Where Global Forces Meet Ordinary Lives
For more than 30 years, Michael Niemann has been interested “in the sites where ordinary people’s lives and global processes intersect,” and he has traveled and written widely about Africa and Europe as part of his academic work in international studies. Along the way, he has helped students of all ages and backgrounds to understand their role in constructing the world in which they live and to take this role seriously.
So it may seem strange that Michael turned to writing thrillers, but his experiences—particularly in Africa—inform his work and lend a richness to his characters.
His debut novel, Legitimate Business, first published in 2014 and reissued last year, featured Valentin Vermeulen, an investigator for the UN. It’s set against the sandy hopelessness of Zam Zam camp in Darfur. The sequel, Illicit Trade, also released last year, addressed human trafficking from Kenya. This month the third Vermeulen thriller, ILLEGAL HOLDINGS, comes out. It takes place in Mozambique against the backdrop of the vexed issue of land rights. Vermeulen is auditing a small aid agency, which has apparently misappropriated five million dollars, but the corruption goes much further than the missing money.
You are clearly familiar with Mozambique and understand its complex issues. What made you decide to set one of your novels there?
Mozambique was the second African country I ever visited. I spent time at the Centro de Estudos Africanos in Maputo, the capital, as part of my dissertation research. While there, I also had a chance to roam the city. Despite the poverty and deprivations of the civil war that was still going on, I met some of the most warm and generous people there. It’s also a country with a fascinating history. Before colonization, it was part of a vast Indian Ocean trading world. Colonization by the Portuguese was brutal and began earlier than elsewhere in southern Africa. Their first settlements there predate even the arrival of Jan van Riebeeck in Cape Town. Its struggle for independence was led by Eduardo Mondlane, an assistant professor of anthropology from Syracuse University.
The second reason was the worrisome development of foreign land acquisitions on the African continent after the 2007/08 crash. Mozambique is one of the countries where biofuel companies, hedge funds and others have bought vast stretches of land. I thought that was a suitable topic for a thriller.
Fascinated By the Darkness
Martin Steyn got into writing because of Stephen King’s The Dark Half, and then into writing crime fiction because he was fascinated by what motivated serial killers to hunt strangers for pleasure and how they did it. He began by reading books on the subject, while scanning the local paper for reports on a serial killer dumping the bodies of young boys in the dunes not far from where he lived.
Martin studied psychology and criminology at the University of South Africa. After that he studied serial killers and profiling in earnest, following it up with research into the investigation of violent crime in South Africa.
In 2014 Martin’s first crime novel set in Cape Town, Donker Spoor, was published in Afrikaans and the following year it was awarded an important prize for South African suspense fiction. Earlier this year the English version, DARK TRACES, came out in South Africa, and it has just been released in the US.
Martin places a premium on realism, and it shows in the book. But his character study of his protagonist, Jan Magson, and the people caught up in the killer’s wake are riveting.
Each New Novel Is the First And The Last
By Layton Green
I’ve never met anyone who loves books and isn’t a fan of Russian literature, to some degree. Who doesn’t love Crime and Punishment, War and Peace, The Master and Margarita, or watching the classic film version of Doctor Zhivago after reading the novel? It must be quite daunting to be a Russian novelist, with all that greatness swirling in the air, but I’m thrilled to present someone this month who is a living embodiment of that great literary tradition.
Dubbed the “Russian Crime Queen,” Polina Dashkova is modern-day Russia’s most successful author of suspense novels (and possibly the most successful, period). She’s sold 50 million copies of her books, and her work has been translated into German, Chinese, Dutch, French, Polish, Spanish, and English. She’s also a fascinating person to interview, and our discussion ranged among topics as diverse as serial killers, her literary influences, advice for writers, and Polina’s new release in English, MADNESS TREADS LIGHTLY.
Polina, thank you so much for taking the time to chat. First off, I’m curious about your background. Are you from the same area of Siberia in which MADNESS TREADS LIGHTLY is set?
Thank you for your questions. No, I was born in Moscow.
How did you get your start as a writer?
I began to write poems and fairy tales when I was six.
I graduated from the Maxim Gorky Literature Institute. When I was a student, I wrote an epic poem with lots of characters and a complicated plot. My poetry teacher told me that one day I would write novels and become a very famous novelist.
I wrote my first big novel when I was 36, a thriller, Blood of the Unborn. I took out the telephone directory and phoned a few publishing houses. One of them invited me to bring in my manuscript the next day. The editor, a slim, very tired man, took my thick, typewritten manuscript and told me to wait a month or two. They’d call me. They called three days later and said they’d publish my book.
The book appeared three months later, and the next day I woke up famous.
You’ve sold over 50 million books! That’s incredibly impressive. Have you changed as a writer now that you are so phenomenally successful?
Yes and no.
Yes—because life is always changing. I write each new novel as if it were the first and the last. Every novel changes me. Usually when I finish, I feel happy, tired, devastated, and afraid I won’t be able to start the next novel. But time passes, and step by step, word by word, page by page, the next novel begins. Each time it’s not just a new story, but a new me.
No—because I have my own writing style and certain principles. For example, there has to be a happy ending.
Why do you think your work resonates so well with readers?
Success is a mysterious thing. All I know is that I try to do my best and I respect my readers.
I’m a huge fan of Russian literature. I think most of us are! Who are some of your favorite modern Russian crime writers, and who do you consider your literary influences?
To tell the truth, my favorite Russian crime writers are not very modern: Fyodor Dostoyevsky with his Brothers Karamazov, Demons, and Crime and Punishment; Anton Chekhov with The Shooting Party; Mark Aldanov with The Key and The Escape; and Vladimir Nabokov with Laughter in the Dark, The Eye, and King, Queen, Knave.
As to literary influences, when I began writing novels, my idea was to write as nobody before ever had.
Can you tell us a bit about your body of work? How many novels have you written, and do they follow a common theme?
I have written 18 novels, all very different. Five of them are about serial killers, including two about the years of Stalin and his repressions, the beginning of the Second World War (surely Stalin and Hitler were the main mass serial killers in the world).
I wrote spy, political, and historical thrillers about the Cold War, the Russian Revolution, and the Civil War. I studied a huge number of archival documents and memoirs. In my novels, the past intertwines with the present, and real historical events seem incredible.
MADNESS TREADS LIGHTLY is a fantastic book, and I understand that you have a special connection to the story. Do you care to elaborate?
Thank you so much! When my readers think I have a special connection to the story, that’s the highest praise. It means I really did my best.
A heavier question: Has your perspective on serial killers changed in any way after researching and writing MADNESS TREADS LIGHTLY?
Yes. I’ve understood the huge difference between real and literary or cinematic serial killers.
I understand that you once visited Siberian prisons. How did that experience affect you? Did it help inform the novel?
The smell of that place was very special—the smell of hopelessness, but eventually it stopped affecting me, at least no more than any life experience.
For you, what is the hardest part of crafting a novel? The easiest?
The hardest part is the beginning, the first 20-30 pages; the easiest is reading and editing the written text.
What do you like to do when not writing?
I like to laze, meet my friends and chat, walk around the city or in the parks, watch movies, travel, read on the couch the whole day. Sometimes, when I’m very tired or nervous, I like to do something with my hands—sew or knit. It calms me, like meditation. I learned how to do those things in the Soviet era, when I was a young girl and getting clothes was a great problem.
Do you have any advice for new writers?
If you want to write, write.
You can write every day and force yourself to produce. That’s not bad, but if you write under compulsion, too much and too rapidly, you are sure to lose quality. Sometimes it’s better to take a break.
Leo Tolstoy said, “If you can live without writing, don’t write.”
How would you like to be remembered as a writer?
If anyone 50 years later opens one of my books, reads it to the last page, and doesn’t regret the time spent, that will be enough.
What can you tell us about any upcoming releases? What new projects do you have planned?
I’m writing a new novel, a historical thriller. The plot is based on real events that took place in Moscow in 1977.
Murder Close to Home
Kwei Quartey is the author of the Darko Dawson series that follows the exploits of a police detective in Accra, Ghana. He is a doctor who lives in Los Angeles, but he spends a lot of time in Ghana researching his novels.
Kwei’s books have been praised by critics as well as leading mystery writers like Michael Connelly, who said of his work: “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.” Kwei’s debut, Wife of the Gods, was an L.A. Times best seller, and was followed by Children of the Street, Murder at Cape Three Points, and Gold of Our Fathers. All reflect strong local themes—witchcraft, homeless children, oil, gold—and have taken Darko to different places in Ghana. In DEATH BY HIS GRACE, everything happens in Accra itself, set against the hyper-religious atmosphere of the Pentecostal churches. In fact, the murder is much too close to home as far as Darko is concerned, in more ways than one.
DEATH BY HIS GRACE is a “classic” mystery in the sense that Katherine Vanderpuye’s body is discovered in the house with no sign of forced entry. Darko immediately deduces that the murderer is known to her. It now becomes a matter of discovering who had motive and opportunity, and narrowing it down from there. It’s a rather different style from your previous books, Kwei. Did you set out to do something different, or did the story just naturally develop that way?
I wanted to do something different. I felt I needed a change in style and substance from the previous novels in the series to “shake things up.” I find it fascinating that my editor at Soho Press, Juliet Grames, had independently pictured the format of the book the same way I had decided to structure it.
Lonely Funerals in Amsterdam
On holiday in the Canary Islands, German lawyer Britta Böhler sat on a balcony gazing out to sea, nursing a Rosé and reading a Nicci French thriller. Suddenly she thought: “Why not?” She wanted to write crime novels, but maybe not by herself. “I immediately thought of Rodney (Bolt) as a partner,” she says, “even though we had never talked about it and I had no idea if he wanted to write crime books as well. I thought he would probably think I was crazy.”
Little did she know, Rodney Bolt also secretly harbored a desire to write crime fiction. “I never quite took the step, because I was nervous about my ability to come up with good plots,” he says, “and my lack of background in the field.” A South African writer of travel stories and biographies, he and Britta had met years before through a mutual friend in Amsterdam, where they have both lived since the 1990s. So when Britta’s email proposition arrived, completely out of the blue, Rodney replied within minutes. “Fantastic idea,” he wrote. “Let’s do it!”
And that’s how the collaborative author Britta Bolt was born in 2010. Two years later, the first book in the Posthumus Trilogy was published—first in Dutch under the title Heldhaftig. LONELY GRAVES, the English version, was released in 2014. (Although originally written in English, the book was translated when a Dutch publisher made the first offer, and has since also appeared in German.) Lives Lost (2015) and Deadly Secrets (2016) completed the trilogy.
Writing a Game Changer Together
Frank Owen is the writing partnership of Diane Awerbuck and Alex Latimer, both South African authors well-known for their work in other genres. Diane has won the Commonwealth Writers Prize (Africa and the Caribbean) for her novel Gardening at Night and is a teacher, reviewer, and poet. Alex wrote The Space Race for adults, and also writes and illustrates children’s books. An unlikely combination to write a dystopian and totally scary alternative history thriller set in the United States? Don’t judge until you’ve read SOUTH. Lauren Beukes and Sarah Lotz loved it—Lotz called it a “post-apocalyptic game changer.”
This is a U.S. where the civil war didn’t happen until much later, when unification of the North and the South became more a matter of political ambition than of policy. By the time the war does happen, it has many modern warfare horrors available and spirals into germ warfare. The North uses the wind and multiple mutated viruses to destroy the South, and also builds a wall across the continent to enforce the separation. The world that Diane and Alex build on this foundation is as real and bitter as McCarthy’s The Road.
You both come from rather different backgrounds. How did you come to write together, and what motivated this unusual premise for a novel set in the U.S.?
AL: When I was releasing my first novel, The Space Race, I’d just finished reading Diane’s heavy-hitting but wonderful book, Home Remedies, and so as a fan, I asked her to interview me at the launch. With some bribery, she agreed. We do come from different backgrounds, but we realized early on that our interests are quite similar. The idea to write together was just for fun, initially, because it’s difficult to know how that process works without getting into it.
The premise for SOUTH came from chatting over coffee during a particularly cold and windy Cape Town winter. Everyone was sick and had been for what seemed like months. The idea of wind-borne viruses was literally in the air. But at the same time, I think the premise of building walls and keeping people apart was also floating about in the global zeitgeist. We built our wall across America three years before Trump used it in his election campaign. Fiction has a hard time keeping up with reality.
As one-half of a writing couple myself, I’m naturally intrigued to know how you actually write together—by chapter, character, draft? And is there any significance behind the name Frank Owen?
DA: Frank is a name from a side of my family, and Owen came from Alex’s. So the ancestors are doing their bit there.
AL: I don’t really think of our collaboration as two writers writing the same story. Diane’s writing style and my writing style are quite different—so the process was more about combining my skills with hers rather than sharing the load. I’ve always been intrigued by pace and plot, whereas Diane’s writing is much more lyrical. We tried a few ways of working, but in the end we’d just chat about where the story was going and then I’d put down the first draft of a chapter and Diane would double it, concentrating on character and atmosphere. We wanted a fast-paced action narrative told in a “literary” style.
Your lead characters Dyce and his brother are heading for the sea on the run from a powerful family, while Vida is trying to save her mother and her mother’s knowledge of natural remedies. They have different agendas, but join forces from necessity, despite the ongoing tension between them. Is it an axiom that this type of thriller needs to be more character driven than plot driven?
DA: Most of us readers are interested in characters as people. I definitely read novels because I hope to find answers to all sorts of dilemmas. Complex, believable characters are a way to talk about serious issues without tub-thumping.
AL: We were quite conscious about spending time doing both character and plot. My default would be plot first— but then who cares what happens in a novel if they don’t care about who it’s happening to? It’s a tricky balance.
SOUTH is a dark vision. People are automatically suspicious of any stranger who may be the carrier of a new and usually fatal disease. There is little cooperation with the exceptions of one community which protects itself and generally excludes strangers, and a hospice-type community where everyone is already sick. Yet many of your characters—including Dyce and Vida—are trying to help and support others. Would you call yourselves optimists about human nature, and was exploring the behavior of intrinsically good people in intolerable circumstances part of your theme?
AL: I’m certainly an optimist about human nature. Why can’t we all just get along? For me apocalyptic fiction is all about whittling away the parts of life that are non-essential. There’s no dry-cleaning to be done, no dog food to buy, no peeling fascia boards that need attention. You get right into the essence of a person. But as dark as that sounds, we realized early on that every single character in the book had to be hopeful in some way—because without that hope they’d already be dead. It’s a lovely space to explore human nature and the will to survive.
DA: It’s something that fascinates me, and the only answer I’ve found is Viktor Frankl’s, in Man’s Search for Meaning. What makes one person give up, and another keep fighting? Even medical doctors call it the will to live: they don’t know exactly what it is, either—but we all know it when we see it.
The forcibly divided country you envisage in the novel is somewhat reminiscent of apartheid South Africa before the democratic elections. Was this a deliberate part of the construction of SOUTH?
AL: It was deliberate and unavoidable. As South African authors there’s really no getting away from the things that have shaped us. We were quite torn about setting this book in the U.S.: on one hand, we obviously wanted a wider readership and an American setting provides that. But we also liked the idea of exploring the relatively familiar themes of Apartheid through foreign eyes. What does a divided society look like when you lay it over the familiar American landscape? And can that provide new insights into segregation, generally?
DA: We’re writing what we know, of course. But America has its own fine history of officially legislated and socially present prejudice, and we’re seeing that recidivism happening again because it’s condoned by people in power.
A lot of research went into making SOUTH coherent and believable. It needed to cover geography, viruses, mushrooms, climate. How did you handle this aspect?
AL: Geographically, we relied on Google Earth and Google Street View. To be able to click on an open stretch of forgotten highway and be transported right there was valuable— and something you can’t get from books. You get these strange atmospheric details, like how far the fences are from the road, what sort of architecture you’d see, how dense the foliage is, what sort of trees there are, what color the dirt is, the power lines and streetlights, what color the road markings are.
We also did extensive research into the kinds of plants and trees you’d find in specific areas of Colorado—so that as the characters move through the landscape, the landscape changes with them in a realistic way.
But I feel that the foundation of all of the research was this very strong sense that America is a genre of its own. The whole world has been culturally colonized by the US. We’ve all grown up with prairie landscapes, Coke ads, The A-Team, Mount Rushmore, Clint Eastwood. It’s often the case that we know more about America than we know about our own country. So we’re not starting from zero when we set a book in the U.S. The research we do is a fleshing-out of that innate knowledge of America.
DA: We also have tame American beta-readers to catch any egregious errors, and so far we have been absolutely spot-on. But the thing is the feeling, after all. Readers will forgive a minor detail if it’s happening in a coherent and cohesive internal universe.
Could you tell us about the music you commissioned for the book?
DA: One of the ways people escape the present or hold on to the past or imagine the future is through music, and we were listening to a lot of lonesome cowboy songs when we were writing. It took me back to the South African stuff from the eighties and nineties—Afrikaner protest music, Die Gereformeerde Blues Band and Valiant Swart—that hardcore, quite literary but also folky music with its direct bloodline going back to the Dutch guys writing a hundred years before that, and the beautiful melancholy that went with it. And then we thought: We know musicians! So we ended up commissioning some of that dirty cowboy vibe from the vastly talented Gene Kierman. Two songs are on our website-southvsnorth.com, but he’s also the front man for Miss Texas 1977.
Despite the wall, it seems there’s an escape to the North. Or is there? Is NORTH in our future?
AL: We always saw this story as exploring both sides of the wall. I think there’s wonderful intrigue built into SOUTH, where everything they know about the North is rumor. Everyone hates the North so much, but there’s also a sense of it being a kind of futuristic heaven—and that’s difficult to hate. A huge part of these books, for me, was the ending. We had the ending for NORTH right from the very start—right from when we were beginning to plot SOUTH. So of course we had to write it. NORTH will be released in 2018.
DA: Keep an eye on the website—and do listen to the absolutely brilliant original music we commissioned from Gene Kierman.
Frank’s Twitter handle is @FrankOwenAuthor.
Finishing the Job
Arthur Kerns writes thrillers set around the world and featuring a free-lance protagonist, Hayden Stone, who gets into a lot of trouble trying to sort out the bad guys. His methods are often unconventional, so the trouble is as much with the powers-that-be as the terrorists themselves. Both want him out of the way. Currently there are three books in the series: The Riviera Contract, The Yemen Contract, and THE AFRICAN CONTRACT, all published by Diversion Books.
Following graduation from college, Arthur did a stint with the U.S. Navy amphibious forces, and then joined the FBI with a career in counterintelligence and counterterrorism. After the FBI, he consulted with the intelligence community and other U.S. government entities. His foreign assignments for them have taken him all over the world. I asked Arthur about his career and how it led to his writing.
You have firsthand experience of the type of work that you write about. How much has that experience helped you with your novels, and how much did you need to brush aside to keep things fast-paced and exciting?
My plots and story lines are original and I make an effort to avoid using any cases I worked on or had any knowledge of. The last thing I want to do is unintentionally reveal any sources or methods that might put a person’s life in jeopardy. That said, I do enjoy bringing in the flavor of intelligence work and use many of the problems and challenges people in the intelligence game face on a daily basis as a background. Much of the work can be deadly boring, like sitting in a car on surveillance or listening to a wiretap. Then when the action begins, things get interesting.
A Literary Thriller Taking on Venezuela
By Layton Green
A long time ago, in what now seems like a galaxy far, far away, I was a young lawyer in a corporate law firm writing a novel in what stolen hours I could find, usually late at night or on weekend mornings. Chasing the dream, I decided to quit my job and move to an island off the coast of Venezuela. The island was called Isla de Margarita, a little slice of troubled paradise that has provided a lifetime of literary fodder. But that’s a story for another time. I fell in love with the country and finished a good bit of my novel in the four months I lived there. When I learned that a decorated Venezuelan novelist—a political exile living in the United States—had written a literary thriller set in Caracas called THE CONSPIRACY, I jumped at the chance to interview him. Though my expectations were high, the novel exceeded them, as did the dialogue with the author. Israel Centeno has given us a frank and fascinating glimpse into his literary career, the circumstances that led to his exile, and the state of affairs of modern Venezuela.
Thanks for taking the time to chat, Israel. We’re thrilled to have you. Can you tell us a bit about your background and how you came to live in the United States?
Caramba! That’s a complicated story. To make it simple, I have been a writer for over 30 years. For a long time I made literature in my own country. My first book came in 1991, my first political thriller. At that moment instead of causing me problems, that novel launched me, it won me the equivalent of our national prize for literature, and established me as a writer. That’s how my career as a published writer began, and that’s continued now for a long time, though I’ve had a lot of challenges. I’ve written more than just thrillers; I combined many genres to participate in the writing of the modern novel. Critics have called it gothic realism. A realism where elements of gothic literature appear in the story. More classical elements. Later, at some point in 2000, it occurred to me to write a novel about someone who had come to power based on the promise of leftist revolution. Really I was thinking a lot about how Hitler came to power, and about Chavez too. Something I had begun to address in my book Exile in the Bowery. About how the radical left had raised arms and essentially become as fundamentalist as the far right. Writing that book had consequences for me. The president himself used it as proof that people had it out for him. A government minister I knew thought that I was relishing in an attempted assassination attempt on him in the 1960s. I was labeled as a traitor, with all that means. In leftist Venezuela, being labeled a traitor is like being called that by the mafia. I was beaten in the street, they attempted to stab me, they threatened my daughters, and broke my electronics when I would return to the country from literary conferences. I was a dangerous man. They considered me a rat. I had no other option but to leave my country and seek exile. That’s how I came to the United States, where I came into contact with City of Asylum, Pittsburgh, a nonprofit organization that has been essential to my stay here, and which commissioned the translation of this novel into English.
A Touch of Clairvoyance
Among Norway’s most popular exports are thrillers written by Jo Nesbø. And yet, English readers had to wait almost 20 years to become acquainted with author Anne Holt, who Nesbø calls “the godmother of Norwegian crime fiction.” Her first book translated into English, 1222, was shortlisted for Edgar, Shamus, and Macavity Awards in 2012, but it was actually her eighth novel featuring lesbian police officer Hanne Wilhelmsen. Holt has also written several standalone thrillers and another series, which follows the duo Johanne Vik and Adam Sturbø. One of these books, Fear Not, was recently adapted for Swedish television as Modus.
Her latest release is ODD NUMBERS, the ninth and penultimate installment of the Hanne Wilhelmsen series. With the explosive start of a deadly bombing directed against the Islamic Cooperation Council headquarters in Oslo, it’s a race against time to identify those responsible before another attack—perhaps during the 17th of May Constitution Day celebrations. Her in-depth exploration into extremism in all its forms gives the complicated storyline a powerful urgency. Not surprising with Anne Holt’s background as a journalist, a lawyer for the Oslo Police Department, and even a brief stint as Norway’s Minister of Justice.
Telling a Captivating Story
Michael Niemann kicked off his career as a mystery writer with a story featuring UN investigator Valentin Vermeulen, “Africa Always Needs Guns,” which was published in the 2012 MWA Anthology. In his previous life as a university professor, he wrote a book on regionalism and numerous articles on global and African issues. He has traveled widely through Europe and Africa. A native German, he now lives in southern Oregon with his wife, who keeps him grounded, and his dog, who gets him up early (presumably to write).
His debut novel, Legitimate Business, first published in 2014 and reissued this year, continues the exploits of Vermeulen. It’s a tight thriller set against the sandy hopelessness of Zam Zam camp in Darfur. The sequel, ILLICIT TRADE, is just out in the U.S. Vermeulen is now based at UN headquarters in New York, and it looks as though he’s settled down to a quiet life. But forged UN letters of introduction for several Kenyans to get visas for the US alert him to the illicit human trade.
Michael, you have published in a variety of respected academic publications. What motivated you to turn from your academic writing to fiction?
It was a gradual shift. Writing academic pieces definitely has its rewards. Creating a logical argument in support of a proposition can be as much fun as plotting a thriller. After I took two creative writing courses from my colleagues, I understood the importance of telling a captivating story. I missed that in academic writing. Another downside to academic writing is that one’s audience is rather narrow, mostly colleagues in the same specialized academic field. As writers, whether academic or fiction, we want to reach readers because we hope our story resonates with them. Writing fiction allows me to get out of the confines of academia and reach readers who wouldn’t have looked for my articles. I still do research for each book, but I enjoy the storytelling aspect in fiction a lot more.
They say “write what you know.” Philip Donlay takes this a bit further. “Write what you’re passionate about.” He’s been flying since he was 16, jets since he turned 20. Google tells us that if he started today at the age of 20, he’d be one of the youngest jet pilots in the world. But he started years ago and spent the ensuing time piloting almost anything with a jet engine—big-to-small—around the world.
When Donlay writes about flying, be it a jet, fixed or rotary wing plane, he knows what he’s doing. And if he describes a place like the frozen Canadian lake near Manitoba—featured in SECONDS TO MIDNIGHT—which is less than five hundred miles south of the Arctic Circle, he has likely been there, smelled the air and caught fish in the lake.
Better still, Donlay has, as this reporter’s old boss used to say, “Gotta nose for da story.”
SECONDS TO MIDNIGHT could have been inspired by the headlines in January’s news. And that’s where our conversation started.
“Did you know that scientists who control the Doomsday Clock just moved the countdown to potential global catastrophe 30 seconds closer to midnight?” Donlay asked.
Two poor Kenyan men visiting the U.S. are found dead, one in jail, one on the street. Both used forged UN documents to enter the country. Valentin Vermeulen’s superiors have no interest in the plight of undocumented immigrants, but they want him to stop the fraud. The clues take Vermeulen from New York City to Newark, where he riles a woman known as “The Broker,” then to Vienna.
Earle Jackson, a small-time hustler and the last person to speak with one of the dead Kenyans, has taken the man’s passport and money. He also finds a note listing an address in Newark, where his efforts to cash in on the situation go awry. Fleeing for his life, Jackson flies to Nairobi using the dead man’s passport.
Vermeulen and Jackson have chanced upon a criminal network more extensive and vicious than either could have imagined. To survive, Vermeulen must do more than sever a few links. He must find the mastermind at the top.
Author Michael Niemann recently discussed his latest thriller, ILLICIT TRADE, with The Big Thrill:
What do you hope readers will take away from this book?
First, I hope readers will enjoy the book. Fiction is all about entertainment. I hope I succeeded there. Second, readers will visit different parts of the world. Hopefully, they’ll learn something new about those places. Third, the nature of the crime is unfortunately very real. I hope that readers gain an awareness of these machinations world wide.
The Bloodthirsty Gods
Nigerian writer Leye Adenle has a pretty impressive pedigree. His grandfather, Oba Adeleye Adenle, was a writer and a king of Oshogbo in northwestern Nigeria, and Leye is named after him. He is also an actor and featured in Ola Rotimi’s wonderfully titled Our Husband Has Gone Mad Again.
A strong new voice with a different perspective, Leye has written a variety of short stories, and recently released his debut novel, Easy Motion Tourist, set in Lagos. One of his stories appears in the recently released Sunshine Noir collection, and several can be read on his website.
I met him at the Theakston’s Old Peculiar Crime Writing Festival in Harrogate this year, shared a great panel on Murder Out of Africa with him, and had an opportunity to ask him about his darkly intriguing EASY MOTION TOURIST.
Leye now lives and writes in London.
Would you tell us about yourself and how you came to write EASY MOTION TOURIST?
The idea came from a conversation with my mum and two of my brothers. We were discussing and debating the many dead female bodies that turn up mutilated and naked on highways where they’d been dumped after their organs had apparently being harvested for use in magic rituals. We were discussing the tendency for the victims to be labeled prostitutes, even if no investigations are carried out. Why do the bloodthirsty gods prefer sex workers?
A Visceral Perspective
By Layton Green
We’re off to the fringe of Eastern Europe this month, discovering the fascinating world of modern Poland through the fiercely intelligent writing of Zygmunt Miloszewski. Not a writer to shy away from big questions and taboo subjects, Zygmunt tackles the hidden world of domestic abuse in RAGE, the third novel in his crime series featuring Warsaw prosecutor Teodor Szacki. Though I’ve read plenty of legal thrillers, Szacki assumes an almost detective-like role in the investigations, including visiting the crime scenes right from the start. It makes for a visceral perspective and a thrilling book.
Zygmunt’s first two novels featuring prosecutor Szacki have received international recognition, making him the #1 bestselling author in Poland and one of the world’s best-known contemporary Polish writers. Zygmunt has won the Polityka Passport for Polish literature, the High Calibre Award for the best Polish crime novel (twice!), and earned two nominations to the French Prix du Polar Européen for the best European crime novel.
I really appreciate you taking time out of your busy schedule to chat, Zygmunt. First off, I thought RAGE was fantastic, and I can’t wait to get my hands on the first two in the series. Before I ask you a few questions about the novel, let’s chat about your background. This is International Thrills, after all. Which part of Poland are you from, and how does it inform your writing?
Thanks! It’s always nice and surprising when someone appreciates your work from thousands of miles away. There’s something magical about literature in translation, about the way it crosses borders and cultures. I was born and raised in Warsaw, also known as Europe’s ugliest capital, and I still live there. Is it different from other places in Poland? I guess it; the whole country is trying to catch up with Western civilization as fast as possible, and Warsaw is the monstrous locomotive at the head of it, with an energy that’s remarkable and cruelly unforgiving all at once. The reasons for the city’s ugliness lie in its difficult past (you only have to Google images of Warsaw 1945, Warsaw 1968, and Warsaw 1981, and you’ll understand) and I guess that being raised there, being forced to walk across the scars of history on a daily basis, means that I’m always looking over my historical shoulder. I’m always asking, “but what happened before that?” Our present and future actions are usually more closely connected to our personal and national history than we’re ready to admit.
Paige Nick has been a copywriter for 22 years and writes columns for South Africa’s national Sunday paper—The Sunday Times. A Million Miles From Normal was the title of her debut novel. She is one-third of the Helena S. Paige threesome who write the internationally successful “A Girl Who Walks Into…” series of choose your own erotic adventure novels. DEATH BY CARBS is something quite different—a murder mystery that is intriguing, satirical, and a huge amount of fun. Be sure not to have your mouth full while you laugh! Shortlisted for the Nielsen’s Booksellers’ Choice Award, it’s a perfect holiday season read.
DEATH BY CARBS revolves around dieting and how it affects people for good or ill. The dedication is “to anyone who has ever struggled to lose weight, and knows how murderous it can be.” What attracted you to this as a theme for a murder mystery?
I’ve been trying to lose weight for as long as I can remember. Haven’t we all? But that wasn’t what attracted me to this subject. I became fascinated by the idea of all these people that have it in for Prof Noakes. The more I thought about it, the longer the list grew, and the funnier I found it. So that was the itch I had to scratch. I needed to find out who wanted him dead enough to actually go out there and do it?
Professor Tim Noakes, who popularized the Banting diet in South Africa, is a big celebrity here just as he is in your book. In fact I read a newspaper headline about him while I was reading DEATH BY CARBS. On the first page of the book, we are introduced to Detective September who is investigating Noakes’ murder and cheating on the Noakes diet with donuts. Yet Professor Noakes not only went along with a humorous book around his diet and his death, but he even blurbed it: ‘I was breathless right until the end’. How did you get him on board?
For some crazy reason, I only decided to ask The Prof for permission once the book was written. So I had a lot riding on his response. But he’s a real gentleman and really understands marketing. When I first got in touch to explain that I had written a book about him and wanted his permission, he said he would never get in the way and I should go ahead. I told him he dies on the first page, so he may want to read it before he gave me permission. At that he said I’d better come in and meet him.
The Fascinating Conflicts of 1912 Mombasa
Annamaria Alfieri is the author of three critically acclaimed historical mysteries set in South America and two novels set in Kenya just after 1910. The Africa series follows the Commandments—or rather the breaking of them, which is great, because it means we can look forward to another eight. The first book, Strange Gods, takes place in the burgeoning British East African town of Nairobi in 1911. The Richmond Times said Alfieri writes “with the flair of Isak Dinesen and Beryl Markham, the cunning of Agatha Christie and Elspeth Huxley and the moral sensibility of our times.” The novels capture the beauty and the danger of the African wild, and the complexities resulting from imposing a culture on a foreign land. It’s also a love story between two rather different young people–Justin Tolliver, a young policeman, and Vera McIntosh, the daughter of a missionary.
Just released, the second book in the series, THE IDOL OF MOMBASA, continues their story a year later. Justin and Vera are now married and Justin has been posted to Mombasa. Here there’s a three way cultural conflict between the British colonialists, the local people, and the city’s Arab inhabitants. And there are deep religious and legal conflicts as well. The British have abolished slavery, but the Arabs still practice it.
Early in the book, a runaway slave is murdered, and then the main suspect, an Arab who trades in ivory—among other even less savory commodities—suffers the same fate. For nefarious reasons, no one is interested in tracking down the murderers except Justin and Vera, and Justin’s sergeant, Kwai.
A world traveler, Annamaria takes a deep interest in the history of the places she visits, and she admits that she’s addicted to Africa. She lives in New York City, and is a past president of the New York Chapter of Mystery Writers of America.
I asked Annamaria about the new book in the series.
By Layton Green
As a reader, it’s always interesting to me when an author veers off in a new direction and writes something outside of his or her comfort zone. Is this the book, perhaps, that the author always wanted to write? Or was meant to write? It becomes even more interesting when the author has gained international acclaim for her prior work.
Such is the case with Anita Nair: a prize winning, internationally acclaimed novelist, playwright, essayist, lecturer, and literary personality from Bangalore, India. Her novel Ladies Coupe, published in the United States by St. Martin’s Griffin, is a feminist classic which has been published in thirty languages around the world. Her novel IDRIS: KEEPER OF THE LIGHT was short-listed for The Hindu Literary Prize; the screenplay for the movie adaptation of her novel Lessons in Forgetting won the Indian National Film Award for 2012; and Anita was awarded the Central Sahitya Akademi award for her contribution to Children’s Literature in 2013.
Anita has never shied away from the underbelly of life, and now she has focused her considerable talents on a noir crime series set in Bangalore and featuring Inspector Borei Gowda. The second novel in the series, CHAIN OF CUSTODY, just came out, and in preparation I interviewed Anita about her career and the lead title in the series, A Cut-Like Wound. From this reader’s viewpoint, Anita didn’t miss a step in her transition to writing crime novels. A Cut-Like Wound is a very layered read that involves a nail-biting search for a serial killer stalking the heat-soaked streets of Bangalore during Ramadan.
Thanks for taking the time to chat, Anita. I loved A CUT-LIKE WOUND and I’m eager to ask a few questions about the novel. But first, why don’t you tell us a bit about where you’re from and how you got started as a writer?
I come from a small village called Mundakotukkurussi in Kerala, and I started out as a secretive writer. That was probably because my family was full of painters and musicians, but no writers. So when I wrote my first poem at the age of seven and my brother and mother didn’t quite believe that it was in fact an original piece, I decided to clam up. I was always a voracious reader as a child and the gods I worshipped were all authors. So it was almost organic that I would want to write the kind of stories I enjoyed reading.
What is the writing scene like in Bangalore? Do you have a close-knit group of writer friends?
There isn’t a writing community in Bangalore. While Bangalore is home to many writers, several of them are islands unto themselves. I am aware that there are writers who hang out together but I tend to be reclusive and don’t socialize.
When Murder’s In the Recipe
With a master’s degree in adult education, Sally Andrew was a social and environmental activist before she and her partner decided to move to the Klein Karoo. Now they live on a nature reserve with a giant eland and a secretive leopard for company. Along the way, Andrew created Tannie Maria, a delightful character, fixated on cooking, who has to give up her recipe column to become the local newspaper’s agony aunt. She finds she has a talent for that too, but it leads her into a nasty series of murders. Andrew’s debut novel, RECIPES FOR LOVE AND MURDER, became an instant success around the world. Alexander McCall Smith said it was “a vivid, amusing and immensely enjoyable read” and called it “a triumph.”
Andrew’s Recipe for Murder is:
1 stocky man who abuses his wife
1 small tender wife
1 medium-sized tough woman in love with the wife
1 double-barreled shotgun
1 small Karoo town marinated in secrets
3 bottles of Klipdrift brandy
3 little ducks
1 bottle of pomegranate juice
1 handful of chilli peppers
1 mild gardener
1 fire poker
1 red-hot New Yorker
7 Seventh-day Adventists
1 hard-boiled investigative journalist
1 soft amateur detective
2 cool policemen
1 handful of red herrings and suspects mixed together
Pinch of greed
Throw all the ingredients into a big pot and simmer slowly, stirring with a wooden spoon for a few years. Add the ducks and chillies and brandy towards the end and turn up the heat.
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.