Trying to beat the economy with crime
Owen Laukkanen’s debut novel, The Professionals, has a clever concept and a breakneck pace. Four recent grads, unsatisfied with the job market, have started kidnapping businessmen to pay the bills; their ringleader is Arthur Pender. To avoid getting caught, they do their research and ask for low ransoms from executives who can afford it. When they accidentally kidnap a man connected to the Mafia, though, their plans are shattered and they must run for their lives, pursued by the mob and the law in the form of Minnesota state investigator Kirk Stevens and FBI agent Carla Windermere.
The first in a series starring Stevens and Windermere, The Professionals is a page-turner from an exciting new talent—who, turns out, has an interesting (not illegal) work history of his own. BookPage talked to Laukkanen about bad guys, professional crime and what a college grad can do to get a paycheck . . . besides kidnapping.
You were previously a poker journalist, and now you work as a commercial fisherman—in addition to writing your thriller series. What’s the riskiest career option: playing poker, fishing or writing fiction?
Great question! Fishing, writing and card playing are all tough ways to make a living, but with writing, at least, the money tends to dwindle, rather than flat-out disappear. In poker and fishing, there's always the chance that luck will lay a beating on you, and in those instances it's very easy to lose tremendous sums of money very, very quickly.
Fishing, meanwhile, combines those high financial stakes with the very real possibility that you'll injure yourself, or, well, die. It's riskier than poker, but a heck of a lot more fun than hanging out in a casino, and you can take plenty of time off to write.
Who do you personally consider the “bad guys” in your novel—the mafia, the kidnappers, the rich guys who get kidnapped . . . or the FBI?
I wrote The Professionals with Arthur Pender and his gang as my de facto protagonists, and though I knew they would tangle with law enforcement sooner or later, I wanted someone a bit darker and more malevolent to act as the true antagonist. I think D'Antonio (the mafia hitman) is the bad guy. The rich guys whom Pender kidnaps aren't bad, I don't think, though from where Pender's standing they sure seem like the enemy.
Pender’s attached to the idea of being a professional criminal because the professionals don’t get caught.
What career advice would you give a group of recent college graduates who are frustrated with the job market?
Learn a trade. There's this idea that every smart kid in the world needs to go to college to succeed at life, but I really don't see any shame in becoming a plumber or a pipefitter or anything like that. Where I live, at least, there are still plenty of jobs for skilled tradespeople.
For those of us dead set on our arts degrees, though, I think an open mind and a willingness to relocate are pretty important. There are still a lot of fun jobs out there; they might just be in Alaska or Texas and not down the street.
I would not advise anyone to turn to crime, particularly kidnapping!
What is the most interesting thing you learned in your research for this novel?
That's another great question, and I'm not sure there's any one thing that stands out as particularly mind-blowing. I quite enjoyed the research aspect of the book; my Google searches on any given day could range from offshore banking regulations to Miami Beach hotels to the various model variations of a TEC-9 machine pistol. It was eclectic and all of it pretty fascinating.
I was also reading David Simon's incredible nonfiction book Homicide: A Year on the Killing Streets as I wrote The Professionals. It chronicles one year in the life of the Baltimore PD homicide division, and as a primer for anyone interested in police work, it's indispensible. I leaned on it pretty heavily when it came time to capture the mindset of my cops in, say, an interrogation scene.
Who are your favorite suspense authors? Why were you attracted to write in this genre?
I'll admit to approaching this book with a pretty dim understanding of the ins and outs of crime fiction as a genre. I knew that I liked writers like James Ellroy, Cormac McCarthy and Nelson DeMille, and especially Raymond Chandler and Ian Fleming, but I wouldn't have known how to categorize them, and I wouldn't say I write like them, either.
Really, it was as much movies as it was books that attracted me to the genre. I watched a lot of movies growing up, and I wanted to write something action-packed and fast-moving and stylish, like the films I loved as a teenager.
So action movies and, in all seriousness, gangster rap, led me to write crime.
Nowadays, I read a lot more suspense fiction. I really admire Lee Child's facility with language, and I think Alafair Burke is almost criminally underrated. I also really, really like John McFetridge's stuff; he's a Toronto writer whose books don't really qualify as suspense fiction, but they're great crime sagas nonetheless.
Which of your four main characters—Pender, Sawyer, Mouse or Marie—do you most identify with?
I can see a lot of myself in Pender's character, especially the neurotic side that keeps him up late worrying about what it means to be a professional. Pender's also a dreamer, and he's willing to take risks to turn those dreams into reality. I'm not about to kidnap anybody, but I'm not averse to taking chances to seek out the kind of life I want to lead.
What does it mean to be a “professional” criminal, and why is Pender so attached to this idea?
I think Pender's attached to the idea of being a professional criminal because the professionals don't get caught. In Pender's mind, a professional is patient and fastidious; greed and carelessness end careers in his line of work.
Professional criminals, in Pender's mind, are also able to follow the logical course at all times—emotions and circumstance be damned. He's a human being, though, and it's the struggle between logic and emotion that really starts to test him as the book progresses.
What’s next for Stevens and Windermere?
Plenty, I hope! As I write this, I've just sent my editor a round of revisions for the second Stevens and Windermere novel, which takes place a year after the Pender case, and finds our two heroes having fallen largely out of contact. A bank robbery with an unlikely villain brings them together again, while threatening to plunge the Twin Cities into terror and mayhem. We spend a lot more time with Windermere and kind of peel back her veneer of invincibility; I had a lot of fun revisiting her character and expanding her personality beyond the enigmatic young hotshot we see in The Professionals.
And with book two nearing completion, I'm drafting a third Stevens and Windermere novel that will see them back on the road chasing still more bad guys. With any luck I'll be writing about my two Minnesota cops for years to come.