By Adam Roche
In 2007, the world changed for RJ Ellory.
Just around Christmas of that year, after months of debate and a Catholic level of secrecy, Richard and Judy announced their Book Club choices for 2008. It included, amongst others, The Rose Of Sebastopol by Katherine McMahon, A Thousand Splendid Suns by Khaled Hosseini, and Random Acts Of Heroic Love by Danny Scheinmann. It also included a book bearing a lone house, separated from a gravel track by a white picket fence that stretched into the horizon, the scene bathed in a sepia evening. The book was A Quiet Belief In Angels, and RJ Ellory had arrived.
Ellory is a unique writer, possessed with the ability to steal breath with a single word, and a gift for detail and dialogue that most writers would die to possess. His books are brave, powerful, defiantly unconventional, and one hundred percent American.
And though we have travelled with him to Augusta Falls, to New Orleans and to Death Row, though we have listened as he told us of Kennedy, Nixon, and the CIA, “Shit On A Shingle”, the sticky heat of a Louisiana afternoon, and the Christmas lights that adorned the St Vincent’s hospital on the corner of Seventh and Greenwich, nobody noticed that he was speaking with a British accent.
For Ellory is unique in that he is a British writer who writes fluent American, and so authentic is his voice that we never doubt for a second that our hand is being held by someone who has stared into each landscape, who has smelled the rain on every street, and who has walked shoulder to shoulder with it’s inhabitants.
His seventh book, ‘The Anniversary Man’ takes us to New York and Jersey City. The dark tale of a New York detective, Ray Irving, as he follows the trail of a horrific serial killer intent on re-enacting the murders of the most notorious killers of the past. Irving is aided by John Costello, the lone survivor of the ‘Hammer Of God’ killer who struck the Jersey City area in the summer of ’84, targeting young couples in an effort to ‘save their souls’. Since the attack, Costello has become a recluse, an obsessive compulsive, and an expert on these dark figures.
The book opens with a breathless account of Costello’s attack and the grim reasoning behind it, before swiftly depositing us at a present day murder scene, where the mutilated body of a young girl has been found. Two more teenage boys are discovered shot, a girl nearby strangled with a pole. Another boy, his face grotesquely painted like a clown, is discovered stuffed into a drain, and Costello, now a crime researcher for a major newspaper has seen the connection that the police have failed to identify.
But we are not only limited to the discoveries of the crimes. Ellory also allows us to walk alongside the killer on occasion, complicit in his horrifying work to the last detail. In one of the most audacious sequences we accompany our antagonist as he recreates the terrifying Amityville murders. It is a master-class in tension that will have readers stumbling over pages to reach it’s crescendo.
As we move closer to the book’s harrowing climax, we are dragged at blistering pace through the belly of New York’s streets, as the bodies continue to appear and the elusive killer begins to turn his attention to his pursuers.
‘The Anniversary Man’ is yet another crowning achievement in Ellory’s career, which never seems to produce anything less than a classic each time. What Ellory seems to understand so well, is that thrillers can be so much more than a whodunnit. In ‘A Quiet Belief In Angels’ the focus was not on the identity of the murderer, but of the effects of the murders on the protagonist. With ‘The Anniversary Man’, not only do we follow the trail of the killings, but are given a glimpse into what it means to be a survivor of such an act, the twisted reasoning behind the crimes themselves, even the exploitation of these crimes for monetary gain.
The story is built around impeccable research, and we never doubt our location or what we are being told, as Ellory masterfully paints our surroundings with effortless prose and detail. This is a city where the wet ground “sucked at your feet”, where the rain had “varnished the streets and sidewalks”, where life can be cheap and incidental: “liquor store clerk shot at point blank range with a Mossburgh Magnum 12-gauge, formally identified by a tattoo on his earlobe (said earlobe found in the street eleven yards from the rest of his body)”
It is a masterpiece of pace, tension and plotting. A haunting, resonant thriller that spreads its wings with ease, and reaffirms Ellory’s reputation as one of the great contemporary thriller writers.
On the eve of the American release of ‘A Quiet Belief In Angels’, and with a film in the works, I spoke to RJ Ellory about the writing process, relaxation, the skeletons he hides in his attic, and how it feels to be a chicken thief:
You’ve been marked out as ‘The perfect author to read late into the night’ by none other than Clive Cussler. How does it feel to know that someone like that has not only read your work, but wants to sing your praises?
Hugely honoured! When those quotes started coming in from Clive Cussler, James Patterson, Ken Bruen, Alan Furst, Val McDermid and all the others I was literally blown away! I even went down to the London Book fair as I knew James Patterson was there. I wanted to thank him in person. I found him to be charming, effortlessly gracious, very interested and hugely supportive. A real gentleman! The whole experience of the American release has been a viewpoint-changing experience to say the least. I feel enormously privileged to have secured a publisher like Overlook Press, and the work they have done to promote the book has been incredible.
Despite not being officially published in the US before now, you have always seemed to have a presence there. You’ve said before that you’ve even mailed copies of your book to US readers who can’t buy them. Apart from the savings you’ll be making on postage, how does it feel to finally crack that nut?
Well, we shall see whether I actually do crack it! I am cautiously optimistic. Right now the responses and feedback coming from U.S. readers is great, and honestly the only people that have ever really voiced a problem with my writing U.S. based novels have been English readers. U.S. readers seem to take it as a compliment that I would want to do that. It’s too early to say, but – as I said – I am cautiously optimistic.
Your American voice is incredibly authentic, even though you’ve spent relatively little time there. How did it develop?
Well, I am of a generation that was raised on Kojak, Hawaii Five-0, Starsky and Hutch, The Streets of San Francisco etc. I also read a huge amount of American fiction as a young man, and watched an innumerable amount of films from the Golden Age of Hollywood. I think it must just have all melted into my mind and stayed there! I do research thoroughly and well, and I do make a great effort to get it right. I think getting it wrong usually comes from laziness, and I can’t abide laziness. If I do get it wrong sometimes then it isn’t because I didn’t try, it’s because I worked unknowingly from an incorrect or incomplete source somewhere along the research line.
What is your research ethic like when it comes to a subject? Would you say that you study your subject more than is necessary in order to gain a complete feel for it, or do you think that loose facts embedded in fiction work better?
No, I study a lot, but I use a little. As far as research is concerned, the best advice I ever heard about was ‘Wear your learning lightly’. If you wear your learning too heavily a work of fiction can become a work of non-fiction, and that’s not what we want!
I was struck in ‘The Anniversary Man’ by how helpless the police department actually were during the entire investigation. Sometimes they were left waiting for the killer to strike in the hope of finding fresh clues. From your research, is this something you’ve found evidence of in police investigations?
Yes, of course. The way criminal investigations are portrayed on TV is about as far from the reality as you could imagine. I spent a good deal of time with a homicide detective in Washington in January, and she told me that she would sometimes be working four or five or six homicides simultaneously. Aside from the fact that such a schedule prohibits any kind of personal life, it also means that the amount of attention that can actually be devoted to one case is very limited. Homicide investigation is a tough, unforgiving, unrewarding, brutally dark and relentless vocation, and there are very few people capable of doing it. I think that crime fiction reflects that more honestly than any crime series on TV.
You begin ‘The Anniversary Man’ with a quote by Nietzsche: ‘And if you gaze for long into an abyss, the abyss gazes also into you’. You say underneath this quote that the book is ‘Dedicated to all those who looked into the abyss, and yet never lost their balance’. After the research you did, and the blackness of the events in ‘The Anniversary Man’, how easy was it to regain your balance?
Well, interesting question! I read a lot of books and a lot of court statements and affidavits from a lot of very, very disturbed and dangerous people. After a few weeks of this my wife actually asked me to stop reading them. It was making me a bit intense. Hugely fascinating material, but really about a gallery of the worst kinds of human beings you could imagine. It had to be done for the sake of the book as I wanted all of the serial killer characters in it to be real, aside – of course – from the ‘Hammer of God’ killer himself. I actually find that with every book I do I get very involved in the people, the places, the time period, the history. I get into it all very deeply. I find it fascinating, and in a way it does affect my state of mind during the time that I’m working on the book. When you do something that subjective, it is sometimes difficult to be objective again.
You seem to employ a very original perspective on crime. Although we are usually travelling in the company of the investigator or interested party, the whodunnit element seems to play secondary to the effects of the crime itself. Is this a conscious choice you make early on, or does the story dictate that decision?
Yes, that is a very conscious decision. The thing I am interested in is people. That’s the sum total of my interest. People. The situations they get themselves into. How they deal with them. How they react. The decisions they make as a result. That’s what fascinates me and that’s what I want to write about.
John Costello is a wonderful character. I’m curious, which came first: the plot or Costello?
The basic idea of the book came first. I don’t work books out before I start. I don’t outline. I don’t figure out plots. I decide on the emotional effect I’m trying to create and the location. Once those two are decided I get to work, and then the thing sort of evolves as I go. I change things. I alter plots as I go. I change protagonists, antagonists, whatever I feel will work best. I like to work like that. It’s more spontaneous and organic.
The Winterbourne Club are a group of people who have survived serial killer attacks, or are related to victims. Was this based on anything you discovered?
No, they were entirely fictional.
Also, one of the most disturbing plot lines in the book revolves around a club who trade in crime scene paraphernalia. Again, was this based on anything you turned up in your research?
Yes, there are such people who belong to such clubs. I am not going to validate or encourage such activities, or even membership of such groups by telling you where they can be found. There are some very strange people out there with some very strange idiosyncrasies, and they are best left well alone!
The climax of ‘The Anniversary Man’ resonates with me still. The clues were all there, and yet the pattern of events leading up to it were so well judged that I didn’t see it coming. How early in the story’s development did you decide the fate of your central characters?
Early on. I wanted it to be a circular novel. Perhaps some might read it and feel that the guilty party, the ‘Anniversary Man’, should have been someone else. Well, I have to admit that I have a pet hate, and that is the kind of crime fiction novel where the serial killer turns out to be someone that we have been reading about all along – the second-in-charge detective, the lead detective’s brother, you know what I mean? I so didn’t want to write a story like that. In real life, the serial killer is never someone that close! Homicide detectives aren’t that dim to miss that kind of thing! Anyway, back to the question – I wanted it to be a circular story, a story that started where it finished, and so it was always very important that that aspect was maintained right from the start.
Crucially, how do you feel about ‘The Anniversary Man’ now that it’s out there? Was it fun to write? How do you think it fits into your canon so far?
It was great to write. I loved writing it. I think it fits with the canon because every book is so different, not only in subject matter but also in style, and I think the thing I am trying to do is stretch myself in a different way with each novel. I think it’s important for an author to have many colours on the palette (how pretentious does that sound!), but you know what I mean, right? I like the book a lot. I am pleased with it. The acid test for me, as I think should be the case for all books by all authors, is would they find the book a good read themselves? I think I would like the book very much if I picked it up and read it and it had been written by someone else. I want my books to be the kind of books other people wish they’d written!
Most people have skeletons in their attic. You, apparently, have twenty two unpublished novels, which you claim will never see the light of day. Are they really that bad?
No, not at all! They’re not bad in the slightest. Who said they were bad? They’re just different. They’re primarily supernatural thrillers, and I don’t want to write supernatural thrillers these days. I also feel that with what I now know it would take a good amount of work to get them into publishable shape, and I’d much prefer to spend my time writing what I’m now interested in as opposed to what I was interested in twenty years ago.
So you began in other genres?
As I said, most of the earlier books I wrote were supernatural thrillers. After a while I decided to stop writing the kind of books that I thought others would like to read, and started to write the kind of books I would like to read. I think that was the smartest decision I made.
How has the writing process changed for you since the release of your first novel, ‘Candlemoth’, in 2003?
The process is the same. I still work as hard as I ever did, if not harder, but it now feels different because I know the bulk of what I write is going to be read by people. There is definitely an expectation and a standard to maintain, and I think that’s very necessary and very good for any writer.
How many people contact you for writing advice? And what’s the best advice you have for would-be writers?
Lots and lots and lots of people! I have written a lot of articles with the idea of being as helpful as I can, and they are all posted on my blog – everything from ideas to dialogue to finding an agent. I try and do as much as I can to be helpful within the parameters of the time that I have available.
From your biography, it seems your upbringing was infused with tragedy. Do you find that the past haunts your work? And are any characters from your books directly based on figures from your past?
It’s all relative, and it’s all based on an individual’s decision as to how much they are going to let their past affect them. I actually don’t consider I had a hard time. I’ve seen worse, far worse, and I know people who have had harder time and are smarter and more able than me. I am the world’s most ardent opponent of misery memoirs!
Your overall picture of America, and life there, seems to be one of quiet awe. Have you ever considered relocation?
I did some years ago. Then Bush got in and I decided that it would be pretty much one of the worst places to live. Now I hope it improves under Obama. We shall see. For now I am content in England.
‘A Quiet Belief In Angels’ still seems to cast a long shadow over your work. How do you feel about the book now?
It’s a book I am proud of, as I am proud of all of them. But there was something different about writing it. With every other book I have written I came away feeling as though I had added something to myself with the process. With Quiet Belief I actually felt like I had left something of myself behind. That’s the only way I can describe it.
You’re currently working on the screenplay to ‘A Quiet Belief In Angels’. How does screenwriting compare to novel writing?
I have finished it, at least the first draft. It was very different. A book is primarily about thinking and feeling. A film is all about doing and saying. They are not necessarily always the easiest things to change from one form to the other! I worked very hard at it, and I was very pleased with result, but we shall see what the director (Olivier Dahan, the director of 2007’s ‘La Vie En Rose’) thinks!
So how do you relax?
I have recently finished watching the entirety of ‘The West Wing’. I generally don’t watch TV but my editor bought me the entirety of ‘The West Wing’ and I loved it. I now tell people that if they want to know how to write great dialogue either watch that series or anything from the Golden Age of Hollywood. Now I have finished it I have taken up the guitar again, though I don’t know that practicing the guitar could be called relaxing!
Which guitar have you got? Are you good?
It’s a Fender Telecaster, but customized. Without getting too geeky, it has three pickups and a five-way switch, as opposed to two pickups and a three-way. Am I good? Christ, that’s like asking me if I write good books! I can’t possible give you any objective opinion. I think I’m rubbish. Other people tell me I’m good. That’s the best answer you’re going to get out of me!
You’ve just signed up to Twitter. How are you finding it? And do you find things like Twitter a distraction when you’re trying to write?
I think it’s very good for me. Usually I’m required to write about 150,000 words, but here I am limited to one hundred and forty characters. It’s like haiku or something. I like the fact that you can just connect with like-minded people all over the world. It’s a refreshing method of communicating, and – as far as I’m concerned – anything that gets people communicating more with one another has my vote. And no, I don’t find it a distraction. I am very organized and methodical when it comes to my working schedule. When I am writing I’m not doing anything else, and my work computer and my internet computer are different machines in different rooms.
I hear you were arrested for poaching when you were seventeen. Rabbits?
Chickens. In France I am ‘Le Voleur des Poulets’! And I poached them from a monastery. When I went to court they had gone back in the lawbooks to sometime like 1450 and found a charge of ‘Theft of livestock from a religious retreat’ or something.
What are you working on now?
I have finished ‘The Saints of New York’ which will be out next autumn (2010), and I am now working on the book for 2011 and that’s called ‘Bad Signs’. I’ve been working on that for about six weeks or so and I’m about half way through and having a great time doing it. My editor and my agent tell me to relax. ‘take it easy’, they say. ‘You’re twelve months ahead of schedule.’ Me, I can’t stop. Too many stories to tell!
To celebrate the release of RJ Ellory’s latest book, we are pleased to announce that from now until the end of September, Electro Candy is running a special competition. Three winners will receive a signed copy of ‘The Anniversary Man’.
To enter simply log into Twitter, follow us at @electro_candy and retweet the competition entry message you will find on our feed. We will repost the entry tweet every day, and choose three winners at random on October 1st, 2009.
You can follow RJ Ellory’s Twitter at @rjellory
For more details on RJ Ellory, and to read his blog, visit his website at www.rjellory.com