In the world of crime fiction (and fact) Adam Plantinga is an authority figure. A twenty-two-year veteran of law enforcement, he began his career with the Milwaukee Police Department in 2001 and has spent the last fifteen years with the San Francisco PD, where he is a sergeant assigned to street patrol. Drawing on that specialized knowledge, he authored two non-fiction books on policing and procedure—400 Things Cops Know and Police Craft; the former won a 2015 Silver Falchion award, was nominated for an Agatha, and has been called a bible for crime writers.
This month, Plantinga made his debut as a novelist with The Ascent (January 2, 2024; Grand Central Publishing). When former Detroit street cop and recent widower Kurt Argento finds himself wrongfully jailed in a Missouri prison, he doesn’t think he has anything left to lose. But after the facility’s maximum-security system begins to fail, he and a group of strangers—including the governor’s soon-to-be-married daughter—must join forces to face off against the pen’s most violent inmates, many of whom have been released from their cells. In a bid to reach the safety of the roof, Argento will either rise to the top or die trying …
John B. Valeri: The Ascent is your first novel after having written two non-fiction books on policing. What compelled you to make the transition to fiction – and how did you find the process of melding authenticity with creative license now that you’re not beholden to fact alone?
Adam Plantinga: After my non-fiction books, I felt I’d said most of what I wanted to say about the job. But I had a story in me I wanted to get out. So I figured I’d make the main character a street cop. Since it was fiction, I could take the narrative any which way I chose, but I could still use my experience in urban law enforcement to inform the main character and add an authentic skin to the plot.
JBV: Your lead, Kurt Argento, is a former police officer who feels he has nothing left to lose following his wife’s death. How did you endeavor to understand the depths of his grief and render it believably on the page – and in what ways does Emily serve as a presence throughout the book despite her physical absence?
AP: As a cop, people often call you on the worst days of their lives. You bear witness to how a tremendous loss can take apart someone’s life from the inside out. I tapped into some of that. I also know how a spouse or a partner can make you feel like the best version of yourself so when that’s ripped away, it leaves a debris field. As for Emily, I wanted to use the flashbacks to their life together as a way to help illuminate and humanize Argento. Although she’s gone, Argento tries to act in ways that she would approve of. She’s still his guide.
JBV: The narrative largely alternates between Argento’s perspective and that of grad student/governor’s daughter Julie Wakefield. In what ways do these POVs enhance our understanding of each character as seen through the eyes of the other?
AP: Argento recognizes strength in Julie, even during the height of the peril of Whitehall, that she may be slow to recognize herself. On the other end, Julie sees humanity in Argento that he’s buried deep. Overall, it was important to me to show Whitehall through both the eyes of a seasoned street cop and a wide-eyed novice.
JBV: The book’s title works on literal and figurative levels. How did the idea of ascension serve as a guiding point throughout the writing (or rewriting), both in terms of action and emotion?
AP: When the book starts, Argento is already in a dark place that only gets darker as the book progresses. I realized early on that the only way he could pull himself out of the pit he’s in was to do something for someone else—namely, to help the survivors in Whitehall get to safety (although I tried to create Whitehall with a kind of warped funhouse quality to it where the higher you climb, the more dangerous the floors get.) With The Ascent, I knew I was writing a meat-and-potatoes thriller, but that doesn’t preclude giving Argento what I hope the reader finds to be a satisfying character arc.
JBV: As a representative of policing/law enforcement, what do you feel is your responsibility in depicting the complexities of the criminal justice system? Please share a few examples of how you show this juxtaposition of ideals and flaws throughout the book and what kinds of dialog you hope it might inspire.
AP: The criminal justice system is indeed complex, which I spoke to in my first two nonfiction books. With my novel, I didn’t feel the need to write a message book, or trumpet reform. But I still wanted to acknowledge some of the currents in criminal justice. So there are righteous cops and some criminal cops, just like in real life. Police body cameras end up playing an important role, racism rears its head, and Argento muses on poverty and gang life, like how, when you start as a drug lookout before you’re ten, you’re already on a doomed trajectory.
JBV: As with policing, there is a communal spirit (or familyhood) that exists within the writing community. How have your fellow creatives helped you along your own author’s journey, both in terms of craft itself and the unique landscape that is a writer’s headspace?
AP: They’ve been great. I’ve had writer friends help with every step of the process, from shaping rough drafts to navigating the agent and publishing world. Then there’s been the established crime writers who were willing to roll the dice on a new guy and consider the book for a blurb. I’m grateful for their time and generosity.
JBV: In addition to being a writer you are a family man and a sergeant with the San Francisco PD. What have you found to be the key(s) to achieving some semblance of balance in your personal and professional lives – and what advice would you offer those who struggle with finding the time to pursue their own creative ambitions amid other responsibilities?
AP: I married well. Above my station. So that’s been key. Without the support of my wife (who is also one of my best editors), this book doesn’t get off the ground. My advice is something I heard that I think either came from coach John Wooden or might as well have. It goes like this: Most people know what they need to do to be successful. They just won’t do it. They won’t pay the price. Dreams are fine, they can inspire and fuel us, but if you want them to turn into something tangible, you gotta put in the sweat equity.
JBV: Leave us with a teaser: What comes next?
AP: A follow-up to The Ascent, with the working title of Hard Town, is slated to come out in 2025. While he’s housesitting for an old SWAT buddy in a small Arizona town, Kurt finds himself in a new kind of trouble, because he finds it hard to relax. Hard Town has a much larger scope than the first book and goes in what I think are some unexpected directions. I’m excited about it.