My latest novel, Wheel of Fire, brings a tale of international financial intrigue, culminating in arson and violent death, to the rolling green hills of the English countryside. The book is inspired by the tragically curious real-life story of Edmond Safra, one of the richest men in the world, who in 1999 choked to death along with his nurse in a fire at his Monaco penthouse. For some time after the fire broke out he could have opened the door to the specially fortified bathroom in which the two bodies were foud, and escaped to safety. He did not. And it is believed that when the nurse tried to flee he fought her into submission.
Another nurse in Safra’s employ, American Ted Maher, was subsequently charged with arson and intent to harm.
Maher, who suffered extensive injuries on the night of the fire, at first claimed he had been attacked by armed intruders. Police and emergency services took more than two hours to reach Safra’s hideout – primarily because of fears that gunmen might be inside the penthouse.
However Maher later admitted that he had stabbed himself, using his medical skills to produce wounds which looked serious but were not life-threatening.
He also admitted starting the fire, allegedly in a waste paper bin beneath a smoke detector, so that he could gain favour with his wealthy employer by rescuing him.
In court his American lawyer, Michael Griffith, argued that Maher had hatched a ‘stupid’ plan which went horribly wrong, but had no intent to harm. Griffith, famous for defending fellow countrymen who get into trouble abroad, also argued that Safra had violently prevented the nurse from escaping because he was convinced that there were hitmen waiting outside to get him. And therefore it was Safra, a Parkinson’s sufferer known to be paranoid about his safety, who was guilty of killing her.
Griffith accused the Monaco authorities of ‘a monstrous cover-up’. Nonetheless Maher was found guilty and jailed for ten years.
Now free and back home in America, the former nurse continues to protest his innocence of any intent to kill. And the whole affair remains shrouded in mystery.
Lebanese-born Safra’s business empire was worth between £1.5 and £2.8 billion at the time of his death. His speciality was private banking for the massively wealthy, and it was said that he knew ‘all the secrets of the financial planet’.
Needless to say, conspiracy theories remain rife. In Monaco they believe Safra may have been the victim of all manner of covert organisations, ranging from the Russian Mafia to a Palestinian hit squad.
I first became intrigued by the Safra affair when Ted Maher was brought to trial in Monaco in 2002. Looking for an idea for a new David Vogel mystery last year, I as usual delved into the drawer in my office where I stuff newspaper and magazine cuttings and scribbled notes which I think might one day form the germ of a novel. A now yellowing page from The Sunday Times jumped out at me.
I have always believed that ideas are not really a problem for novelists. All you have to do is read the papers, watch the TV news, and, indeed (sorry about this) watch your neighbours, friends, and family.
The plots are all there. It’s just making them work that can be tricky.
Indeed, the story of how Edmond Safra met his death and the subsequent courtroom drama leading to the conviction of Ted Maher is so bizarre that to make a believable fictional version of it was extremely challenging. And, of course, my major characters and the shocking events which engulf them are entirely fictional.
I created Sir John Fairbrother, a wealthy retired banker from a grand old Somerset family, who dies along with his nurse in a catastrophic fire at his manor house home in the Blackdown Hills, not far from where I live.
Employees of Fairbrother and family members all become suspects, along with certain apparently mysterious outside agencies.
DI Vogel leads the police investigation. Determined that he will get to the bottom of it all and ultimately reveal the truth, he uncovers a tangled web of intrigue which exceeds anything he at first imagined.
But surely nothing could ever exceed the extraordinary real-life story which inspired me to write Wheel of Fire.
Wheel of Fire by Hilary Bonner is published by Severn House