Alan Jacobson knows a thing or two about evil.
He writes thrillers about bad people doing very bad things–but he also spent two decades working with the FBI, Scotland Yard and the U.S. military. So he’s seen the worst things humans do to each other, up close, and knows how hard it can be to catch the smartest predators.
Jacobson also knows how to write stories. Five of his books have been optioned by Hollywood.
NO WAY OUT is the latest novel featuring FBI profiler Karen Vail, who’s sent to London after an art gallery is bombed and a mysterious 440-year-old manuscript surfaces.
“Jacobson has written the thriller of the year—fast plot, incredible character development, and chilling atmosphere. No Way Out has everything you can ask for in a thriller.” — THE STRAND MAGAZINE
How has your hero, Karen Vail, suffered and changed from the first novel to NO WAY OUT?
In life, when we face challenges and obstacles, and overcome them—or succumb to them—we grow as individuals. Good writing mirrors this fact of life and results in characters with greater depth: they learn things about themselves, they gain wisdom, perspective, experience. And they use those new found sensibilities to tackle future challenges that cut across their paths in future novels.
That’s been my strategy with Karen Vail. She is not perfect; she means well but makes her share of mistakes, personally and professionally. I would call her evolution from book to book tangible, yet subtle.
While most of the novels in the Karen Vail series can be read as individual books, the full breadth of the character’s personality is best realized if you read all the novels, more so if you read them in order, so you can experience these changes along with her because she is a product of what happens to her and the decisions that she makes.
I’ve made her “evolution” gradual because I think it more closely mirrors real life. We go through our days, living and learning, and sometimes it takes time for us to absorb what has happened, what we’ve done, and the consequences that resulted. We reflect on all of this, and subconsciously we make adjustments to prevent the same thing from happening again—or to make it happen again if it was a good thing. Sometimes those changes are positive, but sometimes they’re negative.
I’ve applied this reasoning to Karen Vail to fuel her development, and I believe it’s a big reason why people say that Vail feels real to them. They can identify with her, root for her, go along with the emotions she experiences, whether she’s fighting for a loved one, tracking down a killer, or going toe-to-toe with her boss to fight an injustice.
What are the boring-but-important parts of real FBI profiling work that you leave out the novels — and what are the little known bits that are actually quite exciting and interesting?
A lot of police work is boring: filling out forms, writing reports, navigating bureaucracy, fighting the politics of the department, dealing with red tape, and so on. But as a writer, I omit the stuff you as a reader won’t find interesting—the parts you’d want to skip—and dive into those scenes that move the story forward or develop the character. And so it goes in the world of the Behavioral Analysis Unit.
A lot of the Information that FBI profilers use to draw up their assessments is culled from case files: autopsy and crime scene photos, interviews with witnesses and family members, meetings with the investigating detectives, etc. The profiler does not always have the luxury of visiting the fresh crime scene, because he/she is often called in later in the case, after multiple murders have been committed and the police have reached a dead end in their investigation and need a fresh perspective. I can incorporate this part of the profiler’s process into a story but I would not write a story around it because it’s just not exciting. So I add a dash for realism here and there, or to help establish a plot point, but then I move on to something of greater interest.
As to what’s the most exciting and interesting part of a profiler’s work, it’s sitting face to face in an interview room with the serial killer, trying to (1) out-think him and (2) select an effective interview strategy wherein he’ll tell you what you want to know. A lot of the offenders try to manipulate the facts, BS you, either to make themselves seem more important, more intelligent, or more ominous. But if you’ve prepared well and chosen a strategy where you’re able to independently verify what they’re telling you, you can filter out the garbage and let them know that you know they’re not being truthful with you.
The key to this is having an accurate profile—basically, knowing who you’re dealing with and what they’re after—so you can select the proper approach to take before you walk in that door. In many respects, it’s a chess match between you and the offender. You have to gain his trust and build a rapport while hiding your disdain for who he is and what he’s done. If you let your personal feelings invade, he’ll put up his defenses, shut down, and you’ll get nothing. Building the rapport can often take time, and perhaps even span multiple visits.
I explore this in NO WAY OUT, where interview strategy plays an important role at a key juncture of the novel. Two opposing approaches are presented, and time is of the essence. Vail must have this information; which method is the best way to obtain it? They were exciting scenes to write. I worked with the profilers to make sure I got it right relative to current interrogation methodology.
NO WAY OUT is set in England. Was there a particular reason for that?
Settings are very important to me. Essentially, the choice of setting emanates from the character or the plot. It’s always organic and never an arbitrary decision. As I develop the storyline, I work to make the location another character in the story—which challenges me, because I have to go there and spend time learning the geography, the people and the microcultures, and then blend it all seamlessly into the plot. It invariably brings depth to the writing. For example, the CRUSH and VELOCITY story arc (Karen Vail novels #2 and #3) is set in Napa Valley’s wine country, which “stresses” Vail because she knows nothing about the wine industry—and understanding how it relates to this particular serial killer is key. This type of “character stress” is a good thing for the reader, and me as a writer, because it forces us to learn along with Vail as she gains an understanding of the nuances of where she is and how it impacts her decisions—and the case.
The idea that inspired me for NO WAY OUT was the discovery of a centuries-old manuscript—written in Shakespeare’s own hand—that has the potential to alter both UK and US history. But the author of the manuscript, its content, and how it came to be discovered is all rooted in fact, and demanded that it be set in England. It also afforded me a tremendous opportunity to once again take Karen Vail outside her comfort zone. Just because those in England speak English does not mean our societies are the same—or even similar. This gave me a tremendous opportunity to do things with Vail I hadn’t previously explored.
I worked extensively with Scotland Yard on NO WAY OUT, which was awesome because the UK’s method of policing is so different from our own. Vail has to navigate this—and it doesn’t always go so well for her!
What do you think is more realistic, and more scary: serial killers and bad guys who are lone-wolf geniuses or charming Bundy types who can blend into any crowd?
Both types exist and both are scary in their own right.
Would you rather be bludgeoned to death by a whacko psycho or by a cold, calculating, cerebral planner? Hard to decide, isn’t it? Seriously, a psychopath isn’t insane; he’s fully aware of what he’s doing and that it’s wrong to kill. He just doesn’t care.
In my research and writing, I find the cerebral killer (which includes “the average guy next door”) scarier because he can outwit law enforcement and take steps to entrap his victims. It can also result in a more complex story as it’s a more challenging case for Vail to handle. There’s so much more I can do with this type of killer.
Why write thrillers instead of historical novels or non-fiction books about real criminal cases?
In nonfiction, you’re constrained by the facts of the case. In fiction, I can create the facts the way I want them based on the story I want to tell and the characters I want to include. It’s almost total creative control. Almost!
I am working on a nonfiction book with one of my FBI Profiler friends. It’ll cover over a dozen of the most interesting cases he handled in his career. So I’m not averse to writing nonfiction at all; a skilled writer can take even dry facts and still tell a compelling story. But it’s certainly not as liberating as having a blank canvas upon which to create as inspiration strikes.
As to historical fiction, INMATE 1577 (Karen Vail #4) was in large part a historical novel: half the book was set from 1950 through 1963, with much of it set at Leavenworth and Alcatraz. It was a lot of fun to work with those people who were there during the times I was writing about; I was very fortunate to have found a former 23-year Leavenworth correctional officer, as well as a number of Alcatraz prisoners, correctional officers, clergy, and family members who grew up on the island. These people gave me a first-hand account of what life, and work, was like. It was invaluable.
I actually inserted my character into the real-life 1962 escape attempt, the most famous prison break of all time. I read through the FBI’s file on the escape and studied a timeline of events for the year leading up to the break. Standing there in the cell house, in the exact spots where it all unfolded fifty years earlier, was a real trip. INMATE 1577 is full of history, raw emotion, and lots of twists. Readers and critics alike loved it.
The novel I’m currently working on will likewise contain substantial historical elements, as it’s set between 1972 and the present.
Who’s the villain in NO WAY OUT (as much as you can say) and what makes this book challenging for Karen Vail — and threatening to the general public? Why should we care if Vail fails?
We’re not sure who the villain is for much of the novel, and I certainly don’t want to reveal too much here. But suffice it to say that a long-sought after federal fugitive is behind the events in NO WAY OUT, a real bad dude who’s responsible for a tremendous amount of death and destruction during the past few decades.
Vail is up against a whole lot more than that. A black operative, Hector DeSantos (a character we know from THE HUNTED, VELOCITY, and HARD TARGET), sucks Vail into a situation that inadvertently involves her in a case with international ramifications where tens of thousands of lives are at stake—and where Vail finds herself on the wrong side of the law. The pacing is terrific, the setting comes to life, the characters shine, and there are some very humorous parts that help break up the tension. A number of reviewers have called it “The thriller of the year,” which is tremendously satisfying.
How is Karen Vail different from other fictional detectives and profilers out there, and how is the villain in NO WAY OUT unique?
The strength of Karen Vail lies in her personality and her verisimilitude as a law enforcement officer. I’ve been told by cops who’ve read the Vail novels that she’s “the type of cop they’d go through a door with.” This is cop-speak for the highest compliment one law enforcement officer can pay to another; it basically means they’d trust their lives to her.
And that didn’t happen by accident. I spent several years working with the BehavioralAnalysis Unit, and two profilers in particular, before writing THE 7TH VICTIM. Over a period of twenty years, I’ve also spent timewith SWAT, US Marshals, DEA, local law enforcement, etc. which gave me a good feel for who they are as people and professionals, the challenges they face and how they go about their work.
What’s in store for Karen Vail and for you — more books about her exclusively for a while, a combination of Vail novels and other works, or a break from Vail for a while?
I’m currently writing Vail novel #6, with a case that spans Vail’s entire law enforcement career. If it works out the way I’ve outlined it, it’ll tie together all the Vail novels, my two short stories, and even one of my standalones ( FALSE ACCUSATIONS).
Beyond that, I’m planning to write a story that I’ve wanted to tackle for many years that will feature Vail at the helm teaming up with my other two main characters, Department of Defense covert operative Hector DeSantos and FBI Agent Aaron Uziel. I’m very excited about it, but I have to be patient because it takes over a year to write each book with the kind of attention to detail, authenticity, character complexity, and plotting that I demand in my novels, the kind of work I’m proud to put my name on.
Did you always plan Karen Vail as a series character, or did that evolve over time?
When I wrote THE 7TH VICTIM—which required years of research with two profilers at the FBI’s Behavioral Analysis Unit—I had not planned to make Vail a series character. I was down on series because I’d read other authors’ novels where they, their characters, and their stories got stale over time. I didn’t want that to happen to me, so I was resistant.
But after my publisher told me the presales response to THE 7TH VICTIM from critics, sales reps, and booksellers was that they all wanted “more Karen Vail,” I had to sit down and think about whether I could come up with a way to keep her, and me, fresh from book to book. After much navel gazing and deep thought, I figured out how to do it—and an idea immediately came to me that I just had to write.
Looking back, I can’t imagine not having journeyed down this path. I’ve had an awesome time developing Karen Vail these past five books. This may sound strange, but Vail and the other characters in her life are like family to me. When I sit down to write, it’s fun spending time with them!
Alan Jacobson is the National Bestselling Author of several critically acclaimed thrillers. His two decades of research and training with the FBI’s profiling unit, DEA, US Marshals Service, Scotland Yard, SWAT, and US military have shaped the stories he tells and the characters that populate his novels. The SAN FRANCISCO CHRONICLE said, “Alan Jacobson researches his books like a good newspaper reporter, and then pushes the envelope into reality more thoroughly than the typical crime novel could ever allow.”
Alan’s novels have made numerous “Top 10 Best Books of the Year” lists and five have been optioned by Hollywood. To learn more, please visit his website.