Sadly, the specialized and secretive business of kidnapping response and recovery is booming these days. That’s especially true in high-risk corners of the globe, such as Latin America and certain parts of Eastern Europe. Yet, as Robert Wilson makes clear in Capital Punishment, the snatch-and-ransom game can be played with equal dexterity and drama in a big, rapidly changing place such as London.
British author Wilson rose to renown on the rungs of such psychologically intriguing thrillers as A Small Death in Lisbon and The Blind Man of Seville, the latter of which introduced his best-known series sleuth, Spanish police inspector Javier Falcón. In Wilson’s latest, 11th novel he presents a case seemingly unlike conventional abductions. Alyshia D’Cruz, the estranged daughter of a shady Indian business mogul, is seized after a night on the town by people apparently less covetous of money than power. It’s up to Charles Boxer, a homicide detective turned “freelance kidnap consultant,” to get her back—a task complicated immensely by two of the kidnappers, who figure to get rich by shanghaiing Alyshia themselves. Throw in mobsters and religious fanatics, hints of terrorism and long-boiling vengeance, as well as Boxer’s problematic affair with the missing woman’s mother, and Capital Punishment—the opening entry in a new series—becomes a toxic swamp of conflicting agendas.
I’ve read almost all of your novels, and I’m used to them being set in exotic or at least uncommon locales. Capital Punishment, though, takes place primarily in the British capital. How different was it for you to set a book in such a large and comparatively familiar city?
I lived in London for 10 years, from 1981 to ’91, and I’ve spent time there every year since. It is so colossal that you could never claim to know even a part of it. That it has developed out of all recognition in the last 30 years hardly needs to be stated. The changes have been extraordinary and impossible to avoid. Just look at language. When I used to live in London, English was the most common language and now I would dispute that. It is the functional language that people use to buy something or get somewhere, but now London is a multilingual society. There are 40 languages spoken on most school playgrounds. In that respect it has become more like New York City.
Now, to me, that is an exotic development. This is no longer the gray, post-war capital of an empire in decline. This is a vibrant, multicultural, expanding world city attracting all comers....What I had to do was somehow distil an essence of London and after long discussion with Jane we began to realize that London was less of a place and more of a state of mind. Londoners wear the invisible badge of the survivor. They’ve stepped down into the bear pit and are making a go of it. They use humor to keep their spirits up, but probably their moist useful mode of defense and attack is to marshal a state of defiance. It saw us through the Blitz, after all.
Your new novel is wonderfully thick with inside dope about recovering kidnap victims. How did you go about researching that business?
The biggest problem was to find expert help. None of the people currently working in that world were prepared to talk to me. It’s too dangerous to have their precise modus operandi out there in the public domain. I was lucky to have friends of friends working in the private security company world, and I was eventually able to meet a retired director of operations in the Special Forces Club in London. While he was prepared to tell me the address of this club, he did ask me not to reveal it to the cab driver, and I realized I was operating in a very tight community.
We had a number of meetings and in each one he gave me more and more obstacles to surmount, which drove me mad but made me understand what the job of a kidnap consultant was all about. As a thriller writer, what I was trying to do was write an exciting, dramatic story; what a kidnap consultant was trying to do was to reduce the drama element in a delicate situation to as close to zero as possible. The more drama, the more likely people are to get hurt. I really had to work hard and use my imagination to develop believable dramatic situations within the kidnap plot.
Most of Capital Punishment revolves around Alyshia D’Cruz’s kidnapping. Also important here, though, are Boxer’s relationships with women—not only his involvement with Alyshia’s mother, Isabel, but also his continuing association with his onetime lover, who’s now a police detective, and the daughter they share. What do you hope readers learn about Boxer by observing these relationships?
This is the main difference between the Falcón books and the Boxer books. By the end of the opening Falcón book, the reader came away with a detailed psychological profile of Javier Falcón. We had seen him undergo analysis at the hands of the blind psychologist whilst watching him conduct a three-way investigation into the death of the restaurateur (and all its revelations), his father’s life (through his diaries) and his own life.
In the Boxer books I am developing the character through the action and through all the different perspectives on his character, which means not just the characters who engage with him, but also his own thought processes, which are sometimes reliable but sometimes not. By doing this, I believe that the characterization is coming through in a more “real” way. In real life we meet people who we might have been told something about. We get some first impressions. We see them operating with people they know well—some socially, some from work. We see how they are with complete strangers. We gradually build a picture, which we constantly revise. Added to this, because it’s a book, we are privy to the inner thoughts of the protagonist and his behavior with those he loves and we have to decide which are true and which are not by comparing them to his actions and words. This is all happening with the story moving at full pace with no let up. Some readers come away believing that they know Boxer, others are fascinated but perplexed by him, still others find him unattainable. All I can say is that it’s all there in the text, but that there are more books to come so you haven’t got the full story yet.
What weaknesses do you still have as a novelist?
I feel as if I have weaknesses on all fronts. The only way to get better is to stretch yourself every time. I was delighted when my Spanish editor in Barcelona bought Capital Punishment and told my agent: “It’s like discovering a whole new Robert Wilson.” This means I’m not standing still. Once you think you’ve made it as a writer, your progress is finished. I’ve a long way to go with plenty to develop and discover.
And which authors in the crime/thriller genre are your favorites?
I’ve always enjoyed the Americans. I started with Raymond Chandler, Dashiell Hammett and Elmore Leonard, and went on to discover Jim Thompson, George V. Higgins, James Lee Burke and James Ellroy. I love their style. I heard Wilko Johnson, the lead guitarist of Dr. Feelgood, talking the other day on the radio about a guitarist he first heard as a 16-year-old called Mick Green of Johnny Kidd and the Pirates. All he wanted to do was imitate this guy because he thought he was so brilliant. That’s how I feel about the American writers. The only problem is I’m English.