After two previous excursions with ‘The Last Exile’ and ‘The Mephisto Threat’, I thought it high time I added an international dimension to the next Paul Tallis story and sent him to an area of conflict. There were a number of contenders, but I swiftly settled on Russia, more especially Chechnya.
I confess I’ve never visited Chechnya. I don’t know any Chechens. Outspoken Russians who write or comment about the dodgier side of Russian affairs tend to wind up dead. We all know that living in Britain offers no protection. (Think polonium cocktails!) I’m not sure the FSB would want to wipe me out, but it did feel a bit risky to investigate this strangely rebellious part of Russia. So why did it get under my skin?
I’m quite a visual person. If I see an arresting photograph it tends so stay embedded in my brain. One such picture, taken during 1999-2001, appeared in a national broadsheet of a woman weeping over the ruins of her home in Grozny. It was heart-rending so when I started to think about where Tallis could go next I remembered her and began to research the long history of hostility between Chechnya and the motherland. What quickly emerged: two of the most brutal and under-reported wars in modern history in which a struggle for independence morphed into a fight about religious fundamentalism, with outsiders running their own agenda. The sheer savagery on both sides of the divide took my breath away. It also fired me up.
Once I’d got the backdrop in place, and to make the narrative work, I decided Tallis needed a personal quest rather than simply setting off on a mission at the behest of his security service paymasters. This is where I hit on the idea of him being tasked to find an old schoolfriend, Graham Darke.
Unknown to Tallis, Darke has been working deep undercover for the Secret Intelligence Service in the mountains of Chechnya, his mission to keep a watching brief on a savage warlord with suspected links to Muslim fundamentalists. However, it’s feared that Darke has become sympathetic to the Chechen cause and turned rogue agent. Worse, he’s been linked to a number of high profile murders of former military men in Moscow. If true, Anglo-Russian relations are set to take a nosedive. It’s imperative, therefore, that Tallis tracks down Darke and brings him in. The challenge for Tallis is that in a place where there’s appalling brutality on all sides it’s difficult to steer a moral path through the madness and impossible to know whom to trust. I love those kinds of tensions in a thriller.
I travelled to Berlin for a couple of early background scenes, learnt about mines, (care of the Mine Action Co-Ordination Centre) and personally discovered the joys of flying in helicopters at two thousand feet and, the more scary, six hundred feet; at that height the perception of travelling at speed is greatly increased. Research doesn’t get much better than this!
Land of Ghosts is published by Mira