A writer who by stealth has
become a regular name in
the international bestseller lists is the shy and enigmatic Richard Montanari.
Despite much of
his work probing the darkest recesses of human darkness, I find his
intriguing, scary and insightful and finish each book in one or two
His first published work gave me terrible nightmares, but now he seems
settled upon writing a highly acclaimed series. His interest in serial
and human evil remains a feature of his work that attracts readers to
like flies on a body farm.
marked the release of the fourth novel in his Philadelphia series featuring Detectives Kevin
Byrne and Jessica Balzano – titled ‘Badlands’
in the US and ‘Playdead’
in the UK. After last years blistering
was excited to see what Montanari had in store for his Detectives, so
House UK sent me a review copy and this teaser -
each soul, a secret ...Philadelphia
detectives Kevin Byrne and Jessica Balzano's first assignment from the
Case files is the brutal murder of a young runaway. The lifeless body
Caitlin O'Riordan was found carefully posed in a glass display case in
desolate Philadelphia Badlands but, as Byrne and Balzano rapidly
was just the first pawn in the killer's twisted game...A mysterious
leads them on a scavenger hunt for a second victim. This time a young
been dismembered, her body parts left in three boxes in the basement of
deserted house. More clues lead to other victims and, as the body count
it becomes clear that there is a serial killer on the loose, hell-bent
completing the 'performance' of a lifetime.As more runaways vanish,
Balzano come to realize that the homicidal mastermind plans to complete
depraved tricks in his dark and dangerous magic act. With Balzano
obsessed by a case that haunts her, and Byrne struggling with a loss of
own, the stakes are mounting. But this is one game they can't afford to
reading Play Dead, I spoke to Emma
of Random House UK who knows I am an avid fan
authors - Thomas
Harris and Richard
Montanari, she kindly put me in touch with Richard as I had a
about his work, including why he’s attracted to the dark side
of the human
psyche, his anglophile nature, his early writing and his thoughts on
So Richard, did you grow up a
did. My mother was
a great reader ¾ she spoke five languages,
learning English as an
adult ¾ so there were always
books in our house. We
were a working
class family, so the books were mostly from the library or second-hand
stores. As much as
I love the feel and
smell and look of a beautifully bound new hardcover book (admittedly,
especially my own), there is genuine magic in picking up an older, used
romantic adventurer in me
as a child spent many hours pondering where a previously read book had
and who had read it. It
was almost as
exciting as the tale within.
And who influenced both your own reading and your writing?
Again, my mother was a huge influence
here. She grew up
in Tallinn, Estonia, at a time when books were at
least as precious as
food. I was also
fortunate to have a
number of wonderful English teachers growing up.
Plus, we had three great movie palaces within
bicycling distance of my house, so every Saturday I went to a matinee. I grew up with great
Hitchcock, Kubrick, Lean, Wilder.
when an art house opened, Kurosawa, Fellini, Truffaut, De Sica, and
many others. Storytelling
is storytelling. To
me, the form matters little.
And what books struck a chord in you over the years, that perhaps
to take up writing as a career?
One book that really got me thinking about
writing, especially crime fiction, was Double
Indemnity by James M.
I discovered it as a young teenager.
Having devoured all the adventure stories of Jack London,
along with the
westerns of Zane
was looking for something different.
Okay, something scandalously lurid and forbidden. I remember finding the
book at the Cleveland
Public Library, in one of those long, narrow stacks on the second
floor. It is a
relatively short novel (a novella,
actually, first published as an eight-part series in
Liberty Magazine), and I read it in one sitting. I began rereading it on
the bus home. That
day I discovered crime fiction, and
nothing has ever been the same.
I see you’ve lead somewhat of an eclectic life and you lived
in London for several years, so care to
share a little about
your life before the novels came along?
Since leaving school I’ve held a lot of
sales, kennel attendant, advertising copywriter.
The worst job ever was installing fiberglass
insulation on a ninety-degree day.
job that helped my fiction the most was when I worked as a freelance
magazines. I did a
lot of interviews,
wrote a lot of profiles, and it was there I got a feel for the rhythms
What did you make of London when you lived here?
My first visit to London was in 1968, when it was
inarguably the center of
all things important to a teenaged boy – music, fashion, art,
girls. I remember
standing on a corner
in Carnaby Street
while someone played “Jumpin’ Jack Flash”
over and over again. I
couldn’t get enough of it.
Did I mention English girls?
I knew I had to come back.
Three years later I did.
I lived all over – Maida Vale, Battersea Park,
South Ken, Chelsea – bedsits, all, mind
you. I worked at a
number of odd jobs, none of
which brought me any closer to my dream (that being to become the next
Ferry, I’ve always fancied myself a bit of a boulevardier). After a few
years I packed up and came home.
my attraction to all things British began much earlier.
When I was twelve I used to take the bus
downtown to the one newsstand in Cleveland that sold Melody
Maker (at some allowance-devouring price), and I would sit
on the street corner with my friends and read it cover to cover. For at least a decade,
British blues and rock
was all I listened to ¾
The Groundhogs, Chicken Shack, Ten Years After, Savoy Brown, Rory
(Peter Green’s) Fleetwood Mac, John Mayall.
It was a glorious time.
and still am, a closet Brit.
And apart from the non-fiction journalism, were you writing fiction
I wrote a few short stories that I was
fortunate enough to have published.
some reason my short fiction tends toward horror and fantasy (in the Twilight Zone vein, nothing too
hardcore), while my long form is crime and suspense.
Despite my strange and varied career as a
journalist ¾ I wrote about
everything from pediatric epilepsy to falconry to Golden Gloves boxing
paper management ¾
I never took my eye off fiction. I
some success with short form, but I always had the feeling there was a
opus within me.
It was Deviant
 was your first novel and it marked your work as looking at the
of human nature, so tell us a little how this work got into print?
I was a film critic for alternative press at
the time, and because of my interest in crime stories I was always
everyone else, after
about five lousy movies in a row, I declared:
“I can do better than this!”
Well, having no idea how to write a screenplay, I decided
to take a shot
at long form fiction. I
went back and
reread all of my favorite serial killer thrillers ¾ most notably Red
Dragon by Thomas
Harris and By
Reason of Insanity by
¾ and set to work.
When I’d completed the first chapter I wrote a
query letter and set out
to find an agent. Within
a week I was
signed, and over the course of the next nine months wrote Deviant Way.
shopped the book and within a few weeks it landed at Simon &
Schuster. I signed
a two-book deal with the legendary
Korda, and was soon off to work on the second book, which
So what is it about the darkness in human nature that fascinates and
Probably the fact that it is something that
dwells within us all. The
between sociopaths and the rest of us ¾ at least, I’m hoping
there’s a difference ¾ is that most of us do not act
on these dark
impulses. I am
fascinated by stories of
the “regular guy” who lived next door, only to be
discovered to have had a
chamber of horrors in his basement.
 really proved your skills in writing about the secrets we all
your ability in subtle misdirection caught me out, so do you plot
as your work does meander like a snake?
While I have many times been compared to an asp
(usually by an ex), I always say that, with the next book,
I’m going to plot
and outline the story to the smallest detail.
It never works out that way.
always begin with the killer’s pathology ¾ why is he doing what he is
doing, through what prism
does he see the world ¾
and let the plot grow out of this.
Anyone who has read my work knows that there is always a
villains do what they do. As
to The Violet Hour I’m
thrilled to announce
that Arrow Books will reissue it in 2009.
To date, it is my only standalone novel, and I am very
fond of it.
 again looked deeper into the psycho-sexual nature of our dark
so what are you like as a person when you are in writing mode?
You know that guy you swore you saw standing
in a doorway near your house at three in the morning, that guy lurking
I’m writing a new book,
Despite the disturbing imagery that pervades your work, there is plenty
black humour, so how important is humour in noir work to you?
It is very
important to me, both as a reader and a storyteller.
I don’t think anyone wants 350 pages of
unremitting darkness. That
said, I think
setting out to write black humor is quite difficult.
I can count the number of great black film
comedies on one hand. But
when the humor
grows out of tension (the near miss, the mistaken identity, etc.), I
can be very effective, and most welcome.
And your readers, I guess many are female as well as male? And what do
consider the appeal of such dark work is to your growing readership?
Judging from the email I receive, I would say
more than 60% of my readers are female (or maybe women are more
write). As to a
growing readership, it
is hard to say. I’d
like to think it is
because I tell an engaging story, and, in what has grown into a quartet
novels set in Philadelphia ¾
beginning with The
¾ I believe I have introduced a
pair of characters in
Jessica Balzano and Kevin Byrne to whom a number of people can relate. Granted, they have
authority, and carry a
weapon, but they do not go through life unaffected by what they see. In this way, I think they
are just like you
Many have compared your work to Thomas Harris, so I assume you are
with the adventures of Dr
Hannibal Lecter? So can you tell us a little about your
thoughts on Harris’
novels, and what was your thoughts vis-à-vis
Harris has written two of the greatest thrillers of all time: Red
Dragon and The Silence of the Lambs. I believe he raised the
bar, and changed the
genre forever. In
his two villains ¾ Francis
Gumb ¾ he created deep and
disturbing motivation for serial murder, transcending a good deal of
been written before. As
Rising, I must confess that I haven’t
read it yet. I am
very fortunate to have a signed first
edition (which, of course, I’m never going to open), and I
haven’t yet picked
up a reading copy at a bookstore.
I assume you have a Catholic background from your name and themes that
your work, so can you tell us what religion brings to your work?
I was raised Catholic, and the rites,
traditions, history, and liturgy seem to seep into my work from time to
(okay, Catholicism took over completely in The
Rosary Girls). But
now that I’ve
written about it, I’m sure it’s out of my system. Ah, who am I kidding? I still have nightmares
about nuns with chainsaws.
I enjoyed your last three novels which form a trilogy of sorts
Girls” , “The Skin Gods”  and
Angels” [US title
“Merciless” 2007] being set in Philadelphia
– was this planned as a series and
can you tell us a little about writing these tremendous books?
I really had no idea that the Philadelphia canon would become a series,
but I can say that The Rosary Girls
marked a major shift in
my career. A new
venue, a new set of
characters, a new tone (along with new representation and a new
Random House). The
creation of Kevin
Byrne and Jessica Balzano as series characters allowed me to take my
their development, and, because the books are told in real time, to
them changing and growing in any number of small ways.
While writing The Skin Gods
I knew that I wanted to stay with these people for a
while. I had (and
still do have)
something more to say about them.
Like ‘Broken Angels’ – your latest
‘Play Dead’  was also re-titled from
the US title “Badlands” – so why
the title changes?
These sorts of decisions are made at the
publishing level. I’m
only a humble
And again, ‘Play Dead’ /
‘Badlands’ is part of the series so tell us why you
enjoy writing about Detectives Kevin Byrne and Jessica Balzano
– is it
publisher pressure or do you enjoy spending time in their company?
It isn’t really pressure ¾ publishers have a very
diplomatic way of suggesting
things, usually over gnocchi with basil pesto and roasted pine nuts, my
weakness. The truth
is, I do enjoy spending time with
Jessica, Vincent, Sophie, and all the other characters in the Philly
series. As crazy as
it might sound, I’ll
be somewhere, meet someone, and think: “This person reminds
me of someone.” Then
I’ll realize it’s Jessica or Kevin.
Man, talk about full circle.
The fun part, for me, is that I can create a
new and gruesome scenario, open the door, usher in my detectives, and
ways know how they are going to react and respond.
In other ways, they never cease to surprise
Without giving away the ending, are you going to continue the series or
return to the ‘stand-alones’ that started your
crime writing career?
The series will continue.
City of Brotherly Love
will never run out of stories, and I have plans for the detectives of
Philadelphia Police Department’s Homicide Unit.
You evoke the city of Philadelphia as if it were a character in
your work, so I assume you are very
familiar with the city and I assume you have sources in the PPD?
I spend a good deal of time in Philadelphia.
family there, and have been very fortunate to make many friends in the
ridden along with the
detectives, spent many hours in the Roundhouse, simply observing. I’m happy to say
that a number of Philly
police officers have given my books their stamp of approval. This is good news, as
these people are
Considering your popularity in the UK, have you any plans to visit us
in the near future?
And ever fancy setting one of your thrillers in London?
I will be visiting the UK for the launch of my next book
in 2009 and as to
locale, I would love to set a novel in London.
And what has passed your reading table that you’ve enjoyed
I’m never without three or four books open on
my nightstand. I’ve
recently read a lot
of non-fiction as research on my next novel.
As to fiction, I read everyone in my genre, usually the
week their new
books are published. I
addicted to crime fiction, but I am always seeking out writers who bend
come to mind.
And what are you working on currently?
I am working on a standalone novel called The
It will be published by Random House in 2009.
Thank you for your time.
It has been my pleasure.
read more about this writer who
takes you to the dark side of human experience click here
and remember to
lock all doors, windows and have your cell phone handy when you crack
of a Richard Montanari novel – you have been warned.
DEAD is published by William
Heinemann Ltd hardback £12.99
would like to thank Emma Finnigan of Random House UK
for organizing this interview, which first appeared in an edited form