Steve Berry is the best-selling author of the Cotton Malone series, a blend of history and suspense that have catapulted Berry to the top of the thriller game. With over 11 million books in print translated into 37 languages and sold in 50 countries, Berry has come a long way from the 85 rejections he garnered trying to break into writing. With Malone, a former U.S. Justice Department agent turned rare-book dealer, Berry has found the winning combination, and his protagonist has made six appearances thus far, starting with The Templar Legacy in 2006, and continuing with The Alexandria Link, The Venetian Betrayal, The Charlemagne Pursuit, The Paris Vendetta, and The Emperor’s Tomb, just out.
Previous to the Malone books, Berry penned three other thrillers mixing history and contemporary suspense: The Amber Room, The Romanov Prophecy, and The Third Secret. It’s not just the fans who like his work. Plenty of his fellow thriller writers tout Berry’s novels, as well. David Morrell called Berry’s The Romanov Prophesy “perfect for thriller fans and history buffs alike.” Clive Cussler dubbed The Amber Room “pure intrigue, pure fun,” while Dan Brown found the same novel “sexy, illuminating… my kind of thriller.” Critics also find lots to like with Berry. Reviewing his last Malone novel, The Paris Vendetta, The Huffington Post declared, “Steve Berry gets better and better with each book.” Publishers Weekly termed the same novel a “well-crafted thriller … [that] offers plenty of surprises.”
I look for interesting places around the world that may not have appeared in other thrillers. If it is a locale familiar to readers, I try to zero in on particular spots that are themselves unique. Unfortunately, I’m not able to actually live there (which would be great), but I do usually visit the spot at least once. After that, it’s books and photographs that help bring it alive. I’ve found some unique places over the years. Locales within Copenhagen, Aachen, Antwerp, Paris, London, Rennes la Chateau, Romania, Bulgaria, Moscow, St. Petersburg, Bavaria, France, Austria, Vietnam, and China.
How do you balance history and setting in your books?
History is vital. Always I look for a connection to the past that still has relevance today. I research locales carefully, searching for that connection. Most times, that objective is accomplished by simply being there. You learn so much more on site than from books or the Internet. Most of the really cool revelations that have appeared in my stories came from being there.
It was deliberate. I wanted that sense of place to come through and, you’re right, the locale becomes, in essence, one of the characters. This began right off in The Amber Room, where I used the German abbey scenes to set a mood and make that connection. I continued that in The Romanov Prophecy (Russia) and The Third Secret (the Vatican, Romania, and Germany). When I started the Cotton Malone series, in The Templar Legacy, I kept that practice going, escalating the locales importance.
How does Cotton Malone interact with his surroundings?
There’s always a combination. My protagonist is the stranger and another character the native. The protagonist comes with information that the native either does not have, or wants, and, together, they discover what’s necessary. You have to have this combination or, otherwise, the story will either grow unnecessarily in length or become confusing. Finding this mixture between the characters is the trick.
What kind of international response have your books gotten?
The books are sold in 50 countries and 37 languages around the world, so I receive a wide variety of e-mails. Nearly all of them are complimentary of my using their homeland in a novel. Occasionally, I’ll get a criticism that I changed something but, usually that was deliberate to advance the story. That’s why I include a Writer’s Note at the end to explain deviations. I’ve never made a horrible gaff as to the locales but I have messed up relative to the use of foreign phrases, weapons, and a really stupid one where I placed captain’s bars on a Navy man (captains in the Navy wear eagles). In every book I seemed to make at least one embarrassing mistake, but we’re all human and they are fixed for later editions.
Of all your novels, do you have a favorite book or scene that focuses on the place? Could you quote a short passage or give an example of how the location figures in your novels?
I really liked the scenes in the Romanian orphanage from The Third Secret. Those places are horribly real and I tried to depict them as accurately as possible. Here’s a sample from Chapter 14:
“Children flooded out from the rooms. About thirty, all male, their ages varying from toddlers to teenagers. They crowded around him, their heads shaven — to combat lice, the nun explained. Some walked with a limp, others seemed to lack muscular control. A lazy eye afflicted many, a speech impediment others. They probed him with chapped hands, clamoring for his attention. Their voices carried a weak rasp and the dialects varied, Russian and Romanian the most common. Several asked who he was and why he was there. He’d learned in town that most of them would be terminally ill or severely handicapped. The scene was made surreal by the dresses the boys wore, some over pants, some bare-legged. Their clothes were apparently whatever could be found that fit their lanky bodies. They seemed all eyes and bones. Few possessed teeth. Open sores spotted their arms, legs, and faces. He tried to be careful there. He’d read last night how HIV was rampant among Romania’s forgotten children.”
Who are your favorite writers, and do you feel that other writers influenced you in your use of the spirit of place in your novels?
David Morrell, to me, is the best living craftsman today, and I was a Dan Brown fan long before The DaVinci Code. Clive Cussler is another of my favorites as is Robert Ludlum, James Rollins, Frederick Forsyth, Steve Martini, Ken Follett, Sharon Kay Penman, David Hewson, and Lee Child. All of these folks use a sense of place to the max.
What’s next for Cotton?
On November 23rd Cotton Malone’s 6th adventure comes in The Emperor’s Tomb. Next year, Cotton comes home for his first domestic adventure. It’s a great tale dealing with a clause in the United States Constitution that 99.9% of America has no idea is there.
Once again, Steve, thanks for taking time to speak with Scene of the Crime. Good luck with the new book!
For more information on the works of Steve Berry, visit his homepage.