In his latest thriller, White Bone, Ridley Pearson continues his globetrotting series featuring John Knox and Grace Chu. Knox is a freelancer in the secret ops world, a tough man whose only emotional attachment is to his developmentally delayed adult brother. Chu is equally tough and resourceful – and she boasts the tech expertise of her years as a forensic accountant.
Knox and Chu shared the stage in three previous novels, starting with “The Risk Agent” in 2012. For that book, set in Shanghai, Pearson lived in China to learn the culture. It’s a formula he has followed throughout his career: combining first-hand research with sharp plots.
Subsequent books in the "Risk Agent" series were set in Amsterdam and Istanbul, again informed by the author’s on-the-ground observations and experiences.
His new book, “White Bone,” took Pearson to Kenya, where he delved into the corrupt and devastating plague of poaching by going on safari and interviewing guides, activists, NGO workers, and others.
“White Bone” finds Knox trying to navigate past poachers, money launderers, corrupt policemen and a mistrustful group of guerrilla conservationists to locate Chu, who has disappeared after being sent to Kenya on a solo job. Chu, it turns out, has been left to die in the Kenyan bush, a plotline rendered with haunting verisimilitude thanks to Pearson’s extensive travels.
At 63, Pearson remains a highly prolific writer, churning out two, and, for a while, three books a year. He has written several crime series set in the US, juggling those adult novels with adventure tales set in the Disney theme parks. In his spare time, he collaborated with humor writer Dave Barry on a series of Peter Pan prequels.
Pearson, who lives in St. Louis, wrote “White Bone” in an attempt to make more people aware of the ravages of poaching. During a recent interview with the Monitor, he discussed his inspiration for the book, the future of the Risk Agent series and the value of elephant dung.
What made you want to write this book?
Maybe four years ago, I read that your and my grandchildren will not see elephants in the wild. It was a terrific line because, you know, you hear numbers and things, and that one really hit me in the gut.
At the time, the Syrian crisis was under way and there was a lot of talk about genocide and I realized there was a whole other type of genocide going on on the African continent.
I kind of got passionate about it and I decided to make it the topic of the book. I wrote the entire book, I did tons of research online in writing the first version of the book. I submitted it and everything and my editor and I were talking and I thought, “I’ve done this wrong. I want to back up. I’m going to go over to Africa and see this first-hand.”
So I ended up writing nine drafts of this book (before I finished).
You’ve done a lot of research over the years for various books and, obviously, going to Africa isn’t cheap. Is that something you pay for out of your own pocket?
For the entirety of my career, I have always just paid for it out of pocket and just assumed that my job is to suspend the reader’s disbelief and that the more fact I put into my fiction, the less likely you are to disbelieve it.
But, ironically, out of the blue, my publisher, Putnam, contacted me once I had made all my plans and said, “We’d like to help you with this.” And I went, “What?” Because publishers just never do that. And they probably put up a third of the money. It shocked me. That had never happened. They recognized how badly I wanted to get it right and they really chipped in.
How hard was it to penetrate into the culture and get a sense of what was going on?
It’s always different on these trips. Sometimes they’re almost exclusively institutional: you know, I go in and speak to the FBI or police or medical examiner.
“The Risk Agent,” which was the first of these [Knox-Chu] books, I had actually lived in China for a year.
This was a very different trip for me. It was arranged through a terrific safari company that I had met in St. Louis when they were coming through to meet some friends.
They were fourth generation and their great-great or whatever it is grandfather was the first person to move an elephant out of Africa to a zoo. They understood what I wanted to do and they said, “Look, we’ll take care of this.” Mostly for free in terms of arrangements; they arranged so many doors that I never could have gotten open on my own.
And the experience both speaking to NGOs and our government and guys like them and Maasai was sort of one side of it. Then the other side was actually having my shoes in the dust and riding in the safari cars and getting my teeth jarred out.
I spent several days with a Maasai guide. I’m an Eagle Scout and I knew I was going to put Grace on the ground [in the novel] and I said to [my guide] that I had had a lot of training in survival techniques but I sensed that I wouldn’t make it out here long. And he said, “You wouldn’t make it 24 hours.”
I said, “With everything I know?” And he said, “Believe me, you wouldn’t make it 24 hours.” And I said, “Can you get it so I could make it for four days?”
And so for two or three days, he drove me around from plant to plant and we dug things up and we cut things and he showed me the leaves and he taught me the very rudimentary things I would need to have any chance to make it, including, as Grace does [in the novel], stripping naked and smearing myself with elephant or rhino scat, which is the only way to keep the bugs off and the only to keep [the predators away] — if you’re lucky. It was fascinating stuff to me.
So the guide was telling you that you would be attacked and eaten before a day was up?
Yes, he implied I wouldn’t make it 24 hours in the bush. Whether I would be dehydrated, whether I would eat something poisonous by mistake, whether a hyena or a jackal or something would wound me and then I’d be gone because they would all come [to attack]. Or a cat — there are a lot of cats out there.
One of the biggest threats to man in the bush are the cape buffalo. They charge you at something like 30 miles an hour with those horns down and they crush your chest and they just look to me like big cows. But [the guides] said, no, no.
Whenever I would get out of the vehicle [on safari], I had two Maasai who got out with me, one with a machete and one with a blunt instrument.
And I said, “Is this really necessary?” And they said, “Oh, yeah.” There were other places they wouldn’t let me get out even though I saw nothing. They knew something I didn’t.
I’m assuming some of the Maasai you met inspired the character of Bishoppe (a clever boy and fixer in the book)?
My wife and I brought a young man named Bishoppe into our family about 12 years ago. He was a boarding student at a school in St. Louis and had no family, no contact. We heard about him and we invited him out to buy him some clothes – he didn’t have any clothes – so we bought him a couple of pair of pants and he’s lived with us for 12 years. So I named the character for my son – I really think of him as my son. He’s 23 now.
So he has my son’s name. I’ve done a lot of traveling and [the character] has the spunk and the conceit of the various kids who are always trying to get something out of you in every Third World country. I love those kids. These kids would come and just hang out; those same kids at the airport are just trying to fleece you [laughs].
Why did you choose now to expand on the personal relationship of Knox and Chu in “White Bone”?
Going into the book, I felt it was time for me to better understand them and Christine Pepe, my editor at Putnam, who is a woman, have worked really hard – this enterprise of Chu and Knox came out of a bunch of personal experiences.
Initially, I thought Chu would be a Watson to Knox’s Holmes (in “The Risk Agent”). And right from the outline, Christine Pepe said, “What would you think of trying to write a novel with two protagonists?” And I said, “We don’t do that.” As writers, we try to root your interest in a character.
And she’s edited Robert Parker and umpteen zillion authors and she said, “I know, I know, but in reading the outline, they feel equal to me.” So the challenge for the whole series has been that balance, to not make one feel more important than the other. What that led me to with this book was, what’s that balance doing to them?
I felt as the books went on Knox was growing to respect and in some ways, love, in his own weird way, Grace, and Grace was beginning to soften. And, so, knowing that novels are written about characters, not about story, I thought this was the right time for me to explore that. Especially by putting Grace in a big problem like this.
I’ve gone through a couple of years of loss in my own life. I lost my wife’s mother and then my own mother and that sense of impending loss reminds us how deep our love is. My mother suffered Alzheimer’s and she slowly melted down. And you just wanted her back. And I took some of that and put it into Knox and the idea that he might lose Grace suddenly made him feel like there’s more here than just a work partner.