In Ruins of War, Connell imagined a serial killer running rampant in bomb-ravaged postwar Munich, Germany, pursued with persistent resolve by Mason Collins, a half-German former Chicago homicide detective and ex-prisoner of war, who currently serves as a criminal investigator with the U.S. Army. He may not be much for following rules and regulations, but like Bernie Gunther—Philip Kerr’s lead in a succession of novels set during and after World War II (the newest being this March’s release, The Other Side of Silence)—Collins can rely on his sleuthing skills, no matter where he’s asked to practice them.
As I write in my latest Kirkus Reviews column—posted this morning—Spoils of Victory demands that Collins demonstrate those skills in a case involving both murder and illicit trade in stolen goods:
[It] finds Collins transferred to the quaint Bavarian resort town of Garmisch-Partenkirchen, on the German-Austrian border, where a curiously well-off Counter Intelligence Corps agent, John Winstone, meets a grisly end along with his German mistress, Hilda. Collins’ superiors would prefer those tragedies be listed as murder-suicide, but Connell’s protagonist becomes convinced that Winstone was slain before he could expose an extensive black-market operation involving former Nazis and, in all likelihood, advantageously positioned U.S. Army personnel. Aided by Hilda’s damaged sister, a Jewish informant with everything to lose, and a new partner all too willing to tackle tenuous leads, Collins pursues Winstone’s missing evidence of black-market shenanigans, in the process turning up more corpses as well as the trail of a Nazi torturer from his past.Earlier this month I conducted a multi-part e-mail interview with Georgia-born author Connell, who now lives in Spain. I only had room in my new Kirkus column, though, for a modest portion of our exchange, which covered subjects ranging from his boyhood reading experiences and earlier career as a cameraman for films and TV series, to his fondness for music and history, postwar Europe’s thriving black markets, and his foremost writing challenges. What didn’t fit in Kirkus—which was quite a lot—I have embedded below.
J. Kingston Pierce: Let’s begin by collecting some biographical data. Where were you born? And who were your parents?
John A. Connell: I was born in Atlanta, Georgia. My father is retired, but he was an architect and professor of architecture and city planning. My mother was a registered nurse in the Navy during and shortly after World War II, but by the time my brother and I came along, she was a mother and housewife.
JKP: Were you a big reader when you were young?
JAC: When I was very young, my parents read to us kids every night, and my mother had signed up my older brother and I for a children’s book club, which came to a book a week. It wasn’t until I was in my early teens that I began reading voraciously. I read everything by H.G. Wells, including his The Outline of History . I also devoured Jules Verne and Edgar Rice Burroughs, and a little later I became a Charles Dickens and Arthur Conan Doyle devotee. I guess, aside from Burroughs, I was an Anglophile reader, especially works of England during the second half of the 19th century.
JKP: As you were growing up, were there people in your life who encouraged you to read or to write? Who were those folks?
JAC: My parents had shelves loaded with books, and even at an early age I was fascinated with them. My mother was an avid reader and took us to the library every weekend to check out books. Also, my brother, who is four years older than me, introduced me to books about World War I and II—I remember one about World War I flying aces being a particular favorite. And when my brother was out, I would sneak into his room to read his collection of Ian Fleming’s James Bond novels, because my mother thought they were too risqué for a boy my age. No one encouraged me to write—that came on its own.
JKP: So when did you first know that you wanted to become a writer someday?
JAC: I wrote short stories starting in my teens, but only for myself. The first story anyone read was my history teacher in the 10th grade. I wrote quite a gory account of the St. Bartholomew’s Day massacre [of 1572]. After reading it he suggested that I should become a novelist, but at that time I had dreams of being a rock ’n’ roll star. The rest of my stories were hybrid versions of H.G. Wells’ short stories, and I wrote in a very Victorian manner, with page-long passages. But for all of my teenage and young adult life, I never thought I would be good enough, and music in my teens and 20s, then camerawork, occupied my creative life. Still, that bug to write was always with me, and then, around the age of 40, I expressed my dream of writing to a screenwriter friend, and he said, “Shut up, sit down, and write.” I did, and the writing “disease” immediately took hold. I started with screenplays, which seemed like the natural thing to do, since I worked in the film business. But I became frustrated with the confinement of the screenplay form. I wanted to go deeper into my characters and the world that surrounded them. That’s when I tried my hand at novels and never looked back.
JKP: Where did you go to school? Were you a good student?
JAC: I went to Georgia State University in Atlanta. I was bored in high school, but college opened my eyes to learning, and I wanted to learn everything. I bounced around, trying out several majors, even physics for about two quarters. I concentrated on psychology, and almost completed the course work required for a degree, but then finally switched to Anthropology and got my B.A. in that field. I wasn’t at all what you call distinguished. All the time I was in college, I thought I was going to be a musician and music composer (though, ironically, I never pursued a music degree in college).
JKP: What had inspired your interest in music?
JAC: My mother had a spinet piano in the dining room, and when I was 4 or 5, I started to improvise simple tunes and musical phrases. No Mozart by any stretch of the imagination, but it was enough to convince my mother to drag me to piano lessons until I was 13. I displayed some talent, but lacked discipline and preferred to make up my own music rather than learn the classics. I sang and played the organ in rock ’n’ roll bands in high school, then jazz piano in college, all the while thinking I would one day become a composer.
JKP: So what finally ended that career dream?
JAC: I had a gift for performance and composing, but I lacked the passion and discipline to master the craft. And at that young age, if whatever I wrote didn’t come out as instantly brilliant then I abandoned it, which was all too often. When I finally walked away from music, I was crushed, and as a consequence I haven’t returned to keyboard since.
Looking back, I realize that music was my outlet for a driving urge to create, and camerawork served that same purpose until I discovered my true passion, writing.
JKP: Was it as a student, or sometime later, that you developed an interest in history? And what made you interested in that subject, when so many other people are not?
JAC: I’d always been fascinated with history, ever since I was a child. My parents had a four-volume set of books, History of the World, published in 1880. I read through those books time and again, and studied the illustrations for hours. And, certainly, from the books I read as a teenager, I had a fascination with 19th-century England. But it was my 10th-grade history teacher who really instilled in me my passion for history. He explained moments in history, not through tedious rote memorization, but through the eyes of those who lived it, and how the world around them impacted their decisions—good and bad. That was a real eye-opener for me. Anything, books and film, that allowed me to peer into this magical looking glass of the past, I devoured, especially stories involving the common man and woman caught up in tumultuous events of their time and called upon to do extraordinary things.
JKP: I understand you took a job as a printing-press operator after college. How did that fit into your life’s goals? And was there anything you learned in that occupation which proved useful later on?
JAC: Right after college, I was living on my own and planning on getting married. I needed an income, and fast. I was pretty nonconformist at that time, and had long hair and a beard—which didn’t go over very well in Georgia in the ’70s—so my choices boiled down to being a veterinarian’s assistant or a printing-press operator. I chose the latter because it paid more. I hated the job, but I decided to stick with it until I knew what I wanted to do with my life. If there was anything I learned from that occupation, it is that I never wanted to do that again.
JKP: You subsequently studied up enough to win jobs as a cameraman on films and TV programs. The Internet Movie Database (IMDb) offers up a long list of your credits behind the camera, including your work on Thelma & Louise and Jurassic Park, and on TV series such as David E. Kelley’s The Practice and David Milch’s NYPD Blue. What are you best and worst memories of being behind the camera?
JAC: I have quite a few of both. The worst being some of the politics or over-inflated egos on a particular shoot, those [people] who considered their endeavors on the same level as life-saving brain surgery or [thought] their movie was destined to save the world. The best being the opportunity to work with some great artists, directors, and cinematographers, and watching a story unfold through the camera’s viewfinder.
JKP: What’s the most important lesson you took away from filmmaking that has helped you as a fiction writer?
JAC: I’ve learned a lot from film and television, but, if I had to pick the most important, it would be dialogue. I’m not about to say that I’ve reached the heights of talent that I’ve experienced working on or watching a great film, but I have learned how important it is. The best dialogue can tell a great deal in a few succinct lines. It also has subtext—what people say and what they mean can be two different things, and often convey meaning and emotion on several levels. And dialogue is more memorable and impactful when it’s taken out of the ordinary, out of the banal speech of everyday life, and twisted or flipped on its head.
JKP: So which films and filmmakers taught you the most valuable lessons about writing dialogue?
JAC: My first influences for dialogue came from films made in the 1930s and ’40s, films like Casablanca, To Have and Have Not, His Girl Friday, or The Women. Some of my all-time favorites were adapted from the stage, like Inherit the Wind and The Lion in Winter. Anything Aaron Sorkin [has done], particularly The West Wing, The Newsroom, and A Few Good Men. Then there’s David Milch again, with Deadwood. Remarkable. I loved it when he would have a scene with two characters talking about completely different things to each other, neither listening to what the other one was saying, but their dueling dialogue conveyed so much in a brief span of time.
JKP: Do any other film or TV folk stand out in your memory?
JAC: Other than David Milch, who I mentioned from NYPD Blue, there was also executive producer Bill Clark. He was a retired NYPD police detective and often talked to the actors about his time on the force, what really happened behind the closed doors in interrogation rooms, or the peculiar symbiotic relationships that could develop between cop and criminal. I learned a lot about that world just listening to Mr. Clark’s candid remarks. I loved watching Ridley Scott build a scene like a mad conductor with an orchestra, or how he worked with the actors to pull out the best of their characters. David E. Kelley also comes to mind, with his quirky characters, snappy dialogue, and his willingness to push the envelope when telling a story.
JKP: As a cameraman, you were living and working mostly in Los Angeles. So how and when did you wind up moving to Paris?
JAC: I fell in love with Paris after my first visit in the ’80s, and Europe in general. My wife and I met and married in Los Angeles, then about a year later, and right after buying our dream house—at least as much of a dream house as we could afford—my wife, who is French, was offered a very good job in Paris. I had dreamed of devoting my full time to writing and living in Europe, Paris in particular, so I said yes with little hesitation.
My wife, Janine, took the position of deputy general director of SACD, or Société des Auteurs et Compositeurs Dramatiques. It is a French society, started in 1777, that manages, promotes, and protects the performance rights of theatrical, audiovisual, or photographic works for their creators by collecting royalties and authorizing performances. She held that position for 12 years, before taking on the same position for the Spanish equivalent of SACD, called Sociedad General de Autores y Editores, or SGAE, in Madrid, Spain. So, as of the end of last October, we’ve been living in Madrid.
JKP: Was it before you moved to Europe, or after, that you came up with the idea for a series set in the aftermath of World War II and starring a criminal investigator in Germany?
JAC: I came up with the idea for the Mason Collins series after I moved to Paris, and I think that my expat experiences, that notion of being a foreigner in a foreign land, has had an influence on how I developed Mason as a character. As I was writing Mason’s story, his expat wanderlust came out of seemingly nowhere—until I realized that, unconsciously, it had come from me.
JKP: Had you tried writing novels before Ruins of War? Are there piles of unpublished John Connell books moldering someplace in a basement corner or desk drawer?
JAC: I wrote four other unpublished novels before completing Ruins of War. Perhaps, one day, I may try to resurrect one or more of the more promising stories sequestered in the “cyber drawer” on my hard drive.
JKP: Were you most interested, originally, in fictionalizing Germany after World War II or in writing a detective novel?
JAC: Of the four novels before Ruins of War, three are historical crime fiction, but none are detective novels. Though I’ve read and loved many detective novels, I hadn’t considered writing in that specific subgenre. It was Mason Collins’ back story, as a U.S. Army CID [Criminal Investigation Division] investigator, that dictated I go there, and I’ve enjoyed it immensely.
JKP: Had you long been a reader of crime fiction? Who were your favorite authors in the genre when you started Ruins of War?
JAC: Aside from [reading] most all of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories as a teenager, I also turned to Agatha Christie, then Dashiell Hammett, James M. Cain, and Raymond Chandler. I have so many favorite authors, crime fiction and otherwise, and scores of great writers have influenced my writing. I can say that some of the authors who had an influence on my approach to Ruins of War and Spoils of Victory were James Ellroy, Martin Cruz Smith, Nelson DeMille, Dennis Lehane, and a dash of Graham Greene.
JKP: Two facets of Collins’ history interest me in particular. First, that he’d broken “the blue code of silence” while a member of the Chicago Police Department and been subsequently booted from the CPD, “and blackballed from every big-city police force” in the States. Second, that he’d been a prisoner of war and resident of German concentration camps, including horrific Buchenwald. How important were those elements in your creation of Collins as a character, and how do they influence his behavior?
JAC: Early in his detective career at the CPD, Mason tries to bust a ring of corrupt cops who murdered his partner. He broke the blue code of silence by going to the district attorney, but the system turned on him, framing him for selling drugs and booting him off the force. That unjust treatment fosters Mason’s distrust and lack of respect for authority. And being blackballed from every big-city police force is another facet of the masterless samurai ethos, leaving Mason with no ties to home. Except for his grandmother, he has no family to go back to, nothing to anchor him, little to create a sense of identity except through his own convictions. And the experience of being a POW and interned for a short time in Buchenwald has left him bitter and disillusioned with humanity. Yet, despite those deep scars, he manages to maintain his need to right wrongs, even if it means putting himself in harm’s way.
Those two elements relentlessly weigh on Mason’s psyche, threatening to push him over the line, creating a constant clash against his values of right and wrong, his sense of justice. Mason fights the temptation to give in to his negative impulses, taking on life one step at a time, all the while knowing that one or two steps in the wrong direction could lead him on a very dark path. One thing I would like to explore is having him turn dark at some point in the journey, [find] something that pushes him to abandon his strict moral code, and see if he can ever get back again.
Garmisch-Partenkirchen in southern Germany.
JKP: The action in Ruins of War took place in Munich, but Spoils of Victory finds Mason Collins hard at work in Garmisch-Partenkirchen, a Bavarian mountain resort town that was barely touched by World War II. Why did that town become such a hotbed of postwar criminality, and when was it finally cleaned up?
JAC: As the Third Reich collapsed, and the Allied armies were pushing in from the west and east, Garmisch-Partenkirchen became the stem of the funnel for fleeing wealthy Germans, Nazi government officials and war criminals, retreating SS, and former French Vichy and Mussolini officials. For the same reason it also became the final destination for Nazi-stolen art masterpieces, vast reserves of the Third Reich gold, currencies, precious gems, penicillin, diamonds, and uranium from the failed atomic bomb experiments. After the war, all that became available for purchase on the black market. With millions of dollars to be made, murder, extortion, bribes, and corruption became the norm. The promise of fortunes also brought in a multitude of scoundrels, scam artists, and gangsters. Add to this tens of thousands of bored U.S. Army soldiers ripe for temptation. The black market thrived, and gangs of deserted allied soldiers, former POWs, and corrupt displaced persons roamed the countryside. With the U.S. officials looking the other way or profiting from the activity, some gangs were so successful they even had their own logos and printed stationary.
The clean-up started just about the time of Spoils of Victory, the spring of 1946. But it would be at least another year and a half before things settled down. I say, “settled down,” because the transition happened quietly, with much of it swept under the carpet. There was too much at stake, with the growing tensions with the Russians, for a damaging U.S. Army scandal to come out to the public. A few of the more egregious players were convicted, while others received a slap on the wrist, and some just disappeared or blithely returned home after their tour had ended. Also, in the ensuing two years, the army and military government had gotten their act together, with better top-down organization, tighter supervision, and a centralized military police force with the formation of the U.S. Constabulary Force.
JKP: Your man Collins isn’t big on obeying rules or kowtowing to Army brass hats. Is a great part of his credibility as a character linked to the fact that he is operating in an environment susceptible to confusion, and where there has to be some flexibility in how things are done? On a big-city police force, he might not have as much leeway to address matters in his own blunt-force fashion.
JAC: During those first two years [after World War II], the conquering armies struggled with the enormous task of transforming into an occupational force in a country that had been bombed back to the Middle Ages. Those problems were exacerbated by the lack of top-down organization, lateral cohesion, and rivalries between army agencies, army commanders, and military government officials. There was no central policing structure (that would come later with the establishment of the U.S. Constabulary Force), and when the war ended, a large majority of experienced CID officers and MPs were sent home for time served and army downsizing for budgetary reasons. That left the MP and CID short-handed, with units in a state of disorganization. And many soldiers, untrained in law enforcement, were pulled from other fighting units to fill the gaps. Many times the CID officers were left to fend for themselves, lacking personnel and resources, in a chaotic situation. So, it’s not hard to imagine that Mason was given a good bit of leeway when conducting an investigation, and for him to conduct a successful investigation, he had to do things that, under normal circumstances, would be considered over the line—not to mention Mason’s preference for doing things on his own.
And just to add a little cherry on top: The MP commander in Spoils of Victory is loosely based on an actual MP commander in Garmisch-Partenkirchen, who is believed to have suffered a stroke, leaving him in a confused mental state, but because the army needed commanders, they gave him this command position because of his war record.
JKP: In many respects, the tales you tell in these two books could have been set, instead, in Chicago or Los Angeles or any large U.S. city. How conscious are you of inserting elements into your plots that ground the stories necessarily in postwar Europe?
JAC: I was quite conscious of inserting elements of post-WWII Germany into my plot precisely because history inspired the stories. The circumstances, the characters, and settings dictated where I should go, and, conversely, where I should not tread. In Ruins of War it was the destroyed city, where a killer like Jeffery Dahmer or Ted Bundy is loose in the ruins with a half-million easy prey. The elements of chaos and confusion of the occupying army, and the distrust and resentment on both the American and German sides [enhance the plot].
In Spoils of Victory, the scale of the black market, the peculiar partnership of mortal enemies now united in crime, and, again, the general chaos in Germany, the disorganization of the law-enforcement agencies, all came together in this unique time and place. Then throw in Garmisch-Partenkirchen, a fairy-tale town in a picturesque setting being the home to organized crime on a grand scale.
JKP: There’s obviously a serious tone to Spoils of Victory, but there are also a number of funny moments. How important do you think humor is in crime and mystery fiction?
JAC: I don’t think it’s vital, but I enjoy novels that introduce some humor in otherwise dark stories. Humor provides relief from the serious tones, and gives characters an additional dimension. I liken it to when police officers or soldiers use humor to break the stress of their jobs.
JKP: I’m impressed that you took on the writing of a detective series set around the tumult of the Second World War. After all, there’s stiff competition for readers of such stories, including from Philip Kerr and J. Robert Janes. What can you bring to our understanding of that era and the people who survived it that others might not?
JAC: I’ve read countless non-fiction and fiction books about the lead-up to World War II and during the war itself, but very few in its immediate aftermath, especially through the eyes of an American soldier. I had assumed that, while there was destruction and deprivation, post-WWII was relatively peaceful and the transition to democratic Germany went smoothly. But I was blown away by what I discovered about that era.
The Germans called the time just after the war Die Stunde Null, “The Zero Hour.” Germany had been bombed back to the Middle Ages. Death by famine, disease, and murder had replaced the bullets and bombs. Over 10 million people brought into Germany as slaves, along with the tens of thousands of POW and concentration camp survivors, were all suddenly freed and making the trek home or wandering the countryside. Then came the millions of ethnic Germans expelled from Poland and the former Czechoslovakia, streaming into Germany with nothing but what they could carry on their backs.
I wanted to explore the madness and chaos, the struggle by the Americans and British to forge a democracy out of a population that had only known dictatorship for 13 years, all while the threat of a new war with Russia brewed on the horizon. I wanted to show that, while the vast majority of the U.S. military personnel strove to do their best, there was a surprising amount of corruption and crime. The conquering armies—the Americans, British, French and Russians—wielded ultimate power over a desperate population, and a typical soldier could barter for almost anything with a single pack of cigarettes. And that power led some to ruthlessly exploit a broken country and its people.
I then imagined a war veteran in that backdrop of chaos and deprivation. U.S. Army criminal investigator Mason Collins not only experienced the brutal fighting on the front lines, but also suffered as a prisoner of war at the hands of the Nazis. He is of German birth and bitter towards the German people for supporting an evil regime. But he, like many American soldiers, finds he must resolve his anger and prejudices after witnessing so much destruction and suffering.
JKP: How long would you like to keep the Mason Collins series going? And now that you’ve demonstrated success as a novelist, do you have other sorts of books in mind to tackle someday?
JAC: I would like to continue with Mason Collins for as long as I feel I can keep him and his journey fresh. I have a few vague ideas for other books, and they all fall in the historical crime-fiction category. But for now, I have my hands full with Mason.
JKP: What’s the most important thing you still need to learn to really succeed as a fiction writer?
JAC: I believe a writer should always strive to improve and learn. Having said that, I wish I could learn to do a complete outline, while keeping it fresh and surprising. Right now, I’m a hybrid writer—somewhere between a “pantser” and an outliner. When I start, I know the beginning, the end, and a few plot points in between. Then I sit down and start writing. I like discovering things along the way, seeing situations or sudden turns I might miss if I adhered to a rigid outline. But I’d certainly be a more efficient writer if I could master creating a more complete outline.
I’m also a lousy typist. I definitely see some need for improvement there.
JKP: Finally, if you could have penned any novel that doesn’t currently carry your byline, which would it be?
JAC: Is that a clever way of asking what is my favorite novel? I have too many favorites to choose just one. However, if I was forced to choose, and this is somewhat off the top of my head, it would be The Name of the Rose.
(Author photograph by Pictange.)