This month, we publish J.D. Barker’s much awaited thriller, The Fourth Monkey — abbreviated 4MK — the first in a series featuring Detective Sam Porter. With echoes of the films Se7en and Silence of the Lambs, 4MK is a rollercoaster-paced reading experience which will have you white-knuckling the pages at every heart-pounding twist and turn.
Sravya Darbhamulla, who interned with HarperCollins India last month, read 4MK and came away thoroughly impressed. Excerpts from an e-mail interview she did with Barker:
SD: There’s a universal fascination for horror. What made you hone in on a serial killer for this novel?
JDB: I’ve always been fascinated with serial killers and the overall psychology behind them. What causes a person to kill? Is that urge hardwired from the moment they’re born or is it somehow a learned behaviour fuelled by environment and upbringing? A combination of both? The more I studied, the more I realized that even the experts don’t really know. They love to pretend they do, psychologists love their labels and find peace in the various boxes they feel they can drop people into but that appearance of knowledge is nothing but a mask. I’ve known good people who grew up in bad places and bad people who grew up under the best circumstances. There are a lot of sociopaths out in the world and only a small fraction of them kill, not all killers are sociopaths. The world isn’t black and white but filled with gray and it’s within this gray that 4MK was born. My goal was to write a book that not only entertained but blurred the line between innocent and guilty – I hoped people would not only empathize with the victims but also the killer.
SD: Se7en, Hannibal, Zodiac. Your killer’s childhood and his motivations echo Dexter. What is your inspiration? If there was a taxonomy of serial killers, where would yours fall?
JDB: We all have a moral code, even the nastiest of us. Hannibal should have killed Clarice, but he didn’t. Dexter felt it was okay to kill a killer. John Doe in Se7en killed to tell a much larger narrative — people were pawns to him. 4MK falls somewhere in the middle of all of them. He thinks he’s doing the right thing, in his mind, his crimes are the answer. He could just kill the bad guy but he’d rather make them suffer, by taking away something they love and hold dear. The Fourth Monkey is the first of three in this series and I think as we get further into the story, the reader will realize the waters in which he operates are muddier than they first appear.
SD: Your first novel, Forsaken, is witchcraft, a very Stephen King-premise, classic horror. 4MK seems so much more modern and has that television-like camaraderie and plotting. Not to mention the hashtags and the bitcoin drug deals. Was your approach and process to this subject different for you this time? What challenges did you face?
JDB: As more of my writing gets out into the wild, I think readers will find that the common thread, really, is suspense. One story may lean toward horror, another may be more thriller, but suspense is present throughout. My next novel is a prequel to Dracula but when you break it down to its simplest form it’s really just a thriller with vampires. After forty-six years on this planet, my head is stuffed full with trivia and whenever I get the chance to use a bit of it in a story, I jump. Whenever I hear or see something odd, I file it away in hopes of future use. In many ways, Forsaken was a tribute to the books I grew up reading and loving as a child — the books of Stephen King, Dean Koontz and John Saul. The Fourth Monkey is where I am today. Both presented their own unique challenges and that’s what made them so much fun to write. In the end, it’s about choosing the correct tools to tell the story. The larger an author’s toolbox, the better.
SD: How do writers do it – how did you do it – living in a head space that allows you to write about derangement and violence and horror? Most of us are afraid of getting too deep into the dark side of our minds. But here you are, doing a fantastic job of staying focused and getting the details perfectly orchestrated.
JDB: I’m not going to lie, there were many a night when I looked down at what I just typed and got a little concerned. There were times I wanted to hit delete. There were times I worried what my mother would think. Those parts turned out to be readers’ favourites in this book. Writing a novel is an odd experience, (for me) when it works at it’s best, I feel like I’m watching a movie playing out in my head and just documenting what I see and hear. The characters’ actions and dialogues are not my own but theirs, I’m just a spectator, a reporter at best. We all have that dark place lost somewhere in the back of our minds — as a writer, you can’t be afraid to open the door and peek inside. Trusting what comes out of our subconscious is half the battle. The other half is knowing how to close that little door when done.
SD: A fifty-year-old cop, an eight-year-old boy, fifteen-year-old Emory, Claire – you’ve managed to keep every voice disparate and distinct. In Forsaken too, you had parallel story-lines, the novel and the outer world. Here you have the diary and multiple points of view. Tell us a bit more about this narrative format and if it helps you tell the story in a better way. What structure do you find most comfortable?
JDB: Before I start any story, I get to know my characters — their past, their present, mannerisms, speech patterns, family, friends … I create a complete backstory and build on it until each one feels like a living, breathing person to me. At that point, I feel I can drop them into any scenario with an understanding of how they’ll react. If you were to ask me what ride Sam Porter would visit first on a trip to Disney World, I could tell you. I know how Emory interacts with her friends at school even though it’s not in the book. Writers can short-cut this step but it’s difficult to do that without coming away with cardboard characters. With both Forsaken and The Fourth Monkey, I needed to tell two stories that would eventually blend together, that dictated the format I needed to use. From a pacing standpoint, I found this structure useful too — if you dial the action up to eleven, you can’t keep it there, the reader will get anxious, it becomes difficult to read. It’s better to shoot for extremes. In The Fourth Monkey, when the police procedural storyline ramped up, I used the diary entries to take it back down, and vice-versa. Both work together to control pacing while also telling the two stories. While I do love using this dual story format, it’s a writing tool like any other and shouldn’t be done unless it adds to the narrative. My next two books follow a more linear pattern.
SD: Criminals: always smarter than the trope-hero. Sam Porter is especially a sympathy-inducing figure. Who’s the star of the book? 4MK has got his name on the billboard, but we’re all Sam Porter, aren’t we? Emotional, broken and ineffective against a well-plotted and dedicated plan of evil.
JDB: Sam is a fun character. If I had the chance to sit down and drink a beer with only one of my characters, it would be Sam. In The Fourth Monkey, we catch him in the later years of his life but oh, what a life. He has some stories to tell. He’s suffered, he’s also triumphed. He’s made mistakes; learned from some and will no doubt repeat others. Those flaws make him human, relatable. Make him one of us. If I could have that beer with Sam, I have no doubt 4MK would find a way to buy a round of shots and vanish before the waitress got them to the table. He’d watch us drink them, though. From somewhere.
SD: #4MK — that title is built to trend. What made you go for it?
JDB: This is one of those things that just evolved, I stumbled into it. As I was making notes for the book, I found myself abbreviating a lot. Four Monkey Killer became ‘Monkey’ for a while, then ‘Killer’, ‘4M’ … I probably wrote ‘4MK’ for about a month in my notes before it even dawned on me to use it with social media. Then it made perfect sense — if The Four Monkey Killer was real, people would surely abbreviate and call him 4MK, right? In today’s fast-paced, text-laden world, everything is shortened.
SD: Neal Adams, illustrator for Batman, once said that Chicago was the inspiration for Gotham. Seems like a city with character. How familiar are you with the city and how much has it influenced your writing?
JDB: I absolutely love Chicago. I grew up about an hour north of the city in a town called Crystal Lake and when we were kids, my buddies and I would take the train in to watch the Cubs play. Crystal Lake was primarily corn fields at the time so over the course of that ride, we’d watch the fields slowly give way to towns, then ultimately the towers of Chicago. I found it amazing that such a place existed. The waterfront, the tunnels I mentioned in the book, these are all real places and can be visited. The gangsters of years past can still be felt walking some of those streets, the buildings all have a history. New York, Charleston, Paris, London … the world is filled with places like this but Chicago will always occupy a special place in my life.
SD: There’s quite a bit of wry humour about rich white people and golf and some real anger at the heartlessness of the wealthy. A good touch, to get a little bit of nuance into our serial killer’s motivations. Did you also want to Occupy Wall Street?
JDB: No Occupy Wall Street for me, I’ll leave that to my characters and people far more qualified than me. Like many major cities, Chicago has vast extremes between the wealthy and the poor with fewer existing in that middle-ground between both. Humour, in general, is a big part of working in law enforcement. I’ve been fortunate to get to know many police officers and I quickly learned the ones who last, the ones who can make a career out of seeing some of the worst this world offers, do so by coping with humour. The ones who can’t lighten the mood with a joke don’t tend to last long.
SD: You’ve dedicated the book to your mom. A surprising choice for a book that’s so eerie. Tongue-in-cheek?
JDB: Absolutely everything in this book, including the dedication, is a clue. I’ll leave it at that.
SD: I’ve noticed that you throw up an ‘evidence board’ several times in the novel. Like a classic police procedural and it also makes it handy for the reader. Your cops have the Mentalist-like banter going for them. Is this a TV-friendly book? And has it received interest for episode-based or feature film adaptations?
JDB: The evidence boards are very much a nod to one of my literary heroes, Jeffery Deaver. He uses them in many of his books. They are an important part of any real-life investigation. Personally, I created them as a means for me to keep the facts and story straight as I wrote The Fourth Monkey — there are a lot of moving parts to track and I didn’t want to leave any loose strings. I fully intended to remove the boards prior to publication. When my editor read it though, he suggested we leave them in.
SD: So, is this story even close to over?
JDB: There are two more planned books in the series. The Fifth to Die will release next year, then the final book after that. I’ve had so much fun with these characters, it’s proving tough to say goodbye.
SD: What are the kind of books you grew up reading? And who are your favourite detectives from literature?
JDB: I was an avid reader at an early age. My mom found full sets of all the Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew mysteries at a yard sale and I plowed through all of them prior to entering kindergarten. From there, I branched out to books like Treasure Island, Lord of the Flies and Dracula. The complete works of Ian Fleming came shortly after that, followed by the works of Agatha Christie and [Sir] Arthur Conan Doyle. I’m a sucker for a good story, particularly if it includes a solid mystery.
SD: Crime fiction is one of the leading genres in the world today, ahead of even uplifting genres like romance, humour and self-help. Why, in your opinion, do people enjoy reading crime and thrillers so much?
JDB: As we go through our normal day-to-day lives, I think we all crave adventure, the unknown. Some just want a good scare, a heart-thumping moment. A good thriller allows us to live in a world we may otherwise never visit. They offer a glimpse of the seedy part of town off the highway, the exit we’re afraid to take. We want to know what really happened at the neighbour’s house when a lamp winked on at 3 a.m. followed by shouting, then worse, silence. Sometimes, exploring the darkness in others allows us to find the light in ourselves. A good book can take us to that place… and there are so many good books.