My first encounter with Mooney, who now lives just outside of Boston with his wife and their son, came during the 2003 Bouchercon in Las Vegas--a meeting that led quickly to a rather drunken evening spent at The Peppermill restaurant, together with Irish novelist Ken Bruen and San Francisco author, critic, and noir film expert Eddie Muller. Later, I conducted an interview with Mooney for Shots, and have since bumped into him several times at ThrillerFest in New York City. Just this last autumn, I managed to carve out some time with Mooney at Bouchercon in San Francisco.
It was good to see him again in London, particularly since I wasn’t then feeling under tremendous time constraints. We actually met early, before his publisher’s scheduled lunch, to have a few beers together at Covent Garden. We talked briefly about such subjects as conspiracy theories and the peculiar case of former MI5 agent David Shayler. He was amused to find me lowering my voice whenever anyone else came near--chalk it up to a bit of paranoia. Eventually, we wound our way into a discussion of Mooney’s latest thriller, The Soul Collectors.
Released late last year in Britain, but still not available from a U.S. publisher, The Soul Collectors is the fourth book (after 2009’s The Dead Room) to star detective Darby McCormick. Here’s the plot synopsis:
Ten years ago CSI Darby McCormick investigated a sinister child-abduction case. Today, the missing child is back from the dead and holding his family hostage. He makes only one demand. Bring me Darby McCormick ... Charlie Rizzo has his family at gunpoint and when Darby arrives to defuse the scene, she finds him horrifically mutilated, with a mask of human skin sewn in place over his own face. Within minutes, a group of men disguised as SWAT officers bursts in and releases deadly Sarin gas, killing the Rizzo family outright and leaving Darby herself barely alive. Where has Charlie Rizzo been held all these years? Who are The Twelve who have been executing this gruesome torture? And why are the FBI running scared in the face of this particular, chilling episode? Darby is facing the toughest case of her career ... and, as the body count rises, one that will bring her into great personal danger and leave her in fear of losing her mind, if not her soul. For the Soul Collectors are the monsters from your worst nightmares.Editor Mari Evans had scheduled lunch at Hawksmoor, a restaurant famous for its range of steaks, where we were joined by literary critic and author Barry Forshaw. Considering that Mooney’s novels focus on the dark side of human nature, Dennis Lehane and Stephen King, Darby McCormick’s widespread appeal, his interest in e-readers, and his “F-bomb”-filled speech at Bouchercon.
Ali Karim: The Soul Collectors is the fourth novel featuring CSI specialist Darby McCormick, and she has become a very popular character in the genre. I would suggest that her appeal comes from her conflicting mix of vulnerability and strength. Would you agree?
Chris Mooney: I think that’s accurate. I didn’t want her to be as emotionally remote as another popular character I wrote about in Deviant Ways (2000) and The Secret Friend (2008), the former profiler wanted by the FBI, Malcolm Fletcher. What I find interesting about her is how she tries to rein in her emotions--and hide them--in the male-dominated world of law enforcement. I also wanted her to be as physically tough and aggressive as her male counterparts, which can make for an interesting paradox. What I think readers respond to, though, is the passion and, you might say, obsessive thinking and focus she brings to her job. Who wouldn’t want to have someone like Darby fighting for you?
AK: In The Soul Collectors we are introduced into a very dark world, and like many of your books it features physically (as well as mentally) scarred people. What is the attraction of the “dark side” to you as a novelist?
CM: I have this quote I always say to my wife: “You can really never know another person.” I firmly believe that. People have the face they wear around others, and the inner lives they keep hidden from everyone. I’ve always been fascinated with people’s inner lives. Villains have very interesting inner lives, because they don’t think the way we do. What makes serial killers, mass murders--any sort of villain, really--so interesting is that when they’re caught in real life, people are shocked, because these villains turn out to be the quiet next-door neighbor or the guy who works helping the poor down at the soup kitchen. They look and act just like the rest of us.
AK: Darby McCormick made her debut in The Missing (2007). Can you tell me where that character came from? And how has she developed over the course of her subsequent adventures, in The Secret Friend, The Dead Room, and now The Soul Collectors?
CM: She just appeared. That’s the honest-to-God truth. I always liked the name McCormick, and Darby was just an interesting and unusual name. When I started The Missing, all I knew was that I wanted it to be about these three girls with Darby McCormick as the central character. I had no idea how popular she’d become.
AK: Penguin UK has been quite supportive of your work. Tell us about the book video promotions they’ve used to introduce your novels.
CM: For my first book, they ran an international book trailer promotion where you had to create a movie-type trailer for The Missing. An up-and-coming filmmaker named Liam Garvo won with this beautifully shot trailer that was shown in movie theaters right during the week Spider-Man 3 opened. I’ve had a company produce trailers for all of my books, and Penguin uses them for promotion. They’ve been great to work with--a real asset in helping me reach more and more readers each year.
AK: I see that you are now represented by UK literary agent Darley Anderson. What have been your experiences in working with his team?
CM: Darley Anderson represents the best thriller writers in the business--Lee Child, Martina Cole, John Connolly, you name it. I met with Darley, and what I loved about him instantly was his commercial instincts--what makes a book popular, what doesn’t. He’s very down to earth, and everyone on his team brings something unique to the table. I’ll tell you this: Every piece of advice given to me by Darley and/or anyone working with him, they’ve never been wrong.
AK: Your work is now available in many international editions. Why do you think your books, especially those starring Darby McCormick, have such appeal beyond the UK and the United States?
CM: I think Darby is someone every woman wants to be, and every man wants to be with. [Laughs] She’s physically and mentally strong. She’s tough. She doesn’t let anything stand in her way. She keeps her word and she’s intensely loyal. I made the mistake of comparing her looks to Angelina Jolie’s. What I was trying to do was give her the same sort of presence--not just in terms of being good-looking but her physicality. [She’s] a woman who can hold her own with anyone.
AK: Coming from Boston, I assume you’ve read Dennis Lehane’s Moonlight Mile [the follow-up to Gone, Baby, Gone and one of January Magazine’s favorite books of 2010]. Would you care to share any of your thoughts about that novel?
CM: Thoroughly enjoyed it. Great to see [private investigators, and now husband and wife] Patrick [Kenzie] and Angie [Gennaro] again, see what’s going on in their lives after all these years. That’s all I’ll say, because I don’t want to give anything else away. If you’re a fan of the series, you won’t be disappointed.
AK: Speaking of Lehane, how did you feel being asked to read his “appreciation of Lee Child” at Bouchercon this last October? It was a tribute abundantly (and amusingly) replete with uses of the “F-word.”
CM: When Dennis found out I was going to read his speech honoring Lee, he purposely put in all those F-bombs. We’re both products of Irish Catholic households and schools, so we share a similar dark and twisted sense of humor. So it didn’t bother me at all. Dennis thought it would be hilarious--and it was, judging by the amount of laughing I heard, and the feedback I received afterwards.
AK: Since you’re a regular attendee at the International Thriller Writers’ [ITW] ThrillerFest in New York, and went to Bouchercon last year, can you cite the main differences between those two conventions?
CM: Bouchercon deals with every type of book that falls under the mystery label--the traditional mystery, thriller, the cozy, etc. ThrillerFest deals strictly with thrillers. I think the main difference is the authors each convention attracts. ThrillerFest gets the big thriller writers like James Patterson, Vince Flynn, David Baldacci, etc. Bouchercon gets the big mystery writers--Dennis Lehane, Michael Connelly, etc. That’s really about the only main difference. These writers I just mentioned go to both conventions, and more often that not you see the same fans at both.
AK: Your Web site includes a feature called “The Reading Room.” There you have the chance every month to give away one of your favorite books to somebody on your mailing list. Your picks are always interesting, and I was particularly delighted to see both Lehane’s Shutter Island and Stieg Larsson’s The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo among those you were dispensing. Would you care to let us know your thoughts on those two books, since they so often spilt readers into two camps: (a) those who loved them and (b) those who hated them?
CM: Shutter Island is an utterly amazing novel. The ending blew me away. Here’s the problem: If you figured out the ending--and you can, if you’re paying attention--then chances are you hated the book. I didn’t figure it out. I wasn’t looking to figure it out. When I pick up a book, I’m going along for the ride. I loved every line of Shutter Island. It was completely original; extremely well-written, as all of Dennis’s book are; and I loved the characters. But again, if you figured out the ending beforehand, then you probably didn’t like it.
The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo was interesting, because it’s a book that, in my opinion, on the surface should have failed in the U.S. There are dozens and dozens of characters that pop in and out of the story. It’s extremely long. Sometimes the lines don’t translate that well. The story, however, is completely compelling, and everyone loves [protagonist] Lisabeth Salander. What I kept hearing is that once you get past, say, the first 100 pages, the book flies. And it does. It’s a page-turner.
AK: I enjoyed the essay you wrote about Stephen King’s 1987 novel, Misery, for last year’s fine collection, Thrillers: 100 Must-Reads, edited by David Morrell and Hank Wagner. Tell us, why does King’s work resonate so strongly with you?
CM: Stephen King is the reason I became I writer. My parents wouldn’t let me see the  movie version of The Shining--and with good reason, since I must have been 10 or so at the time the movie came out. They let me take the book from the library, and to this day I remember lying in my bed at night, reading and being scared to death and not wanting the story to stop. I read it all in one night, and that was the moment I knew I wanted to be a writer.
What makes King unique is his voice and how visual he writes. He’s like those guys I met growing up, those great neighborhood storytellers who knew every inch of the city and its history and would put their arm around you and say, “Listen to this.” And within a few short lines you’re hooked, completely and utterly hooked. [King] really is the greatest storyteller of our time. Misery is one of my favorites, an absolute masterpiece. When I was asked if I’d be willing to write a tribute to the novel, I jumped on it. I haven’t met a writer yet who hasn’t been influenced by Stephen King’s work. David Foster Wallace taught Carrie  to his class. I could go on and on about what makes King so special, but suffice to say, he’s a complete original. When I sit down to write, I’m always thinking about a thriller like Misery, [Thomas Harris’] Red Dragon, or Shutter Island--books that are hugely entertaining, and yet there’s a lot of substance to them in terms of themes and character development. King is the ideal writer--hugely entertaining and yet a very good writer. I’m always trying to hit that target.
AK: Following on the subject of the ITW, I should say that I enjoyed your story, “Falling,” in that organization’s 2007 anthology, Thriller: Stories to Keep You Up All Night, especially as it featured your protagonist Malcolm Fletcher. Can you us a little about why Fletcher, who first appeared in Deviant Ways, continues to haunt your work?
CM: For a reason I’m not sure I fully understand, Fletcher seems to resonate with everyone. He’s a very strong character--I tend to think of him as Hannibal Lecter with a badge. Fletcher is a former profiler who’s on the FBI’s Most Wanted list. He goes places and does things that no normal or sane person would do. I wrote about him in the second Darby McCormick book, The Secret Friend, and discovered that I really enjoyed being around him--so much that I decided to write a new series featuring him. I just handed in a draft of the first Malcolm Fletcher book, called The Shadow, to my agent and publisher.
AK: I also really loved Remembering Sarah, your Edgar Award-nominated novel from 2004. What did that Edgar nod mean to you?
CM: Dennis Lehane told me this great line about being a writer. He called it “fear management.” As a writer, you’re constantly battling fear: Am I good enough? Can I write? Is this book any good? Is it going to work? Will people enjoy it? It’s an endless loop. The nomination helped manage this fear. It validated a feeling that I can, in fact, write and tell a compelling story. On another level, it was a turning point from beginning writer to a professional writer.
AK: What’s your opinion on the growing field of electronic books?
CM: It really comes down to the consumer. People either accept and then adopt a new technology or they don’t. E-readers have been around for a long time, but it wasn’t until the Kindle came along [beginning in 2007] that the e-reader officially exploded. It’s a great device. Now we all have to wait and see how much the e-reader book market grows--and I think it will over time. My local Barnes & Noble is really pushing its Nook. You walk into the store now and the front half is dedicated to the Nook. If the e-reader becomes a dominant force, then the size of bookstores will decrease dramatically, I think.
AK: Do have an electronic reading device, or are you clinging to paper?
CM: I have a Kindle. It really is a game-changing device in terms of e-reader: portable, lightweight, and easy to read. I tend to use a Kindle when I travel. Instead of taking, say, five or six paperbacks with me on vacation, I’ll take a Kindle. But I still prefer paper. It’s nice to see the entire page, and I like marking a place in a book to see how much more I have to read. I like taking notes and underlying paragraphs and lines. You can’t do that on a Kindle.
I think there’s a place for both, but again, it really comes down to the consumer. The romance market, for example, is booming on the e-book front, because readers can buy these books and read them privately--meaning, when they’re on a train, they’re not holding up a book featuring a cover [image] of Fabio or another male model that’s advertising what they’re reading. With e-readers, you can read whatever you want in complete anonymity. That’s a big appeal for a lot of people.
AK: Finally, I have to ask what you’re working on currently. Are we going to see a Darby McCormick #5, or maybe some sort of standalone? Or perhaps there’s more to be heard from Malcolm Fletcher?
CM: I’m about to start some revisions on the new Malcolm Fletcher book, The Shadow. Then it’s off to Darby book #5. I’m trying to write two books a year now--a Darby book and a Fletcher book. When I started out, my first three books were standalones, and I was getting exhausted trying to reinvent the wheel every time I sat down to write. I love doing a series, and that’s what my readers expect from me now.
(Author photograph by Vin Catania.)