Welcome to Ethan Jones Blog
You will find exclusive author interviews, book reviews, books excerpts, and the latest news about Ethan Jones's work. Ethan Jones is the author of two espionage thrillers, Arctic Wargame (available on Amazon.com) and Tripoli’s Target (out in fall 2012).
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Who is Jon Talton?
Jon Talton is the author of eight novels, including the David Mapstone Mysteries: Concrete Desert, Cactus Heart, Camelback Falls, Dry Heat, Arizona Dreams and South Phoenix Rules. Dry Heat was named 2005 fiction book of the year by Arizona Highways magazine. The Pain Nurse, is the first of a new series, The Cincinnati Casebooks. He also wrote the thriller, Deadline Man.
Jon is also a veteran journalist and blogger. He is the economics columnist for the Seattle Times and is editor and publisher of the blog Rogue Columnist.
Before journalism, he worked for four years as an ambulance medic in the inner city of Phoenix. He also was an instructor in theater at Southeastern Oklahoma State University.
Mr. Talton, thank you for this opportunity to be interviewed for my blog. Your next book, Powers of Arrest, came out on May 1. Tell us a bit more about this work.
Cincinnati homicide detective Will Borders is the main character of Powers of Arrest. What is he like? How did you go about creating him?
Will is the son of a decorated police officer who was killed in the line of duty. He’s a veteran homicide investigator himself, with one of the best case-clearance records in the department. He’s a likeable straight-shooter, a little too involved with his work. His life was changed when a tumor was found in his spinal cord. Although it was removed, the damage is permanent and now he walks with a cane and is the department’s public information officer. But he itches to get back to homicide. His long-troubled marriage also ended. So Will is wounded but not hopeless. I created Will for the first Cincinnati Casebook, “The Pain Nurse,” because my editor wanted a cop in the book. I wanted him to be different from my other detective, David Mapstone. So Will is an average Midwesterner, not an intellectual. As always, the character makes himself a real person in the course of the writing.
How did it happen that you became a writer?
I’ve worked as a journalist for many years and tried a couple of novels that went nowhere. I decided to attempt a mystery so if it succeeded I would leave behind newspapers. It did succeed, but not enough to quit my day job.
How have you seen your writing develop and grow over the years since you first started writing?
I’ve become better at the craft. As a journalist, I learned how to write cleanly, concisely, make deadline, spell correctly, etc. As a novelist, I’ve learned how to set up a scene, pace it correctly, make decent choices as far as characters, details, description, atmosphere and stakes. I’d like to think I’ve become better with each book. I liken it to being a cabinet-maker, and getting more skilled at the scores of small things that taken together make a great cabinet.
How did your journalism experience help you with your writing?
As I said above, journalism helped me with some essential basic skills. The ability to work effectively under pressure is invaluable: You can’t freeze. I hope it’s also made me more observant and given me a good bullshit detector. That said, the novelist must work with his imagination, and freeing and cultivating this is very different from journalism.
What other books are you working on at the moment?
I’m starting a new David Mapstone mystery, but at this point I’m just gathering string. My plotting is unorthodox. I usually don’t know how a novel will end. My assumption is that the story has happened and it’s my job to follow the thread and find out what it was. One way to stay true to this is to really know my characters.
What do you like to read and what are you currently reading?
I like to read history and biography. My shame is that I am not much of a mystery fan. I harken back to the old school, especially Raymond Chandler. That said, I try to keep up with the grand masters and learn from them. Michael Connelly and Dennis Lehane come to mind. Right now I am reading Don Winslow’s “Savages.” It is a tour-de-force.
What do you like to do in your free time?
What free time? If I don’t write, I don’t get paid. Between columns, two blogs and novels, that’s my free time.
A word of advice for new thriller writers?
Read great writing and learn from it. Learn the craft. For thrillers, read the first chapter of Lee Child’s “Persuader.” You’ll want to read on, but that first chapter shows everything a thriller should be, and how it’s different from a conventional mystery. Most of my work is modern noir, although “Deadline Man” was a thriller. I advise all writers to read Julia Cameron’s “The Artist’s Way” and do the exercises. Beyond this, write. When I am really rolling, I do a thousand words a day.
What can readers expect to find in Powers of Arrest?
I hope they’ll find compelling characters and crime, and a fascinating city, all wrapped up in a good mystery. The Publishers Weekly reviewer caught what I was after, writing, “The Ohio local color lends depth, and the threat of extreme violence compels, but the novel’s chief interest is watching two mature, vulnerable people become real partners whose survival really matters.”
Please enjoy Chapter Four of Arctic Wargame, the coolest Canadian spy thriller of the summer.
April 12, 2:10 p.m.
The DHC-6 Twin Otter charter sat at the end of the hard-packed gravel runway of the Nanisivik Airport waiting for its passengers. Two mini-snowploughs circling around the aircraft had long conceded defeat to the flogging snowfall, which kept pouncing against their windshields and steel blades like a rabid beast. The drivers, sardined into their compact cabins, zeroed in on clearing a narrow strip of the runway. The Twin Otter was the only airplane scheduled to take off or land for the remainder of the day. The bush plane required a short but solid path for its swift ascent.
Justin’s stared at the snow ploughs through the terminal windows and sighed. The snowstorm had left them stranded at the airport. His team was waiting for clearance from the air traffic controller.
His satellite phone chirped inside his jacket. He removed his right-hand glove and frowned as he glanced at the screen. How did he get this number?
“Who’s dead?” he asked on the phone.
Carrie shook her head, apparently recognizing the only person Justin would greet in such a way: his dad, Carter.
“Justin, how are you?” Carter asked quietly.
“What do you want? I don’t have much time.” Justin turned his back to his team and took a few steps.
“Wanted to see how my son is doing.”
“Fine. I’m doing fine.”
An awkward silence followed for a few seconds.
Justin tapped his foot on the floor, staring at the small skywalk connecting the airport terminal to one of the hangars. Resting on high stilts, the skywalk resembled a bridge. At least in Justin’s mind. He hated this bridge. In fact, he hated all bridges. It was a bridge that shattered his life when he was only eleven years old. His mother had gone off a bridge in her car. The police had ruled out suicide and instead blamed the icy roads for the accident. But Justin knew better. He hated the man he blamed for his mother’s death. The man he would never call “dad” again.
“You’re still there?” Carter asked.
“Sure. Now who’s dead?”
“Sorry to disappoint you, but no one is dead.”
“Strange. You usually call when a relative dies.”
Carter sighed. “Can we… can we have at least one conversation without fighting?”
Justin kept silent.
“Your brother, Seth, was in car accident last night. It happened close to his home in Vanier.”
Justin offered nothing but his uneasy silence. Seth, Carter’s firstborn, had always been his favorite son. Even now.
“He’s doing OK,” Carter said after another deep sigh, “but he’ll be at the Montfort Hospital for the next day or two. It would be nice if you—”
“I don’t have time to see him,” Justin snapped, “and I’ve got to go now.”
He punched the End button on his phone and clenched it in his hand. A groan escaped his lips.
“Justin?” Carrie said.
“Is everything OK?”
“Yes, everything’s OK.”
“I just got an update on the weather forecast. The snowfall is local and stretches for only a few miles. We’re clear for takeoff.”
“Great, let’s go,” Justin said.
After they got in their seats, Kiawak’s abridged version of the flight safety instructions included two phrases: “No smoking during the flight” and “fasten your seatbelts for takeoff and landing.” He gave them the distance to their destination, one hundred and thirty-five miles; the length of their flight, an hour, give or take; and the expected temperature upon their arrival to Pond Inlet, about minus eight degrees. Then he walked to the end of the plane, about fifty feet in length, and slammed the passengers’ door shut.
“Now we’re good to go.” Kiawak returned to the cockpit. “Let me know if you need anything during the flight. If not, see you when we land.”
Justin looked around the cabin. Anna, sitting across the aisle, was fumbling with her seatbelt buckle as if flying for the first time. Next to her, Carrie had taken a deep plunge into a thick folder spread across her lap. It seemed only an abrupt crash-landing would deserve her attention. In the seat in front of her, Alisha typed on her laptop, only occasionally peeking outside the small oval window.
The rumble of the airplane’s twin engines shook the entire cabin. Anna dug her nails in her seat’s armrest. Carrie rested a reassuring hand on her forearm. Alisha still hammered on her keyboard, ignoring the metallic rattle as if it were a faint whisper. The terminal faded behind a white curtain of thick clouds as the Twin Otter arrowed skywards at about twenty-five feet per second. The climb lasted about five minutes. Once the pilot reached his cruising altitude of eight thousand feet, Justin switched off the seatbelt sign. He waited a few minutes, a sufficient time for Anna to regain her composure, before turning on his laptop.
“I was reviewing the CSE report last night, and a couple of points made me wonder,” he said. “It seems there were a couple of… how to put this… inconsistencies.”
“Huh? What inconsistencies?” Alisha raised her left eyebrow, and her usual gruff voice rasped a bit louder than necessary.
Justin tapped on his keyboard, bringing up a scanned copy of the report on his laptop’s monitor.
“On page 3, Stryker refers to what he calls ‘unscheduled maintenance’ of one of the Polar Epsilon satellite wings.” Justin pointed at the screen, although neither Alisha nor anyone else could see the highlighted section.
Carrie leafed through her folder until she found Stryker’s report.
“I checked with one of my contacts,” Justin continued, “who knows about the upgrades of the RADARSAT 2, the satellite providing the feeds to the Polar. He had no information about any maintenance, scheduled or not.”
Alisha shrugged and waved her hand in front of her face, as if to squash Justin’s concerns like an annoying mosquito. “So? Your man wasn’t aware of a problem. I’m sure you don’t run to your boss every time something goes wrong in the field.”
“This was not a small problem, as it caused the eye in the sky to turn blurry and the result was unrecognizable and useless pictures,” Carrie said. “Someone should have filed a status report.”
“I’m sure they have.” Alisha stared deep into Justin’s eyes. “And these pictures are not useless. They show these two ships, icebreakers, and the precise course they followed.”
“The second discrepancy,” Justin said, “is the weather report about the time of the incidents, when the icebreakers were crossing into our internal waters. According to Stryker’s memo, ‘an overcast sky hindered the satellite telescopes from zooming in the moving targets.’ But other sources report that the clouds were small and scattered, not the best conditions for taking pictures, but sufficient for clear shots.”
Alisha shrugged. “Who are these misleading sources of yours?” Her voice still carried a hint of menace, although she had dropped a few decibels of its volume.
“I can’t tell you.”
“In that case, what’s the purpose of your allegations? To discredit the Associate Director’s report?”
“Of course not. I have no reason to doubt Stryker conducted due diligence in assessing the evolving situation. I know he’s a very skeptical kind of guy. Maybe someone has taken him for a ride.”
“You mean somebody deliberately misled him?” Anna asked incredulously.
“That’s complete nonsense,” Alisha burst out, shaking her head and furrowing her brow. “The CSE provided accurate information, and we’re expected to act upon that information. I’m not going to allow you or anyone else to throw mud over my colleague’s hard work.” She clenched her long bony fingers into a tight, threatening fist.
“I have no intentions of discrediting Stryker’s report,” Justin replied. “I pointed out what I consider some difficulties in explaining this situation. But then, this is why we’ve been sent here to investigate and to find out exactly what happened at Ellesmere Island.”
A few moments of cold, awkward silence followed. No one was willing to concede defeat or declare victory. It felt like an unstable ceasefire.
Justin decided to take the first step toward peace.
“Our Ranger friend will guide us to the right people and the right places,” he spoke softly, looking mostly at Alisha.
She seemed uninterested in his words and kept staring at her computer’s screen.
“How long has he been a Ranger?” she asked.
Her question caught Justin off guard. Her eyes may be elsewhere, but her ears are in the right place. “Hmmm, oh, I don’t know.” He rubbed his chin and shrugged. “I think about ten years or so.”
Carrie looked up from her folder. “What is he like?” she asked.
“Well, you saw he’s a friendly kind of guy. He’s very knowledgeable about the Arctic. His dad used to be a hunter. Kiawak was raised to find his way around and survive in the frigid landscape without any of today’s gadgets. He has never left the Arctic for more than a few days.”
“What’s our itinerary?” Anna asked. The rose-tinted hue had finally returned to her face.
“First, we’ll scout Pond Inlet,” Justin said, “to check with residents to see if they’ve noticed anything unusual or suspicious around their area or the coastline. If we come up empty-handed, we’ll fly over the coastline and hit Grise Fiord, the other community on the southern shore of Ellesmere. That’s how far I’ve gone in planning.”
Carrie nudged him with a gentle fist to his arm to keep talking.
“No, I didn’t forget you,” he said. “A chopper will be waiting for us at the Pond. One of the American geologist teams researching Devon Island has agreed to lend us one of their choppers, since we’re their Canadian ‘colleagues.’“
“I thought they did no research this time of year?” Alisha asked.
“They don’t,” Justin replied, “but they’ve stored a couple of helicopters in a hangar, waiting for the summer. The one we’re taking needed some work on the rotor blades, but now it’s ready.”
“So what exactly are these Americans looking for in Devon?” Anna asked.
“Oh, who knows,” Carrie replied. “We have no idea what they’re doing or where they send their research teams.” After noticing Anna’s eyes blinking in disbelief, she added, “Well, other than what they tell us when they’re kind enough to do that. Remember a few years back, when some illegal immigrant from East Europe showed up at Grise Fiord in a rubber boat?”
Alisha gave a small nod. Anna shrugged.
“Well, this guy had set sail from Greenland in mid-September. A week later, he pops up on our shores. One man, one single engine boat, one trip of a lifetime. We had no idea he was there, until he showed up.”
Anna nodded thoughtfully.
“Keep in mind this was a lone man, very determined and maybe a bit crazy, but still only one man. This amateur sailor crossed into our waters entirely undetected by our satellite systems and our Coast Guard. And we’ve got more intrusions, foreign submarines, Russian bomber incursions. You would think the Russian and the American warships and jet fighters would be easier to detect, right? But here we have two icebreakers and no idea where they came from or where they went.
“Like Alisha said, we know the Russians are always either lurking underneath our frozen waters in their nuclear subs or looming overhead in their bombers. On the other hand, the Americans have always dismissed our claims that the Northwest Passage is a part of our internal waters, regardless of the fact that it cuts right through the heart of Arctic Canada. There is Pond Inlet and Arctic Bay to the south and Resolute to the north of the Passage. These are all Canadian towns. Their population may be sparse, but those are some pretty good numbers for the harsh conditions of these barren lands.”
Carrie stopped to catch her breath. Justin nodded at her with understanding. She replied with a tired smile and a deep sigh.
“I didn’t expect you to be so patriotic,” Alisha said. “We’ll have to make sure you’re kept on a leash if we run into any ‘comrades.’”
Justin held his tongue. There was no point in discussing the merits of her obvious bias.
“Won’t be necessary.” Carrie returned to her folder. “Whatever and whoever was there, they’re now long gone. We’ll be extremely lucky to find even a single trace.”
Pond Inlet, Canada
April 11, 11:25 p.m.
“The pilot was shaking so hard, I thought he was gonna die.” Kiawak raised his voice in order to overpower the shouting of his drinking mates. One of them, a skinny man who seemed to be losing his balance, slammed his beer jug on the table, splashing his buddies. They cursed and shoved him, and he cursed and shoved them back.
“So, you were… were you… man, you wanted to kill the pilot, ha, ha…” the skinny man pointed his empty jug at Kiawak and raised it to his thick lips. Disappointed that no happy portion flew down his throat, he yelled at the bartender for another beer.
“No, no,” Kiawak replied, the only one sober in the wild bunch. “I wanted to put him to sleep for a few hours, so we could clean his wounds. He was allergic to the drugs or something.”
Their chuckles echoed again throughout the small but crowded bar. Kiawak was telling some old hunting adventure, which became more entertaining when embellished with exaggerated details over a few drinks.
Qauins Bar and Hotel, at the southern edge of Pond Inlet, provided the overnight lodging for Justin’s team. In the bar, Kiawak grilled his unsuspecting friends for information on anything out of the ordinary in and around town. With a little more than twelve hundred people, everybody knew the affairs of everybody.
Three tables down from Kiawak’s, Justin kept an eye on the rest of the thin crowd. Earlier in the day, interviews with some of the residents and the courtesy visit to the Royal Canadian Mounted Police detachment produced no results. About two hours earlier, Kiawak had moved to Plan B: the Bar Operation. In vino veritas. Justin remembered the Latin expression he learned while attending McGill University. Vine, or whisky and beer in this case, the saying went, always brings out the truth, even in the best of people.
The wooden door of the bar squeaked as Anna rushed in. The little man at Kiawak’s table ogled her figure, although she was wrapped in a thick Gore-Tex jacket and a black balaclava.
“It’s… it’s so… bloody, freezing cold out there.” Anna sat at Justin’s table, still shivering. She wiped the snow off her gloves and the hood of her jacket. Her nose was strawberry red, and tiny icicles adorned her thin eyelashes.
“Well, yeah. With the wind chill, it probably feels like minus twenty five out there.”
“More like minus one hundred.” She placed her balaclava on the table and straightened her hair. “The inside of my noise is frozen solid. I can’t feel my nostrils any more. All this happened while I was out for no more than five minutes. Oh, I need some hot coffee to warm up.”
“It’s almost midnight. Will you be able to sleep?”
“I know I won’t be able to sleep without warming up.”
Justin called the waitress and ordered coffee. He noticed Kiawak gobbling a whisky shot, his last one. Five drinks and two hours were the agreed terms of the Bar Operation. Kiawak was getting close to his endgame.
“Where did Carrie and Alisha go?” Anna asked.
“Alisha whined about a terrible headache and left at about the same time you took off. Carrie wanted to get a good night sleep before tomorrow’s long day. Did they know anything at the co-op?”
Anna blew carefully on the hot cup of coffee the waitress brought her and took a small sip.
“No, nothing useful. They wanted to talk to me about everyone and everything, but they knew nothing about icebreakers. The food prices were so crazy. I wanted to buy a can of pop and it was five dollars. Five freaking dollars.”
“Well, do you think your coffee will be less? Everything is very expensive here, since most of the year they have to fly in the food.”
The barman, a bald, middle-aged man, approached Kiawak’s table and exchanged a few words with its patrons. Some loud cursing followed, and Kiawak picked up the tab. He escorted his buddies to the bar door and exchanged a bear hug with each of them.
“You’re gonna lock up, Kiawak?” shouted the barman after he had cleared the rest of the bar from its drinkers, with Justin and Anna the only remaining customers.
“No, he will.” Kiawak pointed to Justin, while meandering toward their table. “I’ve got to hit the sack right away.”
“All right.” The barman flipped a switch behind the counter, turning off the main ceiling lights. The bar sank into half-darkness. Justin’s and Anna’s shadows danced under the flickering lights of two floor lamps at the far end corner, near stairs leading to the hotel rooms on the second floor. Another faint blue light glowed behind the bar counter.
“Oh, Justin, always the unrepentant romantic,” Kiawak said as he dropped in an empty chair next to Justin. Kiawak rested his hands on the table. They were now the only three people in the bar. “Enjoying some female companionship, eh?”
Justin chuckled. “Anything good come out of all that drinking, beside your sarcasm?”
“Nothing. Well, almost nothing.”
“What is it?” Anna asked.
“This guy from Grise Fiord, a well-known con, is trying to fence some guns. Big guns.”
“What caliber?” Justin asked.
“They didn’t know. This guy and his partner, well, girlfriend, buy or steal weapons in the south and sell them here, all over the place. Usually, it’s handguns and the occasional semi. This time, according to Mike, the little guy, it’s large cal.”
“Did he give you a name?” Justin said.
“Yes. Nuqatlak. That’s the con’s name. Ring a bell?”
“No. Should it?”
“I don’t know. I hear he’s a small fish, but I don’t know whether the Service knows about him.”
“I’ll call my office and see what they can dig up on this guy. What’s his last name?”
“Beats me, but there can’t be many Nuqatlaks in Grise Fiord. The whole place has only a hundred and fifty people.”
“Do you think this man is somehow related to our mission?” Anna asked.
“I don’t know.” Kiawak pushed a few loose hairs away from his forehead and rubbed his puffy eyes. “I’m very drunk and very tired.”
“Five shots and you’re out?” Justin said.
“Five’s the limit if you want me to remember names and facts. Anything on top of that and I won’t remember my own name. Good night.”
Justin looked over at Anna. Kiawak’s steps creaked on the wooden staircase.
“Are you going to bed soon?” Justin asked Anna.
“Not that soon. What do you think of this guy, Nuqatlak?”
“He’s not the focus of our mission, unless he’s bringing in weapons from Russia, if we’re to trust Alisha’s hunch. But we asked Kiawak to find anything suspicious, and this increase in Nuqatlak’s business is definitely worth a second look. We’re on our way to Grise Fiord anyway, so tomorrow we’ll have a chat with this guy. Before we do that, I’ll see if the CIS has any files on him.”
“Oh, now that I remember, I was thinking about what you said earlier, the discrepancies in the CSE report.”
“Yes. What about it?”
“I was wondering about the odds of these ‘coincidences.’ The bad weather and the computer failure happened at the same time these two ghost ships turned into our waters.” Anna leaned forward, resting her chin on her fists.
“Murphy’s Law?” Justin said with a grin. “If anything can go wrong, it will.”
“I know that, but these seem to work in favor of the ships. I can’t help but think of the movie scene when the security cameras stop working just as the bad guys break into a bank.”
“You think someone is trying to screw up our satellite defenses so these ships go undetected? That’s a bold claim. If Alisha were here, I would have to break up a fight.”
Anna drew her lips together, closed her eyes, and gave Justin a big headshake. “Oh, gosh.” She sighed before looking up. “Don’t even get me started. I can’t believe you can stay so calm when even her presence angers me.”
“Why does she bother you?”
“She’s so difficult to work with and stuck in her old, strict ways.”
“Well, she’s so bloody arrogant and patronizing, like she already knows all the answers before even asking the questions. And for some unexplained reason, everything is somehow connected to those Russians she’s so mad about.”
“That happens to everyone. You work in a certain field and to you, everything is related to that. Since it’s so important to you, it becomes your obsession. It grows and tries to take over your life. You see Russians everywhere and their influence in anything, as if they were, well, pretty much omnipresent.”
Anna peered deep into Justin’s eyes. “You talk from experience, I presume.”
Justin hesitated a brief moment. “Yeah, I guess so, to some extent. But really, Alisha has no life outside her work. She’s not married, has no kids, not even a pet.”
“What the hell? How do you know that?”
“Professional hazard, maybe. But she has a great reputation at her work and a striking record. So we’ll get this job done and leave all this behind us.”
Anna nodded and covered a yawn.
“Hopefully,” Justin said, “we’ll cover more ground tomorrow when Carrie flies us in the chopper. Now we should try to get some rest.”
“No, I’m still buzzed from the coffee. And I’ve got the munchies. Hmmm, I’m in the mood for something sweet.”
“I’ll get you some dessert.” Justin stood up. “Strawberry shortcake? I think I saw some in one of the fridges. I’m sure the barman wouldn’t mind if we dipped our fingers in the pie, as long as we pay for it.”
“Sure.” Anna smiled. “Why did you notice the shortcake? Is that your favorite dessert?”
“Well… yes. No. It… it used to be.” He struggled for the right words, the fatigue of the late hour and the fond memories visible in his flinching eyes. “It’s actually Carrie’s favorite dessert.”
“And you served it to her as a midnight snack on your dates?” Anna dared to ask.
Justin did not answer. He walked behind the bar counter, although the fridge was on the other side. Anna stalked him, apparently determined to get an answer.
“It was a long time ago,” Justin conceded after a long pause, leaning over the fridge. He dug out two plastic boxes and placed them on the counter. “We’re still good friends.”
Anna took a fork from a drawer underneath the counter and handed it Justin.
“Since you opened this door,” Justin asked, “care to tell me about your midnight dates?”
Anna blushed and smiled.
“I haven’t had any midnight dates for a while,” she said with a sense of anticipation in her voice. She took a brief pause as if rethinking the rest of her reply. “Until now,” she added under her breath. Her last two words were loud enough for Justin to hear, but soft enough for a quick denial.
Justin read between the lines. I’ve promised myself not to fall for someone I work with. Besides, it’s not the right time. He pretended he missed Anna’s not-so-subtle hint.
Anna shrugged and dug into her dessert. “Hmmm, this is so good,” she said in a long moan. “Thank you so much.”
“Oh, you’re welcome.”
“Justin, what made you wanna do this?”
“You said you were hungry.”
“No, silly. I mean this job. Being a secret agent.”
“In preschool, when playing hide and seek, I was very good at finding the other kids.”
“Ha! Very funny. In that case you should have been a PI.”
“This job is much more fun. What made you want to impress a jury?”
“I don’t do litigation. Our section does research, analysis, and gives legal advice. I’m usually locked in the office for eight hours straight. On the rare occasions when I’ve seen the inside of a courtroom, it has been from a spectator’s seat or the witness stand.”
Justin nodded and licked his fork.
“But, you’re right in a sense,” Anna said. “I do want to impress someone. My father.”
“What does he do?”
“He used to be a judge, for the Court of Queen’s Bench, until he retired last year.”
“Yes. How did you know that?”
“A simple guess.” He shrugged. “That just happened to be right. Well, I have kind of a bit of insight, since I know a few people here and there, who can access certain databases—”
“No, you didn’t?” She threatened him with a fork full of whipped cream. “You ran a background check on me?”
“Guilty as charged, your honor.”
“You won’t be smiling when I’m finished with you.” Anna placed her box and fork on the counter, but Justin had already darted for the stairs.
“Don’t forget to clean up,” he said, keeping his voice as low as possible.
“Tomorrow, you’ll pay for this, Justin Hall.” Anna stabbed his image with her fork, but Justin noticed a joyful glint in her eyes. “And I’m not talking about the cake.”
“Good night, Anna. Sleep well.”
“Good night, Justin.”
* * *
As he climbed up the stairs, Justin failed to notice a small shadow creeping next to the fire exit door, at the far end of the hall on the second floor: Alisha hiding in the dark. She had been eavesdropping on their entire conversation.
“Arrogant? Difficult to work with? Patronizing? Somebody’s life is going to get extremely difficult, Justin. And I promise you won’t even see it coming,” Alisha mumbled as she tiptoed toward her room.
The Bourne Imperative starts right, as any spy thriller should, with a lot of action and suspense. A man is being chased by a woman in the snowy forests of Sadelöga, Sweden. At one point, she shoots him and he falls in the freezing waters of the Baltic Sea. Soon thereafter, Jason Bourne fishes out the wounded man, but he’s lost all his memory. Who is this man? Who is after him? Why? Then Bourne learns that a Mossad agent, Rebeka—whose life he saved—is now being hunted by her former colleagues. Why is she on the run?
Mr. Lustbader’s writing is fast-paced, intriguing and enjoyable. The first few chapters introduce a lot of characters and many storyline threads. It is easier to connect the dots and understand everything the first time if the reader is familiar with the previous novels in the Bourne series. Still, the plot unfolds well, and the characters have depth and great personalities.
The story moves to the Treadstone directors Peter Marks and Soraya Moore. They are searching for Nicodemo, a notorious assassin. The President of the US, however, has planted his own man within the Treadstone, and his mission is to find Jason Bourne.
Who is the mystical man they call Nicodemo? Will Rebeka be able to evade the Mossad’s foremost assassin, known as the Babylonian? How does it all link back to the Treadstone and to Jason Bourne?
There’s a great giveaway for a paperback copy of Arctic Wargame on Goodreads if you live in the States or Canada. Three more days.
Please enjoy Chapter Three of my spy thriller novel Arctic Wargame.
April 11, 12:50 p.m.
The bright sun bounced off the hard sheet of ice covering the gravel road and blinded him for a second. Kiawak squinted. All he saw were yellow sparks and black dots. His Arctic Wolf sunglasses—coated for extra protection against the sunrays’ sharp reflection from the snow—and the semi-tinted windshield of his Toyota truck were nearly useless. The permafrost, which had been agonizing under the weight of several feet of snow for months, mirrored all of the sunrays.
At minus two degrees––but driven down to minus thirteen because of the wind chill factor––the sun, although bright and blazing its way across the skies for sixteen hours a day, provided absolutely no heat. A man stranded outside, even with heavy protective clothing, could experience the first signs of the frostbite within minutes. The exposed skin would begin to freeze, the tissue turning red and burning at the lightest touch. Hypothermia would set in soon thereafter, and death could occur in the next hour.
Inside his truck cabin, however, the heater blasted hot air onto Kiawak’s unshaven face as he drove around the corner toward his destination. Parting Waters was the only bar, restaurant, and grocery store in Nanisivik. Kiawak ran it with Joe, his best friend. Waters, as Joe called their joint venture, stretched over the length of three construction trailers. They were soldered, converted, and insulated to accommodate Kiawak’s small apartment in the back and the business in the front. Waters was the right name for the joint, located on the edge of the old town site, overlooking the Strathcona Sound. The waters parted when icebergs in the spring and icebreakers in the summer cruised by the small town.
The truck let out a loud puff as Kiawak tapped on the brakes and turned right. The front wheels slid on the ice, but the truck responded to his command. Nanisivik used to have a lead-zinc mine, which spewed out enough ore to keep happy and busy about two hundred employees for many years. When the mine closed its doors, the managing company took away not only the jobs and the people, but also everything it could salvage: the machineries, the ship loader, and even some of the townhouses.
Recently, the Canadian government, alarmed by the so-called “black rush”—the race among Canada, Denmark, Norway, Russia, and the United States for ownership of the oil and the natural gas buried in the Arctic’s permafrost and seabed—announced its Arctic strategy. It was a well-elaborated and multilayered strategy to bolster Canada’s sovereignty in its northern territories. The strategy included the construction of the Canadian Forces Arctic Training Center in Resolute—two hundred and twenty miles north of Nanisivik—the expansion of the Canadian Rangers and the refurbishment and the expansion of the deep water port in Nanisivik.
Nanisivik was now crawling with DND employees surveying the proposed building sites, collecting samples, and carrying out environmental studies and technical assessments of the proposed work. New apartments and row houses were expected to start popping up. Kiawak had been flirting with the idea of investing in the promising real estate market and becoming a landlord.
For the time being, all these DND workers needed food, and Kiawak needed power to keep the kitchen running, the flat screen TVs on, and the grocery refrigerators in working condition. The trip to Arctic Bay scored him a diesel generator, sufficient to power up all the equipment. The current propane workhorse of the Waters proved to be less than reliable because of a sudden snap of hellish weather the previous week that had dipped the mercury under minus thirty-one.
Three black GMC pickups were lined up in front of the Waters and Kiawak recognized them as DND vehicles. The orange Ford Explorer parked farther to the left looked unfamiliar. As usual, a beat up Arctic Cat snowmobile occupied the last available space in the gravel parking lot. Kiawak sighed as he slammed the front bumper of his truck in a snowbank and turned around, backing up by the front entrance.
“Hey, boss, how was the trip?” Joe waved at him from behind the counter.
“Good.” Kiawak inhaled the warm air mixed with the appetizing aroma of fried pork chops as he entered the restaurant. Seven people sat around the small tables enjoying their lunch. Most of the patrons nodded at him.
“Where’s Amaruq?” Kiawak asked while Joe poured him a large mug of hot coffee. Before Joe could answer, Kiawak snatched the hot drink out of Joe’s hand. “I saw his Cat outside.”
“Back in the office. Nina gave birth to a boy, Gabriel, last night and e-mailed him a few pictures. I opened them for him on your laptop.”
“How are they doing? His sister and the baby?”
“Fine, I think. I mean, this is her fourth kid and according to Amaruq, everyone’s doing great.”
“Well, I’m happy for him.” Kiawak drained the mug down his throat. “You and I need to install the generator today, after the lunch rush. Help me move it to the back.”
“All right.” Joe scratched his long gray beard.
He turned down the heat of the stove’s burners, and put on his Taiga Gore-Tex jacket, the same as Kiawak’s. He took a pair of heavy-duty gloves from underneath the counter, fastened a black wool toque with long earflaps over his gray hair, and followed Kiawak outside.
“Man, you shouldn’t go out without a hat,” Joe said. “Your ponytail will freeze.”
“Oh, what about your Santa beard, eh?”
“I don’t need any stupid scarves.”
“It’s nice now,” Kiawak said. “The wind has died down, but it was quite strong in the Bay before I left.”
Joe helped him untie the orange straps securing the generator to the truck. “How was Tania?”
“I don’t know.”
“What? You went all the way there and didn’t see her?”
“No, I didn’t.” Kiawak waved his hand, as if to express his frustration with the tangled straps. In fact, he was getting annoyed at Joe probing into his personal affairs.
“Joe, drop it.”
“OK, fine. I’m just looking out for you, boss.”
Kiawak snorted. “Thanks. Who’s the pumpkin?” he asked, gesturing toward the orange Ford Explorer.
“Couple of researchers from Ottawa. They’re doing some weather measurements, the humidity and such. Something about global warming.”
“Oh, those things.”
“Yes. You’re ready?”
They lifted the two-hundred pound generator and slowly placed it on the gravel.
“I paid three Gs for it,” Kiawak said, responding to Joe’s curious stare at the gray metallic box, a little larger than the toolbox stretching the entire width of the pickup. “Brand new.”
“Three point five kilowatt?”
“Yeah. The other one was seven, but way more expensive. This one’s supposed to be economic and quiet and withstand up to minus forty.”
They struggled and swore, but within a few minutes they had moved the generator to the back of the trailers. They set it on the raised wooden platform by the propane generator it was going to replace.
When they got back inside, Amaruq stood behind the bar counter, fixing himself a cocktail of dark drinks. Kiawak refilled his mug from the coffee machine before sitting on one of the stools next to Amaruq.
“You know you’ll have to pay for that someday,” Joe smirked at Amaruq. His tone sounded like a warning that Joe was going to take payment in kind. In fact, Joe could easily pounce on the feeble Amaruq, who hardly weighted one hundred and fifty pounds in his five-foot frame.
“Someday, someday, everyone has got to pay,” Amaruq chanted in a weak voice that had a grouchy pitch while shaking both his head and his drink. “How’s my good friend Kiawak?”
Joe squeezed behind them to get to the stove and check on the pork chops, his beer belly almost knocking over a teakettle.
Kiawak shook Amaruq’s small, calloused hand. “Doing great, really great. How’s the old wolf?”
Amaruq smiled. “Hanging in there.”
“How’s Nina and the baby?”
“In perfect health. And the proud godfather is drinking to Gabriel’s long life.” He took a sip of his brew then smacked his lips in satisfaction.
“That’s his third drink today,” Joe informed Kiawak. “In case you’re wondering.”
“Thanks for flipping my pork chops. They would have burned if I weren’t here,” Amaruq quipped.
“If you weren’t here mooching off us, we could afford a real cook.” Joe lined up four plates and hurried to take them to the waiting patrons.
“All this howling is making me miserable,” Amaruq complained to Kiawak.
“Don’t mind Joe. He’s just worried about this place. I came back from the Bay, and we had to pop three thousand for a new generator.”
Amaruq’s eyes registered the dollar amount, and he seemed to ponder it. Kiawak’s glance followed Joe as he fluttered between the tables, receiving more food orders. Two new patrons had walked in while they were moving the generator. Kiawak recognized them as Nicholas and Brian, two researchers working for the mining company. They showed up every year to monitor the contamination levels in the town site.
“So, you were at the Bay this morning?” Amaruq asked. “Why didn’t you let me take you there?”
Kiawak snorted. “Don’t you remember what happened the last time you drove a truck?”
Amaruq sighed. “Not fair. That was a long time ago, there was a snowstorm, and I was in a semi—”
“You went through the freaking ice, old wolf, taking with you the rig and a ton of dynamite.”
“The herd… those damn caribous. I keep telling everyone. I was trying to avoid crashing into the caribou herd. That’s why I lost control.”
Kiawak shrugged. “It’s not that I don’t trust you. I just can’t afford to lose my truck. And you need to see an eye doctor.”
“My eyes are fine. I told you it was the caribous. But no one trusts me anymore.”
Joe returned to the bar and began pouring beer from the tap into three large jugs. “Nick and Brian are here.”
“Yeah, I saw them. Why are they early?”
“Something about a potential waste spill from one of the tailing ponds.”
“Oh, crap,” Amaruq whined and fired an angry stare at the two researches. Sitting at the far end of the trailer, they could not see his reaction.
“Keep it down, old wolf. Don’t you start trouble now.”
Amaruq raised his hands in resignation.
“There hasn’t been a leak since the mine was sealed off. That’s why these guys are here, to make sure it stays that way,” Kiawak said.
“I get it.” Amaruq turned around to face Kiawak and offered him a big grin. “Trouble’s bad for business. By the way, how’s the other business?”
Amaruq pointed his index finger above Kiawak’s head at two framed photographs hanging on the wall. The first one showed a proud Kiawak in the Ranger’s uniform, posing in front of the entrance to the Nanisivik port with the Canadian Minister of National Defence. The second was a shot of Kiawak’s Rangers Patrol Group, thirty-three members in all, with the minister in their midst.
“You know what’s missing there?” Amaruq’s shaky hand kept stabbing the air as if he were trying to reach for the photographs.
“You?” asked Joe.
“No.” Amaruq laughed. “Our Queen.”
“Huh?” Kiawak asked.
“Your picture with the Queen. It would be nice if you had a picture of you and Her Majesty.”
Joe laughed. The only time he agreed with Amaruq was when the old man threw out one of his punch lines.
“The Defence Minister shows up only in August, the warmest month around here,” Amaruq said, “I don’t know how we can fire up this place much hotter for Her Majesty.”
He lifted his voice in mock solemnity, and they all laughed aloud, attracting curious stares from the closest tables.
“Excuse me, but I need to refill my drink. From home.” Amaruq lifted his glass one last time. A few drops trickled over his lips. He zipped up his jacket and hobbled out of the trailer.
“Talk to you later,” Kiawak said.
Joe served his thirsty customers while Kiawak finished his coffee. He retreated to his office. It was slightly larger than a den, with a small foldable desk, two plastic shelves full of books and magazines, a file cabinet, and an office chair. He began reading the Nunatsiaq News website, his favorite English-Inuktitut weekly newspaper.
Joe showed up a few minutes later and stood by the door. “We really need to do something about Amaruq.”
“He’s a good old man, just poor and lonely. Can’t you leave him alone?”
“I would, if he left us alone.”
“Never mind him. Amaruq is always welcome here. My brother Julian, his soul rest in peace, owed him a huge debt that I can never repay. Remember when Amaruq found Julian almost frozen during the bowhead whale hunt? The occasional free drinks and meals are the least I can do for Amaruq.”
“More like regular than occasional,” Joe observed, his face showing he was unhappy with Kiawak’s reply.
“In a year or two, the old wolf will find a job he can actually do. Maybe even this summer, if construction starts. He can drive a small Bobcat or help with dry walling, be kind of a gofer, things like that.”
Joe remained unfazed, his left foot tapping nervously on the linoleum floor.
“Listen, starting tomorrow and over the weekend, I’ve got to work with some people from Ottawa. They’re DND.”
“What do they need you for?” Joe asked.
“They’re flying an Otter here, and we’re going for a research mission up north.”
“Where exactly up north?”
“We’re doing the regular triangle, Nanisivik to Pond Inlet to Grise Fiord and back.”
Joe shook his head. “I can’t believe this. Why do they have to do this now, in April? What’s so important that can’t wait till summer? July or August, when everyone flocks up there.”
“Justin, one of the DND researchers, told me they have to collect the data right now. Ice thickness, ice movement, melting levels, and other stats.”
Kiawak hated the fact he was lying to Joe about the reconnaissance mission. But Justin had insisted the mission remain top secret. If Joe learned about the real nature of Kiawak’s assignment, the entire Arctic would be buzzing with gossip.
“Do you know these researchers?”
“Justin, yes. I’ve worked with him before. I don’t know the other three. But they’re landing here tomorrow around noon. After refueling, we’ll take off.”
“You’ll not have to worry about this place,” Joe said before Kiawak could offer any advice. “I will not turn up the heat, will not touch your truck, and will not tease Amaruq more than I usually do.”
“OK,” Kiawak said and nodded. He swiveled in his chair. “I’ve got to pay some bills now. Call me if you need a hand.”
“OK, boss.” Joe went back to the kitchen.
“Hey, Joe, two more beers, man,” one of the patrons called to him.
“Right away, pal.” Joe reached for two jugs.
Who is Robert Pobi?
Robert Pobi dealt in fine Georgian antiques for 13 years. He has fished for everything that swims – from great white sharks off Montauk to the monstrous pike of northern Finland. He prefers bourbon to scotch and shucks oysters with an old hunting knife he modified on a bench grinder. In warm weather he spends most of his time at a cabin on a secluded lake in the mountains and when the mercury falls he heads to the Florida Keys. The critical response to his first short story (written when he was 12) was a suspension from school. Now he writes every day – at a desk that once belonged to Roberto Calvi. He has four novels slated for publication.
Mr. Pobi, thank you for this opportunity to be interviewed for my blog. Your new thriller, Bloodman, came out on May 15. Tell us a bit more about this work.
There’s that old advice for writers that says to write the book you want to read. Bloodman is my take on the serial killer novel. I thought that I could bring a unique perspective to the table. And I’d like to think that I have.
Bloodman is the story of 4 days out of the life of a man named Jake Cole. Jake returns to his childhood home when his father has an Alzheimer’s related accident. Not long after he’s home, a series of murders that mimic his mother’s death thirty years before remind him that the past isn’t always closed. Problem is, Jake’s a wreck. In a way it’s a game to see who’s more broken – the killer or the man hunting him.
What kind of man is FBI contractor Jake Cole, the main character of Bloodman? How did you end up creating him?
I don’t know if I created Jake as much as I found him. And I think it’s probably like that with any character that resonates with people. Jake is a man who has managed to live through what we learn is a broken past. He’s an ex heroin and cocaine addict who’s got a pace maker wired into his chest to keep his heart from forgetting to beat. But being damaged is not what defines him – that’s incidental – what defines Jake is his love of his family. There is no such thing as a line he will not cross to protect them. I started the second chapter and Jake was just there, standing at the doorway to his childhood home, waiting to confront his past.
How did it happen that you became a writer?
I’ve always written – since I was a child. I was suspended from school for the first short story I wrote. The from-there-to-here part of the equation is a long story but the nutshell version is that I accidentally sold a novel when I was 23. About a year into the process, my publisher was bought out and I hadn’t bothered to get an agent. I got discouraged after a few rounds of query letters and made the very conscious decision not to send work out for a while.
Life came along and I ended up doing something else that I loved for a lot of years. Then three friends of died – two of cancer, one was murdered – and I realized that if I didn’t take my shot, I probably never would. There you go. And here we are.
You have four novels slated for publication. Do you mind sharing your ‘secret’ with us?
It’s hard not to sound flippant with a question like this because I honestly don‘t know any secrets but I know a few tips. Number One is that good enough doesn’t cut it. You have to be better than the next guy. If you can do that, you’re most of the way there.
Before I was doing this full-time I thought that agents enjoyed turning writers down and that editors didn’t want to take a chance on something new. It turns out that nothing could be further from the truth – these people slog through three feet of poorly written letters each day just to find that one nugget of hope – my agent gets 1200-1500 queries a month and signs maybe a handful of new writers out of the lot. So I guess one of the secrets would be any query letter you send out has to be smart, concise, and professional. I am John Doe, I have written a novel that I think is a good fit for your agency, here is a one-page synopsis, would you like to see it? If they say yes, follow their submission guidelines. That’s it. Forget the fancy footwork. Forget using neon paper or sending free Chiclets or hiding the manuscript in a giant fortune cookie. Make it as easy as possible for them to go through your work – and this means streamlining it the way they want.
Another good tip is: don’t write for anyone else. Write for yourself. Because you’ll put your heart into it.
But the winning combination really seems to be relentless determination and work. Luck plays a part. But when everyone else is on the floor, it’s go-go time.
What is it like to fish for great white sharks?
You drift with the current – and you’re continually chumming – which is a stomach-churning combination of ground up Menhaden and fish oil and guts that’s been sitting in 50 gallon drums on a sunny dock for three days. And you’re bobbing up and down in pretty solid waves, throwing this slop overboard. You’ve got a reel the size of a one-gallon paint can bolted to a rod that you could use for a pool cue and you wait. And wait. And wait. And one of the guys you’re with is smoking cigars. Another is drinking too much. Then someone ends up complaining that they’re bored. And the next thing you know, people are target-shooting at beer cans. And when you least expect it, a beast the size of a dump truck starts pulling line off the reel with a screech (and the drunk guy can’t do his job, and you’re screaming at the guy chain-smoking in your face to dump his Monte Cristo). Then you spend four hours fighting a force of nature that if it had a brain any larger than a walnut would outsmart the tiny little gear you’re using, sink the boat, and eat everyone for a snack. Then that fin breaks water fifty yards off the stern. It’s as big as a Volkswagen. Scarred and primal. And it sees the boat, and heads down. Sounds. And you finesse it up again. Then finally it’s alongside the boat, and the guy with the gaff wants to know if you want to keep the fish or let it go and you stare at him like he’s just asked you if you want to commit a war crime. Then you use a steel pole to get the hook and leader out of the fish’s mouth and pull the gaff. And the fish just sits there for a few seconds, lolling in the waves beside the boat because it has not yet figured that it’s free. Then it moves its tail just a little and something happens – it knows it is free. And all of a sudden the fish is gone.
A word of advice for new thriller writers?
When your friends go out Friday night to have fun, tell them you’re busy. Stay home, close the office door, and work. There’s a Sarah Palin marathon on Fox? Unplug the television and work. The only way to become a writer is to write. There are no shortcuts. That advice is the best gift anyone can give a writer. If you don’t want to write more than you want to do anything else in the world – all the time – forget this as a career. Forget getting a book published. Do it as a hobby.
One of the best writing tips I’ve ever received is to use short sentences and paragraphs during action scenes. You’d be surprised how you can speed things up.
What is your typical writing day?
I get up around 7:30, roll around in bed like a stroke victim for a while. I do an hour of yoga. Have a coffee. I’m in my office by 8:45 and I get into the work. Email until about 10:00 then it’s onto writing. I take a break at 1:00 and go for a 4 mile walk – every day. In the winter I’ll snow-shoe five or six miles three times a week. I get back, have lunch, and go to work. I stop at 7:00, cook supper. Get back to work around 8:00 and usually work through until 1:00 a.m. I take every second Thursday off to do errands, visit friends.
What other books are you working on at the moment?
I just finished a novel called Deselected. It’s a book that picks up where Michael Crichton left off. It’s a What-If? story. I look at our position as the apex predator on the planet and ask, What if that changed?
What do you like to read and what are you reading now?
I like to read non-fiction these days because it always falls under the rubric of “research” – my time is so limited that if I read something simply for pleasure, I know that I’ll pay for it somewhere down the road.
In non-fiction I’ve been reading Arguably by Christopher Hitchens; Black Elk Speaks by John Neihardt; Island of Death by Werner Wolf; Finding Darwin’s God by Kenneth Miller; and Cannibals and Kings by Marvin Harris.
I don’t read a lot of modern fiction – I have too much to catch up on. Hemingway’s Light in August is probably the newest book I’ve read all year. Or Jimmy Breslin’s World Without End, Amen. Black Elk Speaks; Mickey Spillane’s The Tough Guys; The Goodbye Girl by Neil Simon – if you want to learn about dialogue, Simon’s the guy. I don’t read a lot of genre fiction.
The only genre fiction I am reading is Blues Highway Blues by Eyre Price and I should mention John Galligan – he’s got a great detective series that I can’t say enough good about.
What can readers expect to find in Bloodman?
An unsettling, smart story told in a beautiful way.
Today’s stops on my blog tour are at Laurie’s Interviews and Ty Johnston’s blogs. Enjoy two special interviews, excerpts from Arctic Wargame and enter the contest to win a Kindle copy of this spy thriller.
The Bloodman is the story of Jake Cole, an FBI contractor, blessed—or perhaps cursed—with the ability to read and understand the clues at a murder scene. After receiving news of his father accident—in which he lit himself up and almost burned to death—Jake returns to his home town of Montauk, New York. As memories of the past begin to trouble him, he learns about a local double homicide. A mother and a child have been skinned alive.
Mr. Pobi’s writing is dark, graphic and detailed. The crimes depicted are horrific and the images portrayed very disturbing. The work of a serial killer described in stomach-churning language. The pace of the novel is good, the storyline develops well and the characters are intriguing. The reader will want to turn page after page to learn about the murderer and how Jake will catch this monster.
Jake’s past is burdened with sadness, guilt and misery. His mother was murdered in the same horrific way as the new victims. His father, a renowned painter, grew distant and never made time for Jake. As he works toward discovering the killer, Jake finds out more about his past that will help define his future.
Who is the Bloodman? How will Jake catch him? What is he willing to sacrifice in order to discover the truth about the Bloodman and about himself?
Who is Mark Harril Saunders?
Mark Harril Saunders was born and raised in the Washington, D.C., area. The son of a diplomat, he holds degrees from the University of Pennsylvania and the University of Virginia, where he was a Henry Hoyns Fellow. Since childhood, he has traveled extensively in Europe, the Middle East, the former Soviet Union, and China. Saunders has worked on Capitol Hill, at several bookstores, as a carpenter, and as a publisher’s sales representative. He is currently assistant director of the University of Virginia Press. His writing has appeared in the VQR, Blue Moon Review, Boston Review, and the Virginian-Pilot, and in 2001 he was awarded the Andrew Nelson Lytle Fiction Prize from Sewanee Review. A former fellow at the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, Saunders lives in Charlottesville, Virginia, and Castine, Maine, with his wife and three children.
10 Questions with Mark Harril Saunders
Mr. Saunders, thank you for this opportunity to be interviewed for my blog. Your debut thriller, Ministers of Fire, came out on May 21. Tell us a bit more about this work.
At the heart of the book are two triangles, one romantic, the other political. The novel begins in Afghanistan in 1979, where the CIA station chief, Lucius Burling, witnesses the murder of the American ambassador. Burling has just begun an affair with the wife of one of his operatives, and the tangle of personal loyalties and betrayals ripples through the book. At the same time, he is working with Chinese intelligence to arm the mujahedin, who of course we know today as the Taliban. Blowback from that operation continues through 9/11 to the novel’s end, in Shanghai, in the spring of 2002, where Burling is drawn into the smuggling of a dissident physicist. Believe it or not, the China plot has some odd similarities with the recent story of Chen Guangcheng.
Who is Lucius Burling, the main character of Ministers of Fire, and how did you create his character?
Burling is too young to have begun his career in the OSS, the World War II precursor to the Agency, but he has the prototypical pedigree of an American intelligence agent of his day – Philadelphia blueblood, Princeton. He believes in the ideals that led to the American projection of power in the twentieth century, and perhaps for that reason he is not really equipped to deal with the post-Cold War world of the mujahedin and al-Quaeda. Personally, he and his wife are children of the fifties, and their marriage runs aground in midlife, which coincides with the social upheavals of the 60s and 70s. What I tried to do with Burling was to put a basically decent man from a slightly earlier era in a situation that tests all of his assumptions about himself and his country. There is a bit of Conrad’s Lord Jim in him, the flawed man who tries to do the right thing in a world he no longer understands.
When did you know you wanted to become a writer? How did this process take place?
I wasn’t really a big reader when I was a kid. I didn’t like science fiction or fantasy, and it didn’t seem like there was much else for boys. My father read to us a lot, The Hobbit and Watership Down, and I drew a lot of comic strips. When I was twelve or thirteen my dad gave me Dickens and Steinbeck to read, and that really sold me on fiction. By the time I was in high school I was writing stories and had decided I wanted to be a fiction writer, like Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald. You know, glamour and adventure. It’s taken a lot of work to get from there to actually publishing a novel. I do have an MFA, which was valuable for the company of other writers, and the time it gave me to write. I have also read and traveled a lot, which helps.
You’re the son of a diplomat and have worked on Capitol Hill. How much did this environment affect your writing and the way in which you shape your characters and the events in your stories?
It had a huge effect. When I was growing up in northern Virginia, a lot of my friends had fathers who worked for the government—some, like my dad, for the CIA or the State Department. There were a lot of secrets in the air, and it was the 1970s, so it was weird for other reasons, too. Our fathers were involved in important work, almost like a priesthood, and a lot of us developed a real love-hate relationship with that sacred ideal of American democracy. On the other hand, a lot of the men and women I knew as a child and when I worked on the Hill were exceptional, good, dedicated people, not at all like some of the clowns and fanatics they have up there now, so I guess my characters represent that reality, the good as well as the bad.
What other books are you working on at the moment?
I have two novels in the works, one on counter-terrorism, the other on derivatives trading, computer security, and nuclear proliferation.
A word of advice for new thriller writers?
Don’t be constrained by the genre. Plot is important, for entertaining your reader but perhaps more importantly for revealing your characters. Write a good novel, and don’t worry about what category it’s in.
What is your typical writing day?
There isn’t one. I used to write every morning early, but now I have a typical day job, a wife and three children. I steal my writing time wherever I can, late at night, Saturday afternoon. It’s not ideal but it’s better than not writing, which I’ve found makes me crazy.
What books do you like to read, and what are you reading at the moment?
I have very catholic tastes, and much of what I read is not in the thriller genre, although I do seem to have an obsession with spies. Most of the fiction I love–Robert Stone, John Banville, Roberto Bolano—has great prose, great intelligence, with what you might call an edgy sensibility. I’m just finishing up the Patrick Melrose novels by Edward St. Aubyn, which is about as far from thrillers as you can get, more like Downton Abbey on crack. One of the books reads like a how-to manual for a heroin addict, but St. Aubyn is an exceptionally good stylist, and he knows his characters, many of whom are absolute monsters. I may cleanse my palate afterward with one of the good new historical thrillers that are just out – William Boyd, Alan Furst, or Joseph Kanon, who was kind enough to blurb my book.
Beyond writing, what do you like to do in your free time?
I spend a lot of time with my family, coaching youth baseball and football, mountain-biking and skiing. I love music although I’m not a musician myself. I play chess with my youngest son. Carpentry is something I learned from my father and grandfather, who was an architect, and I have built or renovated most of the old house we live in, from framing to finish work. As my wife can tell you, I am always building, or rebuilding, something, and there are embarrassing corners of the house that are not finished.
What can readers expect to find in Ministers of Fire?
I hope they find a world that draws them in completely, entertains and fills all their senses, intellect, and emotions. If I’ve succeeded, it’s a world that is very much like our own post-9/11 existence, only structured, compressed in such a way that it sheds some meaning on things. When they put down the book, I hope it’s like coming out of a really great film in the middle of the day – everything is a bit more vivid, a bit weirder than before.
Former MI5 officer Harry Tate is assigned the task of locating a few members of the British army listed as SDPs—or Strategic Displaced Personnel, the official name for deserters—with the promise of getting to his former boss, Henry Paulton, who wanted him dead. One of the SDPs is a woman named Vanessa Tan, who seems to be the biggest fish in the pond. Tan has an eidetic memory and the intelligence she might possess could be extremely valuable to the enemies of the West.
Mr. Magson’s writing style is clear, concise and easy to follow. He arouses the interest of the reader from the get-go and keeps the storyline moving forward with each and every page. I could hardly wait to know what happened next.
Harry is at his best as he hunts for Tan and Paulton. But what is the true value of Tan’s intelligence? Who is interested in purchasing it and what is Paulton’s role in this affair? What will Harry have to do to find the man who once ordered his termination?