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.
This time he was hired by the CIA as a black operative to extricate the official, Edwin Travis, from the hands of extremists and get him out of the country. But this time, unlike the wastelands of Somalia and Kenya in The Watchman, he has to get Travis free of his “hotel” in Donetsk, which is teeming with Ukrainian forces, Russian-backed militia, and mafia killers on the lookout for his blood after a near-lethal confrontation on his arrival at the airport.
With only the distant voice of CIA Langley-based comms newbie, Lindsay Citera to guide him, Portman has to travel from Donetsk in the east right across the country to the border with Moldova, in order to get Travis out. But the one thing he cannot do in the hot-bed political atmosphere is rely on help from identifiable U.S. forces or the embassy.
As usual, Portman is on his own.
Unfortunately, the CIA has an enemy in the camp, in the form of powerful and vindictive U.S. Senator Howard Benson, who would like nothing more than to shut down their black ops and bring their covert activities under control. When he gets wind of the operative known only as Watchman, he does all he can to identify him and use him to discredit the CIA, while also taking advantage of the worsening situation in Ukraine for his own financial ends as a member of the select and highly secretive Dupont Circle Group. And he doesn’t care if the Watchman and the State Department envoy become collateral damage in pursuit of his schemes.
I must admit, there was a point during the writing of CLOSE QUARTERS that I came close to giving up. It was after the shooting down of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 in July, in the Donetsk Oblast region, said to have been caused by separatist forces helped by Russian-supplied ground-to-air systems.
I was deeply shocked by the event and felt it was all-too-close and something I could not center a work of fiction around, especially a thriller. I left it alone for several days while trying to make up my mind—should I ditch the entire book or continue?
One way or another I didn’t want to be thought of as making capital out of such a dreadful disaster. It was a close-run thing until my wife pointed out that the timeline of the novel was around May, so the airline disaster did not need to feature at all. Besides, not writing the book could not materially affect what had already happened.
In the end I decided to continue with it, but I made sure I avoided any similar ideas creeping into the novel.
Adrian Magson is the author of 17 books and hundreds of short stories and articles. His various series include the Gavin & Palmer crime novels (5), the Harry Tate spy thrillers (5), the Inspector Lucas Rocco crime novels set in France in the 1960s (4), a YA ghost novel, The Lost Patrol, and The Watchman – the first in the highly successful Marc Portman spy thriller series. The sequel, Close Quarters, is out in April. He is currently working on a new series, the first of which, The Locker, is due out in 2016. A regular reviewer for Shots Magazine, he writes the ‘Beginners’ and ‘New Author’ pages for Writing Magazine, and is the author of Write On! – The Writer’s Help Book (Accent Press).
To learn more about Adrian, please visit his website.