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OFF THE PLATE: OCTOBER 2009

The sleuth mind of an imaginary criminal: Interview with Steven M. Thomas

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In his debut book, Steven M. Thomas takes readers through "Criminal Paradise" (Ballantine Books, New York, 2008), an entertaining literary ride that follows the morally conflicted Robert Rivers through criminal, yet Good Samaritan, pursuits. If it doesn't make sense now, buckle up and follow along.

The sequel is no short order. Thomas' second novel "Criminal Karma," which hit shelves in July, depicts Rivers maneuvering his way through Venice Beach, Calif. to steal a diamond necklace worth $250,000. Worn by heiress Evelyn Evermore, the necklace is also the coveted prize of high-profile spiritual guru—and possible scam artist—Baba Raba.

I had the pleasure of chatting with Steven—whose guest column "OC Rail Towns" appears in this month's issue of The Astute Recorder—about his work and the complexities woven into his fast-paced and entertaining novels.

JA: Why do you think your readers are drawn to your protagonist Robert Rivers? Afterall, he is a thief.

SMT: I think people with contradictions are more interesting than people who are all of the same piece. In Rivers' case, he's a criminal but in many ways, he's a decent person—fair-minded and especially someone who has no interest in hurting people. As a thief, he tries to keep mayhem to a minimum.

In the context of a corrupt society, Rivers justifies his career choice. He views most professions as dishonest and unfair—bankers who have stolen their customers' money, politicians who go on about family values yet end up being found with prostitutes, or clergyman who keep young gay prostitutes. Rivers recognizes the inherent unfairness in society. If you're an African-American kid in Compton who smashes the windows and steals from a store, the cops are going to beat your brains out and throw you in jail. But if you’re the president of AIG and steal from the public, you'll get a room in a 50-room mansion. Same thing on a political level, people who’ve fought political wars suffer no consequences.

Rob, or Rivers, has a laissez-faire attitude that is purely socially constructed. In my third book, he talks about how armed men in small or large groups, have always taken what they needed throughout human history. As long as it’s a big enough group, it’s okay. If a national army attacks a neighboring country or if a tribal band raids a certain area for women and food, it’s considered okay.

Still, Rivers is not deluding himself. He knows the difference between right and wrong when it comes to his profession. But he shrugs his shoulders and says he’s doing the best he can and keeps going.

JA: Reggie, Rivers' childhood friend and partner in crime, will appear in your second book "Criminal Karma." In "Criminal Paradise," we saw a somewhat repugnant nature about Reggie. My personal view as a reader was that he was chauvanistic and opportunistic. What are we are supposed to like about him?

SMT: Reggie has several virtues in the story: For one, he is comic relief. Second, he’s a tough guy who is the muscle of the team, he's always there to do the heavy lifting. He also has a repertoire of criminal skills that are useful to Rob. He knows about alarms and mechanics and is an experienced criminal. Third, he's meaningful to Rivers because they have known each other all their lives. "Criminal Paradise" starts with Rivers working with Switch. But when Switch leaves, Rob only has Reggie.

Equally important is Reggie always brings conflict and problems, which are the driving forces of fiction, especially crime fiction. If Reggie and Rob got along perfectly, it would be less interesting than if Reggie is always causing Rob problems.

JA: Talk about the difference between crime-fiction for female readers versus male. I usually read books like the letter series by Sue Grafton or the crochet-mystery books by Monica Ferris. I found "Criminal Paradise" hilarious and riveting, even though it seemed more fit for a "guy."

SMT: I had never thought of the crime-fiction audience as being divided between men and women. As authors, we have to pick our targets. There's an incredibly wide yet detailed spectrum of the types of crime fiction and mysteries. On one end of the spectrum is the genre that includes "Murder She Wrote," then there are medium-tone mysteries with private investigators, then police intent, all the way to horrendous horrifying murders, dismemberment, slasher type deals and everything in between.

There is also a distinction between crime-fiction and mystery. Mystery involves a character who is trying to figure out what happened. With crime fiction, you know who did what but the story reveals the details of the crime as it is happening.

With "Criminal Paradise," I didn’t set out to write a mystery, I set out to write a story of criminals that is entertaining.Then it turned into a hybrid when Rivers tried to figure out the identity of the Vietnamese girl, whose photo he discovered on one of his robberies. That's when Rivers became sleuth-like to uncover the much more nefarious crime of human trafficking. I didn’t have a mystery in mind when I included that detail. I just wanted to make it interesting and entertaining. Having said that, I was pleasantly surprised when "Criminal Paradise" was nominated as the Best First Novel by the International Thriller Novels.

JA: Describe the relationship between author and subject as it relates to your work.

SMT: The way I got going with "Criminal Paradise" was by reading Raymond Chandler, Dashiell Hammett, the excellent thriller writer Jim Thompson, Ross Macdonald and John MacDonald—mainly authors who write crime-fiction in the first-person. I was also inspired by Edward Bunker's suspense thriller “Dog Eat Dog.” Most of the books that have inspired my work, are funny, action-packed, suspenseful with snappy dialog and humor.

I've read a lot of books. But I have never read anything I like more than crime-fiction. I understand it. I know it has to be exciting, it has to create suspense and I know there is a thread the writer has to follow. I also thought it would be more interesting, and conflict-driven, to tell the story from the point-of-view of a criminal than from a private investigator or police officer.

JA: Talk about the importance of cultural diversity as it relates to sense of place. We saw this a lot in "Criminal Paradise," the blend of cultures that represents Southern California.

SMT: If it weren't for Los Angeles, I wouldn't be writing crime-fiction. Period. The region's setting and surroundings are what have motivated me to create the characters and stories I have.

As a native of Missouri, the cultural diversity in Southern California is fascinating to me. After graduating from the University of Missouri-St. Louis with degree in English, I moved to Los Angeles. From the moment I stepped off the plane, I was taken not only by the scenery but also the multiethnic cultures, the faces, the different languages and the food. A lot of which comes across in my storytelling.

In "Criminal Paradise," I capture the cultural diversity in a variety of ways but most poignantly with the angle of Song, the Vietnamese girl I mentioned earlier. That part of the story was a direct correlation to an article I'd read when I first moved here which talked about how a cargo container of people was discovered at the Port of Long Beach, not far from where I was living in Belmont Shores.

Human trafficking remains a huge problem so I wanted to cover that angle in my book. The U.S. State Department recently reported an estimated 600,000 to 800,000 people are trafficked across international borders each year, with the U.S. as a primary destination. About 80 percent are women and girls, up to 50 percent are minors. Like Song, a majority of the smuggled women and girls are trafficked into commercial sexual exploitation. Vietnam continues to be a source of smuggled women. Between 2005-2007, Vietnamese authorities arrested more than 1,600 people involved in human trafficking.

"Criminal Karma" follows a similar pattern to that of the first. Even though he and Reggie are committing crime, they’re also helping people. It’s happening in the third book as well, in a Machiavellian way. In the midst of committing a crime, Rob gets tangled up in a local situation with criminals who are nefarious dark souls. He ends up helping someone as a result.

Learn more about Criminal Karma »

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