The Cartography of the Underworld
My latest book, Maps of Hell, is an example of that extremely rare thing – a stand-alone novel within a series. Although the protagonist, crime writer and sleuth Matt Wells, appeared in The Death List and The Soul Collector, I wanted to change as much as I could in order to increase the tension. So Matt finds himself naked and imprisoned at the start – but worse, he has no idea who or where he is, never mind how he got there.
Amnesia is a fairly standard motif in thrillers – and I see Maps of Hell as one of those rather than a straight crime novel – so I had to add several other elements to make a stab at originality. There’s brainwashing, a modern-day Nazi conspiracy, a series of so-called occult killings in Washington DC, and a deeply strange cult called the Antichurch of Lucifer Triumphant. If you’re looking for the authors I’m riffing (not ripping) off, think Ira Levin (The Boys from Brazil), Richard Condon (The Manchurian Candidate), Robert Ludlum (The Bourne Identity) and Dennis Wheatley (take your pick). I like to take earlier books as inspiration, then mess around with them as much as possible. Although Maps has its serious side, my tongue sometimes slipped into my cheek during the writing process.
There’s something visceral about the thriller that the crime novel rarely possesses, and that basically comes down to pace. Although there are plenty of page-turning crime stories, from Agatha Christie to Thomas Harris, the intellectual side
often takes precedence over the emotional. It seems to me that jeopardy, the essential element in pace, is directly linked to the reader’s concern for the protagonist – will s/he escape, survive, prevail? If you can combine the intellectual and the emotional, you’ve got a chance of satisfying readers of both kinds of books (i.e. becoming a massive bestseller). And who wouldn’t want that?
Maps of Hell is set in the United States, another deliberate attempt to defamiliarize both Matt and the reader. Of course, that meant the research was greater for a limey author, but I have actually been to (most of) the places in the novel. I also had to make an effort with American English – there are a couple of wise-cracking DC detectives. Fortunately, my editor is in New York, so he was a great help on that score.
So there you have it. Matt Wells in the US. Without a memory. Framed for several murders. On the run, hungry and cold. Without a mobile phone and thousand of miles away from his mates. ‘Ratchet up the tension’ is the thriller writer’s basic urge, ‘make the reader’s heart pound’ another cardinal virtue.
The only other person from the earlier novels with Matt in Maps of Hell is his lover Karen Oaten – that’s Detective Chief Inspector Karen Oaten of the Metropolitan Police to you. The problem is, she has disappeared without trace. And she’s pregnant with Matt’s first son. Can he find her before she suffers a terrible fate? Can he save the President of the United States from her?
Get thee to a bookshop…
(Oh, and if you’re wondering about the cartography of the underworld, there are several maps in the novel – drawn by my own fair hand.)
Maps of Hell is published by Mira