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dark-prophecy.JPGBy Dennis Tafoya

Anthony E. Zuiker is known to millions of fans as the creator of the CSIfranchise. His show and its wildly successful spin-offs, CSI Miami and CSI New York, have won six Emmys and a host of other national and international awards and have a worldwide audience estimated at more than 75 million viewers. The show has spawned a generation of imitators, revived and recast the police procedural and become a brand recognized around the world.

Anthony Zuiker recently took time to tell us about his latest endeavor, a series of thrillers he’s developed with the help of veteran crime writer and ITW member Duane Swierczynski, author of the hit novels The Blonde, Severance Package, and this year’s standout, Expiration Date.

The books are a new form Anthony calls digi-novels, which read like traditional novels but offer readers enhanced content such as online communities, IPhone apps and codes that can be entered online to reveal harrowing filmed episodes. The first, Level 26: Dark Origins, was an international bestseller, and the follow up, Level 26: Dark Prophecy is out October 14th from Dutton.

With the success of CSI you can work in any media you choose. Why did you decide to create a new media form?

I’ve always been drawn to novels, starting with children’s books when I was young, as well as fascinated by new technologies. The Level 26 novels allow readers to experience the books in a completely traditional way, but if they want to have a fuller experience, they can go online, be part of the community and use codes provided at the end of each chapter to reveal a cyber-bridge episode with filmed content. It lets the reader engage in different ways, use the power of their own imaginations and get the experience of the book, films and a social community at one price point. I decided to work with Duane Swierczynski because I wanted a writer who understood both the power of the technologies we were using as well as the demands of the thriller, and he does both brilliantly.

Tell us about the Level 26 series.

The books are about the most dangerous killers at large, and the term refers to the fact that law enforcement ascribes twenty-five classifications of murderer, each increasing in aggression and sophistication. Level 26 Dark Origin centered on the arch-villain Sqweegel, an elusive killer who evaded detection with a full latex body suit and who took as his mission the idea that if you have sinned, he would execute justice upon you. He was pursued in the first novel by a single-minded CSI expert named Steve Dark, who had personal reasons for his quest to find the killer.

It was the first digi-novel, but we wanted to make sure that reader understood that reading the novel was a complete, satisfying experience and that using the digital content just made the experience richer and more fun and offered them the option to join an online community around the book.

What’s the premise of the latest Level 26 entry, Dark Prophecy?

In our follow up it’s five years later and Steve Dark is on the trail of another level 26 murderer, the Tarot Card Killer. This time he’s not working with law enforcement, but instead is financed by a mysterious benefactor with her own agenda. We also enhanced the online segments, which actually tell a complete hour-long story instead of functioning only as bridges in the story line. It’s fascinating to see the changes that just a year have brought to the technologies. Iphone and Itouch were new tools when we began the process, but the IPad really allows for the reader to move seamlessly back and forth between reading and experiencing the online content or running apps. It’s hard to believe that just a year ago there was no way to make that transition without using different platforms.

The book is out October 14th, and I understand you’ve got a special event to mark the debut.

I always do things a little differently, and this is the first literary/broadcast crossover in history. We’re using the ‘Black Sqweegel’ mythology and history from Dark Origins, on a new episode of CSI guest-starring Ann-Margret. I’m really excited about it. It’ll be a really fun way to mark the release of the novel and will also feature Daniel Browning Smith, the actor who played Sqweegel in the original Dark Origins online feature.

How are the Level 26 books different from your work with CSI?

I was very conscious that I wanted a different kind of experience for fans of the show, and the first book was villain-centric, focusing on Sqweegel and his crimes rather than the law enforcement angle of the show. Dark Prophecy continues in that character-driven vein, with a brooding protagonist, not somebody who was an Inspector Gadget-type, but more of a damaged anti-hero taking on the most evil criminals.

Will there be another Level 26 novel?

Yes, absolutely. Duane and I are putting together the third book now, which we’re calling Dark Enigma. The first book was an international bestseller, we’ve pulled in an online community a hundred thousand strong, and Dutton seems very pleased with the book’s performance. I’ve learned a lot about what worked and what didn’t with the first book. Online communities can be very volatile and passionate, and working with them has been a real education. I’m also working on other ideas for digi-novels, one centered around miracles. The technologies from Apple just get more interesting, and I’m still fascinated by merging old and new ways of storytelling.

Where do you think committed serial killers like Sqweegel come from?

I’m not an expert, and there so many factors that might weigh in. Are people born bad? Are there wires crossed at birth? Do factors like being socially inept or having a failed upbringing play a part? But it’s clear there are people who will bring conviction and determination to serial killing, and who calibrate their signatures. It’s very complex and interesting.

Do you still get time to read for fun?

It’s tough, but yes. I’m reading Free, by Chris Anderson, about using free products as a strategy to win business, and I have The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo waiting on my nightstand at home. A lot of my time is spent working and being a father, but my wife says I’m hardwired for business.

Dennis Tafoya