Caitlin Strong, the protagonist of Jon Land’s compelling series, is a Texas Ranger, as were her father, grandfather, and great-grandfather. In the words of real-life Ranger Rip Ford (and also the epigraph to the prologue), “They knew their duty and they did it.”
The latest in the series, STRONG DARKNESS, opens in 1883 Texas, where Caitlin’s great-grandfather William Ray Strong is pursing the Old West’s first serial killer. Fast forward to the present, when a serial killer whose methods are eerily similar to the earlier one has surfaced. Caitlin learns that the killings are somehow connected with a powerful Chinese billionaire, Li Zhen, who intends to use his company’s cutting-edge 5G wireless network against America to avenge what he believes was an old wrong. Up against an army at Li’s disposal, Caitlin and her outlaw lover Cort Wesley blaze a violent trail across the country in search of the truth, even as a strong darkness descends and a climactic battle looms with nothing less than the fate of the U.S. at stake.
STRONG DARKNESS, the latest book in your Caitlin Strong series, begins in 1883, with Caitlin’s great-grandfather, Texas Ranger William Ray Strong, trying to find a serial killer who’s murdered a number of Chinese women. The story then fast-forwards to the present, when Caitlin, also a Ranger, is called upon to solve more contemporary, but no less heinous crimes. Why do Texas Rangers make such compelling subjects of a novel?
That’s a great question and I think the way you phrased it kind of suggests the answer: that is the Texas Rangers have persevered remarkably unchanged through a long and mostly storied history. They wear different clothes and carry different guns than they did in 1883 but otherwise they’re really the same. What’s amazed me in the research I’ve done, and what I try to demonstrate in the snippets of Ranger history that precede each section, is that they remain to this day the archetypal and quintessential American icon. The loner hero whose duty is stitched into the fabric of their being. Similar in that respect, I suppose, to those soldiers in Special Forces or Navy SEALS. The difference being, of course, that the Texas Rangers have been around a lot longer than either of these.
Assisting William Ray in his investigation is the legendary Judge Roy Bean, a real person. In the movies, Bean has been portrayed by actors as different as Paul Newman and Walter Brennan. What about Bean interested you, and how is your take on the notorious judge different from other portrayals?
There’s a great line at the end of the film The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance: “When the legend becomes truth, print the legend.” Well, so much of what we know of Judge Roy Bean is due to legend and not fact. For example, this notorious hanging judge actually hung only a single man; he sentenced two, but the other one escaped. My take is more like Paul Newman. I could see that version of Bean doing just what my version does. A kind of rascally rogue who, when push comes to shove, maintains a strong notion of justice and a responsibility to preserve it on the frontier. And that’s kind of what attracted Roy Bean to me for STRONG DARKNESS. The railroads to a great extent represented the beginning of the end of that frontier and, with that, men who could hold court in a saloon. It’s the end of an era and I think my Roy Bean knows that, which in that context explains why he harbors such a loathing for the Southern Pacific and why he chooses to stand with Caitlin’s great-grandfather William Ray Strong against it to bring down those who are destroying his very way of life.
Violence seems to follow your protagonist, Caitlin Strong—or perhaps, she’s attracted to violence. Please tell us what motivates her.
Oh, man, what a great question. I definitely don’t think Caitlin is attracted to violence so much as she accepts it the same way we accept good and evil, darkness and light. It’s a fact of nature and she chooses to use it against those who would otherwise hurt others. In that sense, each book in this series really does read like a modern day western because she stands alone as defender of the right and the good. She doesn’t embrace violence, but she knows the kind of villains it’s her lot to take on require her to use it. So she’s motivated mostly by a desire to live up to the legacy of her father and grandfather by fulfilling the very same role they did in their times. Heroism, in this case, gets passed on from generation to generation. It’s not about ego or glory, it’s about duty and the responsibility to uphold that is what drives Caitlin more than anything.
You’ve also written novels with male protagonists (your Blaine McCracken series being a prime example). Do you find it more difficult to write a thriller featuring a female protagonist? Are there obstacles or constraints that arise when depicting a woman involved in violent confrontations that don’t exist when writing about a man?
Hey, I love that question too! My first thought when it comes to violent confrontations is that it would defy credibility if we have a 140-pound woman doing everything a 225-pound man can do—it’s just not realistic, never mind credible. So the trick is to use those limitations as a strength and not a weakness. And in that sense the action scenes in my Caitlin Strong books, while shorter and snappier than the longer, extended ones in my McCracken books, tend to be more visceral (as well as visual) and gut-wrenching. The McCracken books, like the great work of James Rollins as spawned by the likes of Ian Fleming and Alistair MaClean, are generally a bit over-the top. On the other hand, my Caitlin Strong books stress credibility and emotional resonance; what Caitlin is feeling and thinking in the midst of a confrontation as opposed only to what she’s doing. Confrontations in this series, and the conflict in general, are more about the threat of potential violence in scenes that play out similarly more in dialogue. Caitlin doesn’t take any crap from anybody and has a way of turning the tables on an opponent vocally the way McCracken does with his fists.
An important element of STONG DARKNESS is China’s influence over America’s technology. What drew you to that topic?
When I learned, believe it or not, that it was actually a Chinese company called Shinzen that built America’s 4G wireless network. STRONG DARKNESS is about another Chinese company that’s building the 5G network for the personal and nefarious reasons of its depraved founder Li Zhen. He’s a metaphor for everything that’s bad about our country’s relationship with China riddled with subterfuge driven by a secretive society where private enterprise works in concert with the military and government. That’s so radically different from our system and way of life that it’s virtually impossible for us to relate to it, any more than we can relate to how they think or what’s truly driving their actions—a dangerous place to be, given the amount of this country’s wealth they are basically holding.
One of the many great characters in the novel is Leroy Epps, who is definitely dead and might or might not be real. At one point, Leroy says to his friend (and Caitlin’s love interest) Cort Wesley Masters, “Only way a man can change who he be is down at that core with his very ilk.” How, if at all, does Leroy’s observation inform the actions of your main characters?
Leroy is Cort Wesley’s former cellmate who died while in prison but continues to show up from time to time, as a ghost to provide counsel when Cort Wesley needs him the most. He points things out to Cort Wesley that never would’ve occurred to him on his own, filling a hole in his conscience and sensibility. Cort Wesley’s been a violent man for the better part of his life, so he doesn’t always reason things out efficiently. That’s where the ghost of Leroy Epps comes in, as both friend and spirit guide, helping Cort Wesley sort out his emotions and deal with anxiety and frustration.
Putting aside William Ray and Caitlin Strong, who is your favorite character in STRONG DARKNESS?
No doubt about it: Guillermo Paz, the giant Venezuelan assassin who serves as Caitlin’s protector. He wasn’t even supposed to survive the first book in the series, STRONG ENOUGH TO DIE. But he had other ideas and continues to have them. I have no idea where he came from or what he’s going to do next. But I’ve never encountered a character who exists so independently of me in terms of his thoughts, actions, and especially his words. He’s almost more a force of nature than a person, mythic in that sense but very deep and original in his constant quest for purpose and spiritual fulfillment. One of my favorite evolving parts of the series is Caitlin’s gradual acceptance of him to the point where she now relies on him and is never surprised when he shows up to save her time and time again.
The novel is variously set in 1883 Texas, present-day San Antonio, China, New York City, and Providence Rhode Island, among other locations. There are a number of different point-of-view characters. Yet in the end, the various story threads all come together in a way that’s completely satisfying and logical. As a matter of process, do you write chronologically or do you craft one character’s story line before turning to the next—or all of the above or neither?
Wow, that really is the $64,000 question! But the answer is pretty simple: The way you read any of my books is exactly the way I wrote it. I don’t outline, preferring to write by the seat of my pants, because if I don’t know what’s going to happen next, the reader can’t possibly know. I have great confidence in my characters to take me, and the story, where they need to go. And I love when they surprise me, or think of something that I didn’t. And, regarding your comment on different points of view, I think that’s where utilizing short chapters really helps. Each one of them features a single character viewpoint, making it very easy for the reader to follow when he or she is reading and me to follow as I’m writing. It helps keep everything flowing for me and allows for basically constant cliffhangers in each of the various subplots. All of them need to be equally interesting and have one thing in common: you can’t wait to get back to each and every one every time you cut to another.
Most writers have been influenced or inspired by earlier books and novelists. Has your writing also been influenced in any way by earlier movies or televisions shows? If so, which?
Let me start with the present and work backwards. I’m seldom influenced by movies today because they generally suck, especially the writing, due to how Hollywood does business. Television’s another story. There’s so much great writing it’s almost impossible to keep up with it all. Take the brilliant series FARGO on FX. There’s a point in an early episode where the villainous Lorne Malvo character, played wonderfully by Billy Bob Thornton, says to a cop he’s just utterly terrified, “There used to be maps that said ‘Here be dragons.’ Maps don’t say that anymore, but that doesn’t mean the dragons aren’t there.” Boom! An absolutely perfect line in every way imaginable. Now to backtrack, I only need to give you one thing: Not only was I obsessed with Ian Fleming and James Bond as a kid, those books and movies (the early ones starring Sean Connery) are among the most vital influences in my entire career in terms of character, structure, plotting, you name it; especially in my Blaine McCracken series but there are plenty of hints of it in my Caitlin Strong series as you allude to as well. There’s a wonderful line in the film Dr. No where the villain lays out his plot to Bond who, while lighting a cigarette, responds deadpan, “World domination. Same old plan.” Well, over fifty years later writers are still using that theme, me in particular.
As a college football fan, I can’t resist mentioning that Brown University’s real-life football coach, Phil Estes, is a character in the novel. Do you often use real people as characters in your stories, and if so, what’s their usual reaction?
Actually, I don’t. This was a special exception because Coach is a huge Caitlin Strong fan and actually suggested the sub-plot in which he ended up playing a major role. Since I’ve never done it before, it was kind of fun but also challenging since you have to do justice to what Phil would say and do, credibly, in a certain situation. He’s reading the book now, so I should hear soon how good a job he thinks I did.
Tell us about your next project.
My next book, BLACK SCORPION, publishes in April and is the long awaited sequel (in my mind anyway!) to THE SEVEN SINS. It’s the biggest, most ambitious book I’ve ever done in terms of size, scope, and even length and I have very high hopes for it. I’m currently writing STRONG LIGHT OF DAY, Caitlin’s next adventure, which is off to a fantastic start. I’m already past page 150 with no signs yet of slowing down. That’s the thing about Caitlin and the other characters in this series. They’re so real and alive to me, that they take all the work out of the process. I just sit back and get down what they say and do, their actions and reactions, always with an eye on what they’re feeling and thinking. I’ve written two other series that reached as many as seven books and neither remained nearly as fresh and vital as this one and I think STRONG DARKNESS, as well as STRONG LIGHT OF DAY, show why.
Jon Land is the critically acclaimed author of thirty-five novels, including the bestselling series featuring female Texas Ranger Caitlin Strong: Strong Enough to Die, Strong Justice, Strong at the Break, Strong Vengeance, and Strong Rain Falling which won both the 2013 USA Best Book Award and 2014 International Book Award in the Mystery/Suspense category. In addition, Land is the coauthor of the nonfiction bestseller Betrayal which was named Best True Crime Book of 2012 by Suspense Magazine. Jon Land lives in Providence, Rhode Island.
To learn more about Jon, please visit his website.
Visit Robert at: www.robertrotstein.com