The fall of the iron curtain did not necessarily signal the end of the show for the spy fiction genre. New novellist Chris Morgan Jones has swapped the duplicity of the intelligentsia for the dark, iniquitous world of contemporary business intelligence and the all-powerful Russian oligarchs who run the show in his new book 'An Agent of Deceit'. The story involves former journalist Ben Webster's attempts to expose the dealings of Russian businessman Konstantin Malin (at the behest of his Greek rival Mr Tourna) and find out what is really going on within a complex network of offshore companies - all seemingly owned by a rather ordinary lawyer named Richard Lock.
Jones' background, eleven years as an advisor to New York banks, Middle East governments and Russian businessmen, allowed him to paint a believable, enaging scenario and access to the unseen side of operations - the faceless men of apparent great power - gave him a lead character in Lock.
'For years I had a character in my head,' he explains. 'Or perhaps more accurately a type, and a predicament. In half the cases I worked on Iíd come across these people whose job it was to hide things Ė money, invariably Ė and I became fascinated by the strange choice theyíd made with their lives. Most of them were lawyers and accountants, and while they had outwardly respectable lives what they were paid to do was allow criminals to hide their money, and very often to donate their own identities in the process by acting as nominees (so that they and not their client appear to own all those offshore companies). Most of all I wondered how someone came to play such a role, and what the personal cost to them was of this very odd sacrifice. Eventually that train of thought led to the main character, Richard Lock.'
Runaway trains of thought can be dangerous, of course, and can lead to an author biting their literary tongue to prevent real events and characters from their past get mixed in to a story. In Jones' case this could be very dangerous. 'Many friends think they have spotted particular, real people in the book, but they havenít,' he says. 'I had to be careful not to write anything that might breach a former clientís confidence or embarrass a former colleague Ė and I was happy to do so. The business of writing characters is less about consciously drawing inspiration from a person and more about letting odd qualities and details from a host of different people come together in something new. Can I tell you who Malin and Tourna are based on? Certainly not!'
The most interesting character by far is Lock, Malin's right hand man who soon wants out once he becomes prey from all sides. Although Ben Webster is presented as the main character (and will return in a sequel), he takes a back seat for a large section of the book and we are invited to develop a strong relationship with Lock through his attempts to leave the shady world of business, reunite his family and, ultimately, stay alive. The interchanging of chapters between Webster and Lock is a great technique and, before long, the reader is desperate to get back behind the eyes of Lock, a character we initially hate. 'One of the most valuable things a book can do is encourage the reader to love a patently unlovable character.' agrees Jones. 'So yes, I think that was the point of Lock. When I was first planning the book he was much less sympathetic and remained so throughout, but I found that I wasnít interested in spending time in his company (and doubted whether readers would want to, either).'
'Something I realised about the dual perspective structure of the book was that Webster was having to fill his allotted space with doing things and propelling the narrative.' he continues. '[My next book is] called The Jackalís Share and will be out in hardback early next year. Itís Webster again, but this time itís much more about him. The third book is in the same world but may focus on a different character.'
Through Morgan's time spent in the world of business intelligence, the book benefits from a remarkable level of detail. Fans of the improbable super-spy kit that Fleming continually endowed Bond with may be a little disappointed, and those chasing high-octane thrills may have to look elsewhere. But the choice of exposition over explosions is a good one, delivering highly realistic situations: 'Itís deliberately short on explosions but I hope itís not just exposition. I like thrilling thrillers very much, but if I can believe that what Iím reading is somehow real Iím more engaged. And thereís more at stake, perhaps. I think what I was aiming for was some sort of authenticity.'
Reviews up until now have irresistably mentioned the name of John le Carrť - possibly due to his renewed popularity following last year's adaptation of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy - but Jones doesn't quite agree there is too close a comparison.
'I think heís a quite brilliant writer but Iím not sure heís as much of an influence as it might first appear. I love the chilliness of his books, and if I ever write plots half as good as his Iíll be very happy, but as I wrote I began to realise that there were other writers who had more of an effect on the writing. James Lee Burke would be one, for the directness of the writing, and Rex Stout another, for his talent for winding up a story with an ingenious stratagem of some kind.'
The winding up of An Agent of Deceit is as satisfying as it is unexpected. Often a story ends ambiguously as a writer fails to tie up every loose end they have presented, but this is a book you feel you can close. I asked Chris how he went about writing his first novel. If he worked from the end backwards or preferred to let the story flow as he wrote, taking him to places he had not expected.
'A bit of both. I knew where the story started and that it would end with a confrontation between two of the major characters, and I had an idea how that would work. Everything in the middle was new to me and yes, I just let it develop. From start to final final draft, it took a year to write. There were no serious [writers'] blockages. One of the best pieces of advice Iíve had came early on from another novelist who told me that when you stop work in the evening you should always leave yourself something easy to do the next morning Ė the end of a conversation or a paragraph you already know how to write. That eases you in. And like many writers, I think, the very first thing I do each day is read and edit what Iíve written the day before, which also helps to get you back into the rhythm of it.'
And, now that the book is in the shops, the day job of the modern author turned self-promoter begins: '[I've done] all sorts of things - my publisher, Macmillan, have been very supportive. This blog tour, for one. Iím due to speak on a panel at the Harrogate Crime Writing festival in July and there will be / have been other festivals / lunches / speaking appearances in Birmingham, the Isle of Wight, Harrogate (again) and various other places. The book has a Facebook page and Iím tweeting, which I was compelled to do by Macmillanís marketing team but am rather enjoying.