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March 2009

March 2, 2009

Riding the Coldest Mile

Okay, maybe that should be “writing THE COLDEST MILE,” but if you can’t take poetic license with the header on a blog, just where can you?

A couple of weeks ago the Mystery Writers of America announced the nominees for the 2009 Edgar Allan Poe Awards, honoring excellence in mystery fiction, non-fiction, television and film published or produced in 2008. And it is with complete jaw-dropping awe that I learned that THE COLD SPOT made the list in the Best Paperback Original Novel category.

Although I had written three mysteries early in my career, and though some of my later titles such as THE DEAD LETTERS and THE MIDNIGHT ROAD are offbeat thriller-noir fusions, THE COLD SPOT was my first real crime novel.

As a genre, Crime was the last that I tackled both as a reader and a writer. I’d been a staunch fan of the science fiction, fantasy, and horror fields, but it wasn’t until I plucked Raymond Chandler’s THE LITTLE SISTER off the shelf about 20 years back that I really started my deep reading into the field. Odd that it should take me those 20 years to really dive in and write it.

THE COLDEST MILE sequel to THE COLD SPOT officially hit bookstore shelves about a week ago. The story follows the continuing adventures of my protagonist, thief and getaway driver Chase, who left the bent life after he found his true love, Lila. For ten years he walked the straight and narrow—until Lila was murdered. Now Chase is looking for his grandfather, Jonah, the stone-cold-killer con man who raised him. In returning to his criminal roots, Chase hopes to save Jonah’s infant daughter from the life that Chase himself can’t escape. Chase scores a nearly powerless mob family that’s being run out of New York and soon winds up on the wrong side of a Mafia princess and her main hitman named Bishop. It’s just more bad news and bad blood as Chase prepares for the showdown with Jonah.

Several folks have asked me recently about what kind of process I use when writing. Whether I outline in detail or just dive in and sink or swim on my own. For me, the process is very organic. It needs to be a journey of surprise and discovery, otherwise I don’t see the point of writing at all. I’m here to discover something about myself, my values, what has meaning to me, what I do understand of life. And what I don’t. The only way for that to happen is to start the story and then see what new places it leads me. Once I’m on some different ground, I have a different perspective. If my perspective wasn’t always changing, I’d just be telling the same story over and over.

The great southern grit lit writer Harry Crews once said that he didn’t much admire “science fiction and detective stories” because they weren’t close enough to the “blood and bone” of life. I suppose that’s why it took me so long to come to writing Crime. Early in my career I was more eager to get away from the real world and create my own than to tackle deeper issues that my mid-life crisis has recently hurled me into. We all have doubts and questions about our lives, especially when we start to hit the hill. We fear the wasted past, we fear the inevitable future. We search for answers about our own morality and mortality. And I can’t think of a better genre to delve into those issues than in Crime.

Not because it’s a field that deals with issues in black and white, but because it features a much wider horizon of gray. It’s a much more authentic parallel of the real world. This is where the frustrations, flaws, failures, and fears are pared down. To one mission, one cause, one ambition. Whether it’s to score a bank or take your righteous revenge, the world is focused. As a writer, I suppose that that’s my favorite element of the genre. I can distill all my hopes, loves, pains, and regrets, and I can plant them into a story where someone has a halfway decent shot of figuring the world out. Even if he does so from a prison cell or a police station or a morgue slab. In the end, he gets his answer. Or at least has a chance at it.

I hope that everyone who gives THE COLDEST MILE a go really enjoys it. Feel free to comment here or drop me a line. Send me a link if you blog about it or write a review (good or bad). Nowadays, novels live or die by word of mouth as much as by anything else.

Some blurbs for the Cold series:

“[Tom Piccirilli’s] prose has the visceral punch of the best pulp writers of the past century….”—Eddie Muller, San Francisco Chronicle

“Hard-boiled crime writing … {The Coldest Mile} is pedal to the metal for 352 pages. Don’t miss it.”—Booklist

“Prepare for a journey as thrilling as it is provocative.” —James Rollins, author of The Judas Strain

“Blackest noir, the most minimal kind of minimalism, and at the same time deeply emotional: this is not easy to do.”—Peter Abrahams, bestselling author of Nerve Damage

“[The Coldest Mile] roars off the line with all the force and forward velocity of two tons of Detroit muscle car and never lets up on the pace. Crime novels don’t get faster or grittier than this one, and in Chase, Tom has created a character who’ll stick with you for years to come.”-Mysterious Galaxy Bookstore

Tom Piccirilli

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March 2, 2009

Free Chapters from THE COLDEST MILE by Tom Piccirilli

If noir is your thing, then Tom Piccirilli is your man. He’s a two-time International Thriller Writers Award nominee who now offers up a fast-paced, hardboiled tale told with cool dialogue, a minimalist style, and unexpected humor. He has fans ranging from David Morrell and James Rollins to Dean Koontz and F. Paul Wilson. Tom’s got a smooth way of developing his characters, as you’ll see when you meet Chase.

Here are the facts:
The hero: Chase, the product of his grandfather, Jonah—a stone-cold-killer con man.

The situation: Chase is out to save Jonah’s infant daughter from the same crime-filled fate he himself has endured.

The opening line: “Chase’s first day on the job they took the sobbing chauffeur out back, gutted him, then handed Chase the cap and the little white gloves.”

What others have said: “[Piccirilli’s] prose has the visceral punch of the best pulp writers of the past century.”—San Francisco Chronicle

Read an excerpt:

Open Chapters

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March 3, 2009

Barry Eisler and Lee Child weigh in on the “Dead Trees is a Dead Model” discussion

Recently, Barry Eisler added a guest post to M.J. Rose’s Buzz, Balls, & Hype blog, titled “Dead Trees is a Dead Model.” The focus of the post was to discuss how authors, literary agents, publishers, and booksellers need to change their business strategies to adapt to the advent of ebooks.

“And while I agree that paper books will survive in the era of electronic books, they’ll do so only as a niche growing in the compost the current publishing industry will leave behind. This is hardly ‘thriving.’”

The post sparked a hearty (and healthy) debate, with many readers and authors chiming in with their own comments, including Lee Child, who argued that e-readers might not be adopted one key readership:

“That’s where the bulk of our audience is. Infrequent, almost reluctant purchasers … but as a universe there are so many of them in terms of raw numbers that they form our base. What are the chances that such people would self-identify up front as readers, and pre-equip themselves with hardware?”

The debate continues today with Barry’s second guest post on the topic, that includes a response to Lee’s comments and, you guessed it, Lee’s counter-response.

And you can read his original post, with Lee’s comments, here.

Free chapters of Barry Eisler’s new novel, Fault Line will be featured right here on Blood on the Page next week. Then in early May, we’ll have free chapters from Lee Child’s brand new Jack Reacher novel, Gone Tomorrow, before it goes on sale.

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March 5, 2009


The Cold books are heavily influenced by the 50s Gold Medal classic authors such as David Goodis, Charles Williams, Jim Thompson, Harry Whittington, Peter Rabe, Bruno Fischer, Gil Brewer, and Donald Westlake (Richard Stark). For those of you who don’t know, Gold Medal was a paperback publisher noted especially for its crime fiction. Unless you live and breathe this kind of writing (and even if you don’t, you should keep your eyes open when hanging around the secondhand shops), you’ve probably only heard of one or two of those names in passing.

But they were all something special back in the day-many of them massive bestsellers—and even if they’re mostly forgotten now, they remain special in their own right. You’ve seen a lot of movies based on their books, even if you didn’t know it. Their influence is felt throughout the entire mystery genre. And there’s been a recent resurgence in this specific kind of noir/hardboiled material. Current authors like Charlie Huston, Duane Swierczynski, Sean Doolittle, Jason Starr, and Ken Bruen have run with noirish tropes and taken them to new heights…or, more accurately put, new depths.

When I started work on THE COLD SPOT and THE COLDEST MILE I went in with the hopes of distilling just about everything I loved about the form, the themes, the action, and the humor, and pouring all of that into my own work. Creating my protagonist, Chase, who lived in the underworld of crime but still had his own code of honor, and finding out what might push his buttons. What might bring out the best in him, and the worst. And what might force him to consider breaking that code and becoming the person that he most hated in the world…his own grandfather, Jonah.

If it’s one thing those classic writers knew about, it was how to keep a story moving at full-speed. I also wanted to stomp the pedal and let the engine scream. I wanted to write hardboiled but with some real heart and soul. Moments of grace and reflection. I thought it was important to have more thoughtful elements in the books to help balance the story out. It’s a part of who I am and what my worldview is. Action is terrific but you need a greater context. The work has to actually be ABOUT something. I’ve got things I want to examine and scrutinize. Things that genuinely matter to me. The hardboiled and noir elements are there to underscore and dramatize all the other stuff. The Cold books are as much about family, loss, love, and heartache as they are about guns and scores and wheelmen. And sometimes the bloody action scenes and the emotionally-charged ones are the same.

That’s one of the things I like best about the crime genre. You never know when someone is going to shake hands or pull a S&W .38. Or betray a friend or save a life. Or fall in love or dive into lifelong hatred. The whole human condition from best to worst can crop up at any second.

Tom Piccirilli

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March 8, 2009

Still Winnable, Give or Take Five Years

Today I read the always-insightful Andrew Bacevich’s review of David Kilcullen’s “The Accidental Guerilla: Fighting Small Wars in the Midst of a Big One” (h/t Andrew Sullivan). Kilcullen is certainly an expert on the subject and the book sounds well worth reading. But one thing disturbed me. Actually, two.

First, Kilcullen maintains that Afghanistan “remains winnable,” and when I read the phrase, I couldn’t help but wonder what percentage of conflicts described in their eighth year as still winnable or the like go on to actually be won. I would guess there aren’t many such instances, but I’m no expert and I could certainly be wrong. If anyone can offer examples one way or the other, I’d be grateful.

The other verbalism I noticed was Kilcullen’s insistence that winning in Afghanistan would require an effort lasting another “five or ten years at least.” I found myself thinking about that predicted timeline. Will the effort take at least five years, or will it take at least ten? It can’t take both. Why not just say the effort will take at least five years?

I can think of a few possibilities. First, because if the war goes on for much longer than five years, people might in retrospect regard the original estimate as clearly mistaken or even as misleading. But then why not just say the effort will take at least ten years? Because ten years — especially “at least” ten years — sounds too long. People might not buy it. But if you say something as vague and logically incoherent as “at least five to ten years,” optimistic buyers can focus on the five, and cynical sellers can point to the ten when the five fails to materialize.

Another possibility is that the person making the prediction in fact has no clear idea how long something is going to take and is trying to hide his uncertainty behind a facade of precision. Or it might be that his true timeline is so far out — say, fifty years or more — that from the distance of his actual perspective, a difference of five years one way or the other looks inconsequential.

I don’t know what accounts for Kilcullen’s odd construction. I do know that we’re so used to precise-sounding imprecision that often it glides right past us. I remember working at a Silicon Valley startup where executives talked comfortably about product launches in the “Q2 or Q3 timeframe.” Q2 and Q3 together already represent six months, but even six months was apparently too narrow for the team to be willing to commit, and they insisted on creating even more wiggle room by reference to that precise-sounding but substantively meaningless word, “timeframe.” I suppose the board might have shown its displeasure had management instead said, “We’re hoping to get the product out sometime this year, but we’re not really sure.” On the other hand, the board should have had the sense to know the “timeframe” estimate amounted to the same thing.

Probably not a coincidence that the company in question has long since died.

Of less likely significance, but still odd, is the message from Hawaiian governor Linda Lingle in the program booklet at Left Coast Crime, where I’m spending a few days before the Fault Line launch on Tuesday. Governor Lingle sends her “personal greetings” to the conference goers. But what could this mean? First, Ms. Lingle is identified as the governor, and the seal of the State of Hawaii appears next to her picture, so if anything, this was an official greeting. But even without the official references, how do you personally offer greetings from a pamphlet? Why can’t people just send their greetings, unsullied by silly sleight of hand? I wouldn’t put Governor Lingle’s puffery in quite the same category as something like “sincere condolences,” which at least is a logical construction despite its unfortunate implication that condolences unadorned by the adjective might be less than heartfelt. But still.

Obviously, some of the sort of bullshit noted above is innocuous and some of it is dangerous. It’s important to distinguish, but I think it’s also important to not let it slide. Fixing a problem, even an inconsequential one, without focus and realism takes an awful lot of luck. If we need to be in Afghanistan for half a century, or if experts are so unsure how long we’ll need to be there that they offer estimates as incoherent as Kilcullen’s, let’s get those facts on the table and decide accordingly.

— Barry Eisler

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March 9, 2009

The Gift and the Disappointment

The eight-year-old daughter that I don’t have rushes into my office, leaps onto my lap, and asks me to help her with her homework. We spend a few minutes doing basic math and practicing her spelling. She’s got her d’s and b’s switched around. She’s bright and precocious and she’s missing an upper tooth. She’s got curly brown hair, like me, and when she zips out of the room she turns her head and her corkscrew curls bounce wildly and she says, “Thank you, Daddy.” My dog, Edgar, who is real, runs after her.

I look down at my computer monitor and there’s a line about a man who is fighting his friend, trying to stop him from killing someone. I fiddle with the line. I add to it. It becomes two sentences, then a paragraph. Then a page.

I head downstairs. My father, who’s been dead for 35 years, is standing on my patio with a spatula in hand, occasionally flipping burgers on the grill. He looks the same as he did when he died at 46. I’m nearly as old as he is now. I have more gray in my hair than he does. I sit at the picnic table and start reading the paper and we talk about…something. I don’t know what. I can’t really hear him. I don’t remember the sound of his voice. I remember his smile though. He’s smiling now.

My mother, whose been gone 7 years, is in the kitchen making salad. She calls out to my father and asks him what kind of dressing he’d like. He doesn’t respond because he’s feeding Edgar one of the hotdogs he’s overcooked. My daughter is beside me. She’s laughing and her laughter fires through my chest and fills me so much joy that I feel like my heart will explode.

I look down at my computer monitor and there’s a line about a woman turning over in bed and asking someone to kill her husband.

Edgar lies down at my feet and nestles his chin on top of my foot. I glance out the window at the back yard. The grill is cold. The patio furniture has been put away in the shed.

My daughter stands in the doorway crying. She bumped her knee. I hold her, shushing her, until she quiets. She goes to sleep in my arms. I press my nose to her hair and breathe in her scent deeply.

I’m chewing on a pen. My hands are a blur on the keypad. The next page is about a Hollywood agent trying to rip off a client.

This is how my workday goes.

Writers slip in and out of identities. We can be cops or gunmen or high-paid assassins. We can be heroes or badasses. That’s where the work takes us, into our own fantasies, into romanticized notions of ourselves. And then drops us back into our real selves.

And at least one element of that fantasy is comprised of daydreams-the common and average daydreams that fill out my common and average life. The people I miss are returned to me. The ones who were never born are there for me to cuddle and protect. It’s what happens when my mind wanders. I drift. I dive into the page. I call back to memory. I get swept away. Sometimes it goes so far that when I’m snapped back into myself it’s something of a shock and I feel like someone’s thrown cold water in my face. I suck air through my teeth like I’ve been holding my breath for minutes. Maybe I have. That’s the power, the pain, the gift and the disappointment of trying on someone else’s skin. Even if that someone else looks exactly like me.

My daughter asks if I’m busy. I tell her no. She giggles and asks me to read her a story.

My hands flash. I shut my eyes and the writing continues.

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March 10, 2009

Fault Line is Here!

Fault Line, my first standalone thriller, launches today, so I thought it would be appropriate to include some thoughts from a recent interview on the book’s origins and its political milieu. The tour is taking me to Phoenix/Scottsdale, Los Angeles (Pasadena, Thousand Oaks, LA), San Diego, Sacramento, the San Francisco Bay Area (Menlo Park and San Mateo), Houston, Indianapolis (Carmel), Milwaukee, Minneapolis, Washington DC (Bethesda and Baileys Crossroads), and New York City. Details and the full schedule here. Enjoy the book—subject of a nice recent write-up in the Wall Street Journal—and hope to see you on the road!

Ben Treven, one of the three main characters in Fault Line, is also an assassin. Based on your own CIA experience, is there a certain personality type that makes an effective assassin? What draws you to these characters as a writer?

I’d say there are a number of necessary elements: intelligence, adaptability, patience, the ability to role-play, game things out, think like the opposition. But probably the most important element is an ability to dissociate. Snipers will tell you they don’t see a man; they see a target. That there’s no difference between hunting a man and hunting a deer. So you have to be able to separate yourself from what you’re doing, separate the target from his own humanity. Either you have to deny the humanity in the target, or deny it in yourself—anything else produces empathy, and as Dox, the former Marine sniper of the Rain books, points out, “If it inhabits your mind, it’ll inhibit your trigger finger.”

What draws me to these characters? I’m not sure, exactly. I think it’s that, on the one hand, they’re like you and me. They’re not sociopaths; they’re normal. And yet they’re not normal, because they can do—and live with—acts that would crush a normal psyche. I guess I’m drawn to the idea that a person can transcend—commit the ultimate transgression, in fact—without being punished for it. An ability like that would be an almost godlike kind of power, wouldn’t it? Raskolnikov without the guilt. Ahab without the catastrophe.

And yet these men aren’t free of consequences—there is a “cost of it,” as a Vietnam vet friend who’s taught me a lot puts it. That cost, and the way these men shoulder it, is something else that fascinates me.

Like many of the Rain books, Fault Line has a surprisingly graphic sex scene. Why do you write so much sex?

I’m tempted to paraphrase Blazing Saddles here and just answer, “I like sex.” But let me see if I do better than that…

There are three general ways to get to know someone’s character: time, stress, and sex. In a novel, you don’t have time, meaning you need an accelerant, and that leaves you with sex or stress. Violence is one of the most stressful experiences we humans can face, which is why violence can be such a powerful tool in stories. But sex is also enormously revealing, which is why the biblical euphemism that Abraham “knew” Sarah is so apt. Also, sex can be an incredibly powerful pivot. Sex changes everything. Remember when John Cusack and Ione Skye finally make love in Say Anything? Cusack then tries to pretend that it doesn’t matter that much, and Lili Taylor says to him something like, “Yes it does! It changes everything. Decades could go by without you seeing each other… and then, when you’re in your sixties, you might bump into each other, and you’ll say, ‘Hi, how are you?’ and she’ll say, ‘Fine, how are you?’, but what you’ll really be thinking is, ‘We had sex!’”

Which is why I had so much of a blast with the buildup to what happens in Fault Line and with its culmination. These are characters caught for a variety of reasons between powerfully conflicting feelings of antagonism and attraction. They know they shouldn’t, they even tell themselves they don’t want to… and yet of course they do. What would happen to two people with feelings like that, pressurized by shared danger, enhanced by distrust, catalyzed by violence? Not going to tell you here… you’ll have to read the book to find out.

I’ve heard about how the idea for your first novel came to you as a series of images that led you to ask questions about what you were seeing and why. Did Fault Line have a similar origin, or did you set out to write this novel as a conscious change of pace from your novels featuring the assassin John Rain?

It’s funny, unlike the case with Rain Fall, I can’t identify the actual moment Fault Line came to me. But the story certainly has its origins in an interesting pair of jobs I held: first, a covert position with the CIA’s Directorate of Operations; second, as an attorney with a high-powered Silicon Valley law firm (and as an executive with a high-tech startup thereafter). Somewhere along the line I started thinking about a pair of brothers, radically different in personality, temperament, and worldview. One would be an undercover soldier, the other a hotshot lawyer… yeah, I could draw on my own experiences in those two worlds. It felt right, so I kept thinking about it. They’d have to be alienated from each other for some reason. They’re not even on speaking terms… but then one of them, the lawyer, gets into a kind of trouble his otherwise considerable experience and expertise can’t get him out of. The only guy who could help him would be his brother, but they hate each other… but okay, blood is thicker than water, and the older brother reluctantly agrees to help. And what if there were something cranking up the tension between them, bringing their painful, buried history closer to the surface? Maybe a love triangle? Yeah, with a beautiful Iranian-American lawyer, Sarah Hosseini, who the older brother would instantly distrust even as he was drawn to her…

And on and on like that, questions leading to answers that lead to more questions, and eventually you have a story like Fault Line.

I’m curious about how long the typical assassin—if there even is such a thing—can be effective in the field, either before his or her identity is blown or the psychological effects of the work begin to degrade performance.

This will vary with the individual, but dissociation is hard psychological work, and over time the framework a killer uses to stay functional will start to deteriorate. For more on this fascinating topic, I recommend two books: first, David Grossman’s On Killing: The Psychological Costs of Learning to Kill in War and Society; second, Jonathan Shay’s Achilles in Vietnam: Combat Trauma and the Undoing of Character.

How did the covert world of spies and assassins change after 9/11? I recall former Vice President Cheney talking about the need to “work the dark side,” and it does seem that in many cases “the gloves came off,” to use another phrase that frequently crops up in these kinds of discussions.

Ah, the dark side, the same place Darth Vader went. And what did Yoda tell Luke about that? The dark side of the force is seductive because it promises a shortcut… but in the end, delivers nothing. I guess former Vice President Cheney didn’t see the movie, or if he did, he drew the wrong lesson from it.

Yes, post 9/11, we took the gloves off and went to the dark side or whatever other metaphor we might use to describe the abandonment of intelligent tactics and the embrace of primitive emotion instead. Because what else could “the dark side” be if not a more primitive, id-focused, emotionally-based way of reacting to the world? Diplomacy isn’t the dark side. Dale Carnegie isn’t the dark side. Clausewitz, Machiavelli, and Sun Tsu aren’t the dark side. Rationality, empiricism, logic… these are all concepts we associate with the light. You don’t go to the dark side because it makes sense to go there. You go because going feels good. You go because you don’t know any better.

Torture, kidnapping, warrantless surveillance… it’s well documented that these policies originated in the White House. And now the purveyors of the policies find themselves trapped by a kind of double vision. We have to take the gloves off… but we don’t torture. Telecoms didn’t break the law in turning over confidential customer data to the government… but they need retroactive immunity anyway.

It would be refreshing if dark side proponents would speak a little more clearly. Yes, we torture—forget all that “aggressive questioning” nonsense—and here’s why. Yes, the telecoms broke the law, that’s why we’re trying to get them off the hook. But I guess the nature of the dark side is that spending time there impedes clarity of vision. It certainly impedes clarity of speech.

In your opinion, how have these changes impacted the security of the United States?

They’ve made us less safe. The U.S. brand, often called our “soft power,” has been badly damaged. When foreigners think of America today, do they think of the Statue of Liberty, or of Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo? Soft power matters because it creates political conditions that foster cooperation. If popular hostility causes a European politician to distance herself from America, that distance trickles down to the levels of intelligence, security, and law enforcement cooperation, all of which are critical in combating international terrorism.

Leave aside questions of morality for the moment, and analyze the issue in cold-blooded cost/benefit terms. Torture isn’t worth it. Sure, it might lead to actual intelligence, but it also leads to false confessions. How do you separate the wheat from the chaff? And torture inhibits the local population from cooperating. People who believe suspects will be tortured are less likely to inform on them. So an authority that becomes known for torture cuts itself off from the source of intelligence it most needs: the local population.

Worst of all, the French experience in Algeria suggests that nothing creates new insurgents faster than torture. Death in open battle is more forgivable than the complete powerlessness, pain, and humiliation of being tortured. People don’t forget it, and the need for revenge after is extreme.

The dark side has also made us lazy. Training interrogators and linguists is expensive and labor intensive. Why bother with all that if you believe you can just do what cavemen did ten thousand years ago? Or perhaps the problem is denial, because what else besides denial could explain how the Defense Department fired some of its few Arabic linguists for being gay? It’s enough to make you wonder what our priorities really are…

So for the sake of some occasional theoretical benefit, we’ve adopted a course highly likely to produce false information, that cuts us off from intelligence produced by local populations, and that is maximally efficient at creating new enemies. I guess Cheney called it the dark side because its more accurate name—the dumb side—would have been a tougher sell.

Ben, the Fault Line assassin, believes, at least initially, that the gloves haven’t come off enough, and the threat to America justifies going beyond the law or even the Constitution. Is this mindset prevalent in the CIA? How does a democracy like America balance its historic respect for individual liberties and its suspicion of government power with its obligation to defend itself and its citizens against those who wish us harm? Don’t we need men and women like Ben—even if we publicly disavow their actions and even their existence?

One of the things I like about Ben is that although his views can be pretty primitive, they’re also refreshingly honest. He doesn’t dress up his behavior in high-minded notions of honor and principle; he thinks America is in a fight, and he knows there’s an advantage to fighting dirty. So hell yeah, he’s going to fight dirty… don’t you want to win?

I don’t know how prevalent this mindset is in the CIA, but it’s clear from the Yoo torture memos, records of meetings among White House and Justice Department officials, and other evidence, that the philosophy was embraced by the Bush White House. I’m concerned it’s now being embraced by Obama, as well.

How do we balance security and civil liberties? I think the Constitution does a pretty good job of it: the government can exercise certain extraordinarily intrusive powers, including not only the power to search and seize but to imprison and even execute citizens, as well, but only with appropriate oversight and only upon a proper showing of evidence. What’s chiefly disturbing about the powers claimed by the Bush administration isn’t that they’re new; it’s that the Bush administration has exercised these powers in secret and in violation of the Fourth Amendment and statutory law. It’s as though the White House has unilaterally determined that oversight is just too burdensome and decided to eschew it. But democracy itself is burdensome—after all, freedom isn’t free.

Do we need men and women like Ben? Ben certainly thinks so. I’m not so sure. When you look at the history of CIA clandestine activities—regime change in Iran, assassination plots against Castro, skullduggery in Latin America—and of their intelligence calls—the condition of the pre-collapse Soviet Union, Pakistani nuclear efforts, Iraqi WMDs—it’s fair to ask how different things might be if the CIA hadn’t existed to begin with. A public corporation would look at all the money we spend on intelligence and ask what we’re getting for it—and whether we can get the same for less. But because in place of an animating profit motive, the government is propelled instead by bureaucratic self-interest, these cost-benefit questions aren’t seriously asked. Or if they are, the answers are ignored.

Alex Treven, Ben’s younger brother, is in many ways Ben’s opposite. As a high-tech patent lawyer, Alex is wary of the government and respectful of the legal, constitutional framework. Yet when his client is murdered and his possession of the cutting-edge Obsidian encryption program puts him at risk from unknown assailants, Alex turns to Ben despite their longstanding differences—just as the United States, post-9/11, turned to “the dark side.” I almost felt as if Ben and Alex stood for a country dangerously split in two: perhaps the “fault line” of your title.

Yes, Alex does work as a bit of a metaphor there, doesn’t he? He would never think of getting mixed up in Ben’s world—until he really needs to. And even then, he tells himself (to Ben’s disgust) that he doesn’t really want to get involved. He wants the benefits without the costs, which, as Ben puts it, is like trying to pick up a turd from the clean end. It can’t be done.

Sarah Hosseini is a young associate at the law firm where Alex works. Why did you make her Iranian?

I wanted her to be something that would create instant conflict with Ben. Here’s a guy who kills Iranians for a living, so what could be more stressful than suddenly having to work with a woman who looks, sounds like, and comes from a culture Ben thinks of as the enemy? And Sarah, who is both political and idealistic, has her own issues with Ben: she recognizes him as the embodiment of the dark forces she abhors. And yet—of course—there’s an overwhelming physical chemistry between them. Placing characters in conflict like that and seeing what they do is always a blast.

I’ve never worked for the CIA, but I have worked in law firms, and I have to say, you really nail the atmosphere of surface bonhomie masking cut-throat competition. I guess every world has its own assassins.

Yeah, the politics of big firm life can get pretty tough. You’re talking about a collection of people with out-sized analytical skills and ambition, with a lot of money and prestige at stake and a pyramid structure where only a small percentage can hope to make partner. Which is part of the reason I enjoyed making Alex a player in such an environment. True, he’s a civilian, and out of his element in Ben’s world, but on the other hand, he’s survived in the shark tank of big firm life. It was interesting for me (and for Ben) to see the way some of Alex’s skills wound up translating from one arena to another.

I’ve read a lot of thrillers in which the characters are simply mouthpieces for the author, but you step back and allow your characters to possess their own opinions. Nonetheless, I couldn’t help wondering whether you identified more with Ben or Alex… or even Sarah.

Writing political characters can be dangerous because many readers feel so strongly politically that if they disagree with a character’s views, they’ll immediately impute those views to the author, get angry, and get pulled out of the story. But politics and political stories interest me, so I’m willing to take the chance.

As for whom I identify with, the answer is all three. I don’t know how it is for other writers, but when I’m creating a character, I try to identify some element of my own personality or worldview, distill it out, and then culture it in a new person, where it expresses itself differently than it does in myself because it’s growing in a different medium. There are idealistic aspects of my worldview, so I sympathize with Sarah. I have my ruthless, amoral elements, also, so I can understand a guy like Ben. And there are parts of me that don’t want to bother with any of it, that just want to be left alone… so then there’s Alex. But I’m not interested in creating mouthpieces—mouthpiecing is what my blog is for. My characters are people. Their purpose isn’t to express viewpoints or change opinions; it’s to evoke an emotional reaction in readers, to illuminate some aspect of being human, to make my readers care. They’re real to me: sympathetic, complex and three-dimensional. Their opinions are secondary to all that.

What makes Obsidian so dangerous … and valuable? Is there real-world technology similar to Obsidian?

I don’t want to give away too much here, so I’ll just say this: the United States is the most networked country in the world. Our computer-intensive economy and society are strengths, but also represent a potential vulnerability for anyone seeking to do America harm. And yes, there are definitely technologies out there like Obsidian. For more, here’s an excellent book: Adam Young and Moti Yung’s Malicious Cryptography: Exposing Cryptovirology.

I couldn’t help noticing that certain peripheral characters in Fault Line bear the names of well-known bloggers. Were you tipping your hat to their work?

You caught me. I’m a huge admirer of various bloggers: Glenn Greenwald, Scott Horton, Hilzoy, Andrew Sullivan, and quite a few others. Even if you don’t agree with them (and I should say I do tend to agree with them), the quality of their argument is peerless.

Remember the end of Three Days of the Condor, when Robert Redford has spilled his story to the New York Times? Or the end of Stephen King’s book Firestarter, when the little girl sneaks past the big newspapers because they’re being watched by government agents and goes to Rolling Stone instead? In Fault Line, the protagonists don’t even pause to consider a newspaper—they recognize that if they go to anyone, it’s going to be a blog. Times have changed.

With your website and blog, The Heart of the Matter, you have a substantial online presence yourself. How has the Internet affected your work as a writer? How do you think it’s changing the nature of the publishing business—and will those changes help aspiring writers?

The most obvious effect of the Internet for a writer like me is in enabling nonstop promotion. It used to be that an author’s promotion efforts were clustered mostly around the launch of a new book, but blogs and social networking sites like FaceBook and MySpace make it possible to reach new readers anywhere, anytime… which in fact typically means everywhere, all the time. I have a background in business and law and enjoy interacting with fans, real and potential, so you might say that the rise of the Internet favors my style of play. But it’s also a challenge, because for me creating a story requires a degree of cushioning from the world that promotion doesn’t permit.

So the big change is of a “because you can, you should” variety: you can promote all the time, so you should. Certainly authors are doing an unprecedented amount of promotion themselves. Is this a good thing or a bad thing? Either way, it’s a necessary thing, given various aspects of the state of the publishing world, so I don’t think that much about it, I just do what needs to be done. I think aspiring writers should treat the changes the same way published writers should: with realism. Because once you’re selling your art, you’re in business, and to succeed in business you have to be realistic.

What about the political potential of blogs and the Internet? Can they serve as checks on government power and advocates of policy in the way that the Fourth Estate was meant to do, and sometimes did … before succumbing to corporate ownership?

I hope so. The mainstream media has become so lazy and complicit there’s often no difference between the function of television news coverage in America and the role of Pravda in the Soviet Union. Most mainstream journalists depend on politicians for access, and access depends on favorable coverage. This dynamic means our most celebrated “journalists”—the real Washington insiders, the media establishment—function primarily as spokesmen issuing press releases, not as any kind of Fourth Estate “comforting the afflicted and afflicting the comfortable.” So if you get your news primarily from television, for the most part you’re being spoon-fed the official government line.

Can blogs remedy this imbalance? I’m not sure, although I must be optimistic, or I wouldn’t be blogging myself. I will say that I don’t know anyone writing for the mainstream media—and I read widely—who is producing the kind of quality opinion pieces turned out every day by Glenn Greenwald and the other bloggers I mention in Fault Line. So hopefully, over time, more people will stumble across Glenn and the others and realize that today’s preeminent journalism exists primarily in the blogosphere.

The name of your blog is also the title of a novel by Graham Greene. I take it that you’re an admirer of his work. If he were alive today, how do you think he’d respond to the post-9/11 world?

I am indeed an admirer, and although I don’t want to presume to speak for the man, I can’t imagine him being anything other than disgusted about the way Republicans cynically exploited 9/11 and the way Democrats cravenly capitulated to their opponents. But maybe I’m just projecting.

The movie version of your first novel, Rain Fall, is coming out in 2009. Were you involved in writing the screenplay?

I adapted the book and Sony Pictures bought my screenplay, which was nice, but the director they brought on board, Max Mannix, had his own vision for the movie and decided to write his own. Max’s version is certainly different from mine, but that’s to be expected when two people are repurposing a story for the screen.

Will you be writing more about Sarah Hosseini and the Treven brothers? What about John Rain?

The next book is a sequel centering on Ben. I’m not sure how much Sarah and Alex will be in it, though I find Sarah fascinating and love spend timing her, so I could see her in another book, as well. As for Rain, I see several possibilities there. One is an origin-of-Rain story, because the story of how Rain became who and what he is has so far only been told in fragments. Another is a Dox- or Delilah-centric story, with Rain as a supporting character. I’ll get there… but one book at a time!

— Barry Eisler

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March 10, 2009

Sean Doolittle Talks About His New Book, Safer

Sean Doolittle talks about his new novel Safer and reveals that the inspiration for the book’s story was rooted in one question: would you murder your neighbor if it guaranteed your own safety?

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March 10, 2009

Free Chapters from FAULT LINE by Barry Eisler

From ex-CIA agent turned bestselling writer comes FAULT LINE, Barry Eisler’s first stand-alone thriller. A pulse-pounding and intelligent thriller that is one part Lee Child, one part Vince Flynn, and Barry Eisler all the way through. If you weren’t familiar with Barry’s novels before, you will be soon.

Here are the facts:
The hero: Ben Treven - a military liaison element, an elite undercover soldier paid to “find, fix, and finish” high-value targets in the United States global war on terror.

The situation: Silicon Valley: the eccentric inventor of a new encryption application is murdered. Istanbul: a cynical undercover operative receives a frantic call from his estranged brother, a patent lawyer who believes he’ll be the next victim. And in California’s nerve center of money and technology, old family hurts sting anew as two brothers who share nothing but blood and bitterness wage a desperate battle against a faceless enemy.

The opening line: “The last thing Richard Hilzoy thought before the bullet entered his brain was, ‘Things are really looking up.’”

What others have said: “Thriller fans already know that Barry Eisler is one of the brightest stars out there. But now, with Fault Line, I predict a whole lot more readers are going to discover how terrific he is.”
— Joseph Finde

Open Chapters

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March 13, 2009


In the neverending effort to hawk wares and win vainglorious emotional validation, I’m holding my first blog contest.

THE PRIZE: From today, lucky Friday, March 13th until your favorite day of the year April 15th, you’ll have a chance to win a SIGNED, PRE-ADVANCE READING COPY of my next novel SHADOW SEASON, due out October 27th. This is a printed out copy of the final edited manuscript placed in one of those cheapo binders with the cover art attached. Publishers occasionally send these out extra-early to start some buzz and bring in a few early blurbs. Only about 20 of these have been done, and this is the only one that is signed by me.

HOW TO PLAY: Simple. Buy, read, and promote the hell out of my latest novel THE COLDEST MILE, the follow-up to my Edgar Award-nominated THE COLD SPOT. (Now here is where you get to say, “Well hellooo Mr. Fancypants!”) Blog about it, review it on or B& or elsewhere, sing my well-earned praises, and then send me the link. Anybody who makes an honest effort (And I’ll spot you lazy lollygaggers, oh yes I will) goes into the drawing.

If you don’t already have a copy of THE COLDEST MILE then I know how much it hurts that the other children keep pointing and laughing at you while holding up their copies of TCM and frolicking all about the playground. It hurts me as well. But in this case, it’s okay to give in to peer pressure. Seriously. Join the cool kids.

SHADOW SEASON is the story of a blind ex-cop turned teacher at an isolated girls’ school. Amid some scandalous events concerning an enamored student, he tries to struggle by with his handicap and a lot of unresolved issues dealing with his girlfriend, his dead wife, and his former partner. When a deadly blizzard hits, it brings along with it a mysterious girl and a pair of killers.

You also might want to consider becoming a follower of my BLOG (i.e., A Minion in Pic’s Dark Legions) so you won’t miss out on other promotions, giveaways, news, and writing advice.

Right, off you go—

Tom Piccirilli

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March 14, 2009

Detainees and Prisoners

Yesterday the Obama administration announced a new policy to govern the holding of terror suspects. Here’s what Attorney General Eric Holder announced:

“As we work towards developing a new policy to govern detainees, it is essential that we operate in a manner that strengthens our national security, is consistent with our values, and is governed by law.”

Followers of HOTM know I put a lot of stock in words. So two things struck me about Holder’s statement.

First, what does it mean to “work towards developing” something? It seems that not only does the Obama administration lack a policy, not only is it not developing a policy, it is merely working toward developing a policy. Is this like being engaged to be engaged? Maybe. Maybe there will eventually be a marriage. But if you really plan to get hitched, why not just get engaged? If you really want a new policy, why not actually develop one? I mean, if a house painter told you he was working towards developing a way to paint your house, how confident would you be that the job would ever get done?

Second, why is the administration (and just about everyone else, including the liberal blogosphere, including even the excellent Scott Horton, who expresses his own doubts here) continuing to call people held at Guantanamo and other prisons “detainees”? For me, “detention” is something that happens to you at a place you first arrived at of your own volition. For example, if I mail a letter at the post office and government agents show up and hold me there for an hour, I think it’s fair to say I’ve been detained. If the same agents hood me, drug me, manacle me, fly me to Guantanamo and hold me there for five years, I think it’s fair to say I’ve been imprisoned.

So why the squeamishness about calling people in the second hypothetical (actually, it’s not at all hypothetical) prisoners? Simple: the people in question have received neither a trial nor traditional notions of due process. It would be uncomfortable to acknowledge that America imprisons people without trial or other due process. Suggesting that we’re merely detaining them is a way of sanitizing the whole business.

The use of language for political sanitization makes me uncomfortable. It’s like calling torture “aggressive interrogation.” If we really need to torture prisoners, for example, let’s make a case for it. But if proponents instead feel the need to try to sell me on the notion by reassuring me that all that’s going on is the “aggressive interrogation of “detainees,” I sense these proponents lack the courage of their own supposed convictions. And if they themselves are insufficiently confident in the necessity of imprisoning people without due process to make a clear case for the policy, how can they expect anyone else to be persuaded?

As long as the government calls prisoners detainees, I’ll wager any policy changes will be mostly cosmetic.

P.S. For an example of life imitating art — in this case, the covert operations group at the heart of the plot of Fault Line — last week Investigative reporter Seymour Hersh reported on an “executive assassination ring” that reported directly to the Vice President. Amazingly close match to the setup in Fault Line.

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March 17, 2009

Free Chapters from ILLEGAL by Paul Levine

Looking for a different kind of legal thriller? Then turn to Paul Levine—a former trial and appellate attorney, who’s known for his clever writing, brash characters and crackling courtroom scenes. He’s an Edgar, Macavity, and International Thriller Writers award-nominated novelist. ILLEGAL marks the debut of a new hero, Jimmy Payne—and Jimmy is caught in some serious trouble in this adrenaline-laced, no-holds-bar contemporary thriller.

Here are the facts:
The hero: Disgraced trial lawyer Jimmy “Royal” Payne—haunted by tragedy and wanted by the cops

The situation: Just after skipping town, Jimmy has a run-in with a gutsy twelve-year-old named Tino Perez. First Tino robs him, then he pleads for help in finding his mother—who’s been missing ever since she crossed the Mexican border.

The opening line: “Judge Rollins drew a handgun from beneath his black robes, pointed the snub-nosed barrel at Jimmy Payne’s chest and said ‘Who you pimping for, you low-life shyster?’”

What others have said: “Chilling…. ILLEGAL is a riveting read, filled with action, pathos, and even humor.”

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March 18, 2009

A Down-and-Out Lawyer, A Missing Woman. A Lost Boy. And Shades of “Chinatown.”

Welcome! Paul Levine here with the story-behind-the story of ILLEGAL.

In the past two years, I’ve trudged through the Mojave Desert and climbed the Tehachapi mountains. I’ve followed the toxic sludge of the New River as it winds a serpentine path from Mexicali to the Salton Sea. I’ve hung out at Border Patrol stations in Calexico and picked peaches in Kings County.

THE CHARACTERS: A shady lawyer. A missing woman. A lost boy. And a wealthy rancher with a twisted vision of his own power. It’s about unspeakable pain and loss and the love of family. It’s about greed and corruption, revenge and redemption, all set in the dark world of human trafficking and sex slavery.

A PERILOUS ROAD TRIP: ILLEGAL will take you from the dangerous streets of Mexicali, north to Hellhole Canyon, and northward still through the Tejon Pass into California’s San Joaquin Valley. That’s the perilous road trip taken by Jimmy (Royal) Payne, the hero of ILLEGAL. Did I say hero? Payne, a Los Angeles lawyer with an anger management problem, skims money from a bribery sting, punches out two cops, and skips town when he’s jailed for contempt. But when it’s time to choose between risking his life for a boy with a missing mother or surrendering to his own demons, his choice is….well, you gotta read the book for that.

THE TONE: Inspired by real events, ILLEGAL is harder-boiled than my SOLOMON vs. LORD novels. But if you liked Steve Solomon and Victoria Lord, you’ll love trouble-prone Jimmy Payne and ex-wife Sharon, a cop who once shot him and now would love to arrest him. The Solomon books were frequently compared with the Spencer Tracy/Katherine Hepburn films, particularly Adam’s Rib. ILLEGAL combines the moral decay of “Chinatown” with the sudden violence of “No Country for Old Men.”

A SNEAK PEEK: The first eight chapters of the book are posted above in an easty-to-read, full page format. For more information, please visit my website. While there, sign up for my free newsletter, which automatically enters you in a book drawing. Or, if you’re ready to rumble, you can order ILLEGAL above.

So, come along. Hop into Jimmy’s Acapulco blue Mustang ragtop - okay, not his; he stole it - and fasten your seat belts. It’s gonna be a bumpy night.

Paul Levine

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March 24, 2009

Download a free edition of Lee Child’s PERSUADER

In 2008 Lee Child’s Reacher novels were #1 on both The New York Times hardcover and paperpack fiction lists. Haven’t read him yet? That changes today. Have a friend who hasn’t read him? Same deal. Click below to get PERSUADER in its entirety—for free.

Here are the facts:
The hero: Jack Reacher, the ultimate loner. An elite ex-military cop who left the service years ago, he’s moved from place to place … without family … without possessions … without commitments. And without fear.

The situation: Ten years ago, a key investigation went sour and Francis Xavier Quinn got away with murder. Now a chance encounter brings it all back—and Reacher sees this as his one last shot. Some would call it vengeance. Some would call it redemption. Reacher would call it justice.

The opening lines: “The cop climbed out of his car exactly four minutes before he got shot. He moved like he knew his fate in advance.”

What others have said: “[Jack Reacher is] the perfect hero…. Loved by women, feared by men, and respected by all.”
—Chicago Sun-Times

Download a free edition of PERSUADER at

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March 25, 2009

Why I Dedicated “ILLEGAL” to a Stranger…

By Paul Levine

“Let me get this straight,” the Hollywood producer said. “You dedicated your book to an illegal alien.”

“A Mexican woman,” I said. “She floated up the New River on an inner tube with her little boy.”

“I didn’t know rivers ran north.”

An odd statement, I thought. Focusing on the flow of water rather than the flow of people. “Some rivers do,” I told him. “The Nile. The Monongahela. The New River between Mexicali and the Salton Sea.”

The producer licked his thumb and turned to the dedication page. We were sitting in his bungalow on the Warner lot. Outside the window, I had a fine view of the water tower.

He read aloud: “‘To the woman carrying a rucksack, clutching her child’s hand and kicking up dust as she scrambled along a desert trail near Calexico, California.’ “

He looked puzzled. That happens to people who don’t know rivers can run north. “I still don’t get it.”

“The boy and his mother. They’re the heart and soul of ‘Illegal.’ “

Then I told him the story behind the story.

Three years ago, the news was filled with horror tales of border crossings gone bad. Families heading north were attacked by Mexican bandits or robbed by their own coyotes. People locked inside truck trailers literally baked to death. Women were beaten, kidnapped and forced into sexual slavery. The hellish desert took its own toll, leaving the Border Patrol to rescue illegals as well as arrest them.

I wanted to write a novel set against the backdrop of illegal immigration and human trafficking, but what story would I tell? With me, the characters come first. When their lives are etched in my mind like petroglyphs on a cave wall, they tell me the story. I already had the protagonist. Jimmy (Royal) Payne, a down-and-out Los Angeles lawyer, would cross borders of his own while encountering immigrants, coyotes, corrupt cops and human traffickers. But what was the spine of the story? I didn’t know.

On a day of blast furnace heat, I drove south through the desert, roadkill armadillos roasting on the pavement. To the east was the polluted Salton Sea. To the west, the Borrego Badlands. As I neared Calexico, the yellow “Caution” signs started popping up. Silhouettes of a father, mother and daughter scampering across the road. The message: Be on the lookout for “pollos.” Cooked chickens in border slang. Coyotes are “polleros,” or chicken wranglers. Many of the signs were peppered with gunshots.

Bienvenidos a los Estados Unidos. Yes, welcome indeed.

I thought of Freddy Fender singing “Across the Borderline,” an achingly sad tale about the “broken promised land.”

“And when it’s time to take your turn. Here’s one lesson that you must learn. You could lose more than you’ll ever hope to find.”

Near the border, I took a wrong turn onto a side road that dead-ended at the New River, a steaming current of raw sewage and toxic runoff that carries hepatitis, typhoid, polio and cholera. Tree limbs bleached the color of skeletons floated in the water, which bubbled with a poisonous foam. Knowing of the Border Patrol’s reluctance to dive in, some hardy — or foolhardy — illegals swim with the current, white garbage bags over their heads to blend in with the noxious foam.

Getting out of the car, I saw no swimmers this day. But a large inner tube was grounded in the shallows. A striking, dark-haired woman in her early 30s and a boy of 10 or so were picking their way across the rocks to shore. Backpacks, sneakers and a gallon jug of water. Judging from the ease with which the woman hefted the jug, it was nearly empty.

I shouted out a friendly “Hola.” The mother froze. The boy stepped in front of her, a gesture of protection, the child on the verge of becoming a man. I ducked into my car, came out with a Thermos filled with iced tea. I held it up, a universal offer of friendship to travelers. They stood motionless. I walked toward them, but they started backing up … toward the river. I stopped short, placed the Thermos on the ground, dug into my wallet and placed several twenties under the Thermos. A puny gesture, given the enormity of their task.

I returned to my air-conditioned car and headed for the main highway. Through my rearview mirror, I saw mother and son walking north along the dusty road. The boy carried the Thermos.

I didn’t know their names, so I gave them new ones. Marisol and Tino Perez. I imagined them wrenched apart in a border crossing gone to hell. They completed my trio of main characters. A shady lawyer. A missing woman. A lost boy. Their antagonist would be a wealthy California mega-farmer with a twisted vision of his own power.

is about choices. Will Jimmy Payne risk his life for two strangers or retreat into his own solitary world? The book is also about greed and corruption, revenge and redemption, all set in the dark world of human trafficking.

When I was finished, the producer said, “Why’d you help those illegals instead of calling the Border Patrol?”

“The Bible says, ‘Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by this, some have entertained angels.’ “

“Don’t go biblical on me. Biblical doesn’t sell, except for Mel Gibson, and he’s so yesterday, he’s last year.”

The producer looked out the window where a motorized cart was hauling two-by-fours to a set under construction.

“This book got some blood and guts? Like ‘No Country for Old Men.’ “

“The hero gets horsewhipped.”

“That’s good. Like Marlon Brando in ‘One-Eyed Jacks.’ “

“But it’s more like ‘Chinatown,’ ” I said, figuring movie analogies kept the producer in his comfort zone. “The abuse of power. Corruption of the flesh.”

He seemed to think it over a moment. “Can we lose that polluted river?”

“Why? Because it flows north?”

“Because no one will believe those illegals would risk it. Just why the hell would someone do that?”

“You nailed it,” I said. “The reason for the book. The reason for the dedication. It makes you ask, ‘Why the hell would someone do that?’ “

* * *

You can read an excerpt of “Illegal” on Levine’s website.

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