I’ve done it again. I just finished another book that features an animal as one of my main characters.
I had no intention of doing it when I was planning CHAOS. I was going to have a razzle-dazzle plot with lots of dynamite adventures and terrible villains for my characters to triumph over. And I couldn’t wait to introduce those characters. I was already half in love with the hero, Gabe Korgan, and Alisa, my CIA heroine, was different and exciting and complicated enough to be a perfect match for Korgan. Then there was Sasha and Korgan’s friend, Gilroy, who insisted he was like Indiana Jones. I certainly didn’t need anything else. I was almost ready to begin.
And then when I was doing some research on another project, I ran across a fascinating breed of horse that was supposedly now extinct. It was the Nisean. Darn it, I couldn’t forget him. Suddenly everything in my book completely changed as I made room to welcome him into the story.
I’m not sure why this keeps happening, but through the years, animals have muscled their way into the forefront of several of my thrillers. More often than not, it’s completely unplanned. When I started writing Fatal Tide, I had no idea that a pair of dolphins named Pete and Susie would soon appear and practically swim away with the book. Or that years later they would have an even bigger part in another thriller, Shadow Zone, which I wrote with my son, Roy.
I knew The Search would feature a search-and-rescue dog, but Monty became so real for me that he quickly became one of my favorite characters. There’s Harley, the sort-of seeing eye dog with the peculiar bark in the Kendra Michaels series. And there’s Ned, the black lab from Dark Summer. They’re all family to me, just as much as my human characters.
And since I’m the author and I get to create the worlds they live in, I partake in some wish fulfillment. That’s why (thanks to my brilliant fictional researchers) the dogs of Summer Island live happy and healthy lives that can stretch for many decades. Wouldn’t that be wonderful?
And here’s another one: wouldn’t you love to know what your four-legged family member was thinking? That’s what led me to create Margaret Douglas, the “animal whisperer” who can communicate with almost any animal. She made her first major appearance in No Easy Target, and she’s found her way into over a half-dozen books since then, including my latest thriller, CHAOS. In this book, Margaret’s abilities give us a window into the soul of one of my all-time favorite animal characters, a magnificent Nisean stallion with more than a little attitude. But I hate spoilers so I won’t give away more.
My love of animals goes far beyond the printed word. I’ve always shared my home with a large family of dogs, as many as twelve at one point. It can be a little chaotic, sure, but I wouldn’t want it any other way. Many of the dogs come from a no-kill animal shelter I support, and I haven’t been able to resist bringing some (okay, many) of the homeless animals back to my house. They’ve brought me so much love, laughter, and companionship through the years.
Dogs aren’t the only animals that have shared my home. Would you believe there has also been…a family of buffalo?
Let me explain. For a while, I owned an estate in north Georgia, and I allowed a working horse farm to operate on my land. It was a dream! Imagine what it was like for me to look up from my desk and enjoy those beautiful horses every day. Well, one morning I stepped out onto my back patio with a cup of coffee and was treated to the sight of eight magnificent buffalo grazing at the bottom of the hill. The farm manager, Dan, had struck a deal to keep them for a while so they were part of my life, roaming the property for much of that year.
Dan always used the buffalo as an excuse when I offered him any of the stray dogs that showed up at my front gates. But finally he did accept a wonderful dog named Deacon into his home and his life, and of course he fell in love. Deacon still goes with him everywhere.
Around the same time, wild turkeys also descended on my property. I don’t know where they came from, but for years I added extra security in November and December to keep hunters from stalking them in search of a holiday feast.
In addition to all these animals, my property has also been home to an ever-growing group of feral cats. When winter came, I began to fear for their safety. So I set my contractor to work designing and building a series of heated “cat hotels” for them to seek refuge from the elements. It was a smashing success.
Things are a bit quieter here in my present home. I’m down to two dogs now, but the memories of those who have gone will always be with me. In my mind, they’re with the dogs of Summer Island, happily enjoying their long lives, loving and playing into the twilight. And as I write more books, I’m sure I’ll create more animal friends who will insist on key roles in their stories.
As authors, we try to connect with readers. Judging from my letters and emails, I’ve made few connections more powerful than those inspired by the animals who populate my adventures.
My favorite example: I once met a young woman named Brandy at a Michigan autograph event who was there with her beautiful Golden Retriever. She told me that Monty from The Search inspired her to train her own search-and-rescue dog—and she even named him Monty. She recently sent me a photo of Monty, who is now retired, with his favorite toys. Meeting Brandy and Monty that day was one of the great thrills of my life, and it confirms what I’ve always known about dogs and most animals in general—however much we give them, they give back so much more.
Iris Johansen is the #1 New York Times bestselling author of more than 30 consecutive bestsellers. Her series featuring forensic sculptor Eve Duncan has sold over 20 million copies and counting and was the subject of the acclaimed Lifetime movie, The Killing Game. Along with her son Roy, Iris has also co-authored the New York Times bestselling series featuring investigator Kendra Michaels. Johansen lives near Atlanta, Georgia.
CIA agent Alisa Flynn flaunts the rules by breaking into a mansion in the middle of the night, she skillfully circumvents alarms and outwits guards only to find herself standing in billionaire Gabe Korgan’s study . . . busted by Korgan himself. This could cost her her job unless, in a split second, she can turn the tables and try to convince him to join her on the most important mission of her life.
In a ripped-from-the-headlines plot, schoolgirls in Africa have been kidnapped, and Alisa knows that Korgan has the courage, financial means, and high-tech weaponry to help rescue them. With so many innocent lives hanging in the balance, what she doesn’t reveal is that one of those schoolgirls is like a little sister to her. But when the truth gets out, the stakes grow even higher.
Calling in additional assistance from renowned horse whisperer Margaret Douglas, Alisa and Gabe lay their plans, only to see them descend into chaos as the line between right and wrong wavers before them like a mirage. Every path is strewn with pitfalls, each likely to get them — or the hostages — killed. But with the help of a brave team and a horse with the heart of a warrior, they might just get out of this alive.