A Woman FBI Agent Faces the Challenge of a Lifetime
A Spotlight on Author Steve Urszenyi
By Neil Nyren
The pilot pointed. “See that hole in the wall behind you?”
Alex turned to look.
“One of those bullets must have hit the transmission fluid line.”
“How much time do we have?”
“I need to set down now.”
“Not an option. Do you know what’s in the van?”
“Yes, ma’am. I’ll give you five minutes, or however long we can stay aloft.”
“But when we run out of fluid and the transmission fails, the blades will lock up—and we’ll drop like a rock.”
Alexandra “Alex” Martel is not having a good day. A former dead-eye Army sniper, now an FBI special agent on loan to Interpol, she’s been working with a Dutch team to keep twenty kilograms of nuclear material out of the hands of a jihadi group, but now the van’s getting away. Here she is, balanced on a helicopter skid, some damn CIA guy yelling in her ear, trying to shoot around trees to stop it in its tracks before they all die.
And that’s just in the first 20 pages. It only gets worse from there in Steve Urszenyi’s PERFECT SHOT, a hair-raising international thriller debut that catapults the author into the ranks of Jack Carr and Mark Greaney.
It turns out the nuclear deal is only a feint, but a feint from what? Who can she trust? All around her, people are keeping secrets. An elite British intelligence friend is not what she seems. The CIA agent has his own hidden agenda. An American air force base and nuclear arsenal may be compromised to its core. The Russians are shooting at her. Why are the Russians shooting at her?
Reports keep coming in about an impending attack on New York City, and Washington is ordering her home immediately, but something doesn’t sit right, it feels off, her gut tells her to chase down a different lead.
“If you do this,” a colleague warns her, “I can’t help you. You’ll be on your own. You know that, right? You’ll likely be fired and brought up on disciplinary charges for professional misconduct; maybe even go to prison. You’ll be untouchable, Alex….
“Was it true? Am I too proud to admit when I’m wrong?…Am I wrong now?”
I’m not going to spoil it for you. Suffice it to say that when you sit down with PERFECT SHOT, you’re not going to want to schedule anything for the next few hours. The book—and its dynamic heroine—will keep you glued to your seat to the last action-packed page.
Steve Urszenyi himself is no stranger to life-and-death situations. As a paramedic in Toronto, then a tactical medic with the Ontario Provincial Police, then the commander of the Ontario Emergency Medical Assistance Team, he was involved in thousands of medical and trauma emergencies, and become an expert in chemical, biological, radiological, nuclear, and explosives (CBRNE) incident response. It all shows in the book.
“Throughout my career, I’ve been required to develop objectives, strategies, and tactics to accomplish goals,” he says. “Whether managing something as minor as a heart attack, as complex as a mass-casualty incident, or as large and multifaceted as the deployment of a field hospital, I’ve had to think strategically. And my specialty over the past 20 years or so has been the highly specialized area of CBRNE incident response. So, my mind playfully and conspiratorially dabbles in that world, coming up with ways that bad guys might achieve something nefarious. One of those scenarios made it onto the pages of PERFECT SHOT.
If anyone is on the fence about ITW’s ThrillerFest and PitchFest, don’t be—they changed my life!“The very first call I responded to as a student paramedic was the bombing of the Litton Systems plant in Toronto, where they made the guidance systems for the cruise missile. That opened my eyes to what people are capable of doing to other human beings.
“As a tactical medic with a large police force, I responded to all manner of incidents, from flying to the remotest regions of the province for hostage-takings, barricaded subjects, and homicides, to speed-boating across Lake Erie to scale the side of a Great Lakes freighter overrun by eco-protesters, to hot-loading in and out of hovering helicopters, riding ATVs and hiking deep into the backwoods to shut down illegal drug labs and grow ops. I have been at the forefront of many dramatic events. And like paramedics everywhere, I have seen many tragedies and too much of the dark side of life. But, on the plus side, I have also delivered or helped bring more than twenty or thirty babies into this world. Few calls are scarier and simultaneously so rewarding as that!”
He didn’t actually know what PERFECT SHOT was going to be when he started, though:
“I hadn’t outlined the story when I wrote PERFECT SHOT. It grew out of situations I kept putting my characters into. Eventually, I knew what I wanted the story to be about, so I more or less set that as the goal posts and, just as in football, every day that I sat down at the computer to write, I kept trying to move the ball down the field, one play at a time.
“Along the way, I reached inside myself to mine for those feelings I’ve experienced under duress, and I wrote those reactions and attitudes into my characters—both the good guys and the bad guys.
“When I started the book, I didn’t know right away what the story would be about, but I knew I wanted to show readers right off the bat who my main character Alexandra Martel was and who she had been. So, I wanted to showcase her skills early in the story. Alex is a competent, confident, no-nonsense operator. That’s why I began with the situation I put her in—lying on her belly in the woods dressed in camouflage and a ghillie suit, sniper rifle in hand, peering through her scope at bad guys.
“Writing a story featuring a female protagonist wasn’t an entirely conscious choice—and not a calculated or contrived one. Years ago, when I was still trying to sink my teeth into writing a worthy story, I dabbled with various characters and situations. Usually, they fell into the hard-boiled male gumshoe detective mold, often told in a first-person POV. But they all sounded like a version of Mickey Spillane’s Mike Hammer, Nelson DeMille’s John Corey, or Michael Connelly’s Harry Bosch. Those are all great characters, but they’re somebody else’s.
“Then one day, I started writing a screenplay that opened in Amsterdam, and the main character was a very Alex-like female Interpol agent. As I continued to write, I found a unique voice through her, and later she popped up again when I started to write a story that featured the Alex Martel character in a book that became the unpublished forerunner to PERFECT SHOT.
“To a great degree, the character ‘Alex Martel’ was informed by various women I have known and worked with throughout my career. In many ways, she is a fusion of several paramedics, police officers, professors, nurses, doctors, engineers, and lawyers, among others. And anyone who’s ever met my wife, Lynne, knows what a tough, brilliant, and accomplished person she is, so of course, I owe a lot of Alex to her.
“I’ve been blessed to work with some amazing people: paramedics and police officers who are the best at what they do and whose perceptiveness and skill in two complex occupations boggles the mind. The various characters in PERFECT SHOT—especially Alex—are the beneficiaries of the inspiration I have received from working decades in the field with people like these, both men and women.”
Even with all that background, though, he knew he still needed help:
“Some people don’t like doing research, but I love it. I’ve been naturally curious all my life. I grew up before the internet, and I am so grateful that my parents had four different sets of encyclopedias in our home. Whenever I wanted to know something, I just turned to those magical books. But even with all my training and experience in radiological and nuclear incidents, tactical response, and the like, I had to do extensive research to gather accurate information regarding nuclear weapons. Everything I learned was from open-source material or was sanitized during the self-editing stages to ensure I wasn’t revealing information that could jeopardize anyone.
“As far as the marksmanship scenes, I was never in the military, but I grew up owning a rifle and would go shooting at the range with my dad. I don’t have the specialized training of a sniper, so to help me get things right, I turned to a former Canadian Special Operations Forces Command (CANSOFCOM) sniper who took me under his wing to instruct me out in the field. Plus, of course, I did tons of reading and watched many YouTube videos by bona fide experts in the field.”
He had help in other ways, too.
“Growing up, I used to stare at my father’s bookshelves. He was a voracious reader of Ian Fleming, Georges Simenon, and John le Carré, among others. And when I looked at those shelves, even at a young age, I could picture books that I would write up there alongside them. I imagined their covers and even mocked up a few to see what it would look like to have my name on a book. I don’t know why. I have never psychoanalyzed that fantasy.
“Like so many kids of my generation, my earliest memories of reading were of The Hardy Boys mystery series. It was magical to take this new skill of reading and go off somewhere by myself. As I got older, I loved the stories of Arthur C. Clarke, Ray Bradbury, Isaac Asimov, and then Frank Herbert. To be transported into those strange new worlds was pure magic.
“Then in the ’80s, I discovered Robert Ludlum. The Bourne Identity blew me away, as did the next two in the franchise. When I discovered Tom Clancy a few years later, there was no looking back. Thrillers became my passion.”
And that passion led him to a contract…eventually.
“PERFECT SHOT was my second completed manuscript. The first was called By a Long Shot and was the one that helped me land my agent, John Talbot, at ThrillerFest in 2019 while participating in my second PitchFest. (By the way, if anyone is on the fence about ITW’s ThrillerFest and PitchFest, don’t be—they changed my life!)
“We took By a Long Shot out on submission the second week of February 2020, which coincided with the New York publishing industry going into lockdown at the start of the pandemic. By this time, I had already begun writing PERFECT SHOT, so John suggested the best course of action would be to pull my manuscript out of submission, finish writing the one I was working on, and we would go out with that. It turned out to be the perfect plan.
“I completed the novel in July 2021. We went out with it at the end of October, and by April 2022, I had a two-book deal with Minotaur Books/St. Martin’s Press. PERFECT SHOT debuts on November 14th, and while my journey felt long as I waited for and then passed each waypoint, it’s only a blip when you consider how hopefully long our lives and writing careers can be.
“I’m very fortunate to have that two-book deal, and I handed in my second manuscript in August. It’s another Alex Martel story for the fall of 2024, after, of course, the editing process and all the other things that go along with getting a novel ready for publication. I’m now working on the third, and I hope to continue working with my publisher to bring many more Alex Martel stories to readers in the future.”
Asked if he has any final words, he had this to say:
“I am so thrilled and grateful for all the help I’ve been given along the way. The writing community is wonderful. Thriller writers, in particular, are a most supportive bunch.
“And if I could offer one piece of advice to would-be authors, it’s this: I had been interested in writing my whole life, but I allowed myself to listen to so-called experts and others who told me I couldn’t write a novel without an outline. It turns out there are many great and successful novelists who do just that. So, listen to the experts, but be selective about what advice you take to heart.
“The best advice I ever received? If you want to write, just write!”
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.
A Spotlight on Author Steve Urszenyi