What is smart?

Guest Blogger: Kathleen George

Sometimes a panel—even one you’re on—makes you think about it a whole year later.  That was the case for me long ago, after the 2011 Thrillerfest.

Joseph Finder took a lot of abuse for coming up with our panel title, “Can a Thriller Be Both Exciting and Smart?”  We insisted, “Of course it can!.”  David Liss, moderator, had written to us that he would have preferred the title, “How Can a Thriller be Both Exciting and Smart?”  But we stuck with the original title/question and complained about it a bit during the panel.

Yet Finder’s original question is still with me and I’m not sure it’s such a bad question because I’m still tossing it around.  When I’m writing a character who is in danger and acting quickly, it’s fair to ask, is that person being smart, too.  Is that character’s mind engaged?  Sometimes yes (because logic apparently kicks in, even in split second decisions), sometimes no (the character can’t think, is out of control).  But are we also talking here mainly about what happens to the reader?  When thrilling scenes cause a reader to feel heart-pounding and to turn pages rapidly, is there time for the reader’s more philosophical self to be engaged?  Possibly not.  And this then goes back to the writer.  Does she or he have time to play with thoughts?

Philosophical thinking is of course only one kind of smart.   There’s street smart and word smart and history smart and human behavior smart.  And how-machines-work  smart.  And where do the smarts in each case reside–in the author or in the characters that author creates?  Erg.  All right.  Can we take Hamlet as an example?  He is philosophical-smart.  He’s not street smart, not a survivor, but wow does he have a lot of metaphor making going on.  He sees associations everywhere.  His leaps of the imagination are a wondrous kind of smart.  The grave diggers are smart.  They say dumb things that come out smart and true.  And Shakespeare was smart that he could put these different versions of thinking together.  And yet it doesn’t take an especially gifted person to enjoy the play.

“Where do you think writers go wrong when they go wrong?” Liss prodded.  I didn’t have a chance to answer, but my list of warnings comes from where I go wrong when I go wrong.  1.  Wrong:  When you find yourself writing and writing about motive, the motive isn’t clear or believable.  When it is, you don’t have to explain it.  You have that feeling that in the circumstances set out, you would likely do exactly what the characters do.  2.  Wrong:  Thinking in terms of “and” instead of “but.”  But is better.  “She is tired of her husband and she also wants to start a whole new career ” is not as interesting as “She loves her husband, but she wants to start a whole new career that will make her leave him.”  3.  Wrong:  Adding red herrings and surprises making your work suspiciously formulaic.  When you get the plot right, you don’t have to add them.  They’re there.

Joseph Finder’s question was actually pretty reasonable and we could have talked for hours.  Thriller writers get made fun of (Witness Dwight Garner’s New York Times article in which he suggests a game of imitating the bad lines of thrillers.)  It makes us look unsmart.

My next novel is SIMPLE which . . . may or may not be smart.

Kathleen George is the editor of PITTSBURGH NOIRand the author of  TAKEN, FALLEN, AFTERIMAGE, THE ODDS (Edgar finalist, best novel), HIDEOUT, and the forthcoming SIMPLE.  The novels are set in Pittsburgh.  The author teaches theatre and writing at Pitt.

Kirkus starred review for Simple:

George’s Pittsburgh cops (Hideout, 2011, etc.) investigate a robbery-murder that’s a lot less routine and more sordid than it looks.

Gubernatorial hopeful Michael Connolly can’t keep his hands off Cassie Price, a new paralegal in his father’s law firm. But as he tells Todd Simon, his campaign manager, his need to maintain a squeaky-clean family image means that he can’t acknowledge her either. So Simon takes Cassie out for a margarita to find out how dangerous she is. By next morning, she’s no danger at all, because she’s been killed in the house she’s been fixing up in the low-income neighborhood of Oakland. Witness accounts and other evidence send Detectives Coleson and McGranahan to Cal Hathaway, the son of the Connolly housekeeper. Damaged as a child by a concussion and subject to blackouts, Cal seems tailor-made for the role of Cassie’s killer, and after hours of interrogation, he says he did it, or he didn’t, or he can’t remember. That’s good enough for the cops, who lock him up and get ready to move on. But Cmdr. Richard Christie, dissatisfied with the case against Cal, keeps playing devil’s advocate, urging that Detectives John Potocki and Colleen Greer look at other scenarios and other suspects. As they painstakingly build a second case against an unsurprising suspect, Cal makes friends and enemies in jail, raising the distinct possibility that even if the police arrest someone else, his vindication will be posthumous.

George’s all-too-familiar story is so richly observed, subtly characterized, precisely written—her syncopated paragraphs are a special delight—and successful in its avoidance of genre clichés that you’d swear you were reading the first police procedural ever written.

Starred Review  Booklist

The case seems simple from the start. When Cassie Price is strangled in her home, handyman Cal Hathaway, who found the body, soon confesses to the crime. But as the reader knows from early on, Cassie, a beautiful and promising paralegal about to enter law school, was having an affair with her law firm boss, married gubernatorial candidate and golden boy Mike Connolly, whose handlers considered Cassie “unreliable.” Pittsburgh PD Homicide Unit Commander Richard Christie, a self-confessed meddler, is troubled by the confession obtained (and soon recanted) after hours of questioning from a man who suffers from brain damage and blackouts, the results of a childhood beating. So the investigation starts anew, led by Christie; his partner, Artie Dolan, and the team of Colleen Greer and John Potocki, whose ever-closer personal relationship is leading to their professional breakup. What most distinguishes this police procedural, the sixth in its series, after Hideout (2011), is its fully realized cast of characters, a close-knit group of detectives who deal with shades of gray in crime-solving. George’s deft prose, skillful plotting, and winning characters are reminiscent of Ed McBain’s 87th Precinct series, and her fiction is almost as praiseworthy



  1. Thanks to Janice for putting up such a pretty blog and site. Today is my pub date for SIMPLE. This is a nice treat.

  2. Congrats on your pub date Kathleen – Simple sounds like a great book. Thinking in terms of “but” instead of “and” makes so much sense and makes a premise more interesting. Thanks for the wonderful post.

  3. This is a constant consideration for mystery writers. How do you get a regular person to involve themselves in a crime situation? A normal, sane, SMART person would leave that to the police. To drive the story forward, the protagonist has to do things that are, at best, unwise. Always a challenge to get the character to make foolish choices without looking foolish.

    I’m looking forward to reading SIMPLE.

  4. What a wonderful site. Thank you Kathleen for pointing your mysterylover friends this way. Kathleen is an exciting and smart writer and I for one am simply excited for “Simple.”

  5. Pingback: Writerly Wednesday: guest post with Kathleen George - Literary Lunes Publications

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