Local novelist moves into crime fiction

ELIZABETHTOWN – It’s a dark, twisted tale of murder set just outside the Adirondack Park Blue Line in Remsen.

“Habit,” was written by former Saranac Lake High School student T.J. Brearton, who has also lived in Lake Placid and now lives in Elizabethtown. The new crime novel is available exclusively on Amazon Kindle and has sold more than 2,000 copies since it was published Feb. 11. It spent a week as the number-one novel on Amazon’s “Pulp Thrillers” list and is currently in the top 20 of that list. Brearton said a print version might be in the works.

“Habit” follows two weeks in the life of rookie detective Brendan Healy as he tries to solve the stabbing death of a woman named Rebecca Heilshorn.

It’s true that Heilshorn is a victim, but as the story unfolds, it also becomes clear she had her own set of secrets which spiral around a deadly mix of power, wealth and sex.

“In researching the police-procedural-type story, and in talking to detectives and law enforcement, especially in an investigation, a timeline is very important to establish,” Brearton said. “You’re always working against the clock. You’re establishing the timeline of events: When did they call 911? When did the first on scene arrive, and from there, how long has it been since the killer has been at large or since the kidnapped victim has disappeared? They’re always working against the clock.”

Brearton has a cadre of law enforcement personnel in his family. His sister was a sheriff’s deputy and city cop, his stepfather is a lawyer who does criminal defense, his biological father is a probation officer, and a cousin is a state trooper.

“I have a lot of good people to talk to who know a lot more about this stuff than I do,” Brearton said. “There’s sort of a watchdog committee in my head, people that are out there every day experiencing human tragedy for real.”

Besides personal connections to law enforcement, Brearton said he also researched news stories and police blotters to learn more about how crimes are really solved as opposed to how they are solved in fiction.

The research added a realistic element to “Habit” and also helped Brearton balance accuracy with fantasy.

“I think you’ve got to balance both, for sure,” Brearton said. “There are writers who, maybe it’s not as much a priority to root a story in reality. It can be more fanciful. I’ve heard, especially from the people in law enforcement who do read, that they appreciate the attention to detail and the representationalism, because it’s so often glossed over or cheated in a more sensational TV show or a more sensational novel.”

The fanciful side of the story is the rabbit hole the detective winds up traveling down as he begins to connect other players involved in the murder. As details emerge, the detective continues further toward a finale which might leave room for a sequel.

Brearton is not a first-time writer, so the hint at a continuation of “Habit” is not an unlikely prospect for him. He has written a host of short stories and has self-published several novels, most of which centered around supernatural or horror themes.

“It’s the first boilerplate crime thriller in that there are no supernatural elements,” Brearton said. “I hadn’t really written any straight crime yet. As I have gotten older, the bad guys have taken more definite shape, so they don’t necessarily have to be supernatural anymore.”

“Habit” is also the author’s first book published by an outside publisher, the Shoreditch, London-based Not So Noble Books, whose imprint is Joffe Books.

“If a novel is defined by what has been commercially published, than this is my first,” Brearton said. “I’ve self-published others and written about eight. I didn’t really push the earlier novels. They were more of a learning process.”

Along the way, Brearton said he’s learned a lot about writing, publishing and promoting his work. That doesn’t mean he’s longing to revise his past efforts, though.

“The thing I heard, and I don’t remember who said it, is you don’t finish a project so much as you abandon it,” Brearton said. “You have to let it go. I’ve had people ask if I’m going to unearth some of my previous projects and try to put them out there now that I’ve had some humble success with a commercial publisher. I don’t, de facto, say no to that, but it really is like going back and unburying the bodies. It’s in the past, and some of those things are best left lying where they are.”

Brearton’s day job is doing film and video work with the companies ADK Mogul and Room 6 Productions. He is also the manager of the Adirondack Film Society. Brearton likes that work but said he still wants to work toward becoming a career writer.

“It’s kind of a roller coaster of feeling exalted that you’ve finished something, and then it’s amazing,” Brearton said. “Then time goes by and you get a more object perspective on the material, and you learn more about the realities of the market. It’s a learning process, and teaching yourself to do anything is probably similar in nature – the sense of accomplishment and also the deep humility.”