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Festival of Books: The death stats behind those crime thrillers

April 30, 2011 |  2:29 pm


What does it mean when we talk about crime syndicates today? The panel "Mystery: Organized Crime" on Saturday morning explored the topic and the changing nature of criminal groups lurking in the shadows and, often, right out there under our noses. Criminal organizations are extremely structured, explained moderator April Smith, whose Ana Grey series of thrillers continues in June with "White Shotgun."

How structured?

"It's a shadow market that cycles drugs, people, merchandise," said Smith, whose new book pits Grey against Mafia forces in Siena, Italy. "It's a $2-trillion industry that's transnational. Organizations that you all have probably heard of -- the Yakuza, the Mafia, Mexican cartels, Eastern European groups -- are in bed together."

T. Jefferson Parker laid out other statistics -- the death count in Mexico over the last five years, he said, is about 40,000 people -- and also the problem with these stats. The problem?

"Numbers go in one ear and out the other," explained Parker, whose most recent novels, including "The Border Lords," portray the struggle between Mexican cartels and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives along the U.S-Mexico border.

This point brought the panel to the first of several interesting discussions: the role of the thriller novelist to bring these stats to life.

"My job, as I see it," Parker went on, "it to take one of those 40,000 deaths and try to make it real. I try to put a face on it."

Stuart Neville, whose books "Collusion" and "Ghosts of Belfast," explore violence in Northern Ireland, agreed.

"If you were to ask me the names of those killed there, I'd tell you their name is 3,000. That's the challenge for all of us," he said.

Smith acted as a deft moderator, smoothly moving the panelists between questions and issues:  how much, for instance, should a story be tied to research? Only, they all said, in service to the story. When research starts to ruin the flow, then imagination must take over. "It is fiction, after all," said Attica Locke, author of "Black Water Rising."

While Smith described the patriarchal, paranoid structures of the Mafia in Southern Italy, Parker said he relished plunging into the layers of the ATF. In Locke's case, she stumbled on her shadow organization -- a group conspiring to hide oil and rig gas prices -- when she was well into the writing of her story about an average guy who finds himself suddenly in over his head.

Neville didn't stumble upon the various paramilitary and shadow groups in the course of his own research -- they're all unavoidable in his part of the world, he said. The recent deaths of Irish police from hidden bombs, he said, makes it impossible to forget this reality.

"The stuff is all still going on despite the peace, it's all a relative peace," he said. "The talk is about diplomacy, politics, but there are still those clinging to the belief that they need to be fighting something. It's right there in front of us."

In giving a face to these various groups, the writers all pointed out an important value, aside from entertainment, in creating the worlds of their thrillers. Namely, there's an opportunity to unexpectedly hold up a mirror on ourselves.

"The crime syndicates are their own bureaucracies," Locke mused. "They're as caught up in petty problems and infighting as the good guys are. It just shows the sheer humanity of it all. In the end, these stories can show readers that what the good guys are fighting is just a reflection of themselves."

-- Nick Owchar

Illustration: Valeria Petrone / For The Times