Word on the Wire

Category: Spy Fiction


‘Dark and dirty’ appears to sum up my viewing and reading over the past couple of months. A huge fan of Gerald Seymour’s work, (as I’ve said many times before) ‘Beyond Recall’ was utterly outstanding for its brilliant characterisation, hard-hitting storyline – a massacre in Syria instigated and carried out under the watchful eye of a senior Russian soldier – and its unusually poignant, upbeat ending. (Not something Seymour is particularly noted for). This time, Seymour’s main protagonist, Gaz Baldwin, is a ‘watcher’.  Witnessing an atrocity breaks Gaz mentally, spiritually and emotionally. Scratching out a life of sorts on the Orkney Isles, Gaz is recalled to service when the Russian officer responsible is spotted in Murmansk. It’s down to Gaz to identify him. Seems simple enough? But, of course, things do not go according to plan. It’s crammed with all Seymour’s trademark literary attributes, but, for me, this went beyond. Not only is it a story about love and loyalty, it reveals the price paid by those invested in protecting us. When old ways are abandoned by the ‘higher-ups’ in pursuit of the narrow and new, the heavy stench of betrayal clings to every page.

Similarly, in the first season of ‘Deep State,’ former MI6 field officer, Max Easton (played by Mark Strong) is reluctantly lured back into service.  This isn’t simply a story about an intelligence operation gone wrong; it’s about the difficulty of leading a lonely double life and the price paid by a spy’s nearest and dearest. Things turn very sour and quickly when everyone Max knows and loves, specifically his new wife and young family, is threatened.

Having got the ‘Strong bug,’ I was delighted to come across ‘Low Winter Sun.’ With a fabulous cast, including a mesmerising Lenny James, this is a ‘grab you by the throat’ thriller of police corruption and utter mayhem. Set in Minnesota against a backdrop of hard drinking, prostitution and drug dealing, there are definite shades of ‘The Wire’ to be found. As for the ending, it’s all too horribly real and credible. Loved it.

I thrill when discovering new writers and Michael Farris Smith is no exception. I read ‘Desperation Road,’ long listed for a CWA Gold Dagger Award, in a couple of days. The clue to the story is in the title. Farris Smith writes about individuals caught up in the grimmest circumstances, often through no fault of their own, with heart breaking honesty. At first, I wondered how his disparate cast of characters were going to connect and then, with some deft plotting, their roads cross and wonderfully collide to create the most dramatic and emotionally literate of storylines. Writing is to die for and, at times, I was reminded of John Hart and Dennis Lehane. You can literally feel the heat of the deep South enveloping you as you read. Revenge and redemption are my favourite themes. They don’t disappoint here. 


I’m cutting it fine this month, squeaking in before June, but if you can’t mess around with timelines during a pandemic, when can you?

In the early days of lockdown, I had fond ideas of how I was going to spend it. I wasn’t going to learn a new language, or sharpen up my technological skills. Mine were more modest aspirations, like ‘doing things previously put off.’  Some of that stuff got done this month, like sorting out dozens of photographs, which was a rubbish idea because it made me sad. The garden had more attention than it’s accustomed to. I finally learnt to play ‘Moonlight Sonata’ without cocking it up.  I ran (around the garden like a Teddy Bear) and I skipped, which nearly killed me. I worked my way through a ton of screen viewing, including the gloriously black humoured ‘White Lines,’ featuring Daniel Mays, the first two seasons of ‘Rogue’ with Thandie Newton and, another celebration of ‘girl power,’ ‘Queen of the South.’ So refreshing to see (in screen terms only) strong women running cartels.  On the film front, I snapped up Guy Ritchie’s ‘The Gentlemen.’ Who knew that Hugh Grant could break from his usual stereotype and talk like Michael Caine?  Rich in story and with an all-star cast, it’s not to be missed. The highlight for me, though, was 1917. Powerful and poignant, it reminds us of the nightmare of war and the sacrifice of those who fought in unspeakable conditions. Cinematography was absolutely stunning. Some landscape shots were bathed in a dull yellow. I wondered if this reflected the mustard gas unleashed on British troops.  And books, you might ask?  I didn’t reach for my reading pile because I didn’t think I’d be able to concentrate and I was nose-deep in edits for my latest novel.

To put you in the picture, I wrote and sent my latest draft pre-pandemic. Mid-pandemic, it came back with notes. In the meantime the world had shifted mightily and I seriously wondered how I was going to settle down and tackle those vitally important revisions.

As most writers recognise, receiving notes from your editor can be like listening to a weather forecast. Initially, the sun shines, (phew, he/she really likes it). Next, you notice a bit of cloud on the horizon, (he likes it but could X,Y and Z be changed?) If that cloud unleashes a downpour, (my vision for the story is so-and-so) a hurricane breaks loose. Happily, it turned out my editor and me occupied the same climate zone. But it still left me feeling a little strange about knuckling down. Asked whether my creative juices were flowing, I committed authorial suicide, the honest answer shamefully,  ‘No, not really.’  A deadline, however, had a transformative effect.  Mind over matter was required and I told myself that, if I didn’t feel it, I’d blag it, and if I blagged it long enough, it would be fine. Which, after a bit of going around the houses, or ‘thinking time’ is exactly what happened.

A wise bod told me years’ ago that, in draft form, a story is like jam that isn’t set. Essentially, the basic structure is in place, but there is freedom to shift events and characters around, no need to get too hung up on it.  This stage, when you can be radical and ruthless, is the most creative part of writing for me. Uncertainties regarding the trajectory of the pandemic aside, (not at all easy) I actually enjoyed revision and refining the story, and the way it opened up possibilities for more depth and characterisation. One weird discovery:  (bearing in mind the original draft was written last year) one of my minor characters stockpiles food ‘as if in preparation for a pandemic’. This has been chopped!

Having sent in the revised draft a couple of days ago, ‘Joe Country’ by Mick Herron is about to get my full attention. The month of May might not be merry, but it wasn’t as awful as it could have been.  I’m hoping June will see an improvement.


I had a slow start to 2020 for all the right reasons. I’d sent the first draft (mentioned in my last post) to my agent, which was nothing short of a miracle. Editorial work was steady and of exceptional quality, but I wasn’t rushed off my feet. A rarity, I had time to stand and stare, except I didn’t. When not walking, visiting and generally catching up on all things domestic, I read several novels, two of which stand out like shooting stars on a dark night: ‘London Rules’, by Mick Herron and the utterly sublime, ‘A Treachery of Spies’ by Manda Scott.

Already a committed fan of the ‘Slough House’ crew, I had moments during London Rules’ when I laughed out loud, but don’t be fooled by the hilarity and elegant writing. With terrorism and assassination attempts, there is plenty here that feels serious, contemporary and chilling. Plotting, as ever, is meticulous. Herron is a dab hand at persuading you to look one way when you should be staring at what’s right in front of you. Fast-paced, it’s the kind of story that you can polish off in an uninterrupted day.

‘A Treachery of Spies’ is a different beast. The story begins with a very old woman found dead in a car in France. The gruesome and puzzling circumstances of her death leads Ines Picaut, a lead detective, on a trail that travels back to the Second World War. The dual narrative is one of the brilliant aspects of the story as it switches from present day France to the activities of the British and the Maquis during the French resistance. To say I was gripped was an understatement. The story resonated more strongly as I’d read Damien Lewis’s ‘The Nazi Hunters’ last year.

As the title suggests, betrayal and the difficulties of who to trust in a situation, in which one false move can mean a swift death sentence, (if you’re lucky) powers the narrative. Consequently, Scott’s cast of characters are intriguing and complex, and tension is on a knife-edge throughout. At times, I wanted my imagination to shut down such is the brutality displayed towards those caught by the Nazis, as well as those French deemed to be collaborators by their countrymen. It’s a massive tribute to Scott’s writing that she tells it how it was, without gratuitousness or sensationalism. While the story may be fictional, the courage and commitment of those who fought against occupation and a cruel invader are never in doubt. But this is not a tale of ‘good guys’ and ‘bad guys’. Human frailty on all sides is laid bare in unflinching detail. If espionage is your thing, go and buy.

Merry Month of May

What a month. And I don’t mean the Royal Wedding.   No, I mean lots of new stuff going on.

Firstly, I’m very happy to confirm my participation in the Jericho Writers 2018 York Festival in September. Running from the 7th-9th, it promises to be bigger and better and the ‘go-to’ place for unpublished writers to meet agents, book ‘doctors’, other writers and those connected to the publishing industry. I’ll be talking about pace and tension, and (surprise surprise) crime fiction. Having attended once before, I can promise it will be a fun and relaxed occasion. Workshops cover every aspect of storytelling, how to pitch your novel for mainstream publishing, and how to go about self-publishing, with tips on marketing. This is just a shorthand version so, if interested, check out Jericho Writers’ website.

I’m as guilty as the next reader for always seeking out my favourite authors so, a few weeks ago, I decided to mix things up and try some new writers. (New to me, that is). I’d planned to take my stash with me for a forthcoming holiday until I realised, in my flush of enthusiasm, the books I’d ordered were scheduled for release after I got back. Undaunted, a fresh trawl supplied me with, among others, ‘Slow Horses’ by Mick Herron.   The first page was so good I couldn’t help but crack on – stuff the holiday. He’s been likened to le Carre yet I think his voice is distinctly different, and what a voice. The story rings with authenticity and ‘tradecraft’. Around seventy-five pages in, I had the shock of my life. Needless to say, I’ll finish it long before my break begins, which is okay as long as my other half doesn’t make off with Adam Hamdy’s ‘Pendulum.’ Having read the first page, he threatened to snaffle it first. Only one thing for it: I pulled rank.

In my last blog post, I mentioned that my new novel had been sent to my agent. This is always a nervous time for any writer, published or yet to be.   Fortunately, and in record time, it received a thumbs-up. Now awaiting the decision of my editors. In the meantime, noodling with big ideas for another Thane novel. Watch this space!



Last Friday, I was in the slightly surreal position of celebrating three novels published in 2017 with the same publisher. ‘House of Lies’, ‘A Deadly Trade’ and ‘Final Target’ are released under the Killer Reads’ imprint, the first a female led psychological thriller, the others part of the Joshua Thane series and could be regarded as espionage light. This all came about as a result of hard work by my agent, Broo Doherty, good faith on the part of Charlotte Ledger and Finn Cotton, talented design work for the stunning front covers, good fortune, magic, and a little of my blood, sweat tears. It’s true what they say: writing books and getting them published is down to teamwork.

So what’s next? Today, in the spirit of Christmas, ‘A Deadly Trade’ is available for free for the next twelve days. So get requesting and, hopefully, reviewing. Over the next couple of weeks, check out the Writers’ Workshop Blog for my ‘Seven Top Tips for Writing Thrillers’.   My new novel is taking longer than it should due to on-going editing work. While I might sneak away over the festive period to write, I’m also looking forward to a break, long walks, wood fires and space to think in reasonably clear lines – nothing like a deviation in routine to fire the imagination. I’d also like to get some reading under my (potentially expanding) belt. The pile on my bedside table grows daily and I think those Christmas elves will be delivering a few more.

Looking back on 2017, I think of madcap moving house (again) days, the joyous expansion of the tribe, great novels I’ve read, a couple not yet published. I remember laughter as well as sadness, particularly for those who should still be here and aren’t. The only resolution I’m making for 2018 is to take a longer view and, at the risk of cliché, get the work/life balance better aligned.

So that’s it, in a few weeks’ time, we’ll be well into the festive season and 2018 will be hovering on the horizon. I hope that, whatever dreams and aspirations you hold for the New Year are yours in abundance.


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!


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.


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.




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.


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.