A thriller more than 30 years in the making

Author Chris G. Thelen wrote the first draft of his new novel, “Islands of Deception,” more than 30 years ago, but it sat on the shelf until his retirement three years ago, when he finally had time to make the necessary rewrites.
Author Chris G. Thelen wrote the first draft of his new novel, “Islands of Deception,” more than 30 years ago, but it sat on the shelf until his retirement three years ago, when he finally had time to make the necessary rewrites.
Courtesy of Chris G. Thelen

If you’re looking for a summer read that will get your pulse racing, Chris G. Thelen’s new book, “Islands of Deception,” is a safe bet.

There are car, boat and plane chases; two secret staircases; and corrupt public officials, dogged detectives and a billionaire tech guru, all acting with enough deception and political scheming to meet the definition of a thriller.

As an added bonus, the book is set in Michigan, beginning with a secret meeting in the dome of the Capitol and extending to Beaver Island and Detroit.

The plot revolves around a low-level drug dealer who comes into possession of information that could bring down a crime syndicate with wide-ranging influence — possibly even influence in the highest halls of power in the state government. To stay alive, Cally, one of the book’s protagonists, enlists the help of his brother, Daniel, an FBI agent; Fallon McElliot, a state police detective working for the governor; and a Homeland Security agent.

Thelen said his favorite character is McElliot, who isn’t flashy and has a lot of quirks, including driving a basic Dodge Dart.

The author spoke with City Pulse from his retirement home in Frankfort, Michigan. He said he wrote a first draft of the book more than 30 years ago, but it ended up sitting on the shelf until he retired from Consumers Energy three years ago.

He said the idea for the book came from camping on Beaver Island with his spouse and taking the ferry to the island from Charlevoix.

“After retiring, I connected with an editor who told me it needed lots of work, but it had legs,” Thelen said.

The book also needed to reflect modern technology. Thelen added the tech guru character, whose business model would have only been emerging in the ‘90s, and tech gimcracks like drones. Both play an integral part in the novel’s plot and exciting denouement.

When he pulled his draft off the shelf — along with rejection letters from publishers — it contained about 120,000 words.

“My editor told me it needed to be tightened, and 40,000 words had to go,” he said. “It was an interesting process and challenging to go through rewrites and re-rewrites. The most fun part, for me, was writing dialogue. It allows you to get inside the head of the character.”

If you look at Thelen’s background, you wouldn’t guess that he would be writing a thriller. He grew up in rural Fowler on a dairy farm and held a series of white-collar jobs in advertising and communications until his retirement.

“I don’t read thrillers. I really don’t. My spouse reads crime thrillers, and she’s my first reader. She’s quick to say, ‘No, that wouldn’t work,’” Thelen said.

After graduating from Michigan State University with a degree in journalism in 1983, Thelen worked at advertising agencies for part of his career.

“You really learned to write concisely and were forced to consolidate and make the word count,” he said. “Creating advertising was a hotbed where you floated ideas and worked with high energy.”

With his advertising expertise, he has been tirelessly promoting his book at readings and signings.

“I enjoy meeting readers and bookstore owners,” he said.

At the conclusion of the novel, after a dramatic escape from prison, Cally races to a hideaway at Beaver Island where he thinks it will be difficult to track him. After several close escapes, the thrilling final scene takes place on the ferry to the mainland.

The book’s ending is ambiguous and leaves you wondering if the good guys really won. With the outcome unclear, readers will have to wait for the obvious sequel.

“The sequel is about half-written,” Thelen said.

The next book will also be set primarily in northern Michigan, where Thelen enjoys hiking, kayaking and cross-country skiing.

With all its beauty, northern Michigan has become a popular setting for thrillers and mysteries, such as two of Karen Dionne’s novels, “The Marsh King’s Daughter” and “The Wicked Sister,” which are both set in the Upper Peninsula, as well as Charles Cutter’s amateur detective series — especially his most recent release, “Under the Ashes: Murder and Morels,” set on the Leelanau Peninsula. Pack up all three, along with Thelen’s “Islands of Deception,” for a thrilling vacation Up North this summer.


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