On the cover of George L. Fleming’s debut novel, Bad Habits, a woman stands at water’s edge holding a fishing rod, silhouetted by blood-red Florida surf.
This is, presumably, one Reed O’Hara, the thriller’s fictional heroine and the center of the complex universe Fleming has created in a (semi-fictional) Tampa Bay.
The figure in the cover photo is actually his wife, Linda, whom Fleming describes as “an incredibly empowered woman. Linda is a prominent health care attorney, she’s a Black Belt in Tai Kwon Do, she has skied the Swiss Alps and the Colorado Rockies, she ziplined in Roatán, flew on a trapeze in Jamaica – and she has been married to me for 40 years.”
It’s that last credit that most amazes Fleming, a former journalist and a longtime college-level writing instructor who grew up in Clearwater.
As he was creating Bad Habits, Fleming explains, Linda was his editor, his proofreader, his sounding board and his cheerleader. She was also the inspiration for his book’s heroine. His respect for her is boundless, and her comments all mattered to him – a lot.
In the book, the beautiful and beguiling Reed O’Hara is very close to a superwoman. She is a skilled and in-demand lawyer, as brilliant as they come, and she also happens to be a licensed private investigator.
With her husband, the equally intelligent, smart and sexy Jake Dupree, Reed co-owns an upscale cabaret called Namaste, a sort of dinner-date strip club when the entertainers are formerly-fallen females (drug addicts and abuse victims, for the most part) whom Reed and Jake have taken under their wing. They’ve fully financed the girls’ rehab, physical regimen, return to both physical and mental health and development into strong, assured young women.
At the very start of the writing process, Fleming reveals, “I knew I was going to create Namaste, because I wanted to make Reed a multi-tasker.” The club became the eye of the hurricane that is the subplot of Bad Habits.
The central plot, in a nutshell: Dozens, perhaps hundreds, of retired Catholic priests have been “re-located,” by the Vatican, to Tampa Bay. They’re all child abusers, the worst of the worst, living in anonymity on both sides of the water.
One by one, they’re being picked off. By a stealthy assassin in black wielding a crossbow.
Into the fray comes Reed O’Hara, hired by a mysterious Vatican cleric to locate and apprehend the killer. Reed, of course, brings Jake along on the mission.
Did we mention that Jake, who’s an amazing physical specimen, is also a gifted pianist and composer, a gourmet chef and the kind-hearted manager of Namaste.
Fleming based the character on himself, using more than a little creative license.
Bad Habits, which is intended to be the first in a series about Reed and Jake, isn’t supposed to be War and Peace, the author insists.
“I just want to be a storyteller,” says Fleming. “I want to tell a ripping good yarn. And what’s wonderful about thrillers is there’s sex, there’s violence, there’s intrigue, there’s romance. And that doesn’t get any better.”
There might have been a bit too much sex in the early drafts – Reed and Jake are, naturally, quite fond of each other – but Linda Fleming suggested that her husband take it down a notch. Which he did, and some of the violence, too.
Much of the latter comes via Russian mobster Victor Petrov, who wants to add the ultra-classy Namaste to his stable of lowbrow Tampa nude clubs.
The plots intertwine. It gets complicated. In classic thriller fashion.
Among professional literati, Fleming explains, thrillers – with their fictional sex, violence and intrigue – carry a certain stigma.
“In academia, you were not to be seen reading thrillers. We were supposed to focus on literature. And I came across The Spy Who Came in From the Cold by John LeCarre. And I surreptitiously read it. I would carry that novel in my briefcase, go into my office, close the door. I didn’t want anyone in the department to see me reading it.”
It was LeCarre – along with Don Winslow, Dennis Lehane and other novelists – who inspired him to try his hand at the genre.
His writing discipline: Early in the morning and late and night. By hand. On ruled college notebook paper.
Rarely did he pause, once Reed, Jake and the other characters had sprung to life on the page.
“That’s the beauty of writing a thriller: I’m not creating art here,” Fleming explains. “This is not literature, this is just a story. It’s a yarn. But what’s cool is, I get into it. I start caring about the characters. I start saying ‘It might be fun to try this out.’ And so I become very engaged. And that is the beauty of writing a thriller. It’s a hoot!”
His goal is to write 20 Tampa Bay Tropics thrillers in 20 years; at the end, he says, his super-couple will be age-appropriate and will most likely retire someplace fabulous.
In the meantime, their second adventure is nearly finished; like Bad Habits, it’ll be published by St. Petersburg Press.
Linda, his muse, has already read the first draft and weighed in.
Bad Habits, Fleming stresses, “is my tribute to her. I love this woman. I’ve been married to her for 40 years. She is my superhero. And I wanted her to be pleased with the novel. So that she would see that yes, it’s a good story, but that I also was accurate, and not too exaggerative on certain aspects.
“But I wanted Linda to be happy with it. I would not have published it if she said ‘no way.’ She read the manuscript, and she wrote a note on the front page: This is a really good story. And now, please pray for forgiveness from the Vatican.’”
Find the book on Amazon here.
St. Petersburg Press is a division of the St. Petersburg Group, which owns St. Pete Catalyst.