Michael Robotham is always known for always trying something different, but this time he goes even further with Life or Death, a Texas-set tale. Convict Audie Palmer escapes prison the day before his release. Soon, people on both sides of the law are out to get both him and the millions he may or may not have robbed. Michael was kind enough to talk to us about the novel.
MysteryPeople: Why a convict would break out of prison the day before his release is such a great question to start with. Did you immediately have the answer when you came up with it?
Michael Robotham: The idea for the story was triggered by a real-life escape 20 years ago in Australia when a twice convicted killer called Tony Lanigan escaped from prison on the eve of his release on parole. Lanigan has never been seen since and many people suspect he was murdered, but I’ve always been intrigued by his escape.
I spent years tossing the idea around – trying to come up with a possible answer. Eventually I settled upon the idea of a robbery and missing millions. I knew there had to be a love story at the heart of Life or Death – otherwise it wouldn’t explain why Audie Palmer endured so much misery and hardship in prison, only to escape on the eve of his release.
MP: The voice, tone, and dialogue is way different from your other work. How much of that was because of the different setting?
MR: The ‘voice’ of the book is very much dictated by the setting. My previous novels have all been tense, almost suffocating psychological thrillers set in the UK. Life or Death is very different. It is more of a classic ‘man-on-the-run’ story, battling against the odds to stay alive.
There is a great history in America of prison-based novels and films, such as The Green Mile, Cool Hand Luke and The Shawshank Redemption. I had this in mind when I chose my setting. I am also a huge fan of Cormac McCarthy, William Faulkner and James Lee Burke, among other southern writers, and I was determined to draw inspiration from them. I also listened to dozens of audio books set in the south and read by southern actors, trying to catch the rhythm of the language.
3. What drew you to Texas for the story?
MR: Life or Death is a big story and it needed a big canvas. There’s a slogan that says Texas is ‘like a whole other country’ and it’s very true – not just because of its size and cultural diversity, but its food, pride, people and the history. What other state has it’s own Texas Independence Day or bumper stickers threatening to secede?
MP: How did you deal with a setting you were less familiar with?
MR: I’ve always been a huge fan of American writers ever since I discovered Steinbeck, Hemingway, Fitzgerald and Faulkner in my teens. Apart from my reading (and listening to) a lot of books, I spent seven weeks in the Lone Star State, scouting locations, sitting in bars, chatting to locals and driving enough miles to get white line fever. During that time I met prison warders, bondsmen, bounty hunters, strippers, deputy sheriffs and a district attorney, who was born in Liverpool, England, but finished up living and working in Austin. Mark Pryor is also a very fine crime writer, who gave me a lot of help with the technical side of legal system in Texas.
MP: Audie reminds me of an Elmore Leonard lead in his zen ways. How did you approach him?
MR: I wanted to create an everyman hero in Audie Palmer, someone caught in the wrong place at the wrong time, who faces enormous adversity yet discovers untapped reservoirs of courage and calmness.
Over many years as a journalist I interviewed a lot of survivors and heroes who risked their own lives to save others. One of the things that struck me is that none of us knows how we’ll react when confronted by death or danger. The most unlikely of people become heroes.
MP: After writing Life Or Death, did you notice any differences between American and British crime?
MR: There may have been differences at one point in time, but I don’t think they exist any more because the genre is so international in scope.
Traditionally, in British crime novels the crime was often an aberration that upset the balance of a peaceful place, whereas in America the crime is more a ‘fact of life’ and ordinary people are caught up in violent events.
The policing and legal systems are obviously different, but one of the reasons I chose to set Life or Death in the US is because at a local level people often elect their local sheriff, district attorney and judges. The fate of any suspect is determined by only a handful of people – who decide what charges someone faces, who represents them and what judge sits on the case. I find this quite scary.
Copies of Life or Death are available on our shelves and via bookpeople.com.