Jeffrey Westhoff: Saluting my influences
At the front of my book, a young adult spy novel called The Boy Who Knew Too Much, you will find these words:
“The book is dedicated to the three authors who most directly inspired it: Robert Louis Stevenson, Elleston Trevor (who wrote the masterful Quiller novels under the pseudonym Adam Hall), and especially Ian Fleming. I stole from all three; I pray I did it artfully.”
The Boy Who Knew Too Much is my first novel, so it seemed fitting to dedicate it to the authors who enthralled and influenced me. Each of these three writers had a distinct voice, and each influenced my book in a distinct way.
Ian Fleming’s inspiration is the easiest to explain. I started reading Fleming’s James Bond books when I was 13, and in a large way The Boy Who Knew Too Much is a valentine to my high school years when I was obsessed with 007. I was once caught hiding a copy of Doctor No inside my algebra textbook, reading about Honeychile Rider and Crab Key when I should have been learning about variables and polynomials. Thirty-some years later, I can testify Honeychile Rider was more beneficial to my education.
My lead character, Brian Parker, is a lot like my teenage self except he is fixated on a fictional superspy named Foster Blake for the same reason Tina on Bob’s Burgers loves The Equestranauts instead of My Little Pony. Despite the name game, Blake is clearly a Bond-like character and Brian often refers to such Bond-like titles as Clandestinely Yours (instead of For Your Eyes Only) and An Emerald Eternity (instead of Diamonds Are Forever). I didn’t want the Blake titles to sound like spoofs. I wanted them to sound like titles Ian Fleming would have dreamed up in an alternate reality.
The spy world Brian follows is indebted to the one Fleming created, and there are details in my book Bond fans are certain to notice. Other Fleming influences are less obvious, such as the reason behind my hero’s name. As my book’s title indicates, I use the Alfred Hitchcock tactic of tossing an innocent into the dirty world of espionage. Other protagonists in teen spy novels – Alex Rider, Jason Steed, Colt Shore – have action hero names. I wanted to give my main character an everyday name to stress that he is an average American teenager (despite his above-average knowledge of spy novels) caught up in an extraordinary situation. I learned this lesson from Fleming. He called his spy James Bond because he thought it a dull, unmemorable name.
My favorite spy novelist after Fleming is Adam Hall (I’ll go with that name because it’s the one he used to write the Quiller books). Hall follows a formula similar to Fleming’s in the outline – a solitary spy undertakes a dangerous assignment in each novel – but entirely different in the shading. The tone is bleaker, more desperate. Quiller is a more driven, more cynical (but less sexist) agent. He has no time for vodka martinis and elegant casinos. Quiller is all about the mission, and he knows one day it will kill him.
My most obvious homage to the Quiller books are the one-word chapter titles, but Hall was also my instructor when it came to writing action scenes. No author has crafted tension on the page as masterfully as Hall. With the Bond books you remember the women, the villains, the locales. With the Quiller books you remember the hand-to-hand melees, the top-speed car chases, the incredible escapes – all written in such excruciating detail you can feel each bead of Quiller’s sweat.
Following Hall, I wrote my action sequences in short, staccato sentences that sharpened Brian Parker’s growing panic. I’m not foolish enough to hope my writing is as suspenseful as Hall’s, but if I achieved one-tenth of his effect then I’ve done my job.
Fleming and Hall are authors I have read since I was a teenager. Obviously they would inspire my first book. Until I started working on The Boy Who Knew Too Much, though, I had never read anything by Robert Louis Stevenson. Back when I was in high school my mother, hoping to break my Bond habit, gave me a copy of Stevenson’s Kidnapped and told me to read it. “Here,” she said. “This is good literature.” It was the wrong thing to say. I resented the implication that Ian Fleming wasn’t good literature and hence resented Robert Louis Stevenson’s existence. I read two pages of Kidnapped, tossed it aside, and went back to From Russia, With Love.
So how did an author so scorned rate a dedication in my book? As I was working out the plot to The Boy Who Knew Too Much I realized it was something like a modern Treasure Island with spies instead of pirates. I realized too that one of my characters, a rogue CIA officer named Jack Silver, performed a similar function as Long John Silver. It was not until that moment I saw I had given my scoundrel the same name as Stevenson’s scoundrel. I simply thought the name Jack Silver sounded cool. Stevenson had been an influence without my realizing it.
The obvious thing to do was read Treasure Island. I was struggling with my ending, and reading Treasure Island showed me the way. As much he hated the idea, my young hero had to team up with the scalawag named Silver to face their common enemy.
I learned something else from Treasure Island, something more important. I learned that I loved it. Every page of it. This was sweeping stuff. I recognized that even though I was calling my book a spy novel I was also writing an old-fashioned adventure story – a type that Robert Louis Stevenson invented – and that I should embrace his influence. Next I finally made my mother happy and read Kidnapped. Possibly I loved it even more than Treasure Island. David Balfour’s perilous journey across the Scottish Highlands in this book I had once spurned would influence the middle portion of my book when Brian and the girl he meets in France, Larissa DeJonge, trek across the Pyrenees.
Ian Fleming and Adam Hall were old friends of mine when I started to write The Boy Who Knew Too Much. I knew they would guide me. Robert Louis Stevenson was someone I had heard of, certainly, but didn’t think he had anything to say to me. He knew otherwise. It just goes to show you never know where, or from whom, you will find inspiration.
Jeffrey Westhoff grew up in Erie, Pa., and went to college at Marquette University in Milwaukee. He has worked a journalist and film critic. The Boy Who Knew Too Much, from Intrigue Publishing, is his first novel. He lives in Chicago’s northwest suburbs with his wife, Jeanette. Learn more at his website, jeffreywesthoff.com.