In his new detective novel The Recruit (hardcover, Kindle, audiobook), writer Alan Drew is giving former LAPD homicide detective Ben Wade a problem that’s rather timely, despite this story being set in the ’80s. In the following email interview, Drew discusses what inspired and influenced this novel, the sequel to Wade’s previous literary adventure, Shadow Man.
Photo Credit: Nina Subin
For people who haven’t read Shadow Man, who is Benjamin Wade, what does he do, and what happens to him in that novel?
Detective Ben Wade is a former LAPD homicide detective who worked the gang wars of inner-city L.A. in the 1980s. He’s returned to his hometown of Rancho Santa Elena in the wake of being shot to take what he thinks will be a cushy job as a detective in the small but quickly growing town. Santa Elena used to be a cattle ranch before the developers swooped in and started carving up the land, and his late father was the last of the cowboys to work the ranch. When the novel opens, Ben has settled into his childhood home, the last of the cowboy flophouses, with the last two horses from the ranch. The move and the cushy job is supposed to help save his rocky marriage, but Ben’s carrying a dark secret he’s unwilling to face which ultimately dooms the relationship. So, now he’s trying to negotiate a recent divorce and shared custody of precocious teenage daughter who’s still pissed off and hurt from the divorce.
Early in the novel, a serial killer, who has been terrorizing L.A. and Northern Orange County, suddenly hits in the town just south of Santa Elena, shaking the residents’ sense of safety. A day later, another body turns up in a strawberry field, a Mexican teenage boy who lives in the migrant worker camp. At first Ben and forensic medical examiner Natasha Betencourt (a potential love interest) think the boy might be another victim of the serial killer, but as Ben gets deeper into the investigation it becomes clear to him that what’s happened to this boy, what’s led to the boy’s death, is something that happened to Ben a couple decades before — the very thing he’s kept secret for all of his adult life. As Ben gathers evidence that implicates a revered resident of Santa Elena and forces him to confront his past, he stops investigating the boy’s death and instead obsesses over the serial killer, hunting him down even though he has no jurisdiction over the crimes. Natasha, recognizing that Ben isn’t doing his job, starts her own investigation until she discovers Ben’s past and forces him to face it.
Oh, there’s also a car chase and a shoot-out and a fight and near strangulation, and finally a climb up a steep cliff and a confrontation with the serial killer. There’s a little sex, too.
Also, Ben’s a serious body surfer, so there are some big beach-break waves in Shadow Man — and The Recruit, for that matter.
And when and where does that book take place?
Both Shadow Man and The Recruit are set in the fictional Southern California town of Rancho Santa Elena in the mid-to-late 1980s. (Don’t tell anyone, but R.S.E. is a fictional version of 1980’s Irvine, the master-planned town I grew up in. I had a few issues with the place I’m working out in both novels.) Shadow Man is set in the summer of 1985 — the terrifying summer of the Night Stalker murders, fictionalized in the novel as the Night Prowler.
Next, for people who have read Shadow Man, and thus can ignore me writing SPOILER WARNING in all caps, what is The Recruit about, and how is it connected to Shadow Man?
The Recruit is set in 1987, when a growing white supremacist movement begins using the fledging internet to spread hate across the nation, plan attacks, and recruit young men. In a Los Angeles suburb, a troubled teenage boy, Jacob Clay, is indoctrinated into the terror network and attacks the Vietnamese refugee community. Ben Wade’s got to stop the boy and the network while challenging his own racism and the racism in his community. Also, there’s a snow mobile chase, a plane crash, and a big fire, among other things.
As you said, Shadow Man and The Recruit both take place in Rancho Santa Elena, California…which isn’t a real place but is based on Irvine, California. Why not just have it be Irvine?
I renamed the town in the book for a few reasons. First, Irvine is a boring name, if you ask me, so I wanted something that sounded a bit more interesting. Second, I didn’t want to be bound to Irvine’s geography, didn’t want people saying, “That street’s on the north side of town, not the south” or “That restaurant was on Culver Street, not Jamboree” — stuff like that. I simply wanted the freedom to make up the geography while still keeping it rooted in Southern Cal. I don’t hide the fact that it’s Irvine all that much, if you know the area, since Laguna Beach and Newport Beach and other surrounding towns keep their actual names. Also, both novels have elements of autobiography, issues I had growing up in Irvine, so I wanted to set it in a similar town to keep my own emotional / intellectual connection to those issues and that place but also keep enough distance in my mind to make sure I was open to the fictional possibilities that would drive the novel.
Living on the East Coast now, I often miss California. But the California I miss — South Orange County of the 1980s, when Irvine was still a cattle ranch and a huge produce farm with orange groves and strawberry and tomato fields and open hills not yet dotted with tract homes — doesn’t really exist anymore. Part of writing Shadow Man was to eulogize that lost California.
As you also said, The Recruit involves crimes against migrant workers and a white power gang. Which, sadly, seems rather timely. Did you set out to write something relevant to what’s going on in the world, or did you come up with the idea for this novel and then realize it would work best if it was socially- or politically-relevant?
I’d been wanting to write about white supremacy for a long time, well before I even thought about writing these books. Huntington Beach, a town about 15 minutes from Irvine, was the center of a growing racists skinhead movement when I was growing up — and everyone knew it. When my mother and step-father moved to Idaho, they bought property that was only a few minutes from Aryan Nations compound, so you’d see these assholes in town with their combat boots and shaved heads and their tattoos. So I’ve thought for a long time about what it meant to grow up in such spaces, where that kind of racism is openly expressed and mostly tolerated. As timely as this book may seem, white supremacy (and white supremacist violence) is not new, of course, it just became more frighteningly mainstream and accepted under the Trump administration.
But the germ of this novel, I think, came from a 2011 conversation I had with a Vietnamese-American novelist following her reading at Villanova University. We realized that we had a surprising almost-connection. In 1975, When I was five-years-old, my family lived five minutes away from the El Toro Marine Air Station runway, where the author, seven at the time, and her family landed as refugees from the Vietnam War. They flew in on a chartered Pan Am flight and then were taken to the Marine Corps Base Camp Pendleton to be housed in a tent city of 50 thousand people until they could be re-settled. I was struck that night by how little I knew about that history. I do not recall ever having learned about it in high school or college, and that erasure put in stark relief my privilege. There are stories that I, as a white American, could choose to ignore — or forget.
Growing up in Irvine, I was only vaguely aware of the impact the Vietnam War had on my life. Mostly what I knew about the war came from films — Apocalypse Now, Rambo. I knew that my friend’s dad, a Vietnam vet, abused his son. I knew there was a place twenty minutes from my house called Little Saigon in Garden Grove where many of the refugees built a community. I knew, too, that many people at the time were not happy that such a community was thriving in the heart of mostly White Orange County. “Will the Last White Man Leaving Garden Grove Please Take the Flag With Him,” a popular bumper sticker declared at the time.
In Bring The War Home: The White Power Movement And Paramilitary America, Kathleen Belew argues that there was a profound change in the white supremacy movement in the late 1970s and ’80s. Before the Vietnam War, most racist movements in the U.S. were essentially “patriotic,” positioning themselves as defenders of the true American culture: white and Christian. Following the defeat of the American military in the Vietnam War, some veterans, feeling betrayed by the government, became newly radicalized and a new emboldened white-power extremism that was often anti-U.S. government, and which envisioned a new white ethno-state took root. I think something similar has happened in the wake of 9/11 and twenty-years of war in the Middle East.
So, as the novel explores, some of the foundation for this contemporary hate movement has its infrastructural roots in the mid-’80s. The Aryan Nations Liberty Net, an internet bulletin board founded by Louis Beam in the early ’80s, and fictionalized in the novel as the Liberty Storm Net, is an early pre-cursor to the far-right / white supremacist sites that spread racist conspiracy theories today. On Beam’s site and others that started to crop up in the ’80s with the advent of home computers, a self-published novel by William Pierce, The Turner Diaries, was advertised and amplified into a sort of white supremacist manifesto. The book is terribly written, horrifically violent, and openly advocates the destruction of the U.S. government, which it claims is run by the Zionist Occupational Government (ZOG), a cabal of wealthy Jewish politicians / business leaders, etc. who want to destroy white Christians. Ted McVeigh who blew up the Oklahoma City federal building in 1993 was inspired by the book. This book remains a sort of white supremacist Bible and many of the contemporary extremists look to its violent vision for inspiration.
The Zionist Occupation Government is a descendent of 1903’s The Protocols Of The Elders Of Zion, which similarly claims that Jews are secretly planning to take over the world. Today, Q-Anon is a descendant of both of these hateful publications, adding into the mix the old blood libel claim. While Q-Anon does not claim specifically that Jews drink children’s blood — at least as far as I know — it does claim that “liberal elites” in Washington and other coastal cities trade in pedophilia and harvest children’s blood to drink in hopes of reaching immortality, fusing centuries of antisemitism into a powerful fiction that has spread quickly on the Internet and gone mainstream enough to influence the 2020 election and help motivate Americans to attack their own capitol building.
The press materials for The Recruit call it a thriller, but it sounds like it might also be noir and / or a mystery. Is it?
Oh, I never know what to call these books. And to be honest, I’m not quite sure what the distinctions are among thriller, mystery, the crime novel, police procedural, psychological thriller, noir, etc. (My imposter syndrome is kicking in now.) When I sat down to write Shadow Man, I really hadn’t intended to write a “thriller.” I intended to write a page-turning literary novel about a troubled man who just happened to be a detective. Well, maybe that’s not entirely true, or partially true, I don’t know. With Shadow Man I was purposely playing around with genre tropes, but what I really wanted to do was to interrogate masculinity a bit, take the American male literary archetypes, the cowboy and the detective / cop, and turn them on their head as a way to talk about — oh I hate this phrase but I’m going use it — “toxic masculinity” and the very real emotional frailty hidden beneath that stoic maleness that so many men feel compelled to perform — as though they really are actors in their own lives. But, you know, you put a serial killer and a cop in a book and readers sort of have an expectation that the cop is going to go after the serial killer, so you suddenly have a “thriller” on your hands.
With The Recruit I was more consciously trying to write a thriller or something thriller-esque, but I never want the demands of genre, the expected tropes, to get in the way of deep character development or thematic exploration or the surprising fiction possibilities that might push a story away from genre narrative expectations. While there are many “thriller” writers who influenced this book — Chandler, Mr. Noir himself, of course, Richard Price, Kem Nunn, Steph Cha, Walter Mosely, etc. — there were three films, I believe, that have a heavy influence on both of these novels: John Sayles’s Lone Star, Blade Runner, and Chinatown. I love the sense of place, the atmospherics in all of those films, but more than that, I love the way they use the genre to explore troubling issues, complicated ones, with significant emotional and psychological consequences. I care about stories to the extent that I can care about and get to know the characters. Car chases are fine, shoot outs, etc., but it always comes back to the characters for me.
One caveat: I love helicopters and chases involving helicopters. You put a helicopter chase in a book or a movie, I’m all in no matter how boring and shallow the characters might be.
You mentioned a couple already, but are there any writers or specific stories that had a particularly big influence on The Recruit but not on your other novels?
I really love Steph Cha’s Your House Will Pay, which is a sort of literary thriller set in Southern California. It explores the fallout of a fictionalized re-telling of an actual shooting in South Central L.A. in the early ’90s which fed Black anger, frustration, and sadness and helped spark the L.A. riots in ’92. It’s smart, subtle, thoughtful, and just a great, great read. While I was writing The Recruit, I was teaching Claudia Rankine’s book Citizen, so elements of that great work were with me while writing. Ta-Nehisi Coates’s Between The World And Me, had a big impact on me and fed The Recruit, particularly his idea that the American Dream and suburbia in general are racist constructs.
How about non-literary influences; was The Recruit influenced by any movies, TV shows, or games? Again, you mentioned a couple before…
Both Shadow Man and The Recruit were heavily influenced by film: Lone Star, Blade Runner, Chinatown. But also, perhaps, 1980’s Miami Vice, which blew me away when I was a teenager; the pilot of that show still blows me away, so stylish, such a sense of place, and as much a character driven story as it is a cop show. In some ways, L.A. Confidential and Altman’s The Player also creep in there a bit.
As we’ve been discussing, The Recruit is the follow-up to Shadow Man. Is this a series of stand-alone but connected novels, are Shadow Man and The Recruit the first two books of a trilogy or some other set number of books, or something else?
The Recruit is the second of three books with Ben Wade and Natasha Betencourt as the central characters. I’m contracted with Random House for one more, which I’m starting to get deep into right now.
Why three? Hmm…the glib answer is because Random House asked me to write two more after they accepted Shadow Man. The more thoughtful answer is that childhood gives you a lot to write about, so with these books I’m exploring some things that troubled me from my childhood — and trying to turn them into what I hope are page-turning thrillers. Also, I think the ’80s were a sort of inflection point politically and socially. The country was still dealing with the fall out of the Vietnam War, the Soviet Union was about to collapse, Reaganomics was about to start gutting the middle class, the AIDS crisis was about to ravage the gay community, etc. and many of these things started to transform this country. So I just think there’s a way in which the ’80s feels like a genesis point for much of what this country is dealing with today.
Upon hearing that The Recruit is the second book of three, some people will decide to wait until all of them are out before reading any of them, and some will not only wait but will also decide to read them back-to-back when the time comes. But is there any reason why you think people shouldn’t wait?
Each of these books can be read as stand-alone novels. In fact, when I wrote Shadow Man, I did not know that there would be at least two more novels in the series, so that book, in particular, stands on its own. While these books are set in the ’80s, I think they both speak to our contemporary moment. When I wrote Shadow Man, I was thinking a lot about Penn State and Jerry Sandusky and, to a certain extent, the “Me too” movement, and the book tries, in part, to interrogate the kind of denial a community needs to live in to allow predators to live among them and prey for so long. The Recruit, as you mentioned above, is timely, and speaks directly to our contemporary moment, with the rise of white supremacist civilian militias and the internet conspiracy theory lies that compel people, mostly white people, to storm their own capitol. This country seems to be in a sort of simmering civil war at the moment and The Recruit looks at the historical origins of where we are now.
Actually, it doesn’t matter when or how people want to read these books. I just hope they read them and enjoy them.
Earlier I asked if The Recruit had been influenced by any movies, TV shows, or games. But to turn things around, do you think Shadow Man and The Recruit could work as some movies, or a show, or a game?
I think the books would make for a fantastic streaming television series, whether stand alone or ongoing. There have been some Hollywood nibbles — the Hollywood flirt, I call it — but I’m still waiting for the big bite. My son, who just graduated high school, has made a few films and has his own production company and plans on studying film in college, so maybe he’ll make the films one day.
As for a game? Hmm… I don’t know. The Recruit might make for a good game, one where you’re the detective hunting white supremacists? Call it Aryan Apocalypse? You win when you hunt down every last one in the country and throw them in jail?
And if someone wanted to make that show, who would you want them to cast as Benjamin, Natasha, and the other main characters?
Man, I don’t know. If we could go back in time ten or twenty years, I’d want Chris Cooper [The Bourne Identity] to play Ben. I think Jessica Chastain would be good for Natasha, mostly based on her role in Zero Dark Thirty — the intelligence and toughness she shows in that role. Really, I don’t have anyone in mind, specifically. I think, though, I’d want character actors more than stars, those actors that can disappear into the roles and become the characters. But you’re not going to get an argument out of me if some big-time star wanted to play Ben. Yeah, that would be just fine.
So, is there anything else that people interested in The Recruit should know before deciding whether or not to buy it?
If a reader is looking for a page-turning thriller with deeply-felt characters and high emotional stakes, one that is entertaining but also strives for thematic depth, then The Recruit is for them. And Shadow Man, for that matter.
Finally, if someone enjoys The Recruit, what detective novel would you recommend they read next?
As mentioned above, go get Steph Cha’s Your House Will Pay. But, also, check out Attica Locke’s Blue Bird, Blue Bird, a fantastic detective novel set in Texas which delivers both page-turning excitement and thoughtful character work. I just read Eli Cranor’s Don’t Know Tough, which I thought was great. It’s a debut, too, so he seems to be a rising star. Oh, and pick up anything by Richard Price. He’s just simply a great writer.