Murder, countless true crime podcasts and episodes of Dateline tell us, can happen anywhere. Big cities, small towns, where you least expect it. But in Breakfall, a new novel from Milwaukee author Zhanna Slor, murder finds its way to somewhere extremely specific: a Jiu Jitsu gym.
“I saw a subculture that was very interesting and not really represented in mainstream fiction or media at all,” Slor says. “With my first book, At The End Of The World, Turn Left, it was Riverwest. With Breakfall, it was Jiu Jitsu.”
Yes, Slor has moved on from a 2008-era, Riverwest-set mystery to a modern-day, decidedly more adult crime thriller. Breakfall tells the tale of Mina Banksy, a 32-year-old writer and mother who finds herself dealing with a divorce from her husband, an affair with a police officer, some van-related drama with a shady acquaintance, and, eventually, a run-in with a dead body. Things, on occasion, get steamy. Calling the book Fifty Shades Of Grey for the martial arts crowd wouldn’t be far off.
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Setting the events of Breakfall in and around a close-knit Jiu Jitsu gym came naturally to Slor, who started taking classes herself the day before her first book was released in 2021.
“I had jammed my finger in my very first class and was signing copies at my book launch party with a splint on,” she says. “The sport has been growing in popularity, so I doubt it will be the only book to use Jiu Jitsu culture as a setting, but I do think it’s the first. I always need the setting before I even begin to think of plots. So that was where the original inspiration came from. Now, I could probably write Jiu Jitsu murder mysteries until I die. I’m actually halfway through a sequel.”
There are plenty of twists and turns in Breakfall, but the book also shines as a slow-burn domestic drama. The intricacies of Mina’s affair, full of conflicted feelings and collateral damage, are expertly handled. The details of the clique-y Jiu Jitsu gym, meanwhile, clearly come from first-hand experience.
“It’s a very interesting, almost religious, tight-knit community, which we don’t have a lot left of in America,” Slor says. “With any community like that, you’re going to find drama, especially with a violent sport that attracts more hot-headed personalities than your general hobby. In terms of writing, it keeps me from ever running short of ideas. However, there are some downsides, like how it can very much feel like middle school.”
Breakfall will be released in hardcover on April 25. (You can preorder it NOW.) Ahead of publication, Slor will throw a launch party on Saturday, April 8 at Sugar Maple. The party, presented by Lion’s Tooth, begins at 4 p.m. Just don’t ask Slor to show off any moves.
“We do need to recognize the dangers of teaching these skills to unstable people, which is sort of the main idea behind Breakfall,” she says. “It is a sport, yes, but in the hands of the wrong person, it can have very tragic results. There are certain people you see on occasion and wonder if it’s the best idea for them to be learning how to choke a person unconscious.”
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• Zhanna Slor investigates identity, 2008-era Riverwest in ‘At The End Of The World, Turn Left’