For nearly fifteen years, writer Jonathan Maberry has put former detective Joe Ledger in increasingly more dangerous situations, originally as an agent of the Department of Military Sciences, and now as a member of Rogue Team International. Which is where we find him in his newest adventure, Cave 13 (paperback, Kindle, audiobook). In the following email interview, Maberry discusses what inspired and influenced this thriller.
I’d like to start with some background: Who is Joe Ledger, what does he do, where does he work, and what sort of shenanigans does he get into in the Joe Ledger novels?
Joe Ledger is a man with a traumatic past who has learned to use his own damage as skill-set. When we first meet him in Patient Zero, he’s working as a detective in Baltimore P.D., but is scouted — or perhaps shanghaied — by a covert government agency that goes up against terrorists who are using bleeding-edge science weapons. Because of his childhood trauma, his psyche is fractured into three distinct parts: the Modern Man (civilized, good-natured, a bit of a goof who likes coffee, beer, baseball, and outrageous Hawaiian shirts); The Cop (rational, methodical, precise, and relentless), and The Killer (savage and violent, but always in defense of the innocent). He’s aware of these aspects and uses them in his battles.
But violence — as his best friend and former therapist often says — always leaves a mark. And so, the ongoing war against terrorism that Ledger fights is doing measurable damage to him. He is reluctant to step out of the war, though, because he is doing even more harm to the bad guys.
Joe Ledger is a fun character to write. He is a-political but a fierce humanist. He fights for people, not parties or flags. He is tough as they come, prone to sarcasm, and funny.
Over the course of the novels and short stories he goes up against all kinds of bizarre threats including transgenic super soldiers, a bioweapon that creates a zombie-like plague, drone hacking, mind-control devices, genetically-engineered vampires, aliens, and more. But all of these threats are grounded in real-world science. Mostly.
And then what’s the difference between the regular Joe Ledger novels and the Rogue Team International novels?
In the first ten Joe Ledger novels he works for the DMS: Department Of Military Sciences, a secret division of the Department Of Defense. Eventually the politics and the dangerous delays of red-tape inspires his boss, the enigmatic Mr. Church, to break away from all political and national ties, close the DMS, and re-open as RTI: Rogue Team International, a freelance team of international troubleshooters. This allows for a far quicker response time, much more freedom of action, and a global stage on which Ledger’s adventures play out.
Which brings us to Cave 13. What happens to Joe in this story, and how does it connect, narratively and chronologically, to the previous Rogue Team International novel Relentless?
Cave 13 is the third R.T.I. novel. In the first two books of that series, Ledger is hit with overwhelming personal loss: a crisis that causes a fourth personality to emerge. This new aspect, The Darkness, dominates the others and propels Ledger onto a global hunt for the killers. That process nearly destroys him.
In Cave 13, we pick up with Ledger a year after those events. Ledger has his act together, but there are scars from what he’s done. His boss and fellow agents have lost some trust in him; not in his integrity but his sanity. However, Ledger is back on his emotional feet and we see a stronger and more confident version of him in this adventure.
Cave 13 deals with a variety of overlapping elements: the black-market trade in religious antiquities from the Holy Land; a possible ancient Egyptian curse; the Dead Sea Scrolls, particularly very strange ones discovered in the thirteenth cave on the West Bank; stolen nukes; an ISIS splinter group; inexplicable deaths; and bioweapons made from deadly fungi. It is a very strange book, even by my standards.
Where did you get the idea for Cave 13?
I’m a huge fan of history and global politics, and I’ve always been fascinated by the Dead Sea Scrolls. I got the idea while reading about the most recent discoveries in caves 11 and 12, and — as writers will — I wondered what else might be found.
Also, I’ve been doing a fair amount of reading about plagues of various kinds throughout history. And about the struggle between peaceful Islam and dangerous radicals like ISIS; and the tension between Israel and the surrounding countries. It’s always appalled me that the Holy Land — where Judaism, Christianity, and Islam all began — is constantly torn by religious conflict and outright war.
Writers are research junkies, and as we dig into various topics of history, politics, science, and religion, there are all sorts of potential stories waiting to be told.
I’m guessing that Cave 13, like all of the other Joe Ledger novels, is a thriller, though it sounds like it might have some occult horror in it as well…
There are some very strange elements to Cave 13, and yes, some touches of the supernatural. However, it is a thriller through-and-through. Lots of politics, international crime, terrorism, and counter-terrorism. Lots of action, too. I call the Ledger novels “weird-science thrillers.”
As you said, Cave 13 is the third Joe Ledger Rogue Team International novel, and, fittingly, thirteenth novel about Joe overall, though there’s also been three short story collections (The Missing Files, Special Ops, and Secret Missions Volumes 1 And 2), and two anthologies, co-edited by Bryan Thomas Schmidt, in which other people write Joe Ledger stories (Unstoppable and the upcoming Unbreakable). Are there any writers, or specific stories, that had a big influence on Cave 13 but not on anything else you’ve written, and especially not any of Joe’s previous adventures?
My primary literary influences include John D. MacDonald, author of the wonderful Travis McGee novels; James Lee Burke, Joe R. Lansdale, Elmore Leonard, and two of my boyhood mentors: Ray Bradbury and Richard Matheson. Often it’s less about specific stories they’ve written, but their approach to character depth and complexity, handling of dialogue, and overall mastery of how stories should be told. Like all writers, I’m a book nerd and also a perpetual student of the craft.
As I just mentioned, you have a second anthology of Joe Ledger stories, Unbreakable, coming out November 10. Who are some of the people who wrote stories for it?
Among the writers who penned Ledger stories are Scott Sigler, Heather Graham, Larry Correia, Peter Clines, Kevin J. Anderson, Keith R.A. DeCandido, John Hartness, Kat Richardson, Tori Eldridge, Dana Fredsti, Kevin Ikenberry, Marie Whittaker, Christopher Golden, Tim Lebbon, Steve Alten, Jeremy Robinson, Sherrilyn Kenyon, Seanan McGuire, Maurice Broaddus, Weston Ochse, and Wayne Brady (yes, that Wayne Brady). It’s a real gas to have so many of my friends in the industry show their love for Joe Ledger.
Going back to Cave 13, I get the sense that the Joe Ledger novels are all loosely connected stand-alone stories. Given that, do you think Cave 13 would be a good place to start exploring Joe’s literary life?
The Joe Ledger series is like a lot of thriller series out there — from James Bond to James Rollins’ Sigma Force — in that each book has its own story and resolution. New readers can jump on anywhere, and Cave 13 is particularly well-suited to new readers. Anything the reader needs to know from some other book is quickly and unobtrusively recapped, so there’s no homework.
That said, if the readers like the book and the characters, they can certainly dive into the whole series from Patient Zero onward. The short story collections are good for that, too.
So, what will someone get out Cave 13 if they’ve already read the previous Rogue Team International books, as well as the Joe Ledger novels and short stories?
Yeah, the Joe Ledger family of characters has grown over the years — with some sad departures — and for those who read the whole series they will be able to follow character arcs and subplots. Plus, there are some fun and weird moments in each book I think folks will dig.
Now, the Joe Ledger novels were, at one point, optioned by ABC, but they didn’t end up making that show. Then, in the interview you and I did for your novel Glimpse, you said Sony had bought the rights and were thinking of making a show for cable. Did anything ever happen with that version?
ABC had the rights, Sony had the rights, and now another company is making inquiries. That’s Hollywood. What happens is that a producer or company or someone in the industry “options” the work for anywhere from 1-3 years, during which they have exclusive rights to try and develop it into a movie or TV show. Sometimes their vision of its adaptation works, and sometimes it’s not the right moment. There are tons of factors, and right now we’re seeing most of the studios cut back on new development as a result of the fluctuating economy.
That said, I’m pretty optimistic that Ledger will find a home on the big or little screen. I had one project, V-WARS, make it to Netflix; and quite a few others in various stages of development. I like my odds. And I think a film or TV audience would really dig Joe Ledger’s humanism, sense of humor, combat skills, and quirkiness.
It also seems like Joe could be a good video game hero…
I get asked about this a lot. I think he’d be perfect for video games because he is the kind of chaotic presence that would make gameplay challenging, unexpected, and a hell of a lot of fun. And, there are so many stories — those told and many more waiting to be told — that there would be tons of possible adventures, side-adventures, and expansions that would be perfect for gaming.
So, is there anything else you think people need to know about Cave 13?
It’s very accessible. It’s not one of those gun-porn sort of books where it’s all about the weapons. It’s a story about people caught up in a series of extraordinary situations. That’s my approach: characters / people first, big-ticket events second. And I think it’s why the fanbase for the Joe Ledger novels is unusually broad, with adults, teens, men and women, right and left political persuasions. Anyone can pick up a Joe Ledger novel and meet people they would want to know.
Finally, if someone enjoys Cave 13, and they’ve already read all of the the other Joe Ledger books, which of your novels not about someone named Joe would you suggest they check out?
I’ve recently begun writing epic fantasy series that’s somewhat in the zone of Game Of Thrones, The Lord Of The Rings, and similar worlds. The first two books, Kagen The Damned and Son Of The Poison Rose are out now. I’m writing the third and final book of the Kagen trilogy, Dragon In Winter, which will be out in early 2024. I’ve been a fan of fantasy fiction since I was a kid, and writing it is literally a dream come true. And anyone who reads these books will easily tell that I am having waaaaay too much weird fun.