The Bone Collector author Jeffery Deaver’s latest Lincoln Rhyme novel The Burial Hour hits bookstores on Tuesday timed to the 20th anniversary of the bestselling series, and this gruesome tale takes everyone’s favorite quadriplegic criminologist to Italy as he tracks a killer known as The Composer.
The Burial Hour is the 12th entry in the Rhyme franchise — excluding a 2013 short story that was released as a Kindle Single — and is notable for moving the action overseas, seeing as how Lincoln doesn’t travel often due to his condition. The brilliant forensic detective was played by Denzel Washington in the Bone Collector movie, which co-starred a young Angelina Jolie as his dutiful partner (in both senses of the word) Amelia, for whom marriage is finally on the horizon.
A former journalist whose knack for diligent research certainly shows in his richly-textured novels, Deaver is one of the most acclaimed writers of thrillers and mysteries in the world, and his global popularity helped get him commissioned by Ian Fleming Publications to write the 2011 James Bond book Carte Blanche.
Deaver, who resides primarily in Chapel Hill, N.C., recently took a break from writing to speak to the Tracking Board about his deepest fears (including a stalker!), his advice for aspiring novelists, the difference between American and Italian law enforcement, and which Oscar winner he’d like to see play Lincoln Rhyme next, should the character ever return to the screen.
It has been 20 years since The Bone Collector was published in 1997. Did you ever think you’d still be writing about Lincoln Rhyme and Amelia Sachs two decades later?
When I first came up with the idea for The Bone Collector, I basically wanted to write an anti-action thriller. All due respect to people like Tom Cruise and Bruce Willis, but I was tired of the traditional hero. I wanted a hero who by definition had to outthink the villain. Someone who couldn’t just pull out a gun, but had to use their intellect to save the day and catch the bad guy. At first I thought, maybe I’ll have him tied up, but that’s such a cliche. I thought I’d make him a paraplegic, but then I thought “no, I’m going to go all the way,” and make him as disabled as I possibly could — which is why Lincoln is a quadriplegic. But his disability actually enhances his ability to be a detective and a forensic scientist, and independent of his disability, he’s a really fascinating character. So I tried writing another book and while I was in the middle of it, Universal Pictures called and said that Denzel Washington wanted to play Lincoln. I’ve been writing about these characters ever since.
We don’t often see Lincoln traveling outside the country, but The Burial Hour is set largely in Italy. What was behind that choice, as well as your decision to dedicate the book to Italian crime writer Giorgio Faletti, who died in 2014?
I’ve been traveling to Italy for a number of years. I don’t sell particularly well in France, but I’m a pretty big bestseller in Italy. A few years ago I got a call from my publisher saying “Giorgio Faletti is a fan of your books and he wants to ‘present’ you” at an event — a festival of some kind. Presenting is when a celebrity in the creative arts sits down for a public conversation with a lesser-known artist in the same field. Well, Giorgio was like the Johnny Carson of Italy, and he told me I inspired him to write his first book I Kill, which became a mega bestseller. I saw him in Italy, and once or twice in America, and I was very devastated to learn of his death in 2014. That same year, I was given the Raymond Chandler Award, which is like a lifetime achievement award in Italy, and while accepting this award I said ‘I’m going to set my next book in Italy as an homage to all of you.’ And then I was like, ‘oh my god, now I have to set a book in Italy!’ Not that that’s a bad thing, it just meant a lot of research.
Since you did a lot of research, how is Italian law enforcement different from American law enforcement, and what lessons could the two learn from each other?
I know individuals who have been or are involved in Italian law enforcement, and the biggest takeaway for me is that there’s a more holistic approach to criminal justice over there. We have a Bill of Rights, which defines the relationship between law enforcers and the rights that we have as individuals. Our search and seizure laws are quite specific here. Italy is a democratic republic, but its law enforcement is a bit more holistic and one can have a different attitude about solving crimes. I don’t know whether it’s better or worse, but it’s a somewhat more informal approach. There are aspects of the defendant’s personality that would never be admitted in America that are allowed into evidence in Italy. Also, the act of solving a crime is a joint effort with the prosecutor, whereas in America there’s an antagonistic attitude. It’s considered inappropriate for them to be part of the case, but in Italy it all blends together. That said, Italy’s State of Police is just as state-of-the-art as our CSI crews. I think the general language of policing is universal.
Last we spoke, there was some kind of legal reason preventing another Lincoln Rhyme movie or TV show. Has there been any update on that, and who would you want to play Lincoln and Amelia?
There’s no update. We’re hoping to work out the legal issues, but there are contractual matters about distribution rights. Initially I had Harrison Ford and Julia Roberts in mind to play them, but because it hasn’t become a serious possibility, I haven’t thought much about it, though Russell Crowe would make a good dyspeptic criminal scientist with not much patience for ineptitude.
You’ve probably caused a lot of nightmares over the years, so what makes you afraid?
This is going to sound like a setup, but it’s very honest. My big fear is writing a book that sucks, and coming up with stories where the twists don’t work, the characters are leaden or the pacing is off. I’m worried I’ll make bad decisions and a book will disappoint my readers. I often lie awake at night thinking, “am I missing something?”
From a physical standpoint, it’s different. I’ve never written occult books because I don’t believe in ghosts or the supernatural. I’m much more interested in and wary of craziness. The last two years I’ve been mixed up with a stalker and I’ve worked with the FBI and local law enforcement where he’s located, because he’s threatened me and other people. I have a concealed gun permit, so I carry a gun from time to time. He’s not a brilliant Jeffery Deaver criminal, he’s just a crazy nut. When he’s on his medications he keeps it together, but it’s that kind of loose wire that really scares me. I’m less concerned about a terrorist attack by ISIS or Al Qaeda than the guy next to you in line who flips out when you bump into him and he spills his soda.
Given the rise of YouTube and social media, it seems like fewer young people read these days. Are you worried the next generation of readers will be too distracted by other forms of media to pick up a good book?
It certainly is a problem. We have so many passive forms of entertainment now, including video games like Angry Birds, Candy Crush and Minecraft, and there’s so much good content on TV and the internet. For example, I really like House of Cards and Veep myself. But I believe the act of reading, where the reader creates the images themselves and is sort of a partner with the author, is ultimately more enduring. I remember reading and imagining passages in J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings, and I can still conjure that emotional memory of Frodo from the images I created of him in my head. Reading is just more enduring as an emotional experience. I just saw my nieces, and one of them is 10 years old and she was carrying around one of the Percy Jackson books. She was very interested to read about the Greek gods, and she was having a very adult conversation about Greek mythology.
The opportunity is there, but it’s harder, and you’ve got to write a really damn good book that speaks to children. I don’t think it’s difficult. I think the basic template for a solid quest or hero novel is fairly universal, but who knows why some things click and some things don’t. Just getting the book in their hands is the trick. I only write crime stories, which are all I’m comfortable with. I know some adult authors who have tried their hand at YA crime stories, but I’m not sure that the genre has really caught on. Younger readers seem more interested in fantasy and dystopian books, some of which I object to on a creative level, but The Hunger Games was a very good story. Suzanne Collins writes like a magician, but when you step back, it’s about 12 year-olds killing each other, and I wouldn’t feel comfortable writing about that.
What’s one thing you’d like people to know about you that they may not already know?
There’s a sea of books out there, some of which are good, and some of which are thrown together to make money. I’d like people to know that I spend every waking moment trying to craft the most exciting book I possibly can. When I teach courses, I use this metaphor — I don’t go to the grocery story or the drug store and look for liver-flavored toothpaste. I look for mint. Something that pleases me. Well I want to craft a mint-flavored book that readers will look forward to. I don’t write for myself, I just want to do everything I can do make the experience better for them.
With that in mind, what advice would you give aspiring young writers out there?
- Write in the genre that you enjoy reading. It’s hard to write a book or a short story, but if you’re familiar with the genre, it’s going to be that much easier. You’ll be surprised how much you’ve learned about a genre just by reading other books.
- Plan the book out ahead of time. I’ll outline for 8 months! The Burial Hour outline was probably 130 pages. Someone once said, “you can’t write the first sentence until you know what the last sentence is.”
- Rewrite ad nauseam until you’re sick of it… and then do it some more.
- And finally, remember that rejection is just a speed bump, not a brick wall. Yes, there are fewer publishers and readers and bookstores these days, but if you craft a quality novel, you will get published.
Jeff Sneider | Editor in Chief