Crime master Michael Robotham has broken new ground with his 10th novel in a decade. At his publisher's behest, the internationally popular author has set his first book in the US and succeeded in crafting a moving love story.
In Life or Death, prison inmate Audie Palmer escapes from jail a day before his scheduled release.
It's a premise the former journalist tore from the headlines after reading of a prisoner in Sydney's Long Bay jail on the verge of parole who skipped out a day or two early.
"He completely vanished," the Sydney-based writer says of the man's escape more than a decade ago.
"I remember thinking at the time 'Why would someone escape on the verge of being released, it seems completely counterintuitive'.
"It stuck in my mind for ages, thinking there's a story in there somewhere, I just have to think of how to bring it out."
Robotham found momentum for the tale last September during the Big Sky Readers and Writers Festival in WA.
The bestselling writer was sharing a Geraldton stage with romance novelist Toni Jordan, a former molecular biologist who drew on her experience of the biotechnology industry in her second novel Fall Girl.
"It was in the course of the panel when I said 'I want to write a book that's a love story', she snorted through her nose as if to say 'Well you're a crime writer, there's no way you could write a love story'," he says.
"I had this idea anyway but I remember thinking to myself 'Toni Jordan, I'm going to write a love story and I'm gonna have you reaching for the tissues at the end of it'."
Robotham opens his book with Audie's escape from prison.
The leading man almost drowns and is rescued by a ghost lover who forces him to choose life to keep his promise.
But what was the promise and why is he on the run?
During the course of the story Audie is pursued by bad guys, national law enforcement and a former friend.
Special Agent Desiree Furness is short on stature and big on what's proper, while ex-criminal Moss Webster wants to know why his former cellmate has attracted such acrimony.
The pair come to realise Audie is running to something and it's tied up with a $7 million bank job mystery and a police officer's teenage son.
Robotham says his main character — whose name is pronounced Oar-dee — is an everyman.
"I don't write novels where my hero is a Jason Bourne or Jack Reacher or James Bond type who is the ultimate hero who can outfight and outrun and outthink and, pardon my language, outf... everyone. I wanted a guy who was caught up in circumstances beyond his control but in his heart he had a good heart, a good soul," he says.
"He happened to be born into a loving family, with a brother who goes completely off the rails and, through an act of outrageous misfortune, or being in the wrong place at the wrong time, he's implicated in some of his brother's actions."
The character's family have named him after one of the most famous war heroes in America, Audie Leon Murphy.
Robotham says his choice of the heroic name Audie was a serendipitous but not deliberate choice for the noble character.
"You come up with a name and suddenly it has that extra resonance, Audie does have a lot of those same attributes, even to the point of foolhardiness at times," he says.
The hero returns to the scene of a crime to tackle a criminal plot he has spent a decade in prison waiting to resolve.
Robotham says the character's acts of bravery can also be considered acts of stupidity.
The author acknowledges Audie inspires loyalty and cruelty.
"As much as it is a conspiracy and that story why he escapes drives the narrative, for me it's very much a love story," Robotham says. "And it's that story of the fact that Audie is not trying to save himself, he's trying to save someone else."
Readers learn of Audie's one true love, sensuous mother Belita, in a series of flashbacks run in tandem with a brisk plot.
Robotham has told a beautiful story of a shy man's romance with an exploited and illegal immigrant.
At times, the author's narrative voice has a formal British overtone that might distract North American readers.
However Robotham spent more than a month in the US in preparation for the tale of corruption he believes is a natural fit for such a setting.
The crime writer says to get the voice for his Texas-set tale he listened to dozens of audio books, from literary masters such as Cormac McCarthy, Philip Meyer and William Faulkner.
Robotham's fast and slow pacing has certainly produced a cadence and sound to rival classic American literary tales where gentleness meets aggression.
His book has attracted Hollywood interest with publisher Hachette dubbing the tale Shawshank Redemption meets No Country for Old Men.
"It does have that Shawshank Redemption feel to it," the author says. "I did want that sort of ending, where people are punching the air in celebration but also reaching for the tissues."
Robotham has succeeded in his efforts to produce a moving story of an ordinary man readers will remember long after they read the last page.