Quorum Sensing

My political thrillers are tense, fraught stories of people confronting forces greater than themselves.  There’s no magic (nor magical realism), no dragons, zombies or vampires.  And yet….Screen Shot 2019-04-11 at 4.35.21 PM

The first two Imogen Trager thrillers, Faithless Elector and Dark Network are made the more disquieting because neither Imogen nor the reader know the identity of Imogen’s conspirator nemesis, referred to only as the “Postman,” nor what it is he ultimately wants.

Despite not revealing him, I had to look at events in the stories both from the perspective of my protagonist and from that of my antagonist. Moreover, I had to look at his enablers.  Who invited the vampire in?  And why?

BlofeldI’ve always wondered what drives people to work for/with the bad guys.  In the James Bond world, for instance, why would you work for Dr. No or Ernst Stavro Blofeld?  Beyond a paycheck (and, sure, that may be enough for some), what draws them in such large numbers?  How do you advertise the positions?  Are they just lackeys from the ranks of some sympathetic war lord?  Again, it’s possible, but that just kind of kicks the can down the road a bit.  I mean, how did the war lord get so many?

Here’s what I think happens: attraction, sorting and dissolution happens constantly, until there’s some critical mass.  Sometimes individuals coalesce into small groups but result in nothing more than pitiable sound and bitter, impotent fury.  At other times, they cause great suffering.  There’s an analog in the natural world, among bacteria, called quorum sensing (from US Nat’l Library of Medicine/Nat’l Inst. of Health). 

Screen Shot 2019-04-13 at 12.57.09 PMBacteria, far from living solitary, cloistered existences, signal to one another, organize and coordinate into cooperating structures in a biofilm with specific roles and tasks.  Indeed, some potentially toxic bacteria never reach a level at which they can do damage, never “initiate gene expression for coordinated activities” (see link above), because their signaling and coordination is not turned on until they’ve reached sufficient mass or strength.

Among groups of people, certain phrases and symbols act as signals to draw out and sort those most sympathetic, amendable or susceptible to a World Power or Ruin message into discrete camps.  In small, uncoordinated groups they may appear benign, if distasteful.  But at some threshold, they become toxic and threatening. And, like bacteria, they will kill the host.

What fascinates me is that the elites who are drawn into this political biofilm are originally attracted not to the dear leader’s vision or objectives, but often view joining forces as an expedient to their own ambitions.  They think they’re the ones in control.  But as I’ve tried to explore in the Imogen Trager thriller series, once the juggernaut is set in gear, it will roll over everything.  And you can’t un-invite the Vampire.

Note: I’m grateful to Rutgers University for exposing me to this notion of quorum sensing.  I attended the Honors College Capstone presentations yesterday, where I listened to some wonderful presentations regarding Honors Seniors’ research work, where this came up in relation to bacteria on plastics in our waterways.  My daughter’s roommate, a Biochem and Microbiology major, broke it down for me and provided the NIH link. 


James McCrone is the author of the Imogen Trager political suspense-thriller series Faithless Elector and Dark Network.  The third book, working title Emergency Powers, is coming soon.


Find them through Indybound.org.  They are also available at Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and Powell’s Books.


If you live in Philadelphia, pick up a copy at Head House Books -or- Penn Book Center or in Princeton at Cloak & Dagger Books.
For a full list of appearances and links to reviews, check out:



Noir, spy thrillers, and political history

“If I had to give [my work] a general theme, it would be something along the lines of ‘How the hell did it all come to this?’” -J-P Manchette

Crimereads features a fascinating discussion and exploration of the themes animating the final work of the writer Jean-Patrick Manchette, and why he abandoned the crime novel. Obviously, reports of the crime novel’s death are greatly exaggerated. Their number, variety and loyal followers attest to it.  But I was intrigued by the lure he felt for the fusion of noir fiction, spy thriller, and political history.

Screen Shot 2018-05-16 at 17.10.55Manchette cites many of my favorites, like John Le Carre and Ross Thomas as having been very influential in his embrace of a new aesthetic. As Ethan Anderson put it in his ‘Do The M@th‘ blog about Ross Thomas’s work: “Thomas’s outsized passion for the mid-century American system gave his books a unique ambience, at once humorously bitter and happily jaded.” For his part, LeCarre gave us the anti-James Bond, George Smiley, a quiet, pudgy, near-sighted cuckold.


Alec Guinees as George Smiley

When I come to write the stories that grab me, I’m drawn to this noir-spy hybrid.  It’s a rich vein of crime and realpolitic, combining detective work and contemporary politics—a “who dunnit” (and why), plus “who gets power and why.” Leavening this compelling mixture is the fact that the things government (and quasi-government) operatives do to achieve their ends are often downright criminal, adding a noir level of complexity and moral uncertainty.

Call this suspense-thriller genre “Noirpolitic.

Putting characters into a story where not only crime but competing values are involved makes for rich, vivid storytelling. The tales of Le Carre and Thomas, though exemplars of the suspense-thriller genre, are generally less concerned with the literally ticking time bomb, and more about what’s going wrong and how to right it.

quietTo Manchette’s list of influential writers in this hybrid genre, I would add Graham Greene. His “entertainments,” like The Quiet American, The Third Man, Our Man in Havana and The Honorary Consul are extraordinary. Political events are not just backdrops for Greene’s and the others’ stories, they are integral, giving deeper meaning to the characters’ struggles and to the stakes if they fail. They inform the stories and give them an edge, whether it be Viet Nam as the Americans replace the French (Quiet American), or the gullible Agency in Our Man in Havana. As I struggle to write engaging thrillers, I keep these and other works in my mind, not to copy, but as strong examples of all that’s possible.

To write now, in the context of the decline of democracy, the rise of nationalism, backlash against globalism, fraying political alliances and norms, is to stare at a reality that’s all too noir.

Situational morality, suspect propaganda and win-at-any-cost gambits used to be the province of clandestine agencies. Now it’s mainstream politics. If, with apologies to Carl von Clausewitz, “politics is war by other means,” then we are simultaneously the prize to be won and the foe.

“How the hell did it all come to this?” is a question we should all be asking.


James McCrone is the author of the Imogen Trager political suspense-thriller series Faithless Elector and Dark Network.  The final book in the series is due out at the end of this year.JMc-author2.2017

Find them through Indybound.org.  They are also available at Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and Powell’s Books.  Link to REVIEWS

If you live in Philadelphia, pick up a copy at Head House Books -or- Penn Book Center or in Princeton at Cloak & Dagger Books.