Matt Rees's Blog - Posts Tagged "thrillers"


Trust No One by Gregg Hurwitz
St. Martin’s Press. To be published 23 June

The key to a first-rate thriller is for the main character to come up against a dead end many times during the book. The reader, knowing the forces arrayed against our hero and desperate to save him from more danger, each time wills him to use this excuse to abandon his quest. Of course, readers wouldn’t care at these turning points if the hero wasn’t a well-formed character whose humanity has drawn us to him, and that’s the other important element in the genre. Naturally the hero doesn’t quit, and our author takes us into the last segment of the book where the plot unravels and the twists snap us upright in our chairs.

Gregg Hurwitz fulfills all these criteria with real style in “Trust No One,” his new novel. It’d be worth reading if only for the startling denouement in which the hero battles against powerful forces – the Secret Service among others. But the drive of the book comes from the scars of his destroyed family. By the end of the book Hurwitz has tied a message of redemption into the fast-paced action.

"Trust No One" begins with Nick Horrigan catapulted out of the quiet life he’s lived for years. His stepfather, a Secret Service agent, was killed when Nick was a teen. Nick blames himself. As part of a cover-up, he was forced by other agents to go on the run. He’s been lonely and guilt-ridden for a decade. Now the Secret Service arrives through his window… and he’s not lonely any more.

A man threatening to blow up a California nuclear facility hands a key to Horrigan before he dies. As Horrigan tries to figure out what the key is for and why the man gave it to him, he’s drawn into a mystery that leads right back to his stepfather’s killing and into the upper echelons of the US political system.

Readers might detect an element of the “family at risk” sub-genre that Harlan Coben has perfected. Hurwitz does it with all the skill of Coben, but with a twist. In his rendition, the family isn’t only in need of rescue — it’s the reason for all the risk in the first place.

“Trust No One” is Hurwitz’s ninth novel, coming two years after the excellent “The Crime Writer”. He also writes for Marvel comics and is a screenwriter. Once you’ve read all his novels and comics, you might be intrigued to try “A Tempest, A Birth and Death: Freud, Jung, and Shakespeare’s Pericles,” which he published in the Summer 2002 edition of “Sexuality and Culture” (Rutgers University). If that sounds like a departure for a writer of thrillers, remember that "Pericles" is the story of the Prince of Tyre, who's on the run from assassins in ancient Phoenicia...
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Published on May 01, 2009 02:59 • 145 views • Tags: crime, fiction, gregg, hurwitz, reviews, thrillers

Gregg Hurwitz is the kind of guy other guys would like to be. Hollywood handsome, an accomplished athlete with a tremendous academic record, successful in his chosen field. He’s also the kind of writer other writers would like to be. His thrillers are intricate, thought-provoking, and breathlessly paced. His new book Trust No One, which I reviewed last week, will be out in June, and it’s red hot. Gregg took time out from the busy publicity schedule in advance of his new novel to tell me his views on writing and the life he lives around it.

How long did it take you to get published?

I was very fortunate—more fortunate than I knew at the time. I wrote my first book in college, revised it while getting a one-year masters (in Shakespearean tragedy—hurray for useful degrees!), and sold it shortly after. So I never had to find respectable work.

Would you recommend any books on writing?

I’d recommend reading lots of novels.

What’s a typical writing day?

Up at 7, writing by 8. Work all day. Finish between 4 and 8, depending on deadlines. Sometimes a night shift too if deadlines are threatening.

Plug your latest book. What’s it about? Why’s it so great?

Well, I’ll give you a rundown of the first chapter.


Nick Horrigan, an average guy, awakens in the middle of the night when he thinks he sees a watery blue light along his ceiling. He blinks, and it’s gone. He gets up, rubbing his eyes, crosses into the main room, and looks through the sliding glass door onto the balcony. A black rope is hanging over the lip of the roof and lies coiled on the balcony floor. He opens the slider, steps out, closing the screen behind him.

Down below he sees dark sedans lining the curb on either side, and cop cars with their lights now turned off. Before he can react, the rope twitches, and a guy clad in full SWAT gear rappels off the roof and—not seeing Nick—hammers him in the chest with both boots. Nick soars back into his apartment, ripping the screen from the frame, and lands on his back. His front door flies out of the frame like a hurricane hit on the other side, and slides to within an inch of his nose. And before he can catch his breath, a full SWAT team storms the apartment.

The lead agent grabs him, asks, “Are you Nick Horrigan?” Nick still can’t catch his breath, so he nods. They shove a photo in front of his face. “When’s the last time you’ve had contact with this man?” Nicks says, “I’ve never seen him before.” They tug him to his feet. He’s barefoot, in pajama bottoms. He’s dragged outside. Cop cars everywhere. Neighbors lining the sidewalk. A loud thrumming shakes the air and then the palm trees behind his building light up. A helicopter rolls into view and sets down on the end of his cul-de-sac. He’s dragged toward it, and finally he stops, says, “You can’t just take me. Where the hell am I going?”

And the lead agent replies, “A terrorist has just seized control of the San Onofre nuclear power plant. He’s threatening to blow it up. And the only person he’ll talk to is you.”

And there we end chapter one. I think the thing about this book that made it so much fun to write is its velocity. I really wanted it to move like a freight train, while not sacrificing character. So what took the most work was to keep that pacing tight while also delving into character. I hope readers will find I was successful.

How much of what you do is:
a) formula dictated by the genre within which you write?
b) formula you developed yourself and stuck with?
c) as close to complete originality as it’s possible to get each time?

That’s an interesting question. It’s very hard for me to distinguish because I’ve always been drawn to genre. And to structure. I love Shakespeare, for instance, and he was clearly working within very clearly defined conventions and structures, but also as original as one can get. For me I don’t break it down the way you lay out above. I find a story that I can sink my teeth into, and then I try to let the story guide me to its logical shape. The metaphor I think of is lying down on a towel at the beach. At first it’s uncomfortable and you sort of settle your body down, move the sand from beneath your head, find a comfortable mold for your body. That’s the process of getting to a good story—a lot of squirming and adjustment so it can lie comfortably.

What’s your favorite sentence in all literature, and why?

Molly Bloom’s soliloquy at the end of Ulysses, ending with “Yes I said yes I will yes.” Because if you have to pick one sentence, why not choose one with great stamina? Also, I think the thawing of that relationship is so human and intimate and wonderful, and here, her remembered lovemaking is so tender after everything they’ve been through. Plus, what better way to convey an orgasm?

What’s the best descriptive image in all literature?

Benji in The Sound and the Fury: "It was two now, and then one in the swing." The greatest description of a kiss, from Benji’s limited perspective.

Who’s the greatest stylist currently writing?

Boy, I don’t know. I haven’t read everyone. Louis Begley is pretty staggering. To jump to non-fiction, Christopher Hitchens makes my jaw drop. And James Wolcott is the perfect social commentator. For crime fiction, it still goes to Thomas Harris (for Red Dragon), though Motherless Brooklyn also blew my hair back; after writing that, Lethem must’ve taken a victory lap.

Who’s the greatest plotter currently writing?

I am tempted to answer with a name from politics.

How much research is involved in each of your books?

A good amount. For various books, I’ve gone undercover into mind-control cults, sneaked onto demolition ranges with Navy SEALs to blow up cars, gone up in stunt planes. When I’m dug into a story, my foolishness knows no bounds.

Where’d you get the idea for your main character?

For me, when character collides with plot is when I know I have a book. And so I thought of Nick waking up to this SWAT team storming his apartment in the middle of the night—your classic Everyman in an impossible situation, like Jimmy Stewart in a Hitchcock flick. And then I thought: what if something had happened in his past that, rather than this being a surprise out of the blue, was something he always feared would happen? So that when they drag him in his boxers to the waiting helicopter, while he knows nothing about what’s happening, he DOES know that he’s been marked in a manner since his childhood.

What’s the best idea for marketing a book you can do yourself?

Sandwich boards. Or hide hundred dollar bills in the pages.

What’s your experience with being translated?

I have great relationships with my foreign publishers. I went to Moscow and St. Petersburg recently for book festivals, which was a blast. But what’s funny is: when you’re translated into a language you can’t read, it’s like collaborating with someone when you can’t see the outcome. A writer is very reliant on the talented men and women who translate his work—you go on trust and pray that they have a good ear for the cadence of your writing. And if they don’t, you’ll never know!

Do you live entirely off your writing? How many books did you write before could make a living at it?

Yes. I’ve been quite fortunate. I’ve been writing full-time since I sold my first.

How many books did you write before you were published?

I sold my first, not counting Willie, Julie, and the Case of the Buried Treasure (written in third grade). I’m still shopping that one with little luck.

What’s the strangest thing that happened to you on a book tour?

I was in Minneapolis the day of the bridge collapse, and I was supposed to be going over the bridge at that moment, but my driver took a detour to dodge traffic.

What’s your weirdest idea for a book you’ll never get to publish?

Baseball haiku.
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Published on May 08, 2009 01:22 • 127 views • Tags: angeles, crime, fiction, gregg, hurwitz, life, los, secret, service, thrillers, writers, writing

David Liss is the author of classics of historical fiction from his Edgar Award-winning debut A Conspiracy of Paper, which was rooted in his academic studies, through the fabulous tale of the Portuguese Inquisition and the Amsterdam commodities exchange, The Coffee Trader, and on into his compelling portraits of real historical figures like Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr in The Whiskey Rebels. It has always seemed to me that his masterful use of the historical mystery allows him to get to the heart of political and social issues that remain with us today – anti-Semitism, the morality of finance and of punishment, and much more. That’s why I asked him to tell me about his Writing Life. It turns out a lot of it takes place while most writers are asleep…

How long did it take you to get published?

Even though it felt like a very long time while it was happening, the process actually went very quickly. I sent out a ton of query letters and received a ton of rejections. About the same time, however, an old friend of mine published her first novel, and she offered to show my manuscript to her agent – who then became my agent. After that things went very quickly. I started sending out my first letters in March of that year. I had a contract in August.

Would you recommend any books on writing?

When I teach creative writing, I often use On Writing by Stephen King, though part of the reason I use it is because -- while he says some very smart things about writing -- I disagree with about a quarter of the advice he gives. I think it is important to recognize that there is no one right way to do things, and that in the end the only real rule is that each writer should do what works for him or herself.

What’s a typical writing day?

I am an early riser, and I can only do my best work in the AM hours. These days I get up at 4, go to the gym, come back home and get the kids ready for school. I drop off my daughter and go to a coffee shop with my laptop and write until about noon. After that, I spend the day running errands and doing research.

The Whiskey Rebels is the only book I’ve ever written under deadline, and at once point I realized I had far more work to do than I had time to do it in. I started getting up at 3 every morning, working until the children woke up, getting them off, and then having another writing session. I ended up doing this for a year, and though it was a hard year, it was also a very productive time.

Plug your latest book. What’s it about? Why’s it so great?

The Devil’s Company will be published in July. It is essentially a novel about the 18th century origins of the modern corporation. In this case I am writing about the British East India Company at a moment when it has to change its entire corporate model. We tend to associated the East India Company with tea, but in the early 18th century it was best known for its textile imports. In the 1720s, Parliament finally caved to pressure from the native wool and silk-weaving industries, which were suffering from having to compete with cheaply made foreign imports.


Like several of my previous novels, this one deals with a pivotal moment in economic history, but I also like to emphasize that I don’t write dry, ponderous books. I see my first responsibility as entertaining the reader, and I always do my best to write a story that is engaging, exciting, suspenseful, often funny and filled with engaging characters. My second responsibility is to say something worth saying.

How much of what you do is:
a) formula dictated by the genre within which you write?
Some, but not much. I don’t write within the genre mystery format any longer because I found it too constricting. I consider what I write now to be more in the thriller camp, and the only real requirement of that genre is that the material be fast-paced, exciting, and suspenseful – which I think ought to be true of pretty much any traditional narrative.

b) formula you developed yourself and stuck with?
I primarily write historical fiction, but that is always my choice. My publisher may not like it, but they know I will always write what I wish to write. I probably could have made choices early in my career which would have made me a more commercial writer, but I feel very lucky that I can make a living doing what I love, and I get to write the books I want to write. Also, I am very open to branching out. I recently wrote a short story for an anthology about zombies, and I just finished my first comic book script for Marvel.

c) as close to complete originality as it’s possible to get each time?
Some of my books are entirely unlike any of my other books. The Devil’s Company will be my third novel with a continuing protagonist, Benjamin Weaver, but while the first two were very much like genre mysteries, this one is not. I do not reinvent the wheel each time, but never want to be guilty of writing the same book over and over again.

What’s your favorite sentence in all literature, and why?

I don’t really believe in exclusive favorites, but one thing that comes to mind is the final sentence of Paradise Lost:

The World was all before them, where to choose
Their place of rest, and Providence their guide:
They hand in hand with wandering steps and slow,
Through Eden took their solitary way.

I know it is a sign of mental illness, but I love Milton, and I think this is the most powerful conclusion to any long work in English letters.

Who’s the greatest stylist currently writing?

My vote is for David Mitchell.

Who’s the greatest plotter currently writing?

No one does the twists and turns better than Harlan Coben. Sometimes his choices verge on the totally implausible, but he provides such a great ride that I honestly don’t care.

How much research is involved in each of your books?

Depends on the book. If I am writing about 18th century Britain, I’ve already done most of the leg work, and those books only require specific research into the particular topic of the book. If it is set in a different time and/or place, then I have to learn an entirely new culture, and that is a fairly demanding and time-consuming process. I always like to do enough research to get me to the place where what I don’t know is no longer keeping me from writing the story I want to tell.

Where’d you get the idea for your main character?

Novels almost always begin for me with an idea for an opening scene. I think of something dynamic and exciting, and then I try to decide who the characters are who would inhabit this scene and the world in which it belongs.

What’s your experience with being translated?

Right now I have to say pretty good. I am writing this interview at an outdoor café in Piacenza, a town in northern Italy, where I am attending an arts festival. I became involved with this festival thanks to my Italian translator, one of the organizers. I’ve been translated into about 2 dozen languages, and I do better in some countries than others. Someday I would like to be translated into Icelandic, but so far, no luck. I have a theory that if I include a character from a particular country in a novel then the rights will be picked up there. The only one of my novels to be translated into Turkish, for example, is The Coffee Trader, which includes a very minor Turkish character. I plan to put an Icelandic character in my next novel in order to test this theory.

Do you live entirely off your writing? How many books did you write before could make a living at it?

I’ve been lucky enough to be able to live off my writing since my first book.

How many books did you write before you were published?

I attempted a novel right after I graduated from college, but it was really, really bad. A Conspiracy of Paper, my first novel, was the first book I tried to write when I gave it another shot ten years later.

What’s the strangest thing that happened to you on a book tour?

Once I flew into Milwaukee and as soon as I got to my hotel I went out for a run. It was a beautiful day, and I was running by the water, so I lost track of time for a while. When I decided I needed to return to my hotel in order to get ready for my reading, I realized suddenly that I did not remember how to get back to my hotel or what its name was.

What’s your weirdest idea for a book you’ll never get to publish?

I plan to publish all my weird ideas.
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Published on May 17, 2009 07:14 • 97 views • Tags: antisemitism, coben, commodities, crime, david, fiction, finance, harlan, historical, inquisition, king, life, liss, milwaukee, mitchell, stephen, thrillers, writers, writing

The magazine of Harvard's Nieman Fellowship asked me to write an essay about Jeffrey Fleishman's "Promised Virgins: A Novel of Jihad". I wrote about why international correspondents like me and Fleishman, Cairo bureau chief for the LA Times, turn to novels to express the depth of what we learn about a foreign culture. Here's how the article begins:

Jay Morgan, the central character of Jeffrey Fleishman’s thought provoking “novel of Jihad,” carries an undeveloped roll of film shot by his young photographer wife in the moments before she was killed in Beirut. Morgan lifts her wounded body to safety, but she dies anyway. It’s a fitting image on which to build Morgan’s deep bitterness and disillusion about journalism as he covers the war in Kosovo. In these days of cyberjournalism, idiotic reader “talkbacks” and nonsensical newsroom cutbacks, the only thing apparently more useless to the media industry than an undeveloped film or a dead photographer is a living foreign correspondent.

The story of “Promised Virgins” revolves around Morgan’s trek through the mountains as he interviews Serbs, Albanians and CIA operatives on the hunt for a newly arrived jihadi who has brought Islamic fundamentalism to the otherwise nationalistic Muslims of Kosovo. In truth, the book is about a foreign correspondent’s uncomfortable personal connections with the society he covers and his realization that they’re the only things keeping him from despair at his ever-shabbier trade. Read more...
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Published on June 13, 2009 23:59 • 150 views • Tags: balkans, bethlehem, collaborator, crime, east, fiction, islam, jihadi, journalism, kosovo, literature, middle, murders, religion, thrillers
Much as I love Nordic crime fiction, the Europewide megaseller “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo” by Stieg Larsson made me want to throw knives like the Swedish chef on The Muppet Show. Why?

Two reasons.

First, the minor reason. Written by a (tragically deceased) Swedish journalist, the book is entirely in the style of a magazine article. Complete with page after page of “research.” It’d be enough for the author to tell me that Swedish women are often assaulted by men. I don’t need five pages of real background. A writer ought to understand that the greater the temptation for the reader to skim, the worse the book is. You end up with a good 250 page mystery trapped inside a 600 page monster.

Overloading with journalistic background is a common technique in contemporary thrillers and mysteries. It’s as though making things up was somehow a distortion of reality. Whereas it actually gets you a lot closer to reality than journalism or journalistic techniques, because it opens up the reader emotionally. (That’s what I’ve found with my Palestinian detective series.)

Second, the major reason. The Internet.

In “Dragon Tattoo,” the eponymous heroine is the now generic thriller/mystery character: the Internet hacker genius. Whenever Larsson needs to inject some new information or to unravel a tricky plot point, his hacker opens up her laptop and links into www.secretgovernmentinformation.com, the well-known (to fiction writers) site where all governments, in particular their intelligence networks, store material they want to be sure is available only to fictional hacker geniuses (and by proxy to thriller writers).

“Dragon Tattoo” isn’t the worst offender. Just the biggest seller.

But I’m only naming names here because poor old Larsson is dead. Those (here unnamed) living writers who use this technique ought to be ashamed of themselves.

In my novels the only time the Internet comes up is when detective Omar Yussef’s granddaughter sets up a website for him in her attempt to make him seem more professional. “The Palestine Agency for Detection,” as she calls her site, is merely embarrassing to Omar. No plot-point-shifting Houdini act there.

The Internet has essentially taken over from the Mossad as the thriller writer’s cure-all. In the old days, if there was something your main character couldn’t figure out, all he had to do was get in touch with the nearest Mossad agent, who’d be sure to know all the secrets in the world and was happy to pass them on with a few dark words about never forgetting the Holocaust and a cheerful “Shalom.”

As a resident of Israel, I can tell you the Mossad doesn’t operate that way. Neither does the Internet.

So stop writing books that pretend it does. (I wonder how you say that in Swedish...)
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Published on June 18, 2009 03:05 • 190 views • Tags: crime, dragon, east, fiction, gaza, grave, israel, journalism, larsson, literature, middle, murders, nordic, norway, omar, saladin, stieg, tattoo, thrillers, yussef

The Budapest Protocol, by Adam Lebor
(Reportage Press)

Sometimes a journalist comes across something so powerful that it seems bigger than the project he’s researching. Usually it’s put aside to serve as the basis for a future project, a magazine article or another nonfiction book.

Sometimes it takes such a grip on the writer’s imagination that there’s only one way to go. The novel. I know, because it’s how I turned from Middle East correspondent to the author of Palestinian crime fiction. Journalism seemed so limited by comparison, so unlikely to grab people and tell them “Pay attention, this really matters” the way a novel can.

That’s what happened to Adam Lebor in 1996 when he was researching his acclaimed “Hitler’s Secret Bankers: How Switzerland Profited from Nazi Genocide.” He stumbled upon a World War II intelligence dossier addressed to the US Secretary of State. It detailed a French agent’s report on German contingency plans for the economic takeover of Europe, should the Third Reich fail.

Lebor asked himself the question: what if the industrialists who intended to found this Fourth “economic” Reich had tried to do so, after the war? What if they had succeeded? (“What if,” as Stephen King notes in his “On Writing,” is the best place from which to start a thriller.)

From his vantage point as a correspondent based in Budapest, Lebor was able to see the massive inroads amounting more or less to takeover of post-Soviet economies by German and Austrian conglomerates. Add to that the growing centralization of the European Union and the introduction of its single currency forcing the economies of most of Europe to toe a single line, and you start to see why the Red House Report gripped him so.

The result is the chillingly real thriller “The Budapest Protocol,” published in the UK this month.

Alex Farkas, a local journalist, uncovers the economic conspiracy, which – as the novel unfolds – is focused on the election campaign of one of the conspirators as President of Europe (a post that many Brussels types would gladly see become reality). Farkas discovers plans for a new Holocaust against the Gypsies, which with the rise in these poor economic days of a neo-Nazi right-wing in Hungary is another of the novel’s moments of eerie realism.

What really drives Farkas, though, is the sinister murder of his grandfather, a survivor of the Budapest ghetto and a former dissident. That gives the novel the personal underpinning that elevates it above pure conspiracy theory. In fact, it makes it a first-rate thriller comparable to Robert Harris’s “Fatherland.” The novel reminds us that the politics of Europe remains more charged than the dull image the Brussels technocrats have lulled us into.

I’ll bet you’re sorry now you didn’t vote three weeks ago in the Euro elections. You will be after you read this novel.
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Published on June 21, 2009 05:21 • 119 views • Tags: budapest, crime, department, eastern, europe, fiction, futuristic, germany, hungary, jews, journalism, nonfiction, reviews, state, thrillers

Political writing at its best highlights the unexpected changes in parts of our world that are hidden to us. That’s true of writing about the corridors of power in our own capital cities, but it’s even more of a factor for a writer like Adam Lebor whose work – fiction and nonfiction – has captured the dynamism and double-dealing of Central Europe, in particular. Because I live in the Middle East while he lives in Budapest, Lebor first came to my attention with his wonderful “biography” of Jaffa, the ancient port city on the Mediterranean coast, “City of Oranges: Arabs and Jews in Jaffa.” It was a masterful stroke to profile this town, rather than Jerusalem or even Tel Aviv, which tend to attract the attention of writers more readily than a historic city that’s now a slum filling with liberal yuppies. It shouldn’t have surprised me, then, that Lebor’s new novel The Budapest Protocol, which I reviewed recently, would take an issue that many think of as boring and bureaucratic – the expansion of the European Union – and make it immediate and vital, linking it to the demons of Europe’s past through Nazism and genocide. The novel is firmly in the tradition of great British writers like Eric Ambler, Graham Greene, and John LeCarre. Like them, Lebor knows that Central Europe’s cultured side comes with an accompanying harshness that makes for great drama.

How long did it take you to get published?

My first non-fiction book, ‘A Heart Turned East’, about Muslim minorities in Europe and the United States, was published in 1998 by Little, Brown, UK. It was commissioned so was published a few months after I wrote it. That was a fairly straightforward process. Since then I have written another five non-fiction books, all of which were commissioned.

Fiction, however, was a very different story. I first started writing the book that would become The Budapest Protocol in Paris in the winter of 1997. It was rejected by numerous publishers before I finally found one, Reportage Press, that would actually spend the time to tell me how to fix it. I always knew I needed the attention of a good editor, but apparently most publishers nowadays expect a perfectly formed novel to land on their desks, which is ridiculous.

Would you recommend any books on writing?

A search on amazon.co.uk for ‘writing a novel’ brings up 20,625 results. Most of the authors of these books are not well know novelists, because successful novelists are writing novels, not books about how to. That said, I have found ‘The First Five Pages’, by Noah Lukeman, very useful. Lukeman is a well-known American agent, and the book is full of good advice, from a commercial viewpoint. I would recommend it for anyone who is serious about getting published. I also like ‘Writing A Novel’ by John Osborne, which is enjoyably cantankerous but full of good advice.

What’s a typical writing day?

Breakfast with the Today programme on my Evoke internet radio, invaluable for keeping in touch when you live abroad - I am based in Budapest. Spend morning probably doing journalism or admin. Usually the muse arrives after lunch, and a good writing session will go from about 3pm to nine or ten at night. If it’s really flowing I will wake up in the morning with a plot solved or idea for a chapter plan that somehow my subconscious has sorted out while I am asleep and then I am straight back in the book.

Plug your latest book. What’s it about? Why’s it so great?

The Budapest Protocol is a conspiracy thriller that was inspired by a real American intelligence document from 1944. The document, known as the Red House Report, is an account of a secret meeting of Nazi industrialists in the Maison Rouge hotel, Strasbourg, where they planned for the Fourth Reich, which would be an economic imperium not a military one. That was the inspiration - I then used my twenty years reporting experience in eastern Europe to work out how that might actually happen. There is also a love story with several sexy, difficult girls and atmospheric scene setting in present day Budapest.

How much of what you do is formula dictated by the genre within which you write?

Thrillers are to some extent quite formulaic. The hero needs inner conflict to drive his outer battle with larger sinister forces. He needs to face and overcome repeated obstacles, each time getting in more and more danger. The trick is use the formula to make the structure work while making the setting, atmosphere and narrative drive powerful enough. Alan Furst, the master, gave me some advice: “Start with a murder and make sure the boy gets the girl” which was very useful.

What’s your favorite sentence in all literature, and why?

“Heshel was watching him through the window of the car and smiled thinly as their eyes met. Here is the world, said the smile, and here we are in it.” A line from my favorite book, Dark Star, by Alan Furst. Dark Star is an espionage thriller set in late 1930s Europe. That sentence is subtle, telling, and somehow opens a world of the imagination.

What’s the best descriptive image in all literature?

It was a bright cold day in April and the clocks were striking thirteen.

Who’s the greatest stylist currently writing?

Alan Furst. Less is more.

Who’s the greatest plotter currently writing?

David Ignatius, author of Body of Lies and The Increment. I would also add Stieg Larson, who sadly is not writing any more.

How much research is involved in each of your books?

The Budapest Protocol did not demand any specific research as I have covered this region for twenty years. My non-fiction books, like ‘City of Oranges: Arabs and Jews in Jaffa’ about Jewish and Arab families in the ancient port demanded many weeks of research, hours of interviews and gaining the trust of the families.

Where’d you get the idea for your main character?

The fact that he is a foreign correspondent, who lives in Budapest, who is obsessed with sinister conspiracies and who is entangled with beguiling but unsuitable women and whose first name is four letters beginning with ‘A’ is entirely coincidental.

What’s your experience with being translated?

Fine. I have been translated into eight languages, but I don’t really check what they have done to the book, even in languages I know.

Do you live entirely off your writing? How many books did you write before could make a living at it?

Now, yes. But that is combined with journalism for big papers like The Times, Economist etc. I think it would be very difficult just to live off books, and I like the change of pace with journalism. I value my connection with The Times, it opens doors and my assignments give me ideas for books and characters.

What’s the strangest thing that happened to you on a book tour?

I suppose it’s probably not that strange and happens to other authors but I was amazed that after two sell out events at the Edinburgh book festival with about 180 people in the room I only sold a handful of books. Why pay eight pounds to watch the author when you can buy the book for that?

What’s your weirdest idea for a book you’ll never get to publish?

I cannot reveal that as it’s such a good idea it may yet hit the shelves one day!
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Published on June 28, 2009 23:55 • 94 views • Tags: aviv, budapest, east, eastern, europe, fiction, graham, greene, interviews, israel, jerusalem, journalism, larsson, life, literature, middle, nonfiction, stieg, tel, thrillers, writing

The Twelve by Stuart Neville
Harvill Secker (July 2, 2009 isbn: 1846552796)
(to be published in US in October as “The Ghosts of Belfast”, Soho Crime isbn: 1569476004)

Things that seemed clear enough to kill for during a conflict become impossible to look at once the murdering is at an end. Anyone who’s lived through a war or a time of terrorism could tell you that. Most of us bury those images. Gerry Fegan, the main character of Stuart Neville’s disturbing, compelling debut novel “The Twelve,” can’t look away. The ghosts of the people he killed as an IRA operative hang around with him, watching, taunting. The result is as thought-provoking a book on the aftermath of conflict as you'll ever read.

At first it seems Fegan is merely mad with trauma, remorse and drink. A hopeless casualty who’s failed to move on, as the rest of Northern Ireland steps into a new world of peace and reconciliation. Then the ghosts urge him to avenge them, killing the IRA street bosses and police turncoats who set up their deaths. The book takes an eery leap into the supernatural reminiscent of the books of Neville’s fellow Irishman John Connelly. The ghosts become characters in the book until – without giving away one of the most chilling moments in Neville’s climax – we see the proof that Fegan isn’t crazy, or if he is then he isn’t the only one who’s crazy. Instead, he shares a bond with the other bloodied footsoldier, a British agent named Campbell who can no longer imagine life without the danger of discovery and death.


Neville’s masterstroke is to take a post-conflict situation where of necessity a lot of former bad guys are converted to good guys -- gunmen made into legislators still running corrupt business sidelines -- and to show the price paid by those who can’t shrug off their past. Just as with the Palestinian militias of my Omar Yussef Mysteries, there was always a streak in the IRA that was more interested in racketeering and extortion than it was in fighting for "freedom" – all the killing was just a pretext for being the hardest gangsters in town. Neville’s book is a thrilling record of the traces of crime and blood left behind when the politicians command us to move on.
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Published on July 05, 2009 00:10 • 98 views • Tags: belfast, connelly, crime, fiction, ghosts, ireland, john, neville, reviews, stuart, thrillers

The Devil’s Company
By David Liss
Published: July 7, 2009 Random House isbn: 1400064198

Fans of swashbuckling classics by Alexandre Dumas and more recently Spaniard Arturo Perez-Reverte will love David Liss’s new novel The Devil’s Company. But they’ll also get something those authors don’t provide: a gritty dash of lowlife rough stuff worthy of the best contemporary crime fiction.

Set in 1722, The Devil’s Company begins with former boxer and ruffian Benjamin Weaver blackmailed into working on a case which involves another man’s death. Liss sets this up superbly: a British businessman maneuvers Weaver into a corner by exploiting the fact that Weaver, his family and associates are Jews and, therefore, marginalized in the London of the time. From the off, the protagonist is in the dark about the motivations of almost everyone around him. It’s a great jumping off point for a book that’s mystery and thriller all at once.

The adventure and panache of Liss’s plot and the daring of his main character are reminiscent of the great Dumas. The Devil’s Company stands up to comparison with Liss’s Edgar-winning “A Conspiracy of Paper” and his terrific book of Amsterdam, Jews and mercantile skullduggery, “The Coffee Trader,” which is one of my favorite historical novels.

Read my interview with David Liss.
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Published on July 07, 2009 01:25 • 102 views • Tags: crime, fiction, historical, life, reviews, thrillers, writing

Journalists often dream of turning the more dramatic events to which they’ve been witness into fiction. Relatively few do so successfully, and certainly not with the panache of Dan Fesperman. He has stood out from the crowd of journalist-turned-thrillerists since his fabulous debut “Lie in the Dark.” It was based on his time reporting from Sarajevo during the Balkans War. It’s more informative than any history of that war, because it brings with it not merely dates and death tolls, but a much more important glimpse of what it’s like, emotionally, to live in a war zone. The graft that goes along with conflict tends to be ignored by historians, too, but for a crime writer it’s the most important element. “Lie in the Dark” won the Crime Writers Association John Creasey Dagger (not the last time the CWA awarded its first-novel prize to a former foreign correspondent reusing his experiences for fiction…. I won’t keep you guessing. I mean, me. Last year, for “The Bethlehem Murders” aka “The Collaborator of Bethlehem.”) Though it seems like a risky venture to ditch a journalistic career for something as financially iffy as writing fiction, Dan has made it work. He also notes that in these days of internet-fuelled media-industry carnage, he probably chose a more secure profession. I'm glad he did.

How long did it take you to get published?

Nearly forever. Or, in layman’s terms, almost two years after I finished my first manuscript. Just finding an agent took about a year and a half, mostly because a couple dozen told me to go take a hike, or, in the memorable words of one of the more callous rejections, “It is obvious from your letter and your submission that you know little about either querying or novel writing.” So maybe that’s why it seemed like forever, when, in the larger scheme of things, I suppose it didn’t really take that long. Or maybe it was that I waited until the age of forty-one to complete my first manuscript.

Would you recommend any books on writing?

Only Strunk and White’s Elements of Style, and within that slender volume only E.B. White’s brief but graceful essay on style. Anything beyond that and you’re only reading to avoid the looming confrontation with the keyboard.

What’s a typical writing day?

A typical ideal day, when things are going great and I’m deep into a manuscript, involves waking up with snatches of dialog already circulating like moths in the attic of my mind, followed by a quick cup of coffee consumed as I’m putting those thoughts to the page, followed by a solid three to four hours of writing, then maybe a bowl of popcorn for lunch, a few hours of re-writing, then a run and a shower, followed by several more hours of work until I look up at the clock and realize, “Oh, shit! If I don’t stop soon there won’t be any dinner on the table and it will be 7:30 and everyone in the family will be screaming for flesh, half-starved.” Followed by eight hours of sound sleep in which I dream about the characters in the book as they busily go about solving all of my pending plot problems. Which is partly my way of saying there is no typical day, only good ones and bad ones and ones in which, just when you’re thinking the day will be a total loss, you find yourself scribbling furiously in pursuit of some new thought that has just solved every problem you’ve encountered during the previous three weeks.

Plug your latest book. What’s it about? Why’s it so great?

God, I’m terribly awkward about plugging my own books, but maybe for a moment I can channel the spirit of some wonderfully gabby PR person who has just shut the cover, and, hopefully, is totally enthralled by what she has just read. So, let’s see, it’s a literate, intelligent thrill ride down the deepest corridors of the 20th century’s darkest history – most of it occurring in Germany – spent in the company of a rather personable American male professor and a mysterious and fairly tormented young female historian from Berlin. Both of them are on the trails of the doings of an old spy and an old arms maker, whose deeds of purported heroism and venality may have actually been something else altogether, and may even now hold the key to further heroism and venality. Which is why several others folks want to keep our two historians from succeeding. In short, it’s still the same old story, the fight for love and glory, a case of do or die. And if I continue in this vein, I’ll violate copyright law (if I haven’t already), so I’ll stop.

How much of what you do is:
a) formula dictated by the genre within which you write?
b) formula you developed yourself and stuck with?
c) as close to complete originality as it’s possible to get each time?

I try at all costs not to write by any formula – either self-imposed or by genre – but from time to time I do find myself obeying a small voice in the back of my head that keeps saying things like, “Pacing, you idiot!”, or “If you don’t kill someone soon, then I’m going to jump out a window, and so will half your readers!” I haven’t yet discerned whether that voice is coming from one of my editors, who has somehow managed to install a sinister micro-command module in the room where I write, or whether it’s the same voice which, when I’m cooking, always yammers, “You know, this would taste a hell of a lot better if you’d just throw it in the deep-fryer.”

What’s your favorite sentence in all literature, and why?

“I was looking right into Anne’s face, and doing so, I knew, and knew that she knew, that this was the moment the great current of the summer had been steadily moving toward all the time.” That’s from Robert Penn Warren’s All the King’s Men, at the culmination of eight pages of sinuous sexual tension that has been building in a wonderfully lyrical account of a youthful summer romance. Basically, the book’s narrator is about to lose his virginity, and in this one sentence Warren captures all the sweetness and aching of youthful longing better than anything I’ve ever read. Even when I go back to it now I’m transported to one of those lonely summer nights when the whole world of experience seemed to lay just ahead, and every girl I cherished remained just beyond reach, yet there was also a palpable sense of potential, a realization that the era of fulfillment was nigh.

What’s the best descriptive image in all literature?

This is going to be much lengthier than what you probably had in mind with that question, but Thomas Flanagan wrote an outstanding historical novel. The Year of the French, about the 1798 “rising” in Ireland. Within it was perhaps the best summation by imagery of an entire nation that I’ve ever come across, and I’ll share it with you in slightly truncated form (am I again violating copyright law? Well, at least this time it’s for a selfless cause):

“We are a land of ruins. Norman keeps and towers, and the queer round towers of which no man knows their antiquity, shattered manor houses of the Tudor times, the roofless abbeys and monasteries savaged by the men of Cromwell, their broken arches gaunt arms against the tumbling clouds, strongholds of O’Neills and O’Donnells, Burkes and Fitzgeralds, bashed and battered away, moss and ivy creeping over their stumps as they lie dreaming beneath the great sky of Ireland… As though in this land all, everything, has been sentenced from the beginning to break apart, fall into pieces, powerless against our harsh divinities of rain and wind and weed and tall grasses. All in ruin, the ruin of a world, sacked and burned and smashed, by Danes and Normans and Irish and English.”

Who’s the greatest stylist currently writing?

I’ll say Jonathan Lethem, but I’ll say it with hesitation because he still has so many books yet to write, and to date has been a bit of a ventriloquist, channeling a lot of different voices (almost all of them wonderful to read, mind you). I also hesitate because most of my favorite stylists have either died – John Fowles comes to mind – or have wandered a bit from the path, such as LeCarre with his recent propensity to preach. I’ll also nominate a fellow who, with less timid editors, would perhaps be soaring in the grandest tradition of Southern baroque, and that would be Pat Conroy. But I’m guessing that due to his huge commercial popularity, his editors tend to cower and hold their blue pencils in abeyance, and as a result they often leave some of his more damaging excesses intact. Pare them away and you’ll discover a great deal of beauty, even for those who might find his work overly sentimental.

Who’s the greatest plotter currently writing?

Arturo Perez-Reverte comes to mind. So does J.K. Rowling (ducks). But for a single book it would be hard to top Ian Rankin’s performance in Black and Blue.

How much research is involved in each of your books?

As much as it takes. With The Arms Maker of Berlin, that meant a full month of looking through declassified OSS records in the National Archives, plus two weeks of traveling in Bern, Zurich, and Berlin. But I was cheating a bit, too, because I’d lived in Berlin for three years back in the mid-90s, and had done loads of news reporting on lots of the issues of guilt, shame, and complicity that come into play in the book. So I like to think I went into it fairly well armed with insight.

Where did you get the idea for your main character?

I needed a digger, a seek of larger truths, but I didn’t want him to be a journalist, and I also wanted him to be a fellow who from time to time let himself fall far to deeply into the wormholes of his work, and the occupation of historian was just about the only one that fit.

Do you have a pain from childhood that compels you to write? If not, what does?

No. No pain at all. In fact, I regret to say that my childhood was blissfully boring and uncomplicated, because I am well aware that all those writers who lived through sheer torment and Hell, and years of maladjusted angst in the aftermath, certainly seem to have a far easier time attracting huge advances and massive publicity. I personally blame my level-headed parents for this tawdry state of affairs, and firmly believe that the long-overlooked issue of the neglect of writers from well-adjusted childhoods should be explored immediately and at great length, beginning with, say, a guest appearance on Oprah, in which the cover of my latest book would be featured prominently amidst great praise.

What’s the best idea for marketing a book you can do yourself?

The one I just mentioned sounds about right.

What’s your experience with being translated?

Ten languages so far, but hit or miss from one book to the next. Rumanian is probably the biggest surprise to date, although I was also a bit shocked when someone from an Italian edition asked for permission to cut one fifth of the text. It was the one time in my life when I was glad I couldn’t speak Italian, because I said yes.

Do you live entirely off your writing? How many books did you write before could make a living at it?

Not really entirely, since my wife’s job provides our health insurance and a salary of its own. But, yes, I quit my day job as a newspaper reporter after the third book, The Warlord’s Son. At the time it seemed like a huge gamble, but given what has become of the newspaper industry it’s now apparent that remaining on the payroll of the Baltimore Sun would have been far riskier.

How many books did you write before you were published?

My debut novel was my first manuscript, thank goodness. One of the few benefits of being a late starter, I suppose.

What’s the strangest thing that happened to you on a book tour?

I had the misfortune of having a reading/signing slotted for the same night and time as the first presidential debate during the 2004 campaign, in a very politically savvy neck of the woods in northern California. Even the staff of the bookstore had the debate running on a TV in a back room. Heck, I wanted to watch it, too. About five people showed up, and I seem to recall that even one of them asked a political question.

What’s your weirdest idea for a book you’ll never get to publish?

A novel about the experiences of an Englishman swept up along with the Mongol hordes in the year 1226, an idea triggered by a throwaway line in a biography of Ghengis Khan which mentioned that, just before sacking Budapest, they sent an Englishman into the city to present their terms for surrender.
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Published on July 25, 2009 06:26 • 106 views • Tags: balkans, bethlehem, collaborator, cwa, eastern, europe, ian, journalism, murders, rankin, thrillers