The Books: The Alaska Project

ALASKAprojectThe Alaska Project was not actually my first attempt at a thriller set in the present day (I had already written The Cromwell Exercise and Phoenix by then), but it was the first to be published. The idea for Alaska came from the shooting down of KAL 007, a Korean Airlines Boeing 747 with 269 people on board, by a Russian jet fighter over the island of Sakhalin in September 1983. In the immediate aftermath of the atrocity, what had seemed a fairly promising situation for détente between the Soviet Union and the USA collapsed into mutual recrimination and a hardening of attitudes – both sides increased their military budget, the SALT talks were pretty much shot down in flames, and so on. It occurred to me that KAL 007 suited the ‘hawks’ of both sides – what if they had planned it together? And what if they combined once more in the 1990s to undermine the process of glasnost?

Thus, The Alaska Project started with the shooting down of KAL 007 with the aerial sequence being based on the actual signals sent and received by the Soviet Air Defence System and Major Kasmin, the pilot of the fighter that shot down the 747. (There are stories that Kasmin later descended into alcoholism and died in his 50s from liver disease.) The narrative then moves on to 1995 (the book was published in 1989) to take up the story – in other words, projecting the global political situation at the end of the Eighties into the near future. It was an approach that seriously backfired in the end, but more of that later.

The story needed two protagonists, one British, one Russian, because there would be two storylines developing, one in the West, the other in the Soviet Union; eventually, the two would dovetail together. This probably turned out to be an error of judgment on my part in terms of appealing to a global audience because not only was neither of the heroes American, the main villain was – hardly an approach likely to appeal to a US audience. I suspect that this is why Walker Books decided not to buy Alaska’s US rights (although there were other, equally valid reasons which are outlined below). However, at the time of writing Alaska, I admit I was not really thinking that far ahead.

So: two main characters – Peter Kendrick, working for Desk Seven, a fictional offshoot of MI5, and Ilya Voronin, an experienced officer in the First Chief Directorate of the KGB, the department responsible for foreign espionage. Both experienced professionals, they are forced to co-operate as the outlines of the Alaska Project gradually become clear. They actually have a good deal in common in that both men have sacrificed personal relationships due to the demands of the job, but they only ever meet twice face to face in the book; apart from that, they must work independently.

The Alaska Project probably involved more research than any other book – there are sections set in the headquarters of the CIA in Langley, Virginia and in the corresponding HQ of the KGB (which wasn’t still in the Lubyanka, actually); I also needed detailed information about Soviet military helicopters, guided missiles and ASAT (anti-satellite) techniques, along with information about the internal structure of the KGB. The thought has often crossed my mind that if anyone monitors this sort of research, I’m probably on some sort of security file by now…

Alaska ended up as a long book; 115,000 words as opposed to 70 to 80,000 words for the others (and actually twice as long as The Faust Conspiracy in its original version) and it was also a book that I hoped would reach a larger audience, but it was plagued by setbacks and problems almost from the start. The original cover artist ended up withdrawing the cover (on the not unreasonable grounds that he hadn’t been paid) and so a replacement artist had to be drafted in, then there was a nine month delay in publication because of a dispute with the printers (I suspect for the same reason as the artist’s withdrawal) and the book actually went out littered with typos (some of which I could clearly remember correcting at the proof reading stage, so heaven knows what happened there, because I don’t…) Worse than that was that the ending was rewritten by the publisher without my approval; the change was only in a couple of sentences, but it left most readers bewildered – what had actually happened? The final calamity came within three months of the book eventually being published, when the Berlin Wall came down in November 1989 and the political map was changed forever; there is a sequence in Alaska that refers to Checkpoint Charlie… in 1995. OK, so bringing down the Berlin Wall wasn’t a calamity from anyone else’s point of view, of course, but it cut whatever ground the book had left from under it. So, far from being my springboard to writing success, The Alaska Project disappeared into utter obscurity – it actually sold fewer copies than any of its predecessors. This was not just down to the fact that it had become outdated, however; the publishing company was in quite serious financial straits by then and so the book’s distribution was piecemeal at best. The fact that the book was outdated within three months of publication was also probably the other reason why it never found an American publisher (see above).

In short, one way or another, The Alaska Project became the biggest disappointment in my writing career – it still is, to be honest. It was to be the last book of mine to be published in the UK – the next, Piccolo, would only be published in the USA and Canada (and sold about six times as many copies as Alaska.)

Initially, when I came to revisit the books in order to release them as ebooks, I was not going to include Alaska – it dealt with a 1995 that never existed, after all. However, it’s still a book that I feel proud of, so I decided to approach it as an ‘alternative history’ novel – what might have happened, rather than what actually did. Once that decision had been made, the main alteration initially made to the book was to add a sequence giving more insight into Voronin’s character and backstory (apart from correcting the typos and restoring my preferred ending, of course). However, upon further re-reading, it became apparent that the romantic sub-plot between two of the main characters just wouldn’t have happened, for all sorts of reasons, so that had to be written out. However, it wasn’t as if leaving out that storyline was going to have any significant impact on the book’s length – it still weighs in at nearly 110,000 words. In addition, it made no difference to the overall story (which was another reason for leaving it out – it wasn’t exactly essential).

In some ways, I’m looking forward more to Alaska coming out as an ebook than any of the other print versions; it’s finally the way I want it and it will be available to far more readers than the first time round. In theory, anyway; whether they will actually read it is another matter, of course…


The Books: Servants Of The State

servantsofthestateServants Of The State was originally called Tamerlane, the codename of a top MI6 ‘mole’ inside the Kremlin; the reason for this title was that Tamerlane, or Timur The Great, was a Mongol emperor in Central Asia during the late 14th and early 15th centuries, and one of the greatest conquerors in history – the story takes place in Central Asia, starting in Sary Shagan in Kazakhstan, moving on to Tashkent (Uzbekistan), Dushanbe (Tadzhikistan) and on to the border with Afghanistan. However the basic idea for the book came from a rough outline of a projected book called The Perun Mission, which used a lot of the research I had carried out on ASAT (anti-satellite) warfare for The Alaska Project. A fair part of this would have taken place in Sary Shagan, which was then the main centre for Soviet missile research (and still is a major centre for developing Russian missiles, despite the fact that it is now in Kazakhstan). Perun (named after the leading god in Slavic mythology, and specifically the god of thunder and lightning) had a storyline concerning the defection of a British scientist to the Soviets in order to work on their ASAT programme and the attempts made to bring him back.

Gradually, however, the defection plot was abandoned and the book evolved into smuggling Tamerlane out, all the way from Sary Shagan to the Afghanistan border (750 miles as the crow flies, considerably further by road and/or rail), with the Russian FSB (successors to the KGB) hot on the fugitives’ heels. The British agent was named Cairns – simply that, no first name given, just Cairns, in order to maintain a level of mystery about him; more than that, it’s likely that Cairns is not his real name anyway. The reader finds out one or two details about his background and history, but the fact remains that Cairns is very good at not being noticed; he is a courier, not a James Bond style secret agent, and his job is to smuggle information across frontiers, which means being anonymous is his stock in trade.

It is the pursuers who are more interesting – and this is intentional, because it is on one of these, Verenyev, that the story pivots. He is a Police Investigator from Moscow, on secondment to Sary Shagan to assist Colonel Krasnin of the FSB in tracking down a CIA agent in Sary Shagan; Krasnin needs his undoubted expertise. Verenyev has little time for the FSB and, having succeeded in identifying the agent, is looking forward to returning to his wife and family in Moscow when he is dragged into another investigation when Cairns snatches Tamerlane from under the FSB’s noses in Sary Shagan and goes on the run with her (Irina Malenkova, a member of the staff of the Russian Defence Minister). Verenyev’s job is now to find her before she reaches the West – she is in possession of vital information (the nature of which Krasnin keeps from Verenyev).

In some ways, it’s a similar situation to Behrens and Kreissner in The Dutch Caper, but the difference is that, although the two men detest each other, Krasnin is far too intelligent to waste Verenyev’s abilities; he lets the policeman lead the pursuit, to good effect. In short, despite their mutual dislike, Krasnin and Verenyev form an effective team, which is not good news for Cairns and Irina. However, Krasnin has his own agenda as regards wanting to catch Irina, and it is as Verenyev comes to realise what these are that he has to make his own decision about the situation.

Thus, Cairns is not the central character at all; it is Verenyev, who is not an action hero, simply a very good police officer who just wants to be left alone to fight crime, but who is only too aware of the power of the mafiyas and of the corruption amongst his fellow policemen. He is not a crusader, but, like it or not, he finds himself in a position where his actions are going to have a profound impact on Russia’s future – and he can’t duck the issue, not this time… It is the duel between Cairns and Verenyev that forms the main focus of the book, in the roles of fugitive and pursuer.

Servants Of The State eventually replaced Tamerlane as the book’s title – as with Carronade (Berlin Endgame), Tamerlane would have led readers to expect a historical novel. Servants refers to the four main characters (Cairns, Irina, Verenyev and Krasnin), each one, technically, a servant of the state, but who all, in their own ways, question the obligations implied by that label.



The Books: The Faust Conspiracy

thefaustconspiracyThe Faust Conspiracy was my first book and went through umpteen rewrites before it was finally accepted for publication by Malvern Publishing, a small company that was on the lookout for new authors, but which has since gone out of business. I started on the book when I was recuperating after a minor operation (they call them procedures nowadays) and I was trying to read a not very good thriller. I commented to my better half that I could do better myself, so she challenged me to have a go. So I did. The idea was based on an old newspaper cutting recycled in the local press, describing how German paratroopers landed in the Luton Hoo estate during World War II and were promptly arrested before being taken off to London. The cutting did not deal with their subsequent fate and I began to wonder what they were doing there and what did finally happen to them…

I wrote it in longhand, using a fountain pen and an awful lot of A4 paper, before typing it out, firstly using a typewriter (remember those?) and then on an Apple II computer, using Apple Writer. As the computer had an awesome 48K memory (well, it was awesome in those days), the text had to be saved chapter by chapter onto six 5.25 inch floppy disks (remember those as well?) before being printed out by a daisywheel printer onto fanfold paper, which took several hours, as I recall. Happy days…

It took seven years in the end for it to be published (in 1985), and it suffered numerous redrafts along the way. Entire sequences were edited out, as were characters, but the basic storyline – a plot to assassinate King George VI in 1944 – remained the same. However, before it finally saw the light of day, I had to find a publisher and I soon realised that, without a literary agent, I had little or no chance of achieving that – then as now, the fate of most unsolicited manuscripts received by any publisher was to be consigned to the ‘slush pile’, where it might be given a cursory reading by a junior employee, but, equally, it might simply be returned, unread, to the author several months down the line, accompanied by a form letter. I sent out letters to a number of literary agents listed in The Writers’ and Artists’ Yearbook (an invaluable resource even today) and one of them forwarded my name to Malvern Publishing, a small company based in Upton-on-Severn, which was just starting up with the noble (if perhaps quixotic) ambition of launching new authors. The Faust Conspiracy was the sixth book published by Malvern and was reviewed (very favourably) in the Daily Express. Despite this, it did not crash its way into the bestseller lists and any dreams that I had about retiring from teaching soon faded away.

Within a couple of years, however, the US rights were bought up by Walker Books in New York and The Faust Conspiracy, new cover and all, was released in the USA and Canada in 1989, achieving significantly more sales than in the UK (in fact, overall, I have sold considerably more books in the States than over here). Again, the royalties were not enough for me to retire, but they more than paid for a holiday for two that year.

With the passing of the years, however, I began to become more aware of Faust‘s weaknesses – there was too much exposition in the narrative, Vogel’s character was far too sketchy, the relationship between Paul and Carolyn did not make sense, Tyler was little more than a name and so on. As a result, when I decided to convert the books into ebook format, I initially decided not to include Faust in the process – there was too much that needed to be rewritten. But then I took another look at it and realised that there were enough ‘good’ bits to make it worth revisiting. Vogel was given a more detailed back story, the character of his co-conspirator was made more substantial, the romance between Paul (now renamed Keller) and Carolyn became a friendship but nothing more, Tyler was given added depth by the introduction of a sub-plot that threw light on his life outside MI5 and the narrative was adapted to reflect far more of a ‘show, don’t tell’ approach. The final result was that the book, which had always been on the short side at 56,000 words grew to over 73,000 and, IMHO, is all the better for it. So, although it’s taken over thirty years, The Faust Conspiracy has now finally been completed.

For now, anyway…



Reluctant Heroes

Just heard that the publishers want to release the three Cormack and Woodward books in a single edition – I’ve decided on the title Reluctant Heroes, because it sums them up, really. Cormack is not exactly champing at the bit over any of his undercover assignments (although he still takes them on) while Woodward, after The Dutch Caper, is more circumspect in his approach to them as well. However, both of them would be distinctly embarrassed at being described as ‘heroes’; they’d feel awkward at any medal presentation ceremony and they’d be the last ones to brag about it afterwards, so it struck me as being an appropriate title for their exploits.

Aimee‘s going to design the cover, as before, so it should be out pretty soon.

The Books: Piccolo


Piccolo took a long time to get going, really, in terms of writing. I’d had the idea for it after reading about a string of deaths of Ministry of Defence computer experts and the thought came to me: what if they weren’t accidents or suicide? For various reasons, it took a while for the storyline to take shape; the original main character (an ex-Falklands veteran called Curren) was ditched in favour of Special Branch Detective Inspector Redmond, which also meant a less ‘macho’ portrayal, and the bad guys in the early drafts (the KGB) were also shown the door as being too predictable – which meant that the sequences I’d roughed out for them also had to go. Even when I’d come up with the ‘real’ bad guys, I decided to keep their sequences down to a minimum – too much was being given away in terms of plot suspense.

I realised that most of the book had to be presented from the viewpoint of the two main characters, Redmond and his assistant, Gail Harper, in order to keep the central mystery (what is Piccolo?) unresolved for as long as possible. Also, changing from the Falklands veteran character meant that I could portray Redmond as a far less ‘heroic’ character, at least to begin with; in the opening chapters, his main concern is to turn in a whitewash report on the deaths in order to safeguard his own career. Gail is the more determined to find out the truth; she pushes Redmond into continuing the investigation when he’d much rather sign it off. Of course, it’s another variation on the ‘odd couple’ – they take a while even to be civil to each other, but, gradually, they become an effective team. This, in turn, raised the question of how far this thawing in their relationship should go – would there be the clichéd sex scene towards the end of the book when they discover their true feelings about each other? As soon as that question occurred to me (in that form), I decided that, while there would be a hint of an incipient relationship, that would be as far as it went; they would be utterly professional (because, when it comes right down to it, they both are). Eventually, although the writing process had been slow to start, it gathered momentum and ended up as a book that I was pleased with. Well, mostly… I eventually had second thoughts about the final, brief sequence, but that was not until much later.

It was never available in the UK in print – by then, I had parted company with my British publisher, not entirely amicably. Piccolo was published by Walker Books in the USA and by Thomas Allen and Son in Canada in 1992. Like its predecessors, it sold reasonably well without setting the heather on fire – but it was the last to be published in print. Walker Books had made the decision to scale back on fiction, so that avenue was now cut off. Other matters intruded; I still had a full time teaching career and I was moving up the promotion ladder, which was taking up more and more of my ‘free’ time. Although I wrote two more books in the following years (which were not published), in reality, my writing career came grinding to a halt.

So to the ebooks… What I did was to update Piccolo – the main thrust of the book could apply just as well to 2012 as the early 90s, so I introduced references to mobile phones, memory sticks, SD cards, etc, none of which made any significant impact on the story itself. What I did change, however, was the final sequence. In the print version, I was encouraged to identify the mysterious Beresford, on the basis that, if I were not going to write a sequel, I might as well reveal his identity, but I later thought that the revelation detracted from the main point of the segment, which was to point out just how high the conspiracy went. Plus, the ‘reveal’ didn’t really add up, either… So, in the ebook, I’ve restored the mystery, partly because, now, I am thinking about a sequel and I don’t intend Beresford to be who he’s supposed to be in the original book.

So what is the significance of the title? Why Piccolo? I can’t really tell you, not without giving too much away, but it was inspired by a World War II device called ‘Oboe’. Look it up if you like – or read the book…



State Of Play (6)

Piccolo is now out on Kindle, just here but also on Omnilit (as are the Cormack and Woodward books) here. I must admit I’ve never heard of Omnilit before and they do seem to be mostly romance titles, but I’m not complaining…