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No Fear Here…Unless You’re the Bad Guy

By K.L. Romo

In bestselling author M.W. Craven’s U.S. debut, FEARLESS, we meet an unusual protagonist whose irreverent snarkiness matches only his fierce determination to do whatever it takes, including eliminating his adversaries.

Staying invisible by wandering under the radar is harder than you might think. At least, that’s what former U.S. Marshall Ben Koenig has realized for the six years he’s been on the run. In his last official mission, he’d killed the son of a Russian mobster, and there’s a five-million-dollar reward for his termination. Now he wanders the northeastern United States, taking in the tourist sites for fun and drinking chocolate milkshakes. It gives him something to do.

Koenig also has a secret weapon—he feels no fear. He has Urbach-Wiethe disease. Most people who have it feel excessive fear, but he feels none. The condition is an asset for catching criminals, allowing him to be a solitary super-soldier, but it’s a liability for his team. How can he make good decisions about risk and danger?

When Koenig sees the only picture of himself left—from his Federal ID, he’d deleted all others from the web—plastered across the TV screen, he knows one thing: if he’s on the U.S. Marshall’s Most Wanted list, someone with clout needs him for something important, an unofficial mission.

Here, Craven talks with The Big Thrill about his unusual Koenig character, how his writing career came to be, and his unique background (that’s even more interesting than Koenig’s—he joined the British army when he was 16 and stayed for 12 years, then he became a social worker and spent 17 years as a probation officer for Britain’s prison system).

M.W. Craven
© Julie Winspear Photography

You were diagnosed with Burkitts Lymphoma, a terminal cancer, in 2004. You beat that diagnosis! How does a brush with death change a person’s outlook on life goals and taking risks?

Yes, that’s right. I’m in the weird position of having been written off (medically) to the point palliative options were being discussed and my funeral was being planned. Apparently, it was going to be on a Monday…

But, after a sliver of my hip bone didn’t show what they expected, my medical team kept up the rather brutal treatment (I was an inpatient for almost six months), and the chemo protocol I was on finally kicked in.

The effect on me physically was plain to see—I’d lost half my body weight; I was as bald as an egg and weaker than lite beer—but the effect on my personality changed my life. I went into hospital as shy as a mouse but left not caring what people thought about me anymore (giving a f**k about what strangers think of you is the root cause of shyness, I’ve always thought). Career-and-financial-future-wise, I went into hospital quite risk-averse; I left with a completely different outlook: the worst had already happened. Nothing that had bothered me before bothered me now.

When making the leap from well-paid assistant chief probation officer to full-time author without an agent or a publishing contract, you must firmly put any concerns about your career and your financial future to the back of your mind. The risk—not that I saw it as a risk—paid off. I’m financially secure. I’ve won two major awards (and I’m up for two more in July, so it could be four major awards by the time this article goes out). My last three books have been Sunday Times bestsellers. I’m translated into 26 languages. I have two TV shows in development.

And it was all down to being ill. I have no doubt about that.

What inspired the Ben Koenig character?

Ben Koenig is a product of my days as a probation officer. I was working with this guy who’d tried to kill himself with an overdose. He’d swallowed a load of paracetamol and washed it down with cheap vodka. The result wasn’t death but an acquired brain injury (ABI). In this man’s case, it manifested as an inability to control anger and an inability to regulate sweat.

While doing research to learn about ABIs, I happened upon a disease of the amygdala called Urbach-Wiethe. This degenerative, non-fatal condition affects the fear emotion—specifically the flight or fight response. It’s incredibly rare, and in 99.9% of cases, the person with UW becomes hypersensitised to fear. Everything scares them. Invariably, they become shut-ins, afraid to leave their apartment. But, in that 0.1% of cases, it goes the other way—the person cannot experience fear. And since I was an aspiring writer, I locked that nugget away in my vault.

In 2014, I wrote a UK-set police procedural called Born in a Burial Gown. I’d written it in third-person limited POV, past tense. Which was OK—in fact, it’s how I wrote all the Washington Poe series. But I wanted to experiment. I chose a U.S. setting and wrote a first-person POV story, and as I wanted to switch genres and was (and still am) obsessed with the Jack Reacher books, I opted for an action thriller. Step forward, Ben Koenig, a man unable to feel fear. As you’ll find out, it’s 50% curse, 50% blessing…

In today’s world, how hard is it for a person to disappear, erasing all traces of themselves?

I suspect it’s a lot easier in the U.S. than in my native U.K. (one of the most densely packed countries in Europe), but there are problems to overcome wherever you decide to lay low, the most obvious of which is technology. Bill Gates didn’t need to put microchips in the COVID-19 vaccines; most people carry one of the most advanced tracking devices in the world—the cell phone. And even if you ditch technology completely, there is still one big problem to navigate if someone is desperate to find you (it doesn’t matter if it’s family or law enforcement), and that’s what you look like.

Human beings are bad—I mean really bad—at remembering faces without visual prompts (i.e., photographs). So, it doesn’t matter where you’re hiding. If someone is motivated and has the resources, if they carpet bomb the area with photographs, eventually, they’ll find you. At the start of FEARLESS, Koenig has gotten rid of almost every photo of him there was, but he couldn’t access one particular federal database, and it’s this photograph that’s used to track him down.

What was the impetus for Ben’s love of chocolate milkshakes?

I find the easiest way to remember a character’s traits, particularly the protagonist, is to base them on someone I know, and even better if that someone is me. It’s why most of my characters listen to 1970s/early 1980s punk bands and why Ben Koenig drinks chocolate milkshakes. It’s also a tip of the hat to Harlan Coben’s Yoo-Hoo slurping Myron Bolitar, a genius creation if ever there was one.

Besides being a super entertaining read, are there any messages you’d like readers to take away from the book?

Ben is a character whose moral compass points north, and yes, he does bad, sometimes horrific things. The men (and women) he kills all know about his abilities. Ben’s not a knight errant; he had to be persuaded to use his extraordinary skills, but he won’t shirk what needs to be done either. Once he’s in, he’s all in. Jen Draper—despite being forced to work together, she and Koenig have a hate-hate relationship—is a compromised character. She’s seen and done bad things, and her path is redemptive. But it’s not that easy when Koenig is in your life.

The bad guys in FEARLESS are real bad guys (which is unusual for me as I tend to play in the grey areas, but that was intentional because as readers are getting to know Koenig, I didn’t want them doubting the…um…let’s just say ‘affirmative’ decisions he makes). So, I guess the message readers might take away from FEARLESS is that it’s not only Jack Reacher out there kicking ass and taking names.

What advice would you give other writers, especially those who are unpublished and might be unsure of their path?

Read a lot, and not just in the thriller genre. Read Stephen King’s On Writing. Study the masters of pacing (which isn’t about action on every page; it’s about forcing the reader to keep turning the page) like Harlan Coben and David Baldacci, then study the masters’ character creation like Carl Hiaasen and Dennis Lehane. Ignore people who say, ‘write what you know’ and listen to people who say, ‘write what you love reading.’ But have fun.

How did you come to have the hobby of breeding snakes? What’s your favorite snake, and why?

I don’t know why, but I’ve always loved snakes. My sisters feared them, which is irrational, as there aren’t any snakes in the U.K. Well, that’s not entirely true—we do have the non-venomous grass snake (Natrix helvetica) and smooth snake (Coronella austriaca), and the ever-so-slightly venomous adder (Vipera berus). But they’re so rare and so secretive you never see them. And on the odd occasions they come out to bask, people crowd them like they’ve seen the Loch Ness f**king Monster. But I digress. For reasons unknown, ever since I can remember, I was obsessed with an animal I’d never seen. I saw a bunch when I was in the army, but that’s another story entirely…

In 1995, around the same time I left the army, the U.K. finally realised there was money to be made in selling reptiles. Soon, a great reptile shop was within walking distance of my student digs. Within a few months, I had a medium-sized collection. Nothing too difficult to keep, mainly North American colubrids, half a dozen corn snakes, a breeding pair of gopher snakes, a beautiful milksnake, some kingsnakes (I had a desert kingsnake which bit me every time I picked it up. Every. Single. Time.), a western hognose, and a royal python.

It was getting to be an expensive hobby, though, and I was still a student social worker. I had to decide: reduce or increase my collection. Reducing it would make my hobby affordable; increasing it might allow me to make a little money and offset the larger expenses. And if I scaled up, I might even make enough to afford my dream snake, which at the time was a green tree python.

Three or four years pass. I have 100 pairs of breeding corn snakes; I’m one of the biggest private reptile breeders in the country; I supply hatchlings to most of the shops in the north of England and the south of Scotland; I’m selling surplus stock to the wholesalers, the guys who supply the big chains; and I’m making more than enough money to pay for my hobby. But one night, I realised something—I wasn’t enjoying it anymore. Friday night feeding and Saturday morning cleaning had become a chore, not a joy. I was resenting it. Which is the exact opposite of what I set out to do. So, I stopped and returned to being a hobbyist.

And that was that. I still have a weird love for snakes, and I shoehorned a western diamondback rattlesnake into FEARLESS, but I don’t keep them anymore. But I’ve made discreet enquiries with breeders I used to know, so…?

Can you share a teaser about your next novel?

I can do better than that—we have a draft cover copy for the second Koenig book, provisionally called Nobody’s Hero, which is being edited as we speak:

The reappearance of a woman thought long dead results in a safe in Langley being opened for the first time in ten years. Inside there is a letter. On it is written, ‘The Acacia Avenue Protocol has been initiated.’ Four names are listed underneath. Three of the people on the list are dead. The fourth name is Ben Koenig.

Koenig doesn’t know why he’s on the list, and he doesn’t know what the Acacia Avenue Protocol is. But he does know the woman who has reappeared. One of the bravest women Koenig has ever met—ten years ago, he was asked by a senior intelligence officer to help her fake her own death. Koenig didn’t ask why she had to die, but he knows one thing for sure: if she’s resurfaced, then something is very wrong.

From the windswept cities of northern England to a remote Scottish airfield, from New York to Nevada, Koenig will follow a trail of death and destruction as he uncovers the horrific protocol. Along the way, he’ll have run-ins with a cabal of corrupt cops known as the East Coast Sweeney, a ruthless private military contractor, and a contract killer with a strange aversion. If Koenig can’t stop the protocol, his country will never be the same again.

Tell us something about yourself your fans might not already know.

Each time a book of mine is published, I get something from that book tattooed onto my fingers. I haven’t got my FEARLESS tattoo yet, but I will, and I’m open to suggestions…

K. L. Romo
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