Abe Beckham, the protagonist of best-selling author James Grippando’s compelling new novel, CANE AND ABE, has remained a star prosecutor in the Miami State Attorney’s Office despite the untimely death of his first wife, Samantha. His new wife, Angelina, has helped him through the loss. Yet, Angelina can’t help feeling that their marriage is not what they’d hoped for because Abe still loves Samantha too much.
Then things go terribly wrong. The FBI has been tracking a killer in South Florida known as “Cutter,” whose brutal methods hark back to Florida’s dark past, when machete-wielding men cut sugarcane by hand in the blazing sun. A woman’s mutilated body is discovered dumped in the Everglades. When Angelina goes missing, Abe becomes a suspect. Was Abe responsible for Angelina’s disappearance because of his lingering love for Samantha, or because of a new woman? In the course of answering these questions, CANE AND ABE explores love, death, loyalty, and the dark side of humanity.
At the beginning of CANE AND ABE, you recount an incident that occurred in 1941, when on the promise of steady employment, African American men were led into virtual slavery by the big sugar companies, forced to cut sugarcane by hand at unconscionable wages. How does this past injustice inform your novel?
That backstory is based on the actual indictment of U.S. Sugar by the Department of Justice in 1941, but I didn’t include it CANE AND ABE simply to paint the sugar industry as a villain. CANE AND ABE is not a story about “Big Sugar.” It’s a psychological thriller that’s driven by the breakdown of trust between a husband and wife. Abe Beckham is white, and he fell in love with Samantha Vine, a black woman whose father was one of those enslaved sugar workers. Abe made promises to Samantha and her family before she died, including the promise to look after Samantha’s bipolar brother. Keeping those promises has consequences for his new marriage. Putting the backstory about Big Sugar upfront—which involved lies and broken promises on a massive scale—establishes a powerful backdrop against which Abe struggles to keep his promises.
CANE AND ABE tells the story of Abe Beckham, a star prosecutor in the Miami State Attorney’s office. Why do lawyers make for compelling protagonists in thrillers?
As a fan of Agatha Christie, I think lawyers work as protagonists in thrillers for the same reason it’s so much fun to read a mystery with Hercule Poirot on the case. Like Poirot, lawyers understand motives, and a well-drawn lawyer in a work of fiction doesn’t just guide the reader through the story. That fictional lawyer stays with the reader long after the story is finished and shapes the way readers think about things outside the story. Abe is a smart lawyer, but he faces problems we all face—family problems, eroding trust in relationships, and more. Watching him make mistakes—and he makes some big ones—makes for compelling reading, because we know he’s on the right side … or is he?
You’ve set this and other novels in Florida. Please tell us what you find attractive about the state as a setting, and in effect, another character in the novel.
I can’t underestimate the impact that south Florida—Miami, in particular—has had on my writing. Miami evokes all the right buzzwords—smart and sexy, young and beautiful—but it also has a self-destructive quality that triggers the kind of fascination we have with a reckless youth. It is blessed with natural beauty, but it’s threatened by developers. It has the gift of cultural diversity, but is plagued by ethnic tension. Its nightlife is unrivaled, but the threat of violence is never far enough away. There’s glitz, there’s money, there’s the see-and-be-seen—and then there are neighborhoods that seem straight out of the third world. You often hear it said that truth is stranger than fiction, and nowhere is that more true than in south Florida. Where else could the United States Attorney lose his job after losing a big case, getting drunk, and biting a stripper? But it’s where I live, it’s where I practiced law, and it will always be an inspiration to my writing.
Abe is a well-regarded, ethical prosecutor who’s spent his legal career pursuing justice. Yet, in the course of the novel, we learn that he might have a dark side. What motivates him?
CANE AND ABE is written in first person, and Abe is a bit of an unreliable narrator. So we aren’t always sure what motivates him. At times, we think he’s ready to move on from the death of his first wife and is fully committed to making his new marriage work. At other times, we wonder if he is driven only by the need to hide some dark secret that he cannot tell his new wife. I can’t say more than that without a spoiler alert.
Putting aside Abe Beckham, who is your favorite character in CANE AND ABE, and why?
That would be Abe’s brother in law, J.T. Mental illness is not well understood in our society, and J.T. shows how challenging it can be for a family. Abe wants to help J.T., but he also fears him. Sometimes Abe doesn’t have the energy for J.T., but he shudders to think what might happen if he isn’t there for him. It was a challenge to create such a complex character, and it’s satisfying to get such positive feedback from readers who have had real life experiences with family members like J.T.
I found FBI Agent Victoria Santos to be a fascinating, complex character. Please tell us more about her. Do you have plans for her to appear in a future novel?
Some readers may recall that a much younger Victoria Santos was a major character in my second novel, The Informant (1996). I brought her back briefly in Under Cover of Darkness (2000) as the mentor for FBI Agent Andie Henning (Andie is now married to Jack Swyeck in the Swyteck series). So CANE AND ABE is Victoria’s third appearance, which accounts for the depth of her character. I don’t have a current plan to bring her back, but I could easily see Victoria and Andie working together again before Victoria reaches the FBI’s mandatory retirement age.
You’ve written both series and standalone novels. What do you find gratifying about each approach? Are there downsides to either, and if so, what?
Hands down, the most gratifying thing about the Jack Swyteck series is the way readers have responded to Jack’s character arc over eleven novels. He started as a young, angry lawyer defending death row inmates in The Pardon (1994), and over the course of eleven novels, readers have seen him grow into a lawyer who isn’t super rich or super successful. But he is the kind of guy we all want as a friend—someone we care about enough to celebrate his good days and suffer through his bad ones as if they were our own. The downside of a series, of course, is that not every story I dream up can work with Jack as lead character. That’s where stand alones come in. CANE AND ABE couldn’t possibly work as a Jack Swyteck story. But that isn’t to say that Jack won’t someday meet Abe Beckham in a courtroom. Stay tuned.
Who are some of your favorite writers? Can you include one or two NON-thriller/mystery writers among them?
My list of favorites changes all the time. Right now I am very into Nelson DeMille and Linda Fairstein. Both of these writers have an authentic, confident voice that I admire greatly. I also tend to read a lot of things that are unlike the suspense novels I write. Otherwise, I find myself looking for the devices the author uses to keep the suspense going, which turns the reading into work. I’ve read everything Robert K. Massie has ever written, and his nonfiction is as great an escape for me as any work of fiction.
In CANE AND ABE, you write about, among other things, Big Sugar, serial murders, FBI forensics, and race relations. Could you describe your research and writing process?
I enjoy doing my own research. The Internet is every writer’s best friend. It’s also our worst enemy, if you rely on it exclusively. It’s important to go to the places you write about and meet the type of people who will be the family, friends and neighbors of the characters you create. Many of the scenes in CANE AND ABE take place in the Florida Everglades, and I spent days “in the field” to make sure I got things exactly right.
As for the writing process, I do two things that I would recommend to any writer. First, I never roll right out of bed and go to the keyboard. I walk the neighborhood. It really does help you realize that the dream you had last night was not really that good, and that it’s probably not the seed for the next “Gone with the Wind.” Then I start my writing day by self-editing whatever I wrote the previous day. That not only cleans up yesterday’s mistakes, but it also gives you a running start into the next chapter.
Please tell us about your next project.
CASH LANDING will be released June 2, 2015 and is already available for preorder. It’s kind of “Goodfellas, Miami style”—a wild and suspenseful caper, inspired by actual events, in which a band of amateur thieves pulls off one of the biggest airport heists in history … with deadly consequences.
The first thing you should know about bestselling author James Grippando is that he is no longer clueless—so says his wife, Tiffany, after “A James Grippando Novel” was a clue for #38 Across in the New York Times crossword puzzle. James is the New York Times bestselling author of 22 novels of suspense, including eleven in the popular series featuring Miami criminal defense attorney Jack Swyteck. His latest, Cane and Abe, a legal thriller set against the backdrop of Florida’s sugarcane industry, has been heralded as “Gone Girl meets Grisham” and “a wild ride through Presumed Innocent territory.” His 23rd novel, Cash Landing will be released in June 2015. James is also the author of Leapholes for young adults. His novels are enjoyed worldwide in 28 languages. He is now Counsel at one of the nation’s leading law firms, where he specializes in entertainment and intellectual property law, representing clients who have won more than 30 Tony Awards. He lives in south Florida with his wife, three children, two cats and a golden retriever named Max who has no idea he’s a dog.
To learn more about James, please visit his website.