Wednesday, October 02, 2019

Author Steve Cavanagh at The Poisoned Pen!

After reading Steve Cavanagh's latest Eddie Flynn mystery, Thirteen, I was happy to see his name on The Poisoned Pen Bookstore's calendar of events, so on a (typically) hot summer late afternoon, Denis and I headed over to our favorite bookstore to mee this talented writer.

Normally, bookstore owner Barbara Peters interviews the author, but this time Patrick Millikin would do the honors which means that you'll "get to meet" an indispensable member of the bookstore's staff. Let's get straight to the interview!

L to R: Patrick Millikin, Steve Cavanagh
Patrick: I decided to go pick up Steve at the Hotel Valley Ho which is just around the corner because I thought he would wilt in the heat. I think I was right!

Steve: I would definitely be dead by now! [audience laughter] This is the hottest I've ever been!

Some final tweaks to the electronics, and...

Patrick: Good evening, everybody. Welcome to The Poisoned Pen Bookstore, my name is Patrick Millikin, and it is a real thrill and honor to welcome Steve Cavanagh here for his first-ever visit. [audience applause] We were talking in the back-- if any of you came to see Adrian McKinty when he was here recently-- it's pretty cool and a first as far as I'm aware to have two bestselling thriller novels-- Adrian McKinty's The Chain and Steve's Thirteen-- two bestselling thrillers by writers from Northern Ireland.

Steve: Yeah, there's a few of us who get around, you know. We swap it around, so when Stuart Neville's not on the bestseller list we share it out. It's only fair.

Patrick: Since this is your first time here, can you just tell us a bit about your background before we get into the book?

Steve: Okay. Well, I grew up in Belfast in the late 70s, and that was an interesting time. To be in Belfast. Most of the place was on fire quite a bit so it was very warm... but not as warm as this! [audience laughter] At the time, I didn't know any better. It's only when you look back at these things that you realize how crazy a time it was. There were regular bombings and shootings and lucky escapes. Thankfully, no one directly in my family was really badly hurt in the Troubles, but it was still a dangerous time. I went to school in Belfast, and when I graduated, I went to university in Dublin.

Part of Steve Cavanagh's audience.
I was going to go into business studies and marketing. I sort of became a lawyer by mistake. Really. I got accepted for two courses at the university in Dublin, business studies and marketing and law, and I was to go down and choose whichever course I wanted to do.

So me and a few friends went down to Dublin. It was the first time we'd been there, and we thought we could go out that night and have a few beers and probably we wouldn't get murdered-- it wasn't an unusual thing-- so we did do that. When we woke up the next morning, it felt as if we had been murdered. We had our very first hangovers. [audience laughter] I went down to university with my stuff to register. I felt awful, and there's thousands of people there, and they're pointing to rooms, and we've given numbers and told to line up and sign things. I just did whatever I was told and came home.

Then I went to my business studies and marketing classes for two weeks quite happily. I had to find where I was in the tutorial groups, and I couldn't find my name on the notice board. I went to the lady at the administration desk and said, "I don't know what tutorial group I'm in. Could you have a look for me?" I gave her my name, she took a look and said, "You're not in business studies and marketing. You registered for law." "I didn't mean to! Can I swap over?" This was the time the British government paid me a grant to pay all my fees-- and they paid for a year of law. If I wanted to do business studies and marketing, I'd have to take a year out and start all over... so I said I'd just do law. So I became a lawyer because I joined the wrong queue at one stage. [audience laughter]

Available Now!
I like law. It's been fun, and around the age of eighteen or nineteen, I wrote screenplays. I always loved books and reading and movies, but I didn't think I could write a book. A book's four hundred pages long. I didn't think I could sustain a story over that length of time. So what I did was write two screenplays, and I managed to get an agent but I didn't get any of them sold.

I did get a rejection from Francis Ford Coppola. He read one of my screenplays, and he rejected it on the grounds that it wasn't Irish enough-- despite the fact that I wrote it. I'm an Irishman. I have a little bit of an accent as you can tell. The screenplay was set in Ireland, but it wasn't Irish enough. I'm a fake Irishman! [audience laughter]

Patrick: We were in the back and I asked if there were any movies that captured the Troubles really well, and you said there are precious few.

Steve: Very few. In the Name of the Father is about the only one I can think of. There's one called '71 that I've heard is really good.

So... I gave up writing screenplays because I didn't get any sold. I continued on merrily as a lawyer then. I did that for about fifteen years, then my mum passed away quite suddenly. She was the only person who ever encouraged me to write, so I thought I'm going to try to write a book that she would enjoy. So I wrote my first novel, and that's how I got started.

Patrick: You were talking about going back to Dublin when you were growing up and feeling more comfortable going out on the town. Was it the same kind of situation in Dublin as it was in Belfast where you had to be very careful which place you went to after dark depending upon the part of town you were in?

Steve: Of course. You could go to the center of Belfast, but it was getting home-- you had to be very careful getting home. There was nobody in Belfast at that time. The city was completely dead by 7:30. There were a few wee pubs here and there that had some people in them, but very few. Now it's totally different. It's one of the best European holiday destinations so we're told. I can't quite believe it myself, but boats keep arriving and people keep coming to visit. Game of Thrones helped a lot, I think. People like going to see where it was filmed.

Scottsdale in summer? You need water!
Yes, Belfast was a pretty rough place at that time. For a month, there was an army checkpoint that I had to walk past on my way to school, and the same soldier would track me with his rifle as I walked to school in my school uniform. The first time it happened, I thought what the hell's he doing? Then I forgot about it.

Patrick: Just part of your day?

Steve: Yes. Like getting on the bus. But looking back on it... that was crazy!

Patrick: [to the audience] You all should check it out online. There's a really neat interview where you and Adrian McKinty talk about your respective experiences growing up and how it affected you as writers.

You said something about how you were drawn to the classic loner/ outsider/P.I. figure because it was someone who had rejected the indoctrination of the mainstream.

Steve: Yeah. Looking back on it, my parents had a mixed marriage. My dad's a Protestant, my mum was a Catholic. That really wasn't the norm. If you lived in a very strong Loyalist area or a strong Catholic area, you could be beaten up or killed for that. But my grandfather was... influential, shall we say? in certain areas, and my father wasn't harmed. It was a very strange way to live and because of that, I didn't take to religion. I didn't become bipartisan. To me, Protestants and Catholics are all the same, so I rejected that sort of religious indoctrination.

Maybe that's why I became a defense lawyer. I sued the government lots, and the loner P.I. was very attractive to me.

Available Now!
Patrick: Your mother, I understand, at the very impressionable age of twelve, gave you a particular gift. Tell us about that and how it kind of shaped your world view.

Steve: Yeah. She gave me a copy of The Silence of the Lambs that she'd read.

Patrick: Isn't that child abuse?

Steve: Well, at that time, it was like light relief. [audience laughter] In the city where I grew up, it was fine. I loved it. I absolutely loved that book. And that was my gateway into crime fiction.

So after that, I read Chandler, Ross MacDonald, John D. MacDonald, and then, later on, found my way to Michael Connelly, Lee Child, and that was my way in. That opened up a whole new world that I wouldn't otherwise have had. My mother read two types of books. She read dark, violent crime thrillers, and she loved serial killer books.

The other type of fiction she liked was Catherine Cookson novels. I don't know if you know Catherine Cookson. She wrote Victorian romances. She wrote about fifty books. They're all the same! The only thing that changed was the lady on the cover. It was either somebody who worked in a factory who was really landed gentry or somebody who worked in a big house somewhere and fell in love with the lord and married the lord. She just swapped it every other time. If my mother had given me a Catherine Cookson novel, I could have been a very different sort of novelist! [audience laughter]

Patrick: This is your fourth published novel, correct?

Steve: Yes. The third published in the United States.

Patrick: Someone in the back had a copy of The Liar which hasn't been published here yet.

Steve: That's right.

Patrick: Do all of them feature Eddie Flynn?

Steve Cavanagh
Steve: They all feature Eddie Flynn. It is a series, but the way I've written it, you don't have to read them in any order. They all work as complete standalone novels. You don't need to know about anything that happened in any of the other books.

Patrick: This is my first time reading any of your novels, and I could tell there was a backstory because you tease a little backstory in to satisfy our curiosity. Tell us a little about this character. He was a con man who becomes an attorney...

Steve: Yes. The series explores the fact that there's not a great deal of difference between being a con man and being a trial lawyer. They both have exactly the same skills. [audience titters]

Patrick: Larry here's an attorney, and I'm sure he would agree.

Larry: Thanks for outing me! [audience laughter]

Steve: Distraction. Manipulation. Persuasion. All of these are great skills for a trial attorney to have... and for a con artist. It sort of hit me one day. I was cross-examining someone and I tricked them into telling the truth. It was nothing to do with my law degree-- I played a trick on them.

I'm fascinated by what happens in a courtroom and cross-examination. Every word used is a weapon. It's a massive psychological battle with words. I love that, and when you see it done really well, there's no drama like it. It's unbelievable. It's almost like a little vignette. There's always a little twist at the end because inevitably the witness doesn't see this bombshell careering over the horizon toward him.

Patrick: That comes into jury selection as well.

Available in the UK
Steve: Yeah!

Patrick: You mention in here that there are three basic elements to a good hustle that are also successful in cross-examination.

Steve: The set-up, the pay-off, and the convincer or something like that. A lot of Eddie Flynn comes from me and my style of how I do things. And a few other people like Clarence Darrow. Does anyone know who Clarence Darrow is?

Darrow was a civil rights attorney. He practiced from about-- I think-- 1870 to 1915. He started off as a labor lawyer who represented unions. Then he was caught bribing a jury. He never admitted to bribing the jury. He was never prosecuted for bribing a jury, but somebody who worked for Clarence went into the jury room with a bagful of money. They weren't able to connect Clarence to it, but I'm sure he was bribing that jury. He was told he wasn't allowed to practice this law anymore, so he decided to do murder cases. He did somewhere between 100 and 115 capital murder cases. For a lot of those, he was representing African-American defendants who were accused of violence toward Caucasians, and he's got an all-white, all-male jury in the South. And that's real tough!

Patrick: An Atticus Finch kind of situation?

Steve: Oh no. Not Atticus Finch. Atticus Finch is a really weak lawyer, but we'll talk about that in a minute. [audience laughter] Clarence, out of all those cases, he lost-- I think-- three? Now, there's no doubt that he was a great orator, but he also cheated, and Atticus Finch would never cheat. That's why Atticus can lose.

One of Darrow's great schemes was when the prosecution called their star witness, Darrow-- who normally wore black suits-- would wear a beautifully pressed white linen suit. He used to smoke foot-long Cuban cigars, and before he went into court, he would thread a hatpin through the center of the cigar then go into court. He would sit at the defense table, the witness would be called... there were no papers in front of Clarence. He never wrote anything down, he kept it all in his head-- the man was a genius-- the only thing in front of him was a beautiful crystal ashtray. Big one. Clarence would light up his cigar
Steve Cavanagh
and smoke. As the elements in the case went on and the evidence got more damning against Clarence's client, the ash on the cigar got longer and longer and longer. He never tipped the ash into the ashtray. He just let it grow and grow and grow. The hatpin was keeping it all together because the hatpin was hot and the ash was hot.

But the jury is sitting there nudging each other, saying, "Hey, look at that!" The ash is still impossibly long, and he's just sitting there with it over his beautiful white linen suit-- and the jury isn't paying a bit of attention to what's going on with the witness. They're all nudging each other and watching Clarence's cigar, waiting for that sword of Damocles to fall. Of course, it never did, but the jury never heard the damning evidence from the prosecution.

Patrick: That's genius!

Steve: Isn't it? So Eddie's like that. He'll always do the wrong things for the right reasons. Eddie is not above breaking the laws as long as he's doing it-- and he has a very strong moral code... he doesn't represent people that he thinks are really guilty, the ones that want to use him to get off.

Patrick: This book is fascinating with the way it's set up because it tells you right on the darned cover that the serial killer isn't on trial, he's on the jury. Tell us how you came up with that concept.

Steve: There's a lot more to it than just that premise.

Patrick: Right!

Steve: When I was writing my first book, I had this idea-- what is the worst thing that could happen? And I thought, if you had a serial killer who worked his way into the jury, that would be pretty bad. I talked about it with my wife, and she said that that was a good idea.

Available Now!
I know very little about writing. I don't outline; I write very instinctually, but I know suspense and that's what these are all about. They aren't legal procedurals that I write. I write suspense novels. My go-to is always Hitchcock's bomb theory if any of yas know that?

Hitchcock's bomb theory is that people are sitting in a theater watching Hitchcock on the screen, and he's sitting at a table with a guy talking about baseball. They talk about baseball for two minutes then there's a huge explosion under the table and the audience in the theater gasps for a couple of seconds.

Hitchcock believed suspense is better. What he preferred is that two minutes before Hitchcock sits down at the table to talk about baseball, somebody else comes in and plants a bomb under the table, and the audience sees this. The guy leaves, and then Hitchcock and the guy come in, sit at the table, and start talking about baseball. And for the whole two minutes they're talking about baseball, the audience is gripping the seat, going, "Stop talking about baseball, there's a bomb under the table!" So there are a whole two minutes of that and the suspense builds and builds and then there's an explosion.

Patrick: That's very Irish, by the way.

Steve: Yeah, it is! And the perfect example of Hitchcock's bomb theory is Jaws. Jaws is a perfect suspense movie because it starts off with that shark, and you don't see it, but you know there's a dirty great shark in the water and it eats people. As soon as anyone in that movie gets a toe near the water, you're tense. You're gripping the chair because that's another bomb under the table.

Patrick: And the music...

Steve: The music is awesome! So with that tagline on the cover of the book, I'm putting the shark in the water right on page one.

Patrick: I'm notorious for giving spoilers, and I swear I'm not going to do it this time, but the point of view in the book is really interesting because you go back and forth between your villain-- which is the third-person point of view-- and Eddie Flynn-- which is first person. Did you start out that way, or did that sort of narrative approach evolve as you were writing?

Steve Cavanagh
Steve: I deliberately set out to do it that way because the first three novels I wrote in the series it's Eddie in first person through almost the whole book. There's no other point of view.

I felt that I wasn't getting my villains as well as I could do because you were only getting to see things through Eddie's eyes. It's particularly hard to do when you don't know who your villain is. This one, I wanted to have a point of view from the villain, but I didn't want to lose Eddie's first-person point of view.

I started out to write it almost as though there were two heroes. There's Kane who's the hero of his own story and Eddie, and at some stage, their paths cross. They're both on opposite missions, but Eddie doesn't know about Kane for a long time.

Patrick: Kane's kind of the rebel angel.

Steve: Yeah! He kind of is! Actually, some readers told me they were almost rooting for Kane. He can be quite charming at times. It was a lot of fun to write, and of course, the other thing about the structure which was tricky was Joshua Kane gets on the jury but you never know which jury member he is. That is kept from you... but you know he's there.

Patrick: What can you tell us about the basic set-up without giving too much away?

Steve: Eddie Flynn gets roped into representing an up-and-coming Hollywood movie star named Bobby Sullivan. Bobby's been arrested and put on trial for the murder of his new wife and his head of security. They're both found murdered in their Manhattan home in a compromising position. That's one side of the story. The other side of the story is that there is a man called Joshua Kane who's going through a very detailed plan to manipulate his way onto the jury for the Bobby Sullivan trial. But you don't know why he's doing this.

When I was thinking of Kane, he has an interesting medical condition. He has something called congenital analgesia which is a real condition, and it's quite prevalent in certain parts of Norway. There are a few cases in the United States as well. What it means is that the pain receptors in his brain don't work. So he has never ever felt pain. He doesn't know what pain is and he's kind of fascinated by it. That feeds into his psychology.

Steve Cavanagh
Patrick: It almost sounds like sign me up, I'd like to have that, but it's not all good.

Steve: No, because pain is the body's early warning system. It tells you when something's wrong. So in some ways, it's a real handicap for him.

I did a lot of research into serial killers, most of which isn't in the book but was fascinating. I had so many illusions spoiled by this research. The FBI will tell you on their website that there are about fifty serial killers operating in the United States right now. I was surprised by that, and then the lawyer part of my brain kicked in and I wondered if that was right. I looked at it more closely and it's not right.

Patrick: No, that's conservative.

Steve: Yeah, it is a wee bit conservative. Their information is based on their system called VICAP-- Violent Criminals Apprehension Program-- that's a database that has violent crimes from all over the United States. The problem with that is that it's not compulsory for law enforcement to complete the VICAP form. Some precincts have never completed a VICAP form. That's no criticism of any police officers. It takes about three hours to complete the form; it's 150 very detailed questions. There are a couple of different groups who have looked at this. One of them is made up of a group of criminologists and psychologists and database people, and these people get the homicide statistics from individual states and counties. The only person who decides if a death is a homicide is either the medical examiner or the coroner. They write "homicide" on the death record, and that has to be reported by law.

So they got all of those statistics. They fed them into an algorithm and they put some of these things on a map-- and the first thing that happened was that they caught a serial killer that nobody knew about. I think it was in Washington. There was an area of about ten city blocks that had an intersection of about three different police precincts. Eight women had been strangled over a period of ten years in different police precincts and the precincts weren't talking to each other. So this group looked at all these figures, and they think there are probably about two thousand serial killers working in the US right now that haven't been caught-- which is really scary. That's about forty per state.

Steve Cavanagh
Patrick: What drives Eddie? There's a sort of conflict between this obsessive focus on his job but also throughout the book, there's this need to become a nice country attorney-- to become Matlock essentially-- and slow down. But he can't do it.

Steve: That's the sort of conflict Eddie has in all of the books. We meet Eddie in the first novel and he hasn't practiced law in about a year. Eddie had represented someone and sometime just before the verdict, Eddie just knew that the guy had conned him and he was guilty. And Eddie got him off. After that, this guy hurt someone and that has hugely affected Eddie. Now he feels as if he's on a path to redemption. He's realized that he has a talent, that he can help people, and that's what he wants to do-- at the great personal cost of potentially losing his wife and daughter. You'll see this to a greater and lesser extent in a lot of crime fiction. The Lew Archer type of scenario.

Patrick: Yes, the detective doesn't work the case, the case works the detective.

[I'm leaving out a short conversation about jury selection and the behavior of judges due to the length of this post.]

Patrick: We've talked about the influence of The Silence of the Lambs. One of the things I found most terrifying about Hannibal Lecter was his brilliant intellect. I've seen the movie but not read the book, I'm embarrassed to say-- but I'm going to!-- those two squaring off, Clarice Starling and Hannibal Lecter, intellectually. We were talking in the back about those little details that really stick out. There's one scene in which they're transferring Lecter and he is so dangerous that they don't even trust him to walk. They bolt him into this cart thing. I found that terrifying.

Available Now!
Steve: There's a bit in Red Dragon where Francis Dollarhyde-- who's massively overdeveloped-- chews a little rubber ball for a half an hour a day so he can develop his jaw muscles so he can bite people harder. That really freaked me out!

You have to be so careful with these things. There's no real gore in this book. It's not really a violent book despite what the New York Times said.

Patrick: It's not graphic violence, there's just the suggestion of it.

Steve: Yes, there's just the suggestion of it, and it's up to the reader to interpret it. The only real scenes of violence are the things that Kane does to his own body. There's a scene in which Kane breaks his own nose, which-- I have to admit!-- was so much fun to write. I had to figure out how on earth would you go about breaking your own nose, and it was great. I'll never have to break my own nose, but in a pinch, if I'm in a situation where I have to break my own nose, I can do it quite safely.

Patrick: Before I open it up to questions, you're not the only Irish writer who, to the best of my knowledge, hasn't written about Ireland. Have you?

Steve: I've done one short story set in Belfast for Belfast Noir published by Akashic Books, but I've never written a novel set in Ireland. John Connolly has never written a book set in Ireland.

Patrick: Right!

L to R: Patrick Millikin, Steve Cavanagh
Steve: John writes the Charlie Parker mysteries and loads more. I wouldn't say no. It's not on my immediate horizon. I have two books coming out next year, and they're not set in Ireland.

One is a standalone. It's not an Eddie Flynn. I love psychological thrillers. I've been reading a lot of Patricia Highsmith recently. Love Patricia Highsmith!

Patrick: Nobody wrote about twisted obsession like she did.

Steve: Exactly. She's a big influence on this book.

My book is called Twisted. It's about the world's greatest mystery writer, a man called J.T. Le Beau who's sold 75 million copies of his books all around the world. He's the master of the twist, and no one knows who he is. No one's ever met him, no one knows what he looks like, no one's seen a picture. The mystery surrounding his pen name fuels the press around his books and helps them sell.

The book starts with a lady called Maria Cooper who's in a new marriage that isn't going very well. Money's tight. She's having an affair. She opens her husband's desk drawer one day and sees a bank statement in the amount of $20 million in the name of J.T. Le Beau. So she thinks her husband is J.T. Le Beau and believes he's been keeping this secret from her. The first twist happens before the book even starts. The cover says Steve Cavanagh Twisted, but when you open it, the title page says Twisted by J.T. Le Beau and there's a note from Le Beau, so you read the entire book as though you're reading a J.T. Le Beau novel.

It's a book about unreliable narrators written by an unreliable narrator, and it's fun. This is available here in February. In August, it's the sequel to Thirteen. we're back with Eddie Flynn, and it's a book called Fifty Fifty. Fifty Fifty starts off with a 911 call. Alexandra calls 911 and says, "Oh my God, I've just found my father in his bedroom. He's been murdered. My sister killed him. I think she still has a knife, and I think she's still in the house.  I've locked myself in the bathroom. Please get here quickly!"

Available August 2020!
Then there's another 911 call from a lady called Sophia who says, "Oh my God, I've just found my father murdered in his bedroom. I think my sister Alexandra's killed him. She might still have the knife. I'm running out of the house. Get here quick!"

So both sisters are blaming each other for the murder, and they're both put on trial-- one trial with both of them blaming each other. Eddie is representing one sister, and there's a new character, Kate Brooks, who's defending the other sister. Those are the two points of view in the novel. There's a third point of view which is simply known as "She" who has planned this entire thing from the beginning. Has planned to be arrested with her sister and has thought all this out from the beginning. It's one of the sisters, but you don't know which one.

Patrick: That sounds amazing.

A short Q&A session followed, which I'm not going to transcribe because I think I've taken root here at my desk. If you'd like to watch the event in its entirety, you can find it on The Poisoned Pen's Youtube channel. Watch it!

And in the mean time, I'm going to be watching for Steve Cavanagh's two new books!


  1. I like a well-written legal novel, Cathy, and you've reminded me of (for which thanks) of Cavanaugh's. It sounds as though it was a great time at the PP, too - not that I'm surprised.

    1. I don't think I've ever had a bad time at The Poisoned Pen.

  2. Oh my goodness! Loved this! And I'll be watching for the two new ones. I haven't read any of his books as yet, but I'm thinking I might go ahead and request Thirteen at the library. He said you could read them out of order - hope that's true.

    1. I think it is true, Kay. After all, I read Eddie #4 and didn't feel lost at all!

  3. Legal thrillers are the one sub-genre that do not attract me, but I am definitely interested in 13!

    1. We definitely share some reading DNA, Kate, because legal thrillers normally don't lure me in either.

  4. Thanks so much for this very thorough summary of Steve Cavanagh's appearance at PP. A lot of work and a great job.
    I read Thirteen and it''s a very good legal thriller/serial killer mystery. I normally don't like serial killer mysteries, but this one was a one of a kind, very clever and witty, too.

    1. Yes, it was. I really enjoyed it-- and enjoyed it even more once I'd attended this event.

  5. You and Denis must have had a great time. So are you going to read all of Cavanagh's books?

    1. I probably will just read the new ones as they are released.


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