Amazon Exclusive: John Burdett Reviews Final Price John Burdett is the highly acclaimed author of three nationally bestselling thrillers (Bangkok 8, Bangkok Tattoo, and Bangkok Haunts) starring the incorruptible Sonchai Jitpleecheep, a Bangkok cop who has seen more than his share of corpses and thugs. He is also the author of The Last Six Million Seconds and The Godfather of Kathmandu. Read his exclusive guest review of J. Gregory Smith's Final Price:
I believe J. Gregory Smith knew two things when he sat down to write Final Price: it had to be a thriller; it had to be different. He has succeeded on both counts. The best of his innovations is that the narrative is binocular: we see the world through the eyes of Paul Chang, a Chinese-American detective, and Shamus Ryan, the car salesman. It is not so much a whodunit (although this question is a major driver at the beginning) as an eleventh hour rescue, where the outcome of the epic battle between Chang and Ryan is cleverly held in the balance.
One good idea does not, of course, make a book novel. In addition to the double narrative we have an intriguing nexus of psychoses amongst the main characters, both the cops and the bad guy. Chang’s demon is also his strength. I won’t spoil the fun; suffice to say that when he loses it, he really loses it in a way he is unable to share with his boss:
Chang found a pay phone and used his shirt to muffle his voice when he called for an ambulance. He wiped the receiver with his sleeve.
The dragon slid back into its cage to digest its meal. Chang stepped into an alley and vomited his dinner onto the oily bricks.
His assistant and former partner, Nelson Rogers ("the human lie detector"), is also a maimed hero; veteran of too many murder investigations, he is a sensitive who pays a high price for his otherworldly intuition in the form of internal suffering and wrecked health both mental and physical:
Nelson stopped rocking and spoke to her still form. "You were already dead before he did that bit with the French bread, weren’t you? Why’d you let him in? Did you know him? Were you friends? Why did you give him control and then fight later? Help me out."
As for Shamus Ryan--if you don’t like the color of the car he’s trying to sell you, watch out!
It is not easy to write a police thriller that doesn’t resemble all the others. Readers rightly expect the genre to fulfill the basic requirement of page-turning distraction; at the same time the author must bring something fresh and new to the template. What Smith does most convincingly is to show an urban pathology that is simply everywhere, but which may be made to work for the good guys as well as the bad. Most impressive is the way Smith’s shifting perspectives convince us that an extreme of sinister lies behind the flashing neon of used car lots, Vietnamese minimarts--not to mention police departments. --John Burdett
(Photo © Joanne Chan)
A Q&A with J. Gregory Smith Question:
What initially inspired you to write this story?
J. Gregory Smith: Following layoffs in the PR industry, I worked for nearly a year selling cars. The industry is structured to foster distrust between the customer and the salesman and the aggravation that comes with reaching or losing a deal can be maddening for both sides.
I got the idea for this story during a 12-hour shift on a snowy day with no customers. What if, instead of venting about a lost sale in the break room, a salesman completely flipped out? What if he tracked down his most infuriating customers?
Shamus Ryan was born.
Wilmington, Delaware, is a city that feels more like a small town where everyone seems to know everyone else. But people from every walk of life come through doors of a car showroom, and Shamus knows annoying victims come in all shapes, sizes, colors and religions.
That set the table for a race against time for the cops to figure out the pattern before the next victim turns up.
Question: What authors or books have influenced your writing?
J. Gregory Smith: Stephen King, both as a reader and as a writer. I’m amazed at his output and variety of stories. Same goes for Dean Koontz. In terms of writing, King’s On Writing was both instructive and inspiring. I keep his phrase: "The story is the boss." at the front of my mind when I’m working on a book.
Also, I love the no-nonsense practical approach of James N. Frey, author of How to Write a Damn Good Mystery.
Question: What research did you do while writing your book?
J. Gregory Smith: I like to think of nine months of car sales as "in depth research," and it probably was, though I must admit it was due to lean times for me in the PR business.
I did more pure research when it came to building the character of Paul Chang. His personal history is a tightrope walk between traditional Chinese culture and American. As a result, he can function in both but is never entirely comfortable in either. I had to research elements of his culture and used that also to build the Shu and his mother’s characters.
Question: Is there any character you most identify with? Why?
J. Gregory Smith: I suppose there’s a bit of me in most of the characters, at least enough to connect and empathize with them. My neighbors looked at me a little funny when they knew I sold cars and then wrote a novel about a serial killing car salesman, but I certainly don’t identify with him.
I understand Shamus and can relate to his initial sense of frustration, but the killer lacks any sense of humanity for his victims and follows his psychopathic urges wherever they lead him.
I can identify with some of Nelson’s goofy traits, which I exaggerate for effect. Chang was the hardest character to build because I needed him to be edgy and complicated, even dangerous, but ultimately a force for good in the world. He’s a blend of people I’ve known from several different Asian cultural backgrounds, along with a healthy dose of material I made up.
Question: Have you considered trying your hand at other genres?
J. Gregory Smith: Yes. I think for now, my predominant style is thrillers, but I have written a young adult fantasy called Prince Dale and the Crystal Mountain. The first draft read like an insult to the intelligence of kids everywhere. When I stopped trying to write down to some preconceived level and just tell the story, I found the characters gained depth and personality and the book improved immensely. It made the Quarterfinals in the 2010 Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award, but at the moment I’m holding on to it while I work on some other projects. I really like the story, though, and I have some sequels in mind if it ever finds a home.
Question: Have you always wanted to be an author? What other careers have you pursued?
J. Gregory Smith: I’ve wanted to be a writer as long as I can remember, but other than some short stories never pursued it seriously until after grad school in 1993. It dawned on me (slow learner) that if I was ever going to be a real novelist, I needed to sit down and write one. Which I did. I finally finished a complete manuscript with a beginning, middle and end. It was green as grass and absolutely unfit for publication.
But it did prove I could write one. Final Price is my second, and the finished product is the result of at least a dozen re-writes, professional coaching and editorial expertise, and many patient, generous friends.
And one very supportive wife.
After receiving my MBA, my main career was public relations in Washington, D.C., Wilmington, and Philadelphia. I’ve also sold mortgages and, of course, cars.
Question: What's it like to have a book published for the first time?
J. Gregory Smith: It might be bad form to dip into the bag of clichés, but it really is a dream come true.
Question: What's next for you?
J. Gregory Smith: I have another completed thriller called Noblesse Oblige that I hope to get published, and right now I am writing the first draft of a sequel for Final Price, tentatively titled Legacy of the Dragon.