In Milwaukee in 1997, just a few years after the horrors of Jeffrey Dahmer, a copycat serial killer is at work. This is the setting for the latest installment in author Steven James’ The Bowers Files series, featuring detective Patrick Bowers. Titled “Opening Moves” (Signet Select, 2012), this novel is a prequel, retroactively setting the stage for James’ previous Bowers’ books.
Gregg Shapiro: How much, if any, is there of Steven James in detective Patrick Bowers?
Steven James: Well, he’s a better rock climber than I am, more of a coffee snob and a little smoother with the ladies. But I have to admit that many of the struggles that I have do find their way into Patrick’s life. After the first book in the series, “The Pawn,” came out, someone asked my wife who I was the most like – Bowers or the serial killer. She said the serial killer. I think she was joking, but I’m still not quite sure (laughs).
Some of your books can be categorized as genre fiction. You write it, but do you also read it?
Most writing instructors say you should write in the genre that you like to read, but truthfully I don’t read all that much suspense. I enjoy it, but I don’t want my writing to inadvertently mirror that of another writer. So, I read a variety of genres and nonfiction and watch suspense movies. I love stories with a twist, so watching films is a good way to get my fix when I avoid novels that might be similar to the ones I write.
You write about the ’90s being a violent decade, beginning with Dahmer, followed by O.J. Do you think these kinds of events set the tone for the 21st century, ranging from the events of 9/11 to more recent events such as the Aurora, Colo., movie theater shooting and the shooting at the Sikh Temple in oak creek?
That’s a really good question. Justice Department crime statistics from the last 20 years have shown a marked decline in the number of violent crimes in most major U.S. cities. We hear about these brutal mass killings and they naturally shock us. Several times a week suicide bombers in the Middle East kill dozens of innocent people and it ends up being only a small blip on our news media’s radar screen. Truthfully, I believe we can be thankful to live in our country.
Why did you set “Opening Moves” in 1997 Milwaukee?
Part of the storyline involves a criminal orchestrating reenactments of horrific crimes from Wisconsin’s history. Dahmer is one of those killers, so are a father/son team that followed him the next year. Placing the prequel to my book in that time of turmoil was a perfect fit.
Were you living in Wisconsin at the time of Dahmer?
Yes. I was working at a camp in central Wisconsin and still remember the story breaking on the news.
At one point in the book you write that “Wisconsin winters are long enough” – is that why you live in Tennessee?
I moved to Tennessee back in the mid-’90s to pursue a master’s degree in storytelling. I admit it: I fell in love with the weather right away, and when I finished grad school we couldn’t think of any good reasons to leave.
You write about how childhood events shaped the lives of the characters of Patrick and Josh-
ua, the serial killer in the novel. Was there a parallel in your life?
As I mentioned in the prologue to the book, my father was being targeted by James Oswald, but thankfully James and his son were apprehended before they could commit any more crimes. I was no longer living at home at the time, but there was an event that did affect me deeply that appears in the book. When I was about 10 or 11, a girl disappeared in our hometown and the authorities told everyone to look in their outbuildings for any sign of her. We had a tree house at the time and I remember my dad going out there to look for a body in it. It was deeply disturbing. In “Opening Moves,” I drew from that experience in one of the scenes and it ended up as a powerful and terrifying scene.
You write about “our choices” and accountability. Would you elaborate on that?
While writing “Opening Moves,” I thought a lot about justice and our choices and the point at which we become responsible for them. I think that in every crime the offender can point to extenuating circumstances – a mental illness, abuse as a child, fear of being killed himself, and so on – but how do we determine that there were enough of those to diminish the punishment of the person? I don’t have answers to all of these questions, but I think they are important ones to ask, so I let them surface throughout the narrative of the book.
If there was a movie version of the Patrick Bowers series, who would you want to play Bowers?
So, I have to admit I’ve thought about that. I really like Colin Farrell for the part. He has this darkness, this intelligence, and strong screen presence. I think he’d be great.