Monday, October 15, 2012

The Story Behind the Story:
“Killer in a Box,” by David Thayer

(Editor’s note: In this 38th contribution to The Rap Sheet’s “Story Behind the Story” series, we hear from author and sometime Rap Sheet contributor David Thayer, a native of Niagara Falls, New York, who now lives in the Seattle area. Thayer has published three e-book thrillers (with a fourth on the way), all featuring Manhattan police detective Armand DiPino. Below, he explains some of the background to the first entry in that series, Killer in a Box.)

For me the story of writing a novel is told by the first draft. I don’t use an outline, so I’ve learned to compensate by writing first drafts that become narrative outlines crammed with crazy scenes, discarded characters, vignettes, sidebars, and parts of future novels to be set aside. I took the original version of Killer in a Box to a writer’s conference where it was nominated for an award. That was fun, but four years later I was still rewriting, trying to find the sweet spot between what I thought I was doing and what was actually happening on the page.

The story is set at the time of the Euro conversion. I read an article in The New York Times about people with vast piles of legacy currency rushing to the meet the deadline. They had to bring their Deutschmarks, francs, lira, and pesetas to designated banks or the money would become worthless. I thought this idea would be a great setup for a crime novel, a powerful motivator for the villains.

The main character, Armand DiPino, is a young detective assigned to Midtown North in Manhattan. I chose the location because I used to live just south of Hell’s Kitchen. DiPino is a native Californian; his parents are professors who moved to New York City when he was in high school. Throughout the book DiPino tries to stay in touch with his family. His wife, Patti, died in a hit-and-run four years earlier. The void in his life cannot be filled by long hours at work.

Killer in a Box opens with a sustained gunfight between police and what appears to be a group of men in military garb. The NYPD responds by adopting an urban combat plan creating a grid of evacuated streets they call a box. Once the perimeter of the box is secure, the police send in a scout--in this case, DiPino. This shootout on the West Side leaves multiple cops dead and wounded. Richard Fast, a prominent lawyer, also dies in the melee, gunned down on Tenth Avenue next to his late-model Mercedes.

DiPino emerges as a hero credited with saving the life of a fellow officer while shooting dead a suspect in an alley.

The NYPD is wary of their new poster boy, however. DiPino doesn’t fit the mold; he’s tainted by his time in Patrol, suspected of being part of a corrupt ring of cops known as the 8-9 Pad, so called because street taxes were collected on the eighth and ninth days of the month. DiPino is assigned to the shootout investigating team, which is commanded by an inspector named Rinaldo Beladon. Beladon belongs to the Internal Affairs Bureau. He knew Patti. He cleaned up the 8-9 Pad. Now he’s interested in DiPino.

Killer in a Box could have been written in the first-person. Instead, I chose a tight third-person point of view that keeps the focus on DiPino. As he learns more about the shootout, and also more about the past, the reader is right there with him every step of the way. The death of Richard Fast leads DiPino to discover that Fast had represented officers indicted in the 8-9 Pad scandal, and to an Uzbek crime family that has millions of German Marks to exchange for the newly formed euro currency. Making that connection proves crucial for DiPino on a very personal level; it moves the story toward the crime within the crime, toward discovering Patti DiPino’s real history. Patti was a civilian employee of the police department, working as an assistant to a precinct commander who was indicted after her death. That’s what DiPino has believed--until he discovers that Internal Affairs had an undercover officer inside the 8-9 Pad.

As the plot lines merge between past and present DiPino throws the rules aside, provoking his bosses and the criminals who are growing more desperate as the conversion deadline looms. Tensions between DiPino and his partner, Mickey Reidel, reach an explosive level. Mickey is the senior detective, one of the elite First Grade in the Detective Bureau. Mickey made DiPino walk the box in the opening shootout scene. He withheld backup, and then led them into a confrontation with a mobster named Frankie Maggavero, a key figure in the currency heist--and a suspect in Fast’s murder. Mickey is crazy with jealousy, tied to Richard Fast’s widow, Ellen Houk. Ellen had a child with Mickey years earlier, a secret that could get him dismissed from the force.

Like most crime novels, Killer in a Box deals with lives in crisis. DiPino has to confront the truth about his marriage to Patti and his complicity in her death. What he discovers about her demise leads to the most knee-buckling scene in this novel. During a meeting at a cop bar called The Squire, a disgraced officer warns DiPino that he is being set up for a hit. Not by mobsters, but by his fellow police officers. Incredulous at first, DiPino follows the informant’s advice: “Don’t go out the back door when you leave. Use the front door.”

After exiting The Squire, DiPino circles the block. The rear entrance to the bar is staked out by two men--one of them a cop, the other a retired cop, Bill McCaffrey. Patti’s father. Shocked and angry, DiPino follows McCaffrey home to Far Rockaway to the same house where Patti grew up, the neighborhood they planned to live in after they had kids.

(Right) Author David Thayer

Her own father? For DiPino, discovering the truth is devastating, but he presses on, flushing out Patti’s killer through a series of bold moves that threaten to push him beyond the limits any police officer must respect.

Because this is the first book in a series, I wanted to set up the characters without diluting the story or loading up on back story. I’ve written four DiPino books now, and I think they can each stand alone if read out of order. That’s my intent: that each of the novels is complete with front story pushing the pace, rather than worrying about what’s happened in the previous books. In The Working Dead, the third book in the series (following Red Mountain), we leave New York for DiPino’s hometown of San Francisco; the as-yet-unpublished fourth book, Crazy People, is a prequel, in a sense, because it has DiPino working with Mickey Reidel again on a homicide case.

Writers know they have to make many decisions as they write, that there is a discipline that shapes and sometimes limits creativity. No two books are alike even if they include series characters; some go fast, some crawl, and none of mine have turned out the way I thought they would. Sometimes the characters really do take over and we experience our version of the runner’s high. At other times, the process is a slog. I guess the author’s trick is to not allow the reader to see those paragraphs that turned into blood-sucking leeches instead of smooth prose ...

That’s what rewrites are for.

(Author photograph by Brian Myers)

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