Three Crime Talents: Tom Grace, Neil White and Peter de Jonge on their dynamic new crime novels

Tom Grace on The Secret Cardinal

An Irish author with whom I have had the pleasure of discussing the craft of writing while enjoying a few pints likened fiction writers to magpies. As the analogy goes, where a magpie snatches up shiny bits that catch its eye, the writer stores away interesting bits of trivia that may one day be fashioned into a story. Every novel starts with a shiny bit of information that catches the writer’s eye.

The Secret Cardinal began with an item I found in the national section of my local paper. The two-paragraph article described a tribute given by a US senator to mark the passing of Cardinal Kung of Shanghai. What caught my eye was a term used to describe the late clergyman that I had never seen before: secret cardinal.

I quickly acquired the text of the senator’s tribute from the Congressional Record and learned of Kung’s epic struggle against state-sanctioned religious persecution and his secret elevation to cardinal by Pope John Paul II. In Kung, I found a story featuring an imprisoned bishop, a potentially deadly secret, and an incredible church-state conflict between the Vatican and China. The question then became: What do I do with it?

Given that I had an imprisoned bishop at the heart of my story, it seemed the natural thing to do was break him out. My research led me to a monsignor who said a private mass with the pope, a captain in charge of training Navy SEALs, and members of the underground Church in China.

Like Angels and Demons, a papal conclave figures prominently in The Secret Cardinal, though my novel has received a significantly warmer reception from the Vatican. The Secret Cardinal is a tale of honor, loyalty and faith that has been smuggled into China by underground priests and pirated widely throughout Latin America—all on its way to becoming an international number one bestseller.

Neil White on Last Rites

I had one aim when I was writing my latest book, Last Rites, and it was the same one I have whenever I am writing: to write a book that I would want to read. For me, crime fiction should make the page turn, should intrigue but at the same cause that tightness in the chest that other types of fiction just don’t quite match.

My main character, Jack Garrett, is a crime reporter. As a criminal lawyer of some years, currently a prosecutor, I had always envisaged that I would write stories with a legal bent, but as a writer, I found my legal background limiting, as I became obsessed with detail over content. By having a reporter as the focus, I was able to get involved with the crime but reduce the legal detail. But he is an ordinary hero, who makes mistakes, and has to juggle his stories with the ties and binds of ordinary life. I like heroes like that.

I based my story around captivity and torture, because I wanted the interaction between the victim and the villain, not just the usual bang on the back of the head and out go the lights. I wanted to show the victim’s fight. This was set against an age-old tale of revenge in the shadow of Pendle Hill, an area that became infamous when two warring families went to the gallows for witchcraft, and the tales from those times undoubtedly linger in the present. The area around Pendle Hill is one of the creepiest places I have visited, an few square miles of ancient cottages, tight lanes and dark shadows, dominated by a barren and brooding hill, and I wanted to incorporate some of that into Last Rites, to take it away from the more urban setting of my first two books.

Peter de Jonge on Shadows Still Remain

Whatever I’m doing, I tend to work in sets of three, and when I’d written three books with James Patterson, I felt that my apprenticeship had been served and it was time to write my own. I was determined that my first solo effort would be as much of a page turner as anything I’d written with Jim. At the same time, I wanted it to be distinct and one of the things Jim admires about "Shadow Still Remain" is that I’ve written my own book. I haven’t simply ripped him off. I also went to considerable lengths to give the book a strong sense of time and place, in this case the Lower East Side of Manhattan, circa 2005. That specific time is important in a city whose Darwinian economy is constantly winnowing out the weak and changing the face of the city, a merciless reality that suits this dark twisted tale.

Writing my own book has also enabled me to focus on issues and themes that mean the most to me. One thread that runs throughout "Shadows Still Remain" is the theme of parenting, particularly being a single parent. After my first wife and I separated in ’95, our two sons spent half their time with each of us, and that we were able to work out that arrangement so quickly and amiably has probably been the greatest piece of good fortune in my life, and although Darlene O’Hara’s arrangement with her son is different, I had no trouble empathizing with her powerful feelings toward her only son. Another important theme is race, something that shapes the thinking and expectations of everyone on the planet, often without them being aware of it.

In the end, however, the element of the book I’m proudest of is the heroine, 34-year-old NYPD Detective Darlene O’Hara who has survived a rocky adolescence which culminated in the birth of her son, the impulsively named Axl Rose O’Hara. Some details of O’Hara’s history and nature are based on real people, and the more problematic aspects of her personality like the hyper competitiveness and chip on her shoulder come from me, but hopefully, in the end, Darlene is simply herself, and readers will find her likable and believable and think she rings true. I’ve been very gratified by the feedback I’ve gotten on the book so far and hope readers in England will feel just as strongly about Darlene O’Hara and "Shadows Still Remain." I look forward to giving them another novel with Darlene O’Hara at its center as soon as I can.

(All three novels publshed by Avon)

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