I recently interviewed author Jon Steele about his debut novel, The Watchers. It's a smart, literary thriller with a supernatural twist. Set in Lausanne, Switzerland, the story centers on Marc Rochat, the bell ringer of the cathedral in Lausanne who is drawn in to a series of murders in the city. I asked Steele about his experience of visiting the real-life cathedral for the first time, when he came in contact with the bell ringer.
Steele went on to write hundreds of words on this haunting meeting, a story that I've excerpted here. Below, you can read about the man who rings the bells marking the time in Lausanne--and how he inspired an exciting new trilogy.
For more on The Watchers and Jon Steele--who is also an award-winning cameraman and has written a memoir about working in combat zones--read this Q&A on BookPage.com.
The bell ringer of Lausanne
guest post by Jon Steele
First time I saw the cathedral. Spring of 2001. I was a news cameraman/editor for ITN [Independent Television News]. I’d been working the Intifada on the West Bank and Gaza for six straight months. I was pretty well shot. I went to Lausanne for R&R, stayed at the Lausanne Palace. I didn’t leave the hotel, but I saw the cathedral from my room. It didn’t look like much. More like a grey lump of falling-down rock than a cathedral.
Wasn’t till a couple years later, after I quit TV news. Long story. I was in Baghdad the day the war started. I’d been living there four months. I decided journalism had lost its mind. Tens of thousands of innocent people were about to die. This war was bullshit, and TV was helping Bush and Blair sell it. I wanted no part of it. After 20-some years of covering the sharper end of news, I put my camera on the ground and quit. I wanted no part of this one. I drove out of Iraq as American bombs fell.
I went to the south of France, hid out in a small village for a year. No TV, no radio, no phone. I took long walks in quiet places and wondered, “OK, now what do I do?”
I wrote a novel called Saddamistan: A Story of Love and War. It was my take on what went down in Baghdad leading up to the war. (It’s still in my desk drawer.) After a year of that, I passed through Lausanne again, checked back into the Lausanne Palace.
One night, me and a mate had dinner on the town. Driving back to the hotel, he pointed to the cathedral. There was a light moving around the belfry. My mate told me it was le guet, the guy who spent his nights in the belfry and called the hour over Lausanne. Once upon a time, all cathedrals had such a man in the belfry, to watch for fires and invaders. One by one they disappeared, except for Lausanne. There’s been a man in the belfry, circling the tower with a lantern and calling the hour, from the day the cathedral was consecrated in the 13th century.
I ended up at the foot of the belfry tower, that very night, bottle of wine in hand. Here’s how it works. You go to the cathedral, stand there and call up, “Renato!” Then this shadow of a figure appears at the railings. He lowers down a key on a 300-foot piece of string. You take the key, Renato pulls up the string. You unlock the tower door, go in, lock the door behind you. You wind your way up the stone steps. It’s dark, the air is close. Then you feel the fresh, night air drifting down, you round the steps one more time and you’re standing on the lower balcony of the belfry. Then this little guy in a black floppy hat, carrying a lantern, steps from the shadows of Clémance (the execution bell) . . . and he says, “Hello, it’s only me.”
That’s how I met Renato Haüsler, le guet de la cathedrale de Lausanne. He’s got a funny shaped room between the bells; it looks like something out of a Tim Burton film. It’s where Renato sleeps. There’s a small bed, a small desk. The room is lit with candles. Renato has candles on the brain. He gave me a tour of the belfry. I met all the bells. The biggest is Marie-Madeleine. She rings the hour. There are five more bells in the upper belfry. Renato took us up to say hello. Along the way he told me about the thousand-year-old timbers of the carpentry, the gigantic tinker toy arrangement of ancient timbers from the primeval forests of Lausanne that house the bells. We went back to his room, had a glass and he told me about his vision. He wanted to light the nave of the cathedral with thousands of candles so people could see the place for what it was.
There was a winching sound and the loudest sound I’d ever heard in my life exploded through the belfry. It was Marie-Madeleine; she was calling the hour. The entire belfry trembled. Renato re-lit the candle in his lantern. Told me to follow him. He walked to the east balcony, waited for Marie’s voice to fade. He held his lantern into the night and called, “C’est le guet! Il a sonne douze, il a sonne douze!” (“This is the watcher! It is 12 o’clock, it is 12 o’clock!”) He did the same to the north, west and south. And facing south, there was Lake Geneva, the lights of Évian on the far shore, the shadows of the Alps rising to the stars.
The wheels in my head starting spinning.
Last of his kind lives in a bell tower in a grey falling-down lump of a cathedral. He’s strange, he wears a black floppy hat, carries a lantern . . . he’s got candles on the brain.
There was a story. I just had to find it.
Thank you, Jon! Readers: Will you check out The Watchers? It's on sale this week. Read more about it on BookPage.com.
The world always seems to need saving, doesn't it? In Nick Harkaway's second novel, Angelmaker, it's business as usual—not. It's a steampunk/mobster noir/thriller that tosses clockmaker Joseph Spork into a race against time (get it?) to halt the oncoming end of days.
Here's what our reviewer had to say:
Angelmaker is the stuff that steampunk is made of—the heroes are stalwart, the antagonist so villainous he makes even the worst Bond foe seem charmingly amateurish, and the threat monstrously dire. Just as importantly given the genre it inhabits, the devices, constructs and “doodahs” created, used and coveted by all sides involved are marvelously varied, inventive, and either inspiring or sinister (and sometimes both).
What do you think of Angelmaker?
I've mentioned before how much I enjoy Laura Lippman's smart thrillers, so any book that she recommends with a blurb is naturally going to catch my eye. Even better when that book is delivered to BookPage inside an over-sized milk carton (read this blog post to see what I mean).
I stated reading Alison Gaylin's And She Was with high expectations, and I was not disappointed. First of all, the thriller has an interesting hook: Missing persons investigator Brenna Spector has Hyperthymestic Syndrome, a rare, real-life condition that causes a person to have a perfect autobiographical memory. In other words: She can remember every moment from her life.
For example, you probably went to the dentist, oh, 10 years ago. Do you remember exactly what the receptionist said to you, exactly what the waiting room sounded and smelled like, exactly what you wore? Well, Brenna can remember details like that from her life, no matter how insignificant, important or tragic. It's a helpful quality for an investigator, but also a hindrance. Would you really like to have every memory from your life automatically playing on loop in your mind?
Brenna's sister disappeared when she was a child, and that's what triggered the disorder to kick in. As an adult, she is called to investigate the disappearance of a woman named Carol, and that case is connected with the disappearance of another young girl that happened years before, and to Brenna's past.
I interviewed Gaylin for BookPage.com and asked her whether a perfect memory would be a blessing or a curse. Here's what she said:
Having a pretty good memory myself, my first response was, “That must be awful!” I honestly think that the ability to forget—to let the past fade into soft focus and recede in your mind—is one of the great tools of survival. How can you forgive and forget if you can’t forget? How can you move on at all, if the past is just as clear and visceral as the present? How can you truly be with the people around you, if your mind is full of everyone who is no longer in your life?
The Professionals by Owen Laukkanen
Putnam • $25.95 • ISBN 9780399157899
March 29, 2012
Some of suspense fiction's finest—writers like Lee Child, C.J. Box and Jonathan Kellerman—have sung this novel's praises. It's no surprise, then, that the pages practically turn themselves, and all you can do is hang on for the ride once the action gets going.
Here's an excerpt about the ringleader's philosophy on kidnapping:
Of all his worries, it was greed that kept Arthur Pender awake at night. It wasn't his own greed that bothered him; Pender was happy with sixty-thousand-dollar scores. He worried, though, that the long grind would wear on his team.
Most would-be kidnappers treated the job like a Hail Mary. Tried to knock down some CEO, some pop star, tried to make ten million and disappear after one big haul. One shot for all the glory. To Pender, that kind of thinking was stupidity, plain and simple. Those heroes who aimed for the big scores always attracted the big crowds. Police. Feds. TV cameras. Publicity like that made it impossible to remain anonymous. Publicity like that meant investigations, manhunts, Wanted posters. Ultimately, publicity like that meant jail or death. Nobody got away from the Big American Machine.
Far better, then, to pull quick scores. Lower numbers, but higher volume. The Pender method. Snatch guys like Terry Harper, Martin Warner. Midlevel executives, hedge-fund managers, guys with enough cash to make the job worthwhile, with families to pay the ransoms, but with no glamour to their names. No romance. Anonymous upper-class fellas who just wanted to see things return to normal.
Our February Mystery of the Month, Defending Jacob by William Landay, taps into a parent's worst nightmare. No -- worse.
Assistant D.A. Andy Barber's son seems the most likely suspect for a neighbor's brutal murder. Andy finds himself desperately defending his son, holding his family together and keeping at bay that tiny nagging doubt. Writes Whodunit columnist Bruce Tierney, "Defending Jacob is one of the most disturbing books of the year, and soon to be one of the most talked-about."
Check out an excerpt from Chapter 1, when Andy is being questioned by the prosecuting attorney:
In the grand jury room that morning, the jurors were in a sullen, defeated mood. They sat, thirty-odd men and women who had not been clever enough to find a way out of serving, all crammed into those school chairs with a teardrop-shaped desk for a chair-arm. They understood their jobs well enough by now. Grand juries serve for months, and they figure out pretty quickly what the gig is all about: accuse, point your finger, name the wicked one.
A grand jury proceeding is not a trial. There is no judge in the room and no defense lawyer. The prosecutor runs the show. It is an investigation and in theory a check on the prosecutor’s power, since the grand jury decides whether the prosecutor has enough evidence to haul a suspect into court for trial. If there is enough evidence, the grand jury grants the prosecutor an indictment, his ticket to Superior Court. If not, they return a “no bill” and the case is over before it begins. In practice, “no bill”s are rare. Most grand juries indict. Why not? They only see one side of the case.
But in this case, I suspect the jurors knew Logiudice did not have a case. Not today. The truth was not going to be found, not with evidence this stale and tainted, not after everything that had happened. It had been over a year already — over twelve months since the body of a fourteen-year-old boy was found in the woods with three stab wounds arranged in a line across the chest as if he’d been forked with a trident. But it was not the time, so much. It was everything else. Too late, and the grand jury knew it.
I knew it, too.
Only Logiudice was undeterred. He pursed his lips in that odd way of his. He reviewed his notes on a yellow legal pad, considered his next question. He was doing just what I’d taught him. The voice in his head was mine: Never mind how weak your case is. Stick to the system. Play the game the same way it’s been played the last 500-odd years, use the same gutter tactic that has always governed cross-examination — lure, trap, f*ck.
Does it sound like your type of thriller?
Don't you love when an author's backstory is just as interesting as his or her fantastic new book? Take Taylor Stevens, for example, whose second Vanessa Michael Munroe novel, The Innocent, is featured in our January Whodunit column.
Self-employed spy Munroe has the difficult task of infiltrating a religious cult called "The Chosen" in order to rescue her best friend's kidnapped daughter. Sounds intense, right?
It just so happens that Stevens was born and raised in a very similar cult, the Children of God. Her education stopped at age 12, she hopped from country to country and lived (as she describes on her website) as a "worker bee child in a communal apocalyptic cult."
So before you check out The Innocent, read what Stevens had to say about the Children of God in our 7 questions interview. (And if you haven't read her first book, The Informationist, you should read that, too.)
Is Vanessa Michael Munroe your type of heroine? And does knowing an author's cool backstory entice you to read their book?
As part of our Best Books of 2011 coverage, our editors weigh in on some of their personal favorites from the list.
Ann Patchett’s State of Wonder whisks readers off to the Amazon, where her main characters are pummeled with bugs as big as ping-pong balls and threatened by the sinuous squeeze of an anaconda. Combining the page-turning plot of a thriller with memorable characters, fascinating moral dilemmas and the painstakingly precise prose that Patchett is known for, State of Wonder is a novel that people will still be reading—and talking about—years from now.
Breaking Point, the sequel to Dana Haynes' Crashers, doesn't lose any of its prequel's original momentum. Writes our reviewer, "This is a book for adrenaline junkies; it grabs you by the frontal lobes right at the outset, and doesn’t let go until the last page."
Featured in our Whodunit column, Breaking Point finds the Crashers--the government airplane crash investigators--racing for their own lives. They must unravel the mystery behind a crash as it burns around them and threatens to destroy the evidence.
We chatted with Haynes about his new book, what his shoes look like and much more. More than anything, I wanted to know: After writing Crashers and Breaking Point, are you afraid of airplanes? Click here to see his answer.
What about you? Does reading books about airplane crashes make you afraid to fly?
Breaking Point came out yesterday! Will you pick up a copy?
Our Mystery of the Month is original, twisted and gruesomely fascinating. Sorry by Zoran Drvenkar is a thriller unlike any other, in which a murderer manipulates an agency called "Sorry" that specializes in cleaning up other people's mistakes.
BookPage Whodunit columnist Bruce Tierney writes, "Dark, demented, radical and grotesquely humorous, Sorry upends every convention of modern fiction craft, and brilliantly. Indeed, Sorry might well be the Mystery of the Year!"
In a 7 questions interview with BookPage, German novelist Zoran Drvenkar shared a handful of his favorite books and some excellent writing advice.
Does this dark thriller sound like your type of creepy read?
It's sinister, it's dark -- it's everything we'd hope from a debut thriller. S.J. Watson has crafted "unquestionably a suspenseful and gripping psychological thriller" of Before I Go to Sleep (Harper).
Its premise is familiar yet decidedly unique -- an amnesiac woman begins to spiral into paranoia, as each morning she awakes, she cannot remember her own life. How can she possible figure out the truth about her life, her marriage, anything, when she can't remember any of it?
Sounds intense, and so is this cool trailer:
Be sure to check our our interview with S.J. Watson!