Seven-time thriller writer John De Boer has a new book coming out later this year. WHEN THE REAPER COMES places a coordinated multi-threat right in the backyard of the protagonist, an Ex-Navy SEAL on protection detail for a rock star with a fatwa. John has written in a number of genres. REAPER is his first foray into international terrorism.
Welcome back to the blog, John. WHEN THE REAPER COMES is your seventh in a list of thrillers, this time with analogous threats in the protagonist’s backyard. How does terror at home differ from terror abroad?
Thank you for having me back, A.B. I appreciate the opportunity to discuss my latest book, When the Reaper Comes, and the issues it deals with.
Homeland terror vs. terror abroad. Naturally, the further away such incidents occur, the more they’re removed from the threat radar. I don’t know the Canadian mindset, but I think Americans are pretty much inured to the multitude of terrorist attacks that have been going on in the Middle East and Asia for generations.
But attacks in Europe is another story. Europe, for most Americans, is the land of our ancestors. When Europeans become targeted by ISIS and its ilk, the question of America being next inevitably rises – especially when isolated instances of terrorism related to Islamic extremism have occurred here over recent years. Granted, these attacks have been committed by so-called lone wolves, but we’re waiting for the other shoe to drop, in my view, wherein ISIS, and not just its ideological adherents, decides to take the war against infidels directly to America (and/or Canada!). After all, the precedent was established on September 11, 2001.
That is the premise of my book.
As the NSA gets a strong lead on one of the most prominent faces of ISIS, the Islamic State embarks on a bold course of action – an attack on American soil.
Former Navy SEAL Adam Taylor, on a break between assignments for a global paramilitary security firm, is visiting his folks in his home town when he gets a new mission – provide security for a rock star who is in town for a St. Patrick’s Day concert. Unknown to Adam, a team of American ISIS soldiers will soon arrive with a plan to wreak havoc on the Jersey Shore, and Adam will get caught up in a deadly game of wits between the terrorist menace and those tasked to protect the citizens of the homeland.
Navy SEAL Adam Taylor must coordinate security for a rock star. What was it like putting these two in a room?
The first meeting between my protagonist, Adam Taylor, and my fictional rock star, Brian Callahan, was revealing, and it was one on my favorite scenes in the book.
Callahan, like Bruce Springsteen, is noted for songs with patriotic themes. He had made some comments in Rolling Stone that essentially blamed Islam itself for creating ISIS. In addition, his latest album cover tried to do a Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper thing, but with various well-known enemies of the U.S., past and present, depicted on it. Also included was an image of Muhammad, which according to Muslim edicts is punishable by death. An imam put out a fatwa on Callahan, and his record company was worried an assassination attempt would occur during a St. Patrick’s Day concert he was going to put on in Asbury Park, N.J. So they hired the paramilitary security firm Adam works for to protect their cash cow. Since Adam happened to be in the area visiting his folks between assignments, he got the job.
Besides the inherent conflict between Adam and Callahan’s bodyguards, the issue of Callahan’s supposed anti-Muslim beliefs arose during the meeting. Callahan’s explanation presents a capsule of the research I did for the subject. Most notable of my sources was an article last year in The Atlantic: “What ISIS Really Wants – and How to Stop It.” I recommend that eye-opening article to anyone who hasn’t read it.
(This issue between Muslims and non-Muslim Americans is also represented by two Muslim women characters in my story, each with differing viewpoints on what it means to be Muslim in America.)
The film LONDON HAS FALLEN was roundly criticized for playing up to people’s worst fears. What are the challenges facing thriller writers in 2016?
Despite the real terror extant around the world in 2016, fictionalizing it presents no problems for the thriller writer! Though I have to admit, I was a little concerned while I was writing the novel that real events were mirroring my invented ones, possibly making me look like a copycat!
There are numerous subgenres of the thriller genre – legal, medical, political, psychological, etc. – other than plots involving terrorism, providing the thriller writer with abundant themes. And there remains plenty of fodder for new terrorism thrillers. Just ask Nelson DeMille, whose protagonist, John Corey, combats terrorists in novel after novel.
When the Reaper Comes is my first foray into this subgenre. I’ve written medical, crime, psychological, and personal-revenge thrillers. Good guys vs. bad guys with potential lethal consequences is the heart of any thriller, and I see no dearth of such plots in the future.
Give a sketch of the bad guy. Can you share an excerpt?
I have more than one bad guy in my book, but the main protagonist, Yusuf Khouri, is a Muslim man born to Muslim immigrants in New Jersey. He becomes radicalized, as the expression goes, in his youth, fueled by the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and eventually becomes an ISIS fighter in Syria. An ISIS sheikh decides to take the fight to America by sending a team of U.S.-born-and-raised soldiers to attack the Callahan concert as their first mission. This team is led by Khouri. As Americans, they can blend in with the locals. I’ve chosen a scene for the excerpt that will show a little of that situation.
Excerpt from WHEN THE REAPER COMES
Angela Martin’s apartment
“I’m Joseph,” Yusuf Khouri said when Angela opened the door.
“Come in, Joseph.”
As Angela closed the door behind him, Khouri quickly scanned the living room, on alert. When he didn’t see federal agents suddenly storm into the room, he relaxed. He dropped his duffel bag on the floor, the jostling of its contents making a sound of metal on metal.
“Is Abdel here?” he asked.
“Yes. He’s in the kitchen.”
“He called after you did last night. He’ll be here this afternoon.”
“I’ve made coffee. Would you like some?”
“Yes, thank you.” Khouri followed her into the kitchen where Abdel Hadad sat at the table reading a newspaper. He looked up.
Hadad stood and offered his hand. “I’m Abdel.”
The two men shook hands. “Allah Akbar,” Khouri said, and this was answered in kind by Hadad.
“You don’t know each other?” Angela asked.
Khouri smiled. “I don’t know you, either. The sheikh brought us together. Better to have no connections from the past.”
“That makes sense.” Angela went to the coffeemaker, poured a cup, and handed it to Khouri. “Well, you can get acquainted now. I have to go to work. I’ll be back after five. There’s food in the fridge and in the pantry. See you later,” she said and left.
Khouri sat at the table across from Hadad. “Anything exciting in the news?”
Hadad laughed. “Republican senators are saying Obama is weak on combating the ISIS threat. They want boots on the ground.”
“Yes, that euphemism has become quite popular. Makes it sound less scary. As if these inanimate boots aren’t being worn by flesh-and-blood soldiers who could be shot out of them.”
“Do you think they will commit to ground troops?”
“They’re stupid enough to do that. And it would mean our campaign is succeeding, right? Get those soldiers into another war they can’t win in the Middle East. One can never underestimate the macho jingoism of Americans. And while their troops are dying over there, we’ll cause havoc over here. The two-pronged strategy will get them to fold.”
“Yeah, that’s another weakness of theirs. Okay to wave the flag and send troops into battle until the bodies start to pile up. ‘Gee, we didn’t think it would be like this. Oh, dear. This has to stop.’”
“Exactly.” Khouri sipped from his cup. “So where are you from?”
“Milwaukee. I was in Syria for six months before the sheikh sent me here. I flew into New York yesterday. And you?”
“I grew up in Long Branch, just a few miles from here. I came from Iraq through Canada.” Khouri chuckled. “Tell me, Abdel, do I look Italian?”
Hadad perused the features of the other man for a moment. “I don’t know. Maybe a little. Why?”
“That’s who I was when I crossed the border. Tony D’Agostino.” He smiled. “Fooled the Customs guy.”
“Are you back to Yusuf now?”
Khouri shook his head. “Sergio Montez, resident of Newark, at your service.”
“What’s the matter?”
“Why all the aliases? I’m using my own passport and driver’s license.”
“But no one, Allah willing, is looking for you, my friend. I, on the other hand, have attracted the attention of the NSA.”
Hadad looked alarmed. “Really?”
“I must assume so. I made speeches for the cause in my youth. And there’s something else.”
Hadad didn’t respond, but stared intently at Khouri.
“I took over from Jihadi John when he was injured.”
Hadad’s jaw dropped. “I heard rumors he’d been hit in a drone attack when I was in Syria. So you’re the American they were talking about?”
“I’m in the presence of a freakin’ celebrity!”
Khouri deflected the compliment by changing the subject. “Do you know anything about Muhammad Basara, the missing member of our group?”
“No, only that he’s an American, too. He was supposed to come yesterday, but he got detained at Orly because – get this – he had the same name as a suspected terrorist!” Hadad laughed.
Khouri narrowed his eyes at the other man. “Soldier for Allah, you mean.”
Hadad’s smile disappeared. “Of course. From the point of view of the French is what I was referring to.”
“Yes, the French.” Khouri shook his head and took another sip of coffee. He looked down at the table for a moment before his head came up. “Anyway, do we have the bicycle?”
“Yup. Complete with a basket that will accommodate the IED.”
“Show me what you’ve made and how it works.”
Lew Wallace’s BEN-HUR, written in 1880, is getting a cinematic re-tell, this time with a stress on the book’s original themes, including forgiveness. What themes do you focus on in your work? Are they enduring?
I have read the reviews of the Ben-Hur movie remake but have not seen the film. Frankly, I can’t believe it can top the original, 1959 version! But I understand that the new one adheres to the book by Lew Wallace more faithfully, in that forgiveness, rather than revenge, plays a more important role. Christ-like forgiveness for what Judah Ben-Hur and his family suffered is certainly admirable, but is, frankly, a difficult standard for most of us – including me! – to embrace. For example, I don’t think I could do what those families of the slain churchgoers in Charleston, S.C. did – forgive the killer of their loved ones.
In my books, I focus on right vs. wrong. As I said, the good guys against the bad guys. The good guys aren’t always so good, and the bad guys can have admirable qualities, but justice for wrongdoing must be served in my stories. Ambiguity is okay for characters, but not for my plot climaxes! In one of my books, the protagonist, while not actually forgiving the antagonist for almost doing him in, at least lets her go without retribution. If I was Wallace’s Ben-Hur, I might have left it at that. But I’m not, and I didn’t.
Is Adam Taylor a hero?
Adam Taylor is a hero in the classic sense. I didn’t burden him with flaws (or ambiguity!), unlike some of my other protagonists. He had been a Navy SEAL involved in the raid that got Osama bin Laden, and when he became disillusioned because of publicity hunting by two of his comrades, he left the service. Then he traveled around the world protecting diplomats and other celebrities from harm. In my story he wins the battle of wits with Khouri and defeats him. So he is a true-blue American hero. As far as protagonist character types go, I think he comes close to the Harry Bosch character in Michael Connelly’s novels.
When does the book come out?
I’ve finished the first round of editing, and there weren’t many issues to deal with, so I expect the book will be coming out before next year.
Any last words?
I hope you don’t mean that in the literal sense, because I’m not ready for that yet! But if I could one day be included in a book of Famous Last Words, that would be cool.
Thanks again for letting me opine.
Ed – Opine as much as you like! You’re a fantastic interview!
About the Author
After graduating from the University of Vermont College of Medicine, John L. DeBoer, M.D., F.A.C.S. completed surgical training in the U.S. Army and then spent three years in the Medical Corps as a general surgeon. Thirty years of private practice later, he retired to begin a new career as a writer. A member of International Thriller Writers, Dr. DeBoer is the author of seven published novels. For the last twenty-eight years, he has called North Carolina home.
TOMORROW: Mary Ann Cortez talks SISTER SLEUTHS, Autism Spectrum and characters finding their matching groove.