Cult fiction

Introducing Taylor Stevens, your favorite new thriller author — whose own story has some twists

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arts@sfbg.com

LIT I read a lot of thrillers. Mysteries, murder, international intrigue, weird pulp crime ... I've been addicted since I was in high school and discovered John D. McDonald, Alistair McLean, and Trevanian. These days, I live by James Patterson, Michael Connolly, Robert B. Parker, Janet Evanovich, Lee Child, and John Lescroart.

And I just found the best new thriller writer, and the best new character, to come along since Mr. Child invented Jack Reacher. The writer's name is Taylor Stevens, her character is Vanessa Michael Munroe, and the first book of what I hope will be a continuing series is called The Informationist (Crown, 307 pages, $23).

Buy it. It's amazing. And when Stevens is as big as Patterson, you can say you helped discover her.

V. M. Munroe is an awesome protagonist. She ran away from her missionary parents as a teen to sign on with one of Africa's most notorious gunrunners, and now she deals in information — secrets somebody wants but almost nobody can find.

The book's set in Central Africa, where Munroe has been hired to find the kidnapped daughter of a Texas oil billionaire.

By the way: she's skinny, slight, and a total fucking badass who rides a Ducati and effortlessly beats the shit out of the poor losers who try to accost her at a gas station. She speaks 22 languages. She's the first trans thriller lead, too, a person who slips effortlessly from female to male. Of course, she's got personal demons, and part of the back story is her battle to silence them. By the end of the second chapter, I had written this in my notes: "I love Vanessa already. Nobody else like her on the literary scene. Nobody."

The plot is tight, the characters come alive, the sex is fun and intense sometimes but not overdone. The scene at the end involving a sniper, a knife fight, and a stunning decapitation (tell you more and I'll ruin a gut-wrenching chapter) as good as anything I've read in years.

Unlike a lot of thriller authors, Stevens can write. Check it out:

The details of the case ran through her head, and with them came the memories. It was another life, another world, untamed and vast, where stretches of two-lane tarmac ran vein-like through sub-Saharan emptiness, and buses — old, rusting, belching black smoke — pumped the blood of humanity along the way.

And this from a woman who has a sixth-grade education.

Seriously. One of the most amazing things about Stevens is that she grew up in a cult in Central Africa, wasn't allowed to go beyond basic education, and wasn't allowed to read books.

I caught up with her in February; here are some excerpts from our talk.

SFBG Tell me a little about your background and how you came to write this book.

Taylor Stevens I was born into and raised in the Children of God, an apocalyptic religious cult. That's the only world I knew. It was very secluded; all our interactions with what went on outside the community were accompanied by an adult cult member. We didn't have access to TV; books were almost nonexistent; we didn't listen to the radio. My entire world was framed within the context of the cult.

SFBG When did you get out?

TS I didn't get out until I was in my late 20s. I was quite afraid to leave, not of what the cult would do to me, but of what God would do to me. My ex husband — then my husband — and I took a long time to plan how to get out because we didn't want to end up like some other cult members who had left with no education, no money, no career, on the streets. We had a baby at the time. The group didn't believe in education. The standard acceptance was sixth-grade education.

SFBG So where did you learn to write?

TS It's a big mystery, huh?