Friday, August 26, 2011

The Existential Background to Spartan

I enjoy thrillers based around the looking glass world of international espionage especially by scribes who have the credentials of authenticity, and writing ability that reflects the existential aspects of the world they portray. The best debut thriller that has passed my reading table this year is without doubt Matthew Dunn’s Spartan [aka Spycatcher in the US], coming from Orion Imprint Swordfish in the UK managed by editor / author Rowland White, and from executive editor David Highfill at HarperCollins US imprint Wm Morrow.

Many know my obsessive nature when a powerful debut captures my mind. I just have to learn more about it, as it enriches the memory of the work, and enhances my own understanding of the dynamics of storytelling. So I was interested in discovering how Rowland White had discovered Matthew Dunn, as well as finding a little about his own writing. The interesting factor is that Rowland followed up his bestselling Vulcan 607 and Phoenix Squadron with newly released Storm Front, a tale that perhaps provides insight into why Spartan / Spycatcher appealed to him, with its tale of the British SAS on a covert mission into the Middle-East -

In early 1970, the Commanding Officer of 22 SAS flew into the strategically critical Sultanate of Oman on a covert intelligence mission. A Communist rebellion in the South threatened not only the stability of the Arabian Peninsula but more importantly the West’s vital oil routes through the Persian Gulf.

Six months later, following a coup d’etat supported by the British Government, the SAS deployed to Oman to lead a fierce, secret war against the rebels. While, from a remote RAF airbase in the desert, an elite band of British pilots, flying difficult, dangerous missions in Strikemaster jets and Vietnam-era Huey helicopters, were scrambled alongside them in support.

For the British soldiers and airmen, it was to be no easy victory. The enemy were well supplied with weaponry and training from China and the Soviet Union, and despite confronting the largest assault force ever deployed by the SAS, many months later the rebels were still fighting back.

And at dawn on July 19th, 1972, a force of nearly 300 heavily armed, well-trained guerillas attacked the little fishing port of Mirbat without warning. Between them and glory stood a team of just nine SAS men. And the skill of the British fighter pilots. The scene was set for an epic encounter. Their heroism would become SAS legend.

Drawing on extensive interviews with participants from the SAS, the RAF and the Sultan’s Armed Forces, most of whom have never spoken about their involvement before, as well as previously classified documents from both the UK and Oman, Storm Front weaves an unputdownable tale of intrigue, action, daring and astounding bravery in the face of overwhelming odds.

So like an SAS man, I tracked the busy Rowland White down and asked him to let me know how he came across this remarkable debut novel -

Netting Swordfish’s First Catch by Rowland White

In launching the Swordfish list I wanted to publish books that appealed for the same reasons as those that inspired me when I was growing up. I loved to lose myself in adventure, danger and exotic locations in the company of naturalists, spies, explorers and soldiers. On my reading list were authors like Willard Price, Herge, Ian Fleming, Paul Brickhill, Wilbur Smith and Clive Cussler. I wanted a Swordfish book to capture readers’ imaginations in the same way and, in Spartan, ex-MI6 field operative, Matthew Dunn’s explosive debut novel, I’ve got one. Agent Luigi Bonomi told me, when making his submission, that Matthew’s book would be up my street and it was quickly clear that his instinct was on the money. When I first tucked into the manuscript I was immediately struck by the Spartan’s distinctive tone. It was hard-edged and muscular, with a confidence and authority that was unusual. I was gripped by its immediacy and sense of purpose.

The book’s hero, MI6/CIA joint asset, Will Cochrane, inhabits a world in which there can be no room for self-doubt or hesitation; where split second decisions have massive repercussions, but where not making a decision is not an option. And it had a ring of authenticity only an ex-intelligence officer could bring to it. It’s pumped up, larger than life and exhilarating. Like Ian Fleming, Matthew’s drawn on his own experience of the secret world to create a hero who, while grounded in reality, operates on the limits of what’s humanly possible. Like all the best adventure thrillers, there’s escapism and wish fulfillment in there. Will Cochrane’s not quite superhuman, but he’s certainly the next best thing. For the reader, the feeling you’re at Will’s shoulder as he conducts his mission is irresistible. Spartan is stunningly dynamic thriller-writing. But alongside kinetic, widescreen action sequences, there’s also tradecraft. There’s excitement, but also insight.

In Will Cochrane, Matthew Dunn’s drawn a hero who I couldn’t wait to go into battle with again. But I’m lucky, as Matthew’s Publisher I get to do that before anyone else. Matthew recently delivered the manuscript for his second thriller, titled Sentinel, it drops us alongside Will Cochrane off the far eastern coast of Russia aboard a rusting trawler as he prepares to infiltrate, alone, unseen, ashore. Reading on, I felt the biting wind and sleet as Will climbed down a rope net towards the churning ocean and I knew I was in for another brutal, bloody and addictive all-action rollercoaster ride. I look forward to many more of them.

Then I managed to interview Matthew Dunn for The Rap Sheet, though he was a naturally a tad coy talking about his time with MI6 / SiS but did provide me this interesting essay on how he became an instrument for Her Majesties Secret Service -

The Route to SIS by Matthew Dunn

The application process to join MI6 is torturous and probably one of the hardest selection procedures in the world in terms of the success to failure rate. It’s designed to be that way for the simple reason that the job of an MI6 field operative is incomparably tough and mentally challenging. Applicants have to sit numerous timed cognitive tests which get increasingly harder to the point of absurdity, have to lead role-play problem-solving exercises, are interviewed extensively, and have to undergo an incredibly intrusive security vetting investigation that lays bare every aspect of your private life. Potential recruits can fail at any stage but it is in the interviews that the real work is done to establish whether you have what it takes to become a spy.

The interviewers are senior intelligence officers who are trained to spot indecisiveness, mental inferiority, frauds, fantasists, and potential traitors. Anyone with those and other weaknesses are quickly toyed with and spat out of the system. If you avoid that, the interviewers will focus on your strengths to see if they are up to the exacting standards required of an MI6 officer. One of the questions they ask is, “Who do you look up to?” If you answer something like, “JFK and Gandhi” then the interview is over. If you answer, “Nobody” it continues. The reason for this is that if you look up to someone, then you perceive yourself to be beneath that person in some way. MI6 does not want people like that. It wants people who have the absolute conviction of a supreme leader.

That’s not to say that MI6 looks for arrogance in its recruits. Successful applicants never display an overbearing sense of self-worth and self-importance, or contempt for the weak. The job of the spy often requires you to interact with individuals who are vulnerable and those people need compassion and leadership from the field officer. Moreover, MI6 operatives will sacrifice their worth and status in a shot if it means getting the job done. They are patriotic and totally dedicated to their missions. Arrogant people put themselves first; MI6 officers do not.

However, a self-belief that you can do things that others cannot is vital. MI6 spies are given extensive and ongoing training in highly specialized use of guns, military unarmed combat, explosives and other aggressive tradecraft actions. But in the field, the most vital weapon of a spy if his or her mind. MI6 officers can move through hostile environments with the confidence and precision of an ultimate predator. People don’t see them, or if they do they think they are seeing something else. The mind of a spy can take that person into places and situations that most would think impossible to access. And very often that’s done without the deployment of a weapon.

Many people have a natural inclination toward subservience to people they believe to be more experienced than them, but MI6 officers are different. You could be a twenty five year old female MI6 field operative who is running a sixty year old male general. The agent might have led thousands of men into war, but you would be his leader and he would expect that of you because his life is in your hands and you are the expert in intelligence matters. If you display anything other than absolute strength and a command of the situation, then your agent will rightly wonder if he is going to die.

The tiny number of applicants who make it through the selection process to join MI6 have an even tougher mountain to climb once they’re within its ranks. They have to get through a rigorous pass or fail training course, are on probation for two years during which time they can be dismissed, and even after that they must prove their worth in every day of employment as a spy. A field officer who cannot operate at one hundred percent of what is expected of them will not be deployed on a mission because, if he was, at best that mission could fail and at worst the officer and others around him could be killed.

But very few MI6 missions do fail, because MI6 recruits the right kind of people. They are a very rare breed of animal. They are the best intelligence operatives in the world.

Text “Netting Swordfish’s First Catch” © 2011 Rowland White
Text “The Route to SIS” © 2011 Matthew Dunn
Matthew Dunn author photo © 2011 Adam Scourfield
Rowland White author photo © 2006 Ali Karim

Buy Matthew Dunn’s Spartan Here
Buy Matthew Dunn’s Spycatcher Here
Buy Rowland White’s Vulcan 607 Here
Buy Rowland White’s Phoenix Squadron here
Buy Rowland White’s Storm Front Here

Saturday, August 13, 2011

Blunt, Philby, Burgess & Maclean but who the hell is Hanssen?

As a lover of thriller novels, conspiracies and conspiracy theories as well as investigating how the [mainstream] media operate; I consider myself well-read and well-informed, but this week I uncovered a huge gap in my knowledge. This gap proved to me how reality really is [at worst] controlled, or [at best] shaped and edited as a form of ‘control’. In George Orwell’s novels such as ‘Animal Farm’, the mantra “Four legs good, Two legs bad” gets transformed by the ruling elite [‘the pigs’] following the overthrow of the farmer, into “Four legs good, Two legs better” and its related quasi-sequel ‘1984’; where main protagonist Winston Smith works at the Ministry of Truth, effectively re-writing history and changing the past to create a new and secure future for the ruling elite.

I found evidence this week, how true Eric Arthur Blair [aka ‘George Orwell’] was in his observations on the crucial importance of controlling the masses, or at least by influencing the mainstream media, often deploying the magician’s scantily-clad assistant in deflecting the attention of the observer, and therefore validating the statement ‘that perception is reality’ by the use of smoke and mirrors.

I am referring to my viewing on DVD this week of the 2007 film “Breach”, starring Chris Cooper; and my own annoyance about why, and how I’d missed this outstanding film when it was originally released theatrically. Though the most crucial question I pondered on was - why I had never heard of Robert Hanssen ?

This was due to two factors, firstly Cooper’s career-defining performance as Hanssen, showing a most ‘odd, complex and dangerous’ individual. Despite a strong religious leaning toward extreme Catholicism’s Opus Dei and a robust family background, he hid his secret well, so well that one must question his motivation[s], because they, like his dark side were hidden under a cloak of normalcy.

Secondly I discovered that Hanssen was the most treasonous American citizen in US history, who while holding down a top post at the FBI, sold highly classified US secrets to the Soviet regime for over 22 years. The secrets that Hanssen sold to Moscow, resulted in many US ‘Assets / Agents’ being compromised [tortured and murdered] by the Soviet Security Services [KGB]. The issue I had was despite being well-read, and informed [something I pride myself upon]; I am embarrassed to admit, though knowing much about Aldrich Ames, I was for some reason clueless about Hanssen. Could it do with me living in Britain? I had read significantly about the British traitors Blunt, Philby, Burgess & Maclean more commonly referred to as The Cambridge four [or five]. This conspiracy was mined, loosely to great effect in former ex-SIS recruit turned espionage novelist Charles Cumming in his recent ‘The Trinity Six’ novel.

Here’s a trailer for Breach which sets the scene for this hypnotic thriller that looks into the darkest edges of Human Nature -

Here’s an interview with Chris Cooper on how he decides on what roles to take on and why -

Chris Cooper is one of the most under-rated actors I know and I share his interest in geo-politics and his ‘left of left’ political leanings which often influences his choice of acting roles. This profile of him from the 2007 Edinburgh Festival is most insightful –

Cooper studied drama at the University of Missouri, did a couple of years of summer stock, and then moved to New York City, where he had a ball acting on stage for 12 years. In 1983 he married the actress Marianne Leone (best known here as Joanne Moltisanti in The Sopranos), who pushed Cooper into making films and kick-started his fruitful working relationship and close friendship with Sayles. In 1987 Cooper and Leone had a son, Jesse, who was born with cerebral palsy, who died from causes related to the disease two years ago, aged just 17. Jesse’s parents, who now live in Kingston, Massachusetts, set up the Jesse Cooper Foundation and work tirelessly as advocates for children with special needs (to that end Cooper and Leone are currently collaborating on a film about a mother’s relationship with her severely disabled daughter, Hurricane Mary).

From this background sketch you’ll perhaps have gleaned that Cooper, who speaks like a cowboy, conducts himself with the courtesy of a gentleman rancher, and has experienced something of the bohemian life as well as great personal loss, is a world away from the deceitful but otherwise straight-laced FBI man Robert Hanssen. Cooper describes his own politics as ‘left of left’. Sayles, who most recently cast him as a dimwitted politician and thinly-disguised pre-White House George Bush in the political satire Silver City, calls him a news junkie.

‘As soon as I wake up,’ Cooper confirms, ‘I listen to National Public Radio for the early coverage of what’s happening that day, and I’ll take a look at CNN throughout the day. That really kicked in after 9/11.’

Cooper talks confidently and freely about politics and current affairs: ‘I feel pretty confident we’ll get a Democratic administration next time round,’ he says, ‘but what Bush has done to our world needs a lot of patching up.’ And: ‘We’ve spent so much money on this war our bridges are falling down. As far as the infrastructure goes here, healthcare should be dealt with in this next election.’ And: ‘I’m glad to see Mr Brown is not so comfortable with President Bush. I think he takes a stronger stand on things.’

The actor’s 24/7 interest in news and politics is reflected in his choice of films, which are often distinguished by some degree of political edge: the Bourne films with their indictment of the CIA; Sam Mendes’ war-is-idiotic Gulf conflict drama Jarhead; the oil business conspiracy tale Syriana; and the forthcoming Middle East-set murder mystery The Kingdom. And now Breach, of whose real world basis Cooper says: ‘I remember pretty clearly that it was quite a big piece of news. Only after three or four days of media coverage it disappeared. What I’ve since discovered is this turned out to be a real embarrassment for the FBI. I think they got a hold of the media and shut the story down.’

Read More

After watching Cooper’s hypnotic portrayal of Robert Hanssen [which was mesmerizing] and for me career-defining, I dug a little deeper and then found this report from The Central Intelligence Agency [Langley] which provides a fascinating view into America’s most destructive security beach, one that very few truly understand –

Arguably the most damaging spy in US history, Hanssen repeatedly volunteered his services to Moscow’s intelligence services, cloaking his activities in a fictitious persona (Ramon Garcia) and adamantly refusing to reveal to his handlers the identity of his genuine employer. By all accounts, Hanssen was arrogantly confident in his ability to “play the spy game” according to the rules he created and employed. He gambled that he could deceive the FBI and the Russians and avoid being compromised by any US agent that might have penetrated Moscow’s services.

Many vexing questions exist about Hanssen’s rationale for acting as he did for as long as he did. But nothing has been debated as vigorously as the reasons why he was able to elude detection for two decades. Attempts to confer on Hanssen the mythological status of a “master spy” (e.g., CBS’s made-for-television movie Masterspy: The Robert Hanssen Story) are not supported by the facts of the case, and the key question remains: Why did it take so long for the FBI to catch a mole that had operated with impunity within its ranks for such a long period of time?

Breach, a fast-paced movie directed by Billy Ray, attempts to answer some of these perplexing questions. The movie covers only the last six weeks of Hanssen’s two-decade-long espionage career, opening in the late fall of 2000, when Hanssen first came under the investigative microscope. According to David Wise, author of one of the best of several accounts of Hanssen’s life and perfidy, a successful joint CIA-FBI initiative obtained a package containing a portion of an operational file pertaining to a mole deeply embedded in the US counterintelligence community.
[2] In addition to the file, the package contained three other exceptional pieces of evidence: an audio tape containing two brief telephone conversations between the mole and a KGB interlocutor in 1986, copies of letters written by the mole during 1985–88, and two partial fingerprints lifted from a plastic garbage bag the mole had used to wrap a delivery to Moscow. Wise wrote that the purchase price of the package was $7 million.

It did not take the FBI long to piece together the shards of evidence and come to a stunning conclusion: The mole was one of their own special agents. Equally shocking to the FBI was the realization that the person its investigators had firmly believed to be the mole, a senior CIA counterintelligence specialist who had been the object of an extraordinarily invasive counterespionage investigation over the previous five years, was innocent. Despite the absence of evidence, the FBI had convinced CIA officials that it had good reason to believe that one of CIA’s officers had been responsible for compromising more than 50 compartmented FBI operations against the Soviet and Russian intelligence services operating in the United States during the period 1985–2000.

Read more from The CIA Here

Here’s an interview with Ryan Phillippe who plays Eric O’ Neil FBI undercover agent who was responsible for bringing Hanssen to justice, but ultimately made him re-evaluate the personal cost of living undercover to his personal life.

Then I realized why I had not heard anything of significance about the Film ‘Breach’, from what Chris Cooper said

‘I remember pretty clearly that it was quite a big piece of news. Only after three or four days of media coverage it disappeared. What I’ve since discovered is this turned out to be a real embarrassment for the FBI. I think they got a hold of the media and shut the story down.’

In my opinion ‘Breach’ is one of the greatest political thrillers [together with ‘Syriana’ which also stars Chris Cooper] I’ve seen since the golden age of 1970’s paranoia-cinema, such as ‘Three Days of the Condor’ based on James Grady’s novel ‘Six Days of the Condor’, The Parallax View, Richard Condon’s hugely influential novels that were filmed as Winter Kills and ‘The Manchurian Candidate’, or Alan J. Pakula’s ‘The Parallax View’ – though ‘Breach’ like ‘All The President’s Men’ is based on reality, not conjecture or conspiracy theory.

The discovery this week [for me], of ‘Breach’ and then further research on the whole Robert Hanssen affair distracted me from the dreadful civil disturbances and riots that have peppered many cities and towns in the UK, and which started in North London.

A surreal thought did occur to me for a thriller novella, and one that would be interesting for me to write, and these are the scribbles from my notebook which act as a synopsis –

I Predict a Riot

The world is on the brink of an economic and financial crisis. A lack of an understanding of human nature led to the fall of communism in the 1980’s, and now the ‘endless growth paradigm’ in a world of finite resources, [coupled to the self-same lack of understanding vis-à-vis human nature] is pushing capitalism toward the same path – collapse. To distract the ‘general public’ from the apocalyptic anxieties of the Euro-Crisis and the American Debt-Crisis, and their own problems [unemployment and rising commodity prices] a plan is hatched by ‘the-men-behind-the curtain’. Much frantic work is required behind the scenes [without public introspection as to the reality of the situation], to shore up the economy, so a distraction is created. A small cabal of espionage operatives are dispersed [in ‘hoodies’ and ‘gangster rap’ garb] in an operation across UK cities to spark / incite ‘small to medium scale’ civil disorder, which taps into the “under-classes / economically disadvantaged” and “criminals / gangs” who mount ‘copy-cat’ attacks as looting and rioting spreads in English inner-cities, with the police under instructions to take a ‘softly, softly’ approach. ‘Social Media’ is harnessed to encourage and fan the flames of disorder. The world media focus its fish-eye lens onto the British riots, thus keeping the real news, the economic crisis away from the centre of the camera. The ‘men-behind-the curtain’ can now work away with reduced public introspection, and the general public and ‘chattering classes’ get distracted from their current problems of unemployment, lack of job security, increased costs of energy, public-sector cutbacks, higher taxation – focusing instead on the moral issues behind these riots, brewing up ‘racism’ as humans always like someone to blame. The public demands use of water canon, rubber bullets, harsh punishments for the looters, clamp downs and restrictions on ‘social media’, even ‘hanging’ and agrees that we must give up more of our civil liberties, and freedoms as a cost we have to accept for our own safety. The mission creep toward the fascist society Orwell imagined in 1984 comes closer to reality.

I considered the plot way too far-fetched like this one, or this one, this one, or this one and I have many others, which are too unbelievable to consider that anyone could plan such an outrageous conspiracy, and how the media could be so misdirected, as some allege they were in 1969 when the western world feared the shadow cast by the Russian Space program.

“Four legs good, Two legs better”

If this article has interested you, it would be worth checking out the linkages between Sigmund Freud, Edward Bernays and Wilhelm Reich – because everything is existential until it becomes real, but always remember the close linkages between ‘perception and reality’.

Others think that I read far too many thriller novels than is healthy for the mind, while others consider that it could be because my family originates from the North-East Indian State of Bihar, where Eric Arthur Blair was born in 1903, and Blair is more commonly known as George Orwell, a man I admire since reading his work as a young boy.

Or perhaps the reason why the Robert Hanssen story, like the film ‘Breach’ is not mentioned that much is because of the embarrassment it caused the FBI / CIA and the wider intelligence community, as his traitorous behaviour was uncovered in 2001, months prior to the other huge security breach that occurred on September 11th - another incident that provokes debate with the talk of conspiracy, conspiracy theories, security failures and ‘grassy knolls’.