By Hillel Italie
NEW YORK: With his novel The Chain heading for publishing best-seller lists and summer packing lists, Adrian McKinty can now laugh as he remembers an old and “failed” novel.
“I was in Mexico City, trying to write about…the assassination of Trotsky, and it wasn’t going well,” says McKinty as he enjoys a beer during an interview at a café in Manhattan. “It was such a hackneyed premise. There had been [a] number of books on this. I was struggling to find an original spin and there was nothing.”
But around the same time, he had an idea for a very different book that eventually became The Chain.
“While I was in Mexico City, I learned about this bizarre kidnapping business where a criminal gang will kidnap one of your family members,” he says. “And while you’re raising the ransom to pay off the kidnappers, you can arrange to be swapped out for this for a more vulnerable member of your family. They swap you for your grandmother [while] the rest of the family raises money for your ransom. It’s like a business.”
In The Chain, a woman learns that her daughter has been abducted and that she can only get her back by kidnapping someone in turn. McKinty’s novel, which has just been published and was already on Amazon.com’s top 100, arrived with blurbs from Stephen King, Dennis LeHane and many others.
The novel was acquired by Little, Brown and Co.’s Mulholland imprint in a reported six-figure, two-book deal and, for film rights, by Paramount Pictures in a reported seven-figure deal. The Chain has been translated into more than 20 languages.
McKinty, 51, is a late bloomer who, two years ago, was driving an Uber and thinking seriously of giving up on writing. He is new to most readers of The Chain, but he has been an acclaimed crime author for more than a decade, often drawing upon his native Belfast and the “troubles” of the 1980s.
His previous novels include the “Michael Forsythe” trilogy and “Sean Duffy” series, and have brought him such honors as an Edgar Award and the Ned Kelly Award. His first book, Dead I May Well Be, was optioned by Universal Pictures.
Josh Kendall, executive editor of Mulholland, had been a fan and said reading The Chain reduced his brain to “pure experience.”
“I thought that Adrian McKinty, who had written many wonderful crime novels full of humor, wit, color and tension, had written the perfect thriller,” Kendell told AP.
The low point of McKinty’s career is well-documented. The film version of Dead I May Well Be never happened, his books were selling poorly and McKinty felt he was out of ideas. In a blog post from March 2017, he announced that he, his wife and two daughters had been evicted from their house outside of Melbourne, Australia.
“This is depressing for all of us, because it’s the house my kids have grown up in,” he wrote. “I imagine it’s going to be pretty stressful over the next few weeks looking for a new place for us and the kids so I’m going to be taking a blogging break and reassessing…my writing career. I think it’s probably time for me to go back to working full-time until we’re a bit more settled.”
His comeback was unplanned, and began without his knowledge. His friend Don Winslow, author of The Cartel and other novels, begged him not to give up and promised to contact his agent, Shane Salerno, who had helped revive Winslow’s own career.
“Adrian’s story was my story,” Winslow told AP. “I was writing books that were, in all modesty, getting rave reviews and a loyal [but limited] readership. When they start calling you a cult writer, it’s like taking a vow of poverty. So I could really relate to Adrian’s experience.”
Two weeks later, past midnight in Australia, McKinty’s phone rang. It was Salerno, the first of several after-hours calls.
“I promised him that if he would listen to me and trust me that I would change his sales track and career,” Salerno says.
But McKinty was exhausted. “I had had a really, really complicated day,” he says, “and he’s pitching this whole enterprise to me. I said, ‘Look Shane, this sounds wonderful. I’m in a different place now. I’m a teacher and I’m an Uber driver.”
He hung up on him. Salerno called again. McKinty hung up again. Salerno called a third time.
“He gives me his best shot,” McKinty says. “He tells me, ‘You don’t have a writing problem. You have a product problem and you have a publishing problem. Everything about your books is horrible — from the author photos to the printing — except for the prose.’”
McKinty resisted, saying he couldn’t afford to quit working. Salerno offered to wire $10,000, an “advance against my advance.” He then asked if McKinty had any good story ideas, ideally something set in the United States. McKinty remembered his trip to Mexico City, and, at Salerno’s urging, quickly worked up about 30 pages, emailing them at 3:30 am.
A little after 4 a.m., another call from Salerno, raving about what McKinty had written so far.
“’All you need is another 300 pages exactly like that,’” McKinty remembers Salerno telling him. “’Oh, and Adrian, you should go to sleep. Man, you’ve got a book to write.’”