Recently, I had a chance to throw a few tough questions at author, Aaron Smith, about his spy thriller, Nobody Dies For Free. From my hollowed out volcano, I grilled him on the story, the characters – and what’s coming up next.
P2K: Firstly, Aaron, welcome to Permission to Kill, and congratulations on the publication of your spy thriller, Nobody Dies For Free.
Before we talk about your book, as there are so many types of spy novels out in the marketplace, I thought we should begin with your influences. Who are the authors that inspired you to write a spy novel?
Aaron: First and foremost, there’s Ian Fleming. The spy genre wouldn’t be what it was without his James Bond novels. Like many people, I suspect, I discovered Bond through the movies first. I enjoy almost all the films, from the early more serious Connery episodes to the lighter Moore movies, and also have a great appreciation for the Lazenby and Dalton installments. In fact, I feel that Timothy Dalton’s portrayal of Bond is severely underrated. It was only after I’d seen the first 16 Bond movies that I read the books. Actually, I had the John Gardner Bond novels before the Fleming books, as those were new at the time but Fleming’s books were hard to find (this was before eBay and Amazon were around). When I finally did get to read the Fleming originals, I was blown away. While I like the movies and some of the later 007 authors, Fleming’s Bond is the real thing!
As far as other writers, Tom Clancy’s up there pretty high on my list and I was sad to hear of his death a few weeks ago. I like John LeCarre’s work a great deal. And Ludlum’s Jason Bourne is certainly an influence, both through the books and the film adaptations.
And I have to mention something I saw for the first time around the period when I was writing Nobody Dies For Free. There’s a great British TV series called Spooks (retitled as MI-5 when shown in the Unites States) that ran for about ten years and features the missions of a group of agents operating in and around the UK. It’s an excellent show and really ignited my imagination as I worked on a spy novel.
So James Bond started my interest in fictional spies, but many other books, movies, and TV series kept that particular fire burning. I suppose it was inevitable that I would eventually attempt to write my own spy stories.
P2K: Briefly, tell us about Nobody Dies For Free. Give the readers an overview of the story.
AS: Nobody Dies For Free is the story of Richard Monroe. He was a CIA operative, having retired early to marry the one true love of his life. He and his wife Genevieve are living in Paris, out one night, when she’s suddenly killed by a sniper. She bleeds to death in Monroe’s arms on the steps of the Paris Opera. The U.S. government’s investigation goes nowhere and Monroe goes a little off the deep end. He leaves Paris, wanders around Europe, and eventually tracks down the man who pulled the trigger and deals with him, permanently, but ends up in a Turkish prison. But that incarceration is just the beginning of a new chapter in Monroe’s life. He’s soon set free and summoned to the United States where he’s given an offer by a mysterious old master spy known only as Mr. Nine. Nine offers Monroe a way back into the clandestine world. Monroe will now work directly for Nine and be put on cases that are too secret or too sensitive for more official agencies like the CIA or FBI to know about. Monroe accepts the job, sets himself up in a new apartment in Boston, and waits for the call. On his first assignment, Monroe discovers some new information about who and what led to the murder of his wife, and business is suddenly personal again. This leads Monroe through several cities around the world on a quest for vengeance, or justice, or both, depending on your point of view.
P2K: Tell us about the main character, Richard Monroe. What kind of man is he? What drives him?
AS: Monroe has been a spy for a very long time. He started in the United States Navy’s intelligence branch and then went into the CIA. Espionage is his life, or it was until he fell in love with Genevieve and it is again after he loses her. He’s thirty-nine when we meet him and is forty for most of the book, so he’s at an age where he has experience, as well as emotional and intellectual maturity, but is still young enough to be in superb shape and meet the physical demands of his job.
He has all the skills you’d expect from a master spy: intelligence, the ability to evaluate a situation quickly and act accordingly, he’s good with guns, knows how to charm people and gain their trust, and can be either kind or ruthless, depending on the needs of a given situation.
He takes his work very seriously, only rarely letting personal feelings get in the way. He’s patriotic, but not overly political. In other words, he cares deeply about the good of his country and believes in what America stands for on its best days, but he’s more concerned about the safety of the nation that its particular current climate or controversies. Most of all, he’s the type of man who will do what it takes to succeed in his mission.
But he’s not just a blank slate of a man or an automaton that blindly follows orders. He’s also a man of deep feelings. Genevieve’s death has a great impact on him and it’s not something he shrugs off and gets over in the blink of an eye. Grieving takes time.
And he’s not all darkness and business either. Monroe enjoys good scotch, the company of beautiful women, and the loyalty of his few close friends. There’s a certain element of his spy work that he thrives on too; he might not admit it out loud, but he loves the adrenaline rush that comes with a dangerous situation.
P2K: In the story, there’s a femme fatale called Winter Willows – great name by the way! Her entrance is described as thus:
She was fashionably late, it seemed, and knew how to make an entrance. Spencer Archer had been right on all counts: she did have what the car thief had called a “killer body.” Athletic, lithe, expertly sculpted in all the right ways with no one particular area overshadowing the others. Her face was a sweet one but with the potential for severity and confidence, with a glittering diamond of a smile just below a naturally well-shaped nose which in turn sat beneath a pair of eyes that were the shade of roasted almonds, deep brown and warm. Her skin was pale but with a healthy red glow that required very little makeup. And, just as Archer had said, the hair was what made the picture so striking. It was pure white and looked oddly, ethereally enchanting as it flowed down the shoulders to frame a face that Monroe estimated to be somewhere in the range of twenty-seven to thirty-two with certainty that he could narrow that number down when he got close enough to take a better look. She was indeed startling in appearance.
It’s a great introduction. Where did Winter come from? What were your inspirations for the character?
AS: Of the three major female characters in the story, Winter is easily my favorite. In fact, she’s probably one of my favorite supporting characters that I’ve ever created, and she’s the most complicated of those three women. Of the other two, Angela MacIntyre is a damsel in need, a fragile young women who’s in way over her head; Genevieve, Monroe’s dead wife, is a sort of ghostly angel whose memory haunts Monroe and drives him forward. But Winter is a lot of things all at once. She might be Monroe’s ally or enemy, friend or lover, someone he needs or someone he’s tempted to kill. She has a sad back story and an interesting present. She’s a strong, smart woman and almost, if not completely, Monroe’s equal, despite the difference in which sides they seem to be on when they first meet. She’s a very important character to the story I wanted to tell.
Where did she come from? Well, in some ways she’s similar to the classic Bond girls, with her seductive ways, her physical beauty, and her appropriate and dramatic name. I think she was also partially inspired, though I may not have realized it at the time, by some of the female characters in the Chester Gould’s Dick Tracy and Will Eisner’s The Spirit. She fits that mold as a beautiful woman with one incongruous aspect to her appearance, the pure white hair framing a very young face.
P2K: Although Nobody Dies For Free is a contemporary novel, you almost push Monroe underground, and strip him of modern technology. There’s no satellite surveillance, or high-tech command centers. He is alone in the field. What was your reason for this?
AS: First of all, I wanted to tell a classic-style spy story, but I wanted it to be set in the modern day. So I had to find a way to limit the characters’ reliance on technology because I wanted it to be about Monroe the man and not about a bunch of people using satellites and the internet to get to the bottom of what was going on.
Back in the days when the early James Bond movies were being made, those wonderful gadgets that Q provided were the exception. Bond had them because of who he was. Technology was a privilege of his profession. But in today’s world, everyone has 24/7 internet access, GPS in their cars, and all sorts of instant information at their fingertips. So I reversed the equation, gave Monroe reasons to rely on wits instead of fancy tools. He’s an old-fashioned spy in a new-fangled world!
Those are the surface reasons why I needed to do that to tell this particular story, but maybe there are deeper reasons too. I tend to get slightly philosophical when it comes to modern technology.
Don’t get me wrong, because I love technology. Obviously, this interview wouldn’t be here if not for the internet, and my writing career wouldn’t be what it is without the tools of communication and commerce that the internet age has given us … but I do see many people relying too much on the ‘net! Maybe, for some, access to instant answers has made them lazy or causes them to miss out on certain things that, while harder, sometimes made life a little more interesting. I think of some of the skills that people are losing in today’s world and it makes me sad. Nobody reads maps anymore or has to figure out directions. Nobody writes letters or has to go to the library for research. Small talk is dying. People used to strike up conversations while on breaks at work or waiting in line in a busy bank or store. Now everyone has a smart phone in hand and texts and browses Facebook or Twitter. We have so many ways of constantly keeping track of every act or thought of those we already know, that I wonder how anybody meets anyone new anymore! I wonder how many people miss the chance to find what some call love at first sight because they never glance across a crowded room and lock eyes with a stranger!
So the changes to the world that have come about due to technology are something I think about often. With Nobody Dies For Free, I took that train of thought and applied it to the espionage world. When you live in a world where information flows quickly and constantly, it becomes harder and harder to keep secrets, especially when the general public has more access to information that ever before (a note, before somebody takes this the wrong way and starts an internet argument: I am not necessarily saying that any specific information should or should not be kept from the public. This is about a work of fiction, not my personal political views!). So it makes sense that there would be certain events in the world that would have to be kept quiet even among the men and women whose job it is to know what nobody else knows. I’m sure the intelligence communities aren’t immune to the over-reliance on technology that seems to plague the public in recent decades. So I decided that Monroe, as guided by Mr. Nine, would be the sort of agent who is made to avoid such issues by intentionally relying less on computers and such things and more on old-fashioned instinct, deduction, and hard-earned skill. Technology can give you more information, but it can’t make you more intelligent or more able to deal with tough choices or dangerous circumstances.
P2K: Nobody Dies For Free is not your only published work. Would you like to share a little bit about a few of your other projects?
Aaron: My work has been included in many of Airship 27’s pulp anthologies, featuring characters like Allan Quatermain and the Black Bat. I’m particularly happy to have been allowed to write some new Sherlock Holmes stories, since the Great Detective happens to be my all-time favorite fictional character. Besides Nobody Dies For Free, I’ve done other work for Pro Se Productions, including a series of short mysteries featuring Lt. Marcel Picard, a former professional hockey player who becomes a homicide cop. I’ve also written two vampire novels for Musa Publishing: 100,000 Midnights and Across the Midnight Sea.
And finally, what’s in the pipeline? Are there any future projects that you’re at liberty to discuss?
AS: Any day now, a publisher called Buzz Books will be releasing my zombie horror novel Chicago Fell First, so I’m pretty excited about that.
Those who have enjoyed Nobody Dies For Free will be happy to know that the series will continue in 2014 with the second Richard Monroe novel, which will be called Under the Radar. And just this week, I began work on the third one … and I’m not revealing the title yet! Even in this age of instant information, it’s fun to keep some things secret for a while.
Thank you for your time, Aaron, and I wish you continued success with your writing career.
For total transparency, please note, David Foster has work coming out from Pro Se Productions, the publishers of Nobody Dies For Free. The review copy of Nobody Dies For Free was also provided by Pro Se.