Skip to main content

November 3, 2011

In Michael Walsh’s SHOCK WARNING, the follow-up to EARLY WARNING and the third installment in what he calls the “Skorzeny Trilogy,” a major biological attack and the appearances of the Virgin Mary and Mohammad in the sky set off a chaotic chain of events. In this interview, conducted by’s Joe Hartlaub, Walsh describes the process of shaping the series and his research for this latest book, which included a visit to the site of an ongoing apparition. He also shares his experiences writing in Hollywood and offers some glimpses into his upcoming books. You ended our last interview by promising much for SHOCK WARNING, your latest novel; you, in fact, delivered much more. You begin the book with a major biological attack, continue with the Virgin Mary and Mohammad appearing in the sky and causing riots, and end with a nuclear attack directed against Israel with the intent of commencing Armageddon. There are three books’ worth of plots and action right there. At the same time, I think this is the most confident and sure-footed of the Devlin books so far. I know you had been working on it for a while. Was it any more difficult to write than the other books in the series, or did it seem to take on a life and pattern of its own?

Michael Walsh: About three-quarters of SHOCK WARNING was written in a three-week white heat, which --- from a pure storytelling point of view --- is the ideal way to do it. I had the advantage of knowing my characters from the first two books, HOSTILE INTENT and EARLY WARNING, and I also had a very clear idea of the arc of the story. Plus, as the third installment in what I like to think of as the “Skorzeny Trilogy” (named after the villain, Emanuel Skorzeny), much of the story was already in motion.

Years ago, the great American author Paul Horgan taught me that a novelist must always know the first and last sentences of a new work before starting the writing. Having left a suitcase nuke in a New York City hospital in EARLY WARNING, I knew the story must begin there, in the department of nuclear medicine. The only possible final confrontation between Skorzeny and Devlin, the anonymous Central Security Service agent who is my protagonist, came to me well before I began writing. Then it was simply a matter of getting from point A to point Z in the liveliest, most entertaining manner possible.

BRC: One of the most interesting elements of the book was the appearance of the Blessed Mother and Mohammad in the sky, with disastrous results. I was raised in the Roman Catholic faith, and the appearances of Mary at Fatima and Guadalupe remain important and controversial elements of faith to this day. I don’t want to give anything away, but your explanation for the manifestations, as they occur in the book, was amazing. How did Mary and Mohammad come to appear in SHOCK WARNING? What inspired that?

MW: A few years back, I had had the idea for a novel or movie about a burned-out private investigator getting an assignment from the Church to investigate a miraculous apparition in the California desert but never knew quite what to do with it. As part of the research, I traveled to California City, in the Mojave Desert, to witness an ongoing apparition, some of which is recreated in SHOCK WARNING.

When it came time to write the new novel, I decided to incorporate part of that idea into the larger story of Devlin’s final battle against Emanuel Skorzeny. Devlin is a man of no faith except faith in himself, but what he witnesses during the course of this adventure --- which zips from the Central Valley of California to the Middle East, concluding near the Iranian holy city of Qom and at the site of the Carter-era Desert One disaster --- profoundly shakes him to his core; at the end, he (and we) are left wondering just what really happened. And why.

Without explaining exactly how Mary and Mohammad appear in the sky over various explosive parts of the world, let me just say that our government is actually working on such things right now, as part of the never-ending psywar against the bad guys.

BRC: I was also glad to see the return of the Byrne brothers and to have a bit more of the history behind their animosity revealed. The history of the brothers --- both of whom are in law enforcement, but hate each other’s guts --- is a prickly and interesting one, particularly since they share so many similarities, especially when it comes to gut-check time. Have you thought about spinning off one or the other, or both, into a series of their own?

MW: Frankie and his older brother, Tom --- the battling Byrne brothers --- first appeared in my debut novel, EXCHANGE ALLEY, which you can download on Kindle for $2.99 here. That novel, which uses the JFK assassination as the backdrop for a tale about New York and Moscow in the 1990s, is not for the squeamish, but in it you’ll get the full story of the Byrnes’ twisted family history and why the two brothers are at such odds.

I had always wanted to bring Frankie, the protagonist of EXCHANGE ALLEY back, and when the plot of EARLY WARNING turned on a Bombay-style terrorist assault on Times Square, I knew he would want to be in the thick of it. So I gave him a promotion from Lieutenant to Captain and made him the head of the NYPD’s crack Counter-Terrorism Unit. Of course, I had to give Tom a promotion as well, so he’s now deputy director of the FBI. I have a feeling you’ll see one or both of them again soon.

BRC: You have had great success as a thriller writer, having published several commercially and critically successful novels in the genre and related categories. Do you have any desire to write outside of the thriller genre, as far as your fiction writing is concerned? If so, which one(s)?

MW: Sure. In fact, I’ve already done so. My gangster novel, And All the Saints --- the “autobiography” of the last of the great Irish Prohibition-era gangster, Owney Madden --- won the American Book Award in 2004. The man who presented me the award,  Dan Cassidy, said I had done the impossible --- written a bilingual book in one language, which is one of the finest compliments I’ve ever received. Dan is a great scholar of the Irish language and its effect on American English, and by that he meant that I’d successfully incorporated a whole array of speech patterns --- Irish Gaelic, English gangster-speak, Noo Yawkese --- into Madden’s unique patois and made it sing.

And then there’s my novel, As Time Goes By, which is the prequel/sequel to the movie Casablanca. That one has elements of gangland (in Rick Blaine’s mysterious past), but it’s mostly a World War II novel about one of the most famous and dangerous operations of the war: the assassination of SS General Reinhard Heydrich, the architect of the Final Solution. I also have an idea for a major western novel, as well as something set along the Mississippi in the early 20th century, but can’t discuss them right now.

One quasi-fictional branch of my writing is my character “David Kahane,” the author of last year’s RULES FOR RADICAL CONSERVATIVES. Kahane is a 30-something hack screenwriter who first made his appearance in the pages of National Review Online. His somewhat wacky take on life, love, Hollywood and politics has proven very popular with the readership. Some folks find his vast panoply of cultural and historical references a little bewildering, but then so do I. He, by the way, has his own Facebook page and Twitter account, where he refers to me as the Amanuensis.

BRC: In our first interview, you said you received 25 rejection letters before getting a publishing agreement for your first novel, EXCHANGE ALLEY. Looking back on your career as a novelist, is there anything in particular that you wish you had done differently? And is there any one thing you did that you feel contributed to your current level of success?

MW: I suppose I could have concentrated on genre fiction from the outset, and followed the further adventures of the Byrne brothers. But EXCHANGE ALLEY was, I thought, too “literary” a novel for that kind of treatment, and in any case Warner Books offered me the chance to tackle the Casablanca project, so I went in a different direction.

As for success, it’s hard to measure. To judge by my reviews on Amazon, readers either love me or hate me, which is probably about right.

BRC: You had mentioned in an earlier interview that you named your character Devlin after the Cary Grant character in Alfred Hitchcock’s Notorious.If you were the casting director for a film adaptation of SHOCK WARNING, who would you like to see in the primary roles?

MW: That’s a game I no longer play since, as a grizzled Hollywood veteran now, I realize that it takes years to bring a project to the screen. I got lucky with the Disney Channel movie I co-wrote with the great Gail Parent, Cadet Kelly, which starred Hilary Duff; that took less than two years from start to finish, and everything about the process went smoothly. Which, of course, never happens in Tinseltown.

But generally, by the time you get the movie made --- if ever --- the actors you were thinking of are all too old for the parts, and there’s a whole new crop of “It” boys and girls that casting directors are salivating over. In any case, in Hollywood the writer is the low man on the above-the-line totem pole, and nobody cares what we think.

BRC: If you weren’t writing for a living, what do you think you would be doing?

MW: Living in a cardboard box under the Pasadena Freeway, or playing the piano in a nightclub in Fargo.

BRC: You have indicated in our other interviews that you have at least a couple more books planned in the series. What’s next? And on a related note, every powerful hero must face an even more powerful villain. What can you tell us about the next antagonist you have created to face Devlin and/or Danny?

MW: Under my contract with Kensington Books, there are at least two more Devlin books. I’m writing the fourth installment right now, and all I can tell you is that it will take place in a completely different part of the world, it will be non-stop action, and it will fly like a bat out of hell. There are two new villains in it, and believe me you don’t want to meet either of them in a dark alley, or lurking in your closet, or hiding under the bed.

I’m glad you mentioned Danny Impellatieri, the crack helicopter pilot who’s now officially a member of Devlin’s unit, Branch 4. You’ll see lots more of Danny and of Hope Gardner and the kids, as well as the various Washington politicos who’ve populated the first three books. You may even see Principessa Stanley, the amoral news reporter who’s determined to discover the secret of Devlin’s identity; I’ve gotten quite fond of her.

And, of course, lots more of the fun couple, Devlin and Maryam. Maybe one of these days, they’ll find out each other’s real names.