Author of the Month

Name: R. J. Ellory

First Novel: Candlemoth

Most Recent Book: The Anniversary Man

'...the serial killer novel to end all serial killer novels. '

Twenty years ago John Costello's life effectively ended. Not yet seventeen, he and his beautiful girlfriend, Nadia, became victims of the dangerously disturbed 'Hammer of God' killer who terrorised New Jersey City throughout the summer of 1984. This madman targeted young courting couples in an attempt to 'save their souls'.

Nadia was killed by the first blow of the hammer. Then the killer turned his attentions to John, but despite his terrible injuries John survived. Physically and psychologically scarred to an extent that few people could understand he withdrew from the world, hid in his apartment and now only leaves his front door to work as a crime researcher for a major newspaper. Broken he may be, but no one in New Jersey knows more about serial killers than John Costello.

So, when a new spate of murders starts - all seemingly random and unrelated - John is the only one who can discern the intricate pattern that lies behind them. A knowledge that could once again bring mortal danger into his life.

From the man who is incapable of writing a poor book, this is the serial killer novel to end all serial killer novels. RJ Ellory’s understanding of the intricacies of plot and character and how to allow the story to develop is second to none. Pick up his books and you will be drawn inexorably into his world from page one.

The murders pile up, one upon the other. Each subsequent slaying is an almost exact copycat of another famous death... and committed on the anniversary of the original. The tension increases in the characters and in the reader. Who will die next? Will the cops stop him before he kills again? All the while, the author releases just enough detail to keep us guessing and unable to put the book aside. It is in his depiction of these deaths that Ellory shows us what a consummate storyteller he is. There is one particular “death scene” where the killer is replicating the murder of an entire family. Such was the tension and dread in this scene I was reading the book through my fingers – as if I was at a movie - while saying over and over, no, no, no, no!

Most novels that deal with the shock and horror of these kinds of crimes stick with the thrills, but this writer gives us the thrills along with a helping of reality. Real people suffer at the hands of these psychos and he allows us to “see” the effects such crimes have on those who are fortunate/ unfortunate enough to survive, thereby giving The Anniversary Man a strong emotional charge. This is particularly evident with poor, John Costello, a man who is only half-alive ...and fully drawn on the page.

R J Ellory writes about New York like a native, which allows me to say that The Anniversary Man is so good... I had to read it twice! That is not hyperbole. The first time I read it to just get swept up in the story. The second time was to savour the flavours of New York and the finely nuanced interaction of his characters. Again, R J Ellory has given us a read that tempts the senses, engages the emotions and tickles the intellect. What can I say, but it’s a sure-fire winner and deserves to be on every award list going.

Reviewed by: M.M.

CrimeSquad Rating


1) What makes a truly great crime/thriller novel?
Honestly, I think it has to be emotion. That may sound strange, but I’ll explain myself. With everything I do I am working towards that sense of emotional engagement for the reader, and that’s the key for me. Everything else is secondary.
The best explanation of the difference between non-fiction and fiction, I feel, is that non-fiction's primary purpose is to convey information, whereas the purpose of fiction is to evoke an emotion in the reader. So when I'm writing I try not to get too bogged down in the history and facts. I work towards the evocation of an emotional effect really, whether it be anger, frustration, love, hate, sympathy etc. The books that I remember, all the way back to things I read as a child, are the books that hooked me emotionally; those books where I identified with the central character, perhaps identified with a conflict they were going through, an emotional journey they were making. The first thing I decide when I embark upon a new book is ‘What emotions do I want to create in the reader?’ or ‘When someone has finished this book and they think about it some weeks later, what do I want them to remember…what emotion do I want them to feel when they recall reading the book?’ That’s key for me. Those are the books that stay with me, and those are the books I am constantly trying to write. There are a million books that are brilliantly written, but mechanically so. They are very clever, there are great plot twists, and a brilliant denouement, but if the reader is asked three weeks after reading the book what they thought of it they might have difficulty remembering it. Why? Because it was all very objective. There was no subjective involvement. The characters weren’t very real, they didn’t experience real situations, or they didn’t react to them the way ordinary people react. In fact, some of the greatest books ever published, the ones that are now rightfully regarded as classics, are those books that have a very simple storyline, but a very rich and powerful emotional pull. It’s the emotion that makes them memorable, and it’s the emotion that makes them special.
2) Now that the crime/thriller genre represents the largest section of fiction sold in the UK, do you think we do enough to celebrate the quality and diversity of the writing?
No. There’s a straight answer for you! As you say, there is just the most extraordinary quality and diversity in this genre, and though I am not someone who thinks that crime fiction should be taken ‘seriously’ (as I don’t think most things in life should be taken too seriously), I am still of the viewpoint that a lot of people who ‘don’t read crime fiction’ have misguided preconceptions about what ‘crime fiction’ really is these days. I think that crime fiction has as much social commentary, as much good prose, as much of an opinion about life, as much philosophy, as much everything as any other genre of literature, and readers know this. These things happen slowly, and they happen by word-of-mouth, and we crime fiction writers are really all part of a tremendously secret plan to achieve world domination through clever denouements! I think time will tell, and what it will tell us is that crime fiction will go from strength to strength, and I couldn’t be happier about that.
3) In ‘The Anniversary Man’ you are writing about the ultimate copycat killer. Where do you stand on the debate about crime novels influencing morally-suspect individuals?
I don’t think they do. Honestly, in my very, very extensive research into this subject, I have found – almost conclusively – that a great deal of sex criminals and serial killers are really not that well-read, not that smart, not that cultured. The myth that all serial killers are like Hannibal Lecter is indeed a myth. Intelligent people tend not to be criminals. Intelligence and success in life are inextricably linked, and criminals are generally social failures, not just in one area but in many. My experience is that readers, and I mean people who read a great deal – always having a book on the go somewhere – are really some of the very best, the very smartest, the most contributive and successful people in society, regardless of their walk of life. There is a direct and incontrovertible link between literacy and honesty, between literacy and accomplishment, between literacy and success. Why do we have so much difficulty with the current generation of teenagers? Why is there so much juvenile delinquency? Why is there so much violence and such lack of production? Simple. Because back in the 70s and 80s we let the educational standards slide. Now examination standards have been lowered dramatically to give the impression that we are still maintaining education levels, but the society sees through this. It’s a sham and a pretense. Handle education standards, let teachers teach, let them do what they know how to do – get people reading and writing, first and foremost – and you will find, very quickly, that delinquency, crime, bad manners, the lethargy and sloth that seems to have pervaded our culture, will dissipate and vanish remarkably quickly.
4) Most books of this kind spend most of their time examining the "how" of the crime and the investigation. You give a considerable amount of attention to the survivors of such crimes - why was this important to you?
Very simply because of the sheer number of books that are out there that focus and concentrate on the killers themselves. As I have always said, the thing that makes a book real is the characters that populate it. We can relate to people who have suffered trauma and loss. We can relate to people who have undergone experiences such as the ones I have detailed in the book. We can less easily relate to sex killers and serial murderers. The thing that fascinates me is people. Doesn’t matter who they are or what they do, the important thing is people. The thing that never ceases to amaze me is the indomitability of the human spirit, the things that people are capable of overcoming, and the fact that they can then survive beyond that. For me, writing ‘crime thrillers’ or ‘mysteries’ is not so much about the crime itself, even the investigation, but the way in which such events can be used to highlight and illuminate the way that people deal with things that are not usual. If there is one common thread throughout my books - though they are all very different stories - it is that we are always dealing with an ordinary person thrown into an extraordinary situation. That’s the common theme. That’s the thing that fascinates me. I suppose I am a romantic at heart, and I try very hard to be in touch with the emotional nature of people and things, and what I am always striving to do is have a reader feel what the characters are feeling, to get an idea that they have spent some time with real people, and to bring about the sense that they were aware of what was going on with that character on many levels. That, for me, seems key to making a book memorable.
5) Your novels are all set in North America, as a Brit what is it about that particular continent that draws you?
Being English I have often been asked 'Why America?' 'Why do all your books take place in the United States?' I think this has something to do with the vast 'inflow' of American-orientated film and TV that assaulted my generation as children. Everything was Kojak, Hawaii Five-O, Starsky & Hutch, and though I was exposed to these things in my formative years I also feel a degree of necessity to place my work in the U.S. The subject matter (the death penalty, the Mafia, serial killings etc) are - on the whole - subjects which pertain only to this country, and therefore - simply because of my own fascination with these areas - I have 'painted myself into a corner' as far as setting is concerned! Someone once said to me that there were two types of novels. There were those that you read simply because some mystery was created and you had to find out what happened. The second kind of novel was one where you read the book simply for the language itself, the way the author used words, the atmosphere and description. The truly great books are the ones that accomplish both. I think any author wants to write great novels. I don't think anyone - in their heart of hearts - writes because it's a sensible choice of profession, or for financial gain. I certainly don't! I just love to write, and whereas the subject matter that I want to write about takes me to the States, it is nevertheless more important to me to write something that can move someone emotionally, perhaps change a view about life, and at the same time to try and write it as well as I can.
6) When launching into a new book what comes first for you, the character or the situation?
Actually it’s the emotion. What emotion do I want to create with this book? And when I have decided that, the next thing is location. When you’re dealing with the States it matters a great deal where the book is set. One particular city or one particular state can dramatically alter dialect, ethnic, language, so many things. It changes the way the entire story can feel, and that is tremendously important for me. I don’t plot books before I start writing. I have a vaue idea of the kind of thing I want it to be about, and then I just get to work. I figure it out as I go along. I do it spontaneously. I don’t think there’s a right or wrong way to write a book. I know a good few writers who will spend weeks working it all out to the last detail. With me, if I did that, by the time I got to the end of figuring it out I wouldn’t want to write the book any more!
7) You famously said that before you were published you amassed around 600 rejection letters. This must make you the Poster Boy for Persistence...what on earth kept you going?
Sheer bloody-mindedness and a few bottles of Bushmills! No, seriously, I am reminded of something that Paul Auster said. He said that becoming a writer was not a ‘career decision’ like becoming a doctor or a policeman. You don’t choose it so much as get chosen, and once you accepted the fact that you were not fit for anything else, you had to be prepared to walk a long, hard road for the rest of your days. I concur with his attitude. From an early age I knew that this was what I wanted to do, and I applied the old adage from Disraeli: ‘Success is entirely dependent upon constancy of purpose’. The twenty-third book I wriote was the first one I had published. I did amass all those rejection letters, and have kept a couple of hundred of my favourite ones. Now it doesn’t matter. Now it feels like that was my learning curve. And I wrote those first twenty-two novels in six years, the majority of them in longhand, so one thing it did teach me was to work and work and work, even when I didn’t feel like it. It gave me a strong work ethic, and made me feel like Picasso. When asked why he was always working and never rested, he said ‘When inspiration finds me, I want it to find me hard at work!’ That’s a good philosophy and one I still apply every day.
8) If R J Ellory, the writer had a mission statement, what would it be?
That books are important. That telling stories is as old as speech, and no less important. That telling stories is a tradition, a heritage, a legacy…it is the past making its way toward the future in an effort to show us those things we have failed to learn by our own experience. Telling stories is a hope that magic can be restored to an age that has almost forgotten. That you may live one life only, but if you read you can live a thousand. How bloody profound is that? And now who’s taking himself too seriously?
9) When you look back at your work so far which book are you most proud of?
Impossible to answer! That’s like asking a father with a whole host of children which child he loves the most. My ‘children’ are all utterly mad, but I love them all equally and for very different reasons.
10) In a dream scenario who would you like to direct and star in a film/TV adaptation of your book?
Lord almighty, what a question! I can only tell you a few actors who I respect and admire. Philip Seymour Hoffman, Chris Carter, Robert De Niro, Nick Nolte, Forest Whittaker, Martin Sheen, Christopher Walken…oh hell, the list could go on forever. You know what they say in Hollywood? ‘When it comes to film sets, the caterer is more important than the writer.’ I’m just low on the food chain. I’m going to leave this problem for the casting director.
11) What is your favourite movie adaptation of all time of a crime/thriller novel?
I have to mention two. ‘Strangers On A Train’ (Hitchcock as director, Raymond Chandler on screenplay, based on a book by Patricia Highsmith – what more could you ask for?), and then a contemporary one is ‘No Country For Old Men’ – the Coen Brothers write and direct a book by Cormac McCarthy.
12) What is your favourite crime/thriller novel of all time?
Strictly speaking not a crime fiction novel, but certainly a non-fiction crime novel, and that is ‘In Cold Blood’ by Truman Capote. A winner, hands down.