Steven James: Checkmate
Pass the bespectacled Steven James on the street, and you might think he’s a cool college professor, or a musician on his way to practice with the band. You probably wouldn’t guess this man spends his days plotting murders and how to evade FBI agents. But that’s exactly what Steven James does—in his novels, of course.
James has always been a storyteller. As a kid he was a school crossing guard and would pass the time telling himself stories. “I was always making stuff up,” James says, “but I never thought I could be a writer.”
Everything changed when he felt God’s calling and disregarded the naysayers who said it could never happen. Soon his articles started selling. For many years he wrote mostly nonfiction, though even then he used storytelling techniques.
“At the heart of humanity is this God-woven desire to tell and listen to stories,” he says. “Through stories we can approach the overwhelming truths of life. Grief is overwhelming for us, but if we watch a movie or we read a novel where someone is working through grief, maybe then we cry.
“In Haiti 250,000 people were buried alive. We hear that, but it’s overwhelming. We don’t cry. But if your dog is hit by a car in front of your house, you will grieve. How could that be? We know human life is more valuable than an animal. We know that a quarter of a million people being buried alive is much more tragic, but emotionally we don’t connect with that because it’s overwhelming. But if you hear about one woman digging through the rubble for her lost baby, maybe then you would cry and it would hit home. Stories allow us mental or emotional space to experience these things.”
Which is probably why for many years James longed to pen novels. “I really wanted to write fiction,” he says. “So I started work on a detective novel. People always say there should be something unique about your character, so my lead was going to be a one-handed detective. His left hand was going to be blown off or something. But I realized I needed to work on making him unique in some way other than just a random physical disability. I was doing research on profiling and criminal investigation and stumbled across this whole geospatial investigative approach. So I ended up giving my character Patrick Bowers a very unique niche in the literary world. And he ended up getting to keep both hands.”
Revell Books offered James a three-book contract for the series—which has since expanded into eight. The first novel, The Pawn, hit shelves in 2007 followed by The Knight, The Rook, and The Bishop. In each book, FBI Special Agent Patrick Bowers has to not only keep himself and those he loves alive, but he also must wrestle with deep, moral questions. But it’s his geospatial investigative techniques that really do set him apart from his literary contemporaries.
“Everyone forms a mental or cognitive map of the region they’re familiar with, the area where they live,” James explains. “If you lived in Pittsburgh, Pa., and I said, ‘Draw a map of Pittsburgh,’ you could do that. But it would be skewed toward the places you’re most familiar with, and you would leave large parts of the city unmapped because you just never go there. Killers do the exact same thing. Their routes through a city would have certain patterns defined by the places where they work, go to church, where they visit friends, or shop. Let’s say there were a series of murders. By understanding the locations of where the bodies were found, where the victims lived, or maybe where they were abducted or killed, and then understanding the victims’ travel patterns through that area, you can look backward to try and figure out the most likely location where the killer would have left from, his home base.
“This technique is all based on logic. Eighty-percent of murders happen within a mile of the offender’s home. Somebody commits a crime, they have to get away. Most likely they’d commit a crime in a place they’re familiar with to be able to escape without being detected.”
It’s these crimes James describes in his novels, often in graphic detail, that have a few readers squirming and wondering how the Patrick Bowers series can be classified as “Christian” fiction. “I don’t believe there is such a thing as ‘Christian fiction’—just like I don’t believe there’s ‘atheist fiction’ or ‘Buddhist fiction’ or ‘materialist fiction’,” James says. “I think there’s fiction of excellence and fiction of mediocrity. There is fiction that glorifies God and fiction that doesn’t. Fiction that celebrates the things He celebrates, and fiction that celebrates things He abhors.
“In my books I never glamorize evil and make it look alluring. But I do make you look at it and say, This is how far people have fallen. This is what our world is like. But guess what? There’s a Redeemer who’s bigger than the evil we’re capable of. I think you show the worth of something by showing how much pain is caused when it’s lost. I don’t think I could be honest about evil without really making people disturbed by looking at it. Someone will ask, Why doesn’t anyone get converted in your novels? Well, nobody got converted in the stories Jesus told either. Someone else will mention that I don’t talk about God very much in my novels. Did you know the book of Esther doesn’t mention God? Ever. Not once. Is it Christian? Were Jesus’ stories Christian?”
No matter how you classify his books, James has clearly mastered the art of developing a leading man over the span of a series. Patrick certainly grows and changes, but not so much that he becomes someone else. “In each book Patrick becomes more fully human,” James says. “He begins to realize different aspects of human nature and grow in that respect. I look at the whole series as his character arc, but in each book I try to keep him consistent as far as his thought process.”
With fans already salivating for The Queen, which releases in August, you’d think it would be safe to assume the next entry in the series would be The King. But James has another plan up his sleeve—a prequel by the title of Opening Moves. “I’m actually planning to do Opening Moves next instead of waiting until the end. The story is about Patrick and happens 10 or 12 years before The Pawn, before he’s joined the FBI. He’s still a detective in Milwaukee, and this will cover one of his dramatic cases back in his early days. It’ll be a lot of fun, where I can show the genesis of his character and the traits he has. I can bring up some questions and foreshadow some of the things I can then deal with in The King and Checkmate.”
Now that the series is officially a grand success and has won numerous awards (including a Book of the Year nod by Suspense Magazine for The Bishop)—not to mention, a possible TV series for CBS—you might wonder how many houses Steven James owns, or how many cars he drives. When we bring up the subject of financial return for a novelist, he’s quick to discount the myth that being a best-selling author equates to being enormously wealthy.
James explains that if you bought a $20 hardcover copy of one of his novels, he receives about $1.20 of that. “You’ve got to sell an awful lot of books before you’re going to put your kid through college,” James says. “If you want to be rich, you might make it as a writer. But all of the full-time writers I know make about what a teacher makes, much less than someone would ever imagine. We work hard, and we write a lot.”
Which is exactly what James is doing now. He’s currently writing the sixth book in the series and gathering ideas for the seventh. “And I’m still intrigued with Patrick Bowers,” he says. “I’m not sick of him at all. I’m planning to do eight books, and then that’s all. But who knows? If he doesn’t want to go away, then maybe we’ll keep going.”