Exclusive Interview: “The Puzzle Master” Author Danielle Trussoni


While there are a lot of characters in fiction with unusual physical abilities, ones with unconventional cognitive skills are less common, if you discount such mental superheroes as Professor X. Think Adrian Monk, the obsessive-compulsive detective from the TV show Monk. Or, more relevant to the topic at hand, Mike Brink, the Savant Syndrome suffering puzzle master in Danielle Trussoni’s new The Puzzle Master (hardcover, Kindle, audiobook). In the following email interview about it, Trussoni discusses what inspired and influenced this brainy thriller.

Danielle Trussoni The Puzzle Master The Puzzle Box

Photo Credit: Leonardo Cendamo


To start, what is The Puzzle Master about, and what kind of a world does it take place in?

The Puzzle Master is a contemporary thriller set in New York. We open as the protagonist, Mike Brink, an ingenious puzzle solver, arrives at a prison upstate. He’s been called there because an inmate — a woman convicted of murder — has drawn a mysterious puzzle that has baffled her psychiatrist, and she believes Brink can solve it. But when he meets the incarcerated woman Jess, Brink is pulled into a mystery, one that revolves around an ancient prayer circle known as The God Puzzle. Needless to say, Brink gets himself into something he wasn’t expecting, to say the least.

Where did you get the idea for The Puzzle Master?

Mike Brink is the hero of the novel, and he’s really the lynchpin around which everything happens, both in terms of action and the larger philosophical point of the book. What drew me to create him was my discovery of Savant Syndrome, a medical condition in which a person develops new talents after a traumatic brain injury. Once I began reading about this syndrome, I was completely fascinated. I learned that while it is rare, the abilities people develop are astonishing: being able to play classical music, being able to speak foreign languages, and, like Mike Brink, astonishing mathematical and mnemonic abilities. Brink’s ability to solve puzzles is more than just a party trick. He needs to engage his brain in the process of solving puzzles. It’s almost like an addiction, and indeed, the same chemicals that are involved in addictive behaviors are involved in Brink’s puzzle solving (dopamine).

But while this character is the center of the book, he alone wasn’t the only thing that sparked the idea for this story. I’ve always been fascinated by puzzles, and by the ways in which solving a puzzle is like experiencing a great story — there is a sense of wonder, and a desire to figure out how everything fits together. While writing The Puzzle Master, I tried to create the feeling that the reader is putting pieces together in a fun and challenging way. And then, during the pandemic, I played a lot of Wordle. So this is, in some ways, a Wordle thriller, or a thriller for the age of Wordle.

One element that was inspired by life is the porcelain doll. I inherited an eerie porcelain doll from my great grandmother, and it has remained in my memory. I’d always wanted to include it in a novel, and it showed up here as Violaine.

In the book, The God Puzzle has connections to Abraham Abulafia, a controversial real-life figure in Kabbalah. Is there a significance to that, or did I just ask you to spoil something?

Kabbalah comes into play later in the novel, when the significance of the puzzle beings to unravel, but I was more interested in the religious significance of Kabbalah than Abulafia. Most interesting for me is the significance of the solution to the puzzle, which is drawn from actual research. I wanted readers to finish my book feeling like they not only had a wild, fun time, but that they are taking away information about the major topics of the book: the human mind, the puzzling nature of existence, the ancient traditions that shape us, and how there is so much more to everything than we see on the surface.

Now, as you said, The Puzzle Master is a thriller…

Definitely. Expect lots of action and surprises when reading it. But I was interested in exploring ideas and characters in this novel, too. I’m not that into novels that have low stakes, like a bank heist or if one character falls in love with another one. I am interested in stories with bigger conceptual consequences. I’ve had readers tell me that I’m able to explore things that frighten them, and that’s definitely a part of this too. New ideas are terrifying. The fact that human civilization is shaped by ideas, and that our lives are affected by patterns outside of our control it terrifying. The Puzzle Master explores this while being (above all else) an immersive thriller. Kirkus reviews called it a “brainy thriller” and I would agree with that assessment.

The Puzzle Master is not your first novel. Are there any writers or stories you think had a big influence on The Puzzle Master but not anything else you’ve written?

So I was late to reading Dan Brown. I read Origin and then The Da Vinci Code after I’d written a draft of The Puzzle Master. I was really into the sense of pacing, but also the way he layers in information. And I watched his Master Class on writing thrillers, and those techniques were laid out really clearly, and this helped me when I begin revising The Puzzle Master.

My other novels are more interested in character and scene setting than plot, but all of them incorporate history and the way ideas are transmitted through time, how they affect the present, and what ideas mean for the future. Sometimes I think of my books as excavations, and that seems the most accurate way to describe my fiction as a whole.

How about non-literary influences; was The Puzzle Master influenced by any movies, TV shows, or games? Because any time someone brings up the words “puzzle” and “thriller” in the same sentence, I always think of the Lament Configuration from Hellraiser.

I loved The Queen’s Gambit, which was one of the first series I remember that shows the intense struggle of genius. Mike Brink struggles with his gift in a way that informs every aspect of his life.

I haven’t watched Hellraiser yet, but you’re the second person that made a reference to it when talking about The Puzzle Master, and so I’m definitely going to watch it now.

Make sure it’s the original; the sequels and the new one were crap. Anyway, speaking of movies, do you think The Puzzle Master could work as one? Or would it work better as a TV show or game?

It would definitely work as a move, a series, and a game. All of the above. But one thing that is really particular about this story is that the hero’s way of seeing the world is the key to the storytelling. Mike Brink’s ability to look at a scene and see something unique needs to be part of any adaptation. I can see it being visually interesting because of Brink’s perspective, but also addictive because of the intensity of puzzle solving. Solving a puzzle and experiencing narrative are very similar processes — we begin with a mysterious, alluring possibility, and work to uncover it.

So, is there anything else you think people need to know about The Puzzle Master?

I’d love for everyone to know that this novel is the first in a series. Mike Brink is coming back next year in The Puzzle Box, which finds him in Japan attempting to open the most dangerous, difficult puzzle of his career. It’s a completely new challenge, but the next book will have puzzles just like The Puzzle Master. For updates about the release, please join my newsletter by writing to me at

Danielle Trussoni The Puzzle Master The Puzzle Box

Finally, if someone enjoys The Puzzle Master, what similar kind of thriller of someone else’s would you recommend they read and why that?

I love thrillers with intellectual hunts, games, and secrets. I also love international thrillers, books that are set in a place that I’d love to visit. When I have both a larger than life story set in a foreign country, I’m in heaven.

Some of my favorite novels that fit into this category are Patricia Highsmith’s Ripley novels. I’ve read all of them, and love to take one on vacation with me. Also, Chris Pavone’s books, especially The Expats, which I’ve just reread. I’ve recently went back and revisited Umberto Eco’s novels, as well, and while it’s quite different in tone than The Puzzle Master, The Name Of The Rose is a great read.



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