“How could I kidnap a child and get away with it?” I asked.
This was probably the wrong question to ask an FBI agent right out of the gate. The agent’s expression turned grim and his answer was clipped and a tad aggressive. “You couldn’t. We’d catch you.”
“Yeah, but,” I said before he interrupted me.
“No buts. We’d catch you. When a kid gets snatched, we drop everything. It becomes top priority. You wouldn’t stand a chance.”
I’ll admit it was at this point I started to panic. Not because I thought the Feds weren’t going to let me leave the building, but because I saw the novel falling apart around me. A child kidnapping is a key factor. A kidnapper with a grudge comes after the family of a newspaper reporter. I thought it was a good idea. So did the publisher. They’d paid me an advance on this very storyline. In the space of five minutes, my concept was in tatters before it was written because the FBI knew better.
I thought the storyline was going to be tough to pull off, but not this tough. I quickly outlined the scenario for the book to demonstrate my master plan for counteracting law enforcement procedure. I waited for him to applaud me for my criminal genius. He didn’t.
“We’d still catch you,” he said.
I wasn’t too downhearted as I didn’t care if my antagonist got caught, as long as he got caught on page 347 and not page 10. I put my frayed plotline to one side and we talked kidnappings—procedures, old cases, likely outcomes, etc. As I listened a single thought rose to the surface. It’s bloody hard to get away with a high profile crime. As far as I can see it, as soon as the cops get a hold of the case, you (the criminal) are toast.
The problem is, it is impossible not to leave a trail. It doesn’t matter if you go hi-tech or lo-tech. There’s a trail. As I listened, I could envisage a snail-like physical trail left behind by my fictional kidnapper and the cops following it all the way to his lair.
I couldn’t see a way around the problem. A kidnapper, being a kidnapper, needs to make contact with the kidnap family. Phones are a nightmare these days. Landline or wireless, they’re easy to trace. Digital seems to be the criminal’s worst enemy. The technology’s strength is its weakness. As easy as it is to use, it’s just as easy to locate.
Going old school doesn’t help matters either. If the kidnapper sends a letter, he’s going to need a return address for return correspondence. That doesn’t even cover the issues of how easy it would be to trace the sorting offices the letter went through to narrow down the sender’s location. Document specialists can lift all sorts of forensic evidence off paper.
The only thing left open to the kidnapper is face-to-face meets and that’s fish-in-a-barrel time for law enforcement.
It doesn’t matter how you slice it, if you kidnap a kid for ransom, you’re going to get caught.
Eventually, with a little a devious ingenuity plot-wise and some character flaws, I built a plotline that worked, but the Q&A with the FBI was a tipping point. I’m a good guy, but it made me question myself and whether I would ever cross a legal line. I can’t say I won’t, but I can’t rule it out. Circumstance may dictate otherwise. However, the more I write and the more I research crimes for my stories, the more honest it makes me. In spite of how smart I think I am, I’d get caught. I’ve seen the inside of police stations, courtrooms and a prison and I quite honestly can say I don’t want to be arrested, I don’t want to go to court, and I definitely don’t want to go jail. I wouldn’t last a day in the big house. This smart mouth would get me into all sorts of trouble.
So a simple question about kidnapping helped turn me into a more law abiding person. It’s my fiction that’s just plain criminal…
The book is now done and Paying the Piper hits bookshelves on Tuesday. Obviously, I’m quite excited. The book has picked up some nice trade reviews, especially from Publishers Weekly. I couldn’t have asked for better. I think the book turned out well. I just hope the FBI do too…
Yours on the verge,
PS: I’m going to be out and about for Paying the Piper, so I maybe coming to a bookstore near you. If you’d like to know where, check out my calendar.
Simon,Congrats on the new book!
Writing about crime has made me think things through that I might otherwise have assumed I knew. That’s probably the biggest effect so far.
Now I’m jealous. I got stymied by my local FBI when I tried to do research for the same kind of scenario. They wouldn’t talk to me. Of course, I wasn’t published yet, so maybe…
Good job, Simon. The book looks fascinating!
Come on, boffins, let’s get this sorted!
Simon,Your experience is really interesting to me because we have consulted, over the years, with many cops, MEs, detectives, lawyers, doctors in the quest for verisimilitude (love having an excuse to use that word!)
What we found is that some experts, despite the depth of their knowledge, are useless to writers. Most of them can’t bend the rules of their universe enough to accommodate the needs of fiction. Or sometimes they are so stubbornly prideful about their field they can’t allow for the smallest crack in their door — and that crack is where fiction writers wiggle in.
A cop who tells me, “that would never happen” is not useful to me as a writer. And frankly you just have to read any newspaper to know it’s not true. But a cop who can take my wild-hair scenario and help me shape its dramatic possibilities within the parameters of reality is going to show up on the acknowledgement page.
The exception is gun experts. You have to trust them completely because if you get guns wrong in your book, you are going tohear about forever!
Congrats on the new book.
I think we’ve had similar experiences. Usually I tend to steer clear of storylines that require “expert knowledge” as I find the fact and fictional world butt heads. My next-next book that I’m about to start doesn’t features cops, MEs or anyone–just characters. 🙂
I’m with PJ about experts who say “it couldn’t happen.”
I met with the DNA Specialists at the Department of Justice to find out if DNA on a blouse stored in a hot garage for seven years could still be tested.
“Oh, if she only hadn’t put it in a plastic bag!” the woman said.
“Hey, this is fiction. We can have her store it in anything you want.”
Congrats on the new book, Simon.
Congratulations, Simon, and happy travels. Looks like a winner!
Interesting how the Lindbergh case still echoes in the halls of Quantico – isn’t it?
Whenever I come across an expert who says “That could never happen,” I know I am *not* looking at a parent of twins.
Though large segments of society fail to accept it,quantum physics teaches us nothing is impossible.
I didn’t have luck with the first FBI contact I interviewed. I was trying to find out about money laundering.
He said, “This is for a novel, right? You write fiction?”
“So, why don’t you just make it up?”
I coulda slugged him. Instead, in THE CLOVIS INCIDENT, the FBI guy is a total as*.
Best limber up that signing hand, Simon. We’ve got a box of books up here for you to deface! And I think the twists you’ve put into it are creepily believeable, FBI notwithstanding.
I mean, kidnapping has to work some of the time. Otherwise why do it? And I read somewhere that the good guys are always a couple of years behind the bad guys in technology, so I think the FBI guys were just trying to scare you.
I, of course, wouldn’t commit a crime simply because I know I’m useless about these things and would be caught immediately. But smarter, more devious people (or the stupifyingly lucky) succeed every day. Don’t they?
Fran: See you in a week or so. If the feds turn up to the signing, do you have a back door?