Young New Zealand writer Ben Sanders shares the inspiration behind his latest crime thriller Marshall’s Law, and how all it took was a car at a diner for a story to unfold.
I started writing Marshall’s Law in mid-2014. I knew it would be a New York novel, and that my anti-hero Marshall would reprise his starring role from my previous thriller, American Blood. That book was set in New Mexico during a brutal (as it were) summer, and I wanted its sequel to have an obvious change of climate and setting. New York, despite being well-chronicled, was an easy choice: I had visited three times and felt confident in evoking it, and as far as crime backdrops go, there’s no greater source of grit than New York City.
The challenge though was the book’s entry point. I didn’t need the whole story - I never do. Once I can picture my characters in a scene, and have a dramatic reason for their interaction - something to feed more drama - I know I’m ready to begin. The trick is finding that trigger situation, the scene to get things moving.
The answer came at a restaurant in Connecticut.
I was staying with friends in Brooklyn, and we had a weekend away camping in Massachusetts. On the drive north on the Friday night, we stopped for food at a place called the Galaxy Diner. It was the perfect off-the-highway American eatery: Coffee cost a dollar, and was poured bible-black from flasks that demanded stunning forearm strength. ‘Light Meal’ options included six potato pancakes with applesauce and sour cream. The entry hall featured a pinball machine that ran on quarters, and had crackling sound effects and lights that flashed at epileptic frequency.
It was a great little spot full of friendly people, and it should have been useless to me as a crime writer - always on the lookout for the wretched and the dodgy. But in the parking lot was a white Cadillac Escalade SUV with tinted windows. There was nothing shady to it, but my inner crime-scribe took note, nonetheless. For whatever reason, the SUV formed an image with potential. I decided it belonged to a character named Henry Lee - a conniving, smooth-talking drug dealer, obsessed with white: white clothes, white car, white apartment, white product. He’s a man behind a white façade, putting out a false image of moral spotlessness. Even the wretch’s name is stolen, taken from a Nick Cave song.
So I had Line One: Marshall met Henry Lee in the parking lot of the Galaxy Diner.
I didn’t know why they were there. They small-talked for two pages. Henry gave nothing up: he was a polished bullshitter, and could one-line himself out of anything. Then Marshall changed direction: Did Henry know anything about a federal agent being kidnapped down in Santa Fe?
Suddenly we were off.
This book has Marshall as the ‘hero’ but Henry Lee got things started. He’s the common link between the story’s thugs, and they had to con to his pedigree - cheat and double-cross to a stolen-gold standard. With bone-deep treachery as the ticket price, a cast of wily cretins gradually took shape.
Henry Lee and his associates are a blight on my made-up America, but I love them as much as my Marshall. I hope you read the book and find them great company, too.