Andrew Diamond - A Fast-Paced Page-Turner Full of Suspense
Andrew Diamond writes mystery, crime, noir, and an occasional comedy. His books feature cinematic prose, strong characterization, twisting plots, and dark humor. Amazon editors named Impala a best-of-the-month mystery, and IndieReader named it to their best of 2016 list. Impala also won the Readers' Favorite Gold Medal for mystery and the 24th Annual Writer’s Digest award for genre fiction. As our Author of the Day, he tells us all about Impala.
Please give us a short introduction to what Impala is about.
Russell Fitzpatrick, a sharp computer programmer and former hacker, receives a message indicating his friend Charlie is dead. The message was triggered automatically by a “dead man’s switch” after Charlie failed to log into his computer for several days. It contains a photo and a number of clues, but Russ doesn’t know what the clues mean or where they point.
He has to figure it out, whether he wants to or not. Turns out, Charlie was running a market on the dark web, selling drugs, weapons and other illegal contraband. Before his death, he stole all the Bitcoin from all the criminals who had pending transactions on the site—millions of dollars.
The criminals and the FBI traced Charlie’s final communication to Russ, and they’re both after him to hand over the money. If he doesn’t find it fast, he’ll be locked up or killed.
There’s a lot of action in the book. Every time Russ gets away from one pursuer, he finds himself in the clutches of another. He doesn’t have action hero strength or fighting skills, but he’s extremely clever, which is why Charlie chose him of all people to receive his final message. Russ is like a chess player who thinks twenty moves past his opponent.
What inspired you to write this story? Was there anything in particular that made you want to tackle this?
Two things. The first was the story of The Silk Road, which was the eBay of the dark web. A guy from Texas named Ross Ulbricht with anarchist leanings built the site because he believed anyone should be able to buy and sell anything, without government control. Initially, he just wanted to sell psychedelic mushrooms, but he set up the site so that anyone could sell anything.
It spiraled out of control. Not only were people selling heroine and assault rifles, they were selling murder. You could literally go on there and hire a hit man, arrange a murder, and pay anonymously with Bitcoin. Ulbricht really got in over his head. The DEA, FBI, IRS, and Homeland Security were all pursuing him in a massive joint operation, and he kept eluding them. This one postal inspector on the case finally managed to identify him through the most obscure clue, found in a year-old Yahoo chat room.
There’s a book about the case called American Kingpin, by Nick Bilton. If you want to read a fascinating true crime book, check it out. I didn’t read it until after I wrote Impala, but I was already familiar with the story.
The second inspiration came from a similar true story. Another guy set up a dark web site like Silk Road. People were buying and selling drugs, weapons, etc. Because the users of those sites are all criminals, buying and selling goes through an escrow system. When a buyer pays a thousand dollars for a load of heroin, the site holds onto the money until the buyer confirms the drugs were received and are legit. Then the site turns the money over to the seller.
Buyers and sellers have reputations and star ratings on dark market sites, just like they do on eBay. A seller who ships fake goods will get a bad reputation, and buyers won’t buy from him anymore. A buyer who claims legitimate goods were fake or never arrived will also get a bad reputation, and no one will want to sell to him.
The linchpin that holds it all together is the market’s administrator who holds the money in escrow until both buyer and seller agree the transaction is complete and valid. Typically, money sits in that escrow account for a week or more.
This guy who copy-catted The Silk Road built up a lot of trust. Buyers and sellers were flocking to his market because it ran so smoothly. It got to the point where, on any given day, there would be tens of millions of dollars in the escrow account.
And then one day, the site administrator shut it all down and disappeared with the escrow money. That had been his plan all along. Build trust among the criminals, and then rip them all off.
That’s what Charlie did in Impala, and it’s a very dangerous game, as Russ finds out. If you’re going to rip people off, it’s good idea not to choose victims who are violent and ruthless. Unfortunately, Russ didn’t have a say in the matter. Charlie, who was always kind of reckless, did what he did, and now Russ is stuck with the mess.
Tell us more about Russell Fitzpatrick. What makes him tick?
Russ is in his late twenties, trying to build a decent life on the straight and narrow. Years earlier, he enjoyed the challenge of hacking into corporate servers with his friends Charlie and Cred. They were never out to steal anything. They just wanted to see if they could get into to these supposedly secure systems.
Then they went a little too far and got in trouble. Since then, Russ has kept his head down and stuck to an honest job. He’s bored as hell, and his girlfriend seems to be drifting away from him, so he’s kind of ripe for change when Charlie’s message arrives.
He doesn’t want to go back to hacking, or any sort of life that’s unethical, but Charlie’s little stunt has put him in a lot of danger. His choice essentially boils down to “use that devious mind of yours or die.”
Impala received several awards. What has the experience been like?
Impala was my second book. It was a lot of fun to write. I worked with a professional editor who did a lot of editing for Amazon’s imprints, and when she got through with it, she was really impressed. I remember her exact words. “This one is a cut above.”
My brother walked into Amazon’s offices in Seattle and left a dozen advance copies of the book an editor’s desk. Someone in there picked it up and then passed it around. The editors named it one of the best new releases of the month. I don’t know of any other case where they’ve given that honor to some random, unheard-of indie author.
Then IndieReader named it to their best of the year list, and Writer's Digest gave it their top award for genre fiction.
I knew that book was good, and it was nice to get validation from so many different sources.
Readers say this is a real page-turner. How did you pull it off to keep the suspense high throughout?
It really never flags because Russ is in so much trouble from so many different directions. And because he’s not a tough-guy action hero, the way out for him is never obvious. At first, his actions surprise you. Then, as the story progresses, you see him getting into these situations where he’s not quite as terrified as he should be. You can see he’s thinking, he’s set some things up so that his pursuers are actually walking into a trap. But you can’t guess the trap until he springs it. There’s something satisfying in that.
What did you have the most fun with when you wrote this story?
Hiding the information that Russ needed to find to get himself out of danger. I’ve read a number of books on cryptography and secure communications, and some of the tricks people have used to communicate have been extremely clever. Among the most clever of those tricks is steganography, which is hiding information in plain sight. It’s used often in espionage and in wartime.
For example, during the second World War, a woman in Holland who was well known for her maritime paintings continued to churn out pictures of ancient vessels plying the waters. To the Germans, they looked like old-time museum pieces, but the Brits understood she was reporting the positions and movements of German naval vessels.
In Impala, Charlie was smart enough to understand that if he left his important clues on a computer, any hacker or any smart federal agent could find them. So he leaves his clues in strange places, among odd items that no one would think to look at. No one except Russ, who was pretty familiar with Charlie’s paranoid thinking and sneaky ways.
What was your greatest challenge?
My greatest challenge in writing is finding time. I work full time and have a family. Writing Impala meant getting up at four or five in the morning and finishing as much as I could before going into the office.
Part of the reason Impala and my other books move so quickly is because I don’t have the time to throw in a lot of fluff. Just get to the point and keep going.
By the way, the name of my press, Stolen Time Press, comes from that chronic time constraint. You take any opportunity you can to get a few words down. I remember hearing my daughter, aged eleven, call out, “Mom! Dad’s writing in the bathroom again!”
The book also has some deeper themes - what do you hope readers will take away from this?
Hmm… I don’t really have an agenda when I write. Take from the book what you will.
Interesting cover. Tell us more about it.
My wife is a painter and a book cover designer. She likes to get symbols onto the cover that will give the reader a sense of what’s in the book while also piquing their interest.
The cover of Impala includes the Bay Bridge, so you know part of it takes place in San Francisco. There are palm trees too. The story doesn’t get there till the end.
There’s a young woman walking. She begins as a clue and turns into an important character.
And then there’s a guy in the sites of a gun, running for his life. That’s Russ.
The cover tells you quite a bit, and it’s done in the style of an old movie poster from the nineteen forties or fifties. It has that somewhat mysterious sensibility, mixed with a hint of danger.
Besides writing, what other secret skills do you have?
I write software for a living. Big, distributed systems running in the cloud. Many developers and system administrators who have read the book have commented on how accurate the technical aspects are. They won’t get in the way for non-technical readers, but they won’t stand out as glaring, ignorant errors for the techies.
When starting on a new book, what is the first thing you do?
I usually have all of the plot points and the primary characters in my mind. I’ll write up a set of notes, usually just a page or two, laying those out. The notes aren’t detailed. They’re just there so I don’t forget key elements.
Then I’ll clear out blocks of time, usually in the early mornings, to write.
Do you have any interesting writing habits? What is an average writing day like for you?
I am intensely focused when I write. I try to produce a first draft as quickly as possible for two reasons. First, with a job and family, I don’t have much time. Second, it’s very difficult to hold an entire story in my mind while I’m also holding the details of the massive, distributed software system I’m working on.
That’s just too much. I have to get one of them out of my head and onto the page. So the first draft comes out very quickly, especially for my last few books. A nice side-effect of writing quickly is that you don’t have time to second-guess yourself, to edit or stifle your thoughts. The story comes out more inventive than I had imagined.
It also needs a lot of cleanup. Revisions take much longer than the initial writing, which is fine. I have high standards, and I want to live up to them.
What are you working on right now?
I just finished a draft of the third book in the Freddy Ferguson serious. Freddy is a private investigator with a sharp mind and violent past. His first book, Gate 76, was named to Kirkus Reviews’ best books of 2018. BestThrillers.com also picked it as a best of the year.
Book three is quite a devious little mystery, with a rich cast of characters and plenty of danger.
Where can our readers discover more of your work or interact with you?
I have an active blog at https://adiamond.me. There’s a contact form there. I’m also on Goodreads at https://www.goodreads.com/author/show/1559556.Andrew_Diamond.