Thomas E. Ricks, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, has set his first mystery novel in Maine, where he’s lived for years. Photo by Alessandro Vulcano

Tom Ricks came up with a list of the five books that helped him write his new crime novel, “Everyone Knows But You.”

And none of them was a crime novel.

Three were works of Maine history and social context: “The Lobster Coast” by Colin Woodard, “The Lobster Gangs of Maine” by James Acheson and “Liberty Men and Great Proprietors” by Alan Taylor, about clashes over land in Maine just before and after the American Revolution. The other two were the novel “Abide with Me” by Maine author and Pulitzer Prize winner Elizabeth Strout and the classic children’s picture book “One Morning in Maine” by Robert McCloskey.

Ricks, a two-time Pulitzer Prize winner for journalism, has been coming to Maine off and on for about 30 years and has had a house on Deer Isle since around 2010. So both the state and getting the facts straight are important to him. He admits he likes that, in writing fiction, he can make up the story. But he refused to make up Maine.

“There is a uniqueness to Maine, and I wanted to get the culture and feel of the place right. I did not want to caricature it,” Ricks, 68, said from his home in Deer Isle.

Ricks’ new book – his first crime novel and only his second work of fiction in a 40-plus-year career – went on sale last week. He’s having a book launch event Tuesday night at Mechanics’ Hall in Portland, where he’ll read from the book, talk about it and take questions from the audience. It’s the story of an FBI agent who seeks solitude in Maine after his wife and two children are killed in a car crash but finds himself investigating a murder in an isolated fishing village. He also finds himself delving into drug trafficking and other illegal activities.


The book is the first in a planned series. Ricks said he’s already written the second book and is “mapping out” a third.


Ricks was born in Beverly, Massachusetts, but as a child lived for several years in Kabul, Afghanistan, where his father, a college psychology professor, got a teaching job. He remembers falling in love with words when he was around 5 years old and became interested in word origins, or the stories of the words.

As a kid in Afghanistan, he also fell in love with traveling and, as a young teenager, traveled around the country on buses. It was a place that was so different than the U.S., a place that had its own unique stories and history.

“I loved it there. I learned to sort of speak Farsi and just knocked around the country,” Ricks said. “It’s a beautiful country with fascinating people. Unfortunately for them, they’ve now been through about 40 years of war.”

Ricks went to Yale University and thought he’d become a teacher. He had some friends who were from Maine and became interested in exploring the state. He spent a couple of summers during college working in the northern Maine woods for International Paper, as a timber marker. It was his job to mark the trees that were going to be cut down.


“I liked Maine, and I thought if I could get a job getting paid to walk in the woods, that would be great,” Ricks said. “Nobody told me about the black flies and mosquitoes.”

He graduated from Yale in 1977 with a bachelor’s degree in English literature. He went to Hong Kong to teach English and American language at Lingnan College. He found that most of his friends there were writers and reporters. Because of those connections, he wrote a few pieces for The Asian Wall Street Journal, including one on hiking in Indonesia.

“I realized I didn’t like teaching that much, but I really liked writing,” said Ricks. His pieces for The Wall Street Journal helped him land a job writing for the Wilson Quarterly, an international politics magazine based in Washington, D.C. From there, he landed jobs at larger news publications.

Ricks has spent most of his career writing for newspapers, covering international affairs and the military. He was part of a team at The Wall Street Journal that won the 2000 Pulitzer Prize for national reporting for a series on the U.S. military challenges after the Cold War and into the 21st century. He was also part of a team at The Washington Post that won a Pulitzer Prize in 2002 for reporting on the beginnings of the U.S. war on terrorism. He’s also written more than a half-dozen nonfiction books on those topics, including “Fiasco: The American Military Adventure in Iraq,” which was a New York Times bestseller and a finalist for the 2007 Pulitzer Prize in nonfiction.

When he was covering the military in the late 1990s, he decided to write a novel, “A Soldier’s Duty,” about intrigue in the Pentagon. But after that novel came out in 2001, publishers weren’t “knocking down my door” to ask for another novel, Ricks said, so he stuck to journalism and nonfiction.

Ricks left The Washington Post in 2008 to write books full-time. He said over the years he’s found writing big picture nonfiction books to be exhausting, because any slight change during the editing process can change something very crucial and make it incorrect.


Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Thomas E. Ricks at his home on Deer Isle. Photo by Mary Kay Ricks


Ricks and his family have been coming to Maine on vacations for some 30 years. But more than 15 years ago, he and his wife, Mary Kay Ricks, started thinking about moving to Maine full time, after living for years in Washington, D.C. He said they drove up the coast, visiting towns and peninsulas, keeping in mind they probably couldn’t afford anything near or on the water within an hour or so of Portland. As they drove around and explored places, Mary Kay’s threshold was simple: She said she wanted to see a place that made her heart sing. Which is what happened when the couple drove over the bridge to Deer Isle.

In Maine, they explored the coast in sea kayaks, and then by sailboat, and have done a lot of hiking. Ricks got a lobster license and has a penchant for grilling his own fresh-caught lobsters. He says the difference between boiled and grilled lobster is like the difference between boiled and roasted potatoes.

The couple lived in Deer Isle full time for about four years but found the winters a little long. Now, they spend half the year in Maine and half the year in Austin, Texas. But when Ricks turned to the idea of writing a crime novel a few years ago, “for fun,” he turned to Maine for the setting. And he read tons about the state, researched its history, and talked to or read other Maine writers.

Ricks, who has also covered law enforcement, had an idea for a mystery involving an FBI agent from away who is working out of the agency’s Bangor office. The dead body he investigates is on federal land, on the portion of Acadia National Park that is on Isle Au Haut. The agent, Ryan Tapia, finds himself not only trying to solve a crime but trying to tiptoe his way through the rules and customs of rural, isolated Maine, on fictional Liberty Island.

There’s a map in the book of “Ryan Tapia’s Maine” that mixes real place names like Camden and Belfast with fictional ones like Rockfish and Liberty Island. On the map, Liberty Island covers the same area as the real towns of Deer Isle and Stonington.


“Maine is just so different in so many ways from the rest of the country, especially in rural (areas) or on islands, so I liked the idea of a FBI agent sort stumbling his away along there,” said Ricks.

One example of how the book juxtaposes Maine thinking with logic from away is when the FBI agent is trying to identify a dead body that was washed up on shore. The body has no fingerprints, wallet or form of ID. So Tapia is stumped. But a local park ranger picks up the lobster buoy wrapped up with the body and tells Tapia who it belongs to.

“He’s an outsider who has a hard time learning how things are done, while everybody else around him knows what’s going on,” said Ricks.

Ricks not only read books about Maine history but also books about preindustrial cultures, since Maine “peaked” economically before the Industrial Revolution really hit the rest of America, Ricks said.

Woodard, a Maine-based journalist and author who happens to have a home Deer Isle but has not met Ricks, said that, based on Ricks’ background, it makes sense that he’d put a lot of thought, reading and research into a work of nonfiction.

“It’s not surprising that he researched this book with the same intensity he applied to his other works of nonfiction,” said Woodard, a former Press Herald reporter who is now director of the Nationhood Lab at the Pell Center for International Relations and Public Affairs at Salve Regina University in Rhode Island. “As a journalist or nonfiction writer, you take pleasure in figuring out what actually happened, how things actually are.”


Maine crime and mystery writer Katherine Hall Page, a neighbor of Ricks’ on Deer Isle who talked about mystery writing with him. Photo by Jean Fogelberg

Before writing his crime novel, Ricks talked to another Deer Isle resident who happens to be an accomplished mystery writer, Katherine Hall Page. In May, Page received a Grand Master honor as part of the Mystery Writers of America Edgar Allan Poe awards. Her book “The Body in the Web” won the best crime fiction honor at the Maine Literary Awards on May 30.

Page said she talked to Ricks about the importance of authentic people and places. But as someone who also loves and sets stories in Maine, she cautioned him not to “fall in love with the place too much” at the expense of the story.

“Sometimes, if the author doesn’t have enough of a story to tell, the description of the place becomes padding,” Page said.

Page read a version of Ricks’ book before the final printing and thinks he found a perfect balance of people and place.

“I think he nailed it, with an incredibly sympathetic Maine character (Tapia),” Page said. “He explores grief, but it’s still a murder mystery. We mystery writers need to keep our eyes on the prize.”

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