In thrillers, the city is a vital character

Thriller writers log thousands of miles in search of the best places for their characters to misbehave. Whether a story is set on the streets of Bangkok or in a small Southern town, authors travel widely to find the right location for the latest conspiracy, murder or mayhem.

Some of the best thrillers are set in America's most historic cities. With more than 70 books to her credit, author Sandra Brown set "Ricochet" in Savannah, Ga., where brick sidewalks, buckled by the roots of live oaks, and dripping Spanish moss create the perfect backdrop for a thriller.

"You peer through iron gates into walled courtyards," says Brown, the International Thriller Writers 2008 ThrillerMaster. "In Savannah, you just know those courtyards contain juicy secrets."

She's right. Frequent travelers to Savannah say it's practically crawling with ghosts. Brown's "Smoke Screen," set in Charleston, S.C., is about a disastrous fire in which five people die. While Brown was writing the book, there was a tragic fire in Charleston in which nine firemen died. "Smoke Screen" is dedicated to them.

Thriller writer Heather Graham is attached to one of America's creepiest cities -- New Orleans -- where she has a benefit workshop called Writers for New Orleans. But her hometown is Miami, a city where serial killers and run-of-the-mill bad guys blend in with the masses. "We're just not sane here, and it makes for the location being a great character in a novel," Graham says. "We have the old 'River of Grass' -- the Everglades -- where bodies pop up here and there."

Supernatural thriller writer Alexandra Sokoloff thinks a Northern city makes a great setting. "You can easily believe the devil is still walking the convoluted streets of Boston and lurking in those Revolutionary-era graveyards," Sokoloff says. Her spine-tingling book "The Price" involves someone -- who may or may not be the devil -- walking the halls of a hospital and making deals with patients and their families.

The devil and witchcraft have a long history in Massachusetts, which makes it the right location for Sokoloff.

"Massachusetts is a gorgeous and complicated place, with Revolutionary history around every corner. [It's] so resonant that Boston easily becomes a character in anything I write about it."

Though Las Vegas native Vicki Pettersson travels extensively, it wasn't hard for the author of the "Signs of the Zodiac" books to choose her hometown as the setting for her stories. Her current dark fantasy, "The Touch of Twilight," is filled with paranormal beings and a strong-willed heroine who, Pettersson says, is in a fight for her city as well as her life.

Forensic anthropologist Kathy Reichs' "Grave Secrets" was set in Guatemala, where she participated in the exhumation of a mass grave containing the remains of women and children. The area was not far from Panajachel, in the highlands near Lake Atitlan, which she says was moving and extraordinarily beautiful. The coastal Carolinas also inspire Reichs, who frequents the Isle of Palms, just outside Charleston. No wonder several of her Temperance Brennan novels are set in this low-country setting. Reichs' "Devil Bones" takes place entirely in Charlotte, N.C.; it's the first time Brennan has set an entire book in her hometown.

Author J.D. Rhoades also prefers to take readers to the not-so-innocent coast of North Carolina and the beaches in Southport and Brunswick County. He credits vacations for scaring up great stories; in fact, he claims his "The Devil's Right Hand" came to him while he was heading to the beach with his family. Rhoades also loves to write about things that happen on the Cape Fear River, a place he says is "lined with live oaks and steeped in a long and turbulent history."

Suburbs that bridge the small towns and big cities of America attract author Shane Gericke. His books ("Blown Away," "Cut to the Bone" and the upcoming "Blood Hammer") are set in the Chicago suburb of Naperville, where crime arrives in the moving truck. No one can escape a killer by moving to a swankier ZIP Code. Gericke's locations are real -- restaurants, streets, schools, police stations, cemeteries, even where his heroine, intrepid police detective Emily Thompson, lives.

America has its fair share of spine-tingling destinations, but exotic locales are just as deadly. James Macomber set his book "Sovereign Order" in Monaco amid the Grand Prix. Dakota Banks chose a vast, desolate area of sand dunes in Asia for her thriller "Dark Time: Mortal Path." Tim Hallinan's current series, the most recent of which is "The Fourth Watcher," is set in Bangkok, which the author describes as "saturated, almost wet with light." What he loves about this locale -- the food, people, sidewalk life and even the smells and horrific traffic -- seep into the fabric of his stories.

Author Brett Battles says St. Petersburg, Russia, calls to him. "I know I will set a book there," he says. His next book, "Shadow of Betrayal," is set in Ireland. Steve Berry loves to set his stories in Germany and Denmark; he so loved Copenhagen that his character Cotton Malone prefers to live there.

Perhaps no thriller captures the creepy side of Puerto Vallarta, Mexico, as well as David Angsten's "Dark Gold." His "Night of the Furies" takes place in the Greek Isles. He likes to set stories in places that remain relatively remote and mysterious.

Destinations that deal with situations where something familiar turns scary or normal circumstances become threatening work for authors such as Tim Maleeny, who gets characters in trouble in San Francisco, with side trips to Hong Kong, Tokyo and Mexico.

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