Kimberley Howe's blistering thriller, The Freedom Broker, has already racked up a number of notable fans, including thriller legends James Patterson and Lee Child, and it's easy to see why. Kimberley has thoroughly researched the world of kidnap and ransom and brought it to life through her compelling protagonist, Thea Paris. I was fortunate to meet Kimberley at the Theakston's Old Peculier Crime Writing Festival and was struck by the depth of her research. Kidnapping is a fascinating, brutish crime, and in certain parts of the world it's increasingly being used as an economic weapon. I caught up with Kimberley earlier this month to talk to her about The Freedom Broker and get her views on this unsettling trend.
Author Kimberley Howe
Photo: KJ Howe
Kimberley spent much of her childhood overseas, living in the Middle East, Europe, Africa, and the Caribbean. Kimberley says: "I developed a situational awareness--or a greater vigilance about my surroundings--than if I had lived in Canada all my life. Kidnapping was a crime that stood out to me as particularly troubling. It's a purgatory of sorts, the rest of the world going on with their normal lives while yours is frozen in time, every decision of every day governed by your abductors. Kidnapping goes against the natural grain--our instinctive reaction to threats is to fight or flee. Both of these responses can result in serious consequences for hostages."
Kimberley immersed herself in the world of kidnap and ransom.
"When I decided to write about kidnapping, I attended a conference and started building relationships with the generous and heroic people who work in this industry. They were kind enough to introduce me to other individuals with a background in different aspects of kidnapping. I spent time interviewing response consultants--the industry term for kidnap negotiators--as well as former hostages, reintegration specialists, kidnap & ransom insurance experts, and Special Forces soldiers who deliver ransoms and execute rescues."
The Freedom Broker
Photo: Headline Publishing Group
Kimberley's research points to a worrying global trend. She notes: "There are over 40,000 reported kidnappings a year, and that number is on the rise. This issue has become an international crisis. In many third world countries, displaced police and military are turning to kidnapping as a way of putting food on the table. They have the required security skills to manage the abduction and captivity of hostages, and kidnapping can be quite lucrative. Since 2009, terrorists have raised over $125 million via kidnapping. It is one of the key ways they are filling their coffers. In certain countries, prosecution of kidnappers is quite rare, so it's becoming a profitable business model for these groups."
The issue has become so serious that the US government has established a specialist agency. Kimberley says: "Former President Obama created a new agency called the Hostage Recovery Fusion Cell, the HRFC, which is a multi-agency group spearheaded by the FBI. The HRFC focuses on Americans kidnapped abroad and having an agency focused on this issue creates a united approach. Response consultants work closely with law enforcement, but they also have the freedom to do things that are considered outside the box. That's why I chose to make my character Thea Paris a private security specialist, as it gave me more flexibility for her to use unique approaches to bring hostages back home. Just how closely a response consultant will work with local law enforcement is determined by how much the consultant believes they can trust the local authorities, which varies greatly depending on locale."
Kimberley has some valuable advice for anyone venturing to a kidnapping hotspot:
- Practice the buddy system at all times. Statistically, individuals are the easiest targets for kidnappers.
- Inform trusted associates or family members of your comings and goings, and check in regularly.
- Maintain a low profile. Dress modestly, don't wear expensive jewelry, and don't openly carry valuable cameras or electronics.
- Control your alcohol intake. Alcohol makes you less alert to your surroundings, and being inebriated can make you a soft target.
- Carry a mobile phone, but don't use it while out in public. Instead, be alert and aware, watching for anything that feels wrong.
- Avoid public transit. This is especially true for women traveling alone. Instead, hire a driver recommended by your hotel. It may cost a little more, but safety has no price.
- Vary your patterns. Kidnappers often stalk their victims to know the target's schedules and favourite haunts. Be unpredictable, change your routine.
- Anyone headed to regions where kidnapping is prevalent should consider securing kidnap and ransom insurance.
Kimberley is tackling another difficult theme in Skyjack, the second book in The Freedom Broker series, which will be published next year. This time, Thea Paris is shepherding two former child soldiers from Africa to London to introduce them to their newly adoptive family when their plane is hijacked.
"The plight of child soldiers in Africa has always deeply affected me. I lived in Kenya for three years when I was a kid, and I wanted to write about this important issue. There is a non-profit group called AMREF that tries to help these youngsters, and I hope The Freedom Broker and Skyjack will raise awareness and encourage more people to become involved in rescuing these children who are forced to become soldiers in wars they don't understand. It's a heartbreaking situation."
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