I’ve often described Hard Dog to Kill as a character study masquerading as a testosterone-soaked adventure. But it’s also an exploration of one of the world’s most intense environments.
The book was born from a desire to write about a part of the world I’ve traveled to and worked in for almost three decades. My professional life as an expedition leader and a coffee importer has taken me to more than seventy countries, and I can tell you there aren’t many regions that match sub-Saharan Africa in terms of beauty, political upheaval and cultural complexity. It’s that complexity that drew me to write about the Democratic Republic of the Congo, which offers a heady combination of natural riches and human struggle.
One of the many challenges of writing about that part of the world was credibility. It’s one thing to travel to a place and study it for years, but another thing altogether to presume to tell a story about it. I was deeply aware of the risks of pretending to write about the DRC from the perspective of an insider. That, as they say in the old country, would be bullshit.
What I needed, then, was an outsider narrator whose life was intimately entangled in the world of the DRC. For this, at least, there were some great precedents: Conrad’s Marlow is the most well-known of them, but V.S. Naipaul’s Salim was another great example of a man struggling to keep his footing in the world of the Congo basin. The women in Barbara Kingsolver’s Price family probably came the closest to the sense of fevered confusion I wanted to convey, but even those famous outsiders in the Congo didn’t provide quite the right model for the character I was looking to create.
In part, that’s because my years of reading about the DRC left me with a strong impression that it’s the part of the world where human cultures go to be their worst. Belgians, Ugandans, Americans, Angolans, Chinese, Rwandans and the Congolese themselves all seem undone by the sheer excess of the place. The more time I spent thinking about the book, the more I leaned toward a narrator who entered the DRC through violence. I realized, finally, that I didn’t want just an outsider, I wanted an invader.
At the time, I was learning about the mercenaries working in the Congo in the sixties. I also happened to be reading quite a few books by and about American soldiers in Afghanistan and Iraq. That in turn led me into books about Blackwater and other private security forces.
And then it hit me: who could be more of an outsider than an American mercenary working for a foreign mining company in the DRC?
I put down the books and wrote a long monologue from the perspective of a US mercenary employed by a Chinese mining company in the DRC. The guy’s voice was, from the beginning, kind of funky. He had a Texas accent and the vocabulary of a Victorian schoolmaster. (I have no idea why.) He was a veteran of Afghanistan and Iraq, a brutal killer prone to self-reflection. He was, it turned out, Stan Mullens. I’d found my narrator.
Stan’s arrival gave me the narrative focus I needed. I’ve always had a soft spot for bad men who truly long to be good. I’m particularly interested in seeing what happens to people when their illusions of righteousness collapse. I’m interested in what we become when we no longer believe our own bullshit. With Stan on the scene, the Congo became the stage for a story about the human urge to do the right thing in circumstances where right and wrong no longer make sense. I got to write about an amazing part of the world as seen through the eyes of a fascinating and complex character. (At least that’s how I felt about him.)
I hope you enjoy finding out what became of Stan on his long hard trip into the heart of the Congo.