Charlie Donlea, one of the most original new voices in suspense, returns with a haunting novel, laden with twists and high tension, about two abducted girls—one who returns, one who doesn’t—and the forensics expert searching for answers.
Nicole Cutty and Megan McDonald are both high school seniors in the small town of Emerson Bay, North Carolina. When they disappear from a beach party one warm summer night, police launch a massive search. No clues are found, and hope is almost lost until Megan miraculously surfaces after escaping from a bunker deep in the woods.
A year later, the bestselling account of her ordeal has turned Megan from local hero to national celebrity. It’s a triumphant, inspiring story, except for one inconvenient detail: Nicole is still missing. Nicole’s older sister Livia, a fellow in forensic pathology, expects that one day soon Nicole’s body will be found, and it will be up to someone like Livia to analyze the evidence and finally determine her sister’s fate. Instead, the first clue to Nicole’s disappearance comes from another body that shows up in Livia’s morgue—that of a young man connected to Nicole’s past. Livia reaches out to Megan for help, hoping to learn more about the night the two were taken. Other girls have gone missing too, and Livia is increasingly certain the cases are connected.
But Megan knows more than she revealed in her blockbuster book. Flashes of memory are coming together, pointing to something darker and more monstrous than her chilling memoir describes. And the deeper she and Livia dig, the more they realize that sometimes true terror lies in finding exactly what you’ve been looking for.
Praise For Charlie Donlea And Summit Lake
“A gem of a mystery, fast paced and suspenseful.” —Catherine Coulter, #1 New York Times bestselling author
“Fans of contemporary suspense will enjoy this brisk read.” —Booklist
“An exciting debut, with all the right touches, captivating from the first page to the last. There’s a bright future ahead for this newcomer to the thriller genre—definitely a talent to watch.” —Steve Berry, New York Times bestselling author
“Donlea keeps readers guessing throughout. The whodunit plot is clever and compelling . . . for fans of nonstop mysteries with a twist.” —Library Journal
“A swift, outstanding debut. Summit Lake engrossed me then knocked me cold. Charlie Donlea is a superb storyteller sure to damage the bestseller lists.” —Robert Dugoni, New York Times bestselling author
“With a soaring pace and teasing plot twists, Charlie Donlea’s debut mystery is like a cool drink of water with a twist of lemon. It’s refreshing to find a book that has such a well-developed plot and excellent writing to back it up.” —BookPage
You’re a male author whose novel has at its center two strong female characters. Did you find it difficult to write from the female perspective?
Initially, it was a challenge. But there comes a point in the writing process where your characters are no longer these entities you created. They become people in your life, or at least your mind. They develop traits you never imagined they’d have when you first invented them, and they take on a life of their own. Then, it’s more about how they react to the story they are part of and less about me making decisions for them. This is what makes them authentic. And if the character becomes real enough, the reader will connect with them.
How do you create suspense within your writing?
It’s important to have astute and honest first readers when you’re creating a story that contains plot twists. The best way to learn the art of suspense is to read novels from the author’s point of view, and write stories from the reader’s point of view. Then have first readers who will tell you what works within the story and what doesn’t. The first draft of SUMMIT LAKE failed so horribly to fool my wife that I was embarrassed by how little credit I initially gave readers of this genre. Suspense readers are careful readers who look for clues and will anticipate plot twists unless they are carefully constructed. My wife and my sister helped me see more clearly form the reader’s point of view, and understand what the readers would likely be thinking during critical plot twists. This collaboration is at the heart of the suspense in my work.
Can you name any books or authors who have influenced you?
Many, but Robert Ludlum will always be the author I credit for planting in my head the desire to write. He was the first author I read for pleasure and not by assignment.
Writing is like any sport or hobby. To improve at it, you have to learn from people who do it better than you. To become a better writer, you need to read authors who are better than you. You need to read books and say, “Wow, this is so much better than what I’m capable of producing.” These authors and their books will make you a better writer. For me, a few of those authors are Robert Ludlum, Dennis Lehane, Gillian Flynn and the great Nelson DeMille. It’s actually a very long list.
As far as a single book that has influenced me: The Dive From Clausen’s Pier. In it, Ann Packer creates such perfect internal conflict that I often go back to that novel to remind myself how internal conflict can drive a book.
The Making Of A Medical Examiner
The following is a guest blog from THE GIRL WHO WAS TAKEN author, Charlie Donlea.
The Making of a Medical Examiner By Dr. Livia Cutty
The summer after my sister graduated high school, just as she was preparing to head off to college, she disappeared. She and another girl, actually. They both vanished from a beach party in our small North Carolina town. Their abduction sent Emerson Bay into a panic.
Every resident, neighbor and friend looked for these two girls, large packs of volunteers walking shoulder-to-shoulder through the woods hoping to stumble across any clue that might help located them. We held vigils, too, lighting candles late into the summer night in some strange show of faith that our girls would be returned to us.
This went on for two weeks, just long enough for me to secretly lose hope. And then Megan McDonald, the other girl who was taken along with my sister, resurfaced. She had escaped from a bunker hidden deep in the woods, ramrodding her way through the forest on a dark, rainy night until someone spotted her wandering on Highway 57.
My sister? She was never seen again.
That was last August. Back then I was finishing the fourth year of my anatomical pathology residency. I’d completed my undergraduate degree, endured four years of medical school, and had settled into residency prepared to spend my four-year stint learning how disease affects the human body. Back in that old life, a cushy hospital pathology job waited in my future. Maybe a teaching gig at the university. Then my sister disappeared and my priorities changed. After my residency, I applied for a forensic pathology fellowship—a one-year program that would turn me into a medical examiner. My thinking was this: Someday, my sister’s body would show up in someone’s morgue. It would be up to a forensic pathologist to use his skills to uncover the clues my sister’s body left behind, and to hand those clues over to the authorities who might track down her killer. I wanted those skills, simple as that.
The following July, nearly a year after my sister went missing, I started my year of fellowship at the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner in North Carolina. I also started reading the bestselling memoir that was sweeping the nation. It was the true story account written by Megan McDonald, the girl who disappeared with my sister. Megan had miraculously escaped her captor, and her riveting story of survival was a blockbuster topping every bestseller list in the country. The memoir bothered me, the whoring of such personal tragedy for monetary gain infuriated me, and the fact that the book never once mentioned my still-missing sister unnerved me.
It was about that time, on a hot Monday morning, that the body of a young man rolled into my morgue. That body changed my life forever. It changed Megan’s life as well, since after I completed the autopsy I began to question every page of her bestselling book. My biggest question: Was this hunk of three hundred pages a memoir, or pure fiction?
To find out how things transpired the summer I started my forensic fellowship, pick up The Girl Who Was Taken. It’s a hell of a story. And the way things end will have you gasping like a brand new path fellow the first time a zipper rips down a body bag and their maiden corpse is dumped in front of them.