‘As taut and well-paced and tensely unspooling a thriller as I have read in a year. Real people, actual honest confused brave greedy fearful and angry people, not puppets; real people, not mashups of movie characters; and a swerving turn at the end that comes as one of those rare and oddly delightful things, a shock. Wonderful read.’

~ BRIAN DOYLE - Author of Mink River


In her striking debut, Val Bruech weaves the rich, layered story of defense attorney Susan Marshfield’s investigation into the violent death of her beloved friend and mentor with the sure hand of a seasoned pro. The driven Susan is at once passionate and aloof, vulnerable and iron-willed, a character whose strengths and weaknesses make her someone to root for, and someone you’d want on your side in a fight—in the courtroom or out. Judicious Murder satisfied my number one hope for a book: it kept me up way past my bedtime, anxious to know what happens next. The ending packed a double-barrelled wallop, and left me eager for Susan’s next outing. For my money, Val Bruech is an author to keep an eye on.


~ BILL CAMERON - Award-Winning Author of the Skin Kadash Mysteries


Three Joliet Area Novelists Share Insights on Crime Fiction
Val Bruech, Mike Markley and Sue Merrell discuss their crime novels

Published: Thursday, Sept. 1, 2016 11:18 p.m. CDT • Updated: Thursday, Sept. 1, 2016 11:40 p.m. CDT



JOLIET – Many people enjoy the lure of good crime fiction.


Draws might be the ethics of right and wrong, the thrill of the cat-and-mouse chase, the mystery of whodunit or the spurious connection to an actual murder.


Recently, three crime novelists with Joliet ties discussed with Features Editor Denise Baran-Unland the components of a good page turner: Val Bruech of Oregon, a former Joliet attorney; Mike Markley of Joliet; and Sue Merrell of Michigan, a former reporter for The Herald-News, who wrote under the name Sue Wallace.


Bruech is the author of “Judicious Murder.” In the story, Joliet criminal defense attorney Susan Marshfield is asked to review all the cases she and her mentor, Judge Sam Kendell, defended together after someone beats Kendell to death in his chambers with his own golf club.


Markley wrote and self-published “Necessary Death,” the story of Michael Marello, who runs a business filled with corruption, which includes murder when “necessary.” One day, death touches Marello’s life in ways he hadn’t expected, leading him to rethink his need for power and control.


Merrell is the author and publisher of the Jordan Daily News Mysteries series: “Great News Town” (based on Joliet’s ceramic shop murders in the 1980s), “One Shoe Off” (based on the 1957 disappearance of Joliet journalist Molly Zelko) and “Full Moon Friday.”


Baran-Unland: Why do people enjoy the crime genre?


Bruech: I think it’s the search for truth. I think people love it when the bad guy gets what’s coming to him and – in most crime novels, in some shape or form – the bad guy does.


Markley: I think they get some excitement. They’re intrigued by what makes people do the things they do.


Merrell: People are really interested in the struggle of good over evil and that’s what crime stories boil down to. People are interested in the mystery and the puzzle and they want to figure out who did it.


Baran-Unland: What elements are part of a good crime story?


Bruech: Conflict ... and the protagonist has to have a goal. The reader wants to find out how the protagonist overcomes the obstacles to get to the goal.


Markley: Some things have to shock you or make you disgusted, where people can’t believe this is happening.


Merrell: The stakes have to be high. A small burglary won’t have the same interest as a murder. When a community is threatened is even better. A serial killer where potentially no one is safe is the ultimate in a crime story.

Baran-Unland: Tension is important to any story, but especially so in a crime novel. How do you keep that interest thread tight?


Bruech: Each scene has to build within the scene itself; the conflict has to escalate. But it has to have ebb and flow. In novels, people don’t want constant adrenaline. Take a break in the scene – make it a relaxing or reflective time – then ratchet it up a couple chapters down the road.


Markley: You have to have conflict and suspense. I try to end each chapter or section of the book where people just have to turn the page and continue.


Merrell: Pacing is important, when people reveal things.


Baran-Unland: How have your experiences influenced the story?


Bruech (via email): The opening scene in “Judicious Murder” is a courtroom scene where Susan Marshfield is cross-examining a police officer in a drug case. It is based on a case I tried (and won) in Joliet. The verdict actually warranted a small article in the Herald.


Markley: As a Christian man, I put a Christian spin on the story. There is a battle between right and wrong among the violence, but the (off-color) language is not there. I tried to present it in a PG fashion, enough to be believable.


Merrell: For one year I was a regular cop reporter and I covered school boards and park boards and then I worked as the assistant city editor.


Baran-Unland: What did you find challenging during the writing process?


Bruech: I think the technical part. In one chapter, the bad guy finally has Susan in a deserted trailer and her hands are taped behind a chair with heavy duct tape. I had to figure out how to get her out of that.


Markley: It was easier to do than I thought. But sometimes I had to stop and say, ‘OK, I got into this. Now how do I get out of it?’


Merrell: I went home after a day in court (in 1983), wrote the first chapter and never got around to writing anymore until 2001. By then, my son was grown.


Baran-Unland: Any final comments?


Bruech: The first time you write it through (Bruech wrote 10 early drafts of her first novel), write what’s in your head. Don’t think about how it fits together. Just write it as it’s happening.


Markley: I like the idea of manipulation, how someone can have the power, the influence and the money to make things happen the way they want them to happen.”


Merrell: The premise is truth based on fiction. I didn’t interview people and I didn’t try to tell a true story or reveal new evidence. I wanted to tell an interesting story and leave out the boring parts.


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