It’s a standard question when I tell people that I make my living as an author: where do you get your ideas? I write espionage thrillers – think Bond and Bourne and you’ll be in the vicinity – and I’ve never had a problem with finding something interesting for my characters to do. The genesis of my new book – SLEEPERS – has been a little different, though. More immediate. Closer to home, and, once I started investigating and writing, much more difficult to stop.
I live in Salisbury. I’d been working at my office in town one Sunday in March, making good progress on my new book. Just minutes away, however, concern was building over two people collapsed on a bench. At first a drug overdose was suspected, but, as the day wore on, the story changed to something much more sinister – the attempted assassination of Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia. Life suddenly changed for Salisbury, and my quiet hometown became the centre of an international incident.
Life had imitated art. That day I had been writing about a defecting spy who comes to the attention of his previous employer, and local events added relevance that would have been hard to credit if they were not true. I found myself witnessing scenes that could have come straight from one of my thrillers. As an author it was something that I simply couldn’t ignore. And, as the story developed, so too did my compulsion to write about it.
My research unfolded around me. I watched the media helicopters hovering over the spire of the beautiful cathedral. Saw forensics tents erected around suspected crime scenes. I spoke to the police officers guarding the cordons, and observed soldiers in Hazmat suits shutting down parts of town. My daily dog walk brought me past the hospital where the victims were treated. Events took a frightening turn with the poisoning of Dawn Sturgess and Charlie Rowley (with Sturgess tragically passing away). More locations in town closed, including the park where my daughter had been playing just days before.
In the weeks that followed the authorities revealed very little, for good reason. People found the official narrative so full of holes it offered licence for conspiracy theories. But it also made it possible for an author to take the lines of a story that was sketched out and then to colour in the blanks. Why was Sergei Skripal targeted? Who targeted him? Why was an exotic nerve agent used, rather than a more prosaic – but more effective – method? Why did the would-be assassins ditch the bottle rather than dispose of it more carefully?
Six months on, we know more of the details of that notorious day, but there are still as many questions as answers. It’s been a challenge to take these starting points and turn them into a work of fiction, sensitive to the human cost to those who have been caught up in it. My novel SLEEPERS is about to be published. The story of the Salisbury poisonings – and its ramifications – continues to unfold.