To create his gritty, authentic crime novels, author Gerry Boyle draws from real life. Despite their similarities, don't get him confused with his law-breaking, tough-talking protagonist Jack McMorrow.
by Katy Kelleher
Author Gerry Boyle is always looking for his next villain. Or victim.
“Good writers are really observers,” he says, as he sips coffee at a table in the back of a café in Brunswick.
“See that guy?” Boyle asks, gesturing toward a blandly handsome middle-aged man in a white shirt who he has been watching for the past fifteen minutes. “He was watching the young woman over there. It might be nothing, but when you write crime, you assume the worst. In my imagination, in those few minutes, he became a villain."
In his mind, Boyle transforms the white-shirted man into a sex offender on the run, a former convict from Maryland searching for his next victim.
“There’s something about his face I find captivating—there’s a bit of a mask over it," Boyle says. "He was trying to be somebody, but who is he really?” Villains, he says, are often his favorite characters to write.
As Boyle sits in the charming surroundings of Little Dog Coffee Shop, he jots down notes about his newfound criminal and the young, blonde soon-to-be victim. “Maybe they’ll be in my next novel,” he says, gesturing again toward the unsuspecting customer. “He would make a great killer.”
This is how Boyle’s mind works—always alert, always observing, always developing characters and situations that he may use down the road. And it has served him well. The 60-year-old writer and magazine editor has just released his eleventh crime novel staring his signature character Jack McMorrow, an ex-New York Times reporter who moves to Maine and regularly finds himself embroiled in mysteries and crime drama.
The McMorrow character is not far afield from Boyle, who got his start as a newspaper reporter in the Maine mill town of Rumford before moving on to a newspaper in Waterville. For his first novel, Deadline, published in 1993, he mined the realities of his day job to create an authentic and gripping drama. Although he didn't know how long his relationship with McMorrow would last, the critical success of Deadline and the wealth of material spurred him to write other McMorrow novels and established him as a standard bearer of Maine crime noir. His most recent McMorrow release, Straw Man, published in 2016 by Islandport Press, has been praised by Publishers Weekly for its "deftly drawn characters and strong sense of place." New York Times bestselling author Gayle Lynds called Straw Man "hypnotically suspenseful," words that could apply to any of Boyle's twisted, terrifying novels.
Fueled by personal interests and experience, there is no question Boyle’s writing frequently skews toward the darker side of human nature. His McMorrow novels have dealt with topics like domestic violence, arson, drug cartels, weapons trafficking, prostitution, cyber bullying, and more. Basically, if it’s illegal, McMorrow has seen it happen—or had it happen to him.
In Borderline, McMorrow is working on a travel story in Quebec about the infamous Revolutionary War traitor Benedict Arnold when he becomes entangled with a group of local ruffians, who force him to fight for his life in a game of redneck cat-and-mouse. In Bloodline, McMorrow is reporting a lifestyle piece on “kids being kids” when he runs across some vicious teenagers who shoot up his house and set fire to his truck. And in Straw Man, his latest mystery novel, Boyle pits McMorrow against his own wife, Roxanne, after random acts of violence threaten their seemingly idyllic community of Prosperity, Maine.
“I have always gravitated toward stories about crime, police, jail, and trials. It always seemed like the most real thing I could write about,” Boyle said. “There’s something about people when they’re in a drama or in a crisis—they’re laid bare. Their emotions are at their limits. There’s a forced transparency. You see who they really are.”
For years, Boyle sated his appetite for criminal behavior by working as a newspaper reporter, covering the local crime beat. He learned how to interview suspects, speak to victims, and pry the truth from even the most closed-mouth witnesses. He also learned about human nature.
“I always say that working in newspapers provided a great education for what I do now,” he said. “It taught me that everybody is very complex. Even if someone falls into the category of ‘criminal,’ they’re never 100% criminal.”
This can be particularly true in rural Maine, where “everybody knows everybody.” Boyle has observed many small communities where violent behavior is often swept under the rug. “Even people who were real bad guys, they also have a circle of people that they’ve been helpful to,” he said. “In some places, you’ll see a guy who gets out of prison after 13 years, and they’re not ostracized. People say, ‘Oh, that’s just the way they are.’” It may sound shocking to the law-abiding portion of the population, but even small towns have their secrets.
Boyle’s fiction jumps between rural and urban settings, drawing on his life experience in both. Like McMorrow, Boyle lived in New York City for a time. And like McMorrow, Boyle is a veteran newspaper reporter with years of experience. However, unlike McMorrow, Boyle never engaged in any vigilantism himself—though he admits to being tempted at times.
“Jack started as an alter-ego of sorts,” Boyle admitted. “I could live vicariously through him. He experienced everything I’ve experienced, but through different eyes. His world is an extreme version of my own, and he is an extreme version of me. But life doesn’t impose practicality on him.”
It’s not just the law that keeps Boyle on the straight and narrow. He also has his family to think about. A father of three, Boyle said he “could never do the things Jack does.” But then he added, “But I don’t disagree with any of his actions. In principle, I agree with him.”
McMorrow, he explained, is concerned with justice and truth above all else. He is a true “good guy,” someone who fights for the unfortunate and seeks to tell the stories of the voiceless.
“In real life,” Boyle said, “there isn’t always justice. In my days as a reporter, I saw people do bad things and get away with it all the time. In the world of my books, I can create justice. Nobody ever really gets away in my novels.”
Straw Man, Boyle's just-released eleventh Jack McMorrow mystery is now available from islandportpress.com and booksellers. Learn more at www.islandportpress.com.