Owen Laukkanen used to work as a website reporter, covering high-stakes poker tournaments around the world. Then he took a gamble of his own, penning a novel about a quartet of educated young Americans who—finding themselves without acceptable job prospects—set themselves up as expert kidnappers.
Catch up with the last Rap Sheet on must-read crime books this spring.
As Laukkanen explains in The Professionals, these abductors stay on the move, demand relatively modest payoffs and keep their targets low profile: “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.”
The scheme pays off handsomely, and the four gang members—leader Arthur Pender and his girlfriend, Marie McAllister, along with Matt Sawyer and Ben “Mouse” Stirzaker—start thinking about which tropical locale they’ll retire to with their illicit boodle. But then they make the mistake of snatching a mob-connected factory owner in Detroit. Suddenly, they’re having to run from not only a couple of resolute law-enforcement types, but also a mountain of a contract killer.
I took the opportunity recently to ask Laukkanen, a 29-year-old resident of Vancouver, Canada, about his inspiration for The Professionals, his obvious attachment to its characters and why he chose a writing career over life as a card sharp.
When and how did you work out the plot basics of The Professionals?
The bare-bones plot sprung from a TV show I’d watched about professional kidnappers in the developing world, which prompted me to wonder what it would take for a group of criminals to make a career of kidnapping on American shores.
In North America our concept of kidnappings is of these high-ransom, media gong shows that tend to fall apart very quickly. For my kidnappers to succeed, they would have to avoid that kind of spectacle, and in order to avoid detection, I decided, they would keep their ransom demands low and their mobility high.
With the basic idea in mind, I sat down and started writing, with nothing mapped out. The plot kind of grew organically as the writing went on; everything that happens was almost as much of a surprise to me as it is for the reader.
Do you think the kidnapping scheme you portray here could be carried out in real life? And for how long?
I think that the foundation of Pender’s scheme is pretty solid. He’s not greedy, which is the key. I think many, if not most, criminals are able to get away with their particular schemes until greed leads them to take silly chances for higher rewards.
I think that a group of kidnappers who were disciplined and realistic about their expectations could carry out a string of successful kidnappings without drawing much attention. Whether or not they could succeed at the same scale as Pender and his gang, I don’t know, but with even lower ransoms and a smaller geographical area, I think it’s possible.
You treat the young abductors in this story with great affection. As they faced progressively more troubles, did you find yourself rooting for them?
For sure. I like Pender and his gang, and in many ways I can relate to their motives. They’re decent people driven by desperation to do stupid things, and when trouble starts to snowball, they react however they can to stay alive.
I think we’ve all made bad decisions and looked back at ourselves later and wondered how we could be so dumb. To me, Pender and his gang are trapped by a number of really awful choices and are now forced to fight their way out however they can. I rooted for Pender until it became clear he’d stop at nothing to survive.
One of the most pleasant surprises in The Professionals, as it goes along, is the introduction of an additional gang member, comely college student Tiffany Prentice, the daughter of a “big-shot investment banker,” who becomes an asset as Pender & Co. flee police pursuit. Was she someone you knew all along would be involved, or did Tiffany force her way into the tale and refuse to leave?
Definitely the latter. Tiffany’s first appearance in the book [on the beach in Miami] was the first time she’d entered my mind. The longer she stuck around, though, the more I liked her, and pretty soon I was writing her a chapter full of back story and realized she had to stay.
What made Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension (BCA) investigator Kirk Stevens and FBI agent Carla Windermere ideal adversaries for the Pender gang?
I think...because they complement each other quite well. Stevens has good cop instincts and investigative skills, but he’s spent a few years behind a BCA desk and maybe he’s lost a step. Windermere, meanwhile, is quick thinking and bold, a thrill-seeker. She has no problem taking command of a situation, where Stevens might be more comfortable in the background.
This novel is the first entry in a series featuring Stevens and Windermere. Yet you do much more here to flesh out your kidnappers than you to do develop these upholders of the law. Is that because you hadn’t intended Stevens and Windermere to be series leads?
That’s pretty much it. I wrote the first draft of the novel with Pender as my protagonist, and it wasn’t until [publisher] Putnam took an interest that I had any notion that the book could start a series. We worked a little bit to bring Stevens and Windermere a little more to the fore, but ultimately I’m happy with Pender’s position as de facto protagonist.
I think one of the strengths of the novel is that the reader does root for Pender and his gang, even while knowing that they’re wrong. And I think that while Stevens and Windermere may occupy more of a supporting role for much of the book, there’s still enough of them on the page to make them sympathetic characters as well.
Prior to becoming a novelist, you logged several years as a reporter covering the professional poker circuit. How did you get into that business?
I’d just graduated from [the University of British Columbia], and was carpet-bombing the job listings with my résumé when I found an ad on Craigslist for a six-week writing gig at the World Series of Poker in Las Vegas. I knew nothing-about poker, but who wouldn’t want to spend a summer in Sin City? I applied, got the job and at summer’s end was offered a full-time position traveling the world and writing about poker.
It was a wonderful job for a 23-year-old. I’d never left North America before I took the position, and suddenly I was flying to Monaco and Melbourne and Macau to watch poker superstars gamble for exorbitant sums. So it certainly broadened my horizons. It exposed me to a lot of fantastic and larger-than-life characters, filled my passport and paid well enough that I could afford to take some time off to write when I’d finished.
Did you ever think of becoming a professional card player yourself?
I did. It was impossible not to. I would watch an 18-year-old kid win a million bucks in some glamorous European casino and it would all look so easy. At the same time, it was tough not to get sick of the game after watching it for 14 hours straight for weeks at a time.
I played a fair bit of poker. I walked away a few thousand dollars richer, but I’m glad I walked away. I wanted to be a writer a heck of a lot more than I wanted to play poker.