Why are most crime books so deadly serious? It mightseem like a stupid question to ask; crime and wrong-doing are not supposed to be a laughing matter. Nonetheless my background as a comedy producer for radio and TV had taught me a few lessons. Firstly, make sure a responsible adult is with Russell Brand at all times, especially near a live microphone. Secondly, everything – and I mean everything – is a potential subject for comedy, apart from the Welsh who always complain. A couple of years ago, I decided to write a novel and wanted to do something different, something that I couldn’t read anywhere else. Even if nobody read the book save me, there would at least be one satisfied customer. The task I set myself was to create a thriller with an espionage and underworld backdrop, plus jokes; Unknown Unknowns was the result. I also decided to make the protaganist female, which post-Lisbeth Salander isn’t ground-breaking. But it did provide added humorous potential in the thriller format. For example, when a man hits a woman, that’s drama; when a woman punches a man, that might be funny, especially if he deserves it.
Write what you know – that’s the advice given to first time writers. My knowledge of the world of crime, espionage and the military I hoped would suffice. A friend of mine is a diplomat, whose postings have taken him to Ethiopia and Japan; unfortunately he’s most likely not a spy and even if he were, he couldn’t tell me. Another friend was a medic in the paras, during the 2nd Iraq war. He probably did go on secret missions, but there is that thing called the Official Secrets Act. So if he did in fact go on covert ops, he definitely will not talk about them to a humble civilian – no matter how much you ply him with booze (and I have tried). Add to the mix a cousin in the police who works on gang surveillance and a colleague who was a special constable, that should mean I could write convincingly in the genre or avoid howling errors.
One area where I did have first-hand experience was travelling in countries that you were advised by the Foreign Office to avoid. Cambodia these days is a popular tourist destination but when I was there in 1992, it was more like the Wild West, only with better food. I was brave or foolish enough to visit Colombia in 1993, making the land border crossing from Ecuador. This was a particularly risky thing to do, as I discovered many years later. In Britain, we take so much for granted – incorruptible police, an honest legal system and the rule of law. In many parts of the world, when the police turn up, that’s when you have to start worrying. To maximise the dramatic possibilities, I wanted to set much of the action in a world outside the normal rules: a place where anything goes.
The problem though is in the age of the internet and constant connectivity is how to surprise your audience. They will already have seen pictures from someone’s smartphone, with accompanying Twitter commentary. Moreover, the world is a much safer place than it was twenty years ago. Unless I set my story in war torn Congo or Syria, where was my Wild West? The solution I decided was to invent a country – Ozerkistan. For the purposes of the book Ozerkistan is a country in the middle of the dried out Aral Sea bed, which even the CIA didn’t know existed until two years ago. Don’t Google it, it’s not there.
So far so good, now all I needed was a plot and the actual writing business should take care of itself. (It doesn’t, I know that now, and any writer who says otherwise is lying or really annoying). I must, however, thank Donald Rumsfeld for his comment on the lack of evidence for WMDs in Iraq. His speech gave me the seed of a story. It’s worth quoting a passage: ‘as we know, there are known knowns; there are things that we know that we know. We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns, the ones we don’t know we don’t know.’ The architect of the war to find WMD had shrugged his shoulders and said in effect: ‘We thought Saddam had them. He was lying, who knew?’
Without giving away too much away, my plot revolves around the formula for a WMD of extraordinary power that is simple to create, the catch being it may or may not work. What matters is that certain powerful people think it might work and the belief is enough for them to got to extreme lengths, including murder to get hold of the formula. The action is in essence a race or a perhaps a wild goose chase where the characters converge in Ozerkistan. But setting and plot alone are not enough for comedy or drama; you have to care about your characters, especially the lead. All good stories start with a punchy opening chapter – I took that maxim literally. The heroine, Kat Foster, punches a sex-pest diplomat into a mound of profiteroles. She then has a choice: face career ruin or accept a quest to debrief a prisoner in Ozerkistan. Incidentally if you write the scene the other way round, it’s a court case; remove the pastries, it’s not as funny.
The question does still remain though about the po-faced nature of contemporary books. Many of the older classics from Sherlock, Poirot, Bond and The Saint blended repartee and humour with intrigue and murder. These days, the modern taste seems to be for forensic detail of dead bodies, often of young women. Troubled cops battle with alcoholism and failed marriages in a bleak, depressing world. I can’t help feeling there’s room for a bit of levity in the mix. Selfishly I’d like to read a new thriller with a humorous angle. If you share the same desire, why not give Unknown Unknowns a try. I’ve read the whole thing and my unbiased opinion is that it’s excellent. Although it turns out I don’t know how to spell Colombian*.
*Thank you to the NetGalley reviewer for spotting that ‘deliberate’ error.
Unknown Unknowns by Adam Bromley is out now, available from Kobo and Amazon