The Characters of Steel Fear, Part 2
John David Mann
Part 1 of this seven-part series on the characters of the military thriller Steel Fear introduced you to the story’s antihero, Chief Finn, No Last Name. Now we meet Finn’s unlikely partner.
In most stories, the hero shows up right at the start, if not on page 1, then soon after. In Steel Fear, my co-author Brandon Webb and I violated that rule and opened instead with Monica Halsey, the Knighthawk pilot, alone in her stateroom, staring into a mirror. It takes a full three chapters before you finally meet Finn, the story’s main character. Which throws things a little off-kilter—and that’s good. We wanted everything about Finn to upset the reader’s expectations. To go against type.
But there’s another reason we broke the hero-first rule. We wanted you to spend those first few chapters in Monica’s shoes, looking through Monica’s eyes and learning all about her past, career path, and ambitions. Finn may be the story’s hero in the classic sense—but Monica is just as central to the story. Finn makes it intriguing.
Monica makes it personal.
“Never Back Down”
The event that sparked the idea for Steel Fear happened in 1995 when Brandon was on the USS Abraham Lincoln for a six-month WestPac as a helicopter sonar operator and rescue swimmer. There was a sexual predator on board. The guy would sneak into the women’s showers, flip off the lights, molest someone, and run. They never caught him. It cast a pall over the whole ship.
In Steel Fear, those assaults have become serial murders, the molester a serial killer. These are no longer sexual crimes. The killer doesn’t discriminate between men and women, gay and straight. He’s an equal opportunity sociopath. Still, he does have that edge of sexually twisted insanity in his DNA. The horrifying real-life events that hover behind the events of the book have left their imprint.
This is probably why one of our very first story decisions, long before work on the first draft began, was that we needed to set a woman after this guy and help bring him down.
Monica is a fighter. It’s clear from the first page. She may be a lowly helo pilot, but she’s gunning for admiral. Her childhood hero was Sally Ride, the first American woman in space, whom she learned about in third grade. In junior high, she learned about another personal hero, Kara Hultgreen. Hultgreen was the first female navy combat aviator who served right there on the deck of the Lincoln, where the story takes place.
She’d learned a few more things in junior high, too. She learned about something called the “Tailhook scandal”: eighty-three navy women assaulted or sexually harassed. That in 1994 Kara Hultgreen also became the first navy female aviator to die, right off the Lincoln’s flight deck—and that the crash that killed her was blamed on “improprieties” in qualifying her for flight status, “given her gender.”
For Flying While Female, in other words.
And Sally Ride? In a press conference just before her historic first flight in ’83, reporters asked if space flight would “affect her reproductive organs” and whether she cried when things went wrong on the job.
Like Sally Ride and Kara Hultgreen, Monica’s not going to let anything stop her. Screw the crash investigators; screw the reporters. In fact, that’s her personal motto: Never back down.
Monica is arguably as much the hero of the story as Finn is.
She’s certainly as unlikely for the role as Finn, too, maybe more so. She has no authority here, no power. It’s not her job to be involved in the investigation of this string of suspicious “suicides” that unfold on the Lincoln; far from it. And when she does start poking into it, she’s told in no uncertain terms to stop.
Nevertheless, she persists. Never back down.
Although that motto sure does get tested. Monica faces a series of obstacles as daunting as any O-course, most of whom—surprise, surprise—come in the form of controlling men. There’s her CO, Nikos Papadakis, “a control freak and a bully” and possibly something far worse. Her love interest, a JAG officer who tells her to back off when she starts looking into the unexplained deaths. Her NATOPS officer who has the power to nix her HAC (helicopter aircraft command) and sink her career ambitions. Another pilot, Rickards, who seems nice enough but turns on her when she asks too many questions.
And then there’s Finn.
Monica makes it clear, right in chapter 3, that she hates SEALs. Wants nothing to do with them. She thinks they’re all supreme assholes. When she finally swallows her pride long enough to ask him for help, here’s how she starts the conversation:
“Just so you know, far as I can see, all SEALs are arrogant, self-absorbed pricks. Worse than male fighter pilots.”
When she tells him she needs his help to hunt down the killer, his response is brief and immediate:
“Not my fight.”
These two are as unlikely a team as any pairing in the first reel of a romantic comedy. You could even consider the ending of chapter 3—that’s the scene I mentioned in Part 1 of this series where she first spots the two men on the tarmac, the big athletic god and the scrawny little geeky guy, and mistakenly assumes that big guy is the SEAL—as a twist on the romcom’s classic “meet cute.” Although it’s not a romance in the air, it’s murder and vengeance.
And sure enough, they do finally work together. It’s inevitable. Each has a piece of the puzzle that the other needs. In fact, they even end up swapping weapons.
Monica has more going for her than her sheer persistence. Like Finn, she’s smart. In her case, it’s a mechanical kind of intelligence: she has an exceptional talent for seeing how things go together, fit together, work together.
You see it in her job. In addition to flying her Knighthawk, she also serves as her squadron’s maintenance officer, and it’s a role she excels at.
In theory, her maintenance chief ran the show, and she was there mostly to give him support from the up top when he needed it. But Monica took a very hands-on approach to her shop. To a lot of the guys, a maintenance officer was considered a gritty job for a woman to manage, a viewpoint that would have royally pissed her off if she let herself think about it. The fact that she was an O-3 in a post usually reserved for an O-4 had made earning the shop’s respect an even higher bar. She’d cleared it.
This turns out to be a skill set critical in solving the murders. To symbolize Monica’s “superpower,” we gave her a special artifact that takes on an almost totemic meaning as the book progresses:
Toward the back of her desk sat a silver-plated Rubik’s cube, an award she won in a junior high math competition for conceptual modeling in calculus. In place of the usual six colors, each of the nine subsections making up each of the cube’s six sides was set with a configuration of one to six small onyx dots, like dice, so that when you solved the puzzle, one face was all ones, another all twos, and so on.
As a kid, she’d learned that you could follow certain sequences, called “algorithms,” to arrive at given conditions. There were a huge number of different possible solutions, but she’d mastered them all. She didn’t even have to think about it: her fingers knew the sequences.
Monica’s junior high award and what it represents are so key that an entire part of the book (Part 6) is titled “Rubik’s Cube.”
I can’t tell you how it all plays out without spilling spoilers. But I can say this. Without Finn, there’s no story. But without Monica, the story doesn’t work.
Special Holiday Offer!
Purchase STEEL FEAR as a gift you are eligible to have John or Brandon send a short personalized cameo-style video to your gift recipient if purchased before December 15th. Just send us a screenshot of your purchase on the SOFREP contact page here, including the gift recipient’s name and a good email for us to send out your custom video.
John David Mann is the award-winning co-author of more than 30 books, including 4 New York Times bestsellers and 5 national bestsellers. His bestselling classic The Go-Giver (with Bob Burg) won the Living Now Book Award’s Evergreen Medal for its “contribution to positive global change.” Seven of his books are co-authored with SOFREP founder Brandon Webb, including their first thriller, Steel Fear, which Jack Reacher author Lee Child hailed as “an instant classic, maybe an instant legend.” You can order Steel Fear and find links to interviews with Brandon and John at SteelFear.com.
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