He hasn’t been a puppet, a pauper, a pirate or a king, but Tom Savage’s resume includes a whole bunch of interesting careers, two of which come in handy in his latest thriller, THE DEVIL AND THE DEEP BLUE SPY, the next installment in the Nora Baron series.
Set in the Caribbean, on both a cruise ship and various islands along the route, Nora, a former actress, and her husband, Jeff, a former CIA operative, try to track down and follow Claude Lamont, a shady French businessman who has a connection to an international terrorist known only as Diablo.
As far as we know, Tom Savage has never been a spy, but he has been an actor, which is a nice talent to have when it comes to fooling people into believing you’re someone you’re not.
But here’s who Tom Savage is: He was born in New York City and raised in St. Thomas, USVI. He and his two sisters were adopted by their maternal aunt after his mother died when he was only two years old. His aunt was a theater actress before she moved to the Islands and started a real estate company. Savage returned to the mainland to attend Hofstra University, majoring in drama and minoring in English.
“I got the acting bug from Mom, and also her passion for reading, particularly mysteries and thrillers,” Savage says. “The bookshelves in our house in St. Thomas were full of them. I started reading them, and that was that. No other genre has ever appealed to me as much as a good mystery. I blame Agatha Christie for that—and John D. MacDonald, Mary Stewart, Ngaio Marsh, Erle Stanley Gardner, and Daphne du Maurier, not to mention the Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew. I had a particular love for espionage: Alistair MacLean, Helen MacInnes, John le Carré, Frederick Forsyth, and Robert Ludlum were favorites. Mom’s favorite was the wonderful series by Dorothy Gilman about Mrs. Pollifax, an elderly lady who volunteers to be a spy. Gilman’s charming and surprisingly substantial thrillers inspired my own Nora Baron series.
“I acted professionally in New York and regional theater for a while after college, then I wrote a musical with some friends that started off-Broadway and ended up on Broadway. It was a flop that ran for four weeks and lost its entire investment. I was totally mortified, and that was the end of my show biz career. But I still had this other passion—mysteries and thrillers.”
After what he calls “the Broadway fiasco,” Savage found a job as a bookseller at Foul Play and Murder Ink, where he worked for nearly 20 years. “Reading all those mystery books and meeting all the authors inspired me to sit down and write a novel—and I found a whole new career. I was exposed to a wide variety of stories. In addition to neo-Gothic thrillers and espionage, I love amateur detectives and anything with serial killers.”
Savage’s first novel was called Precipice, a romantic thriller set in St. Thomas. “I’ve always loved psychological mysteries with Gothic elements—what we used to call “girl-in-the-castle” books like Jane Eyre and Rebecca—so I came up with my own version of that. A troubled young woman arrives in St. Thomas to work as an au pair for a rich family in a fabulous clifftop mansion, and it soon becomes apparent that she has a hidden agenda, leading to murder, madness, and a surprise ending.”
Savage spent two years sending it around to more than 20 agents before he finally found one who agreed to represent him. “He sent the manuscript to six major publishers—and all six of them wanted to buy it. So, the agent arranged for an auction. But Little, Brown made a preemptive offer of a two-book deal. Precipice was published in 1994. It got great reviews and did very well, and my second novel, Valentine (1996), did even better. It’s about a serial killer who strikes every Valentine’s Day, and I’m proud to say that it scared the hell out of everybody. They even made a movie of it. Since then, I’ve published ten more novels and many short stories.”
Nora Baron wasn’t initially designed to be a series character. “I wrote what I thought was a standalone novel, Mrs. John Doe. Nora was an actress and college acting teacher who lived with her husband and daughter in a house in the dunes on Long Island Sound. She’s about to turn 50 and her summer break is interrupted by an urgent summons to London, where her husband, a CIA agent, has apparently died in a mysterious car accident. When Nora arrives in Europe, she inadvertently becomes involved in her husband’s ongoing CIA operation. She nearly gets killed (several times), and she ends up saving the world (literally). By the time her ordeal is over, she’s found a new calling. My editor at Penguin Random House loved this story, and he encouraged me to write a second adventure for Nora, The Woman Who Knew Too Much. Then I wrote a third, The Spy Who Never Was.”
THE DEVIL AND THE DEEP BLUE SPY was inspired by recent articles about terrorist training camps for the people who manage them and then place them in various organizations. “It’s amazingly lucrative for people who act as talent agents for the terrorists,” Savage says.
Nora, an amateur, as opposed to her husband, Jeff, a professional spook, enters into a “rarefied, specialized world. She’s learning on the job and her natural warmhearted personality is always being challenged. As an actor, she has her own set of skills: pretending, impersonating, lying, distracting, but she’s constantly learning new things. Unfortunately, she had to learn how to kill on her very first mission, and that really changed her over time. She’s more serious and clear-eyed now than she was before she got involved in international intrigue, and she’s learning the primary rule of spies everywhere: Trust no one.
“I’d rather write about the innocent bystander (teacher, businessman, housewife) than the forensic psychiatrist or medical examiner—to say nothing of doctors, lawyers, Navy SEALs, Green Berets, and Special Ops personnel. These people solve crimes for a living, which is not nearly as challenging to me as a soccer mom being stalked by her deranged ex-husband. Or a teenage bike messenger accidentally witnessing a Mafia rubout. Or a Madison Avenue ad exec mistaken for an international spy—that was Cary Grant in North By Northwest, my all-time favorite film. I like to write stories where we can all imagine ourselves in the protagonist’s shoes.”
While this might be the final installment in the Nora Baron series, Savage isn’t in the market for a new job. “I’m writing new stories—that’s all I can say. Once, years ago, I made the mistake of telling the audience at Bouchercon all about the new novel I was going to write, and I ended up not writing it. I think I jinxed myself, so I no longer talk about upcoming projects.”
But rest assured, we haven’t seen the last of Tom Savage.
Tom Savage is the USA Today bestselling author of A Penny for the Hangman, the Nora Baron series, and many other novels and short stories. His books have been published in 15 countries, and his bestselling novel, Valentine, was made into a Warner Bros. film. His short stories have appeared in Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine, Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine, and anthologies edited by Lawrence Block, Harlan Coben, and Michael Connelly. All of his works are now available as ebooks. Raised in the Virgin Islands, he lives in New York City, where he worked for many years at Murder Ink®, the world’s first mystery bookstore.
To learn more about Tom and his work, visit his website.