Novelist Alan Glynn chuckles to himself as he reveals the secret of his success. In his soft Dublin accent, he recalls W. Somerset Maugham's advice. “There are three rules for writing a novel,” Maugham famously declared. “Unfortunately, no one knows what they are.”
It may very well be to Glynn’s advantage that he doesn’t have more of a plan, because one of the attractions of his twisty, ominous financial thrillers remains the fact that they are utterly, convincingly unpredictable. This is dark territory, where titans of industry brandish soul-crushing power with ruthless ambition, corrupting the very core of the system that made them rich in the first place.
Although Glynn says his publishing record is spotty, he actually has a very nice portfolio of books that inspire a moderately-sized but enthusiastic readership. His first success came with 2002’s The Dark Fields, whose title originated with that elegant last passage in The Great Gatsby: “He did not know that it was already behind him, somewhere back in that vast obscurity beyond the city, where the dark fields of the republic rolled on under the night.”
As some readers may know, The Dark Fields was a visionary, frightening look at the biopharmaceutical industry and a powerful new drug, MDT-48. Kirkus dubbed the novel “hip enough to garner a cult following.” In 2011, it was adapted by American screenwriter Leslie Dixon into the popular film Limitless, starring Bradley Cooper; Glynn is working on a follow-up story about the drug, tentatively titled Under the Night.
“It was a trippy experience being in the theater, watching images I had dreamed up in my head a decade ago being portrayed on the screen so accurately,” Glynn recalls.
But the cornerstone of Glynn’s current oeuvre is the loosely connected trilogy that wraps up this month with the publication of Graveland. Following after its predecessors Winterland and Bloodland, it’s the final act of a vast story that looks at the deeply intertwined relationship between the global financial industry, politics and organized crime. The novel picks up where Bloodland left off, with investigative journalist Ellen Dorsey investigating murders and conspiracies whose clues point towards kingmaker James Vaughan, who has loomed large in the background of all three novels.
“Thematically, I felt that the character of James Vaughan, the éminence grise of Graveland, was the spine of the arc at the heart of the three stories,” Glynn explains. “My interests obviously lie in the corporate world and how the results of their actions trickle down through society. Vaughan really represents that world. He gradually became for me the most important figure in the series, even though he’s usually in the background, which is appropriate to his role.”
Glynn has been told that he’s invented a new genre—“globalization noir”— but says his fascination with this nexus of crime and high finance predated the economic crash of 2008.
“When I wrote Winterland, we hadn’t fallen off the cliff yet, you see,” he says. “Even though it wasn’t about the crash, it was about the potential for a crash. The central image in that book is this building being constructed along the docks that has an engineering flaw. I didn’t want to be too heavy-handed about it, but I saw that very early on as a symbol for the potential for things to fall apart.”
The series has been favorably compared to the HBO television series The Wire, which similarly explored the connections between societal threads. Glynn believes that crime, politics and corporate industry will always make for natural bedfellows.
“I think crime comes in via the financial side of things,” he says. “It’s money. If you follow that much money, you’re always going to find criminals at the other end of it. Crime has also become so big and global that it is practically its own multinational corporation at this point. It melds very naturally into the structure that is already there. Because of the amount of money involved now, criminal organizations are also forced to play the financial game. The demarcation lines between them have sort of vanished.”
That instinctive alliance also allows a writer like Glynn to come up with a character like James Vaughan, whose level of influence is terrifying.
“I think CEOs and corporate leaders are some of the most interesting people in the world to become potentially villainous characters,” Glynn observes. “Often, they’re more frightening than politicians and even true criminals because of the breadth and reach of the power that they wield.”
Although all of Glynn’s characters are drawn in shades of grey, if there were a white-hat hero to foil the bad guys in his world, it would be his investigative journalists. Although Winterland is centered on a more traditional investigative character, Gina Rafferty, Bloodland and Winterland narrow the focus to journalist Ellen Dorsey and her protégé Jimmy Gilroy.
“I’ve never worked as a journalist, although I often wish I had,” Glynn admits. “I’ve always admired the investigators in journalism, going back to Watergate. Journalists have a doggedness that is almost on the spectrum where nothing will stand in their way. It’s all about information. My ideal thriller is the one that has no ‘action’ at all. The books are very taut and interesting, but not dependent on action.”
One critical component of the trilogy is the serpentine conspiracies to either manipulate the financial markets or destroy evidence of crimes undetected. But for all of his expertise in creating conspiracies, Glynn is not about to become one of the tinfoil hat-wearing obsessives.
“The mistake that a lot of people make is assuming this incredible level of efficiency on the part of the people involved,” he explains. “If they could organize at that level, they could fix society. It’s absurd. What’s harder these days is extracting the truth. The minute something happens—and this is especially true in America—within hours, the false flag theories are out. When you start looking at the enormous amounts of information involved, it’s easy to blame a conspiracy very quickly before you have the common sense to shake your head and pull back.”
Glynn plays close attention to the character of the cities he writes about as well. It was very important for him to get Dublin right in Winterland, for example. For Graveland and the denouement of his story, he wanted to bring everything home to New York City, which is the axis of the global financial industry.
“I very much felt that city’s energy in the pages of The Dark Fields, and I think the pharmaceutical element of that story helped give that sped-up sense of the city, which it emits naturally,” he says. “In this one, I think it has that Bonfire of the Vanities sense of showing the whole spectrum of society from top to bottom.”
The other classic American icons that inspire Glynn’s characters are the good old-fashioned thrillers that serve as touchstones for the trilogy’s tone and pacing. Glynn often cites films ranging from the Robert Redford spy thriller Three Days of the Condor to the more recent noir-tinged jeopardy of Michael Clayton as inspirations for what he was trying to accomplish. Glynn believes there’s a certain shattering of our collective naiveté that occurred in the 1970s that reverberates today.
“James Ellroy will say there was never any innocence to be destroyed, but I think there was,” Glynn says. “I think people were genuinely shocked that their government or these corporations could be doing malicious things, purposefully. We’re not shocked by that now. I think people may be innocent to the extent that they’ve forgotten these things or they’re just so used to the fact that they happen. The problem is that the scale has grown so large that the ensuing problems become much more severe.”
Glynn pauses, and he smiles.
“The trouble with paranoia is that it has a bad name,” he says. “It’s associated with madmen. You could spin out a theory that conspiracies themselves have been discredited on purpose. On the other hand, conspiracies do happen. It’s the nature of society. It wouldn’t make sense if they didn’t. Paranoia is still just as useful now as it was back then.”
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.