Early Warning: The Fine Line Between Fact and Fiction
Thanks to all of you, my new novel, Early Warning, is in stores now, as well as on Kindle. It’s the sequel to last year’s thriller, Hostile Intent, which went to No. 1 on Kindle upon its debut, sat high on the the Barnes & Noble mass-market list for months and even managed to sneak onto the New York Times extended bestseller list.
Clearly, something about my protagonist, “Devlin,” resonated with the public, and I hope you find his latest incarnation even more compelling. He’s a hero for our times, a complex man with a mysterious past, part superhero and part everyschmuck, the kind of guy you probably wouldn’t notice on the street but who you most definitely do not want to meet in a dark alley — or, in the case of Early Warning, under the Central Park Reservoir — when he’s got his blood up. As the most secret, and lethal, weapon in the United States’ arsenal, he puts the security in the Central Security Service — which, believe it or not, actually exists.
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The themes of this series — there will be at least three more installments — are the very real and manifest security threats that keep our Homeland Security and intel agencies johnnies awake at night. In Hostile Intent, it was a terrorist assault on a middle school in the Midwest and an EMP attack on the east coast; in Early Warning, it’s a Bombay-style assault on Times Square, complete with car bombs, automatic weapons fire and one hell of a subway explosion. And yes, I wrote it all months before the Times Square bomber.
One of the tricks of the thriller-writing business is extrapolating horrific scenarios from known facts, keeping the tale plausible while still observing at least some of the conventions of the genre -- even if the story itself may be, if not impossible. not-yet thinkable. One of the greatest of all thrillers, Frederick Forsyth's The Day of the Jackal, manages to keep us in suspense right to the end, even though we all know that De Gaulle died in bed, not at the hands of an assassin. And of course we all hope that there won't be an armed attack on Times Square, a school hostage crisis, or something even worse...
We''l be posting a couple of excerpts from Early Warning over at Big Hollywood next week. In the meantime, here's a Q&A I did for Books-a-Million. I hope it raises more questions than it answers, and that you'll check out Early Warning for at least some of the solutions:
1. Why another top-secret agent and why now? What’s different about Devlin?
I was tired of reading about the CIA all the time. The U.S. has more than a dozen intelligence agencies, most of which people have never even heard of, and so I decided to pick one of the most significant — the Central Security Service, which is a branch of the National Security Agency. The “Devlin” character is an operative so secret his very existence is beyond top-secret; he’s an expert in the martial arts, firearms, cryptology. languages and electronic intelligence, and yet he’s also a vulnerable, wounded human being who lost both his parents at a young age in a terrorist attack. He’s part James Bond, and part suffering anti-hero.
2. In HOSTILE INTENT we first met Devlin’s arch-nemesis, the shadowy European financier Emanuel Skorzeny; at the end of that book, after a memorable struggle deep within the walls ofClairvaux prison, Skorzeny escapes. Will he be back in EARLY WARNING?
Will he ever. Skorzeny, who was raised in Germany as the Reich was collapsing, has not given up on his dream of destabilizing and destroying the West, partly out of revenge for what it did to him as a child and partly because he believes western civilization can no longer save itself. In his eyes, he’s a mass-murdering mercy killer. Plus he has a personal score to settle with Devlin, and vice-versa.
3. Which is what?
Without giving too much away, suffice it to say that Skorzeny is heavily implicated in the death of Devlin’s parents and fears Devlin’s retribution, while Devlin’s quest to take him down is tinged with, shall we say, a good deal of personal animus. In other words, these two guys hate each other. One thing I’ve learned from screenwriting is always to personalize and humanize the larger conflict, and in the Devlin books the struggle for civilization’s future is intimately tied up with the relationship of these two antagonists.
4. In HOSTILE INTENT, Devlin had to go up against — and defeat — a rival every bit his equal, Milverton, a former SAS soldier working for Skorzeny. Who’s the mano-a-mano bad guy in EARLY WARNING?
Milverton indeed was every bit Devlin’s equal and their big fight at the end of HOSTILE INTENT is one of my favorite sequences in the novel. For EARLY WARNING, I flipped the scenario: what if, this time, Devlin is up against an inspired amateur, a guy who does nothing by the book and so becomes Devlin’s worst nightmare — the wild card? Throw in a little bit of Freudian symbolism and you’ve got yourself what I hope is a fight that tops the first book. But, early warning: it’s not for squeamish.
5. In HOSTILE INTENT, the threat to America was an EMP device — an electro-magnetic-pulse bomb that would destroy the electronic infrastructure of the country and send it reeling back into the 19th century. What’s the hook for EARLY WARNING?
In each of the Devlin books, I want to illustrate and dramatize one of the many nightmare scenarios that keeps the brave men and women of our security services awake at night. In EARLY WARNING, it’s a Bombay-style assault on New York’s Times Square, preceded by a massive denial-of-service assault on the NYPD’s Counter-Terrorism Unit computers. I had already finished the first draft of the manuscript when the Times Square bomber made his attempt to set off a car bomb. It’s hard for us novelists to stay one step ahead of the truth these days. But that’s our job.
6. You mentioned cryptology — aren’t codes incredibly hard for the layman to understand?
Depends on the code. In EARLY WARNING, the NSA receives a series of codes, all of them well-known in the cryptological community as famously unbreakable codes from the 19th and early 20th century, including the thorny Beale Ciphers, which may or may not point to the way to a buried treasure. But the one that plays the largest role in the plot is the Dorabella Cipher, a series of squiggles penned by the composer Edward Elgar to a much younger woman, whom he later immortalized in the “Enigma” Variations. I think the solution to that will amuse and delight everybody who’s ever had a go at it, and that includes most of Langley and Fort Meade — home to the CIA and the NSA respectively.
7. Devlin has a mysterious girlfriend, an Iranian woman known only by her first name, Maryam. He knows almost nothing about her. And yet he falls in love with her. What gives?
Devlin is a man so tightly wrapped that he’s never allowed himself to fall in love. And then, in HOSTILE INTENT, he met Maryam, an Iranian freedom fighter. Despite all his instincts, despite his better judgment, he not only falls in love with her, he trustsher. He’s breaking every rule in the book, but he doesn’t care: for once in his life he’s going to take a chance. How well that works out is the ending of EARLY WARNING.
8. There’s another love story in the Devlin series, that of Hope Gardner, the woman from Edwardsville, Ill., who lost her husband in the terrorist attack on the school that opens Hostile Intent, and Danny Impellatieri, who lost his wife in a terrorist bombing in Los Angeles. They’re each widowed, and each have young children. Do they get together in EARLY WARNING?
Let’s put it this way: Hope has a knack for getting herself into trouble and Danny has a knack for getting her out of it.
9. The Large Hadron Collider in Switzerland, the ne plus ultra in particle physics, has made a cameo appearance in both books so far. We’re going somewhere with this, right?
The LHC is fascinating on many levels, not the least of which is that it is involved in the search for the elusive Higgs Boson, or the so-called “God particle” which may or may not have something to do with the origins of the universe. It’s the point at which science collides with religion, which will be the subject of the third Devlin novel, OCTOBER SURPRISE, coming in the fall of 2011.
10. The Devlin novels are reminiscent of the classic Ian Fleming Bond novels. We know who the bad guys and the honey traps are early on, yet we keep turning the pages wondering what’s going to happen next. How do you succeed in writing in this style, which is certainly not easy to do?
Going to Hollywood in the late 1990s helped me immeasurably with my storytelling skills, such as they are. Learning the discipline of screenwriting is something I’d advise every young thriller writer to do. Learn to end each chapter in a way that makes the reader turn the page. Keep your characters concise on the page, but complex in the readers’ minds: let them fill in the blanks, just like they do at the movies. Don’t try to pull too many rabbits out of your hat at once – one at a time will do – but make sure you pull them out at precisely the right moment. Which, as Fleming knew, is the whole trick.
By the way, Hostile Intent will once again be free on Kindle for a free download for a limited time starting Sept. 1. Join us!