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Change of Tack

The hot news just now is that yours truly is taking an extended break from crime fiction to launch a trilogy of World War Two thrillers.  The first, "Finisterre", publishes (in hardback) on 1st December and the books to follow will feature what I've termed a "soft-linkage" between characters who flit in and out of the narrative as the plot demands.  This little device serves two purposes.  Firstly it acts like an egg, binding together the series as a whole, thus giving me the chance to offer promising bit players an entire book of their own.  Secondly, it answers the now-universal call in publishing for books with series potential, rather than straightforward one-offs.

Before I plunged into the world of crime fiction I'd written nine stand-alone international  thrillers, and loved it.  Each new book offered - quite literally - a blank sheet of paper.  New backgrounds to research.  New characters to people new locations.  New plots to weave to test these always-welcome strangers to their limits.  These were freedoms I cherished and probably took for granted, an act of authorial self-indulgence that collided head-on with the sterner disciplines of cri-fi.

At the commissioning lunch that brought Faraday and Winter to market, the brief was very clear.  These characters had to be rooted in a real city, and had to carry the reader not simply from page to page but from book to book.  Somewhat daunted, I did my best to imagine and research myself into the heads of working detectives but never for a moment did I imagine that this latest adventure would extend beyond the three-book commission.  But two things happened.  Both Faraday and Winter, in their very different ways, became people I was very happy to live with.  And Pompey - aka Portsmouth - turned out to be the perfect setting for more than a decade of mischeif-making at the keyoard.  In the end the Faraday series extended to a dozen books and won a substantial readership.  And it was yours truly, for a number of reasons, who brought the whole adventure to an end. 

One of those reasons was the fact that we'd left Pompey and settled in the West Country.  Leafy East Devon is a very different proposition to Faraday's beat but after a great deal of hesitation Orion took a flyer on my proposal for a spin-off series and gave me a two book commission.  Kidnapping D/S Jimmy Suttle from the Hantspol Major Crime Team and ghosting him down to Exeter (to join one of Devon and Cornwall's Major Crime Investigation Teams) was never going to be an easy gig but in the absence of a busy fictional focus on Pompey's teeming streets, I decided to weave these new books around the ever-volatile relationship between Suttle and Lizzie, his investigative journalist wife.  Crime was to feature heavily, of course, and I was gladdened by the discovery that bad guys were thick on the ground in our new backyard, but readers looking for more of the excitements generated by a major city had to adjust their expectations.  That said, Jimmy Suttle series has done well, with "Touching Distance" even making it to a screen adaptation in France.

So why World War Two?  Lin and I were on an extended trip around N/W Spain in our ancient camper van.  One warm September afternoon found us in a deserrted Galician fishing village called O Barquero.  Basking in the sunshine, I noticed a tiny plaque commemorating members of the crew of a U-boat that had foundered on an offshore reef during the war. The bulk of the crew had been saved by local fishermen.  A handful hadn't.

 I gazed at the plaque for the best part of an hour,  lifting my eyes to the fishing boats at anchor and the blueness of the ocean beyond, trying to imagine how it must have been for these strangers at the mercy of a full-blown Atlantic storm.  Later that night, back at the campsite,  I sank a beer or three and began to turn that single moment into the beginning of a substantial plot.   What if every man aboard except the skipper had perished?  What if this much-bemedalled guy - let's call him Kapitan Stefan Portisch - has grown tired of the war? What if five long years at sea - plus the knowledge that his entire  family have have perished in the Hamburg firestorm - has emptied him of everything?  What if he wants to turn his back on the slaughter and the dying embers of the Thousand Year Reich?  What, to put it bluntly, if he's had enough?

The loss of his entire crew, of course, would give him the opportunity to simply disappear.  But nothing is easy, least of all in best-selling fiction, and the hero of this fast-developing novel had been badly injured and must seek medical attention.  The latter is more complicated than it might sound because young Kapitan Portisch (he's only 24) has been charged to carry a bunch of SS officers plus sundry loot to Lisbon.  One of them, the most senior, couldn't swim and refused to take his chances with the rest of the crew as they flung themselves into the boiling surf.  Still down below, with the submarine beginning to break up, he ordered Portisch to shoot him.  Thus Stefan will face two charges if the pro-German Spanish hand him over to the Reich's consul in Coruna.  One - bad enough - will be desertion.  The other, once the body of the SS officer is recovered, will be murder.  Either will put Stefan Portisch, the former hero of the U-boat wolf packs, in front of a firing squad.  Both might merit a more grisly end.  

Over the rest of our trip, I worked on the plot.  No more clues except to say that half the action takes place at Los Alamos, in New Mexico, where a bunch of very clever scientists, many of them Jewish refugees from Stefan's Germany, are working on the atomic bomb.  It's September 1944.  From Berlin's perspective, the news from every front grows darker by the day. The price of Germany's very survival  may well be the credible possession of a super-weapon of their own.  But how to bring the western Allies to the negotiating table?  Before the Soviets steamroller into Berlin?  Stefan Portisch, it turns out, will be challenged to supply the key piece to this fascinating puzzle.  And the rest, as they say, is history.  

The title, again?  "Finisterre".  The publication date?  1st December.  Yep.  The perfect Christmas present.  If only for yourself....