Monday, January 20, 2014

"Red 1-2-3"

Three of John Katzenbach's novels have been made into feature films: In the Heat of the Summer (adapted for the screen as The Mean Season), Hart's War starring Bruce Willis, and Just Cause starring Sean Connery. His other books include the New York Times bestseller The Traveler; Day of Reckoning and The Shadow Man. Katzenbach was a criminal court reporter for The Miami Herald and Miami News and a featured writer for the Herald’s Tropic magazine.

Katzenbach applied the Page 69 Test to his new novel, Red 1-2-3, and reported the following:
Now this is a tough standard. I mean, ideally every page of a psychological thriller should wrap itself around a reader’s imagination – but in Red 1-2-3 alas, page 69 is the start of a chapter and lacks car chases, gunfire, knife play, cliff-edge teetering or fiery explosions. Now, that said, on page 68 a killer contemplates a most intriguing crime spree – while at the same time he awaits the mundane, but delicious dinner his wife prepares in the kitchen. This is the sort of moment in the book that I really work hard at – a time where the ordinary crashes into the exceptional and lines that define character and underscore tension are molded together. I have always thought that the essence of psychological tension in the very best thrillers comes from a junction of the routine – which a reader can identify with – and the twists of character, that further the plot, so that it all combines into a story that compels the reader to turn pages.

When I was young, I had a wonderful teacher at Bard College, a novelist named Mary Lee Settle. She used to say that any writer worth their salt can handle the scene where the clock is striking High Noon, and Black Bart is in the dusty street, stroking the pearl handles of his twin Colt .45’s, calling out the Sheriff, “I’m out here waitin’ on yah, Sheriff!” and the School Marm is clutching the Sheriff’s knees, pleading with him, “Don’t go out there, Sheriff! Black Bart’ll gun you down f’er sure…” and the Sheriff is saying, “But Martha, the whol’ town’s expecting me to face him…”

Easy, Mary Lee would say. Good versus evil and pretty much the scene the author imagined from the get-go, which is why he or she’s writing the book in the first place.

But the scene that establishes the tension for that showdown happens significantly earlier. Maybe at breakfast, when Martha the School Marm idly asks her husband/lover the Sheriff, “Well, dear, got any plans for today?”

And he replies, “Yes, ah, I have a pressing appointment at precisely noon…”

That breakfast is much harder to write -- but incredibly important for the overall story.

And that’s the sense I try to endow on many pages in Red 1-2-3. It’s to create an atmosphere of tension that runs beneath – like a river in winter, flowing under a thin layer of crackling ice.
Learn more about the book and author at John Katzenbach's website and Facebook page.

My Book, The Movie: Red 1-2-3.

Writers Read: John Katzenbach.

--Marshal Zeringue