When I first discovered the John Crane adventures by Mark Parragh, I was struck hard. As always, I look for crisp writing, nothing bloated--check. Fun adventure with lots of stuff going boom--check. It just kept getting better. And, look, he has more books to read!
And when I reached out to Mark for a chat, I found a kindred spirit. Mark and I are working along the same lines, trying to make spy and adventure fiction fun again, which has been sorely missing over the last two or three or maybe four decades.
If you like rip-snorting adventures, the kind to read on the porch on a Saturday afternoon with some iced tea, the Crane books are what you're looking for.
Mark and I met in a dark alley in Vienna to pass the microfilm back and forth.
Brian Drake: When did you start writing?
Mark Parragh: Well, I grew up in a very isolated setting and I was by myself a lot as a child, so stories and imagination had always been a big part of my life. But I can tell you exactly when, for better or worse, I became a “writer.” It was seventh grade English class. The teacher gave us each some object or line of dialog or whatever that we drew at random, and we had to use it in a story. I wrote a very cliched accidental time travel story about a guy who finds himself in the past and discovers that he himself is the mysterious ancestor who shows up out of nowhere in his family’s legends.
BD: And your teacher proclaimed you a future best-seller, right?
MP: It wasn’t prize-winning stuff, but I guess it wasn’t bad for a seventh grader. I got an A+, and a note from my teacher saying he’d read worse stories in magazines where people were paid to write them. Ka-ching! It was like, wait, I can do this for a living? Yeah, I’m up for that. And I was off to the races. It’s been a long, twisty path since then, but that one event probably did more than almost anything else to shape my life.
BD: What is it about spy and adventure fiction that you find so endearing? Why do you think it's a genre that keeps on going despite when other genres come and go?
MP: The world changes, right? Audiences and tastes change. When Fleming was writing James Bond back in the 50s, thrillers and mysteries were big. Westerns were big. Romance was big. Gothics were big. Some of those genres are still around and others have faded out. I think the genres that have lasted are the ones that speak broadly to universal human experiences.
Romance is a great example. When Fleming was writing the Bond books, the romance genre was very different. It used to be about the pretty nurse who lands the handsome doctor and bang, she has won at life. We’ve moved beyond that. But love is universal. Mystery is universal. Wondering about the future is universal. So genres like mystery, romance, and science fiction last because they can change with the times and present those universal themes in different forms. The genres that are mostly about their external trappings, like westerns or gothics, rise and fall with the audience’s interest in those things.
Spy adventures are still around. But that doesn’t mean they’re quite what they were in Fleming’s day. It’s not the cold war anymore with suave secret agents sneaking into East Berlin and matching wits with devious Soviets over martinis. Today, it’s more about heavily armed commandos fighting terrorists. But at its core the genre is about human conflict, about huge geopolitical issues distilled down to one hero’s struggles. I don’t think that’s ever going to go away.
BD: Who inspired John Crane?
MP: I’m sure it’s no surprise to hear that Crane was basically inspired by James Bond. Specifically, I was thinking about the way Bond always seems to be going rogue these days. I mean, in Spectre, all of MI-6 ends up going rogue with him! I started to wonder why that was happening, and I decided it has to do with, again, the way the world has changed since Bond was born. Like the genre itself, Bond has changed a lot over the years to keep up with social mores. And there are a lot of changes you can get away with. Take away the cold war, take away his cigarettes, make him less of a “misogynist dinosaur.” He’s still Bond. But there’s one thing that’s absolutely central to who Bond is. He’s a British agent. Change that and he’s no longer James Bond.
BD: How have you updated Crane, then, to the modern world?
MP: [T]he idea of government agent as hero has fallen out of favor since Fleming’s day. I think Vietnam and Watergate had a lot to do with it, but the idea of a government agent as a stalwart hero protecting us from foreign enemies really went out of vogue. By the 1970s you had all these paranoid conspiracy thrillers like Three Days of the Condor where a government agent was more likely to be the bad guy. By the time we got to X-Files, if the hero was a government agent, he was always a lone rogue trying to do good despite the system, and there was always somebody rotten in his own agency waiting to betray him. That idea has really gotten baked into the genre now until it’s a standard trope.
So how could I get around that? I thought, okay, then just take the government out of the picture. But if my spy wasn’t working for the government, who was he working for? Who else has spies? And the obvious answer seemed to be some ridiculously wealthy tech billionaire who can marshal the kind of resources that puts him on the same level as a government. That led to Josh Sulenski, and it all kind of fell into place from there. Crane is basically Bond, except now M is an idealistic 25-year-old tech nerd with enough money to do literally anything he wants. And he wants to save the world because he thinks that’s really cool. It’s a simple enough idea, but the more I played with the premise, the more fun I could see in it.
BD: Did you find it gave you more flexibility with Crane's stories?
MP: It just made the series feel more modern. We’re in a new gilded age now. There was a time when - maybe this is naïve of me, but in theory at least – we as a people concentrated our wealth and power collectively in our government and used it to provide for ourselves and build our nation. Now we’re back to basically handing it to powerful individuals and hoping they’ll use it for something that does us some good. The last time, we had men like Carnegie and Vanderbilt and Rockefeller endowing universities and libraries with their names on them. And those aren’t bad things, but maybe the people back then would have chosen to do something different with that money. And you also saw a lot of pointless grandiosity like the Biltmore Estate or the mansions in Newport.
The same thing’s happening now. As Josh notes in the first book, Bill Gates is trying to wipe out Malaria, and Elon Musk has his own space program. But Larry Ellison bought one of the Hawaiian islands, and a boat so big that he can’t actually dock it at his personal island. He apparently docks it at Honolulu, right next to a homeless camp.
In the last gilded age, government simply couldn’t match the power of these ultra-rich industrialists, and that’s kind of happening again. So if we’re going to be essentially ruled by plutocrats, then at least Josh is the fantasy of the “good billionaire,” the one who’s trying to use his money to make things better for everyone instead of running roughshod over you to get whatever he wants.
BD: You've brought up your Bond comparison, but one of your reviews also compares your work to John D. MacDonald, which is quite a comparison, considering they're two different sphere of the writing world. How has John D.'s work influenced you, and how have you used that influence to create Crane's adventures?
MP: I had to think about MacDonald, especially when I started hearing it from more readers. I think what they’re picking up on is the tone of the books. There’s a certain romanticism in MacDonald’s books, at least the Travis McGee series, that I think has passed down to some other authors I really admire like Carl Hiassen and Thomas Perry. And I think it’s there in the Crane books. The books can be intense and dangerous, but they’re not grim or depressing. Crane’s not jaded and broken by all the things he’s seen and done. He and Josh are out there saving the world and having a good time doing it. And even though Crane’s just one guy – granted, with a whole lot of Josh’s money backing him up - he can make a difference.
And it’s a world full of good people along with the bad. Whatever country or culture Crane finds himself in, he runs into decent people. I think there are a lot of heroes in the action genre who are ultimately about striking down horrible, irredeemable villains in self-righteous vengeful rage. And I didn’t want to write that book. I wanted the books to be more fun, but also to present a more hopeful world, a world where people want to do right, and where they can do the right thing, and where that can matter. That’s ultimately a very romantic concept and I think it owes a lot to MacDonald.
BD: What's coming up next for John Crane?
MP: Well, with Shot Clock, I’ve finished the first “arc” of the Crane series. My original idea was that the books would all stand alone. And I think they do, but I was building the world through these first books, so when I introduce a supporting character or a recurring villain, that’s the first time they’ve shown up. They’re not there in the earlier books. So I think the books work alone, but they work better if you read them in order, with the two novellas that kind of bridge the gap between book one and two and between book two and three.
Now that the world is basically there, I think it will be easier to have the books truly stand alone so you can read them in whatever order you find them. I’ve got the relationship between Crane and Josh. I’ve got Swift, who is sort of Crane’s Catwoman. They have this attraction and a connection that they can’t quite walk away from. They’re on opposite sides, but they each think they could be great together if only the other one would come over to their side. I’ve got a lot of the supporting players in place, and a sort of civil war going on behind the scenes. In a movie, they say that the first part of act two is where the really cool stuff gets going. That’s where the scenes on the movie poster happen. That’s where we are now with Crane. Everything is set up, and now we get to play with it.
BD: Thank you for a wonderful interview, Mark. How can readers contact you?
MP: I love hearing from readers! Getting feedback, and just sharing the fun I’m having with Crane and Josh is a big part of what makes this worthwhile. Readers can reach me through my web site at markparragh.com. And I have a Facebook page at facebook.com/MarkParragh. I’m not always the best at keeping them updated because I’m busy working on new books! But you can always reach me through them, and my email at firstname.lastname@example.org. I hope to hear from you there!
BD: You can check out John Crane #1: Rope on Fire, here.