A LOYAL SPY by Simon Conway (Hodder & Stoughton)
‘A powerful and hugely enjoyable thriller that races between the Middle East, Africa, Scotland and London. Dense and raw with an elaborate plot and complex characters.’
Simon Conway on winning the award:
It was my editor Nick Sayers who said we should put A Loyal Spy forward for the Ian Fleming Steel Dagger. We were walking down a busy street near Regents Park. I remember thinking – Yes! Several months before that I’d described to him my main character, the mongrel-spy Jonah Said as a kind of “ur-Bond”. I’d had Bond in mind when I’d conceived the character, particularly Ian Fleming’s notion of him as a “an anonymous, blunt instrument wielded by a government department”. I had imagined that Vesper Lynd’s description of Bond would hold just as true for Jonah – “something a bit cruel in the mouth, and the eyes were cold”.
Of course, Jonah lacks Bond’s charm. As Monteith, the gruff spymaster in A Loyal Spy, is fond of saying, the greatest compliment that you can pay to a secret agent is to take him for a fool. In his commentary on Sun Tzu’s Art of War, Tu Mu (a Ninth century poet) wrote that a spy should appear to be an unimpressive fool. In reality, however, he should be a person of keen intellect with a will of iron. He should be used to doing dirty work and able to put up with being treated badly. In A Loyal Spy, Jonah is betrayed, framed, beaten up, abducted, shot…but he keeps on coming.
A Loyal Spy is an espionage novel about revenge and betrayal, about a friendship stretched to breaking point against the back-drop of the War on Terror. I had the idea of setting the novel at a very specific time, the summer of 2005, when London was reeling from the 7/7 attacks, Iraq was on the brink of all out civil war and the city of New Orleans lay in ruins. When it seemed that we were all vulnerable to sudden and violent acts.
The plot came out of research trips that I took to Peshawar and the tribal areas of Pakistan in 2005 and to Afghanistan in the following year. Gathering material and conducting interviews, I learned that the Taliban had been open to the Americans ridding them of Osama Bin Laden in early ’99 and sent a message to that effect but the Americans misunderstood what they were being offered. I thought what if the British had had a go? I learned that at that time Bin Laden was in eastern Afghanistan, scouting the location for a new base at an old Soviet Collective farm. In A Loyal Spy, a British military intelligence unit known as the Afghan Guides ambush a vehicle convoy in the Kabul River Gorge that they believe is Bin Laden’s. In the aftermath of the attack it becomes clear that they have been double-crossed. Instead they have killed a senior CIA agent. It was easy to imagine the cover-up that would follow and the lengths those who perpetrated it would have to go to keep it secret.
Trips to Liberia, Guinea Bissau and the ‘liberated zone’ of Western Sahara added further material and settings. I learned from Greg Campbell’s excellent book Blood Diamonds that al-Qaeda bought several million dollars worth of diamonds in Sierra Leone in the months leading up to 9/11. I had the location for the reunion of my central characters the British spy Jonah Said and his former school friend, the Jordanian double agent, Nor ed-Din.
Michael Isikoff and David Corn’s book Hubris provided details about the Anabasis Programme, a secret project based in the Nevada desert to train Iraqi defectors and eventually insert them behind enemy lines in the build up to the Iraq War. I imagined a secret buried within a secret – an elaborate charade by Nor to rob al-Qaeda of diamonds with Jonah as an unwitting dupe. The headlong rush towards war in Iraq was fertile ground for conspiracy theorists and millenarians – my villain, Richard Winthrop, is a classic ‘neo-con’ with a grand vision for the world matched only by his rapacious greed.
The first chapters of A Loyal Spy that I wrote were in the section called Hijra:flight. It was July 2005 and I was stranded by the monsoon in the Sudanese town of Damazin in Blue Nile State. I began writing about Miranda. She was the woman that Jonah gave up spying for and has now abandoned. She is living on a remote Scottish island. When the police come looking for Jonah and it becomes clear that he is being framed as a terrorist she is forced to go on the run. She seeks shelter on the Isle of Barra with Flora, the daughter of the spymaster Monteith, and in London with the journalist Saira, a former lover and Somali exile. I imagined the arc of her journey running parallel to Jonah’s and that their stories would converge and meet at the end in the Thames Estuary.
Jonah’s trip to Peshawar and the tribal areas bordering Afghanistan is loosely based on my own experiences there in 2005. For the chapter set in Iraq I relied heavily on John Robb’s brilliant book Brave New War, which describes the terrorist “market place” and how the same technology that has enabled globalization also allows terrorists to join forces and carry out small, inexpensive actions – like sabotaging an oil pipeline – that generate a huge return.
The story of the Montgomery, the second world war era freighter that is lying in shallow water in the Thames Estuary, with a couple of thousand tons of bombs on board was told to me by a friend who was part of the dive crew contracted by the Ministry of Defence to conduct a survey of the wreck. As Winthrop says in A Loyal Spy, ‘As far as I can see, up to now the only thing that has stood between London and total annihilation is a failure of imagination on the part of the terrorists.’
In A Loyal Spy I have sought to highlight the vulnerability of cities to acts of mass destruction, and the increasing sophistication of modern terrorist cells, whilst at the same time warning that as long as the security industry and their partners in the intelligence services are the main beneficiaries of the War on Terror there will be little incentive for it to come to an end.
Most of all I wanted to write a page-turning thriller. To have won the Ian Fleming Steel Dagger is the icing on the cake.
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THE DYING LIGHT by Henry Porter (Orion)
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THE GENTLEMEN’S HOUR by Don Winslow (Heinemann)
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GONE by Mo Hayder (Bantam Press)
‘An ingeniously plotted and pacy thriller rooted in family tragedy. First-rate characterisation and a high level of tension throughout.’
SLOW HORSES by Mick Herron (Robinson)
‘Sardonic, complex and well written British spy thriller centring on a group of failed agents with a last chance to make good.’
Corinne Turner (Administrative Chair) – Managing Director, Ian Fleming Publications Ltd
Sarah Fairbairn – Editorial Manager at Ian Fleming Publications Ltd
Philip Gooden – writer of fiction and non-fiction, and a past Chairman of the CWA.
Samantha Weinberg – writer and winner of the 2003 CWA Gold Dagger for Non-Fiction. She is the author of the Moneypenny Diaries trilogy (writing as Kate Westbrook).
NJ Cooper – crime writer and journalist and regularly speaks at crime-writing conferences and on the radio.