Writing an historical thriller
My new thriller novel Balmoral Kill has a long history.
I began work on it even before I started writing “The Shadow of William Quest”, got to 24000 words and then put it to one side. A novel and a couple of walking books later, I came back to it, changed it to fit a new theme and outcome and wrote the rest in a couple of months.
I like historical thrillers and couldn’t imagine writing one set in the present. I prefer a world where there are no mobile phones or modern forensic techniques. A Britain where people travel more on foot or in trains than in motor cars. Where the righteous still have a moral compass which, sadly, seems to be vanishing from the consciences of people in our present-day UK.
Having recently spent a lot of time writing and mentally inhabiting the Victorian era, it was almost a shock to find my mind examining the 1930s.
By 1937, when Balmoral Kill is set, it was clear to everyone in the UK that war with Hitler was inevitable. I was intrigued how, even at this late date, so many people in the British Establishment, including mainstream national newspapers like the Daily Mail, were still pro-Hitler.
Many British politicians favoured giving Hitler a free hand in Europe, as long as he left the British Empire alone. It was, as history proved, a crazy philosophy. There is no doubt that Hitler would have rolled up Europe and then turned on the UK anyway. Had we not fought Hitler as early as we did in 1939, it is very likely that he would have had an opportunity to refine his rocket programme so that missiles would have reached the eastern seaboard of the United States. It is quite likely that an unimpeded Hitler would have developed an atom bomb.
It was touch and go for a while whether the British Establishment view would win. Voices crying in the wilderness, warning of the danger of Hitler, such as Winston Churchill, were popularly derided.
Britain in 1937 was in a mess. There was massive unemployment and depression. People starving in the working class areas. A sharp division between the right and the left in British politics, with little middle ground for the safety first British to seek shelter.
There had even been upheaval in the royal family. In December 1936, Edward VIII had abdicated and been succeeded by his brother George VI. Edward had been an extrovert playboy, George an introverted man suffering from a speech impediment.
Many people, not yet having had a chance to get to know the new King, were still yearning for the colourful Edward and, quite frankly, wanted him back.
Few Britons at the time knew anything about Edward’s flirtations were fascism or his admiration for Hitler. Even when I was growing up in the 1960s these things were not mentioned.
Fortunately, sanity won and Britain decided to take on the Third Reich..
The characters in Balmoral Kill represent all sides of these arguments. There are the left leaning characters, Sean Miller has fought for the republicans in the Spanish Civil War, and those from the Establishment itself who, despite being in the minority with their anti-Nazism, decided to back Churchill and oppose the rise of the Third Reich.
But I wanted to show characters who took the other point of view. Many members of the Establishment were closet Nazis, anti-Semitic and so on, but there were others who were just desperate to avoid the slaughter they had seen in the trenches of the First World War.
None of the characters are the least autobiographical, though Sean Miller is – like me – a hillwalker and stravaiger. He is a veteran of the 1932 ramblers’ mass trespass on to the Peak District hill of Kinder Scout. Had I been alive at the time I would have been as well. But that’s as close as we get.
The action of Balmoral Kill begins in the East End of London and rapidly moves to Scotland, first the Borders and then the Highlands.
I spent many a day in the past walking the streets of London by day and night. It was good to bring the knowledge I acquired into the novel. I know the Scottish Border country well, having tramped much of Tweedside and the hills and glens around Peebles.
I knew that the thriller had to have a Scottish conclusion.
And I knew it had to involve George VI, who was at Balmoral, at this period of 1937.
So we visited the place, roamed the grounds of Balmoral to get the feel of what it might be like to live in such a house. But I still had trouble finding a location for the ending of the novel.
And last year we explored the area around Loch Muick (you pronounce it without the u). Even as I walked the banks of the loch I could see my characters there. I could see how my long chase across Britain could come to a conclusion there…
So there we are. Balmoral Kill was a long time in the creation and was harder to write than anything I have done before. Reading it myself now that it’s out I feel curiously distanced from what I have written, almost as though it had been written by somebody else.