Message From The Author
Yes, I admit it, I dunnit, I wrote a thriller in the middle of a private eye series. On the Line, it's called, and though the protagonist is Bill Smith, one of my series PI's, and though it involves detective work, no one would mistake it for a PI-procedural. Even Bill Smith's normal world-weary narrative voice is different here. It has to be: he has no time for his usual dark reflection. Lydia Chin's been kidnapped. The kidnapper's given Smith twelve hours to find her. He starts Smith off with a cryptic set of clues, which Smith thinks will lead to Lydia but of course they don't. (At the beginning of the book?) They just lead to more trouble, and more demands, and yet more of each, setting Smith racing around New York on a lunatic's timetable trying to save Lydia's life and other lives along the way.
So what possessed me?
A number of things.
On the Line is my tenth Lydia Chin/Bill Smith book, my twelfth book altogether. My first eight were in the series, and pretty much in the traditional PI vein, though by the eighth -- Winter and Night -- it was obvious I was beginning to push my range. Solving the case, in that book, was only part of the quest: stopping the coming catastrophe and insuring some form of justice, however cockeyed, were equally important. The next two books were non-series ones: prompted by 9/11, I wrote Absent Friends and then after it, In This Rain. Both were multi-voice, large-canvas novels. When I came back to the series with The Shanghai Moon I expected to return with a straight-ahead first-person narrative in Lydia's voice. It didn't happen that way, though. I found that to tell the part set in the past, the love story in WWII Shanghai, I needed letters... diary entries... old newspaper clippings... oh so many things. So I wrote them.
And then, finally, back to Bill Smith, back to the voice-over, shop-worn PI, that iconic American figure. That's what I thought, anyway. But I'd found my explorations of the different techniques involved in the previous books exhilarating. And a couple of questions about my series had interested me for awhile. On a character level: Bill and Lydia have been partners for years now, but their personal relationship has always been complex. Complex, but changing. And never faced up to squarely by either of them. What would happen if she were threatened, he the only one who could save her? How would he react? How would she react? Also, as a writer, on a technical level, I was intrigued by the thriller form. It makes different demands on the narrative, and on the writer. The action can't stop, no time for reflection, lyricism, exposition, description. I wondered, could I do that -- keep the sound of the ticking clock loud in the readers' ear -- and at the same time do what I love to do: make the place and the characters come alive?
The trap you need to avoid when you're writing a thriller is the temptation to reduce your characters to chess pieces and your setting to cliché. He squared his broad shoulders and set off at a sprint down Fifth Avenue, racing past Tiffany's glittering windows. This happens because the narrative won't permit fat, or ease, or sidetracks. I was interested to see if I could avoid that chess piece/cliché trap and write my kind of book, and still keep the reader up until three a.m.
It wasn't easy, especially at first. I often felt I had to choose between the two: fast pace, or three-dimensional writing. But I wasn't willing to. I'd read thrillers that did what I wanted to do. I knew it was possible.
I hit roadblocks along the way, technical ones, plot ones, character ones. And personal ones -- more than once I woke up at 3 a.m. saying to myself, "A thriller? What's wrong with you? Bill Smith's a private eye. Who in their right mind will want to read a Bill Smith ticking-clock thriller?" Luckily for me, the book was under contract. That's extremely useful when I'm six months into a book and I want to throw the whole thing into the Hudson. "No problem," my editor always says. "Go ahead, junk it, start something new. As long as you hand in a manuscript on deadline. That's, I think, six more months?" I can't write that fast; inevitably I have to go back to the book that was headed for the river. That's what happened here. By the time I was panicking Bill Smith wasn't the only character racing the clock.
That's the story, then, of On the Line. And now? Surprisingly, I find myself writing a straight-ahead, first-person PI novel, narrated by Lydia Chin. I'm enjoying it. It's a format I find a lot of value in, narratively and personally; that's why, when I started writing, it was the format I used. But what about the techniques and tricks I learned when I wrote On the Line? Was that a one-off? Am I just putting them away now, okay that was nice but been there done that?
Who knows? But personally, I doubt it.
- S.J. Rozan
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