I am always happy encountering a new author whose writing style is so fun and engaging that I know I want to read his future books too. Such is the case with Kieran Crowley, whose work reminds me of the fun humor of Lisa Lutz’s Spellman Files and the late great Donald Westlake’s Dortmunder series as well as the books of Carl Hiaasen (I am reading his new one, Bad Monkey, and it’s great too.)
Crowley has an amazing journalism history and background which we talk about in this email interview. His new book, Hack, is the start of a series about F.X. Shepherd. Shepherd works for a New York City tabloid, which Crowley did for many years. This book has been out on Kindle for a few weeks but just went on sale this week as a paperback.
How wacky and fun is Crowley? Instead of fighting with a knife or gun he uses a fax machine. Instead of having a high speed chase through New York City he has a low-speed chase involving those blue rental bikes now available in Manhattan.
With those examples of his silliness let’s get to the interview.
How has your background as a newspaper reporter been helpful when writing this book? I guess it might cut down on the research.
Absolutely, Scott. I’ve spent many years dealing with cops and crooks and serial killers and every type of crime there is, as well as working for a newspaper in New York and competing with other reporters – so my research was already done.
How would you summarize this story?
Due to a mixup, F.X. Shepherd, the brand-new pet columnist at the infamous New York Mail, is assigned to cover a sensational murder where the only witness is a dog – a Husky named Skippy. The hacking murder of the husband of a hit reality TV show food critic and chef, is horrific and just the beginning. Shepherd adopts Skippy, who is very bright, and runs up against a ruthless sexy reporter for a competing newspaper. Shepherd soon learns she will do anything for a story. Shepherd, new to the tabloid hack game, has a secret agenda, and runs across computer hacking as he tries to try solve the crimes – and stay alive.
How did the story develop? I’m assuming you were not really a pet columnist? Speaking of which how similar is Shepherd to you?
The story is based on aspects of many different stories and is also a projection of how bad things may get in the future, considering that the technology the National Security Agency uses to spy on people today will be available to others tomorrow.
No, I’m not really a pet columnist but I have covered many pet stories as a reporter over the years.
Shepherd is somewhat like me, in terms of his wise-cracking attitude. But he is much cooler than me. He is a combat vet and is used to walking into dangerous situations where he knows he will draw fire. I have been in many dangerous situations but I usually do not go in harms way intentionally. Well, okay, quite a few times I did. Twice, I had to leave letters to the Homicide Squad and the District Attorney – in case I did not return from a secret interview with a suspected killer. Shepherd is a bit more interested in getting the bad guy than in doing his job. He is also different because he is single and new to New York.
So this is your first book under your real name? Why were you writing under a pseudonym, Sean Michael Bailey, before?
My first four books were in my real name. They were true crime books and two of them hit the New York Times bestseller list. I then wrote a thriller novel, 1787, and a short story, Invisible, under the pen name Sean Michael Bailey. I used the pseudonym to keep fiction and non-fiction separate and so I could use off-the-record stuff told to me by cops, anti-terror and intelligence sources that I could not reveal in non-fiction. For example, 1787 had the first mention of liquid, binary explosives and “pregnant” women human bombs, among other items I could not put in the newspaper.
Is life at a tabloid as crazy as it sounds in, well, books like yours? Here’s a piece I did on stereotypes of newspapers.
Yes, life at a tabloid newspaper can be crazy but not as nutty as in my book, fortunately. Hack is a work of fiction. I enjoyed your piece on newspaper reporter stereotypes and got a chuckle out of it, Scott. I actually started at my newspaper in 1978, when “hot type” still ruled, just before the computerized “cold type” era arrived and my experience was a bit more like your list of clichés. Louie Liotta, a great photographer, actually wore a fedora with his press card tucked into the silk headband. A lot of my colleagues in the business were drinking liquids that were not Perrier and editors did, back in those days, bellow “Copy!” etc. Of course things are different now.
You have a very impressive resume having – according to your publicity material – “covered hundreds of trials and thousands of murders, including the assassination of John Lennon, as well as the cases of Amy Fisher, Katie Beers, the Long Island Rail Road Massacre, the Ted Ammon murder case and serial killers David “Son of Sam” Berkowitz, Joel Rifkin, Richard Caputo, Richard Biegenwald and Unabomber Ted Kaczynski. During his work on the Zodiac Killer case, Crowley deciphered a secret code sent by the serial slayer to the Post. In 1995, evidence uncovered by Crowley helped lead police to serial Killer Robert Shulman, who chopped up his victims inside his suburban Long Island home. After his arrest, Shulman told police that he halted his killing spree after reading a description of himself and his car in one of Crowley’s stories. Crowley’s one-time “hobby” was finding evidence missed by NYPD Crime Scene detectives – including bullets, shell casings, the blood-soaked clothing of two different killers, and a murder weapon. Crowley has uncovered exclusives on scores of major cases, including the Gilgo Beach serial killer. In 2010, Crowley uncovered evidence missed by cops at a Long Island crime scene where an elderly woman was killed. His discovery led to the arrest of the suspect and a change in Suffolk County Police CSI procedures.”
What have been the high points and low points in such a wild career?
I think you just listed the high points, Scott, but I have to quote a reporter colleague who said to a group of reporters and photographers, in front of me, that “Kieran likes con men but he loves serial killers – they make him purr.” It got a big laugh and there’s a bit of truth to it. Like everyone else, I am fascinated by people who kill for no reason or gain. But, of course, they do kill for a reason – compulsion. Eddie Seda, of Brooklyn, decided to become the Zodiac Killer by career choice. I still believe that he is a split or multiple personality. He sent us letters and he got mad at me because I exposed the fact that he was not the original California Zodiac. Serial killers can be interactive and that is a once-in-a-career event.
Why did you leave the tabloid profession?
Actually, it left me. As a former newspaperman, you know that our business is on the skids. My paper was reorganizing and eliminated positions, including mine, in order to trim down. They made me a buyout offer I couldn’t refuse and now I’m writing books full time.
Is Shepherd the start of a series?
Yes. I have started on a sequel. Shepherd investigates the murder of a friend and has to decide whether he remains a reporter or becomes a private eye. But before the sequel, I will publish a different thriller, a stand-alone, called Smash, early next year. It takes place in Kansas. Don’t ask me why.
Did you laugh as you wrote certain scenes like a chase scene involving those blue rental bicycles in Manhattan?
You got me. I LMAO’ed when I wrote the slow-speed chase. I know you’re not supposed to laugh at your own jokes but I admit it. The front page headline that played on the victim’s name had me hysterical for days. That’s what happens when you get in the zone – stuff pops up that surprises even you. Characters take you places you did not plan. I love that. It’s fun.
What would you like to be asked that you haven’t been asked yet. Here’s your chance to ask and answer it.
Good question. I would like to be asked more about what’s next: How Smash starts out as a mystery, becomes and espionage novel and then becomes science fiction. Also in the future, an espionage series.
Thanks for the fun book.
Thanks for the fun interview. Glad you enjoyed it.