A diary full of events and signings may well be very good, but the ultimate gig for a spy novelist is to be shot at dawn by firing squad. I doubt if Erskine Childers signed copies of A Riddle of the Sands for the men who executed him, but any surviving copies dated 24 November 1922 would be utterly priceless! Childers did, however, shake hands with each of the firing squad and obtained a promise from his 16 year old son, the future Irish President Erskine Hamilton Childers, to shake hands with every man who signed his death warrant.
Dashiell Hammett, the founding father of the hard-boiled school, is perhaps the greatest crime writer ever. I feel honoured to have a personal connection with Hammett. We both attended Baltimore Polytechnic Institute, a high school in inner-city Baltimore devoted to vocational education. I loved Poly, which was located within pistol range of numerous settings for The Wire, but Sam Hammett (as Dashiell was known) had to leave the school at the age of 14 to help support his family. The experience of poverty turned Hammett into a life-long Leftwing activist – which eventually landed him in prison. As a trustee of the Civil Rights Congress, Hammett was subpoenaed to give evidence at the height of the McCarthyite witch-hunt. He refused to name other activists and was sentenced to six months in jail where he was assigned the job of cleaning toilets. Hammett was blacklisted and his books removed from public libraries. He died in poverty a few years later.
The most important task of a novelist is to create characters who come alive in a reader’s mind – but those characters will be even more vivid if they are fighting against real injustice and liars in positions of power. William Catesby, the reluctant MI6 spook of my last five novels, usually manages that – after he’s tried everything else. The image of a retirement spent sewing mailbags in Wormwood Scrubs instead of hoeing the vegetable patch in his Suffolk garden constantly haunts him. Catesby’s insurance policy used to be a mutually assured destruction pact with his sinister boss, Henry Bone, who loved quoting Orwell at him:
Under the spreading chestnut tree,
I sold you and you sold me.
But it is now 1982, Bone is retired and Catesby is left to face the Secret State alone. South Atlantic Requiem is as much crime fiction as well as spy thriller. The key question, which is still unanswered in real life, is: ‘What did the Prime Minister know and when did she know it?’
The sinking of the General Belgrano remains one of the biggest mysteries of recent British history. Fingers crossed, I’m not going to go to jail for attempting to solve that mystery – but a Whitehall whistleblower nearly did. MoD civil servant Clive Ponting’s crime wasn’t passing nuclear secrets to the Russians, but details about the location and course of the Belgrano to a Member of Parliament. If Ponting had been convicted at his trial in August 1985, he could in theory have served a longer sentence than Klaus Fuchs – who did pass on nuclear secrets to Moscow! The Secret State wields a big bludgeon – and I’m sure Chelsea Manning would agree.
My personal interest in the fabrications of the Secret State began when I served as US Special Forces officer in Vietnam. The lies about enemy body count were farcical. General Alexander Haig, who as US Secretary of State is fictionalised in my book, once reported that his battalion had killed 600 North Vietnamese soldiers – and yet they only captured fifty weapons. So 90% of the dead enemy had been unarmed? RAND Corporation military analyst Daniel Ellsberg precipitated a national controversy in the US when he released the Pentagon Papers, a top-secret study that awkwardly revealed the truth. Had Ellsberg been convicted of his charges, he could have served a maximum sentence of 115 years.
Writing spy novels about the Secret State is certainly a lot less dangerous than being a Secret State whistleblower. I must admit that I am not as brave as Ponting, Manning or Ellsberg – and I’ve always got the ‘it’s only fiction’ alibi! But the General Belgrano mystery has grated for years and I needed to deal with it. The bare facts:
- 1 May 1982: London refused a request from the Task
Force commander to sink the General Belgrano which
was outside the Total Exclusion Zone.
- 2 May: At approximately 0130 Buenos Aires time (0530 BST) Argentine President Galtieri accepted a peace plan brokered by the President of Peru.
- 2 May: Between 1000 and 1200 BST the British War Cabinet ordered attack on the
- 2 May: At 2000 BST the Belgrano, still outside the Total Exclusion Zone, was fatally holed by two torpedoes fired by HMS Conqueror.
Prime Minister Thatcher always maintained that she didn’t hear about the Peruvian Peace Plan until two hours after the Belgrano was sunk. Did it really take sixteen hours for such important news to reach the Prime Minister? If the official histories can’t explain this strange failure of communications, maybe the spy novelist can.
South Atlantic Requiem is published by Arcadia