John A. Connell took a circuitous route to reach his latest career concocting high-stakes crime fiction set in Europe immediately after World War II. Although the Atlanta, George, native had impressed his 10th-grade history teacher with “quite a gory account” of the St. Bartholomew's Day massacre of 1572—a campaign of carnage that left tens of thousands of Huguenots dead in France—he had his heart set on becoming a rock ’n’ roll star. When that didn’t pan out (“I had a gift for performance and composing,” he explains, “but I lacked the passion and discipline to master the craft”), Connell instead became a printing-press operator and later a cameraman, toiling on films such as Thelma & Louise and Jurassic Park, and TV series on the order of NYPD Blue.
It was only “around the age of 40” that Connell seriously revisited the possibility of becoming an author. He recalls: “I expressed my dream of writing to a screenwriter friend, and he said, ‘Shut up, sit down, and write.’ I did, and the writing ‘disease’ immediately took hold. I started with screenplays, which seemed like the natural thing to do, since I worked in the film business. But I became frustrated with the confinement of the screenplay form. I wanted to go deeper into my characters and the world that surrounded them. That’s when I tried my hand at novels and never looked back.”
He can now boast of having two books in print, both of which feature Mason Collins, a resolute, half-German former Chicago homicide detective and ex–prisoner of war, currently serving as a notably insubordinate U.S. Army criminal investigator. The first, 2015’s Ruins of War, had Collins chasing down a brutal serial killer amid the bombed-out remains of Munich, Germany, mere months after the Nazi defeat. Its dynamic sequel, Spoils of Victory—due out in early February—finds Collins transferred to the quaint Bavarian resort town of Garmisch-Partenkirchen, on the German-Austrian border, where a curiously well-off Counter Intelligence Corps agent, John Winstone, meets a grisly end along with his German mistress, Hilda. Collins’ superiors would prefer those tragedies be listed as murder-suicide, but Connell’s protagonist becomes convinced that Winstone was slain before he could expose an extensive black-market operation involving former Nazis and, in all likelihood, advantageously positioned U.S. Army personnel. Aided by Hilda’s damaged sister, a Jewish informant with everything to lose, and a new partner all too willing to tackle tenuous leads, Collins pursues Winstone’s missing evidence of black-market shenanigans, in the process turning up more corpses as well as the trail of a Nazi torturer from his past.
Below, I ask Connell—now living in Madrid, Spain—about his cinematography experience, his fictional protagonist’s roots and his fondness for creepy murder scenes.
How did you move into working as a cameraman on films and TV shows? Had you been trained for such assignments?
While I was still working as a printing-press operator it hit me one day: hey, I love storytelling and movies, so I’ll go work in the film business. I lived in Atlanta, which wasn’t the “second Hollywood” it is now. I knew nothing about the business, or movie cameras, and I knew no one in the business. Still, that didn’t stop me. I studied a pile of books on filmmaking and technical manuals, and had a pretty good eye for photography, so I took some film workshops and ended up shooting short films for some of the other students. Then I lied about my expertise when a camera job came up and prayed I wouldn’t screw it up—which I did on several occasions—and somehow survived, then thrived. But it wasn’t long after I started working in film that whenever I saw the writer come onto the set, I would say, “I want his job.”
The Internet Movie Database (IMDb) offers up a long list of your credits behind the camera. But it doesn’t reveal which of those many projects best fed your creative spirit. So what’s the answer to that question?
I have to admit, I’ve worked on a number of uninspiring films in my career. And I have to say that the projects which inspired me the most were the TV shows, Picket Fences and The Practice by David E. Kelley, and the most influential of all, NYPD Blue. The stories and the characters on those shows inform my writing, and watching David Milch in action on the NYPD set was a significant inspiration. He was often unsatisfied with what we had just filmed, so he would break the crew and proceed to “rewrite” as he wandered around the empty set, analyzing a character, or dictating new action and lines of dialogue to the script supervisor. I always elected to stay on the set and watch him work, and what he came up with in those spur-of-the-moment sessions always made the scene and dialogue much more powerful.
I understand that Mason Collins actually predates your work on Ruins of War, that he was a very different character in an earlier novel you wrote but never published.
In that novel he was an Army criminal investigator gone bad in occupied Germany, committing murder for greed across the European continent. However, I found that anytime he was on the page he demanded my attention. My mind’s eye was drawn to him, and he was so compelling that I decided to make him the hero in a new novel. I kept his dark side, which threatens to come to the surface on more than one occasion. He credits his grandmother for instilling in him compassion and a strict moral code, and those have served him well, keeping his darker side in check—most of the time.
What makes Mason Collins an ideal protagonist for your tales?
I like Mason’s dogged determination in the face of what seem to be hopeless odds, his no-nonsense approach, and his readiness for self-sacrifice to protect others. And though he’s been through some soul-crushing events in his life, he’s kept his humanity intact, albeit with a razor-sharp edge. I like that Mason’s training as a cop and soldier makes him lethal, but he uses his wit and intelligence more often than his brawn.
And finally, Ruins of War and Spoils of Victory are kind of the origin story for Mason’s future wanderings—masterless, homeless, and always short of cash, like the errant knight or wandering samurai. In fact, Toshiro Mifune’s character in the films Yojimbo  and Sanjuro  were inspirations for Mason’s journey—the wandering samurai, irascible and stoic, who gets deep into trouble because of his compassion and sense of justice.
The action in Ruins of War took place in much-damaged Munich, but Spoils of Victory finds Mason Collins hard at work in Garmisch-Partenkirchen, a mountain town that was barely touched by World War II. Had you visited there often before deciding to set your new story in the town?
I decided on Garmisch-Partenkirchen because that’s where the research took me. When Mason Collins was the villain in that defunct novel, part of his back story involved him murdering in order to steal a cache of Nazi gold in Germany right after the war. When I began researching the stories of the missing gold for Mason’s back story, I discovered that Garmisch-Partenkirchen was at the heart of it all. Garmisch-Partenkirchen was a ski resort destination, famous for hosting the 1936 Winter Olympics, and designated a U.S. Army resort after the war. It boasts charming alpine houses on picturesque streets, and is nestled in the Bavarian Alps, but during the first two years of occupation it had become the Dodge City of occupied Germany. Here was this fantastic contrast, like a Brothers Grimm fairytale town where murder and mayhem lurked just behind those charming façades.
How much research did do in order to write authoritatively about the chain of command and military procedures in the U.S.-occupied zone of postwar Germany?
I read numerous books about the occupation of Germany, and more specifically about the American zone of occupation. I also turned to military academy masters and doctoral dissertations, articles, memoirs, and army MP [military police] unit histories, with a couple of particularly excellent websites featuring personal anecdotes of former U.S. Army personnel and maps of the area during the early occupation. Anything I could get my hands on, really. I visited the Bavarian archives in Munich, and the archives in Garmisch-Partenkirchen. Though the Garmisch archives had little archival information about the town after the war, the archivist was delighted to show me all the material he had collected, German and English, about the murder and mayhem that occurred during those early years of the occupation.
Not surprisingly, Collins’ love interest from Ruins of War, headstrong American journalist Laura McKinnon, returns in the sequel. Only there’s been a rend in their relationship. Can you briefly explain why they’re at once a perfect match and a highly imperfect one? And will they ever really find happiness together?
Mason and Laura are both headstrong and ambitious, each in their own way, and that’s what attracts them and creates the friction in their relationship. Mason is obviously attracted by her looks, but it’s her intelligence, bravery, and the fact that she takes no guff from him that makes him fall for her. Laura is attracted to Mason’s wit, his compassion, and his iron-willed determination in the face of seemingly overwhelming odds. But it is those same traits and their professional lives—cop and reporter—that constantly pull them apart.
As far as them really finding happiness? Perhaps down the road….
You manage to kill fictional characters in some gruesome ways. Does the choreographing of those crime scenes come easily and comfortably to you, or do you struggle to make them as horrifyingly memorable as they are? And how do the people you know react to reading what comes out of your imagination?
The gruesome slayings, all of which happen off the page, are based on true crime accounts and the MO of real serial killers. And in the case of Ruins of War, the slayings are closely based on the worst of the human experimentations perpetrated by the Nazi doctors in the concentration camps. I don’t know if I could have made up such horrific killings from my imagination. Truth can, indeed, be stranger than fiction.
My wife is the only one—so far—who has admitted to looking at me askance on occasion after reading Ruins of War, wondering whom she’d actually married.
The conclusion of Spoils of Victory promises some changes in Mason Collins’ status and residency. Can you tell us anything about where he winds up in your third series entry, and what sort of investigation he’ll be tackling?
I hesitate to say anything about what’s next for fear of introducing a, well, spoiler for the end of Spoils. I’m close to completing the first draft of book three in the series, and though I have a working title, it’s only a placeholder so I can find it on my computer. I can say that my plan with each book is to pick up Mason’s journey weeks or months after the last, and, like that wandering samurai, Mason will wind up in some of the most volatile places in Europe and the Mediterranean, and get deep into trouble despite his wishes to the contrary.