Thursday, September 30, 2010

Robin Burcell

Detective, Negotiator, Forensic Artist and ... Published Novelist?
Interview with Robin Burcell, novelist with a badge
By Mark Young
Award-winning author Robin Burcell brings a unique background to her crime novels. For more than two decades, she served as a police officer, detective, hostage negotiator and an FBI-trained forensic artist. Can you imagine what she brings to her novels? (Robin will discuss her writing career in an interview to be posted on Thursday, October 7).

Today, we are focusing on Robin’s experiences in law enforcement, a career that spanned twenty-seven years. She served with the Lodi Police Department in central California for many years before transferring north to Sacramento County as an investigator. She recently retired from law enforcement and is pursuing a full time writing career that took off well before her retirement.

MARK: Robin, thanks for joining us to share your experiences in law enforcement. Many of our readers are mystery readers and writers and do not often get an opportunity to have an expert share actual crime-fighting experiences. One questions I always get nailed with from young people—particularly boys—is: “Did you ever shoot anyone?” Let us skip that question and go to these questions most sane adults often want to know: Why did you want to be a cop? What made you decide to take that risk?

ROBIN:    My path to law enforcement was probably not as direct as others in the field. I was one of those kids who wanted to be a lot of things, and most were directed to the artistic field. My problem was that I was good at a little bit of everything, (writing, painting, drawing), and had received some very bad advice as to how to use those talents for a career, the end result being that I didn’t know what I wanted to do.  One of the things I was fairly certain that I couldn’t do was be a cop. While still in high school, I specifically remember seeing the police station in one city, wondering… then dismissing the idea. Girls like me had no chance at a job like that.

It so happened that while pursuing a dream of becoming a professional ice skater (I was working part time at the skating rink, so that I could skate for free), the wife of a sheriff’s deputy became very insistent on me applying to the police department. She thought I’d make a good cop. Not sure where she got this idea, but she wouldn’t let it go. Her kids took lessons every day at the rink, so I ran into her a lot. Truthfully I applied at a couple agencies just to get her to quit going on about it (and, let’s face it, the writing was on the wall—my dream of being the oldest Olympic ice skater was about as likely as my dream of becoming the next Rembrandt).

This same friend mentioned that the California Highway Patrol (CHP) was going to be doing a mass hiring, so that Friday I picked up an application. The very next day, I was following a CHP officer off the freeway. I saw him stop a car, then as I passed the vehicle, and was looking right into the driver’s window of that car, a man pulled out a gun. The CHP officer grabbed it, and the two struggled for the weapon. The man shot the officer, who then ran back to his car. At this point, I watched in my rearview mirror and saw the officer firing at the suspect. Suddenly the suspect vehicle sped onto the road and was right behind my car—which wasn’t going near fast enough, even though I had it floored. I pulled off to the side into a drive concealed by bushes, thinking so many things, praying he didn’t see me and wouldn’t follow.  He kept going and we returned to help the officer. Unbeknownst to us, the suspect crashed into another car farther up the road, took hostages in their car, and was eventually killed as the police set up a road block.

I never turned in that application for the CHP. In fact, I was pretty sure I wouldn’t make a good cop. In the months that followed, I rather forgot about the application I’d already put in at Lodi and had interviewed for. I knew that I’d never get the job. I’m pretty sure I was as shocked as everyone else when I did get hired as the first female officer for Lodi.

MARK:  Tell us a little about the city of Lodi, the department, and the community in which you worked?

ROBIN:  Way back when (in 1983), Lodi was a small city of 25,000 people with a department of about 25 sworn officers on patrol. Surrounded by farmland, with Stockton to the south and Sacramento to the north, Lodi was considered a bedroom community. They rolled the sidewalks up at five PM and on Sundays, and there was a church on every corner. That’s not to say there wasn’t crime, just that in a town that size, they had a better handle on it. When I left Lodi, there were about 80 sworn officers, the city had grown to about 60,000, and many of the businesses now stay open on Sundays. And, sadly, the number of churches per corner has dropped significantly, which, whether you attend or not, was part of that small town feel.

MARK: I understand you were the first female police officer at Lodi PD. A few weeks ago, recently retired Sergeant Betsy Brantner Smith visited us on this blog to talk about her career in a large Chicago suburban police department and the challenges she faced in the early 1980s as a woman in law enforcement. As a male officer working in this career in the early 1980s, I saw firsthand the challenges women faced. My hat goes off to those women who survived—and those who tried. Can you relate to some of these challenges?

ROBIN: Oh boy, can I ever!  My first day at work, one of the captains was taking me around, introducing me to everyone. We walked into detectives, he made the introductions, and one of the guys in the back stood up, saying, “I’m not ready for women in patrol.”  Everyone stood there sort of shocked, and the captain (sort of) recovered, saying, “And over here, we have…” then quickly led me out.

On one of my first nights on patrol, the time where the guys riled up a suspect, until his veins were popping and you knew he was going to kick someone’s ass. Imagine my shock when one of the officers then turned to me saying, “Arrest him.”  It had been pre-planned, as they knew he had a warrant. I walked up to this guy who towered over me, as his fists were clenched, and you could see the anger in his eyes. I was shaking inside as I asked him, “Could you please turn around and put your hands behind your back?”

He did. I cuffed him, put him in the car, and was secretly pleased to see them all standing around speechless, as I am quite certain that was not their expected outcome. I had no intention of getting my ass kicked if I could at all help it, and I quickly learned that there was a way to approach these macho suspects.... Unfortunately the officers and the supervisors didn’t know what to make of this quality. In fact, my first evaluation states right on it that they couldn’t give me a “meets expectations” mark, because they had “never seen me in a physical fight.” Apparently you don’t get extra points if you’re good at talking your way out of a physical confrontation, but that was how I survived. Gift of gab.

I could go on and on, but let’s just say it was a rocky road, and I somehow made my way along it. And that guy I met on that first day, who wasn’t ready for women on patrol? I changed his mind. He was actually my second field training officer, and we ended up becoming very good friends.

MARK: What led you to leave LPD and work as an investigator for Sacramento County?

ROBIN: At the time I had three young kids, a burgeoning writing career, and the shift work was killing me. I dreamed of evenings spent at home, weekends off, all very idyllic, and it paid way, way more.

MARK:  One of your main characters, Sydney Fitzpatrick, in your last two novels was a former police officer who became an FBI agent and trained as a forensic artist. I understand this is similar to your own situation. Was this a skill you learned while in law enforcement? What is a forensic artist and how did you become one?

ROBIN:  While working at Lodi PD, I had sketched a portrait of one captain’s grandchild, and he showed it to the captain of the investigations division (where I was working as a detective), saying that I’d make a really good police artist. He agreed, and we researched and found out the FBI had a forensic art course that they paid for completely at their academy in Quantico. The only catch was that you needed to be on call for the FBI for the next three years if they needed you. This was the deal of the century for a small department, and so I went, learning how to do not only sketches from witness descriptions, but also forensic sketches, such as from a dead body that needed to be identified, or even a skull that needed to be identified. We also dabbled in photo retouching and aging (all before the computer age and Adobe Photoshop!)  I ended up being the forensic artist for all the surrounding agencies, and the FBI used me on a number of their cases well beyond the three years required. I have to say that it was a very enjoyable aspect of my work.

MARK: Are there different situations a forensic artist might be called in to help? Can you give a range of these call outs?

ROBIN:  A variety of calls that usually came at oh-dark-thirty. The sort where you’re sleeping and the dispatcher on the phone says there was a murder and such and such agency wants to know if you’ll come out and do a sketch from a witness. The majority in our own agency were witness sketches from robberies or rapes. The foreign agencies were usually homicides, where they’d have a witness. But every now and then they’d have a body that needed to be identified, usually a floater, or someone who’d been dead a while, with no leads (and you can’t just put a dead person’s photo in the paper). The FBI calls were usually bank robberies, as that’s what they tended to handle the most in our county. But every now and then the Bureau would have something interesting thrown in there.

MARK: What was one of your more memorable cases as a forensic artist? How did you prepare for this and how long did it take to accomplish? What was the end result?

ROBIN:  It’s funny, because I’ve done so many drawings over the years, when I look back at the majority of them, I don’t remember the details, and it seems as if I should. After all, I usually spent about three hours with a witness. The ones I do remember usually had some interesting investigative detail or twist to them. Like the robbery victim whose sketch looked an awful lot like me (except it was a male suspect), and then we later find out that his brother robbed the place and he’d helped set it up.

Probably the most memorable was the rape of three girls, after which one, a twelve-year old, was kidnapped. I did several sketches from the two other victims and one neighbor witness, picked the one I thought was the best, and we posted it on every store front in town as well as the neighboring cities. The little girl had been missing overnight by this time. Sometime the next morning, a woman walked into one of the stores, saw the bulletin with the sketch on the local WalMart door and said she thought it looked like her neighbor’s grandson who was visiting from out of town. We went out to the house, found his driver’s license, put together a lineup and the victims identified him, all because of the sketch. Thankfully the little girl was found safe several hours later as was the suspect (miles and miles away).  

MARK: Did you have to develop some kind of relationship with eyewitnesses while doing these sketches while at the same time distancing yourself emotionally in order to get the job done?

ROBIN:  Absolutely. As any cop knows, if you don’t have that rapport, it’s hard to get past the tough questions, or get cooperation, and details can be missed. The beauty about doing the sketch art is that sometimes, because of this rapport and the continual banter while sketching, trying to keep the victim or witness talking so they’re not bored to death in the three hours it takes, the interview process helps the victim remember some of these important salient details that weren’t brought out in the initial investigation. This is a bonus for the investigators.

MARK: The public sees the television version of forensic artists crafting 3-D recreations from computers,  using software that practically draws images themselves, and having access to other nifty tools to re-create the face of a suspect or victim. In real life, what materials did you actually work with as an artist?

ROBIN:  Pencil and paper.  Maybe after the budget is balanced in real life, we might catch up to the fictional world and get those cool gadgets.  But they sure make for fun TV viewing.

MARK: Your interesting law enforcement career included a stint as a hostage negotiator. I would imagine this could be a very stressful assignment in real life even when nothing appears to be happening during a barricaded suspect call. For example, I remember one call out when the armed suspect went silent for hours and we did not have eyes or ears into the place. We found out hours later he took a nap. What kind of training did you undergo as a hostage negotiator, and what kind of calls did you respond to as a negotiator? How did you manage the stress?

ROBIN:  Several weeks of hostage negotiation training by the pros (FBI, etc.), then additional training throughout the years is the standard for our negotiators. Additionally, our teams would meet monthly for training, making sure our skills were kept up.  Our calls ranged from the simple barricaded subject (often a suicidal person who only intends to harm himself) to the full-on hostage situation, where someone is holding someone else. I’ve conducted negotiations through a closed door, over the phone sitting in my patrol car, and even in person in a face-to-face situation.  I found the training invaluable not just in hostage or barricaded suspect situations, but also on patrol when responding to calls that seem to spiral out of control due to a subject’s declining emotional state.  As mentioned, the calls can be stressful, but you don’t really think about it. You are so busy trying to stay one step ahead of whomever you’re negotiating with, your own stress becomes irrelevant.  It isn’t until after it is resolved, that your stress catches up to you.  

MARK: How was your hostage negotiation team comprised? How were the duties broken down?

ROBIN:  We had a couple teams of four. We would rotate who was on call (for vacations and such) so that there was at least one at the ready 24/7.

MARK: How did you train to stay in practice as a negotiator?

ROBIN:  We came up with scenarios and did a lot of roll playing, as well as catching up on the latest real life cases from throughout the country, analyzing what went right and what went wrong. Additionally, we worked closely with SWAT, attending many of their training sessions so that in these real life situations, we all knew what was expected of the other. This was particularly important because some of our negotiators were dispatchers, who didn’t often work in close training with officers in combat roles.

MARK: Do you ever see hostage negotiation scenes on television, in the movies, or in novels that make you wince because they lack credibility? Can you give examples?  Can writers educate themselves about these situations so that they might write with authenticity?

ROBIN: I think that TV and movies (and books by non-police) get the flavor of it, but often miss the mark for realism.  Sometimes you have to gloss over things you know wouldn’t be done in real life for the sake of the story. And since in real life, it’s the 90 percent down time when it’s just the ordinary and ten percent when the
$#&* hits the fan, which would make for some boring fiction, we writers tend to flip that, so that it’s 90 percent edge-of-your-seat action, and 10 percent down time.  My suggestion is don’t do your research on TV or the big screen. Take a cop out to lunch. They’ll tell you about anything if you feed them.

MARK: Recently, you wrote a very entertaining article for the Mystery Writers of America’s newsletter, The Third Degree. In that article, you compiled a list of Top Ten Stupid Cop Things in novels and listed your number one pet peeve as Bad Officer Safety. Can you give examples where authors went awry on this issue?

ROBIN:  Where do I start?  Going to places no cop would ever go without back up.  You gotta give ‘em a logical reason to be doing that for it to become believable. Like purposefully going into the house where you know there’s an armed suspect, even with your partner, when any sane officer would back off, call it in, and get SWAT out there.

MARK: You retired from law enforcement a short while ago. How are you adjusting to this change in life?

ROBIN:  I thought I’d get a lot more done and faster.  I have to learn how to budget my time and treat my writing like a real job instead of the part-time job it used to be.  But I’m actually doing much better.  I’ve had to make habit changes. (They say 21 days to form or change a habit.)  So I’m checking e-mail after I start writing for the day. This has probably been the biggest difference and has doubled my page count per day. It’s amazing how much creative energy one can spend answering e-mail, then when faced with the book stuff, end up staring at the page because your brain has been zapped.

MARK: Looking back over your police career, what are you going to miss most about law enforcement? What are you going to miss the least?

ROBIN:  The most?  The excitement about being in the thick of things. Seeing the red and blue lights reflecting off the shadow-filled buildings, or connecting that missing link that brings a case together. The least? Probably the same as everyone else on the job. The piddly bull$#!+ that drives a cop crazy, be it politics, supervisors, or John Q Citizen who thinks because he pays his taxes, he can call the shots.  (I especially hate that JQ Citizen can have a bad day and get in your face, but heaven forbid it’s the other way around. And why is it against the law to lie to a federal agent, but not the locals?)

MARK: What was one of the most tension-filled moments in your police career? How did you cope?

ROBIN:  You mean besides the routine calls that go to hell faster than you can describe in words? Things like the high speed pursuits (my first ending in a crash, when the suspect we were chasing rammed a sheriff’s vehicle then spun into my vehicle) or the face-to-face negotiation with the suspect who drew a knife on us?  You walk in, thinking, yeah, another family disturbance right before lunch. No problem. Be done in about 10 or 15. Then wham. 

Really, though, it’s hard to say. Twenty-seven years on, they start to blend in.  Undoubtedly the shooting before my career even started was the most tension-filled, and almost led me to do something else completely for a career.  But time has a way of making those memories fade. The problem arises when new events bring those former events back to the forefront of your mind, culminating in some serious post traumatic stress. (I certainly had my share.)

The way I coped was turning to fiction. I found that writing became very cathartic. Let’s just say that I now prefer creating fictional tension-filled moments. It’s a lot more fun when no one really gets hurt—and I have to admit being paid for it is a nice bonus.

Look for our next interview with Robin Burcell as she talks about her writing career. Robin is the author of the Anthony Award winning SFPD Homicide Inspector Kate Gillespie novels and the Sydney Fitzpatrick novels, an FBI agent who uses her forensic artist skills to unravel the most difficult murder scenes. You can find out more about Robin and her writing career at her web site

Thursday, September 23, 2010


Book: GHOST—Confessions of a Counterterrorism Agent
Interview with Fred Burton, author & former counterterrorism agent
By Mark Young 
Everyone remembers where they were on 9/11 when we came under attack. That moment in history will never be forgotten. Everything changed for America—and the world—on that day. The devastation hurled upon us by nineteen al-Qaeda terrorists was an act of war. Tragically, counterterrorism experts around the world knew terrorists would try to strike like this. Agents also knew they might not be able stop it. They were right.

Most of us will never know how many times potential tragedies like the World Trade Center (WTC)—already scarred by an terrorist attack in 1993—have been quietly and effectively suppressed by counterterrorism efforts. These heroic struggles take place in a world closed off to most of us, a world where darkness hides most of these desperate battles.

Former counterterrorism agent Fred Burton is one of those experts who fought the good fight against terrorism. He wages that battle today. Fred served with the little-known Diplomatic Security Service (DSS)—the U.S. Department of State’s counterterrorism division—for thirteen years, rising to the position of deputy chief. He left that agency in 1998 to become vice president for counterterrorism and corporate security at Stratfor Global Intelligence, a unique company staffed by a worldwide community of intelligence professionals. Stratfor uses its own far-flung HUMIT (Human Intelligence) contacts as well as other sources of information to provide governments and businesses up-to-date analysis of political, economic and military developments around the world.

Fred lived a crisis-ridden life in what he terms the Dark World beginning on February 10, 1986. He writes, “At agent training, which I just completed, they drilled into us the notion that in our new lives, routines will get us killed. When you join the Dark World, you must become unpredictable. Erratic. We must strip away all the conventions of our old lives and fade into the background. We’ve been trained. We’ve practiced. Today, I begin my life as a ghost.”

He joined the Dark World and began to fall “Down the Rabbit Hole” as he described it in one chapter. The first cases on his desk to study were the twin bombing tragedies in Beirut, Lebanon three years earlier. On April 18, 1983, Hezbollah terrorists orchestrated a suicide bomber to drive a van—loaded with two-thousand pounds of explosives—to the front of the U.S. Embassy. The explosion killed sixty-three people and wounded a hundred more. Four months later, another Hezbollah suicide bomber crashed through security and detonated himself, setting off an explosion killing two-hundred and forty marines and fifty-eight French paratroopers.

Thus began Fred’s indoctrination into the Dark World, leading him to become DSS’s expert on the Mid East. Ghost: Confessions of a Counterterrorism Agent is Fred’s personal account of living in a world where nothing is as it seems, a world of darkness filled with adversaries and friends, killers and victims, fighting a war without borders. We have been invited to take a glimpse into this Dark World and share Fred’s journey.

This will be a two-part interview. Today, we’ll learn about Fred’s life as a DSS agent between 1986-1998. We will try to grasp the threats he faced, the cases he worked, and the means by which he investigated these cases. The second interview will deal with the events leading up to and after 9/11, and the current challenges faced by counterterrorism agents.

MARK: Your book, GHOST, helped me to understand some of the challenges and dangers facing our countries’ counterterrorism agents. Thank you, Fred, for allowing us to get a glimpse into this world. Let’s start with information about yourself—life prior to GHOST, why you joined DSS, and what kind of training equipped you for this work.

FRED:  First, very humbling that anyone wants to read my story, so I thank you. 

I go over a great deal of my training in GHOST, but I was a former police officer, a job I loved.  We had State Dept. Special Agents (known as the DSS now) protecting SECSTATE (Secretary of State) in our county (next to DC) and the job seemed very interesting.    Our training went from Rosslyn, Virginia, FLETC (Federal Law Enforcement Training Center), flash and bang school in West Virginia, and back to DC.  Subjects included:  Guns, protection, IEDs (Improvised Explosive Devices), first aid, counter-intelligence, physical security and the dreaded background investigations. 

MARK: Not many people are familiar with the history and existence of the Department of State’s counterterrorism division. What is DSS’s history? How did it evolve to become what it is today?

FRED:  Steve Gleason founded the unit and we started in 1985 with three agents. I was one of his first two agents. Three of us for the world. Since I was the youngest, Steve gave me “the Sand Box.” Steve was a wonderful mentor and a true American hero. We remain in touch. 

The State Department has a long history of special agents that precedes the CIA and FBI.   Traditionally, the State Department has not gone out of its way to promote the organization, preferring to focus on the Foreign Service and diplomacy. Efforts along these lines have gotten better over the years, but the organization was always behind the PR curve. 

After we captured Ramzi Yousef, the first World Trade Center bomber, other organizations like the DEA and FBI were claiming credit for his arrest. However, the fact remains that Yousef was captured by DSS special agents. You still find statements in various books attributing Yousef’s arrest to the FBI or CIA. Simply not true. 

MARK: In GHOST, your reference the 1983 bombing of the U.S. embassy as Beirut I, and the bombing a few months later of the marine barracks as Beirut II. Were you prepared for what you faced as a new agent with DSS? How did DSS and other agencies start identifying and hunting down those responsible for these tragic events?

FRED:  No!  I was clearly not prepared, nor had any idea what to do.   Fortunately, Steve was there for me to lean on.    

Our unit also started the Rewards for Justice Program which has been very effective on the GWOT (Global War On Terror).    I think Steve designed the first reward poster on a napkin.  No kidding. 

MARK: You spent 1986-1998 with DSS. Give our readers a thumbnail sketch of the patterns you began to see in those years regarding terrorist groups and those countries bent on destroying the U.S.

FRED:  Embassy attacks by VBIED (Vehicle Born Improvised Explosive Device), hijackings of aircraft due to poor security, hostage taking and diplomats targeted. 

MARK: One terrorist group that repeatedly surfaces in your book is the Lebanese-based Hezbollah, a terrorist group with close ties to Iran and Syria. In my limited research of this group, I was surprised to learn that many European countries refuse to classify Hezbollah as a terrorist organization. How does this lack of understanding or apathy allow such a group to continue their terrorist activities?

FRED:   Hezbollah is now a political party in Lebanon, so our efforts to capture terrorists linked to the group will remain impossible. 

MARK: Ali Hassan Salameh, dubbed The Red Prince, seemed to have immense influence on these terrorist groups even after his assassination in 1979. Tell us a little about this man, his history, and his influence on terrorists groups in later years.

FRED:  To understand terrorist m.o., one must study the Black September Organization (BSO.)   All roads lead to BSO.  In my assessment, Salameh was the picture perfect terrorist later turned PLO diplomat and U.S. Government informant.  He was assassinated in Beirut by the MOSSAD in a brilliant CT (Counter Terrorism) mission.  I talk at length about Salameh in my next book to be released in April 2011. 

MARK: Prominent terrorists-turn-politicians such as Yasser Arafat seemed able to convince other countries in the global community that they are merely freedom fighters struggling for their people. How do terrorist politicians like Arafat—who made killers like Salameh his chief of security—hoodwink the rest of world to believe they have a right to participate in legitimate political discourse? How do global leaders justify sitting down at table with men who have shed innocent blood? Do these world leaders really believe they might protect their own countries from further terrorist acts by allowing these thugs to sit at the same table with the world community?

FRED:  One man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter.     

MARK: Part of DSS’s responsibilities is providing dignitary protection to world leaders when they are visiting this country. I empathized with you regarding some of the leaders your agency was forced to protect—for example, individuals like Arafat and another diplomat with close ties to the Italian mafia. Was it difficult to separate your personal feelings from the business of protecting these individuals while on U.S. soil?

FRED:   DSS prepared its agents very well for missions like this.   Fascinating job.   

MARK: I can only imagine the level of stress you endured as a DSS agent, Fred. For example, during 1986 I read where your agency dealt with one crisis after another connected to conflict orchestrated by Libya and Muammar al-Qaddafi. For our readers, here is short summary of what DSS faced in March and April of that year:
  • Navy F-14s shot down two Libyan MiGs over the Gulf of Sidra in self-defense.
  •  Libyans launched missiles at our naval aircraft in the Gulf of Sidra
  • Turkey uncovers a Libyan plot to strike at a U.S. Officers club in Ankara.
  • Libyans plan to strike at naval fleet headquarters in Naples, Italy.
  • Our embassy in Japan, along with the Imperial Place, hit by rockets from a terrorist group supported by Libyans.
  • A bomb detonates close to where the U.S. Secretary of State is housed in Athens, Greece.
  •  Libyans agents began offering large sums of money to Hezbollah to buy American hostages held by other terrorists.
  • With Libyan assistance, master terrorist Abu Nidal’s organization sends hit squads into air terminals in Rome and Vienna, killing sixteen people and wounding another 138 waiting for El Al flights to Israel.
  • A bomb explodes aboard TWA Flight 840, en route to Athens from Rome, killing four passengers.
  • A bomb detonates in a German disco frequented by American GIs, killing several and wounding 200 people in a plot linked to the Libyans.
  • U.S. launches operation against Libya, destroying Qaddafi’s compound. The same day, an embassy staff member is shot in Khartoum, Sudan.
  • The bodies of three hostages show up in Beirut, obviously in retaliation for the bombings in Libya. Later that day, the British discover a plot to blow up an El Al jetliner leaving London.
  •  Terrorist unsuccessfully attempt to kill another embassy staff member in Sanaa, Yemen.

 How did your agency scramble to handle such an onslaught of attacks? How did you personally handle this?

FRED:  Not very well to be blunt. We were understaffed and overwhelmed. For every real attack you saw on TV and radio, there were 3-5 other serious plots/threats. Scary. 

MARK: Many of our readers are mystery writers and readers. They become connected to their characters, draw to the character’s internal and external struggles. As they read your book, they will have the same kind questions about you that I did. You do a good job of sharing your thoughts and struggles with the reader as the story unfolds. In my opinion, one of the greatest crisis in your career loomed in 1988 when Pakistan’s presidential aircraft crashed killing everyone on board, including their president and our ambassador. As hostilities grew between Pakistan and India—with both countries wielding nuclear weapons—you were tasked with launching an investigation into this matter in an attempt to get at the truth. This investigation, in part, was intended to lessen political conflict. I don’t want to steal anything from the book because I think readers will find this investigation fascinating, but this James Bond-ish kind of case made me wonder what was going on inside Fred Burton’s mind while all this was unfolding.  Can you tell us a little about the stress you faced during this event?

FRED:  I asked myself why I chose to leave the comfort of my police car! The PAK-1 case was probably the most intriguing and challenging of the cases I worked. Some days, I felt the weight of the world on my shoulders. Kinda like pushing a boulder up a hill. In retrospect, I was certainly overwhelmed by the nature of the responsibility and simply tried to do the best I could do. I’m sure many people would have done the same things I did if placed in similar circumstances. In the CT business, sometimes the only decisions you have are bad ones…..

MARK: Reading your book about those pre-9/11 years leaves a reader with an uneasy feeling. We know that day—when terrorists attacked the WTC, the Pentagon, and tried to reach Washington, D.C. with a fourth airliner—forever changed our perception about international terrorism. Your book tracks events leading up to 9/11—including the first WTC attack in 1993—as these terrorist groups began to broaden their base of operations and prove to the world they can strike anywhere. As your book unfolds, it becomes evident that such an event as 9/11 appeared inevitable. I know my next question is a difficult one to answer, and I don’t mean to point fingers. The 1993 WTC attack would seem to have dispelled any misconceptions that future strikes could not happen here. Why were we so ill prepared?

FRED:  Lack of resources, lack of political will and a lack of HUMINT. Terrorism was not a national priority. 

Fred is not one to mince words. On Monday, October 4, Terrorism Part II will be posted where we’ll learn about the current status of terrorism following 9/11. Find out about Fred’s company, Statfor, and what governmental agencies and private organizations are learning about global terrorism today. Which countries pose the greatest threat to our security and what can we do about it?

Thank you for joining us, Fred. Readers can find out more about Fred’s company, Stratfor, by clicking on this link. His book Ghost: Confessions of a Counterterrorism Agent Ghost is available through this Random House link.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Novels To Read

Mystery Novels To Warm Up Autumn
The Bone Chamber by Robin Burcell
 (Editors Note: Interviews with Robin Burcell, retired police officer and novelist, are scheduled for the coming weeks ahead. Robin, also a trained forensic artist, writes from experience.)
Special Agent Sydney Fitzpatrick, forensic artist to the FBI, returns to Quantico to help identify a brutally murdered young woman. But when Sydney’s friend and colleague, the forensic anthropologist who assisted her, is killed in a hit-and-run, a covert government team takes over the investigation, and Sydney is suddenly removed from the case. Certain her friend’s murder is connected to the first case, Sydney investigates. She discovers that the first victim was not only an archeological student, but also the daughter of the ambassador to the Holy See. Just before she was killed, the ambassador’s daughter claimed to have found one of three keys that just might lead to a map of the long lost Templar treasure. Sydney’s search for answers takes her to the streets of Rome, and into the underground crypts and caverns in Naples, one step ahead of a ruthless killer. Time is running out for Sydney as a fellow government agent is kidnapped. And the ransom demanded? The Templar map.

The Black Madonna by Davis Bunn
Art historian Storm Syrrell and rugged treasure hunter Harry Bennett travel to Russia to search for and investigate another historic art treasure with significant contemporary implications: The Black Madonna. 

And as before, their efforts to shed light on the mystery surrounding the murder of Storm's grandfather, Sean Syrrell, and the contents of his frayed leather journal, puts their own lives in grave danger. 

Formula for Danger by Camy Tang
Her life was on the line.

Someone wants dermatologist Rachel Grant's latest research, and they'll do anything to get it. Including trashing the plants needed for her breakthrough scar-reducing cream—and trying to run Rachel down. Desperate for help, she turns to Edward Villa, the only man she trusts. But the greenhouse owner knows too much about Rachel's research, and now he's a target, too. Break-ins, muggings, murder...the would-be thief is getting desperate—and getting closer. Edward vows to protect Rachel at all costs. Yet with time ticking away, Edward knows they have to uncover the madman shadowing Rachel before their chance for a future is destroyed.

Think Of A Number by John Verdon 
Arriving in the mail one day is a taunting letter that ends with a simple declaration "See how well I know your secrets-just think of a number." Eerily, those who comply find that the letter writer has predicted their random choice exactly. For Dave Gurney, just retired as the NYPD's top homicide investigator and forging a new life with his wife, Madeleine, in upstate New York, the letters are oddities that begin as a diverting puzzle but quickly ignite a massive serial-murder investigation. Brought in as an investigative "consultant," Gurney soon accomplishes deductive breakthroughs that have local police in awe. Yet, with each taunting move by his seemingly clairvoyant opponent, Gurney feels his tragedy-marred past rising up to haunt him, his marriage approaching a dangerous precipice, and, finally, a dark, cold fear building that he's met an adversary who can't be stopped.

(Editor’s Note: Okay, this is not a mystery novel … but it reads like one. Fred Burton—one of the world’s foremost experts on security, terrorists, and terrorist organizations—will be a guest here on this blog in the coming weeks).

For decades, Fred Burton, a key figure in international counterterrorism and domestic spycraft, has secretly been on the front lines in the fight to keep Americans safe around the world. Now, in this hard-hitting memoir, Burton emerges from the shadows to reveal who he is, what he has accomplished, and the threats that lurk unseen except by an experienced, world-wise few.

In the mid-eighties, the idea of defending Americans against terrorism was still new. But a trio of suicide bombings in Beirut–including one that killed 241 marines and forced our exit from Lebanon–had changed the mindset and mission of the Diplomatic Security Service (DSS), the arm of the State Department that protects U.S. embassy officials across the globe. Burton, a member of DSS’s tiny but elite Counterterrorism Division, was plunged into a murky world of violent religious extremism spanning the streets of Middle Eastern cities and the informant-filled alleys of American slums. From battling Libyan terrorists and their Palestinian surrogates to having to face down hijackers, hostages, and Hezbollah double agents, Burton found himself on the front lines of America’s first campaign against Terror.

In this globe-trotting account of one counterterrorism agent’s life and career, Burton takes us behind the scenes to reveal how the United States tracked Libya-linked master terrorist Abu Nidal; captured Ramzi Yusef, architect of the 1993 World Trade Center bombing; and pursued the assassins of major figures including Yitzhak Rabin, Meir Kahane, and General Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq, the president of Pakistan–classic cases that have sobering new meaning in the treacherous years since 9/11. Here, too, is Burton’s advice on personal safety for today’s most powerful CEOs, gleaned from his experience at Stratfor, the private firm Barron’s calls “the shadow CIA.”

Told in a no-holds-barred, gripping, nuanced style that illuminates a complex and driven man, Ghost is both a riveting read and an illuminating look into the shadows of the most important struggle of our time.

Monday, September 13, 2010

John Verdon

Novel: Think Of A Number
An interview with John Verdon
By Mark Young
Author John Verdon’s debut novel, Think Of A Number, is a gold mine for mystery readers seeking a novel that captivates one’s imagination. This catch-me-if-you-can plot makes readers guess until the very last pages. Forget about figuring out who-done-it. You will wind up stumped. John’s main character, Dave Gurney, is a retired NYPD homicide detective leaving a police career spattered with successful, media-intensive successes in his wake. Gurney’s illustrious career resulted in the capture of one serial killer after another, each monster falling prey to this detective’s analytical mind

Turning in his badge, Gurney plans to start a new chapter in his life. Similar to the author, Gurney and his spouse moved to upstate New York: a picturesque rural setting, a new beginning, presumably free of crime and violence. However, Gurney finds it hard to let go of the past, ancient issues still haunting him. A call for help from an old acquaintance sends Gurney—almost with a sigh of relief—down a path that challenges him at every turn.  A serial killer emerges to toy with each new target, asking … Think Of A Number … before striking again.

Readers will find this novel hard to put down. Verdon manages to wrap each chapter with tension-filled twists, each scene offering a deepening story that delves into the detective’s life as deeply as the killer cuts into his victims. This author’s grasp of language and story promises many more great novels to come.

John joins us today from the Catskills Mountains area of New York, where he relocated with his wife after an advertising career in Manhattan. John held several executive positions in the advertising industry before leaving the big city lights behind for a more idyllic setting.

MARK: John, thanks for joining us today to discuss your new novel, Think Of A Number. I won’t make any bones about it. I thoroughly enjoyed reading this novel once I could wrestle it away from my wife. She confiscated your novel right after I purchased it, refusing to return it until she finished. How does it feel to have a debut novel out that seems to be attracting a growing readership every day?

JOHN: Well, it’s certainly a happy feeling. At first, the success of the book with reviewers and the favorable comments from readers came as a bit of a shock. Think Of A Number is not only my first novel, it’s the first thing I’ve ever had published. So the remarkable reception—I was just told that it’s now the bestselling novel in Spain—has taken some getting used to. 

MARK: Is there anything about your novel that I may have missed in this introduction that readers should know about? Any warnings they need to heed before plunging in?

JOHN: The only “warning” would be that whatever a reader might be expecting, they’ll probably be surprised. As some of the reviewers have pointed out, Think Of A Number is a genre-bender. It’s a police procedural, but it’s also a thriller.  It’s full of complex plot twists, but it’s also very character-driven. The Washington Post reviewer said that it combines the toughness of Raymond Chandler with the cerebral puzzle-solving of Agatha Christie.  Of course, none of that was planned. When I wrote the book I wasn’t trying to conform it stylistically to any particular model or combination of models. What emerged was something that is not easy to categorize.

MARK: Your plot has more twists and turns than the Winchester Mystery House in California. Without divulging your novel’s brilliantly convoluted strategy, how did you develop this intricate plot?

JOHN: It seems that I always have a few “what if” plot possibilities lurking in the back of my mind.  In my own imaginative process, plot devices precede character development—but that’s a matter of sequence, not priority. I may think of an intriguing situation—like the number device in this book, or the inexplicable footprints in the snow—and that leads me into imagining what sort of larger story that situation could be part of. Imagining that story then starts to bring to life the kind of people who would inhabit that world and do those things, what those people might look and sound like, and so forth. The further I get into that process, the more important the elements of character become and the more the goals and feelings of the characters start to take over. The characters themselves begin to drive the twists and details of the plot and the nature of the final resolution. So I’d say that bits and pieces of Think of a Number had been in my mind for years, but not how they would all fit together—nor how they would fit into the lives of “real” characters. That all happened gradually, during the writing.

MARK: The main character—Dave Gurney—comes across as fiercely intelligent and perceptive, words used by a member of your publishing team to describe not only your main character but also yourself. Where does Dave Gurney’s life end and John Verdon’s life begin? A reader cannot miss some similarities between you and your character. For example, both men moving out of the big city to a rural setting and psychological characteristics that seem similar to each other. We have never met, John, but I find it interesting that others see these similarities. How much of John might we find in Dave?

JOHN: We’re both introverted, we both tend to spend more time in our own heads than in conversation with other people, we both prioritize the value of thought over emotion, and we both have plenty of unexamined issues in our lives. Those are substantial similarities, but our differences are just as substantial.  Dave has reserves of courage and determination that are way beyond me.  He can deal with people and situations that would terrify me. And he chose a career that would have turned me into a basket case in six months. 

MARK: Share with us a little about this detective’s background. What is going on inside this man’s head? What motivations are driving him?

JOHN: Dave Gurney has an underlying need for order and predictability. He’s fond of parallel lines, 90-degree angles, and repetitive motifs. As a byproduct of that innate preference he has a huge sensitivity to discrepancy of any kind—to anything that seems to be out of place—along with a deep desire to understand the deeper order of which that discrepancy is part. He craves order or, in its absence, an explanation for the apparent disorder. Ironically, this desire to understand how things fit together keeps drawing him into chaotic situations, which he then pursues obsessively until some form of balance is restored. 

MARK: Is the novel’s inciting incident when the first victim is murdered?

JOHN: The first murder may be the point at which Gurney is irrevocably committed to the process, but I think the “inciting incident” would be the presentation of the initial think-of-a-number note with its seemingly impossible feat of mind-reading—since that is the incident that entraps the victim and, in a sense, Gurney himself. 

MARK: Characterization and plot seem equally important to this story. Dave Gurney’s character and the nature of the mystery seem to bind together seamlessly. The job—finding the killer—becomes Gurney’s crusade as his character struggles internally and externally on this journey. What mechanics did you use to get this novel off the ground? Did you plot the story as Gurney’s character emerged, or did Gurney exist in your mind before the plot materialized?

JOHN: In my answer to your earlier question about plot development I said most of what I would say here. All that I would add is that detective stories are really two stories:  the story of the crime and the story of the detective unearthing the crime’s true nature.  Both of these stories grew and intertwined in the way I described above. They started as plot ideas, which were then incorporated into, and finally taken over by, the dynamics of character and motive.

MARK: Your novel-writing career seems to have gained traction over night. When did you start this novel? When did you finish?  How long have you pursued this writing career?

JOHN: I’ve enjoyed writing ever since high school. But when I graduated from college and got married I found that the advertising industry offered the best way for me to actually make a living as a writer, and I did that for over 30 years in New York City. Every few years I would write a short story, send it to The New Yorker, get a rejection slip, and stick it in a drawer. After I retired from advertising and my wife and I moved to rural upstate New York I started spending a lot of time reading mystery novels—especially the major British authors like Reginald Hill and Peter Robinson.  Then, about four years ago, I decided to see if I could write one myself.  I worked on it for about two and a half years—on and off, which makes it hard to say how much time I put into it—and the result of the effort was Think Of A Number. 

MARK: How did you locate your agent? In addition to your great writing skills, it appears your agent became instrumental in marketing this novel quickly. Tell us the story between the time you finished the manuscript and signing a contract with Random House. Is it a blur?

JOHN: I finished it in late January of 2009.  I went to one of the big literary agent databases that lets you make selections based on various criteria. I chose agents who were interested in mysteries, thrillers, or police procedurals; and I ended up with a list of 54 agents to whom I sent a one-page query letter. Two asked for the manuscript, two asked for the first few chapters, thirty wrote to say they had no interest, and twenty never replied. The first one who asked for the manuscript, Molly Friedrich—one of the most respected agents in the industry—called me a couple of days after she received it and told me she loved it.  The next week or two are, as you say, a bit of a blur; but the book was sold very soon to Random House. And everything since then has been amazing—the great blurbs from top thriller writers, the bidding wars for foreign rights, one wonderful thing after another. The book is currently scheduled for publication in twenty-one languages—including Russian and Chinese.

MARK: Every writer seems to have their own writing schedule, their own rhythmic method of creating story.  Is your writing structured? So many hours per day writing? Use a word count to determine when to stop? Just write until you drop?

JOHN: My work habits may look like the product of discipline, but they really aren’t.  I like to work very early in the morning for about three hours, and then again late at night for about two hours.  It’s a pretty regular pattern, but it’s really just driven by what I feel like doing.  I enjoy the work, and I seem to be particularly drawn to it at those times.

MARK: I can think of at least one author who rose from the advertising industry to become a very prolific novelist. Did time in that industry lend support to your current literary success? What paths in your writing journey brought you to this point in your career?

JOHN: It may be that experience in writing ads is helpful in a couple of ways.  It focuses the writer on the discipline of communication rather than on simple expression—on what a particular audience is actually hearing you say rather than on what you think you’re saying. It also gets you comfortable with the editing process—especially the importance of eliminating unnecessary words. In advertising you’re usually trying to maximize the strength of the message within the confines of very limited time or space, and I suppose that might unconsciously train one to be more precise or vivid.  One also gets accustomed to deadlines.

MARK:  What advice would you offer aspiring novelists based upon what you have learned thus far?

JOHN: Be true to your own voice. Let your characters be true to theirs. Put conflict in every scene, even when there is only one character present. And don’t pay a lot of attention to my advice. So far I’ve only had one novel published, so what do I know?

MARK: What can John Verdon fans hope to see coming out in the near future? What writing project are you currently undertaking?

JOHN: I’ve just finished writing the second Dave Gurney novel, which is scheduled for publication in the summer of 2011, and I’ll soon be starting work on a third. Readers have expressed interest in seeing the relationship between Dave and his wife developed further, and seeing more examples of how Dave’s particular way of thinking solves the most difficult crimes—while at the same time it threatens his marriage.  Dave has a lot more to learn about himself, his priorities, and his limitations.

MARK: You must have a very hectic schedule right know. To complicate matters, I imagine fans will be seeking more current information about what is going on in your writing career over the coming years. They will be looking for information about book signings, speaking engagements and alerts about the next John Verdon/Dave Gurney novel coming out. How can these fans plug into this information?

JOHN: I hope to have a John Verdon website up and running in the not-too-distant future. 

Readers can go to the Crown Publishing Company’s Random House Inc. web site for more information about John Verdon and his debut novel.