Location, location, location. For thriller-writers, setting is often the first consideration when planning a book. Many crime novels feature a single key place, either real or fictional, especially when part of a series: Inspector Morse investigates crimes in and around Oxford, Miss Marple is based in St Mary Mead, Inspector Barnaby in Midsomer county, and so on.
Spy novels more commonly feature multiple locations – there are exceptions, of course, but from Buchan to Ambler to Fleming to Ludlum, the high stakes of the plots often involve travelling to different countries. This is also part of their appeal for readers, as we escape into places we might not otherwise have known too much about.
When I first started thinking seriously about writing a novel several years ago, I thought a lot about the setting. I wanted to return to the Cold War and write a thriller based on some of what is now known about it, but I wanted it to be set somewhere other than the locales beloved of most spy fiction, such as Berlin, Vienna and Budapest. I decided that setting it in Africa would allow me to explore some of the lesser known aspects of the Cold War.
I realized I’d have to do a lot of research to make it seem authentic. I spent a long time researching the Sixties, the Cold War and Africa, reading books, watching documentaries andimmersing myself in the time and place. I devoured information about some of the key events on thecontinent, in Angola, the Congo, and Rhodesia.
I had germs of ideas for spy novels set in each of those countries, but I eventually decided to set the book in Nigeria. I did this in part because I’d become fascinated by the extent of the superpowers’ involvement in the civil war there, and in part because I’d spent some of my childhood in the country and still had many vivid memories of it. I also had access to a lot of useful primary material about it, as my parents had kept books, maps, privately printed leaflets and the like from when we lived there. So when I had someone chase my protagonist Paul Dark across a golf course in Lagos, I was able to write it using a map the club had produced at the time that showed the exact layout of the course.
That novel, Free Agent, was published in 2009. In the next two books in the series I took Dark to several other continents. But one part of my research during Free Agent kept nagging at me: Rhodesia, that peculiar nation where many of the ruling minority white population had acted more British than the British. Middle class ladies held tea parties in the capital, Salisbury. Suburbs of the city had names like Waterfalls, Lochinvar, Mabelreign – one could almost imagine Miss Marple visiting.
In 1965, the prime minister of Rhodesia, Ian Smith, declared the country independent of the UK. It became a ‘rogue state’ in international terms. This and the bloody conflict between the white regime and the insurgents of ZANLA and ZIPRA was a story that featured on the front pages of newspapers around the world for over a decade, but is now rarely discussed unless one has a personal connection to it.
With my fourth novel, Spy Out The Land, I decided to take Dark back to Africa and into the frightening, brutal and occasionally surreal landscape of Rhodesia in the Seventies. I wanted to write about two versions of the country in the book. Firstly, to try to capture as much of the reality of the situation as I could. As with previous books, I built the plot around real events, using real historical figures (Ian Smith is in several scenes, for instance). The novel also features a real Rhodesian special forces outfit, the Selous Scouts, and I was lucky enough to come across David Paxton, who had contacts with many veterans of that and other special forces regiments from the conflict – several of them read the book and gave me amazing feedback, often on tiny operational details.
But I also had in mind a different version of the place. As a teenager, I read a lot of thrillers set in Africa, by Wilbur Smith, Geoffrey Jenkins and others. During the Cold War, a lot of spy thrillers featured Rhodesia or Rhodesians (usually mercenaries). I wanted Spy Out The Land to recall books like Frederick Forsyth’s The Dogs of War, in which tough, hard men with machine-pistols smile cruelly as they plot to take over countries in intricate detail. So I worked to make sure the operational details were accurate, but I didn’t want to lose sight of the fact that I was writing a spy novel set in 1975. I wanted it to feel like it could have been published then, too.
Those two ideas for writing about a location are somewhat contradictory, of course, but they come from the knowledge that research has its limits. You also have to throw out a lot of research, or your novel ends up reading like a travel guide. At some point the author’s imagination, and voice, have to take over and do the work: the scent of a flower, the texture of a fabric, the dashboard on a brand of car... even a single word can evoke a time and place more than a dozen exhaustively researched facts. One of my favourite writers is Elleston Trevor who, using the pseudonym Adam Hall, wrote 19 taut, vivid and very atmospheric spy novels featuring a British secret agent known only as Quiller. In a 1996 interview, Trevor/Hall admitted something I found astonishing: he almost never wrote about countries he’d been to, as he felt that too detailed a knowledge of a place would limit his imagination:
‘‘This sounds very perverse,’ he would say, ‘but it is somehow that the country or area has a magic, a mystery for me that maybe came through in my writing, which doesn’t always happen if I’ve actually been there.’’
In his novels, the locations all feel totally real. But they are his vision of these places, and they are evoked by feel rather than a total adherence to reality. I found comfort in this. After all, Rhodesia is now Zimbabwe: I couldn’t visit it. The place as it was in 1975 no longer exists. All I can do as a writer is to try to evoke a place in a way that will take readers along with me. Even the word ‘Rhodesia’ has a strong atmosphere for me, and as I reached the later stages of writing the book I felt like I had finally located my own version of it. I hope it comes across for readers, too.
Spy Out the Land is published by Simon & Schuster on January 14. See http://www.jeremy-duns.com/ for more information.