Among edgy, gritty characters, writer Joe Ricker finds his place
From the captivating first chapter, Joe Rickercrime thriller What terrible cunning dives into a grueling world of double crosses, false identities and murder. Much of that is due to the intriguing profession of the protagonist, Ryan Carpenter, as an “underground relocation specialist.” He helps people disappear completely when they need it most. Ricker says he’s naturally drawn to writing about a seedy, dark world. “I mean,” he says with a chuckle, “I do work at a strip club in Reno, Nevada.”
Ricker’s lengthy resume includes experience you would expect from a published author, more than 10 years of college-level writing. But he discovers that his time as a lumberjack, ranch hand, tattoo removal kit salesman, bartender and, most recently, strip club security has really helped him explore the characters and world of cunning†
As a young boy, Ricker loved to write. He would create stories and new adventures for beloved characters in westerns, but he didn’t take it seriously until he was 21. At that age, Ricker was at an all-time low. He abused alcohol, had arrest warrants issued in multiple provinces, and was surrounded by some very bad influences. One of the many colorful stories of his wilder days is even an encounter with the police that ended with him giving the cop a kiss, getting a taser and ending up in the hospital. (“I wasn’t in the hospital long,” Ricker assures. “They took me to jail right after that.”)
Ricker eventually realized that he wanted a different life for himself. He turned to his mother for help, sorted out his legal issues and spent 30 days in sober isolation, days mostly spent keeping diaries. Ricker finally thought, “Oh. Maybe I should try writing fiction? Maybe I should be a writer?” He soon moved south to study English and psychology at the University of Mississippi at Oxford.
Ricker had no idea Oxford was once home to William Faulkner or that the city still had a huge community of writers, but he eventually ended up in the City Grocery, where writers like Tom Franklin and Larry Brown hung out. Ricker would eventually take classes from them and others, too, but he says, “As a bartender at that bar, I had a better chance of getting tutoring from that caliber of writers.”
After completing his MFA at Goddard College in Vermont and teaching at Ithaca College in New York, Ricker became restless. “I really wanted to go west,” he says. “New Mexico, Utah, Arizona…the places I’d only seen in calendars.” With that in mind, Ricker set out in a 2004 Impala largely held together with duct tape and zippers. After the first three months on the road, Ricker got the hang of it and then hit the road again, this time for two years. “I had a better vehicle back then,” he jokes.
Ricker says traveling around the country and seeing so many different places feeds directly into the knowledge that cunningRyan, the transient protagonist, had to travel to resettle people on the run. The idea crystallized in Ricker’s mind while camping in New Mexico one evening: he saw a figure in an orange jumpsuit. They ended up being part of a routine work crew, but Ricker couldn’t shake the idea of someone escaping from prison. That caused him to flesh out a character that was on the move and “could help people escape some kind of persecution in their lives or legal troubles… That’s when the story came about.”
In What terrible cunning, Ryan breaks standard protocol and betrays his most recent employer to save a young woman and her son. That choice sets him on a treacherous path across the country, leading to his hometown in Maine. It also takes him through numerous barren landscapes, along lonely highways and past many shadowy figures:
If Ryan had done everything he was told, he wouldn’t drive to Dallas to lie to Victoria Williams about what he’d done to her stepson.
In the distance, in the darkness of the highway, the misty glow of the next town hung. Headlights on the other side of the median strip illuminated the hill he was approaching, like glittering eyes rising from brackish water… The world was nothing more than a swamp full of alligators – motionless predators lurking in murky waters that the helpless people tried to wade through it.
While Ryan Carpenter ends up being more complex than your average thriller protagonist, Kirkus Reviews praises Ricker’s villainy of a supporting cast, exclaiming: What terrible cunning “a clever, original novel with a twisted plot and cunning characters.” And the most notable are women like the sharp but deadly vampire Victoria Williams, the foul-mouthed, hard-nosed Sheriff Deputy Jennifer Carlton, and more.
Ricker thought carefully about these characterizations, striving to avoid sexist or misogynistic stereotypes, even as he fitted them into the pulpy world of the book. “I really thought about women who had a huge impact on my life. What would they be like if they were a police officer? If they had access to money? What if they were ruthless in a way that wouldn’t shy away from killing someone?” Ricker hopes to continue to showcase the fascinating, well-rounded female characters of cunning by putting one of them at the forefront of the sequel he is currently writing.
In addition to What terrible cunningRicker has published a collection of short stories, Walking after midnightand another novel, All the good in the bad, both of which also delve into the criminal underworld. He says he spent a lot of his time on more literary fiction – things he should never have written. But after an initial short story on edgier, rougher subjects, other writers told him he’d found what to aspire to. “I don’t even know what the hell literary fiction means,” Ricker says, explaining that to him there is a lot of literary merit in crime thrillers.
But above all, Ricker feels at home in the genre because he knows it. “I feel more comfortable with those characters,” he says. “I think it comes from spending a small part of my life as a criminal.”
Rhett Morgan is a writer and translator based in Paris.