A writer who by stealth has become a regular name in the international bestseller lists is the shy and enigmaticRichard Montanari. Despite much of his work probing the darkest recesses of human darkness, I find his work intriguing, scary and insightful and finish each book in one or two sittings. His first published work gave me terrible nightmares, but now he seems to have settled upon writing a highly acclaimed series. His interest in serial killers and human evil remains a feature of his work that attracts readers to his work like flies on a body farm.
August marked the release of the fourth novel in his Philadelphia series featuring Detectives Kevin Byrne and Jessica Balzano – titled ‘Badlands’ in the US and ‘Playdead’ in the UK. After last years blistering ‘Rosary Girls’ I was excited to see what Montanari had in store for his Detectives, so Random House UK sent me a review copy and this teaser -
In each soul, a secret ...Philadelphia homicide detectives Kevin Byrne and Jessica Balzano's first assignment from the Cold Case files is the brutal murder of a young runaway. The lifeless body of Caitlin O'Riordan was found carefully posed in a glass display case in the desolate Philadelphia Badlands but, as Byrne and Balzano rapidly discover, she was just the first pawn in the killer's twisted game...A mysterious phone call leads them on a scavenger hunt for a second victim. This time a young girl has been dismembered, her body parts left in three boxes in the basement of a deserted house. More clues lead to other victims and, as the body count rises, it becomes clear that there is a serial killer on the loose, hell-bent on completing the 'performance' of a lifetime.As more runaways vanish, Byrne and Balzano come to realize that the homicidal mastermind plans to complete seven depraved tricks in his dark and dangerous magic act. With Balzano increasingly obsessed by a case that haunts her, and Byrne struggling with a loss of his own, the stakes are mounting. But this is one game they can't afford to lose...
After reading Play Dead, I spoke to Emma Finnigan of Random House UK who knows I am an avid fan of their authors - Thomas Harris and Richard Montanari, she kindly put me in touch with Richard as I had a few questions about his work, including why he’s attracted to the dark side of the human psyche, his anglophile nature, his early writing and his thoughts on the works of Thomas Harris.
Ali Karim: So Richard, did you grow up a reader?
Richard Montanari: I did. My mother was a great reader ¾ she spoke five languages, learning English as an adult ¾ so there were always books in our house. We were a working class family, so the books were mostly from the library or second-hand stores. As much as I love the feel and smell and look of a beautifully bound new hardcover book (admittedly, especially my own), there is genuine magic in picking up an older, used edition. The romantic adventurer in me as a child spent many hours pondering where a previously read book had been, and who had read it. It was almost as exciting as the tale within.
Ali: And who influenced both your own reading and your writing?
Richard: Again, my mother was a huge influence here. She grew up in Tallinn, Estonia, at a time when books were at least as precious as food. I was also fortunate to have a number of wonderful English teachers growing up. Plus, we had three great movie palaces within bicycling distance of my house, so every Saturday I went to a matinee. I grew up with great storytellers like Hitchcock, Kubrick, Lean, Wilder. Later, when an art house opened, Kurosawa, Fellini, Truffaut, De Sica, and many others. Storytelling is storytelling. To me, the form matters little.
Ali: And what books struck a chord in you over the years, that perhaps tempted you to take up writing as a career?
Richard: One book that really got me thinking about writing, especially crime fiction, was Double Indemnity by James M. Cain. I discovered it as a young teenager. Having devoured all the adventure stories of Jack London, along with the westerns of Zane Grey, I was looking for something different. Okay, something scandalously lurid and forbidden. I remember finding the book at the Cleveland Public Library, in one of those long, narrow stacks on the second floor. It is a relatively short novel (a novella, actually, first published as an eight-part series in Liberty Magazine), and I read it in one sitting. I began rereading it on the bus home. That day I discovered crime fiction, and nothing has ever been the same.
Ali: I see you’ve lead somewhat of an eclectic life and you lived in London for several years, so care to share a little about your life before the novels came along?
Richard: Since leaving school I’ve held a lot of jobs: construction, retail clothing sales, kennel attendant, advertising copywriter. The worst job ever was installing fiberglass insulation on a ninety-degree day. The job that helped my fiction the most was when I worked as a freelance writer for magazines. I did a lot of interviews, wrote a lot of profiles, and it was there I got a feel for the rhythms of dialogue.
Ali: What did you make of London when you lived here?
Richard: My first visit to London was in 1968, when it was inarguably the center of all things important to a teenaged boy – music, fashion, art, and English girls. I remember standing on a corner in Carnaby Street while someone played “Jumpin’ Jack Flash” over and over again. I couldn’t get enough of it. Did I mention English girls? I knew I had to come back. Three years later I did. I lived all over – Maida Vale, Battersea Park, South Ken,Chelsea – bedsits, all, mind you. I worked at a number of odd jobs, none of which brought me any closer to my dream (that being to become the next Bryan Ferry, I’ve always fancied myself a bit of a boulevardier). After a few years I packed up and came home.
But my attraction to all things British began much earlier. When I was twelve I used to take the bus downtown to the one newsstand in Cleveland that sold Melody Maker (at some allowance-devouring price), and I would sit on the street corner with my friends and read it cover to cover. For at least a decade, British blues and rock was all I listened to ¾ The Groundhogs, Chicken Shack, Ten Years After, Savoy Brown, Rory Gallagher, (Peter Green’s) Fleetwood Mac, John Mayall. It was a glorious time. I was, and still am, a closet Brit.
Ali: And apart from the non-fiction journalism, were you writing fiction during this time?
Richard: I wrote a few short stories that I was fortunate enough to have published. For some reason my short fiction tends toward horror and fantasy (in the Twilight Zone vein, nothing too hardcore), while my long form is crime and suspense. Despite my strange and varied career as a journalist ¾ I wrote about everything from pediatric epilepsy to falconry to Golden Gloves boxing to waste paper management ¾ I never took my eye off fiction. I had some success with short form, but I always had the feeling there was a magnum opus within me.
Ali: It was Deviant Way  was your first novel and it marked your work as looking at the dark side of human nature, so tell us a little how this work got into print?
Richard: I was a film critic for alternative press at the time, and because of my interest in crime stories I was always assigned thrillers. Like everyone else, after about five lousy movies in a row, I declared: “I can do better than this!” Well, having no idea how to write a screenplay, I decided to take a shot at long form fiction. I went back and reread all of my favorite serial killer thrillers ¾ most notably Red Dragon by Thomas Harris and By Reason of Insanity by Shane Stevens ¾ and set to work. When I’d completed the first chapter I wrote a query letter and set out to find an agent. Within a week I was signed, and over the course of the next nine months wrote Deviant Way. My agent shopped the book and within a few weeks it landed at Simon & Schuster. I signed a two-book deal with the legendary editor-in-chief Michael Korda, and was soon off to work on the second book, which became The Violet Hour.
Ali: So what is it about the darkness in human nature that fascinates and inspires you?
Richard: Probably the fact that it is something that dwells within us all. The difference between sociopaths and the rest of us ¾ at least, I’m hoping there’s a difference ¾ is that most of us do not act on these dark impulses. I am fascinated by stories of the “regular guy” who lived next door, only to be discovered to have had a chamber of horrors in his basement.
Ali: “The Violet Hour”  really proved your skills in writing about the secrets we all hide and your ability in subtle misdirection caught me out, so do you plot extensively as your work does meander like a snake?
Richard: While I have many times been compared to an asp (usually by an ex), I always say that, with the next book, I’m going to plot and outline the story to the smallest detail. It never works out that way. I always begin with the killer’s pathology ¾ why is he doing what he is doing, through what prism does he see the world ¾ and let the plot grow out of this. Anyone who has read my work knows that there is always a reason my villains do what they do. As to The Violet Hour I’m thrilled to announce that Arrow Books will reissue it in 2009. To date, it is my only standalone novel, and I am very fond of it.
Ali: “Kiss of Evil”  again looked deeper into the psycho-sexual nature of our dark natures, so what are you like as a person when you are in writing mode?
Richard: You know that guy you swore you saw standing in a doorway near your house at three in the morning, that guy lurking in the shadows? When I’m writing a new book, that’s me.
Ali: Despite the disturbing imagery that pervades your work, there is plenty of black humour, so how important is humour in noir work to you?
Richard: It is very important to me, both as a reader and a storyteller. I don’t think anyone wants 350 pages of unremitting darkness. That said, I think setting out to write black humor is quite difficult. I can count the number of great black film comedies on one hand. But when the humor grows out of tension (the near miss, the mistaken identity, etc.), I think it can be very effective, and most welcome.
Ali: And your readers, I guess many are female as well as male? And what do you consider the appeal of such dark work is to your growing readership?
Richard: Judging from the email I receive, I would say more than 60% of my readers are female (or maybe women are more inclined to write). As to a growing readership, it is hard to say. I’d like to think it is because I tell an engaging story, and, in what has grown into a quartet of novels set in Philadelphia ¾ beginning with The Rosary Girls ¾ I believe I have introduced a pair of characters in Jessica Balzano and Kevin Byrne to whom a number of people can relate. Granted, they have authority, and carry a weapon, but they do not go through life unaffected by what they see. In this way, I think they are just like you and me.
Ali: Many have compared your work to Thomas Harris, so I assume you are familiar with the adventures of Dr Hannibal Lecter? So can you tell us a little about your thoughts on Harris’ novels, and what was your thoughts vis-à-vis ‘Hannibal Rising’?
Richard: Thomas Harris has written two of the greatest thrillers of all time: Red Dragon and The Silence of the Lambs. I believe he raised the bar, and changed the genre forever. In his two villains ¾ Francis Dolarhyde andJame Gumb ¾ he created deep and disturbing motivation for serial murder, transcending a good deal of what had been written before. As to Hannibal Rising, I must confess that I haven’t read it yet. I am very fortunate to have a signed first edition (which, of course, I’m never going to open), and I haven’t yet picked up a reading copy at a bookstore.
Ali: I assume you have a Catholic background from your name and themes that pepper your work, so can you tell us what religion brings to your work?
Richard: I was raised Catholic, and the rites, traditions, history, and liturgy seem to seep into my work from time to time (okay, Catholicism took over completely in The Rosary Girls). But now that I’ve written about it, I’m sure it’s out of my system. Ah, who am I kidding? I still have nightmares about nuns with chainsaws.
Ali: I enjoyed your last three novels which form a trilogy of sorts “The Rosary Girls” , “The Skin Gods”  and “Broken Angels” [US title “Merciless” 2007] being set in Philadelphia – was this planned as a series and can you tell us a little about writing these tremendous books?
Richard: I really had no idea that the Philadelphia canon would become a series, but I can say that The Rosary Girls marked a major shift in my career. A new venue, a new set of characters, a new tone (along with new representation and a new publisher in Random House). The creation of Kevin Byrne and Jessica Balzano as series characters allowed me to take my time in their development, and, because the books are told in real time, to observe them changing and growing in any number of small ways. While writing The Skin Gods I knew that I wanted to stay with these people for a while. I had (and still do have) something more to say about them.
Ali: Like ‘Broken Angels’ – your latest ‘Play Dead’  was also re-titled from the US title “Badlands” – so why the title changes?
Richard: These sorts of decisions are made at the publishing level. I’m only a humble scribe.
Ali: And again, ‘Play Dead’ / ‘Badlands’ is part of the series so tell us why you enjoy writing about Detectives Kevin Byrne and Jessica Balzano – is it publisher pressure or do you enjoy spending time in their company?
Richard: It isn’t really pressure ¾ publishers have a very diplomatic way of suggesting things, usually over gnocchi with basil pesto and roasted pine nuts, my weakness. The truth is, I do enjoy spending time with Kevin, Jessica, Vincent, Sophie, and all the other characters in the Philly series. As crazy as it might sound, I’ll be somewhere, meet someone, and think: “This person reminds me of someone.” Then I’ll realize it’s Jessica or Kevin. Man, talk about full circle. The fun part, for me, is that I can create a new and gruesome scenario, open the door, usher in my detectives, and in many ways know how they are going to react and respond. In other ways, they never cease to surprise me.
Ali: Without giving away the ending, are you going to continue the series or perhaps return to the ‘stand-alones’ that started your crime writing career?
Richard: The series will continue. The City of Brotherly Love will never run out of stories, and I have plans for the detectives of the Philadelphia Police Department’s Homicide Unit.
Ali: You evoke the city of Philadelphia as if it were a character in your work, so I assume you are very familiar with the city and I assume you have sources in the PPD?
Richard: I spend a good deal of time in Philadelphia. I have family there, and have been very fortunate to make many friends in the PPD. I’ve ridden along with the detectives, spent many hours in the Roundhouse, simply observing. I’m happy to say that a number of Philly police officers have given my books their stamp of approval. This is good news, as these people are heavily armed.
Ali: Considering your popularity in the UK, have you any plans to visit us in the near future? And ever fancy setting one of your thrillers in London?
Richard: I will be visiting the UK for the launch of my next book in 2009 and as to locale, I would love to set a novel in London.
Ali: And what has passed your reading table that you’ve enjoyed recently?
Richard: I’m never without three or four books open on my nightstand. I’ve recently read a lot of non-fiction as research on my next novel. As to fiction, I read everyone in my genre, usually the week their new books are published. I am hopelessly addicted to crime fiction, but I am always seeking out writers who bend the genre. Michael Marshall, John Connolly, and Mo Hayder come to mind.
Ali: And what are you working on currently?
Richard: I am working on a standalone novel called The Devil’s Garden. It will be published by Random House in 2009.
Ali: Thank you for your time.
Richard: It has been my pleasure.
To read more about this writer who takes you to the dark side of human experience click here and here and remember to lock all doors, windows and have your cell phone handy when you crack the spine of a Richard Montanari novel – you have been warned.
PLAY DEAD is published by William Heinemann Ltd hardback £12.99
SHOTS would like to thank Emma Finnigan of Random House UK for organizing this interview, which first appeared in an edited form at The Rap Sheet.