I chose to set the fourth D.I. Stratton novel in 1956, because it was a momentous year in Western politics. In January, John Forster Dulles had made his famous ‘brinkmanship’ speech, in which he advocated playing a nuclear weapons-based game of ‘chicken’ with the Soviets. For the USA’s European allies – sitting targets in any exchange of fire – this was not reassuring. Their mounting fear of nuclear holocaust intensified alarmingly when, in November, when the action of the book is set, Soviet tanks rolled into Hungary. At the same time, the Suez Crisis marked the end of Britain as a world power. This atmosphere of confusion, doubt and fear, together with the post-war decline in adherence to established religions, provided fertile ground not only for Christian evangelists such as Billy Graham, but also for a bumper crop of gurus of all shapes and sizes, as people sought for certainty in an increasingly uncertain world.
Researching all of the above was fairly straightforward: the usual truffle hunt through history books, contemporary newspapers, magazines, newsreels, novels and films. Researching the ‘alternative’ spiritual organisation – or, if you prefer, cult – was a different matter, because it meant drawing on my own childhood and adolescent experiences and grafting them on to a period before I was born. I grew up in an organisation much like the one I describe in the book, of which my parents were enthusiastic members. Its leaders had adopted Indian mysticism as a central tenet – with mediation, chanting and other esoteric practices – but it wasn’t the free love and flowers-in-the-hair variety. In fact, it was exactly the opposite, being yoked to a set of very Victorian values, with stiflingly strict rules covering everything from day-to-day conduct to gender roles, taking up a hell of a lot of its members’ time and pretty much all of their mental space.
I had never before attempted to write any fiction which drew on this part of my life, and dredging for memories, often with a metaphorical peg on my nose (the zeal of the convert not having been passed down on the hereditary principle), proved a fairly uncomfortable experience. It certainly wasn’t therapeutic – if anything, I’d say it was the opposite – but I found myself fascinated by the conditions which gave rise to the inception of such organisations (and there were a lot of them, each one firmly convinced of the uniqueness of its own spiritual ‘hotline’). I was also curious to see what a man such as D.I. Stratton – rational, necessarily an upholder of convention and orthodoxy, who after several books seems somehow to have taken on an existence outside my head, making him a sort of viewing platform from a psychologically safe distance – would make of it all.
What I have attempted to convey, however clumsily, in A Willing Victim, is that good intentions, whether they be political or spiritual or anything else, really do pave the way to hell, and that people are never more dangerous or – at least 99 per cent of the time – more wrong, than when they are certain that they are right.
A Willing Victim, Laura Wilson (Quercus, £12.99)