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Ruler of the Night: Magnificent Euston Station

David Morrell’s Ruler of the Night is set on the harrowing, fogbound streets of 1855 London. A gripping Victorian mystery/thriller, its vivid historical details come from years of research. Here are photo essays that David prepared about the novel’s fascinating locations.

The railway era began in 1830 with the first train between Liverpool and Manchester. Ten years later, almost two thousand miles of tracks crisscrossed Britain. By 1855, a mere twenty-five years later, six thousand miles of tracks united every corner of the nation, with more being planned. Materials, products, and coal could now be transported with such speed and profit that Britain became the first nation to take full advantage of the Industrial Revolution, achieving unprecedented world dominance.

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London’s first railway stations were monuments of power and prosperity, but none equaled the grandeur of Euston Station, one of the principal locales in Ruler of the Night. Euston Station was graced with an impressive entrance courtyard and a huge arch that rose 70 feet high and was 44 feet wide, the largest of its kind in the world. Massive ornate bronze gates added to its spectacle.

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There was further grandeur. Beyond the arch, to the right, travelers entered the Great Hall, with its twin staircases, numerous columns, and eight statues. It was 64 feet high, 126 feet long, and 61 feet wide.

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But while the arch and the Great Hall evoked the wonder of classical antiquity, the actual railway platform represented the industrial age. Composed of iron and glass, it now seems more bleak than awesome. The original station with its arch and Great Hall was destroyed in 1961 to make room for a larger but less impressive one.

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Ruler of the Night is based on an actual incident: the first murder on an English train and the terrifying consequences.

How We Got to Underground Airlines

Underground Airlines by Ben H. Winters

Ben Winter’s novel Underground Airlines opens in an America almost like our own, with the same smartphones, social networks, and Happy Meals. There’s just one crucial difference: in this novel, slavery is still legal in four states. How did this happen? Winters outlines the crucial events in this alternate timeline of American history.

Feb. 12, 1861: President-elect Abraham Lincoln is shot and killed on a hotel balcony in Indianapolis, en route from Springfield, Illinois to Washington, DC to be inaugurated.

May 9, 1861: Congress passes the “Crittenden Compromise,” a package of resolutions and amendments narrowly avoiding a war between the states and permanently enshrining slavery in the American political system.

1898: Maryland passes legislation allowing for a periodic referendum on slavery, a model that will be adopted by several other states and territories.

March 4, 1934: President Franklin Roosevelt (over the objections of the remaining slave states), signs the federal Clean Hands bill, prohibiting the “possession, sale, or consumption” of slave-produced goods in any non-slave state or territory.

Autumn of 1942: In a successful effort to head off a ballot-box land rush like the one that turned Texas free, conservative lawmakers and power brokers in the states of North and South Carolina perform a set of legislative and electoral maneuvers, merging into one state, known simply as Carolina.

1944: President Truman claims a huge victory for the abolitionist movement, convincing Georgia and Kentucky to abolish slavery in exchange for lucrative wartime munitions contracts.

June 1964: The “Freedom Summer” brings busloads of abolitionist activists, black and white, into the heart of the slave-holding south to bear witness to conditions inside the new mega-plantations.

1964-1975: After Texas declares that it is seceding from the union, and President Johnson pronounces this illegal under the Constitution, the Gulf War erupts. Fought primarily in the Gulf of Mexico and along the East Texas coast, the conflict claims hundreds of thousands of lives on both sides, ending not in surrender but an uneasy detente.

Summer of 1972: The “Starman Revolt” in and around Asheville, Carolina is the largest slave uprising in modern history. The bloody revolt and its suppression, along with the lengthy manhunts that follow, lead to a raft of new “citizen protection enforcement” measures in the Southern states, and contribute to protracted, often bitter soul-searching among northern abolition movements, over the appropriateness of encouraging disobedience.

September 27, 1984: The latest reauthorization of the Fugitive Persons Law includes the Moore Amendment, exempting African American law-enforcement officers from its enforcement.

Underground Airlines by Ben H. Winters will be available in bookstores July 5, 2016. Preorder it from Amazon, Barnes & Noble, iBooks, or your local independent bookstore.

Author Tom Fox On Choosing Your Central Characters

DominusTom Fox, author of Dominus, shares his thoughts on what qualities make for powerful central characters. Outsiders, iconoclasts, observers, or protectors—what kinds of characters do you think drive the most powerful stories? Let us know in the comments!

There comes a point in every writer’s work, or “process,” when decisions have to be made about just who the central characters of a book are going to be. Will they fly solo, or will there be a team? Will they be the macho type filled with back-stories of skills and experience, or ignorant and accidentally thrust into strange surroundings? Or will they be frail, broken? Will they be loved, or hated?

I knew from the outset that I wanted two protagonists in Dominus: no solo hero leading the cause alone, but a partnership of sorts. I wanted to be able to explore some of the key themes of the book—deception, reality, faith, doubt—from different perspectives, so it seemed natural to create two characters whose own backgrounds would allow different approaches to be taken to some of these central questions. Continue reading “Author Tom Fox On Choosing Your Central Characters”

Ralph Pezzullo Explains Why the New Thomas Crocker Thriller Is Set in North Korea

SEAL Team Six: Hunt the DragonLike other SEAL Team Six thrillers, Hunt the Dragon started with a comment by my co-author Don Mann about a top-secret mission he went on to North Korea as a member of SEAL Team Six. The real mission took place years ago. But as Don talked about it, I started to imagine what would happen if members of SEAL Team Six were called upon to deploy to North Korea today, and if so, what might be a likely cause.

Don and I try to keep our books as believable and up-to-date as possible, so my first task was to read everything I could find about North Korea. I learned that the totalitarian regime that has ruled the country of twenty-five million people since the 1950s is a self-described revolutionary and socialist state. Political power is highly centralized in one party and thirty-three-year-old Supreme Leader Kim Jong-un of the Kim family heads all major governing structures—as did his father Kim Jong-il and his grandfather Kim Il-sung before him.

All three leaders followed a strategic policy known as Songun (or military first), which explains why a country with per capita GNP of $1,800, according to the CIA World Factbook, maintains the world’s fourth largest standing army.

A friend in the intelligence community explained that Songun is derived from the Maoist idea that “political power grows out of the barrel of a gun.” It is the primary reason that North Korea funds a very aggressive nuclear arms program, whose stated aim is to develop nuclear missiles capable of striking the mainland United States. In international terms, said one State Department expert I spoke to, Songun is a threatening posture towards the rest of the world so that other countries have to take impoverished North Korea seriously. Internally, it assures the Kim family will maintain political control over the government by passing on the title of Supreme Leader of the Korean Peoples’ Army.

I also learned that economically, North Korea is classified as a low-income country. A three-year famine that began in 1995 resulted in an estimated two million deaths. According to Human Rights Watch, North Koreans are “some of the most brutalized people in the world.” Amnesty International estimates that thousands of people are executed annually for political crimes and as many as 200,000 people are housed in six large political prisoner camps where they’re forced to do slave labor.

Armed with this basic understanding, I tried to imagine a credible contemporary scenario that would cause the president of the United States to authorize a top-secret SEAL Team Six mission into North Korea. Since the Kim Jong-un regime runs a criminal unit called Office 39 that specializes in counterfeiting money, stealing nuclear and missile technology, and even kidnapping scientific experts, I devised a plot that involves the kidnapping of a U.S. missile guidance system specialist in Switzerland, coupled with escalating threats to the U.S. from North Korea.

Now that we had a threat and a ticking clock, Don and I talked through the technical logistics of how a SEAL mission to North Korea might work—specifically, what would go into the planning, how the SEALs could deploy into North Korea undetected, and the kinds of weapons and equipment they would use. Then, because the unexpected usually happens on missions of this kind, I threw a big wrench in the works to see how Crocker and his men would react.

We hope you like it.

How To Write A Thriller

Aspiring writers, here it is: lessons on writing a thriller, delivered to us by Matthew Quirk, the bestselling author of The 500 and Cold Barrel Zero. How many of you know where your heroes and villains begin and end before writing? Do any of you dive right in to let the conflicts and twists emerge as you write? Let us know how Quirk’s advice resonates with you in the comments.

Here are a few writing lessons that have helped me over the years. They might not work for everyone, and I’m still learning every day, but it’s what I can offer to those who come to me for help. This is practical, in the trenches, writer-to-writer talk. Please don’t take any bluntness as a lack of reverence for craft and language and literature. I’ve found, however, that romanticism about the writing process can really throw you off when you’re starting out. Writing is work, and here’s how my work gets done.

Figure out your story before you start writing. Genre is the critical consideration here. Genres have certain broad conventions. They’re conventions for a reason—your story probably won’t work without them.

For thrillers, here are the basic elements you need to figure out: There’s a good guy, and a bad guy. Bad guy is doing something horrible. Good guy gets involved and needs to stop bad guy at great personal expense. You should figure out who they are and what they both want, and what sort of conflict they find themselves in, inevitably, because of what they want. Determine an incident at the beginning that puts them, inevitably, on a collision course, and have a good idea of how they will face off at the end.

Alternate successes and setbacks for your hero, raising the stakes of each encounter, and then, as you approach the climax, take the hero all the way down, as hurt, hopeless, and desperate as possible, and then have him somehow overcome. Invert that for tragedies.

It sounds simple but it takes an extraordinary amount time and brain-breaking thought to get down to the heart of your novel. Often a fascinating concept (“what if…”), scene, or character gives the initial notion for a thriller, but a concept isn’t a story until all of the above has been thought through. I constantly remind myself of these points to stay disciplined and build a strong, clean spine for a book. It took years to learn to keep it simple, or try, when it comes to the fundamental through-line.

This is how a good thriller works. It’s also not too far off from Aristotle’s advice in Poetics. Give it a try. Having a solid arc from the beginning to end of your book doesn’t dumb it down or make it formulaic. It makes it an incredibly strong, compelling structure upon which you can build complex characters, or subplots, twists, or beautiful writing. But get that bad guy vs. good guy collision course down first.

This may be awful advice for people whose books are too schematic, but I have the opposite habit of overcomplicating things, so this has been a lifesaver.

The best part of working this all out is bringing in friends and family. If you can’t explain the central arc of your story in a few lines, and describe all these points in ten minutes or so, it’s too complicated and you haven’t worked it enough. There are some ideas that are genius in your head, and preposterous out loud. It’s far better to hear about it now than after you’ve spent two years writing the book. Trust me on that one.

That’s the beauty of it. People love stories. Bring them in. Have coffee. Walk through the mall having an animated discussion about your favorite ways to get rid of a body. It’s so much more fun than staring at a blank page or writing and rewriting without making any real progress.

There’s a lot more advice where that came from. Read Matthew Quirk’s full list of writing tips on The Story Grid.

Christopher Charles on How Places Tell Stories

The Exiled by Christopher CharlesThis 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.

Purchase The Exiled: Amazon | Barnes & Noble | iBooks | Indiebound

How to Write a Historical Crime Novel

Historical Crime NovelWilliam Shaw is the author of the Breen and Tozer series, mysteries set in London in the late 1960s. He has been praised for his ability to evoke the period by Publishers Weekly (“Shaw perfectly captures the end of an uneasy era”), The Guardian (“A compelling and accurate portrait of a changing society”), and many others. It’s no surprise, then, that he has some advice about how to write a historical crime novel.

1. Research. Obviously. It wouldn’t be a historical novel if you didn’t. Inevitably, though, you will find you do two chunks of research. You can’t begin to write a word without immersing yourself in your era. But be prepared to start the research over once you’ve finished. After 100,000 words or so, you’ll have more questions than you started with. However, unlike at the start, when you’re just wallowing in piles of history books, now your questions will be ultra-specific. Like, how long would it take to drive across London in 1968? What coins did London phone boxes take? Once you have specific questions, you can call up real experts, and you know what? They won’t mind at all; in fact, that’s where the real fun starts. For A Song for the Brokenhearted, I had found a naturalist who could tell me about British wildlife in 1964. And when I found my expert, it was like they had waited for years for someone to come up with that topic.

2. Embrace the known unknowns. The juiciest bits are the bits between the facts. History leaves holes; this is where you play. There’s not much in the way of a record of Thomas Cromwell’s childhood, so Hilary Mantel was free to make it up in Wolf Hall. Whatever your era, the language of the common person is probably only sketchily recorded, so you’ll have to imagine what they said and how they said it.

3. … but beware the unknown unknowns. Some of the assumptions you thoughtlessly make will turn out to be plain wrong. When I wrote my first draft of She’s Leaving Home, I had Constable Helen Tozer driving a police car all the way through the book. Luckily, my recent historical past features people who are still alive. I met a couple of women who had served in Tozer’s police division in London in 1968; when I ran the plot back to them they were fine, until I reached the bit about the driving. They looked at me like I was insane. “Oh no. Policewomen didn’t drive cars, then.” Really? Ok. Major redraft. You might have your characters in a 12th-century European novel sitting down to breakfast before going to work in the fields, as Ken Follett does in Pillars of the Earth. Most people won’t notice, but all it takes is one person who knows that wouldn’t have happened… (Confession: I only know this is wrong because a disappointed historian pointed it out in a review).

4. Wear your knowledge lightly. Just because you have spent days researching the Victorian sewer system doesn’t mean you have to inflict everything you know on your reader. It is enough for them to get a sense of what Victorian London smelled like. As in any fiction, the only detail that is relevant is the stuff that enhances theme, characterization and plot. Everything else is showing off. George MacDonald Fraser, writer of the brilliant Flashman books, tucked his knowledge into footnotes that were so well-written, they were as entertaining as the text itself. And then there’s the language. Yes, it’s good to use words and phrases that remind you of a period, but verily, don’t over egg ye puddinge.

5. Finally, the single most important thing is… you must have a time traveler in your cast list. Let me explain. If crime fiction is a type of morality play—as I think it always is—then historical crime exists in a really, really weird moral universe. How do you begin to reconcile the wacky beliefs of the age you are writing about with our liberal modern present? How are you going to cope with a world in which your even your best characters must presumably think that, say, slavery is perfectly normal, that women should have no rights of their own, and that homosexuality is utter depravity? The trick is that somebody in your book—usually a narrator figure—is not really from that time at all. This is a hell of a thing to pull off. C.J. Sansom manages it brilliantly with his narrator Shardlake. Shardlake shares our revulsion with the cruelty and religious zealotry of his time, because he is like us. Shardlake is disabled and his outsider status has, over the years, forced him to see the world differently. In my Breen and Tozer series, it’s not the narrator, but the sidekick who is out of her own time. Breen is more or less of his age. It’s his loud, rock music-loving Tozer who represents our point of view, challenging his post-war preconceptions of how the world ought to be. The trick is to find that character, and if you can, you’re halfway there.

How Private Security Contracting Became Private Military Contracting

Zero Footprint by Simon Chase and Ralph PezzulloRalph Pezzullo is no stranger to Mulholland Books. With former Navy SEAL Don Mann, he has written five SEAL Team Six thrillers, with a sixth on the way. And with private military contractor Simon Chase, Pezzullo proves that the truth can be even more explosive than fiction.  Zero Footprint, now in bookstores, delivers a dramatic insider account of the missions conducted by PMCs. But how exactly did an industry like private security turn into a powerful private military? Read on for Pezzullo’s take.

On September 11, 2001, British Special Boat Service (SBS) commando Simon Chase (not his real name) was in Kabul, Afghanistan with a team of eleven other contractors providing security to Agha Khan IV—the Iman of Nizari Ismailism, a denomination of Shia Islam—when the World Trade Center and Pentagon were attacked by al-Qaeda terrorists.

The very next day members of the CIA’s Special Activities Division started to arrive at the Kabul guesthouse where Chase and his colleagues were staying. The director of SAD pulled Chase aside and asked him if he and his men would be willing to join the US effort to drive the Taliban out of power and help destroy al-Qaeda.

He answered, “yes,” and remembers the day as “the exact moment the business turned from private security work to private military.” In Chase’s words, we “exchanged the concealed Glocks and business suits we had previously been wearing for M4s, military gear and armored vests, and returned to our old skills and drills.” Continue reading “How Private Security Contracting Became Private Military Contracting”

A Soundtrack for The Night Charter

The Night Charter by Sam Hawken

Music has been a part of Camaro Espinoza’s “life” since the very beginning, and different songs have, for me, come to represent her at different stages in her fictional existence. Whether it be Disturbed’s “Indestructible”—not featured here but essential listening—or White Zombie’s “Thunder Kiss ’65,” Camaro has found some of her inner life through musical expression.

The idea of a “soundtrack” for The Night Charter came early on. Between writing sessions I listen to music that speaks to me during the creative process, and little by little I begin to incorporate these into a playlist. That playlist carries the listener through The Night Charter stage by stage, from the free-spirited life Camaro enjoys on the seas (Creedence Clearwater Revival’s “Up Around the Bend”) to the moment she realizes she has managed to set herself and her young charge free (Mark Knopfler with “Get Lucky”).

Some songs here represent the characters themselves, such as the aforementioned “Thunder Kiss ’65,” which contains classic lines from Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill! that encapsulate Camaro perfectly—“I never try anything, I just do it. Wanna try me?” Meanwhile the melancholy Jimmy Buffett song, “Oldest Surfer on the Beach,” gives us Parker Story, the man whose youthful errors have brought him an old man’s troubles even though he’s not yet 40.

See Camaro on the titular night charter, making an exchange on the water to the eerie sounds of Fever Ray’s “Keep the Streets Empty for Me.” See her go to war as you listen to Black Sabbath’s “War Pigs.” The final few songs in the playlist are building tension, a climax of violence set to The Prodigy’s “Breathe,” and then released with Pink Floyd’s “Sorrow.” Even anti-Castro group Alpha 66 gets its moment when Dire Straits’ “Ride Across the River” plays.

The playlist is eclectic, but every song has its place and, reading the book, you’ll be able to place them where they belong with ease. Enjoy.

Brian Helgeland: Why is Legend Called Legend?

kraytwinsIt’s been four years since we had the pleasure of interviewing the Academy Award-winning screenwriter and filmmaker Brian Helgeland for our site (part I, part II). We’re so pleased to welcome him back as we look forward to the release of his new film, Legend. But who—or what—is Legend? Helgeland gives us the story.

The cigarette punch. Shake a smoke out of a pack and offer it to your unwitting victim. When he leans in to accept it—WHAM!—you break his jaw with a single punch; the fact that his mouth is open makes it that much more breakable. Reggie Kray broke the jaws of five men this way. No wait, twenty-five men. No, hold on, it was one hundred and twenty-five men. His paranoid schizophrenic brother Ron, meanwhile, was nailing people to the floor. Those are the types of stories you come across when you begin to investigate London’s most notorious gangsters—the Kray Twins.

kraytwinsmovieOn my mission to make a film about them, one of the first research images I saw was a photo of Reggie Kray’s hearse and a flower arrangement it held: white carnations spelled out the word Legend. With everything I had heard and read, the name seemed to fit and so I adopted it as my title. History is written by the winners, and Reginald Kray’s name will never be counted in that column. His story is told by enemies who hated him, whose self-serving interests necessitate that they diminish and degrade him. His story is told by authorities of law and class who wish to make him an example and hold him up as a lesson. Last, but not least, it is told by those who want to place him firmly in the mythic role of the outlaw. He was certainly some of the things they  say he was, but none of it is close to the whole truth—and no one, as far as I know, tells his story out of love.

Reggie Kray was close to two people during the free part of his life: his brother Ron and his wife Frances. My desire was to humanize him and thereby do right by all of them. How can you humanize a villain, some may protest? Well, demonizing him doesn’t ask or answer very much; it’s too damn easy to be honest and also not very interesting. For me it all begs the question: how do we ever really know what’s true about someone? What we hear is opinion, what we see is point of view, and none of it is necessarily the truth, especially where the Krays are concerned.

reggieandfrancesReggie is a myth now, doomed to a tabloid history and shoddy biography. I am guilty as well. Early on in my research I heard the story that on the morning of the day Frances Kray killed herself, Reggie had bought two tickets for them to go away together on holiday to Ibiza. That story appealed to the romantic in me, but it got even better. In his thirty-three years in prison, the one physical constant in Reggie’s existence was that he kept those unused tickets with him.

A tale of a violent cigarette-wielding gangster? I’m not that interested. But a man torn between his duty and his desire? A man who carries with him a talisman of his lost love and his sins against her for three decades behind bars?
Now we’re cooking with fire. The story of Reggie and Frances? That’s a Legend to me.

Legend opens November 20, 2015. Visit www.legend-the-movie.com for more information.