Set in the fall of 1990 and based loosely on true events, James Kelly’s debut reads like the second coming of Andrew Gross, who made waves a few years back when he switched genres and has, ever since, delivered one masterful historical fiction novel after another.
Here, with Pablo Fandango, Kelly introduces readers to his protagionist, Marty Ronan, a young art prodigy who, in need of some cash after a devastating murder that took place on Christmas Eve 1981 left him pretty much on his own, conjures up a scam that leads to him producing forgeries at the highest levels—on his way to doing business with billionaires and fooling law enforcement agencies around the world in the process.
While the character is no doubt the driving force behind the book’s gripping plot, Kelly’s gritty style lends itself well to the story—which moves fast but still manages to capture the setting and the characters’ motives along the way. Just after the book’s release, author James Kelly agreed to go on the record for our Five Questions segment, and I asked him about everything from how he came up with the plot idea for this one to what’s next for both he and Marty Ronan moving forward.
TRBS: I have to say, I was really blown away with your debut. It’s beautifully written, gritty, and the plot was really intriguing. How did you come up with the story idea?
Kelly: “This is a great question and one I’m asked often. This story has really truly been a labor of love for close to 30 years now. It started out as a screenplay I was writing. I then decided, after writing the screenplay, I should write a series of novels based on the main character “Marty Ronan”. The story is, in fact, loosely based on a real-life person and real-life experiences that truly happened, though names have been changed.)
“The main character is an extremely talented young artist who would go on to fool not only the F.B.I but Interpol and the RCMP with his skill of forgeries. It’s one thing to produce a masterpiece, that in itself is an art form in my mind, but you need a buyer who will pay millions of dollars for it! And he was a pro at marketing his forgeries as well to some of the richest people in the world. He didn’t deal with millionaires he dealt with billionaires. And imagine he did all of this back in the day before the internet was what it is today. He’s truly a fascinating character, and one I feel is unique like no other character out there today. Readers are smarter today then they’ve ever been, they pick up very quickly on all the same cliches written and repeated over and over again in books today. Marty Ronan is a character that will stand the test of time for generations to come because he’s the real deal!”
TRBS: What kind of research did you have to do before actually sitting down to write Pablo Fandango?
Kelly: “I did an incredible amount of researching over a period of many years that just kept growing and growing. It’s my belief the more research and passion one puts into a novel, the better it will be and readers will notice this very quickly upon reading the book. From newspaper periodicals, interviews with some of the most knowledgeable art professors, and professionals in fine art today. As well as having access to probation and court documents on the case history. But more importantly, interviewing family members and law enforcement officials who had knowledgeable information regarding everything around the investigation.
“One FBI agent stated to the sister of my character that in his 25-year career of investigating targets, never had he come across one like this. He was mystified by his remarkable talent and his ability to have fooled such educated, wealthy, established people. I had an absolute treasure trove of information to work with.”
TRBS: When did you know you wanted to be a writer, and when did you finally decide to take the plunge?
Kelly: “I have always had the gift of the gab, it comes from my mother’s side of the family and her Irish background. But really I’ve been writing for years strictly as a hobby and one I truly enjoyed. Many of my colleagues and friends suggested I should be writing novels as I’ve led a life like no other. Having experienced moments and times that are beyond the norm that people live in today’s world. I’ve been extremely blessed too have lived such a remarkable life. One day I decided I was going to give writing a book a shot, what did I have to lose, I was tired of seeing and reading all the same rubbish on shelves that were just being pumped out like an assembly line in a factory.
“No one, I believe, goes into writing to become rich. I decided to write because I love telling great stories and I’m extremely passionate about what I’m producing. It’s an escape for me from reality. It’s like going to the movies, you get to escape from all the stress happening around you. It’s refreshing and enjoyable. And I have first-hand knowledge about what I write about because that was my life for twenty-five years, operating as a high-level operative/mercenary for worldwide government agencies. I’ve played many roles over my career and I bring the same determination to my writing as I did when I was hunting evil around the globe. I’m relentless.”
TRBS: Who are some of your favorite authors, and what is the last great book that you read?
Kelly: “This is an extremely tough question as there are so many, I wouldn’t want to miss one as I have just too many to mention. I love James Mills’ writing style I’ve read his book “Underground Empire” so many times and I love it. Another favorite is Robert Ludlum, what a phenomenal American author. The Bourne Trilogy series was a masterpiece in my mind. I really enjoy the true crime arena. Some of my favorites include T.J. English, Robert Lacey, Rick Porello, Fredrick Forsythe, Robin Moore, Jerry Capeci, Robert Saviano is one of my all-time favorites. GOMORRAH was an incredible book.
“Of course I have to mention Nicholas Pileggi I love how he brought WISEGUY to life.
Don Winslow is another favorite, “THE POWER OF THE DOG was a great book. I loved his father Parada character.
“I’m reading HOLLYWOOD GODFATHER right now by acclaimed actor, singer, producer, Gianni Russo who played Carlo in the famed movie THE GODFATHER. What a great book. Highly recommend it. Fascinating stories!
“So I have many more favorites but there’s just too many to mention.”
TRBS: Lastly, what’s next for you–can readers expect a follow-up anytime soon?
Kelly: I’m an extremely busy guy who never sleeps. I’m constantly painting, it’s a passion I’ve had since my youth. I love seeing a painting come to life. I’m in the process of working on my next Marty Ronan series of novels. I can say I’m enjoying it immensely, seeing the next story come to life and this book will be filled with great action and memorable characters. I’m also in talks to bring the Marty Ronan series of novels to the big screen, this has been a dream of mine as a kid in film school as a youth. So I’m a very busy person, but I love what I do.”
Praised as “One of the hardest working, most thoughtful, and fairest reviewers out there” by #1 New York Times bestselling author Lisa Scottoline, Ryan Steck has “quickly established himself as the authority on mysteries and thrillers” (Author A.J. Tata). Steck also works full-time as a freelance editor and pens a monthly thriller column for CrimeReads. For more information, be sure to follow him on Twitter and Facebook. He currently lives in Southwest Michigan with his wife and their six children.