Interview: June 26, 2014
R.J. Ellory is the author of 12 novels, including the bestselling A QUIET BELIEF IN ANGELS. His most recent book to be released in the US, SAINTS OF NEW YORK, is the story of troubled, uncompromising NYPD Detective Frank Parish, who lives unhappily in the shadow of his father. As his homicide case escalates, Frank must confront his own demons and discover the truth before there are further innocent victims. In this interview with Bookreporter.com’s L. Dean Murphy, Ellory discusses his interest in portraying police work as honestly as possible, which means sparing his readers “coincidences” and detectives who are always right. Frank Parrish is by no means an easy protagonist to root for, and Ellory is quite adamant that Frank’s flaws are what make him compelling. He also talks about his innovative approach to flashbacks, and why some things remain unresolved --- as in life --- by the end of the novel.
Bookreporter.com: Why did you begin SAINTS OF NEW YORK with such gore?
R.J. Ellory: Televisual representation of homicide investigation tends to err towards “after-the-fact” investigation. The detective shows up when the victim is dead. I have spent enough time with cops to know that there is a far more brutal and visceral aspect to homicide investigation --- the kidnap scenario, the hostage scenario, the siege-type scenario --- and I really wanted to put the reader right in the middle of such a situation and give them an idea of what it was like to be confronted with that much reality right from the start of the book. I wanted the opening scene to set the tone and standard for the rest of the book. This is what it’s really like to work homicide.
BRC: Why did you construct a flawed personality like Frank Parrish to be the protagonist?
RJE: Isn’t everyone flawed? Doesn’t everyone make mistakes, sometimes quite serious ones? Don’t we judge people not only by what they do wrong, but also whether they own up, take responsibility, try their best to fix it? I think one of my pet hates in crime fiction is the protagonist who is always right, the cop who never puts a foot wrong, who has a “sixth sense,” who is always one step ahead of the killer. There seems to be so very much of that. And too many “coincidences” and “lucky breaks.” Investigatory work isn’t like that. It can be heartbreakingly frustrating and lead nowhere. Again, I wanted to write a book that gives a more honest and frank perspective on police work in New York in the 21st century. There is no technology --- at least not the way “CSI” would have us believe. It is still dogged, persistent, unrelenting work, and conviction rates are not as high as we are perhaps led to believe.
BRC: Had Frank not known of his dad’s paradoxical corruption, how would the novel have changed?
RJE: Undoubtedly it would have changed, but I am not sure how. The book was always going to deal with Frank’s relationship with his father. I wanted the character to be torn, not only personally but also professionally. The whole idea was to write a character whose life was a car crash. Everything that could go wrong had gone wrong, and yet, through all of this, he managed to maintain a level of personal integrity that he would never compromise.
BRC: Frank trusts his gut feelings about a suspect, but he’s been wrong many times. What made this different?
RJE: I think he reached a point where he had to have something to hang on to. The case became an anchor for him, a way in which he could test himself and his own resolve. I think he recognized in the victim something of himself: that they were both lost causes. And though the victim had Frank to fight for her, the only one who was actually going to fight for Frank was Frank himself.
BRC: What did you hope to accomplish with the use of pedophilia and porn as the link to homicide?
RJE: It’s just a way to demonstrate the staggering moral and ethical decline of the society in which we live. Really it’s a matter of “corruption and abuse of the innocent,” an analogy for what we have allowed ourselves to become blind to, even to accept as “normal” when it is so very far from normal. It is also something that the police have to deal with on a day-to-day basis, and thus --- as a case --- it was really no different from murder or bank robbery or gangland assassinations.
BRC: There’s a certain charisma about the NYPD. Frank Parrish quashes that. Why?
RJE: Because he is flawed and real, and his life has fallen apart at the seams. We see that even though he is a police detective, he really is no different from us. He carries the same burdens and responsibilities, and they weigh no less heavily on his shoulders.
BRC: Good use of psych sessions with Dr. Griffin for flashbacks. Why did you use this venue?
RJE: I wanted those scenes to be like dialogue from a film. We didn’t need to know how the room looked or what people were wearing or what aspects of body language they employed. We just needed to know what they were saying. I had not seen such a technique employed in a novel before, even though I am sure it must have been done, but I thought it suited the tone and message very well. To just have dialogue between two people and nothing else really got the point across very quickly and did not slow down the reader.
BRC: Frank begins to respect Dr. Griffin. Is this metaphoric?
RJE: It’s a metaphor for him not only beginning to respect himself, but everyone else as well. It is part of his journey back to humanity.
BRC: Why tease readers with hints about former police partner Mike Vale? It made for a flash-bang finish.
RJE: Again, a crime fiction novel is also a mystery, and I wanted to leave something unanswered until the end. How it would end exactly, I did not know. I never plan or plot the novels before I start them. That’s not the way I work. I reach a three-quarter point and then I begin to resolve it in my own mind. Sometimes that takes a little while --- a couple of days of looking at how it could close out --- and then I write it.
BRC: What is the next title to be released in the US?
RJE: I haven’t the faintest idea! I did not know that SAINTS OF NEW YORK was being released in the US until about two weeks ago!