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Interview: July 8, 2005

July 8, 2005's Suspense/Thriller Author Spotlight Team (Carol Fitzgerald, Joe Hartlaub and Wiley Saichek) interviewed sisters Pamela and Mary O'Shaughnessy, who write under the pen name "Perri O'Shaughnessy." Pamela and Mary talk about some of the themes that appear in their latest Nina Reilly novel CASE OF LIES, including gambling and mathematics. They also explain the challenges of sustaining such a long-running series and share details about their next two projects: a collection of short stories each involving a crime, and a novel based on a real-life mystery surrounding their parents. Nina Reilly becomes involved in the circumstances that form the foundation of CASE OF LIES when she is retained to pursue a wrongful death case arising from an unsolved homicide occurring at a hotel. Was this case based upon a real-world occurrence?

Perri O'Shaughnessy: The police in the South Lake Tahoe/Stateline area run a tight ship considering the amount of money flowing around the towns, but crime occurs regularly. The scenario of CASE OF LIES was suggested by an evening when Pam was sitting on the balcony of a motel in the casino district and overheard a conversation below, between a couple who had just been robbed at gunpoint and the officer taking their statement. Their shock, the randomness of the crime, the officer's lack of urgency, all contributed seeds to the plot.

BRC: Gambling is a strong secondary element in CASE OF LIES, which is no surprise since the novel is set in Lake Tahoe. The incidental involvement of MIT students was an interesting point, given the real-world, off-the-books project of beating the odds that some MIT students became involved with some years ago. Were you able to actually interview some of the students involved, and use them as a basis for characters such as Elliott and Carleen in CASE OF LIES?

PO: Mary's husband Brad happens to be an MIT grad, and when we all lived in Cambridge we visited the campus many times, so we used MIT as a setting. Mary and I have known many a mixed-up student over the years, including some brilliant ones. We never model from a single person; we may take bits and pieces of people.

As for the card-counters, during her student days, a fellow who looked like Sonny Bono offered to teach Pam to count cards and join his team of professionals. She did learn to play pretty good blackjack but decided not to go on the road. That's where the tales of card-counting and blackjack come from in our books.

BRC: Math is not a subject readers normally associate with suspense thrillers. What inspired you to touch on this subject in CASE OF LIES? Are either of you gifted in math, or what research was involved?

PO: We enjoy adding a thread concerning some real-life mystery to each book. In our last book, UNLUCKY IN LAW, it was the Romanovs; in CASE OF LIES it is the mystery of the prime numbers. You don't have to have had advanced math courses to wonder how these building blocks of the universe can be completely distributed at random on the number line, and to think that just by looking a little deeper, with a fresh untrained eye, you might be able to see something the mathematicians have missed. We call it coming at things sideways, like a crab.

As we researched the topic, we became even more interested in the fascinating people who have advanced wild-sounding theories to account for the primes.

For research, we read more than fifty books on related topics, used a math professor as a resource, and found much more obscure and fabulous information on the Internet. The problem became how to simplify and weave the information into our story. We had become fascinated by the Riemann Hypothesis, a mystery within a mystery, and decided to concentrate on that.

Readers who want to pursue some of the math mysteries in the book will find a bibliography on our website of some of the books that fascinated us as we did our research.

We have always been firm believers that with a good grasp of English and an analytical mind, any field of knowledge can be understood in its broad outline. We didn't need to be able to compute using calculus to see the beauty and majesty of this most basic of all sciences, and to try to convey some of that to the reader. Are we gifted in math? Pam says that the early conversation in the book, when Elliott as a little boy asks all the wrong questions about math, reflects her own questions. She never got beyond a D minus in geometry, but she never lost her interest in what numbers really are. It was only later in life that she discovered the number system that was taught as a universal truth in school was just one system that is useful for building houses. It was fun to ask those "silly" questions again, and get to answer them our way.

And speaking of fun, we took it as a challenge to make math sexy. We hope we succeeded.

BRC: Sandy and Wish are two of our favorite supporting characters. Is there any chance of devoting an entire book (or series) to either of these characters?

PO: Sure, why not? The book would write itself. Wish is starting his career as a P.I. now and will have cases other than Nina's. He is also in dire need of a love life. Sandy is bound to interfere on both fronts.

BRC: Have either of you considered working solo on a novel or short story?

PO: Our short stories tend to be primarily written by one or the other of us. In our collection coming out in February 2006, SINISTER SHORTS, the readers will be able to guess who wrote what. We like experimenting with other writing styles, but we're still irresistibly drawn to crime, legal, and mystery fiction.

"Perri" has her own style, a meld of Mary and Pam. By the time we have finished a Perri book, it's impossible to tell which section was written first by whom.

Both Mary and Pam have ideas for solo books. But life is short, and it's fun collaborating, and the Perri books are broad enough in scope that we can get plenty of each personality expressed.

BRC: CASE OF LIES is the eleventh novel in your Nina Reilly series. What is the most challenging part of sustaining such a long-running series?

PO: Remembering the little details, like Nina's brother's house furnishings, or the color of Paul's leather jacket, gets very hard. At first we simply read each preceding book again before starting on a new one. Now we just do our best, and when readers email us at to point out inconsistencies, we try to fix it in the paperback.

We do worry about a couple of things; Nina is still about 35, but her son Bob is growing up fast, for instance. Also, we don't want Nina to settle down with one guy, but Nina seems to have her own thoughts about this.

You might think we worry about our character running out of steam. On the contrary; like her mentor, Perry Mason, Nina Reilly will have a long career, and each guy who walks into her office with a long face is an exciting new beginning for us.

BRC: We have read that your next offering will not be in the Nina Reilly series. Keeping that in mind, how far in advance has Nina's life been plotted? Are you keeping things open, or do you have a conclusion planned at some point?

PO: Our next novel, currently titled KEEPER OF THE KEYS, is not a Nina Reilly book. Our family has a personal mystery: why did our parents move every year during our childhood (and sometimes twice)? They passed away without ever explaining. We have our own theories and they deserve their own novel.

When we had written a few Nina Reilly novels, we sat back to look at Nina's future, and we did see an arc; she would get better at practicing law, developing with experience; she would continue to look for the love of her life; and her family and friends would develop too. After CASE OF LIES, Nina deserves her short rest, but we suspect that there will be a strong and unusual enemy to fight when she returns.

BRC: What authors do you enjoy reading in your spare time? And what authors have had the most influence upon your own work?

PO: Mary reads widely in mainstream and literary fiction and keeps up with the new thrillers as they come out. Pam has gradually become unable to read novels and enjoys science, poetry, philosophy and other nonfiction.

Perri's major literary influences include Erle Stanley Gardner, Ross MacDonald, John D. MacDonald, Elmore Leonard, Steve Martini, and many many more.

BRC: What can you tell us about SINISTER SHORTS, your next release, currently scheduled for February 2006? And when can readers expect the next Reilly novel?

PO: SINISTER SHORTS is a collection of nineteen stories written over the past fifteen years, the best of our non-Perri writing. Each involves a crime. Nina is in one story, Paul in another. One story, about a DNA-hunting gravedigger, is written in the style of Dostoyevsky, one, about a shooting in a French ditch, in the style of Gertrude Stein. One won an award; one is being made into a movie; one we really hesitated to include because it is so weird. You'll see.

We don't have a Nina Reilly novel planned for next year. Nina is consolidating back at Tahoe, making a few bucks, winning some cases, relaxing a little for a change. Let's leave her to her private life next year.