“You may as well,” says author Jeffery Deaver when I ask him if it’s ok to record our conversation. “It’s all going back to GCHQ, and to the NSA and CIA anyway. Especially with this book.”
The comment is delivered with Deaver’s dust-dry sense of humour, and sounds rather strange in the plush environs of the Merrion Hotel’s reception rooms, but he makes a valid point. The Kill Room is a very timely novel indeed — “oddly prescient” is how Deaver describes it — which engages with some very contemporary headlines.
“It deals with targeted killings,” says Deaver, “and only last month we had President Obama giving a press conference in which he talked about the killing of American citizens. It deals with data-mining, and we’ve just had this big scandal about [Edward] Snowden releasing that information. And there’s a whistle-blower, which is, again, Snowden. But I don’t want readers to think that Jeffery Deaver is or has become a political writer. It’s the only political book I’ve ever written. It just happened that all these things came together at the same time”.
Indeed, Deaver is at pains to stress that the political is not the personal in his novel.
“I fall back on the adage that has been attributed to Ernest Hemingway,” he says. “Hemingway said, if you want to send a message, use Western Union. Meaning, it’s not the author’s job to give his or her own personal views in a novel, but it is the author’s job to raise the questions. I feel that even my kind of entertaining thrillers, which is the point of what I do, enhance the experience if you bring in issues that transcend the crime itself.
“My goal is to entertain,” he continues. “I’ll do whatever I can to get readers to turn pages, so they lose sleep at night, they show up for work late. If somebody closes a Deaver book and says only, ‘I found that interesting,’ then I’ve failed. What I want them to do is close a book and say, ‘Oh my God, I survived that book!’”
The Kill Room is the 10th Lincoln Rhyme novel, and Deaver’s 30th in total. It opens with the targeted killing of an American citizen in the Bahamas, a murder that New York-based forensic scientist Rhyme is commissioned to investigate on the basis that the ‘kill order’ was issued in New York state.
Complicating matters, as always, is the fact that Rhyme is a quadriplegic who rarely leaves his customised apartment. “Lots of internal reversals, cliffhangers, some esoteric information about, and surprise endings, plural,” is how the author describes his recipe for ‘a Deaver novel’, but back in 1997, with eight novels published, Deaver was looking to offer the reader yet another twist in terms of character.
“I thought, ‘How about we do Sherlock Holmes? We haven’t seen Sherlock Holmes for a while.’ That sounds quite egotistical, and I wouldn’t want to take on Arthur Conan Doyle — I mean, he was a spiritualist, so he might come back to haunt me! But I wanted a character who was a cerebral man, a thinker.
“Holmes could fight if he had to, or go somewhere in disguise. I wanted someone who had no choice but to out-think his opponent. That was what I was trying to do in The Bone Collector. I never imagined that Lincoln would become as popular as he has.”
The Bone Collector was adapted into a successful movie starring Denzel Washington and Angelina Jolie, but for Deaver the novel is the most persuasive storytelling form.
“I do believe that as an emotional experience,” he says, “reading fiction is the highest form of entertainment — I’m not going to use the word ‘art’, but I’ll say ‘entertainment’.
“That’s because it requires active participation on the part of the reader, as opposed to a film or a video game, where you tend to be more passive. Even in video games where you’re participating in a shoot-’em-up it’s not really intellectually or emotionally engaging. So with that element of the book as an experience, we start from higher ground right away.”
He chose the thriller form because it is, as John Connolly has suggested in the past, a kind of Trojan Horse that allows an author to smuggle virtually any kind of subject matter into the public domain — such as the political ambiguities of The Kill Room — in the disguise of popular fiction.
“Well, John is absolutely right. Crime fiction permits and even urges us authors to consolidate as many different strains of conflict as we can, which is what storytelling is all about.” The fact that the crime novel is rooted in modern realities also makes it, he says, “a touch more compelling” than other kinds of fiction.
“Lord of the Rings is probably my favourite book ever,” he says, “but you have to buy into a whole lot of disbelief for that book. I mean, if you’re on the subway in New York City, do you really believe an orc is going to come in with a scimitar and slice your head off? No. I love Stephen King, but do I really believe there’s a ghost in my closet? No. I do enjoy those books, but in a crime novel, if you answer the door and a cop holds up his badge, you let him in — and then you realise he’s wearing cloth gloves, and holding a knife in his other hand. That could happen.”
Deaver is today an award-winning author who invariably tops bestseller lists. For a writer who might be expected to rest on his laurels, however, he is still refreshingly ambitious. Despite being a writer who specialises in cerebral characters, he took on the challenge of writing Carte Blanche (2011), about the thriller genre’s most celebrated action-hero, James Bond. His next novel, The October List, published in October, is a standalone thriller which radically reworks the conventions of the genre and which Deaver describes as his most complex plot yet.
Why is he still so determined to challenge himself? “I’m worried that some day I’ll wake up and discover that everyone has realised I’m a fake and a fraud,” he says.
Perhaps that’s why he’s notorious for ‘micro-managing’ his books, taking eight months to sketch out an outline of 150-200 pages for a 400-page book.
“I’m a pretty sloppy writer,” he shrugs. “I get the ideas down, I bang them out. My first drafts are messy, they’re too long, I always put in a lot more research than I need. I used to panic about that. I’d read something I’d written and go, ‘Where did this crap come from?’ And then I learned to say, ‘But at least you recognise it’s crap. That’s the good thing’.”