Hugo Marston has never investigated an "ordinary" case. His killers have unearthed bodies of former Moulin Rouge dancers and set free 200-year-old curses. Hear from Mark Pryor author of "The Button Man" on his version of "digging up the past."
In each of his adventures, my main character Hugo Marston comes face-to-face with an enemy far more powerful and mysterious than any deranged serial killer. That enemy is an untouchable, unbreakable force that informs and directs the actions of not just Hugo but all the characters around him. In fact, I think it's fair to say that this force powers everything we do in real life, too, influences who we are, and shapes what we'll become. Most people call it history.
Oh, I don't mean the grand history we learn in school, of kings and queens, of wars and plagues. Dan Brown is the master of using that kind of history as a plot-starter but that's not what I mean. No, I’m talking about the smaller, more personal histories that are hidden within us, our own, secret stories. We each have one, you and I, and every well-drawn character in a novel has one, too.
Having worked in law enforcement I know that a person's most momentous decisions, whether they are real or fictional, are influenced by a moment in time that is significant to them. A history of drug use that leads to theft, or a lifetime of abuse that cycles through a family. In my first novel, The Bookseller, an old man called Max stands up to a dangerous gang leader -- not because he thinks he can win but because, many years before, his family was taken from him, his own life put in mortal danger, by a different gang of bullies: the Nazis. He can't forget that and he doesn't want to relive that kind of oppression and so, whatever the personal cost, Max decides to fight back. That resistance triggers Hugo's own actions as he has to help, and tries to save, his old friend.
Sometimes, though, people do want to relive history, and at great cost to others. In the second book in the Hugo Marston series, The Crypt Thief, the killer is trying to recreate a particular moment in history. An impossibility, of course, once a relative is dead you'd need Dr. Frankenstein to bring them back and so my character's failing efforts become more and more destructive, giving the book its narrative arc. And the story is very much about Hugo's struggle to understand his quarry as well as find him because, as a former profiler, Hugo knows that the key to catching him is the man's personal history. I love this notion because when you understand a fellow human being, you can start to empathize with him, no matter how different he is to you. And for someone like Hugo to be able to see and explain (if not empathize with) the motivations of a deranged murderer, well, that allows me as a writer to make Hugo himself a little more complex.
As a writer, I get to invent history. In Hugo's third escapade, The Blood Promise, I got to plant the 200-year-old sailor's chest, with its secret compartments and hidden note. So it is with the characters, I can choose each person's history, hide facets of their character to be later revealed. That is endless fun, but I've discovered that I, too, am bound by history -- despite being their creator, I find myself having to live with the history of my major characters. Hugo, for example, lost his first wife in an accident. That informs his relationship with Claudia, makes him both vulnerable and distant, and now that this is part of his life and personality, even I, the author, don't have the power to change that narrative.
I used history in a different way in my latest novel. It’s the fourth in the Hugo Marston series, The Button Man, but it’s also a prequel. I let my readers get to know Hugo’s early days as head of security at the US Embassy (in this book he’s in London, not Paris). It was an interesting historical journey for me, upending time and letting me sow the seeds for certain plots twists and characters that will appear in future stories. Best of all, it let me send Hugo back in time to hang out, for just a few minutes, with a friend who is killed in one of Hugo’s Paris adventures. I will continue to play with the past in my books, to watch as the spirits come out to dance around my characters, to haunt and beguile them. But as the series goes on, I’ll keep an eye on my own cast of personalities because now that they are real to me, there’s always the chance that a history I’ve created will lead me down a path I’d not conceived of. And I simply can’t wait.