Ballistics Expert

The Gray Man: at it again; set for the big screen.

When he isn’t double-crossing and ducking the CIA (his former employer), he’s double-crossing and dodging a Russian mafia kingpin (another former employer). And when he isn’t surviving a river full of crocodiles in South America, he’s escaping the filthy confines of a prison in Laos.

He’s Court Gentry, aka the Gray Man, international hit man for hire, and now he’s in extra hot water in the third thriller of Memphian Mark Greaney’s successful Court Gentry series — a series that started with The Gray Man in 2009 and continued with On Target in 2010.

What’s in store for the 37-year-old Gentry now that he’s in Ballistic (Berkley Books)? Nothing less than run-ins with the spectacularly violent drug carteleros and the equally bloody federales down Mexico way and, in Ballistic’s quieter moments, run-ins with Gentry’s love interest, Laura, sister of the late Eduardo Gamboa, who was gunned down as a leader of the Grupo de Operaciones Especiales, a state-sanctioned commando unit. That group’s latest mission: the extrajudicial execution of one of Mexico’s top drug-cartel bosses, Daniel Alonzo de la Rocha Alvarez. Gentry’s mission: to see to the safety of Gamboa’s extended family and come out of it alive.

Got that?

Get this: Greaney’s also been busy this year ghost-writing one thriller and helping to write another one (his co-writer an undisclosed but very well-known author in the genre). Greaney’s debut title, The Gray Man, is set to start filming next spring as well. The director is James Gray (who brought us Joaquin Phoenix in We Own the Night). The screenwriter is Adam Cozad (who wrote the screenplay for Moscow, a new film featuring Tom Clancy’s Jack Ryan character). And the star playing Court Gentry is Brad Pitt if the rumors circulating are correct and if Pitt can fit the film into his (and his actress wife’s) schedule. No ifs about it, though: Greaney’s ready to make it as easy for Pitt as possible:

“I told my agent in California that I’d be happy to watch Brad Pitt’s kids if he needs me to while working on the movie,” Greaney said by phone a few weeks before Ballistic hit stores in late September. But that movie is going ahead “nice and strong,” he added, with or without Pitt and without Greaney in on it.

“I just wrote the source material,” Greaney said. “But I read the screenplay and loved it. In fact, that screenplay was put on the ‘black list’ as being one of the best unproduced screenplays in Hollywood.

“Here in Memphis, I’m pretty far removed from it all. I met with the woman who acquired The Gray Man for the studio — two and half hours on the quote/unquote movie aspect of my career, and that’s enough for me right now. It’s funny. All these things on that TV program E! . . . they suddenly have some relevance in my very boring world.”

Not so boring when you consider that in his research for Ballistic Grea-ney spent time in parts of Mexico that he described as being in the midst of a civil war between state police and drug cartels.

“You can’t exaggerate what’s happening down there,” he said. “The violence sounds like an author’s version of hell. As tuned in as I was, it’s still hard to get your head around it.”

Literally. Greaney pointed to the incident in Ballistic where the face of one victim is sewn onto a soccer ball, an event, he said, drawn from real life. “It’s that awful,” he added.

But it’s leavened in this third Court Gentry installment by Greaney’s increased interest in Gentry the man, not only the assassin. That’s by design, according to the author, who has expanded his storytelling skills to offer readers more downtime from the swift action, more clues to Gentry’s back-story and character.

“Once I knew that this would be a series, I wanted there to be a larger story arc,” Greaney said. “My agent would like for my next Gray Man book to be more of an ‘origin’ piece with large swaths of flashback to before Court Gentry became the Gray Man. That’s interesting to me too so that readers learn where he came from. You go back to the ‘well’ only a certain number of times before it all becomes a device, a carbon copy of the previous books.”

It’s an approach that leaves Greaney’s imagination room to roam, even as his editor, Tom Colgan (who’s also edited Tom Clancy and Clive Cussler), keeps that imagination going in the right direction, the narrative good and tight.

“I’m free to imagine. I put on the page whatever I think will make the story the best. When I’m going for a run or driving down the road . . . anything I can think of to make the story better: That’s the greatest high I can have. If my editor then says I’m wrong, we go from there, and more often than not, he saves me from myself.”

So far, fans certainly haven’t complained. On Target has been nominated for a Barry Award as best thriller for 2010, the winner to be announced in September at this year’s Bouchercon mystery, suspense, and thriller convention in St. Louis. But if you’re not into rapid-fire thrillers, Greaney is okay with that too:

“I’m not a writer who says that my books are for everyone. The Gray Man and On Target and now Ballistic — yes, they’re thrillers, and I have a lot of respect for the genre. But I hope they’re wide enough in scope. There’s heart. There’s emotion. It’s the reader’s responsibility to decide if they’re the type of book you want to read. My responsibility is to give you a good one.”

With Ballistic, Greaney has.


For the latest news of Mark Greaney, go to


Who Knew?
Vance Lauderdale, that’s who.

Knew that the fine example of mid-century-modern architecture that was Wilma’s restaurant in South Memphis, according to the memory of one reader of Memphis magazine, wasn’t Wilma’s at all. It was Wilmoth’s. But it was in South Memphis, in the Southgate Shopping Center.

Knew that the great Quaker Oats corncob fire on Chelsea was no Memphis myth. It happened in December 1958, and the mountain of burning corncobs rose to more than six stories.

Knew that writer James Jones did indeed work on his novel From Here to Eternity while staying at Leahy’s Trailer Court on Summer. Jones was being treated for a wartime ankle injury in 1943 at Memphis’ Kennedy General Hospital.

But Vance didn’t know, doesn’t know, what to make of the Ditty Wah Ditty Motel, which still stands on South Bellevue. Recourse to some song lyrics by ragtime composer Blind Arthur Blake didn’t help either. “Ditty wah ditty”: What’s it mean? The song asks the same question.

And yet, one big question’s been laid to rest, finally: the identity of a teenage hangout from the 1950s and ’60s. The photograph of it features an outdoor fountain, colored lights, and a scattering of oversize seashells. The answer is: the Tropical Freeze at the corner of Poplar and White Station. But the question remains: Anybody got a photo of the ice-cream joint itself? (Bonus points if that photo includes the drive-in’s mechanical Hawaiian hula dancer.)

“My column doesn’t permit me to discuss in my typically long-winded way the complete history of every single building in Memphis,” Lauderdale laments in his latest collection of columns drawn from the pages of Memphis magazine. “For that, you’ll have to wait for my upcoming book, Ask Vance: The Complete History of Every Single Building in Memphis,” a work that popular historian and illustrious Memphian Vance Lauderdale promises to get to work on any day now. 

While we wait for that magnum opus to appear, see to it you grab Ask Vance Book Two: More Questions and Answers from Memphis Magazine’s History Expert, brought to you by Contemporary Media, Inc., which happens to publish the very magazine you’re reading. And while you’re at it, email if there’s a bit of questionable Memphis history you want answered. That question of yours and Vance Lauderdale’s witty, informative answer to it could wind up in the pages of Memphis magazineand in the future pages of Ask Vance Book Three.

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