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|The Prey Series|
John Sandford on Chosen Prey
A lot of people don't recognize it, but the movie The Big Lebowski is a nineties comedic tribute to the old noir movies and novels set in Los Angeles of the 1940s and fifties.
Lebowski, a completely stoned-out, leftover hippie, functions as the private eye. The rest of the story, in its own twisted way, is typical noir fare: the powerful millionaire with his too-young, and now missing, trophy wife; the scandalous relationship with the pornographer and his thugs; the millionaire's seductive daughter and weird friends; Lebowski's off-center sidekicks who help solve the mystery.
The Lebowski story really isn't much, not a lot of big surprises. But the characterization is terrific.
I thought of that while reading through Chosen Prey for this new introduction. Chosen Prey is a noir novel. I don't even particularly like noir novels, though I love Lebowski. Looking back, though (it's been thirteen years since I wrote Chosen Prey), I think I must have been channeling something noir. The book is full of snappy lines, quick comebacks, nice sleazy characters, and some really, really bad jokes.
In fact, the monkey balls joke is probably the worst one I've ever put in a novel. It may, in fact, be one of the worst jokes anyone has ever put in a novel. But I gotta tell you, in rereading it, I cracked myself up. And basically, when you think about it, as a literary device, what's more noir than monkey balls? Or an elegant, artistic, insane villain who eats Froot Loops?
Not that he's funny. I am not going to unload any spoilers here, but the villain, James Qatar, is a vicious little weasel, which makes him a lot more creepy, and a lot less potentially likable, than a stand-up gunfighter-type outlaw.
How do you stick together a character like Qatar? Or Lebowski? Some writers may have them spring into existence fully formed, but I don't. I start with the idea for the character and sketch him out early in the book, but then I keep going back to him, adding a touch here and a detail there. How do you think of that stuff, all those little touches, people sometimes ask? Do I have a particularly sick mind? Do I research famous serial killers? Do I steal it from movies?
What I do is... I watch you.
I was in a Santa Fe gun store not long ago, looking for some .22s, and there was a guy in there wearing camo pants and boots and a bow-hunter's camo hat and a regular work shirt, and he was talking guns with the clerk. He was a little on the short side with a fleshy face friendly enough blue eyes and a button nose, and he knew his guns. It seemed like he knew everything there was to know about black rifles the brands, their defects, their accuracy, who customized them and where you got the best magazines. The clerk was right there with all of his stories about this guy and that guy who did this thing or that thing with his AR-15.
I can use that, and I will.
Later that day, I was in a Walmart, still looking for some .22s (there was a terrific .22 shortage that lasted all of 2013), and a small child had a meltdown in one of the aisles. What impressed me was how insanely angry the kid's mother got. She was a large woman, looked a little worn, tired and fed up, and she was yelling louder than the kid. At some point, she jerked the kid to her feet, and looked like she about pulled the kid's arm out of its socket.
I was worried I might have to step in to keep the kid from getting hurt, but they finally got themselves back together, more or less. Still, I could hear the kid screaming all the way across the store, through the cash registers, and out the door.
I can use that, too.
And thirteen years ago, more or less, I was talking to a book reviewer in a New York café about Chosen Prey. The book both intersted him, and somewhat creeped him out, the very idea of an artist doing all of this terrible stuff to women. He asked the standard questions Do you think you have a particularly sick mind? and I said no, I just take my models for killers from people I see in the street.
And he said (creative quote alert), "When I thought about you writing the book, I visualized you as somebody who looks like... that."
He nodded at a guy who was sitting across the café, with a cup of coffee. The guy was probably six feet tall, very thin, with a large bony nose, reddened at the end, probably from a cold because he kept dabbing at his nose with a wad of Kleenex. He had a sallow, New York mid-winter complexion, a kind of disheveled Hitler haircut, and small dark eyes; he was wearing a tweed overcoat that covered him from his shoulders to his ankles.
And I thought, Holy shit, that's James Qatar, the killer in Chosen Prey, the book we were talking about.
I'd already used him.
But I gotta tell you, there's lots more where he came from.
All you have to do is look around. Or in the mirror.
John Sandford, January 31, 2014
27 February 2020
The Prey series, the Virgil Flowers series, the Kidd series, The Singular Menace, The Night Crew, Dead Watch, The Eye and the Heart: The Watercolors of John Stuart Ingle, and Plastic Surgery: The Kindest Cut are copyrighted by John Sandford. All excerpts are used with permission.
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