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Author of the Month

Name: James Twining

First Novel: The Double Eagle

Most Recent Book: The Gilded Seal

'All the elements of a truly great thriller are here...'

Synopsis:
Tom Kirk is a reformed art thief who has switched sides and now investigates on behalf of the art establishment and insurance world. His close friend, a renowned forger, is brutally murdered – crucified - during Holy Week in Seville. At the same time, Tom is called in to investigate the theft of a highly important Leonardo da Vinci masterpiece from a castle in Scotland only to be confronted by a particularly gruesome and tantalising clue, linking directly to the death of his friend.

In New York, Special Agent Jennifer Browne is investigating a forgery case involving major auction houses when she falls fowl of a tabloid reporter and becomes suddenly dispensable to the powers running the FBI at home. Browne is sent to Europe, both to lay low and continue her investigations at arms length. She bumps into Kirk in Paris. They have a history, both romantic and professional, due to the fact that Kirk was involved in a previous case.

Meanwhile, Kirk becomes embroiled in a race with his archrival, Milo, who is attempting to steal probably the most famous painting in the world – the Mona Lisa. Connections between the theft and forgery cases soon link Kirk and Browne in ways that neither of them could possibly imagine. The chase is on, and the body count is rising fast. The FBI, French police, auction houses, art establishment and a certain dangerous Japanese underworld warlord are all interested parties. Who will uncover the secret behind La Joconde’s enigmatic smile first… and where exactly does the Emperor Napoleon fit into the picture?

Review:
James Twining is fast becoming a shining star in the thriller-writing firmament – and justly so. Using the clever conceit of basing his stories on real art world cases, he weaves brilliantly plotted, intelligent, believable and highly literate stories from the threads. In a genre somewhat dominated by American authors he deserves to take his rightful place on the world stage – and this could be the major breakthrough book that does it. Move over Dan Brown!

All the elements of a truly great thriller are here – a brilliant central premise, strong main characters, believable villains, fabulous and interesting locations, a dash of romance and a very decent dose of death and mayhem. Tom Kirk is also a more confident and likeable hero in this third outing. His connection with and understanding of the underworld characters that he encounters, and a strong sense of natural justice, often belie his putative role as a ‘good guy’. Kirk is tortured by his past and still uncertain quite where he fits in. Both perfect ingredients for a classic hero.

The story moves along at a cracking pace and – utilising the classic style of the genre – manages to mix parallel storylines into a delightful cocktail of cliffhangers, twists and turns. It’s genuine page-turning stuff. However, what makes this thriller stand out from the crowd, aside from the stroke-of-genius link with one of the world’s most famous art icons, is its truly outstanding use of language. The writing is often breathtaking. Whole passages and key phrases literally sing out. The author’s intelligence and empathy for his characters make this a genre-busting novel that deserves to rate serious literary merit.

Buy it, read it and you’ll love it. Guaranteed

Reviewed by: A.C.

CrimeSquad Rating



Questionnaire

1) As it slowly evolves and increases in popularity, crime fiction seems to be organically sub-dividing into a number of widely diverse categories. Which genre (or sub-genre, even…) of crime/thriller novel would you say you write in?
Is the increasing sub-division into genres organic or is it being carefully orchestrated by publishers and retailers who need to establish some way of classifying and understanding the thousand of books on their shelf and the customers buying them? If the latter, they are presumably following in the footsteps of the New World wine industry, who have been incredibly successful in growing their sales by carefully labelling their wines by grape variety, rather than expecting everyone to know what type of wine they are buying from the name of the Chateau, as they rather sniffily do in France!

My own personal view is that I’ve never read a good crime novel that wasn’t thrilling, or read a thriller that didn’t revolve around a crime. In many ways, therefore, from a writer’s perspective these types of labels are at best simplistic, at worst overly constrictive.
Although I am classified as a thriller writer, I deliberately write across genres. The heart of my story is an old fashioned thriller – international locations, the fate of the world hanging in the balance, a charismatic hero battling against the forces of evil. This is then complemented by a police procedural investigation – a brutal murder, forensic evidence, a roster of possible suspects, a determined but flawed detective. This is then all set against a historical backdrop, where the action stems from and is then driven forward both by events that took place many years before and their modern day repercussions. Finally I add in few extra ingredients to bind the whole thing together - a race against the clock, a treasure hunt, a chase…

Classifying my work as a thriller is as good a label as any, I guess, but in my view it’s more than that too. I actually think most readers are happy and may even value this sort of ambiguity. It’s the publishing and retailing industries who struggle to understand it!
2) What type of crime/thriller novels do you like to read? Do you prefer series or standalone?
I’ve always been drawn to the series novel. It started, if I’m honest, with the Famous Five and carried on right the way through Conan Doyle and Christie to people today like Lee Child (Jack Reacher), Ian Rankin (Rebus), Jeffrey Deaver (Lincoln Rhymes) and Harlen Coben (Myron Bolitar). The greatest proponent of this was probably Balzac, who wrote 95 works and planned a further 45 more interlinked stories and novels that featured reappearing characters.

What I like is the relationship you form with the characters over time, the way an old friendship is renewed every time you pick up a new book and how you begin to share their highs and lows, their hopes and fears. This becomes especially powerful when, for example, a minor character from a previous book comes to have a much more important role in a later one, or when the discovery of some small object turns out to be a vital clue three books later. Elements such as these help bind all the individual books into a sort of super-narrative, when you can begin to appreciate the characters and the story on a different level than you get through a one-off encounter.
3) What drew you to the idea of a link with Leonardo da Vinci in the first place? Doesn’t he carry some serious baggage in the thriller-writing world?
If you write about art crime, then it’s hard to ignore possibly the most famous theft of all time – the theft of the Mona Lisa from the Louvre in 1914. The more I read about it, the more I was convinced that it should become the focal point of my book, a feeling confirmed when I read about the theft of The Madonna of the Yarnwinder, another da Vinci masterpiece, from a Scottish Castle in 2004. Here, I realised, was a way of tying an old robbery with a modern one, so that my hero could try and understand what linked them. What’s more, when I found out that Napoleon had once insisted on hanging the Mona Lisa on his bedroom wall (The Gilded Seal of the title is a reference to his crest), I saw a way of embedding these crimes within a 200 year old secret.

Having said that, the ubiquity of The da Vinci Code clearly gave me pause for thought. Although what I was writing was a world away from Albino monks and Catholic cover-ups, I was worried about being the baggage that da Vinci carried with him, especially since my publishers had already invited the comparison to a certain extent, by adopting a very similar colour scheme to The da Vinci Code for the jacket for The Double Eagle.

But the more I thought about it, the more convinced I was that I could make it work. In fact It became a bit of an intellectual challenge! After all, the Mona Lisa and da Vinci belong to all of us. Over the years, the painting has become a global cultural icon, spoofed by the opening credits to Monty Python, parodied by the famous Monica Lewinsky cover for Vanity Fair, imitated by Miss Piggy on the Muppet Show.

To now say that the success of The da Vinci Code meant that the painting and its painter were in some way “off-limits” to any other writer, is ridiculous. It would be like saying that because Dan Browne has done it, no-one could spin a story around some interesting historical event or fact (Robert Harris in Archangel) or make reference to art and art works (Dashiel Hammet in The Maltese Falcon) or sprinkle interesting historical facts into their narrative (Thomas Harris in Hannibal.)

Ironically, despite its title, da Vinci and the Mona Lisa make only a fleeting appearance in The da Vinci Code compared to the fundamental role the painting plays in my book. Although the comparisons will inevitably be drawn by those who haven’t read it, I’m confident that The Gilded Seal stands alone.
4) The lines between ‘good guys’ and ‘bad guys’ become blurred in your novels. Does this aspect particularly interest you?
Good and bad are such binary labels given the complexity and subtlety of human nature that I have always tried to challenge them to a certain extent. The art world too, being populated by forgeries and fakes, is an ideal environment in which to have supposedly good people be bad and bad people demonstrate their fundamental goodness. In fact, this fundamental idea of blurred identity and morality is probably the single most important theme that runs through all my books.

The character of Tom Kirk, for example, is deeply flawed – he is, after all, a thief and a killer. Choosing him as my hero was a deliberate choice as I set out to subvert the traditional cleft-chinned archetype that populates most thrillers. Instead I wanted to hold up a different type of hero, one who was by any standard measure of morality and human behaviour bad, and yet one who nevertheless provided the moral core of the entire novel.

This, I think, creates a far more compelling character for the reader and creates some real advantages for me as a writer. As an ex-thief, for example, not only does he have access to all the people and places and secrets of the underworld in a way that a more straight-forward investigator never would but it also allows him to investigate and solve problems in a non-conventional way. This opens up a lot of interesting avenues for Tom and the reader to explore together.

I also think that having a slightly ambiguous hero as the main character creates a very different reading experience for the reader. Rather than line up along the more conventional lines of right and wrong, you find yourself sympathising and cheering on the nominal criminal and booing the supposed good guys. This can be uncomfortable and creates a dislocating dynamic between the characters and the reader. Hollywood has long exploited this dramatic tension and I think it partly explains the large number of heist / art thief type films over the years.
5) Does writing a believable central character who is both African American and female present particular challenges for you?
Crossing the gender barrier is always challenging for any writer and very few (Daphne du Maurier being the obvious example of someone who was) are consistently successful at it. Crossing the race barrier clearly brings an added element of complexity.

In fact, I never set out for the Jennifer Browne FBI character to be a women or African American. She just came to me that way. The reason, I think, although it can be dangerous to post-rationalise something that may have been more instinctive, was that I wanted to try and create a character that was fundamentally similar to Tom, despite clearly being on the opposite side of the legal divide. This was both because of wanting to emphasise how people with essentially similar backgrounds could end up on different sides of the law, but also to create a rationale for how the two characters could find a common ground and eventually team up.

One of the key aspects of Tom’s character, I felt, was his sense of alienation and dislocation – the fact that he had no clear nationality (he is half American and half British), no parents, had been abandoned by his family and was no longer accepted either by the criminal fraternity anymore or the law-enforcement agencies. My feeling was that by making Jennifer Browne an African American woman in the FBI, I could bring out in her too that sense of isolation, of not being fully accepted, of being discriminated against, which in turn explains her determination to succeed, to prove her doubters wrong, to make something of herself. Once I had crystallised this central aspect of her character, writing her became quite easy, and of course came with the added benefit of the spark of a possible romance between her and Tom.

Looking back it was probably quite a brave decision. But I’m really proud that I took the plunge and have since had people like Dreda Say Mitchell single Jennifer out as one of the few examples of a black woman in mainstream crime and thriller writing and one of her favourite characters, which has made me very proud I took the plunge.
6) Conspiracy theories play an important part in many thrillers, including your books. Are you a big fan of these theories? Does mixing elements of fact and fiction ever strike you as slightly ‘dangerous’?
I like a good conspiracy theory as much as the next person – the grassy knoll, Area 51… It can be fun to challenge your pre-conceptions about the truth, to see what other explanations, however outlandish, might also fit the facts. After all, you never know…

As a writer, the blending of fact and fiction is certainly a powerful combination. Not only do I find it interesting to dig into some long forgotten story and weave a present day adventure around it, but I think it also helps provide narrative drive, as the readers uncover the “real” history at the same time as the characters, as well as underpinning the realism and credibility of the whole novel as it moves from fact to fiction. This is part of the unwritten contract with the reader and makes again for an interesting dynamic as they are left unsure where the fiction begins or ends.

Having said that, some people seem to spend an inordinate amount of time speculating about things that, at best, don’t make much difference, at worst cause distress. The continued speculation and further inquest into Diana’s death, seems to me a monstrous waste of public money, not to mention prolonging the agony for her family. And The da Vinci Code seems to have provoked a groundswell of hostility to the Catholic church which seems totally disproportionate to the evidence on offer.

The conspiracies I write about are relatively contained and don’t have the earth-shattering implications of others, which I actually think makes what I write about more believable. The truth, though, is that some people are looking for a reason to believe that they are being lied to and misled by the authorities, and will distort the evidence to fit their interpretation of the facts whatever you do or say. While not being dangerous, it’s not exactly healthy!
7) Without giving away the plot, which book - yours or by another author - included your favourite plot twist of all time?
The Usual Suspects. It wasn’t a book I know, but in terms of jaw-dropping, head-spinning, stomach-churning moments, the last five minutes of that film have to be the best twist ever written or filmed.
8) What is your favourite movie adaptation of a crime/thriller novel?
At the risk of condemning myself to Pseud’s Corner, it is probably Le Riffifi, a black and white French film from the 1950s directed by Jules Dassin. The screenplay was written by Dassin and Auguste le Breton, who wrote “Du riffifi chez les hommes”, the novel on which the film was based. As a book it’s a tough read, full of obscure slang and 1950s underworld patois, but as a film, it works brilliantly. It tells the thrilling story of the planning and carrying out of the perfect heist, which then goes violently wrong when love and jealousy intervene. The scene when the thieves are breaking into the jewelers (fully ten minutes without dialogue!) is fantastic.
9) Would you describe yourself as a crime fiction fan in general and, if so, which authors do you most admire and why?
Yes, but I so rarely have the time to read anything now that I may not qualify anymore! The authors I most admire are the ones who have managed to create iconic characters who seemed to have taken on a global cultural significance – for example Conan Doyle (Sherlock Holmes), Fleming (James Bond), Harris (Hannibal Lecter). For all the sniffiness of the publishing establishment, how many so called literary writers over the past fifty years can claim to have created such powerful and popular cultural icons? It’s an incredible achievement and one I really admire.
10) What is your favourite crime/thriller read of all time?
I’m told that when I was twelve, I went on holiday to the South of France. If I sound uncertain, then it’s because I can’t remember a single thing about it. On the flight out, I picked up a copy of Ludlum’s The Bourne Identity at the airport bookshop and sat, utterly bewitched, until I finished the last page of The Bourne Ultimatum on the flight home a week later, having tracked both it and The Bourne Supremacy down in Nice’s only English language bookshop.

Having mainlined Ludlum, I discovered that I had established a thriller habit that my French Literature degree only briefly interrupted. I soon turned to Tom Clancy and Clive Cussler to get my fix, before crossing back over the Atlantic to feed my addiction with Ian Fleming, Frederick Forsyth, Jack Higgins and Ken Follett, to name but a few.

It is not the best written book I have ever read and other books have affected me more deeply: L’Etranger by Albert Camus, for example, caused me for the first time to question the world around me and my place in it. The Great Gatsby, by Fitzgerald, achieves that rare feat of combining a brilliant story with an almost poetic reflection on love, money, class and the empty heart of the American Dream. I still turn to it now, whenever I am feeling low or lacking inspiration, opening a page at random and just diving in.

But nothing will ever match that first, breathless encounter with Jason Bourne; the way he grabbed me from the very first page, carried me in his wake like a passing storm, and then deposited me, 400 pages later, desperate for more. It opened my eyes to a world of possibility and excitement. When I came to write my own novels years later, there was never any chance I’d write anything else.