Interview with John Betcher, author of ‘The 19th Element: A James Becker Thriller’

We are honored to welcome John L. Betcher here today at As the Pages Turn!  John is on a virtual book tour throughout the months of November and December to talk about his new book, The 19th Element: A James Becker Thriller.  Enjoy the interview!

John L. Betcher is a University of Minnesota Law School graduate and has practiced law for more than twenty-five years in the Mississippi River community of Red Wing, Minnesota.  He possesses substantial first-hand knowledge of the Prairie River Nuclear Plant’s real world counterpart, as well as Red Wing’s airport and the flight rules around the nuke plant.

In addition to The 19th Element, he has published a second book in the “Beck” series entitled, The Missing Element, A James Becker Mystery.  The second book is available everywhere.

The author has also been a long-time supporter and coach of youth volleyball in and around Red Wing and has authored three feature articles for Coaching Volleyball, the journal of the American Volleyball Coaches Association.  His most recent article was the cover story for the April/May, 2009 Issue.

His book on volleyball coaching philosophies entitled The Little Black Book of Volleyball Coaching is available at www.johnbetcher.com and at amazon.com.


Q: Thank you for this interview, John. Can you tell us what your latest book, The 19th Element, A James Becker Thriller, is all about?

In The 19th Element, al Qaeda plans to attack Minnesota’s Prairie River Nuclear Power Plant as a means to return the down-trodden terrorist organization to international prominence.

In addition to their own devoted forces, the terrorists enlist two homegrown anarchists, and a Three Mile Island survivor with a pathological vendetta against the nuclear establishment, to assist in the assault.

James “Beck” Becker is a former elite U.S. government intelligence operative who has retired to his childhood hometown of Red Wing, Minnesota – just six miles down the Mississippi from the Prairie River nuclear facility.

Possessing wisdom born of experience, Beck suspects the terrorists’ intentions as soon as the body of a university professor turns up on the Mississippi shore – the clear victim of foul play. He recognizes connections between seemingly unrelated incidents – the murdered agronomy professor, a missing lab assistant, an international cell call, a stolen fertilizer truck – but can’t piece it together in enough detail to convince government authorities that a larger threat exists.  Only his American Indian friend, “Bull,” will help Beck defuse the threat.

So it’s Beck and Bull versus international terror.

May the better men win.

Q:  Can you tell us a little about your main and supporting characters?

The book’s main character is James “Beck” Becker, a native of the small Mississippi River town of Red Wing, Minnesota. He’s recently returned to his hometown following retirement from a twenty-year career in clandestine military operations. His cover job is as a small town attorney. But his real interest is in helping local law enforcement.

The book’s three main supporting characters are Beck’s wife, Beth, Ottawa County Chief Deputy Sheriff, Doug “Gunner” Gunderson, and Beck’s enigmatic American Indian friend, Bull.

Beth has been with Beck all through his time on the operations “Team.” In fact, they met one another in D.C. while she was employed as one of the CIA’s top encryption/decryption specialists. She supports Beck in all things – occasionally employing her code-cracking and computer talents in aid of Beck’s own considerable skill set.

Gunner has known Beck all his life. They went to high school together in Red Wing. Gunner is one of only a few people in Red Wing who know anything at all about Beck’s sub rosa government background. He and Beck bring different approaches to crime-fighting. Gunner operates strictly by the book. Beck . . . by his own rules. But they seem to be able to work together for the common good.

Bull is a full-blooded Mdewakanton Dakota American Indian. Born on the local Prairie River Reservation, he left his home and family at the age of sixteen to join the army. After departing the Rez to “be all that he could be,” Bull’s family and friends heard nothing from him for more than twenty years. Based on Bull’s behavior as a teen, they assumed he had been killed in a knife fight at some bar. Then one day he had shown up on the doorstep of his parents’ home on the Rez. Bull never told anyone where he had been for twenty years. And after a few altercations, folks quit asking.

Q: Do you tend to base your characters on real people or are they totally from your imagination?

This book’s characters are entirely fictitious. But to an extent, they have composite characteristics of persons I have known and fictional characters I have read about. The backgrounds of the persons who inhabit The 19th Element are, for the most part, much more interesting than those of anyone I know in real life.

Q: Are you consciously aware of the plot before you begin a novel, or do you discover it as you write?

I spend a lot of time researching subject areas before deciding which directions a novel’s plot might take. I select topics that interest me (such as terrorism, chemistry, nuclear power, or cyber-espionage). Then I speak with experts. I just keep asking them questions until a thriller plot presents itself.

Then I spend more time doing internet research and speaking to ancillary experts to flesh out the plot’s details and develop subplots and character-types.

But once I have finished the research and selected the plot, it typically doesn’t vary a great deal as I write the book.

Q: Your book is set in Red Wing, Minnesota.  Can you tell us why you chose this city in particular?

Red Wing has its own nuclear power plant, and an airport very near the plant, both very similar to the ones described in The 19th Element. I have also worked for Red Wing’s electric utility and possess personal knowledge the nuclear plant and it operations. The final factor that made Red Wing a no-brainer is the fact that I grew up there and have practiced law in Red Wing for the past twenty-five years.

Q: Does the setting play a major part in the development of your story?

Absolutely. The plot is all about a terrorist plan to create a “nuclear disaster” at the nuclear power plant. The nearby airport plays a part in the terrorist assault on the plant. And the proximity of the plant (and the town) to the Mississippi allows for not only a dramatic plot twist, but a taste of river culture as well.

In addition, Red Wing is a typical U.S. city – not a location where one normally expects international terror – which is exactly why we should expect the next big attack in just such a location.

Q: Open the book to page 69.  What is happening?

Beth is calling her husband – panic in her voice – to tell him that their college-student daughter seems to have a mysterious stalker. Beck departs his law office with haste to help Beth assess the potential threat.

Q: Can you give us one of your best excerpts?

The best excerpts, in my opinion, would give away too much of the story’s climax. But here’s one that introduces one of the terror cell members.

CHAPTER 9

On March 28, 1979, an ‘incident’ occurred at the Three Mile Island Nuclear Generating Station near Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. Metropolitan Edison owned the facility. But its design and operation were closely monitored, and to a large extent controlled, by the federal government through the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, or NRC.

John Sigler knew the entire debacle was the government’s fault. The administration’s energy policy had not only driven entire coal mining communities out of work, but had also deposited the American public on the doorsteps of Hiroshima.

It was only a matter of time before something horrible happened. And in fact, it had taken a mere three months after TMI’s commissioning for the disaster to occur.

After the total melt-down of TMI Reactor Unit 2, the government and the utility had both assured neighboring residents that there was “no significant release of radiation.” Everything had been safely contained. Multiple government-sponsored “investigations” had concluded that, although the incident was extremely unfortunate, and TMI’s neighbors had suffered substantial psychological distress, the melt-down posed no physical health risks to surrounding communities. Eventually, the government even allowed TMI Unit 1 to resume nuclear operations, while Unit 2 remained a pile of rubble filling a hole in the ground where the “incident” had occurred.

But John Sigler knew the radiation leak had not been “insignificant.” He and his family lived just east of TMI, in the small community of Elizabethtown. When John turned twelve in June, 1979, just three months after the disaster, he had already seen some of the radiation’s hellish effects.

His mother was pregnant with his brother, Jacob, at the time. She had lost most of her hair and was frequently so weak she couldn’t get out of bed. The doctors assured the family that pregnancy hormones were the likely cause of her hair loss and weakness. She should remain bed-bound until delivery, just to be safe.

When Jacob arrived on July 4th, 1979, his family was in shock when the doctors sympathetically told them that Jacob had been born with an unusually small brain. Mental retardation was likely, they said. They were sorry, they said.

Less than three years after Jacob’s birth, both he and his mother were dead. Each had died of lung cancer, though no one in the Sigler family ever smoked. The doctors could offer no explanation for the coincidence. But fourteen-year-old John and his dad knew the reason. It didn’t take a genius to know that two-year-olds don’t die of lung cancer.

TMI was the cause.

A few years later, John’s father developed leukemia. Not common for a man his age, the doctors said. But it happens, they said.

The cancer progressed inexorably through his body. Evilly patient. Excruciatingly earnest. John had dropped out of school so he could remain by his father’s bedside as the cancer silently ravaged his organs. John’s father finally died, after months of agony, in October, 1985.

John was eighteen.

John wished he had died, too. Dying would have been easier than drowning in his family’s pain, gasping for a breath of relief.

Even after the shock of the nuclear assault on the Sigler family had subsided, there were the nagging questions. Pursuing him. Unrelenting. Why had he, alone, survived? For what purpose?

John never forgave the United States government for torturing and murdering his family. Ultimately, he concluded there was only one possible reason he had been spared – to take vengeance for his family’s suffering.

But John was no fool. He knew he couldn’t defeat, or even seriously damage, the nuclear juggernaut by himself – especially not as a boy of eighteen. He needed collaborators, others who hated the nuclear establishment as much as he.

For years he sought out anti-nuclear organizations to aid him in his mission, to feed his pathological need for revenge. He posted his contact information in chat rooms on the rapidly expanding internet. He joined in anti-nuke rallies and attended meetings.

But without exception, these nuclear opponents were far too passive. He wanted to send a serious message. He wanted clear retribution for the death of his family at TMI.

John was patient. John was pragmatic. While he searched for help, he also maneuvered. Years passed, then decades. He attended trade school, served an apprenticeship and eventually developed a high degree of skill as a metal worker and welder. He earned a good living.

But he never forgave. And he never forgot.

Finally, an opportunity arose for him to infiltrate the enemy. Willing to leave his hometown for this chance, he accepted a job as a Plant Engineering and Systems Repair Specialist at the Prairie River Nuclear Power Plant near Red Wing, Minnesota.

Initially, John was very excited about his new job. He had assumed that his employment with the utility would surely present chances for revenge. But he soon discovered that even his status as a nuclear insider did not afford him the opportunity he sought. The facility’s design included too many back-up systems, obstacles, counter-measures. For John by himself, assaulting the plant was still impossible. He needed to reach out farther, beyond his comfort zone. He still had to find a co-conspirator to lend him aid.

Then he suffered a devastating setback. Although at the time of the TMI incident John had appeared to suffer no serious radiation effects, he now learned that radiation damage can be subtle and sometimes slow to make itself apparent. At the age of forty-one, with his lust for revenge as great as ever and still unrequited, John was diagnosed with a malignant melanoma.

He first underwent radiation treatments and then chemotherapy. After twelve long months of treatment, his cancer was cured. The doctors declared it to be in remission.

But despite his apparent victory over the cancer, John knew his time to take retribution might be running out. He desperately needed to take action soon. The nuclear bastards had to pay!

Then one day, seemingly out of the blue, he had received a telephone call. By the man’s accent, John would have guessed the caller to be English, or possibly Australian. Although no one mentioned the organization by name, when the group the caller actually represented became clear, John was taken aback. He had always considered Al Qaeda the enemy. But in this case, his interests and theirs aligned perfectly.

What was the saying he had heard during the Gulf War? “The enemy of my enemy is my friend?” After some consideration, John decided he didn’t care if they were Al Qaeda, Nazis or Martians, so long as they would help him achieve his goal.

Al Qaeda had done its research on John before making contact. They knew his family background at TMI. They knew he wanted action, not passive protest. They assured him they had a plan – a plan that would devastate the nuclear industry. When he indicated an interest, they acted swiftly.

Q: Thank you so much for this interview, John.  We wish you much success!

Thank you very much for your time. All the best!

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