Con Jobs and Falling Bodies
“So, I have a business proposition for you.”
The speaker in Josh Haven’s FAKE MONEY, BLUE SMOKE is Kelly Haggerty, and she’s just picked up a man named Matt Kubelsky from the Ray Brook Federal Correctional Institution in Upstate New York. Matt’s been in there for killing an unarmed prisoner in Afghanistan, but there’s a whole lot more to the story than that, and Matt figures he has some scores to settle.
But first he needs money, and Kelly, an ex-girlfriend from many years ago, seems to be the answer to that. She’ll pay him for two favors, a big one and a bigger one. The big one is to be her bodyguard on a business trip to Qatar. The bigger one? “I wondered if you could hire some armed robbers for me.”
The guy she’s going to meet in Qatar has agreed to pay her several million dollars for six original ink and pencil sketches by Gustav Klimt. All well and good. The only catch is…she doesn’t actually possess those sketches, you see. Those are about to be loaded onto a train bound for New York. Thus—the armed robbers.
Matt figures the Klimts aren’t the only things sketchy about this whole plan, but he can handle it. She’s using him, sure, but he’s going to use her, too. It’ll work out fine for both of them.
And so begins a lightning-paced story so full of reversals, twists, double-crosses, falling bodies, and dark, dark comedy, even Tarantino would be envious. The guy Matt hires will turn out to have his own agenda. So will the two men that guy hires, the Qatari buyer, the DEA agent who keeps popping up out of nowhere, and, of course, Kelly and Matt themselves.
Add in neo-Nazis, international terrorists, cowboys, amphetamine-laced coffee, a razor-sharp scimitar, and a pile of funny money, and you have one of the most entertaining reads of the year.
“I was riding a Metro-North train out of Grand Central,” Haven says, “and got to thinking—we still have trains, we still have horses, we still have robberies…why hasn’t anyone got the gumption to rob trains on horseback anymore? I think that was the first kernel of FAKE MONEY, BLUE SMOKE’s story. The second was the discovery in an old St. Clair McKelway piece (from the collection Reporting at Wit’s End, which makes good train-ride reading) that the first man ever tried for counterfeiting in North America, in 1704, was one Peregrine White Jr. It’s a name I recognized because it’s an unusual one, that I’ve seen on family trees over the years. He was a nephew of a great-great, etc., grandfather of mine. (Bit of a black sheep, Peregrine…) That got fake money on my mind—I started to wonder how my cousin the counterfeiter would have had to go about it nowadays, with all the anti-counterfeiting countermeasures baked into modern currency. And around the same time, there were some stories in the news about the false convictions of some American servicemen for war crimes in Iraq and Afghanistan. Reading about the grotesquely dishonest behavior of a handful of military prosecutors—fabricating and suppressing evidence, trying to advance their careers at the expense of innocent men’s lives—disturbed me intensely. I wondered how a man getting out of prison after being falsely labeled a war criminal would go on with his life.
“Those three notions floating around in my head bumped into each other, stuck together, and snowballed into FAKE MONEY, BLUE SMOKE.
“You mentioned Tarantino to me, and it’s a very flattering comparison—as a writer, Tarantino’s in a league almost by himself. And there’s no question that Tarantino’s been an influence on me. He’s got such a tremendous ear for dialogue, you can listen to it over and over again, like a Beatles song on repeat. It’s hard to think of more than a half-dozen other writers you can say that about. There’s Herman Wouk’s dialogue, George MacDonald Fraser’s, Patrick O’Brian’s, Jane Austen’s. John McPhee’s prose reads that way. So does E.B. White’s. And they’ve all been big influences on me. But I think more than Tarantino-esque, with FAKE MONEY, BLUE SMOKE, I was going for Elmore Leonard-esque—in fact, I wrote this not long after reading Leonard’s Rum Punch and loving it. Tarantino took Rum Punch and turned it into Jackie Brown, so I guess it all fits together.
“As for other influences—it’s not one of his best-known novels, but I love Ken Follett’s Whiteout, a fantastically tight thriller. Ditto John Grisham’s Camino Island—I think those probably both influenced FAKE MONEY, BLUE SMOKE. There’s a fantastic crime novelist, Mo Hayder, of whom I’m a huge fan, who died recently, much too young. Then there’s Michael Connelly, Gillian Flynn, Raymond Chandler, Michael Crichton, Tom Clancy, Lee Child, Ian Fleming, James Ellroy, Bernard Cornwell, C.S. Forester. Though I may just be rattling off the names of writers I love… I don’t think I can argue Ira Gerswhin influenced FAKE MONEY, BLUE SMOKE, but he’s certainly influenced me. Does it sound too pretentious to say Shakespeare? I’ve been consumed by Shakespeare since middle school—I used to make my friends do table reads of King Lear and Twelfth Night at lunch. And there’s Julius Epstein, who wrote the script for Kiss Them for Me, about three Navy fliers on leave in San Francisco, and his died-young twin brother Philip, with whom he wrote Casablanca. George Froeschel, who wrote the screenplay for Command Decision, about strategic bombing during WWII, and Robert Pirosh, who wrote the screenplay for Battleground, about the Battle of the Bulge. Philip Barry and Aaron Sorkin. Garry Marshall and all the other writers of The Dick Van Dyke Show, and the guys who wrote Yes, Minister. The guys who wrote Friends and Frasier. And ultimately, there’s my father, David Gelernter, who, without a doubt, has had the largest influence on my writing.
“I think it goes without saying, but I have to say it anyway—I wouldn’t dare compare myself to anyone on this list. I’m not comparing—just admiring.”
FAKE MONEY, BLUE SMOKE is filled with intimate detail about a host of things, from Amtrak train logistics to Qatari architecture and the questionable beverage known as “Player’s Coffee.” How did Haven learn about all of that?
“Bizarrely, the Amtrak stuff was the most difficult part of the book to research. I’m not sure why—maybe they just think no one’ll be interested—but Amtrak is not forthcoming about how anything works behind the scenes. My big break was getting hold of a copy of an Amtrak training film for new engineers—which was a lot less dull than it sounds. If FAKE MONEY, BLUE SMOKE bombs, I may look for a job in diesel-electric. Players’ Coffee came, I think, from the Mets’ TV guys, the inimitable Gary Cohen, Ron Darling, and Keith Hernandez. Qatari architecture just happens to be something I’m interested in—Qatar and the other Persian Gulf states are spending hundreds of billions of dollars building beautiful, ambitious things, and I enjoy reading about them. A lot of the stuff in the book was like that: things I was already interested in and glad to get a chance to write about.
Probably the most interesting piece of research, though, was actually done by my editor, Otto Penzler. We got into an argument over the strictures of private plane travel—specifically, how much border and customs control you had to deal with; how hard it would be to smuggle something into a country by way of a business jet. Otto decided to settle the question by consulting an outside crime expert—Michael Connelly. I’m not sure it was fair of him to use a ringer, but I’m a gigantic Connelly fan, so I got a big kick out of that.”
Josh Haven is actually a pseudonym for J.H. Gelernter, who has also written two excellent historical thrillers under his own name. His path to publication, however, was not the usual one.
“After I finished college, I thought I’d get a PhD in astrophysics. I had put forward some new ideas about a few celestial bodies (neutron stars, the moons Hyperion and Proteus, our moon and Mercury), plus a proposal for a non-flat space-time geometry that doesn’t need dark matter to make the math work. My stuff had been reasonably well-received, and I really thought my future was in science, but I didn’t get into grad school. Any grad school. The closest I got was the waitlist at Berkeley, for whom I now have an eternal fondness (go Bears). No one wanted to take a chance on me because my bachelor’s degree was in playwriting. I really can’t blame them. But of course I wasn’t making a living writing plays, any more than I was making a living doing freelance physics. I was paying the bills, barely, writing freelance book reviews and culture pieces and ad copy. I was already in my mid-20s, and I needed a real job. I decided I’d give myself six months to write and sell a book, and then I was going to get a commercial truck driver’s license.
“So I wrote my first book, a Napoleonic spy thriller called Hold Fast, pretty quickly, and started sending it to agents. I got a couple offers, but one guy, my now-agent Warren Frazier, was really enthusiastic about it. He sent it to Star Lawrence of W.W. Norton (an incredible guy and a fantastic editor). Norton bought it and signed me for a sequel, and suddenly my life was completely different. It’s been smooth sailing ever since, knock on wood. Once I’d turned in two more Norton books—Captain Grey’s Gambit and then another sequel, The Montevideo Brief, which is coming out in Spring ’23—I had a chance to take a breath and to take some time and write something different. My two great literary loves are historical fiction and crime thrillers. I was doing historical fiction for Norton, so I thought I’d take a shot at a crime thriller. My agent told me he knew a perfect guy for it, and that guy—the great Otto Penzler—bought it. I’ve really been fantastically lucky over the last few years; I spend a lot of time counting my blessings and wondering when catastrophe will strike.”
Next up, after The Montevideo Brief, is another Haven novel in early summer 2023, The Siberia Job, “a thriller based on a true story of the crazy Mafia and murder-filled business world of early ’90s post-Soviet Russia. Really, it’s the story of how the oligarchs took over. And right now, I’m working on a new science thriller, sort of Michael-Crichton-y (I hope it’ll be Crichton-y, anyway), tentatively titled Strange Metals.”
That’s a busy schedule! But for anybody who reads FAKE MONEY, BLUE SMOKE and becomes a fan, it’ll be good to know that no matter what name he uses, we’ll definitely be hearing a lot from him.
Neil Nyren is the former EVP, associate publisher, and editor in chief of G.P. Putnam’s Sons and the winner of the 2017 Ellery Queen Award from the Mystery Writers of America. Among the writers of crime and suspense he has edited are Tom Clancy, Clive Cussler, John Sandford, C. J. Box, Robert Crais, Carl Hiaasen, Daniel Silva, Jack Higgins, Frederick Forsyth, Ken Follett, Jonathan Kellerman, Ed McBain, and Ace Atkins. He now writes about crime fiction and publishing for CrimeReads, BookTrib, The Big Thrill, and The Third Degree, among others, and is a contributing writer to the Anthony/Agatha/Macavity-winning How to Write a Mystery.
He is currently writing a monthly publishing column for the MWA newsletter The Third Degree, as well as a regular ITW-sponsored series on debut thriller authors for BookTrib.com and is an editor at large for CrimeReads.
This column originally ran on Booktrib, where writers and readers meet.