evseymour

Word on the Wire

Category: Spy Fiction

SILLY SEASON

167890-FC50 copySharp-eyed readers will note that I have been silent since June. No, I was not sunning myself throughout July, (well, that’s a bit of lie because I’ve done a fair amount of walking and appreciating my new surroundings) but with a new home to organise, people to see, writing projects aplenty, and a new cover and title, ‘House of Lies’ to promote, my blog writing got parked in the long grass.

So now back to the crazy month of August when MP’s are on recess, the country is run by stand-in’s and families try to entertain their kids through weeks of pouring rain – well, it was the last time I looked out of the window.

Me? I’m juggling work commitments that include writing a brand new story while looking forward to the release of ‘A Deadly Trade’ later in the year, followed by ‘Final Target’ as part of the Joshua Thane series of thrillers, and published by Harper Collins’ imprint Killer Reads. The covers look drop dead gorgeous but I’m not allowed to splash them here even in a ‘For Your Eyes Only’ spy kind of way.   The cover reveals will be unveiled soon – promise.   Oh, yes, I also have a new website in the pipeline, which after ten years is long overdue. It’s going to be sleeker, meaner and thoroughly stunning – I’ve seen the sneak preview.

So lots to look forward to as we wend our way to you know what. Unlike the retail industry, I refuse to mention that word in the second week of August!

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REBEL REBEL

Never did I think I’d nick the title from a David Bowie song and apply it to Frederick Forsyth but, after reading ‘The Outsider,’ it seems entirely appropriate.

I’ve long been a fan of Forsyth’s novels and films. Even if you’re unfamiliar with his books, ‘The Day of the Jackal’ is stamped on most people’s psyches. For me, ‘The Fist of God’ remains one of my favourites.

As mentioned in my last post, I was given his semi-autobiography for Christmas. I say ‘semi’ because Forsyth is at pains to state that it isn’t an autobiography, yet he gives a fascinating insight into his background, his time working for Reuters as a journalist, his thorny and short-lived career at the BBC and, eye-openingly, his stint as a foreign correspondent covering the war between Nigeria and Biafra which, according to Forsyth, was fuelled by the then Wilson government. Having deeply personal experience of the terrible price paid by children during the conflict, Forsyth swears never to forgive those in power for creating such a colossal humanitarian crisis. Shortly after this, broke and with no job, he decided to write his way to success. He’s quite open about his naivety and the fact he knew nothing about publishing or the first thing about how to write a novel. He also admits to being clueless with money.   All things considered, he doesn’t appear to have done too badly!

An only child, (left to his own devices, he developed a strong imagination) he spent long holidays posted solo with families in both France and Germany. As a result, he became fluent in French and German at an early age and to the extent that he could pass himself off to native-speakers. Later on, in order to bag a story, he’d often play the part of bumbling Brit abroad and adopt an atrocious accent with a limited vocabulary so that he could listen to those who believed that their conversations were not understood. This served him well, and probably saved his life when, now a published novelist, he carried out a heart-stopping ‘off the books’ job for the ‘Firm’ in East Berlin as a means to return a favour.

But I’ve fast-forwarded.

With a fascination for aircraft, Forsyth was persistent in his attempt to obtain a pilot’s licence and join the RAF where he flew single-seat Vampires. Later, a journalistic posting to Berlin brought him into contact with some fairly unpleasant people and, according to his account, he very nearly started World War III. On more than one occasion, it’s fair to say that he risked his life.

But what did I learn about the man? Like a lot of young men, the younger Frederick Forsyth was clearly addicted to danger and derring-do, but if a guy can have the elusive X-Factor, he had it in spades. Charismatic, a hit with women, he was charming and witty, and I dare say still is. A stickler for intellectual rigour, he doesn’t appear to suffer fools but he’s not one of those sneery individuals who stamps his intelligence on those less mentally agile, rather he employs a robust sense of wry humour. Unimpressed by status, he’s anti-Establishment, hates inaccuracy and cover-up and, I sense, has a long, unforgiving memory for those in power who abuse it. Born from long experience of how the world ticks, he’s a cynic yet also comes across as compassionate and a good reader of people. One of the most attractive aspects is that he puts his success down to sheer luck and does not give the impression that this is false modesty.

Sometimes I play a little game in which I name a famous person – could be a writer, musician or even politician – and ask myself, if invited to dinner, would I accept. You’d be amazed how many folk with whom I wouldn’t care to share a packet of crisps, but dinner with Mr F? I’m in.

HUSH MY MOUTH!

First off, apologies for my spelling malfunction yesterday when referring to Ben Whishaw – what was I thinking?!  Clearly, not thinking at all.

Moving swiftly on, you may remember I gabbed on about the pure brilliance of London Spy and stand by my comments about superb acting and Ben Whishaw’s outstanding performance.  Masterful storytelling was a hallmark of the series until midway through the finale in which I skidded to a dirty great halt.

It’s common knowledge that, if the big climactic scene, the one the audience has waited hours for doesn’t deliver, the preceding story is screwed.  I wouldn’t go this far because it would be grossly unfair.  There were plenty of big revelations to sustain attention, and the way in which Danny’s every effort to reveal the truth was thwarted with chilling ease ratcheted tension to fever pitch, but the fact that, in the final analysis, there were more questions than answers says a lot.

Who were all those people holed up in Alex’s attic with listening devices and cameras?  I assumed that they were intelligence officers carrying out a dastardly form of torture that would give the most deranged terrorist a run for his or her money.  (As a claustrophobe, there was one point when I almost ran out of the room screaming).  Why, instead, wasn’t Alex offered a deal from the lonely bowels of an interrogation room in SIS HQ?  If he refused, why wasn’t he let go and left to the tender mercies of a ‘Wet’ team?  Why was Charlotte Rampling, Alex’s alleged mother, dragged in to reason with Alex in his dying moments when the intelligence service thought so little of her?  Why on earth did she throw her hand in with Danny in a doomed endeavour in the final seconds of the episode when previously she had so stoutly defended her position?

If I were Tom Rob Smith, I’d be tempted to respond with the ultimate put-down:  his novels have sold in millions and been made into a film.  Precisely, but that’s why I expected so much more.

 

 

ABSOLUTELY LEATHERED

No, I didn’t get drunk last night but I did spend my evening tearing through Stephen Leather’s ‘Black Ops.’ To put this in context, I posted a tweet about a week or so ago mentioning that I’d just raced through a 130 pages of a novel in a sitting. Then real life intervened and I wound up reading ‘Black Ops’ in fits and starts – never a good way to read a book – which always makes me feel faintly guilty on behalf of the writer. Anyway, I put things straight last night by saving the final furlong for a thumping good read.

Part of the Spider Shepherd series, Spider is given one of his most testing missions to date: to spy on his boss, Charlie Button, who it’s feared has gone rogue. Things aren’t much better on the personal front when Spider’s sixteen year-old son is caught with drugs.  To ‘get him off’ a custodial sentence, Spider is forced to unmask a dealer for the police. Oh, and did I mention the grieving father who holds Putin responsible for the downed Malaysian plane over Ukraine? Well, Spider is tasked to prevent the assassination of the foreign head of state on UK territory. Throw in an assassin or two and a couple of Real IRA terrorists, and you get the picture: it’s a rollercoaster of thrills, surprises, double dealing and real politic. Only a writer of Leather’s calibre can juggle so many plot lines without confusion and dropping pace. For me, what also sets him aside is his amazing topicality. He really is ‘on the button’ and I can only dare to imagine from where he gets his information. Either that or the guy has a crystal ball. A couple of times I closed the book (briefly, you understand) muttered the equivalent of ‘Crikey’, thought about what I’d just read in black and white, told myself it was fiction, wasn’t it? And, dazed, read on. I love it when a writer does this. Leather makes you think. He challenges what often is taken for granted when it comes to the ‘powers that be’. Whether they are police, spooks or politicians, even our hero, nobody emerges without dirt on their hands. If you want a cosy, rosy-tinted view of the world with good guys and bad guys, forget it, but for realism, insight and sheer blood and guts, it doesn’t get much better than this.

‘Black Ops’ is published by Hodder and Stoughton.

A COLDER WAR BY CHARLES CUMMING

What’s the appeal of spy fiction? You’re plunged into an unknowable and alien world in which characters speak another language of codenames and cryptic vocabulary, the old boy network is seen to be alive and kicking, and pace is often tortuously slow.

And yet my superficial description disguises the truth and does the genre a grave disservice for what could be more thrilling than journeying through the world’s clandestine hot spots, being immersed in tradecraft and secret assignations, where the stakes for national security could not be higher, and the slow pace that I referred to is more akin to the building beat you find in a mellow piece of jazz before the saxophonist delivers a blistering solo?

Charles Cumming’s novel, ‘A Colder War,’ ticks all the above boxes in a ‘tell it as it is’ tale of espionage that is bang up to the minute. His main character, disgraced Thomas Kell, a fall guy and witness to an act of extraordinary rendition, is tempted back into the game by the chief of the Secret Intelligence Service, Amelia Levine, when the head of station in Turkey is killed. Both Levine and Kell suspect their man, a serial womaniser, was assassinated and it’s Kell’s task to discover the truth. It’s not long before Kell makes a stunning discovery: a traitor is in their midst.

You are left in no doubt that Cumming knows his stuff, which is unsurprising as MI6 approached him for recruitment in 1995. The novel is jam-packed with tradecraft.   Thomas Kell is no ‘techno-spook’. He’s that strange, complex alchemy of circumspection, cold detachment and ultra competitiveness that carve him out as the classic spy, yet he’s also flesh and blood and a man of concealed passion.

A ‘mole’ in the camp has overtones of Le Carre’s ‘Tinker, Tailor…’ and the occasionally bleak tone more reminiscent of the very best of Gerald Seymour’s spy thrillers. But Cumming’s novel is no pale imitation. Rich with memorable characters, the story oozes style and authenticity. The scene in which a surveillance team spring into action is superb, as is the ‘take-down’ in (where else?) Odessa.

Necessary attributes for an effective spy are empathy and a firm grasp of human psychology. They’re also key skills for a writer. Cumming has both in spades. Certain to satisfy seasoned spy readers while attracting new converts to the genre, ‘A Colder War’ is truly in a league of its own. Fabulous.

A Colder War is published by Harper Collins.