By Karen Harper
Peter Tonkin’s first novel, Killer, was published in 1978. His work has included the acclaimed “Mariner” series that have been critically compared with the best of Alistair MacLean, Desmond Bagley and Hammond Innes.
In BLIND REEF, Richard and Robin Mariner’s quest to rescue a kidnapped girl leads them into the perilous heart of the Sinai desert. They suddenly find themselves saving the lives of several refugees when their boat flounders on Shaab Ruhr Siyoul, known as the Blind Reef.
One of the survivors, Nahom, is of particular interest to the Mariners. His twin sister, Tsibekti, has been kidnapped and is being held for ransom by smugglers. Shocked by Nahom’s story, Richard and Robin soon become dangerously involved, travelling into the heart of the Sinai in their quest to find the lost girl. But they will need to tread a perilous path, steering clear of Egyptian police, Bedouin smugglers and militant Islamists to have any hope of rescuing Tsibekti and getting out of the desert alive
Please tell us about your new release, BLIND REEF, in your long-running Mariner series.
Although the Mariner series is mostly set at sea, BLIND REEF is the first adventure set largely on land. The land in question is the romantic, historic, fascinating, and occasionally deadly Sinai Peninsula. The Sinai is the triangle of land at the head of the Red Sea between Egypt, Palestine, and Israel. It is where most of the Book of Exodus in the Bible is said to have taken place. It is a scorching, mountainous, desert wilderness surrounded by some of the most wonderful coral reefs on earth. My wife Charmaine and I have holidayed there every summer for a decade, first in the tourist haven of Sharm el Sheikh and then in the divers’ paradise of Dahab – and it was inevitable that such an awe-inspiring location would eventually form the backbone of a novel.
Please tell us more about the story.
The increasingly regular headlines about people-smuggling eventually proved to be the inspiration for BLIND REEF. The world is now aware of the tsunami of refugees crossing the Mediterranean to Europe from Africa and the Middle East. Fewer are aware of the lively trade in desperate people crossing the Sinai and running up through the desert wilderness of Saudi Arabia. In BLIND REEF Richard and Robin Mariner, holidaying in Sharm el Sheikh, become involved in a desperate attempt to rescue a young woman kidnapped by these smugglers and held for ransom under threat of rape and a terrible death or being offered for sale as a sex-slave. A situation tragically common among trafficked women. Once the idea was there, it was just a question of exploring the interior of the Sinai – we were already well acquainted with the coral reefs having snorkelled them. Our friends in Sharm and Dahab helped and advised with regard to the practical aspects of Scuba-diving the reefs and exploring the mountains to make the story absolutely authentic, timely, relevant and above all exciting.
Your Mariner series has been praised for its authentic seafaring knowledge and portrayals. How have you researched this and how do you make your at-sea thrillers come to life?
I have researched each book in the Mariner series–as well as in the Master of Defence historical murder mystery series–in the most painstaking detail possible. In the early days, I worked with BP and was flown across to Europoort by them so that I could go over their supertankers inch by inch and interview the officers and crew aboard them. Richard and Robin’s company Heritage Mariner, in consequence, has always been a fictional extension of BP, and the stories have tended to follow the way BP used to run their vessels and their corporate affairs as well as the main initiatives the company has undertaken–exploration in the Arctic, for instance. More recent books have benefited from the advice of Captains and Chief Engineers working for various shipping companies aboard a wider range of vessels–container ships for instance, such as the one in Mariner’s Ark.
But I have always kept my eyes on the headlines and my ears open to all sorts of news stories. These bring the books most vividly to life. There is a Russian-made floating nuclear power-station in several Mariner adventures, for instance–most recently in Deadly Impact–which is based on the Akademik Lomonosov which is due to start operations next year. There is also a dirigible in Mariner’s Ark based on the airship Dragon Dream built and operated by the Aeros Corporation of Montobello California, who helped and advised with the book. While working as a Law Examiner I wrote Wolf Rock, which centers upon the proposed legislation on Corporate Killing – when an attempt to rescue people from a sinking vessel leads to Richard being accused of the murder of those crew-members still missing. Dark Heart is about a group of African terrorists based on Boko Haram and what happens when they kidnap an orphanage full of girls, causing Richard and Robin to attempt a rescue – and it came out about a year before this really happened, so fact tragically caught up with fiction. But at the foundation of each story is my fascination with the sea, the weather that governs it, the ships and crews that sail upon it.
You have also written a historical mystery series, set in Elizabethan England, which I can’t wait to read. What inspired you to create the Master of Defence mysteries?
The thesis for my Master’s degree examined the effect of traditional English theatre (as opposed to Classical models) on the construction of Macbeth. I have in consequence always been fascinated by Shakespeare and his era, and when I noticed that among the large number of books set around this time Shakespeare himself hardly featured, I came up with a character and series of plots that would allow him full fictional rein. The books are classic “whodunits.” The detective (who calls himself the Master of Logic, as the term “detective” had yet to be coined) is Tom Musgrave, a professional swordmaster (Master of Defence) who runs a fencing school in London specialising in the new and fashionable art of rapier fencing. He advises Shakespeare’s company on the swordfights in Romeo and Juliet, and when the actor playing Mercutio is really killed onstage, his involvement suddenly deepens. Particularly as Will Shakespeare, like his late friend Kit Marlowe, has a lucrative side-line working for Francis Walsingham’s murderous secret service…
And since Library Journal recommended your historical mysteries as “good thrillers,” where would you draw the line between mysteries and thrillers? Or can they be one and the same?
I believe a classic murder mystery should give the reader a chance to work out “whodunit” before the detective. This is fundamentally the way Sherlock Holmes, Poirot and a host of other detective stories work. Beyond that, the form is capable of moving into the “thriller” territory, particularly in terms of setting and action. The Hound of the Baskervilles does this very effectively, and I have used this approach as a paradigm for my own mysteries. The Hound of the Borders (A Midwinter Murder in Kindle) is inspired by The Hound of the Baskervilles and uses the same techniques as well as a similar plot. Tom Musgrave never sits the suspects in a room to reconstruct the crime as Poirot might do. Rather, he delivers his verdict on the hoof as he rushes to prevent the final atrocity–as Holmes does so memorably while he and Watson race to stop the not so spectral hound killing the last of the Baskervilles in the eerie bleakness of Dartmoor beside the Great Grimpen Mire. Most memorably, perhaps, Tom does this as he reveals the name of the serial killer to the Earl of Essex as they race to stop Queen Elizabeth herself from being added to the list in One Head Too Many / A Head for Murder.
You have had a long and distinguished career as a professor of English at university in England. Now that you have retired from full-time teaching, do you miss teaching or do you still have a hand in it?
My teaching career has been long but not quite as distinguished as you say. In fact I have taught for the last 40 years at much the same level as yourself – students aged between 11 and 18 years. I retired from full-time teaching in 2009 having held the posts of Assistant Headteacher, Head of English, Head of Law and Director of Post-16 Provision. Since then I have worked on a part-time basis delivering a wide range of courses to Advanced Level including English Literature and Language, Law, History, Media Studies, Philosophy and Public Services at a range of schools in Kent, where I live. I have also worked as an examiner at Advanced Level Law for the OCR exam board overseen by Oxford and Cambridge universities. I finished a contract with one school at the end of October this year but have already promised another that I will make myself available from New Year to Easter 2016 – when I have every intention of stopping teaching in favour of travelling, ideally beginning with a lengthy sojourn in Rome doing final research for a new series I am planning, before returning to Dahab for the month of June.
I always laugh at the old saying, “Those who can, do. Those who can’t, teach.” As a former English instructor and teacher at the high school and college levels, I would challenge that idea. Obviously, you are a person who also defies that comment.
Like you, I have been an active opponent of GB Shaw’s trite and inaccurate phrase (much though it pains me to disagree with a fellow Irishman). In my experience, both personal and professional, by far the best teachers are people who are expert practitioners of what they are teaching. Teaching itself, however, is a skill that eludes some of the most talented people in almost any field – particularly in writing, which is usually a lonely occupation that does not allow social skills to be sharpened to any degree. I have sat through many talks by brilliant writers who proved sadly unable to communicate what they do and how they do it, and have simply fallen back on reading bits of their books. Perhaps Shaw would have been better to observe, ‘Those who can, do; but only a blessed few also have the skills to teach.’
Have you found your two careers support each other or are quite separate?
In fact, my writing has always informed my teaching–and still does. This can, perhaps, most clearly be exemplified in my work on Romeo and Juliet as mentioned above. Research for The Point of Death has led me to believe that the play is not only about romantic love, questionable parenting and the dangers of gang culture but also–and crucially–about the (then) new and highly fashionable skill of swordfighting with rapiers which was sweeping through the youth of the time in contrast to the short-sword techniques of their parents. A fashion that led to the untimely end of Kit Marlowe (who might well have been Shakespeare’s friend and who may feature in the text as Mercutio) and which informs the whole structure of the play–starting with a “Grand Melee” where everyone on stage is fighting (Benvolio and Tybalt with rapiers, of course), going on to a dramatic set-piece duel between two rapiers with a third person running between them, which evolves all too swiftly into a deadly one-on-one confrontation with rapier and dagger, and which finally ends with the formal duel between Romeo and Paris outside Juliet’s tomb. This approach also explains Mercutio’s dying speech after Tybalt runs him through wherein he can feel his life slipping away and is astonished that the lethal wound is so tiny. Demonstrating all this to a class using a real short sword and a (blunted) rapier is one of the most exciting and popular lessons I deliver.
What advice can you share with debut or beginning authors from your long, prolific writing career, which dates from the 1970s?
When someone asked Kingsley Amis how they would know whether they were a writer, he’s supposed to have answered, “If you are a writer, you write.” My advice is basically the same as this. If you want to be a writer, then write. In many of the schools I have worked in I have run writing clubs–in one school, the club wrote an entire novel, The Dark Oak, over several years but we could never get it published– but my experience here suggests another step. You need to finish what you write. I have on my hard drive the openings of several novels emailed to me by hopeful students and colleagues eager for me to send their work onward to my agent or publishers. But there they will stay until the stories are actually finished; and that is often the hardest part. On the other hand, several of my old students are now published and successful authors. The third step is to accept criticism, ideally from your own critical faculties but also from others you trust. Find your own voice–it will come–play at writing like your favourite authors if you like (I do a mean Hemingway – see Mariner’s Ark), but be yourself in the end. In my experience you won’t have a lot of choice in the matter; your individual style will come whatever you do. Next, never give up: Harry Potter was turned down by 12 publishers and the history of publishing is littered with similar stories; Marlon James’ 2015 Man Booker prize winner A Brief History of Seven Killings was rejected by 80 publishers. And finally, after you do get published, if you are tempted to read the critics, remember what I call the ‘Mozart rule’: you never find out how good you really were until you’ve been dead for 50 years.
How do and did you manage your time to write with two demanding careers and a family?
First and foremost it is my family who make it possible. They are endless sources of support and inspiration. Both my sons are founts of wisdom and sources of lively ideas. My wife, Charmaine, is my harshest critic and most insightful editor. I “live” my books. For more than 30 years Richard and Robin Mariner have been parts of the family, discussed as though they were close friends or relatives who were absent for just a little while. I am constantly working on this idea and that, floating them past the family and stringing the most exciting ones together while completing any research needed to make them convincing. That is how term-time passes. In the holidays my routine turns to writing.
Since your wife runs a Cordon Bleu catering company, I am picturing you always having delicious meals. Have you worked great food into your books at all?
Possibly because I grew up reading Enid Blyton’s brilliant Famous Five books, where the children always seemed so well supplied with excellent picnic fare, I have placed food at the centre of my “scene setting.” In almost all of the Mariner books, there are meals described that help to locate the action. Russian cuisine jostles with West African specialities; regional Chinese fare contrasts with Japanese sushi. The internet allows research to go where it has never gone before. If Richard is in a foreign city, I locate the best hotels. He will inevitably end up at the hotel whose restaurant has the most interesting menu online–and then he will eat in that restaurant. I can often describe not only the specialities of the house but also name the chef who prepared them. With the Tom Musgrave books, things are a little different. I have collected many books on Medieval and Tudor cuisine, and again, online there are other sources. We have tried some recipes–Henry VIII’s incredibly alcoholic trifle for instance, based on the recipe in The Good Housewyfe’s Jewel (1596) – and Tom has on more than one occasion sat down to a feast that some famous Tudor aristocrat partook of in the late sixteenth century; the feast in The Hound of the Borders is a good example of this. I am already deep into my study of Ancient Roman diet as I prepare my new series. Roast dormouse with date and walnut stuffing anyone?
Can you share with us what you are working on now?
I am preparing a new series. It is set in Ancient Rome and is designed to follow the adventures of one central character between the years 80 and 30 BC, allowing him involvement in a range of famous (and therefore well documented) situations such as the tension between Sulla and the young Caesar, Caesar’s kidnapping by pirates, the third Servile War against Spartacus and his slave army; the Catiline Conspiracy and Cicero’s pogrom after it, Caesar and Antony in Egypt, in Gaul, in Britannia, the crossing of the Rubicon, the Civil War against Pompey, Caesar’s rise to power, Cleopatra in Rome, Caesar’s murder, the road to Philippi, Octavian’s rise to power, Antony in Egypt and, finally, Actium. A well-trodden field to which I hope to bring a completely original spin – an utterly fresh perspective.
And, finally, can you tell us a bit about your hard-at-work writing routine?
I rise at 6 a.m. “on holiday,” usually full of ideas. I work on my computer until the family begins to stir. We have breakfast then I work on until lunch. I rarely work later than 5 p.m. when we begin preparations for dinner while I print out what I have written. Over dinner we discuss the day – including what I have completed. After dinner we relax for an hour or so, then I go to bed, check through what I have printed and leave it for Charmaine to edit as she tends to go to sleep a couple of hours later than me – just as I get up a couple of hours before she does. Next morning, full of ideas, I take the pages she has edited down, incorporate her corrections and suggestions as appropriate and press on. I usually aim to complete about 10 pages a day (2,500 words). I can get an 80,000 word novel finished in 6 to 8 weeks using this system, and it hasn’t failed me in nearly 40 years. Not in terms of quantity, at any rate. As to quality, I guess I’ll start worrying about that after I’ve been dead for 50 years…
Peter Tonkin was born in Limavady, Co Londonderry in 1950. He was the son of an engineering officer in the RAF and so he was brought up on RAF stations all over the world before going to boarding schools in Enniskillen CoFermanagh and Grays, Essex. He graduated from the Queen’s University, Belfast with an Honours degree in English Language and Literature (1973) and an MA in Literature (1975). He took up a teaching post in London and during a long career rose to being Head of English, Head of Law, Head of Sixth Form and Assistant Head Teacher in various schools all across the south of England. He has also been an A Level examiner in both English and Law. His first bestseller, Killer, was published in 1978 and since that time he has published 37 more novels, 30 in the ‘Mariner’ series of seagoing action adventures, 4 in the ‘Master of Defense’ series of historical ‘whodunits’ and several occasional novels including the vampire story The Journal of Edwin Underhill. He is married to Charmaine who runs her own Cordon Bleu catering company and they have two sons, Guy, who is just down from Oxford where he studied English, and Mark who is about to graduate from Buckingham University with an Honours degree in Film and Screenwriting.