I don’t really know what I expected. Did I think, back in 2017 when I first outlined the idea for The Beauty of Bucharest to my friend and writing partner, Craig Hart, that it would be a walk in the park, or perhaps several parks? I knew Craig had the literary savvy to tell me whether I had a good idea or not. (I have to say nice things about him because he is the co-administrator of this website and is could execute an act of swift and massive revenge – not that he would mind you. But he could. Okay, he totally would. He’s probably got an act of war already, even if he tucks it in his suit pocket until the right moment, which will no doubt be something very public, like when we accept our Nobels. And the fact that I’ve included him in the Nobel discussion is just another example of me being super-nice.)
I’ve told the story before. The description Dan parking the car at Home Depot in the first chapter of the book was something that actually happened to me. The difference was, although I heard something thump in our truck after dropping my wife off at the door, it was neither a can of paint or a dead human. But that didn’t stop my mind from immediately going there. “What if a guy thought he heard a paint can fall over in his wife’s trunk, and when he check it turned out to be a body.”
Craig liked it. Everybody I talked to about it thought it sounded fun. So I decided to go for it. I’d written a few SpyCo novellas with Craig by then, so I was relatively confident that I could tell an action/thriller story with a strong female hero that was gritty but at the same time featured characters with human flaws along side their strengths.
What I didn’t realize at the time, and have come to fully understand only during the writing of the fourth book in the series, The Demon of Denver, was that my clever little book one theme was going to take me, as a writer and as a human being, down some extremely dark roads.
I started to realize it in the second book, when I decided to tell Nicole’s backstory. It wasn’t pretty!
This is another story I’ve told before. The chapter in which Nicole’s backstory is revealed took me ten days to write. What I don’t recall whether I’ve ever revealed (and I may very well may have – I am both adept at blathering and forgetting I have blathered) is that Nicole’s backstory has many parallels to my own, including the age she was when things got bad to the length of time the bad things continued. Her specific flavor of horror was different than mine, but consider this! (Consider this: the hint of the century [Ed. Note – Thank you REM]) – all horror, ultimately, tastes the same.
When it came time to write the third book in the series, The Terror of Tijuana, I dealt with a new theme that also rings familiar with me in the consideration of my own life. Namely, what do you do with your life once all your secrets have been revealed? Do you continue walking in the shadow world you have, by necessity, constructed for yourself, or do you grasp the straw of freedom you’ve given yourself and step into the light?
At one point in the story Nicole finds herself in the sort of situation that could easily lead to that sort of self reflection. Being buried alive provides the necessary time for reflection. Ready for another big reveal?
Nicole’s time underground in the dark is a metaphor for my entire life between the time I left my father’s house until the time I was beginning to find my voice and writing the books that now bear my name. And just like she did in that metal coffin, I’ve been forced to answer the same question she did, “Am I getting to old for this?”
Fortunately for me, being a writer is somewhat less taxing on your mind and body than being an international assassin, but only marginally so. There was much in the writing of Tijuana that I found difficult as well. There were chapters that took too long to finish. there were villains infused with as many of my own personality characteristics as there were heroes with bits of me stuck into them. There were relationship struggles that I didn’t have to invent. There was crushing self-doubt that I didn’t have to try to imagine the feel of. There was life or death struggle that didn’t seem nearly as far off and fantastical as I would have liked them to be.
So when the topic of a fourth book came up my response was always the same: “How do you think the Yankees will do this year?”
And then a wonderful thing happened. It was nothing I did, per se. It was more something I’d agreed to. Craig invited me to help him on the next Shelby Alexander thriller, and we wrote Serenity Reborn together.
And it was an amazing experience. We hadn’t worked on anything together since the SpyCo novella, Assignment London, and by the time we’d reached that point in the SpyCo series it had started to feel a little by like work. Now, sometimes it does. I think I alluded to that fact earlier. When it takes ten days to write one chapter, that’s workin’, son. As any serious writer will tell you, those are the days you earn your supper.
But writing Reborn felt like being a kid running non-stop for hours because you’re a kid and running is fun. Not the running you have to do when you’re trying to earn your black belt and you have to run a three-mile course in twenty-four minutes and you quickly learn to hate your legs. I’m talking about the kind where there’s no destination, so set course, and no reason. Oh, and it tends to be accompanied by a lot of yelling, also with no reason. Kid running. It’s a thing.
And so when the writing was done, Craig, who regardless of any shortcomings he may claim that he has, is an A-1 idea guy, said, and I’m paraphrasing, “Hey, let’s do that again!” He went on to outline his ambitious plan. We would co-write two books at once; a new Shelby and a new Nicole.
We dove in and soon had… two abandoned books. Did I mention we’d started them just pre-pandemic, and shelved them because by then the shit had hit the global fan and we were busy trying to stay the opposite of crap-covered.
But thanks to a timely BookBub deal on the first book in the series, Craig realized it would be the perfect time to finish the Shelby book we’d started. He was even kind enough to let me know at the outset that we’d need to finish it in less than 20 days, giving me the option to say something like, “Hold on while I make a quick phone call – Hello, Shady Rest Sanitorium? I need you to make a pick-up.”
I did not say that. Instead, we finished the book on time. And yet again we had the time of our lives. And we started asking ourselves what seems like a simple question: “If we enjoy the process of writing together so much, why don’t we do more of it?” So we started brainstorming ideas, but every way we configured our thoughts, the next Cleanup Crew kept bubbling up to the top of the cauldron. There it sat. Looking at us.
Now, we didn’t finish this book in 20 days, but that’s not a bad thing. Even with a partner as skilled as Craig, (the truth, not just me being nice – but damn I’m nice, don’t ya think?), it’s a tricky story to tell. It needs us to proceed with caution. And we are but at the same time, it’s going well and EVERY time I get a chapter back from him, the story’s gotten better. Then when I send a chapter back to him, he has to work twice as hard to undo all the damage I did. (And there we reveal the one person on Earth with whom I have no problem being unkind.)
But there you have it. It is not random chance that this book is named The Demon of Denver. Facing demons has been the theme of the series for me.
Now I know I don’t have to face them alone.