It was a trip to Venice that got the ball rolling. On the plane I’d been reading Norman Lewis’s brilliant book The Honoured Society, in which he describes seeing at first hand how US Intelligence helped to re-install the Sicilian mafia in 1944, having done a shady deal with an imprisoned New York mob boss called Lucky Luciano. So my head was already full of conspiracy theories when we landed.
When my wife turned on her phone she discovered she had to return an urgent call, so I got myself a coffee in the airport bar. By coincidence I found myself sitting next to a very charming US Army officer, who – along with the rest of his group – was waiting for a shuttle bus to take him to his new posting, Vicenza.
I must admit, it was news to me that there was a US base at Vicenza – but as we talked, I discovered it was only the tip of the iceberg. Italy has literally dozens of American military installations, from a huge naval base in Sicily to an airfield up in Friuli-Venezia Giulia. West of Venice there are around half a dozen, including several stores deep underground where short-range nuclear weapons were kept.
I asked why he thought this was, and my companion pointed to the Dolomites, just visible in the distance. "During the Cold War," he said, "this was the front line. If the communists had tried to take Europe, this is where we’d have tried to hold them back."
That trip planted a seed, and when I got back I started researching America’s Cold War activities in Italy. There was no shortage of material. For example, the first four directives issued by the newly-formed National Security Council to the CIA all concerned Italy – specifically, the need to intervene covertly in the Italian elections to undermine the Communist Party, who at one time looked like forming a government. That was the beginning of a slew of operations, all illegal under international law, to subvert the wishes of the Italian people. The CIA started newspapers and political parties (the Christian Democrat Party, which dominated Italian politics for forty years, was bankrolled by the CIA). They had a secret guerrilla army, trained on a secret base on the island of Sardinia. There were even bombings and other atrocities which purported to be carried out by left-wing terrorists but were actually done by the CIA’s proxies in the Italian secret services, who met their handlers under the cover of fake masonic lodges.
Eventually, I had so much material that it formed itself, not just into a thriller, but a thriller trilogy. I’d long been a fan of Steig Larsson’s Millennium series – specifically, the way he holds together complex stories with strong characters, whose romantic relationships and friendships are just as important as the plots. To do something similar was always my ambition. And I like to think that, thanks to a chance encounter in Venice airport, the conspiracies my characters have to deal with are, if not quite true, then certainly horribly plausible.
The Abomination is published by Head of Zeus