David Ricciardi is not one of the best-known writers in the thriller genre—but he is one of the best. So it’s without fear or hesitation that I repeat a prediction I made in reviewing his second novel: He will before long join the ranks of the giants of the thriller genre.
His recently released third novel, “Black Flag,” zeros in on a threat we have come to think has faded away—piracy. A few years back, small-time thugs armed with AK-47s operating small vessels caused considerable havoc attacking ships off the coast of the Horn of Africa, looting them and taking prisoners for ransom. But it wasn’t long before both private shipping companies and a few of the world’s navies brought to bear vastly superior force, and the bush-league pirates were crushed.
Novelist David Ricciardi wondered what if, instead of being conducted by unsophisticated small-time thugs using vessels that cannot venture very far out into ocean waters, piracy was performed like a serious military operation: superfast vessels, including submersibles; the best jamming capabilities; the latest weaponry—all directed and staffed by some of the smartest intelligence and special operations officers lured by assurance of fantastic riches from their share in the looting?
Most of the world’s commerce moves by sea, and it is impossible to protect every ship in such a vast area from true military-force piracy. The entire world could suffer greatly.
So in “Black Flag,” protagonist Jake Keller is in Somalia to track down the warlords and arms merchants behind this threat and put them out of business. Like every Ricciardi novel, it’s an unusually imaginative, exceptionally well-plotted, highly plausible, riveting tale that moves at an exciting pace and keeps you fast flipping pages, anxious to learn what surprise next awaits you. And this one also comes with a surprise ending you’ll never see coming.
What makes David Ricciardi especially interesting is that rather than focusing on the same basic topic in one book after another—terrorism, Russian belligerence, whatever—he picks those that are not receiving much focus in other thrillers.
His 2018 debut thriller, “Warning Light,” centers on a bold plan for U.S. intelligence to get an up-close look and obtain images at Iran’s most secret nuclear weapons facility. It’s a great cat-and-mouse chase adventure, a lesson in enemy disinformation, and a warning about just how scary the Iranian nuclear deal truly is.
“Rogue Strike,” released last year, centers on the possibility that bad actors could hack into and take control of U.S. drones. A drone in position to take out a leading radical Islamic terrorist in Yemen is hacked into by the Chinese and suddenly pivots to Mecca in neighboring Saudi Arabia, where its missiles are unleashed and virtually vaporize a few thousand innocent Muslim pilgrims, creating a horrendous nightmare for America and a dream opportunity for our enemies.
It’s an exciting tale—and a warning that the Saudis are an untrustworthy ally and the Chinese Communists a deadly enemy bent on surpassing us in influence and military might.
David Ricciardi is a new star, well worth your checking out. Expect to be hearing a lot more from him—and a lot more about him—in the years ahead.
I interviewed him from his home in Connecticut.
Ambassador Eckert: You burst upon the scene in a way few others have. Talk about it.
David Ricciardi: Writing was something I’d always wanted to do, but I’d never made it a priority in my life until “Warning Light.” Variations of the plot had bounced around in my head for years until I finally decided that it was time to get started. I wrote the manuscript and self-published it, more to see if I could do it to my own satisfaction than anything else. But someone brought it to the attention of the retired CEO of a major publisher, who contacted me, gave me great advice, and put me in touch with my future agent. The agent agreed to represent me, and we soon landed a contract with an imprint of Penguin Random House to publish “Warning Light.”
Amb. Eckert: “Warning Light” was very well received. Critics and readers alike expressed surprise that a novice writer produced such a polished work. You’ve said that before you set out to write a novel, you read up on how to write one. What’s the best advice you took away from such how-to books?
Mr. Ricciardi: I’ve always loved to read, but I never studied literature, so I had some work to do. Even if no one else ever read it, I wanted to be able to look back at the manuscript I created and say that I did the best that I could. Part of my research included buying a book titled “The Essential Guide to Writing a Novel” by James Thayer. By the time I finished it, I had sticky notes and highlights on every page. The best single piece of advice in the whole book is, “Your goal is to make the reader want to turn the page”; then he spends 300 pages telling you how to do it.
Amb. Eckert: Your publisher bills you as a keen outdoorsman, an avid sailor, a certified scuba-rescue diver, and a former ski instructor. How does this impact your novels?
Mr. Ricciardi: When I was a kid, I spent every free minute in the mountains or on the water. It’s a pattern I’ve continued as an adult, often using additional training or competition to sharpen my skills. I constantly use those experiences to inform my writing, to bring the reader along with me when a character is fighting to survive in a high mountain desert or against a storm at sea.
Amb. Eckert: Your book jacket author bio says you “received extensive training from law enforcement and U.S. special operations personnel.” Again, how does this impact your novels?
Mr. Ricciardi: Shooting sports are one of my hobbies. I’ve taken dozens of classes, as an individual and as part of a team, to sharpen my skills. Those experiences keep my stories realistic and exciting. It can be challenging to accurately convey the human emotion that happens in a tactical situation, but the training I took helps me keep it real for the reader.
Amb. Eckert: Why did you pick the thriller genre?
Mr. Ricciardi: It was always my favorite genre to read. I find thrillers so immersive—they’re like trips to exotic places with fascinating people—and there’s always some conflict at the heart of it that needs to be resolved.
Amb. Eckert: What writers have had the most influence on you—and why?
Mr. Ricciardi: Tom Clancy, Nelson DeMille, and Ken Follett. The detail, the human interaction, and the plotlines were exhausting in the best sense of the word. One of Clancy’s many gifts was that even though you may have rooted against his villains, you often respected them because he put you inside their heads and we’re all products of our experiences.
Amb. Eckert: When your protagonist is introduced to us, he’s CIA but a geeky analyst without any experience or training in in-field espionage, and it’s unexpected circumstances that force him to become a warrior. Why this choice?
Mr. Ricciardi: I wanted the reader to identify with Jake. Most of us have relatively normal lives, but we’d all like to think that we could rise to the occasion if a desperate situation called for it. I’d like for a reader to look at the hero and say, “That could be me.”
Amb. Eckert: Tell me how you see Jake Keller.
Mr. Ricciardi: Jake is tenacious. He loves his country and does everything he can to protect it, but he’s guided by a strong moral compass, so even when he’s laying down some hurt, he’s doing it for a cause greater than himself.
Amb. Eckert: Is there any—much?—of you in Jake? Is he based upon anyone you know? A composite?
Mr. Ricciardi: There is a lot of me in Jake, but he’s better at everything!
Amb. Eckert: Where do you get your plot ideas?
Mr. Ricciardi: I’m a current-affairs junkie and always thinking about “what-if” scenarios.
Amb. Eckert: How big a role does research play in giving you ideas for books and in giving you the confidence to cover the variety of subject matter in your books?
Mr. Ricciardi: Of all the time spent creating a novel, probably a third of it I spend on research. I visit the setting when possible, I talk to people who’ve done what I’m writing about, and I read about what I can’t cover through first- or second-hand research. I want the reader’s experience to be authentic.
Amb. Eckert: Of current writers, whom do you most enjoy reading—and why?
Mr. Ricciardi: I’ve read a lot of Gregg Hurwitz’s work lately. Normally, I’m a fan of plot-driven novels, but Hurwitz’s wit and excellent writing have made his Orphan X series one of my favorites.
Amb. Eckert: What advice would you give an aspiring novelist?
Mr. Ricciardi: 1) Get started 2) Finish what you start. Once you have a finished manuscript, you’re ahead of 99 percent of aspiring novelists.
Amb. Eckert: What is coming next from David Ricciardi?
Mr. Ricciardi: Someone is trying to kill Jake Keller. He doesn’t know who or why, but the deeper he digs, the more evidence he finds of something rotten inside the CIA. Jake makes it his personal mission to locate the source of the trouble and wipe it out. We don’t have a title yet, but it will be out in the spring of 2021.
384 pages, hardcover
The “Ambassador of Good Fiction” series will be recommending to our readers a work of fiction, giving information not just about the novel but also what makes its author worth checking out—and, when possible, interviewing that author.
A writer and favorably reviewed novelist himself, Fred J. Eckert has been a member of Congress and twice served under President Ronald Reagan as a United States ambassador.