Thursday, August 25, 2016

“The One Man” Cometh

By Ali Karim
There’s nothing surprising in the fact that avid thriller-fiction readers frequently hunger for something new, something fresh, and something notably different. But that, of course, puts them in conflict with commercial realities. Publishers want a return on their investments (as do Hollywood filmmakers), and the odds are greater that a sequel to a best-selling book, or a piece of fiction that follows some well-worn yet successful formula, will realize higher and more immediate profits than a work of greater originality. While critics may deride “the same old, same old,” consumers often demonstrate far greater tolerance for creative repetition.

I am reminded of a speech that legendary British book publisher Christopher MacLehose delivered in January 2008 at the Foreign Press Association’s headquarters in London’s West End, when his new imprint, MacLehose Press, launched—in conjunction with Quercus Publishing—a daring new novel titled The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, by a Swedish writer, Stieg Larsson, who’d died four years earlier. As I wrote then in The Rap Sheet:
He informed us that the job of the publisher is to bring books to the public that they didn’t want; books that they didn’t anticipate; and books that would nonetheless make an impression and challenge their way of thinking. The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is one such work, he observed.
Books that would nonetheless make an impression. I’ve been reeling recently after reading one such work, a highly literate suspense yarn, but one that is quite distinct from earlier efforts by this same best-selling author. I’m talking about American writer Andrew GrossThe One Man (Minotaur), a heavily researched World War II-era historical techno-thriller—released just this week in the States—that mixes in the themes of family and ordinary people caught up in extraordinary situations. This is a truly remarkable tale, one that reminds me of novels by Alistair MacLean and Eric Ambler, and leads me to recall a weekend when I was a teenager and devoured Fredrick Forsyth’s The Odessa File and The Day of the Jackal, reading them back-to-back, hypnotized by Forsyth’s storytelling prowess.

Since The One Man isn’t due out in Britain and Ireland until next month, I don’t want to say too much about its plot and maybe spoil things for readers, however unintentionally. So let me quote the synopsis provided by Gross’ U.S. publisher:
Poland. 1944. Alfred Mendl and his family are brought on a crowded train to a Nazi concentration camp after being caught trying to flee Paris with forged papers. His family is torn away from him on arrival, his life’s work burned before his eyes. To the guards, he is just another prisoner, but in fact Mendl—a renowned physicist—holds knowledge that only two people in the world possess. And the other is already at work for the Nazi war machine.

Four thousand miles away, in Washington, D.C., [Jewish] Intelligence lieutenant Nathan Blum routinely decodes messages from occupied Poland. Having escaped the Krakow ghetto as a teenager after the Nazis executed his family, Nathan longs to do more for his new country in the war. But never did he expect the proposal he receives from “Wild” Bill Donovan, head of the OSS: to sneak into the most guarded place on earth, a living hell, on a mission to find and escape with one man, the one man the Allies believe can ensure them victory in the war.
Favorable critiques from Publishers Weekly and Kirkus Reviews mirror my own thoughts on The One Man. I was quickly captivated by the story, and was absolutely floored by Gross’ denouement. I found myself clapping until my palms stung and were the same color as the red LED digits on my alarm clock—which informed me it was coming up to 4 a.m., and I had been reading this thriller all through the night. (Click here to enjoy an excerpt from the novel for yourself.)

I’ll leave the final assessment to Kirkus, which closed its write-up as follows: “This is Gross’ best work yet, with his heart and soul imprinted on every page.”

Andrew Gross and his wife, Lynn, at ThrillerFest 2007.

I was delighted when the New York City-born Gross agreed to speak with The Rap Sheet about his latest novel. Our wide-ranging interview covers everything from his boyhood experiences delving into mystery/thriller fiction and his later collaborations with suspense writer James Patterson (including two entries in the Women’s Murder Club series), to his longstanding fondness for historical thrillers and the research he did in order to compose The One Man. I caught up with Gross just before he set off on a promotional tour that will culminate in his appearance at next month’s Bouchercon in New Orleans.

Ali Karim: Andrew, I recall when you broke through, publishing-wise, with your first solo effort, The Blue Zone, in 2007. You told Shots magazine that despite having achieved success in the corporate world, you always hankered to write. What were your earliest readings as a boy, and which books really resonated with you?

Andrew Gross: I actually had a decent literary background before I chose to get an MBA [from Columbia University] and work in business. I was a published poet at 16, and got into [Vermont’s] Middlebury College as kind of a “literary jock.” I edited the literary magazine there as a junior, which was kind of an honor as [the job] always went to seniors. I was trained in the classic literary curriculums, so I admit my early reading in “mystery/thriller” had some holes.

For early thrillers that I enjoyed, I go back to Morris West (Shoes of the Fisherman) and Trevanian (The Eiger Sanction). If I had to name the two books that had the greatest effect on me, mystery or not, I would say: one, Robert Penn Walker’s All the King’s Men [1946], to me the most beautiful novel written in English (which is often read as just a political novel, when it is really based on the Telemachus myth, and follows a son’s search for his father); and two, Robert Stone’s Dog Soldiers, which won the National Book Award in 1975, and was the first true piece of contemporary literary thriller-writing I ever read. Dog Soldiers defined the type of book I one day wanted to write. So I was a reader long before I went into business and long before I connected with Patterson, which kind of defined my writing career for a while.

AK: Did you come from a family that valued literature and books? And what about your schooling—what did that give you in terms of your future career as a novelist?

AG: I wouldn’t say I come from a family with any great literary tradition. My family were in the women’s clothing business and were highly successful innovators. But I do come from a tradition of magnetic storytelling, and that is what is at the heart of writing for me. My father could captivate a room with his tales better than anyone I’ve ever met.

AK: You were the first of James Patterson’s fiction-writing protégés, penning four novels … or was it more? And am I right in asserting that the first, The Jester [2003], was the key work in that diverse quartet?

AG: It actually was five books with Patterson (and maybe even a sixth if one looks closely). The Jester was the book closest to my heart, because it built on my interest in the Middle Ages, and it was a beautiful romance and fairy tale, but it didn’t sell particularly well in the States, so it didn’t stand out as a success. I would say my last two, Judge and Jury [2006] and Lifeguard [2005], were probably the best, and stand out as good examples of my early writing.

AK: I have been intrigued by Patterson’s recent BookShots series of thriller novellas, designed for time-constrained readers. So what’s your take on this recent literary innovation and the art of the novella?

AG: I haven’t much to say on that apart from the fact that Jim has his pulse on a certain consumer in the States, maybe beyond, and he’s devoted to mining that persona in the way network TV does. But anything, anything that gets people reading who would not normally do so is aces by me! I’ve got nothing but respect for him, in the face of obvious criticism, and learned a hell of a lot working with him.

AK: I have often mentioned how much pleasure reading The Jester gave me. Can you tell us a little about the process of writing that novel, as it feels like a precursor of sort to The One Man.

AG: Well, The Jester is a precursor in that it gave me the confidence that I could write a tale in a completely different time and setting in a convincing way. Not every publisher felt the same. I always had faith in myself as a writer, though my work was always defined by the clashing rocks of Patterson co-writer and “suburban thrillers.”

Blending research into one’s narrative, transporting the reader, enriching the story with historical detail, these are all judgments a writer makes in his work—how much, how little. Obviously, with Patterson the kind of detail that’s in The One Man would never have been permitted. The kind of richness of detail that elevates the book! But both [The Jester and The One Man] have extremely emotional endings. So I knew I could pull it off, so to speak, and deftly.

When it comes to the writing process, I assume you meant with Patterson; and I’d rather not go into much of that, other than to say, all of the books I wrote with him came from his ideas and original treatments. That said, I’m pretty comfortable with how much I added as a partner on the venture. I wasn’t just typing it up!

AK: An obvious but nonetheless important question: Why did you turn from penning your contemporary thrillers to craft this historical action-adventure yarn, The One Man?

AG: So as I say, I wrote what might be called “suburban thrillers,” stories of everyday people in an upscale setting, like yoga moms and hedge-fund dads who step into something murky, something scary. Then through a misstep or just fate, they find themselves over their heads in deep shit, generally threatening the family. There were only so many predicaments and characters I could come up with, without knowing I was becoming entirely formulaic—the real trick is to convince the reader otherwise, of course. My sales trajectory had waned. To me, though everyone loves this category, there is only one author who's come out of the pack in this sector that’s been able to fully brand himself—and that’s Harlan Coben. I know in the UK Linwood Barclay has too, but not to the same extent as [Coben] has in the U.S. So I just said, to hell with it—I needed to make a change. I have confidence in calculated risk. I wanted to write the kind of books I wanted to write and like to read—books that transport you and deal in large themes, where, as Thoreau said, “you can find the miraculous in the common.” My contract with [publisher] HarperCollins ended, and a story presented itself to me, and I decided I wanted to be defined by the kind of books I wanted to write, not the narrow band my publishers felt were the easiest to market. So I took the leap!

AK: I couldn’t help but wonder, while reading The One Man, whether you’re a big reader of World War II historical thrillers, such as those penned by Alistair MacLean.

AG: I read [Alan] Furst consistently, read my share of Eric Ambler, and yes, Alistair MacLean. I can also go back to Ken Follett, Frederick Forsyth, William Goldman’s Marathon Man and Ira Levin’s The Boys from Brazil.

AK: I know that you found inspiration for The One Man in your late father-in-law. But had this story been gestating in your mind for some while, or did it develop more recently?

AG: Yes, my father in law, who just died at 96, came to this country from Poland in April of 1939, six months before the war. He lost his entire family and never knew their fates. Like a lot of survivors, he refused to talk about his upbringing, it was just too painful, and he carried this mantle of guilt and sadness with him his whole life. I started out in this book seeking to write … about that guilt and probe at what was responsible for that sadness. Who did he leave behind? And why? He also served his new country in the OSS, and never talked about that either. In many ways, I wanted to tell the story that he would have written. So, yes, the urge was with me for a while, but not the opportunity—I think I had pieced together an outline a year or two before I started writing.

AK: But there is a texture to The One Man that reminds me especially of MacLean’s thrillers, from The Guns of Navarone and Breakheart Pass to Where Eagles Dare. Having interviewed modern thriller writers, including Dennis Lehane, Lee Child, and Robert Crais, I know that MacLean was a particular influence on many of them. Were you a fan of his action thrillers?

AG: As I mentioned before, I was a keen reader of Alistair MacLean, as well having viewed the films based on his work—though it’s hard to separate the books from the movies. But I think my next [writing project], a novel based on the daring [1942] British-Norwegian raid on Vemork in Norway that ended the Nazis’ hopes for the atomic bomb [Operation Freshman] is far more in the spirit of MacLean—a typical action story focused on the hero. In The One Man, the hero is enmeshed with so many cultural issues in his motives for going back to the camp on this suicidal mission, and the setting of Auschwitz is so overwhelming in terms of humanity and evil, that it’s not in the center of the standard action/hero matrix.

AK: Many of today’s readers love rip-roaring adventures such as The One Man. What is it about human nature that makes us want to escape into these sorts of “campfire tales”?

AG: Well, besides the obvious celebration of heroism, which goes back in literature as early as we’ve been painting on cave walls, and [besides] the struggle to find meaning in our actions and the mystery of death, and if there’s something beyond, I mentioned earlier that finding the miraculous in the ordinary is, to me, an elemental joy of meshing together great characters and a rich plot. Another [attraction] is the combination of weakness and strength, loyalty and betrayal, in heroes such as Job, Achilles, King Arthur, Lear, et al. So we see ourselves as reflections, battling trying conditions and settings, and look for humanity at its best—standing up to humanity at its worst.

And we pray that the former overcomes the latter. Not to overthink it, of course!

(Right) The One Man’s UK cover.

AK: As in Forsyth’s The Day of the Jackal, in The One Man we know the historical outcome; French President Charles de Gaulle was not assassinated in that earlier work, and as pertains to The One Man, America’s Manhattan Project ultimately beat Nazi Germany’s efforts to enrich uranium. So how conscious were you, while penning this new novel, that you needed to keep the tension high despite the resolution of the international drama at your story’s core being known to readers?

AG: Ah, a good point. My view is, you can do anything—create mystery, suspense, historical importance—if the person who is the reader’s lens in the book does not know the outcome. Then it is up to your abilities in your own craft as a writer to convey and convince the reader that that outcome hasn’t taken place yet. For Nathan [Blum], my hero, this is a life-or-death mission, not only for his service to the Allied cause, but for the honor of his family who he left behind to die. So to see the story through his lens is to feel it without the playing out of history already before us. The questions of if and why trump the outcome.

AK: There is a great deal of detail in your narrative. Tell us about your research for this new novel, and how you went about laying out the tale without making it a physics textbook or a Holocaust lament?

AG: Yes, the detail was vital in The One Man. To me, that’s what creates richness. Streets, addresses, memories, anecdotes—that’s what makes the book come alive. And of course historical detail, and yes, science. Now keeping in mind that I’m a guy who muddled his way through eighth-grade earth science, it was important for me to convey just what was so vital that [electromagnetic physicist] Alfred Mendl knew. So I take my readers through the science of gaseous diffusion. Not in a textbook way (yawn!), but in the energetic interaction between two characters—the professor, Mendl, an expert in his field; and a brash, brilliant boy [16-year-old Leo Wolciek] Mendl stumbles upon, [and] who he needs to transfer his knowledge to. So what could be boring is enlivened by the battling modality of their exchanges. Everyone tells me this is one of the best parts of the book, and I think it’s an important part, because Leo’s learning of the science is part of the maturation from boy to manhood he must go through. But if I said up front, I’m going to give you a little lesson in atomic physics, you’d go—like me—ugh! Those are the parts [of a book] that, as Elmore Leonard once said, you tend to skip over.

AK: Tell us about the writing process behind The One Man. Was it heavily plotted, or not? And the yarn’s arc gives us several parallel stories, which you have knit together—in the stunning denouement—most deftly. Did all of this demand some long and deep thinking on your part?

AG: In previous novels I have written, there was always the opportunity to “wing it” a bit when it came to research and hide behind the curtain of “fiction.” Writing about the Holocaust raises the bar much, much higher. Not only is there the detail I described in the book, but the science, delivered in an entertaining way, and even chess—a smaller narrative thread in the book, but an important one. I think part of the “enriching” quality of the book is the way in which information is imparted organically, as part of conversation, as opposed to as you say, “like a textbook.”

A book that did this recently, and which I greatly admired, was Terry Hayes’ I Am Pilgrim [2014].

So to discuss the actual writing process—I outline in advance. In fact, what I sold almost two years ago to [publisher] Pan Macmillian was an outline. Not a thin, sketchy series of bullet points, but a detailed narrative, thought out to the last detail. I learned this from my days with Patterson. The one element I had not fully resolved was the little twist in the denouement that you say stunned you. It stunned me, because it was a reversal of how I thought I would end the book. It came to me in the middle of the night, eyes wide open, with my dogs barking at something outside—I wasn’t even thinking about it. At first I went, “Holy shit. That might just work. Is it better?” Ultimately, I decided it was. It’s about the only major turn in the book that I hadn’t mapped out in advance.

AK: Did you suffer anxiety from your peers or publishers about this new shift in genre styles? What’s the early feedback on The One Man?

AG: I have no anxiety in changing genre with regards to my peers. In fact, I’ve gotten so much advance praise heaped on me, it’s more than all my books combined. On a personal note, I started out as high volume, low substance on the sales/style matrix, a holdover from the Patterson roots, I think, because all my books have depth of subject and character. I never went after praise from my peers, because I chased sales. I ended up with neither. [He laughs.] I didn’t realize until this book, how genuine praise from those who do what I do, felt so good. And I’m very grateful for it.

AK: So what’s next for your as an author?

AG: What’s next, as I alluded to, is an Alistair MacLean-like adventure based on the story of the raid against the Nazi heavy-water facility at Vemork, Norway, called The Saboteur. It’s more of as straight thriller than The One Man, but it’s similar in that I want heroism to be the driving engine of the story. The Norwegian saying, “a true man goes as far as he can—and then he goes twice as far,” was the inspiration of what this story is about.

AK: Finally, what books have passed across your reading table of late that you found to be especially engaging?

AG: Absolutely the best book I’ve read recently was An Officer and a Spy, by Robert Harris, a story built around the [1894-1906] Dreyfus Affair in France. I think it’s truly a masterpiece of a career officer bound by duty, whose soul is unleashed when he steps into the injustices of the French prosecution of [artillery officer] Alfred Dreyfus. Ironically, I read Harris, yet I had never even heard of An Officer and a Spy until it was recommended to me by a friend—and then I see it was awarded the 2014 [Crime Writers’ Association’s] Ian Fleming Steel Dagger award. It’s one of those novels where you go, “Damn, I wish I had written that!”

* * *

So, would you like to win a free hardcover copy of The One Man for your own library? Andrew Gross’ American publisher, St. Martin’s Minotaur, has made three of them available to Rap Sheet readers, which we hope to give away through a simple drawing. To enter, all you need do is answer one small question:

Which of these Alistair MacLean novels is not a World War II thriller?
(1) HMS Ulysses
(2) Where Eagles Dare
(3) Puppet on a Chain
(4) The Guns of Navarone

E-mail your answer, along with your postal address (no P.O. boxes accepted), to And be sure to type “One Man Contest” in the subject line. Competition entries will be accepted between now and midnight on Friday, September 9. The three winners will be chosen completely at random.

Sorry, but at the publisher’s request, this contest is open only to residents of the United States and Canada.

(For your information, Shots will host a similar giveaway next month in cooperation with Gross’ British publisher, Pan Macmillan.)

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