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An Interview with VIC JAMES

VicJames2 C JAY DACY Name: VIC JAMES

Author of: GILDED CAGE (2017)

On the web: www.vicjames.co.uk

On Twitter: @DrVictoriaJames

Vic James is a current affairs TV director who loves stories in all their forms, and Gilded Cage is her debut novel. She has twice judged the Guardian’s Not the Booker Prize, has made films for BBC1, BBC2, and Channel 4 News, and is a huge Wattpadd.com success story. Under its previous title, Slavedays, her book was read online over a third of a million times in first draft. And it went on to win Wattpad’s ‘Talk of the Town’ award in 2015 – on a site showcasing 200 million stories. Vic James lives and works in London.

Thank you, Vic, for taking the time to chat with us.

My very great pleasure, Matt!

The first thing that strikes the reader as they start Gilded Cage is the strange new world you have created, a contemporary Britain in an alternate universe, where ten years in slavery is mandatory for all commoners. Where did the idea for the “slavedays” come from, and how did the world develop as the story progressed?

I’m a current affairs TV producer/director by trade, and the story idea came to me while working on a BBC2 series called The Super Rich and Us – a slightly silly title for a serious look at widening wealth inequality and stagnating social mobility. I was speaking to billionaires, getting a glimpse into their world, and the thing none of them doubt is their ability to change the world through their wealth. That seemed to me to be almost the same as magic.

But I didn’t want this magic to suddenly appear. In the world of Gilded Cage, it has always been present, and 400 years ago the magical elite seized power in a reimagining of the Enlgish Civil War. The slavedays system was created at that time, so it takes the form characteristic of that period: a kind of indentured service. But the experience as described in Gilded Cage is a distillation and concentration of all that’s most unfair in our world today: grinding work, dwindling opportunity, educations wasted on unrewarding jobs, unaffordable homes, etc etc.

As for how it progresses, well, history is a theme in the books: learning from, repeating, or avoiding the mistakes of the past. You’ll have to wait till book 3, BRIGHT RUIN, to see which of those it is!

The book shows this world from the viewpoints of two very different families: the Hadleys who are just starting their ten-year period of slavery; and the Jardine’s, who are at the opposite end of the social scale. Do you find that there is much difference in how you write these different outlooks on the world, or is it relatively easy to switch between one and the other?

It’s much easier than I expected! Partly that’s thanks to my own family background: my parents are from the East End, my dad left school with no qualifications and my mum dropped out to marry him as a teenage bride. Then I won a scholarship to a school full of rich (if not terribly academic) kids, and went to Oxford where I met people who had actual titles and family fortunes in the millions and, yes, billions.

But I think it’s also because, whatever our class or background, whatever that top layer of perception or prejudice, deep down we all want the same things: freedom, love, justice, autonomy.

And on a related note, which is your favourite character to write?

Probably no surprises here, but I do love writing Silyen, the dangerous and gifted youngest son of the Jardine family. I have to ration writing from his perspective, because his goals and motivations are a key part of the plot drivers, alongside Luke and Abi Hadley’s pursuit of justice and truth. But there is more from his POV in book 2, and more again in 3 as his true interests become clear. In book 1, readers sometimes get the impression that Silyen is (i) all-powerful and (ii) has a master plan. But – without spoilers – we come to see that’s not quite the case!

Alongside the novel’s central plot, there’s a lot of political manoeuvring and back-room dealing, which, in turn, leads to a very complex, very involved plot. How much of Gilded Cage did you need to plan before you started writing the book? And did you find that your end-point changed as a result of unexpected events?

Great question! I absolutely loved this aspect of writing the book. I love twisty plots, and that moment at the end when you look back and see that everything you needed to know was there all along. Still, it turns out that writing a book like that is more effort than the best examples of the genre make it look!

I began the series knowing where it ended. In fact, the beginning and end were the first two things that came to me: a girl running desperately towards a wall, and a boy … no! Wait! You nearly had me there.

Because I know my characters inside and out, the action begins and ends in their motivation, so if I ever hit a knotty bit of plot (ie. what I think should happen) I can sort it out by simply working through how my characters would respond (ie. what they tell me happens). We usually agree. When we don’t, they win.

Dystopias must be an increasingly difficult sell in a world that seems to be moving in that direction itself. While there are elements (e.g. the magic) in your tale that are pure fantasy, do you feel that there’s a possibility of life imitating art if things continue as they are?

Life is art is life. It’s a continuous dialogue. These books could only have been written now, and I’m sure readers will spot plenty more current parallels in book 2, as well!

What’s next for the Hadleys, and how far into the trilogy have you already planned? Do you see further books set in the same world?

Terrible challenges. Momentary happinesses.

To the end.

And I’ll let you answer that third question when you’ve finished book 3, because it assumes we end in the same world we’ve started in. *cackles in all-knowing authorial fashion*

What authors or works have influenced you as a writer?

Simply can’t answer this. As a child I was the bookish equivalent of a Dyson vacuum cleaner – I hoovered up everything. That dust bag is my imagination.

And as a follow-on, is there one book (or more than one) that you wish you had written?

We all write our own books. I can tell you one book I adore, and that is Mikhail Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita. I also love Nabokov’s Pale Fire. And some particularly twisted Japanese folk tales.

GildedCage_UKcoverWhat does a typical (writing) day in the life of Vic James look like?

Wake. Sit at desk. Write. Coffee. Write. Lunch. Write. Tea. Write. Supper. Write. Sleep.

(Wait, I should have put something in there about getting dressed, right…?)

And what advice would you have for people hoping to pursue fiction-writing as a career?

Give yourself permission to take your writing seriously.

To expand: As an unpublished author, it’s very easy to feel – or be made to feel – that writing is an indulgence, or an impossible dream. It isn’t. But it is exhausting, painstaking, and there is never a guarantee of success. Improve your odds by making it a priority. When the idea for Gilded Cage came to me, I knew it could be ‘the one’. I was also in the middle of a massive project at work. So I cut everything that wasn’t work or writing: ie. sleep, and a social life. It was worth it.

What are you reading now, and is it for business or pleasure?

My TBR is as tall as a towerblock right now. And there’s no such thing as reading that’s not for pleasure. The very act is pleasurable.

If Gilded Cage should ever make the jump from page to screen, do you have any dream casts/directors/whatever?

For the director, anyone with ambition and vision – books 2 and 3 just get bigger and bigger. For the cast, whoever walks into an audition and speaks in my character’s voice. You know it when it happens.

And while we all wait for the movie *drums fingers* may I recommend the audio book? I got my dream narrator, Avita Jay, and sat in on 2 of the 4 recording days and she is absolutely sensational. Her performance paints the scenes as you listen. And her performance of Dog alone is worth the price.

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)?

Christopher Marlowe, Elizabethan playwright, poet, and spy. I’d get him to tell me tales of his adventures – and whether he really did die, stabbed through the eye in a Deptford pub. Ale would be the tipple of his time, but I would take him to Bar Nightjar in Old Street, for devastating cocktails – I’m sure he’d fit right in.

Thank you once again, Vic, for taking time out to share your thoughts.

My absolute pleasure, and thank you so much for having me!

Gilded Cage by Vic James is the first instalment of the Dark Gifts Trilogy. It is published in paperback 26 January 2017 by Pan Macmillan, priced £7.99. Be sure to check out the other steps on the Blog Tour.

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THE SEARCHER by Chris Morgan Jones

The Searcher THE SEARCHER

Chris Morgan Jones (www.chrismorganjones.com)

Mantle (www.panmacmillan.com)

£16.99

Isaac Hammer’s world seems to be falling down around him. The offices of his intelligence agency, Ikertu, have been raided by the police, and Ike himself has been arrested. The charge? Obtaining information by illegal means: hacking and phone tapping. But this isn’t Ike’s style, and until the police stormed his offices, he believed it wasn’t the style of ex-employee Ben Webster, whose case the police are investigating. The problem now is that Webster has disappeared while travelling to Georgia for the funeral of a journalist friend. Ike must find him, not only because he is the only person who can save Ike’s skin, and his business, but because Webster’s wife has asked Ike for help. And so Isaac Hammer, the great detective, finds himself in the middle of a country on the verge of civil war, with no idea who is friend, and who is foe.

In his first two novels, An Agent of Deceit and The Jackal’s Share, Chris Morgan Jones introduced us to Ben Webster, a modern-day spy with a knack for getting himself in trouble. For his latest novel, The Searcher, Jones shifts the focus from Webster – who has disappeared even before the novel has begun – to Webster’s boss, Isaac ‘Ike’ Hammer. The novel opens with a series of alternating chapters which interleave Hammer’s dealings with the British police and his ultimate arrest with his arrival in Georgia a number of days later, intent on finding Ben Webster and dragging him back to London if necessary.

It becomes clear very early on that the relationship between Webster and Hammer, which has always been a friendly one, even if Hammer has never really approved of some of Webster’s activities, has been dissolved. Webster has left Ikertu, leaving Hammer hurt and confused in the process, and has set out on his own. When he drops out of sight in Georgia, the obvious assumption is that he has taken a job that has taken him to one of the country’s less-populous areas. It’s understandable, then, that Hammer should bear some anger towards him for forcing him to come and fetch him back to London. It doesn’t take long once he’s in the country for Hammer to realise that Webster’s disappearance might not have been voluntary and, with his driver Koba for company, he picks up his friend’s trail and follows him into the wilderness that marks the border between Georgia and Russia.

In shifting the focus from Webster to Hammer, Jones has also shifted the narrative tone of his writing. No more are we reading the new Le Carré or Deighton, though elements of this earlier tone do still crop up in the story, but rather the new Chandler or, similarity in the lead characters’ names notwithstanding, Spillane. It’s an interesting trick: while these two characters started life in the same place, they’re both very different, and the approach to writing them as central characters shows this difference to best effect: when Webster is in the forefront, we know we can expect an old-fashioned spy story; when Hammer leads, think of the P.I. novels that were prevalent in the middle of the Twentieth Century, and you’ll have a fair idea of what to expect.

Hammer is an unlikely hero, a small dapper man of fifty, though his mind is like a steel trap. He thinks of himself as “the great detective”, and from what we can see as The Searcher progresses, there’s no hyperbole. While the on-going investigation back in London plays on Hammer’s mind throughout the story, it has little bearing on the central plot: the missing Webster, a dead journalist, a terrorist bombing. Jones takes us from the Georgian capital Tbilisi, where daily protests quickly become riots, and where the American Hammer is made to feel less than welcome, to the mountainous and sparsely populated northern region of the country where he finds that, despite the pressures, life moves at a much slower pace.

Unfortunately for Hammer, Jones borrows another trick from the Marlowe novels, which sees his detective beaten almost to a pulp on several occasions. Like Chandler before him, the author seems to take great delight in inflicting pain on the detective, but it’s a tactic that not only serves to show the man’s strength of character, but also to increase the reader’s empathy with him so that we become fully invested in his adventure, and in the life-threatening danger that awaits him at every turn.

Jones’ characterisations are wonderful, and serve to bring the world around Hammer alive, from the loud and opinionated Koba, to the shady government agent Vekua; from the threatening presence of Otar Iosava, to the inexplicably vindictive Detective Inspector Sander. They give context to Hammer himself, his motives and thought processes and show him to be a man of sound moral judgement: perhaps the only thing that separates him from his literary forebears, for whom the word “shady” is often a gross understatement.

With The Searcher Jones shows incredible versatility, looking at his series books through the eyes of a different character, and through the medium of a different, if not entirely unrelated, genre. It will come as no surprise to anyone that has read his earlier books that he succeeds admirably. Well-written, excellent plotting and pace combine to take the unlikeliest of heroes and make him a character that we can believe in and root for. In many ways, Ike Hammer is a more interesting character than Ben Webster, and this reader has high hopes that we’ll see him take the lead again in future. The Searcher should definitely be on your “must read” list, even if you haven’t read Chris Morgan Jones before: it’s an excellent starting place, and opens this talented young author’s work to a whole new world of readers.

GUEST POST: Foreshadowing by DAVID BALDACCI

David Baldacci Name: DAVID BALDACCI

Author of: ZERO DAY (2011)
                 THE FORGOTTEN (2012)
                 THE ESCAPE (2014)

On the web: davidbaldacci.com

On Twitter: @davidbaldacci

To celebrate the launch of David Baldacci’s latest novel, The Escape, as well as the paperback publication of his fourth Will Robie novel, The Target, we’re very pleased to welcome the author to Reader Dad as part of his blog tour.

I’ve been waiting for this moment since I finished the first novel in the John Puller series, Zero Day. Now the third novel in that series – The Escape – is out and we finally learn the answer to a question posed in Zero Day: What is the deal with John’s brother, Robert? When we first meet him he’s a prisoner at the United States Disciplinary Barracks, America’s most secure military prison. He’s serving a life sentence for treason. What exactly did he do? And, more importantly, is he really guilty?

I enjoy foreshadowing questions like this in a series. Readers have to be a bit patient to get the payoff, but hopefully it will be worth it. Writing about the military is a little dicey. First, I have a lot of readers who wear the uniform and so I’m conscious that I have to get all my facts as accurate as possible. I don’t want people who carry guns to be mad at me! Secondly, there is a mass of technical jargon and military acronyms in that world that soldiers use matter-of-factly, but which can be confusing for the layperson. Thus, I’ve tried to be judicious in their use and when I do employ them I try very hard to explain clearly what they mean and why they’re important to the plot. I don’t roll this stuff out willy-nilly; it has to be integral to the plot. And with all my research I always end up leaving most of it on the table. After all, I’m not writing a textbook.

So, in The Escape I tried to do multiple things. I wanted to develop John Puller’s character more, and in doing so flesh out the relationship he has with both his brother and his father. And in the novel I laid out another bit of foreshadowing about another important Puller family member. That will pay off in a future novel! Until then, enjoy The Escape.

371793-0-escapepbAll the lights, cameras and consoles instantly went out. And then the quiet was replaced with urgent cries and the sounds of men running. Communication radios crackled and popped. Flashlights were snatched from holders on leather belts and powered up. They provided only meagre illumination.

And then the unthinkable happened: all the automatic cell doors unlocked.

Military CID investigator John Puller has returned from his latest case to learn that his brother, Robert, once a major in the United States Air Force, and an expert in nuclear weaponry and cyber-security, has escaped from the Army’s most secure prison. Preliminary investigations show that Robert – convicted of treason – may have had help in his breakout. Now he’s on the run, and he’s the military’s number one target.

John Puller has a dilemma. Which comes first: loyalty to his country, or to his brother? Blood is thicker than water, but Robert has state secrets that certain people will kill for. John does not know for certain the true nature of Robert’s crimes, nor if he’s even guilty. It quickly becomes clear, however, that his brother’s responsibilities were powerful and far-reaching.

With the help of US intelligence officer Veronica Knox, both brothers move closer to the truth from their opposing directions. As the case begins to force John Puller into a place he thought he’d never be – on the other side of the law. Even his skills as an investigator, and his strength as a warrior, might not be enough to save him. Or his brother.

STATION ELEVEN by Emily St. John Mandel

StationelevenUKHC STATION ELEVEN

Emily St. John Mandel (www.emilymandel.com)

Picador (www.picador.com)

£12.99

Within days of the first case, the Georgia Flu sweeps across the surface of the globe, infecting billions and killing them within hours. For those that are left, the world is a strange new place, and as resources dwindle or go stale, the world becomes a much larger place where new communities spring up in the unlikeliest of places: airports, shopping malls and roadside services. Twenty years after the disaster, the Travelling Symphony follow a long-established route, bringing music and Shakespeare to the communities that they encounter, in an attempt to keep some of what was good about the pre-Flu world alive. When the Symphony pass through St Deborah by the Water and run afoul of the mysterious "prophet", they find themselves travelling beyond the boundaries of their safe zone.

As Emily St. John Mandel’s latest novel, Station Eleven opens, it is difficult not to make comparisons with countless end-of-the-world novels that have come before it – Stephen King’s The Stand or Terry Nation’s Survivors being two of the most obvious in terms of what causes the downfall of humanity. But it doesn’t take long for Mandel to make her mark and present a completely fresh and original take on the post-apocalyptic novel. While the Travelling Symphony’s flight from St Deborah by the Water is the focus of much of the novel, it is far from the only story we’ll hear on our journey.

Mandel’s novel opens on the eve of the apocalypse and we learn within the first handful of pages that the Georgia Flu – so-called because of its origin (the eastern European country, rather than the American state) – has already crossed the oceans and people are already dying in Toronto’s hospitals, and doubtless many other hospitals across the North American continent, and the world. From here, the story jumps between a number of different time periods, as we learn about the central characters in this beautifully-written and immediately-engaging story; while the bulk of the tale takes place twenty years after the Flu – Year Twenty in the new way of counting such things – we are also given glimpses of these peoples’ lives in the immediate aftermath of the crisis, and also years before it happened.

The focus of Station Eleven is on the people, and how they cope with the new state of the world. In some ways, by advancing the timeline twenty years into the future, Mandel has negated the need to talk about the inevitable violence and power grabs that are often the focus of these types of post-apocalyptic stories. Here, the fuel has long since gone stale, so people have reverted to four-legged transportation options, and ammunition has long since run out. The time period also gives the author the chance to examine how the new world looks to different generations. Within the Travelling Symphony alone, there are those (the nameless conductor, for example) who are old enough to remember the time before, and those who were born into the new world and know nothing else. Then there is the generation in the middle, people like August and Kristen, who was nine years old when the Georgia Flu struck, and who remembers very little of the time before, and absolutely nothing of that first year of this brave new world.

The book takes its title from a fictional comic book that is one of the few treasured possessions that Kristen carries with her. Written and self-published by an unnamed author, the comic is one of the few constants throughout the story: we, the reader, learn of its genesis and meet its creator and watch how it affects the development of two of the novel’s central characters (it’s difficult to say more without introducing spoilers). The other constant is a beautiful paperweight whose history we also learn as the story progresses. At the centre of the story, the lynchpin around whom everything revolves, stands the actor Arthur Leander, a man who dies on the very first page of the book. Each of the central characters is in some way related (though not necessarily in the familial sense) to Leander and his influence is still very evident twenty years after his death.

Without doubt one of the most original takes on the post-apocalyptic world that I have come across in some time, Station Eleven is, quite simply, a masterpiece. Mandel has created a world like none we’ve ever seen and populated with characters who, for the duration of the story and beyond, will become the most important people in your life. With references to everything from Shakespeare to Justin Cronin’s The Passage, Mandel examines the ways in which we make our mark on the world and on the people around us, both in the macrocosm (how the shredded remains of humanity continue to survive and thrive in this new world) and the microcosm (the effect that Arthur Leander, however briefly he may have touched their lives, has left on the central characters of the novel). Mandel has left the perfect set-up for a sequel (or several), and it will be interesting to see if she returns to the post-apocalyptic world of Year Twenty, or if our imaginations will be left to their own devices. Either way, Station Eleven is not to be missed, one of the finest novels of recent years and one that is destined to stand (pun most definitely intended) proudly alongside the giants of the genre.

THE NECESSARY DEATH OF LEWIS WINTER by Malcolm Mackay

LEWIS WINTER - Malcolm Mackay THE NECESSARY DEATH OF LEWIS WINTER

Malcolm Mackay

Mantle (www.panmacmillan.com)

£14.99

Calum MacLean is twenty-nine years old and lives alone in Glasgow. He is a killer for hire, a hit-man who takes jobs to suit his own schedule and which allow him to minimise the risk to himself. When he accepts a job from Peter Jamieson, he is accepting a more permanent position within the Jamieson organisation. The move has perks, but with it comes a certain loss of freedom. The job is a straightforward one: kill Lewis Winter, a drug dealer so far down the food chain from the Jamieson organisation that he shouldn’t even be on their radar. But Winter is moving into Jamieson’s territory, and looks to have potential backing from a bigger player.

With this simple premise, Malcolm Mackay sets the events of his debut novel in motion. While Calum is ostensibly the story’s central character, he spends a good portion of the novel in the shadows, as perhaps befits his chosen career. Mackay spends time introducing us to the victim and his nearest and dearest, as well as various factions within Glasgow’s criminal underworld, and members of the Strathclyde Police. The lines of moral distinction between these characters are deliberately blurred: there are no good guys and bad guys in this story; Calum may be a cold-blooded killer, but he is also a man doing his job, while the handful of police officers seem to have agendas of their own in carrying out their investigations. The reader is left to form their own impressions and decide for themselves where their sympathy lies.

Mackay’s narrative style is beautiful. Using a conversational tone – a “just between us” approach to telling the story – coupled with the telegraphic style of James Ellroy’s finest works (though perhaps a bit more passive than Ellroy’s abrasive style), he places us directly in the middle of the action and, to a certain extent, makes us accomplices to what is going on. Frequent use of the word “you” – in the general sense, rather than the jarring second-person approach – makes this an easy and engaging read. We’re given details grudgingly, as if they don’t really matter to the story – they often don’t, but they paint a picture, make the characters seem more human, give us something to identify with in a group of people who are, for the most part, people we wouldn’t necessarily want to associate with.

Saturday afternoon, football on the radio in the background, sitting on the couch with a book. The Painted Veil by William Somerset Maugham, if you must know, and he’s fascinated by it. It has lured his attention away from the radio; he doesn’t know what the score is any more. The older he gets, the less important that seems.

We’re lured quickly into a world where no-one talks straight, and where every question, every answer, every gesture has an implicit meaning that only members of this secret club can decipher. There’s a thrill to this for the reader, a sense that we are being given a glimpse behind the curtain, a brief look at a world that exists outside the boundaries of our normal experiences.

The clues are all there if you care to look for them. Perhaps you don’t care to; most people don’t. A casual conversation: two people who know each other on a first-name basis, without being too close. Friends who see each other on a weekly rather than daily basis. Friends who don’t care. Phone calls like that are made so often, so why care? It’s a job offer. A very definite offer of something long-term and lucrative.

The novel takes us through preparation, attempt and subsequent investigation, showing us the story from a number of different angles in the process. There is no mystery here for the reader as we, like the narrator, can see everything that is going on. But mystery was never the point; this is about the people, their relationships with each other, their interactions, their lies and half-truths. It is also the setup for a much larger story, the first part of Mackay’s Glasgow Trilogy which is set to continue later this summer. If Mackay can maintain this momentum with the second and third parts of the trilogy, it stands to challenge Derek Raymond’s Factory series and David Peace’s Red Riding Quartet as the benchmark for British noir fiction.

The Necessary Death of Lewis Winter is something new and exciting. It is a crime novel to savour, a wonderful piece of fiction to settle down with and finish in as few sittings as possible. The voice takes a bit of getting used to, that pally, chatty approach to storytelling that Mackay has down to perfection, but a couple of chapters in it seems the most natural thing in the world. A well-constructed and well-paced plot and an engaging narrator combine to keep the reader hooked from early on. Quite possibly the best crime debut of the decade so far, The Necessary Death of Lewis Winter is not to be missed and marks Malcolm Mackay as a writer to watch in the near future.

An Interview with CHRIS MORGAN JONES

Morgan Jones, Chris credit Alexander James
Photograph © Alexander James
Name: CHRIS MORGAN JONES

Author of: AN AGENT OF DECEIT (2011)

On the web: www.chrismorganjones.com

On Twitter: @chrismjauthor

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.

AN AGENT OF DECEIT by Chris Morgan Jones

an-agent-of-deceit- AN AGENT OF DECEIT

Chris Morgan Jones (www.chrismorganjones.com)

Pan Books (www.panmacmillan.com)

£7.99

There seems to be cyclic nature to the popularity of certain, seemingly long-dead, genres. In recent years we have seen upsurges in the popularity of westerns and pirates, for example, while the most recent rebirth, helped along greatly by Tomas Alfredson’s big screen adaptation of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, is in the spy fiction genre. Not since before the fall of the Iron Curtain have we had so much choice in this area, and Chris Morgan Jones is one of the new names making waves. An Agent of Deceit is his first novel, and takes the somewhat unusual approach of constructing a spy novel around a spy who works in the business intelligence community, rather than a government-run institution.

Richard Lock has spent almost fifteen years constructing and running a network of companies which form the external face of Russian oligarch Konstantin Malin’s empire. Lock has done his job well – none of the companies can be traced back to their true owner – and has been paid well for his efforts. When a Greek oil tycoon hires Ikertu Consulting to look into the affairs of Malin, investigator Ben Webster finds that the best place to start looking is the network of companies outside of Russia, and that the weakest link in Malin’s chain is Richard Lock. Spurred on by personal reasons, and by the murder of one of Malin’s retired lieutenants, Webster attempts to secure the defection of a man looking for a way out from under one of Russia’s most dangerous men.

An Agent of Deceit has the feel of an old-fashioned spy novel. With the action focussing on London, Moscow and Berlin, it certainly fits the mould of the Cold War-era spy thrillers. Jones takes the novel of approach of alternating chapters between hunter (Webster) and hunted (Lock), giving us both sides of this complex but engaging story. Webster, ex-journalist turned corporate spy, is a strong lead, and comes across as something of an “everyman”, more Bernard Samson than George Smiley. His position as investigator in business intelligence consultancy Ikertu makes more sense in this post-Cold War world than a similar position in MI-6, but the Russian element, and the Berlin setting of much of the action harks back to an older time, a more divided Europe. Lock is a man out of his depth and struggling to find an escape route. As investigators close in, and focus their attention on his businesses, he starts to panic, wondering just how indispensible he is to Malin. He is a surprisingly likeable character, and we find ourselves rooting for him as his world begins to unravel.

The plot is as complex as Lock’s network of companies, but Jones’ fresh approach and somewhat brusque writing style ensure that proceedings are kept moving, and that the reader is never left confused by jargon or details. As the various threads begin to interweave, and the story moves towards its climax, the pace kicks up a notch and the reader is left breathless and wanting more. The climax, when it arrives, is as tense and thrilling as it is unexpected – the pieces of this finely-constructed mystery fall into place, and the bigger picture is revealed to the reader – and the protagonists – for the first time. It’s an accomplished coup de grace, a very pleasant surprise from a freshman writer who seems already to be on top of his craft.

With the exception of mobile phones – which play a large and important part of the plot – Webster manages to proceed with his investigation without the aid of the gadgets and gizmos that the Bond films have led us to expect from spy adventures. It’s a nice touch (although an unplanned one, according to the author) that gives this novel its old-fashioned feel, and provides us with a story that could well have happened prior to the fall of the Berlin wall. It’s perfect, then, for fans of Le Carré and Deighton and brings a fine tradition into the twenty-first century, giving it a new lease of life in the process.

Chris Morgan Jones brings with him a wealth of real-life experience in the field in which he writes, and this shines through in the details. An Agent of Deceit is a wonderful start to his writing career: it’s an old-world spy adventure that is at once intelligent and thrilling. In Ben Webster we find a sympathetic character – a family man, a man of principles – who forms the heart of the narrative and makes us care about what happens next. There is no doubt about it: spies are back, and Chris Morgan Jones is at the forefront of the push, an exciting young writer with fresh new ideas for an old, but extremely popular, genre.

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