All of my thrillers are set back in time, even though the prevailing market for thrillers seems to be the here and now. Study the bookshelves and the online pages and you’ll see a great many thrillers set in the Middle East or Afghanistan etc, where the hero is battling in the kind of situations we see on the news every night. Thrillers, like mine, set back in time, are rarer birds. At the moment, where thrillers are concerned, the contemporary is king.
And so it’s always been, I suppose. Look at the great thriller writers of the past, from John Buchan to Graham Green, Robert Ludlam to Ian Fleming, Hammond Innes to Alastair Maclean. They were writing books set against contemporary crises, be it the First or Second World Wars, or the Cold War. The contemporary thriller writers of today are doing exactly the same. And these are undoubtedly popular subjects.
So why aren’t I writing a contemporary thriller, then?
To me, it’s just too difficult. I’ve never been to the Middle East, let alone Afghanistan. And I very much like to set my books in locations I know, even if I use those locations in a past setting. I get most of my plots from places.
The other nag I have is that I hate the intrusion of modern technology. Computers, cellphones, GPS satellite navigation… I use all of these at various times myself, but to me the technology would get in the way of the thrills. They make it all a bit too easy to call for help and solve problems.
I like my heroes to get into situations where the help isn’t readily available at the end of a phone. In my novel Balmoral Kill, set in 1937, the climax is a shoot-out in the Scottish Highlands. If it happened in 2016, one call would bring the SAS jumping in within minutes. That removes that sense of peril that defines what a thriller should also be all about. My hero has to fight it out the old-fashioned way. Man to man in hand to hand combat.
The other problem with contemporary thrillers is that the hero really does need to be a professional. A soldier perhaps, or a secret agent. How else is he going to get into dangerous areas to confront the enemies of today? Amateurs need not apply.
I prefer the days of the happy amateur.
It’s true that Sean Miller, the hero of Balmoral Kill, has been a soldier and is still a mercenary. But he’s fighting enemies very close to home. He’s fought in the Great War, alongside soldiers who were civilians in uniforms, not men who’d ever planned to become warriors. When we meet him in 1937, he’s been fighting in Spain against the fascist forces of General Franco. He comes home to combat a very individual enemy who happens to have a very similar background to his own.
I think the best thrillers are those where the hero might have supporters but very little back-up. Where the hero really is fighting an individual battle against the powers of darkness. It’s one reason why I think John Buchan gets it right time and time again. His hero Richard Hannay has many friends as the novels go on, supporters he can count on, but at the end of the day he’s on his own.
I believe that that makes for menace and thrills.
And I find the moral compass of 2016 a bit too hard to get over in writing. I’m not against anti-heroes – most of my lead characters are; but they all have a basic sense of morality. I don’t see it too often in some of the characters in modern thrillers. Similarly, the consequences of violence are a tad too easily skated over. The greater questions are never asked. The moral good of the human race is too rarely served.
Now that might sound heavy, but I believe that the classic thrillers that have survived for decades, even a century or more in the case of Buchan, have lasted and are still much read and appreciated, because there is a feeling of right and wrong within them.
The heroes in the classic novels knew who they were fighting against. In reality, seen through the retrospective of history, we all know that some of these historical positions weren’t quite so clear-cut. Buchan writes sympathetically of some of the enemies that Hannay encounters. In Greenmantle, published in 1916, he even gives a sympathetic portrait of the Kaiser, which is quite astonishing when you think about it. He very often in his stories shows us a “good enemy”.
Jack Higgins at his best, shows us how good people can become entrapped into fighting for rotten causes. The heroes of his classic The Eagle Has Landed, are effectively German paratroops fighting for Hitler. Yet we can understand just how they find themselves in that position. Higgins’ terrific skill as a thriller-writer – and he is a quite wonderful drawer of rounded characters – lets us see the truth about individuals, but never lets us forget the tragedy of situations.
One of the other reasons I set my thrillers in historical times is that it gives me a chance to see some kind of historical perspective. I know, looking back, how the situations my characters were involved with were eventually resolved. I can understand society in Victorian times, or how the Third Reich was wiped from the face of the earth.
And there is the challenge of writing characters in my books who still don’t know how it all ends. Don’t know any more than we who are living today can imagine how the current crises may be resolved.
And giving my characters that ignorance of their own past times makes writing them in those time really very interesting.
If you want to try my Balmoral Kill just please click on the link below. It’s out in paperback and on Kindle: