The great thing about crime fiction is that it involves the reader. The classic English murder mystery provides a taunting list of red herrings and cryptic clues that test the reader’s powers of perception and attention to detail. The reader becomes a sleuth.
As a writer of spy fiction, I want to involve the reader at every level. At the end of The Murder at the Vicarage we know who killed Colonel Protheroe. But at the end of my books, I want the reader to still be guessing who was or was not a Soviet mole – a mystery, by the way, still much debated by non-fiction writers. The fictionalised ghost of Kim Philby weaves in and out of my books like a malevolent grinning imp.
Was he a double agent betraying Britain or a triple agent betraying Moscow? Why was he still on MI6’s payroll years after he had been uncovered as ‘The Third Man’? And why was he finally allowed to slip away to Moscow just as the pincers were closing? Was, perhaps, Philby a genuine Soviet agent after all – and was MI6’s continued apparent trust in him a double bluff to convince the Sovs that their prize agent had been turned and tripled? The legendary CIA spy chief, James Jesus Angleton, described the world of espionage as ‘a wilderness of mirrors’. In the end, Angleton succumbed to clinical paranoia and had to be removed from post. I don’t want that to happen to my readers, but I do want to stretch their imaginations.
Crime fiction isn’t just about who did it, but why they did it. And so is spy fiction. The first thing they teach you at spy school is MICE. The acronym represents the four ways to recruit an agent: Money, Ideology, Coercion, Excitement. (Excitement also covers ego needs and sex; the honey-trap will always be one of the secret agent’s most important tools.) In many ways, what motivates a person’s action is more interesting than the action itself. Everyone knows that Jack Kennedy was killed by a bullet to the head, but why? That is the question that has kept conspiracy theorists going for the past fifty years.
Applying MICE – was it I or E? Spy fiction is not just about why individuals do things, but also why governments and intelligence agencies do them. One of my books, The Midnight Swimmer, asks why Khrushchev deployed nuclear missiles to Cuba – and then asks why he withdrew them. I suggest answers, but also leave readers to come to their own conclusions. And why, you may ask, do I use fiction to pose these questions? Try finding out the truth from ‘official’ histories and sanitised files.
The most important thing a writer can do is create characters that enter and grip the readers’ imagination. Who can remember in detail a single one of Raymond Chandler’s plots? But who can forget Philip Marlowe? I think the best way to create a character, and I hope Chandler would have agreed, is from what the character says and thinks aloud. But aside from that, I think the reader should be the casting director. The reader’s own imagination should determine what the character looks like, smells like, walks like and sounds like. When characters are shown on my book jackets, they are only seen from the back. In terms of motivation, I want my characters to have an air of mystery about them which is the job of the reader to discern. One of my recurring characters, the MI6 spy chief Henry Bone, even remains an enigma to me. I know that he was a one time lover of Anthony Blunt, but was Bone ever a Soviet spy?.
Or did he cover up for those who were? Don’t ask me; that’s for you to decide.
My first rule as a writer is to respect my readers as thinking persons with brains of their own. I will never dumb down. My books are often complex and require concentration – and I make no apology for that. On one occasion, however, I was too subtle – and this is an exclusive for Shots Mag readers only! If you’ve got a copy of The Whitehall Mandarin, re-read page 356. Now go back and re-read pages 25 and 26. Your call, what really happened? Likewise, I didn’t solve two mysteries in my latest, A Very British Ending, until after the book was printed and launched. The mysteries are:
1 Why did the Army throw a ring of steel around Heathrow Airport in 1974?
Was it in response to a terrorist threat? Or something more sinister?
2 Why were there no further military exercises at Heathrow after February,
Am I a spy writer lost in my own Wilderness of Mirrors? It doesn’t matter.Books only come alive in the creative mind of the reader.
||An MI6 officer, haunted by the ghosts of an SS atrocity, kills a Nazi war criminal in the ruins of a U-boot bunker. The German turns out to be a CIA asset being rat-lined to South America.
As a hungry Britain freezes in the winter of 1947, a young cabinet minister negotiates a deal with Moscow trading Rolls-Royce jet engines for cattle fodder and wood. Both have made powerful enemies with long memories. The fates of the two men become entwined as one rises through MI6 and the other to Downing Street. It is the mid-1970s and a coup d’état is imminent.
A Very British Ending is the Wolf Hall of power games in modern Britain. Senior MI6 officers, Catesby and Bone, try to outwit a cabal of plotters trying to overthrow the Prime Minister. The author once again reveals the dark underside of the Secret State on both sides of the Atlantic.|