There were three film critics whose work I read on a weekly basis while growing up in Northern Illinois: Roger Ebert at the Chicago Sun-Times, Michael Wilmington at the Chicago Tribune and Jeffrey Westhoff at the Northwest Herald. With local film critic jobs now rendered an endangered species at newspapers, I treasure Westhoff’s work more than ever. He’s living proof that a knowledgable, opinionated and witty voice from the nearby community will always be infinitely preferable to a widely circulated AP review.
Anyone familiar with Westhoff’s work knows how big of a James Bond fan he is, so it comes as little surprise that his stellar, richly enjoyable first book, The Boy Who Knew Too Much, centers on a 15-year-old protagonist, Brian, who is obsessed with spy novels featuring a suave agent (given the name of Foster Blake). While on a European vacation with his fellow high school peers, Brian has a chance encounter with a spy, whose dying words provide him with clues that lead him on an adventure fraught with danger, romance and international espionage. Along the way he meets a variety of colorful characters, including smooth operator Jack Silver, lovely French ally (and die-hard Ramones fan) Larissa, and fiery eyed baddie Skyrm.
Westhoff spoke with Indie Outlook about his favorite Bond films, the influence of 007 creator Ian Fleming and the extensive research he conducted for his remarkably assured debut novel.
What initially inspired you to write this novel?
The whole thing started as a misunderstanding. When I was at the Herald, I was working on a story about teenage spy novels. I went to a book signing at the Read Between the Lynes bookstore in Woodstock, IL, where a friend of mine, Laura Caldwell, was signing her books. I was looking for sources, and afterward I asked her, “Do you know anyone who’s written or is writing a teenage spy novel?” She misheard me and she said, “You’re writing a teenage spy novel?” I was like, “Oh no, no,” and she said, “Well you should!” Then I thought, ‘If there’s anything I can write, it’s a teenage spy novel.’ Alex Rider is essentially the teenage James Bond, so that idea has already been done. There’s a whole bunch of novels about spy schools, as well as stories like “Spy Kids” where the kid’s parents are spies. I realized that no one had really done the Hitchcock thing, where you take an ordinary person and throw them into a dangerous situation.
I like how you pay homage to Hitchcock’s “The Man Who Knew Too Much” by utilizing the same story hook.
That was intentional, although from that point on, the story is more like “North by Northwest.” It’s sort of a teenage spin on “Three Days of the Condor,” which cast Robert Redford as an analyst working for the CIA who’s tasked with reading spy novels. He goes out to lunch while everyone else in his office gets killed, and he’s basically being chased for the rest of the movie. After he defeats an assassin, there’s a conference where various members of the CIA discuss how a nobody could’ve managed to survive. John Houseman is the Lord High Muckety-Muck, and he just says, “He reads.”
I decided to make my hero someone who reads a lot of spy novels—well, gee, do I know anyone like that? [laughs] So basically, he was me at age 15, and I had to come up with ways to make him less like me. I made him blonde, I had him go to a co-ed public school in the suburbs—whereas I went to an all-boys Catholic private high school in the city—and I made him a little bit more outgoing than I was. Some of the reactions I’ve gotten to his character have been, “Well, he’s kind of pedantic and a bit of a know-it-all.” If I had heard that before submitting the book, I might’ve gone through and tried to soften him up a bit. I guess I made him a bit more like me than I wanted.
Had you visited any of the picturesque locales in the novel?
I took a school-sponsored, three-week trip to Europe when I was 16, and it was one of those trips where you go everywhere. I was most excited to visit London and Paris, where we spent our last two days, and I had an absolute blast in both cities. The two cities that surprised me in how much I ended up loving them were Barcelona and Lucerne. When I was on the Kapellbrücke bridge in Lucerne, I walked by a guy who was wearing a trench coat and mustache, and I was absolutely dead sure positive that he was a spy. Then I wondered what would happen if I had found him dying a few minutes later, and that’s how the story began. I toyed with setting it in the 80s, because that’s when I was there, and you’ll notice the very first thing I do is take away Brian’s cell phone. In my opinion, cell phones ruin spy novels. The last half hour of “Octopussy” could’ve been solved by a phone call.
In a way, the book is also like Treasure Island with spies instead of pirates. As I was writing, I started realizing that Jack Silver was a lot like Long John Silver—and that’s when it dawned on me that I had given my character the same name. It may have been subconscious, though at that point, I hadn’t read the actual book of Treasure Island. I was at the peak of my Bond obsession when I was Brian’s age, and I would read nothing but James Bond. My mom bought me a copy of Kidnapped, and said, “Read this, this is good literature,” implying that James Bond was not. So I resented the book and read only two pages of it. That was my first exposure to Robert Louis Stevenson. When I finally read Treasure Island, I loved it, and discovered that it had the same beginning as “The Man Who Knew Too Much,” where a dying pirate gives the hero a treasure map. So Hitchcock stole from Stevenson and I stole from Hitchcock stealing from Stevenson.
It’s fitting that your protagonist is vulnerable, considering your favorite film of all time is “On Her Majesty’s Secret Service,” featuring an uncommonly emotional Bond.
I think “On Her Majesty’s Secret Service” is the one movie that comes closest to reading an Ian Fleming novel. The director, Peter Hunt, had been the editor of previous Bond movies, and he was waiting for his chance to direct one. He was supposed to do “You Only Live Twice,” but they changed their mind at the last minute. That was when the gadgetry in the Bond pictures was becoming more elaborate, and Hunt wanted to get back to the roots of Fleming’s work. Connery left after “You Only Live Twice,” so not only was Hunt directing his first movie, he also had to pick a new James Bond, and George Lazenby was his choice. Lazenby said he had made movies before, which was a lie. People often say the film would’ve been better if Connery had stayed on as Bond, but I don’t think people would’ve accepted him as vulnerable, especially after “Goldfinger.” For this movie to work, they needed a new actor.
Your in-depth description of the locations and the intricately choreographed fight scenes help make the story all the more immersive.
My favorite writer is Ian Fleming, and what he did best was description. There’s almost no description in books nowadays. It’s all dialogue and action and plot advancement. I was hoping to make my book more of a throwback to the old adventure stories where you got the sense of place. There’s almost a travelogue quality to them. As for the staging of the fight scenes, I was inspired by the work of Elleston Trevor, who wrote the Quiller books under the pseudonym of Adam Hall. I don’t think there’s an author in the history of suspense and thriller writing who has made the written word so tense. When Quiller is in a fight scene, he’s thinking about how fast his blood is circulating and the density of his bones. It’s all very technical, and if I had tried that in my book, it would’ve come across as a parody. And whereas Quiller is the ultimate professional, Brian doesn’t know what he’s doing.
There’s an especially memorable fight scene in your book that’s set in a bird market.
In that case, I was stealing from myself. Just to get it out of my system, I wrote a James Bond script based on the novel Colonel Sun, which is the best James Bond novel not written by Ian Fleming. The third act is in Hong Kong, and while doing research, I found that there is a bird market there. So I wrote a fight scene in the bird market as sort of a dumb throwaway joke, which I turned into a more violent and desperate set-piece in this book. Hopefully it comes off as macabre and not stupid. I was right on the line with that.
How did you develop the character of Larissa?
She’s everything I wanted a girl to be when I was 15 years old, except she’s French instead of British. I quickly realized that nothing I read during my research could tell me about what it’s like to be a 16-year-old girl in France. So I went on MySpace—which tells you how long ago I started working on the book—and did a search to find teenage girls living in Toulouse. Trying my best not to come across as a stalker, I sent a message saying that I was working on a book where one of the characters is a teenage girl in Toulouse, and in order to understand the character, I wanted to interview some real people her age who lived there. Apparently I composed the note correctly because in my first attempt, I got gold. Mathilde [Bigorgne] is the girl who generously exchanged e-mails with me, and she’s mentioned in the back of the book. I think she appreciated the chance to practice her English. I found out that she was as big a Pink Floyd fan as I was a James Bond fan at her age, so that’s where Larissa’s love of The Ramones came from. I ended up falling in love with the character, and I cried when I wrote her last scene with Brian.
I liked the running gag referencing the ongoing Marvel/DC rivalry.
That was my attempt at reinterpreting Bond’s prejudices for teenage boys. In the book, From Russia, with Love, Red Grant is wearing a tie with a Windsor knot and Bond goes, “I’ve always distrusted men who wear ties with Windsor knots.” So Brian’s a Marvel fan who doesn’t trust DC fans.
How did your work as a film critic prepare you for writing your first novel, and are you interested in writing another one?
I wanted to avoid all the bad stuff I saw in movies. All the clichés. I acknowledge [Chicago Film Critics Association president] Dann Gire by never having anyone in the book say, “Trust me,” since I remember how Dann would always go off on someone saying “Trust me” in a movie. I would love to write another book, though I never saw this as a series. My publisher already wants a sequel, which is a good sign, though I’m worried that if I keep going with this, it will turn into “Die Hard.” Readers will start asking, “How can the same thing happen to the same guy?”
Brian says that Foster Blake’s appeal lies in his “masculine expertise.” Could the same be said of your favorite Bond, Roger Moore?
The reason I’m a James Bond fan is because of Roger Moore. I saw “The Spy Who Loved Me” when I was 13, and I just thought he was the coolest guy. He’s just so casually powerful. Everything seemed so easy to him. There’s a scene right at the end where it’s been established that the villain has a trap door in the elevator that leads to a shark tank. Bond gets in the elevator and the villain presses the button to open the trap door. When the elevator opens, Bond is straddling the trap door and goes, “You did want me to drop in?”
What, in your opinion, was the last truly great Bond film?
“Casino Royale.” I liked “Skyfall” a lot, but I kind of wonder how it will hold up because the plot makes no sense at all. “Casino Royale” is solid from start to finish. When I was watching it for the first time, it got to the chase scene at the Miami airport, and I was like, “So far, this is the best Quiller movie that no one got around to making, but I don’t know if it’s Bond.” After that point, the plot from the novel kicked in, and it was almost like ecstasy to me. I had forgotten that a James Bond movie could be as good as “Casino Royale,” especially after the Pierce Brosnan era. Brosnan was so good in the first movie, “GoldenEye,” and then they gave him crap scripts. To me, easily the worst James Bond film is “The World Is Not Enough.” People often talk about how miscast Denise Richards was. I think she’s the best thing in the movie. She seems to be the only one under the impression that a James Bond movie should be entertaining. Everyone else thought they were making Ibsen.
“The Boy Who Knew Too Much” is available at Amazon and Barnes & Noble. Westhoff will be attending book signings at Printers Row Lit Fest in Chicago on June 7th; Mystery One bookstore in Milwaukee, WI, on June 9th; Read Between the Lynes bookstore in Woodstock, IL, on June 20th; and “Rock the Podium” at the Clarendon Hills Library on July 30th. Follow Jeffrey on Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr and his official site.