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Woman's Work

Santa Barbara author has muscled her way into the world of thriller-writing.

November 05, 1998|CATHERINE DAIN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Gayle Lynds has made a career out of shattering expectations about what women can or cannot do. Writing an international thriller with a strong, savvy female protagonist--a thriller one publisher turned down because "no woman could have written this book"--was just one more item on an already unconventional resume.

When that thriller, "Masquerade," was finally published in 1996, it hit the New York Times bestseller list, was named "Page-Turner of the Week" by People magazine and made Murder Ink's list of the top 10 thrillers of the year.

Now her second thriller, "Mosaic," has reached book sellers. Coming on the heels of her last success, this one may even do better. (If you'd like an autographed first edition, Lynds will be signing copies at local stores. See box for details.)

Top-Secret Role

But back to the resume. Starting as an investigative reporter when even that was an unusual job for a woman, Lynds became an editor with topsecret security clearance at a military think tank. In a rare bow to traditional roles, she chose to leave the work force to raise her children. Then came the divorce.

"For a decade I was a stay-at-home mom. I sent my husband to his law office, sat on PTA boards and baked cookies--great cookies," she said. "All of a sudden I had no husband, no job, few prospects and two small children who had grown accustomed to eating."

A friend suggested she try her hand at pulp fiction. He gave her an outline for a Nick Carter paperback. (Nick Carter is a cut-rate American James Bond. More than 500 paperbacks have been published featuring his exploits, according to Lynds, and almost all have been written by men.) The publisher loved what she wrote.

Lynds churned out 11 pulp novels over the next seven years, including four more Nick Carters. All had male leads. She used a male pseudonym when a New York senior editor told her "boys won't read books written by girls."

And she began to think about writing an international thriller under her own name.

"Pulp paperbacks have always provided a training ground for men," she said. "Some of them went on to become respected authors--Dean Koontz, Nelson DeMille and Martin Cruz Smith, for example. Why couldn't a woman?"

When she worked for the think tank, she had heard rumors about brainwashing experiments.

"I telephoned contacts who had worked for the CIA, the Secret Service and Interpol. I discovered that a mind-control project known as MK-ULTRA actually had existed. My contacts were helpful in other areas too. One told me about a training camp for spies, another about poison gas, a third outlined the use of government slush funds," she said. "I knew I had a book."

She had barely finished the obligatory promotional tour for "Masquerade" when she came up with the idea for "Mosaic." Again the book has a strong, brainy heroine, in this case a concert pianist with psychologically induced blindness.

When asked why she chose to make Julia Austrian, her protagonist, blind, Lynds replied: " 'Mosaic' is about what we see and what we don't see. I learned how people can develop other senses to compensate for a missing one when I was a child. My best friend, Carol, who is profoundly deaf, saved me from an approaching car that she 'heard' when I didn't. Unlike me, Carol took in sound everywhere. Julia Austrian doesn't have psychic powers, but she definitely has expanded her senses--other than sight--to an advanced degree."

Blind Witness

And, of course, the blindness ads to the suspense. Not that this is a woman-in-jeopardy book. Julia Austrian takes care of herself, even as her blindness comes and goes.

How can her blindness come and go?

"Julia has what is called conversion disorder, which is often diagnosed first as post-traumatic stress syndrome," Lynds said. "The symptoms can be severe--blindness, deafness, paralysis. Psychiatrists have found that if patients don't get to the root of the trauma that caused it, their symptoms may disappear but they continue to return."

In "Mosaic," Julia regains her sight long enough to witness her mother's murder, then loses it again. In order to find the killer, she must use her other senses, even as she searches for the root of her blindness.

Because this is an international thriller, there must be an international conspiracy. "Mosaic" has two. One is a plot to steal the American presidential election by smearing the best nominee with a false sex scandal. The other is a search for a treasure called the Eighth Wonder of the World--the Amber Room--which vanished at the end of WWII. As the stories converge, Julia becomes involved with a rogue CIA agent, in this case a good guy, who is on the trail of the Amber Room.

Lynds makes no secret of her distrust of the CIA.

"Both the Congress and the president depend on the CIA analyses. But we've seen instances where the analyses were shaped to fit what the CIA believed the president or the Congress wanted to hear, or passed on tainted intelligence from questionable sources," she said.

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