1. Books

Ridley Pearson happy to return to the spy thriller genre

Ridley Pearson's newest series, Risk Agent, is a return to his roots.

"My very first novel, Never Look Back, was a spy thriller," Pearson says. "I love that genre."

Since that first book in 1985, Pearson has published 45 novels, most of them bestsellers. They include several crime fiction series for adult readers, including one about Seattle cop Lou Boldt, as well as the wildly popular young readers series Kingdom Keepers and Peter and the Starcatchers — the latter co-written with humorist Dave Barry and now the source for a hit Broadway play.

Pearson, 60, spoke from his home in St. Louis, Mo., about his new novel, Choke Point, second in the Risk Agent series. (For an interview about his YA books, see after Oct. 24.)

What moved you to return to the spy thriller genre?

I was in that first wave of people writing procedurals, one of the earliest ones along with Patricia Cornwell and some others. But that genre has gotten so burned out, with CSI and all the other TV shows. It's just overdone.

The Risk Agent books have two main characters, John Knox and Grace Chu, who work for the Rutherford Risk private firm. What was the inspiration for Knox?

I became fascinated during the Iraq conflict with the fact that there were more private contractors on the ground than military. I read about these guys who drove 18-wheelers into Baghdad and got paid $80,000 a month for four trips. These are guys who don't want to hold guns, they aren't paramilitary. They just want to make the big money from conflict.

I also met a guy whose business it is to deliver ransoms. I found out that in 2009, U.S. companies or families paid $400 million in ransoms in Mexico alone. That's amazing. So that was where Knox came from.

Grace Chu is an unusual character, too. She's a forensic accountant from China, but she's also — well, I just have to love a woman who can disable a bodyguard using a stapler. Where did she come from?

I spent part of 2008-09 teaching at Fudan University in Shanghai, which is the Harvard of China. My classes were mostly women, and I was so struck by their enthusiasm for learning and just their raw ambition. Part of it was parents pushing from behind, but a lot of it was just them clawing their way to the top. They fascinated me.

That's Grace Chu. I based her on about five of them; I have their pictures on my (computer) screen.

These books are unusual in that they give equal time to two main characters. What made you decide to try that?

My editor fell in love with Grace immediately. I had thought of her as the Watson to Knox, but Chris (Pepe, his editor at Putnam) said, "I want these two equal."

I'm a big three-act mythic structure guy, but three-act mythic structure be damned. But to do it I have to write multiple, multiple drafts. It's like writing two books at once. I'm just finishing the next one, The Red Room. It's set in Istanbul.

Choke Point takes place in Amsterdam, and the plot revolves around "knot shops" there where children are basically enslaved to make knockoffs of much-prized Afghan rugs. Why did you build the book around the issue of human trafficking?

If you're going to give me four or five hours of your time to read my novel, I want you to have a thrill ride. But it's fun for me if you learn something along the way, if I can show you something that concerns me without being preachy or getting up on my soapbox.

There are two huge global problems of human trafficking. One is women sex slaves, which I don't want to write about much. The other is child labor, mostly girls, in horrible conditions — we as Americans can't imagine these conditions. They want these kids because their fingers are so small.

I hope maybe I can make you think, "Whoa, maybe this is really happening." Because it is, and not just in Amsterdam, but in Baltimore, in New York, in places we don't even imagine.