Interview with Russell Atkinson, Author of the "Cliff Knowles" Mysteries
FBI Agent Turned Author
Russell Atkinson served as an FBI Special Agent for 25 years, where he specialized in high-technology crimes in Silicon Valley. He worked on several kidnapping cases and has arrested murderers and drug dealers. With degrees in mathematics and law he worked for many high-tech firms in the computer industry, and also served as President of the American Cryptogram Association.
I had a chance recently to chat with Russ about his books and his background, and his most recent book, A Will to Die.
Interview with Russ Atkinson
Q: Much of the action with Cliff involves FBI personnel--with the managers oftentimes in less than flattering scenarios. Was there that much of a difference between the agents and management?
In real life, no. In my experience most managers (squad supervisors, ASACs, SACs) were at least as capable as the average street agent, usually more so, although I can think of some notable exceptions. However, the FBI career development program (CDP) is so poorly designed that the people who rise to the top do so primarily because of ambition and willingness to be moved all over and take unpleasant jobs (like being an inspector), rather than based on merit.
Q: How did you get into geocaching and cryptography?
I got into cryptography when I was given a copy of the classic book Cryptography by Helen Fouche Gaines back when I was in college. I was a math major. I joined the American Cryptogram Association in 1978, I believe. Even before that I enjoyed crosswords, cryptograms, acrostics, and other word puzzles.
My wife spotted an article about geocaching in the local paper in 2002 and pointed it out to me. I was fascinated right away and went out and bought a yellow eTrex, the original version. I didn't get really hot and heavy into it until I attended some events and met other geocachers. I made friends with PhilippeGPS and his family and turned it into a largely social activity rather than just solo caching.
Q: Cliff seems pretty impulsive at times, and gets himself into trouble with guns and ladders. I presume you were NOT impulsive like that in the bureau?
I was described as a "little old lady" at my FBI retirement party.
Q: In A Will to Die, the details about wills/probate are incredibly detailed. Is that something you learned from your law practice?
When I was in the FBI I got permission to represent family members who were being cheated in a probate matter. That was my first litigated case. I got a favorable settlement, so, yes, my law practice was a big part of it. I've also been trustee of some family trusts and helped my wife when she was the executor of her grandmother's will and her aunt's estate, but I did have to do some research for the book in addition.
Q: As an FBI agent, did you have to investigate deaths or suicides such as in a Will to Die?
No. FBI agents, contrary to TV and novels, rarely investigate homicides (including suicides). I arrested some murderers as fugitives, but didn't investigate the crimes themselves. Most murders do not involve federal jurisdiction. Some ways they might are if they occur on federal property, are killings of federal employees or appointees, are on the high seas or on aircraft, are part of a terrorist or civil rights investigation, etc. If you read my other books, you'll see how I worked the killings into something the FBI would handle. A Will to Die is the first one that does NOT involve an FBI investigation. I had to involve the local sheriff's office so that Cliff could be deputized.
Q: I thought the "ladder scene" was the most intricate part of your most recent book. I imagine it must have taken a huge amount of time to "stage" to get the details right. Did you lay out a ladder?
I didn't lay it out for the book, but I have a ladder exactly like the one described and I've extended like that before. I also looked at a lot of images and descriptions of other extension ladders. There is quite a variety. Readers shouldn't judge by the ones they're familiar with. Many versions lie flat when extended, but mine doesn't.
Q: I'm curious why you had Cliff retire from the Bureau so soon.
This is explained in Cached Out. That's the official explanation for the reader. As an author, the reason I did it was to put Cliff in a position where he was still young and vigorous enough, and free of FBI rules and restrictions, to do whatever was necessary, both pursuing the bad guy and doing some physically demanding geocaching, as well as being credible as a romantic lead.
Q: I don't recall Cliff as being a big guy. Was he always big man?
Yes he was always a big guy. The beard came after he left the FBI, so it wasn't in Held for Ransom, the first Cliff Knowles Mystery. He was still clean-shaven and had thick glasses then, but he was a six-footer+ there. Here's a clip from Cached Out, chapter 1:
"Cliff had a penchant for self-appraisal, and it bothered him that he had this tendency, this weakness, as he thought of it. He knew he didn’t quite fit the public image of the FBI agent. His soft, full cheeks and thick glasses gave a chubby and bookish appearance that belied the muscularity he had painstakingly developed over years in the gym. Worst of all, he was a lawyer by training and worked white collar crimes most of his career - definitely not the most macho program. At least the latest laser surgery had finally freed him from the glasses and since retirement he had dropped more than a few pounds from the running and hiking. His newly grown beard covered the chubbiness in his face. All of these improved his appearance, giving him a more rugged, solid look, but he was troubled by his own vanity – or perhaps it was insecurity. These things he knew to be unimportant, yet they bothered nonetheless."
I believe in Held for Ransom I described him as being "of average height" and hefty but I wanted to make him more physically formidable as an action character, so I used this workaround in Cached Out to establish that "average" meant over six feet in the FBI of the day.) I probably added an inch or two to his height in the later books, so that the "smidgen" may mean two or three inches. I try not to be too specific about things like that as it is hard to remember all those details from book to book.
Q: I noticed that DEATH ROW is much shorter, and seemed to me less procedural, and more action. Was it a conscious decision to change the style?
It wasn't a conscious decision to change the style, but I knew starting out that the plot was not going to be nearly as complex and multi-threaded as Cached Out, so in order to write a full-length novel I knew I had to include several action scenes and more geocaching. I also wanted to include more geocaching since I saw this book as a clear sequel to the plot of Cached Out and I think that's what my fan base (or Cliff's) wants.
Q: Are you a drone pilot? (of course, you knew that question was coming.)
Of course. I have several YouTube videos of my drone flying, including one at a geocaching event. It may (or may not) be the first geocache "find" ever videoed from the air. DittosMom asked me to do this video. The other, Sky Can, is also at the site of a geocache and it may qualify as the first, although I didn't actually video the find itself so as not to spoil it for others. I did find the cache while I was there, although not while flying.
Here is a recemt video:
Q: Many of the main characters in the series are strong, capable women. In your years in the FBI, were there many female agents working in the field?
When I started, no. My training class in 1973 had two women in a class of 28. There were none working in the Seattle Office, my first office, and none on my squad in New York, my second office. Toward the end, however, there were many women agents and they were equally good agents to the men in my opinion, although they tended not to gravitate toward the more physical jobs like firearms or defensive tactics instructor, fugitive work, etc. They were more likely to be working white collar or foreign counterintelligence. For what it's worth, one of the two women in my class ended up being an Assistant Director.
Thanks, Russell, for your time. You can purchase the latest Cliff Knowles mystery, A Will to Die, on Amazon here.
Upsplatch photos coutesy of Nico Beard, Mitch Nielsen