ROBERT WILSON is the author of eight novels, including A Small Death in Lisbon, which won the Gold Dagger Award as Best Crime Novel of the Year from Britain’s Crime Writers’ Association. He lives in Portugal and Oxford, England.
Also with Javier Falcón:
Interview with Robert Wilson,
author of The Hidden Assassins
Q: Your bestselling A Small Death in Lisbon won the Gold Dagger Award for Best Crime Novel of the Year from Britain’s Crime Writers’ Association. What do you find most invigorating about writing crime novels? What aspects are more of a challenge?
A: The great thing about crime novels is that they only have one rule: something has to happen. It doesn’t matter where or when you set the novel, whether the characters are agreeable or disagreeable, young, old or middle-aged, as long as they convincingly do something they can be accommodated. So the most invigorating aspect of crime writing is that there are no boundaries. The challenge is that readers have only one—admittedly powerful—expectation.
In order to make something convincing happen you have to create a whole world. Readers of crime novels, more than readers of other genres, want it all: great setting, perfect period, believable characters, powerful emotions, galvanizing plot, and tremendous narrative pace. This is a very difficult combination to sustain which is why most writers, when they find a formula—whether it revolves around a character or a plot device—tend to stick to it. I find myself seeking better and more interesting ways to tell stories. I am always trying to find different ways to tell more complex stories while still giving readers what they want—even in my Seville quartet where I maintain the same setting and the same lead character, Javier Falcón.
Q: The terrorist scenarios in The Hidden Assassins are timely and well informed. How do you go about researching a subject as vast and complex as terrorism? Was it difficult to strike a balance between factual events and fictional espionage?
A: A lot of journalism and nonfiction has been written about terrorism since the first major attack occurred against the U.S. Embassy in Nairobi in 1998. That incident was followed by the boat attack on the USS Cole in 2000, and then the plane attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon in 2001. As each new attack occurred a terrifying ingenuity became apparent: there was nothing predictable about this kind of terrorism. It did not emanate from one source, it focused on multiple targets, and intelligence services were unprepared for it. It couldn’t have been more different from the last great challenge faced by the West during the Cold War.
This scenario has what a fiction writer wants: plenty of information but also a lot of gaps. At one point we might have believed that we were up against an organization called al-Qaeda headed by Osama bin Laden. This belief was maintained for quite some time because it was a manageable horror for the public to contemplate. Now we realize that this is not the case: groups have proliferated and formed alliances, sometimes with criminal organizations; targets can be individuals or nations, Muslim or members of other religions; financing comes from all over the world; and the trade of global arms and explosives facilitates terrorism in any place at any time. It’s all terrifying and it’s all possible.
One of the ways in which I maintained a balance between fact and fiction was to find real voices. I didn’t want this book to be informed only by journalists’ views of the Arab world. I wanted to hear from them myself. So I went to Morocco where I was given access to the workforce of a factory in the north. I spent three days interviewing people at all levels, from directors to workers on the shop floor. They told me their beliefs, desires, fears, paranoia, and even conspiracy theories which were, of course, different from our own but no less present. I learned about their humiliation and distrust, and that the greatest gap between the West and Islam is communication. This research formed the basis of the central chapter in The Hidden Assassins, where a fictional character speaks with a factual voice. In fact, this chapter was written and rewritten maybe fifty times, incorporating and condensing events as they happened—the death of Arafat, Sharon’s stroke, the election of Hamas—and was being altered right up to the moment it was sent to the typesetters.
Q: You don’t shy away from raw emotion in your storytelling, often paralleling private tragedy with public tragedy. How do you manage to cover the intimate pains and passions of individual characters while still weaving a tense thriller about international crime?
A: What worried me most about writing a thriller on the subject of terrorism was how to make a human story out of such a cold and heartless matter. I felt myself to be up against not only a certain amount of audience fatigue on the topic, but was also aware that I was trying to beguile a readership who perhaps had more desire to escape from the horrific reality, which had already reached their doorsteps, rather than dwell on it in a form of entertainment.
Religious fanatics of whatever hue do not, surprisingly, make for villains with recognizable human qualities. Part of the problem is that the terrorist must suppress, or even extinguish, all innate humanity in order to kill and maim men, women, and children indiscriminately. I especially did not think it would be possible to write a story in which a robed, bearded, and faceless fanatic could be described in a way that would enable the reader to form an emotional connection. And readers enjoy emotional connections to villains—just think of Hannibal Lecter.
I did think that it might be interesting to balance a foreign extreme with another extreme, possibly a form of home fanaticism, but this did not help me with the problem of making The Hidden Assassins a human story that would draw the reader in. It was in contemplating this particular brand of terrorism that I found my answer. I realized that these are people who live among us; they share in the advantages of our society, enjoy the freedoms of our democracy, and then turn on us in the most bloody way possible. They pretend to be us and are indistinguishable from us except by what they have in their minds. My human story comes through the public caught between the extremes. I had one great advantage to help me in this: a number of well-developed characters from the two earlier novels in the Falcón quartet. Through them I could show the nature of terror, whether in the form of repressed horrors coming to the surface of a disturbed mind on the psychologist’s couch or through a married couple’s relationship falling apart as a result of domestic violence. I could even show the unrecognizable terrorist who lives happily among us. All the human stories are relevant in microcosm to the greater horror of global terrorism.
Readers have found the terrorist plot “gripping,” but what “completely blew them away” is what happens to the characters, two of them in particular.
Q: In The Hidden Assassins, the public is manipulated by everyone—the terrorists, the politicians, and the media. Even so, the citizens prove they have minds and passions of their own. Did you consciously envision the general public as an influential, full-fledged character when you started writing the book, or did that happen naturally over the course of developing the response to a bombing of a residential target?
A: What became clear to me from reading and talking to people—Americans, Europeans, and Arabs—is that most normal people do not like terrorism. That is not to say that there aren’t some complicated and powerful feelings bound up in Islamic terrorism, but it made me realize that a very tiny minority creates a disproportionate amount of fear among the rest of the population. How does this happen? The most mentally destabilizing images to come into global consciousness since the Holocaust and Hiroshima at the end of World War II are those of the second plane crashing into the World Trade Center and the collapse of the twin towers. From that moment, the general public became a herd that could be influenced by terrorists, politicians, and the media.
The interesting aspect of this phenomenon is how frequently all three parties—friendly or not—press the panic button and watch us veer this way and that like a vast shoal of sardines surrounded by predators. In The Hidden Assassins I wanted to show how cynical these three powers can be, how they seek to manipulate the people at every turn, sometime with the truth but more often with rumor and disinformation. The politicians want to consolidate power and the media want to influence that and sell newspapers with their own sensational human stories.
I show one part of the public reacting to this: they stampede out of shopping centers, they pile into cars, and they leave the city. But there is another part of the public who find their voice: they stop traffic so ambulances can get to and from the hospital, they support grieving mothers. I show that the herd is made up of individuals—the man who thinks he has lost his whole family in the explosion and the policewoman who offers him refuge, and the woman who has lost her partner but acts on behalf of the Moroccan women whose husbands were in the mosque and who have now, out of fear, gone into hiding.
I couldn’t rely on the villains to provide an emotional connection, nor could I expect the police and judiciary figures to shoulder the full weight of heroism, what with all the work they’ve got to do. In this book, it’s the people who not only help readers understand the nature of terror, but also draw them in to the story’s emotional heart.
Q: When you write a new novel, what comes to you first, the characters or the storyline? Do you have any tricks for helping these elements take shape?
A: What comes to me first is the setting. I have to have a feeling for place in order for the characters to walk out of their houses. I don’t necessarily have to know a place as if I’ve lived there all my life; what I do need to have is a strong emotional connection to that place. Seville is perfect in this regard: it’s one of the most beautiful cities in Spain and has the liveliest people whose primary aim in life seems to be joy. I doubt there’s a city in Spain where you will eat and drink better in more animated and diverse surroundings. But this is not the whole story. Seville, like any city, has its problems—its appearance belies a dark side. There are drugs, crime, and racial tension as you’d expect in any city with more than a million people. For my purpose, the crucial thing is that it gives a very powerful first impression, an image of beauty and joy.
The setting came first and it brought with it the theme for the four books: appearance and reality. Then it was a matter of setting the characters loose in this environment. The great thing about writing crime novels is that you always know how to get started: someone has to die. Death inevitably creates conflict and with conflict comes drama that causes the characters to react to one another.
One of my tricks, if you can call it that, is that I always keep an open mind about my characters. I don’t make up my mind about them until I’ve seen how they behave. I find that they tell me how they want to be. If I try to force them into being what I think I want, they always win. For instance, it was not my original intention that Consuelo and Javier should take an interest in each other. When I put them together in the same room, Consuelo time and again stamped her authority on the scene and I couldn’t ignore that. My other trick is that I never know how the story is going to unfold. I reason that if I don’t know then the reader has no chance of knowing either. This technique works if you’re writing crime thrillers but it is also a lot of hard work to write in a state of unknowing and rewriting to make it all work out in the end.
Q: The Hidden Assassins marks the return of Inspector Jefe Javier Falcón from The Blind Man of Seville and Vanished Hands. What draws you so strongly to Inspector Falcón? Do you plan more books about him?
A: I wanted to create a character who had the capacity to change. The problem with homicide detectives is that they are senior policemen with responsibility and a demanding job. This means they are likely to be middle-aged and one thing about middle-aged men—particularly those in conservative jobs with a defined hierarchy—is that they almost never change. I realized that the only way I could give Javier the capacity to transform himself was by inducing a life-changing crisis. I decided that his crisis would be psychological and shattering and would cause him to completely rebuild his life. Not only did I get to know Javier intimately but I also burrowed deep into his family life and got to know his mother, father, brother, and sister. He’s become part of my family. I still want to know more about him which means I’m still keen to put him into difficult situations to see how he manages. I always assumed that there would a quartet of books with Inspector Falcón, and I’m working on the last book now. I believe a writer should leave his hero before he knows everything about him and that readers should be left still wanting more. I’ll have to see whether I reach this point after I finish this next book.
Author photograph © Jerry Bauer. Jacket photograph © Enrique Algarra/SuperStock.