Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

“Even before the patrolman said a word…”

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(Note: This post is the third installment in my author’s commentary for The Icon Thief, covering Chapter 2. You can read the first few chapters of the novel here.)

From the day I first conceived The Icon Thief, its structure was clear in my mind: I knew it would tell three stories, each with a single strong protagonist, that would advance in parallel, occasionally intersect, and converge at the novel’s conclusion. This sort of structure had intrigued me ever since I’d encountered it in the book and movie of L.A. Confidential, mostly because it gave me a chance to engage in the kind of narrative puzzle-making that had drawn me to fiction in the first place, and I’d already tried something similar with my unpublished novel about India. I also knew from the beginning that one story would follow an employee of an art hedge fund in New York, who eventually became Maddy Blume, while another would center on a Russian criminal, later named Ilya Severin. For a long time, however, I didn’t know what my third story would be. At first, I thought about focusing on an art analyst, the character who would evolve into Ethan Usher, but it was too much like Maddy’s story. And it was with a feeling of great relief that I finally realized that my third thread could, and should, be something else entirely: a police procedural.

I was pleased by this decision for three reasons. First was the obvious fact that it gave me a lot of material to work with, with entire shelves of books available for background and inspiration. Second, by making my third lead a criminal investigator, I had a means of organizing and assembling the pieces of what was already looking like a very complex story, with a character who could view the plot from the outside and figure it out with the reader—which, indeed, was the role that this character, eventually named Alan Powell, ultimately ended up playing. Third, and perhaps most important, was that it gave me a narrative line of relative clarity. I knew from early on that this was going to be a complicated novel, and in particular that it was going to be hard to structure Maddy’s story, since I was figuring out her character and motivations as I went along. Ilya’s share of the plot, by contrast, was fairly straightforward—it was a heist that turned into a fight for survival—and I intuitively knew that the third narrative strand should be easy to follow as well. In general, a novel can’t push the bounds of complexity on every level, and by making a third of the story a procedural, I would always have a familiar home base on which to fall back whenever the rest of the plot threatened to get out of control.

So what would my procedural be about? In theory, the initial crime could be almost anything, because it was really just a means of introducing my investigator into the larger plot. A murder seemed like a safe enough bet, and for some reason, I hit on the image of a woman’s headless body mummified in the sand under the boardwalk at Brighton Beach. The headless corpse was, of course, both a nod to Étant Donnés and to the Russian mob’s famous propensity for cutting off the head and hands of its victims. (In this, I was probably more than a little indebted to Martin Cruz Smith’s Gorky Park.) The Brighton Beach setting was inspired by the same angle. But I wouldn’t have been able to write this scene at all if I hadn’t found an article by Michael Wilson of the New York Times about the history of the space under the boardwalk, which, after the beach was extended, had been gradually reclaimed by the sand. And with this fact in mind, I spent several memorable days snooping around the Brighton Beach boardwalk, doing my best to walk in the footsteps of my fictional investigator.

Alan Powell is obviously named after Michael Powell, the director of The Red Shoes, and while it took me a while to get a fix on his character—as I’ll have occasion to discuss elsewhere—this chapter remained largely unchanged from first draft to final version. (I was helped by the fact that the main character’s objective in this chapter, as with the auction scene in Chapter 1, was both clearly defined and familiar from other procedurals.) This scene also marks the first appearance of FBI Special Agent Rachel Wolfe. Wolfe’s history is an interesting one: when I first conceived the part, she was basically just someone for Powell to talk to, and at first, she was a man, not a woman. Even after the first draft, I didn’t really know who she was, and I briefly toyed with the idea of making her South Asian. In making her a Mormon, I was inspired by the historically large number of Mormon agents in the FBI and CIA, and as soon as I made this decision, she blossomed in unexpected ways. In the end, I got to like Wolfe so much that I made her the hero of my second novel, City of Exiles, and she’s perhaps my favorite character in the entire series. Wolfe doesn’t have much to do here, but keep an eye on her. She’s got some surprises in store…

Written by nevalalee

May 10, 2012 at 9:50 am

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