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.”
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.
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.
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?
Mike Nicol is one of the leaders of South African crime fiction, and his Revenge trilogy—Payback, Killer Country, and Blackheart—are important novels of the dark side of twenty-first century South Africa. After an excursion with new characters, Mike has returned to the next generation of the Revenge trilogy characters in POWER PLAY. For my money it’s his best thriller so far, and that’s starting from a high base. Deon Meyer has said of Mike’s style that it is “by far the best in South Africa” and that he creates “deliciously complex characters.” If you haven’t read any of his books yet, you can start with this one as a standalone. After that you’ll want to read all the others.
Before coming to crime fiction, Mike wrote four acclaimed literary novels, non-fiction, poetry, a memoir, a book on the 1994 South African election, and collaborated on the mammoth Mandela: The Authorised Portrait. Mike has been a freelance journalist, author, reviewer, and lecturer for more than thirty years. In 2007 he started the Crimebeat website , which is the window on South African crime fiction to this day.
I asked Mike about POWER PLAY and how he came to write it.
Christa—Mace’s daughter in your trilogy—is back with a vengeance. She’s grown up, has a spell in an elite army unit under her belt, and has even changed her name to Krista to make a point. She and a partner now run her father’s security firm. What persuaded you to revisit the characters from the Revenge Trilogy in the next generation?
Not sure, actually, what drew me back. I had created two new characters for Of Cops & Robbers (with every intention of doing more books with them) but something about the earlier books kept niggling. I suppose it has something to do with the rise of the serial character, in that it’s difficult to leave them alone. That said, I didn’t want to trot out Mace Bishop and Pylon Buso for another round. I’d taken them through three books and I felt that was enough. Also one of the most enjoyable parts about writing a novel is creating new characters. Serial characters are a bit like old jerseys—comfortable and comforting—but the grit of a new character is exciting. And Krista-renamed seemed to offer new possibilities even as I revisited an old theme—guarding the rich and famous. So I could do two things: continue a series but with a new character. POWER PLAY has become the fourth book in the “trilogy.” Of course there may be more to come.
Three years ago Yrsa Sigurðardóttir, Ragnar Jónasson, and I were talking over a curry, and the subject of why Iceland had never had its own crime fiction festival came up. A few weeks later we met again at Crimefest and by that time it seemed that we had all had similar thoughts and the idea of Iceland Noir, a small crime fiction festival in Reykjavík, almost appeared by itself. As we were at Crimefest and Ann Cleeves was there, we asked her if she’d appear, providing we could get the venture off the ground, with less than six months to get everything fixed up.
There was no hesitation. She didn’t think about it and didn’t check her diary, but just said “yes” on the spot. If she hadn’t have done that, we wouldn’t maybe have been quite so ambitious. Ann was undoubtedly the star of the first Iceland Noir. Her Shetland series had just been shown on Icelandic TV and people definitely wanted to meet her. She went home from Iceland having made a great impression and many new friends.
The spin-off has been Shetland Noir, as she made the remark that maybe we’d let the 2015 slot go to Shetland for its own crime fiction festival. It wasn’t as if we could say no after all Ann had done for us, and there was something undeniably exciting about the prospect of being involved with a festival in another of these weatherbeaten north Atlantic locations. So we asked Ann what we can expect from these remote islands and the festival that Shetland Arts is organizing for 13-15th November.
Was this something you had already had in mind when we asked you to if you’d take part in the first Iceland Noir?
No! I loved Iceland Noir and it was just a flip remark that started the whole thing off. I’m not really involved with the organization of the festival— I’m program chair of the Harrogate Festival this year, so I’m rather busy but once July is over, I’ll be getting behind Shetland big style. So the Shetlanders are doing all the planning and programming, and that’s how it should be. Shetland Arts runs lots of festivals so I knew we’d be in safe hands.
Joanne Hichens chats to Karin Brynard, journalist, political correspondent, and award-winning author of the University of Johannesburg Debut Prize and Two M-Net Awards. Here, she answers questions about WEEPING WATERS, the translation of her debut Afrikaans novel, PLAASMOORD. This richly textured and complex crime novel begins with Sara returning to the family farm in the Kalahari, after her sister, the prophetic and talented artist, Freddie, is murdered. Sara, an astute journalist, soon discovers that underlying the crime is a complex web of lies and deceit.
Let’s kick off with a few questions around this concept of ‘Farm Murder’, which seems specifically a South African phenomenon. Can you comment on farm murder in general? It seems the ‘nostalgic’ story of the ‘African farm’ has been turned on its head by the horrific crimes that take place on SA farms.
When I started writing the book, there was a new wave of media interest in the phenomenon of ‘farm attacks’, which triggered the itch in the political journalist side of me. Growing up in a rural community in the Northern Cape where my father worked at a farmers’ co-op, I was very interested in this issue. I was thinking of the vulnerability of people living on a farm, far away from help—a local police station or even the next-door neighbour. At the time the newspapers were full of the brutality of some of these attacks, of the torture that was often involved, the high numbers and indiscriminate way both black and white became victims.
I was trying to ‘understand’ it myself, or at least get a grip on the facts. There was (and still is) a volatile public debate about it. Officially the police don’t view it as ‘special and different’ from other crime, while some white political groups go so far as to label it ‘genocide’.
Farming on this continent and specifically in southern Africa has never been ‘simple’ and uncomplicated, because it carries a lot of historical and political baggage. There’s a lot of emotion and political drama involved.
So where did you start?
I was always aware of the fact that this was a crime novel in the first place. And the first commandment of the crime novel is that it should be entertaining and have enough suspense and pace to keep you turning the pages. It could never be a political or historical lecture. Never.
By J. F. Penn
(NOTE: This interview with Tom Harper can be watched on YouTube here.)
Tom Harper is the international bestselling author of eleven historical thrillers, including his latest, ZODIAC STATION. He recently took some time off to talk to The Big Thrill.
Tell us a bit more about you and how you started your writing career.
It’s something I’d always wanted to do. I remember being eight years old and telling my teacher that I wanted to be an author when I grew up. By the time I finished university, I hadn’t shaken that idea and I knew it’s what I wanted to do. I also knew that it was incredibly unlikely.
So I went to work for an actuarial consultancy for a while, which was a really boring job, but at an interesting company. Then, I decided to have a crack at writing seriously. I saw an advert for a crime writing competition, the Debut Dagger Competition, run by the Crime Writers’ Association in the UK. It was one of those moments that changed my life.
It was just an advert in the Sunday Times one weekend. If I hadn’t bought the paper or if I’d not read that section, or it had gone into the recycling bin, I shudder to think how my life would be different. They wanted a first chapter and synopsis of a crime novel, and the deadline was several weeks away. I sent mine off to the competition, trying to think no more of it, but it turned out that I was a runner-up, which was amazing. Editors and agents, who were originally judges in the contest, started contacting me.
I took a sabbatical from work and blasted out that book as fast as I possibly could, signing with an agent who had judged the competition. She was able to sell the book very quickly once I’d actually finished it. So it was all very fast and it’s one of the real good luck stories in publishing.
Penny Lorimer was born in England, but has lived in South Africa from the age of six months. She grew up in Johannesburg, studied drama at the University of Cape Town, and was an actress for five years, supplementing her inconsistent income by waitressing and working for the Johannesburg Public Library.
After leaving the acting profession, she held a variety of positions, including union administrator, radio newsreader, dialogue coach for television, film editor’s assistant, and PA to an archbishop. She now works in the education sector for a national group of independent high schools serving economically marginalized communities. FINDERS WEEPERS, her debut mystery, was published in South Africa in May last year. It’s a powerful and moving story, and exposes the current South African education crisis along the way.
FINDERS WEEPERS takes place in a fictional rural school in the Eastern Cape. Girdwood, once a highly regarded private school that educated some of South Africa’s future leaders during the Apartheid era, has now fallen into disarray and is as bad as any rural high school in the country. Boniswa Sekeyi, a committed teacher educated here and in the United States, takes on the job of principal and is determined to restore the school’s previous high standards.
I asked Penny how she’d come to write FINDERS WEEPERS.
Would you tell us something about yourself and your writing?
I have always been a voracious reader—I cannot go a day without reading and would rather forget my toothbrush than my book when going on holiday. (I’ve done so in the past, in fact.) I think when you love reading, and read a lot, it’s inevitable that you begin to wonder whether you could do what these writers—who give you so much pleasure—are doing. So I’ve also been interested in writing almost as long as I can remember. I’d written bits and pieces at various stages of my life, but never anything lengthy or significant. I came second in a Fair Lady short story competition in the late 1980s, and my work always involved writing—speeches, website content, reports, and many, many letters. As my children got older I began to feel a need for another kind of creative expression and began to consider writing a novel, without really knowing how I would find the time.
I loved reading books about writing, and, in an essay, Maeve Binchy wrote that if you wanted to write you had to give something up. It could be exercise, playing poker, watching television, or time with friends and/or family. I didn’t play poker and the only thing I was willing and able to give up was sleep. At around the same time I got the beginnings of the idea for FINDERS WEEPERS and felt pretty passionate about it. So I started waking up at five a.m. every morning and writing for an hour before getting the kids and myself ready for school and work. On weekends I would work for a bit longer and in this way managed to complete the book in about three years. It was very long at first so there was still a lot of re-writing and editing to do before it got whittled down to its final form. Thank the universe for all the people that insisted on the shortening and showed me how to do it!
By Layton Green
If you enjoy international crime novels, and you have not yet heard of Leena Lehtolainen, then you’re in for a treat. Highly regarded in Europe, Lehtolainen is Finland’s bestselling female crime author, and her titles have sold millions of copies in twenty-nine languages, as well as winning a variety of awards.
Lehtolainen skyrocketed to fame with My First Murder, a series featuring a down-to-earth, music-loving female detective named Maria Kallio. The series has been adapted for television, and remains her most popular creation.
However, she is not a one-series-wonder: Leena has also published a nonfiction work on figure skating (voted sports book of the year in Finland in 2010), literary fiction, juvenile fiction (her first novel was published when she was all of twelve years old), and a trilogy of quirky international thrillers starring a female bodyguard, the first of which was recently released in the United States.
Lehtolainen is a gracious, widely traveled, and fascinating author. Here’s a peek into her world.
Thanks for taking the time to chat, Leena. We’re thrilled to have you. I confess it’s the first time I’ve read a book set in Finland, and I loved the milieu. Do you live (or did you grow up) close to where the book is set?
Thank you, Layton. Yes, I grew up in Eastern Finland and live now near the sea and the Kopparnäs area. In my books the milieus are often real, but everything else is invented. I like to describe the Finnish nature so that people hopefully can feel that they really have visited new places with a book as a travel guide.
Joanne Hichens grills Colleen Higgs, the majority shareholder and managing publisher of Modjaji Books, an independent feminist South African publishing company, about the challenges of venturing into new territory. After publishing more than seventy home-grown literary and poetry titles, Modjaji Books, going strong, is now publishing crime and thriller fiction.
First, tell us a little about the origins of the name of your publishing house. I know that Modjadji the Rain Queen, the hereditary Queen of Balobedu, a people of the Limpopo Province of South Africa, is a legend unto herself.
The succession to the position of Rain Queen is matrilineal which means the Queen’s eldest daughter is the heir, and males have no claim to the throne. The Rain Queen is believed to have special powers, including the ability to control clouds and rainfall. I wanted to incorporate the idea of ‘making rain for South African women,’ especially as drought and lack of rain is a problem in this region of the world, and while mulling over the name, I decided on Modjaji would be perfect. We spell the name with only one d, to differentiate it from the living Queen, Modjadji. Also, I grew up in Lesotho and had a Sesotho name, Pulani, which means daughter of the rain.
And why choose to focus on publishing only women?
The history of publishing in South Africa is enmeshed with the culture of resistance that flourished under apartheid. Struggle literature may have emerged from the underground, but women’s voices—and particularly black women’s voices—are still marginalized. Modjaji Books addresses this inequality by publishing books that are true to the spirit of the Rain Queen, a powerful female force for good, new life, and regeneration.
By Layton Green
I love international crime fiction—thus this column—and I’d long wanted to read something set during the Troubles (the brutal internecine conflict over the constitutional status of Northern Ireland that I remember so vividly from my youth.) Adrian McKinty, an award-winning Irish writer who grew up in Belfast, was recommended to me by a friend, and so I picked up a copy of GUN STREET GIRL, Adrian’s latest novel featuring Detective Sean Duffy, a Catholic police officer working the mean streets of Belfast during the Troubles.
And what an inspired recommendation it was. A fascinating mystery grounded in historical events, a setting that taught me something about the world, and spare but beautiful prose: GUN STREET GIRL was just what I wanted.
A little about Adrian: he’s written sixteen books in total, including four in the Detective Sean Duffy series. The first three form a loose trilogy, though Adrian tells me that any of the four can be read as standalones. While I’m itching to read the first three, I certainly had no problem jumping right in with GUN STREET GIRL.
Adrian’s complete list of awards and nominations is too lengthy to include. Some of the highlights: he’s been called a “master of modern noir” by The Guardian, and “one of his generation’s leading talents” by Publishers Weekly; he won the 2014 Barry Award for I Hear the Sirens in the Street (an Detective Sean Duffy novel), for which he was also shortlisted for the 2014 Grand Prix de Littérature Policière; The Dead Yard was selected by Publishers Weekly as one of the twelve Best Novels of 2006 and won the 2007 Audie Award for best thriller/suspense; In the Morning I’ll Be Gone won the 2014 Ned Kelly Award for best fiction, was shortlisted for the 2015 Audie Award for Best Thriller, and was named as one of the ten best crime novels of 2014 by the American Library Association.
Writer Amanda Coetzee was born in Bedford, England, has an honors degree in Performing Arts, and has performed in several countries. She worked in adult education (including a brief tenure at Holloway Women’s Prison) before travelling and eventually settling in South Africa. She now teaches English at Potchefstroom. She experimented with various genres, but loves mysteries and finally came to the intriguing story of Harry O’Connor a/k/a Badger.
Harry was abandoned as a young boy and adopted by a clan of Irish Travellers (gypsies). There he earns himself the nickname “Badger” by carving out a reputation as a bare-knuckle boxer who never backs down in a fight. As an adult, Badger joins the London Metropolitan Police and severs all ties with the Irish band until fate draws him back in the first book, Bad Blood (2011). His Traveller roots proved crucial in Redemption Song (2012), and there was more trouble ahead for him in Flaming June (2013). One Shot was released last year. Sarah Lotz (bestselling author of The Three) said: “Badger is fast becoming my favorite crime fiction protagonist” and One Shot is “a cracking read that is her best yet.” I agree. I asked Amanda about writing the book.
One Shot has a complex plot. It begins with what seems to be a drug hit, but it turns out to have a lot more ramifications. Did the novel start with a collection of different ideas or did you have it all coherent at the start? I guess I’m asking if you’re a plotter or a pantser, i.e., do you plot your novels in detail or do you start with a rough idea and play it by the seat of your pants?
I do most of my planning internally before I ever pick up my pen. I start with a subject that intrigues or horrifies me and begin to weave ideas and research together in a random exploration. From there I get serious. I draw plot diagrams and character sketches and have imaginary writing sessions in my head before I start to write. I always have the title before I finish my previous book and despite the attempt at serious planning, the novel often develops in unforeseen directions while I am writing. I think the short answer is I see myself as a methodical writer with a deeply superstitious and intuitive streak…
By J. F. Penn
Alan Baxter is a bestselling and award-nominated author of dark urban fantasy novels and short stories. His latest book is BOUND, part of the Alex Caine series.
So, Alan, tell us a bit more about your writing journey. How did you get into being a writer?
The short answer is: I’ve always been a writer, I just didn’t realize it. When I was about seven or eight years old, we were sent home from school on a Friday, and we had to write a story for the Monday. When we came back on the Monday, most of the class had written one or two paragraphs, and I’d written about seven or eight pages about this guy who goes back in time and gets chased by dinosaurs and all sorts of stuff. The teacher got me to stand in front of the class and read it. My friends were coming up to me afterwards going, “Oh, yeah, that was a really great story,” and that was my first realization of the power of storytelling.
I did a lot of roleplaying games in my teens, and I used to prefer being the Games Master rather than the player, because I would get to write the campaigns and learn to tell stories that way.
In the mid-90s, I had a crappy job that didn’t occupy too much time or my brain: I could go and train, I could afford my training fees. But I started feeling like I was in a rut, and I knew I had to shake it up a bit.
About the same time, a friend and I decided to go and visit a mate in Australia and went on a round-the-world trip. While I was on that trip and thinking about things and seeing the world and everything, I decided to pursue writing seriously rather than as a hobby.
Also on that trip, I met my wife and I ended up moving to Australia, and then I started working on Realmshift, which was my first published novel. So that was the big transition period, walking the earth like Caine in Kung Fu, and deciding to make life changes!
Priscilla Holmes is a Cape Town–based writer of many sorts of fiction, most recently a crime fiction novel. Set in the Eastern Cape of South Africa, NOW I SEE YOU is a modern-day thriller with dark undertones. It contains love and jealousy, human cruelty and sexual obsession, as well as humor and pathos. Part detective-story, part-elegy for a lost culture, it highlights the enormous changes that have happened, especially for young women in the years since the first democratic elections in South Africa. Thabisa Tswane (the feisty protagonist) is caught between two cultures. NOW I SEE YOU thrusts her into a powerful plot and some dark and dangerous situations.
Please tell us a little about yourself.
I’ve always been a writer. As a kid I wrote stories for all my friends and family, wrote plays at school satirizing the teachers (nearly got expelled!), and I’m a passionate reader. I worked most of my working life as a communications consultant in Australia, UK, and Hong Kong, and when I came to Johannesburg from Sydney to marry the man of my dreams (and yes, it has worked out!), I started my own training and communications business. We retired to Cape Town seven years ago and I started a writing group—The Write Girls—that has gone from strength to strength. We’ve collaborated on two novels that have been a great success. In 2004, I published a teenage novel The Children of Mer. And now, of course, I’m thrilled about the publication of NOW I SEE YOU.
NOW I SEE YOU has a deft, light touch. I think Alexander McCall Smith should make space for your fabulous Detective Inspector Thabisa Tswane! How do you feel about that?
Well, what a compliment! However, my book is a much darker, rougher version of his books. We are promoting it as a “thriller” but it really is so much more, with the descriptions of rural life, the violent crimes, and the constant fight for Thabisa between her past and present.
By J. F. Penn
Scott Mariani is the author of the acclaimed action-adventure thriller series featuring ex-SAS hero, Ben Hope. Scott’s novels have topped the bestseller charts in his native Britain, and are translated into more than twenty languages worldwide.
His next book THE NEMESIS PROGRAM, is available in the U.S., Feb 15, 2015.
Tell us a bit more about yourself, and how you got into writing.
The first book in the Ben Hope series came out in 2007, so that goes back a little while, and obviously, like everybody in this game, I’d been trying for a million years to get into writing. That sounds familiar, I’m sure. Eventually, it did happen, but it was a long road, like it is for loads of people. Some are obviously luckier than that, but for me it was a long road. I suppose it’s a cliché to say that one grew up writing little stories and all this kind of stuff, so I guess that writing is something of a disease that you catch early on in life, that then gets more and more chronic as you age, and it’s something you’re probably born with. So it’s nice, after all these years, to be able to say I am now doing this for a living.
Did you have another day job before writing?
I’ve had all sorts of jobs, some of them more interesting than others, like playing music. And, I’ve done a variety of things, like translation work in several languages. But writing was what I always wanted to do, really.
What languages do you speak?
I studied French and German, and I’ve got a French background, although my surname’s Italian, but it’s really from just outside of Nice, from the French side, so I’m sort of bilingual between French and English. I’m supposed to be able to speak German, but that, frankly, is something that fell by the wayside many years ago. I can understand a certain smattering of other languages, too, but those are the only two, French and English.
A varied group of mysteries and thrillers were published in South Africa last year. While several of the authors were featured in AFRICA SCENE, and Joanne Hitchens and I will be catching up with others this year, I thought we’d take a look at some of 2014’s literary highlights—apologies if we’ve missed any!
The South African thriller-publishing year kicked off with Joanne Macgregor’s debut, DARK WHISPERS, a nail-biting psychological drama. When a patient describes an experience of mental torture and sexual mutilation by a gynecologist at the private hospital where she works, psychologist Megan Wright investigates. Determined to find out the truth and stop the abuse, but bound to silence by the ethics of confidentiality, Megan enters the dark mind of a dangerously disturbed man. Joanne gave us more insight into the book in her AFRICA SCENE interview in October.
Next up, DEVIL’S HARVEST by Andrew Brown. After a secret drone strike on a civilian target in South Sudan, RAF air marshal George Bartholomew discovers that a piece of shrapnel traceable back to a British Reaper has been left behind at the scene. He will do anything to get it back—but he’s not the only one. The plot involves the search for the drone, a rare plant, war lords, and an unexpected relationship. It takes place in South Sudan, a country where undeclared war has become a way of life. Brown is one of our best crime writers. He told us more about the book and how he came to write it in the August AFRICA SCENE.
International Thrills: An Interview with Bestselling Japanese Crime Writer,
By Layton Green
This edition of International Thrills is off to Japan and explores the fascinatingly dark world of Fuminori Nakamura, whose crime novels also delve into more literary themes. —The Managing Editors
Fuminori started publishing when he was only twenty-five, and has penned ten novels and three short story collections since 2003. He has won numerous awards for his writing, including the Ōe Prize, the Akutagawa Prize (Japan’s most prestigious literary award), the Shincho Prize for New Writers, and the Noma Prize. Stateside, his novels have been named a Wall Street Journal Best Mystery and an Amazon Best Mystery/Thriller of the Month. The Thief, his first novel translated into English, was a finalist for the Los Angeles Times Book Prize. Just this fall, he was the recipient of the 2014 David L. Goodis Award for Noir Fiction at NoirCon.
LAST WINTER WE PARTED is Fuminori’s most recent work, and the third novel to appear in English, published by Soho. I had the pleasure of reading LAST WINTER WE PARTED, and was blown away. In short, the novel is about a writer assigned to interview a famous photographer sitting on death row for the murder of two of his subjects—both women who were burned alive. It is a menacing, labyrinthine, deeply layered tale that also manages to be a quick read, and I wanted to reread it as soon as I finished.
I recently sat down with Nakamura and his publisher (Juliet Grames of Soho Press, who provided excellent translation) after a book signing in Chapel Hill.
Thanks for taking the time to chat. Tell us where you are from in Japan, and a little bit about your background.
I was born in 1977 in Aichi, Japan. I spent my four years of college in Fukushima, and since then have lived in Tokyo. I’ve been an avid reader since I was in high school.