In my new novel The Syndicate, retired LAPD detective Jonathan Craine is tasked by the mob to investigate the murder of Bugsy Siegel, infamous Hollywood gangster and the man who invented Las Vegas. My protagonist Jonathan Craine featured in my debut novel The Pictures and people often assume that I had him in mind for a series from the beginning. The truth is, however, that when I wrote The Pictures, I never even considered that I might be asked to write a sequel. And hadn’t planned for one either.
There are, of course, dozens, if not hundreds of detective series. And many brilliant ones too— from Jack Reacher to Arkady Renko to more recent offerings from authors like Joseph Knox and Abir Mukherjee.
But in detective fiction, the titular hero tends to be fully formed. And it’s often their particular personality traits that make them so engaging in the first place. Whether they’re Sherlock Holmes, Philip Marlowe or Harry Bosch, they are usually the same person at the end of the novel as they were at the beginning.
But when I first set about writing The Pictures, I wanted to set it apart from other detective thrillers by giving my protagonist a life-changing character arc. So when we meet Craine, he’s an immoral Hollywood fixer who has spent much of his career covering up the misdemeanours of movie stars and producers to help protect the industry that helped build Los Angeles. His investigation into the apparent suicide of the producer of The Wizard of Oz is the catalyst for a major change. Craine must seek redemption for his past misdeeds by finding out the truth behind the mystery. And by the end of the novel, even if he hasn’t fully atoned for his past wrongs, he’s without doubt a changed man, with a completely new outlook on life.
So with such a complete character arc, how then, was I going to bring back Jonathan Craine for a sequel? Where could I take my anti-hero from there?
I began by looking at ‘The Hero’s Journey’, a template common to many – some may argue all – stories where a hero reluctantly embarks on an epic quest only to return home a changed man. It felt like an approach that could work for The Syndicate. Being a cinephile, I also looked at crime films such as Out of the Past, Unforgiven and A History of Violence. There was something interesting to me about a redeemed man being dragged back into the seedy underworld he’d turned his back on. It felt like a premise that could work perfectly for a Jonathan Craine sequel.
So when we meet Craine in The Syndicate he has left his old life in Hollywood behind him, content to live out his days on a farm in rural California with his teenage son. But after mobsters turn up uninvited, Craine is summoned to Las Vegas to meet mob head Meyer Lansky. Craine finds himself given the impossible task of finding Bugsy Siegel’s murderers. He has five days to solve the crime. And if he fails, both he and his son will be killed.
The call to adventure; the refusal of the call; meeting mentors and guides; heading into the belly of the whale, overcoming a series of trials before returning home…. These building blocks lent me the structure for my narrative.
The Syndicate is very much focused on the connection between motion picture studios and organized crime in the Golden Age of Hollywood. For the motion picture industry, it was a tumultuous time, perhaps the beginning of the end of the Hollywood Golden Age. At the same time, organized crime had spread across America into its own sub-government, with politicians, police and justice department all on their payroll. Craine must navigate these two worlds as he tries to find the truth behind the true-life assassination of Bugsy Siegel. More importantly, he has to realise his full potential as an investigator if he wants to save his son.
But what would be his ultimate test? What major trial does he need to overcome before he can return home?
I’ve heard several authors discuss themes in their novel as something that is realised and honed later in the process. But for The Syndicate, I knew upfront that violence was going to be one of the central themes. The violence in the novel is sparse but intense. I try not to use graphic descriptions to shock without reason. When a character shoots someone in The Syndicate, you see the repercussions of their actions. I’m not fetishising violence; I’m showing how physically and emotionally devastating it can be to take a life.
For Craine, this is his ultimate test. He’s been traumatised by the pain he inflicted in The Pictures. Now the question is whether he can pick a gun after all these years away. And when pushed to his limits, how far will he go to protect his son?
The Syndicate by Guy Bolton is published in hardback by Point Blank, an imprint of Oneworld, hardback £16.99