In New Serial Thriller, Everyone's Hands Are Bloody

Watchlist book cover
Watchlist: Two Serial Thrillers in One Killer Book
By Jeffery Deaver, Jim Fusilli, et al.
Hardcover, 416 pages
Vanguard Press
List price: $25.95

Read An Excerpt

Writing a book is usually a solitary occupation, but when David Corbett was asked to work on a serial thriller, the opportunity was too good to pass up. The story would be a collaboration among 22 writers; one person would set the action in motion, then hand it off to another writer who would add a new chapter, taking the plot in new directions.

Corbett would be working with some of the best writers in the business, but when it was his turn to write, he says, he realized the format of the story would drastically change the way he wrote.

"Normally as a writer you start out doing the background on all of your characters, you do all of your research," Corbett says. "And it's a living, breathing thing in a lot of ways, in your unconscious before you even begin. Here, here you're sort of like given building blocks."

The book that came out of this collaboration is Watchlist, a pair of novellas first released as audiobooks and now available in a hardcover edition. For Watchlist, the main building block was a lead character that ties the two stories together: Harold Middleton, a former war crimes investigator who unexpectedly gets pulled back into a game of international intrigue at the start of the first novella, "The Chopin Manuscript."

Harold Middleton was the creation of Jeffrey Deaver, the writer who not only set the book in motion but also had the difficult task of pulling all the myriad threads of the story together in the concluding chapter.

"I'm one of those people, you know, the T-shirt would say, 'Doesn't play well with others,' " Deaver says.

Writing in collaboration with others did not come easily to him.

"It was with a little fear and trepidation that I handed my first chapter off because I had very clear ideas of where I would have taken the story," Deaver says. "And I had to take a deep breath and say, 'Jeff, no. This is the way the project is going to work. You're going to get your sweaty grip off the novel and hand it to someone else.' That was probably the hardest part for me."

As the reins moved from writer to writer, the plot of the Watchlist stories took some wild turns, and each writer brought his or her own particular stylistic flourishes to the project. The man responsible for keeping everyone in line, Jim Fusilli, not only wrote a chapter of his own but edited everyone else's.

Jeffery Deaver i i

Jeffery Deaver came up with Watchlist's main character, Harold Middleton. Deaver is also the author of the Lincoln Rhyme thriller novels. Jerry Bauer hide caption

itoggle caption Jerry Bauer
Jeffery Deaver

Jeffery Deaver came up with Watchlist's main character, Harold Middleton. Deaver is also the author of the Lincoln Rhyme thriller novels.

Jerry Bauer

"I had no idea what was coming. When the file would arrive from the writer, that would be the first time we would have had any discussion about where the story should go," Fusilli says. "So I would read those things more as a reader than as an editor. And most times I was pretty excited. I mean in almost every instance the writer did something I would not have done. But in some cases i was kind of shocked."

Fusilli says the writers were given total freedom to take the story wherever their imaginations led them. But every now and then he had to draw a firm line.

"The only announcement, or pronouncement, or discussion I ever had with the writers in general is that at some point in both books we had to say no more new characters," Fusilli says. "Now is the time to start pruning, and you know what I mean by pruning."

These being thriller writers, there was no question as to what "pruning" characters would mean. The only question was the amount of bloodshed left in the aftermath of the editing process. Corbett says that there is no shortage of untimely deaths in the stories.

"There may have been a little bit of sadistic mayhem in the hearts of some of these writers, not just to the characters, but to the next writer," Corbett says. "Not in a malicious way, but in sort of teasing: 'Oh yeah, guess what? Make sense of this!' "

Corbett says by the time his chapter came around not too far into the first novella, the plot had already taken so many sharp turns — locations included Prague, Washington, Africa and Rome — that he felt he had to slow things down.

"It was a little bit of crazy," he says. "So when my chapter came around, it was, 'Let's settle things down a little bit. Let's get back to our hero ... and drive the story forward with him.' "

Part of the fun in reading the book is watching how the writers make the story their own. Deaver says it's a good introduction to a lot of different thriller writers. (Read Deaver's opening to the second novella, "The Copper Bracelet.")

"Readers say, 'This is fascinating because there are authors I am curious about but have never had a chance to read and I probably wouldn't pick up. And now I get a little sampling.' And I feel like we kind of helped each other in that regard," Deaver says.

For now, the writers have gone their separate ways, but Deaver says there's one last way they've stayed true to the thriller tradition: They've left the door open for another Harold Middleton story.

The readings of Watchlist in Lynn Neary's story were provided by audible.com.

Excerpt: 'Watchlist'

Watchlist
Watchlist: Two Serial Thrillers in One Killer Book
By Jeffery Deaver, Jim Fusilli et al
Hardcover, 416 pages
Vanguard Press
List price: $32.95

Chapter 1: The Copper Bracelet

Finally the families were alone.

Since the start of their vacation two days ago, they'd been in public constantly, taking in the sights in this touristy area along the beaches near Nice, France. They'd seen the museums in Antibes Juan-les-Pins, the fragrant perfume-making town of Grasse, the violet fields of medieval Tourettes sur Loup and nearby Cannes — a dull provincial village when emptied of filmmakers, paparazzi and actors.

And wherever they went: too many people around for him to move in for the kill.

Now, at last, the Americans were alone, picnicking on a deserted stretch of white sand and red rocks near le Plages de Ondes at Cap d'Antibes — a postcard of the South of France. Sullen autumn was on the land now and everyone had returned from holiday. Today the weather was overcast and windy, but that hadn't fazed the two families — a husband and wife in early middle age and a slightly younger couple with their baby. Apparently they'd decided to take the day off from sightseeing and strolling past the tabacs, cafes and souvenir shops, and spend the day alone.

Thank you, thought Kavi Balan. He needed to get the job done and leave. There was much to do.

The swarthy man, born in New Delhi and now, he liked to think, now a resident of the world, was observing the family through expensive binoculars from a hundred yards away, in the hills above the beach. He was parked in a rented Fiat, listening to some syrupy French pop music. He was taking in the gray water, the gray sky, looking for signs of gendarmes or the ubiquitous governmental functionaries that materialized from nowhere in France to ask for your passport or identity card and snidely demand your business.

But there was no one about. Except the families.

As he studied them, Balan was wondering too about a question much on his mind the past few days: how he would feel about killing a whole family. The adults were not a problem, of course, even the women. He'd killed women without a single fleck of remorse. But the younger couple's baby — yes, that murder would bother him.

He'd lain awake last night, considering the dilemma. Now, watching the young mother rock the infant's bassinette absently, he came to a decision. Balan had been instructed to leave no one alive, but that was because of the need to eliminate anyone with certain information. He hadn't seen the baby, but it couldn't be more than a year old. It could hardly identify him, nor would it have retained any conversation between the adults. He would spare the child.

Balan would tell his mentor that he'd grown concerned about somebody approaching as he'd been about to kill the child and had left the beach quickly so he wouldn't be detected. This wasn't unreasonable, and wasn't a complete lie. There were houses here, cars and trucks passing nearby. Even though the beaches were deserted, people still lived in the area year round.

There. He'd decided. Balan felt better.

And he concentrated more closely on the task before him.

The families were enjoying themselves, laughing. His ultimate target — the American husband in his fifties — joked with his wife, who was a bit younger. Not classically beautiful, but exotic, with long dark hair. She reminded Balan of an older Kareena Kapoor, the Bollywood film star. Thinking this, he felt a wave of contempt course through him at these people. Americans . . . they had no idea of the richness of Indian cinema (no American he'd ever met even knew that that Bombay supplied the "B" for Bollywood, which, they also didn't know, was only a part of the nation's film industry). Nor did they understand Indian culture in general, the depth of its history and its spiritual life. Americans thought of India as customer service call centers, curry and "Slumdog Millionaire."

On the beach the two men jumped to their feet and pulled out an American football. Another shiver of contempt raced through him, as he watched them pitch the elongated ball back and forth. They called that a game, gridiron football. Absurd. Big men running into each other. Not like real football — what they called soccer. Or the most sublime game in the world: cricket.

He looked at his watch. Soon, he thought. Just one phone call away. He checked his Nokia to make sure it was working. It was. Balan was known as a fanatic about details.

He turned the binoculars on the families again. Since they were about to die, he couldn't help wondering where they were on the ladder of spirituality. A Hindu, Balan had an appreciation of the concept of reincarnation — the concept of returning to earth after death in some form that echoes spiritual justice for your past life. His philosophy was a bit at odds with traditional Hindu views, though, since he believed that though he devoted his life to death and torture he was doing higher work here on earth. In an odd way, perhaps by hastening the families' deaths — before they had a chance to lead even more impure lives — he might hasten their spiritual growth.

He didn't need this idea to justify what was about to happen, of course. All that mattered was that his mentor, Devras Sikari, had singled him out to kidnap the husband — and kill anybody with him — then torture the man to find out what he'd learned on his recent trip to Paris.

There are more than 300,000 deities in the Hindu religion, but Sikari, though flesh and blood, was higher than them all, in Balan's mind. In India, the social and economic caste system is impossibly complicated, with thousands of sects and subsects. But the religious text the Bhagavad-Gita defines only four castes: the highest are the Brahmin spiritual leaders, the lowest, the working-class Sudras.

Devras Sikari was in the Kshatriya caste, that of spiritual warriors and leaders. It was the second most spiritual class, below only the Brahmin. The Bhagavad-Gita says that those in the Kshatriya caste are "of heroic mind, inner fire, constancy, resourcefulness, courage in battle, generosity and noble leadership." That described Sikari perfectly. His first name, Devras, meant servant of God. The surname meant "hunter."

The man took the names when he was "twice born," a phrase that has nothing to do with reincarnation, but refers to the coming-of-age ceremony for Hindu youths. Balan believed a name was important. His own first name, for instance, meant poet, and he did indeed have an appreciation for beauty and words. Mahatma Gandhi's surname meant "greengrocer" — and was a perfect description of the mild-mannered commoner who changed the history of his country through peace and passive resistance.

Devras Sikari, the hunter chosen by god, would change the world too, though far differently than Gandhi. He would make a mark in a way that befit his name.

Balan now recalled the day he left for this mission. The dark, diminutive Sikari — his age impossible to guess — came to Balan's safe house in Northern India. Sikari was wearing wrinkled white slacks and a loose shirt. From the chest pocket blossomed a red handkerchief. (Red was the color associated with the Kshatriya caste and Sikari always wore or carried something red.) The leader had greeted him in a soft voice and gentle smile — he never shouted or displayed anger — and then explained how vital it was that he find a particular American, a geologist who had been making inquiries about Sikari in Paris.

"I need to know what he's learned. And why he wants to know about me."

"Yes, Devras. Of course." Sikari insisted that his people use his first name.

"He's left India. But find him. Kill anyone with him, then torture him," he said as casually as if he were ordering a cup of Kashmiri shir chai — pink salt tea.

"Of course."

His mentor had then smiled, taken Balan's hand and given him a present: a thick copper bracelet, an antique, it seemed. A beautiful piece, streaked with a patina of green. It was decorated with ancient writing and an etching of an elephant. He'd slipped the bracelet on Balan's wrist and stepped back.

"Oh, thank you, Devras."

Another smile and the man who had brought so much death to some and hope to others whispered one of his favorite expressions: "Go and do well for me."

And with that Devras Sikari stepped out the door and vanished back into the countryside of Kashmir.

Now, remaining hidden from the victims soon to die, Balan glanced down at the bracelet. He knew it signified more than gratitude: the gift meant that he was destined for some place high in Sikari's organization.

It was also a reminder not to fail.

Do well for me . . .

Balan's phone trilled.

"Yes?"

Without any greeting, Jana asked coolly, "Are you in position?"

"Yes."

Excerpted from Watchlist: Two Serial Thrillers in One Killer Book by Jeffery Deaver, Jim Fusilli et al. Copyright 2010 by Jeffery Deaver, Jim Fusilli et al. Published by Vanguard Press. All rights reserved.

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