Lisa Black

Novelist Lisa Black can’t resist a riveting whodunit.
“In the most satisfying stories, the reader figures out who did it just a couple of pages before the detective does,” she says. “I like books that suddenly have a huge twist in the middle which makes me say, ‘I totally did not see that coming, but it makes a whole lot of sense now that it has.’ ”
And Black should know.
Since 2005, the Strongsville native — now a latent print examiner and certified crime analyst for the Cape Coral, Florida, police department — has been penning suspense novels set in Cleveland and beyond that continue to garner legions of fans. (One of them is Tess Gerritsen, author of the acclaimed “Rizzoli & Isles” series, who proclaims Black to be “one of the best storytellers around.”)
For her 17th book, “What Harms You,” which was published in August, she delves into the world of a Washington, D.C., forensic science institute where murders are becoming daily occurrences.
“Story ideas come to me in different ways,” Black explains. “Sometimes I start with a setting, sometimes I start with an event. And sometimes, it’s just something I want to see happen. Ideas keep bouncing around in my mind. Usually, they’re not something I’m really thinking about for a book, but they just keep popping up and popping up, and my subconscious adds to them as I go on.”
As the author discusses the plots she’s constructed — which include a hostage situation at the Federal Reserve Bank of Cleveland (“Takeover”) and a modern assassin who patterns his crimes after those of Cleveland’s Torso Killer during the Great Depression (“Trail of Blood”) — it’s clear each book serves as a love letter to her favorite literary genre, as well as a homage to the years she spent working at the Cuyahoga County Coroner’s office in the ’90s.
Like the women in her novels, Black analyzed gunshot residue, clothing, hair, DNA, blood and trace evidence found on bodies and at crime scenes to decipher potential clues.
“My time at the coroner’s office was busy, incredibly stressful and intense,” she recalls. “But every day was an adventure.”
It’s a career that was a lifetime in the making. While childhood friends played with Barbies, Black spent her formative years writing mysteries based on TV programs she never failed to miss.
“My dad and I watched every cop series on the air — “Adam 12,” “Perry Mason,” you name it,” she says.
Her hands-down favorite: “Ellery Queen.” Set in the 1940s, the NBC series starred Jim Hutton as the title character who, when he was not writing them, helped his New York City police detective father solve mysteries. Although the show lasted only one season, it made a big impression on the budding author.
“I wanted to be a detective just like Ellery Queen,” Black says. “It seemed to be the kind of job where you worked your own hours, and then you’d call everybody into the library and tell them who committed the crime.”
Black went on to earn a bachelor of arts degree in political science from John Carroll University, and spent a decade as a secretary before heeding her true calling. She returned to college and earned a bachelor of science degree in biology from Cleveland State University. The goal: to land a job in forensics.
“There are not a lot of openings for non-police detectives, so this was the natural choice for me,” she explains. “I always liked science, and forensics is the best of both worlds.”
Although literally immersed in the world of crime, Black’s passion for creating her own stories never waned. The idea for writing books sparked during the years she spent in the secretarial pool.
“Since I sat in front of a word processor all day, I thought, ‘What the heck, I’ll write a novel. How hard can it be?’ ” Black recalls with a laugh.
The answer was very, very difficult.
“Six of the manuscripts I wrote remain tucked away in the back of my closet,” she says. “And that’s where they probably should stay.”
Her first and second novels, “Trace Evidence” and “Unknown Means” were published by Hyperion under her real name, Elizabeth Becka. When the author signed with William Morrow — and currently Kensington Publishing — she adopted the pseudonym Lisa Black (based on a nickname and the desire for her moniker to remain near the top of alphabetical book lists).
As she puts the finishing touches on her next mystery, “The Deepest Kill,” which will be released on February 20, the author reflects on why her books resonate with readers.
“I strive to create female characters who are just ordinary people, not some kind of superwoman genius,” Black muses. “They’re believable, but definitely not weak — even when they think they are.”