Hilary Davidson is the author of the new thriller One Small Sacrifice. Her other books include The Damage Done and Blood Always Tells. A former journalist, her work has appeared in a variety of publications, including Discover and Reader's Digest.
Q: How did you come up with the idea for One Small Sacrifice, and for your character Detective Sheryn Sterling?
A: I like to joke that writing a mystery is like playing an extended game of “What If?,” but it’s actually true.
Writing One Small Sacrifice started with questions that I kept turning over in my mind. What if you had a suspect whose fiancée has suddenly gone missing under strange circumstances, and what if that same suspect had been involved in the death of another woman a year earlier? What if the NYPD detective who’s investigating him has become obsessed with the case, and what if her own family history is influencing her decisions about the case?
The wonderful thing about writing from multiple viewpoints is that it allows you to delve into the mind of each character and explore their motivations, and that drives the plot. Where the characters come from is harder to explain: I could hear Detective Sterling’s voice when I started writing the book, and it came with a distinctive point of view. It was as if the character was already in my mind, waiting for the opportunity to appear.
Q: You begin the first section of the book with a quote from William Butler Yeats, "Too long a sacrifice can make a stone of the heart." Why did you begin with this quotation?
A: I’m so glad you asked about that! Generally speaking, we have a positive idea about sacrifice — it brings to mind parents making sacrifices for their children, soldiers serving their country, and caring people doing generous things for others. But there is a dark side to sacrifice, and that’s what Yeats was writing about.
The quote is from his poem “Easter, 1916” about the Irish nationalist uprising, which ended in horrific bloodshed. In the poem, Yeats wonders when a sacrifice can ever be enough, and how much devastation it can cause. In One Small Sacrifice, the question of what people will do for others comes up in different ways. The idea of how much of yourself you can sacrifice for another person is at the heart of the story.
Q: The novel takes place in New York City. How important is setting to you in your work?
A: I spent the first part of my writing career as a travel-writing journalist, so it’s incredibly important to me. Every block in New York is interesting, and even though it’s been written about and filmed endlessly, there are always surprises. More than one early reader asked me if I’d made up locations like the abandoned City Hall subway station of the Katharine Hepburn Garden, but they’re all real.
The most interesting thing for me is the interaction between the characters and their environment. This was especially true for Alex Traynor, the suspect at the center of the case. He’s spent years working as a photographer in war zones, and he’s suffering from PTSD. He can’t deal with crowds, and that affects how he experiences the city.
Q: Did you need to do any research to write the novel, and did you learn anything especially surprising?
A: I’ve always admired how brave photographers who go into war zones are, but I’d never thought about the toll it takes them. Reading about the profession was devastating.
While researching, I came across famous photos I recognized from magazines years ago — mutilated bodies, starving children — but I hadn’t known that some of the photographers who took these famous shots had committed suicide afterwards.
When I started writing One Small Sacrifice, I wondered if I was being overly dramatic by giving Alex Traynor PTSD; I has no idea how common it really is.
Q: Is this the start of a new series? What are you working on now?
A: It is the start of a new series! Spoiler alert: detectives Sheryn Sterling and Rafael Mendoza will be back. I just finished writing the new book. It doesn’t have a title yet, but it will be out from Thomas & Mercer next spring.
Q: Anything else we should know?
A: One Small Sacrifice is my fifth novel, and I’m also a prolific short story writer. I have some new work that’s just come out: “Cold Comfort” in At Home inthe Dark, a collection edited by the legendary Lawrence Block; “Unforgiven” in Murder-A-Go-Go’s, a collection of noir tales inspired by the sunny band the Go-Go’s; and “Honor Thy Father” in the latest issue of Mystery Tribune magazine.
--Interview with Deborah Kalb