“Sharkovsky rang the bell of the furniture store…”
Violence, or at least the threat of violence, is an essential element of suspense fiction, but I’ve never been entirely comfortable with writing the kinds of bloody moments that are occasionally required by the genre. For me, action is much less interesting than anticipation, and although my books have a lot of action scenes, if you look at them carefully, you’ll see that much more time is devoted to the buildup than to the payoff, which tends to be quick and emphatic. I’m generally inclined to approach violence somewhat obliquely, at least until the big climactic moments, and yet I also know that a good action scene can be tremendously satisfying, as long as it serves some larger purpose. One of the pleasures of writing The Icon Thief and its sequels has been training myself to write meaningful action—that is, action that is both exciting for its own sake and integral to the advancement of the story. You can see this intention most clearly in the elaborate multichapter set pieces that conclude each of the major sections, but it’s also at work in the more self-contained action scenes, which may last for only a chapter, but whose influence is felt long afterward.
Chapter 10 of The Icon Thief was the last chapter I wrote of the original draft, before sending the manuscript out to agents. (I did write new material and significantly revise the novel after that point, but that’s a whole other story.) After reading the initial draft, I realized that Part I suffered from a long sequence of fairly slow, talky chapters. All of these scenes were essential to set up the story, but as I reviewed what I’d written so far, I felt that the reader would grow impatient for action. Inserting a new action scene would address this pacing problem; it would create a useful contrast with the quieter chapters to either side; and, if I planned it correctly, it would raise the narrative stakes. There’s a lot of sometimes violent action on the way, and by foreshadowing the danger here, I’d prepare the reader for the darker moments to come. In particular, it presented me with a chance to develop the character of Sharkovsky, the Russian vor who so far has been presented as somewhat elderly figure of implied menace, but who is in fact a very dangerous man, in ways that will only become more clear as the story continues.
When it came time to decide what the scene would be about, I found that the answer, as usual, lay in the pages I’d already written. In my existing draft, a shipment of guns and other weapons played an important role much later in the novel, but I’d never really talked about the transaction behind the arms deal itself. By writing a scene to show how the deal had gone wrong, I’d set up a future plot point and provide a little more color about the gangs in Brighton Beach, whose actual operations had been left somewhat vague. As far as a setting was concerned, I already had a place ready to go: one of the dark, slightly sinister furniture stores that one sees on Surf Avenue in Coney Island. As a writer, you want to use every part of the animal, and that applies to locations as much as anything else. I’d already structured scenes around such local landmarks as the boardwalk, the beach, and the lines of Russian clubs that look out on the sea, and Surf Avenue struck me as a promising backdrop that I hadn’t already used. (It’s all the more interesting now that many of these furniture stores have been closed down to make room for the next generation of Coney Island amusements.)
Once I’d figured out this much, the rest was a blast to write. I took the train to Coney Island and spent an afternoon looking around the furniture stores there, trying to map out how the scene would unfold. What’s useful about doing location research in person is that it provides you with a standing set with details that you might not have imagined on your own, and many of the props in the ensuing action scene—the wardrobe in which one of the gunmen conceals himself, and the lamp that Ilya smashes across another man’s face—are based on my notes from that trip. The result, I think, is the chapter in which the novel really comes alive, at least on a visceral level, and although I’d conceived it as a self-contained scene, it affected the rest of the book in ways that I didn’t anticipate. The bodies of the unfortunate Armenian criminals return, in the morgue, in a scene I wrote much later. The fact that Sharkovsky’s pistol jams, and that he asks for Ilya’s gun to finish the job, was originally just another beat in the action, but it comes back to play a small but vital role in the story. And there’s one touch that looks forward to a novel that I hadn’t even written yet. Leaving the furniture store, Ilya notices the Wonder Wheel in the distance, and sees that it’s “a wheel within a wheel.” We’re going to see that wheel again one of these days…
My interview with Steve Edwards of Chicago Public Radio (WBEZ 91.5), in which I discuss The Icon Thief, Marcel Duchamp, and the enigma of the Rosicrucians, is now available online.