Tuesday, April 03, 2007

The Darkness Inside John Rickards

John Rickards debuted in 2003 with his psychological thriller Winter’s End, which I enjoyed immensely. The British journalist turned novelist followed that closely with The Touch of Ghosts (2004), after which there seemed to be an infernal wait for his third and newest novel, The Darkness Inside. Fortunately for him, this paperback original--about a convicted child-abductor who, years later, suddenly wants to “set the record straight”--is already receiving some excellent word-of-mouth publicity in the UK. In the latest issue of Spinetingler Magazine, Sandra Ruttan writes:
THE DARKNESS INSIDE is an expertly woven tale. THE TOUCH OF GHOSTS blew me away, but with THE DARKNESS INSIDE Rickards proves he’s getting better with every book. Just as soon as you think you start to have things figured out, Rickards pulls the rug out from under your feet. THE DARKNESS INSIDE never lets up, continuing to raise the stakes to the very end of the book and Rickards is one author who doesn’t pull punches. I felt as physically and emotionally battered as [the novel’s protagonist, FBI Special Agent Alex] Rourke must have been by the time I finished the last page.
The Rap Sheet tracked down this interesting writer, via e-mail, to find out more about his new book. His response:
Some of the choices I made when launching into The Darkness Inside [TDI] turned out to be oddly prescient. I’d decided that since I was going to be steering much more into the kind of Harlan Coben/twisty police-related thriller country and away from the more conventional mystery route I’d taken in the first two books, TDI needed to work as a standalone. No explicit references to anything from the first couple, no need to read them to enjoy this one. (And from a purely selfish commercial standpoint, I figured that with this being a much more American-style book, it might also help it land a U.S. deal when it came out here.)

And then the book hit some delays and the gap between
TDI and the last one grew and grew, so it was going to have to function as a new start anyway.

And then, not so long ago, 18-year-old
Natascha Kampusch turned up alive and (reasonably) well ten years after going missing in Austria. She’d spent half her life trapped in her abductor’s basement before at last making a break for it while being left unattended to vacuum his car. He threw himself under a train rather than be arrested.

It’s one of those very, very rare cases which formed the basic idea behind
TDI. Most child stranger abductions (themselves very rare) don’t end well, and do so within a matter of hours, according to the FBI. But every blue moon, the ordeal lasts longer--years. Until they finally escape or their captors are arrested for some unrelated matter, and the truth comes out.

I’d read the story of a couple of those cases and I found the whole idea bizarre and more than a little unsettling. But bizarre and unsettling are pretty much the meat and potatoes of any crime writer’s trade, so the old brain got turning. Now, I know and maybe you know, and certainly the police know, that if a child’s been missing, believed snatched, for more than a day or two, chances are they’re dead. Time’s up. It’s not nice, but the statistics bear it out. So if you’re a cop working a case like that and that time’s already been and gone, chances are you’ll make the same assumption. You’ll want to catch the person responsible, but you’re not expecting to find the child, or children, alive. It’s just about the worst crime anyone in law enforcement is ever likely to deal with.

But what if you were wrong, I thought. Let’s say, for instance, you were one of the police working the
Moors Murders in Yorkshire in the ’60s. Suppose you know that Myra Hindley and Ian Brady had committed these crimes, and you were sure you had them bang to rights. You haven’t found all the bodies yet, but you’re confident you will. (In reality, Myra Hindley and Ian Brady didn’t admit to murdering two of their victims until 1986, one of whom was found the year after, the other of whom has never been found.)

Then suppose several years have passed, and you suddenly receive some information that suggests one of their victims is still alive, like Natascha Kampusch. Alive but held prisoner by someone the two of them had secretly worked with. And you’d closed the book on the investigation because you thought that the child was dead and that you’d got all those responsible. Your decision would’ve condemned that child to years of imprisonment and abuse. And in the book there’s another layer to what happened as well, but I can’t go into it without spoiling the fun.

OK, let’s stop the analogy there. You get the point. That complex mixture of guilt and hope is, I’d say (I have to, to quote the late Bill Hicks), an intriguing basis for a story. And on top of that, you have the people responsible. Child molesters, killers, what-have-you tend not to get much screen time in crime fiction. Their real-life crimes are barbaric and kids are the only thing,
surveys suggest, that people object to seeing harmed in fiction more than household pets. By and large, when they’re eventually caught in books they’re portrayed as simpering perverts who whine, mope, get a good swift kick to the balls from the main character, and exit stage right after being told, “You’re not going to have a good time in jail. You know what they’ll do to you …”

Which is all well and good, but I wanted to do more than that. Our man’s already in prison when
TDI starts, he’s not long for this world, and he’s a slimy, unrepentant, unreformed monster. Not physically menacing, just absolutely horrible. “I couldn’t stop reading it,” my editor’s ex-assistant told me, “but I got to the first scene with [suspect] Cody [Williams] in it just as I was about to have lunch, and I couldn’t eat it then.” Which meant my work there was done. He needed to be utterly unsympathetic for what happens later--about which I’ll say nothing, and thus this sentence is going to be terribly oblique--to have real impact when everything’s fully played out.

The Darkness Inside turned out to be great fun to write, which sounds daft given the subject matter, but hey, it’s an odd way of making a living, and it’s the first book I can look back on without any regrets. Hopefully, it’ll be the same to read, too.

With or without the unfinished lunch.
To learn more about how John Rickards writes, click here.

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