Interview: Killer on the loose

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JEFFERY Deaver tells SUSAN MANSFIELD about the no-nonsense art of writing novels that thrill millions of readers worldwide

WHEN JEFFERY DEAVER WROTE A thriller in which the villain masqueraded as a New York taxi driver, the iconic yellow cabs noticed a dip in trade. Fans still tell him they don't take a cab without looking twice at the driver.

This tells us two things about Jeffery Deaver: that he sells books in huge numbers (over 20 million to date), and that his writing is both fluent and convincing. The mark of a good thriller, after all, is one that makes you want to check all the doors are locked.

"I want to chill people," he says, cheerfully. "I'm quite manipulative, I make no bones about that. My job is to scare people and I'll do whatever it takes to grab them by the lapels in the first chapter and drag them through the book. My philosophy of writing comes from Mickey Spillane. He said, 'People don't read books to get to the middle, people read books to get to the end.' "

There are certainly some gripping moments in Roadside Crosses, his 24th and latest novel, which is the second to feature Special Agent Kathryn Dance, a California kinesics expert. On the desert highways of the Monterey Peninsula, someone is leaving roadside shrines, not as memorials to accident victims but for people who are about to be murdered. The police are hunting a runaway teen obsessed with online gaming, but, as always in Deaver's books, there's more to it than that.

He writes the kind of fast-paced, plot-driven novel which, as Tom Leonard might say, "gets you from Glasgow to Saltcoats without noticing". The very pace of it means you rarely stop to appreciate the fluency of the writing, the vivid character sketches, the careful plotting involved in his twists, turns and cliffhangers.

"It's like an airline pilot," Deaver says. "They get on the aeroplane, their job is to get the passengers from one place to the other, they're fairly unemotional, they're not afraid to fly, they probably don't get a huge amount of exhilaration when flying, their job is to be professional about it. I try to do the same."

His approach is unstintingly businesslike. He will say later that he loves writing, and that it's difficult at times, but he chiefly talks about getting the job done. He writes a novel a year, alternating between his two current series characters, Kathryn Dance and quadriplegic forensic scientist Lincoln Rhyme. He spends as much as eight months preparing a detailed plot outline of up to 200 pages, then switches off the lights and writes in darkness, letting the events unfold in his head.

It's raining the day I call him at his home in North Carolina – "My favourite kind of weather because there no disturbances, I get to sit and write like a demon." Occasionally, I hear a bark down the line: Deaver and his partner, Madeleine, breed and show Briards, and currently share their home with 12 of them, "almost 1,000 pounds of dog".

Though a highly competent writer, he has no ambitions to be a literary stylist. "I don't write art, I write roller-coasters. Occasionally, I teach seminars on writing, and the first thing I say is any time you hear writers saying 'I write for myself', your immediate response should be to shout back, 'No you don't, you write for an audience.' I do a little show-and-tell, I put up pictures of things like mouthwash and toothpaste and deodorant, consumer products. Then I put my book up and say: 'Consumer product.'

"To me the distinction between literary writing and popular writing is a bit vague to begin with. Take Shakespeare, or Robert Burns, they were popular writers. Shakespeare was the HBO (the acclaimed US TV network responsible for programmes such as The Wire and The Sopranos] of his era. Now we look back and say that was literature. I think the most important question is, 'Does the writer achieve his or her goal as successfully as possible?' My goal is to entertain, Ian McEwan's goal is to enlighten and shine some new insights onto the human condition. He brings the same quality to his craft that I try to bring to mine."

I tell him that literary novelist Michel Faber once compared the business of structuring a short story to plumbing in a sink. "Very well said, I like that. I'm standing in my kitchen at the moment, there's my sink, I don't see any of the pipes that go underneath connecting to the water source, the valves and so forth. All I see is the finished sink. That's exactly the way it should be."

Deaver worked as a journalist, then a lawyer, while writing his first novels. The first two, he canned: "Self-indulgent, digressive, smarmy, overly hip – this was New York in the late 1970s, early 1980s." Several more were published, but with little success. The shift happened when he discovered outlining. The first book he outlined, 1994's Praying for Sleep, was also his first bestseller. "I said to myself, 'This is ridiculous, I know how to do a business deal, I know how to plan for a case. Why don't I bring this technique to the creation of a book?

Three years later, he debuted Lincoln Rhyme in The Bone Collector, which was made into a film starring Denzel Washington and Angelina Jolie. Kathryn Dance took her first lead role two years ago in The Sleeping Doll. The film rights for this book have been bought by Uma Thurman's production company and Deaver hopes a film will be made with Thurman in the leading role.

He set out, he says, to make Dance the polar opposite of Lincoln Rhyme. While Rhyme's personal life is shaped by his disability, Dance is a feisty, active single parent whose life allows for plenty of romantic entanglements. Rhyme inhabits a cool world of CSI-style forensics, but Dance – as a body language expert – needs to get up close and personal with suspects.

For all that he describes his books as "meat-and-potatoes writing", Deaver says he likes to give his readers "a little bit more" than just a pacy plot. He is proud of his 2004 novel, Garden of Beasts, which dealt with Nazi Germany in the run-up to the 1936 Olympics. Roadside Crosses examines how the virtual world – blogs, social networking sites, online gaming – impacts on the real world.

"I have political opinions and my books are not the place to tell them, but I like to say it's about something a little bit more. Roadside Crosses is about the responsibility that we all have, that bloggers have, and parents have to keep an eye on what their kids are doing."

&#149 Roadside Crosses by Jeffery Deaver is published this week by Hodder & Stoughton, priced 18.99. Deaver will be signing copies at Waterstone's West End, Edinburgh, this lunchtime.