The Digger looks like you, the Digger looks like me. He walks down the wintry streets the way anybody would, shoulders drawn together against the damp December air . . . He's not tall and not short, he's not heavy and not thin . . . If you glanced at his eyes you wouldn't notice the shape or the color but only that they don't seem quite human, and if the Digger glanced at you while you were looking at him, his eyes might be the very last thing you ever saw . . .
From the very first page of Jeffery Deaver's new thriller, The Devil's Teardrop, both the reader and the party-hatted residents of Washington, D.C., know they're in for a very wild last night of the century.
"I try to write roller coasters if there's any possible way," he says.
This is the way: The Digger, a human killing machine, is programmed to randomly slaughter pedestrians at four-hour intervals until his handler receives a $20 million ransom and calls off the carnage. But when the Digger's accomplice is killed in a freak traffic accident, the massacre continues with seemingly no way to stop it. FBI Special Agent Margaret Lukas and former FBI document specialist Parker Kincaid must search for answers within the only piece of evidence they have, the ransom note, and find the Digger before he finds them.
Deaver's intricately woven plot explores the world of document specialists in much the same way that his recent books, The Bone Collector and The Coffin Dancer, delved into other aspects of forensics. Lincoln Rhyme, the quadriplegic hero of those books, even makes a cameo appearance. (Rhyme will take center stage again next year in Deaver's forthcoming The Empty Chair.) There is a leitmotif throughout the book: it's always the little things.
"I really focus on the forensic detail," Deaver admits. "In fact, in solving crimes, that really is what people focus on. You rarely find the smoking gun. The smaller details somehow resonate more clearly with people. We have small details in our own lives; we tend not to have quite so many boulders rolling toward us. I try to make it something people can really relate to."
To get there, Deaver spends roughly eight months constructing his plots, a laborious task that results in a detailed 120-page outline. Then comes another three months writing the prose and transitions, where all the hard work pays off. "Once the outline is finished, I have no problem writing 30 pages a day," he says.
Deaver takes great care to place his hero in the utmost peril, working backward to set the trap. "The endings are the most important part of the book for me, and I don't mean the last page but the last 30 or 40 pages," he says. "The Bone Collector came to me that way. I wanted my hero to be utterly helpless at the end of the book, in a locked room with the villain and nobody coming to save him. And I thought, helpless, helpless . . . well, we can tie him up with duct tape but that's really boring, we've seen that a lot. Well, I'm going to make him a paraplegic. Yeah, but then we have Ironside. No I don't want to do that. Well, I'll make him a quadriplegic, I'll just up the ante. So I worked backward from there."
Of equal concern are his villains, in this case, the Digger. "I wanted a complete cipher. He really has no condition other than just brain damage. I'm so sick of the abused child who turns into the psychotic killer. And here's a case where I wanted, not some run-of-the-mill cheap psychological explanation for why somebody was the way he was, I just wanted a killer. It would be like trying to profile a gun. He is simply a tool. That, to me, was completely terrifying."
Two camps have influenced Deaver's writing. Stylistically, he cites literary authors Saul Bellow, Bernard Malamud, Theodore Dreiser, John Dos Passos, and more contemporary writers such as Mark Halpern, Jane Smiley, and Annie Proulx. In crime fiction, he credits Ian Fleming's James Bond series, Donald Hamilton's Matt Helm books, and John D. MacDonald as inspirations.
His other major influence will come as no surprise to his fans.
"Movies were very important to me," Deaver says. "I don't write my books, as some thriller writers do, to make political points, to get up on a soap box, to teach the reader esoteric information that they probably wouldn't have access to otherwise. I want their palms to sweat and when they finish the book, say, 'Whew, I survived.' And movies have largely done that."
Despite the recent spate of political thrillers set in the nation's capital, Deaver admits he chose it as the setting for The Devil's Teardrop for a different reason. "I needed the FBI headquarters," he says. "There is such an inflation, such a ton of these political thrillers, most of which don't really grab me very much, and I wanted to write a Washington book that didn't really have to do with politics other than the internal politics that happen in the mayor's office."
It's also a city he knows well; five years ago, Deaver moved from Manhattan to Clifton, Virginia, just 20 miles west of Washington, D.C.
The Devil's Teardrop is the 15th suspense novel from the engaging former journalist and lawyer from Glen Ellyn, Illinois, who says he's done things a little backwards to get where he is today. "I never wanted to be a practicing attorney. I wanted to get a job with the New York Times or the Wall Street Journal reporting on legal matters. So what I did, when I was working as a journalist in New York, I went to Fordham law school at night with the idea that I would have some expertise that would get me a job at one of the better newspapers. But I happened to do real well at school. I had a lukewarm undergrad career but for some reason I really enjoyed law school."
He was recruited by the Wall Street legal firm of Lord, Day & Lord, where he practiced civil law for eight years before leaving to write fiction full-time. During those years, he published his early novels featuring a spunky punk Nancy Drew named Rune. He says Bantam Books is preparing to reissue them.
What most surprises people when they meet Jeffery Deaver for the first time? "That I'm basically a nice guy," he says with a chuckle. "It's tough to get dates sometimes, if anybody's read my books. People do tend to identify someone with the books they write, with some justification, but for me it's just a job. I've learned what people like, I've learned how to craft a product that gives them some pleasure. I like to cook. I like to entertain. I like to have parties. I still have friends who will say, in the middle of one of my dinner parties, 'God, I can't get over that you're the guy who writes that real creepy stuff.'"
Jay Lee MacDonald is a writer in Naples, Florida.