Please take a moment to review Hachette Book Group’s updated Privacy Policy: read the updated policy here.

Somebody Knows The Secret

Waking Lions by Ayelet Gundar-GoshenWe asked Ayelet Gundar-Goshen, author of Waking Lions (out now from Little, Brown and Company!) to tell us how her riveting new thriller came to be.

A middle-class doctor hits an unnamed refugee and leaves him to die by the side of the road. That’s not exactly the beginning of a romantic comedy. But when I had this sentence in my head—the one-line premise of Waking Lions—I didn’t know yet which direction the plot will take. No romantic comedy, ok, but will it be a domestic drama? A thriller? Eventually, what made the call was my partner’s reaction: “Please, don’t make me read a 400-page novel about a man sitting in his living room and feeling guilty!”

My partner is the first reader of everything I write. He’s also the second, third, and twelfth reader, because I make him read the drafts again and again until the novel is finished. When I saw the terror in his eyes, I understood that a domestic drama was not an option. And yet I tried: “Four hundred pages of feeling guilty worked perfectly fine for Dostoyevsky. Ever read Crime and Punishment?” He wasn’t impressed by this argument. “Exactly! Dostoyevsky did such a great job. Do you want to write a novel that somebody else already wrote?”

My partner begged for a thriller. The big difference between a moral thriller and a moral drama is the source of danger. While in a drama the danger is from within—feelings of shame and guilt that haunt the character—in a thriller there’s also an outside danger. The basic mechanism—somebody knows the secret—is what makes this wheel turn. The bigger the outside problem is, the more afraid we are for our character, and the more desperate the character becomes. Desperate characters make interesting moves, because human nature is revealed under pressure. It’s very easy to be a good person when everything goes as planned, but what happens when things start to fall apart? When we read about people in extreme situations—in times of war, disasters and so on—we discover that you can never tell who will be a hero and who will turn out to be a coward or a villain. We have a concept of ourselves as being one thing, but when we crash into reality, we find out that we’re completely different than we thought.

A middle-class doctor hits an unnamed refugee and leaves him to die by the side of the road—that’s the beginning. He comes back home, kisses his sleeping wife and children. He’s sitting in his living room feeling guilty—not much fun, but better than prison—when there’s a knock on the door. It’s the refugee’s wife and she witnessed the accident. The outsider’s eye raises the tension. Think of yourself committing any kind of transgression—the first thing you do is look around and see if anyone else noticed. Our moral principles—Freud’s superego—develop out of the fear of being punished for our passion or our aggression. The outsider’s eye makes for potential punishment. While in a drama the conflict is inside one’s mind, in a thriller the different aspects of the mind (the animal drives, the moral principles) are represented by different characters.

But of course, literature is more than mechanics, just as a person is much more than the sum of his organs. You can’t write a novel based on schematic structures, there has to be a soul in it. When the characters you’ve created start to move between the pages, when they start to talk and act, that’s when the story becomes alive. And when a character suddenly rebels and refuses to do what you planned in your plot structure, that’s when you know the book has a soul of its own.

Purchase Waking Lions: Amazon | Barnes & Noble | iBooks | IndieBound

Character Building: Melina Marchetta on Tell the Truth, Shame the Devil

Tell the Truth, Shame the Devil by Melina MarchettaMelina Marchetta’s Tell the Truth, Shame the Devil is “an electrifying contemporary detective thriller” that “explores Europe’s simmering anti-Muslim sentiments” in the aftermath of a bus bomb, writes Australian reviewer Fiona Hardy. She spoke to the author.

Hardy: Tell the Truth, Shame the Devil is set in Calais and England. What compelled you to set your book in Europe instead of Australia?

Marchetta: I really needed the English Channel because of the short distance between two countries and the fact that, on a good day, you can see all the way across. An image from my childhood bible was of Moses sitting on a rock looking across to a land in the close distance. He’d been instructed to lead his people to the Promised Land, but as a punishment, he knew he’d never reach it himself. So the first mental image I had for this novel was of Jamal Sarraf looking across the channel towards Dover, knowing he’d never be permitted to return to his homeland.

Another reason I set it overseas was because of the Australian character Violette. I wanted her “Australianness” to stand out. I wanted her journey to be epic. I’ve referred to the difference between a trip and a journey in a previous novel. Violette doesn’t go on a trip from the country to the city, or from one town to the next. She goes on a journey to the other side of the world, and only one person knows why. There are many characters in this novel, and I had to distinguish Violette from the rest.

Hardy: Your books frequently depict racial tensions while revealing the humanity of those subjected to the media’s misplaced scrutiny. Do you deliberately set out to create these situations?

Marchetta: I don’t feel as if it was deliberate. It all comes down to characterization. I have this wonderfully strange relationship with my characters. When they nudge at my psyche, I allow them in, but they have to tell a pretty good story for me to let them stay. Of course, those stories are part of my family’s early days in this country, or they’re a combination of what I’ve witnessed, experienced and been a part of.

Australia is a paradox. It has embraced diversity, but scratch the surface and racism is there. We’ve seen it when a footy star and Australian of the Year walks onto an AFL ground and is booed, when badly behaved tennis stars are told by a respected Australian sportswoman to go back to the country of their parents’ birth, and it’s there in the rhetoric that comes from our politicians when speaking about refugees. Ultimately, I wanted to scratch the other surface, and explore what makes us stay human and united when acts of terror, and the media’s response to it, gather enough power to challenge our ideology. Continue reading “Character Building: Melina Marchetta on Tell the Truth, Shame the Devil”

Laird Hunt and Christopher Charles in Conversation

The Exiled by Christopher Charles The Exiled is Christopher Charles’s debut thriller, featuring a detective named Wes Raney who seeks refuge from his ignominious past in NYC in the brutal and beautiful New Mexican desert. Of Charles’s novel, Shelf Awareness writes “The Exiled is a fine piece of crime fiction with a keen sense of timing and character.” Here to talk about timing and character is Christopher Charles in conversation with his former writing instructor, Laird Hunt, author of the critically acclaimed novel Neverhome.

Laird Hunt: Which came first: Raney in New York or Raney in the New Mexican desert? When did you know you were going to give both Raneys more or less equal portions of the novel?

Christopher Charles: Raney in the desert came first, largely because the desert came first. I started with the crime, or an image of the crime: three bodies in a Cold-War style bunker in the New Mexico desert. The detective grew from the case. The murders felt urban to me—out of place in the southwestern landscape. The detective had to be urban and out of place, too.

To be honest, I’m not sure the decision to give them equal portions of the novel was ever really a conscious one—the past just seemed to be catching up with the present as I wrote, and I went where the story took me.

Hunt: The later Raney obviously contains the earlier. In what ways does the earlier Raney contain the later?

Charles: They’re both motivated in ways they don’t necessarily understand. They’re driven, but their drive is like a foreign entity. Raney at any age would likely launch full-throttle into anything you put in front of him. Both Raneys have an idyllic vision of who they’d like to be, but they can’t stop themselves from chasing after whatever seems urgent in the present. Older Raney realizes that he can only control himself by controlling his environment. But how long can you sustain that? How long can you remain isolated in the desert—even if the desert itself has become your passion—before civilization calls you back? Continue reading “Laird Hunt and Christopher Charles in Conversation”

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.

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.

Genre Blending for Rebels

Deadly Spells by Jaye WellsI dare you to read this essay by Jaye Wells and not fall under her spell. This Texas-raised, USA Today bestselling author grew up reading everything she could get her hands on, and it shows in her passionate argument for blending the conventions of crime fiction with tropes from other genres. Wells’s forthcoming novel is called Deadly Spells, and Orbit Books will publish it on February 10th. You’d do well to pre-order a copy.

“You can’t do that.”

This sentence had been the driving force behind most of my success as a novelist. See, I write books that are a blend of genres. I like to mix things up, but I’m also pretty stubborn. So if someone tells me that I can’t, say, mix fantasy with crime fiction, it’s pretty much a dare that I will take every time.

The pitch for my Prospero’s War speculative crime fiction series is The Wire with wizards. I got the idea while binge-watching that show. I thought the show was awesome but couldn’t stop thinking it would be cool if Omar and Stringer Bell were wizards.

But, people told me, that’ll never work. For one thing, they claimed crime fiction fans don’t like any hocus pocus messing up their mysteries. Oh yeah?

What if magic is a metaphor for drugs? What if the covens of wizards who sell addictive magic potions are more dangerous and resourceful than drug gangs? But what if the cops who are trying to break up the covens are as hamstrung by politics, budget cuts, and regulations as real cops?

Some people might not see the point. I mean, we already know there’s a war on drugs. People already know cops are hamstrung and that there are lots of problems with the justice system. This is where combining fantasy with the crime becomes important.

See, the beauty of fantasy stories is that they filter the world through metaphor. By using symbols, archetypes, and, yes, magic, these stories allow us to test drive our world in an imaginative way. This metaphorical language of imagination helps us see the problems of humanity and our world in a new light.

So while it may seem simple to use clean and dirty magic as a metaphor for pharmaceuticals and street-level narcotics, it also allows us to explore the issues in non-threatening and expanded terms. Suddenly, we’re not talking about crack and meth anymore. We’re also talking about human nature’s tendency toward addiction in general. We’re able to discuss the false dichotomy of good versus evil, and think about the roles of policing and the struggles facing our cities in new ways.

Or not. Because that’s the other beauty of fantasy: it allows us to not explore those issues at all if we don’t want to. We can read the story and simply enjoy the action and suspense without being forced to face the gritty reality of our own world. In short, we can decide how shallow or deep our reading experience will be.

So when people tell me that it’s a waste of time to expect crime fiction readers to want to read books about magic junkies, I just smile and say, “Wanna bet?”

Jaye Wells is a USA Today-bestselling author of urban fantasy and speculative crime fiction. Raised by booksellers, she loved reading books from a very young age. That gateway drug eventually led to a full-blown writing addiction. When she’s not chasing the word dragon, she loves to travel, drink good bourbon and do things that scare her so she can put them in her books. Deadly Spells, the third book in her Prospero’s War series, releases on February 10.

Richard Montanari and Michael Marshall in Conversation

The Stolen Ones by Richard MontanariToday Mulholland Books has the great pleasure of publishing two chilling, supernatural-tinged thrillers: The Stolen Ones by Richard Montanari and We Are Here by Michael Marshall. While the two novels make for complementary reading, they couldn’t be more different. The Stolen Ones centers on killers who haunt forgotten catacombs and our dreams; We Are Here ventures that some of us really are being followed, but not by anyone we could imagine.

In the exchange that follows, Michael Marshall and Richard Montanari discuss their new novels and question each other about setting, genre, the writing process, and that all-important question for any writer: “How do I start?”

Michael Marshall: What was the genesis moment for The Stolen Ones? The idea that, in retrospect, caused the book to eventually exist? Was it recent—kind of like “This is what the next book’s going to be about”? Or did this book have to wait its turn to be ready to be written?

Richard Montanari: All my books begin with a “what if?” The Stolen Ones began with “What if the dreams of a killer could be implanted in another human being?” I put the idea on a shelf for a while, until I was able to gather together some of the shadowy research that has gone on in this area.  The dream therapies in The Stolen Ones can happen.  Once I was satisfied with that, the story took off.

We Are Here by Michael MarshallWe Are Here moves effortlessly between first and third person. Did you know from the start that John would be a first person character? What are the challenges of writing a novel from alternating points of view?

Marshall: I started using the combination of first and third back with The Straw Men, purely because I thought it might be interesting. I hoped to combine the intimacy of the first person with the broader perspective and freedom of the third person, and I’ve been doing it so long now that to be honest I’ve stopped noticing I’m even doing it — except when it comes to selecting the first person voice for a particular novel.

John was the obvious choice for We Are Here, partly because he’d been the first person voice in a previous novel, Bad Things (though it might have be interesting to switch him to third, precisely because of that), and also because he and Kristina form the backbone of the novel as a whole. The first person needs to be the person inside the book, the mainspring of the story’s action. John’s that guy.

Continue reading “Richard Montanari and Michael Marshall in Conversation”

William Shaw Introduces She’s Leaving Home

She's Leaving Home by William ShawThere is a point on any project when you know it’s going to work.

When my agent asked me, in the politest possible way, never to send him another piece of fiction again, I understood. He was trying to be kind. Stop wasting the long months it takes to write a book.

To be fair to him, I had never been convinced that either of the manuscripts I’d handed to him had worked either. He had done his utmost but enough was enough.

I was quite relieved to find that in spite of his advice, I couldn’t stop writing.

And when I found myself writing a scene in which one of the Apple Scruffs, the young fans who hung around The Beatles in 1968-9 was found dead in an alleyway, close to EMI’s soon-to-be-famous Abbey Road studios I remember having this peculiar feeling; “I have no idea where this is going but I know this is going to work.”

That turned out to be the first chapter of my 1968 crime novel, She’s Leaving Home.

Part of it was discovering the right form. I am a huge fan of the 60s and 70s thriller writer Nicholas Freeling and novels like Love in Amsterdam and Guns Before Butter. With the massively growing popularity of European noir, I think it’s well worth revisiting his work; set in Holland, it has a remarkable sense of time and place. They are novels which immerse you in the culture of northern Europe, its food and in all its social spikiness.

“The past,” L P Hartley famously says at the start of The Go Between, “is another country.” What if I wrote about 1968 as if it was another country? In many ways it is. Our image of 1968 may be all tie-dyes and acid but the truth is that 45 years ago, Britain was a very different place. It’s not just different from Britain in 2013; it’s different from how we imagine 1968 to have been.

I realised that the book would work if I regarded it as much as crime fiction as a cultural fiction—attempting to tread in Freeling’s footsteps. This was a Britain which was being overtaken by a tidal wave of pop culture that pitched one generation against the other. People like my parents were from a generation that struggled with the idea of pop music.

For all the supposed radicalism of the Vietnam marches and the Paris uprisings, 1968 was a man’s world of jobs for life, Sunday dinners and limited pub opening times. This was an unrecognisably racist country in which Powell’s Rivers of Blood speech struck a chord with the majority of British people. Feminism had yet to arrive. There were policewomen like my character WPC Tozer, but they were allowed to do only a fraction of what a modern WPC is allowed to do. The pill was available, but in the 60s the idea of free love was a man’s fantasy come true rather than a liberation for women.

And then there was Biafra. A forgotten largely war but one which, by 1968, had turned into one that was incredibly violent. This was territory I knew about because my own family had lived in Nigeria and had had to leave the country in 1966 as the upheavals began and had returned there in 1970 after the bloodletting and mass starvation had subsided.

What if some of the ripples of that war had spilled over into the London of Carnaby Street and Abbey Road studios?

So I ignored my (former) agent’s kind advice and carried on. And was thrilled when, over a year later, my new agent called me up to say that Mulholland Books thought it worked too. And they wanted the first three books in the series, a narrative arc that takes WPC Tozer and her superior DS Breen into the even more uneven year of 1969.

She’s Leaving Home arrives in bookstores today! This essay is adapated from Crime Time—many thanks to them for letting us re-run the piece.

Top Ten Clichés in Crime Fiction

Illustration by Bjorn Lie
Illustration by Bjorn Lie

Rob W. Hart—associate publisher of MysteriousPress.com, class director of LitReactor, and all-around friend of Mulholland—knows his crime fiction. We’d wager he’s read a fair bit of it. And when you read a lot within a genre, you begin to notice some familiar signposts… Today on our blog, Rob lists his crime fiction bugbears.

Any cliché can be twisted and reinvented so that it’s fresh and exciting. Clichés can serve as enduring and comfortable tropes that remind us why we love the crime fiction genre.

But that’s not always the case—sometimes they can be tired rehashes of scenarios and traits that have been done to death, resurrected, and then killed again.

Here are, from my vantage point, the top ten clichés that continually pop up in crime fiction.

1. The deep and intense relationship with alcohol.

Has there ever been a private investigator or a hard-boiled protagonist who didn’t drown his or her feelings in a bottle? Bonus points if that alcohol is amber and smoky. Vices are fun, but too often, they’re overused as a defining characteristic.

2. The deep and intense relationship with music.

A lot of authors name-check musicians. In crime fiction it’s almost always jazz or the blues. Again, amber and smoky. Where’s the polka? The Norwegian death metal? It would be great to see some characters with a little range.

3. The uptight female character as potential sex toy.

If a prudish but pretty woman meets the male protagonist in the first 50 pages of a story, you know they’ll end up having sex. It’ll be liberating for her, a moment of vulnerability for him—and the author will get to work out some deep-seated sexual fantasy. Everyone wins!

4. The Sherlock-type figure.

A protagonist who is brilliant, quirky, and seemingly infallible… save his or her inability to relate to people. Usually accompanied by a level-headed but easily-flustered accomplice, who serves the dual purpose of sounding board and conduit to the human race. Sound familiar?

5. All (broken) families are alike…

Cops, private detectives, spies—they’re all haunted. They’ve faced the worst of humanity, and sometimes their own mortality, and it leaves them broken. You’d think they would seek comfort for that breakage in their families—instead they push them away, for dramatic effect.

6. Everyone has daddy issues.

Daddy issues are an easy way to explain away prickish behavior. Got a protagonist with a fresh mouth, or who is quick to throw a punch? Just factor in some abuse by a father figure, and it’s like a free pass—you can’t really blame them right? And thusly, a dark character attribute turns into a storytelling crutch.

7. The snitch as cannon fodder.

You know that joke about how it was always the crewmembers in red shirts who were killed on Star Trek? In crime fiction it’s the snitch. They’re a safe kill—not so virtuous that we really feel bad, not so integral to the main cast that we’re terribly shocked. But they’ve usually got a strong enough relationship with the protagonist that you know some bloody vengeance is coming down the pike.

8. The narrator goes native.

How often do you see this? The protagonist needs intel or supplies, so they go someplace that’s clearly not on their turf. Say, a black or Latino neighborhood. There’s an elder-type figure or gang leader who gives the protagonist a pass, because they have some sort of shared history or mutual respect. And we all learn a valuable lesson about equality.

9. The bad guy gets captured on purpose.

This is especially useful if you want to give the villain a little more time to monologue, on their twisted philosophy or dastardly plan. And when the tables turn—oh, the drama!

10. The brilliant serial killer.

Maybe we should call this one Hannibal Lecter-type figure. It certainly goes hand-in-hand with the Sherlock-type figure. Done well once, hammered into the ground after that. Bonus points if the brilliant serial killer is quick to irrational anger, or has some kind of personal history with the protagonist.

Those are mine. What do you think are the biggest clichés in crime fiction? Share in the comments or tweet @robwhart.

In Conversation with Nicholas Mennuti and Alan Glynn

Weaponized by Nicholas Mennuti and David GuggenheimThe wide-ranging conversation below between Nicholas Mennuti, one of the authors of Weaponized, and Alan Glynn, whose novel The Dark Fields was adapted for the film Limitless, covers such topics as globalization, espionage fiction, Cambodia, literary influences, and film influences—a veritable “arterial spray” of allusions (their words, not ours!). You’ll definitely want to make time to dive into this fascinating exchange.

Alan Glynn: Nick, I thoroughly enjoyed reading Weaponized and was struck by several things in it. One is the fact that it is packed—action-packed and packed with ideas, which is pretty unusual, I think, and unlike anything I’ve read in recent memory. The highest compliment I can pay it is to say that the book feels like North by Northwest meets Apocalypse Now. Anyone who reads the book will know immediately what I mean: the Cambodian setting, the existential end-of-American-empire angst, the assuming and trading of identities, the espionage, the cat-and-mousing around, the playfulness, the darkness, the betrayals, the reversals, the fun and the horror (x2). Perhaps those movie references betray my age, because the thing is Weaponized is also bang up-to-date in its concerns. In a way, it’s like a primer on globalization. You leave nothing out: resource wars, pipelines, corporations, big data-driven surveillance, private security firms, the outsourcing land grab, the Chinese, the Russians, and you also debate, or pose questions about, the individual’s place and responsibility in all of this. But despite packing these themes into the novel, you don’t ram them down the reader’s throat—it’s not a didactic or polemical book. Instead, you deflect and entertain with car chases and explosions, with tense checkpoint confrontations and with the occasional spurting artery. I suppose my first question is, how important was this balance for you, and how conscious were you during the writing process of trying to strike it?

Nicholas Mennuti: First off, I’m thrilled you enjoyed the book. Means a ton coming from you. I’ve been “borrowing/inspired” by you for a while. That’s one of those jokes-not jokes.

Your question is kind of a bouillabaisse of interesting things to talk about, so if I get a bit circular I hope that’s okay.

I’m kind of an espionage thriller binger and had come to the conclusion that the model hadn’t really changed in years. You either had the sort of fussy-frilly Le Carré model (that of course started with Greene and Buchan) that Olen Steinhauer, Jeremy Duns, David Ignatius, and Charles Cumming have dragged into the 21st century. Or you get the military-jingoistic version of it with Brad Thor, Andy McNab, Lee Child. And I just felt neither of these styles felt like the right way to deal with the chaos of the 21st century.

The world had changed, but espionage fiction still felt very 1989. All of those authors (many of whom I do like) still seemed locked into talking about a world that has kind of ceased to exist. A unipolar world that one man can save from destruction. So I really wanted to talk about topics/places that I felt were being underserved/underutilized by contemporary espionage fiction. Which of course leads you into privatized spying and the third-world. Now, that’s all analytical, and I probably became more aware of that as I went through writing/editing the book. But this desire to break the paradigm was there all along.

Jack Nicholson in The PassengerBut where Weaponized really started was with my enduring obsession with Antonioni’s The Passenger. Do you know that one? It’s with Jack Nicholson. It’s all about identity switching and existential ennui in the guise of a thriller. Only problem is that it’s Antonioni—who had no interest in making a thriller. So I started thinking: what if you made an actual thriller out of this art-movie?

North by Northwest and Apocalypse Now have been obsessions of mine since I was a teenager, so they’re just part of my creative DNA at this point. I’m sure they’re going to be present in whatever I write. If I were writing a romantic comedy, I’m sure there’d be at least one spy and one third-world setting.

Apocalypse Now in particular fascinated me. It reminded me of Graham Greene’s fiction in that the topography of the novel seemed like the perfect literal manifestation of the lead character’s interior. With Apocalypse, I’ve never been sure whether Vietnam looked that crazy, or if it just looked that crazy to Martin Sheen. And that subjectivity runs through Weaponized. I wanted people to feel Cambodia through Kyle. Just like how you feel Vietnam through Willard. That’s also something you got a lot of mileage out of in Dark Fields (Limitless). Just how subjective/expressionistic can I get with this narrator without pulling this out of genre territory. Would you agree?

And what both North by Northwest and Apocalypse Now have in common is that they’re genre movies of the highest order that managed to pack a ton of subtext into the genre without weighing it down.

I mean I could write a page just on how fascinating it is in North by Northwest that Cary Grant’s middle initial “O” literally stands for NOTHING. It’s zero as a place-holder. Is that why he could be mistaken for Kaplan on a metaphysical level in the first place—there’s no one there to start with. It’s no mistake I think that Hitchcock had him working in advertising.

In terms of what I’ll refer to “ideas balanced with mayhem,” I was definitely conscious of it. I wasn’t interested in writing a deconstructivist thriller, where I hollow out all the genre gambits, and turn it into a formal-polemicist kind of thing. The Europeans do that really well, but I don’t.

I set a rule for myself early on that any ideas, either political or philosophical, have to come out of a character, or be on the action line. For example, if I want to talk about French colonialism, it’s going to be during a chase scene at Robinson’s hotel. Or if I want to talk about Russian oligarchy, it’s going to be in a scene where Kyle’s got to pick up a gun.

I have a lot of love for the genre, particularly when it’s really working, so I wanted (and David Guggenheim was so crucial in helping me getting a frame for it) to make sure the book worked as a thriller first, and then go about layering this other stuff in. That said, even before we had the story I knew I wanted Weaponized to feel like the 21st century: fractured, neon, lonely, and set in a series of geographical non-places. I wanted to write a thriller that didn’t feel embalmed. Continue reading “In Conversation with Nicholas Mennuti and Alan Glynn”