This week we published The Exiled by Christopher Charles, the beginning of a new series featuring Detective Wes Raney. When we meet Wes Raney, he’s investigating a gruesome triple homicide in New Mexico—but it quickly becomes clear that Detective Raney is hiding some skeletons of his own. Author Christopher Charles explains how Raney’s story developed.
The Exiled began with a simple image: a dead body lying face up on the floor of an underground bunker. I didn’t know who’d been killed or how they’d been murdered, but I did know, almost immediately, that the bunker would be located somewhere in the New Mexico desert; I wanted a stark contrast between the claustrophobic crime scene and the expansive world above.
The murder escalated into a drug-related triple homicide, and the bunker found a home on a barely-operative cattle ranch before I began to think seriously about who would catch the case. Wes Raney, then, grew out of the desert, or maybe he grew in opposition to it. As Raney himself later observes, “What happened in that bunker belonged to another place. It was urban…something that would have made sense in the basement of a Lower East Side tenement but here was out of joint.” The detective had to belong to the world inside the bunker, not the sprawling desert above; like the crime itself, he had to appear out of his element in the desert.
So Raney became an exile from New York, a former NYPD undercover detective who developed an addiction on the job and dug himself into trouble he could only get out of by leaving. Through an unlikely connection, he secures work as a homicide detective in New Mexico. Once I decided to narrate the back story, the two places—the New Mexican desert and New York City—quickly translated into two distinct but related genres: a whodunit (the desert), and a Scorsese-esque gangland crime drama (the city). This happened naturally, without my having to think about it. In the desert, there is room to discover and reflect; in a city like New York, you’re constantly reacting to a barrage of stimulus. In the desert, Raney is truly “detecting,” working to solve crimes that have already been committed. As an undercover cop in New York, Raney is there while crimes are being committed, and he is often the one committing them.
Over the course of his eighteen-year exile, Raney has managed to make a home for himself in New Mexico. Hiking through the mountains behind his property, photographing the flora and fauna, has become his way of staying sober. As he understands it, “City life had been an accident of birth, one [he’d] corrected with a brutality that he could only put behind him by thinking of his life as part 1 and part 2.” But this notion is challenged when he finds himself investigating a case that seems right of his past life. Old instincts kick in, and he’s left wondering if what he took for a transformation was just an extended pause: has he reinvented himself in the desert, or has he simply been hiding from himself?
Early readers have talked about how quickly the book moves, and I think this, too, is largely a product of the dual setting. On the page, you can achieve something that’s impossible in real life: you can step directly from an adobe hut surrounded by piñon trees into a penthouse overlooking Central Park. Of course, the pacing accelerates a bit if there’s a murderer lurking in those trees, and a corpse lying on that penthouse floor.