By Tim O’Mara
In David Healey’s new thriller, DEADLY ANTHEM, the Star-Spangled Banner flag is stolen from the Smithsonian, and it’s up to historian Francis Scott Keane (does that name sound familiar?) to get it back. To do so, he will test his knowledge of history and his skills as a researcher as far as he can. He will also discover a disturbing historical twist as old as the flag itself. And ultimately, he’ll have to survive a final showdown in the nightmarish tidal marshes of Chesapeake Bay to determine both his own fate and that of the Star-Spangled Banner.
Healey’s protagonist is a distant ancestor of Francis Scott Key. I wanted to know what it is about the composer of The Star Spangled Banner that he finds so fascinating.
“I always liked Francis Scott Key,” Healey says, “because by all accounts he had a lot of humility and truly believed in the words that he had written, based on being an eyewitness to the flag being raised over the fort. Just imagine seeing that! As noted in the novel, he did not approve of the heavy drinking and bawdy behavior of the Royal Navy officers when he was on their ship.”
And what about Healey’s fascination with the War of 1812?
“The funny thing is, I got into learning about the War of 1812 when I was planting tomatoes in the backyard and found a musket ball. Somebody suggested that it might be from the War of 1812, so I started doing some research and learned that there had been a lot of skirmishes and even a few battles all around the Chesapeake Bay region where I live. In fact, I did so much research that it became a nonfiction book about the efforts to preserve 1812 history in the region.”
There are so many historical figures from that time in American history. I asked Healey if there were any that stood out to him.
“President James Madison is one of my favorites from that era,” he says. “The man was a brilliant intellectual who also happens to be the only sitting president (in American history) to lead troops on the battlefield. It didn’t go all that well, but Madison’s real strength turned out to be holding the government together even when Washington City was burned.”
A good friend of Franklin, Beau, tells our hero, “I like it better when history stays in the past, where it’s supposed to be.” What would Healey say to Beau and others who share similar beliefs?
“The past tends to follow us around, whether we like it or not, like those little bells that people put on their cats. The smart approach is to be aware of that and learn from our mistakes and take some inspiration from our national heroes and ideals.”
We could use more than a little of that these days.
I was curious as to how much of DEADLY ANTHEM—particularly the “villain”—is inspired by current events? The White Nationalist movement is a tricky thing to write about without crossing over the cliché line. What makes that interesting to Healey (and the reader)?
“The villain,” he says, “is a bad guy not because of his politics but because he resorts to murder, kidnapping, and theft. He loses his moral compass.”
Healey obviously did plenty of research for DEADLY ANTHEM. How did he know when enough was enough? Did any facts get in the way of the story he wanted to tell?
“Part of the fun of writing a book like this is the research,” Healey says, “but I had to keep in mind that I was telling a story and not writing a history. In a case where truth is stranger than fiction, the British really did capture and burn the United States capital. However, I did tell a bit of a whopper about what the British admiral finds when the White House is captured, but that’s the fun of a ‘what if’ thriller, isn’t it?”
I asked Healey to tell me something about the Chesapeake Bay and that area that might shock ordinary Americans.
“There’s a theory,” he says, “that the Chesapeake Bay was made possible by a giant asteroid strike that threw a tidal wave as far as the Appalachian Mountains. Just a little something to ponder next time we start to take too much for granted—the future can change in a flash.
“We won’t even get into the fact that Marylanders eat raw oysters, muskrat, and soft shell crab sandwiches where the legs poke out from the edges and the eyes stare back at you.”
Good. I’m glad we didn’t get into that.
Finally, I asked if he could put together a panel for ThrillerFest—writers living and/or dead—who would be on the panel and what would the topic be?
“Back in 2015,” Healey says, “I actually was part of a ThrillerFest panel that included Steve Berry, David Morrell, Francine Matthews, Terrence McCauley, Kay Kendall, and others. These are some of the best historical fiction authors working today, so for me the feeling was a bit like when you’re a kid and you get pushed into the deep end of the pool for the first time.
“Our topic was the importance of using fiction to keep history relevant. The only downside was that the panel was just an hour long … I could have discussed history and writing historical fiction all day long with the likes of that group!”
So maybe that wasn’t my final question. That got me thinking. I asked Healey to also talk a bit about readers’ fascination with modern-day experts exposing possibly dangerous secrets from the past. (A la The DaVinci Code and the like.)
“I think most of us,” Healey says, “are pretty sure that there’s ‘more to the story’ when it comes to past events and personalities. That’s why The DaVinci Code or National Treasure-type tales appeal to our imagination. In a sense, history is like a giant Mad Lib that invites fiction authors to fill in the blanks.”
History may not always be stranger than fiction, but in Healey’s DEADLY ANTHEM, it sure comes close.