August 31, 2007

who guards the guardian?

The Guardian's Books Blog today published a brief essay of mine about free online publishing. Sweet. They've long been my favourite UK newspaper. And they're even paying me, to my surprise, which makes this an official byline.

August 28, 2007

Will That Be Bolivia, Dear Reader, or Myanmar?

Guess what? It's time for a contest. And a vote. Yes, we're gettin' all celebratory and democratic around here.

But first - you'll hopefully be pleased to learn that my fourth thriller, Night of Knives (aka "the Africa book") has been completed and copyedited, and is now officially in the Publishing Pipeline, set for official UK hardcover release on December 13th, just in time for Christmas. (If you're feeling very precocious indeed you can even advance-order a copy from

Now that Book Four is in the can, the inevitable question is, of course: what and where next? Good question. And guess what? It's up to you to answer it.

You see, starting today, and continuing through the end of September, I'm holding an online vote/contest to determine the country in which my next novel will be set, and by extension, where I'll be travelling (and travel-blogging) next. What's more, five lucky winners will receive signed copies of Invisible Armies. Click, read, marvel and vote:

Will That Be Bolivia, Dear Reader, or Myanmar?

Vote early, vote often once!

I suppose I should catch you up on other stuff too. The mass-market paperback of Invisible Armies is now officially on sale in the United Kingdom, and for a very, very reasonable promotional price, too; shop early, shop often.

In the USA, Invisible Armies is available in hardcover, and HarperCollins, in ther inimitable wisdom, have just released The Blood Price as an e-book. Very timely of them, as I have that article on electronic publishing - and its apocalyptic future - in this month's issue of Canada's acclaimed international newsmagazine The Walrus.

Meanwhile, my free online serialization of "the squirrel book," aka Beasts of New York, continues apace - we've reached Chapter 40, and are nearing the halfway mark.

August 20, 2007


I have an article in this month's CrimeSpree magazine. The article isn't online, but I'm sure the good folks of CrimeSpree are OK with me posting it here:

Everything Is Extraordinary

a brief history of the travel thriller

It's a big scary world out there.

Just imagine. Imagine yourself walking off a 747 and emerging from an airport into one of the developing world's megalopolises, Mumbai or Cairo or Sao Paulo, each bigger by far than New York. Imagine a seething maelstrom of chaos, noise, smoke and smog; potholed streets clogged by teeming crowds, the ragged masses of poor people living on rooftops, in cemeteries, in alleys in the shadow of five-star hotels. Imagine the nonstop assault on all of your senses, including your senses of decorum, personal space, disgust, and wonder; the mixed smells of diesel and open fires and rotting filth and street-corner spice markets; the splashes of bright colour – gleaming motorcycles, women's dresses, a pyramid of some mysterious local fruit perched on a street hawker's rickety stall - amid the sea of rotting concrete.

Imagine that everything is new, a revelation, extraordinary: every sight, every cup or morsel, every vehicle, every building, every human being, even the stars in the sky. Imagine the stares, the sidelong looks, the press of beggars and hustlers and would-be guides all around you as you try to feign casual confidence, even though you know the authorities here are understaffed and incompetent and corrupt all at once, you know that life is cheap here, you can smell it, you know if you do get into trouble - and trouble here is like desperation, everywhere if you look for it - there's no one you can count on but yourself.

And if you're at all like me, you immediately think to yourself: there's a story here.

The international thriller has a long and proud history, and with good reason. First among them is the fabulous exoticism of so much of the world. Why limit yourself to Kansas and Alberta when Zanzibar and Kathmandu are out there? My first novel, Dark Places, is set in Nepal, Indonesia, and Morocco (among other places.) Sure, it could have been Alaska, Hawaii, and Nevada, without much being changed, but the book's so much richer when not just the story but the place in which is set is mysterious and fascinating – and when the characters have to make their way through a rich and alien world.

But it's not just local colour that makes international settings so appealing. The West, today, is, by and large, a placid and civilized place, plastic and air-conditioned. Great for soccer moms; not so good for thriller writers. But the developing world – Africa, Brazil, India – is still a place of genuine danger and human drama, where most people are poor and struggling, many have to fight desperately every day to get by, because they know there's no net to catch them if they fall.

This means authors can write, with few contrivances, about ordinary protagonists and original antagonists, and escape the rut that so many thrillers fall into. Don't get me wrong. I like private investigators, cops, intelligence agents, ex-cons, serial killers, and evil government/corporate conspiracies as much as the next guy. But let's face it, when you read book after book that collectively do nothing but remix these elements over and over again, they do all get a little ... passé. It's hard to write a thriller with an everyman protagonist in the West; sooner or later, they'd just go to the police. It can be done, but writers have to twist their plots into ever more pretzel shapes to prevent this from happening.

Not so when you go afield into the world's farflung corners, where the hand of the authorities is heavy, inept and corrupt. There you can write about ordinary people – whether they be local, or (as in my books) Western travellers and expats – sucked up into peril with no recourse but their own wits. And the possible stories and antagonists are both more diverse – war criminals, fanatical political parties, tribal warriors angling for power, mining companies, ruthless scientists performing human experiments, military machinations – and more plausible. Because in the developing world, terrible things happen all the time. Read the International Herald Tribune for a week, and I promise you you'll see within all the thriller plots you'll need for years.

I try to keep my books always in motion, not just in action but in geography as well, the plot is propelled from place to even more exotic place; my second novel, The Blood Price, moves from the Balkans to Central America, through Mexico, to Nevada's infamous Burning Man festival. This "travel thriller" subsubgenre gives me a wider canvas on which to paint, and helps keep the action going. It also makes the research awesomely fun. My friends have observed, with some justification, that they can tell where my books will be set by tracking where I travelled the year before.

But I don't want to overblow my own horn here. I'm still new to the international-thriller biz, a long way from being particularly prominent, and an even longer way from being first. People have been telling crazy stories about faraway lands since long before Marco Polo. But when we look to the birth of the modern international thriller, I think we go back only 110 years, to a man who annoys modern writers because he became one of the greatest stylists in the history of the English language – even though he didn't speak a word of it until he was in his twenties.

I refer of course to Joseph Conrad, poet laureate of the colonial era. He's most famous for Heart of Darkness, but virtually everything he wrote is worth reading. Anyone who thinks of terrorism as a recent development – or, for that matter, the political abuse of the fear of terrorism – should rush out and read his century-old novel The Secret Agent, which has lost none of its power or relevance.

A good followup would be The Confidential Agent, penned by Conrad's heir Graham Greene. Like Conrad, Greene, a sometime MI6 agent, was a product of the colonial era and travelled all around the world, notably to West Africa, Mexico, and Haiti. His novels veered from emotionally wrenching work such as The Quiet American – a novel about America's initial involvement in Vietnam – to outright subversive farce, as with Our Man in Havana, about a vacuum cleaner salesmen whose daughter's greed for expensive dresses leads him to convince British Intelligence that he has inside knowledge of a nonexistent Cuban rocket program.

Our Man in Havana was in turn a direct inspiration for John le Carré's similar novel The Tailor of Panama, which was made into a movie with Pierce Brosnan, onetime James Bond. How appropriate. For of course no mention of international thrillers would be complete without a mention of Ian Fleming's famous creation. What those who have only seen the movies might not appreciate is that the Bond books are much less cartoony, and are often surprisingly bleak and gritty, and definitely worth writing. (John F. Kennedy, famously, once cited From Russia With Love as one of his ten favourite books.)

The man behind the pseudonym "John le Carré" is David Cornwell, a former spy, like Fleming and Greene. When his career was destroyed by the Russian double agent Kim Philby, Cornwell took up the pen, invented his pen name – and became history's most acclaimed and successful writer of international thrillers. At one point his name was synonymous with spy fiction, which was an endlessly rich vein of stories in the Cold War, as Russia and America turned the Third World into a chessboard and, in the name of greater influence, competed in shadowy, amoral, and often bloody machinations. Perhaps surprisingly, Le Carré thrived after the fall of the Cold War, turning his attention to chaos in the former Soviet Union (in Single and Single) and more recently to the tragedies of Africa (in The Constant Gardener and The Mission Song).

Meanwhile, back when the Soviet Union still existed, Martin Cruz Smith went even further into the Russian psyche and created the character of Arkady Renko: phlegmatic, incorruptible, a man of honor in a land without, Raymond Chandler would have recognized this Moscow cop in a wink. This dour but unforgettable figure has been wandering the former Communist empire ever since, from a fishing boat in the Bering Sea (Polar Star) to Castro's Cuba (Havana Bay) and most recently, and most powerfully, the radioactive wastelands of Chernobyl – if I had to nominate the thriller of the decade so far, Wolves Eat Dogs would be it.

But Russia is not the draw it was when Moscow was the enemy. Today's antagonists, in this increasingly interconnected and globalized world, are far more complex; and the action is increasingly moving to Africa, still referred to as "the dark continent" a century after Heart of Darkness, and to Asia, where more than half the world's population lives, and where Dubai, Mumbai and Shanghai are increasingly the new contenders for the title "crossroads of the world." New York, London and Tokyo are so twentieth century.

Alex Garland's The Beach and The Tesseract are both gripping thrillers and brilliant deconstructions of the culture of Westerners who go to Asia to seek diversion or success; the latter, especially, is the only book I've ever put down and immediately thought, "damn, I wish I'd written that." John Burdett is the probably most successful thriller author to hunt in modern Asia, with his Bangkok trilogy – Bangkok 8, Bangkok Tattoo, Bangkok Haunts. And I like to think my own books are carving out a niche of their own as well. My latest, Invisible Armies, a novel about a rootless American woman drawn into a shadowy group of high-tech antiglobalization protestors, begins in India, and then moves to Paris, London, and Los Angeles.

That arc helps illustrate something wholly new about this globalized era, compared to colonial-era or Cold War thrillers. Back then, the rest of the world was faraway, detached, didn't impinge on us back home. Today is different. Now the whole world is tightly connected by Airbuses and the Internet, and every country on the planet has expats working in New York and London; today, international thrillers may begin in a distant land, but their stories can also quickly, easily, and sometimes brutally come home to roost, as they do in all of my books to date.

Look around anywhere, with the right kind of eyes, and everywhere, in your local drugstores and supermarkets and coffee shops, you'll see the fingerprints of places that were once so faraway and fabulously exotic that Western mapmakers once wrote HERE BE DRAGONS behind their coastlines. These places are still fascinating – and sometimes there are still dragons there – but they're also part of our everyday world now. And that's why I think international thrillers are the most relevant, and most important, subgenre of crime fiction. The Chicago Tribune once called my books "politically motivated," but they aren't, really; it's just that books about things that matter can't help but have political overtones.

Today's international thrillers, at least on some level, are stories about the most real and most important changes happening today, about the people and decisions that will determine what kind of world we live in tomorrow. They're entertaining as hell, but I warn you, they'll make you think, too; and they just might make you want to go out and see for yourself a bit of the fantastic world they depict. So be careful. It's dangerous. Read too much of this stuff and someday soon you just might find yourself in Kathmandu or Zanzibar, eyes wide, a little frightened and a lot exhilirated, drunk on the sights and sounds and smells of the whole new world around you, and you might catch yourself thinking to yourself: hey, you know, I bet there's a story here.

-- 30 --

[author's note/postmortem: in retrospect, I'm not sure how I wrote exactly I wrote a brief history of the international thriller without once mentioning Rudyard Kipling, GK Chesterton, or John Buchan. But hey, now I have.]

Meanwhile, my Walrus article on the apocalyptic future of publishing is now online.