Washington, embroiled in mid-term elections, did not want to hear about serial killings. But when newspapers reported a fourth murder, when they gave the killer a name and details of his horrendous crimes, there were few that could ignore it. Detective Robert Miller takes the case, and rapidly uncovers a complication. The victims do not officially exist. Their personal details do not register on known systems. As Miller unearths more disturbing facts, he starts to face truths so far-removed from his own reality that he begins to fear for his life.
Booklist said that this is “a high-speed car chase of a thriller…a superbly entertaining book and one that will endure in the reader’s thoughts long after the last page turns. After several fine novels, it’s high time Ellory takes his rightful place on crime fiction’s A-list.” The Guardian said it’s “An awesome achievement—a thriller of such power, scope and accomplishment that fanfares should herald its arrival.” CrimeSquad weighed in: “This is a book with everything that a fan of modern mystery fiction could hope for: a labyrinthine plot, unbearable tension, controversy and a social conscience.”
R.J. Ellory is no stranger to accolades. I first became aware of his excellence with A Quiet Belief in Angels, which took home Strand Magazine’s Thriller of the Year award, and is now being filmed. A Simple Act of Violence earned Theakston’s Crime Novel of the Year award. Ellory does not “win” awards, like cheap county fair trinkets, he earns them. Bookreporter.com said “Ellory is the Stephen King of crime fiction.” Or more accurately, the king of crime thrillers. The monarchy lives on, with or without Wills and Kate!
Ellory told what his novel is about and what it concerns. “This is essentially two stories—a series of contemporary killings in Washington, the victims of which possess no confirmable identity, and how these homicides are linked to the undercover actions of the CIA in Nicaragua in the ’80s. Central characters are Detective Robert Miller, and someone known only as John Robey. Miller works to unravel the mystery of these murders, while Robey—in first-person asides—details his early life, indoctrination into the CIA, his own work in Nicaragua, and at the same time he allows us a glimpse into the truth of these Washington murders. And also a much wider conspiracy relating to what really happened within the American intelligence community in the ’80s. It is about the contemporary murder investigation, the real thrust of the book. The backstory is vital to understand, and the dénouement is how both of these narrative threads are linked.”
The term sacred monster is an undercurrent. “It’s a French expression, which means how one can create something that then becomes the instigator of one’s own destruction. The Frankenstein concept, really. For Miller, his ‘sacred monster’ is his own necessity to persevere towards finding the truth, irrespective of what that may do to himself and his career. For Robey, it is very much that the actions he took as a member of the CIA in Nicaragua—all of them for the ‘right reasons’—eventually are recognized as very wrong, and become his undoing.”
Ellory said that emotion makes this most compelling. “That may sound strange, but I am working towards that sense of emotional engagement for the reader. Everything else is secondary. Non-fiction’s primary purpose is to convey information, whereas the purpose of fiction is to evoke an emotion in the reader. So when I’m writing I try not to get too bogged down in history and facts. I work towards evocation of an emotional effect, whether it be anger, frustration, love, hate, sympathy, etcetera. The books that I remember are those that hooked me emotionally, where I identified with the central character. For me, the most important thing is that once somebody has finished reading my books they might not necessarily remember titles, even plot details, but they will remember how it made them feel.”
As for what inspired Ellory to write such a complex novel, he said, “A deep and abiding fascination with human character, with the motivation for crime, and that serial killing—as the most incomprehensible crime—is also the most fascinating. We can perhaps understand why people steal and commit fraud, why they kill in anger, but serial killers appear to be motivated by something else entirely. It is something that has never been understood, and possibly never will be.”
Roger Ellory had many influences, to become a thriller writer. “I had a strange childhood. My father, still unknown to me, left before I was born, and then my mother died when I was seven. My maternal grandfather had drowned in the ’50s. My grandmother raised me, sent me to a series of different schools and orphanages, and I stayed away from home until I was sixteen. The common denominator of all the places I stayed as a child was that I had access to books. I read voraciously—starting with Enid Blyton, and then working through Agatha Christie, Conan Doyle, and on towards Chandler, Hammett, Faulkner, Hemingway, Steinbeck, Capote. I always knew that I wanted to do something creative. In November 1987 a friend talked about a book with such passion and intensity, and it was as if someone had switched a light on in my mind. ‘That’s what I want to do!’ I thought. ‘I want to write books that make people feel like that!’”
Ellory’s outline process is interesting. “I have a vague idea of the story I want to tell, a good sense of the emotion I want to create, and a definite decision about the when and where. The immediacy and spontaneity of not planning a complete novel appeals to me. I get involved with the characters, and sometimes I just change my mind about where I want them to go, or how I want them to handle certain things. As the story evolves so do they, and the decisions they then make can influence the plot. I write human dramas where the crime is actually a secondary issue, more about the effect of such things on people. The writing itself enthuses me, and that element of uncertainty with which I approach a book makes it all the more interesting and challenging.”
He added: “For years I wrote longhand, almost three million words, but now I use a computer. Sometimes when I’m away from home I’ll write longhand, and then transcribe when I return. I tend to write a whole book, furiously ploughing through it, and then go back through and handle all the snags, anomalies, mistakes, cut back on the over-writing as best I can. Capote once said that finishing a story was like taking a child out into the yard and shooting them. Perhaps a little melodramatic! When a book is finished it kind of leaves a hole in you, and then you have to start another one right away.”
As for his writing schedule, Ellory said, “I am disciplined, start early in the day. I try to produce four thousand words a day, and work on the basis of getting a first draft done in about twelve weeks. I used to feel strongly about having a good title before I started, but now I’m not so obsessive about it! I do have a routine when I finish a book, though. I make a really good Manhattan, and then I take my family out to dinner!”
Ellory said he writes “straight through, never reading back over what I’ve written, not until the end. Then I approach it as a complete book, a book where I now know what has happened at the end so I can work to make sure that everything in the novel makes sense and ties together. Once the first draft is completed I leave it for a few days and then go back to it, starting at the beginning and working through, cutting back on bits of over-writing, tidying up the edges, clarifying things that seem uncertain, editing as I go. Then—perhaps in a few days—I am done, and it goes to my editor.”
Not only does Ellory write, he reads—a lot. “I receive about ninety eMails a day from readers, rarely anything but complimentary. I got an eMail from a Washingtonian, now living in New York, who was head of neurosurgery at a major hospital, and also a triage surgeon for the NYPD. He had been on holiday in the UK, had bought our version of A Simple Act of Violence. He read the entire thing on the flight from London to JFK, loved the book! He told me that I really had captured the essence of Washington as a city. He also said, ‘You are educating me about my own country and things we have done in the world.’ I carry a huge sense of responsibility to do my research thoroughly, to get it right, to make it plausible and keep it realistic and yet entertaining.”
As for advice for aspiring writers, Ellory said, “I believe the worst kind of book you can write is the book that you believe other people will enjoy. I believe the best book you can write is the one that you would like to read. Don’t look for a barnstorming opening, ‘magic paragraph’ or opening line. Write the book that interests you. Your own enthusiasm for the subject will come through. That enthusiasm will then be contagious. Personally, I am sometimes captivated more by the language used than the story itself. I read books that have little in the way of compelling plot, but the language with which they are written is so beautiful and inspiring that I read them just as compulsively.
“Books that tell you how to write a bestseller in thirty days…well, I don’t know what to say. Great stories come from people and their experiences in life, not from formulas. I’m not interested in writing 250-page potboilers with a dead body at the start and a perpetrator at the end. Not that there’s anything wrong with that kind of book! It’s just that I don’t want to create that kind of thing personally. Beyond that, you have to persevere and never give up. Keep sending that book out. Get an agent. Get someone working with you who is as enthusiastic as you are about your work. And then just keep going! The one quote that kept me going was from Disraeli: ‘Success is entirely dependent upon constancy of purpose.’”
Ellory spoke of what he looks for in creating main characters that give readers a sense of who they are. “Their flaws. Their idiosyncrasies. The fact that they were real people, people who got things wrong, who made mistakes, who made the wrong decisions, just as we all do. Personally, I have a big problem with characters that are always right, who always solve the problem, get the girl, beat up the bad guy. People aren’t like that in reality. I think tension in novels comes from caring about what happens to the characters, and in order to create that, well you have to create characters that people actually care about!”
Ellory concluded with comments about why his novels are set in the US. “I was weaned on American culture. I grew up watching Starsky and Hutch, Hawaii Five-O, Kojak, all those kinds of things. My grandmother was a huge fan of the Golden Age of Hollywood, and I shared my childhood with Bogart and Bacall, Bette Davis, Edward G. Robinson, Jimmy Stewart and Cary Grant. These guys were my aunts and uncles! I love the atmosphere of the US, diversity of culture. The politics fascinate me. America is a new country compared to England, and there’s so much color and life inherent in its society. I have visited many times now, and I honestly feel like I’m going home.
“I just love to write, and though the subject matter that I want to write about takes me to the States, it is nevertheless more important to me to write something that can move someone emotionally, perhaps change a view about life, and at the same time to try and write it as beautifully as I can. I want to write about subjects—whether they be political conspiracies, serial killings, race relations, political assassinations or FBI and CIA investigations—that could only work in the USA. The kind of novels I write just wouldn’t work in small, green, leafy villages where you find Hobbits!
“In truth, I am fundamentally optimistic about people, and thus I am optimistic about society. We make mistakes continually, but there are far more good people than bad, and thus—by numbers alone—we should eventually win out. As an author, I have the profoundly fortunate opportunity to research, to write, to study, to learn, to create characters and stories, to make things up, to lie for a living! I have never forgotten how much work it took to get published, and how much work it takes to continue being published. I write for myself, and I write for readers. If I ever start to write for money, then I know it will be time to stop. I don’t believe that day will ever come.
“I’m excited about releasing this book in the US. I think this is an important book, perhaps sensitive, contentious, a difficult subject, but nevertheless challenging and provocative. I am very interested to see how it will be received by American readers, and I am looking forward—once again—to returning to Bouchercon in September, and meeting so many of my wonderful American friends who have supported, encouraged and championed me for the last few years. I am proud to be a member of ITW, and to be given this opportunity to talk about my work. Thank you.”
R.J. Ellory is the author of eight novels, most recently, Saints of New York, where he reads the thrilling first chapter. ITW featured The Anniversary Man last year. Candlemoth, his first-published, was shortlisted for the CWA Steel Dagger, as was City of Lies. A Quiet Belief In Angels was a Richard & Judy Book Club selection in 2007, and went on to win the Livre De Poche Award, Strand Magazine Novel of The Year, Mystery Booksellers of America Award, and the Inaugural Nouvel Observateur Prize. He has also written the screenplay for Oscar-winning director, Olivier Dahan. A Quiet Vendetta won the Quebec Laureat and the Villeneuve Readers’ Prize. A Simple Act of Violence won Theakston’s Crime Novel of the Year. He further has been nominated for seven international awards, including two Barrys, the 813 Trophy, and the Europeen Du Point. His books are available in 24 languages. He is published in the US by Overlook Press, which contracts to release all of Ellory’s works. His wife, Vicky, son, Ryan (who tolerates Ellory’s idiosyncrasies), and he live in Birmingham, England. Please check out RJEllory.com for more accolades, or visit him on Facebook.