'Signature Kill'

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U-M alum publishes latest mystery-thriller

By Kurt Anthony Krug
Legal News

David Levien has a reputation for exhaustive research in order to authenticate his fiction.

For instance, Levien (pronounced "Levine") and frequent collaborator Brian Koppelman entered the dangerous world of underground poker halls when writing the screenplay to 1998's "Rounders,"starring Oscar winner Matt Damon and Oscar nominee Edward Norton.

For his latest novel, "Signature Kill" (Doubleday $24.95) the fourth novel featuring series protagonist Frank Behr, a private investigator he thoroughly researched serial killers.

"Wouldn't it be off the charts insane if I admitted to becoming a serial killer in the name of research? Well, I didn't do that. I did read dozens of biographies, case histories, non-fiction and clinical books on killers of all different types. I also spoke pretty extensively with a couple criminal psychiatrists. The process took a few years," said Levien, of New York City, a 1989 University of Michigan alumnus.

In "Signature Kill," Behr takes on a cold case to find a woman whose face is plastered all over billboards throughout Indianapolis and collect the $100,000 reward money. At the same time, bodies of murdered women start piling up and before too long, Behr realizes his cold case is connected to these brutal murders and a serial killer is on the loose. However, this man has the ability to blend in with polite society, which makes tracking him down difficult, forcing Behr to go to dark places once he's discovered he's in the middle of something very sinister.

"I'm highly interested in the iteration of evil that walks the streets amongst us, unrecognized," Levien said. "Certain real-life killers like Dennis Rader, John Wayne Gacy, Jeffrey Dahmer, going all the way back to Albert Fish and H.H. Holmes these people led quiet, normal lives, for all intents and purposes, but their real existences were far from quiet or normal. The 'regular' way this type of killer conducts himself makes him extremely difficult to discover and stop. It would take someone, I posit, singular of purpose, with extreme determination, toughness, and ingenuity like Behr on a sort of quest, to hook into the mind and actions of a killer like this."

Levien confessed doing this kind of homework for "Signature Kill" disturbed him.

"When I was in the thick of it, researching and writing for many hours a day, the work became a very dark place. I felt a deep sense of disquiet. I wouldn't say I had nightmares, but my dreams became infected by graphic imagery and a sense of heavy foreboding. I stayed in there for a long time, and when the book was finally written, it was a relief to no longer have an excavation of the mind of a depraved killer on my to-do list," recalled Levien.

He also talked about why the Behr books occur in Indianapolis.

"It was important in ('City of the Sun,' the first Behr novel) that the central crime the abduction of a young boy happen in a bucolic place where that kind of thing is not expected. For that reason, I knew it needed to be in the Midwest. But I had this feeling that if the thing somehow turned into a series, the setting needed to also be big enough and crime-y enough so my character could keep encountering new crimes and cases," explained Levien. "I went to school at (U-M) and took a lot of road-trips back then, so I knew Indianapolis a bit it's very All-American, but it's also a large city with pockets of heavy crime and a high murder rate in certain sections. I also wasn't aware of any series being set there, which was a plus for me. It just fit for that first book, so that became home to Frank Behr and the series."

Levien's stepfather was a police officer, Secret Service agent, and a private investigator, which gave him quite an inside view of what those law enforcement professions were like when he created Behr, who's nothing like his stepfather.

"Behr is a fictional construct," he said. "His career as a cop and the tragic incident that marks him, his dogged, methodical style, his willingness to use violence, his way of talking, of physical training, his array of contacts all that stuff is created. He's a big brooding guy, not too talky, with skills, and a very personal sense of code and penance for his past failures."

According to Levien, the Behr books can be read out of sequence or as stand-alones. Of course, the series is intended to be read in order.

"Aspects of Behr's personal life and his growth and evolution as a character, and the way each case he's involved in mark and change him, are best understood when the books are read chronologically. But I'm aware that readers encounter series and individual books in varying ways, so I built it so that there's no necessity to go in order. There is a bit of description and introduction to Behr and what makes him who he is in each book, so someone new to the series who starts with 'Signature Kill' or the second or third book will not be lost. They're all complete stories," he said. "The books don't compete with each other, but you want to feel like there's a growth in the books and as a storyteller. I hope each one is better than the last in at least some small way idea, writing, passion if not altogether better."

Levien has been nominated for an Edgar Award, Shamus Award, and Hammett Award. In addition to penning six novels, he's written/co-written 12 screenplays, most notably 2001's "Knockaround Guys" (which he co-directed with Koppelman), starring Berry Pepper, Seth Green, and Oscar nominee John Malkovich; 2003's "Runaway Jury," starring John Cusack and Rachel Weisz; 2006's "The Illusionist," which reunited him with Norton; 2009's "Solitary Man" (which he co-directed with Koppelman), starring Oscar winner Michael Douglas; and 2013's "Runner Runner," starring Justin Timberlake and Oscar winner Ben Affleck.

"Runaway Jury" based on John Grisham's 1996 legal thriller of the same name earned him his Edgar nomination. Levien talked about the balancing act of adapting another's work for another medium.

"You have to find some way of both staying true to the material and completely changing it into what it needs to be as a film and to know when and when not to do it. But there are no rules, so it's a question of finding a new path each outing," he said.

He explained that he and Koppelman consulted Grisham.

"Screenwriters who leave Grisham out of the process do so at their own peril. The man is a proven storyteller and knows his material and audience with utter authority. (The writers before us) on that project ignored big, essential elements of the novel and Grisham's thoughts, and he vetoed those scripts. I read them and he was right to they just didn't work," said Levien.

Even though the book was about a trial against a tobacco company, the movie is about a trial against gun manufacturers. Still, they kept many plot and character elements.

"John got behind our version of the script and the movie ended up getting made, and turned out pretty well in my opinion," said Levien.

The author can't see any of his Behr books being adapted for the movies.

But he can see them as a premium cable series.

"Each books set up for a season, and the episodic space allows for more character excavation and time for investigative and narrative twists and turns," said Levien.

As for who would play Behr, he said, "Someone big and intense who's a hell of an actor."

Published: Thu, Mar 26, 2015

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