Nearly one-third of the way into Ian Smith's relentless thriller The Blackbird Papers, protagonist Sterling Bledsoe, an FBI special agent/anatomy teacher, watches silently as New Hampshire's chief medical examiner leads a meticulous autopsy on a Nobel Prize-winning Dartmouth College professor who has been brutally murdered, a racial epithet carved into his chest by a power saw. The scene oozes with grisly detail: Organs are extracted, blood-matted wounds scrutinized, photographs snapped.
"Sterling occasionally stepped out of the room when he found it too much to bear," Smith writes, "returning only after he had regained his composure." The victim: Wilson Bledsoe, Sterling's older brother.
Smith, a 35-year-old M.D. who works as a medical columnist (Men's Health) and a medical commentator (NPR's Tavis Smiley Show), frequently tapped his own experience in fashioning The Blackbird Papers, his debut novel. Copious research for the intricate story led to a hodgepodge of areas: agronomy, white supremacist politics, academic protocol, and ornithology, all of it put to service in an engrossing tale that zigzags between bucolic Hanover, New Hampshire, and teeming Manhattan, as Sterling methodically unravels the somewhat bizarre truth behind his brother's death. Along the way, blackbirds provide Smith his "McGuffin," or unusual guiding plot element.
The author climbed inside the subject. "How they travel, population size, migration patterns, scientific issues with them," he says on the phone from his home in Manhattan. "The most surprising discovery, by far, was the true environmental and economic controversy that exists about blackbirds in this country. Very few people know about this, except those who are directly affected by it. That was a shocker to me."
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Smith dreamed up the idea for the book during his days as an undergrad at Dartmouth. "I realized how quaint of a place Hanover is -- very mountainous, very dark, very charming," he recalls. "And I thought, 'What a great backdrop for a murder mystery.' I really like the idea that I take people to a very small corner of this country -- one that I wish more people could see." -- Michael Yockel