Interview with Robert Bidinotto, author of HUNTER: A THRILLER

Conducted by Brendan Durkes

Robert Bidinotto spent years as an investigative journalist uncovering corruption in the criminal justice system. Drawing from this background, his debut novel, HUNTER: A Thriller, tells the story of a mysterious vigilante who hunts down violent criminals who have been unjustly released from prison and returns their corpses to the judges and lawmakers who had set them free. Since its release last year, HUNTER has made a big splash in sales, making its way onto the Wall Street Journal’s “Top 10 in Fiction Ebooks” list and earning the position of #1 Amazon Kindle Bestseller in “Mysteries & Thrillers.”

Brendan: In the past, you have written about both ‘‘serious” and “popular” literature. While HUNTER is very much a thriller, it also delves into some very deep questions about morality, trust, identity, and justice. How would you define the book?

Robert: I’d call it “a thinking person’s thriller.”

My primary goal was to write a highly entertaining story for any reader who loves action and suspense. One reviewer described it as “Batman meets Jason Bourne.” You might also think of it as a hybrid of “Death Wish” and “The Thomas Crown Affair.” But there’s no reason that such tales can’t grapple with serious topics, too. I think of the original “Dirty Harry,” which offered a similar critique of leniency in our criminal justice system. Yet nobody would claim that its serious theme diminished its entertainment value.

B: How did you first become involved with the problems of the criminal justice system?

R: In early 1988 I was on assignment for Reader’s Digest, researching a prison scandal in Massachusetts. Incredibly, they were letting first-degree murderers, sentenced to “life without the possibility of parole,” take unsupervised weekend furloughs from prison. Escapes and crimes by these inmates touched off a public uproar. My article later helped to elevate that scandal to become the decisive issue in that year’s presidential election.

During my investigation, I met prosecutors, judges, cops, and prison officials. But most important to me was meeting crime victims—the people who were brutalized by all the predators turned loose by so-called “corrections experts.” The horrifying impact of those crimes on their lives moved me profoundly. I was outraged that public officials would let such things happen, then coldly rationalize the carnage with “rehabilitation” psycho-babble and excuse-making.

That prompted me to investigate the legal system further. Eventually, I published two nonfiction books and many articles, covering everything from the academic theories about crime and punishment, to the psychology of sociopaths, to lavish amenities for prison inmates. The more I learned, the angrier I became.

I drew upon all of this experience to write HUNTER. Though it’s fiction, it’s grounded solidly in fact.

B: People familiar with your nonfiction work should recognize many of the arguments put forth by both the heroes and villains in defense of their ideas. So would you say that, in a way, you have been preparing for this book since you started writing about the criminal justice system back in the eighties?

R: No doubt about it. HUNTER dramatizes timeless debates about “justice,” in the form of an exciting, suspenseful, often violent thriller. The reader experiences the real-world consequences of these clashing ideas through colorful characters, nail-biting action scenes, and agonizing personal conflicts. As for the characters’ beliefs and arguments, some of the dialogue in the novel—especially from the villains—may strike a few readers as exaggerated. But in those scenes, I often inserted verbatim quotations from actual lawyers, psychologists, activists, and prison officials. It’s not exaggeration.

B: The characters in HUNTER range from having a larger-than-life, heroic stature, to being terrifyingly evil; yet they all come off as very realistic. How did you go about creating these characters?

R: Dylan Hunter was inspired, in part, by a question I posed to myself: What kind of man would you become if you could vanish, then reinvent yourself as a completely new person, with all the resources to do whatever you wanted to do? He’s the embodiment of that fantasy.

But how to make a fantasy figure seem realistic? I selected colorful, memorable details that would distinguish him. In scenes featuring a character, I tried hard to put myself in his or her shoes and experience the world exactly as that person would. And I also wrote “internal monologue” in that character’s distinctive “voice.”

To further ground the story in reality, I drew upon universal experiences that all of us can relate to: conflicts with parents; arguments with lovers; the loneliness of living in isolation. For example, the love story at the heart of HUNTER is unusual for a thriller. In many action stories, romantic relationships are treated superficially; but because this story’s romance is central to the plot, I went the opposite direction. I tried to recall and render, as vividly as I could, all the little details of what it’s like to fall in love with somebody. I wanted readers to get to know the hero and heroine intimately. So, even when they did extraordinary things, those things would seem credible because they seem believable as “real people.”

B: Another point of realism in your book is your accurate presentation of firearms and hand-to-hand combat, something that many writers struggle with. What kind of research went into developing the action scenes?

R: I’m delighted that you said that, because I am far from being an expert in either guns or physical combat. Thank goodness for Google and YouTube! Knowing that the vigilante killings required specialized weapons, I invested weeks online studying handguns, sound suppressors, sniper rifles, ammo, night-vision scopes, and many kinds of vehicles. I spent hours watching and listening to YouTube videos demonstrating different combinations of pistols, silencers, and cartridges, and reading research studies, just to learn which would be the quietest. I studied the characteristics of different sniper rounds before settling on a weapons system. Same with night-vision scopes and the fleet of vehicles in the story.

As for hand-to-hand combat, upon closer reading you’ll notice that the fight scenes didn’t actually require a lot of exotic martial arts expertise. I give readers the illusion that the skilled combatants were using advanced techniques, but they really weren’t.

B: There is a clear influence from other thrillers and crime fiction in your writing. Did writers from other genres influence your writing as well?

R: Undoubtedly, and in subtle ways that I couldn’t begin to identify. You just absorb things as you read and they lie fallow and forgotten in your subconscious for years, until you need them. I suppose that Dylan Hunter may owe some of his cocky self-confidence to Cyrano de Bergerac and some his avenging righteousness to the pirate Ragnar Danneskjöld in Atlas Shrugged. And who knows? Maybe there’s a bit of Jane Eyre in the romantic relationship between Dylan and Annie, too.

I do think there’s a mythic quality about the plot and the hero. I’m sure I was drawing unconsciously upon a host of iconic heroes from tales going back centuries, just as Joseph Campbell describes in his classic, The Hero with a Thousand Faces.

B: An underlying current of your story is that many of the characters encounter specific turning points in their lives that, depending on their choices, will affect the course of their lives. How does this reflect your own views?

R: As you suggest, it’s not the events themselves that are the turning points; it’s what the characters choose to do about what happens. And that’s the premise of HUNTER: taking responsibility for your own choices and actions, and holding other people accountable for their choices and actions. Because if we’re all just helpless playthings of circumstances beyond our control, then nobody is responsible for anything. And that means justice is impossible. But if people do have free will, then they are responsible for what they do, and for the consequences that follow.

That’s the basic theme of the novel. And it’s the defining motive of the hero. Dylan Hunter holds everyone one hundred percent accountable for what they do. It’s what makes his character memorable.

B: The mystery in HUNTER could be seen not so much as “who is the killer,” but “is the killer justified?” What is your response to that perspective?

R: HUNTER is a cautionary tale about the breakdown of the legal system. Some people might think I’m trying to justify vigilantism. Actually, no. The hero steps in because there’s a moral and legal vacuum that allows grave injustices to occur against people he cares about. He just can’t walk away. He has the motive, means, and opportunity to set things right, so he does.

But am I advocating that people take the law into their own hands? Absolutely not. This is a fantasy, and in the fantasy my vigilante hero operates by a strict code of honor. He’ll never harm an innocent person and he never harms a public official, either. He only kills murderers, while he embarrasses their “enablers.” Vigilantism works in fiction to make a moral point about a corrupt legal system. In real life, though, vigilantism would never remain limited by any moral code; it would immediately descend into indiscriminate bloodbaths, reprisals, and vendettas, often worse than the corruption that motivated it.

B: Some of your most suspense-filled scenes involve CIA and police investigations. How accurate are the procedures that the officials use in your book?

R: I knew a lot about the criminal justice system, but not about CIA and intelligence operations. So I interviewed representatives of the intelligence community and read lots of books and online material about such exotic things such as spycraft, how to disappear and re-establish a new identity, surveillance detection, and so on. Before I published the book, I let a couple of specialists read it and tell me whether it seemed authentic. I was relieved to learn that they liked what I had done, but they did help me refine a few things.

Of course, in fiction, the author is trying to create only the illusion of reality, not a carbon copy of reality. I don’t believe writers should let minor factual details get in the way of telling a good story. I used “Google Earth” and its “street view” to research various locations; but when it came to going inside buildings, I often just made things up. For example, I’ve never been inside the courthouse or police station in Alexandria, Virginia. But I’ve been inside courthouses and police stations, and if you’ve seen one, you’ve seen them all. So those scenes in the book contain invented descriptions, but nothing that will strike readers as unrealistic.

B: Your book has been rising in sales very quickly. How do you account for this?

R: As a self-published work, HUNTER is competing with the best thrillers by the best authors in the business, issued by big houses with big budgets. There’s no way I can compete in terms of advertising and marketing resources. Instead, I think the novel is doing well because it’s touched a nerve in the culture. Maybe more than one.

First, people today are yearning for real heroes. Dylan Hunter is every inch the tough-guy, lone-wolf hero—but a fresh, distinctive one. He’s an intellectual tough guy. Though he can fight and shoot with the best of them, Hunter is also well-educated, conscious of his core ideas and values, and articulate about them. Moreover, unlike many thriller heroes, he’s not a cynic: He’s passionately idealistic, even a romantic. Though he has every reason to be jaded and bitter, at his core, he truly isn’t. Hunter also has an emotional vulnerability that I think causes many readers to find him more believable or sympathetic than some thriller heroes. Maybe his pet cat helps.

Second, and closely related, HUNTER is a clear-cut moral parable. At a time of growing social chaos, people are yearning for moral clarity, for an uncompromising vision of right and wrong. This story is unambiguous in its depiction of good and evil, and I’m unapologetic about that.

Third, I tried to structure the plot to be an addictive page-turner. It’s designed to suck the reader in from the very first line, then never let him go.

Fourth and finally, I’ve been working very hard to promote the book, starting weeks before its publication, especially through online social media. I’ve tried to establish a personal connection with my readers, so that they feel as emotionally invested in the book’s success as I am. And for that support, I feel deeply grateful and obligated to them. Their stellar “reader reviews” on Amazon, especially—over 170 “5-star” raves to date—no doubt contributed to the Amazon editors’ decision to feature it as an “Editors’ Pick” on November 27th. And that, in turn, caused the book’s sales to soar into the stratosphere: over 50,000 purchases in just 37 days.

So, I have the readers to thank for this success. They are urging me to write further adventures of Dylan Hunter, and I never want to let them down.