Owen Laukkanen’s got a hit on his hands

The ex-poker reporter was surprised by the reaction to his debut thriller

He’s got a hit on his hands

Photo by Colin O'Connor

As he was growing up, Owen Laukkanen dreamed that someday he’d be able to walk into a Chapters and find a book with his name on it. As wishes go, it’s fairly standard. But on March 29, when Laukkanen’s debut thriller The Professionals is published in North America, he’ll get his wish, and much more. One of the most assured new voices to hit the genre, Laukkanen has had a publication path beyond the realm of standard dreams.

The Professionals hinges on a scenario that the economic meltdown made depressingly familiar: the newly minted college graduate, brimming with confidence, knocked down several rungs at the lack of work and mounting debt. The sense of futility unites four friends—Arthur Pender, his girlfriend Marie, and two best friends Sawyer and Mouse—as they turn a joke about robbing the rich into high-volume, low-ransom kidnappings.

Laukkanen, 29, dreamed up the scenario in October 2009 after finishing up a different novel set in Las Vegas’s poker world, one the author knew well from three years as a reporter for “I was watching a TV program on kidnapping in the developing world, and I realized it can be a profession,” Laukkanen said in a telephone interview. “There are people who kidnap as a way of making a living. I thought, how could this happen in America? How could I make it work as a cool conceit for a novel?”

Enter the kidnapping quartet, chased across the Midwest by Minnesota state detective Kirk Stevens and FBI agent Carla Windermere. At a 5,000 words-a-day clip over six weeks, Laukkanen had his first draft. “I wanted something more interesting than a malevolent gang of thugs. I thought people pushed by circumstance would be more compelling and fun to read about.”

A number of agents were interested but Laukkanen ended up going with his first choice, Stacia Decker of the Donald Maass Literary Agency, a firm strong in the mystery genre. Decker was preparing to sign Laukkanen on the basis of his poker novel because, as she said, “I loved the voice.” When he told her about The Professionals and asked if she’d like to see it, she didn’t hesitate to sign him.

Over the summer, while he was on a five-month-long fishing trip with his uncle off Vancouver Island and the Haida Gwaii, Decker and Laukkanen worked together remotely to improve the manuscript. (The “nomadic by nature” author recently settled in Vancouver, where he’s “happy to have a place to curl up and write and not worry about where to sleep next week.”) Upon his return to dry land in early November, Decker sent the book to a small group of editors at large New York-based publishing houses.

Two weeks later, Neil Nyren, editor-in-chief of Putnam, a Penguin imprint whose bestselling authors include Patricia Cornwell, Robert Crais and Sue Grafton, called Decker. Nyren loved the manuscript, but wanted to sound Laukkanen out about making The Professionals the first in a series revolving around Stevens and Windermere. “I’d never thought about a series,” Laukkanen said, “but after talking to Neil, I could see the possibilities and got really excited to write more books with these characters.” Three days later Nyren bought The Professionals and a sequel in a “pre-empt,” the first signal Laukkanen had that his publication path would supersede most debut writers. “When Neil Nyren pre-empts your book, you know it’s going to be treated well,” Decker said.

By March 2011, Nyren had a complete manuscript to send around to Putnam staffers and key authors. The book received endorsements by Putnam authors John Sandford and C.J. Box, as well as from other bestsellers like Jonathan Kellerman and Lee Child. Endorsements followed suit from independent booksellers and librarians, and Barnes & Noble and Indigo ordered sizable quantities of stock. Laukkanen will be at a bookstore in Washington state on publication day, but that long ago dream is about to be reality thanks to the beautifully paced, high-stakes bravura performance that is The Professionals.

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