CRIMESPREES by John A. Connell
CRIMESPREE ARTICLE by John A. Connell
Spree [sprē]: an unrestrained indulgence in or outburst of activity
Spree…an appropriate word for what the killer does in my crime thriller, Ruins of War—and with a vengeance! Much like Jack the Ripper terrorized London, the killer in my novel terrorizes post-World War II Munich. When the inspiration first came to me to create a story with U.S. Army detective Mason Collins in devastated Munich, I hadn’t yet decided on what kind of cataclysm would befall Mason. I knew I wanted him to be challenged to his limits, and that the stakes would be so high that failure to solve the case would have terrible repercussions for him, the army, and the entire city’s population.
Postwar Germany provided the perfect backdrop for the story. Germany had been left devastated by war. Famine, disease, and murder had replaced the bullets and bombs. The conquering armies—the Americans, British, French and Russians—had become experts at war, but were not ready for the peace. They were overwhelmed and chaos reigned. On top of that, the black market thrived, and gangs of deserted allied soldiers, former POWs and corrupt DPs roamed the countryside. Plenty of material for a crime thriller right there, but I wanted to go further…
While I was researching what Munich was like seven months after the defeat of Nazi Germany, I discovered that most of the destruction had been caused by the numerous Allied firebombing raids. Unlike Berlin or Frankfurt, where whole sections of those cities were nothing but piles of rubble, Munich’s cityscape consisted of row upon row, street after street, of burned-out buildings. I thought, how nightmarish it would be a to let a Jeffrey Dahmer or Ted Bundy loose in that devastated city with thousands of places to hide and a half million helpless prey. And how seemingly impossible would it be to hunt down a psychotic killer in the chaos and ruins.
I started with a tagline: “Seven meets The Good German.” A vivid and captivating combination to be sure, but I wanted to raise the stakes even higher. I wanted the victim’s suffering at the hands of the killer be so severe that Mason would be willing to sacrifice everything—his career, even his life, to solve the case. The killer is stalking men and women, young and old, ordinary people, even U.S. military personnel, all seemingly chosen at random, meaning anyone could be his next target, threatening to drive the population into a frenzy of riots and rebellion. The army brass comes down hard on Mason, putting the screws to him to solve it fast. In that first year or so of the occupation, the army struggled to maintain order and to administer the peace in a broken city. There was distrust and resentment on both sides, and the Germans would see the failure to stop the killer as further proof that the Americans cared little for their welfare: a PR nightmare for the army and the U.S. military government. Just when they were trying to instill democracy after 12 years of Nazi rule, and counter the threat of 60 Russian divisions on the eastern border, the murders come along to wreck havoc on an already fragile situation. The press, congress and the pentagon pressured the army brass, and, as the saying goes, s#*t rolls down hill, with Mason at the very bottom of it.
And yet, I wanted to push Mason further: Mason is American-raised but German-born, and he suffered as a POW at the hands of the Nazis. He resents the Germans for supporting an evil regime, but then he’s compelled to protect the very same people from another kind of evil spawned from the Nazi concentration camps. To solve the case, he also has to work with the German police, who only months ago were his sworn enemy. And seeing Germans in informs and carrying weapons stirs up grisly memories. As a POW, he spent two horrifying weeks in the concentration camp Buchenwald, and he swore he’d never enter another. But that just what he has to do to cajole information from ex-Nazi doctors who performed savage human experiments. Talk about pushing his buttons; it will take all his willpower not to leap across the interview table and wrap his hands around their necks.
War always leaves ruins in its wake—human and real estate. It shatters brick and bone. I often think of the Hemingway quote as I write: “The world breaks everyone and afterward many are strong in the broken places. But those that will not break, it kills.” Ruins of War is about people who learn to be stronger in the broken places, and those who do not. It’s about those who are determined to survive and about the choices they make to achieve that goal, either through good or evil. But mostly it’s about a thrilling ride through a ruined landscape, and I hope that if you pick up Ruins, you’ll experience as much of thrill reading it as I did writing it.
John A. Connell is the author of the 2015 historical fiction thriller Ruins of War published by Berkley/Penguin Books. He has worked as a cameraman on films such as Jurassic Park and Thelma & Louise and on TV shows including The Practice and NYPD Blue. He is currently working on his second Mason Collins novel.