Secrets

 

‘People sleep peacefully in their beds at night only because rough men stand ready to do violence on their behalf.’ George Orwell

 

Some ideas are just bigger than you think they are going to be. When I first started to write Night Vision, I had various themes I wanted to explore and the desire to put Naomi and Alec in a wider, more ‘political thriller’ sort of setting – not easy when their natural home has been small town police procedural. What I didn’t intend was for Night Vision to become the start of a sort of loose trilogy, within the Naomi Blake series though that’s what seems to have happened.

Night Vision came to a very logical end, but there was a vague feeling of unfinished business, a kind of itch in the brain, that no amount of head scratching could get rid of. Then Molly Chambers appeared, complaining that there was a man with a gun, standing in her garden and I had this sort of inkling that writing Secrets, was going to get complicated. When Gregory, from Night Vision, turned up unexpectedly my suspicion was confirmed. Themes and ideas that had begun in Night Vision became threads in Secrets; threads that led back in time, decades back to when Molly was young and idealistic and the Cold War was just about to get really chilly.

I suppose, though, that the writing of Secrets really began way back in about 1994, just after my first book, The Greenway, had been accepted for publication. A relative talked to me about his time in what had been the Belgian Congo, in the early sixties, just as the country was gaining independence. The UN was still a fledgling organisation and the big players in the Cold War were turning their attention to post colonial Africa. It was clear that there were stories here, well worth telling. I even tried to write something, but couldn’t get a proper sense of what the narrative should be about or how to approach it. So the idea was shelved.

Sometimes, though, these narratives coalesce in their own time. Molly Chambers had been a character I’d invented for my original story. She was then a young woman but now, older, fiercer, maybe wiser(?) but certainly not willing to be ignored, she took up a position dead centre of my story and would not budge. Secrets isn’t the story I intended to write back in 1994, this story is framed within the Naomi Blake series and so the parameters are quite different, but the history is, in some ways, the same. The incidents that happened in Molly’s youth have sent ripples down the years, the old guard of the Cold War are mostly gone, and what intrigued me now was the sense of unfinished business as events begun so many decades ago continue to impact.

The funny thing is that suddenly the world seems to be talking about the Congo and events that happened back in the early 1960s, or maybe, as is the nature of things, I’m just suddenly aware of it. I recently came across photographs taken by a particular hero of mine, Horst Faas, taken in South Kasai, which tried to gain independence for itself as a breakaway nation. I knew his work in Vietnam and beyond, but had no idea he also photographed the Bakuba. Then there’s the Young Vic production of Aime Cesaire’s A Season in the Congo (translated by Ralph Manheim) and starring Chiwetel Ejiofor and the brilliant book, ‘Who Killed Hammarskold by Susan Williams. A strange synchronicity seems to be occurring.

Secrets is about more than the Belgian Congo; more than post colonialism. That is just one thread in a story, the ripples of which will most likely continue to nudge outwards, long after the deaths of most of the participants. It does pick up directly from Night Vision, which has as part of its theme the changing of the old, Cold War guard and the new emphasis on electronic intelligence, use of drones, world war fought at a distance. The trappings have changed, but I’m not sure much else has and most of what is happening now has deep roots, a long and bloody history. Ironically, in part because colonial powers and particularly British colonial powers were so damned good at keeping records and implementing bureaucratic processes, root and branch are now so much more traceable.

And now I am writing the third in this loose trilogy. This brings events into the present moment; the ongoing ‘war against terror’ is the latest, very public face, of our secret society. Recent revelations by the likes of Edward Snowden have highlighted just how prevalent our surveillance society has become, just how technological are the battle lines drawn by governments and those opposing them. To get into the ‘one man’s terrorist is another person’s freedom fighter’ argument seems to me to be simplistic and disingenuous – so I leave that to others. Instead, I’m drawn to the conclusion that there is nothing new; that however clean looking from the outside our new technologies appear to be, however disinfected the language – drone strikes that ‘take out’ ‘casualties’ that are supposedly ‘surgical’. Surveillance that looks for key words, that monitors, that intercepts, it seems that this is just the glossy cover story, beneath which the bloody mess of war doesn’t change. The ‘rough men’ as Orwell termed them, still fight, the innocent still suffer…and writers still explore those tensions.

For me, the most interesting thing about this third book has been the opportunity to develop Naomi’s character. She becomes an unwilling, but pivotal player in Gregory’s game and discovers strengths I didn’t know she had – I guess that’s the fun part about writing; discovering your characters and just what they are able to do and be and I like being surprised. I hate to know, at the start of a book, what happens in the end – though I’m getting toward the end of this new book now, so I’m hoping I figure it out sooner, rather than later!

And what next? Well, I think when this is over, my characters will deserve a rest, so I’ll let them have one and pick their story up again when they’ve had six months or so to assimilate their experiences. Hopefully, by then, they’ll have celebrated Christmas, got drunk at New Year and be planning a summer break. For now, though, it’s back to the book and figuring out how to extricate Naomi and company from the nasty corner I’ve painted them into.

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