Masterpiece thriller, book review The Istanbul Puzzle, Laurence O’Bryan

This is an outstanding book that has been well reviewed elsewhere (see quotes at end of post).

Today’s post will focus on a few writer’s questions and answers.

************SPOILER ALERT************

Interview with Laurence O’Bryan, author of The Istanbul Puzzle, HarperCollins


Hello, Laurence. Thank you for taking some time to answer these writer questions about The Istanbul Puzzle.

Let me start by relaying a story that helps me provide my overall review of the book.

The recently late Barnaby Conrad (1922 – 2013) (New York Times obit), had a book published called Last Boat to Cadiz (Capra Press, 2003). On the book jacket is written an endorsement of the sincerest kind, “I wish I had written this book – Ole!” That was Ray Bradbury. Since I cannot improve upon this man, I am borrowing and paraphrasing his words for my endorsement of The Istanbul Puzzle. I wish I had written it. Bravo!

This will be a writer’s interview as I don’t really think it’s possible for me to read as “just a reader” any more.

First of all, your excellent article, Writing with Emotional Hooks, covers a great deal of craft, very well. One of the things I struggle with in writing emotion is physical reaction. I’ve taken some classes, study other authors, and hence am aware there are specific, predictable physical reactions to strong emotions. Unfortunately, to come up with fresh writing for these, is very difficult. I’d like to call out some of your prime examples and ask you if you started with the basis of knowing what the physical reactions were and then went deeper, if you collected them from close observation of people, were struck by the muse, all of the above or something else entirely?


“…your colleague Mr Zegliwski is…” He hesitated. “… dead.”
A void opened beneath me. That was the one word he wasn’t supposed to say. (Page 15)

Something around me seemed to be changing, as if a hidden door had opened somewhere and a breeze had begun blowing. (Page 16)

I stared, unblinking. I was watching what was happening, but from far away. (Page 36)

The reality of being shot at was like being at a fairground in a nightmare: everything seemed brighter, people were smiling, but way too much. (Page 248)


I desperately wanted to leave. There was something pressing into my chest. (Page 36)

“Mr. Ryan?” It was the receptionist who’d given me that envelope. I sat on the bed, cradling the telephone against my bare shoulder. The gossamer breeze from the window felt like water running over my skin. (Page 48)


Tragedy warps everything. (Page 47)


Adrenaline pumped through me, tingling every muscle. The hair on my body stood up straight. My scalp felt tight. (Page 50)

(Nice word choice there, tingling as a verb.)

She tried to wriggle free. He held her tighter. Icy lumps of fear passed through her veins. (Page 297)


…the expression on Peter’s face was that of a wine waiter who’d just been asked for plum juice. (Page 71)


And I’d been grateful to come and that he wanted to see me. In the end though, the words he told me felt like knives plunging into my heart. (Page 82)


“If things go as expected, we will all have a lot to thank you for.” Arap smiled, like a pike in front of its prey. (Page 126)


But there was a softness in her eyes, as if she was happy I pressed hard to go with her. She wasn’t going to make things easy, but she wanted me to come along. (Page 276)

LOB:  Hi all! Thanks for all your kind comments. There are two key drivers behind getting emotion right in your writing.

1.     Imagine what you would feel if you were in your character’s shoes. Close your eyes, feel it in your body, then show us what it’s like.

2.     Don’t ever use a cliché. A pike in front of his prey for instance is simply me looking for a new way to tell readers what a malicious smile is like.

You also handle character motivation very carefully, thoroughly and constantly:

I had nothing to lose anymore — no family, and my best friend was dead. “I’ll be going to Hagia Eirene this afternoon….” (Page 122)

Did you spend a lot of time in your apprenticeship learning and getting feedback on handling of character motivation?

LOB: I believe it is important to provide motivation clues. I spent twelve years writing every day before I was published. Motivation, I learned, should be either obvious – someone is trying to kill the character and they have to do something – or made clear in some way.

Now to delve into a few other corners I observed while enjoying the experience of my first read of The Istanbul Puzzle:

I like the way you used the principles of the hero’s journey as the devices to prove the falling in love. Test, Allies, Enemies, Approach to the Inmost Cave and The Ordeal. Momentary digression on the idea of “proving” the characters are falling in love, Ray Bradbury once said, during his opening speech at one of the Santa Barbara Writer’s Conferences, “Don’t just tell me they fell in love. Prove it to me!” He paced back and forth across the stage in his fabulous baggy shorts waving his arms and giving us examples. I will say that the memory bloomed in full color when I read the tunnel scene in The Istanbul Puzzle. You probably can’t answer this, but I need to ask, how long did it take you to write that scene? It is perfect and awesome. In this the love proof takes a leap and you prove it again and again through the other major plot points until the end is just a deeply satisfyingly, resonantly true finale. In summary, my questions are:

NS: Have you read and did you think about The Writer’s Journey, by Christopher Vogler when writing The Istanbul Puzzle?

LOB: Yes. I have read The Writer’s Journey and I am familiar with the mythic structure of story. The Istanbul Puzzle is a modern myth, a fable about the search for the one thing that will save us from damnation.

What is it? Look inside your heart.

NS: How long did it take you to write the tunnel scene?

LOB: Not sure. The whole book was seven years in the making. Probably six months on that scene.

Regarding your journey as a writer, have you read The Career Novelist by Donald Maass? If so, did you choose a genre because of his advice and do you plan to do straight literary ever? If so, will you go back and forth or depart from genre? Explore another genre, perhaps? Or do you even know?

LOB: I read Donald’s The Breakout Novel workbook and really found it helpful. I went to the conspiracy genre because that is what I like to read. I hope to publish psychological thrillers too, if my publisher will let me!

I also wanted to just commend you on your expertise on the back-story weave. Example:

I’d learned in the past few years to disdain pity, to look ahead, to act strong, to not think too much. I needed every one of those lessons now. (Page 36)

Did you learn this at a writer’s conference, a book, reading others, or do you even know?

LOB: Weaving backstory is a basic lesson for all writers. If you can also show character at the same time all the better.

Who are your major influences for this novel? And who for your writing in general?

LOB: The Da Vinci Code, The Lord of the Rings and I, Cladius are all influences on The Istanbul Puzzle.

And on a final note, the only problem I had with the book was that it was scary. Can you write a thriller that isn’t scary? (Kidding.)

Sorry – the next one is more scary!

I was at a 10 year anniversary celebration of a club I (recently joined) of avid romance readers. One of the questions in our getting-to-know-each-other game was, what is your favorite kind of heroine?

Fairly universal answer: “Kick ass!” “Strong!” “Competent!” “Brave!” And boy did you ever achieve that with Isabel Sharp:

“Do you have any idea  what a bitch this car is to park?” she said. (Page 51)

That was one of Isabel’s first lines in the novel, spoken after narrowly escaping with their lives, fleeing bullets. Which reminds me, the humor in your hero and heroine make them even more realistic and likeable.

 Isabel spoke at length, without giving anything away. She’d make a good politician. (Page 262:)

Competent, and especially nice since he is admiring this trait in her.

She was dressed in a tight-fitting black trouser suit. Under her jacket she wore a lacy black bra, which revealed itself when she leaned forward, which she was doing right now. Page 256

(Ha ha! Very competent!)

There are many examples of her staying very cool under pressure while still feeling things strongly, being very human. Isabel Sharp is a wonderful heroine.

And The Istanbul Puzzle is a wonderful book.


Buy the book:

Author Blog:

Follow on Twitter: @LPOBryan

Here are some highlighted reviews from Mr. O’Bryan’s blog (

The Telegraph had this to say about The Istanbul Puzzle:  “A brisk plot . . . which draws the reader into a conspiratorial rapport. He’s come late to fiction. Clearly he means to enjoy it.”

The Lancashire Evening Post had this to say: “An impressive debut; well written, beautifully descriptive, and with a smart dialogue and a compelling air of menace throughout.”

The Irish Independent said: “This stylish conspiracy thriller is a Turkish delight. O’Bryan’s compelling debut thriller combines plenty of stirring action with fascinating historical detail.”

Norma Britton, a reviewer on Amazon had this to say about The Jerusalem Puzzle: “I really enjoyed The Istanbul Puzzle but O’Bryan’s follow-up The Jerusalem Puzzle is far superior.”

The Istanbul Puzzle, the first novel in the series, has been sold for translation into 10 languages. It was also, for a number of weeks in 2012, a No 1 Bestseller on Amazon. Each book in this series stands alone as a complete novel. The Istanbul Puzzle was shortlisted for the Irish crime novel of the year 2012.