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red-station.jpgBy John T. Cullen

Recently I interviewed British author Adrian Magson about his remarkable new spy thriller Red Station (Severn House, August 2010).

Red Station: MI5 officer Harry Tate finds himself posted to a faraway operation called Red Station, somewhere in Central or Eastern Europe, while the media fuss dies down from a drug bust gone sour. A former soldier, now a loyal Security Services officer and civil servant, his credibility is down the drain after two civilians were shot dead during a drug intercept under his control. The idea is to wait it out before coming back up for air. Or so Harry is told.

What his bosses haven’t told him is that Red Station is a punishment posting for washed-out spooks from MI5 and MI6…and that Harry won’t be coming home again. All Harry knows is, it’s remote and he will be under a No Contact rule. This includes family, friends, former colleagues–everyone.

All hell breaks loose when the Russians decide to support a friendly satellite state, threatening to overrun Red Station. Harry realizes Red Station, and everyone in it, is the target of a U.K. Government assassination team called The Hit.

But his bosses have seriously underestimated their man. When he uncovers the real set-up behind Red Station, he decides to fight back in the only way he knows.

Red Station is the first in a contemporary spy series featuring MI5 Security Services officer Harry Tate.

“Magson writes with the authority of a veteran spy master… MI5 officer, Harry Tate, is a welcome addition to the spy thriller genre and I can’t wait to read more.” —Matt Hilton, author of the Joe Hunter series.

“A spy novel with the best elements of John le Carré, Ian Fleming and Frederick Forsyth, blended into a wholly original and topical story.” –Adrian Muller, Co-Director ofCrimeFest.

Red Station sounds like a classic in the making. Starting with the title alone, and moving forward on the well-worn tracks of the spook abandoned by his handlers, and left to swing in the wind in a ruthless trade, this sounds like fresh fare in an inexhaustible trope in the hands of a masterful novelist–Adrian Magson. Harry Tate sounds like a gutsy man who brings heart and morality to an amoral game. What part of Harry Tate is you? What part of you is Eric Ambler or John Le Carré?

There’s nothing deliberate of me in Harry, although maybe in my subconscious he’s what I would hope to be in similar circumstances, given the background and training. Harry finds he has been duped by an organization to which he was always loyal – and perhaps, by his own solid regard for duty and doing the right thing. It’s what makes him take the posting to Red Station at such short notice without question: he’s obeying orders, as he always has done. In the end, though, it’s the conflict of duty, anger and training – and the realization that he’s been placed on a hit list by his employers – which drives him to fight back. That and professional pride. As for Ambler and Le Carré, I would be delighted to think I could achieve even a scintilla of their writing capabilities.

Who is Harry Tate the family man, the friend, the co-worker? As you write your character, are you aware of a large amount of back-story swirling unseen around him? Is that material we will see in future Harry Tate novels?

To a degree, yes. But Harry is always moving forward; it’s the only way he knows because then he has a measure of control. He was a soldier first, so has the military ‘keep going’ attitude in his DNA, almost. But little bits of his character which form his actions towards others, especially those close to him, will come out in different ways. In Red Station, for example, his file is being studied by a government Intelligence Committee overseer, and discloses two instances in which he felt compelled to take drastic action which were seen as out of character. They weren’t entirely, of course, as we find out subsequently – it merely seems that way to those who don’t know him. He is, after all, a trained Intelligence Officer, too, and being open is not something which comes naturally. As a writer, I find it easier to bring out these aspects of character as the story moves along, because they’re more natural – especially in thrillers, where pride, courage, energy, stamina and determination tend to be triggered by events rather than having too much character explanation in one hit. One bit of his character which I hope is apparent throughout is a healthy cynicism and touches of humour – both of which are present in most members of the military and similar government agents operating in danger and under ever-changing rules of engagement.

A little more on Harry Tate, the man. How does Harry Tate’s separation from his family play? Family as backstory–how do you handle that as a writer? Is the wife the defining love interest? What about friends?

Harry is divorced, his marriage forced apart by his work and periods away from home. It’s something he won’t talk about because it’s history… and something of a dark spot. To a degree it has got in the way of trying again. But he has a relationship (with Jean, a high-class west-end florist and army widow), although neither is keen to make it official. But there’s a closeness there and Harry is clearly keen to get back to Jean and to any semblance of a ‘normal’ life he might have – another driver to surviving Red Station and getting home.

What are Harry Tate’s transcendent qualities that come out when he realizes Red Station is a combination black hole and dark star about to explode? Does he have an Achilles Heel? What are his strengths (i.e., “the only way he knows how”)? Where and how does the rubber meet the road as the inner Harry Tate, unleashed, grits his teeth and goes to work against impossible odds?

magson-adrian.jpgHarry isn’t a control freak, but he can’t stand by and watch the brown stuff hit the fan without doing something. As was demonstrated by the reference to his personnel file, he has the ability and determination to take action – and will disregard orders if they threaten him and others. In Red Station he is vulnerable because he feels alone, yet he has an innate feeling of responsibility for his new colleagues, who are regarded as misfits and wash-outs in one way or another, just like himself. But he can read the signs of impending threat and realizes that he has to take over when others won’t – or cannot. If he has an Achilles Heel, it’s his willingness to obey orders. But that doesn’t last long when he is faced by the threat of Russian soldiers (and the enormity of him and his spook colleagues being captured and paraded in Moscow), and the knowledge that he is now just a target for his own side.

How would you place Harry Tate in the pantheon of spies and counter-spies? Is he more of a Smiley, a John Wayne, a Cary Grant, or what? I’m frankly picturing one of those tough, quiet men with a gun who bob past on the sea of evil like a dark iceberg–until a desperate situation calls for desperate measures, and our hero becomes an unstoppable force.

Actually, I like your description! ‘Bobbing past on the sea of evil’. I wish I’d thought of that line! No, he’s more the quiet, determined sort who can be prodded into action when the need arises. Not as cerebral as George Smiley, nor as gung-ho as Bond, and easily capable of picking up a gun (or making condom petrol bombs) when he has to.

Where do you see Red Station amid the great tradition of British espionage books and films?

Good question – and not easy to answer without sounding pretentious. But here goes. I suppose if pushed to make a comparison, I’d rather Harry was seen as closer to Len Deighton than Fleming characters (Harry’s not exactly a gadgets man or a womanizer, and his background doesn’t fit him for going around jumping buildings and using all manner of high-tech weaponry). There’s also the fact that Intelligence work now encompasses a wider field than it used to, including serious organized crime, drugs, people smuggling, terrorism and so forth. That means that not every scenario will involve spies in the way we used to think of them. In the sequel to Red Station, for instance, the background is terrorism, but at a distance. The Intelligence element, however, is still present – even to Harry having to put his trust in his old employers again.

Like many readers, I have spent a lifetime being intrigued by espionage thrillers. The genre has a long history, in which British novelists and film directors above all provided a critical shaping role. With the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, it seemed as if the spy thriller died. Gone were the dread and dark mystique of the Iron Curtain. Can you educate us?

I wish I could! But as recent events in the US have shown (dare I say, happily for writers of espionage fiction), there’s proof that it didn’t die but was merely hiding. And they are still up to their old tricks. There was also the revelation – in video – of our own spies (allegedly) using ‘dead-drops’ in Moscow. It’s almost comforting, isn’t it, to know that some aspects of life haven’t changed all that much! Like you, I’ve always been intrigued, but especially about the characters involved, and what makes them. Well, we now have some recent examples – and I’m none the wiser.

Given the infamous recent (2010) U.S.-Russian spy exchange, in which American spies in Russia were traded for moles living in the most classic Soviet fashion in the U.S., do you see room for continued spy capers and other dark escapades involving the U.S. and Russia? Red Station shows promise of not only resuscitating the genre, but sending it off on rockets. Or does it need resuscitating at all?

I think it’s already been resuscitated, revived and stood back on it feet, and I wouldn’t be at all surprised to see more books and films coming out in the future. Certainly the genre went quiet for a while, maybe taken over by the not-exactly-espionage, more anti-terrorism thriller. But I don’t think it ever quite went away. As a relevant example, I wrote a scene in the book purely off the top of my head, where Harry discovers that the Russians are on their way across the border to show support for a former satellite state. Literally a week later, they did just that (into Ossetia and Georgia). It proves you just can’t invent this stuff!

You mention writing short fiction for women. In a recent article (lined from Publishers Weekly, the ‘bible of the U.S. publishing industry’) the topic of women readers came up. The issue was: do women dominate publishing today? Do men still read? Should we still write for a male readership, or should we give upon the guys and just write for the gehls? Something like 75% of the readers are women, as well as the majority of editors and authors. Contrast this with the situation half a century ago, when it used to be said that two-thirds of the readers were women, two-thirds of the writers were men, and practically all the editors were men. That began to change with the revolution in women’s rights in the 1960s. It seems to me, therefore, that a modern author must be able to understand and write to a women’s readership. What’s your take on that? What lessons should male authors, especially, take from that?

I’ll answer both these questions in one, if I may, as they are interlinked. I think that if writing for a specific market (as I did for many years – and still do – for women’s magazines), you cannot help but take account of the views, expectations and tastes of that market, whatever it is. Thus, you have to be very specific in your approach (otherwise, no readers!) However, when writing for a general market, say, in the area of thrillers, crime/mystery, and so forth, you cannot know for sure exactly who is picking up your books, nor why they like them. It would be very normal approach to try to cater for the bulk of readers (and in crime, that’s women, according to polls), but it would be a little patronising to write only for them, as you would promptly alienate a large chunk of your (male) audience! It helps, therefore, to find out (and signings are a good way) who reads your books and what they get out of them – and in my experience, readers are not shy of telling you what they like and don’t like. I think in short, all authors should write the book they want to write first, and trust the readers to make up their own minds.

Who are your favorite authors of the past? Of the present? Any films that stand out, especially influencing your work?

I always quote Leslie Charteris (The Saint), because he’s what set me out wanting to write, along with Mickey Spillane and Hank Janson. But for the spy genre, I’d have to say Berkely Mather, Len Deighton, John Buchan, John Gardner. I just loved their writing. More recently, it’s been US authors such as Robert Crais, Martin Cruz Smith, Harlan Coben, John Sandford and Lee Child (okay, British but US-based), but these aren’t spy novels – just damned good reading. As for films, ‘Three Days of the Condor’ and ‘Ipcress Files’ are way up there for me, as is the ‘Bourne’ Trilogy and all the others too numerous to mention.

I am thinking about the remarkable tradition of British novelists and directors in the spy genre, and wondering what niche you want to fit into. I’m thinking, among so many others, of Eric Ambler, writing of spies penetrating the Nazi menace (e.g., Journey into Fear, 1940); or Alfred Hitchcock, seizing on the paranoia of the 1950s (e.g., North by Northwest, 1959); or the late 20th Century master of the opaque, ominous Cold War spy thriller, John Le Carré (e.g., The Russia House, 1989).

I’d like to think I could write about current themes, but with the same flair as the old writers had for their time. We have more than just espionage to deal with now, and I think that’s right for our time. The threats aren’t packaged quite the same as they used to be, either, but the outcomes are just as threatening unless countered, and I think that’s what I’d always like to address. The story has to be about our characters overcoming evil, doubts and sometimes lack of will to achieve a satisfactory story for the reader.

You are simultaneously working the print and digital sides of recent, cutting-edge publishing. What opportunities do you see in digital in general? And specifically, tell us about your take on the short story form and your involvement in platforms like the Kindle?

Undoubtedly digital is here to stay – in whatever guise technology wraps it. But it will take a long time to overcome the printed word as we know it, I think. But that, too, is changing fast. What it needs more than anything is acceptance by the reader/listener, but I think it will come. We’ve clearly seen only the tip of the iceberg with devices like iPad, Sony and Kindle. The opportunities for authors will be in using and embracing every platform they can, because the reading market is so diverse at the moment. Ten years ago everything was printed. Now look at it. It’s a bit like the old-school core of actors who wouldn’t be seen dead on that new thing called television. Well, they soon learned! As far as short fiction, that’s where I started out, writing for (mostly) women’s magazines. But I always wanted to write books. I now do both, which is great, and enjoy swapping from one to the other.

In the same vein, tell us about your take on flash fiction and other innovative formats suited to internet technologies and audiences.

Fantastic. It gives authors and readers great benefits. Short stories on audio for downloads, such as Sniplits in the US, means short fiction is no longer confined to magazines or anthologies. For our time-managed lifestyles, I think it’s a great development. (I have to say, the first time I heard one of my stories read in an American accent, I was, as you might say, blown away!)

Tell us about your earlier series of five novels–the Riley Gavin/Frank Palmer series (No Kiss for the Devil, 2008). How did you progress from the first to the fifth of those novels? Tell us about Riley and Frank. What did you learn while writing those books? Were they a stepping stone?

This probably came about because (a) I’d been creating female characters for women’s magazines for many years and (b) women read far more thriller/mystery novels than men. So, I was writing to a market. But I also need to balance Riley’s inquisitive female reporter role with a harder edge, which is where Frank Palmer came in. They could do different things, so that was where their strengths lay. The main thing I learnt was that I enjoyed writing series characters more than stand-alones, but I enjoyed bringing in temporary ones, because that’s often where the difference is in each story. In each book, Riley and Frank had to retain their core aspects without becoming comic-book. I hope I achieved that. But, yes, I think the books were a stepping stone, just as the short fiction years ago was a stepping stone to books.

You are launching a separate series in parallel with Harry Tate, though set in rural France during the 1960s. Inspector Lucas Rocco is reassigned from Paris to a relatively rural posting in Picardie, a region in northeast France. Picardie touches on the English Channel at one corner, and on Belgium at another. It contains some of the most infamous World War I battlefields. In Picardie, Rocco clashes with his former commanding officer in the French Indo-China war, who may have been guilty of cowardice. Sounds like a sweet setup for a series with lots of moral give and take, and shady dealings, perhaps official corruption to make things more interesting.

Oui. All of that! In the 1960s, France was undergoing a lot of change, with echoes of their own Vietnam and the Algerian struggle for independence, while still coming to grips with aftermath of WW2. The official corruption is certainly there (in ‘Death on the Marais’ it’s both financial and the corruption of using power and contacts for one’s own ends), along with all the blurring of lines in a society facing upheaval, which allows any writer a great deal of freedom to create chaos!

Harry Tate sounds like spy-genre, whereas Lucas Rocco sounds more like police procedural. Would that be correct? How are the two series different?

Absolutely. Rocco is an inspector thrown out of his comfort zone (from Paris to cow pats, basically), and has to adapt to a whole new set of circumstances. But crime is crime and he soon find himself up to his armpits in death and intrigue – and official interference. The main difference for me is that where Harry Tate finds himself working in a world where the rules have been abandoned by circumstances (which gives me great freedom as a writer), Rocco is always having to face up to being a cop and being observed – although he, too, breaks the rules where he can… or must. And having placed him in this situation, I can play with his activities with a lot of leeway.

It seems remarkable that the one is assigned to the outer limits of Red Station, and the other to the edge of France–to the region associated with past French nightmares, from the Medieval English hegemony broken by Joan of Arc, to the blood baths of three major wars from 1871 through 1944–making both men exiles in a way. Is there any kindred spirit between Lucas Rocco and Harry Tate? Are they opposites or complements to one another in any way?

I suppose they are kindred spirits, as both face being out of their usual settings and having to cope with unaccustomed circumstances. Harry is a definite exile, albeit temporarily, whereas Rocco is on a string and constantly being yanked back by having to interact, no matter how reluctantly, with his bosses – and most especially with his former army CO, now direct police superior, whom he doesn’t particularly trust or respect. But that’s called conflict! In both cases, they are survivors and believe in moving forward. I hope readers will get great satisfaction from both Harry and Rocco.

Adrian Magson, it’s been a great pleasure having the opportunity to ask these questions, and to think about your answers. I think the readers among us are eager for more of your work, and the writers among us want to learn from you. Good luck in all things.

Thank you, John, for giving me this wonderful opportunity to discuss my work – and for coming up with such thought-provoking questions! I enjoyed it.

Adrian Magson is a former international sales executive and martial arts instructor. He has been published extensively in magazines across the world. He has written for BBC radio. Currently, he writes the Beginners page for Writing Magazine (U.K.) and reviews for Shots Magazine.

Shortlisted in the 2001 CWA Debut Dagger Award, he has authored five novels in the Riley Gavin/Frank Palmer series. The last was No Kiss for the Devil (2008). He is now concentrating on his Harry Tate series, as well as a new French police series set in the 1960s.

Adrian Magson lives in Oxfordshire, U.K., with his wife, Ann.