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The Birth of a Thriller

Forget Nancy Drew. When I was twelve years old my favorite book series featured Bond, James Bond. Not that I was supposed to be reading Ian Fleming’s books. They were written for adults, as my mother would have told me while confiscating the book if she’d caught me, and I wasn’t one. But my father, an orthodontist, had a den that he used as a home office. In that den was a wall of built-in bookshelves. On those bookshelves were the books that he read. The first of those books that I snuck off the shelves was Doctor No.

I read it in my bed, under the covers, by flashlight. The sexual references were lost on me. What I loved was the action, the danger, the derring-do of Bond and Honey Rider, who was almost eaten by crabs – and I was pretty interested in death by flame-thrower dragon buggy and a massive pile of guano as well.

I read all of Bond (well, all of them that my father possessed) and moved on to Alistair Maclean. WHERE EAGLES DARE, NIGHT WITHOUT END, ICE STATION ZEBRA – those were great, great thrillers. The thing about Maclean is that his books are so atmospheric. You can feel the shaking of the airplane, the bite of the cold. Constant danger, breakneck action, complex plot, high stakes – those were books to make you hold your breath as you read.

William Goldman’s MARATHON MAN was one of my father’s favorite books. (Did I mention that he was an orthodontist?) I read it with cold chills racing up and down my spine. For a long time after that I gave his dentist friends a side-eye and a wide berth.

Then I found Frederick Forsyth’s THE DAY OF THE JACKAL. The suspense in that book was nail-biting. The action was non-stop. The cat and mouse between the would-be assassin and the agent tasked with stopping him was riveting.

Robert Ludlum’s Jason Bourne books featured an array of almost unbeatable forces against a single protagonist. How could anyone not root for Bourne to prevail? And to recover his memory? And to make a nice life for himself with Marie?

Another favorite was THE HUNT FOR RED OCTOBER by Tom Clancy. I know Clancy’s books are considered ‘techno-thrillers’ but what made this one so memorable for me was that the defecting Russian submarine captain Ramius was as much a hero as CIA analyst Jack Ryan, who is charged with bringing Ramius and his runaway submarine safely in. The suspense is there, the complex plot, the high stakes, the unremitting action – but what I most loved was the humanity of the characters. Clancy made me care about what happened to them.

I have so many favorites: Ken Follett, THE EYE OF THE NEEDLE and THE KEY TO REBECCA; Lee Child – who doesn’t love Jack Reacher? David Baldacci’s John Puller and Will Robie. Vince Flynn’s Mitch Rapp. Michael Connelly. Harlan Coben. Patricia Cornwell. Robert Crais.

These are the books on my keeper shelves. They were, and are, reliable, trusty friends that I can count on to take me on an action-packed journey into danger and out again any time I want.

In the end, though, I always return to my first love: Bond. GOLDFINGER was the title that cemented Ian Fleming’s enduring place on my keeper shelf. In GOLDFINGER there was so much that was fascinating: the villain armor-plating his car with disguised gold to smuggle the gold out of the country (would that work?); the idea that the inhabitants of Fort Knox could be killed by the introduction of poison into the drinking water (I lived in Louisville, Kentucky, a hop, skip and a jump from Fort Knox); the murder of Jill Masterson by painting her gold from head to toe. (I was agog – could you really kill a person by painting them? Turns out the answer is no. This was possibly my first exposure to artistic license. Very disappointing, too: I had three little brothers and there were cans of paint in the garage.)

The character of Bond himself was fascinating – who was he? How did he end up working for Her Majesty’s Secret Service? When and where did he acquire his skills? What did he do when he wasn’t busy saving the world?

Inquiring minds (okay, my inquiring mind) wanted to know.

So when I sat down to write THE ULTIMATUM, my own action-packed death-defying thriller about my own budding secret agent, those are the questions I wanted to answer.

How does Bianca St. Ives go from being a perfectly normal young woman with a handful of unusual skills – she was raised by a high-end thief who is an expert in martial arts and the use of weapons, so she’s proficient at those things too – to the kick-ass femme fatale world-saving heroine known as The Guardian that she becomes?

Short answer: it’s a journey.

I love Bianca. I had (and am having) so much fun writing her. The constant danger, breakneck action, complex plot, and high stakes that make thrillers the nail-biting reads they are drive her story. But Bianca is in there, too: how does she cope with having the rug pulled out from under her life, and finding out that everything she thought she knew about herself simply isn’t true?
On a writerly note, the thing about having a heroine who kicks ass and takes names is that I have to know how to do the things she does.

She knows martial arts. She knows explosives. She knows weapons.

I know how to write books. Oh, and feed cats. For the record, I’m pretty good at both.
So hello, sensei master in the form of the owner of the local martial arts studios. Hello, cousin who was a Navy SEAL. Hello, book upon book about how to build explosives.
Just to give you an idea of my progress, I can now remotely explode a toilet at fifty yards.
But Bianca’s way ahead of me. I’m in a field blowing up outhouses. She’s out there saving the world.