Origins of The Malice Box

(This article first appeared on Penguin’s UK website in February 2007. )

In keeping with the riddling spirit of “The Malice Box”, it seems only appropriate to begin this article with a puzzle, so here goes:

What do the following places, people or things have in common:
– Shirley Bassey, a bowler hat and the state of Kentucky;
– the particle accelerator called RHIC at Brookhaven National Laboratory, Long Island; and
– the mediaeval English coins known as Rose Nobles?

I’ll try to answer by describing some of the origins and themes of “The Malice Box” – OR, if you want to know the answer right away, have a quick peek at the bottom of the page.

Getting Started
The core idea of “The Malice Box” – a psychic weapon of immense destructive power, that can only be disarmed by those ready to face both physical and spiritual danger – came to me a few months after the 9/11 attacks of 2001.

I was spending a couple of weeks in Montreal in the depths of winter, going through notebooks from the previous few years and an unpublished novel that had piqued the interest of literary agent Michael Sissons in the mid-1990s. Michael had encouraged me to write a sequel, but I had not yet done so.

Reading that story again, about a charming but maddening foreign correspondent named Adam Hale who pursues the ghost of a dead woman through the civil wars of Central America, I found myself talking to him, even at times shouting out loud at him, and slowly “The Malice Box” began to take shape. I realized Adam needed to be in the new book – he was insisting on being in it – but that he had to be paired with someone who would be his opposite, who would act as Earth, so to speak, to Adam’s Air. That was the genesis of Robert Reckliss: brave, dependable, “not reckless” – but with a searing, buried need to be like Adam, just as Adam needs his schemes and games to come to fruition through Robert.

The idea of the mysterious weapon melded with other images and themes I felt drawn to – the hidden secrets of New York, the story-telling potential of GPS and the Internet, the past splendours of Islamic civilization, questions of anger, love and hatred – into a kind of giant gumbo.

On sources
I decided from the outset that I wanted to write a thriller, intended for a wide audience, but one that would pack an unusual punch, drawing on some unconventional sources.

On my walks around Manhattan, in my reading and in my memories, I found frightening or fascinating things that began to force their way forward, as though demanding, like Adam and later Katherine, to be in the story. And so into the pot went my irrational fear of Ouija boards; the economist Keynes’ mystifying description of Sir Isaac Newton as “the last of the magicians”; the compelling strangeness of the world described by quantum and Einsteinian physics; comic strips and early 1970s Doctor Who episodes; traditions of Gnosticism, Sufism and sacred geometry.

Love and fear
In, too, went the fear and anger – sometimes, the sheer terror — that can afflict us when everything we are familiar with is suddenly torn away by violence or danger, be it our way of thinking about the world, or our way of looking at ourselves.
Do we fall apart? Hit back? At whom, and how savagely? Forgive? All of the above?

For many, the attacks of 9/11 and 7/7 posed such questions; for others, being the victim of a burglary or a mugging, or simply witnessing the effects of violence or disaster, can do it. What is left when our sense of security and our belief in human nature are shattered?

In my days as a reporter, I was shaken to the core several times by things I saw or experienced. Once, after a series of underground explosions that ripped up entire streets in the Mexican city of Guadalajara, I counted more than 100 victims, grandmothers to grandchildren, all laid out on a basketball court in a makeshift morgue. Reporting a confirmed death toll was part of my job, and I got on with it, but the images are with me still. Another time, someone – I don’t know who, nor whether they meant to kill or just intimidate — blew up my jeep in El Salvador at an hour that I would ordinarily have been in it. An incendiary device with a timer had been placed on the fuel tank, I was told at the time. There were other difficult experiences. Each time, I found a way – through writing, through love – to overcome the bleakness the incidents filled me with, and to draw from them something of value.

Drewary and Qi
Robert faces similar challenges, though on a far greater scale, if he is to halt the detonation of the weapon called the Malice Box.
As he and his wife Katherine battle to save New York from an attack that could wipe out half the planet, he is drawn into a new world that defies everything he has ever believed. To have any chance of prevailing, he must strip himself of lifelong illusions and learn to see with entirely new eyes.

As happens to all of us when our world splinters before us, Robert finds darkness on the other side of the cracks.
But he also finds something else. Led by Horace Hencott, his octogenarian mentor with an unexpected past, and scrappy, sexy Terri, a provocative psychic in her 20s, Robert discovers that on the other side of his shattered illusions lies a world of marvels.

The tools to navigate that world – to develop the powers necessary to be able to halt the explosion of the Malice Box – are expressed in terms of alchemy, while also drawing on the sequence of the chakras in Hindu spirituality: earth, water, fire, air, ether, mind, spirit.

As I said above, Air and Earth also correspond to two of the book’s characters, Adam and Robert – one a rootless, soaring, ungraspable creature of imagination, the other a man of unshakeable solidity. Between the two men, as I worked my way through various drafts, appeared a young woman of Fiery disposition and gifts, Katherine, whose maiden name Rota means “wheel” in Latin, or “broken” in Spanish … and who simply refused to be written out early on, as I had originally planned. She, too, forced her way into the story. There also came Water, in the form of Terri, her sexual route to knowledge and power reflecting traditions as disparate as the Drewary of East Anglia’s pagans, and the qi techniques of Taoism, all leavened with a little on-line flirting.

And beyond them all, caught between worlds, came my beloved Tariq, an ostensible villain, but one who makes superhuman efforts to behave honourably under impossible strain. Events open the door to an evil he would abhor.

I think of “The Malice Box”, in the end, as a love story involving each of these characters.

It is also a walking tour. Exploring the New York settings with GPS unit and/or book in hand is perhaps the best way to experience Robert’s quest, as the city wheels about him and clues drop into place one by one. For those not able to visit New York, it is also a website: Robert’s progress along the Path, and aspects of his past, can be explored here. Look out for the hidden links.

And finally, in various ways, “The Malice Box” is a novel about transmutation: about taking the dross of fear, pain, loss and destruction, and turning it into GOLD — which is the answer to the opening riddle.*

Adam Hale, I’m sure, would be aghast that only one game or puzzle has appeared in this article. So here’s another, drawn from Adam’s papers, to end with:

Along the ley line mentioned in the Cambridge section of the book, there was a fourth site that Adam thought about folding into his game. In the end he didn’t need it, but here’s what it would have been:
First clue: Sexy Susie’s OLC legend.
Second clue: Look ahead.
The phrase you seek is a man’s name, and it’s definitely not Rex.
The answer, if you want to check, is here.

Martin Langfield, New York, 2007

* Shirley Bassey sang the theme song to the James Bond movie Goldfinger, in which the villain raids Fort Knox in Kentucky, and an electrifying death occurs involving henchman Odd Job’s bowler hat. The RHIC smashes together ions of gold, creating in microcosmic form some of the conditions of the universe shortly after its creation. Rose nobles are alleged, in certain circles, to have been made of gold produced by alchemical means.

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