Why a Prequel?

I pretty much cemented the necessity of writing a prequel when I set my first novel at the end of my main character’s active career as an Interpol agent.  Henri Poincaré is 60 years old when I leave him in All Cry Chaos.  While he discovers a good deal that redeems him in that novel, the cost of his discovery is dear: real trauma to the ones he loves.  I left the Poincarés recuperating at the end of All Cry Chaos; and I could not imagine subjecting Henri or Claire, his wife, to more trials in his retirement—at least while Claire is alive.

So the follow-on novel, if it were to concern Poincaré, would need to be a prequel.  I faced two questions immediately: (1) when would I set the story and (2) what moved Henri to become an Interpol agent at the age of 28?  I had forced this timing on myself by making the Henri of Chaos a senior investigator with 30 years of experience.  I set that novel in 2010 or thereabouts.  The math forced me to set The Tenth Witness in 1978, give or take.

Who and what was Henri in that year?  I wanted this story to be his first case, before he became an Interpol agent.  What, I wondered, would move him to choose a career with the international police?  I needed also to show a character in formation, someone whom readers would recognize as a younger Henri.  The veteran investigator of Chaos is methodical, thorough, ethical (sometimes to a fault), decent, and relentless.  All this I would need to show emerging in the younger man, and I would do it in his voice, an intimate first person.

I decided to make Henri a mechanical engineer in The Tenth Witness: a problem solver, aware of large systems and intricate parts, skillful with cause-and-effect thinking, and practical.  But Henri also needed to be a soulful, conscience-driven man who would track a problem to its source however dangerous the stakes.  In these dangerous places, he would need to confront real evil.  That’s what would impel him to give up a safe and prosperous life in engineering.

I could imagine some characters choosing international police work for the love of adventure.  But Poincaré, I knew, would be driven for reasons of conscience.  My target year 1978 was just 30 years after the second world war.  The timing was perfect: Henri would engage with prosperous, unreconstructed Nazis.  They would harbor secrets from the past and secrets from the present.  As a kind of dreaded bonus, this choice would force me to dive deep into my own fears; for as a child in the fifties and early sixties, I woke with nightmares of swastikas and jackboots.  In the Third Reich, Henri and I would face an evil larger than them all.

He would fall in love with a woman his same age, Liesel Kraus.  I saw her clearly: smart, capable, athletic, attractive, wealthy.  Henri falls hard, and so does she.  I make no secret in the opening pages that Claire is Poincaré’s wife (30 years later), so the reader knows from the outset that the affair with Liesel is doomed.  But why?  She is a winner in almost every way.  But they cannot last.

Add it all together and a story emerged.  Witness is not a Holocaust story per se, but a story about the legacy of evil.   As a writer, I tend to force difficult choices on my characters.  In weighing whether or not to leave engineering for Interpol, Henri must clarify what is important to him.  Here’s how he puts it toward the end of the novel.  (Viktor Schmidt is closely allied to the Kraus family.)

 Still in my twenties, I had trained for a profession that brought technical answers to difficult problems. When rivers needed spanning and foundations needed shoring, I was your man. Give me a dive platform to build and anchor over a treasure ship, and I could do it. Viktor Schmidt was a different sort of problem. For him I had no answers, yet the world needed answers.

 As a prequel, The Tenth Witness placed both forward and backward demands on me as a writer: backward in the sense that the first novel constrained me to a certain timing and set of emerging character traits for my protagonist; and forward in the sense that every fiction moves forward: in showing the arc of characters faced with obstacles, changing in convincing and (let’s hope) memorable ways.

Thus far, critics are loving The Tenth Witness.  I hope youwill, too.  You can read the opening chapters here.
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  1. Just discovered and read “All Cry Chaos.” After finishing it as fast as I decently could, I have now turned around and begun re-reading it. It all reads differently now that I know what happens. Kinda like watching “The Sixth Sense” for the first time, then immediately re-starting it, and watching again.

    International mystery thriller, fractals, chaos theory, politics, the stock exchange, the Book of Job, the meaning of life, the existence of God, good and evil . . . and a whole lot more. Wow.

    Thank you for this. You can’t know how your work may touch lives.

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