I’m pleased to announce that my publisher, Kensington, has signed me on for three more installments of the Jonathan Grave series. The working titles are Untitled Grave 12, 13 and 14. Few series get that kind of lifespan, and I am both humbled and thrilled.
One of the questions I have to wrestle with at the plotting stage of every book is the most basic of them all: Why? Jonathan Grave and his team are freelance hostage rescuers who frequently end up rescuing far more than that, and there has to be a plausible reason why his clients, who often are government officials, are compelled to turn to him instead of to local police, the FBI or even the military.
There’s another compelling why question that is often more difficult to satisfy. More times than not, Jonathan’s enemies are bad-ass dudes who are well-schooled in their bad-assery. Why do they always lose the fight in the end? If I’ve established a bad guy who is an expert sniper, it’s not fair to the reader or to the story to make his one bad shot of the book the one that was intended for my protagonist. All elements of a story need to be earned by the characters.
I’ve just recently discovered the wonderful Amazon original series, “Bosch,” based on the novels of Michael Connelly. I binge-watched all four seasons over the course of a couple of weeks. For the most part, the writers keep within the realm of probability, but they dropped the ball at a critical juncture. Over the course of eight episodes, we’ve come to know and hate a mass-murdering bad guy who is ruthlessly good at what he does. He’s a killer who kills. Then, in the final scenes, as Bosch and his partner creep through the woods toward our bad guy’s mountain cabin (without backup, of course), the bad guy gets the drop on our heroes and opens up with a machine gun. He rips out a good 30 rounds from a defended position from which he’s had plenty of time to aim, but he misses, thus setting up a pretty cool shootout. It’s an exciting scene that just happens to defy logic.
More recently, I was watching the season finale of “Blue Bloods,” another favorite, in which the NYPD is searching for an assassin who’s been offing people with amazing marksmanship. The MacGuffin of the episode is pretty compelling, and as each of the killer’s targets drops dead, we learn that the police commissioner’s own family is in danger. In the final reel, our assassin has the commissioner’s son in his sights at point blank range—think three feet—and this one time, when he pulls the trigger, his bullet goes wide. Aargh!
This has been a pet peeve of mine for a long time. In fact, I wrote about it here in the Killzone back in 2010. I decided to host a convention of fictional villains to give them a pep talk to inspire them to have more pride in their work. I called it Bad Guy Boot Camp. Here is a transcription of my opening remarks:
Good morning, everyone. Welcome to Bad Guy Boot Camp. Please take your seats so we can get started. Yes, it’s good to see you, too, Dr. Lecter. What’s that? Oh, no thanks. It looks delicious, but I’m still full from breakfast. Couldn’t eat another thing.
Um, Mr. Morgan? Dexter? Please don’t sit so close to Dr. Lecter. I’m pleased that you’d like to get to know him better, but wait till after the session. The lounge downstairs has a very nice wine list. I recommend the Chianti.
Let’s get right to it, shall we? I think I speak for all when I say that I’m sick and tired of the good guys getting all the credit in fiction. Without you, all those stories would be pretty darned boring and I think that . . .
Um, Mr. Dolarhyde, please turn off the camera. We don’t allow filming of these sessions, and I believe you know why. Thank you.
As I was saying, I think it’s about time that, as a group, you started taking more pride in your work. It’s about craftsmanship and respect. For example—and please take no offense—several of you were taken down by a quadriplegic detective. I mean, really. That’s embarrassing. Yes, we all know that it’s the hot chick doing all the leg work (no pun intended), but the quad is the headline, and that makes all of you look bad.
Let’s start at the beginning. You’re villains. Be . . . I don’t know . . . villainous. Be a freaking bad guy. Do your crimes, get them over with, and quit making it so easy for the heroes. If we frustrate those detectives enough, they’ll quit being so glib.
Let’s start with you serial killers. I know you’re crazy and all, but try to stay focused on your goals: sexual gratification through unspeakable mutilation. Everything else is secondary. Are the notes and the clues really necessary? You know those always work against you, right? I know that for some of you, your creative process requires spewing DNA, but how about leaving that as your only direct pathway to arrest? It’s about risk management, people. Business 101.
If making bombs is your thing, I submit that the digital countdown clock is not your friend. And folks, please. All the same color wires. Trust me, this will frustrate the daylights out of the cops.
A note about travel: Stay out of Miami, Vegas, New Orleans and New York. They’ve got CSI teams there that are amazing. They’ve got a hundred percent catch ratio, and the average time from incident to arrest is only an hour. Really, an hour. I recommend keeping to the heartland, where all the local police are incompetent and depend exclusively on the FBI or on passing private investigators to get anything done.
Oh, and there’s a town in Maine called Cabot’s Cove. Bad, bad news there.
Any questions? Great.
Let’s move on to marksmanship and gun play. Folks, at the end of the session today, I’m hosting an outing to the shooting range so you can hone your skills. There’s a trend among all of you where you show excellent marksmanship at the beginning of your crime spree, but then they erode toward the end. Maybe you’re choking because of the pressure, but the basic skills are there. When you whiff that critical shot, you miss by only a fraction of an inch. When your instructor, Mr. Wick, is finished with you, I’m confident you’ll see a world of difference.
While we’re on the topic of guns, I beg you to keep one point in mind: When in doubt, shoot. If the moment comes when you’re muzzle to muzzle with the protagonist, don’t negotiate, shoot. Why do you care if he drops his gun? You’re a villain, for heaven’s sake. Just pop him. You don’t need to tell him why.
Yes, Dr. Moriarty, you have a question?
Actually, I’m not sure I agree that murders have become less civilized over the years, but I encourage you to bring that up during your breakout session . . .