British writer Matt Hilton burst onto the thriller scene when his first novel, DEAD MEN’S DUST, became an instant bestseller in the U.K. He has since built up a loyal readership all over the world for his fast-paced tales featuring vigilante-for-hire Joe Hunter. His eighth book, RULES OF HONOUR, is out in the U.K. and many other countries this month. The fifth, BLOOD AND ASHES, will be released in the U.S. in June.
Although he’s British – he lives in Cumbria, where he worked as a police officer before his writing career took off — Hilton favors the action-oriented style of American thrillers. In an interview, he talked about his latest book, his many years of struggling to break into print, and how it feels to be compared to Lee Child.
Tell us about RULES OF HONOUR. Your hero, Joe Hunter, tries to stop his friend Rink from impulsively seeking revenge for his father’s murder. But isn’t revenge Joe’s stock in trade? Why does he try to hold Rink back, and where does the story go from there?
Joe Hunter is indeed impulsive, and normally he would lead the charge to avenge the murder of Rink’s father. However, on this occasion, he believes that Rink is not only acting out of character, but also on erroneous information. He believes that there is more that Rink’s mom, Yukiko, isn’t telling them, and that Rink might have set his sights on the wrong person. It’s down to Joe to stop his best friend from making a colossal mistake, and then to help him discover the real murderer. Rink’s mother is Japanese, and holds to some of the old traditional ways of her forebears. She is governed by Giri – sometimes called “the burden of obligation” – and she must protect a horrifying secret from the past so that it doesn’t destroy those around her now. But when there are more vicious deaths – all of them elderly men known to Yukiko – it becomes a matter of honour for both Hunter and Rink to uncover the shameful secret that lies behind the murders, protect others that the killer has targeted, and to ultimately stop the killer. The story is set in and around San Francisco, one of my favourite cities in the U.S.
One reviewer described Joe as “a cold-blooded killer with a heart of gold.” Is that how you see him? How would he describe himself and his line of work?
Hunter worked for many years for a covert military group called ‘Arrowsake’, basically as an assassin taking on terrorist and organised crime groups. Now retired, he has based himself in Florida, working with his old Arrowsake buddy, Jared ‘Rink’ Rington, as an occasional private investigator. But it is not uncommon for Hunter to take on the kind of jobs where lawful protocol can’t help, and in those occasions will act somewhat uncompromisingly. He is a stone cold killer, but he is tempered by his own strict set of moral rules that won’t allow him to hurt anyone undeserving. He is incredibly loyal, a good man at heart, and has no love of violence. He just happens to be particularly good at it. He abhors bullying and will step up to help those unable to help themselves, and will lay his own life or safety on the line for his friends and family. Hunter doesn’t appreciate the term vigilante, but intrinsically it’s what he is.
The next Joe Hunter book your American fans will see is BLOOD AND ASHES, coming out in the U.S. on June 25. Where is this one set – and would you tell us a bit about the story?
Yes, the publication schedule between my U.S. and UK publishers is different, with the U.S. a few books behind. RULES OF HONOUR is the eighth in the series, while the U.S. is just about to see book five, BLOOD AND ASHES. In the previous book, CUT AND RUN, Hunter came away from an encounter with a hired killer called Luke Rickard carrying some major injuries. As a result, at the beginning of BLOOD we find Hunter recovering from his wounds, a tad fragile and trying to ease himself back into his work. He answers the call of an old colleague, whom he has no love for, whose daughter has just been killed in an automobile collision. The police have written off her death as an accident, but her father, Don, thinks otherwise and asks Hunter to find those responsible for her murder. What begins as routine for Joe spirals into a manhunt where Joe must protect a family from a group of white supremacists intent on detonating a dirty bomb in the heart of Manhattan.
You set a lot of the action in your books in the U.S. Do you spend time in the States for research and to absorb the settings and the culture?
When writing the first book in the series – DEAD MEN’S DUST – I must confess to having never set foot in America. Everything I knew or learned while writing that book was through research, or through having read many American books or watched so many American movies. But having been picked up to write a series, and not to mention an American publisher also picking up the series, I thought I’d best get myself across the pond. I now regularly travel to the U.S., often to attend Thrillerfest in New York City, or to Bouchercon World Mystery Convention, in whichever major city it is held that year, and while there absorb the culture and idiosyncrasies of those cities and of the people I meet. Last year I also went on a mini-tour of Chicago, Pittsburgh and Milwaukee.
Basing Hunter in Florida was a shrewd decision on my part, because it means I have to vacation there frequently in order to make sure that my writing is authentic. It’s a tough job but someone’s gotta do it! Seriously, though, I’ve grown to love America, and have plans to visit many other times in the future. For me there is no comparison to visiting the place you wish to write about, and have learned that I’d formed many a miscomprehension about the US prior to travelling there.
What appeals to you about writing the cinematic American style of thriller – and why do you think readers go for that type of crime novel?
I guess it’s because cinematic American style thrillers are the kind of book I love to read, and that when I set out to write I wanted to emulate them. I grew up reading action driven books in the late 1970s and early 80s, many of them pulp fiction, and just loved the stripped back style of writing. I was a big fan of Don Pendleton’s ‘Mack Bolan’ series, and his contemporaries, and set out to write a series in a similar vein. In latter years, I began reading voraciously, usually American writers, and was drawn to the likes of Robert Crais, Harlan Coben, and the early James Patterson novels. I found the fast pace, the engaging characters, and the humour all to my liking, and wanted to write in a similar style. I guess readers who share my taste enjoy the ride of a good old adventure. Often other types of crime or mystery books are deeper, and take more concentration to read, while you can sit down and enjoy an action thriller for its visceral thrill alone. When I write, I consider who it might appeal to and try to make my writing accessible to a wide range of readers. Some might be put off by a more lyrical or thoughtful style, so I pare things down and aim to show the story through Hunter’s eyes and emotions.
Is this a man’s subgenre, or have you found that you have female readers too?
Because they’re action-packed, some people unfairly tag the books as ‘men’s fiction’ (whatever that actually means), but Hunter has more female readers than men. I think that’s true of similar fictional tough guys out there, and we only have to look at the droves of female fans following Jack Reacher or Joe Pike to see how this style of book appeals to women as well as men. It’s possibly true that men and women get different things from the books, but I think it’s good that they appeal on both levels.
Comparisons to Lee Child’s Jack Reacher books and John Connolly’s Charlie Parker novels are inevitable – all three of you are non-Americans writing stories about protagonists seeking justice in U.S. settings. Do you see other similarities? What would you say are the major differences between your work and theirs?
If asked, my bet would be that both Lee Child and John Connolly would say they set their books in the U.S. for similar reasons as I did, but they’d probably be more erudite in their explanation. I love the diversity of the U.S., the different cultures and topography, the vastness of the arena, and when setting out to write the Hunter series realised that I’d need a huge stage on which to set Hunter’s adventures. The U.S. offers wide open vistas, tracts of forest, awesome mountain ranges, a snow-covered north, a semi-tropical south, but also small towns, huge metropolises and everything in between. It offers much more scope for action than my own wee island. I wish I could sound clever and say that I aimed for a larger market for my books, but that was just pure chance on my part. I’m a huge fan of both Lee Child and John Connolly, and it’s a real honour to be mentioned in the same sentence as either of them, let alone both.
So where do I see Hunter differing from Reacher and Charlie Parker? Because I write in this genre, and because of the marketing strategies of my publishers, people have assumed that I based Hunter primarily on Jack Reacher, but it isn’t so. As I mentioned earlier, I was looking to bringing back a character similar to Mack Bolan, who waged a one man war against organised crime. Reacher and Hunter share a military background, but whereas Reacher was a U.S. officer and investigator, Hunter was a British squaddie. Reacher is a giant of a man, a force of nature, whereas Hunter is just your average height and build. Reacher is very intelligent, methodical, a thinker, but Hunter is quite the opposite in that he’s impulsive, a little hot-headed, and often throws himself into battle with little fore thought. Where they resemble each other is in their hatred of injustice and their willingness to stand up and be counted.
Again, Charlie Parker, an ex cop and detective, is more thoughtful than Hunter, but he is darker and carries more demons. In some respects, I think that Hunter is more like Parker’s assassin buddies, Louis and Angel, or Joe Pike, or Win in the Myron Bolitar books by Harlan Coben. In some ways, Hunter is more like the slightly psychotic sidekick called in by the hero of the piece when some above the law action is necessary. In a perfect world, Rink would be the lead, and Hunter the sidekick, so I like to think I’ve spun the genre on its head a little. Another difference I see is that both the Reacher and Parker books are whodunits at heart, with a mystery to be solved, whereas most of the Hunter books are more direct thrillers with only a small portion of mystery, where we know who the bad guys are, we just don’t know how Hunter is going to survive the encounter.
You’re one of many “overnight” successes who actually struggled for years and wrote a lot of unpublished material before breaking into print. How long did it take to make your first sale? What do you think held you back, and what finally made your writing click with a publisher?
Yes, I was writing for many years before I broke in. I’d been writing since I was a child, and penned my first novels in my early teens. In my twenties and thirties, I completed seven unpublished novels, as well as numerous short stories, articles and such. It wasn’t until I was in my early forties that I finally hit a streak of good luck when I submitted the first Joe Hunter book to an agent named Luigi Bonomi who agreed to represent me.
In hindsight, I’d been writing the wrong kind of book. By that, I mean they weren’t commercial. I’d written mysteries and gritty British style crime fiction, but was trying to break into a market already top heavy with some incredible talent. Also, the books were standalone with very little commercial viability. I finally came to this understanding by looking at my own reading habits. I belatedly realised that for a publisher to invest in an author they wanted to make money, and to do so an author had to have the ability to deliver more than one book. A quick look at my bookshelves showed me that my favourite authors had recurring series characters, and that’s where I’d been going wrong. I went back to the drawing board and invented Joe hunter, a character with enough background, skills and world knowledge to carry off a number of adventures. My writing style didn’t differ that much, but the scope of the books – and the potential for an ongoing series – did. Luigi took me on on the strength of the book and the idea of the continuing Joe Hunter character, and quickly the book went to auction among some of the largest publishing houses. I got my break at age 42 after more than thirty years of writing and submitting, but I don’t regret a thing. I now see everything that went before, all the years and numerous rejections, as my apprenticeship.
Were you surprised that your first novel became a bestseller? How did that change your life?
I was stunned, to say the least. First off, the publication deal I got far outstripped any expectation I ever had, and then for the first book to reach the number twelve spot in the best seller list, and to be short listed for an ITW new novel award in 2009, was the stuff of dreams. It allowed me to give up the ‘day job’ to concentrate on my writing career, and has opened up so many doors of opportunity I can’t count them all. It has allowed me to see the world, and to meet people I could never have hoped to meet. It still feels a bit surreal to me when I’m in the same room with the likes of Lee Child, Jeffery Deaver, John Connolly, David Morrell and Harlan Coben. They were my heroes, and now my peers. It’s a bit akin to an Elvis impersonator asking to duet with the King himself.
It’s common, at least in the U.S., for retired police officers to go into private security work. You did it the other way around: 18 years in security, followed by four with the police. Did those jobs give you material that you’ve used to bring authenticity to your fiction?
Typical of me to do things all the wrong way around. It was circumstance that saw things work out the way they did. I always wanted to be an author, no question, but real life got in the way, as did the need to earn a living. I married young, and at the time was thinking of enlisting in the military, but decided against it. I began to look around at careers that were similarly disciplined, and elected to enter the world of private security. I worked through various positions, but after eighteen years had pretty much seen and done it all and wanted a new direction. At that point I enlisted as a police officer.
All of this was a means to an end, a way of paying the mortgage and putting food on the table to raise my children. But saying that, it gave me many diverse experiences, both good and horrendously bad, that I was able to use to flavour my writing. If I was writing police procedurals or British crime fiction I’d probably lean more on the police experiences I gained, but writing the American style thriller I find these are lesser influences. Instead I use the experiences I gained during conflict and violent encounters to add realism to my writing. I know what it’s like to fear for my life, or for the welfare of others, and I try to imbue Hunter or the supporting cast with similar fears. I actually loathe violence in the real world, and as contradictory as it seems, write violent encounters to show just how ugly and pointless they usually are. In the real world there should be no need for heroes like Hunter, but unfortunately there is. As much as I’d prefer a quiet life, I feel that the only way to defeat injustice or terrorism is to stand up against it, and I see Hunter as a metaphor for this. Basically, I pitch him into battle on my, and hopefully my readers’, behalf.
Which authors have had the strongest influence on your writing? Have you ever had an Aha! moment while reading another author that helped you master a technique or conquer a writing problem?
I’m the sum of a number of writers I’ve read over the years. My first great influence was Robert E Howard, famous for writing the Conan the Cimmerian tales, and it was he I first tried to emulate. Then of course came the aforementioned Don Pendleton. My next great inspiration came from reading David Morrell, whose BROTHERHOOD OF THE ROSE trilogy really got me hooked on the modern style of American thriller, and inspired me to write primarily in that fast paced style. Latterly, Robert Crais, John Connolly, and Dean Koontz have all influenced me in one way or another. As far as a ‘Eureka’ moment, I can’t claim to anything that comes to mind. All I can say is that I probably owe a lot to all my influences, all of whom have subliminally taught me my craft through writing books I can only hope to write as well as.
One last question, this one about self-promotion and making contact with readers. You recently posted a blog that asked, “Are the days of blogs numbered?” You mentioned that a lot of your favorite bloggers have all but abandoned their sites. Do you plan to continue with your blog, or should your fans go to Facebook or elsewhere to chat with you?
I’ll still update my blog with news and such about the books, but largely won’t be spending as much time there as I was in the past. Like me, many authors ended up using their blogs as a means to an end, to sell their latest book. But of late I noticed that many of them had abandoned blogs in favour of a quicker and more concise method of engaging with their readers, or for marketing their works. I originally started my blog to record my adventures in publication and to share my experiences and conclusions with aspiring authors, but have found that both my enthusiasm and my visitors have dropped off over the past couple of years. Maybe it’s because I’m not seen as an aspiring author any more, and that I can’t share their similar hopes and dreams. As a result of the drop in engagement, I was just using my blog to mention that my latest work was now available, and it became somewhat predictable, and to be honest, more trouble and time consuming than it was worth.
A number of the blogs I was following were from persons in a similar position to me and perhaps they’ve moved on as well for the same reasons. Or maybe blogs are simply seen as old hat these days. I’m not sure. So yes. I now prefer to engage directly with my readers, my peers and such directly through Facebook and Twitter. I’ve never fully got the hang of Twitter yet, and am not in the habit of living my private life on a social network. I therefore concentrate on Facebook where the feedback is immediate, I can waffle on at length if I want to, and can engage with readers on many different subjects as the mood takes me. Half the time it’s just banter, a bit of fun, and I lace in a little bit of news about the latest Hunter book, as well as other books, movies and music that I enjoy. I’m on Facebook as MattHiltonAuthor, where I usually post on a daily basis, but also have a Joe Hunter (crime thrillers) specific page to promote the series. I make an effort to make myself accessible to my readers, and try to reply or comment to anyone who visits my pages.
Matt Hilton quit as a police officer with Cumbria Constabulary to pursue his love of writing tight, cinematic American-style thrillers. He is the author of the high-octane Joe Hunter thriller series, including his most recent novel RULES OF HONOUR, published in February 2013 by Hodder and Stoughton. His first book, DEAD MAN’S DUST, was shortlisted for the International Thriller Writers’ Debut Book of 2009 Award, and was a Sunday Times bestseller. Matt is a high-ranking martial artist and has been a detective and private security specialist, all of which lend an authenticity to the action scenes in his books.
To learn more about Matt, please visit his website.