THE GOOD SPY is the latest espionage thriller from Jeffrey Layton, acclaimed author of Blowout, Warhead, and Vortex One. His latest work is in the coastal waters of the American/Canadian border. Russian naval officer Yuri Kirov faces a race against time to save the remaining crew of his marooned submarine amid escalating political tensions and a jealous husband.
Jeffrey Layton kindly took the time out to discuss his latest book with The Big Thrill.
THE GOOD SPY follows Yuri Kirov as he tries to save the world. Tell us a bit about the perilous situation that Yuri finds himself in and the dangers confronting him.
Yuri Kirov is a Russian Federation naval intelligence officer who specializes in underwater surveillance. He is aboard a Russian submarine on a clandestine mission over a hundred miles inside U.S. waters when the sub sinks. Employing cutting-edge deep diving equipment, Yuri is the only crew member to escape from the stricken sub. Once ashore but suffering from decompression sickness (aka the “bends”), Yuri’s mission is to rescue the surviving crew that remain marooned inside the hulk deep below the surface.
Can you tell us about Yuri Kirov?
Yuri is smart, motivated, and unrelenting in his struggle to rescue the survivors of the marooned spy sub Neva. He is also a decent man with a true moral compass that keeps him on course.
My characters are amalgams of people I know and/or read about, which is how I think many noveliss operate. Yuri Kirov is someone who I would like to know personally―someone I would be pleased to call my friend.
How much research did you have to do to be able to bring a character like Yuri to life?
I spent considerable time reading about the Russian Navy and its officer corps with special emphasis on submarine operations. Like their counterparts in the United States and other Western powers, the officers aboard Russian submarines are an elite group who are highly educated, motivated, and goal-oriented toward defeating the enemy in combat.
Jeremy Burns travels…constantly, but right now he’s settling into his new office and celebrating the release of THE DUBAI BETRAYAL, a geopolitical spy thriller featuring Wayne Wilkins, a fan favorite from Burns’s acclaimed first novel, From the Ashes. As if providing the soundtrack to this fierce new book—in which Wilkins leads an elite group of black ops soldiers into Dubai to rescue the U.S. Ambassador to Israel—the adrenaline-pumping Celldweller comes up on Burns’s playlist while he sifts through photos and other mementos of his travels.
“I’ve been moving around a lot,” he says, which is an understatement considering that he, his wife, and dogs have been on a year-long sojourn exploring the country after several worldwide adventures on his own. Imagine the rakish Burns in expedition wear while spelunking in Lebanon or chasing monkeys through a jungle temple in Rajasthan. Or donning some city chic threads on the backstreets of Brussels or the forgotten churches of Rome or sporting some pretty cool aviators as he soaks up the Middle Eastern sun during his two years in Dubai, which is where he was living when he finished writing From the Ashes, the beginning of his American-based Jonathan Rickner series.
“Dubai was too fascinating a place not to explore in a thriller,” Burns says. “Everything there is superlative, designed to be bigger and better than anything else in the world.” In fact, every scene in THE DUBAI BETRAYAL is a real place and several of the locales are tied to specific events Burns experienced during his time in the country. “I celebrated New Year’s 2009 at a villa on the Palm Jumeirah. My apartment was in the Hor Al Anz neighborhood. I watched the grand opening of the Burj Khalifa and got to go up in it within days of its opening. And I spent many a weekend exploring the vast halls of the Dubai Mall. These and many more unique settings provided a fascinating backdrop.”
In THE GOOD TRAITOR, Ryan Quinn brings back Kera Mersal, the CIA analyst-turned-operative who uncovers a scandal within the agency and is then accused of treason. Her mission is now to unfold a geopolitical conspiracy while trying to clear her name after the events of the previous novel. Described by the author as a combination of Jason Bourne, Edward Snowden and Carrie Mathison from the TV series Homeland, Kera’s first appearance was in End of Secrets, a finalist for the 2013 International Book Awards.
Born in Alaska, Quinn worked in the publishing business in Manhattan for five years, during which he wrote The Fall, a college coming-of-age story that he published at his own expenses. The sales were so good he was soon contacted by an editor at Lake Union, an imprint of Amazon Publishing, who was interested in publishing the novel.
Quinn’s first literary attempts remain in his drawer. “I think first novels are incredibly valuable to writers, and best kept away from readers,” says the author. “It takes a full novel or two to begin to learn your own strengths and weaknesses and how to deploy them over a four-hundred-page project.”
The world of international espionage couldn’t be further from Quinn’s daily life, so half of his work is dedicated to research. He believes this is the best period in history for writers who want to tackle subjects that are away from their own personal reality, since information is widely available.
“If writers wrote only about events they had directly experienced in their own lives, most books would be excruciatingly tedious,” he says. “To create a richly imagined world, a writer must write about plenty of things he’s only imagined. Bridging the gap between what we’re fascinated by and what we have direct knowledge of is what fiction is all about.”
By Basil Sands
Think Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy in Africa. Revenge served cold amidst the bureaucratic bumbling inside the CIA as a political struggle unfolds. That is the thumbnail on CHOICE OF ENEMIES, a debut novel by M. A. Richards.
Richards was born and educated in Massachusetts and Connecticut. He served more than two decades as a Cultural Attaché in the Department of State. Aside from assignments in Washington, D.C., his career took him to cities in Africa, Asia, Europe, and the Middle East, including Amman, Baghdad, Bangkok, Cape Town, Istanbul, Kuala Lumpur, Kuwait City, Jakarta, Jerusalem, Lagos, Moscow, Seoul, Singapore, Sydney, Tel Aviv, Tokyo, Ulan Bator, Vladivostok, and Wellington. He also served at the U.S. Pacific Command in Honolulu as the Special Advisor to the Commander.
How was CHOICE OF ENEMIES born?
When I served a year in Iraq, I spent a lot of time on Blackhawks, flying from Baghdad to Fallujah and Ramadi and back again. Strapped to a hard bench, I spent the time searching the skies for MANPAD flares and writing stories in my head. When I returned to the U.S., I was assigned as a Fellow at the Asia-Pacific Center for Security Studies, a wonderful experience that introduced me to a group of fascinating characters from countries as disparate as Pakistan and Japan. More importantly, for the first time since I joined the Department of State, I possessed blocks of time large enough to begin crafting a novel. I worked on two tracks at the Center—exploring links between jihadist groups in Asia, the Middle East, and Africa, and drafting the rough outline (more of a sketch, really) of a book based on my helicopter musings. During my stay at APCSS, the musings morphed into the first draft of CHOICE OF ENEMIES.
It is a story of international espionage that exposes the “DNA strands” that entangle the United States’ efforts to secure steady supplies of oil, destroy radical Islamic terrorist organizations, and guarantee that governments in strategic countries remain within its orbit (regime change is such a quaint expression). After retiring in 2013, I bought a new laptop and went at it. Reams of (electronic) paper later, I sent query letters to agents and signed with Dean Krystek of Word|Link Agency. Dean placed the novel with Larry Knorr at Sunbury Press. It launched on January 10, 2016. My fingers are crossed (tough to type!) that Dean will soon secure a film deal—what a thrill it would be to watch my characters duel on the silver screen.
By Alex Segura
Chris Pavone likes to throw his heroes for a loop. Most of the time, they don’t even know they’re heroes yet. From expat mom Kate Moore to literary agent Isabel Reed, Pavone has crafted stories that pull seemingly normal people into dangerous worlds of menace and intrigue, forcing them to become much more than run-of-the-mill drones, and creating unforgettable thrillers in the process.
The trend continues with Pavone’s latest, THE TRAVELERS, a tightly plotted thrill-ride that takes burned-out journalist Will Rhodes from the nadir of his personal and professional life and catapults him into the deadly sphere of international espionage and double-crosses. Pavone’s knack for precise, impeccable pacing and layered, believable characters are on full display with THE TRAVELERS. The Big Thrill got the chance to ask Pavone a few questions about the book, which was released on March 8.
Chris, what can you tell us about Will Rhodes, the protagonist of your latest novel, THE TRAVELERS?
Will seems to have it all: recently married to the woman of his dreams, working in a glamorous job as European correspondent for Travelers magazine. But his marriage is in a sophomore slump, they’re completely broke, and Will is getting tired of a repetitive, exhausting job. He’s teetering on the cusp between optimism and disenchantment, between youth and middle age; Will still wants to believe that perfection is possible, but he’s confronting a lot of evidence to the contrary. And he’s about to make a huge mistake.
Will’s days are in a bit of a doldrums when we first meet him, before everything gets turned around. What is it that appeals to you about stories involving characters thrown into unexpected situations?
I like being able to imagine myself as the protagonist: what would I do? What decisions would I make? What chances would I take? I have a hard time doing this when it’s James Bond on the page.
President Vladimir Putin is almost universally viewed as Russia’s strong man, willing and able to stand up to what he sees as bullying by the West. He presents himself as the strong, unyielding leader. At home, he’s surrounded by powerful political, military, and industrial figures, some of whom share his world view that friendly relations with the West are a threat to Russia and their own business interests and careers.
From a thriller perspective, I wanted to explore the possibility of what might happen if an outsider—a “dissident” and “traitor” to many in Moscow parlance—tried to lure the president away from his hard-line stance against the West.
I came up with a scenario where increasing tension between Moscow and the West causes a former KGB colleague and one-time mentor to Putin, Leonid Tzorekov, to act. Now a successful businessman and banker living in London, Tzorekov seeks a secret meeting with Putin inside Russia.
However, in doing so he has to factor in the people surrounding Putin. Among them is a group known as the Wise Men, a powerful caucus of politicians, senior military men, and business moguls—including arms manufacturers—who will go to any lengths to ensure the proposed meeting does not take place. Even if that means eliminating Tzorekov and anybody connected with him.
For Tzorekov, such a move is fraught with danger and doubt. What if Putin refuses to see him? Would that be the worst that could happen? Or only the beginning? It would mean failure, certainly—even humiliation on a personal level. But, Tzorekov reasons, it would be worth a try not only to improve relations at such a dangerous time for the world, but also to make up for his own exile from his Mother Country, which he misses with a heavy heart.
By Dan Levy
With 13 novels/novellas to her credit, one might not guess that Libby Fischer Hellmann never intended to be a writer. “I never had any desire to write a book,” she says. “It was not even Plan B on my agenda. I was always going to be a filmmaker. But life had other plans.”
Further evidence that Hellmann’s name would likely never grace the cover of a published work of fiction is that her mother is a prolific mystery writer—Hellmann’s “rebellious nature” would not allow her to follow in her mother’s footsteps. But as is the case with most writers, and nearly every great story, there’s a moment when everything changes. For Hellmann, it was reading Jeremiah Healy’s, The Staked Goat (recommended by her mother, by the way).
According to Hellmann, a voracious reader, “After a while, (thrillers) all started to sound the same. The world is going to blow up. The hero keeps the world from blowing up, and he walks off with his girlfriend.” The Staked Goat showed her that all thrillers were not alike. “It was about a murder. But what was very interesting to me was that there was a whole issue devoted to the after market of weapons from the Vietnam War. I was like, ‘You can talk about this kind of stuff in a mystery? That’s cool.’ I was really intrigued by the idea that you could write a mystery, but you could also talk about an issue.”
This month, Hellmann will release her 14th novel, JUMP CUT. It marks the fifth in Hellmann’s Ellie Foreman series, and the return of the protagonist after a decade. “When I first came up with the story I wanted to write, it was painfully clear that Ellie needed to tell (it). Plus, I got questions from fans, When is she coming back? We miss her.” The time and timing were right for Ellie’s return.
The reunion between Hellmann and her alter ego was as immediate as it was comfortable. And why not? Both are Chicagoans, both worked in video production and both are passionate about their pursuits. “It was like meeting up with an old friend you hadn’t seen in a (while)—and then having a great time. (Ellie’s voice) came back to me after one page.”
By John Darrin
I got stuck on this one, coming up with one reason after another to procrastinate. (Sorry, editors.) OK, the two days in the hospital were a valid excuse, but I was conscious the whole time and could theoretically have been writing. Anyway, I decided to try Matthew FitzSimmons’ writers’ block technique – lying on the floor on my back, staring at the ceiling. That ended up causing further delay when I had to go find my hammer, patching compound, and ladder to fix the nail pops I noticed while not overcoming the desire not to write.
FitzSimmons is the author of THE SHORT DROP and the subject of this profile. The book has been exceedingly well-received, jumping to Number 1 on the Amazon best-seller list in several Thriller categories after introduction as a Kindle First selection. Very impressive stuff, and maybe just a little intimidating to someone profiling him.
Matthew attended Thrillerfest before he started writing thrillers, a curious chronology. I asked him about that and he said, “I’d reached a despairing point when I felt my life had slipped out of my control. The book was a way to reassert control, if not over my life, then at least over a fictional one. It became my refuge. I don’t know that it saved my life, but it certainly helped me rediscover it. It was honestly quite late in the writing process that it occurred to me that it might interest a reader other than myself.”
Here’s a short blurb about THE SHORT DROP so you don’t have to just believe me when I recommend the book.
A decade ago, the fourteen-year-old daughter of Senator Benjamin Lombard disappeared in a most sensational missing-person case. And now, Lombard is running for the presidency and the mystery is still unsolved. Gibson Vaughn, hacker, ex-Marine, and the missing Suzanne’s close friend is asked by Lombard’s former head of security to help investigate new evidence about her disappearance.
Haunted by tragic memories, he jumps at the chance. Using his military and technical prowess, he discovers multiple conspiracies surrounding the Lombard family. With new information surfacing that could threaten Lombard’s political ambitions, Gibson must stay one step ahead of the powerful, ruthless players who will do anything to silence him as he navigates a dangerous web to get to the truth.
Brilliance and its sequel, A Better World, earned Marcus Sakey a legion of new fans. Now Sakey proves he knows how to bring in the big finish with WRITTEN IN FIRE, the closing act of this powerful trilogy.
The basic idea for the series is deceptively simple. What if one percent of the world was born savants, able to do thing the rest of us couldn’t? In Sakey’s world humanity has struggled to cope with the brilliants – that one percent of people born with remarkable gifts – for 30 years. All efforts to avoid a devastating civil war eventually fail. It’s a grand, high-concept idea that Sakey says he got from his wife.
“She had recently gotten her Masters in early childhood development,” Sakey says, “and so always had fascinating bits to share about how the brain works, especially the autistic brain. Which got me wondering, what if about the same percentage of people were born with a similarly specialized way of thinking, only the impact was cranked up and the social side effects were removed? ”
In this case, society’s reaction to these special people leads to the White House in ruins, Madison Square Garden turned into an internment camp, and an armed militia of thousands marching in Wyoming. In some ways it may sound familiar. Sakey himself will tell you that there have always been stories about the exceptional amongst us, from early mythology to the Arthurian legends to the X-Men to vampire tales. It’s his approach to that situation that makes this story unique.
“Where I tried to do something different was that instead of making the story about the exceptional people, I focused on the rest of us,” Sakey says. “On what was happening to the world, how mistrust and fear and intolerance were tearing us apart. The classic dystopian structure is to start far in the future, after the fall of civilization; I wanted to go the other way, and show the thousand blows that set it staggering and, possibly, collapsing.”
The protagonist of WRITTEN IN FIRE, Nick Cooper, has spent his life fighting for his children and his country. He’s the top gun of an agency that tracks and executes antisocial brilliants, and he is a brilliant himself. In the book every brilliant is different. Cooper’s gift is a heightened level of intuition. He builds patterns of how people think and act, and uses those to predict what they’ll do next. He’s committed, but is he a hero?
Jericho Quinn returns in BRUTE FORCE, the sixth in Marc Cameron’s popular series. This time, Quinn is wanted by his own government because he knows the truth—the president is controlled by terrorists and the vice president is a global mastermind plotting the demise of America. Knowing the plan is close to fruition, Quinn is working against heightened security, mass surveillance, and the establishment of a brutal police state in his own country while trying to operate overseas as a hunted man. Fortunately, his pursuit takes him to China where a lovely Chinese Ministry of State Security agent saves his life and proposes they work together to avert war between their countries.
Pakistan, Western China, Croatia, Seattle, and, of course, Washington, D.C. figure in the chase. Jacques Thibodaux, Ronnie Garcia, Emiko Miyagi, and other characters in the Quinn series return to help in the fight.
So where did the idea originate for Cameron?
“The genesis of BRUTE FORCE occurred while I was writing the second book, Act of Terror. That book introduced the overarching plan to put moles raised from children to hate the United States into the fabric of U.S. politics. Each book has a stand-alone plot as well but, to one degree or another, works toward the final culmination in BRUTE FORCE.”
Writing with an eye toward the long game is a unique aspect of his series. “I think a plot that weaves through several books is more like real life. Television and movies have made us accustomed to DNA results coming back at lightning speed and important criminal and counter terrorism cases being solved or resolved in one or two hours. Life is rarely that way. In real life, every day has a cliffhanger ending to one degree or another. Even if our hero rides off into the sunset, he’s camping somewhere in the dark, possibly with snakes…
She’s been called the “female Robert Ludlum” and the “Queen of Espionage.” She’s broken barriers for women in fiction, and co-founded one of the world’s leading organizations for writers. And, oh yeah, she writes kick-ass New York Times bestsellers.
You guessed it, she’s Gayle Lynds, and this month, she’s back with a vengeance with THE ASSASSINS (St. Martin’s Press, June 30).
On the heels of her smash hit The Book of Spies, this latest story is about what happens when two spooks get caught in the crossfire of a business dispute—one involving six of the world’s most deadly assassins. Part heist story, part espionage thriller—one hundred percent adrenaline—THE ASSASSINS should go down as Lynds’s best novel to date. And that’s saying something given that her work is on Publishers Weekly’s list of the top ten spy thrillers of all time.
What’s special about Lynds, though, is that when she’s not crafting page-turning thrillers or hiking in beautiful Maine, she’s helping aspiring authors. She’s a true writer’s writer, and it is no surprise that the International Thriller Writers, the organization she co-founded, carries forward her spirit of kindness, support, and mentorship.
Lynds graciously agreed to answer a few questions about THE ASSASSINS and her life and career.
Alan Jacobson, national bestselling author of critically acclaimed novels, has done it again with this latest international thriller, THE LOST CODEX. This is the third outing in his OPSIG Team Black series, featuring FBI profiler Karen Vail, DOD covert operative Hector Santos, and FBI terrorism expert Aaron “Uzi” Uziel.
There is no doubt that Alan Jacobson has a firm grasp on his research. I was astonished by the level of detail and authenticity, a level that can only be attained from picking the brains of experts in every field of law enforcement and intelligence. Each of Alan Jacobson’s novels is packed with this kind of “inside” knowledge. Over the years Jacobson has built a list of go-to experts, from senior FBI profiler and good friend Mark Safarik to working with members of the DEA, NYPD, U.S. Marshals Service, Scotland Yard, SWAT, and the U.S. military. No wonder a retired U.S. Navy SEAL says of THE LOST CODEX: “Incredibly realistic. This is the way we did it in the SEAL teams. It’s so true to life that it’s hard to believe it’s fiction.”
OPSIG stands for: Operations Support Intelligence Group. Run out of a secret office in the basement of the Pentagon, the team takes on missions the United States cannot sanction or acknowledge. This time the team must track down a group of terrorists who may be in possession of two ancient biblical documents that could wreck havoc on the Israeli-Palestinian impasse and threaten the foundations of Christianity. That would be bad enough, but the terrorists are also responsible for a series of bombings and sniper attacks in Washington D.C. and Manhattan. The OPSIG team’s hunt for the ancient parchments and the terrorists responsible of the horrendous attacks requires them to use every skill and resource they have against a very sophisticated and intelligent group of terrorists, and leads them at break-neck speed to London (an absolute no-go for some in the team), Paris, Jerusalem, and finally deep into Gaza. This story will take your breath away.
Alan Jacobson was kind enough to take time out of his busy schedule to sit down with The Big Thrill.
What inspired you to tackle the quagmire that is the Israeli and Palestinian conflict? Even you state that you approached this book with trepidation.
Well, I’ll tell you this: I did not sit down and say, “Hey, here’s an idea: I’m gonna write a book involving a peace process that’s failed repeatedly for 60 years.” THE LOST CODEX was an idea that came to me while I was in Israel a few years ago and learned about a (real) ancient document and the mystery surrounding it. I found it so intriguing that I knew then that I had to write a novel with that at its core. As to the peace process, anytime you touch the Middle East, particularly a story involving the Holy Land, it’s difficult to be genuine about the region without addressing its realities. While THE LOST CODEX is not about the peace process, it’s a backdrop against which other things occur.
In addition, I have a stable of characters from the OPSIG Team Black series (Hard Target OSPG #2 in particular) who’ve dealt with Middle Eastern terrorism, so it was only natural for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict be touched upon in THE LOST CODEX. Interestingly, once I got into the research and spoke with experts in the region I discovered things about the peace process that I didn’t know—which was surprising because I stay up on politics and current events. There’s a lot that the mainstream US media doesn’t cover. So it was a bit of an eye-opener for me. Suddenly a lot of things that happened there in recent years made sense, given that new perspective. And it fit beautifully with the story I was telling.
CIA special ops veteran McBride and his partner, Harvey Fontana, respond to their friend’s plea. As they launch a covert investigation into Mason, the security chief for one of the nation’s leading private military contractors, they discover that not everything is as it appears. Mason and his inner circle are leading a top-secret operation to tackle a wave of crime plaguing the US-Mexican border, and the murder may have been part of their complicated strategy—or part of a more menacing agenda. Soon McBride and Fontana find themselves engaged in a deadly game. With a powerful politician behind it all, stopping Mason could mean joining a secret war—with truly global stakes.
“Part Jack Reacher, part Jason Bourne, Nathan McBride is a compelling, conflicted hero. Option to Kill is a masterful thrill ride. Definitely one for your keeper shelf. I couldn’t put it down.”
~Steve Berry, New York Times bestselling author of The Columbus Affair
The main protagonist in THE ULTIMATE THREAT is repeatedly challenged by skeptical allies as he charges forward to build an unlikely but plausible alliance to battle the spreading menace posed by freshly trained homegrown extremists. Osborne says there’s a purpose in all of this—a five-alarm purpose.
The novel is a true-to-life account about the rapid spread of religious extremism but with a chilling twist, Osborne explained: “I’ve superimposed this fictional story of terrorism onto genuine surroundings in American cities. The objective is to bring home to everyone in the West the very real danger created by the rapid spread of heinous brutality by these unprincipled savages.
“Make no mistake, we’ve grown dangerously complacent in the West. Unless we demand that our security and law-enforcement agencies be more proactive, we could easily find ourselves subjected to the same unspeakable sadism, and facing tragedies on a much larger scale than we’ve already seen in New York, Paris, London, Boston, and Ottawa. The list can only grow longer. This novel is a wake-up call.”
THE ULTIMATE THREAT is the culmination of more than five years of research and writing. Osborne says that his novel is, unapologetically, “a disturbing look at the heinous crimes of religious extremists, but it is also a deeply compassionate account of the suffering millions of people are enduring daily simply by having been in the wrong place when these savages invaded their homelands.”
Published in rapid succession, Jason M. Hough’s first three novels, The Darwin Elevator, The Exodus Towers, and The Plague Forge, earned mountains of praise and comparisons to such authors as James S. A. Corey and John Scalzi. Now Hough returns with a riveting near-future spy thriller that combines the adrenaline of a high-octane James Bond adventure with mind-blowing sci-fi speculations worthy of Christopher Nolan’s Inception.
Technologically enhanced superspy Peter Caswell has been dispatched on a top-secret assignment unlike any he’s ever faced. A spaceship that vanished years ago has been found, along with the bodies of its murdered crew—save one. Peter’s mission is to find the missing crew member, who fled through what appears to be a tear in the fabric of space. Beyond this mysterious doorway lies an even more confounding reality: a world that seems to be Earth’s twin.
Peter discovers that this mirrored world is indeed different from his home, and far more dangerous. Cut off from all support, and with only days to complete his operation, Peter must track his quarry alone on an alien world. But he’s unprepared for what awaits on the planet’s surface, where his skills will be put to the ultimate test—and everything he knows about the universe will be challenged in ways he never could have imagined.
I’d just completed years of military training. I’d parachuted into stormy swamps, memorized Soviet battle plans, and “learned Russian so you didn’t have to.” Then the enemy my generation had grown up with, and the career for which I’d sweat and bled, crumbled on the six o’clock news.
What are you going to do now? Mom asked.
I went over to the dark side. I moved to Moscow. The Wall had fallen and then the Curtain—let the pillaging and plundering begin! Of course it was the locals now known as oligarchs who ransacked Russia by the billion. I did OK, landing a corporate gig peddling Western medicine.
Years passed—tough perestroika years—and my sworn enemies morphed into best friends. I came to understand that defeat had cost them more than jobs and traditions. The collapse of the Iron Curtain had also crushed their pride. They’d been a superpower one day, and destitute the next. Talk about a tough pill to swallow.
I tried to imagine how I’d react, if American pride became an illusion. I thought about how hard I’d fight to prevent it. With clenched fists, I vowed that I’d use everything I had learned, every tool at my disposal. Then I put myself in my new friends’ shoes, and asked:
By Liam Saville
UK author Alex Shaw has built an international following with his thrillers featuring MI6 operative, Aidan Snow. They include Cold Blood, Cold Black, and his latest COLD EAST. He has also written several stand-alone books, has had works published in numerous anthologies, and recently penned a novella for Amazon’s Kindle Worlds platform.
Alex and his family divide their time between homes in the UK and Ukraine; where many of his books are set. Alex’s personal insight into the politics and daily life of Eastern Europe flavours his work, adding a rich authenticity to his writing.
Australian thriller writer, Liam Saville recently caught up with Alex for a chat about his latest book, COLD EAST.
Alex, for those readers who may be new to your books, can you tell us a little about Aidan Snow the man; what makes him tick and what are his inner demons?
Aidan Snow is a former SAS trooper turned operative for the Secret Intelligence Service (SIS), commonly referred to as MI6. His father was a diplomat and Snow spent his formative years in East Germany and then Moscow. He has a strong sense of social justice which has on occasion put him on the wrong side of events. In the first Aidan Snow thriller, Cold Blood, he was suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, whilst on the run in Ukraine, accused of murder.
That’s interesting; I know PTSD is a significant issue for many soldiers from both our countries who have recently returned from Iraq and Afghanistan, so it’s refreshing to see an author tackle this issue. It’s been said that thrillers can be very plot driven, and not so big on character development. I know that’s not the case with your books, and with that in mind, if you had to liken Aidan Snow to another well-known literary character, who would it be, and why?
I think that’s an easier question for a reader to answer than me, I didn’t set out to copy anyone, but by virtue of the genre there will be some comparisons. Snow gets the bad guys in the end but I think he’s more cerebral than the “action man” stereotype. He gets injured and sometimes luck plays a part in his success. I wanted to build a three-dimensional protagonist based on my own experiences. For example, when we first meet Aidan Snow he’s teaching at an International School in Kyiv and enjoying life as an ex-pat—which is what I was doing at the time I wrote Cold Blood. I must point out however that I was not in the SAS.
On a routine intelligence gathering mission in Tehran, Jack Ryan, Jr., has lunch with his oldest friend, Seth Gregory, an engineer overseeing a transcontinental railway project. As they part, Seth slips Jack a key, along with a perplexing message.
The next day Jack is summoned to an apartment where two men claim Seth has disappeared—gone to ground with funds for a vital intelligence operation. Jack’s oldest friend has turned, they insist.
They leave Jack with a warning: If you hear from Seth Gregory, call us immediately. And do not get involved.
But they don’t know Jack. He won’t abandon a friend in need.
His pursuit of the truth will lead him across Iran, through the war-torn Caucasus, and finally deep into territory coveted by the increasingly aggressive Russian Federation. Along the way, Jack is joined by Seth’s primary agent, Ysabel, a enigmatic Iranian woman who seems to be his only clue to Seth’s whereabouts.
Jack soon finds himself lost in a maze of intrigue, lies, and betrayal where no one is who they seem to be—not even Seth, who’s harboring a secret of his own that harkens back to the Cold War. A secret that is driving him to the brink of treachery.
Racing against the clock, Jack must unravel the mystery: Who is friend and who is foe? Before it’s over, Jack Ryan, Jr., may have to choose between his loyalty to Seth and his loyalty to America.
After the success of The Watchman, the first in the Marc Portman series, which zoomed to the top of the Amazon ebook list in the espionage category, and featured Portman fighting Somali pirates and terrorists, I had to choose somewhere equally challenging for him to go in the second book, CLOSE QUARTERS.
Sad to say, I wasn’t exactly short of options.
At the time of writing in 2013/14, Ukraine was heating up to be another long-term center of conflict, with pro-Russian separatists fighting Ukrainian government forces in the east of the country, and increasingly seen to be backed by active Russian forces (or “volunteers,” as they were described by Moscow).
Watching the flurry of diplomatic activity as politicians from various quarters tried to help, I was struck immediately by the possibility of one of these well-meaning advisers or monitors being taken captive and used as a bargaining tool between east and west. After all, it has happened before.
Very quickly the idea of a U.S. State Department official sent to check out the developing situation finding himself in custody and an unknown fate became the plot for a story, and Portman was on his next assignment.
Reviewers have called Orest Stelmach’s writing “brilliant, nuanced and deeply moving,” which is high praise for any author, but especially for one whose first language was not English. Born in Connecticut to parents who immigrated to the U.S. from Ukraine, his Nadia Tesla thriller series is deeply influenced by his Ukrainian heritage and the catastrophic consequences of the accident at Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant. The series takes the reader from New York to Ukraine, Siberia, Alaska, and Japan. His upcoming release, THE ALTAR GIRL, brings this chilling series to its end.
Stelmach’s way with words is apparent before you even crack one of his books, however. Visit his website to read essays that are witty, inspiring, and emotive. You’ll find in these short writings, the hand of a master storyteller.
Orest sat down with The Big Thrill for this interview.
THE ALTAR GIRL is a prequel to the popular Nadia Tesla series. In what ways is Nadia different now than she would have been had the prequel been written first?
In fact, the prequel was written first. After the subsequent three books were published, I went back and rewrote the prequel years after I first imagined it. I ended up changing eighty to ninety percent of the book. As a result of writing the later books first, Nadia did change, just as you suggest. First, she became more mature for her age, with a voice that reflected her childhood hardships. And second, she became a woman with shame, the kind that defines humanity. In Nadia’s case, her shame is at the core of the plot and themes of THE ALTAR GIRL.
Major Kit Bennings is an elite military intelligence agent working undercover in Moscow. When he is blackmailed by a brutal mafia don and former KGB general, he knows that his military career, if not his life, will soon be over. With little to lose, he goes rogue in the hope of saving his kidnapped sister and stopping a deadly, high-tech scheme directed against the lifeblood of America.
Yulana Petkova is a gorgeous divorcee, devoted mother, and Russian weapons engineer. And maybe more. Spy? Mob assassin? The shotgun marriage to stranger Kit Bennings takes her on a life-or-death hopscotch from Moscow to Los Angeles, from secret US military bases to Las Vegas, where she uses her wiles at every turn to carry out her own hidden agenda.
Hunted by killers from both Russia and the United States, Bennings and Petkova forge an uneasy alliance as they struggle to stop the brilliant deception.. the maskirovka… that could make the mafia kingpin the richest person in the world, while decimating the very heart of America’s economic and intelligence institutions.
I’d like to open a door to another history, an alternate history, where wonderful heroes we know and love go on even more fabulous adventures than they did in their real lives. Standing right on the other side of that door is Francine Mathews, whose WWII spy thriller TOO BAD TO DIE will be released this month.
It’s a pleasure to interview Mathews, a writer right at the other spectrum of political fiction than me: she writes historical thrillers and I write “right-the-hell-now” ones; she has written more than twenty books and I’ve written one. It’s a match made in heaven and I was a little giddy when I received the opportunity to conduct the interview.
For those of you who don’t know Mathews, she studied history at Princeton and Stanford, and then worked as an intelligence analyst at the CIA for four years. She’s written twenty-five novels under two names—the other being Stephanie Barron—most of them historical fiction dealing with real-life historical figures.
To start, would you tell our readers about TOO BAD TO DIE? What inspired the novel?
You know, when I wrote JACK 1939 a few years ago—about Jack Kennedy’s six-month odyssey through Europe when he was twenty-two and Hitler was embarking on his invasion of Poland—I kept running into Ian Fleming. He knew everybody Jack knew, on two different continents, and he had a finger in every one of World War II’s spies as assistant to the Chief of Naval Intelligence. I like to write about real people in unreal situations. When I realized Fleming had actually planned the Tehran Conference, which Hitler intended to explode by assassinating Churchill, Stalin, and Roosevelt—I thought, okay, that’s the next book!
You may want to rethink what you do in public—at least if you’re a character in Ryan Quinn’s exciting tech thriller END OF SECRETS, where Hawk, the eye in the sky, might just be watching while you sit on the subway or walk along the street, unaware of the camera aimed right at you.
CIA agent Kera Mersal is recruited to a black-op team code named Hawk. Her first assignment—find out how four people could disappear seemingly into thin air. An ominous message written in graffiti haunts Kera as she comes across it time and time again—Have you figured it out yet? The action draws you in from the first page and doesn’t let up until the last word. The Big Thrill caught up with author Ryan Quinn to ask him a few questions about his latest book.
Tell us something about END OF SECRETS that we won’t find on the back cover.
The stakes in a thriller typically involve very obvious life-and-death scenarios: a psychopath killer, a terrorist, a loose nuclear bomb, that sort of thing. And those sorts of stakes are present in END OF SECRETS as Kera, the main protagonist confronts powerful people who have killed to protect the secrets she’s trying to uncover. But as a writer and, frankly, as a real live human living in our modern world, I’m interested in other stakes as well. Things like privacy and the digital footprints we are all creating every day. Things like the cultural tension between art and entertainment, or between news and entertainment, and how we ought value such things. So the characters in END OF SECRETS face these modern-day conflicts too, just as all of us will have to grapple with them well beyond the foreseeable future. As a reader, you don’t need to scratch your head over all this stuff to enjoy the book. But it’s there, and I hope it thrills a few readers in its own way.
The level of technical expertise in your book is impressive. Tell us about your research.
I’m not a tech-inclined person. But I’ve become so interested in the implications of new technologies—especially ones pertaining to privacy, surveillance, and espionage—that I overcame my indifference to the nitty-gritty details of computing and networks in order to be able to tell this story in a credible way. To do that, I had to lean heavily on research. I was pleasantly surprised by how much I enjoyed it. It was a pretty intense crash course, but I got to design the curriculum and I got hooked on the thrill of learning about this world, which is both impressive and scary. Most of my new knowledge came from nonfiction books about the CIA and NSA, cyberespionage, hacking, surveillance, and data-mining. I listened to audiobooks of these while out on long runs. That’s how I find the time to do most of my research. To compliment that in-depth research, I never hesitate to use Google and Wikipedia to track down a few specific details to round out a description of something. In the end, I think my layman’s origins helped me express all the technological details in a way that non-techie readers like me still find accessible.
In SHADOW KNIGHT’S MATE, Jay Brandon offers a tightly structured and thematically layered conspiracy thriller that pulls out all the stops. Jack Driscoll is a member of The Circle, a covert organization ostensibly protecting US interests for two centuries. When the organization is attacked by an unknown antagonist, what appear to be doubles of Jack are sighted in Europe. While he tries to combat the subversions occurring around him he meets Arden, a girl whose motivations remain as shadowy as the narrative.
Tell us about SHADOW KNIGHT’S MATE.
In the book, Jack Driscoll is a young member of a very secretive, loosely organized group known as The Circle, which has operated behind the scenes for generations, protecting American interests. They work through subtlety and suggestion. As Jack says, “None of our members has held elected office in more than two hundred years. Not even a local school board. Actually, two of our members were First Ladies of the United States, but not the two you would think. Very few of us were CEOs, either. More commonly we were the assistant to the Human Resources Director. These were the people to whom presidents and CEOs turn in times of crisis. Mycroft Holmes, not Sherlock.”
But in SHADOW, they seem to have been discovered, as several of their members are attacked at the same time America is. And someone is targeting Jack directly, with impersonators of him appearing around Europe. Jack goes to Europe to investigate, taking with him (against his will) Arden, the youngest and most accomplished member of The Circle. Even in this group of geniuses and world-class networkers, she scares people with her abilities to read people and make connections. And Jack isn’t sure of her intentions.
By John Darrin
Alex Shaw is a bit of an enigma to me. On the one hand, he’s created a fictional ex-SAS-now-MI6 operative and, Shaw acknowledges, “Aidan Snow is me if I’d been in the SAS.” On the other hand, he’s written a stageplay about a time-traveling, double-glazing salesman (a replacement window salesman, for all of us non-Brits) and he’d like to see Ricky Gervais in the lead role.
On the third hand (?), he used to teach drama at an exclusive private school in Ukraine. Isn’t drama a way of life for teenagers? Why would he have to teach that? And did the parents of his students know of the fictional worlds he was creating in his head? I guess they were impressed by all the letters that followed his name. B.A., for one, but I’ve got one of those so it can’t be too impressive. I don’t even know what a “P.G.C.E.” is, so I’m impressed there. I wonder if the Queen gave that to him with a sword blade on his shoulder—he lives in England, after all.
But he also sometimes lives in Kyiv (more on that, later) and has spent a good deal of time travelling Eastern Europe, Africa, and the Middle East for some small company called Siemens.
“My scariest experience was being smuggled through a Hezbollah checkpoint in Lebanon. My oddest evening was drinking whiskey at the British Embassy in Saudi Arabia with some very high-up Saudi officials.”
His current literary work is COLD BLACK, and it is the second full-length adventure of Aidan Snow. Here is how Alex describes it:
Abduction…Assassination…Al-Qaeda…An International Conspiracy… Former SAS Trooper turned MI6 operative, Aidan Snow is caught in a maelstrom involving East, West and Middle East, endangering the world’s supply of oil.
What’s better than watching Homeland on TV? Reading Andrew Kaplan’s page-turner about Homeland’s cast of characters. His latest novel, HOMELAND: SAUL’S GAME, takes us into the story before the television show begins.
In this adventure, CIA operations officer Carrie Mathison is leading a mission to capture a master terrorist when she discovers a deadly threat inside the Agency. But unlike the first book of the series, HOMELAND: CARRIE’S RUN, this one doesn’t just focus on Carrie. This time Saul, Brody, Dar Adal, and, in fact all the key characters put in an appearance. And their back stories are fleshed out in more detail.
“The books explore the past of these characters,” Kaplan says, “including the childhood, the things that make these characters who they are. For the Brody character in particular, that was essential.”
That’s because, while many U.S. soldiers have been taken captive, none has turned into a jihadi traitor. So one wonders what made Brody, a native-born United States Marine, turn. It was never adequately explained in the show, so Kaplan knew he had to deal with it if Brody was to be a character in his book. Early on, when Kaplan first got involved with Homeland, he asked for the show “Bible.” That’s what series showrunners use to establish character biographies, characteristics, season arcs, and so on. He was stunned to learn they didn’t have one (they do now).
“In other words, thirty seconds before the Homeland pilot begins and Carrie walks into that prison in Iraq, she didn’t exist,” Kaplan says. “For my first Homeland book, I wound up creating everything in her past before that moment. In the new book, HOMELAND: SAUL’S GAME, I do the same for the other key characters, especially Saul and Brody.”
Military action dominates today’s thrillers, but diplomacy can generate even more tension and suspense. If you need proof, read Todd Moss’s hyper-realistic and high-powered debut thriller, THE GOLDEN HOUR.
The novel revolves around a sudden crisis in Africa. A coup d’état in Mali overthrows the president and the State Department is counting on its new experimental Crisis Reaction Unit to handle the situation. The unit is the brainchild of Judd Ryker, who recently left academia to test his theories in the real world of international diplomacy.
Ryker is not the typical gun-wielding thriller hero. He’s a soft-spoken professor who finds being chief of the Crisis Reaction Unit a major challenge.
“Judd’s much more comfortable with numbers than people,” Moss says. “This, he finds, is a problem for a diplomat. Judd quickly learns that he must build personal relationships to figure out what’s going on and to do his job.”
Of course, the challenges mount quickly. A senator’s daughter is kidnapped in Timbuktu. A violent new Jihadist cell rises in the desert. The American embassy is at risk of a terrorist attack. And Ryker has just one-hundred hours to set it all right again.
Parts of the story may sound fantastic, but Moss knows whereof he speaks. A former top American diplomat in West Africa, he draws on his real-world experiences to reveal both the exhilaration and the frustrations of modern-day diplomacy. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice sent him in to negotiate after the 2008 coup d’état in Mauritania. Today he works at a Washington DC think-tank and still deals with men very much like his fictional Ryker—successful and brilliant analysts who, in his words, “could work on their people skills.”
By Kay Kendall
Debut author Matt Cook combines piracy on the high seas, electromagnetic pulse technology, and terrorist ambitions to form a dazzling thriller. Thrown together in a dramatic stew of a book are one kidnapped Stanford professor, his beautiful and brilliant daughter, a dashing doctoral candidate, a Special Forces veteran, a mysterious mastermind, and two Russians—one good, one bad. Despite his youth, this author really knows how to cook, bringing all these ingredients to a rolling boil.
An assured debut, SABOTAGE is due from Forge Books on September 9. Here is a classic thriller in the fullest sense of the word. The terrorist mastermind will sell the stolen EMP technology to the highest bidder, even if it means placing horrible capability into dangerous hands. Worldwide powers are in contention, knowing their dominance is threatened.
Matt wrote the first draft of his thriller at age nineteen, and the week before its launch, he will turn twenty-five. While an undergraduate at Stanford University, he published two nonfiction books, one of them award-winning, and co-founded California Common Sense—a non-profit dedicated to government transparency and data-drive policy analysis. In addition, as a close-up magician and former member of the Magic Castle Junior Society, Matt has performed in Hollywood and across the globe. He delights in weaving exotic locales into his stories, drawing from more than eighty countries he has visited. For his charitable work supporting the American soldier, he was honored with the President’s Call to Service Award. He is now midway through his doctoral work at the University of Pennsylvania as a National Science Foundation Fellow.
Matt graciously agreed to answer a few questions for THE BIG THRILL.
Your debut thriller SABOTAGE launches on September 9. How did you manage to bring it to fruition, maintain your graduate career in economics, write an award-winning non-fiction book, and perform as a close-up magician? In short, how do you juggle and keep so many different balls in the air at once?
Life is a smorgasbord. Some people say, “I’ll just have the shrimp.” Not me. I want to try everything from the fondue to the hams to the cupcakes. One of the challenges of coming back from a smorgasbord is balancing the plate. You have to layer everything so it all fits. Life is the same way. Sometimes it means being stubborn, keeping at a project when there’s something else you’d rather be doing. It also means staying organized—keeping to-do lists, writing down your thoughts before sleep. That helps you avoid those moments of sheer panic when you think you’re going to drop the plate. I’m also fortunate to be working with talented individuals and teams, including my entertainment attorney, literary agent, publicists, and publisher—and for grad school, my professors and research partner.
Arthur Kerns comes to the business of writing novels after a long career in the FBI and intelligence community.
So was he a spy?
“No,” Kerns said, “and if I had been I’d say no. I worked counterespionage, so you could say I was in the counter-spy business. A similar, but separate discipline.”
His latest novel, THE AFRICAN CONTRACT, is set in many countries where Kerns has worked, including Liberia, Sierra Leone, Cameroon, and South Africa.
Kerns said Africa has always pulled at him.
“Years ago, Ernest Hemingway and Jack Kerouac were pop stars,” Kerns said. “I wanted to join in on the African safaris, Spanish bullfights, and of course go ‘on the road.’ When I tried writing I found I didn’t have the skills or the ideas to write a good story.
“Many years later, after a lot of hard work attending classes, conferences, workshops, and supportive writing groups, I was able to land an agent by presenting her with a respectable manuscript. Patience and perseverance won the day. Like playing football in high school, when I was a lineman, a grunt whose bruises numbed after the fourth play but kept alert enough to break through the line and nail that glamour-boy quarterback—you know the one who dated the good-looking cheerleaders. That was almost as satisfying as being told a publisher accepted my novel.”
In his latest novel, the action for hero Hayden Stone starts with a mysterious boxcar sitting, locked, in the wilds of Namibia—with people who would kill to obtain it or die if what’s inside gets put to use. Hayden travels through slums, mansions, and the shadowy world of black ops, unable to trust any of the players.