I’m delighted to welcome fellow Crooked Cat author, Nik Morton, to my blog. With fifty years writing experience and many books to his name, Nik is a brilliant writer of pacy, action-packed and fascinatingly researched books. He’s here to discuss his latest spy novel, The Prague Papers. There’s also an extract and links at the end. I’ll hand straight over to Nik who will tell you more…
The Prague Papers transports the reader to a relatively exotic locale and period and is fast-paced and highly visual. Running through the series of Tana Standish chronicles are several leitmotifs: each story begins with a Prologue about the handing over of a secret manuscript; each tale starts with a victim in the sights of a weapon. Astute readers will appreciate that Tana experiences flash-forward images of future threats, which are played out in the respective sequels. Intentionally, the blurring of fact and fiction occurs and each tale ends with a news report, often hidden away in the middle of a newspaper: bland paragraphs that hide a lot of international tension and chicanery. Many of the subsidiary characters appear again in the follow-up, The Tehran Text. The end of each adventure plugs the first chapter of the next; for example, the first chapter of The Khyber Chronicle is already appended to The Tehran Text. Tana’s Khyber mission takes place in Afghanistan in 1979/80 and the follow-up to that is in Argentina/Falklands in 1982); all echoing real events in recent history.
These Tana Standish books will appeal to readers of Jack Higgins, John Le Carré and Ian Fleming or any reader who enjoys The Manchurian Candidate and Modesty Blaise capers. The books also offer the serious side to Ronson’s The Men Who Stare at Goats.
What are the main ideas or themes in The Prague Papers?
For years I’d been interested in psychic research and read a great deal about it. When I learned that in the 1970s governments actively pursued this for potential use against enemy states, I linked up the idea with a spy organisation I’d created in the 1960s in my first two (unpublished) novels. The theme is the survival of the human spirit even when oppression is the norm. The heroine epitomises this, from her fifth birthday in 1942 to 1975, with this latest mission.
Exciting stuff. So why is the setting so important?
We have all lived in interesting times, and I feel that the Cold War period still has many more stories to tell. Reappraising that time some forty years later, there’s scope for inserting the grey as well as the heroic. I’d researched Czechoslovakia a great deal and found myself sympathising with the people. Freedom was something to fight for, to work towards in 1975; it took another eighteen years for it to be a reality, when the country was split in two. The Tana Standish series reflects the history we’ve lived through and shows how events in the past can influence the ‘now’.
Tell us more about Tana and some of the other characters.
Tana Standish is a spy working for an organisation linked to but not part of MI6. The organisation came into being in an attempt at avoiding the constant Soviet leaks. She is a psychic with a photographic memory; she’s not superhuman, though, as her abilities cannot always be turned on and off at will. Laco is an old friend and ex-lover who is head of an underground cell in Prague. Sadly, being a friend of Tana can prove fatal. There are echoes from her past, in the guise of Ilyichev; some years back, she crippled him when he was spying in Northern Ireland. And there are echoes from her future – in each book, she gets tantalising glimpses of an event or situation she will be involved in, often puzzling, often threatening. Tana’s dilemma is to survive capture and brainwashing.
Why did you write this novel?
I always wanted to write about characters who could cross the globe on their adventures. Having an interest in the history of espionage, I felt that it seemed logical to write about a period I’d lived through and understood. The psychic elements are provided in a realistic setting; that’s the hard part, making science fiction believable. Certainly, Tana has evolved into a strong character who can easily tread the murky byways of recent history.
How do you go about writing a novel? Is it a simple or complex process?
I’ve been writing novels intermittently for fifty years, though I’ve only had novels published for the last seven! It depends on the original impetus – is it an idea, a character, an event? Now, I tend to plot the full story – not in any great detail – just so I know where I’m going.
This is easier (and harder) for the Tana books because she is tied to real historical events; easier, because I have a route; harder, because I’ve got to make the action fit the real timeline.
A stand-alone novel is relatively easy, once the plot-plan is devised.
A series requires certain characters to reappear; also there’s some foreshadowing into future books, and back-references with perhaps fresh revelations on past events. A spreadsheet is useful for keeping track of characters and where they appear, too; for example, The Khyber Chronicle already has 43 named characters and has some way to go!
What advice do you have for less experienced writers?
Be your harshest critic. Write the whole book; don’t dally with the first part, trying to get it right. Move forward. Get it down on the page, get it done.
Once it’s ‘finished’, then you can go over it to find the inconsistencies, the word repetitions, the logic lapses, the contradictory timelines, and the spelling and grammar mistakes.
Self-edit, self-edit and just to be sure, self-edit. You’ll never achieve perfection, but strive to that end.
Put it aside for a few days and read it with fresh eyes. You’ll still find mistakes. Correct them. Then, when you feel you can’t improve it any more or may even be in danger of destroying those flashes of spontaneity, prepare a pristine copy along the guidelines of your target – publisher, editor et al – and send it off with the synopsis and anything else that is required. In short, don’t rush it. You only have one chance to create a good first impression.
What are you working on currently?
I’ve got three books on the go. 1) To Be King is the sequel to a co-written fantasy quest Wings of the Overlord. This series has been evolving for over forty years; Gordon created the fantasy world and paints the broad plot strokes: I write the book, adding sub-plots as appropriate. 2) Cataclysm is the second sequel to Catalyst, which is due from Crooked Cat on 11 December. Catalyst is the first in the ‘Avenging Cat’ series, about another female protagonist, Catherine Vibrissae, who is set on destroying the global organisation Cerberus and its head, Loupe Malefice. Her adventures take her to Spain, Morocco and China. 3) The Khyber Chronicle, the third in the Tana Standish series, set in Afghanistan during the Soviet invasion. Happily, they’re all different enough so that I don’t get confused!
What would your perfect day be?
Excluding family, I’ll answer this from a writing perspective: the perfect day would be when I saw one of my books on film! Well, we can all dream, Jeff!
I certainly share that dream, Nik. Name a book or a film that means a lot to you.
Having over 4,000 books and several hundred films on the shelves, that’s a tall order, so I’ll duck the question. My blog has a list of favourite books, and it’s quite a list. (Nik’s blog).
If you could leave a message to the world, what would it be?
I guess embedded in most of my books is the message that ‘good triumphs over evil’, so I’d let the books speak for me.
All the best with your many different projects, Nik. Sounds like you’re busy, but finding great success now. It’s been a pleasure chatting with you.
Extract from Chapter 2: Tana
Perversely, it was good to be back after seven eventful years – dangerous and secret years in far-flung places like Karachi, Tehran, Elba, Gibraltar, Hong Kong and Mombasa. Caution and deceit were second nature to her, she reminded herself and grinned. Yes, I feel quite at home again.
The sound of the heels of her calf-hugging black boots added to the general hubbub in the echoing terminal. Tana moved through the wide glass-partitioned entrance then lowered her travelling-case on the steps and checked her watch.
The British Airways flight had been a couple of minutes early – a favourable tail wind. She’d allowed for a much longer delay in customs, so now she had at least ten minutes to wait before Laco arrived with transport to take her the seventeen kilometres into the city.
The very air seemed grossly oppressive – and it wasn’t the weather.
At least the rain had stopped, although the grey heavens stayed overcast. From the aircraft, she’d seen the lights shining between the rows of Charles Bridge’s Baroque statues, while the Vltava, edged with rain-sodden trees, reflected the city’s winking night-lights and numerous turreted spires and domes. A beautiful city that seemed to benefit from Communist neglect; it lacked modern hoardings, neon advertisements and garish shops and she felt it was probably better for it.
After all these years it was easy enough for her to keep in check her distaste for the Soviets and their system, which had seemed to get even more corrupt. Odd, but Sir Gerald had openly regretted Kruschev being deposed the year before she joined Interprises – “Not as shifty as Brezhnev. We thought we had a chance to work with the Russians,” he’d said. “Now, after over a decade of Brezhnev, I’m not so sure any more.”
She really felt for the oppressed Czechs and Russians; they were regularly lied to and deprived of so much; all so that the Soviet hierarchy could live well. Where there was oppression, there was fear, betrayal and personal danger.
Still, so far she had no reason to doubt Merrick’s assessment was accurate. “Minimal risk,” he’d said. “A straightforward repair and rebuild assignment. I thought you’d enjoy it; a return to see old friends.” Then he’d added, with a lecherous smirk, “Laco Valchik’s still in charge, he picked up the pieces and got Torrence out. A close call, by all accounts.”
As soon as she’d heard about Torrence, Tana had contacted Enid Shorthouse, the Interprises filing clerk in the basement Library. Enid had been with Sir Gerald since the beginning in 1963 and, it seemed, had a memory second only to Tana’s. She knew all the Interprises field agents and their traits. Her filing system was separate to the Ops Officer’s and that’s the way she liked it. Idiosyncratic. Only she could find anything. She was supposed to provide documentation and information backup for the agents in the field. But Enid took her job too seriously to limit herself, so whatever she could find out she put in her files – on paper and in her memory.
“You know, Enid,” Tana had remarked, “all Moscow Centre has to do is to kidnap you. Interprises might as well fold up then.”
Chuckling, Enid leaned on the enquiries counter, drooping breasts encased in a My Weekly pattern blue-green bobbled cardigan, well past its best. She lifted her spectacles from her pointed nose and rested them among the permed curls of her blue-rinsed hair. “You’re the only agent who knows the full extent of my knowledge, my dear.” She winked. “The Ruskies’d have to be psychic to know, really.”
Tana grinned. “Let’s hope so. Now, what can you tell me about Reginald Torrence?”
“Torrence!” Enid’s normally kindly features suddenly transformed, lines pronounced around her glaring eggshell blue eyes. “He’s a buffoon. I don’t know why Sir Gerald allowed him to stay after he bungled Izmir.” She calmed down, waving a hand airily. “Fine, he’s good in the classroom, knows the theory, but his people-skills are nothing to write home about, I can tell you.”
Tana wondered why Merrick had sent in that buffoon, as Enid called him. Apparently, he bungled the whole operation from the word go. All he had to do was consolidate the underground faction, obtain any useful information, and then return with technical requirements they might have. Instead, he blew it, the whole fabric torn at the seams, one cell disrupted, others in hiding and fearing the worst.
At least Torrence got out – thanks to Laco and his network’s survivors.
Was it Torrence’s fault or was there a mole in Laco’s organisation?
But Tana knew there was another quite unthinkable possibility.
She still puzzled over what happened to Toker in Istanbul last month – and Enid hadn’t been any help, either, save saying that Dudley Toker had been a real professional and a gentleman as far as she was concerned. “I tell you truly, Tana, I really miss his wonderful smile and chivalrous airs. Not much gallantry about since the Sixties.”
A chilly sensation down the nape of her neck returned Tana abruptly to the present.
The man was obviously watching her. Hatless, close-cropped black hair, greying at the edges. Stout, short, a broken bent nose, flaring nostrils. He was so blatantly an agent of the StB, their political security police, no doubt sent from his rat-hole in Bartolemejská where they’d taken over the old convent and eighteenth century church of Saint Bartholomew. One day, maybe the church and convent would echo to hymns and psalms again instead of the plaintive cries of tormented citizens. But she wouldn’t hold her breath.
All StB agents wore civilian clothes, yet they might as well have displayed placards with neon lights. It was a combination of their unrelaxed poses, their strained unawareness and something indefinable, almost as though they smelled of decay and corruption.
On the other hand, he could be KGB – they were little better, confident in their superiority and their ability to instil fear into the populace. And if so, then she was probably blown before she started.
She was aware that in the last six months Interprises had lost two other experienced agents, besides Toker. Cornelius in Helsinki and Segal in Berlin. Her thoughts naturally turned to the existence of a mole inside Interprises. Sir Gerald had created Interprises twelve years ago, specifically because MI6 seemed riddled with Soviet double agents.
Only a week earlier, James Fisk had obtained authorisation for Tana to experiment with a new probing technique on the staff of Interprises. It had risks to her mental well-being, he warned, but she said she was willing to try. The technique used a prototype bio-feedback system combined with remote viewing. Then this mission cropped up. Bad timing, really. Still, when she got back, they’d set it up and with any luck it just might help identify the mole, if there was one.
As the watcher’s black rodent-like eyes momentarily latched onto hers, Tana’s brain echoed with a loud throaty scream, a woman in extreme agony:
Completely naked, the woman was strapped to a chair, her skin blemished with electrode-burns, lathered in glistening sweat, trembling violently.
The stark moment passed. Tana didn’t superficially react at all; the mental image had been too swift. But her pulse and heart rate quickened.
The sensation was not wholly alien to her; it was akin to previous bouts of precognition. But it was also possible that it could have been a captured impression from the watcher’s sewer-like mind. He looked old enough to be an apprentice during Stalin’s time. Probably reliving his stimulatingly vile memories.
A sibilant hiss of tires on the wet tarmac caught her attention.