The Sirens of Suspense

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Before turning to writing full-time, Keith had a somewhat eclectic career. He founded a successful Internet software company, served as counsel to the Senate Intelligence Committee, taught writing at Harvard, ran for Congress, supported himself gambling at the racetrack, and ran commercial operations at a DNA sequencing company. Most mornings and afternoons nowadays, he can be found drinking caffeinated beverages and tapping his laptop's keys at a café near his home in Palo Alto, California


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KEITH RAFFEL: Searching for a item1b

You’ve worked in Silicon Valley and as counsel to the Senate Intelligence Committee—perfect background for a thriller writer—and you’ve used these experiences in your books. Have you had to tone down some real incidents you’ve used for believability, or increase the excitement? Can you give us some examples?

In Drop By Drop a cache of secret documents is found near Sam Rockman’s Washington, D.C. townhouse. The FBI comes after him. I didn’t have to make that one up. The FBI came to my office on Capitol Hill and wanted to polygraph me after finding classified papers a few feet from my front stoop. Pretty intense. My colleagues speculated that old-time CIA agents didn’t like the reform efforts I was working on and tried to smear me. I don’t know. (Conflict between the Hill and the Agency is not a new phenomenon.)

As for my home sweet home — Silicon Valley — few crime novels take place there, while the bestseller list is chock-full of fiction set in New York, LA, and Washington.  Does that literary neglect make sense?  Silicon Valley is where board members of the world’s largest high tech company hire private eyes to spy on each other.  Where CEOs buy cocaine for their employees and senior VPs threaten reporters with disclosure about their private lives. Where CFOs are investigated for fraudulent backdating of stock options.  We have as much ambition, greed, wealth, and criminal impulses as anywhere.  Take that Wall Street, Hollywood, and Capitol Hill!


TEMPLE MOUNT was influenced by Cold War thrillers (John le Carré, etc.). What about those novels inspired you? Do you have any classic recommendations for readers who have never read the genre?

During the Cold War, along the wall between East and West Berlin, two different ideologies rubbed against each other, steel and stone. If a spark was going to set off a worldwide conflagration, chances were good it would be struck there. The stakes were high, as high as they could be. When it came to finding a modern-day setting for my fifth novel, I looked for a place as fraught as Berlin used to be and came up with the obvious answer — Jerusalem.

Recommendations? Start with one of these classic, classy spy thrillers, and you can’t go wrong:

Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy by John Le Carré.

Berlin Game by Len Deighton.

The Cold War Swap by Ross Thomas.


How much research do you do in putting together a thriller like TEMPLE MOUNT? What’s one of the most interesting or strangest things you’ve found?

In my first book Dot Dead, I did very little research. I wrote about a thirty-ish go-getter at a Silicon Valley start-up. Been there, done that. Temple Mount required more. I took my nine-year-old son and went to Israel searching for a hook to hang my next novel from. After checking out the country from the Lebanese border to the Dead Sea, my son and I were traipsing along the tunnel under the Western Wall in Jerusalem when we stopped at a circle of concrete amidst the massive stone blocks. I asked our guide what it was. He explained that two prominent rabbis had been drilling at night looking for the Ark of the Covenant. The rabbis believed the Ark had been hidden when the Babylonians conquered Jerusalem 57 centuries ago. When the Muslim authorities on the surface felt the vibrations of the jackhammers, they complained to the Israeli authorities who put a stop to the midnight digging and plugged up the excavation. Within seconds after hearing that story, the plot of Temple Mount started forming in my brain.


Can you tell us a little about TEMPLE MOUNT? What’s coming next for you? 

Well, we’ve got Alex Kalman who sold his Silicon Valley company a couple of years ago and is now wondering what to do with his life. He gets a call saying a grandfather he never knew wants to see him before he dies. The grandfather explains he saw the Ark of the Covenant when digging in Jerusalem 30 years before. The Israeli government told him and his colleagues that violence would follow any announcement of its discovery. The grandfather now believes they erred in not making their discovery known — keeping quiet certainly had not lead to peace. Kalman picks up the quest and does do something to unite the Americans, Arabs, and Israelis — they all want him stopped at any cost.

As for what next, I’m going back to my roots. I’m about two-thirds done with the first draft of what’s turning out to be a mystery set right here in Palo Alto.





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Book he wishes he could read again for the first time: THE MALTESE FALCON by Dashiell Hammett (reading it the second, third, or fourth time ain't bad either).

What he's reading now: Just visited a local used bookstore and picked up two vintage paperbacks, lurid covers and all: THE DROWNER by John D. Macdonald (holds up well) and THE BLUE ICE by Hammond Innes (too early to say).

Period in history he'd like to visit: World War II. The stakes were so clear.

Favorite independent bookstore: Kepler's Books and Magazines in Menlo Park, California. (A pleasure palace when I was ten and still.)

If he could have one superpower: Having the neurons in my brain fire ten times faster.

Favorite online resource: This site has dozens, if not hundreds, of New Yorker cartoons about writers. Many are worth a chuckle and some a guffaw.

One thing he wishes he had known when he started writing: How similar working as an author is to working as a Silicon Valley entrepreneur: in both, you try to get people to believe in your story and put their time and money behind it.

If he could invite four people to a dinner party: Shakespeare (What made him so special?), Moses (How did he get that sea to part again?), Rosalind Franklin (Why didn't she get more credit for her DNA discoveries?), and Sid Rosen (What does the grandfather I don't remember have to tell me?).