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John Sandford on Certain Prey
In terms of plot and storytelling, thriller novels are the most flexible of all of the genre types. In thrillers, the main characters can be heroes or antiheroes, male or female, might live or die, might win or lose, can be of any race or nationality. The novels can be funny or bleak (or both at the same time see Carl Hiaasen) and be written either for adults or children.
There's a bestselling thriller hero who is a quadriplegic; any number of main characters are also criminals; there have been gay main characters, and a few who are children. At least one thriller novel, written by a bestselling author, was done in verse.
My main character in the Lucas Davenport Prey novels is right down the slot of that vast well-washed majority: he is athletic, white, straight, and survives.
In devising Davenport as a character, I was seriously interested in writing books that would sell well, and consciously chose what you might call that majoritarian slot. At the same time, as a thriller fan, I always liked books that strayed from the clich#233;d story line, and I wanted to write that kind of book.
So: While Davenport survives, he doesn't always win and he's been defeated at least twice by women. He's not exactly a hero, but rather a hybrid hero/antihero, who occasionally does some fairly nasty things illegal things to get his way.
Another thing I always found annoying as a thriller fan was the monstrous villain who is so smart, so powerful, so evil, that he/she is about to take over the world, only to be thwarted at the last minute (as the ticking bomb counts down to 1) by the hero. My problem is, I just don't believe any of that, and I would like to write books that are somewhat believable.
(An aside: I never liked the Austin Powers movies, because I don't care for Mike Myers as an actor. But I love the scene in the first Powers movie where Dr. Evil has captured Powers, and Evils' son [(Scott Evil one of the greatest villain names of all time)] keeps urging Dr. Evil to kill Powers right here, right now. Take a gun and shoot him... because if that's not done, Powers will certainly escape. Of course, it's not done, because Dr. Evil has to kill Powers in the most painful, monstrous way possible. Of course, Powers escapes.)
All of which brings me to this book: Certain Prey.
Clara Rinker, the professional mob assassin of Certain Prey, is possibly my most successful experiment in the more-inflected villain. I won't tell you how the story works out, but judging from what fans have told me over the years, Rinker is one of their sentimental favorites. She didn't want to be evil, she didn't have to be but she was terribly sexually abused as a child and as a teenager, and as a result, she grew up to be a sociopath, an intelligent, charming killer. She doesn't like killing, she doesn't get a thrill from it, she simply does it because she can, and it pays well.
She doesn't hold a high position in the mob, but rather invests her earnings in a bar in Wichita, Kansas... and even goes to business school to learn how to run things. She's not mysterious at all, she's pretty much what you see an attractive, thirtyish woman doing well in the world, who, in other circumstances, might have been a successful real-estate saleswoman. She is, in other words, a figure in gray, and in many way, admirable. She not only survived a brutal childhood, she went on to thrive in her own awful way.
And in many ways, she's not unlike Davenport. They might have been friends, if they hadn't wound up on opposite sides of the law.
In genre novels, one of the hardest things to do is to come up with a villain who is both interesting and credible. I occasionally go with the "monster" mode; but even then, I try to keep them close to home: the small-town hardware store owner who has been killing women in his basement; the school board that votes to murder the local newspaper reporter.
Rinker is one of those people. You'll probably find that you like her, even as she takes the electric drill and... well, never mind.
A final comment. I sometimes reread my own novels, just to try to remember where I've been. Certain Prey pulls me in, after almost fifteen years.
Clara Rinker is something else.
John Sandford, April 24, 2014
10 February 2017
The Prey series, the Virgil Flowers series, the Kidd series, The Singular Menace, The Night Crew, Dead Watch, The Eye and the Heart: The Watercolors of John Stuart Ingle, and Plastic Surgery: The Kindest Cut are copyrighted by John Sandford. All excerpts are used with permission.
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