Before writing crime novels, you solved crimes as a Crime Analyst with the Whatcom County Sheriff's Office. Did you base any of your characters in Collecting the Dead on yourself?
I did, actually. In the story, Dexter Allen is the crime analyst at the Whatcom County Sheriff's Office and helps Steps identify a vehicle captured on surveillance video. Dexter, or Dex, is one of my nicknames at the Sheriff's Office (though my favorite is Jedi Master), and his office, as described, is my office down to every detail. Also, the process Dex uses to identify the vehicle, a process called Forensic Vehicle Analysis, is one I developed and use on a weekly basis to identify suspect vehicles. Dex will play a larger role in future books as the on-going hunt for the serial killer Leonardo continues.
Your main character, Magnus Craig, aka Steps, has a special ability to see everything the suspect touched and everywhere he walked. If you could have any special ability, what would it be and why?
The ability to see “shine” is pretty cool, but it comes with a price, like most such abilities. I don't think I would want the ability to read someone's thoughts, just because it's so intrusive that it seems to border on evil. Plus, there's probably too much raw truth there for anyone to absorb and remain functional or sane. On the extreme end of special abilities, where the sky's the limit, I'd probably choose teleportation. On the lesser end, the only slightly paranormal, I'd go with the ability to instantly tell if someone's lying.
What color would your shine be?
I'd have to go with royal blue and ivory.
Were any of Steps’s cases inspired by cases that you solved?
It's hard not to be inspired by the cases you work, and though I don't borrow directly from any, I do include bits and pieces. Also, when one of my coworkers says something hilarious or completely off the wall, I tell them I'm going to use it in the story. It's odd, because despite the extremely ugly nature of some of the work we do, I've never laughed as much at any job. To say that I have interesting coworkers would be an understatement, and it's why I wanted to inject some humor into the story. People are used to seeing cops all stone-faced and humorless, which may be true at a crime scene, but away from that, they're just like anyone else but with more interesting stories to tell.
Tell us about a case you wish Steps had helped you solve.
There are three particularly disturbing cold cases I've spent a lot of time on. All three are cases that Steps could solve in short order. If only…
If you could team up Steps with any other detective, real or fictional, who would you choose and why?
It would be interesting to pair him with the detectives who hunted the Zodiac Killer; I think he could finally bring that case to a close. My second choice would be to send him to London to see if he could be of any assistance on the Jack the Ripper case, dated though it is.
How did you come up with Steps’s special ability?
When I decided to write a thriller, I knew from the beginning that it wasn't going to include the usual gruff detective, inquisitive medical examiner, or prosecutor on a mission. I wanted something different. While most of the tracks our agency does are with the assistance of K-9s, I was intrigued more by the man-trackers. But, a straight-up story about a tracker just wasn't going to cut it. In most cases, they show up, do the track, and then go home.
Even though I'm generally a skeptical person, the paranormal has always interested me, especially the outer limits of human ability—things that we might be capable of in the future, once we learn to harness our brain and put it to work. I don't really know where shine came from, my imagination just works that way. Once I came up with the idea, though, I knew it was a keeper and knew that Steps would need a team to support him. This was going to be a unit that didn't just track and go home; they analyze, interview, research, chase down leads, and, ultimately, solve the case.
What was the hardest part about writing Collecting the Dead?
Sticking to a schedule is always a challenge, especially when you work full time and have a family. I try to write at least five hundred words a day, and I write my word count down on a piece of paper at the end of each session. That piece of paper holds me accountable, and if I miss a day, it's immediately noticeable, almost accusatory.
What’s your favorite line from Collecting the Dead?
Probably the unofficial motto of the Special Tracking Unit: “We save the ones we can.”
Tell us more about the Special Tracking Unit (STU). What makes them so special? Do they all have abilities like Steps?
Jimmy and Diane don't have any special abilities, but Jimmy has a master's degree in psychology, which gives him insights into the behavior of the killers they hunt, and Diane is a genius with databases and link analysis. Les and Marty are just along for the ride, but bring their own special charm to the team. Les is the pilot and Marty is the co-pilot of the unit's Gulfsteam G100 corporate jet, affectionately nicknamed “Betsy.”
What do you want readers to think or feel after finishing this book?
I want them to be fulfilled. There's nothing worse than a story that ends poorly.
I know you already started your next book about the STU. What, if anything, can you tell our readers?
Over the years, there's been an odd phenomenon in the Pacific Northwest, where feet keep washing up on shore, still inside their shoes. Foul play was initially suspected, though that's no longer the prevailing theory. In the second book, I take that idea to Texas, New Mexico, and Arizona, where feet start turning up in the oddest of places. Jimmy and Steps soon find themselves hunting a cunning serial killer on a mission.
What's one television show that gets police procedures correct? And one that's inaccurate?
It's a mixed bag, though some are better than others. CSI does a great job explaining forensics, but is completely unrealistic in relation to most police agencies. For one, we send all our DNA to the state lab, which is overworked and understaffed, meaning it can sometimes be a year before we see results. Also, the state lab generally only takes homicides and rapes.
Criminal Minds is a great show that gives you a taste of behavioral analysis, but in the real world, they're back in Quantico, not in the field chasing down the killer.
The Killing is another good show (at least the first season), but pretty far from reality. You're not going to find any former meth addicts like Detective Holder working in law enforcement, nor will you see tribal police beating up city cops who come onto the reservation.
What are you currently reading?
Just finished Erik Larson's Devil in the White City, a brilliant book that simultaneously tracks the construction of the Chicago World's Fair and the exploits of America's first serial killer, H.H. Holmes, in the early 1880s. Holmes had scores of victims, some estimate as many as two hundred. He built a hotel in Chicago, which came to be known as the Murder Castle and featured hidden rooms, a large furnace for disposing of bodies, and a place to dissolve bodies in acid. From here, he preyed on visitors to the fair and the young women who came to Chicago seeking work in the buildup to the fair.
Interestingly, Daniel Burnham, who designed and oversaw construction of the Chicago World's Fair, also built the iconic Flatiron Building in New York, now home to St. Martin's Press.
What are you currently binging on Netflix?
Recently finished the last season of Longmire, which is awful on police procedure, but the stories and characters are so great it just doesn't matter.
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Spencer Kope is the Crime Analyst for the Whatcom County Sheriff's Office. Currently assigned to Detectives Division, he provides case support to detectives and deputies, and is particularly good at identifying possible suspects. In his spare time he developed a database-driven analytical process called Forensic Vehicle Analysis (FVA) used to identify the make, model and year range of vehicles from surveillance photos. It's a tool he's used repeatedly to solve crimes. Collecting the Dead is his first novel. One of his favorite pastimes is getting lost in a bookstore, and he lives in Washington State.