Researching a thriller

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hideme
How I researched Hide Me

by Ava McCarthy

 

Did you hear the one about the Irishman, the badger and the pygmy shrew? Apparently, they all originally came to Ireland on a boat from the Basque country.

Well, maybe not the same boat.

I stumbled across this entertaining piece of science while researching my latest thriller, Hide Me. For various reasons, I had flung my Irish heroine, Harry Martinez, into the Basque country of northern Spain, and now here it seemed that the Irish and the Basques had ancient and unique genetic links. Who knew? Research is always fun, but uncovering nuggets like these is what makes it so addictive.

Setting is important to me. The best books are created when the writer knows her story world in intimate detail and understands the kind of people that populate it. So when I sent Harry to San Sebastián, naturally I went along for the ride.

And so did my husband and children. In our house, for ‘research’, read ‘family holiday’. But being a writer on location is nothing like being san_sebastian_a tourist. Sure, we visited some local attractions, but mostly I looked for places where I might kill people. Forests, mountains, tall buildings. Cliff edges were always full of potential. In San Sebastián, I had rich pickings: steep river banks; thrashing water; the churning ocean driven by wind blasting across the Bay of Biscay.

With my plot scenes in mind, I dragged my young family to graveyards and hilltops, backstreets and alleyways. We staked out the local police station, photographing it from all sides. A uniformed officer with a gun eventually asked us to move along.

People are always the best source of material, and universally seem happy to talk to writers. I know this, yet I’m usually shy about asking, but thankfully my husband is not. ‘My wife is a writer’, he declared to a San Sebastián barman, and before long the entire bar staff were trying to teach me Euskara, the obscure language of the Basques. They say it’s so complex that even the Devil himself can’t learn it.

But Hide Me needed authenticity for more than just setting. The plot revolved around a crew ofsan-sebastian-2 high-stakes conmen, operating across a string of international casinos. I needed to understand their plays; how they’d pull off a long con. I needed to make it real.

Back in the day, I used to be a physicist, and I like to know how stuff works. So everywhere I went, I visited casinos. San Sebastián, Biarritz, London, Dublin. I watched the punters, the dealers, the floormen, the pit bosses. I watched them so closely, eventually they started watching me. In Dublin, I managed to speak to a professional dealer, introduced by a mutual friend. He told me the only people who made money in the casinos were the cheaters. Then he gave me a name: Richard Marcus, one of the world’s greatest professional conmen.

I recalled seeing Richard Marcus once on TV. He’d spent his life touring Las Vegas and Monte Carlo, cheating the casinos out of enormous sums of money. So I looked him up online. I pored over articles, watched him on YouTube, read his books, studied the sleight of hand and psychological misdirection that he’d used to scam the gaming tables. Like an apprentice magician, I immersed myself in his world of smoke and mirrors until I got it.

And boy, did I get it. I’ve always loved puzzles. Card tricks, riddles, mind-bending illusions. The world of the hustler fascinates me, and it’s no coincidence that my favourite movie of all time is The Sting. I adore its elaborate ‘big store scam’, and the supreme audience con that it pulls. By the time I finished digging, I knew a lot about cheating, much more than I needed for the plot of Hide Me. That’s the problem about research. Sometimes it’s hard to stop.

casino-signBut now I have a stockpile of tricks and flim-flam, and you never know when the know-how will come in handy. I particularly like scams where the mark is fleeced as a result of his own greed, which seems like sweet justice to me.

Take the Pedigree Pet Scam, for instance. The conman takes his dog into a bar and strikes up a conversation with the barman. He explains he has a make-or-break business deal around the corner and asks if the barman will look after the dog for half an hour. No sooner has he left than another guy comes in and identifies the dog as a rare pedigree and offers €500 for it. The barman explains the dog isn’t his to sell, so the guy leaves his card for the owner. Once he’s gone, the dog-owner returns, looking downbeat: his deal fell through and now he’s broke; can’t even pay for his drinks. So the barman turns crafty and offers to buy the dog for €150, intending to call the number on the card and sell the animal on for a profit. Reluctantly, the con artist takes the money and leaves. Naturally, the number on the card doesn’t exist, and the barman is down €150 for a dog he doesn’t want. The dog, of course, makes his own way home in the end.

See? Sweet justice.

My all-time favourite is a ruse called ‘The O’Leary Scam’. It’s a real bamboozler, but so simple it’s irresistible. Sadly, I never got to use it in the book. And I don’t think I’ll tell you just how that one works, either. Who knows, I might like to try it out myself one day…

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