Edgar nominated bestselling novelist David Bell has chosen a bucolic, tree-lined college campus in Kentucky for the setting of his latest suspenseful thriller The Finalists (Berkley). The fictional Hyde House facade depicted on the cover bears similarities to Henry Hardin Cherry Hall (minus the cupola) on his home campus of Western Kentucky University. It’s a familiar environment for this popular professor of creative and fiction writing who consistently publishes a new book annually. 

This articulate, soft-spoken wordsmith holds an audience enthralled with his rapier-sharp flashes of dry, self-deprecating wit. David Bell keeps readers up late with his spare, clear prose, deceptively simple sentences and character-driven novels. There are enough red herrings in The Finalists to satisfy any Agatha Christie fan. The endings are not tidily gift-wrapped but often left ambiguous with uncertain outcomes that require one’s own imagination to contemplate the protagonist’s future destiny. This has become a trademark of this gifted fiction writer whose work is never formulaic. 

DESPERATION IN RESOURCE-STARVED ACADEMIA

Hyde College is a prestigious, private liberal arts college established shortly after the Civil War by Ezekiel Hyde, who had served as a major in the Union Army. Recently discovered historical records allege this warrior may have been actively involved in the massacre of several Confederate soldiers adding fuel to growing unrest and protests among the student body. The institution has been governed and largely underwritten by direct descendants of the founder, but funding and building maintenance has diminished in recent years. 

Nicholas Hyde is the dissolute fourth great-grandson and last of the line, who assumed leadership of both the Hyde Corporation and the college upon the death of his father. Unlike previous generations, he has no direct connection with the campus as his parents divorced when he was five and he grew up with his mother in a distant, larger city. It is his sole responsibility to choose one scholarship recipient among the six finalists gathered in Hyde House; formerly the family mansion, now an administrative center, secluded and distant from the main campus. 

Traditionally, the scholarships were awarded less for academic achievement than to the student with the greatest financial need. This singular prize is well beyond a four-year, full-ride scholarship, as it pays for student debts already incurred and guarantees a lucrative job with the Hyde Corporation upon graduation. The consolation prize is $5,000 each in scholarship funds. 

After dodging brick-throwing protestors, six vastly dissimilar finalists gather on the front steps warily eyeing the competition. With them is Vice President for Institutional Development, Troy Gaines, recently promoted from business professor. Gaines’ job is on the line. His primary job is fundraising and his mission for the day is to extract a written commitment of two million dollars verbally promised by the last male heir of the Hyde coal fortune. 

The campus police chief arrives with Nicolas Hyde and the rules for the proceedings are presented. Everyone must surrender all electronic communication devices before entering the premises. Once inside, the doors will be locked and not opened until a specified time in late afternoon with the police chief holding the keys. 

The finalists: Milo, Natalia, James, Sydney, Duffy and Emily are shocked to have entered into a late 19th century Twilight Zone. Their opinions and votes don’t count in this autocracy with a highly specific rule book written by Major Ezekiel that is followed exactly, including the beverages, snacks and lunch served. It’s not long before a finalist dies. Fear sets in and the backbiting and rivalries turn vicious. The author’s tagline is: “Will they get away with murder?” The reader may well inquire: “Will anyone survive?” in this ultimate locked-room mystery. 

A GLIMPSE AT THE WRITER

Here are some extracts from an interview I conducted with author David J. Bell in 2014 upon the publication of Never Come Back. 

How do you balance your dual careers as educator and author?

I’m good at compartmentalizing. I’m good with a deadline, so I can get a lot done. I don’t really think I have to choose between teaching and writing. They’re too much a part of my life and I enjoy them both. I learn to write better from being a teacher, and I become a better teacher the more I write. 

Which is more important: a good plot or fascinating characters? What is the inspiration for the wellspring of darkly hidden secrets in your novels?

I think stories begin with characters. Characters drive the plot rather than the other way around. I think characters and story come first. If a writer gives a reader those things then the genre doesn’t really matter. As far as where the ideas come from … they can come from anywhere. Newspaper stories, observations, things overheard in restaurants and in line at the dry cleaner, plus my own imagination. I think people who write suspense novels and thrillers are healthier than other people because we exorcise all our demons in the stories. That’s just a theory, though. The people closest to me might disagree.

What do you like to do when you are not writing?

When I’m not writing, I love watching movies and reading. I’m a big sports fan. I’m motivated by telling good stories, hopefully learning more about writing and getting better each time out. There’s nothing I’d rather do and nothing else I’m good at. 

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About David Bell:

David Bell is the USA Today bestselling author of 12 novels from Berkley/Penguin, including The Finalists, Kill All Your Darlings, The Request, Layover, Somebody’s Daughter, Bring Her Home, Since She Went Away, Somebody I Used to Know, The Forgotten Girl, Never Come Back, The Hiding Place and Cemetery Girl.

His work has been translated into numerous foreign languages, included on several bestseller lists, nominated for the Pushcart Prize five times, and, in 2013, won the prestigious Prix Polar International de Cognac for best crime novel by an international author. Recently his thirteenth novel, Kill All Your Darlings, was nominated for a 2022 Edgar Award.

He is a professor of English at Western Kentucky University where he co-founded the MFA program in creative writing. A native of Cincinnati, Ohio, he spends his free time rooting for the Reds and Bengals, watching movies, and walking in the cemetery near his house. He lives in Bowling Green, Kentucky, with his wife, young adult author M Hendrix.