Here is my interview with Russell Atkinson, the author of Death Row, the latest installment in the Cliff Knowles Mystery Series.



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. Political skills and ability to avoid making enemies are also important. They also have to start into the CDP very early to go through all the hoops necessary to get to be an SAC. That means as a practical matter they have much less investigative experience than the average street agent. Most of their career will have been doing administrative, not investigative, work. That's what causes most of the problems with the SACs in my books. Most of the squad supervisors in my stories have been very able. Remember, Cliff was a squad supervisor himself before he retired. Unlike SACs, most squad supervisors have had years of investigative experience. As an author though I am not trying to make any point about FBI management. Most readers identify with the common working man or woman and have had a boss or two they consider a jerk or incompetent. It's very common in the detective genre for the hero to be the street-wise investigator who disdains the "suits" because that's more fun for the reader. It really doesn't go any deeper than that.

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?

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 are some of my recent videos:


WWFM XI: Silicon Valley - Bowwows and Bubbles

Sky Can


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.

Q: Thanks, Russell, for your time. Any hint on what is coming next for Cliff Knowles? 

I think Cliff will take a rest for a while. I'd like to branch out a bit with my writing. I have an idea for a science fiction novel, but I haven't started writing it yet. I think Cliff will eventually reappear, but I can't guarantee he will still be geocaching. Working geocaching into the plot line is severely limiting.