To celebrate the publication of his debut thriller The Killing Season, Mason Cross tells us how he came up with the story, and the mysterious Carter Blake.
When I started work on the book that would become The Killing Season, I knew I wanted to write a pacy thriller of the kind I like to read: the kind of book that makes me want to keep turning the pages to find out what happens next.
I wanted to incorporate all of the elements that readers of modern thrillers expect, but I didn’t want to compromise on telling the story the way I wanted to tell it. I made a conscious decision to include a lot of conventions of the genre – the driven serial killer, the mysterious outsider brought in to break the case, the professional law enforcement agent caught between playing by the rules and doing what’s right – because I wanted to prove you could draw on all of that and still write a story that felt fresh and modern.
The seed of the plot came from wanting to show a very personal one-on-one contest between two lethal professionals against the backdrop of a much larger multi-agency manhunt spreading across multiple states. Serial killers are commonly used antagonists in this sort of fiction, of course, and there’s a very good reason for that: they keep killing at regular intervals, providing an effective way to build tension and a sense of danger.
A lot of times, the killer in this type of book is alien and unknowable. I wanted to turn that on its head and make my killer almost a co-protagonist. I wanted the reader to get into Caleb Wardell’s head, perhaps even to root for him, until it’s revealed what he’s capable of. I wanted to make sure he was a cut above your average random murderer – professional and effective, but also very intelligent.
I hoped his intelligence would make him more interesting and, as the book progresses, scarier.
I was drawn to the idea of the lone sniper because it’s a great example of asymmetric warfare: you can spend millions of dollars and deploy thousands of people to track a lone killer down, but if he’s smart, it’s possible for one man to stay one step ahead. Reading up on the history of snipers, I became fascinated by the psychological dimension of that kind of warfare: it’s a very personal kind of war, and snipers tend to be feared and disliked by other soldiers.
It’s almost a state-sanctioned type of serial killing – stalking impersonal targets and killing them in cold blood. I thought it would be interesting to see what would happen if precisely the wrong type of person was given that training and experience.
Every thriller needs a hero, and from the outset I knew I wanted mine to have some hidden depths; a secret history that would be gradually revealed over time. The thing I found most interesting about Carter Blake was that I didn’t know all that much about him when I began writing. That may sound strange, but I actually didn’t have to know much about him – just what his job was, and that he was very skilled at it.
His character and background started to reveal itself to me as I wrote, and continues to do so as I work on the second and third books in the series. Blake actually surprised me by having a strong moral code. I had originally envisioned him as being an intelligent and deadly killer, perhaps not that far removed from his foe. There’s still an element of that in his character, but one of the defining things about Blake is that there are some lines he will not cross.
Finally, I knew I wanted to have a strong female character to balance out the testosterone. Having grown up with Clarice Starling and Dana Scully, it seemed natural that my lead character within the FBI would be a woman. Again, this isn’t uncommon in the genre, and again it’s for a good reason: contrasting cool-headed femininity against a historically male-dominated profession creates some interesting conflicts.
Just to mix things a little, I made her the most ambitious character in the book. Anyone who’s had to juggle a young family and a demanding job knows that you’re often forced to make difficult compromises, and I thought it would be interesting to make Elaine Banner a single mother, on top of everything else she has to deal with. The one thing I wanted to avoid was making Banner a damsel in distress, and her decisions at the end of the book bear that out.
Lastly, I wanted to throw some surprises into the mix. There’s a conspiracy element in The Killing Season, but it’s not obvious to begin with. It’s intended to begin as a very soft background hum, hopefully below the reader’s awareness, before building to a crescendo at the end of the book. I think it provides a satisfying addition to the A-story of Blake versus Wardell, and it provides a commentary on the themes of the book: fear and war and the abuse of power.
If I’ve done my job right, The Killing Season ticks the boxes for a good thriller: action, adventure, intriguing characters, and a little bit of mystery. But most of all, I want you to keep turning the pages to find out what happens next.