The best thrillers are tense, full of twists with plots that take you first one way and then another, serving up breath-taking cliff-hangers, driving you crazy with suspense.
In a way one could say the same about the career of thriller writer David Kessler, whose life has taken a few twists of its own since he decided at the age of 15 that he wanted to be a professional writer.
Having made his career choice, he left school without qualifications, and drifted through menial jobs both here and in Israel as he tried to write that elusive thriller.
Eventually the break came. Publisher Hodder & Stoughton offered him a deal to write two books, which sold reasonably well, and followed up with a further two-book deal. But for reasons that had very little to do with sales, and quite a lot to do with Kessler’s fascination with America, he was dropped in the late 1990s. Even his agent left him high and dry. For years, he struggled to recover his writing career… then, he had an idea.
Kessler, battling to make himself heard above the clatter of a Golders Green cafe, recalls the years when he held down a day job selling metal castings, while using his spare time to work on manuscript after manuscript, trying to repeat his earlier success.
His persistence paid off. Finally he came up with the story which landed him a three-book deal with publishing giant Harper Collins.
“For a long time I had tried to revamp and re-write my unpublished work without success. I tried writing for children, I even tried chick lit. I became so disheartened by all the rejections that I couldn’t bring myself to write a whole book. I only wrote the first 30 pages and sent that off to some agents. But I did have a really good story.”
Kessler came across that “really good story” by a fluke. He rung a friend but misdialled and by chance got chatting to the person on the other end of the line — a psychiatric nurse. They got talking about crime and the causes of crime, which sparked an idea for a crime novel.
“I have what I call a writer’s personality,” says Kessler. “By which I mean that when a situation arises, I start speculating on what might have happened if it had gone this rather than that way. Out of the what-ifs, a story arises. Most people do this casually, then drop the idea rather than pursue it to any kind of conclusion.”
The story that 53-year-old Kessler was putting together in his head was a thriller about a convict on death row in California with 15 hours to go until his execution. The narrative, which takes place in this time frame, focuses on the convict’s Jewish lawyer, Alex Sedaka, who is convinced that his client is guilty.
But Sedaka begins to have doubts after the convict turns down an offer to commute his death sentence to life in exchange for information about the whereabouts of the body, because, he insists, he is innocent. Sedaka — “a righteous man despite his profession”, jokes Kessler — goes into overdrive in an attempt to find the evidence which will save his client’s life.
Kessler submitted the 30 pages he had written to several agents, and received a batch of rejection slips for his trouble. Despite the knockbacks he knew he had a good story — a fast-paced thriller with a cliffhanger at the end of practically every chapter. (Kessler has no false modesty about his work — on his website he describes himself as the world’s best thriller writer.)
Finally, an agent replied to Kessler’s submission, asking to read the rest of the novel, which was problematic given the fact that he had yet to write it.
So then, in true thriller style, he stonewalled the agent as he raced against time to have the manuscript ready. In the end he wrote all 85,000 words of the first draft in the five weeks following a trip to California. In fact, while he wrote it back in Britain, Kessler stayed on US time, waking late and writing into the small hours.
He circulated the finished product to several more agents, one of whom agreed to represent him. Within weeks Kessler had his three-book deal with Harper Collins, and soon afterwards had signed deals with a German and Israeli publisher. The latter was of great significance to Kessler because he was keen his Israeli stepmother and stepsister should be able to read his book — which by now had the title Mercy — in Hebrew.
The fact that he wrote it on California time is perhaps also significant. The book is set in the United States — partly for practical reasons and partly because Kessler is a massive fan of the American thriller.
“Obviously because it’s a death penalty story, it needs to be set somewhere that has a death penalty,” he explains. “It could have been set in Britain in the past but then I would not have been able to bring in aspects of the story relating to computers and DNA evidence. I could also have set it in Singapore I suppose, where they do have the death penalty, but then I’ve always had a fascination with America and American law. This combines my various interests — law, the drama of the death penalty, computers and forensic science.”
Kessler feels that the dip that his career suffered after he wrote four successful novels for Hodder had something to do with his editor not being keen on his setting his books in America.
“My books were successful with library readers — one year my books were in the top three per cent of all books borrowed. But my editor had a bad experience with an Australian writer who set a book in the US and made loads of mistakes, so she told me not to do it. It really cramped my style. Suddenly I was without a book deal and without an agent. I was no better off than I was before I started out.”
Kessler is determined that this will not happen again. To this end, despite having a three-book deal with a top publishing house and distribution in supermarkets and branches of WH Smith — the kind of arrangement most authors can only dream about — he is not taking anything for granted. In fact, he has decided to invest £3,500 of his own money to put posters up promoting Mercy in key locations near bookshops.
He is hoping that the strategy will work. So will Mercy sell a million? Will the investment in time and money pay off? Does Kessler’s fortune lie in the hands of a hard-bitten Jewish lawyer? The next instalment could be the most exciting yet.