Chris Morgan Jones’ first novel, An Agent of Deceit, was published in 2011 to widespread critical acclaim, with many outlets comparing his work to that of John Le Carré. Before setting pen to paper, Jones spent eleven years in the shoes of his protagonist, Ben Webster, working for one of the world’s largest business intelligence agencies.
Thanks for taking the time to speak to us, Chris. For me, An Agent of Deceit, comes across as an old-fashioned spy novel, of the type you don’t really see any more, in a very modern setting. But it still has a very “Cold War”, east versus west, feel to it. Can you talk us through where the idea came from, and how you set about constructing the complex plot?
The very first idea I had, revolving in my head in a quiet way for years, was the predicament of one of the main characters, Richard Lock, who has almost inadvertently signed away his identity, and in the process his life, to hide the criminal gains of a sinister Russian bureaucrat. In my old work I used to come across Locks almost every day – lawyers and accountants whose job it was to set up complex networks of companies offshore. Some of them, like Lock, sell themselves completely and pretend to own things on behalf of others nastier and more powerful than them. I began to wonder who these people were and how they had become what they had become, and slowly one particular such person began to form in my head.
As for the plot: I knew where it began and roughly where it ended, and so the work came in filling out the middle. First I thought through the central story, the relationship between Lock and the investigator who pursues him, and then I introduced the other characters, imagining how they would affect and be affected by events. At one stage I drew up a large chart with the characters across the top and time running down the side and worked out how everyone would interlock. Strangely, it was much easier to plot than my second book, even though in many ways it was more complicated.
That old-fashioned sense is helped along by the fact that Ben Webster, the novel’s protagonist, makes his way through the story – for the most part – without the aid of gadgets, gizmos or even modern technology. With the exception of the frequent mention of mobile phones, this is a story that could have happened prior to the fall of the Berlin Wall. Was this a conscious decision you made at the outset and, if so, why?
No, strangely. It developed like that. I knew that London and Moscow, the home cities of the two protagonists, would be the two poles of the book, and toyed with various ideas for the location of the book’s final third. Then it became clear that it had to be Berlin – partly because it made sense in plot terms, but also because Berlin is neither east nor west, and was therefore the perfect place for Lock’s dual allegiances to be tested. So I became aware of the old-fashionedness late on.
An Agent of Deceit takes a slightly unusual approach to the spy novel in that it devotes equal airtime to the points of view of both hunter (Webster) and hunted (Richard Lock). Did you find one character more difficult to write than the other, and how much of each character were you able to build from your own experience in the business intelligence community?
Webster was more difficult to write. As you suggest, the book is written from the two protagonists’ perspectives, which alternate throughout. It turned out that this was an excellent structure for a first book, because it established a steady rhythm, but its one flaw, I now realise, was that because Webster is so busy hunting, and making the action of the book happen, we get to know him less well. We get to observe Lock in a more natural state, in a way, and I think he feels more rounded as a result. This is something that with luck the second book addresses.
And while what Webster does is a pretty accurate amalgam of what people in my old world do, the characters themselves aren’t drawn from a single model. They’re both fictional creations, and to be honest neither particularly resembles anyone I know in life.
There have been plenty of comparisons between your work and the novels of John Le Carré, which is presumably not a bad thing for a first-time author to hear. As I read the book, I found myself comparing Webster to that other great fictional spy, Bernie Samson – more everyman than Old Boys’ Network, the obsession and doggedness. Can you talk about the influence these two giants of the genre – Le Carré and Deighton – have had on your own writing?
I’m not sure it’s possible to unpick one’s influences. Le Carré and Deighton are both writers I enjoy enormously, and admire, but I think others might be better placed to spot the correspondences. One very nice reader compared the book to Eric Ambler, which was another tremendous compliment. What they all have in common is the sense of a secret world occupying a dimension right next to but invisible from our own, which is definitely something worth emulating. They’re probably all in there somewhere, along with some writers of detective fiction. Rex Stout, a name not heard often in the UK, definitely had an influence on the structure, even though his books – brilliant comic detective novels – are entirely different.
And before we move on to more general questions…are we likely to see Ben Webster again? Can you talk about what you’re working on at the minute?
I’ve finished a new Webster novel. It’s called The Jackal’s Share and will be published in hardback early next year. As I said, this time we spend more time with him, and his trials are rather different and more acute. The story is entirely new, though – it isn’t strictly a sequel.
For the third book I’m planning to write about the same world, but to shift the focus to a different character within it. And Russia hoves back into view.
What other authors or works have influenced you as a writer?
Rex Stout, as mentioned above. James Lee Burke, a brilliant writer of crime thrillers, for want of a better word (he’s much too good to need a genre tag). Then there are all the writers I’d like to think I might be influenced by in some small way. Robert Louis Stevenson is probably top of that list. Line by line I’m not sure he’s ever been bettered, and his stories and plotting are sublime. There’s a reason that Treasure Island is still such a thrilling book.
And as a follow-on, is there one book (or more than one) that you wish you had written?
Heavens. Apart from Treasure Island, probably The Count of Monte Cristo, which is probably the most compelling story I’ve ever read. It makes a thousand pages seem like fifty.
What does a typical (writing) day in the life of Chris Morgan Jones look like?
That’s an excellent question. The ideal writing day involves getting up early, around 5.30, writing for a couple of hours before the children wake up, going back to it from 9 until lunchtime, and then squeezing in another three hours or so from 4 till 7 (in the middle of the day my brain stops). In reality all sorts of things get in the way, and when they don’t, I do.
And what advice would you have for people hoping to pursue fiction-writing as a career?
Carve out some time. This is easier said than done, of course. The luckiest break I got was being able to write the first few chapters of the book while looking for a new job, and without the uninterrupted work that allowed I’m not sure I’d have completed the task.
What are you reading now, and is it for business or pleasure?
I’ve been reading an extraordinary book about parallel universes by a brilliant writer on physics called Brian Greene. The book is The Hidden Reality. It sounds ridiculously difficult, and it is – every morning I’ve forgotten what I read the night before. But it’s truly fascinating and has the advantage of having no characters and plots in it, which is sometimes a relief.
Would you like to see An Agent of Deceit make the jump from page to screen? If so, do you have any dream casts/directors/whatever?
I’ve thought about it, but to be honest not to that degree of detail. There’s Tomas Alfredson, who directed the brilliant vampire movie Let The Right One In, but then he went and directed the equally good Tinker Tailor, and he might feel he’s had enough spies.
And finally, on a lighter note…
If you could meet any writer (dead or alive) over the beverage of your choice for a chat, who would it be, and what would you talk about (and which beverage might be best suited)?
Now that’s fun. M. R. James, the ghost story writer. We’d have to meet in an empty house somewhere on the Suffolk coast and we’d talk about his most terrifying creations. I would need whisky.
Thank you once again, Chris, for taking time out to share your thoughts.
Chris will be appearing at the Theakston’s Old Peculier Crime Writing Festival on Friday 20th July.