It’s difficult to recall exactly when the idea behind STALKERS first came to mind. It was quite a few years ago now – I recall that much. I’m pretty sure I was having a brain-storming session at the time, taking my dog for a walk with Dictaphone in hand, trying to come up with as many high concepts as possible – either for story, novel or script.
When STALKERS first jumped into my head, I remember being quite shaken because it was so grotesque a notion that I couldn’t see it working outside the horror genre, and even then it might have been deemed gratuitous. However, the more I thought about it, the more I began to see how it could also fit into a police thriller context – that way it could be more about the investigation than the crimes themselves.
This was certainly a timely notion because I’d just devised a new police character, who I was hoping to try and market as a television hero. Hugely impressed by hard-edged US cop shows like THE SHIELD and THE WIRE, I’d been having discussions with my agent for some time about the possibility of pitching a new similar TV series over here. In many ways we broke that ground first in the UK with THE SWEENEY – I’m talking about the depiction of an elite CID unit who deal with the worst of the worst, and, through a series of edgy, pacey crime-fighting exploits are gradually transformed into damaged shadow-versions of those they pursue, eventually reaching such a state of mind that they will stop at nothing to bring felons to justice – though obviously I wanted to update it to the here and now, utilising modern technology and current forensic-psychological techniques.
The idea had also grown on me about creating a British version of the FBI, a sort of specialist team based at Scotland Yard who have a remit to cover the whole of England and Wales, travelling the length of the country to assist bamboozled local police departments with baffling and disturbing crimes. That too seemed to fit in with the overall concept I was evolving.
By this time I had a very clear picture of my central character, Detective Sergeant Mark Heckenburg, whose name could be shortened to the satisfyingly rougher-edged ‘Heck’. Though I had it in mind that he’d be an action hero rather than a cerebral plodder, I didn’t picture him as a British Dirty Harry or Vic Mackey (though he can and will use violence if necessary), but as a driven, obsessive loner who simply won’t give up on cases. He’ll work every hour God sends, he’ll go to any length, and will bend all the rules to send the guilty to prison, though he’s also a good guy with a conscience; his whole attitude to life stems from a terrible trauma he suffered as a teenager. Another dimension I’d been playing with was a ‘fire and water’ relationship between Heck and his female boss, Gemma Piper. I didn’t want this to be a standard ‘wise teacher and errant pupil’ thing – I wanted there to be sexual chemistry there too, and then it struck me out of the blue that they should be former lovers, between whom there is a still a strong if unspoken bond of affection and tolerance. I was delighted with that, because I knew it was something I could have a lot of fun with in future stories (there certainly isn’t much room for ‘will they or won’t they’ in the grimfest that is STALKERS).
Both my agent and I really liked the overall concept, but selling a new television show is extremely difficult even at the best of financial times, and after further discussions, we agreed that we felt that Heck might see life more quickly in novel form. I had to pen the book on spec as we knew that with my background in horror and fantasy rather than in thrillers, I was going to have to write the book in its entirety in order to get someone to read it.
However, I was so enthused that I finished the first draft in about three months – it’s always nice when an idea is so well-formed in your mind that it virtually writes itself, though as other writers will attest, that doesn’t happen very often. Initially the book was named THE NICE GUYS CLUB (as a kind of play on both the villains and the cops themselves), but eventually I opted for the shorter, sharper and perhaps more shocking STALKERS.
I remember thinking what a long shot it was when we began shopping the book around – as I say, I was unknown in crime circles – and quite a few months passed before we heard anything. In fact, it was the end of the year, Christmas Eve afternoon 2011, when I got the phone-call from Helen Bolton at Avon Books, saying that she was interested in buying it and in commissioning two follow-ups. More champagne corks than usual popped over that festive season, I can assure you.
Of course it wasn’t all plain-sailing from there. Rewrites were needed, plot holes had to be filled, new characters were introduced and old ones torn out, and so on. But if I dare say it, the whole thing went swimmingly. Avon and I were clearly on the same page about what we wanted to do with this series, and we very quickly established the outlines for the second and third books.
Despite all these positive vibes, there is always that possibility that no matter how good you think a project is, it will still fall flat on its face out in the marketplace. So I was very nervous as publication day approached. All the more reason, I suppose, why I’ve been so flabbergasted and delighted about sales to date – we’ve been in and around the top ten Kindle sales in the UK for several weeks now, while the retailers have placed massive orders for the paperback. Some of the online reviews have also taken my breath away.
I think it’s probably a bit previous to describe me as “the new James Patterson”, as one generous online reviewer did, but it’s nice to know that Heck has already made such a big splash in the thriller genre that these kinds of comparisons are being made. Hopefully this is only the beginning.