As the heading may suggest, this is a very powerful and thought provoking novel. Although the length of the book was a deterrent at first it was certainly filled with enough detail and depth to keep you reading to the last page. Based in Washington DC our detective, Robert Miller, is assigned a very unsettling case. Catherine Sheridan has been murdered in suspicious circumstances that have a disturbing resemblance to previous murders in the area. As Detective Miller digs deeper into Catherine’s death he seems to find more questions than answers. Following up leads which seem to go nowhere, people that don’t exist, messages left without apparent meanings – Miller fails to see the connection between the victims until a breakthrough; he has a name – John Robey. Robey seems to fit the profile, but finding Robey turns out to be the beginning of something much more sinister. What follows is a whirlwind of murder and corruption at the highest level which will keep you guessing until the very end.
As a group, we all enjoyed this novel with only a couple of members finding either the length of the book hard to digest or the plot hard to believe. The characters, plot and shift in protagonist coupled with the wonderful writing style made for a good read and a few readers will certainly be trying a few more of Ellory’s books on the strength of this one.
I contacted Roger to ask if he would be kind enough to send me some book group questions that we could use for the meeting. He very kindly agreed to do so and sent quite a few questions for us to use. The only problem we had is that we ended up running out of time! I was going to post both the questions and answers on here but as we had a few varied opinions (and I don’t want to be giving any spoilers for those who may want to read the book) I’ve decided to just post the questions, so here they are:
1) Regarding the first victim, Catherine Sheridan: What were your initial thoughts and feelings as she seemed to simply accept her fate at the hands of her killer?
2) Who do you feel was the most personally identifiable character for you in the book, if there was one, and why?
3) Did you feel, in reading Robey’s account of his life, that you could understand his actions?
4) Who do you feel were the real criminals in this novel?
5) Based on the fact that those actions undertaken by the CIA, as detailed in this novel, are entirely factual, what are your thoughts about this organisation?
6) Do you feel that general Poindexter and Colonel Oliver North should have been legally prosecuted for the things that they did?
7) Do you feel that a government is ever justified in interfering in the national affairs of another country?
8) The epigraph at the start of the book from Disraeli, ‘Assassination has never changed the history of the world’ – would you agree?
9) In completing the book, what are your thought about the relationship between John Robey and Catherine Sheridan?
10) What would you like to see for Robert Miller’s future?
Roger also kindly answered five questions that we had from our book group meeting. Here are our questions and Roger’s answers.
Do you see yourself as Robey and the readers as Miller?
There is that perennial question: How much of an author’s work is autobiographical, or at least, how much of what you write are really your own perceptions or attitudes about the world? I think some of me is Robey, and some of me is Miller, and – at the same time – I want the reader to feel like Miller, at least from the viewpoint of how layer after layer of what really happened is revealed. I knew a lot about what had happened in Nicaragua before I started writing the book, but the more I researched it and the more I learned, the more surprised I was that the US intelligence community managed to do this. But then this is what governments have been doing for decades, if not centuries, and they are still doing it! I think we absorb so much from life – some of it good, some of it bad. We take in events and circumstances, we deal with them (or not), we recover, we carry on, we try our best with everything we do. Sometimes we get it right, other times we get it wrong. That is life, and that is living. As with any field of the arts – whether it be painting, sculpture, choreography, musical composition – the creator must draw on personal experience and personal perception in everything he or she creates. I think that what we paint and what we write and what we sing are merely extensions of ourselves, and that extension grows from personal experience. I think there are very few writers who write their own lives into novels, but I think there are a great deal who write their perceptions and conclusions and feelings about their own lives and the lives of others into the characters they create.
Why do you write in America?
I think I grew up with American culture all around me. I grew up watching Starsky and Hutch, Hawaii Five-O, Kojak, all those kinds of things. I loved the atmosphere, the diversity of culture, the fact that every state is entirely different from every other, and there are fifty of them. The politics fascinated me. America is a new country compared to England, and it just seems to me that there was so much colour and life inherent in its society. I have visited many times now, and I honestly feel like I’m visiting my second home. And I believe that as a non-American there are many things about American culture that I can look at as a spectator. The difficulty with writing about an area that you are very familiar with is that you tend to stop noticing things. You take things for granted. The odd or interesting things about the people and the area cease to be odd and interesting. As an outsider you never lose that viewpoint of seeing things for the first time, and for me that is very important. Also many writers are told to write about the things they are familiar with. I don’t think this is wrong, but I think it is very limiting. I believe you should also write about the things that fascinate you. I think in that way you have a chance to let your passion and enthusiasm for the subject come through in your prose. I also believe that you should challenge yourself with each new book. Take on different and varied subjects. Do not allow yourself to fall into the trap of writing things to a formula. Someone once said to me that there were two types of novels. There were those that you read simply because some mystery was created and you had to find out what happened. The second kind of novel was one where you read the book simply for the language itself, the way the author used words, the atmosphere and description. The truly great books are the ones that accomplish both. I think any author wants to write great novels. I don’t think anyone – in their heart of hearts – writes because it’s a sensible choice of profession, or for financial gain. I just love to write, and though the subject matter that I want to write about takes me to the States, it is nevertheless more important to me to write something that can move someone emotionally, perhaps change a view about life, and at the same time to try and write it as beautifully as I can. I also want to write about subjects – whether they be political conspiracies, serial killings, race relations, political assassinations or FBI and CIA investigations – that could only work in the USA. The kind of novels I want to write just wouldn’t work in small, green, leafy villages where you find Hobbits!
Four years on, is there anything you would change about the novel? (Characters you would remove/add in etc.)
I think it’s true to say that if you read something you wrote six months ago and you cannot see how you could write it better, then you are not improving as a writer. So yes, I think I would go back and change some things. I don’t think I would change a great deal about the plot itself, but I would change some of the way the plot has been delivered. I think the more I write the more able I become to say more with fewer words. I think I am – at last – becoming more succinct.
Are any of the characters based on anyone you know?
Not really, no. Perhaps the elderly Jewish couple. They are sort of like a couple I know, but the couple I know are not Jewish. I think there are certain facets within every character I create that are taken from people I know, people I meet, people I remember from my past. No-one is lifted in their entirety, but this kind of relates to your first question as I think the attitudes and characteristics you will find most evidently in any of my books actually come from myself. We all make mistakes, we all get things wrong, we all have thoughts and ideas that we are not willing to share with the world. We survive because we are right a little more than fifty percent of the time. We get things wrong all the time. The kind of book I really don’t like is the book where the central character is always right, always at the scene at the right time, always making the right decision. This is not the human condition. I think we like to read about people who are flawed in the same way as ourselves, as it reinforces our faith in our own humanity. It reminds us that it is okay to be fragile, and yet still make it through and survive. So I do have a pet hate when it comes to crime fiction, and that is the character that is kind of unbelievable. I want to read about people that I feel could be real, the kind of people that seem to be doing the best they can despite everything, and that’s always the kind of character I am trying to write about.
When’s your next book out?!
The next book is number ten, it’s called ‘A Dark and Broken Heart’, and that’s out in May 2012, but I am also releasing a trilogy of short stories as e-books called ‘Three Days in Chicagoland’, and they come out two weeks apart through March and April this year. They are called, respectively, ‘The Sister’, ‘The Cop’ and ‘The Killer’, and the first one’s available in the middle of March. They are each about twenty-five or thirty pages long, and they tell the story of a young woman who was murdered in Chicago in 1956, but from three different viewpoints.
Some superb answers here if I do say so myself! The trilogy of short stories sounds very appealing due to its content and length so I’ll certainly be giving them a try when they’re out.
May I also say, on behalf of Middlesbrough Book Group, a huge ‘Thank You’ to Roger Ellory for giving his time to add something a little different to our normal book group sessions. It was very much appreciated and certainly brought the author that little closer to the reader.