Finding the Psychological Truths
Michéle Rowe is an author, script writer and story originator for film and television with a big reputation and a string of prizes to her name, as well as nominations for an Oscar for Best Documentary and an International Emmy award. When she turned her hand to writing crime fiction, she was equally successful. In 2011 she won the UK Crime Writers Association’s Debut Dagger, and in 2013 her debut novel, What Hidden Lies, was published in South Africa to critical acclaim (and later in North America and Germany). It’s the first book in a trilogy featuring the continuing main characters. The second novel, HOUR OF DARKNESS, was recently released by Penguin Random House South Africa.
HOUR OF DARKNESS has an intriguing premise: while we’re all doing the right thing by switching off our lights for Earth Hour, that darkness gives criminals the opportunity to strike. Annette Petroussis, mother of three young children, is attacked in her home in Cape Town by two armed robbers. They are obviously amateurs, but that only heightens our fear for Annette’s life. The outcome is quite unexpected. Was this always part of the plan for the book or did it develop with the story?
I don’t plan much before I begin writing, rather everything flows from my characters’ inner worlds. Their responses and choices are largely determined by past experiences. I am as much interested in the power dynamic between the characters, their backgrounds, the motive, and the circumstances that lead up to the crime, as in the incident itself.
In HOUR OF DARKNESS Annette has to override the biological imperative to protect her young and try to rationally weigh up the best chance of survival for her family. I wanted to write about a crime that was chaotic and poorly executed, where the perpetrators were as fearful and reactive as the victim. These violent incidents have a kind of inner logic, if you can follow it, and I think the outcome of the home invasion in HOUR OF DARKNESS has a kind of psychological truth. Another subject that interests me is the unintended intimacy that can spring up between a perpetrator and victim, the way hidden power structures underlying human interaction are laid bare in these extreme situations.
There are a lot of big themes in HOUR OF DARKNESS: religion, township violence, corruption, internal strife in the police. How did you pull all these together?
I don’t consciously think they are separable but as the warp and weft of the fabric of the society my characters inhabit. The themes you mention are the preoccupations of our time, the way the state exerts power through structures like the police force, violence as a form of protest and control, corruption as an inevitable outcome of an unequal society.
Conspiracy Thrillers and THE END GAME
By Joanna Penn
Raymond Khoury is a New York Times bestselling novelist and award-winning screenwriter. Raymond’s latest book is THE END GAME and you can find him on his website.
USA Today bestselling thriller author J.F.Penn interviewed Raymond for The Big Thrill.
Although you grew up in the U.S., you’re originally from Lebanon, which was once described as the Paris of the East, and now is more known for civil war. How does the Middle East and your experiences flow into your writing?
Growing up there and going to architecture school during the civil war years has had a huge influence on my view of life, and by extension, on my writing. The urgency, the pacing, it all comes out of living under such conditions. The cynical worldview too, I suppose, though that’s countered by an immense appetite for life that arises when you see firsthand how fragile everything can be. It also gave me a pretty thorough understanding of how international conflicts play out, how politics affect the situation on the ground, of dirty tricks and terror tactics and all kinds of manipulations. More directly, it certainly was a driving factor in my first book, The Last Templar, where I was curious about the historical basis of our major religions–in the Middle East, millions of people are manipulated into wars and generational hatred by politicians who use religion as a driver, but these people generally know very little about the historical basis of the religion in whose name they’re willing to kill (or die). My second novel, The Sanctuary, deals with longevity medicine and the desire to live longer, but it’s set in Beirut, Iraq, Turkey, during the war of 2006.
Your books could be described as conspiracy thrillers, with Templar Knights, secret agencies and religious orders. What fascinates you about these topics and how do you manage the line between people’s faith and possible conspiracy?
I only explored religion and the discrepancies between history and faith in the two Templar novels. In a completely different way, I explored the link between organized religion and politics in the U.S. in The Sign. I think the Templar novels were mostly well received and appreciated, even by readers who would describe themselves as very religious. I think they were novels that promoted a message that was essentially a positive one, that said what a religion is based on and stands for, and the acts of those who are actually running the show nowadays (or in the past–as in, say, the Borgias), are two separate things. One’s about a message, a moral code, a way of approaching life’s big issues. The other is human nature, and it can be anywhere from its best to its worst. The same goes for The Sign, but I think I made the mistake of perhaps too-bluntly stating my political opinion in that novel, which I felt very strongly about, and that didn’t sit well with many readers who didn’t share my partisan preference. I don’t regret what I wrote at all, I’m very proud of the book and it’s many readers’ favorite (we’re even discussing a possible movie adaptation at the moment), but with hindsight, it may not have been a great move from a commercial point of view.
The New Star of the Swedish Mystery Scene
By Layton Green
Sweden has a history of producing excellent crime novelists, famous for bleak Scandinavian settings and dark, psychological suspense. Names such as Liza Marklund, Mari Jungstedt, Camilla Läckberg, and of course, Stieg Larsson come to mind. Our guest this month is Sofie Sarenbrant, a rising star in the Swedish mystery scene who has sold more than 700,000 books in 12 countries. Hollywood is calling, she has appeared on numerous magazine covers, and her future is brighter than a summer solstice in Stockholm.
KILLER DEAL, Sofie’s fifth crime novel and the third in the detective Emma Sköld series, released on May 16th. The novel is a page-turner about a father who is found dead by his six-year-old daughter the morning after an open-house showing in a posh Stockholm suburb.
Sofie was gracious enough to field my questions about KILLER DEAL, her past, and her writing career.
Thanks for taking the time to chat, Sofie. We’re thrilled to have you. To kick this off, why don’t you tell us a little bit about your background? Where in Sweden are you from? What did you do before becoming an author?
Thank you! I was born in Stockholm, but two years later my family moved to a farm in the middle of nowhere. Living a long time in the forest may have big consequences. I mean, it’s dark and lonely at night and the nearest neighbor lives far away. So maybe it’s no mystery why I became a crime writer. Before becoming an author in 2010, I worked as a journalist (like my mum) and also as a photographer (like my dad).
KILLER DEAL takes place in a fancy Stockholm suburb—are you intimately familiar with this setting? Or did you do some research?
I was in fact interested in buying a house in the Stockholm suburb Bromma, where KILLER DEAL takes place. The plot came to me when I went to an open house in Bromma. As soon as I entered the big white house (exactly like the house on the Swedish cover) I wanted to leave. The atmosphere scared me, I could imagine that something bad had happened there. The real estate agent wasn’t around when I left, so I never said good-bye. Then an absurd thought struck me: How would she know if everyone leaves? All the doors were open and anyone could slip in through the basement door and hide until the open house was over and the family came home. After that, I couldn’t stop thinking about what an exciting mystery plot that might be. (We did buy a house, but not that one, in beautiful Bromma.)
The Insights of Crime Fiction’s Tragedian
Roger Smith is the master of South African Noir. His thrillers dig into the present and past of South Africa, and what the books come up with isn’t pretty. But they are enthralling and entirely believable. His fiction is published in eight languages, he has won the German Crime Fiction Award, and been nominated for Spinetingler Magazine Best Novel awards. Every one of his books is an important event. The latest one is NOWHERE. It opens with the president of South Africa—high on cognac—murdering his wife in their dining room. As the cover-up progresses, a variety of characters are sucked into the aftermath.
I asked Roger about the book and his feelings about the “new” South Africa.
You’ve been called “the crime genre’s greatest tragedian” and, indeed, there aren’t many happy endings in NOWHERE. Is this the way you see South Africa in the 21st century or is this how things are anywhere in the “real world”?
South Africa’s contemporary history is a tragic one: Apartheid, the giddy Mandela era when it went from pariah of the world to a role-model for transformation and then the rise of the cynical, corrupt regime that is in power now. Not a happy ending. Well, not yet—we can only hope . . .
The plot is complex—it seems to be following two different and intriguing threads, but toward the end we see how they are linked and why. Do you plan out the plot in some detail before you write, or do you see where your ideas and the characters lead you?
I always start with an image, something vivid that comes out of someplace deep and dark and grabs me by the throat. With NOWHERE it was the image of the president of South Africa murdering his wife with a spear in the dining room of his official Cape Town residence. I couldn’t shake this image even though I had no idea where it would lead, but in order not to go crazy I had to find out. And the only way I could find out was to start writing. And then Steve Bungu appeared, and Joe Louw. I knew I wanted to bring Disaster Zondi into my ensemble cast (I’d enjoyed writing him in Mixed Blood and Dust Devils) but he located himself in Pretoria about to be sent off to arrest a right winger in the Northern Cape. I had no clue how his story would intersect with those of Bungu and Louw, I just had to believe that the links would appear. That’s how it is for me: I don’t write outlines, I mostly never know how my books will end, I let the characters jump out at me and drag me along with them, deep into their desperate and messed up lives. I don’t have to think too much, just go along for the roller coaster ride.
Corruption in High Places
Kwei Quartey’s first book, Wife of the Gods, introduced Darko Dawson, a police detective in Accra, Ghana. Michael Connelly commented: “Kwei Quartey does what all the best storytellers do. He takes you to a world you have never seen and makes it as real to you as your own backyard.” Wife of the Gods went on to be an L.A. Times best seller. In the next novel, Darko faced a serial killer of homeless kids in Children of the Street, and the third Dawson novel – Murder at Cape Three Points – focused on the exploitation of offshore oil in Ghana.
Kwei is a medical doctor and works in Los Angeles, but he’s passionate about Ghana and spends considerable time there researching his books. His latest book, GOLD OF OUR FATHERS, was released last week, and takes Darko to a very different part of the country.
Your new novel takes place in the Ashanti region of Ghana, famous among other things for gold and beautiful abstract carvings. Gold has been a big issue in Ghana for a long time; at one stage in colonial days, the country was called the Gold Coast. Would you tell us a little about the history of the region and how that leads to the back-story of GOLD OF OUR FATHERS?
“Ashanti” is the English misnomer for the correct form Asante/Asanti, (Asa-Nti) meaning “because of wars.” The history of the Asanti people dates from the 11th century and involves numerous wars over gold, slaves, and territory. The colonial name, “Gold Coast,” and the Portuguese name mina for “the mine” (which became the present-day town of Elmina in the Central Region) underscore the importance of gold in Ghana’s history. Starting with the Portuguese in 1471, a parade of colonists tramped through Ghana, including the Dutch, Germans, Swedes, Danes and of course, the British, when the slave trade was at its peak. The words, Our Fathers, in the novel’s title, reflect the inexorable plunder by outsiders of a resource that rightfully belongs to Ghana’s heritage.
Writing a Conspiracy Thriller Set in Nigeria
Nigerian author Obinna Udenwe’s latest book, SATANS AND SHAITANS, is out now in Kindle edition, and available for pre-order in paperback. USA Today bestselling thriller author J.F.Penn interviewed Obinna for The Big Thrill.
Tell us a little about you and your writing background
I come from Abakaliki, a rice-rich town in South Eastern Nigeria. I was born in 1988 in a small missionary hospital that I mention in Satans and Shaitans. I grew up in a university neighborhood and as a child experienced gang activities/wars and killings, armed robberies, political instability and incessant strike actions by teachers and civil servants. Perhaps my experience as a child in this environment prepared me to become a writer.
At secondary school, I had a drawing book and made sketches and inscribed stories beneath each one, and at some point I became the classroom storyteller, weaving lies immersed in intricate plots that captivated my classmates for hours.
Then my uncle returned from Kano, a city in Northern Nigeria. There had just been an intifada and he lost everything he had. He was living with us, jobless and penniless and he would listen every evening while I told stories to my siblings. He must have seen the business potential in the stories as one day he approached me and suggested that I write them down. I wrote the stories down but unfortunately he died during the process, but that’s what started me off in this direction.
Give us an overview of the plot of your book, SATANS AND SHAITANS.
It’s a conspiracy thriller set in Nigeria against the backdrop of the ongoing insurgency crisis. The book tells of a powerful secret organization, The Sacred Order of the Universal Forces, who are desperate to gain control of the political arena. They establish a terrorist organization in Northern Nigeria with the greater aim of using the terrorists to destabilise the northern Islamic religion, and cause enough trouble to impeach the President.
A Diplomat Turns Thriller Writer
Todd Moss has the perfect background to write political thrillers about diplomacy around the world. In 2007 he was the top U.S. diplomat in West Africa, and he’s the author of four books on international affairs. He is now at the Center for Global Development in Washington and a professor at Georgetown University. We’re fortunate that he’s chosen to use his knowledge and experience to write heart racing thrillers (in the words of the Washington Post).
James Fallows of The Atlantic wrote that as Tom Clancy used fiction to illuminate the world of the military, you use it to reveal the world of diplomacy. Would you tell us a little about your background and some of your experiences that drive your fiction?
I was very lucky to have the chance to serve as the State Department’s top diplomat for West Africa, overseeing relations with 16 countries. When I left State in 2008, I wanted to share some of the inner workings of how our government works—or often doesn’t—during crises like coups or the outbreak of conflict. I actually started to write a non-fiction book about dysfunction in U.S. foreign policy, but decided instead to try a thriller because it would be more fun. I also wanted to take readers inside the White House Situation Room or into a windowless room in one of our embassies to hear how policymakers debate and fight over what to do. Fiction allowed me to do this without revealing classified information or burning former colleagues. So I created Judd Ryker and his special Crisis Reaction Unit. Ironically, I could be much more truthful with fiction.
Real world events influenced me too. The Golden Hour was inspired by an actual coup in West Africa that I tried, and failed, to reverse. MINUTE ZERO was based in part on a real election that went badly and, I believe, was a missed opportunity for the United States. So the plots and characters are fictional, but they are grounded in reality.
Creating a Visceral Sense of Place
By Layton Green
The Basque Country boasts some of Spain’s most breathtaking scenery and mouth-watering cuisine. It is also, at least within the pages of the runaway hit THE INVISIBLE GUARDIAN by Dolores Redondo, a place of dark crimes and buried secrets, a pocket of Old Europe engulfed in mythology and superstition.
A No. 1 international bestseller, THE INVISIBLE GUARDIAN follows a homicide inspector who returns to her long-abandoned hometown to solve a series of eerie murders. The novel was shortlisted for the CWA Dagger Awards and named Best Crime Novel of the Year by La Vanguardia. It’s a fascinating read and the first novel of the Baztán trilogy to be translated into English.
Dolores hails from San Sebastian (famous for many reasons, among them as a principal setting in The Sun Also Rises) and creates a visceral sense of place for her tightly woven psychological thriller. She was gracious enough to take the time to chat with me.
Thanks for taking the time to chat, Dolores. We’re thrilled to have you. This is my first time reading a modern crime novel set in Basque Country, and I loved the setting. Do you call this area home? Why did you choose to write about it?
Yes, I know the area very well. I come from a place close by, and I chose it to talk about the historical roots of the mythological and magical beliefs–which are very much still alive–and also because of the landscape, with such a strong natural force. It’s the perfect setting for a mystery and a police investigation!
Tell us a bit about how you came to be a published writer.
I always wanted to be a writer, and for a very long time I wrote short stories–until I said to myself that I was ready to write a novel. In the publishing industry in my country, this mixture of police investigation and mythology came as a surprise, as something new… and readers loved it!
Iceland and the New Nordic Noir
British author Quentin Bates spent 10 years in Iceland and now sets his bestselling Gunnhildur crime thrillers there. His latest book, Thin Ice, is out in March 2016.
USA Today bestselling thriller author J.F.Penn interviewed Quentin Bates for The Big Thrill.
First of all, tell us a bit about you and your background.
I went to Iceland for a gap year, which turned into a gap decade as I stayed in Iceland for ten years before finally moving back to England. For a lot of the time I worked on a trawlers, normally at sea for three weeks at a time. I had different jobs: as a deckhand, a net man, occasionally cook, mate, second mate. Being a ship’s cook was definitely the worst job as there’s always someone in even a small crew who complains the gravy isn’t like his mother makes.
Then I drifted into specialised trade journalism, writing for a maritime trade magazines. I did that as a freelance for a while, alongside other things. So, there was a gradual changeover before I finally hung up my oilskins, and then for fifteen years there was a staff job, mainly writing technical features and news material.
I did a university writing course, partly as a way of getting an afternoon off once a week to sit in a warn classroom, and that was where the possibilities of crime fiction stated to look increasingly tempting. This was before Stieg Larsson and The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, so Nordic crime hadn’t really taken off at all. This was all still fairly niche. Wallander was around and before that had been Miss Smilla’s Feeling for Snow, and long before that were the Sjöwall and Wahlöö books from Sweden that I had read as a teenager in the 1970s.
How does your love for Iceland come through in the Gunnhildur series?
I shied away from using Iceland as a setting at first, because it seemed too close to home. But I gradually realized that I had all this knowledge, insight and understanding of the place and it would be ridiculous not to use it.
The main character popped up more or less from nowhere, although she wasn’t the original main character. The first draft of what eventually became the first book had a male protagonist, but he was dull. Too much of a bunch of clichés rolled together – the grumpy, middle-aged chap and all the rest of it. So he was quietly removed and his more interesting sidekick was promoted to the lead role. She seems to have done well enough so far, even though I give her a hard time. She’s still solving crimes way beyond her pay scale.
The first book was set in a fictional coastal village, a very loosely disguised version of a real fishing village on the south coast, within striking distance of Reykjavik so I could use both the coastal/rural backdrop as well as a city setting. The later books are set firmly in Reykjavik, but the new one, Thin Ice, takes place partly in the countryside north of the city.
I have purposely not used too many of the places that tourists would go to when they visit Iceland, the Golden Circle, Gullfoss and Geysir, and the Blue Lagoon and all the places like that. I’ve steered clear of those because I feel they give the feel of having been written by someone who might have done the research with a five-day package tour. In any case, these aren’t places that locals visit regularly.
A Thriller Set In Yemen and the Futility of War
A Canadian by birth, Paul Hardisty has spent 25 years working all over the world as an engineer, hydrologist, and environmental scientist. He has rough-necked on oil rigs in Texas, explored for gold in the Arctic, and rehabilitated village water wells in the wilds of Africa. He survived a bomb blast in a café in Sana’a in 1993 and was one of the last westerners out of Yemen before the outbreak of the 1994 civil war. Yemen is the setting for his powerful debut thriller THE ABRUPT PHYSICS OF DYING featuring a South African protagonist. The novel was an instant success in the UK, receiving strong critical acclaim. It was short-listed for the Crime Writers Association Creasy New Blood Dagger award – the premier British award for first novels in the mystery/thriller genre. Peter James described it as “a stormer of a thriller – vividly written, utterly topical, totally gripping.”
Paul is a university professor and Director of Australia’s national water, land and ecosystems research program, and lives in Western Australia. He is a pilot, a sailor, a keen outdoorsman, and conservation volunteer. When Paul writes about oil exploration and environmental catastrophe, he knows what he’s writing about. He’s been there!
I asked Paul about the novel and his protagonist, Claymore Straker.
Clay is an intriguing character. Disillusioned by war and greed and now willing to ‘go with the flow’, he still can’t turn his back on the suffering of the people of Yemen. There seems a touch of Lawrence of Arabia in Clay. With all the world’s conflicts to choose from, why did you decide to make him a South African and a veteran of South Africa’s dirty war in Angola?
Yes, THE ABRUPT PHYSICS OF DYING features a South African. As the novel opens he is 34 years old, working in the Middle East as an engineer. But he carries a heavy burden. At nineteen, like so many of his countrymen of that generation, he was sent to Angola to fight the communists in the Border War. This little known conflict raged in the huge wild territory of what is now Namibia and Angola over two decades, costing hundreds of thousands of lives. The experience left Clay scarred, emotionally and physically, and as the book unfolds he comes to see the futility of the war, and of the bankrupt ideals which they were told they were fighting for. I’m working on the prequel to THE ABRUPT PHYSICS OF DYING now. It’s set during that dirty war, and reveals how and why Clay goes from idealistic teenager fighting for his country to decorated veteran who is eventually dishonorably discharged and exiled. Coming face to face with the true philosophical underpinnings and practical implementation of apartheid are a key part of this, and shape him in ways he only begins to understand as he confronts the life or death dilemma that unfolds in Yemen.
By E.M. Powell
The island of Ireland occupied a unique place in the medieval world. It was, as far as the millions of inhabitants of Europe were concerned, It. Nothing else existed to the west (sorry, Americas). In a 7th Century letter to the Pope, Saint Columbanus refers to the Irish as the ‘Dwellers at the Earth’s Edge.’ And even by the 12th Century, Gerald of Wales, royal clerk to England’s King Henry II, still confirmed Ireland as ‘the farthest western lands…Beyond the whole horizon only the ocean flows and is borne on in endless space.’
Now, Henry had a keen interest in Ireland and, as it happens, so do I—it being the land of my birth and all. But I also have a keen interest in Henry. The first two books in my medieval thriller Fifth Knight series have featured my fictional hero, Sir Benedict Palmer, in Henry’s service. Henry first arrived in Ireland in 1171. He had already sent troops there and he wanted to stamp his authority on it. But by 1185 it was in a state of major unrest, with native Irish kings and Henry’s Anglo-Norman barons who had taken Irish lands fighting it out for power.
The King had an ingenious solution: make his 18-year-old son Lord of Ireland and send him over to sort it out. And that son was John. Yes—the John who would one day be Bad King John. It says something about a British Royal when even Disney has a pop at them. John’s portrayal as a thumb-sucking lion prince in the classic animation Robin Hood is only one of many unflattering renditions of him.
Trouble is, they aren’t far off the mark. John acquired his terrible reputation by simply being John. Suffice to say, his campaign in Ireland was a disaster—a gift to me as a novelist. A further gift was that the King’s clerk, Gerald, went with John, leaving us many first-hand accounts of what went on. And so, book #3, THE LORD OF IRELAND, was born.
The Secret to Writing Psychological Thrillers
By Layton Green
This month I had the pleasure of interviewing one of South America’s bestselling crime novelists: Claudia Piñiero from Buenos Aires, Argentina. I spent some time living in Argentina, and was particularly keen to read Claudia’s work. Buenos Aires is a fascinating city, and one of the best parts about international crime fiction is reading how a particular locale is depicted through the eyes of a native. Especially a bestselling suspense author who delves deeply into the psyche of a city.
For the interview, I focused on BETTY BOO, Claudia’s latest novel (the English translation comes out on February 9). It’s a fascinating book about a novelist who is contracted by a newspaper editor – who happens to be the novelist’s former lover – to cover a high-profile murder investigation. Claudia has a very compelling voice, and she gets into her characters’ heads as well as anyone I’ve ever read. I was riveted to the page.
Each of Claudia’s four novels has been a bestseller in Latin America. In the United States, she’s often compared to Patricia Highsmith. Both BETTY BOO and Thursday Night Widows have been made into films, and Claudia is also a playwright, television scriptwriter, and award-winning journalist.
Thanks for agreeing to chat, Claudia. I really loved BETTY BOO. It was an intense psychological thriller that really brought me back to my time in Buenos Aires, with its carefully crafted details and atmospheric sense of place. Your characters are drawn with so much depth, far more so than in most novels of suspense, yet I couldn’t put the book down. How do you pull off that balance?
Thank you so much for reading my book, I’m really pleased that you found it interesting. What I find most absorbing and enjoyable about writing a novel is discovering who the characters are that inhabit it – their conflicts and contradictions. I see the plot as merely a tool to enable the development of those characters. Putting them in situations that force them to make decisions when faced with particular circumstances, allows us to understand who they are. So often in a thriller the plot gobbles up the players; character development can get neglected in that rush to get to the crux – to find out “whodunnit” – and other equally, or more, important elements get pushed aside.
When I was writing one of my first novels (Thursday Night Widows) I had a writing teacher who made me read Proust’s In Search of Lost Time. I believe that was very good advice. His point was that the demands of story-telling (fundamental to any thriller or roman noir) should not steam-roll the composition of each character and the details of the world around them. For all that there are mysteries to be revealed and truths to be uncovered, the novel can’t leave to one side the characters, their psychological make-up, their conflicts and traumas.
A Master of Flawed Characters Says “Life Is a Messy Playground”
James Fouché lives in the beautiful Garden Route along the coast of the Western Cape Province of South Africa with his wife, daughter, and two Jack Russell terriers. He fills life with a vast number of hobbies and interests, from sailing to traveling to hiking, learning different languages, and trying his hand at musical instruments. On the side, he runs a delightful coffee house in Knysna and so, of course, has made a study of all aspects of coffee. When he’s not plotting his next crime novel, James writes about wine, food, and travel. Somehow amidst all that, he managed to write a critically acclaimed psychological thriller, Jack Hanger, and has now followed it up with a new book, KING OF SORROW.
You’ve done a lot of different things and have a lot of different interests. What brought you to writing novels?
It’s not that I grow tired of something when it stops stimulating me. It think it’s more as though I draw the maximum from an experience, then move on. In some way, school was the same. I became bored with the school routine and then my grades suffered the consequences, until my English teacher turned my essays into a business, nudging me on to write better stories to get more points, eventually leading to better marks. And so, without realizing it, a career was born. That is why I appreciate all teachers, especially the persistent ones.
Your crime novels are driven by the psychological pressures people face, and the lasting damage that can cause. The protagonists of KING OF SORROW are Kerin, a single mother who is just about making ends meet and faces losing everything when she is fired from her job, and David, a successful property developer whose life has been destroyed by the deaths of his wife and sons in a car accident. What attracts you to this type of character?
I love flawed characters, people with baggage, with real burdens that have merit. Life is a messy playground, filled with trials. Yet Hollywood often serves us a sugar-coated version of the playground. It’s difficult for people to relate to James Bond or Mary Poppins because they operate at a level outside of our reality. That’s a wonderful escape, but I rather appreciate the anti-hero, the one who makes superhero decisions at a real level, like jumping into the water to save someone while he’s facing a messy divorce with a custody battle and a zero bank balance.
A series of murders rocks the Los Angeles area, and each victim’s body bears a note addressed to Detective Gabriel McRay. If McRay knows the killer, that knowledge is locked in the suppressed memory of a childhood trauma.
Teamed with his forensic pathologist girlfriend and a psychiatrist, Gabriel runs two parallel investigations: a dark journey into the terrifying recollections of his past, and a hunt for a killer who knows more about Gabriel than he knows himself.
What inspired you to create such a dark storyline, Laurie?
I’ve asked myself the same question, because I consider myself a positive person.
Like many other people, I’m fascinated by the inner workings of the human mind, and how a catastrophic event can alter a person’s entire perspective on life.
But I didn’t want the main character to be mired in his problems. He wants to be happy and is willing to do the work to achieve balance in his life. I did a lot of research and consulted professionals to find out what kind of therapy could be used to aid in his healing process.
Gabriel is working through a childhood trauma, the memory of which he has suppressed. So, while the story is dark, and Gabriel’s history is certainly dark, I wanted to weave that thread of hope throughout, because I do believe that such a thing exists.
Do you have any personal experience with repressed memories?
Yes. I had an experience where Researching hypnotic drugs for the series actually made me realize that at one time I was drugged without my knowledge. I had experienced the same effects that I was creating for characters in the story.
How’s that for the inner workings of the human mind?
Writing a Fast-Paced Thriller Laced With Fascinating Detail
By Dawn Ius
Barry Lancet doesn’t study martial arts or Japanese art, but some of his friends do, so he watches. Carefully.
These keen observations transpose with awe-inspiring fluidity onto the pages of Lancet’s award-winning Jim Brodie thrillers, creating a cultural depth—to say nothing of the action sequences—that have catapulted the series onto “best of” lists and garnered the attention of none other than Star War’s J.J. Abrams.
PACIFIC BURN, the third installment featuring rogue second-generation P.I. Jim Brodie, is no exception.
As a special liaison for the San Francisco mayor’s Pacific Rim Friendship Program, Brodie enlists the help of his friend, a renowned Japanese artist named Ken Nobuki. But the promising start of a partnership takes a nosedive when Nokubi is attacked by a sniper and ends up in a coma. To get to the bottom of who is behind the attack on not only Nokubi but Nokubi’s entire family, Brodie goes up against the CIA, the FBI, Department of Homeland Security—and a killer operating on both sides of the Pacific.
Many exceptional fight sequences ensue.
“Every novel has so many different types of scenes,” Lancet says. “And there is a separate art to each type. Even fight scenes. And within the fight scene, there is nuance and many ways to create suspense.”
Lancet achieves this with almost cinematic flair, creating vivid action scenes that are easily visualized, perhaps even meant for the screen, which explains the attention Brodie has received from Hollywood.
“The reason J.J. Abrams’ Bad Robot ears perked up with the Jim Brodie books is because of Brodie’s unique abilities, I was told,” Lancet says. “As a Japan expert, Brodie knows two worlds extremely well. And like other classic detectives such as Sherlock Holmes and even television’s Monk, he sees things others cannot fathom. At the murder scene in Japantown he is able to point out details the SFPD miss, and in the aftermath of the attacks in PACIFIC BURN, only he sees the critical clues.”
By J.F. Penn
British author J.S. Law is a former submariner from the Royal Navy and the author of the debut thriller TENACITY, set partially on a nuclear submarine. USA Today bestselling thriller author J.F.Penn interviewed J.S.Law for The Big Thrill. You can watch the video discussion here on YouTube or read the transcript below.
So first of all, tell us a bit more about you and your writing background.
Like most authors, I’ve been writing since I was a child. I even found some fairly amusing emotional poetry that I’d written when I was in my early teens. I used to enter lots of short story competitions, but it was probably about six years ago that I decided I really wanted to be a published author.
Once I’d decided that, I tried to act that way and I started writing a book a year. I would send it out and get it professionally edited and then go through the submissions process. After a conversation with an agent, I realized that having served on submarines for as long as I have, is quite a unique thing. And that was when I decided that I should start writing about submarines. And TENACITY was born, as it were.
What is TENACITY broadly about?
TENACITY follows a female SIB Investigator, Special Investigations Branch of the Royal Navy, into the submarine world. There’s a murder-suicide, and the suicide part of that is on the nuclear submarine. So she has to go in and investigate why this guy killed himself.
Within the UK, we’ve only recently had our first three females go on submarines and at the time of writing, it’s still very much a male-dominated environment. So she’s an outsider, she’s police, she’s a female in an all-male environment, but also, she’s not a submariner. She’s not one of them. And submarines are very much about belonging. It’s very much of a club. So the book is very much about how she goes in there and has to deal with everything that happens.
Internet Vice Darkens to Murder
Deon is the best known thriller writer in South Africa and the London Times calls him “far and away South Africa’s best crime writer.” His books have been translated from the original Afrikaans into 27 languages, have won a slew of prizes, and been optioned for TV series and movies. Deon also writes and produces movies for the South African market.
His new book–ICARUS–is one of his best, and that’s starting from a high base. Detective Benny Griessel is back with his colleagues from the Hawks–the elite police squad of the South African police–and they are faced with a nasty and difficult case.
The Icarus of the title is an internet millionaire, Ernst Richter, who reaches too high. Having sold a successful web development business, he starts a dodgy internet site called Alibi, which supplies exactly that for people cheating on their partners or needing other cover. It seems that the new venture is a great success and Ernst enjoys the high life, but then he suddenly disappears and his strangled corpse is found three weeks later leading to a media frenzy. Then the names of the users start to be leaked on the internet.
Since you wrote the book we’ve had the Ashley Madison affair (to coin a phrase). Is this a case of life imitating art? Was Alibi based on any real websites and their troubles?
It is absolutely a case of life imitating art. Although I’ve been thinking about the possibility of a dating site hack for a while now. It had to happen, sooner or later.
A New and Unflinching Voice in French Noir
By Layton Green
“You want me to tell you what’s sad? Sad is when you believed in things, when you backed a man who turned out to be the wrong horse, when you wanted a career and wound up with a guy who makes a living taking out other people’s trash, getting philosophical over a beer on a weekday night.” — Jérémie Guez, EYES FULL OF EMPTY
I wasn’t sure what to expect when I agreed to interview a 26-year-old novelist hailed as the “rising star of contemporary French noir.” I was pretty sure his work would be exciting and brilliant. I just wasn’t certain what French noir meant. Camus meets Chandler? A Proust-spouting tough guy?
Turns out Jérémie Guez’s EYES FULL OF EMPTY invokes all of those things. A touch of world-weary philosophy, a nod to the greats, a moody Parisian setting. Yet EYES FULL OF EMPTY carves out its own place in the crime fiction canon. It features Idir, an at times frustrating but always compelling anti-hero, a P.I., and a second-generation Algerian immigrant who uneasily roams the vast limbo between the Parisian upper crest and the criminal underclass. I’ve never run across a character quite like him, and he made an indelible impression.
I’ll let Jérémie tell you a bit more about himself, Idir, and EYES FULL OF EMPTY:
Thanks for taking the time to chat, and for creating a great work of fiction. I have lots of thoughts on the novel, but let’s start with your impressive career–tell us about your journey to become a novelist.
Thank you! Well I was finishing my studies and working shit jobs. I had an unfinished manuscript in my drawer. I polished it, went to the post office, and sent it to a publisher. I was very lucky.
Can you talk a bit about your background, and how it might influence your work?
I know very well the city where I live, I’ve met a lot of people in my life with very different situations. I just observe. And write.
You’re often described as a noir writer, as well as an author writing in the legacy of Camus– how do you describe your literary roots? (I noticed the inclusion of Oscar “Crumley” as a character . . .)
My literary roots are mainly Americans. So many names. It’s hard to quote everybody. Ellroy, Bunker, Burke, Price… You’ve noticed Crumley, it was a big influence for this book because what he writes is funny and desperate at the same time. Beautiful.
Anne Trager has over a quarter of a century of experience working with the French in translation and publishing. She founded Le French Book, a mystery and thriller publishing house dedicated to translating French mysteries and thrillers into English. She is frequently asked about going the other way around, from English to French. Here she shares insights, in Part One.
France—the name itself evokes the good life, with food, wine, lovely countryside, and a huge network of independent booksellers and readers who love authors. Better yet, France is a country where one out of four books sold is a mystery or thriller, one out of five books published is a mystery or thriller, and a quarter of the bestsellers are mysteries or thrillers.
The country is very good to writers. When French readers love your books, they express it, they buy them, they stand in long lines at myriad festivals to have them signed. There are no fewer than 60 festivals in any given year dedicated to just the mystery/thriller genre.
The French market
The book market in France has a lot going for it: enthusiastic booksellers, avid readers, dynamic publishers, and a large number of trained translators. Furthermore, paper books sales are on the rise, even if even still have not taken off. Below are some figures about the book market in France. Make sure you go all the way down to the last three items in the list.
Finding Art in Emotional Damage
Joanne Hichens is a South African author living in Cape Town. Her first Rae Valentine thriller, Divine Justice, was a Sunday Times best-selling Top Mystery in 2011. SWEET PARADISE is the second in the series. Thriller author Sarah Lotz describes it as “original, spiky, hard-hitting, and thoroughly enjoyable.” In this escapade, while Rae attempts to locate a missing teenager she falls foul of a psychological cesspit of obsession, addiction, misogyny, and love-gone-bad.
The Paradise of SWEET PARADISE is a rehab clinic in Cape Town. Superficially, it’s an upmarket facility where patients suffering from addictive behavior or geriatric mental degeneration can receive care and help. Below the surface it’s a very dangerous place. This sort of scenario has played out in fiction (and real life) quite often, but your backstory has a different take on it. What attracted you to this setting and how did you research it?
I worked in a psychiatric clinic for a number of years, as an expressive arts practitioner as well as coordinating an eating disorders unit, so I know the setting first hand. I took a break from working with psychiatric patients in order to do a Master’s degree in Creative Writing and then my life took a different path.
I miss the work of teasing out the underlying reasons why people behave as they do. To see a patient’s angst and sorrow reflected in art work, and to engage with those images as a point of departure for discussion in order to alleviate pain, was an incredibly satisfying experience. Art therapy is widely misunderstood—yet it offers a creative way to work with the psyche, with “what cannot be seen.” as the art therapist, Eden Kramer, does in SWEET PARADISE.
As far as the back story goes, and the themes, there’re all sorts of nasty undercurrents. No one in Paradise Place Clinic is who they appear to be, and everyone has their secrets… That said, I have the utmost respect for those who work at psychiatric clinics and rehab centres. I have profound respect for those who take the risk of facing the past, inpatients who want to change destructive behavior and expose their fears in order to facilitate change. I’ve addressed that in the book – that mental illness is not to be shunned, or ignored.
By Kay Kendall
The Winemaker Detective series has a huge following in its native France. To date there are twenty-three mysteries in the series, and a New York-based publishing house, Le French Book, is now translating all of the titles into English. Its founder, translator Anne Trager, has a passion for crime fiction equal to her love for France.
BACKSTABBING IN BEAUJOLAIS, published in English on November 19, is ninth in the series by French authors Jean-Pierre Alaux and Noël Balen. The tenth mystery—Late Harvest Havoc—comes out in December, together with a collection of the first three mysteries, The Winemaker Detective: An Omnibus.
Here, translator Anne Trager talks with The Big Thrill about bringing this beloved French series to an English-speaking audience.
Each book in the Winemaker Detective series is not only a mystery but an homage to wine and the art of making it. Has the series’ growing number of international readers begun to influence the mysteries’ plots?
For both authors, Jean-Pierre Alaux and Noël Balen, the main character has always had an international vocation. Benjamin Cooker is an expert winemaker whose father was British and mother French. He and his young assistant solve mysteries in wine country. The initial mysteries translated so far all take place in France, but next year, one will take place in Hungary. The authors confirm that their intention has always been to have the protagonist travel to wine countries around the world, and the growing international audience makes that choice more and more pertinent. The mysteries have been adapted to television, attracting an audience of over 4 million in France, Belgium, and Switzerland. The authors write two books a year and just told me they will be picking up the pace because of the French television series. We too are picking up the translation pace.
Crime Fiction Exploring the Issues of Botswana
Michael Stanley is the writing team of Michael Sears and Stanley Trollip. Both academics, Michael joined the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg in 1972 and still works there part time; Stanley has been a professor at a number of universities in the United States. They are old friends who share, among other things, a love of food, wine, and Africa’s wildlife areas. The spark for their first novel in the “Kubu” series, A Carrion Death, came to them on a game and bird watching trip to Botswana. They believe heat and desert can be just as threatening as the snows of Scandinavia, and describe their novels as “Sunshine Noir.”
Nowadays Stanley splits his time between Cape Town and Minneapolis, and Michael lives in Johannesburg.
After five “Kubu” novels—Detective “Kubu” Bengu, of the Botswana Criminal Investigation Department, is the affable, food-loving protagonist who stars in the series—what have been the highs and lows?
There have been so many highs! Getting the first book published by a great publisher (HarperCollins), getting excellent reviews, a suite of nominations for awards in the U.S. and the UK and winning the Barry Award for Death of the Mantis, which was also short-listed for an Edgar, meeting great authors and readers, and learning lots more about writing and even about ourselves. Perhaps best of all has been to watch Kubu grow through the books.
From the East End of London to Poland
By J. F. Penn
Anya Lipska is the critically acclaimed author of the Kiszka & Kershaw crime thriller series, set in the underworld of London’s Polish community. Her latest book is A DEVIL UNDER THE SKIN.
So who are Kiszka and Kershaw and what can we expect from the books?
My main character, Janusz Kiszka, was born in Poland but came over to London in the ’80s, when Poland was still under communism. Older readers may recall the Solidarity years when Poles were fighting for their freedom. He was caught up in all that and had some terrible experiences so he came to London, like many did, in the ’80s.
To begin with, Janusz did various jobs, worked in the building trade and did other casual work. Eventually he became a kind of private eye/tough guy/fixer, sorting things out for the Polish community in London.
In 2004 we got quite a big influx of Poles into the UK, when Poland joined the EU. Janusz has an ambivalent attitude to this new influx. On the one hand, he absolutely loves the fact that he can buy kielbasa, Polish sausage, and all of his favorite treats in the Polski shops that are popping up on every street corner in the East End. On the other hand, he used to be an exotic rarity, and now he’s just one of the crowd, another immigrant. He finds that a bit difficult to cope with.
Natalie Kershaw is my second character. I thought it was important to have a British character through which we could view the Polish, the slight strangeness to the UK audience of Poles, what they’re about, and this different culture and history. She’s a sharp-elbowed, very ambitious, young, female detective who’s a born-and-bred East Ender, a Cockney. The whole series really is about their shifting relationship. When she first comes up against Janusz, he is a suspect in a murder case, and she thinks “typical dodgy Eastern European, he’s probably a gangster”. But then she goes to his flat in Highbury, he bought it in a nice part of London when London was cheap, way back. And he’s cooking jam and she just doesn’t get it, because he’s actually an educated guy, even though he’s a big rough, tough, brick-outhouse-looking guy, he’s also got this very sensitive side.
The books are fast-paced thrillers, with a lot of humor in which people learn a bit about the Polish community in London. Janusz and Kershaw come into contact with each other during various investigations, sometimes he’s asking for her help, and sometimes she needs his help with an investigation that might have something to do with the Polish community or the wider Eastern European community in the East End of London. They have a growing relationship, essentially antagonists with an uneasy alliance. By book three, they are becoming friends.
By Layton Green
Buckle up, folks. Our next foray into international crime fiction takes us to the picturesque, enchanted, and (apparently) murderous world of Iceland, with bestselling author Viktor Arnar Ingolfsson. Viktor has published six mysteries and has been translated into twelve languages, and his short stories have appeared in numerous magazines and collections. His fifth novel, Daybreak, was the basis for the Icelandic TV series “Hunting Men,” and House of Evidence was nominated for the Glass Key prize, an award given by the Crime Writers Association of Scandinavia. The Flatey Enigma was nominated for the same prize.
In the stellar tradition of Nordic crime fiction, Viktor’s work is dark, twisty, and has a very evocative setting. Yet his novels have more than a touch of sly wit and humanity to them, which I found refreshing, and which set him apart from the crowd. You’ll encounter his unique voice in the interview below, and I hope you enjoy delving into his world as much as I did.
Thanks for taking the time to chat, Viktor. We’re thrilled to have you. This is the first time I’ve read an Icelandic crime novel, and I loved the setting. Can you tell us a bit about the area you are from?
Thank you for inviting me. It’s always fun to chat about crime fiction.
I live in Reykjavik, the capital and largest city in Iceland, which is a northern island in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean. According to the island’s geology, the southwest should belong to the North American continent, the rest to Europe. To simplify things the whole island is considered a part of Europe. It has a population of 330,000 and an area of 40,000 square miles, making it the most sparsely populated country in Europe. The language is Icelandic belonging to the Nordic branch of the Germanic languages.
From what I’ve read, Iceland appears to have a very low crime rate. I know your novels have been received very well, but in general, is crime fiction a popular genre in Iceland?
Crime fiction has always been a popular genre with Icelandic readers but until fifteen years ago people would only read foreign authors in translation or in the original languages. Icelandic crime fiction wasn’t considered plausible because of, as you mentioned, the low crime rate. But that was the wrong presumption. Successful crime writers have written series of books that take place in smaller communities than Iceland. For example, the English writer Colin Dexter wrote the Inspector Morse novels that took place in the city of Oxford with a population of 150,000. In his books, he killed many more people than there were actual murders in the city in the same period.
At the turn of the new century things changed in the Icelandic literary scene. Some writers made a serious attempt in the field of crime fiction and suddenly they became very popular at home and abroad. The reason was that they wrote well-crafted stories in the Nordic cime fiction genre. What makes stories in that field special is the social realism, a good plot, and sometimes a very clever humor.
Writing the Post-Colonial Crime Novel
Born in England, C.M. Elliott is the author of the Sibanda series, crime and wildlife adventure novels set in the African bush. She moved from Australia to Zimbabwe in 1977 and has lived in and around Hwange National Park for a number of years. Her first full length novel, Sibanda and the Rainbird, was published in 2013.
Congratulations on your second Detective Sibanda novel. Right from the start, I was intrigued by the title, SIBANDA AND THE DEATH’S HEAD MOTH, especially because of the creepy myths related to the death’s-head hawk moth with its skull-and-crossbones markings. How does the moth relate to the text here?
The death’s-head moth has stirred the imagination of the sensitive for centuries. The moth is said to have made its first appearance in Britain at the beheading of Charles I, a suitably spooky entrance. Bram Stoker stoked the spine chills by giving it a bit part in Dracula, and a starring role in The Silence of the Lambs cemented the insect into folk lore. In between, movies such as Un Chien Andalou, in which the surrealist Salvador Dali, had a hand, and the 1968 horror flick The Blood Beast Terror added grist to the growing legend.
The death’s-head moth has adapted into a clever and cunning hive burglar also known sometimes as the bee tiger. I chose it to feature in the title because not only does it have an evocative name but its ablity to disguise and deceive is an appropriate symbol for the murderer in the story–a wolf in sheep’s clothing.
We’ll get to the baddies later. First, how did Detective Inspector Sibanda evolve as a character?
Detective Inspector Sibanda started life in a short story, and I knew instantly that he was someone I wanted to spend more time with. He has so far been sparing with his personal details but I have learned this: He is tall, athletic, commanding, strikingly good looking, and saddled with a short fuse. He was brought up in a rural environment, went to a good boarding school, and soon after joining the police force was singled out for an overseas training scholarship in the UK–a blue-eyed boy, no less!
But something happened on his return to blot his copy book (he keeps this information particularly close to his chest), and he was posted to the sleepy outpost of Gubu in Matabeleland north on the boundary of a large national park. This hasn’t upset him at all, because along with his focus for solving crime comes a passion for wildlife (particularly elephants), birdlife and trees. The posting to Gubu allows him to indulge his love of the wilderness.
From French Citadels to the Arizona Desert
By J. F. Penn
Simon Toyne is the author of the Sunday Times bestselling Sanctus trilogy, a genre-stretching, end-of-days epic involving ancient history, modern technology, religious conspiracy, and rollercoaster-quick storytelling. Often described as the British Dan Brown, Toyne has written books that to date have been translated into 28 languages and published in 50 countries.
USA Today bestselling thriller author J. F.Penn interviewed Simon for The Big Thrill. You can watch the video discussion here or read the transcript below.
First of all, just give us an overview of THE SEARCHER so that people have a sense of what it’s about.
Solomon Creed is a man on an epic journey of redemption. He arrives at the beginning of this first book, clueless as to how he’s got there, walking down the middle of an Arizona Road towards a town called Redemption. Behind him is a burning plane and he’s got emergency vehicles screaming towards him.
He knows nothing about himself at all. All he has is this sensation that he is there to save a particular man, whose name he knows. But as the police cars pull up and they start to check him over, he mentions this guy and says, “I think I’m here to save him.” And the Chief of Police says, “We buried him this morning.” So that’s how the book kicks off, and the central mystery is how do you save a man who is already dead?
I’ve read the Sanctus trilogy, which I absolutely loved. That series featured the town of Ruin and now you have Redemption. How important is sense of place to your writing and tell us a bit more about Redemption?
Sense of place is hugely important for me because environment forges character. So if you don’t have a sense of the environment, then you are missing a lot of tricks, really, as regards character and setting. With Ruin, it was kind of accidental. I really tried to find a place that would fit the story and I just couldn’t find one. There was nothing that quite worked and I felt really bad about taking a real place and taking too many liberties with it to try to make it fit my story.
Roger Smith’s thrillers are published in eight languages and two are in development as movies in the U.S. His books have won the German Crime Fiction Award and been nominated for Spinetingler magazine’s Best Novel awards.
As compelling as ever, SACRIFICES is knotted like a noose that starts to tighten from the very first page. Wealth insulates Michael Lane and his family from South Africa’s violent crime epidemic until his disturbed teenage son, Christopher, commits a crime that throws the delicate balance into a spin-cycle of revenge and retribution that threatens to destroy Michael Lane and everything he loves.
I’m curious to know why SACRIFICES has only been published in South Africa two years after it was first released.
SACRIFICES was released digitally in July 2013, but 2015 is really its year. It was published in France and Germany early this year and most recently in South Africa. The reviews in France have been great. Le Monde called it “Crime and Punishment in South Africa,” which tickled me no end, and it made the KrimiZeit 10 Best for July, chosen by 21 critics from Germany, Austria and Switzerland, in the company of Don Winslow and James Ellroy.
Congratulations! Good company indeed! Now to the novel. Wealth and poverty are again in the spotlight–but there’s more to it. A general and pervasive lack of humanity seems to exist in this novel. Do you agree?
Yes. The characters in the book, like most South Africans, are numbed by crime which has eroded their empathy and humanity and makes them capable of acts of extraordinary callousness and brutality.
Perceiving China Through a Poetry-Spouting Sleuth
By Layton Green
For me, reading an advance copy of Qiu Xiaolong’s wonderful novel SHANGHAI REDEMPTION was the next best thing to getting on a plane and flying to the most populous city in the world. His crime series featuring Chief Inspector Chen of the Shanghai Police Department is full of true-to-life lagniappe woven expertly into the book, reminiscent of Andrea Camilleri’s hugely popular Inspector Montalbano series (whose protagonist, like Inspector Chen, has an addiction to the gastronomic delights of his home country) or Josef Škvorecký’s inimitable Lieutenant Boruvka, who works homicide cases in the Czech Republic while he navigates a Kafkaesque bureaucracy.
But Qiu Xiaolong has crafted a series that stands firmly on its own pedestal in the pantheon of international crime. Inspector Chen is a poetry-spouting sleuth who loves to munch on a warm Pork Belly Bun as much as he enjoys solving crimes in the mind-boggling sprawl of Shanghai, where futuristic skyscrapers straddle an old town whose gardens and winding byways still bear the imprimatur of ancient dynasties. According to Chief Inspector Chen, it is a city where “the streets seemed to be continuously rediscovered in the ever-changing fantasies of neon lights.”
Xiaolong’s biography could be the subject of a novel in its own right. Today he is an accomplished poet and novelist, but growing up in Socialist China, where nearly all literature was banned (unless one wanted to read the scintillating poems of Chairman Mao), he discovered literature by reading bootlegged copies of Sherlock Holmes and Jane Austen.
The Inspector Chen series has sold over a million copies and has been translated into twenty languages. It has been nominated for numerous awards, and the Wall Street Journal named Death of a Red Heroine as one of the five best political novels of all time. His latest novel, SHANGHAI REDEMPTION, drops on September 15.
Paul Mendelson began writing at school, when he should have been doing other things. On leaving school, he ran a fringe theatre company, performing classic plays, his own new writing, and revue shows. From there, he moved to the National Theatre, first front-of-house, then as an assistant director and, finally, as a playwright. His play You’re Quite Safe With Me was performed at the National Theatre when he was only 21. He also wrote for popular television shows.
Over the following years, Paul concentrated on non-fiction, producing a dozen titles on mind-sports such as bridge, poker, and casino games, as well as a weekly column on bridge for the Financial Times. He has interviewed business leaders, written about travel, and contributed on diverse subjects to many publications, in the U.K., the U.S., Australia, and South Africa. During this time, he also wrote Across the Veld—a monologue about the political and cultural transitions in South Africa, and numerous short stories.
After a number of ideas for books in other genres, he returned to his first love—crime fiction—and produced The First Rule of Survival, snapped up by Little, Brown and published last year. Lee Child said of the book: “An excellent, uncompromising crime thriller made even better by its setting.” The novel was an immediate success and was shortlisted for the most prestigious U.K. crime-fiction award—the Crime Writers’ Association Gold Dagger. The sequel, THE SERPENTINE ROAD, was released worldwide in April.
I asked Paul about his move to writing fiction, and his choice of South Africa for the backstory.
By J. F. Penn
John Connolly is the bestselling author of the Charlie Parker mysteries, the Samuel Johnson novels for middle-grade readers, and co-author of the Chronicles of the Invaders plus other works.
His latest book, A SONG OF SHADOWS, is the thirteenth book in the Charlie Parker mystery series.
USA Today bestselling thriller author J. F. Penn interviewed John for The Big Thrill.
Your latest book, A SONG OF SHADOWS, weaves European history into a string of murders in Maine, all while Charlie Parker recovers from devastating injuries. How much of the story is based on historical truth? Why did this particular aspect of Nazi history interest you?
My eye had simply been caught by the ongoing attempts of the United States to extradite an alleged former Nazi named Hans Breyer to Europe to face war crimes charges. (Breyer died last year just before he could be extradited.) I began to wonder how many of these men and women were left, and how seriously the hunt for them was being taken.
Out of that research came a lot of surprising details about just how little energy the Allies invested in bringing these people to trial, and how the British and American authorities protected them, mainly in order to milk them for intelligence about the Soviets. I found it fascinating, and just hoped that readers would find it fascinating too.
It then turned out to be very topical because just as the book came out Oskar Gröning, the “bookkeeper of Auschwitz,” went on trial, and I suppose that the seventieth anniversary of the liberation of the concentration camps also reminded people of what had taken place in them.
I suppose I was also aware that it’s really hard to find anything new to say about the Nazis and the Holocaust, so in that sense I was a bit reluctant to take on the subject. Yet those old men and women nagged at me, and their cases found a resonance in one of the recurring questions in the Parker books: are we defined only by the wrongs that we do, and are some wrongs so terrible that they cannot be forgiven?