Up Close: Humphrey Hawksley

Bringing the Suspense

By Austin S. Camacho

The end of the Cold War didn’t extinguish readers’ appetites for fast-paced stories of tension-packed international action and ingenious political intrigue. Humphrey Hawksley presents one good way to feed that hunger with his latest novel, MAN ON EDGE.

The story starts when a senior Russian naval officer contacts his niece, Carrie Walker, claiming to have vital information he’s willing to share with the West. She goes to Moscow, undercover, to meet him—but things go disastrously wrong. Stranded and on the run, she turns to her former fiancé, Rake Ozenna, for help.

Ozenna is an impressive figure. An Army officer who has proved his mettle in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria, Hawksley says he retains the leathered, untamed look from growing up on one of Alaska’s remotest islands. You won’t find him at a cocktail party, but you might meet him at a military reception.

“He would listen and ask questions,” Hawksley says, “revealing little about himself. He is not ashamed or secretive. He sees others as more important than him because they hold information he does not have. Instilled from childhood is a truth that the more you know about the environment around you the more secure you will be and the more able to help others.”

Rake doesn’t see himself as a hero, but the Army does, and for a while used him as a poster boy, putting him on panels and sending him to lecture at the War College. But among the suits and pressed uniforms he was too unpolished.

Great writers know that a great hero needs a great villain to test him. The driving villain in MAN ON EDGE is Colonel Ruslan Yumatov, the son of a steel worker who lost his job during the privatizations of the 1990s. Yumatov loathes the oligarchs who stole Russia’s industries and impoverished its workers, but understands the game.

Hawksley dog sleds on the Norway-Russia border for research on MAN ON EDGE.

“He married into an influential family of St. Petersburg academics and has risen to be the confidante of some of the most powerful figures in Russia,” Hawksley says. “He is a member of a little-known military unit, Zaslon, which translates as the Screen.

“Yumatov is determined to restore Russia’s dignity. Having seen the careful step-by-step approach of the Putin years, he is convinced that Russia will only prevail if it delivers a threat at an unimaginable level, something that destroys the very fabric that gives America and its corrupt Western allies their strength.”

Lots of fictional American operatives are battling Russian spies, but what distinguishes Hawksley’s work is his insider knowledge. After many years as a foreign correspondent, he has gotten to know people working in the world of intelligence and defense, both senior leaders and people in the field.

Hawksley on Rake Ozenna’s home island of Little Diomede, located in the Bering Strait between Alaska and Russia.

“Much has evolved since the days of John le Carré and the clarity of the Cold War,” Hawksley explains. “Private contractors now mingle with government officials. Loyalty to country is mixed with global issues such as trade and terrorism. I hope to bring some of that authenticity into the storytelling, coupling it with a unique lead character and little-known settings that bookend Moscow’s expansion into a new theater of superpower rivalry, the High North and the Arctic.”

The settings Hawksley uses are not often seen in fiction, and he admits he chose them partly due to a lucky coincidence. Around the time of the Ukraine crisis in 2015, he was reporting for the BBC from Rake’s home.

Hawksley with islanders from Little Diomede. As of the last census in 2010, the Alaskan island’s population stood at 115.

“I wanted to see exactly where these two superpowers came face to face. Little Diomede, a civilian village of fewer than 100 people, is barely two miles across the water from Big Diomede, which is a Russian military base. The border runs between them. From that rugged, tough, and generous community, I drew my hero, Rake Ozenna, and wrote Man On Ice.”

For the second in the series, MAN ON EDGE, Rake needed a similarly remote, tense, and environmentally challenging area. Hawksley chose the Norway-Russian border—Russia’s frontier with NATO.

Reviewers agree that Hawksley gets high marks for bringing the suspense. He says the biggest challenge to establishing and maintaining a high level of tension is knowing when to hold back and when to reveal.

Humphrey Hawksley

“An excellent editor of a previous thriller impressed upon me to keep up a narrative powered by unanswered questions,” Hawksley says, “so that the mystery and the contest run in parallel. The mystery should always remain paramount, delivering that final twist of the plot in the last paragraph if you can manage it. The reader turns pages to know how the bomb will be stopped. But the real satisfaction comes after that, learning why or how it was planted in the first place. It’s also about setting up with compelling characters and an array of intriguing elements which seem unconnected, yet the reader knows they must be. I become indecisive and anxious about reveals. You never know how right you have got it and you can always make it better.”

And it doesn’t appear that Rake’s life will be getting any less tense or suspenseful. A third Rake Ozenna thriller will hit bookstores next year. It begins around Little Diomede when an agent crosses from Russia, and the action takes Rake to the remote mountains of Europe.

But before that, you should treat yourself to MAN ON EDGE to sample a thriller that will remind you of the best Cold War spy fiction.

 

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