The Big Idea: Isabella Maldonado

In her Big Idea for her new novel A Killer’s Game, author Isabella Maldonado touches on popular party events, adrenaline, and your long-lost ancestor, Grog. How do they all fit together? Like a puzzle.


The big idea behind A Killer’s Game was the explosion in popularity of escape rooms, which provide the dopamine hit of a puzzle combined with the adrenaline rush of a ticking clock. All over the world, people are lining up to put their wits to the test. Do they have what it takes to crack codes and solve puzzles under the threat of imminent doom—or at least, the imminent detonation of a paint bomb?

So, what’s the appeal? In researching the answer, I discovered that it comes down to neuroscience. Human beings are hard wired to seek solutions to problems, and our brains reward us when we succeed. Throughout our evolution, an unforgiving environment weeded out those who lacked curiosity or could not think creatively under pressure.

Take Grog, our prehistoric ancestor, always on the hunt for sustenance. If Grog saw a line of tracks with three splayed impressions in front and one behind, he might recall that birds made those kinds of marks in the ground. Following the trail might score him a nutritious and tasty egg. Grog, however, would be wise to note the massive pawprints also leading in the direction of the coveted egg. Grog had to use experience, but also extrapolation, and a form of deductive reasoning we would refer to today as pattern recognition and predictive analysis.

Today, most of our decisions don’t have life-or-death consequences, but some do. As a rookie police officer, I was trained to understand that my frontal cortex (aka: executive function) could be short-circuited during a crisis. One of the instructors at the academy said, “Imagine me asking you to solve a long division problem.” He paused a beat, then added, “now imagine that I’m firing a gun at you while you’re working through that equation.” We all got the message. Mathematics would take a backseat while we scrambled to get our asses out of the kill zone.

Remembering this lesson created an entirely new challenge when I started to plot the story. As a law enforcement professional who wore a gun and badge for over two decades, I write strong female protagonists. But what kind of character could believably handle an escape room where the riddles and traps were deadly, and her competitors were all trained killers? Who would be capable of solving complex problems under fire?

A US Army Ranger.

More research revealed that the 75th Ranger Regiment out of Ft. Benning, Georgia is home to some of the most elite, highly trained combat personnel in the world. To become a Ranger, candidates must complete Basic Combat Training (BCT) and Advanced Individual Training (AIT) before being screened for the Ranger Assessment and Selection Process (RASP). Those who are selected to serve in the 75th Ranger Regiment earn the distinction of “scrolled” Rangers. The first female scrolled Ranger joined the Regiment in 2017, and women have left their mark since then, including in combat tours beginning in 2019.

After reading about these very special women, I knew one of their number had to be represented in my escape room story. After all, why should Jack Reacher, Jason Bourne, and Rambo get all the action? But, whether male or female, I thought it was high time to combine a classic action hero with an escape room thriller.

This is how FBI Special Agent Daniela “Dani” Vega was born. I gave her a background as a former military codebreaker who followed her father’s footsteps to earn a position in the Ranger Regiment. That way, she could credibly solve puzzles and crack codes while under extreme pressure.

I’ve never written anything like A Killer’s Game, which some have described as Squid Games meets Criminal Minds, and I didn’t realize how daunting it would be. Part of the challenge was coming up with a credible way for a federal agent to go missing while on an undercover operation. Another part was devising the riddles, codes, clues, and traps she and her fellow captives had to deal with. Lastly, creating a motive for the person behind such a fiendish plot kept me up at night. The book involved a tremendous amount of research and effort but was also a lot of fun. I can only hope readers get that dopamine-adrenaline combo hit from trying to solve puzzles on the edge of their seats.

A Killer’s Game: Amazon|Chapters Indigo|Barnes & Noble|Bookshop|Powell’s

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2 Comments on “The Big Idea: Isabella Maldonado”

  1. Sounds interesting. The kind of novel I like to read. I ordered a copy.

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