Cover Story: Ripped from the Headlines

Pearson's crime mysteries derive from real-life situations

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Ridley Pearson

Summer-reading books require either raucous sex-driven characters or unthinkable crimes. Ridley Pearson writes the latter, borrowing his plots straight from the news. And he has a knack for choosing the hot topic.

"In 1991 I had a prosecuting attorney from Washington State call and thank me after reading Undercurrents," he says. For the book, Pearson researched an experimental process for tracking a body's course and entry point in a lake or stream based on where it is found. The attorney read the book and knew the idea would help him with a case. He called the oceanographer credited in the book, and put a man away for 30 years for killing his wife. The same procedure was used again in solving a criminal case involving a toxicology spill.

In Angelmaker, a black market organ industry was uncovered through men lured by prostitutes who sedated them and then stole their kidneys. "I thought 'This probably isn't even real, but it makes a great story,' " Pearson says.

Numerous calls and e-mails came in about the book. "I actually got two phone calls from men who claimed to have had their organs taken in the same way as described in the book." But the majority of the calls were from people prompted to check the organ donor box on their driver's licenses after reading the book.

"I don't like to write any polemics in the book, but if you can weave a social condition into it, then you reach hundreds of thousands of readers," Pearson says. His books are considered forensic literature. He takes an interesting new crime-fighting idea and then researches until he can write about it. Sometimes, he admits, he has to stretch science a little to solve his fictitious crimes. But for the most part, his facts are dead on.

"I think forensic literature makes it sound too clinical," he says, calling his books crime thrillers. He likes to mix up the crime-writing formula by adding enough character information to give the book an emotional edge.

His latest book, The First Victim (Hyperion), was the product of several news tips. It started with a small-town news broadcast.

"I had been unaware of the sensationalist nature of local television news," Pearson says. "The story I remember most vividly was a teen-ager having his pants caught on a bumper that dragged him to death." Coverage continued for 10 minutes and included a shot of the bloody trail. "I thought, 'What is going on here?' " When Pearson looked into it, he was introduced to the small news station's adage, "If it bleeds, it leads." Enter Seattle television news anchor Stevie McNeal, a character in The First Victim who won't stop pursuing an illegal immigration story even when she is endangering the police investigation.

Back in California, Pearson saw a small story on driver's licenses being sold from Bureau of Motor Vehicles employees to illegal immigrants. Later in New York he read about a ship full of illegal immigrants grounding on a sandbar near Long Island. Now he has an illegal immigration operation where women are shipped in cargo containers and then forced into sweatshops to earn a driver's license, procured illegally through the BMV. He also added a race between the police and the media to crack the story. Once this was in place, the main character came easily: Lou Boldt, a serial character who has appeared in five other novels. As a first-time reader of a Lou Boldt novel, you find out his wife has been diagnosed with cancer and gone into remission. Boldt previously had an affair with one of his superiors. Even without reading the earlier novels, this information is not distracting. In fact, it's nice to know he has a history.

It's nice for Pearson, too, because he is afraid of creating stock characters. "It's pretty easy to slip into the two or three characters that live inside of you," he says. Using a serial character gives the entertainment writer a chance to flesh out the main character. Pearson credits his editor Leigh Haber with pushing him to keep his characters real. "She's a more literary editor," he says, "And the publisher is the driving force behind the serial novel." People buy books when they already know and like the main character.

"But I love Lou Boldt," he says even though he finds writing serials can get tedious. After spending a year or so constantly revising a book, Pearson jumps right into the next one. In the case of serials, "You're dealing with the same cast, and you're pretty tired of those people," he says. "It's like in-laws that have stayed too long."

Real characters require real believable scenes. "I try to write very visually," Pearson says. "I see the scene on my screen and then I write what I see." The First Victim reads like a movie from the opening scene: Under the cover of a new moon, in the wake of a typhoon, two ships meet outside Seattle and attempt to transfer a cargo container, but the water is too rough. The container spills into the ocean to be recovered by the Coast Guard. Its contents: nine women, naked, illegal, three dead. "We can't sell this one to the movies," Pearson says. "Most are optioned within days. We have two or three with screenplays, optioned out, stars attached." Rumor has it Jamie Lee Curtis is interested in playing one of the lead roles.

The entertainment business has always provided Pearson's paychecks. Before writing, Pearson lived off his music career. He played bass guitar professionally for five years before deciding he needed a backup plan to support himself. Still playing at night, he wrote full time (mainly telescripts) for eight years without making a cent.

"What I didn't realize is that it's almost as hard to make money at writing as it is at music," he says. Without any formal training in writing, he insists he had the best education of all. He was mentored by several seasoned writers, including Stan Silverman, head writer for the TV show Sea Hunt.

Pearson has kept his night job, even with 10 best sellers under his belt. He plays with the Rock Bottom Remainders, a name used to describe unsold leftovers of a book's print run. The band includes Amy Tan on vocals, Stephen King on rhythm guitar and Dave Barry on lead guitar. No, they're not that good, but they raise money for charity.

"We don't get out that much. We spend all of our time behind the screens," Pearson says. He's happy with the friendships that have evolved through the band. "Dave Barry was my best man at my wedding," he says. Their next tour was planned for November, but Pearson foresees King canceling because of his recent accident.

Until then, Pearson will be busy promoting The First Victim which hits the shelves this month. If his knack for topics holds true, expect a major immigration scandal any day.

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