Jack Ferrell, William Nikkel’s swashbuckling marine biologist, returns in BLOOD GOLD, his fifth adventure, which takes him to South America to investigate the source of lethal toxins in the Mazaruni River.
In this outing, Ferrell, who’s won fans including bestselling authors James Rollins and Thomas Perry, must battle not just an ecological crisis but also a trio of villains driven by greed and uninhibited by compassion.
As the author notes, Jack has a way of being at the wrong place at the right time. This tale starts as he’s investigating a strange increase in shark attacks. An assault on a beautiful woman makes a more immediate demand on Jack’s attention, and he’s soon embroiled in an ecological mystery that points to a quest for gold in the Guyanese jungle that could cost lives and devastate the rainforest.
Nikkel, a former police officer, joined THE BIG THRILL for a few questions about his latest book, his hero and the inspiration for the story.
Your hero in BLOOD GOLD is part of a team facing a major ecological crisis. Was there a particular real life incident that inspired the tale?
There was no real-life incident involving a research team, at least that I know of, but the ecological crisis in South America is quite real. The high price of gold has brought about a modern-day gold rush in the South American rainforests that has caused the large-scale destruction of a vital ecological resource to the entire world. Along with logging, vast expanses of the rainforest are disappearing every day from large-scale mining operations that clear away trees and topsoil to get to the gold-bearing gravels. In addition, there have been documented cases of mercury and cyanide runoff from the open-pit mining operations polluting the waterways and killing off aquatic life.
What led you to the South American setting? Was it the demands of the story idea, or were there other factors that spurred you toward Guyana?
My decision to use Guyana, South America, as a setting for the story came about when articles and TV programs on the destruction that’s being done by the open-pit mining operations in that country began to surface. But the devastation is not just confined to Guyana. Similar situations are occurring throughout the Amazonian rainforest, as well as in Africa. And it’s not just the environment that is suffering. The indiscriminate use of mercury to separate gold from the sediments is killing miners as well.
Does your previous work as a wildlife artist play a role in a book like BLOOD GOLD and other Jack Ferrell adventures?
To the extent that I have a fondness and deep appreciation of nature and the wildlife inhabiting it, yes. That fondness extends to the many creatures that live in the sea as well as those on land.
Turning back to Jack Ferrell, he’s a marine biologist. You created him initially to explore the mysteries of your adopted home in the Hawaiian Islands. What kind of research was required to make him seem authentic? Does each new book require additional research for his expertise?
My college studies drifted toward marine biology but gave way when my career took a turn toward law enforcement. Even so, my love for the sea remained; as did my love for mountains and forests. And even though I’m not directly connected with marine biology and the scientists who work in that field, I’m constantly researching to make Jack Ferrell believable.
What about your villain in the piece? Author Sandra Brannan has cited your criminal mastermind as a standout. How did you go about creating him and making his greed and relentless drive real for readers?
When I sat down to write BLOOD GOLD, I envisioned an antagonist—three of them as it turned out—who lacked even the slightest respect for the environment or the people in it, people willing to do anything to satisfy their insatiable greed. My career in law enforcement brought me in contact with some really bad people who provided me insight into just how truly evil a person can be. We get a glimpse of them almost daily on the news. I drew from my experiences, stripped away the slightest shred of human compassion and morality and made my antagonists worse.
Do you feel the villain in a thriller has to be more powerful than the hero?
I feel a powerful villain is a key element in a well-written thriller. By its very nature a thriller is the protagonist overcoming seemingly unsurpassable odds to defeat the antagonist and prevent a major calamity and loss of life.
In previous books, you’ve drawn on your experience as a former homicide detective and S.W.A.T. team member for the Kern County Sheriff’s Department in Bakersfield, California. What training and events from your past factored into this novel?
Actually, I go to great lengths to not involve law enforcement in my Jack Ferrell adventure thrillers. Given my law enforcement training, I know that once an agency becomes actively involved in a situation and an investigation is initiated, the novel morphs into a police procedural story—at least it should for it to be true to real life. Story characters—good or bad—can operate outside the law, and do in most novels. But I know police agencies highly discourage interference in their cases and do not tolerate vigilantism—they can’t—even if it means the bad guy ends up getting what he deserves.
In Hawaii, the islanders have a saying: ho`oponopono—making things right. This adage has a special meaning for Jack Ferrell who has a knack for being in the wrong place at the right time. And when he does, he operates in the gray area—that narrow line between legal and illegal, good and bad—with one focus in mind: making sure the antagonist pays the ultimate price for his wrongdoings. How does he go about doing that? He kills in self-defense and almost always there is no body left for the police to find, or no way to connect him to it. If the cops were to become involved, game over. For Jack anyway. He won’t let that happen.
Since you draw on real tactical training, what surprises do readers find in your work, if their knowledge of such matters comes only from TV or movies? What are some things laymen don’t realize about preparing for and dealing with desperate situations?
How many bullets does a particular gun hold? How accurate is the shooter and what is the effective range for the weapon they’re using? And what object do the shooters take cover behind. These are questions television and the movies almost always get wrong. On the screen, guns typically hold a thousand rounds. Incredibly accurate shots are made from equally incredible distances under even more incredible circumstances. And the shooters take cover behind objects that wouldn’t come close to stopping a bullet. These are all details I pay close attention to when writing an action scene.
That said, I think my readers might be surprised to find that I do not incorporate Hollywood-style running gun battles into my Jack Ferrell adventures. People get shot and Jack is not opposed to shooting back, or using whatever weapon is within reach, be it a knife or club. He certainly has no aversion to killing someone who needs killing.
Your bio notes you studied with greats such as David Morrell and James Rollins. Are there any standout novels that have really served to inspire you and your work?
No single novel inspires my writing. But good stories and fast-paced action does. David Morrell and James Rollins continually write compelling novels, each serving to inspire me in its own way, to write better. But the list of authors I read does not end there. Clive Cussler, Steve Berry, Lee Child, Michael Connelly, Robert B. Parker, William Martin, Tony Hillerman, Jon Land, James Lee Burke—it’s impossible to name them all—great writers each and every one of them. What’s important for me as a writer is to grow and learn from the best.
What’s in the future? You’ve done steampunk and some other interesting work in addition to Jack’s tales. Do you have plans to explore other areas of the thriller world? Do you have a vision for how many Jack books you’d like to do?
I have several ideas simmering on the back burner. Maybe a couple of stand-alone novels, maybe a mystery or two, nothing is definite at this time.
As for Jack Ferrell, I’m not sure how many books I’ll write in the series. At some point he’ll get too old to travel the world fighting bad guys and setting things right. When that happens, I’ll have to come up with a fitting end.
Most important of all, is there anything you’d like to add about the books that we haven’t covered?
When I sit down to write a story, I endeavor to take the reader to an exotic location where they’re immersed in an equally exotic life-and-death situation with an ending that leaves them smiling.
William Nikkel is the author of five Jack Ferrell novels and a steampunk, zombie western featuring his latest hero Max Traver. A former homicide detective and S.W.A.T. team member for the Kern County Sheriff’s Department in Bakersfield, California, William is an amateur scuba enthusiast, gold prospector, and artist who can be found just about anywhere. He and his wife Karen divide their time between California and Maui, Hawaii.
To learn more about William, please visit his website.