Not far off the coast, connected by a thread of causeway, lays Brigands Key. It’s the sort of place you may have visited once on a Florida vacation. Maybe you want to retire near here. But this July, Brigands Key becomes a kill zone. The bridge is up and a storm rages on the horizon; you won’t want to put this book down until you’ve read the very last page.
Hold on tight as I interview thriller author Ken Pelham. Welcome, Ken!
The blurb for BRIGANDS KEY reads:
An ageless body at the bottom of the sea. A lethal plague. A ruthless murderer. A monster hurricane. Archaeologist Carson Grant came to Brigands Key to repair his shattered reputation, and finds himself instead staring down the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse.
Ken Pelham is an author who likes his prose lean, but that just doesn’t do the novel justice. Here, from Ken’s website is the rest:
When Grant discovers the body of a man in a cave at the bottom of the Gulf of Mexico, suspicion of murder falls squarely upon him. Citizens mysteriously begin to fall ill and die, others vanish, and others are murdered, while an ambitious governor and an unbending president battle in a test of wills over the fate of Brigands Key. As Hurricane Celeste bears down on the quarantined island, Grant enlists infectious diseases expert Kyoko Nakamura and local misfit Charley Fawcett in a desperate race to break the spiral of death destroying the terror-stricken town. They must unravel the mystery of a decades-old corpse and a staggeringly valuable prize that is shrouded in secrecy and a bizarre story from the past. Pitted against them is a killer who will stop at nothing to claim it. Grant and Nakamura become Brigands Key’s last hope, the thin line between salvation and destruction.
This copy touches on many, many sciences: marine biology, pathology, archaeology, meteorology, geology, criminology. Did I miss anything? What came first, your interest in sciences or your idea for the novel?
Physics and cryptology also play big roles in the goings-on. What fascinates me about the different disciplines is the overlap. The archaeology in this story couldn’t happen without the geology, the pathology couldn’t happen without the physics, and the story itself couldn’t happen without the geology and hydrology of this specific location.
I’ve always loved science, and would have become a scientist if I were any kind of a mathematician. So the science fetish came long before the idea for the novel. It’s like asking which came first, the chicken or the egg? The egg, of course. Dinosaurs, fish, amphibians…all were laying and hatching eggs hundreds of millions of years before the first chicken showed its beaky little face. What that has to do with your question, I’m not sure. It just sounds smart.
Tell me more about archaeologist Carson Grant. What drives him and what makes him an interesting character that you feel audiences will care about?
He’s not always easy to get along with. He was on the cutting edge of his profession but his career imploded when an expedition he led met with disaster. He’s become a pariah and harbors a deeply felt guilt. But the work is in his blood, so he pursues his own independent vision of archaeology. His discovery of a hidden spring at the start of BRIGANDS KEY is accomplished by pushing the envelope of remote sensing technology. I’m happy to say that I dreamed up the method he uses to discover the spring myself. Maybe a real archaeologist out there will read it and say—after wiping away tears of laughter—“Yeah, that might actually work.”
Of course, all of the sciences are used in the pursuit of that single most sexy thriller-science of all, forensic science. There’s a mystery in these pages, how did you go about learning what your main character would need to solve it?
Researching forensics is a hoot! Knowing the solution, I worked backwards to drop in clues without giving away too much too soon. I learned quite a bit from the research, and had to backtrack or eliminate some things I assumed or thought I knew.
I researched the forensics the usual way. Books, online articles, corresponding with a medical examiner. I had a nice long interview with my dentist, who is a bit of an expert on dental forensics. That was the least painful visit to the dentist I’ve ever had.
Using Brigands Key as your title speaks to how important setting is to you. (Ken’s website even has a map of the key.) Why is setting so critical and how did you go about infusing a fictional setting with verisimilitude?
As a Floridian, I have a good handle on my home state and all the weirdness endemic to it. So Florida was my general region. When the idea first began to germinate, I didn’t have a specific location within the state in mind. The more I worked out details, though, the more the locale became clear. There is really only one location in the entire world in which this story could occur, the Big Bend region of Florida. So I had a beautiful setting peopled by quirky, independent islanders, facing a boatload of nastiness.
You’ve written that “good openings establish ground rules, tone, pace, and setting. Great ones become memorable and set the bar very high indeed.” What’s your opening line and why did you write what you did?
Carson Grant was happiest surrounded by ghosts. The good kind. The ancient, long-dead kind.
What I hoped to establish with that opening was Grant’s unease with—and distaste for—the living. It also hints at his occupation. And of course it doesn’t hurt when the reader says, “Ghosts? I like ghosts. Here’s my credit card.”
In a thriller with a plot like BRIGANDS KEY it’s difficult to determine how much external forces (like the Army, Governor, White House) would come to bear while keeping the story personal. How did you manage to maintain Grant’s story while moving the government into action?
The trick was to keep the story moving, and gaining momentum, with a large cast. So the focus is on a handful of characters, with the peripherals being the faraway politicians and their lackeys, pulling strings from afar, with no real concern other than looking decisive in the eyes of voters. The central characters’ feelings of helplessness and abandonment are ratcheted ever higher by the growing disconnect. The book is not political, however; you can’t tell which party any of the politicians belong to, because that’s not what it’s about. Human motivations—ego, ambition—dictate the political actions.
You’ve written on how delicate the balance is between an original book and its adaptation into film. What’s the biggest mistake film makers commit when adapting a book? Would BRIGANDS KEY make a good movie? What would be your greatest fear in optioning it? Who would play Carson Grant?
My sensitive artist answer is: no writer wants to see his or her work become something unrecognizable or out of touch with the source material. We can all name a few favorite books turned into slop on the big or small screen. Of course, the two media are different, so the writer needs to understand that every little diamond he or she committed to the page may not be quite as brilliant in film. My greedy answer is: Please, Hollywood! Abuse me!
BRIGANDS KEY is a great basis for a movie, but so was DUNE, and look how that turned out. My greatest fear in optioning it? That it’s picked up by M. Night Shyamalan. Who would play Grant? Steve McQueen, but it would take some pretty nifty makeup and special effects to pull it off. Or voodoo.
If your book had been written a hundred years ago, would it have been banned? What would have made it provocative?
Great question! I certainly hope it would have been banned, but that’s ego talking. BRIGANDS KEY is a story to entertain you, not change your worldview. You won’t walk funny and gaze into the distance after reading it. On the other hand, history shows it’s not that difficult to be banned when the humorless or paranoid have any amount of influence. BRIGANDS KEY is violent, and touches on homosexuality, rebellious kids, and soldiers defying chain of command. Would that have been enough to get it banned? I doubt it. I recently read Twain’s A CONNECTICUT YANKEE IN KING ARTHUR’S COURT and was struck at how provocative towards religion it was. Yet readers loved it. As for 100 years ago, readers weren’t necessarily prudes in 1912. Edgar Rice Burroughs’ John Carter of Mars series first appeared in 1912…and everyone on the Red Planet went around stark naked. No bras, no jockey shorts, no leathery codpieces. Nothing but “barbaric ornamentation.” And this was on the heels of the Victorian era. You didn’t see that in the movie.
You’ve got over thirty books on ‘how to write’ on your shelves. Which was the best one and why?
Hmm…the easy answer is Strunk & White’s THE ELEMENTS OF STYLE. The prime directive that haunts me from that little book is “omit needless words.”
For pure fun, Stephen King’s DANSE MACABRE. It’s not really a ‘how-to’ book. It’s about horror fiction in general, including film and television. Good stuff. Love my Writers Digest Howdunit books, too.
Who are your favourite authors? Which has had the most impact on you and your writing?
So many…John D. MacDonald, for his cynical Florida outlook; Stephen King, for his cinematic style; Ernest Hemingway, for his economy of language; H.G. Wells, for his invention of the science thriller, and his sneaky subversiveness; Mark Twain, for his wit and subversiveness; Kurt Vonnegut, same reasons; Douglas Preston & Lincoln Child, for great plots that play with science and take crime-solving beyond the everyday; Ken Follett, for his mastery of the thriller form.
What’s next for Ken Pelham? Is there another Grant Carson novel in the works? Or are you writing a new standalone thriller? Tell us about it.
I’ve just finished revising PLACE OF FEAR, a novel I wrote prior to BRIGANDS KEY. Carson Grant is one of the primes, and you’ll see why his life and career are in the toilet at the start of BK. I’m working on another novel featuring Julie Denton, one of the cast from BK. So I’m trying to populate a little fictional universe with characters that grow and muddle through life. Not to say I won’t do standalones, however. Whatever strikes me as fun.
A first-place winner of the Florida Writers Association’s Royal Palm Literary Awards, BRIGANDS KEY is an edge-of-your-seat roller coaster ride through murder, vengeance, and secrets best left undisturbed. It’s a book for people who get a kick out of adventure and who need the occasional break from the ordinary.
Ken Pelham grew up in the off-the-radar South Florida farm town of Immokalee, sandwiched between coasts and snuggled against wild, wooly Big Cypress Swamp. Before turning his attention to novels, he wrote numerous short stories and articles. He lives in Maitland, Florida, with his wife, Laura.
To learn more about Ken Pelham, please visit his website.