Author Interview, The Vanishers


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Q: Tell us a bit about “The Vanishers.”

A: It’s a suspense/thriller/heist story with an international setting. The action spans from Rome to a Scottish castle to the French Alps to Prague. The title refers to the main characters, an elite heist team known as the Vanishers. They’re a team of four former Special Forces vets (and one female cat burglar) from around the world. They’re experts in espionage, disguise, and cutting-edge technology. Though the members’ identities are a mystery to the world, the Vanishers have reached global fame and legendary stature because of their ability to make off with whatever they choose and then vanish into the night. The media loves their air of mystery and it hypes them. It makes for good fodder. Their list of exploits keeps growing and every heist is getting more brazen.

No one knows who they are, what motivates them, or where they are headquartered. This mix of mystery and brazenness really drives the media frenzy. Interpol feels the heat from museums and collectors around Europe—who fear being the next victim of their escapades—and pressure the organization into assembling a special team led by a legendary Inspector to track them down.

Q: That’s where the story begins, right?

A: Right. The story begins in a museum in Rome, the scene of their latest heist. It also happens to be the new Inspector’s very first day on the job, Valera takes the reins and begins investigating a clue that might lead him top unraveling their identities. At the same time, there is dissension within the Vanishers. We’re introduced to the team in their post-operation meeting in their secret London headquarters, a mansion in a tony residential neighborhood. The commander of the team wants to call it quits before they go too far and someone gets caught—worse. He has another motive for quitting too, which I won’t give away. But other members of the team want to keep going; they’re Special Forces addicted to the challenge and the rush.

Q: Tell us about the leader of the team, Gregory Pierce.

A: Pierce is a former US Special Forces Commander. He came home from Iraq with deep emotional wounds. He began the Vanishers as a source of fun and challenge to fill his empty life after the military, but he’s a deeply decent man to; He wants to move on and live a normal, honest life; to find absolution for his sins. He’s a virtuous man and a war hero who knows he’s doing illegal and immoral things, and wants to go straight.

Q: Tell us about his nemesis, Inspector Valera of Interpol.

A: Valera is in his fifties; gruff, taciturn, a little messy and unpredictable—but with a razor-sharp intellect, finely tuned instincts and a great tenacity. This has made him a legend in Interpol, and that’s why he is handpicked by his Superintendent to lead the new Vanishers squad. He has a strong sense of right and wrong, and his sense of justice is greatly angered by the Vanishers’ escapades.

He’s probably best summed up by the line he uses as he introduces himself at a press conference at Interpol headquarters, as his new Vanishers squad is announced. He says to the reporters, “I myself don’t have much time for old paintings or busts of dead emperors or jewels—I’m a working man and frankly I could care less about artsy stuff. But this isn’t a guilty pleasure for mass consumption. I resent the agency I love, and the Law in general, being made a mockery of by glorified hooligans. And that’s all they are. And it goes against everything I stand for.”

That sums up his attitude. He’s a third generation cop from Rome, and he intends on cracking the Vanishers identities and capturing them. This sets up a game of wits between Pierce and Valera, who are both flawed men with their own demons but also very virtuous in their own way. The each lead teams that are pledged to outwit the other. And only one team can win. But both men will find that they have the same enemy, one that’s been manipulating them all along, and will strike an unlikely alliance to bring down the villain behind the curtain.

Q: There’s a strong female character. Two, actually.

A: Yes. The one female member of the Vanishers is a fiery redhead Irish cat burglar named Sheila. Her and Pierce have been carrying on a torrid love affair and keeping it secret from the rest of the team. They want to quit and try to make a life together. The second female character is Theresa, a twenty-something blond, Polish Interpol investigator on Inspector Valera’s Vanishers squad in Rome.

Both women play hugely important roles in the story. Theresa helps Valera understand the psychology of the Vanishers, and Sheila helps Pierce to see that there can be a better life if he leaves behind his past—and present. But of course something gets in the way! And that really sets the plot going.

Q: And that is…?

A: Without giving too much away, a mysterious collector has somehow cracked the Vanishers’ identities and kidnapped Sheila’s younger brother. He issues the team an ultimatum: Steal the Chalice of Acre, a (fictional) religious relic brought to Europe by Crusaders in the Middle Ages, or the boy will die. The Chalice is being held in (the real) St. Vitus Cathedral in Prague, the largest castle in the world. It’s essentially mission impossible. And the team is falling apart, but the Special Forces ethic dies hard. They pull together and decide to attempt the impossible in order to save their comrade’s innocent brother. In the meantime, they will also have to evade capture by Inspector Valera’s Interpol squad and find out who their mysterious new client is. They have a lot to do.

Q: Tell us about the setting.

A: I meant for this to be a James Bond-style adventure where the actions progresses through the several exotic locales. The plot moves between Rome, where Valera and his team are trying to crack the identities of the Vanishers, to London, where the team receive the ultimatum from the mystery client who’s kidnapped Sheila’s brother. Then we move to a mist-shrouded castle in Scotland, then to the sunny, snowy, French Alps from a major action sequence and to introduce a key character. From there the Vanishers go to Prague to begin planning the heist of the century, in order to save the innocent brother’s life and unmask the kidnapper. Valera has a good idea of their identities at this point, and follows them to Prague. The main characters are all there by this point, and the final part of the story plays out.

Q: The last third is set in Prague, and it’s beautifully rendered; it’s almost a character of its own. Why did you choose that city in particular?

A: For me and a lot of other travelers, Prague has always possessed a unique allure. The city’s atmosphere evokes a sense of mystery like few other places in the world, and that’s why it’s one of my favorite places to visit and write about. This also made it the natural choice for the final act of the story to play out; the cobbled alleyways, the slightly ominous feeling you get when strolling in the narrow lanes under the church spires at night—especially if it’s a little rainy or misty—all epitomize that enchanting, Eastern Europe ambiance. I’ve tried to capture that atmosphere in this story. According to the reviews, I’ve done a good job of it, which is really gratifying to hear.

Q: How about a sequel to “The Vanishers”?

That’s less certain. I loved researching and writing the book, and coming up with these extraordinary characters and their challenges. But, because if the way the story ends (don’t want to give too much away), that might be tricky. It doesn’t lend itself to a series as naturally as Hunt’s adventures do. That was meant to be a series. The Vanishers was a stand-alone story, but I have conjured an idea as to how a return could play out. We’ll see.

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Author Notes for The Vanishers by James Ullrich

Prague Castle, St. Vitus Cathedral, Strahov Monastery, and Charles Bridge are all real sites in Prague and exist as portrayed.

The museums and other locations in this book exist as portrayed.

The catacombs under Prague do exist, and are supposedly haunted.

The Chalice of Acre is fictional. Don’t bother trying to steal it.

The SAS (UK), Special Forces (US), Spetsnaz (Russian Federation), and Israeli Commandos are all real. They are the elite “Special Forces” teams of their respective countries.

The various communications and counterespionage technologies in this book are real—and most are classified.

Interpol is indeed headquartered in Lyon, France.

The fall of Acre, a devastating blow to the Crusaders in 1291, was a historical event. Legend has it they discovered several Christian relics during their time in the Holy Land. During the siege, some of the Crusaders were fortunate enough to escape and attempted a daring escape by sea. Allegedly they spirited Christian relics away to Europe during this time, including the Shroud of Turin and pieces of the supposed “true cross.” The truth of these legends continues to be a matter of debate.

The Siege of Vienna by the Ottoman Turks in 1683 was a historical event.

The Galleria Nazionale d’Arte Antica is a real museum in Rome, though the Rothschild Diamond is fictional.

Bartholdi Fountain in Lyon is real. Its creator, sculptor Frederic Bartholdi, is best known for designing the Statue of Liberty.

There is a place in Scotland called Baniff but there is no loch there, nor is there a castle of the sort described in this book.