The Hubley Case, the book that #1 New York Times bestselling author Kyle Mills called a “terrific debut,” is finally here.
When an American businessman is killed in an airport, FBI Special Agent Nikki Benton is tasked with finding out why. Her case, though, takes one unexpected turn after another, including a run-in with a former Marine named Ben Siebert, whose questionable past makes him a person of interest.
Leading up to the release of his first book, I caught up with author Justin Lee. If you’re on social media, you might have seen other readers changing their profile and cover photos to announce their partaking in “Lee’s Legion,” which I asked the writer about to kick off our conversation.
“Lee’s Legion is a program that is set up for people to self-nominate themselves to get ARCs (Advance Reader Copies), and the ultimate giveaway is the chance to get one of Kyle [Mills] or Brad’s [Thor] books signed. It’s designed to generate some interest in people who like to read thrillers and people who might want to get their hands on an early copy that might be willing to leave a review,” explained Lee, who said the full details are available on his official website.
“I have always enjoyed writing. More specifically, towards the end of college and in my early career and professional life, writing was a creative outlet. It was just something I sort of did in a dark room that nobody knew about. It was my little secret,” laughed Lee. “Especially as I got in the business world and lived in numbers, data, and technical stuff, it was a really nice balance where I could work on these characters and the story, and it added a nice balance to my life, twisted as that may be.”
Eventually, his secret hobby turned into more, and Lee began kicking around the idea of stepping out of the darkened writing room and trying to get published–a road that he admits was very difficult.
“At some point,” he told me, “I started to think that I would really like to do this as an occupation and I’d really like to continue writing and decided to pursue publication.
“That’s been a real up and down road for me. As most people can tell you, it’s paved with failure and disappointment. I got an agent through the brute-force method of constant rejection letters coming in. After I got him, about two weeks before the first submission to a publisher, he tragically passed away. That was . . . obviously, him passing away had a much bigger impact on his family and everyone else, but from a purely selfish perspective, I thought ‘man, I was this close, and now I’m kind of back at the drawing board.’ After a few months of feeling sorry for myself, I started writing another book–that became The Hubley Case–and I got a different agent and kind of went through the same type of process, only this time I got a publisher who saw a product that he liked and wanted to pursue it.
“That’s sort of how I evolved into writing. It started as a secret hobby of mine, and then it became a real passion of mine, and I really love it. Quite frankly, anyone who looks at my daily routine would be able to know I love writing because there would be absolutely no reason to do it otherwise. I wrote The Hubley Case between 4:30 and 6:30 every morning for about eight months. That’s a long way to start a day, and then go to the job for ten hours and, oh, by the way, now you’ve got little ones and all sorts of other things that come up. If I didn’t love it, there is absolutely no way I would do it.”
Backing things up a bit, I also asked Lee about the plot of his debut novel, and interestingly enough, the genesis of the story itself started in the very location The Hubley Case opens with.
“As for The Hubley Case,” said Lee, “when I first started to think about the story, I was actually sitting in an airport. I thought, in sort of a twisted way, I wonder what would happen if one of these seemingly normal people–or me–if somebody just walked up to them and started to blow them away in the airport. I just wondered what would happen if the people who did that also died right after, and nobody understood why this guy had gotten killed, and nobody could interview the assailants.
“Somehow, it comes back to trying to figure out what skeletons were in this guy’s closet. That was sort of the high-level idea. I found it very interesting to think through the mystery behind that setting, and from there I just tried to formulate a story that would explain it and give readers something fun to kind of try to figure out and get exposed to and tell a story. The idea was not, necessarily, about the specific plotline of the book or what the real cause was of the murder, it was more the mystery of ‘gosh, I’m sitting here in this airport and if I saw that happen, everyone would want to know why it happened’ and, well now you can get into deceptive games within the media and trying to smear a guy who didn’t do anything wrong.”
After clarifying that he was actually sitting in an airport when he came up with the opening scene of The Hubley Case, Lee laughed and took it a step further. “To get even weirder on you, it was the same airport,” he admitted.
While the story is no doubt about businessman Peter Hubley and his untimely, gruesome death, the plot introduced two strong characters in Nikki Benton and Ben Siebert, who feel like co-protagonists, though that might not be the case moving forward in future books.
“In my head, I do view Ben as the primary character, but I can see how with this first book, it’s almost like he and Nikki are co-protagonists,” said Lee. “Ben is even introduced later in the story than she is. But the primary character that I always envisioned, the hero of the story, is Ben.
“What I liked about Nikki was the ability to have part of Ben’s history revealed through dialogue with [her]. The more I wrote about her, the more I liked her and I wanted to reveal more about her character as well, but in a very platonic sort of way. It wasn’t a love story-slash-thriller, I didn’t want it to become that. The central idea at the start was that Ben was the primary character, I just liked what Nikki brought to the story and the fact that she challenged Ben, and I thought that the two of them went pretty well together because of how different they are despite having the common goal of staying alive and figuring this out.”
As for which authors influenced Lee’s writing style or characters who might have helped him shape Ben Siebert, Lee credits a few of the best writers going right now.
“In terms of well-known authors, Kyle Mills and Michael Connelly’s characters have always intrigued me. The thing I like most about their characters is that they strike me as very genuine. Their heroes are not perfect, and their villains, a lot of the time, I kind of feel myself rooting for them. The world is full of different shades of gray, and some of them are darker than others.
“In terms of overall story plot and pacing, the authors that have probably influenced me the most would be a combination of Michael Crichton, John Grisham, and Vince Flynn. The way that those three guys told a story, they all have their own ways of going about it, but I found myself compelled to different aspects of all three of them. Unfortunately, two of the three have passed away, but they’ve all had a big impact on me. There have been other authors I’ve read and enjoyed, but as far as big-name authors in a similar genre, those are the ones I latched on to.”
As for real-life people, Lee told me that the inspiration for Ben wasn’t any one person, necessarily, but rather a mashup of character traits that may be borrowed from certain individuals.
“There’s no one person that I would say I based him on. I did base him on a compilation of certain attributes. I have a great deal of respect for the United States military. I knew that I needed this character to have a certain skill set and ability to cut through red tape. Someone who was not a big fan of too much process and had the ability to get stuff done, so to speak. One of the places you can learn that is the military, and I’ve known enough people in the military to know that people learn how to problem-solve there in very unique and interesting ways. But I also didn’t want to make him perfect, and so I read a lot and had some exposure to some people who have made mistakes.
“When Ben lost his wife, he fell into some dark holes, as I think many of us might if that ever happened to us. He did have a problem controlling his temper, and that did result in a dishonorable discharge. Again, coming back to one of the things I really like about Kyle Mills’ characters, which is that the protagonist is not in any way this squeaky clean, sanctimonious person, but rather a real human being.
“When you get somebody with a lot of passion who can solve complicated problems and think outside of the box and get things done, there are going to be drawbacks to that type of personality as well. So I tried to use the influence of wanting to use someone who had served our country but has always been far more concerned with doing the right thing than with looking like he’s doing the right thing. And kind of weaving in some of the imperfections that he has mashed up with some of the things he does very well.”
As for those things that he does very well, you can meet Ben Siebert and see for yourself beginning tomorrow, Tuesday, November 6th, when J. Lee’s The Hubley Case is officially released in paperback and e-book. Click here to order your copy today.
Praised as “one of today’s finest book reviewers” by New York Times bestselling author Gayle Lynds, Ryan Steck (“The Godfather of the thriller genre” — Ben Coes) has “quickly established himself as the authority on mysteries and thrillers” (Author A.J. Tata). He currently lives in Southwest Michigan with his wife and their six children.