Below the Thunder is a follow-up to Bear in the Woods. They are both political thrillers. In my new book the unlikely hero accepts a mission to frustrate a political mconspiracy and falls into a web of deceit and increasing danger. All this comes with a fair amount of sex and violence.
How on earth does the one-time Film Censor come to be writing something like this? One of the things I learned as a media regulator was never to overestimate the people at the top. They are as often as not highly educated, clever, devious – and with a tendency to be overwhelmed by events, because there’s always too much on their plate and too little time for decision-making. Cock-up and conspiracy. There are exceptions. But even the most able seem eventually to be brought down by hubris. Margaret Thatcher, Rupert Murdoch, Tony Blair…
This is the background to my writing. I have known most of the characters who
appear in Bear in the Woods and Below the Thunder. Locked horns professionally
with some of them. No names, no pack drill, and no legal fees… But a reader
shouldn’t be startled by the dangerous and arbitrary things I get them to do. I have probably seen worse.
Another thing you learn in any publicly exposed job is the absolute necessity of knowing more than your enemies. Knowledge is power. And that habit of research as a source of confidence has never left me. For example, there isn’t a location in either novel – in America, Germany, Scotland – that I haven’t trodden over. And – strictly speaking – none of the characters, even the minor ones, is entirely invented. I just hope they’ll all forgive me.
A solidly researched base also liberates the fantasy. Thus, while I have some
knowledge of MI6 and have met the equivalents of ‘M’ and above, I wouldn’t for a moment suggest that my fictional version of their activities – in either book – is more reliable than John le Carré’s, or even Ian Fleming’s.
Nevertheless, I do try to ground the narrative in actual current events. In both books, an important background element is a forthcoming American presidential election. I always hope the fantasy I spin will not seem too implausible. But I will not be the first author to bemoan the way fictions that we feared might strain credulity have then come to pass in real life. Not all my American friends are happy with the way I portray their politics. But how could anyone parody the Tea Party?
After forty years in film and television as writer, producer, regulator, it’s inevitable that moving pictures will have left a stamp on the style, shape and detail of my books.Maybe one day (in my dreams) a PhD student will write a thesis cross-referring the characters’ names and analysing all my other not-so-hidden references to cinema.
More interesting perhaps is the structure of the books which tend to progress through a series of highly visual scenes and rely on dialogue to carry much of the narrative.
There’s probably a fair amount of Hitchcock hidden away there too – as in the theme of mistaken identity, and the use in both books of a MacGuffin (a mysterious object that drives the whole story).
I have always enjoyed cinema plots that surprise. So if there is one particular film whose influence I recognize, it’s probably Bryan Singer’s The Usual Suspects and the brilliant way it leads its audience up the garden path (all perfectly legitimate… no cheating, unlike Hitchcock). And then hits them at the finish with a complete reversal of their expectations. I do like that.