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Fresh Blood

Name: Matthew Klein

Title of Book: Switchback

'Desperate men will do anything to save their own skin.'

Timothy Van Bender has it all. A big house, loads of money, a wife of twenty years and a very good business as a hedge fund manager. However, it is amazing how a man can lose everything in so short a time. With the Yen rising to unforeseen heights, Timothy loses $24 million. Then, soon after, his wife goes missing, apparently having jumped off a cliff they visited during their anniversary weekend a few days before. It isnít going very well for Timothy Van Bender - and things are about to get worseÖ

Soon Timothyís head is on the block and people are baying for his blood. Who will get to him first Ė the clients whose money he has lost or the police who believe he has done away with his wife? Then there is another revelation. Timothy has a chance of getting his wife back. The circumstances are bizarre - to say the least - but Timothy is a desperate man as he tries to hold on to his crumbling empire. Desperate men will do anything to save their own skin.

Switchback is a very strange and, yet, beguiling first novel. The premise sounds quite reasonable until you get to the part where Timothy is able to regain the wife he thought he had lost. Some serious suspension of belief is needed for this part of the book. However, by the end of the novel, the reader can certainly see how such a desperate man could believe the professional who holds the possibility of regaining some of his past glory which has slipped away from him.

Timothy is not a particularly attractive protagonist Ė in fact he is quite detestable at the beginning of the book - and it isnít until the end of the novel that the reader wonders if he has learnt any humility during the course of his trials. Switchback is an excellent launch pad for this author. The brilliant writing carries you along with gusto and the plot is a very pretty little gem in itself. So, I invite you to open your imagination, accept the unimaginable and enjoy the inevitable downfall of Timothy Van Bender.

Reviewed by: C.S.

CrimeSquad Rating

Fresh Blood Questionnaire

1) What type of crime novel would you say you have written?
Switchback is a novel of psychological suspense. It is indeed a crime novel, but it defies at least some crime-novel conventions. Specifically, until the end of the book, weíre not even sure that there has been a crime! From our heroís point of view, something very strange occurs in his life, but heís not sure what. Indeed, heís unsure if the events that occur are set in motion by himself; or are being manipulated by someone else, as part of an elaborate con designed to fool him.
2) What type of crime novel do you prefer? Series or standalone?
Iím not sure I do have a preference. I think they are very different forms. In some ways, the series novel is analogous to an old epic poem. That sounds pretentious, I suppose, but think about it: in a series we see recurring characters, recurring themes, even recurring plots. A good series is like a fugue, full of interesting variations on similar elements.

The reader has different expectations when he starts a series book rather than a standalone book. The writer is more constrained in a series book, because he needs to meet the expectations of both the genre and then, also, the series itself. To take an example, in Michael Connellyís Harry Bosch novels, Bosch is pensive and melancholy. The crimes he investigates affect him and make him brood. Connelly could not write a book where Bosch wakes up one morning with a sunny disposition and laughs and frolics with the coroner over a corpse, as perhaps a John Sandford character would.

I think some people look down on series books because of the repetitive elements contained within them. (And also, probably, because they think a series is less serious and more ďcommercial.Ē) But I would suggest that writing a series is in some ways more challenging than writing a standalone book, in the same way that writing a sonnet Ė with its very particular rhyme scheme Ė can be more challenging than writing free-form verse. That said, I havenít tried writing a series yet. Nor a sonnet, come to think of it.
3) Have you always had ideas to write a crime novel? What influenced you to start writing in the first place?
Yes, Iíve always wanted to be a writer. But Iím a philistine. I prefer genre novels to ďliterary fictionĒ (whatever that means). I love really well crafted books. So when I set out to write my first book, I didnít consciously make a decision to write a crime novel. I merely wanted to write a book that I myself would want to read. And that meant a book full of psychological suspense. To me, suspense isnít about whether the bad guy will kill the male hero and his lover. To me, suspense is whether the woman that he is making love to is the bad guy. I love those kinds of stories!

As to what prompted me to write Switchback, I will tell you, but itís not a pretty story. Before I started writing, I worked in Silicon Valley. I was one of those young kids that you tended to read about a few years ago Ė the ones who started technology companies. I went to Stanford Business School, started a few high-tech companies, raised a lot of venture capital. At one point, the company I ran had about 400 employees. But unlike most of those glamour kids you read about, I was not successful. Indeed, I was a spectacular failure. When the dot-com bubble burst, my company went down the tubes. I blame only myself. In hindsight, I was a terrible manager. I much prefer sitting in a room, alone, to the give-and-take of business. (I suppose thatís why I like writing.)

Well, anyway, my company went bankrupt. In a single afternoon, we laid off almost all the employees. Something like 400 people, in a couple hours. It was brutal. And then lawyers and creditors came after me personally, since I had Ė in a fit of insanity, I now realize Ė guaranteed much of my companyís debt personally.

So it was a really dreadful couple of years. It took me a while to work my way through it. I know Iím supposed to say I learned very valuable lessons. I suppose I did. The main one is: Donít personally guarantee any debt!

Seriously, after that spectacular flame-out, I spent some time reflecting on what Iím good at, and what Iím bad at. As I said, I realized I was good a quiet, loner type of things. Writing is a very solitary activity. So I gave it a try. Switchback was the result.
4) What is your favourite crime read of all time?
Do I have to pick only one? Okay, then. The Postman Always Rings Twice by James M. Cain. If I can name one more, then let me say also: The Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco. Not a traditional crime story, but an excellent read.
5) Would you describe yourself as a Crime fan and if so, which authors do you most admire?
I do consider myself a Crime fan. When I was younger, I fell in love with some of the early hard-boiled pulpy stuff: James M. Cain, Raymond Chandler, Jim Thompson. I suppose that mantle has been taken up by modern writers like John Sandford and Lee Child Ė both of whom I enjoy very much. I am also a huge fan of Nelson DeMille. If I could wave a magic wand and move to a parallel universe where I could possess the talents of one living writer, I suppose it would be DeMille.
6) Switchback is very much a cautionary tale about regaining something you have lost that you didnít take great care of in the first place. Was this a deliberate attempt to give the story a kind of moral flavour?
In hindsight, I think youíre right, that this is one theme of the story. But I didnít write Switchback with the goal of imparting that particular message.

In fact the way I came up with Switchback was as follows. I wanted to write a story in which a man has a relationship with a woman, but he isnít sure who she is. That happens to all of us, of course, in a metaphorical sense. But in Switchback, itís very literal. The protagonist, Timothy Van Bender, has a relationship with a woman, and he does not know if the woman is his wife, or someone else.

From that nub of an idea, the rest of Switchback developed. The man is a bit of a pompous ass, and he is similar to most older men who are married for many years: he has a wandering eye. He loves his wife, Katherine, who is very bright but physically decaying; and he is also attracted to a much-younger woman, Tricia, his sexy secretary, who is Ė as one of the characters explains Ė ďdumb as a wall.Ē The plot develops so that Timothy is able to make Katherineís mind inhabit Triciaís body. Itís a misogynistic male fantasy, isnít it? Of course, stated this way, the story sounds quite ridiculous. I hope that your readers will not rely on this summary when deciding whether to read the book. Suffice it to say that itís not really clear if any of this really happens, or if this is all a game in which Timothy (and, I suppose, all men, by extension) get their comeuppance.
7) Part of the novel is about the transferring of peopleís minds into other peopleís bodies. Is this a subject you feel strongly about in the climate we live in, when great medical leaps are an everyday occurrence?
Iím afraid that once again, weíve just lost potential readers! ďWhatís this about mind-transfer?Ē they ask, aghast. In fact, this was a big problem when selling the book. Some people began reading it, and then they put it down half-way through, with a disgusted harrumph, saying, ďThis is science fiction!Ē Now, let me take a moment to say that Switchback is not really a science fiction story, as ultimately becomes clear. But when you are a first-time novelist, trying to sell a book, first to a publisher, and then Ė later Ė to a reader, this kind of book is a challenge. Iím very fortunate that the book found itself in the hands of Jane Wood at Orion Books, who was very supportive, and saw it as I envisioned it Ė as a crime novel.

As to the supposed ďtechnologyĒ at the center of the book (and, again, it is not clear if the technology is real or is part of some kind of con) I am a big believer that something like what is described in the book will someday come to pass. I think itís a fascinating question: What is consciousness? If we are (as I suspect) just glorified computer programs, then surely the day will come when computer programs become conscious. And what then? Iím less interested in what that means for computers, and more interested in what it means for human beings. You know, weíve built our civilization, our culture, our beliefs on the idea that you inhabit this very frail thing called a body, and you only have a very brief moment on earth, and then you die. What happens when that no longer is true? This isnít really the place for such speculation, but allow me to posit one more far-fetched idea: I think that the next step in human evolution is to dispense with these frail bodies altogether. I think someday, probably not too long from now, our descendents will have a conversation in which they will wonder how strange (and sad) it must have been for us, to reside temporarily within organic flesh. Fortunately (or unfortunately) that is not something I need to worry about.
8) You appear to have a lot of knowledge about the stock exchange and currency. Is this an area you have had past experience in?
Yes, I have spent a lot of time writing computer software designed to predict the movements of financial markets. I think this is the modern version of those medieval alchemists who tried to convert lead to gold. Itís equally sad, in any case. In addition, I run a software company today called, which analyzes automated trading strategies and sells services to brokers and traders.
9) What is your favourite movie adaptation of a crime novel?
Thatís a tough question, because of course some excellent crime books donít translate well to film, and some excellent crime movies donít start as books. But, okay, let me take a crack at it. Iíll say The Talented Mr. Ripley, which is equally excellent as a novel and as a film.
10) Without giving away the ending, which book included your favourite plot twist of all time?
By plot twist, I assume you specifically mean the plot twist that happens at the very end of the story Ė what is traditionally called the ďtwist ending.Ē

Iíll tell you something funny. Obviously we are conducting this interview via email, and so I have an opportunity to think about each answer for some time before typing it.

So Iíve thought very hard about how to answer this question. And hereís the odd thing. I am a writer who claims to love twist endings. I mean, I really, really love them! I hope that many of my own novels will contain good twist endings. And I relish a twist ending when I read one.

But now that you ask the question, Iím hard pressed to answer with a specific example of a twist ending that I really loved. And I think this may be really telling in some way.

Perhaps the twist ending is like sex. You think itís really thrilling and really great, and you spend a lot of time seeking it out, but it inevitably disappoints. Maybe itís never as good as you think it will be.

Maybe thereís a cautionary lesson here, for both readers and writers. Why canít I name a really great and successful example of the twist ending Ė one that worked perfectly, and was believable, and was organic to the story that preceded it? Perhaps because these are hard to find (and to write).

That said, Iím still searching for a good one. Iíll keep searching probably until the day I die Ė even though the twist ending may ultimately be destructive to the story that it ends. Yes, Iím afraid the twist ending is very much like sex, indeed.