August promises to be a big month for fans of spy fiction with the release of three highly anticipated spy novels. We’ve already seen the launch (on August 2nd) of Deadly Trust, from Australian author JJ Cooper. The book is the second book in the Jay Ryan series, following on from last year’s debut The Interrogator.
Deadly Trust sees Jay Ryan leaving the army and his life as an interrogator but he’s quickly dragged back into a murky world of secrets, lies and danger when a disgruntled scientist, backed by the Australian security industry, develops a weapon of mass destruction – a hybrid strain of Anthrax.
Next up is Jeremy Duns’ Free Country, the second novel in the Paul Dark trilogy, following on from Free Agent. Those who have had their ears to the ground will have heard that the Dark trilogy was recently optioned by the BBC with plans to turn the stories into a television series.
Blackmailed into serving Moscow, double agent Paul Dark now finds himself a target for assassination. Desperate to escape his predicament, Dark gambles everything on one last throw of the dice, exposing his Soviet handler to the British. But before long, he finds he has no choice but to go on the run again, and the race is on to stop a deadly conspiracy that dates back to the early years of the Cold War.
Toward the end of the month, the first book in the Harry Tate series, Red Station, by Adrian Magson hits the shelves.
In Red Station, Harry Tate is a loyal operative for MI5, who does what he’s told, fighting the war against terrorism, drugs and high-level criminal gangs. When two civilians are shot dead during a drugs intercept, he agrees to take an immediate posting to a place called Red Station, to help the agency avoid embarrassing media questions. Red Station is remote and uncomfortable… and it’s a home for washed-out spooks.
What Harry doesn’t know is that the Russians are coming… and that he won’t be coming back.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
It is my honour to bring these three authors together for what I will call a ‘virtual symposium’ on spy novels. From my hollowed out volcano, I have grilled them on what makes a good spy novel and have had them analyse the changes, not just to spy stories, but publishing in general. Covering everything from the Cold War to post September 11 terrorism – and from audiobook to eBooks and digital downloads. Adrian, Jeremy and JJ provide unique insights into writing past and present, and share their thoughts on the state of the ‘spy novel’.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
David Foster: Welcome, gentlemen. In the current political and economic climate, what do you believe is more important in a good thriller – ‘realism and truth’ or ‘escapism’?
Jeremy Duns: I think escapism is always the aim of fiction, no matter what the climate – pure realism is for non-fiction. That said, I think fiction sometimes sheds more light on truth than documentary. But readers want to be taken into another world, and one more compelling than their immediate surroundings. Getting the facts right is important, but the story always comes first.
JJ Cooper: Escapism. That’s why I read anyway. A good level of realism goes a long way too otherwise we’d be published in the fantasy section. We write fiction so it doesn’t have to be the truth (although sometimes it turns out that way).
Adrian Magson: Escapism first, but a touch of realism never hurts. Readers like to escape into books whatever the climate, but many also like to identify in some way with the background or characters.
DF: Now almost ten years on, do you feel that the events of September 11 (and the subsequent ‘War on Terror’) are still a relevant backdrop, or topic for a modern spy thriller?
JJC: I recently attended ThrillerFest in New York where around 50 literary agents were ‘pitched’ during a three hour session by writers from around the globe seeking representation. The amount of times I heard the word ‘terrorist’ was amazing (I was there being a nosy author). It seemed to me that the agents were not very keen to hear that word. You could sit in the back of the room and note when the word was used during a pitch by the cringe of the agent – subtle but there nonetheless.
I listened to many of the pitches (always the spy) and a lot were the same story arc, and even settings (Iran was a popular setting this year). Unless you are an established author or can find a different twist to add to the ‘War on Terror’ backdrop, I’d say this is just about out of legs (especially for those trying to break into the industry). September 11 will always be referenced in novels, just shouldn’t be the focus any more.
AM: It’s certainly still relevant, if only because the threat of something similar is still very much with us, and the characters involved are working away behind the scenes on both sides. The way things happened was new in the delivery and scale, but the idea of one tribe, society, group, nation, being attacked by another goes all the way back through history. And what more realistic backdrop for spies to operate than the current one (as recent events have proved).
JD: I don’t really see that any subject becomes irrelevant for a novel. September 11 2001 was clearly a defining day in recent history, and it will be written about for many years to come.
I was at an event in England recently and someone asked Joseph Finder a variation of this question during a panel. He replied that it might take some time for the good fiction to emerge, pointing out that it wasn’t until ten or 15 years after the Vietnam war that the great books and films about it started to come out. I think in the first couple of years after September 11, there was a widespread feeling that thrillers were taboo – not just the idea of thrillers about that event, but all thrillers that featured terrorists or explosions. I remember people saying they never wanted to see another Arnold Schwarzenegger film again. But 24 premiered on November 6 2001, and that and other TV shows and films and novels soon started to address themes that were raised by the events of September 11. I think people have always looked to stories to work through current events and crises – in the Second World War, sales of thrillers went through the roof. People want to know more about it, to analyze it, but they also need reassurance. It’s a way of warding off the monsters under the bed.
DF: What about the ‘Cold War’? It’s twenty years since the Berlin Wall came down. Is there any life left in the Cold War for a good spy novel? Or as a genre convention, do you think it is tapped out?
AM: Again, nothing much has changed. The people, maybe, and which direction the threat is coming from. But what was the Cold War other than a quiet conflict? It’s what we have now, albeit hidden beneath multiple layers of diplomacy, commerce and culture, so in a way the Cold War has never entirely gone away.
JD: As I’m writing spy thrillers set during the Cold War, I obviously feel there’s plenty of life left in it! Again, it took a while for people to see it as a legitimate subject. When the Berlin Wall fell, there were a lot of newspaper editorials about the accompanying death of the spy novel. But, as you say, it’s been two decades since then, and of course the Cold War started earlier. It was a conflict that covered most of the globe, went on for several decades, and threatened the existence of our planet as never before, so I think it’s certainly a worthy subject for thrillers, and it will be for the foreseeable future. In the Sixties and Seventies, writers like Len Deighton, Jack Higgins and Frederick Forsyth turned to the Second World War for their subject matter. I think many writers of my generation may well turn to the Cold War. There’s a lot that wasn’t known at the time that is only just coming to light.
JJC: The ‘Cold War’ was like a big training ground for spies. Skills were honed and techniques developed. A lot of those lessons have no doubt been applied across the globe in current ‘information collection operations’. A lot of great novels have had the ‘Cold War setting’. I think now is the time to revisit the ‘Cold War’ theme – it’s like a sleeping giant just waiting to be awoken. It’ll happen eventually. Either revisit the era as a catalyst for modern day events or set your own modern-day ‘Cold War’. Doesn’t matter how many agreements, treaties, handshakes and smiles occur between countries – spying will always happen. Always has, always will.
DF: Recently we’ve had a very high profile espionage incident in the United States (London and Cyprus), with the arrest of ten alleged Russian spies. With all the media buzz and hype – do current affairs influence or provide inspiration for future stories (or colour one that you may be currently working on)?
JD: Yes, such stories provide inspiration, although perhaps that particular story is too implausible to be used in a thriller. But it really harks back to the Krogers and the Rosenbergs and so on, and is an amazing mix of low-tech, with invisible inks and bag swaps, and hi-tech, with code in Facebook photos and the use of wi-fi.
I think that incident brings home the fact that espionage is going on around us the whole time. I think most people have the feeling that spies don’t really exist, and it’s mainly invented by films and novels. People tend to forget that pretty much every embassy in the world is a spy headquarters, and that every government engages in it to one degree or other.
JJC: Anybody who believes spying is not that common should stick to reading fantasy novels. No doubt a lot more of these stories don’t hit the media. This incident does serve to assist writers when it comes to credibility of spy stories. It gives the public that ‘wow-this-shit-is-still-happening-now’ moment. Hopefully, some of them will then call into the thriller section of the book store next time they are there (and bypass the damn cookbook section).
For me, writing novels is about using experience and imagination. I don’t tend to watch much news but then again inspiration is everywhere and, as an ex-interrogator, I’ve enough imagination to get me through to the next book.
AM: This proves you can’t invent anything! And you only have to watch the media frenzy – and the level of interest from the public – to see that people love this stuff. So, logically, writers will be drawn to mirror or imagine similar events and possibilities. I know I do. The odd thing is, real events such as the ten Russian spies, and the one where British spies were allegedly filmed at work retrieving material from false rocks in Moscow (I almost bought one once, for hiding a spare key in the garden), seem almost bland compared with spy novels – but then, bland doesn’t work in fiction.
DF: In today’s marketplace there seems to be a great emphasis on the ‘pace’ of a story. Which do you feel is more important – ‘characters’, ‘plot’ or ‘pacing’?
JD: You can’t really have one without the other two and have an interesting book, and they are all intertwined. But in the thriller genre, you clearly have to thrill the reader, and that depends on pace. I think there’s not enough emphasis on it, and on what I would call ‘readability’. I don’t want anyone to struggle at any point in my novels, but to read them as fast as they can turn the pages, preferably with a trickle of cold sweat running down their spine. I think if I can do that, the plot and characters have already done their work – unfettered readability is the hardest thing to pull off.
JJC: Pace! You need well-developed characters and a good plot to get the reader through any novel – that’s a given. But, pace is where we can differ. I deliberately write short chapters – around 1,500 words. I’m writing with a particular market in mind. For a while I spent two hours a day on a train commuting to and from work. I’d be reading a good book and come to the end of a chapter. Before moving on I’d see how many stops and then have a mini-internal debate on whether I could finish the next chapter before getting off the train at my stop. Most times I didn’t turn that page and then lose my rhythm. So, I write for those taking public transport and dare them to turn the page – it’s only 7 pages till your next stop.
Those who have read and liked Australian author Matthew Reilly’s novels would agree that pace is more important than plot and characters.
AM: I think good characters will certainly drive a story, but you need a plot for them to operate within. Otherwise it’s like having great actors but no screenplay. If the plot is one which demands a series of fast-moving events, and the characters are there to match, then pace will follow (if it doesn’t, your editor will soon let you know!)
DF: Do you believe there is an advantage in writing a series with re-occurring characters, rather than writing a stand-alone novel?
AM: Yes, I do – for both author and reader. The author doesn’t have to invent new (main) characters each time, but can develop them as they go along (which is more interesting to do), and the reader can become comfortable in knowing what to expect. We all feel at ease with a ‘favourite’, be it food, sports team, music, TV programme or fictional character – anything. It satisfies our expectations. And there’s nothing quite like opening the next in a favoured series to make us feel at home right from the off.
JD: I guess there are advantages and disadvantages to both. I’m writing a trilogy, so it’s not quite a series. The difficulty of continuing with a character over many books is that they all become slight variations of each other, but of course with stand-alones you have to get the reader interested in new characters each time out. I think if readers enjoy a novel they are often interested in the protagonist, and so will be intrigued by further stories featuring them.
JJC: As long as the writer can continue to have their main character/s evolve, then the series gains fans who love the character/s as well as the writer – Jack Reacher is probably as famous, if not more so, than his creator Lee Child. Do you ever read a stand-alone and wish it was a series because you loved the character/s as well as the writing? I may be a little biased though – I haven’t written a stand-alone novel yet!
DF: Research is always an important part of the preparation and writing of any novel. Do you think this is more important when dealing with espionage related topics?
JD: I don’t think it’s necessarily more important – if you were writing medical thrillers or courtroom dramas you’d need to do your homework as well – but I think it can be a more difficult subject to research, simply because it is based on secret information, and of course deception. If you read a memoir by a defector, for example, you have no idea what their agenda might be – they may be exaggerating their own importance or settling old scores. The book could also have been edited by their new masters to give a certain idea. So it’s a bit of a minefield, I find. Just the other day I discovered that something I had read in several places about Britain’s contingency plans in the event of nuclear war appeared to have been disinformation. I was reading a declassified file that showed this – but, of course, the file was declassified by a government, and might itself have been disinformation, or part of a wider operation designed to deceive.
JJC: It’s a shady world where only trained spies know what spies actually do – relatively small readership (but bigger than you think). If you get it right then someone may be knocking on your door. I’m still covered by our Secrecy Act – forever.
I can’t write about actual situations , methods or techniques unless I find them already posted somewhere on the internet (thank you Mr Internet Founder). Besides, if you spend all of your time researching then when are you going to find the time to write. If you are planning to get published in the fiction section, don’t sweat the details too much – just write. Your editor should let you know if something sounds a little far-fetched.
AM: Just as important as any other. There may be certain limits to what we can find out, unless we have an inside track, for example, but that holds true for almost any subject we care to write about. But again, as we recently discovered, making things up about spies and spying can almost lead us to go too far, if only because the reality is shown to be so ordinary. An area of our research which is difficult is that of the character. We probably have an easy answer as to what makes killers and crooks tick – they’re either greedy or plain nut-jobs (okay – simplistic, I know). But what makes a spy tick? What drives them? And the counter-spies? I think that’s the question which drives the fascination for the genre.
DF: One of the things I have noticed that has changed the most in spy novels over years, is the way in which technology has stripped away the whole ‘investigative’ aspect of a spy story. Is this necessarily a bad thing?
AM: Not really, because spy writers can now use the technology to drive the novel in ways they couldn’t do years ago (mobile phones, computers, eavesdropping methods, data transfer and so forth). Most of us have grown up with gadgets of one sort or another, and providing it doesn’t get too heavily-leaden with them, the use of what we have come to identify as the ordinary (you can buy all this stuff over the counter) brings an element of realism – or what our readers might imagine is real – to the story.
JD: No, I don’t think so. It’s just a different thing. I don’t think stories compete with each other quite in this way. I enjoy the hallmarks of spy fiction written during the Cold War, and a lot of the suspense in those novels comes from situations that would be redundant now: a protagonist needing to find a working public call box, for example, or desperately trying to find a map of a city. But technology creates other forms of suspense – the cell-phone has no signal or a GPS system malfunctions. I suspect the thriller-writers of the early 20th century would feel that new forms of technology stripped away crucial elements of the genre as well, but I think it’s more about finding what is suspenseful, whether you use technology or don’t.
JJC: Technology did strip away the art of HUMINT to some degree. We’ve realised the mistake of relying too heavily on technology in recent times. HUMINT collection assets were ‘gutted’ due to technological advances. We should have realised that technology ‘value adds’ to the art of HUMINT and not there to replace it.
DF: Moving on from technology in the story, to technology in how it’s presented – audiobooks were once considered an aid for the visually impaired, but now with the ‘iPod generation’ whole novels (or series for that matter) are able to be easily transported in someone’s pocket. What’s your opinion on audiobooks?
JD: I have nothing against them, but I don’t listen to them myself, because they seem to take too long. I prefer reading at my own pace, with my own interpretation. But a lot of people like them, and I’m happy to have sold the rights to them!
JJC: Only ever listened to one audiobook, sorry. And, thank you very much Chris Ryan for ensuring I never listen to another. I want to hear my voice and that of the authors’ as I’m reading. We’re slowly moving toward generation ‘lazy’ so maybe the market for audiobooks will increase.
AM: Personally, I find I get too distracted after a while – but that’s just me. I love short audio stories, however, because I can listen to them at the gym for the short time I’m there before I fall off the treadmill or need a lung transplant. Maybe I should apply myself more to audio books (and train for longer). For other people, though, I think they’re great.
DF: Continuing with technology – and as it seems rather topical with many authors at the moment, you probably guessed the next question – What’s your opinion on eBooks and digital downloads?
JD: I think there may be more resistance to them among readers than there was for music, but that before too long there will be an ‘iPod moment’, where it becomes much more mainstream than it is now. A lot of people resisted MP3s because they wanted the cover art for their CDs, the lyrics sheet, and the sound quality. But the sound quality improved, the price of players came down, they could store more music, and I don’t think that many people who use their iPods miss the cover art or lyrics sheets of their CDs any more. I think people love physical books more than they did CDs or cassettes or even vinyl, but I think we are moving in the same sort of direction. Still, I think it’s great that people still love reading.
JJC: Although I haven’t got an e-reader yet – I will soon. My book collection is just huge and I’d love to have them all stored on an e-reader, especially for travelling. Kinda makes it hard for an author to do book signings for an e-publication (although I did sign the back of and iPad at ThrillerFest).
AM: I’m absolutely all for it, but with one proviso: authors shouldn’t lose out. Whatever exposure we can get is great, and all the channels we have now can only help increase our audience. But we’re in the early days and there are some potential problems if publishers don’t play fair. A digital novel is the same content as a paper one – but the delivery is not. It’s not as expensive, it doesn’t need storing in a warehouse, and can be delivered without a truck and driver. Sure there will be initial costs for publishers, but these will come down rapidly as the audience grows and the delivery platforms increase.
DF: As a genre, do you think that spy novels and old fashioned thrillers are being squeezed out of the market place by Vampires, Witches and Wizards?
AM: Not at all. Nudged slightly to one side, maybe, in air-time, market coverage and advertising, but not for long. There are already signs that some readers are turning off wizards and vamps, and going for zombies and other creatures instead. But like all trends, they come and go. Not everyone likes spy novels… but there always has been a hard core of readers out there who do. The fact is, when spy novels seemed out of favour a while back, we found other characters and scenarios which were similar enough to suit us just fine. (I use to love westerns – Louis L’Amour, Zane Grey, etc – because to me, they were simply sleuths or spies on horseback).
JD: I think the market is big enough for us all. Vampires are the big thing at the moment, but plenty of people still enjoy this type of thriller. Dan Brown is writing conspiracy thrillers, after all. I think people love a good story, no matter the genre.
JJC: No. As long as something is dragging the punters in the bookstore, than eventually someone will find my lone copy in there. The more books that sell regardless of genre, the better off all of us are in terms of writers and readers alike.
DF: What are you reading right now? Are there any authors (living or dead) that you would name as influences?
JD: At the moment I’m reading a lot of research for my third novel, but I just finished Operation Mincemeat by Ben Macintyre, which I thoroughly enjoyed. I’m influenced by a lot of writers, but Len Deighton and Elleston Trevor are perhaps the biggest.
JJC: Lisa Unger’s latest, Fragile. I was fortunate enough to receive an advance copy. She is such a talented writer and great person – brilliant book. Do yourself a favour and grab a copy when they hit the shelves.
I would say both Lisa and Lee Child have been an influence in my writing. I love their work and was fortunate to have both read and blurb for my debut novel. Now that’s a thrill!
AM: My earliest influence was Leslie Charteris, followed by the American harder core writers such as Hank Janson, Mickey Spillane and so forth. But I always loved the spy genre, from John Buchan through Berkely Mather to the modern day. Oddly enough, I never got to grips much with Ian Fleming for some reason (although I’m a firm Bond film fan), but preferred John Gardner, Peter O’Donell, Gavin Lyall and Adam Diment.
I’m just reading Bolt Action by Charlie Charters. More to do with terrorism than spies, but it’s all in the same ballpark for me – and it’s a very good read.
DF: What was the book that most influenced your life — and why?
JD: That’s a tough question! I think it might be The Quiller Memorandum by Adam Hall, which was one of Elleston Trevor’s pseudonyms. I picked it up in a second-hand bookshop in Antwerp about ten years ago. I’d read some spy fiction before, and liked it, but that book gripped me. I started buying up the rest of the series, and was stunned by how good they were. They started me thinking I would like to try my hand at writing a spy thriller myself, and seeing as I am now doing that for a living, I think it’s fair to say it influenced my life in a very big way.
JJC: Hope this doesn’t come across as ‘too’ egotistical, but my first novel, The Interrogator is the book that has most influenced my life. It was all about the journey. I didn’t intend to get an agent or get published when I sat down and typed the first words. The book was purely for me and the learning process was steep, yet fulfilling.
AM: I wish I could give you one title – but I can’t. There have been so many, all of which made me think ‘I want to be a writer’. And as a writer, you can’t ask for a better life influence than that.
DF: Gentlemen, I want to thank you very much for your time. It’s been an absolute pleasure putting this panel together, and hearing your insightful and varied thoughts on spy fiction. I wish you every success with your novels, and I am eagerly looking forward to reading your books – as I am sure many other readers are too.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
JJ Cooper is an Australia writer who spent seventeen years in the Australian Army. He spent two tours of duty in East Timor and one tour in the Middle East in 2003. Since leaving the military he has spent his time writing.
JJ Cooper is happily married, with 3 children, two boys and a girl. With his passion for writing he enjoys every moment spent at home writing, surrounded by the people he loves.
The Interrogator is now also available in the US from Amazon.com
Jeremy Duns was born in 1973 and grew up mainly in Africa and Asia. He read English literature at St. Catherine’s College, Oxford, after which he worked as a journalist in Brussels for seven years. Free Agent was a Daily Telegraph Thriller of the Year 2009, and has been praised by William Boyd, Eric Van Lustbader, Gayle Lynds, Charles Cumming, Jeff Abbott, David Morrell and Christopher Reich.
Free Country was published on the 5th August by Simon & Schuster. It is available from Amazon UK.
Jeremy’s first book Free Agent was released in paperback in the US last month. It is available from Amazon.com
Adrian Magson is a freelance writer and lives in England. The author of five books in the Riley Gavin/Frank Palmer series, he has recently completed two new books which are the start of two new series: ‘Red Station’ is the first in a contemporary spy series featuring Harry Tate, an MI5 officer. ‘Death on the Marais’ is the first in the Inspector Lucas Rocco series set in France in the 60s.
Red Station will be published on the 26th August by Severn House Publishers Ltd. It is available for pre-order from Amazon UK.