By Dan Levy
There’s a reason most of us write fiction—we don’t want to actually endure what we put our protagonists through. Sure, it’s fun to live that life in our minds for a few hours at a time and chronicle what we see. But as fiction writers, we revel in the comfort that we still get to play God on the page and are in total control.
Those who chose to live the life of a thriller protagonist—or antagonist—find their books to be welcome on the memoir, true crime or autobiography shelves. However, there are a few exceptions where fact and fiction merge—most notably the connection between Ian Fleming’s time in the British Secret Service and James Bond.
Add Mark Pryor to the list of people who seem to live the lives they write about. A former crime reporter in the UK, Pryor moved to the US, got his law degree and became an assistant district attorney in Austin, Texas. His prosecution wins include a Mexican mafia enforcer, murderers, rapists, robbers and a transvestite prostitute—to which he admits feeling a bit bad about. He prosecuted a cold case that got the attention of CBS’s 48 Hours and was the impetus for Pryor’s true crime story AS SHE LAY SLEEPING.
Turning Fascination to Fiction
So why does Pryor, an admitted adrenaline junkie (prior to having children, anyway), need to write thriller fiction? “I’m very interested in the criminal mind. I’ve never understood how, in a premeditated way, people do very bad things to other people.” Pryor noted that HELTER SKELTER was a “gateway book” for him. “I grew up on a farm in England, and had a very bucolic childhood. [In] reading that book, everything was so bizarre and twisted. I couldn’t understand it. I’ve been fascinated by it ever since.”
That fascination not only explains why writing thrillers would give Pryor an avenue to explore the criminal mind, and do so through his series protagonist, Hugo Marston, a former FBI profiler.
THE BUTTON MAN, the prequel to Pryor’s THE BOOKSELLER, finds Marston as the head of security at the US Embassy in London. He’s asked to protect a famous movie-star couple, Dayton Harper and Ginny Ferro, who, while filming a movie in rural England, killed a local man in a hit and run. The task turns from routine to disastrous almost immediately. Before Hugo even meets them, he finds out that Ferro has disappeared, and her body has been found hanging from an oak tree in a London cemetery. Hours later a distraught Harper gives Hugo the slip, and Hugo has no idea where he’s run off to. Hugo’s search leads to a quaint English village where more bodies turn up. Is this the work of a serial killer—or something else entirely?
Unlike most protagonists, who have a bias toward action, Pryor has created in Marston a man who is more comfortable in the background, “He’s a watcher, not a player. Hugo is going to hold back, gather some information and think about which rabbit hole he is going to chase down.”
Going Home Again, Literally
The idea for the prequel came to Pryor a couple of books ago, but he held off until now. “I think for a prequel to be interesting to established readers, they have to already know the characters. They have to want to go back in time to see them when they were younger and a bit more inexperienced.” Pryor noted the prequel offered an interesting series twist as well, “It helps that I now have a second entry point into the series. People can either pick up THE BOOKSELLER or THE BUTTON MAN and dive straight in.”
THE BUTTON MAN is a bit of prequel for Pryor as well, giving him a chance to return to his native UK and recast his childhood home through the eyes of Marston. “It was a chance to go back and tootle around my old stomping grounds. The village in THE BUTTON MAN is the one I grew up in. The pub (in the book) is the pub I used to go to. Even the legend of Jack O’ Legs shooting his arrow and it bouncing off the church and finding himself a grave is a real legend.”
As for the meaning of THE BUTTON MAN, Pryor said that giving it away would create a bit of a spoiler. However, he was quick to note that another Marston escapade is in the works. Currently titled THE RELUCTANT MATADOR, Pryor takes his protagonist and his readers on a thrill ride through Paris and Barcelona in what will be his sixth book.
Mark Pryor is the author of THE BOOKSELLER, THE CRYPT THIEF, and THE BLOOD PROMISE, the first three Hugo Marston novels, and the true-crime book AS SHE LAY SLEEPING. A native of Hertfordshire, England, he is an assistant district attorney in Austin, Texas, where he lives with his wife and three children.
Learn more about THE BUTTON MAN, the other books in the Hugo Marston series, and Pryor’s true crime story on his website.
Photography credit: Alia Michelle Photography