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 julia heaberlin - thrillers
julia heaberlin
<i>Playing Dead</i> US
U.S. edition


Playing Dead



From The Dallas Morning News:

Texas-bred author debuts with a spitfire of a heroine in Playing Dead

Tommie McCloud is the kind of character that every female reader ends up wanting as a sister or best friend — a friend of passionate loyalties, a no-nonsense woman who doesn't possess the insincerity gene, a not-too-girly Texas spitfire who admits to having "a thing" for her hair but never bothers to do anything but air-dry it.

Oh, and she can kick like a martial-arts heroine and shoot like Annie Oakley.

North Texas-bred Tommie is the invention of North Texas-bred Julia Heaberlin, a former journalist who put in stints at The Dallas Morning News and the Fort Worth Star-Telegram.

In the feverishly compelling Playing Dead, Heaberlin's debut novel, Tommie gets slammed by the death of her father, the increasing dementia exhibited by her mother, and an out-of-the-blue letter that arrives bearing a disturbing and tantalizing first sentence: "Dear Tommie: Have you ever wondered about who you are?"

The letter writer, the wife of a jailed Chicago mobster, claims that Tommie is actually her long-lost daughter, who was kidnapped at the age of 3. Tommie is at first sure it's a scam, until she remembers another letter she'd received years before, from the Social Security Administration, saying her number didn't match where she'd been born, and that they were issuing a new one for her. That original number indicated a birth in Chicago, not Texas.

Then her possible mobster father, who has been in jail for more than 30 years for the grisly hit on an FBI agent and his family, gets himself transferred to a Fort Worth jail — a five-minute walk from Tommie's offices. It's all a tad too coincidental for a curious sort like Tommie, and you know what they say about curiosity.

Heaberlin tells the story with whip-smart dialogue, an insistent pace and keen wit; it's irresistible enough that I sped through all 300-plus pages in one sitting.

Local readers will spot plenty of real-life locales, including Tommie's hometown of Ponder, "living off two things as long as anybody around here can remember: the Ponder Steakhouse and the ghosts of Bonnie and Clyde" (who once robbed the town bank).

Heaberlin gives props to the restaurant's famous chicken-fried steak: "A granola friend, born somewhere north, once asked in disgust, 'Why would any sane person want a greasy breaded crust around a slab of red meat?' If you had to ask, I told her, you'd never know." And, of course, our heroine is thoroughly addicted to "my legal alternative to crack cocaine," Dr Pepper.

The book reads like a stand-alone thriller, but I can't help hoping that Tommie's job as a therapist specializing in equine therapy for children will lead her to more mysteries and to more books with her in the starring role.


From Indulge Magazine, Fort Worth:

"Things We Love: A sassy new summer read"

We're partial to any book that takes place in our hometown, but we're head-over-heels about Playing Dead, a new suspense novel by Julia Heaberlin of Grapevine. Once the head of the features department at the Star-Telegram, Heaberlin makes her literary debut with this page turner of a paperback that combines an ever-twisting plot with a lead character named Tommie, who describes herself as a "plucky, foolish heroine" and who seems equal parts smart, sassy, sexy and completely unhinged. The book begins as Tommie receives a letter in the mail from a woman who claims that Tommie is her daughter and was kidnapped as a child. Immediately, our heroine sets out to uncover her family's darkest secrets, a search that takes her from her deceased father's office in the Stockyards to the mansions of a Chicago mafia hooker. A little bit of chick-lit, a whopping amount of suspense, this is the one tome that should make it into your beach tote this summer — and onto your book club's reading list.


From the Fort Worth Star-Telegram:

Playing Dead is a satisfying puzzler with North Texas ties

Years ago, Grapevine author Julia Heaberlin received a letter from a woman who hoped that Heaberlin might be her long-lost daughter. Heaberlin wasn't, but the inquiry became the catalyst for her debut suspense novel, Playing Dead, in which she encourages the reader to ask the question "What if?"

What if the life you knew, the family that you called your own, and the experiences and memories that shaped you were all a lie?

When Tommie McCloud comes home to Ponder to bury her father, she has no idea that an unassuming pink envelope will set off a chain of events that will have her questioning her life and her very identity.

Tommie grew up under the Texas sun on her family's sprawling ranch. She split her days playing the piano with her mother and riding rodeo with her dad. The world was hers until a bull landed on one wrist and redirected her life's course from accomplished pianist to equine therapist working at a therapy ranch in Wyoming.

Prior to receiving the letter, only two events had had such a profound effect on her life: the rodeo accident and her brother's death in a crash caused by a drunken driver.

The letter, from an unknown woman, claims that Tommie was kidnapped as a child and that the letter writer is her biological mother. A quick Internet search pulls up the woman's background. Rosalina Marchetti, wife of mobster Anthony Marchetti, lives in Chicago. The story of a kidnapped daughter is true.

Anthony Marchetti, convicted of the vicious murders of an FBI agent, his wife, three children and another agent, has just been transferred to a jail cell in Fort Worth.

The letter is only the first in a series of unnerving events. A visit from a mysterious man claiming to be a reporter from Texas Monthly, an anonymous e-mail with obscure pictures and a parking garage shoot-out only add to the uneasiness Tommie has about Rosalina's claim.

The events also shake her security in identifying with her father, the man who raised her, who taught her to ride and shoot. But Tommie is soon faced with the reality that there is more truth to the claim in the letter when she shows it to her sister.

Her mother's dementia and fading mind rule out the possibility of turning to her for answers to piece this puzzle together.

So, she starts her own investigation to find the truth and her connection, if any, to this mobster, the missing little girl she is believed to be and the death of a teenage beauty queen in Oklahoma, enlisting family friends for support and protection. With each step of her investigation, she digs up connections to her past.

The fact that the novel is set in North Texas makes it that much more fun to read. It is peppered with references to landmarks and businesses, such as the Stockyards and the Worthington hotel, that bring the story close to home and allow North Texas readers to put themselves in the middle of the story.

With each turn of the page, I became more invested in Tommie's quest to find answers, to make sense of the information that she received. Reading with increased attention to her investigation, I found myself wanting to help her, and, as any good mystery/suspense reader does, I was working to try to piece the puzzle together before the end of the book. I didn't, and I loved that I couldn't.

In a word, this book is fun. I know that seems like a strange description for a suspense novel, but it is an unpretentious word that best describes my experience of getting so wrapped up in a story, that you look up and realize that an hour has flown by when it only feels like minutes.

Heaberlin's storytelling, through the voice of the main character, leads the reader through plot twists and turns. Add to that the introduction of characters that will keep you guessing and wanting more at the same time — both qualities you must have in a suspense novel.

If you like puzzles, crime mysteries, mob stories or suspense, this is the book you will want to tuck into your travel bag or upload to your e-reader this summer.


From Booklist:

Questions of identity are plaguing Texas psychologist Tommie McCloud. First she gets a letter from the wife of Chicago mobster Anthony Marchetti (in prison for killing an FBI agent and his family) suggesting that Tommie is her daughter who was kidnapped as a baby. Then a man masquerading as a reporter turns up asking questions. With her older brother and father dead and her mother suffering from dementia, Tommie is on her own in finding answers, with backup protection from military contractor Hudson Byrd, once her lover on the rodeo circuit, whose contacts prove invaluable as matters turn dangerous for the affluent McCloud family. There's a lot going on in this first novel—odd newspaper clippings found in Tommie's mother's bank-safe deposit box, visits with and messages from Marchetti (recently transferred from a Chicago prison to one in nearby Texas), mysterious heirs to the family estate—but Heaberlin manages to tie up all the loose ends. Tommie is a smart, sassy, loving, and doggedly persistent narrator in this fast-moving mystery that occasionally tugs at the heartstrings. A promising debut.


From The (London) Sunday Times:

In Julia Heaberlin's impressive first novel, Playing Dead, child-therapist Tommie McCloud returns home from Wyoming to Texas after her father's death. Soon she receives a letter from a mobster's wife in Chicago, who says Tommie is her biological daughter. Looking into this claim takes her on a state-hopping journey as she investgates murky events 30 years ago (a family murdered by gangsters, her possible kidnapping, the traumatic loss of her brother), with colourful but not necessarily trustworthy Texan types assisting her search. Heaberlin constructs her plot like a seasoned writer, and fills it with memorable characters; but her debut's most striking feature is Tommie's narrative voice, which is so winning and vivacious that it is easy to forget that (in contrast to the typical underdog thriller heroine), she is a pampered heiress, about to inherit an oil field, a vast farm and $20m.


From Crimesquad.com:

If Playing Dead is anything to judge by, then this is a debut crime novel from an author with a very promising future. Just when you begin to think you know what is going on in this book, another thread is unravelled, leaving you further in the dark and wanting to know more. Generally when there is a vast quantity of characters I tend to get lost and forget who is who, and the relationships between each of them becomes somewhat blurred. Heaberlin however manages to keep the reader on track perfectly without being repetitive.

As Tommie begins to uncover her family history following the letter from her alleged 'birth mother', the more Tommie finds some very disturbing truths. Playing Dead is a fantastic read that had me hooked from page one. It has a labyrinthine plot that just kept going and going and pulled me deeper and deeper in to the story. Heaberlin can certainly keep the suspense going and dangled me like a fish on a line. I was hooked from the word 'go'. Heaberlin's debut is excellently written with a great mix of intrigue, murder and mystery to keep the reader determined to see what happens on Tommie's journey. Playing Dead is a book full of realistic and down to earth characters with an innovative plot that is not to be missed. Astounding!

CrimeSquad Rating

CrimeSquad Rating:


From The Detroit News:

If you judged Julia Heaberlin's debut thriller, Playing Dead (Ballantine Books), by its cover, showing the legs of a barefoot girl wearing a dress, standing by a pond, it would seem to be pure chick lit with a Southern magnolia twist. And there are a lot of references to beauty products and girlie things, but it's the "missing person" plotline going all the way from Texas up to Chicago and out to Oklahoma, involving the witness protection program, Chicago gang turf wars and several seemingly unrelated crimes, that is compelling.

As her mother sinks into dementia, child psychologist Tommie McLoud is told that her real parents, a gangster and his moll, gave her up years earlier. As Heaberlin leads the reader through several complex threads, her fast-paced narrative rarely flags.



From The Mystery Bookstore, Los Angeles:

A debut novel, and a great one at that. Twists and turns, and then more twists and turns. It starts with a letter received after a father's death with a mother suffering from early dementia . . . and a great first four sentences (with many more following): "Despite its name, Ponder, Texas, pop. 1,101, isn't a very good place to think. Four months out of the year, it's too damn hot to think. It is a good place to get lost. That's what my mother did thirty-two years ago." Mystery, suspense, secrets untold, deception, and a great story.


Amazon UK Editor's Pick: One of "Best Books of the Month" for July

After her father's death, Tommie McCloud receives a letter from a stranger and her world is turned upside down. The woman who wrote the letter claims Tommie was kidnapped as a baby, and she is the woman's long lost daughter. In her quest to uncover the truth Tommie uncovers explosive secrets that put her and those she loves in danger. Although the plot may trick you into thinking it is formulaic, the many twists and turns will keep you on your toes throughout and the feisty protagonist will make you care about what happens to her. Suspenseful, entertaining and evocative, this is a thoroughly enjoyable beach read.