Readers can’t get enough of those FBI guys who travel the length and breadth of the States. Going off the grid, getting embroiled in mayhem and conspiracies, going mano-a-mano with diabolical forces. We love it when they’re mavericks — rule-breakers fuelled by a burning sense of justice.
Saul Marshall is one of those guys. He’s the protag in a new, high-octane series by Richard Davis. In the first, False Prophet, Marshall takes on a psychotic cult leader who has taken his son hostage.
Richard grew up in north London. He graduated from UCL and Cambridge University, and his fascination with the US stems from a series of childhood holidays there – touring the east and west coasts – and as he went from state-to-state he developed a taste for American thrillers. Richard’s writing career has started early, he’s still in his twenties, so you can expect plenty more Saul Marshall adventures to come.
He’s kindly agreed to give us the intel on his enigmatic conman hero, scary cults and how a young man from North London came to start a US-set crime series. And he talks about the punishing candle-burning sessions that allowed him to study for a Masters and write a action-fuelled thriller. You’re really going to want to read this…
Tell us about Saul Marshall…
Saul Marshall is a tough-talking New Yorker. In his late teens and early twenties he landed himself in a world of trouble when his ambitious – and wildly successful – confidence tricks put him firmly on the FBI’s radar. But once the FBI finally hauled him in, they realised it’d be a waste to let him rot, and so he joined their ranks. Fifteen years on, a reformed Saul is still living with the fallout from his past. But though he’s now on the straight and narrow, the Bureau has only enhanced Saul’s capacity for deception and mayhem – meaning that should he once again be forced to work outside the law, he’d be all the more formidable…
Saul is analytical, passionate (at times to the point of recklessness), loyal, and graced with an absurd sense of humour. He loathes injustice, always sticks up for the little guy, and inspires powerful emotions in those who cross his path.
In False Prophet, Marshall takes on a deranged cult leader – why are crime readers so fascinated by cults?
Crime readers are fascinated by cults because they’re fascinating!
In November 1978, over 900 occupants at a cult settlement in Guyana took their own lives at the behest of their messianic leader, the infamous Jim Jones. In March 1995, Aum Shinrikyo, a cult headed up by a man self-styling as Christ reborn, released sarin gas into five subway carriages in Tokyo, killing fifteen. These, of course, are extreme examples, but they demonstrate what cults are capable of – and I think what people want to know is: how and why do some cultists end up behaving in these ways? These are questions I explore in False Prophet.
I think the fascination is also fuelled by the relatively recent prominence of extreme Islamic groups, because they share many similarities with violent cultic movements – a fact not lost on my deranged cult leader, who draws direct inspiration from Islamists.
You’re a guy from North London – some people may be surprised that you’re writing a new high-octane thriller series set in the States…
I hope so – it’s always good to surprise people.
The truth is, there is a long history of outsiders writing about the States. And that stands to reason, given that America was a nation founded by – and made into the preeminent world power that it is – by outsiders and immigrants. And America’s founding philosophy is deeply democratic, and so, by the logic of the New World, absolutely anyone is eligible to write about it. Arguably an outsider writing about the American experience is the very definition of an American writer.
I find it no surprise that the biggest writer of American thriller fiction today is the British, West Midlands born Lee Child, and that the Brixton born David Bowie felt at home enough in the States to call himself a child of New York.
What kind of research did you do to get a detailed sense of location?
I am lucky enough to have travelled a good deal around America: I have visited some 14 states, and have been to most major locations featured in False Prophet – New York, Boston, Washington DC. In fact, I have stayed in a couple of the hotels I write about, as well as the address in the Prologue. And though I’ve never visited Mineral, Virginia – the small town that makes a big appearance – I have visited other towns in a similar neck of the woods.
When it comes to familiarising myself with the exact geography of a location – even a place I’ve been to a number of times – Google Maps is a godsend. But I also try to read up on locations I write about: I found an interesting essay on the history of DC’s architecture, for example, which deepened my understanding of a place I’d already visited.
Not many people have authored a new crime series at such a young age – you’re still in your mid-twenties – what has been your writing journey?
I’m not sure I’d consider myself particularly young – after all, Saul Marshall accomplished far more than me by 25!
I started writing my first novel in my third and final year at UCL – when I was twenty-one – and completed it the following year, during my Masters at Cambridge (where I specialised in, you guessed it, American Literature). I’d aim to get the academic stuff done by 1 a.m., then would work on my own stuff until 3.30 – 4 a.m. After university, I decided to write a new book – something that I would attempt to get published – and that’s when I started dreaming up Saul Marshall.
First came the research – which led to a document of well over 100,000 words of notes – and then came the seemingly endless rounds of writing and rewriting. I immersed myself in the world of the FBI, cults, and weaponry, and, in doing so, pretty much fell off the grid. I wrote it to a soundtrack of David Bowie and Alabama 3 (a London-based band that has appropriated the sound of American gospel and country music), and drank so much coffee that I nearly hospitalised myself.
I should add that it would have been impossible to make the journey to publication without the support of my incredible agents, Harriet Poland and Maggie Hanbury, and the vote of confidence from the threesome running Canelo, the best publisher anyone could ask for.
What’s the hardest lesson you ever had to learn about writing?
There are no short cuts when it comes to writing a novel. The hard way is the only way if you want to produce something worthwhile.
Who are the authors you admire, and why?
G.K. Chesterton, for his ingenious plots. Patricia Highsmith, for her supreme sense of timing, and her unrivalled ability to evoke place. Paul Auster, for his crisp, effortless prose, and outlandish ideas. Lee Child, for showing me the dark potential of small-town America.
I can’t really provide an exhaustive list here, because it’d go on forever – but those are a few of my favourites.
Give me some advice about writing…
I feel strange offering advice, because I’m still learning myself…
If I had to say something, it would be this – plan your novel meticulously. I reckon that knowing where you’re going enormously increases your chances of seeing the thing through.
What’s next for you and Saul?
Work has started on a sequel – and, unfortunately for Saul, it looks like he’s about to be sucked into the orbit of another deadly and shocking conspiracy. I don’t want to give too much away, but I’m introducing a very different set of antagonists in the sequel: I don’t want Saul, or my readers, getting too comfortable.
False Prophet, published by Canelo, is available to download as an ebook right now.