Jeffery Deaver: ‘I’m an equal opportunity murderer – the same number of men and women die in my books’

Master of suspense: crime novelist Jeffery Deaver has sold 50 million novels in 25 languages - Andrew Crowley
Master of suspense: crime novelist Jeffery Deaver has sold 50 million novels in 25 languages - Andrew Crowley

You will not find many authors who compare their work to toiletries.

Jeffery Deaver has sold 50 million novels in 25 languages, won numerous awards and counts Ian Rankin, Harlan Coben and Lee Child among his fans. But he has no time for highfalutin notions of creativity.

“I appreciate your mentioning formula,” he tells me over coffee in a London hotel. “That’s the word I use to describe what I do. I’ve been in debates on this. Some authors say, ‘There’s no art to that. You have to sit down and let the muse move you.’ Well, I’m sorry, the muse does not move Procter & Gamble to make toothpaste that you see in Boots. I serve a type of market, they serve a type of market.”

The American’s latest product launch is Hunting Time, the fourth novel following Colter Shaw, an itinerant “reward-seeker,” traversing the US to help solve confounding crimes.

Shaw is a loner with a nickname that could just as easily be ascribed to Deaver. “I’m the Restless Man, yeah,” he admits. “And I guess the prototype of a Deaver hero is someone who is never satisfied, who continually has to find the challenge.”

The Bone Collector with Denzel Washington as Lincoln Rhyme and Angelina Jolie as Amelia Donaghy - Film Stills
The Bone Collector with Denzel Washington as Lincoln Rhyme and Angelina Jolie as Amelia Donaghy - Film Stills

The 72-year-old started out as a journalist on business trade publications and an attorney practising corporate law before publishing his first novel, 1988’s supernatural thriller, Voodoo, and devoting himself to writing full-time the following year. He now produces up to two books and five short stories annually – with topical plots covering everything from criminal hacking to murderous cults.

“What it means is I sit in a dark room – and I can touch-type, so I literally do sit in a dark room or close my eyes – by myself, for 10 hours a day, and have done that every day for the last 35 years or so.” He usually has to replace his laptop every year, as he taps so furiously, “I wear the keys down”.

Deaver is so diligent that he prioritised a book deadline over a meal with Angelina Jolie, star of the 1999 film version of his thriller The Bone Collector – the first of (to date) 15 books featuring Lincoln Rhyme, a quadriplegic forensic criminologist.

And he is so prolific that he is the kind of man who can talk of a discovery he made “about 38 books ago”, and who has surely earned the right to refer, as he does frequently, to his work in the third person.

A “Deaver book” must have three components. First, the main crime plot – with his numerous trademark twists. Second, “I call it the EastEnders personal relationship story that moves people emotionally. And then the third leg of the stool is the geopolitical element and that’s what I want people to find interesting. So we’ve got the interest, the heart and the sweaty palms, and that’s a Deaver formula.”

Jeffery Deaver was commissioned to write a new James Bond novel in 2010 - AP Photo/Akira Suemori
Jeffery Deaver was commissioned to write a new James Bond novel in 2010 - AP Photo/Akira Suemori

The Chicago-born author is as forensic as his protagonists. In the early 1990s, he sat down to dissect his first novels, pulling them apart to locate their deficiencies. The “master of ticking-bomb suspense” – fond of quoting 1950s US pulp fiction writer Mickey Spillane: “Nobody reads a book to get to the middle” – decided what he wanted was “more drive”. Now, he spends a solid eight months outlining a plot for every “race car of a story”, before a paragraph of prose is composed.

Deaver, who is single and lives with his two large dogs, spends his spare time breeding show pooches, folk singing, or hosting Roman and medieval-themed dinner parties.

The son of an artist mother and copywriter father, he first picked up a James Bond novel aged eight. When he was commissioned to write an official 007 tale in 2010, rather than being cowed by Ian Fleming’s estate, Deaver laid down his conditions, including that no one reads his work before it is completed. It was take it or leave it, barring a few minor suggestions, for what became Carte Blanche, set in a post-9/11 world.

He has “no opinion whatsoever” on whether the next film instalment should star a woman, though he used to favour ex-Neighbours star Guy Pearce (“he has that kind of subdued, piercing-eye look that I thought would be appropriate”), and adds: “What I would like to see is a movie that portrayed a grittier Bond. The movies have become so gimmicky – special effects and, in the latest one, excessive gadgets and so forth.”

Deaver is related to Edward de Vere, the Elizabethan playwright reputed by some to be the real author of Shakespeare’s works – though the 17th Earl of Oxford’s descendant does not buy into the theory. But he is an avowed Anglophile, a lover of everything from the original British versions of The Office and House of Cards to sitcom Upstart Crow and John le Carré, who “may be my favourite thriller writer of all time”.

Jeffery Deaver: ‘I now write in what I call a streaming style: my books are shorter, the chapters are shorter’ - Andrew Crowley
Jeffery Deaver: ‘I now write in what I call a streaming style: my books are shorter, the chapters are shorter’ - Andrew Crowley

On whether crime writing has made him a fortune, he demurs. “I don’t answer questions about rich or non-rich. But is it as easy to do that now as it was? No. Because there are fewer publication venues. There are smaller advances than there were – there might have been 200,000 quid for someone who’d never written a book before because the publisher thought, this is going to be the next big thing. But if you are diligent, keep your head down, writing primarily a serial character – those are more popular now – make sure that your Procter & Gamble toothpaste is on the shelves every year, if not more frequently … yes, you can make a living at it.” His success has allowed him to buy two homes, in North Carolina and Virginia, and indulge some Bond-like pastimes: whisky, fast cars, skiing and scuba diving.

He does not see the profusion of true crime podcasts, magazines and documentaries as a threat. Rather, an addict himself, he takes inspiration. “It is indicative of a trend away from reading. And one of the ways I’ve tried to address that is to change my writing style. I actually now write in what I call a streaming style. By that I mean my books are shorter, the chapters are shorter – there are just as many twists, because I have to do my twists. But the characters are revealed more cinematically, that is through dialogue and their actions, rather than introspection.”

Some have accused the genre of being constructed primarily on the fetishised abuse of women. “I can only speak to my writing,” says Deaver, who sits immaculately still while speaking in perfect sentences. “No, my books are not violent. People think they are, but they’re not. There is no sexual violence, there is no violence against children or animals. I killed a rabid racoon in one of my books and I never heard the end of it. And, in fact, gore I find to be a creative failure. I have an equal number of men and women killed in my books. So I’m an equal-opportunity murderer. Everybody who’s not a kid or an animal is fair game.”

The man himself – who favours dark clothes and says he looks “kind of a bit gothic and my face is a little gaunt” – is deceptively tame. One reader came up after an event to complain that Deaver was not, as she had expected, like a character from a Stephen King book. “You’re actually nice and funny,” she told him with a disappointed shrug.

Even though he enjoys the work of everyone from Kazuo Ishiguro to Ian McEwan, he insists he is reconciled to the fact he is never going to win the Booker. Does he ever get irritated by the snobbery that surrounds thrillers and commercial fiction? “I don’t. Because I feel I’m right,” he says with a chuckle. “Not that I have a big ego,” he adds. “I’m happy in my genre, telling stories.”

Hunting Time by Jeffery Deaver is published by HarperCollins (£20)