Greaney was on a personal mission in Central America to learn Spanish when the man caught his eye. Greaney hadn't yet published a book, but his agent had suggested that he focus on a loner in the subterranean world of quasi-military, highly paid assassins.
"He was an American, but he looked different," Greaney said. "Everybody else in the bar was, like, a surfer or a language student like me. This guy looked a lot darker, let's say. And this idea of a guy who's ex-CIA but now he's living in the Third World off the net, for some reason, I just started riffing on that, and I wrote 'The Gray Man.' "
Since that thriller was published in 2009, Greaney has completed three further adventures about the ex-CIA agent named Court Gentry who, mysteriously, is the target of a shoot-on-sight directive by his former employers. "On Target" came out in 2010, "Ballistic" in 2011, and "Dead Eye" (Berkley, $16) debuts Tuesday.
That same day, the third book Greaney co-authored with the late espionage powerhouse Tom Clancy will come out as well. Greaney worked with Clancy on "Locked On," "Threat Vector" and now "Command Authority" (Putnam, $29.95), all featuring the father-and-son Jack Ryan characters.
"The first thriller novel that I ever bought was 'Patriot Games.' That was in '87," Greaney says, describing his path from Clancy fan to Clancy co-author. "In my office I have a space 4½-feet long just of Clancy books. Most are first editions because I got them when they came out."
Clancy died at 66 on Oct. 1, about a week after "Command Authority" was "100 percent in the can," Greaney says.
He's not sure whether Clancy's estate plans to perpetuate the Jack Ryan chronicles. Since Robert Ludlum's death in 2001, his fictional saga about Jason Bourne has been sustained by Eric Van Lustbader. Robert B. Parker died in 2010 and Oxford, Miss.-based author Ace Atkins is continuing Parker's Spenser series.
Greaney's not coy about his interest in participating if the Ryan stories continue. "I hope they call me tomorrow and say 'Let's keep going.' If they call me five years from now, I'd still be interested."
Greaney connected with Clancy through their shared editor at Penguin, where Clancy is published by the Putnam division and Greaney by Berkley paperback. A screen adaptation for "The Gray Man" was making rounds, Greaney said, and "some of the people Tom works with are in Hollywood and they knew about me from that."
Entertainment Weekly reported in 2011: "After being targeted by zombies in 'World War Z,' Brad Pitt is going to face down a worldwide cabal of assassins. The actor is in talks to make his next project 'The Gray Man,' an adaptation of the thriller novel by Mark Greaney ...."
Pitt has since dropped out of the project. This year, the director James Gray ("The Immigrant" and "We Own the Night," both with Joaquin Phoenix), was asked after the Cannes Film Festival where Pitt's departure left plans to film "The Gray Man." Gray said, "There may be another actor who comes on board...."
Among The Gray Man's devoted fans is Judy Lesley, who is one of Amazon's "Top 500 Reviewers" and happens to live in Memphis.
"I fell in love with his style of writing, his attention to detail, his plotting, his characters. Court Gentry, I just want to hug him," Lesley said slyly of the lonely assassin. "He needs a hug."
Lesley, who also was invited to join Amazon's Vine Voices program, has attended Greaney's book parties and invited him to speak to a private group. "The first thing I noticed was how focused he is on doing research. The things he talks about in his books, you can count on. He has sources that allow him to put reality in these books. He does training so he understands how the weapons work. He really does know what he's saying in the book."
While Greaney has traveled to 15 countries in his research for Gray Man books, he keeps a permanent residence in Cordova, though he and his girlfriend, Devon Gilliland, plan to move soon, along with their Louisiana Catahoula dog named Lobo, to a house they recently bought in East Memphis.
Greaney, 46, graduated from White Station High School and the University of Memphis with a degree in international relations. He worked at Wang's International, then the international department at Medtronic for nine years, in Latin American customer relations. He is the son of Ed Greaney, the former assistant general manager for news and public affairs at WMC-TV Channel 5, who died in 2005.
Greaney's research resembles news reporting. Early action scenes in "Dead Eye" are set in a snowstorm in Tallinn, the capital of Estonia, in buildings along the 600-year-old town wall that Greaney visited a year ago. "There's a scene in the book where the guys are running across this roof. I was up at 6 o'clock in the morning in a blizzard, about the same time it happened in the book. I tried to figure out if somebody could jump across this alley way from one roof level to the other.
"I have this credo that I don't have to be able to do it, but if one person in the world can pull it off, then I can write about it."
In earlier books, Court Gentry has been pursued by foreign military, Russian mobsters and evil corporations. While he was writing "Dead Eye," Greaney says, he spent a lot of time on Clancy books in Washington.
"All throughout D.C., there are nondescript little office buildings with innocuous names that are private military or private security firms," he said. "They hire people with security clearance, and they are quasi-military or quasi-intelligence, and I just thought that they would be interesting boogeymen for this Gray Man book. I've met a lot of these guys, and they're the nicest guys in the world, but I joke with them, 'You guys make great villains.' "