. 17, at 7 p.m. Suzanne Van Atten is a book critic and contributing editor to The Atlanta Journal Constitution. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow her on Twitter at @svanatten.