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July 11, 2019

Thirteen Across by Dan Grant ~ a Review & Interview

by MK French

I stayed up far too late devouring it

A train is derailed as FBI Special Agent Kate Morgan is on her way to a congressional hearing regarding her involvement in a prior case. Waiting for her is a briefcase and clues to a macabre crossword that was tattooed onto human skin. She is sent from one place to another throughout Washington, DC, and the clues on the skins as well as the locations point to illegal human research, the development of the perfect soldier, and the fact that those at the highest levels of office had been the ones calling the shots. She has her own part in the history of this killer, and she will have to not only figure out the clues before the midnight deadline but to save as many lives as she can.

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Thirteen Across
May 2019; 978-1732504042
ebook, print (512 pages); thriller
We start off with a literal bang so that we're thrust into the meat of the story. I hadn't read the previous novel that Dan Grant had written which focused on Kate's prior case. While I had the feeling I was missing a lot of context as a result of that, I was still able to jump right into this one without missing too much. There was enough context given that I could roll with it and continue, especially given how high stakes the plot is. I find it amazing that there are so many intuitive leaps for the puzzle clue answers, though one of the characters involved is a fictionalized form of a renowned crossword puzzle developer for the New York Times. Some of the references that Kate understood right away may have been references from the first novel, but most of them are tied to the current one and the situation involved, as well as the history of Washington, DC and the political structure itself. I found that fascinating, so I can forgive the asides that explained all of the abbreviations for terms and agencies that are liberally sprinkled throughout the text.

The entire novel takes place over the course of twenty-four hours, so the short chapters not only increases the sense of urgency throughout the story but also helps us shift between all the different characters' points of view. The reader is aware of what's actually happening, while Kate is behind. The FBI and military teams are also working on the puzzles clues in tandem with her, and also try to figure out how Barnes is constantly ahead of them. The agents that seem genuinely interested in solving the case to save lives and not just to further their career have to skirt the tech they have on hand, and they do dig further into the government programs to creating perfect people. This is Barnes' true aim, as his revenge extracts a bloody cost and he is trying to expose others' involvement. The tension and the action continue to ramp up, and the suspense keeps you guessing as to what will happen next, or who is involved in the wider conspiracy. This is a fascinating book, and I stayed up far too late devouring it, not even noticing the awkward position I was sitting in until I got up to go to bed!

Buy Thirteen Across at Amazon

Interview

Dan Grant
The plot entwined with the crossword is fairly intricately done. Was the crossword created first, or was it something that you crafted along the way?

My writing method is based on developing an outline (plot and structure) and I free-write between plot points for a more organic feel to the story. The crossword puzzle was crafted and re-tweaked based on known destinations and character revelations ahead of time that needed to be revealed at each stop. Several times, I had to go back to adjust the puzzle to match a couple of unforeseen story twists/turns.

There is a lot of technology and weaponry mentioned over the course of the novel that is vividly described. How much of that is pulled from personal experience?

My experience and background in Thirteen Across had more to do with peripheral settings and situations. I went to each location in the story and walked the sites, asked lots of questions. I had already done some research on the FBI and discussed a few aspects of their operations with several agents for accuracy. In terms of the technology, I read of a lot of science and industry news, and then if gadget or piece of tech fits the story I do a deeper dive on that aspect.  I want the tech elements to feel natural and real as possible.  I also love learning about a wide range of areas: tech, science, medicine, history.  I had learned about the brain's potential off-on switch years ago when I was talking with a neurosurgeon about how his medical work was evolving for patient services.  It wasn't until this novel that I found a use for that bit of understanding.

In my branch of engineering, I have done a fair bit of facility work. This has given me instincts and insights on what to look for in places and settings, especially locations presented in Thirteen Across. As I researched locations, I was able to extrapolate physical context that perhaps other people might not be aware of or might miss, and chase down leads in the public domain that would support actual physical layouts and locations in the story.

Which character do you identify with the most, and why?

Great question. Years ago during deep revisions of The Singularity Witness, I knew that I needed to add someone to that story to counter-balance Thomas Parker. That character was Kate Morgan. Coming into the story with a medical degree, licensed doctor, and going to work for the FBI put plenty of elements into her character to work with. I enjoyed that the ethics elements/thoughts come from her. She's often in over her head and has to use her wits to solve the problems before her. After completing my first thriller, I knew I had to tell the story with her as the lead.

Barnes is clearly upset at the callous way he and his fellow soldiers were treated. Is some of that anger based on personal experience or someone that you know?

Like many authors, I'm an observer. The root of Barnes brokenness, anger, and hatred is not based on anyone specifically. Coming out of high school I took psychology classes because I found them interesting--that helped me see different aspects of people and society. Many in our modern societies are disconnected or disenfranchised or non-invested in traditional activities. Some soldiers who return home after war feel disconnected and lost. All of that blended with a high IQ added to Barnes' inner demons.

What aspect of this novel was the most difficult to write about? The easiest?

Easiest... Thirteen Across was a blast to write. Learning about locations, history, technology, medicine, was amazing. I loved walking in places in DC and in the footsteps of the characters. In deep drafts, I knew that I wanted to incorporate aspects of Our Most Important Product and George Annas' thoughts on ethics, medicine, super soldier ethics. Chatting with Will Shortz about crossword puzzles was a nice addition... he knows more about puzzles than probably anyone around.

Difficult... Completing the novel while having a day job. My passion was to tell this story and that took time and an investment on my part (mornings, late nights, weekends). I did have to fix a part of the puzzle at the last minute to make something work... a momentary panic moment.  I was not able to go into the Naval Observatory (closed since the Vice President resides on the grounds)... I'd love to read some of the old books in the library there... that part I had to do by research and walking the perimeter fence and from other photographs.



Born and raised in New York City, M.K. French started writing stories when very young, dreaming of different worlds and places to visit. She always had an interest in folklore, fairy tales, and the macabre, which has definitely influenced her work. She currently lives in the Midwest with her husband, three young children, and golden retriever. 

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