James O. Born 



Escape Clause

by James O. Born

Published by G.P. Putnam's Sons

336 pages, 2006






"My [law-enforcement] experiences have been positive, and that's reflected in the books. That's why they aren't dark and edgy. Because all this stuff strikes me as funny. I really haven't had a hard time in police work -- I acknowledge that. I find it all interesting. I get assigned to something and after awhile, I think this is pretty good -- I'm enjoying this. My wife thinks I talk myself into liking everything, and I don't see a problem with that."
















After meeting Florida native James O. Born in person, I'm not sure who is more likable -- the author himself, or his upright fictional creation, Florida Department of Law Enforcement (FDLE) special agent Bill Tasker. Born, a real-life FDLE special agent, possesses a seemingly endless sense of humor and good will, perhaps matched only by his devotion to his family, policing and crime-fiction writing. Although his career in law enforcement started back in 1986, it was just 13 years ago that Born began writing in earnest. His first fictional success was the critically acclaimed novel Walking Money, published in 2004, which was quickly followed by the equally powerful Shock Wave (2005) and his new, third installment of the Tasker series, Escape Clause.

Throughout this series, the reader becomes acquainted with several consistent themes. For starters, the FBI is seldom helpful. Often screwing up their end of task-force investigations, FBI agents rarely take the blame for things going wrong, though they are quick to take all the credit -- usually at Tasker's expense. In Walking Money, for instance, after $1.5 million dollars is stolen from a bank during a riot, the FBI points its accusatory finger at Tasker, based on some pretty scant evidence. Of course, this mistake is perpetrated with the assistance of corrupt FBI agent Tom Dooley, who eventually steals the missing money for his own. In Shock Wave, FBI special agent Sal Bolini does not inform Tasker that bomber Daniel Wells -- a suspect being sought in connection with an impending plan to blow up a major venue -- also happens to be Bolini's confidential informant. This disclosure failure nearly costs the lives of Tasker and myriad innocents. While the FBI plays no role in Escape Clause, the Florida Department of Corrections admirably fills the screw-up role. Surprisingly, Born has caught no flak yet from the "Feebies" for depicting their agents as bad guys, though he admits the feds don't like being portrayed as "inept." Try selling that sentiment to the victims of 9/11.

Another theme in the Tasker books is the protagonist's devotion to his family. Unlike the 45-year-old author himself, who has been married to his high-school sweetheart, Donna, for 21 years (they have two children, John, 16, and Emily, 12), the fictional Tasker is divorced from his wife -- also named Donna -- but has visitation rights to his two young daughters, Emily and Kelly. Though fractured, theirs is still a loving family. Tasker's divorce was primarily the consequence of his obsession with his job, a real-life problem facing many modern law-enforcement personnel. Nonetheless, in all three novels so far, there's been a tango of sorts danced by Tasker and Donna. The FDLE agent is clearly still attracted to, and in love with, his ex-spouse, while she periodically contemplates a reunion with Tasker. But things never really heat up between them, in part because lovely distractions keep popping up in front of Tasker (for example, the long-legged Tina Wiggins in Walking Money, and the delectable Camy Parks in Shock Wave), and in part because of Donna's low-key relationship with a lawyer. The love interests in Escape Clause are no less alluring, with Department of Corrections Inspector Renee Chin and graduate student Billie Towers supplying the eye candy for our hero. Chin is an especially dynamic character, and the chemistry between her and Tasker is palpable, even from the cool distance of the printed page. This reader hopes to see more of her in the future.

Although sidekicks tend to be more prevalent in private-eye fiction (Spenser and Hawk, Elvis Cole and Joe Pike, and Easy Rawlins and Raymond "Mouse" Alexander are familiar match-ups), Bill Tasker has a cohort to call his own: Derrick Sutter, an African-American detective with the Miami Police Department (MPD). Sutter is a vibrant creation and offers a nice contrast in personality to Tasker's. He's "flashy" and wants to be part of the grander FDLE operations, rather than remain saddled with more mundane MPD assignments. As a result, Sutter always contrives to get himself assigned to Bill Tasker's investigations, or else simply volunteers to help out his friend. Sutter also managed to get shot in both of the first two books, though without serious injury. While Tasker demonstrates the more overt sense of humor, there is comedy to be found in how Sutter acts, or reacts. His having to fend off cooked chicken wings hurled at him by a suspect in Shock Wave stands as one of the more hilarious episodes in the series. Unfortunately, Sutter is absent from Escape Clause, and while Tasker admirably carries that book on his own, this reader, for one, missed the young Miami cop with the South Beach pad. In several close calls with bad guys, Sutter could have been especially helpful, though one imagines he would've taken a bullet yet again.

Escape Clause opens like all of the other Tasker novels, with a fast-moving, violent scenario. This time, the special agent -- accompanied by daughter Emily on one of his days off -- has to confront a couple of bank robbers. Another recurring theme in Born's series quickly emerges: Tasker is prone to getting in trouble with his higher-ups. After his encounter with the bank bandits, he faces a review board inquiry and possible departmental discipline for perhaps over-reacting during the robbery (one suspect is killed), though the agent is convinced it was a "good" shooting. Tasker not only stands to be officially censured for his actions, but he beats himself up as well for killing the young robber. Born interjects another police reality here: superior cops take into consideration the fact that criminals have families; and they, like the families of the victims, suffer the consequences of crime.

To appease the FDLE administration, and maybe make the review board inquiry go away, Tasker accepts the job of investigating the death of inmate Rick Dewalt at the Manatee Correctional facility in Gladesville, Florida. Dewalt's family has connections to the governor. Gladesville might be nothing more than a small, fairly sleepy community in South Florida, but Tasker finds himself put squarely in the middle of political and romantic intrigue, as well as several murders. The Dewalt slaying probe reveals layers of scams perpetrated by two Manatee Correctional officers, Captain Sam Norton and Sergeant Henry Janzig, and impinges on the particular agendas of other players here. As he digs further into Dewalt's demise, Tasker finds himself growing closer to Inspector Renee Chin, despite the available and willingly offered feminine charms of his temporary neighbor, Billie Towers (a woman with dark secrets, who could certainly use Tasker's help). But Chin's past relationship with Gladesville detective Rufus Goodwin -- Gladesville's only detective -- causes problems, which escalate credibly. Making a reappearance in Escape Clause is a character we originally got to know in Walking Money: Luther Williams, aka Cole Hodges, a corrupt and deadly attorney now doing time at Manatee. It was because of Tasker that Williams went to jail, although the latter doesn't seem intent on exacting revenge for his incarceration. In Clause, Norton and Janzig occupy the main story line, which involves the fate of Dewalt; Williams is mainly preoccupied with trying to escape from the prison facility, and his return appears to lay the groundwork for the next book in this series.

I first sat down with James O'Neal Born on a sunny afternoon during a break between conference panels, at last year's Bouchercon, held in Chicago. Several hours of conversation were followed up by e-mail exchanges, as we discussed where his law-enforcement experiences overlap with those of his characters, how he got his start as an author, his struggles at finding titles for his books, why he's never in a bad mood, how he managed to produce humor from -- of all things -- terrorism, and where his next (non-Tasker) book will take his readers. The effervescence of his answers is clearly the mark of a man who loves to entertain, whether by talking, or writing.


Anthony Rainone: Bill Tasker is a likable character. He doesn't have much baggage -- no booze problem, no gambling addiction. He's a devoted father and regrets the breakup of his marriage. Those are obviously all conscious decisions on your part. When you set out to create Tasker, why did you make him the way he is?

James O. Born: The character [has] to be realistic. And in my experience as a cop, most cops are normal guys. They have regular jobs and [families]. They don't have -- at least my friends don't have -- these [situations where] they're haunted by shooting the wrong man [for example]. That's a Hollywood invention. In real life, yeah -- a lot of them are divorced and they're hung up on trying to see their kids a lot. That's a big problem. So, I made [Tasker] divorced with two kids. And I made him still hung up on his ex-wife. At the time I did it -- [although] I didn't [consciously] mean to -- I set it up so that with each novel, he progresses a little more with his wife. It's not always going to be they get close to getting back together ... and then they don't. As we get to the third novel, Escape Clause, there's a real direction in their relationship. [Tasker's] ex-wife is the only character I base on a real person: my actual wife. And if [my wife's] not nice to me, I make that character do horrible things. And so far, it's worked perfectly. And I use her real name -- Donna. She gets a big kick out of it.

You worked with the U.S. Marshals and the Drug Enforcement Administration briefly before joining the FDLE in 1990, so you've had a long time to contemplate why people become cops. What is Tasker's motivation as a cop? What drives him?

Actually, he wants his family to come first. And there's a subtle distinction, especially if you're reading Shock Wave. What makes him happy? He realizes it's [his] girls. He wants to see them at night. But then the next thing you know, he gets involved in one thing or another. He remembers that there's something he wants to do, but by the end of the day, he's so absorbed by his case, he can't remember what [that something] is. And the other big event in [that novel is], his wife shows up unannounced and she wants to spend the day with him. This is all he ever wanted. But in fact, he realizes he's got to complete his job. [His motivation is that] he always feels he's got to save the world. That's what ultimately crushes him. He knows that his family should come first, but he's so absorbed with the job, that sometimes [they don't come first]. His wife realizes he's still stuck on the job. As [the series] progresses, you see he has options. He has choices -- just like we all do. You will see cops so determined on the job -- good guys -- who lose sight of everything else. Maybe not so much that they lose sight, but [the job] is what's important to them. I'll admit that my family is important to me. Although I'm serious about my job, and I do the best job I'm able to do, I do recognize that at the end of the day, it's seeing my little girl thrilled that I'm home, or my son saying, "Hey, can you run with me this afternoon?" -- that's what I look forward to.

Would I be right to assume that the situations and actions of both Bill Tasker and Derrick Sutter are based on your experiences as an FDLE special agent?

[They're] based on things I've done and heard. I hear cops say things all day, [and] I've got to write them down. For instance -- I haven't put this in a book yet, but I'm going to -- I was with a Miami cop one day, and we were questioning guys on a serial killer. I was just helping out. There are times when there'll be one case agent, but a hundred cops on the case. They had a lead that [the suspect] was a Jamaican guy with dreadlocks. Our mission was, we each had a small section of the city. We were to find anyone meeting the description, talk to them, get their picture, if possible, and [get] a saliva sample for a DNA [test]. Of course, all that is voluntary. So, we talk to a couple of guys. They [had] heard about the homeless guys being killed, [how they were] hit with a railroad spike and set on fire. Three or four [homeless guys] had been killed, all in Miami in this one area. Then we meet this one guy on a bike, and he says "no." He said he was stopped three or four times [already]: he's going from one assigned zone into another where we are all stationed. And he absolutely had a point, but we didn't know [that]. He said he won't let anyone take his picture and he won't give a [DNA] sample. I was thinking, That's nuts. I gotta stay professional, but there's something wrong [with his resistance]. The Miami cop I'm with says, "Look, we're gonna take your picture. The only question is, is it going to have a nice, beautiful starry background, or an asphalt background?" [Laughs] That is street poetry. That is something you can't write. And I get that all the time. Now that I'm listening for it, I have to write this stuff down. The other side is, [cops I work with] know I'm writing these books now. So, they lay it on a little thick. They put on a show, now and then.

It's interesting in your stories that, despite the crap the FBI doles out, Tasker stays mainly optimistic and has a great sense of humor.

My experiences have been positive, and that's reflected in the books. That's why they aren't dark and edgy. Because all this stuff strikes me as funny. I really haven't had a hard time in police work -- I acknowledge that. I find it all interesting. I get assigned to something and after awhile, I think this is pretty good -- I'm enjoying this. My wife thinks I talk myself into liking everything, and I don't see a problem with that. Look, there are hard assignments. Like the Miami riots [of 1989]. At the time they were going on, I was a little scared. But I recognized that this is something very few people ever get to see. Real, true civil unrest. These are things I get to weave into my books.

Give me a specific example of something from your actual law-enforcement experiences that you spliced in one of your books.

In Shock Wave, there are a number of scenes, and one comes to mind the most. Years ago, I was on a surveillance of a guy that escaped. Five guys had tunneled out of a prison in Florida ... [They] went into the chapel and came up on the other side of the fence. They disappeared. Largest manhunt in history at that time. We literally beat the bushes, and after a couple of weeks, we captured three and one was killed. Still, one guy is out there. The FDLE is told to find this guy. He's in prison for murder. He almost killed a guy on the way out. So, we're doing everything possible to find him. We had a lead that he was possibly going to show up [at a particular apartment] in Miami. We go down there. Two of us, were on it, partners on the SWAT team. We grab the assignment because it's overtime -- it's Sunday. Big money. So, I'm sitting there [on the stakeout]. I have an MP-5 machine gun on my lap -- [because] he's one of the most wanted guys in the country. I have a newspaper over [the machine gun], and I'm actually reading the paper. I'm sitting in an empty parking lot on a Sunday morning. Three younger Latin guys come up and rap on my window. I roll it down and ask them what they want. "Nothing. You want something?" they say. So I tell them to buzz off. They rap on the window harder. I roll down the window again -- and it was almost exactly like the [scene in Shock Wave]. The guy says, "In this neighborhood, you either want something, or you got something." They knew or had already figured out I was a cop, but they didn't know why I was there. "You either want something, or got something." I said, "Oh, I got this submachine gun." And I pulled it out. How often are you confronted, where you actually have a submachine gun? And they stepped back so quick that one guy tripped on the curb and goes down. And they ran. Now, is that the official, proper way to do things? No. But it shut them up, sent them on their way, and we were able to complete our mission. So that stuff I put in there. And there were several situations where we had to question members of the [Ku Klux] Klan, or whatever groups the Klan has become. And what those guys say to me, I put in my books. I could've picked any group, but I chose the Klan guys because I know what morons they are. Every time someone talks in my books, I can picture [from real life] what they are saying and what they are doing. And I try to put in that detail, so that when you are reading, you can get the [actual] feel of [the characters].

Derrick Sutter has become one of my favorite characters in crime fiction. In Walking Money, I initially wondered whether he was a dedicated cop, or a corrupt one.

He was a wild card. I had written the first draft of Walking Money long before I ever turned it in. And I read [the first draft] without worrying about editing it. I read it and I said, "This is linear -- you know who the good guys and bad guys are. No surprises." I [then], literally, without regard to character, shook it up and said "good guy, bad guy, good guy." So then I had a framework. I started rewriting -- and almost anyone who [comes in contact] with the money could be a bad guy. With Sutter, you never know that Sutter [is just pretending to be] a bad guy [as opposed to really being the bad guy in the book]. At the very end, he does the right thing. Now, there are two clear bad guys [in Walking Money, the first being] Cole Hodges, a black lawyer, who in my opinion is the most interesting guy in all the books. He's assumed someone else's identity. He's intelligent, but ruthless. He's not what you expect. He comes back in Escape Clause, and [I write about why] he's become a ruthless criminal. He wasn't born ruthless -- something's happened [to him in the past]. And you see when he was growing up in St. Louis, what he had to do to get by. And the other [clear] bad guy in Walking Money is Tom Dooley, the FBI guy. He was always going to be the bad guy.

Getting back to Sutter, though, it's already established in Shock Wave that he's a good guy. There are little things [about him that I like]. He likes nice stuff, but he doesn't want to pay for it! Everything's a knock-off. And his gun is flashy. Now, a Glock is an efficient piece of art, as far as firearms go. Everything does what it is supposed to do. It's not supposed to be pretty; it's supposed to deliver firepower where you need it, when you need it. But [criminals] always want to put silver handles on it. Which, from a technical viewpoint, it hurts your grip, it flashes at night and you can see it -- it's exactly what you don't want. But Sutter is a little flashier -- he likes that stuff. So he's got the flashy handles on his Glock. He's annoyed that the city gives him a beat-up car to drive. I found him [to be] an interesting guy, and I kept him. In the original draft of Shock Wave, he's not even in it. Then all of a sudden, he gets more and more involved.

Your new Tasker novel is Escape Clause. In what distinctive direction does its story take the reader?

I read about writing, I study writing. So, I'm hoping Escape Clause will be considered a little more complex than Shock Wave, which was more of a comedy. And it may have some of the twists of Walking Money and more of the polish of Shock Wave, with a few more personal elements. In Escape Clause, Tasker is in a bank with his daughter on a day off. And there's a bank robber. Every cop [could be] confronted with this. Do I ignore the robbery and make sure my daughter is OK? Yes, that's what you should do. But -- and I wouldn't do this over money -- if something happened, I would probably take action. [Especially] if the robber killed someone and it was obvious to me that the guy was a real danger. Tasker is forced to take action. In the first three pages of the book, he shoots a guy and kills him. So, he's got a problem in the beginning, and he's upset about it. It's not the whole underlying story, but it is something that bothers him for the [duration of] the book. When you take the whole picture into view, as a cop, it helps you as a professional. The criminal has a family, too.

You like to present the criminal's point of view in your novels. Shock Wave has an American making explosive devices. You could have made it a book with a Middle Eastern connection, post-9/11. You chose, instead, to have the villain as a homegrown Floridian guy with other agendas -- he likes chaos. Did you contemplate making that a political-action kind of thriller?

I didn't agonize over it, but I thought about it. The first draft [of my books] I write in four quarters; and before I go on [to the next quarter], I go back over that first quarter. In the first quarter of Shock Wave, I had written the bomber as an Arab. I always have an idea where a book is going to go, but there is an organic [element], too. ... So I had an Arab, and my idea was, he wasn't a bad guy. He was born in the U.S. and raised here -- he was based on someone I interviewed once. He was going to be forced to make a bomb. But things are kind of tense [in this country, given memories of the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks], and I don't want to scream "Fire!" in a crowded movie house; I'm not going to do that. Plus, I wanted a funnier book. To my knowledge, no one has written a comedy about terrorism. And I didn't want to be the one to break the mold. [Laughs] I realized [the bad guy, Daniel Wells] had to be something different. I went to Florida State University. Any Seminole Florida State graduate recognizes that the real terrorists come from the University of Florida. [Laughs] So that's how I started it. Initially, I had him kill someone, but I liked him too much, and I said if he kills someone, [then] it's impossible to like the guy. So, I backed off that. I realized that I liked [Wells]. And if I liked him, then other people were going to like him, too. By having him live at the end of the book, I've got a sequel -- and I don't even need Tasker.

I like the scene in Shock Wave where Sutter and Tasker are chasing this one guy, and he's throwing these small bombs that are blowing up. Dangerous situation, but funny.

That's not based on personal experience, though you meet these guys sometimes [in the course of police work], especially some of the extremists. While you're so annoyed at their ignorant attitude towards so many things, they're so quirky and some of them have such odd abilities. Maybe he's the best methamphetamine maker in the world. Or he's an idiot savant who can't do anything but mix these chemicals. And so I transferred that to a guy who can make explosives.

Let's talk about how you started writing.

I was always interested in writing. In college, someone had to give a speech. They said I was good at turning a phrase, [and asked me to] write this speech for them. [They offered me] a free trip to Gainesville, because that's where they had to give the speech. So I thought, OK. I went and had a wild time. ... So then I write a story about it, for no reason -- I felt compelled to write about it. I wrote it for my friends, and they all loved it. That was the first thing I wrote. And you know, school gets in the way and you don't think about being a writer. I graduate and one thing leads to another. I end up years later as a DEA agent. And I had my view of police work formed by books and TV -- like almost every cop does, but they won't admit it. I landed the most exciting job in the federal government: DEA agent. The reality is, it's nothing like what you expect. Not a lot of paperwork, but it's a lot of surveillance. You watch a house for three days. You rotate with other guys. And nothing ever happens! It's boring.

I was always a reader, but I started reading even more [then]. I discovered Red Storm Rising, the greatest World War III book ever written, by Tom Clancy. I read it once and I can still remember lines. I read it all on one surveillance. I read all these books by W.E.B. Griffin. I read police novels. Then I got to meet Elmore Leonard. I read one of his books, Unknown Man #89. In it, he points a Smith & Wesson .38 revolver at a guy and it won't fire. Why? Because the safety is on. It's not a big deal, but anyone who knows guns and knows Smith & Wesson revolvers knows that can't happen. [Editor's note: Revolvers don't have safeties.] But it's still a good book. I read the book [primarily] because I was going to meet ["Dutch" Leonard] -- he's a friend of my father's. Dutch asked if I read any of his books and I said, "Yeah, Unknown Man #89." And he smiled, and asked if I liked it. I said, "I thought it was great." And he said, "Did you see any problems with it?" And [I hesitated], and he said, "You can tell me, really." And I told him. And he smiled. He said, "I've gotten more letters on that one sentence than on anything I've ever written." And I thought, really, who cares that much [about that one mistake]? I noticed, but gun nuts are called gun nuts because they are nutty! He asked if I would mind him calling me occasionally for [technical] information. I said, "Sure." I'm thinking, he'll never call. Sure enough, the next week, he calls! He's writing Get Shorty. He wants to know how to get a gun through a [metal detector] at an airport -- this is pre-9/11. I [help him with the problem]. And ever since then, on almost every book, I [have helped him]. ...

He said I should put some of [my real-life law-enforcement experiences] into a book sometime. He gave me the vaguest encouragement. And I had already written a chapter [of an unpublished book by that time], though I hadn't told anyone -- not even my wife. I [asked him] if he would read something, if I write it. He said no; but Greg Sutter [Leonard's research assistant, commonly referred to as "Elmore Leonard's legs"] would read it. [Sutter] is a great guy and a great reader -- knows his stuff. I give him half my book. He calls me and says, "There's some seriously bizarre stuff in here." He said most of it was useless, but there were a few things in there that I got exactly right. I rewrite it. He says, "It's better. You need to do this, this and this." And then he finally said, "We need to break it up more." And that's where I learned scenes. Three or four scenes make up a chapter. Think of it like a movie. Once I did that, a whole world opened up for me. Although the book never went anywhere, it taught me so much. I wrote my next [also unpublished] book, called Snitch. I read Robert McKee's Story. I read more books on writing, and with Sutter's help, the next book comes along easier. He says the second book is much better than the first. I took this minor encouragement and worked on [the novel] and got a legitimate agent for it. But it never sold. So I started working on Walking Money. Maybe three or four years. And I sent it to a private editor in New York City. He writes back and says he likes it and wants to give it someone he knows -- a literary agent named Peter Rubie. One day, a couple weeks later, I get a call at my office. [It's] this guy with an English accent, and he says what every writer dreams of -- "I just read Walking Money, and I think it's brilliant." And I wanted to say, "Is that English brilliant, where you say 'brilliant' when you thinks it's 'good'? Or, the regular brilliant where you think, wow?' My first thought was that someone was playing a joke on me. [Rubie] sent it out to six publishers. I said to my wife, "Don't get too excited." Less than a week later, [Rubie] calls me back and says Neil Nyren [at Putnam] made a two-book offer. ... [Rubie] says we're not going to take it just yet [because the book is still out with the other publishers]. I call Dutch Leonard and he says, "Take it" [because Neil Nyren is highly regarded], even if there's no advance -- take it. But I'm not confident enough to call my agent and say, "Take it." The next day, my agent calls me back and says Nyren upped the offer. And I took it. And I get on the Internet and look up Nyren, and [two of his authors are] Tom Clancy and W.E.B. Griffin! So, I sit my wife down and tell her what happened -- we got a super deal from Putnam. And she's flabbergasted like I was. And she says, "I can quit my job!" [Laughs]

You've got a lot to juggle -- FDLE, family and writing. Do you write late at night, hyped up on caffeine?

Do I ever look like I'm fuckin' hyped? My wife's joke is: How do you tell when Jim is happy, or sad? Answer: You can't! I'm always pretty happy. I have an efficient [working process], actually. I usually work out in the morning. I run, ride a mountain bike or go to the gym. I get up in the morning thinking, what am I going to write about? Where do I want to go with [my story]? I'll do my workout [and think]. On days I don't work out, I'll just work on my notes. This is usually early in the morning. Maybe work on one or two scenes, and then work on [those scenes] during the course of the day ... I have a generally normal day that's 8 to 5. My wife has picked up some of the slack, and I hired a handyman on some of the stuff that I used to do. So, at 5:30, when I'm home, I have an hour and a half to two hours where I'm going to take the notes I've been working on all day and write them [into scenes in the book]. After that, if it's still early, I play with my kids. We do whatever we want to do. Then later that night, when I'm lying in bed, I'm thinking, where do I want the story to go tomorrow, and making a few more notes. On the weekends, I have four to five hours a day of writing, maybe a little more. And all this produces maybe 30 to 40 pages a week. That's a lot -- maybe 20 to 30. When I'm coming to the end of the [current] book, I formulate the next book in my head. If I turn my current book into my editor, say I send it at 10 o'clock in the morning, by 5 o'clock I'm writing the first chapter of the next book -- always. Since my first book, I've never taken a break. Even on vacation [I work on a book]. I don't watch much television, still read a lot, but I've cut out superfluous stuff. I'm doing what I want to do. I'm compelled to write.

Now that Escape Clause is out, what project are you working on next?

The book I'm working on now is not a Tasker novel.

Really? You're coming out with your first standalone?

That's right. A bigger book and a different guy. He's a federal agent -- he's going to get out of Florida more. He's not going to be divorced, he's not going to have all that baggage. He's a younger, Latin guy living with his brother, who was in the service. [The novel centers on the investigation] of a possible serial bomber [who's been detonating explosives] throughout the country. [There are] a huge number of elements [in the novel], and it's probably going to be twice the length of Walking Money. The book is also a redemption book -- [where the character has to face] what he did in the past. The book is in third-person -- I did briefly consider writing it in first-person, at my agent's suggestion that it would set [the new book] apart. But ... I talked to a friend of mine in publishing who said, "If you're not comfortable writing in first-person, then don't do it." And I'm not! And a book in third-person [might] appeal to a broader audience. Don't take it that I'm trying to be commercial; I'm not that commercial -- I like quirkiness. I just want to do something different. Putnam seemed happy that I was interested in expanding what I'm doing in trying something new.

So, this standalone: Does it have a title yet?

They'll change the title. It was originally called Fields of Fire. [Fellow author] Reed Coleman gave me the title for Shock Wave. I had originally called it Chaos Theory, but the publisher didn't like it -- they had a whole meeting about [finding a better title]! Reed said he was good at coming up with titles, so he sent me three, and Shock Wave was one of them.

Jim, I'm going to end our conversation by asking, what's most important to you, given your newfound success? Bottom line: What does it mean to be a crime-fiction writer?

The biggest thrill is when readers say they loved my book. That's the god's honest truth. Don't get me wrong -- the money is a nice side benefit. But when readers say they loved my book, when they send me an e-mail saying they were up until 2 in the morning, because they're reading one of my books -- great! | March 2005


Anthony Rainone is a contributing editor of January Magazine.