New York Times and USA Today bestselling author Mary Burton, whose novels include The Seventh Victim, the back-to-back 2011 novels Senseless and Merciless, as well as her previously published romantic suspense novels Dying Scream, Dead Ringer and I’m Watching You, sees a definite link between real-life events and the allure of fiction dealing with crime and relationships.
A reader of mysteries and suspense novels as well as a writer, Burton believes that first of all “there’s the intellectual appeal of police procedures and forensics and the untangling of a mystery that calls out to readers, but I think it is also a way to confront frightening situations and emotions. With fiction, readers are in control. They can put down the story at any time. They can appreciate and try to understand the characters’ motives and emotions, experience the commitment of those in pursuit and touch as much or as little of the fear as they want. They also know the atrocities in a suspense story aren’t real so they may even be able to have some empathy for the killer, and they’re confident that justice—so often elusive—will be served.”
“Real life can be frightening,” says Burton, “and most of us know that if only from afar.” A Virginia native, she clearly recalls the twenty year span residents of the Virginia endured, first with the Southside Strangler, then the Hampton Roads killer and, finally, the D.C. Sniper stalked the state. Burton thinks her fascination with the people who hunt multiple killers began back then. She says the terror felt by residents and the fact that between them the three killers claimed twenty-six victims still resonates for her and that she paid close attention to the cases as they unfolded.
Burton’s fascination is not just with those who hunt killers, but with the thought processes and procedures that lead to an arrest and a conviction. That curiosity has led to eye-opening interviews with local law enforcement, forensic seminars and the firing range. She is a graduate of the Henrico County Citizens Police Academy and the Richmond FBI Citizen’s Academy, and has participated in Sisters in Crime’s Forensic University program and, recently, the Writers Police Academy in Jamestown, North Carolina. There she attended seminars on autopsies, undercover work and why people kill.
Though committed to realism in her writing, Mary says that as important as realism and accuracy are to her, no novel begins without exploring three questions that are essential to each book. Before her story can be told, she needs answers to key questions about her killers. Quite simply, they are: Why do they kill?, What demons drive them?, and How do they choose their victims? These, Mary notes, are critical, not just to her stories, but to “real life” detectives working to close a case.
A Virginia native whose family’s Richmond roots run as deep as the nation’s, Burton graduated from that state’s Hollins University and began a career in marketing. For a while, she lived in Alexandria for three years while working for the Fairfax County Chamber of Commerce. Eventually, she decided the stories buzzing around her brain really did deserve her attention. She took up the gauntlet, left her job and began writing her first novel. That very first manuscript, an historical romance, was published in 2000.
The world of serial killers seems like a far cry from that book, a western set in the Colorado of 1876, and it is. Yet Mary notes that “the dark side of life is always just beneath the surface for all of us,” including in fiction. In her first book, the protagonist flees a rapist and escapes to a new life. “For that story the crime is basically a plot device and the violence takes place off the page”—unlike her current works in which crime and the destruction it wrecks are integral to her stories. “Nonetheless, all of those books explore the power of premeditated violence and how it changes my characters’ lives.”
Placing a romantic relationship within the context of a story about serial killings is daunting, but as Mary says “life goes on despite us and—especially in the face of fear and loss of control—it’s important to me to show the resilience of human beings, who somehow, someway eventually find hope even under drastic circumstances, who continue to believe that good can conquer evil, and who still can’t help falling in love.”
After selling her first novel, Burton wrote 16 novels and novellas for Harlequin and Silhouette before entering the dark world of multiple murderers and their motives with Dying Scream, Dead Ringer and I’m Watching You published by Zebra Books. She even brought danger and the threat of murder to her novella Christmas Past, which appears in the 2008 New York Times best selling holiday anthology Silver Bells along with stories from Fern Michaels, Joann Ross and Judy Duarte. Previously, another of her stories, Snow Maiden, was featured in the USA Today best selling anthology A Hero’s Kiss.
Born and raised in Richmond, Mary Burton is an avid baker and an accomplished cook, and even volunteered as a kitchen assistant at a local culinary school to hone her skills. She’s discovered that the creativity of baking entwines with her professional routine in a way she hadn’t anticipated. For her the act of baking is soothing, the kitchen the place she turns to when her writing hits a rough spot or she simply needs distance from her work. Once there, she’s working out dialogue, untangling plot lines and figuring out how to outsmart killers before the oven even finishes preheating.
When not writing, researching or baking, Mary can be found practicing yoga, enjoying her family, playing with her miniature dachshunds Buddy and Bella, or at work at the University of Richmond’s Culinary Arts Program.
Mary Burton writes full time. Her next suspense will also be set in the city of Alexandria.