Encinitas thriller writer Christopher Reich’s new novel, “The Take,” features a mobster-turned-fixer who finds himself chasing after a stolen letter so sensitive it could upend the world’s balance of power.
Reich (“Numbered Account,” “Rules of Deception”) will be at the Gordon Biersch Brewery in Mission Valley on Thursday, Jan. 18 at 6 p.m. for a ticketed event through Adventures By the Book.
Q: What got you thinking about the new book?
A: Several things. I’ve spent my career writing what some people would call these globe-trotting, loyalty-blurring, fast-paced conspiracy thrillers that were deeply rooted in the day’s headlines and always took as a flash-point some political or moral crisis.
As time passed, I noticed there were so many of these stories in the news that I was just overwhelmed. I thought real life was getting ahead of fiction.
I wanted to go in a totally different direction. I wanted to do something that’s lighter, that’s more fun, that’s more like how I really am. So I started trolling about for ideas.
I was drawn to several past characters and one was John Robie, the cat burglar in “To Catch a Thief,” the Alfred Hitchcock movie. I thought that was such a great character but he was way too nice. I wanted to have that kind of character but with a real edge to him.
The other area that interested me is private spying. The easy and mass availability of the most sophisticated surveillance tools, which used to be limited to the top intelligence agencies of the richest countries in the world, are now available to private citizens. Boy, does that empower the everyman to do what a superman can. From that came the character of Simon Riske.
Q: Tell me a little more about character development. How does your imagination work?
A: I never think about how they look. I always think about their character strengths and why I would look up to someone like that. With Simon Riske, I wanted someone who was classy, intelligent, presentable – and someone who came to be that way after suffering through a lot of hard knocks. A guy with real gravitas at his center.
Q: We get introduced to him at an auction where he is getting ready to pick someone’s pocket.
A: When I start to write a story, I draw on places I’ve been and experiences I’ve had. I’ve been on tour to London and I’ve been there at a time when they were having a big Sotheby’s auction. It’s always so eye-popping and glittery and I thought that would be a great place to set something.
I didn’t quite envision it would be a watch theft, but it kind of just came to me and with it I then endowed Simon Riske with this ability to pick people’s pockets.
Q: Do you worry about making him too skillful and therefore unbelievable?
A: When I decided I wanted him to be able to lift watches, I read an article in the New Yorker about a thief who was working in Las Vegas who then went over to the “good side” and was helping police. He was incredibly gifted at taking watches and picking pockets. There was a video on the New Yorker website and you literally could not see him do it. So I decided it was a skill people can have.
I never, ever want my characters to be super-human. If anything, I am dialing back their skill-sets as I become a more mature writer. I’m trying to keep it as believable as possible.
Q: Not every writer is able to avoid the temptation.
A: For me, that kills the real suspense. We’ve read too many of those books where the hero keeps dodging the bullets or there’s 10 against one and somehow he overcomes the stratospheric odds. I’m just done with that. I want it to be that when Simon gets cut, it hurts; when he gets punched in the face, you see the mark. I want it to be real.
Q: The new book is set mostly in France. Why there?
A: The original idea for the story came when I read in the Herald-Tribune, now the International New York Times, about the real-life robbery of a Saudi prince in his convoy. So that first scene really happened, and I wanted to use it for my own purposes.
Of course there wasn’t a briefcase with a letter in it, but there was a 16-car convoy that was expertly robbed at gunpoint in 60 seconds with no shots fired. I saw that and I thought, “This actually happened? Wow.” As an investment banker, I had stayed at the Four Seasons Hotel George V (where the prince was before getting into his convoy). I lived in Paris, I know the city well, so I decided this is where I wanted to set my book.
Q: You’ve written nearly a dozen books now. What do you like about writing thrillers, and has that changed over time?
A: The first thing, sadly, is that it doesn’t get any easier. That’s kind of a bummer. But that’s also the challenge. I’m trying to write better. I’m trying to write clearer, more succinct prose. And I’m always trying to tell a better story with engaging characters, in interesting locales, and put them in situations the average reader will find exciting and way outside what they are used to seeing.
Q: What changes over the years have you noticed in the thriller genre?
A: When John le Carré wrote “Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy,” spying was a very mysterious, nebulous world. We didn’t know what spying was. We didn’t know what they did. Now we know too much of who they are and what they do. So I think the interest in that area has kind of disappeared.
Of course, there’s been a big rise in the unreliable narrator epitomized by “Gone Girl” and “Girl on the Train.” That’s a whole area that has sprouted up like mushrooms and is very fertile ground for authors, which I think has left the landscape open for a character like Simon Riske – a little bit old school, a little bit cinematic, trying to do the right thing.
Q: You’re hoping this will be a new series?
A: I’m well into the second book, which opens up with Riske at a casino in Monte Carlo. That’s the area I’m looking at: aspirational thrillers set in ritzy locales, but with very shady characters.
--John WIlkens is a writer for The San Diego Union-Tribune