Former Pittsburgh narcotics detective Trevor Galloway is back in action, and this time, he’s up against the most dangerous serial killer of his career.
The Better of the Bad, the latest thriller from J.J. Hensley, one of the more underrated writers in the game today, features one of the year’s most terrifying villains: the 9-1-1 Killer. Each night, at 9:11 pm, someone dials the Chatham 911 switchboard and, in a distorted voice, tells one of the dispatchers where to find the body of his latest victim.
For Galloway, who is hired to help out with the case, things take a disturbing turn when he realizes that the killer might actually be a first responder, a revelation that leaves him unable to trust anyone. Worse yet, as old problems catch up with him, Galloway must battle through emotional wounds that have suddenly been ripped back open, leaving him at less than full-strength as he tries to put an end to the savage murderer before any more innocent men or women die.
Told very much in the vein of Meg Gardiner’s UNSUB series, Hensley’s latest book is a scary-good tale of good versus evil . . . and the stakes are at an all-time high for Trevor Galloway, who continues to show he can carry this terrific series well into the future.
Just ahead of the release of The Better of the Bad, Hensley agreed to go on the record for our Five Questions segment, and I asked him about everything from how he came up with the story idea for this book to what thrillers are currently on his TBR list. See the full Q&A below, then make sure to order your copy, available in paperback and ebook on October 12th.
TRBS: Well, I just finished my copy of THE BETTER of the BAD, the latest in your Trevor Galloway series, and enjoyed the heck out of it. How did you come up with the story idea for this book?
Hensley: The genesis for this book was an odd one. My day job is with the federal government and I was in the midst of what would end up being an extended government shutdown, so I had some time to write for once. The problem was, I hadn’t come up with the central idea for the fourth Trevor Galloway novel. I’d spent the first couple weeks of the shutdown exercising like mad, fixing things in the house, breaking things that I would have to fix later, and making way too many trips to hardware stores. Normally, when I occupy myself with various non-writing tasks, an idea for a plot hits me and I run with it. No problem. However, I was struggling mightily with this one.
However, during one of the drives back from picking up parts or tools that I probably didn’t need nor know how to use, several emergency vehicles passed by me on the roadway. For some reason, I started thinking about how they were all dispatched by the same communications center. Having been a police officer and a federal agency before, I have a decent understanding of police and fire response, so I have no idea why I started pondering emergency communications. Anyway, that’s when I came up with the idea of a killer calling into a dispatch center by dialing 9-1-1 at exactly 9:11 PM and then murdering someone connected to a dispatcher at that center. It was that eureka moment I had been waiting for.
TRBS: When did you decide you wanted to be a writer, and what made you finally take the plunge a few years ago?
Hensley: I used to be a Special Agent in the Secret Service and I was based in Washington, D.C. for a few years. My wife and I, who have always been huge readers of crime fiction, had long commutes and started devouring audiobooks during our drives. During the evenings we would discuss what we liked about the books we were listening to, what we disliked about certain characters, and how we would have writing stories differently. Eventually, my wife suggested I try to write a book. A few years later, after we had moved to the Pittsburgh area and I was working more normal hours, I gave it a shot and was extremely fortunate because my first book was published and met with some success.
TRBS: What is your writing process like? Do you outline your work, or can you just sit down and bang out the story? Do you have a target word count you try to hit each day? Tell us your secret.
Hensley: I never outline, but I sometimes have broad outlines within my books. What I mean by this is I’ve had the chapters of the books mirror the miles of a marathon or the steps of addiction recovery. One of my books had the chapters laid out as the songs of a vinyl album. To some, it might appear as if I’m attempting to work in some type of gimmick, but that is actually my internal outline (if there is such a thing). This is what keeps me from going off the rails and helps me with the pacing of the story. As an example, in my book Record Scratch, the title of the song marking each chapter hints at the action that will take place. That kind of guideline keeps me on track.
TRBS: Who are some of your favorite authors, and what books are currently on your TBR list?
Hensley: There are so many fantastic authors I follow. I’m a huge fan of Gwen Florio, E.A. Aymar, who also writes as E.A. Barres, Kyle Mills, Jennifer Hillier, Joseph Finder, K.J. Howe, Shannon Kirk, and countless others. As far as what is on my TBR list, I need to pick up The Damned by Andrew Pyper, Blacktop Wasteland by S.A. Cosby, and I’m working my way through Alex Segura’s books which are excellent.
TRBS: Lastly, now that this book is finally hitting bookstores, what’s next for you moving forward, and when can readers expect to see Trevor again?
Hensley: Trevor is on an indefinite hiatus after this book. I’m working on a standalone novel that will be set in St. Augustine, FL and Pittsburgh, PA and touches on reincarnation. At the time of this interview, we are still in the middle of a global pandemic, many of us are working from home with our spouses doing the same, while kids are a room away learning online. So… be patient. Life is stranger than fiction and right now we are all just hoping to have enough bandwidth to get through 2020.
Praised as “One of the hardest working, most thoughtful, and fairest reviewers out there” by #1 New York Times bestselling author Lisa Scottoline, Ryan Steck has “quickly established himself as the authority on mysteries and thrillers” (Author A.J. Tata). Steck also works full-time as a freelance editor and pens a monthly thriller column for CrimeReads. For more information, be sure to follow him on Twitter and Facebook. He currently lives in Southwest Michigan with his wife and their six children.