Interview with Dennis O’Flaherty (author of King of the Cracksmen)

This morning we have the great pleasure of welcoming Dennis O’Flaherty to the Ruins, here to talk about his debut novel, King of the Cracksmen (now available from Night Shade Books).

Q: Thanks for taking the time to stop by today, Dennis. For those who haven't yet had a chance to encounter Liam McCool, King of the Cracksmen, please tell us a little about yourself and what we can expect from the book.

I've been a professional writer since 1978, when I landed my first entertainment-biz job, a “development deal” at Fox, but I've been scribbling one thing and another for as long as I can remember. And like lots of writers I've tried all kinds of occupations and lived in lots of places, from Honolulu to Moscow. But although I often daydreamed about writing a novel I never quite got around to it until I started the abortive historical mystery about an 1870’s New York safecracker that ultimately became “King of the Cracksme.” The catalyst for the transformation was K. W. Jeter’s “Infernal Devices,” my first steampunk read and still one of my favorites. Seeing what wacky and brilliant fun Jeter had with history made me an instant Steam Punk, and thanks to Jeter’s inspiration I think I can promise readers a fun trip to an alternative Victorian America.

Q: Steampunk is a genre that has, quite literally, exploded over the past few years. What’s the appeal in it for you, and how much do you feel it defines the story?

As somebody remarked, steampunk can either be more “steam” (into the technology) or more “punk” (into the period and its effect on the characters). That last one is where I like to go, and I think the huge appeal of steampunk set in Victorian America is the opportunity to play with the historical reality of a country recovering from an insane war, industrializing at full speed, going through whiplash-making changes every five minutes and taking in streams of immigrants from all over. Frankly, as a guy who spent a lot of years with heavy academic history, this is like taking a kid and giving him the key to a candy store.

And for me there can never be a story without constant interaction between characters and environment, an organic relationship in which neither one can be separated from the other. I have run into one or two “novels of ideas” in which there’s nothing but lots of brilliant dialogue, but I guess I’m not smart enough to read all the way through one of them without falling into a coma.

Q. It’s almost a prerequisite that alternate history and steampunk go together, but some authors take a few more liberties with history than others. Without giving too much away, how did the land west of the Mississippi come to be sold to Russia, and how does that change things for the future?

The real, historical President Andrew Jackson hated debt like crazy and did everything he could to get rid of the Federal debt, which (you ready for this?) he actually did manage to reduce to $33,733. 05. So it wasn’t too big a stretch to have “my” President Jackson sell all the U.S. west of the Mississippi to Russia so he could erase the debt and put a couple of extra bucks in the bank. As to how that changes things in “King of the Cracksmen,” well, hey! Minneapolis is now Little Petersburg and the Cossacks are trying in vain to suppress the Plains Indians, so that when Liam McCool meets Crazy Horse ... well, folks, you gotta read it!

Q: If I can put you on the spot for a moment, what do you think is the biggest hook or twist that would turn a curious reader into a dedicated one?

I happily invite the prospective reader to subject “King of the Cracksmen” to the “First Chapter Test.” My first chapter’s only ten pages long, and if you read Steampunk, or even adventure novels, I bet you’ll stick around for more.

Q: Ten pages is, indeed, a fair test! You’ve had quite a career, serving in the Marine Corps, studying Russian History, going to Law School, and even writing for the old Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles cartoon. What led you to become a novelist, and how much of your life have you brought to Liam and his world?

I don’t believe there’s been a single writer ever who didn't put himself or herself into every word in one way or another. It could be bits of personal experience and overheard dialogue, or it could just be in the way a character sees the world. As to my dream (and many writers’ dreams) of writing a novel, it was the idea of having a canvas that big to work with and being able to do it according to your own plan rather than some customer’s orders. As to how much of my life is in Liam and his world, all of it!

Q: In terms of reader reactions, what is the strangest or most surprising reaction to King of the Cracksmen that you've encountered to -date?

I guess the oddest comment I had was from one critic who seemed to think I’d called Liam “McCool” because I thought he was so cool, and Becky “Fox” because I wanted the reader to think she was foxy. That still makes me kind of smile and shake my head. Liam is named after Finn McCool, one of Ireland’s greatest legendary heroes, and Becky was inspired by my personal 19th century American pinup, the great reporter Nellie Bly. Nellie/Becky, Bly/Fox ... see? (You can tell I’m hoping that reviewer will see this and the penny will finally drop.)

Q: To turn from pen to page for a moment, is there a particular author who has influenced or inspired your writing? Somebody who either made you want to write in the first place, or who just refreshes your literary batteries?

Always Mark Twain – I feel about a book without laughter like Alice (of Wonderland fame) felt about a book without pictures. Gotta laugh. And for me, there are innumerable insanely funny crack-ups in Twain, from the beetle and the dog in Tom Sawyer’s church to the drunken boatmen doing the dozens on each other in Huckleberry Finn. Not to mention the language. Readers today can’t imagine the stunning impact Twain’s use of real American speech had on readers who thought that only genteel, English-y speech was really high literary art.

Q: You can never go wrong with the classics. Assuming you had total creative control over the production, who would you cast as the leading roles, were King of the Cracksmen to be optioned for the big screen?

There ya go, gotta laugh! Sorry, but if you want to make some battered old retired screenwriter laugh a lot it’s asking him to imagine a writer with total creative control over the production. Still, I do know what you mean, and in that fantasy, having Liam McCool played by Chris Pratt would be a deal-breaker. I loved Guardians of the Galaxy, and would have seen it four or five more times if my wife would have stood for it. I hope GG II will be in the theaters next month, or at least the month after ...

Q: I think you've just sold a whole new audience on Liam! Before we let you go, what can we look forward to from you next? Are there more stories to be told in Liam’s world, or is there perhaps something completely different on the way?

Well, you will be astonished to learn that I’m hard at work on the sequel to “King of the Cracksmen,” “The Calorium Wars: A Steampunk Romance.” I’m about a third of the way through it now, and I think Liam’s world will still have enough juice and enough fun in it to last for a volume three, so stay tuned.

Awesome - can't wait! Thanks again for taking the time to stop by today.


About the Author

Dennis O'Flaherty quit Harvard as a kid to join the Marine Corps, where I spent four years as a machine gunner, radioman and whatever came along, finishing (like Napoleon and other great men) as a Corporal. Returned promptly to Harvard, got a B.A. in Russian History, went on to Oxford, where I did a B.A. in Russian Literature at New College, and an M.A. and D.Phil. at St. Antony's College in Modern History (Russian) including a year in Moscow and Leningrad on the U.S. State Department Cultural Exchange Program.

From there on to California and USF Law School, from which I busted out after a couple of years and went to Hollywood and the picture business, where I toiled on the West Coast's Grub Street for many years, writing everything from film scripts (shared a Mystery Writers of America Edgar award with Ross Thomas for screenplay of Francis Coppola's "Hammett") to many Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles cartoons (my favorite).

Moved to Arizona a few years ago for some peace and quiet and ended up slaving over a steampunk novel (go figure). Like steampunk even better than the Ninja Turtles and think I'll stick with it for a while.


About the Book

by Dennis O'Flaherty

How far will the luck of the Irish stretch?

The year is 1877. Automatons and steam-powered dirigible gunships have transformed the United States in the aftermath of the Civil War. All of the country’s land west of the Mississippi was sold to Russia nearly fifty years earlier, and “Little Russia,” as it’s now called, is ruled by the son of Tsar Alexander II. Lincoln is still president, having never been assassinated, but he’s not been seen for six months, and rumors are flying about his disappearance. The country is being run as a police state by his former secretary of war Edwin Stanton, a power-hungry criminal who rules with an iron fist.

Liam McCool is an outlaw, known among other crooks as “King of the Cracksmen.” But his glory days as a safecracker and the head of a powerful New York gang end when he’s caught red-handed. Threatened with prison unless he informs on his own brethren fighting a guerilla war against Stanton’s tyranny, McCool’s been biding his time, trying to keeping the heat off him long enough to escape to San Francisco with his sweetheart Maggie. But when she turns up murdered, McCool discovers a trail of breadcrumbs that look to lead all the way up to the top of Stanton’s criminal organization. Joining forces with world-famed lady reporter Becky Fox, he plunges deep into the underground war, racing to find Maggie’s killer and stop Stanton once and for all.

King of the Cracksmen is an explosive, action-packed look at a Victorian empire that never was, part To Catch a Thief, part Little Big Man, steampunk as you've never seen it before.

Paperback, 336 pages
Published January 27th 2015 by Night Shade Books


  1. I'm sure your experiences gave you a lot of fodder for the story. I'd see a movie version of your book with Pratt as the lead.
    Congratulations, Dennis!

  2. I have a copy of this book, courtesy of Night Shade Books, and after reading this interview, I'm even more excited to read it!

  3. What a unique premise for Jackson to have sold part of America to the Russians. Congrats, Dennis! The book sounds fantastic, and I also think it is very cool you wrote for the old TMNT cartoon!

  4. Night Shade sent me this one and Evensong unsolicited, and of the two, I figured Evensong would be more for me. After this interview though, now I'm thinking I should read this one too!

    ~Mogsy @ BiblioSanctum


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