It begins at the end, and you still won’t believe your eyes when you get to the final page of thriller novelist Jeffery Deaver’s beguiling new novel The October List.
For his latest stand-alone, one of crime fiction’s most manipulative architects has taken the rarely applied technique of reverse chronology: the telling of a tale, but backwards. It’s a trick that has occasionally been applied to film—see Stanley Kubrick’s 1956 debut, The Killing, or Christopher Nolan’s widely praised film Memento, which partially inspired The October List. But it is very rarely used in literature, with the exceptions of a few outliers from literary fiction like Martin Amis’ 1991 novel Time’s Arrow.
The idea originally gestated when Deaver was listening to, of all things, a National Public Radio profile of the composer Steven Sondheim, the composer of the 1981 musical Merrily We Roll Along, which plays out in reverse.
“I was struck by the fact that a song that meant one thing at the beginning of the play meant something much different as we moved back in time to see the leads’ courtship and meeting,” Deaver remembered. “My take on it was that while I’m well known for writing surprise endings, I wanted to see if I could write a surprise beginning.”
Without giving anything away, it’s a hell of a beginning. A woman named Gabriele McKenzie, wounded and bleeding, rages over the kidnapping of her six-year-old daughter Sarah, as she and a comrade await the arrival of the kidnapper. And that same moment truly is the terminus of the book.
“I knew that I was going to have to work closely with my readers on this one because it was going to require them to retain images and characters and facts throughout the book, which would then change as we move backwards in time,” Deaver explains. “I had to work with them to make the book understandable and not give them any ‘give me a break’ moments where I stretch credibility until it breaks.”
To give readers some purchase on which to hang their potential confusion, Deaver also cleverly gives them a visual cue at the beginning of each chapter in the form of photographs, all of which he shot himself. It’s just one example of the author’s interest in multimedia, like the entire album of country music that he wrote and recorded to accompany his last Kathryn Dance novel, XO.
“We authors are up against a lot of competition in the media now,” Deaver admits. “Our competitors aren’t even Steven Spielberg anymore, but such formidable cultural icons as Angry Birds. So I’ve made an effort in my last few books to combine the mediums. Since Gabriele is a photographer, it made sense. I wanted it to step off the page and give readers something more. Some are clues, some are illustrative of something happening in the story, and a few are jokes that most people won’t get unless they read the book a second time, which I think they will.”
It’s a fast-paced story, taking place over the course of just three days in Manhattan. I asked Deaver if he thought his books were becoming more propulsive the more he tries to draw readers in.
“I am trying to write more cinematically,” he replies. “The October List, by necessity, takes place in a short period so the reader can hold onto the facts. But the chapters in the Lincoln Rhyme novels have gotten shorter over time as well, even though the books are just as long. It takes more work because you have to make every chapter end on a cliffhanger. There has to be something to make readers turn the page.”
Deaver is beloved by his fan base, many of whom value the “soap opera” effect of characters like Lincoln Rhyme, Amelia Sachs and Kathryn Dance. But he got more global attention than he bargained for two years ago when his single James Bond novel, Carte Blanche, was released. During the launch event in 2011, Deaver arrived at London’s St. Pancras train station in a Bond-approved Bentley, with stunt woman Chesca Miles on one arm and the UK’s Royal Marine Commandos to greet him.
“I hate clichés but it really was a dog-and-pony show,” Deaver chuckles. “It really was an honor because Ian Fleming was an influence on my own writing. But I wanted to reach new readers, and it was important to me to create a young Bond dynamic set in the present day. You can’t have James Bond fumbling for coins to stop at a pay phone and call his secretary for his messages. That’s a speed bump.”
Longtime fans will be pleased to hear that the novelist is already several books ahead, and even dropped a hint or two about upcoming titles. He described the next Lincoln Rhyme novel as a true sequel to the series’ source novel The Bone Collector, which was adapted for the screen with Denzel Washington and a young Angelina Jolie. Another upcoming project reunites Deaver with the other American Bond novelist, Raymond Benson, who co-edited the anthology Ice Cold: Tales of Mystery and Intrigue from the Cold War.
“I don’t really know what art is,” Deaver laughs. “Take a story of betrayal, violence, clever repartee and the death of every single character in the story. Is that Reservoir Dogs, or is it Hamlet? Today we look at Hamlet as art, but in its time, it was entertainment, so it’s a moving target.”
Either way, he promises readers one hell of a ride with The October List.
“I really do believe that a book is the most intense and enduring creative experience we can have,” he says. Readers will have to work a little harder this time, but by the time they come to the end, everything will be laid out for them. There won’t be any threads left unexposed.”
Clayton Moore is a freelance writer, journalist, book critic, and prolific interviewer of other writers. His work appears in numerous newspapers, magazines, websites and other media. He is based in Boulder, Colorado.