A serial murderer stalks the decks of the USS Abraham Lincoln in Webb and Mann’s Steel Fear (Bantam, July.).
How do you make feasible a serial killer aboard a nuclear aircraft carrier?
Mann: The crucial ingredient was creating an environment of overall sloppiness, which is antithetical to a U.S. war vessel’s culture. For that, we needed a captain with, let’s say, some peculiar personality defects, and a crew at the end of a long and wearing deployment. As it happens, good leadership versus crappy leadership is a topic Brandon and I both warm to, so creating Captain Eagleberg was as much fun for us as it was essential to the plot working.
You once wrote, “A ship’s crew is ill-equipped to deal with a complex crime.” Has that changed at all since you served on the Abraham Lincoln in the mid-1990s?
Webb: Not much. The best way I could describe it is if you imagine yourself in a large football stadium with a killer on the loose and all the doors are locked. That environment is structured around playing a game to thousands of fans in attendance. Yes, basic security exists, as it does on a navy war ship, but the management structure isn’t equipped to deal with a killer on the loose.
In what ways did your experience as a cellist and composer influence how you write fiction?
Mann: My musical training is a more significant factor in my writing than any actual writing training. I approach every book as a composer first. Writing believable dialogue, for example, is something you do by ear. But it’s more; it’s the story as a whole. The arc of the thing, the shape of it, the relationship of structure and flow. A Beethoven symphony, for example, is a highly structured thing, yet it’s also in constant motion, constantly changing, whipping between moods and tempi and textures. It’s a mind-boggling synthesis of structure and flow. In a good thriller, you ideally want every chapter to end on a twist, or a surprise, or a sudden revelation or fresh question—something dramatic that propels you on.
Did new technology, such as the prevalence of cell phones, alter this plot concept, which you first had 25 years ago?
Webb: There’s no cell reception at sea, so the lack of cell phones made it much easier. However, we did get to play with some off-the-shelf spy tech which future readers will discover for themselves.