Stephen J. Cannell, who is known primarily as the creator-writer of a ton of television dramas, including The A-Team, Hunter, and The Rockford Files, is now making quite a name for himself in thriller fiction. Below, in a Barnes & Noble.com exclusive, Cannell speculates about the disturbing possibility that our country is currently involved in bioweapons research, a notion that powers his latest, high-octane spellbinder. Enjoy!
A Note from Stephen J. Cannell
I'm really excited about my latest book, The Devil's Workshop. My inspiration for the book was some fascinating research I ran across one day while working on my computer. I pulled up some websites about bioweaponry. The more I read, the more fascinating it seemed to me -- not so much just the whole idea of bioweapons, but the idea that our government might still be involved in actively pursuing new generations of bioweapons when, in fact, we, along with around 100 other nations, signed the 1972 Biological Weapons Convention, which prohibits the proliferation of bioweapons. But the research clearly shows that many countries are disregarding this treaty and are actively developing bioweapons. It then occurred to me that it is highly unlikely that our own CIA wouldn't also be aware of these facts and for defense reasons be operating a unit to do the same. As I began expanding my research, I began to find out some shocking facts, such as the story run by "60 Minutes" about the bacterial tests with dangerous contaminants run by a government unit in the New York City subways. There were also some other strange things going on. For instance, more than one million mosquitoes a month were being bred in Fort Detrick, Maryland; needless to say, there were numerous complaints from nearby residents. When you put that fact together with the fact that mosquitoes are an excellent vector (or targeting mechanism) for bioweapons, and with recent congressional testimony about the rooms full of illegal anthrax and sarin that were found at Fort Detrick, it's easy to conclude that illegal testing is happening in the United States.
In the Fort Detrick case, the scientists argued that they had to have samples of antitoxins in case a terrorist attack does occur, and so in order to develop antitoxins they had to have strains of anthrax and sarin on hand. But you don't need two or three rooms full of that stuff, which is enough to kill the whole planet! All of this fueled my imagination to think, "What if this unit still exists and what if all of the evidence that I'm seeing here is evidence of a secret off-the-books unit that's developing bioweapons?" I decided that I would name it the Devil's Workshop, and it became the focal point of the story. But every story needs more than a great plot -- it needs interesting characters.
The main character in the novel is Stacy Richardson. I always want my female characters to be as important and as strong as my male characters. When creating a character, I always start by asking, "What's important to this person?" I gave Stacy a relationship that's very important to her, which she believes is nurturing and has allowed her to achieve her dream of becoming a microbiologist. Then, at the beginning of the novel, that relationship is snatched from her in a shocking way that doesn't make any sense to her. She believes she's being lied to about her husband's so-called suicide. So she starts on a quest; it's her quest that starts to unravel the conspiracy to hide this off-the-books program. Stacy is a very strong character: She stands up to some really powerful people, like Admiral Zoll, one of the main heavies in the book. I especially enjoyed writing the scenes where she takes on the macho military guys, with only her brains and courage to back her up -- those guys really underestimate her. She also has to find out for her own peace of mind what her husband was actually doing when he was stationed at the Devil's Workshop. The answers may not be what she's expecting.
I really enjoyed the process of writing The Devil's Workshop. I hope you'll enjoy reading it!
Stephen J. Cannell
A Review from barnesandnoble.com
Even if you don't recognize Stephen J. Cannell's name, you probably know his work his list of credits includes television shows as diverse as "The Rockford Files," "Hunter," "The A-Team," "Silk Stalkings," and "The Commish." The multitalented Cannell is also a successful novelist, having penned four bestsellers in the last four years. Seemingly loath to repeat himself, Cannell tackled a different subject each time The Plan examined presidential politics, Final Victim focused on the exploits of a brilliant serial killer, King Con featured a family of con artists, and Riding the Snake explored the workings of Chinese organized crime.
Cannell's latest,The Devil's Workshop, tells the story of newlywed Stacy Richardson, who, as the novel opens, is about to take her qualifying oral exam for her doctorate in microbiology. Stacy's world is turned upside down when she receives the news that her husband, Max, a research scientist at the Army Medical Facility at Fort Detrick, Maryland, has committed suicide. Refusing to accept the Army's story, Stacy infiltrates the installation and discovers that the Army is lying about Max's death. Prevented from investigating further by the head of the project, the zealous Admiral Zoll, Stacy vows to uncover the truth about her husband's death and about the top-secret biological weapons she suspects the Army is developing at Fort Detrick.
Based on discussions she had with Max prior to his death, Stacy theorizes that the Army is working with prions, proteins that, when ingested or injected, eventually attack the brain, causing symptoms similar to those of mad cow disease. Her fears prove to be more mundane than the reality: Admiral Zoll and his chief scientist, a lunatic named Dexter DeMille, have designed a prion-based weapon that targets specific ethnic groups.
Things go from bad to worse when the East Texas town of Vanishing Lake is accidentally exposed to the weapon. During the ensuing confusion, DeMille is kidnapped by white supremacists who plan to use the weapon to eliminate so-called "inferior" races. Stacy forms an unlikely alliance with a hobo named Lucky Cunningham, an ex-Marine who witnessed the "cleansing" of Vanishing Lake by an embarrassed military, and Buddy Brazil, a cocaine-snorting Hollywood mogul whose profligate son accidentally falls victim to the prions. Together, they struggle to expose the military and to prevent the white supremacists from carrying out their plans for genocide.
Cannell's scriptwriting roots are evident on every page put the narrative in the present tense and the dialogue in screenplay format, and The Devil's Workshop would read like the script of Will Smith's next star vehicle. Even so, that's not necessarily a bad thing, because, at his core, Cannell is a consummate storyteller. Although he does make some mistakes (his penchant for creating characters with alliterative names like Sylvester Swift, Sid Saunders, Randall Raider, and Buck Burger is especially annoying), the book is still a great read its serpentine plot, over-the-top action scenes, colorful characters, and snappy dialogue make The Devil's Workshop a guilty pleasure, a reading experience akin to watching a well-executed action flick. If you want great literature, pick up a copy of Anna Karenina. If you're looking for stellar entertainment, you'll find a plentiful supply in The Devil's Workshop.
A terrific plot and a great read.
Washington Post Book World
Cannell is a great entertainer...The man can write.
Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
The Emmy Award-winning TV writer/producer of The Rockford Files and The Commish strikes again (after Riding the Snake) with this quirky new action-driven nail-biter, which imagines the havoc unleashed by doomsday bioweapons. Doctoral candidate Stacy Richardson is called out of her oral finals to be told that her husband, the brilliant microbiology department chairman at USC, has killed himself while on sabbatical at a hush-hush Pentagon-funded bioweapons research center just outside Washington. Devastated, she flies east to accuse the military hierarchy of murdering her husband in an attempt to cover up a covert research project involving deadly Pale Horse Prion, a bioweapon that can be genetically engineered to kill specific ethnic groups. Back home in L.A., her husband's final e-mail reveals that the military is planning a test at a deserted prison town in Texas. Traveling incognito, Stacy arrives just in time to witness the catastrophic destruction of the quiet town as the military desperately tries to eliminate the mosquitoes carrying the deadly Prion. In the wake of the disaster, Fannon Kincaid, a zealot hobo preacher intent on fulfilling the Armageddon prophesy of Revelations, kidnaps renegade scientist Dexter DeMille, who has the Prion. In her effort to save the world, Stacy hooks up with Cris Cunningham, a former Desert Storm hero, and Buddy Brazil, the movie mogul dad of one of Prion's victims. Unfolding as a cross-country train chase in and out of hobo jungles, the shoot-'em-up finale comes thundering down in the railroad yards in Washington. Unfortunately, the schmaltzy fade to black is excessive and lacking in taste. Typically, Cannell is strong on action and plot, and weak on feelings, sensitivity and depth of character. Agents, Eric Simonoff and Mort Janklow. Major ad/promo, 12-city author tour. (Sept.) Copyright 1999 Cahners Business Information.
"The devil's workshop" is the bioweapons program in Fort Dietrick, MD, where Stacy Richardson's microbiologist husband has just committed suicide. Poor Stacy is about to find out, with the help of two hapless tramps in the vicinity, that the program's director has been using inmates at a nearby prison to test new bioweapons capable of targeting certain ethnic groups--with horrifying results. Copyright 1999 Cahners Business Information.
A ho-hummer about hush-hush bio-weaponry in conspiratorial hands. Beautiful budding microbiologist Stacy Richardson, sitting for the orals that will lock up her Ph.D., gets a horrifying phone call. Her adored husband, she's told, has taken his own life. Suicide? Not for a nanosecond can Stacy believe such a thing. Maxsteadfast, positive in outlook, brilliant (head of the University of Southern California's microbiology department)had too much to live for, including luscious Stacy. She zips over to Fort Detrick (Maryland) from USC, on fire to get to the bottom of what she, and every experienced reader, is certain will prove a conspiracy. Max had been at Detrick, on detached service, working on a species of "killer proteins" called Prions. He'd been helping Dr. Dexter DeMille, number-one microbiologist in the field. But to do exactly what? It's a program overseen by fanatical (diabolical also applies) Admiral James G. Zoll, who hints at basic instability and maybe a touch of substance abuse as the causes of Max's suicide. He's hiding something, Stacy intuits, while taking umbrage. Supported by unlikely allies (a burnt-out case of an ex-marine, a lost soul of a Hollywood producer), she launches a relentless investigation. Undercover bio-weaponry is what they're up to at Fort Detrick, she discovers, a secret attempt to redesign Prions as a special kind of bacteriological agent: smart germs that can tell foe from friend and act accordingly. But the program is thoroughly illegal. Not that this is a matter of much concern to Admiral Zoll, whose patriotism has long since crowded into zealotry and who wants America's germs to be unsurpassed. So there's Stacy, willing to die toclear Max's name, and Admiral Zoll, ready to murder to protect his program. Blood in buckets before resolution. Television veteran Cannell's fifth subpar thriller (Riding the Snake, 1998, etc.). He did much better work when he was writing The Rockford Files. (Author tour)
Read an Excerpt
Anything's Fair In A Qual
Wendell Kinney reached out and squeezed Stacy Richardson's hand for luck. "Just remember, take your time," he said. "It doesn't hurt to platform your answers. There's no time limit, but Courtney always likes to be done by lunchtime, so if we can be out of there by noon that'll help. Ninety-eight percent on your Written is impressive, so this should be easy. And don't worry about Art, I'll keep him on his chain."
It was eight A.M., Tuesday, and they were in the third-floor hall of the old Science Building at the University of Southern California, just outside of Dr. Courtney Smith's office. Stacy Richardson was about to take her qualifying oral exam for her doctorate in microbiology. She'd been existing on less than two hours' sleep a night all through her last review week; probably a mistake, because she needed to be fresh for the "Quals," but the backbreaking job of reviewing four years of complicated microbiology was mindboggling.
She'd been on the phone late last night for an hour with her husband, Max, who was in Fort Detrick, Maryland. He'd talked her down off her narrow, anxious ledge, getting her back on the ground with sure-handed reason. He reminded her of her academic track record. Throughout her three and a half years of doctoral study, she had carried a 3.9 cumulative G.P.A. He promised her she'd be fine. There had been a moment during the conversation when she'd sensed from his voice that something was very wrong and had asked him about it.
After a long reflective pause he'd said, "This isn't anything like I'd expected. I don't think I belong here, and they sure as helldon't want me." He'd refused to say anything more, because he didn't want to distract her with his problems on the eve of the Quals. Her orals were the last hurdle and would determine whether Stacy would end up with a Ph.D. after her name.
Dr. Max Richardson was head of the Microbiology Department at USC. She had met him in her first post-grad semester. He ran an open lab on viruses and she had listened to his lectures, marveling at the intricacies of his scientific mind and the strong masculine shape of his personality, and okay, his body too. Their romance caused a furor in the department. Dating students was definitely not allowed. Before it became a full-fledged disaster they'd gotten married, legitimizing it and everything had died down.
Six months after the wedding, Max's federal research grant came through. He'd been working in a new field of microbiology, evaluating killer proteins called "Prions." Max's research had won him a six-month sabbatical to study at the Army Medical Facility at Fort Detrick, Maryland, with Dr. Dexter DeMille, the leading U.S. microbiologist on Prion research.
They'd discussed the bad timing. With Stacy just months from her orals, Max had not wanted to be away, especially since Art Hickman, his mortal enemy in the department, was also on the Advisory Panel, which would be evaluating her. Max and Art had both been up for Department Chair. Max had gotten the job, and Art had been backbiting him ever since. In the end, Stacy and Max had both decided that the chance to work with Dr. DeMille at Fort Detrick was such an incredible opportunity for Max that he should take it. Stacy said she would just study her brains out so that Art Hickman would not be able to fault her performance.
Wendell Kinney was also on her panel. He was a rumpled old Microbiology Department lion and a great friend to both Max and her.
"Remember," Wendell said, bringing her thoughts back, "anything's fair in a Qual. These guys can and will ask you about everything. Courtney Smith loves her Sterilization and Disinfection discipline, so she's bound to ask you something on that. And Art Hickman will drill you on his damned arachnids."
"I wish he'd stayed in the bush with those fucking spiders," Stacy said, letting out a sigh that blew a wisp of her long, honeyblond hair up in the air in front of her. She grabbed the strand and tucked it behind her ear.
It didn't help that just about everybody felt that Stacy Richardson was drop-dead beautiful. Immediately after she enrolled in the doctorate program, Art Hickman had tried to become her mentor. He said he wanted to take her under his wing, but it was soon apparent it wasn't his wing he wanted her under. She had efficiently dodged him. Art had taken it okay until she'd fallen in love with and married his departmental rival. He'd been lobbing grenades ever since.
The door opened and Dr. Courtney Smith was standing in the threshold of her office. There was always at least one woman on the Advisory Panel when another woman was up for her doctorate. Choosing Courtney's office for the orals was another extension of that political agenda.
Courtney Smith was a mannish, Janet Reno-sized biologist who wore pent suits that were always several sizes too small, as if she was desperately trying to convince herself she was still a twelve when she had long ago moved into the "generous" sizes. The shoulders in her boxy suit were padded to try to give the impression of a waist, also a lost horizon. She was holding a sheaf of folders against her ample chest.
"Today's the day," Dr. Smith smiled, showing a grayish rowof tombstone-shaped teeth.
"Yep. Hope I'm up to it," Stacy nervously replied, as she followed Dr. Smith into the small office.
Stacy had given up wearing skirts and dresses in favor of blue jeans and sweatshirts in an effort to disguise her figure. It was hard to be taken seriously while tenured department morons like Art Hickman referred to her as Max's "Hood Angel."
For her qualifying orals, she had chosen to wear loose flannel slacks, which did nothing for her, and a T-shirt under a blue blazer. She had her hair pinned up with a brown plastic clip and wore no makeup.
She looked fantastic...