Got the Look is one of those books that makes you stop and think. I see it all over people’s faces—especially married folks—when I tell them the premise. “The wives of wealthy men are being kidnapped,” I say, “but rather than demand a specific sum of money, the kidnapper simply says ‘Pay me what she’s worth.’” This usually elicits a bit of nervous laughter, followed by a sideways glance that asks, Okay, honey, how much am I worth?
It makes for lively cocktail banter, but the inspiration for Got the Look was anything but lighthearted. My most thoroughly researched novel to date is A King’s Ransom (HaperCollins 2001), for which I spent eighteen months learning about the international kidnapping epidemic that has truly become a multi-billion-dollar criminal industry. I interviewed scores of kidnap victims and their families. Their stories were both moving and harrowing. Two of them really stayed with me. The first involved a Brazilian family whose nineteen-year-old daughter was taken from their home. Before paying the ransom, the parents asked for proof that their daughter was still alive. The thugs sent a videotape of their daughter being gang raped by her captors. For me, this real-life nightmare was absolutely too horrific to incorporate into any “thriller.” But another story did seem suitable. It involved a Colombian woman who for weeks heard nothing from her husband’s kidnappers, until finally a letter arrived. They were holding her husband somewhere in the mountains. “Pay what he’s worth,” the note read. “Or he dies.”
I didn’t use that story in A King’s Ransom, but I knew that someday the premise would find its way into a novel. On one level, it’s the cruelest demand imaginable. On another level, however, it gives us a little window into ourselves. How do you put a monetary value on a loved one? Can you live with the consequences of paying too little? If you offer anything less than all of your worldly possessions—the material things that aren’t supposed to matter—does it mean that your love is not true?
Jack Swyteck has to wrestle with all of these questions in Got the Look. You may not agree with the decisions he makes, but you will feel the pain of making them. Luckily, his outrageous buddy Theo Knight is along for the ride, proving yet again that there is nothing like the sage and perspective of a former death row inmate to keep Jack and the rest of us from going insane.
On the lighter side is the story behind the unusual setting I chose for the most exciting scenes in Got the Look—the Florida aquifer. I’m a graduate of the University of Florida, and for any Gator, tubing down the Ichetuknee River is a veritable right of passage. The river runs for six miles across north Florida , not too far from Gainesville , where I went to school. I made my first trip in an old black inner tube in 1977, and I was struck by two things. One, the water was absolutely crystal clear. Two, it was freakin’ cold! This was not an entirely pleasant surprise (though it was a welcome enhancement to the six-pack floating alongside me). I soon learned that the Ichetucknee rises up from the watery underworld of the north Florida aquifer, a limestone labyrinth of interconnecting caves and caverns that was millions of years in the making and that now discharges 7.7 billion gallons of crystal-clear drinking water every day. Some of the caves stretch for miles, and the average liter of water percolates and circulates around and around for twenty years before reaching the surface.
I remember coming to a wide part of the river where thousands of small air bubbles were rising from the river bed. “Cave divers,” my friend told me. I was dumbstruck. Basking in the sunshine while floating down the cold river in an inner tube was one thing. But it gave me chills to think of people beneath the riverbed, crawling through tiny openings, meandering through tons of jagged limestone, clinging to flashlights, checking gauges, sucking air through hoses—willingly swimming down, down, down into those confusing honeycombs in the earth where plenty of divers had lost their lives in the name of sport. And it raised an obvious question: Why?
In my mind’s eye, I can still see those air bubbles rising from the riverbed, and as a student at the University of Florida , I saw the newspaper reports of divers who lost their way and drowned in the aquifer, many of them just around the corner from daylight. Tragically, it still happens. In fact, just this summer (2005) another diver drowned at Ginnie Springs, a place that features prominently in Got the Look. It will happen again, I’m sure. Again, you might ask: Why? The answer, I suppose, is that the Florida aquifer is one of the most amazing, mysterious, alluring, and dangerous places that nature has to offer.
How could any thriller writer resist?
GOT THE LOOK: HarperCollins Publishers: May 2005 Behind the Writing of the Novel: Copyright 2005 James Grippando