Monday, October 07, 2013


Recipe for a great serial novel

Take 20 great writers.
Ask them to each write a chapter in a  continuing story.
Give them both direction and a free hand.
Donate the proceeds to charity.
Mix it all together.
Stir. Simmer. Bring to a boil.

Voila! One great novel written in 20 voices.

To continue the recipe metaphor you could say that putting a serial novel together is a bit like making an omelet or better yet, a soufflé. You get all the ingredients together, whip up the eggs, put it in the oven and hope it doesn’t deflate. The good news is that this novel rose high above my expectations.

I started by asking a bunch of writers if they were willing to participate, and almost everyone said yes. I had already decided to donate the royalties to Safe Horizon, a charitable organization that aids victims of violent crime. It just made sense that crime writers – many of whom had profited by writing about violent crime – should be willing to give something back to an organization that helped real life victims, and they all agreed.

Then came the mechanics. A few weeks to craft a story that was simple yet complex, this one an homage to my favorite noir writers, Hammett, Chandler, Woolich, among others, put it together in a way that was both old and new, familiar yet original. I knew the writers would understand the source material and have fun writing within a known tradition. Once I had the story, I wrote a synopsis, a long then a short version. Then a page of character studies. After that, I broke the story into 20 chapters outlining the main points in each. The trick was to fashion an organized plot and plan but leave plenty of room for the authors to improvise—I did not want to cramp anyone’s style.

Each author received the synopsis, the character studies, individual chapter outline, and was asked to write in their own voice while sticking to the plot points.

Then I waited (somewhat nervously) for the chapters to come in. But I shouldn’t have worried. After all, every one of these writers is a pro, and every one of them did the job and more—advance the plot while adding things I’d never imagined: tension, humor, emotional resonance.

The tricky part was that everyone had to write at the same time; no one got to read the chapters that preceded theirs. And yet, in the end, they all hung together beautifully, as if someone had been watching over us whispering some strange incantation that kept us all on track. Every writer seemed to know exactly who these characters were and simply added a new layer of complexity. Our disgraced PI, Perry Christo, became prouder and smarter and shrewder; our heroine Angel, the kind of girl men dream of and dread, became more and more mysterious; her mother more and more suspicious: her father more and more devious; her boyfriends cruder and cruder; her best friend more treacherous.

In the end, the novel is fast, fun and thrilling. The individual voices are there but the seams hardly show. As Booklist said in its glowing review, "The story moves as though there were a single hand on the tiller. Not merely a genre curiosity, the book is a well-told mystery that stands on its own two (or 40) feet."  It feels to me as if a group of great writers and good friends simply got together, put their egos aside and had a terrific time writing the best thriller they could possibly write. 

Jonathan Santlofer
October 2013, NYC

About the book:


Pericles “Perry” Christo is a PI with a past—a former cop, who lost his badge and his family when a corruption scandal left him broke and disgraced. When wealthy Upper East Side matron Julia Drusilla summons him one cold February night, he grabs what seems to be a straightforward (and lucrative) case.

The socialite is looking for her beautiful, aimless daughter, Angelina, who is about to become a very wealthy young woman. But as Christo digs deeper, he discovers there’s much more to the lovely “Angel” than meets the eye. Her father, her best friend, her boy­friends all have agendas of their own. Angel, he soon realizes, may be in grave danger . . . and if Christo gets too close, he just might get caught in the crossfire.

This classic noir tale twists and turns down New York’s mean streets and along Hamp­tons’ beaches and back roads during a bitterly cold and gray winter where nothing is as it seems and everyone has something to hide. In an inventive storytelling approach, each writer brings his or her distinctive voice to a chapter of Inherit the Dead, building the ten­sion to a shocking, explosive finale.

My thanks to Jonathan Santlofer for being my guest today. FYI, here are the amazing authors who contributed to the book:

Mark Billingham, Lawrence Block, CJ Box, Ken Bruen, Alafair Burke, Stephen L. Carter, Mary Higgins Clark, Marcia Clark, Max Allan Collins, John Connolly, James Grady, Bryan Gruley, Heather Graham, Charlaine Harris, Val McDermid, SJ Rozan, Jonathan Santlofer, Dana Stabenow, Lisa Unger, and Sarah Weinman. Plus, Lee Child writes the Introduction and Linda Fairstein writes an open letter to the reader.

Inherit the Dead is available for purchase at or your favorite bookseller. 

Note: Editor Jonathan Santlofer has arranged to donate any royalties in excess of editor and contributor compensation to Safe Horizon, the leading victim assistance agency in the country.

Jonathan Santlofer is the author of five novels and a highly respected artist whose work has been written about and reviewed in the New York Times, Art in America, Artforum, and Arts, and appears in many public, private, and corporate collections. He serves on the board of Yaddo, one of the oldest artist communities in the country. Santlofer lives and works in New York City.

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