A Couple More Book Reviews

It's winter, it's cold outside all the time, and dark for most of it - what better way to pass an evening than to do some reading? Here's a couple I got through in January...

I was introduced to Jake Needham through the first of his Inspector Samuel Tay books, The Ambassador’s Wife, which I really enjoyed. I thought I should give his Jack Shepherd series a try, and I wasn’t disappointed. This is a character-focused rather than an action-packed thriller, and Jake Needham does grumpy, out-of-sorts-with-the-world characters really well, and comes up with some strong storylines to push them through.

Jack Shepherd is a former big-shot Washington lawyer, now living in Thailand and teaching at a University. Unfortunately, the strength of his US and White House connections see him targeted by the world’s best-known and wealthiest fugitive, and the result sucks Shepherd into a grim and tragic plot that threatens to lose him everything. It’s well-paced and well-written, and as I’ve set a couple of my books in that part of the world, I appreciated seeing someone else doing it. Recommended.

I picked this book up to research the war in Vietnam, as I have a story planned that features a US Marine Corps Sniper from that tragic conflict. I'm not going to pull any punches on the writing - this is not great literature, but that's not its purpose or point. I suspect that it does exactly what it set out to do, which is show the reader the mechanics of a very particular form of warfare - humans hunting humans with long-range weapons. If you want to know how the US Marines went about training and using snipers in Vietnam, then this is your book. If you want psychological insight into the cost of engaging in hunting and killing your fellow man - even while harbouring reservations about the politics of the war - then it's not your book, Ward doesn't really go there. But perhaps that's why he was so successful at this most rarefied of jobs.

Bye Prince Harry, Hello Captain Wales...

Stumbling across Monday night’s BBC 3 documentary on Prince Harry in Afghanistan, my first reaction would have been to surf-onwards to the next channel. Fortunately, the missus had the remote at the time and she stuck around for a look. I was glad she did, because as a die-hard republican this made an incredibly strong case for bringing an end to Britain’s hereditary selection of a head of state.

This was not a great documentary. Richard Bacon was fawning and shallow, and there were many interesting issues raised and then passed over. For instance, should royal family members be allowed to serve in combat zones? On the one hand, training someone to fly/co-pilot a £45M Apache attack helicopter is expensive, and a pointless waste if you don’t let them do it for real when the need is there. On the other, their very presence may make the environment more dangerous to those around them – if identified, Harry would be the highest value target in the conflict. And should we really be allowing one of pop culture’s most famous figures to be an ambassador for killing people, just like it was on a video game?

It was a shame not to see this issue properly discussed and explored, but the programme remained compelling for all that. It was clear that Harry is very good at his job – no one gives that much expensive kit to someone in a war zone if they’re not capable of doing the job. It also seemed that this ability, and the training and work he’s done to achieve it, has given him a sense of worth that he otherwise lacks. Being born into the job of head of state doesn’t mean that the occupant will necessarily value it, or get self-worth from it – contrast this with how he/she might feel about it if they were elected or appointed to that role by the citizenry. Who would you rather have doing the job?

If that wasn’t enough, then after an hour of watching Harry explain just how much he despised the media, and hated the almost total lack of privacy in his life, it was hard not to feel sympathetic. This is a young man whose life has been so distorted by being born into the royal family that the only place he can find a sense of peace is on the frontline of a war zone. Think about that. It’s time to stop doing this to people. It’s cruel and unnecessary. If the Government messed with the lives of the rest of us like this - forcing roles and responsibilities on them - there would have been a revolution a long-time ago. No, there was no doubt in my mind as the credits rolled – it’s time to call time on the royals. Bye, Prince Harry, Hello Captain Wales...

Holiday Reading - Review Round-up...

The holidays are behind us, and I hope you all got as much reading done as I did... In fact, I got rather more done than I expected. For various reasons that are too complicated to go into here, I ended up in a hotel room in Houston on my own for a week...

What? You say it's not too complicated? 

Well, ok... my lovely new wife was so sick that she couldn't come on what was supposed to be a combined business trip and holiday. The holiday was hers and the business trip mine - so while she could and did cancel and claim on the insurance, I couldn't. I had to go - and the result was that we spent our first married New Year thousands of miles apart. So I did a lot of reading and writing, even finishing the final draft of my latest novel Powder Burn - but more on that in the future, this post is about my holiday reading...

Rachel Abbott’s Only the Innocent was one of the big independently-published hits of 2012, and I was intrigued to finally read it. The cover and blurb promise an edgy thriller, and there’s no doubt that all those elements are there – sex, abuse, murder. Nevertheless, the book still has a lot in common with a ‘cozy’ mystery, as the detective work revolves around the drawing room of an old manor house - but no, it wasn’t Colonel Mustard with the knife in the kitchen, the end was much darker than that.

Only the Innocent leaves you with a central moral dilemma – something I’m fond of in my own writing - and this lifts it above the run-of-the mill mystery or thriller. Punish the guilty, or protect the innocent? I can’t tell you which the book goes for without dropping some massive spoilers, so you’ll have to read this one, and I can strongly recommend a four star ride.

I held back a star because the central protagonist’s necessarily meek and frightened character became a little wearying. There’s one fabulous moment where Abbott shows the reader what Laura was like before her marriage – unfortunately, it just made me want to read about that Laura, rather than the one we see in the book. But that aside, it’s a well structured, well-written mystery and well worth your time and money.

Russell Blake is a force-of-nature, I don’t know where he’s holed up, but wherever it is there can’t be a lot of distractions. I think he’s now published 18 books in as many months. The latest includes the Jet series, and he launched the first four of these in the back half of 2012. These are thrillers in the Lee Child / Jack Reacher mould, only more so. They’re short, sharp and straight-forward – don’t expect much sophistication in the plotting; there’s lots of action, very little sitting around and pondering, and about as much navel-gazing as you’d get from Daniel Craig as 007, i.e. an occasional grim look in the mirror.

And while it’s nuts and bolts stuff, Tab A always fits squarely and neatly into Hole A, and it all comes together like the solid piece of craftsmanship that it is, and the writing occasionally elevates to several notches higher. I wouldn’t call it art, but there’s some excellent descriptive stuff in here. I don’t know that I’ll be rushing back to Jet 2 in the short-term, but I’ll get there next time I’m looking for an easy, super-entertaining read.

This is a book I noticed flying high in the Kindle store and with almost 400 reviews averaging close to 5 stars, I thought it was worth a closer look – I wasn’t disappointed. It’s a great read, the tale of an innocent man dispatched to a brutal jail for the rest of his life – Shawshank Redemption territory.

In my view, it’s a match for that movie. It has all the action required of the genre, but pushes home a few hard points about leadership, the nature of punishment, violence and man’s essential self. It’s not necessary to agree with what Herley seems to have to say about these things – it’s more than enough that he gets you thinking about it.

This really was my kind of book, and in a sense it brought together the thought-provoking element of Only the Innocent, with the faster, cleaner, pacier writing style of Jet - and produced a book as good as either one on their own terms, and better than both judged on my own personal scale.

Richard Herley seems to be one of those writers that publishing forgot, and more power to the eBook revolution in bringing his work back to the surface and into the light it so richly deserves. I will be reading more.

Kill Your Darlings

It’s an old saying in writing circles, kill your darlings. The instruction is not to commit filicide – thank goodness, because there are writers out there who would seem prepared to do anything for a bestseller – no, it means cut out the best bits of your writing. 

Whenever you think your prose has hit the most wondrous heights – delete it. The reason that’s usually given for this is that if you love those words so much, then you have lost a sense of objectivity and that’s dangerous. If all that fabulous language isn’t moving the story along efficiently, then it’s got to go whether you love it or not. It can’t just sit there looking pretty. Unless you're Zadie Smith.

The phrase is usually ascribed to William Faulkner and an earlier version - murder your darlings - originated from a lecture at Cambridge University given by Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch. ‘Whenever you feel an impulse to perpetrate a piece of exceptionally fine writing, obey it – wholeheartedly – and delete it before sending your manuscript to press. Murder your darlings.’

I recently had cause to murder a real darling in the final rewrite of my new novel Powder Burn. Originally it contained several viewpoint characters, but in this last go-around I’d decided to strip it back to just two. One of the consequences was that my favourite scene in the entire book had to go, because it was written from one of the deleted points of view – oh, the weeping, wailing and gnashing of teeth...

Anyway, I couldn’t let it die completely, and here it is... but reading it again a couple of weeks after the act, I’m glad I did it. It was written for the book’s original audience of snowboarders and mountain folk. I’m hoping that the final version of Powder Burn will reach a wider audience, and this scene might have driven them away.

The set-up is that a character called Vegas has climbed a mountain in the Himalayas to attempt to be the first person to ride a snowboard back down it. By the time he’s got close to the top and into position for the descent he’s not in good shape, exhausted and with the stirrings of altitude sickness. Will he climb back down, or ride to his destiny? And what will that destiny be?

He knew what he was there to do after the months of planning and preparation. He must climb and ride. And nothing, not even the bowel snake of fear, was going to stop him. This was his last chance, and every cell of his body knew it. He moved over to the edge and started looking for a place to get down into the chute as he ascended those last few yards. He dragged himself upwards until the cornice on top of the main ridge began to tower over him. He couldn’t go any further, and there was no easy step down, at least none that he could see. But it was only a couple of yards and so without really thinking about it he jumped. He landed flat on his back, and sank into the snow.
Given the steepness of the slope he had jumped onto, it now occurred to him that he was lucky that he hadn’t hit a hard crust. Otherwise, he might well have started the first descent of Powder Burn on his ass. He lay there for a long while, the sun giving the illusory impression of warmth, while he struggled again for breath. It would have been easy to fall asleep. Just to slip away, rest his weary body. But eventually, he remembered that he was there for a reason and he sat up. He wrestled to get the pack off his back, but the snowboard was strapped to it and the tail had dug deep into the snow. He couldn’t work out why he couldn’t drag the pack round in front of him. He floundered, digging a deep hole until finally he got his arms out of the straps and rolled clear.
He stared at it for a while, anger subsiding. Then he fiddled with the strap buckle that was holding the board onto the pack, but it wouldn’t set at the angle for quick release. He pulled a mitten off and tried again, then fumbled until he found a way of pushing the strap back through the buckle an inch at a time. After what seemed like an eternity of effort the board was loose. He set the edge into the snow so the board sat perpendicular to the slope and kicked his feet into the bindings. The hard plastic straps were easier to deal with, and he got them ratcheted up tight with relative ease. He was ready. What about the headcam on his helmet? There was a switch. He wasn’t taking his mittens off again. He reached up and fumbled, fingers thick through the cloth and cold. It felt like he got it. Whatever.
He stared down the chute. The walls seemed to be getting closer together, moving in on him like some giant car crusher. His breath rasped in the neoprene face mask. The backpack - he turned and found it lying behind him. The ice axes were still strapped to the outside. He’d forgotten those as well. The quick release buckles chose to work. He stuffed the axes handle-first into the snow and struggled into the backpack straps, then looped the axe leashes around his wrists. He adjusted the goggles, pushed at the face mask. Then there really was nothing else to do. He had to go.
He stood up, and immediately the board started to slide sideways down the mountain under the extra weight. He was pushing a gathering wall of snow in front of him and already gaining speed, reeling at how steeply the slope fell away beneath him. It crossed his mind that he could just cruise down like this. Then he remembered Lens and the camera, and a switch clicked in his brain. He had never stepped back, never bottled a drop or a jump or a run. He flicked his hips and his board pointed straight down the slope.
The acceleration was a familiar sensation, and the trained responses kicked in from thousands of hours of riding. But never before had he dealt with this much gravity, at this altitude. The adrenaline rush flushed through him with the avalanche of raw sensation, of clumsy response. Of nerves and muscles doing whatever they could to keep him upright and pointing down the hill. Somewhere, there was a voice saying - put in a turn and slow it down, this is the limit of control. But the chute walls were a fuzzy black blur and with the tunnel narrowing and quickening and flashing past on either side with terrifying closeness, the fear of blowing the turn and hitting the wall rose like bile and drowned even that shred of conscious decision making. It was all he could do to control and respond to the board, the snow. The froth of fear and reaction pushed the voice of experience under for the last time.
Then he fired out of the bottom of the chute and the run didn’t look so threatening. It was wider and the wall on the left hand side had disappeared. It didn’t matter that riding over the cliff was just as fatal an error as slamming into the rock – he felt the psychological pressure of making the first turn ease. He gently put some pressure onto his toes to push into a turn away from the wall. He was on perfect snow and the board – yabbering and hammering at his legs - responded. Now it flashed through him. He realised what was beyond the edge ahead. He didn’t panic. He just pushed a little too hard instead of rolling into another turn. Even then, it was far from disastrous. The board was hitting the snow with too much angle and too much speed. But it could have just bitten deeper into soft snow, slamming into a huge, thigh-jellying power slide that if controlled, would, if nothing else, have finally slowed him down.
But some confluence of snow type, temperature, humidity, wind, and geography ensured that his board dug only so far into the snow before it hit a layer of ice. The edge started to skid along the top of this harder surface, while the snow above it let go of its frail grip - just as it would in an avalanche. For all the resistance it provided at this critical moment, it might as well have been on roller bearings. He felt nothing more than the sudden rush of acceleration and a moment later, along with a couple of hundred pounds of snow, he flew off the edge of the mountain and out into space. He was falling, spinning in a whirl of powder, unable at first to comprehend what had happened. But he had a long way to go. Time to realise that he was all done. That there was nothing left to hope for, save a miracle landing. And perhaps more realistically - that it wouldn’t hurt. There was a feeble blip of anger at his error, then resignation. No screaming, no histrionics, becalmed in utter helplessness, then nothing.

Treasure Hunt - SHOW ME YOUR NOOK!

In eBook-world the focus is so often on the Kindle, Amazon’s baby and the device that brought eReading to the world. It’s far from alone though, with a rapidly increasing number of choices available even in the UK (my home). There’s now the Kobo, the Apple tablets and – finally - the Nook. 

In celebration (it’s Christmas after all), I’ve got together with a few other authors and, until December 31st, we've got a fun offer so you can win some free ePub books – the format that will load into the Nook (or the Kobo or Apple readers). So...

Show me a picture of you with your NOOK! 
(Keep it clean, people) 

Just post the picture on my Facebook page - and leave a message so I can get back in touch! 

I might not be around much over the holidays (hey, authors need a break too), but I promise once we’re all back to work (probably around 7th January) I’ll be in touch with a coupon code for you to download a shiny new copy of my thriller The Defector from the Smashwords store.

It’s not just me though – head to any of the following authors hang-outs, because they are also playing Show Me Your NOOK!  They will have similar instructions to mine, although the way you get the ebook may vary.  

Fantasy, Humour, Mystery, Nonfiction, Romance, Science Fiction -- who knows what they're offering?  

Here are other authors playing Show Me Your NOOK!

Cat Kimbriel -- Fires of Nuala -- Science Fiction
Jeffrey A. Carver  --- Eternity's End --- Science Fiction
Phyllis Irene Radford -- Guardian of the Balance -- Fantasy 
Brenda Hiatt -- Lord Dearborn's Destiny -- Regency Romance
Phoebe Matthews -- Demonspell -- Contemporary Fantasy
Lorraine Bartlett -- Murder On The Mind -- Mystery
Ruth Harris -- Modern Women -- Chick Lit  
Doranna Durgin -- Barrenlands -- Fantasy
Jennifer Stevenson -- King of Hearts -- Romantic Comedy
Vonda N. McIntyre -- Starfarers, Book One of the Starfarers Quartet -- Science Fiction
Lise McClendon -- All Your Pretty Dreams -- New Adult Fiction -- 

Go get ‘em folks – just... Show us your NOOK!

And have a fabulous holidays -- see you back here in 2013!!

Obligatory disclaimer: All copyrights to the free books are retained by the authors. You may share this post in its entirety.  All pictures must be posted by 11:59 PM, December 31, 2012, CST.  If anyone posts any of these EPUBs to a torrent site, the portal closes and we won't have any more games.  This is a gift to you, not an invitation to set the book free forever.  If you post a picture that would be considered in bad taste, it will be deleted and you won't get a coupon code.  Thank you for keeping things fun!

Zero Day by David Baldacci

I’ve not read any David Baldacci books before, and I only started with this one because it sat at the top  of the UK charts with a bunch of good reviews and a 20p price tag – but I’m glad I picked it out, and I’m giving it four stars. It would be three and a half, but that isn’t possible.

Zero Day is the first in what I’m sure will be a series starring Jack Rea... sorry, not Jack Reacher, John Puller. Spot what Baldacci did there? Many other reviewers have drawn the comparison between Lee Child’s Jack Reacher and Baldacci’s Puller, and while there are only seven basic plots in story-telling and some overlap is inevitable, I’d still have to say that Baldacci’s Reacher is unnecessarily close to Child’s Puller. If you see what I mean.

The story begins with John Puller being assigned to investigate the murder of an entire family. Puller is Army CID, and he’s given the job because the father was in Defence Intelligence. The investigation unwinds slowly, and the book really gets going at about three quarters of the way through when we learn the reason for the murder. It was done to cover up multiple wrong-doings, and part of that is a very nasty terrorist attack that Puller must prevent once he’s figured out who the bad guys are.

The book’s writing style is a curious mix of spare with a tendency to being long-winded. The set pieces are economically described – a little bit too economical for my liking, it’s a bit slow in the slow parts, and never really fires up in the action.

This is not gritty realism, this is a CSI-style procedural detective story, with thriller action in the end game – also very much like a Jack Reacher book. So if you’re one of those people for whom Child’s one-a-year output is not enough, then this is right up your street.

Despite my reservations about the comparisons, I enjoyed this one and thought it was just about worth the four stars. It stretched my suspension of disbelief too much to stand any chance of getting the fifth star, and while I was always engaged with the story, it never came close to rising up and sweeping me away.

It was a perfectly good nuts and bolts thriller with, for the most part, tab b very effectively fitted into slot b. If you’re looking for paroxysms of excitement or enlightenment, this isn’t where you’ll find it, but it’s a more than pleasant diversion for a winter evening.

A Tale of Two Sales

Christmas has been rushing up like the light at the end of the tunnel (or more like an on-coming train) for a while now, so this was always going to be a short blog. The festive season focuses the mind of anyone in the book trade like nothing else.

It used to be that Christmas shopping was the key sales period for the whole year. It’s still really important for printed books as they make such great presents. And the village that I live in recently had ‘late-night’ shopping for a couple of evenings to cater to the present-shopping brigade. The local gallery, Sea Sky Art stocks my books, so they asked me to come in and do a ‘signing’.

This really is old school book selling – making a sale by hand, of an individual, signed 'spy thriller' to the person you have just spent five or ten minutes talking to about books, life and the universe. It’s a wonderful experience, and I had a great night. My wife, Tina is a photographer and she came with me to take some pics – there were carol singers, minced pies and mulled wine. It really felt like Christmas had started.

But these days, the peak book-selling period extends a month or three into the New Year. And that’s because so many eReaders and tablets are given as presents. All those new owners look to Amazon, Nook, Kobo and Apple to load up with something to read right after they unwrap their new toy on Christmas Day – and either that or Boxing Day is usually the top sales day for eBooks.

It was with this in mind that I have spent every spare minute over the last couple of months sprucing up my book pages on Amazon and the other websites. New book descriptions, jazzed up formatting, a new cover here, a change of category there... whatever seemed like it might help. I’ve also made The Wrecking Crew, one of my ‘Janac’s Games’ action thrillers available as a free download, the idea being that a good position in the ‘Free’ charts will help people find the others, and so boost sales overall.

I got a big helping hand on that front when the book was featured on the fabulous Ereader News Today on Monday, 11th December. The Wrecking Crew shot up the charts into the Amazon Top 100, and reached #1 on the US Spy Thriller Chart. This could not be more different from hand-selling printed books – in the time it takes to sell one paperback, tens, or even hundreds of eBooks can be downloaded. And I have no idea who those ereaders are, unless they pop back in a week, month or a year and write a review. It’s a very different experience of selling books, but no less thrilling when you see your pride and joy hit the top of a chart.

I don’t know where it’ll be when you’re reading this – hopefully it’ll stay high enough to boost the visibility of all my books right through into the New Year. So if it’s after the great unwrapping, go have a peak at the Spy Thriller Charts in the US, or in the UK, and see how I’m doing... 

In the meantime, I hope you’re not in the middle of a last-minute shopping frenzy, have your turkey wrapped, your presents decorated and your tree ordered. Or... is that... oh, never mind. Happy Christmas and Merry New Year.

The Expats by Chris Pavone

I don't normally review books on the blog, they are usually too short and just get posted at Amazon and Goodreads. But I've thought a little more about Chris Pavone's The Expats, which has been riding high at the top of the thriller charts for weeks now, but I think it's because of the 20p price tag, rather than the writing...

I just don't quite know where to start with The Expats. A great idea, let down a bit by some over-done writing and inconsistent characterisation - but the really dodgy part is the way it's been structured.

There is a relatively straight-forward and entertaining story here about an ex-CIA agent and a major white collar crime, but you wouldn't know it to read the book. The timeline is all over the place, with little or no indication of when many of the scenes are set until very late into them. This is just plain frustrating. It might work if you read it all in one go on a beach, but I didn't. I read a little each evening and I very quickly got tired of trying to keep track, and gave up and went with the flow... skipping a lot just to get to the end to find the resolution.

The other problem is that the book lacks big tense scenes of the kind that a good thriller needs - think Jack Reacher going into battle at the end of a Lee Child book. Chris Pavone seems unable to hit these heights, and I can't help thinking that he's tried to hide this deficiency with the convoluted narrative.

If you do read it, when you get to the end think back through the major events and you'll see that there's a potentially great thriller here, but written in a single timeline from multiple viewpoints - loads of tension could have been extracted by letting the reader know more than the characters, with a lot of excitement to be had watching these people car crash into disaster.

Or not. And boy don't get me started on that ending, what a let-down... but I won't spoil it for you, just in case I haven't put you off!

Plotting After Powder Burn – Part 3

In a blog called Plotting After Powder Burn - Part 1 I talked about the search for a plot for my fifth novel, which would be the second in a series starring American wannabe-journo, Sam Blackett. I’d always had a particular story in mind for this second book, but I was worried that it had similarities to the 'Janac's Games' stories, and I felt I should make a break from those boat-and-action dominated tales.

I finished Part 2 concerned that the second book should be more urban, and more of an investigation than an action thriller. I went off to find out what Lee Child did with Jack Reacher in books one and two, as this series is the model for the Sam Blackett stories. Well, it took a while - and there's been a few blogs floated under the bridge on other topics since then - but I'm finally back to thinking about plotting after Powder Burn.

I can report that Lee Child started the Jack Reacher series with Killing Floor, written in the first person about a counterfeiting fraud set in a small town in Georgia, and mixing action with investigation. He followed that up with Die Trying, which switched to the third person but maintained the mix of action and investigation.

Powder Burn is mostly action with the mystery-element relegated to a relatively minor role - and so I think I definitely need to introduce more of an investigative storyline to the Sam Blackett series in the second book. I've also thought a lot about the milieu for this story and I now feel even more strongly that I should try and find an urban setting for the book, to help me break out of the ghetto of 'sailing author' that I fear I'm in danger of drowning in...

So far so good - now any decent investigation needs a murder, preferably linked to a serious criminal conspiracy. I've been casting around for just such a conspiracy and I think I've found it. There's always been a huge market in counterfeit aircraft parts; they look and feel like the real thing, but are often made much more cheaply from sub-standard materials with low-cost manufacturing techniques. Consequently, they don't have anything like the same life span as the real deal.

This fact might worry you if you fly a lot, but while the safety hazards of this fake parts trade has been well known for a while, there now appears to be a national security risk too - the trade has spread to military aircraft. This is the sort of criminal conspiracy a good thriller needs - a gang plotting to make a fortune from selling fake parts to the USAF for the F-22 Raptor, the planet's most expensive fighter?

Or, maybe it's drone parts - these things are much more controversial (anyone been watching Homeland?) and that might really ramp the story up. It also plays into a theme I've been thinking about for a while: Western military supremacy relies on cheap and effective offensive dominance. It used to be gunboats, and machine guns against spears. These tools provided such a massive military advantage that they enabled the use of force at a minimal cost of lives - vitally important to politicians in a democracy.

The drone strike is the modern version of this, allowing the US to use swift and brutal violence at zero (direct risk) of US casualties. So what if the fake parts conspiracy threatened the drones, and this politically vital means of applying American power in the hot spots of the world? I can feel my story juices already starting to flow...

At the very least this is a good starting point - the next step is to work out how Sam Blackett might stumble into this conspiracy... but perhaps I should end the 'Plotting After Powder Burn' blogs right here, before I spoil the final book for you - or until this story idea crashes and burns in development hell...

The Vividness of a Moral Dilemma

Moral dilemmas strike many poses - the two men battling for the heart and soul of America in last night's US Presidential debate both face a constant moral dilemma, although you don't hear them talk about it much: take the lobbyists funding and pay the piper down the track, or lose the election and let the other (bad) guy in.

This is probably the single greatest moral issue facing American politics, but we're much more likely to hear about the strength or otherwise of some Senator's morals, and his ability to keep his pants on with a pretty intern. There are many causes of this colour blindness, not least the power of the lobbyists money and the public thirst for scandal; but some recent research puts the latter in an interesting light.

It seems that people are more likely to make an emotional rather than a rational response to a moral dilemma, if that dilemma brings a particularly vivid image to mind. If the moral dilemma has the consequences of a bloody death, then the brain will react emotionally - that's just wrong!

Take away the vivid picture, and the brain is more likely to react rationally, and use a cost-benefit analysis to decide the dilemma. NPR's Shankar Vedantam gives the detail of Joshua Greene and Elinor Amit's research, recently published in the journal Psychological Science.

I think we can see how the mental image of the Senator with his pants down is rather more vivid than the dry consequences of lobbyists funding politicians. Or is it? Reframe the lobbying and funding issue around its consequences - big tobacco and dying of lung cancer - and it's possible that a lot more heat could be put into this issue.

It's a lesson that debating politicians can learn - tell a story with a vivid mental picture and you'll get the gut response. If that's not what you want, then tell a dry story about numbers and outcomes, and you'll get the cost-benefit response - unfortunately, dry stories are much more likely to get ignored than blood and thunder dilemmas.

Is this what drives politics to the emotionally-charged culture wars, and allows the real issues to be pushed to one side?

I don't know, I'm not a politician, I'm a thriller writer who specialises in stories with a moral dilemma and a twist - but I do know that from now on they will always bring to mind a vivid image.

The Game of Climate Change

This is the fourth in a series of blogs on how Games Theory can be seen in action in the real world. I've already looked at the banking crisis (It's Only Taken Three Years...), the housing market (Games Theory and the Estate Agent) and even the application of Games Theory ideas to the Olympic road race.

Before I start I'd better give you the low-down with links for Games Theory, which drives the plot of my first novel, The Defector, and in particular a thing called the Prisoner's Dilemma. If you haven't come across it before then I will point you at my own description in the foreword to The Defector, a suspense thriller in which it features as the central plot device. Or you can check out a much more technical take in the Stanford Encyclopaedia of Philosophy (SEP) entry.

If there's a big topic for Games Theory then it's climate change, in which all the notions of cooperation and defection are crystallised. Let's start by agreeing to agree on some premises, since I don't intend this to be a discussion of the science. First off, climate change is happening; secondly, its impact could be mitigated by human intervention, specifically spewing less CO2 into the atmosphere.  

We can apply the Prisoner's Dilemma (PD) to our responses to the finger-wagging advice from pressure groups to minimise CO2 emissions. For instance, paying more for solar generated energy rather than burning cheap coal costs the individual money, so formulating this as a PD:

If I cooperate in the fight against climate change by minimising CO2 emissions, then I am individually poorer, but I improve (albeit microscopically) the survival chances of the rest of the human race, and so the group should have a better outcome than if we all defect.

If I defect and opt out of the battle against climate change, then I gain relative to all those people cooperating. By burning cheap coal while other people pay more to switch to solar, then I have more money to protect myself from many of the bad outcomes associated with climate change. I can afford a house on a hill, and sky-high food prices.

The individual's age has a big impact on the way this dilemma formulates, since most people over 40 (ie. those in charge) will be dead before the really bad outcomes hit the planet. They have a realistic hope that enough money will protect them. But for a 15 year old that isn't an option, they're going to be around when the real shit hits the fan, and all the money in the world won't help. And so the young tend to be more in favour of climate change activism than the old.

Things are changing though, and the time will come when it's clear that even the multi-million dollar pensions of middle-aged oil company executives and ex-Prime Ministers won't save them from the hordes of starving refugees roaming the land, armed to the teeth. But by that time, if the scientists are right then it will be way too late to do anything anyway. And evolution's experiment with opposable thumbs and big brains will come to a sad, grisly and untimely end.

In an ideal world I'd have some solution for you, some mechanism for reshaping these choices so that cooperation made sense for the people in charge before it was too late. But it isn't going happen with Games Theory mechanics - science and technology are the only hope. The cost of cooperation needs to drop under the cost of defection. In other words, cheaper solar panels and biofuels. It's back to the scientists, but as they came up with a coal-driven steam-engine rather than a biofuel in the first place, they really should be responsible for getting us out of this mess.

Bike Racing and Cooperation...

I've been writing blogs on how the Prisoner's Dilemma can be seen in action in the banking crisis (It's Only Taken Three Years...) and in the housing market (Games Theory and the Estate Agent) - and yesterday we saw Games Theory ideas in action in the Olympic road race. 

It's Games Theory that drives the plot of my first novel, The Defector, and in particular a thing called the Prisoner's Dilemma (PD). If you haven't come across it before, I will point you at my own description in the foreword to The Defector, a suspense thriller in which it features as the central plot device. Or you can check out a much more technical take in the Stanford Encyclopaedia of Philosophy (SEP) entry.

If you're going to read on, please get to grips with the Prisoner's Dilemma first!

The peloton is a place where everyone has to decide whether to cooperate or defect. The co-operators take their turn at the front, while the defectors hide in the bunch, freewheeling in the slipstream and hoping to conserve their energy for the sprint at the end.

We can see this in PD terms - all the cooperators give themselves the same chance at winning if they all do even amounts of work at the front. But there's a big benefit to defecting when everyone else cooperates, as the energy conserved would give you a massive advantage in the final sprint.

If it was that simple, it would turn into a slow bike race pretty quickly, as everyone would defect and huddle into the centre like penguins in the Antarctic. What makes it more complex is the fact that you can defect in a different way, by trying for a break-away. If the peloton dawdles then one or more riders have the opportunity to sprint away from the group and build a lead that can't be broken down before the finish.

This is another form of defection. Instead of cooperating and riding together to break the back of the 150+ miles - and then seeing who's the strongest and fastest at the end - let's just see who's strongest by riding hard and trying to break the peloton up the whole way. Until we have a last man standing.

This scenario is made more complex because the riders are working in smaller teams, and those teams have different interests depending on the make-up of their team. The teams with the best sprinters have the biggest interest in the race finishing with everyone in a single bunch. So a race would normally develop with the teams with sprinters cooperating to try to control the peloton and keep them together, taking it in turns at the front of the peloton to haul in any breakaways.

Meanwhile, those teams lacking sprinting power will defect - not take any of the load, and do everything they can to get one of their teammates into a decent breakaway.

What happened yesterday was unusual, in that only one team was interested in the peloton finishing together in a mass-bunch sprint. And that was Team GBR. Everyone in the race knew that Mark Cavendish is the best sprinter in the world, and that he would almost certainly win a bunch sprint to take gold. They all figured that the normal reward for cooperation had evaporated - taking it in turns at the front was pointless, as Cavendish would win the resulting sprint.

And so the normal rules went out the window, they all defected, either tucking into the peloton to conserve energy and see what happened, or constantly trying to engineer a break-away, but... But perhaps this was actually a form of cooperation. The rest of the peloton shared an interest in breaking the normal race strategy - defection became cooperation, and vice versa.

The outcome was pretty inevitable - Cavendish had around him the strongest individual riders in the world. But faced with an entire peloton unwilling to cooperate in engineering a massed bunch sprint at the end, it was too much work. Eventually, one of those breakaways was going to work - and in the end, it did. It was followed by a couple more, and the group splintered until there was only one man in the final breakaway. And that was Alexandr Vinokurov, gold medallist and last man standing.

And that will definitely be it for this blog until September... I'll see you back here in the autumn.

Games Theory and the Estate Agent

Just before Christmas last year I wrote a blog called 'It's Only Taken Three Years...' about the banking crisis and how the Games Theory ideas that drive the plot of my first novel, The Defector, might be applied to find a solution. The blog was picked up by the crowd-sourced news website, Blottr.com and was featured on their home page.

One of the comments that the article attracted was that the solution I'd suggested was pretty impractical as it required a far more engaged population than we will ever have - something I'd tacitly admitted in the article. But it got me thinking about other ways that Games Theory might be used for social good. And the one that immediately sprung to mind - not least because I've just been buying a house - was the problem of shocking behaviour in property transactions.

We've all heard the horror stories, last-minute-gazumping.com and late price rises, people dropping out of sales after the other side have spent hundreds of pounds on surveys and legal fees. In the UK, the last Labour government had a go at fixing this with their woeful and now abandoned housing information packs. But they were going about it the wrong way - it's not the house that we need more information about, it's the people on the other side of the transaction, the buyers or sellers.

If you haven't come across the Prisoner's Dilemma (PD) before I will point you at my own description in the foreword to The Defector, a suspense thriller in which it features as the central plot device. Or if you want something a bit more technical and meaty, take a look at the Stanford Encyclopaedia of Philosophy (SEP) entry.

We can draw a couple of conclusions about the Prisoner's Dilemma;  for the individual, rational, self-interested player in a one-off game of PD there’s only one real choice – Defection. However, things change in what's called an iterated version of the game, this is what the SEP entry has to say about it.

"Many of the situations that are alleged to have the structure of the PD, like defense appropriations of military rivals or price setting for duopolistic firms are better modelled by an iterated version of the game in which players play the PD repeatedly, retaining access at each round to the results of all previous rounds. In these iterated PDs (hence forth IPDs) players who defect in one round can be “punished” by defections in subsequent rounds and those who cooperate can be rewarded by cooperation. Thus the appropriate strategy for rationally self-interested players is no longer obvious."

This is where the impulse to cooperation comes from for the rational self-interested player; the knowledge that other players will judge you on your previous behaviour. So what does this mean for buying and selling houses? The problem with a property transaction is that it’s a one-time PD game. It’s very unlikely that you will ever conduct more than one residential property transaction with the same individual. And so you can behave as badly as you like to get the outcome that you want, with no consequences. The only people who will ever know that you gazumped your way to a better deal are the other parties to the contract, the solicitors and the estate agents. So long as you stay within the law, there are no consequences for bad behaviour, outside of your own conscience.

To clean up the housing market we need to turn each housing transaction into an iterated Prisoner's Dilemma, where there is a much stronger impulse to cooperation. What’s required is the knowledge that any poor behaviour will carry forward to the next transaction. If all estate agents or solicitors (or both) were compelled to record the behaviour of those involved in each property transaction on a publicly accessible website database, then the next party to a deal with any given individual would have a much better basis for deciding whether or not to proceed.

Imagine you’ve just dropped the asking price on your house, and it’s produced  a couple of offers. One is from someone who’s bought three houses, all of them in a perfectly straight-forward manner, and who was regarded as quick, efficient and easy to deal with by the solicitors concerned. The second is from someone who’s been involved in nine house purchases, gazumped the other party on three of them, forced a late price change in four, and dropped out of the other two purchases just before exchange of contracts.

It would be pretty clear which offer to accept wouldn’t it? As I said earlier, what the government needs to provide is not more information on the house, but more information on the other party to the transaction.  Once you have that, I suspect there would be a lot less bad behaviour in the housing market.

And that will be it for this blog until September, I'll be blogging for the two weeks of the London Games at the ISAF Olympic website -- and then I'm on holiday. I'll see you back here in the autumn.

First Impressions, Opening Lines

New York, New York, so great they... well, you know the rest. And whatever might have been said about the place in the 1970s and 80s, the Big Apple is back and close to its pumping, vibrant peak. So I took the opportunity on a recent research trip to spend a couple of extra days in New York, which meant arriving at JFK rather than a little further down the coast, closer to my final destination. 

Arriving in America is a haphazard affair, you never know quite what to expect. The first time I ever flew anywhere it was to Los Angeles – a place notorious for the queues at the border. But on this occasion despite: a) being so green that I had to ask to find out what check-in was and where you went to do it, and b) a concerted effort by the airline to send my luggage to Tahiti, I was out and on the streets in under an hour. On another occasion I came very close to getting sent back to London, despite holding a resident's and a working permit for the USA (note to self: keep your smart alec thoughts as thoughts). 

This time around, we had just reached the front of the queue when the computers packed up. And so we stood and waited for them to reboot America, or something. The Customs and Border agent's indifference to our plight (my body thought it was 5am on Saturday morning) was total but then, he was reading Nietzsche. 

It started me thinking about first impressions though, what if someone had offered me an immediate return ride – America? You can keep it... But not really, I was never going to turn around and go home. I was going to be patient and wait, and spend my sterling pounds in the US, regardless of a bad first impression.

The same thing cannot be said about books, how often does your gaze flick across the first lines of a novel and you think.... nah. Not for me. Those crucial first sentences will either draw the reader in, or spit them out. And if they don't work, the book is back in the pile or back on the shelf, or deleted off the eReader in a heartbeat.

It’s so easy to get spit out too, here’s a blog by a writing-contest judge on the ways you can foul-out early. But identifying the winning move, the things that draw the reader in, now that's much harder. The American Book Review did a great survey to come up with the Best100 First Lines from Novels, with a slightly more contemporary version put together by Stylist magazine, while for those short of time, the Guardian chose to focus on just the top ten, but did it with pictures and explanations.

When you look at these, the only consistent theme is the obvious one - they all make you want to read on, and they do it in as many different ways as is possible. If I had to choose just one, it would probably be Douglas Adam’s opener for The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. "Far out in the uncharted backwaters of the unfashionable end of the Western Spiral arm of the Galaxy lies a small unregarded yellow sun."

It makes me smile and it makes me want to read on, I’m immediately transported to a place where the earth finds itself in an unfashionable and unregarded neighbourhood – and you just want to know more about that place.

A second and more serious choice would be, ‘You better not never tell nobody but God.” from Alice Walker’s The Colour Purple. Again, it makes you read on, because you just have to know what’s so awful that it must never be spoken of again.

First lines, first impressions – they all count, except at border crossings... so what’s your favourite opening line?

Plotting After Powder Burn – Part 2

In Plotting Part 1 I talked about the search for a plot for my fifth novel, which would be the second in a series starring American wannabe-journo, Sam Blackett. I’d always had a particular story in mind for this second book, but now I’m starting to wonder... are there any rules for the second book in a thriller series?

My original plot would find Sam in Fiji, trying to warm up after the Himalayan Powder Burn adventure. She’s been cruising around the islands for a few months after the success of her Powder Burn story, published in Adventure, and her career is starting to roll.

Then she bumps into an old friend from the States, he’s skippering a boat on a search for the perfect wave. A rich investor has hired him to do up the boat, and skipper it on a voyage through the Pacific Islands. They are looking for a place to build a hotel, a hotel with five star service and access to a completely empty, and perfectly ride-able wave for well-heeled amateur surfers. Scenting a story, Sam agrees to join him as a deck-hand and off they go...

What she doesn’t know is that the boat was bought very cheaply from the Singapore authorities, after they had confiscated it from a local criminal. He was using it to run drugs and girls out to the frustrated crewmen stuck on merchant ships, and awaiting their turn in Singapore’s massive container terminal. And what no one knows is that there’s still a huge stash of drugs hidden aboard the boat. Inevitably (this is a thriller), the drugs come to light at the worst possible moment...

And that’s the set-up – originally I thought the drugs would be found after they were wrecked on an island. The story would then go the way of a descent into madness and survival, a la Lord of the Flies, or Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. But now I’m thinking there’s also potential for a more conventional suspense thriller – a chase story, as the drug dealer comes after his boat and his stash.

Problems... first up,  this is territory I’ve mined before. The Defector is all about a boat chase and a struggle for survival. And in Powder Burn I take a step away from boats, which will either:

a) Open my books up to a wider readership.

b) Kill my career stone dead.

Assuming it's the former (and if it's the latter I won't be too worried about book five anyway), perhaps I’d be better off looking for a more conventional plot idea, something urban, something to complete the transition away from seaborne adventure in exotic places. 

The model for this series is Lee Child’s Jack Reacher stories, in which (in case you’ve been locked in a cupboard these past few years) a hero wanders alone across America, having random adventures. Child shifts from out-and-out action/suspense, to a more investigative-style of plot - he even shifts from first to third person.

I see Sam in the same way – so perhaps the second story should establish that MO right at the outset. Urban, and more of an investigation than an action thriller. And with that thought, I’m off to find out what Lee Child did with Jack Reacher in books one and two... back shortly. Or longly, depending on how busy I get...

Covers and Blurbs...

Anyone who’s ever chosen a book will be aware of the importance of the cover design and the sales text – otherwise known as blurb. In the indie-book-world where the author takes responsibility for the entire publishing process, the blurb is unlikely to raise the stress level. After all, it’s just words, innit? I’m sure I’m not the only one who’s thought they could do a better job of the blurb on the back of their traditionally published books... Well, now I get to try... but the covers? That’s a whole other ball game.
The Original Cover

The cover of a book is its first and most important sales tool – it doesn’t matter whether it’s in a shop or on an Amazon webpage, a book has to have an eye-catching cover to draw people to ALL of the rest of the sales tools – blurb, reviews, chart position... I don’t want to state the blindingly obvious, but covers don’t have much to do with words, they are visual beasts, with graphics, pictures and logos – and many writers are not comfortable in this environment.

So what to do when it comes time to create a cover for your first indie-publication?

In time-honoured (and game-show) fashion I called a friend, figuring that at least I would benefit from ‘mate’s rates’ ... and I did. Unfortunately, although my mate was a great designer, he didn’t know much about books. Initially, I loved the two covers he designed, as they did at least reflect my notion of the books. I had a sense that they weren’t quite right, but as I was only paying mate’s rates I felt uncomfortable about asking for too many changes.
The New Cover

Those covers lasted about a year, and it was only a bad review (for the covers, I should add, not the book) that finally tipped me over into doing something about it... but what? I’d seen many recommendations for cover designers while reading other writer’s blogs, but I was conscious that the choice of designer was crucial. It was all very well agreeing a fixed fee for a cover design, but what if I didn’t like any of those offered?

The answer came from in the shape of 99designs.com, where it’s possible to get almost anything designed. The process is simple; write a brief, a description of what you want designed and then post it on the website (book covers now have their own section). Part of the process is choosing a ‘prize’ amount in dollars, this is effectively the fee that you will pay the winning designer for the right to use the design that you eventually choose.
The Fulcrum Files

After you’ve done that, nothing much will happen for a day, or maybe two. And then you’ll get your first design. This is a crucial moment – I think that a lot of the designers working on the contests on 99designs are young, and looking to learn how to deal with clients and work to a brief. The money is secondary; if you provide them with good feedback on their work, they will keep at it for you. So when you get that first design, love it or hate it, try and find something intelligent to say about it. A lot of other designers will be watching the contest and if they see good quality feedback they will be a lot more inclined to jump in and have a go. This is the contest that I held for the design of my most recent book, The Fulcrum Files.

There were 136 designs from 26 different designers – the quality of the work and the ideas was fabulous, and it was a nightmare trying to pick a winner. Even now, I’m not sure I got the right one!

There are a few more things you need to know – the contest runs in two stages, at the end of the first stage you pick a maximum of six ‘Finalists’ and work with them towards a finished design. It’s possible to create a Poll so you can invite friends and readers to participate in the process – this is the one that I ran on my final set of choices.

It may or may not help you pick a winner.
The Wrecking Crew

The contest runs for a week under the standard rules, and you have plenty of time once it’s ended to choose a winner. The support and documentation on the website is great, so you should have no trouble with any of this, or the handover process - paying the cash and getting the full rights to use the design. If you need further variations (for a print edition perhaps), the designers will probably do it for free, but the website also allows you to commission and pay for extra work for a pre-arranged fee.

I’ve now run two contests, and chosen the covers for all three of my indie-fiction books. Not only does it produce great covers at a very fair price, it can also be a lot of fun as you work with the designers to try and get exactly what you’re looking for... And just when you’ve done it, another designer will enter the fray with an idea out of left-field that that you’d never even thought about – and quite likely blow your socks off with the possibilities...!

Plotting After Powder Burn – Part 1

If you’re a regular reader of this blog, or a follower on twitter or Facebook, then you can’t fail to have noticed that I’ve just published a new book. It’s called The Fulcrum Files and the writing of it was the subject of my last blog. But I wouldn’t be a real writer if I didn’t already have the next one on the go. I’ve already added a page to my website for Powder Burn, which I’m hoping to finish for January next year.

And so it’s time, believe it or not, to start thinking about ideas for novel number five. I’ve decided to go for a series this time, kicking off with a sequel to Powder Burn. The main reason for this is that I just love the main character in this book, an American girl called Sam Blackett; here’s a little bit of Powder Burn that will give you a feel for her character:

She looked back down to the screen and the single email in her inbox. She’d sent out twenty-five more query letters to different newspaper and magazine editors just after she’d arrived in the city. All with ideas for travel stories. Score to date: zip for fourteen - all rejections. And the single email that glared back at her this morning? From her mother. Two months in India, nearly a month now in the Himalayas and only one story sold: to the Vermont Gazette, where her mother job-shared as office manager with Penelope-from-across-the-road. And she’d told this guy and his two mates that if they let her come with them, she would write up their expedition for Adventure magazine. She hadn’t thought they were serious. She had about as much chance of placing a story with Adventure as she did of winning a Pulitzer. Still, he wasn’t to know that. She glanced up, and caught Pete’s gaze for a moment...

In Powder Burn, Sam starts out as a spectacularly unsuccessful freelance journalist, gets herself into a whole world of trouble, somehow gets out of it intact - and with a helluva story to tell. It’s the break she needs for her writing career, and the idea of the series is that we follow her through various adventures and scrapes in pursuit of the next story.

The $64 million dollar question is... what story is next?

Like many writers I keep an ideas folder on my computer, and unlike most writers mine’s stuffed full of badly written paragraphs about a news item, or the thesis of a book, or just a couple of lines from a non-fiction account of something that interested me. This is where stories come from, or at least, it’s where my stories come from.

So I thought I’d spend the next few blogs working through some of those ideas, testing them out as stories and seeing where they might go. I’ve got a few months, probably seven or eight before I get Powder Burn finished, so there’s no rush. If I do one a month, by the time I get around to starting writing I should have plenty of ideas, and with a bit of luck some idea of what potential readers think of them. First up... and I’ll be back in a month!

Writing the Fulcrum Files

I was in New Zealand to do interviews for the publication of The Wrecking Crew and one question kept coming up – since you've sailed in it, why don’t you write a novel about the America’s Cup? I tried to explain that while the Kiwis had a minor obsession with the world’s premier sailboat race, most of the rest of the world didn’t even realise that they didn’t care.

Larry Ellison, Russell Coutts and the other characters that inhabit the contemporary Cup-world are interesting enough, but they aren’t quite in the same league as the likes of T.O.M. Sopwith and Harold Vanderbilt. In the midst of the Great Depression and the rise to power of Hitler; Sopwith and Vanderbilt still managed to find the time and money to build and race the extraordinary J Class yachts. Not to mention changing the course of history...

Hold on.

It suddenly occurred to me... what about a story set in the milieu of that most dramatic, romantic and tumultuous era, the 1930s? I didn’t begin it for quite a while as I was already half-way into another book, and although I knew the core historical story that I wanted to tell, it took a long time to figure out how I wanted to tell it.

Eventually, I decided to make the book’s principal characters fictional, and set them amongst a handful of real – but peripheral – people, whose actions did not have to be much altered or invented to make my historical fiction mesh with reality. And I decided to make it a thriller – believe it or not, The Fulcrum Files started out closer to the romance genre.

First and foremost of the real characters is the aforementioned Sir Thomas Sopwith, as famous for the Sopwith Camel and Hurricane fighters as for his two challenges for the America’s Cup. Chairman of the Hawker Siddeley Aircraft Company – a vast military aviation and engineering conglomerate - Sopwith was one of a handful of people that could afford the tens of thousands of pounds required to mount a Cup Challenge in the 1930s.

In those days, the America’s Cup was not so much a yacht race (it still isn’t) as a financial and technological battle of will between the elite of British and American society. The Cup was first won by the yacht America in 1851, after a race around the Isle of Wight. By 1935, fifteen successive ‘Challengers’ (mostly British, but the Canadians had also tried) had failed to wrest the Cup back from the New York Yacht Club’s nominated ‘Defender’, in the one-on-one ‘match race’ format used.

It was Sir Thomas Sopwith’s Endeavour that was defeated in 1934 in a highly controversial match against Harold S. Vanderbilt’s Rainbow (‘Britannia rules the waves, but America waives the rules,’ had thundered one paper, and an American one at that). Sir Thomas was not settling for that result and by early-1936 - when the story of The Fulcrum Files opens - he already has a new boat in construction in Gosport, England.

During this time, Sopwith made some momentous decisions. I’m not going to tell you what they were here - you’ll have to read the book – but suffice to say that they were more than enough to hang a thriller on.

Spoiler Alert...

While I’m not going to spoil the main plot of The Fulcrum Files for you, I know that part of my fascination with historical fiction is working out what’s real and what’s made up – so I thought I’d give you a couple of teaser points from all the research that I did to write the book. But even these could spoil your enjoyment of the story if you haven’t read it – you have been warned.

The close association of the aero-industry to the world of yachting in the Solent area during the 1930s was genuine. Apart from Sopwith; Supermarine – builders of the Spitfire – had their offices and plant in Woolston on the Itchen in Southampton, and management kept a boat anchored on the river. The plane was tested at nearby Eastleigh airport.

Richard Fairey also built aeroplanes and owned and raced a J-class yacht. He did tentatively challenge for the America’s Cup in the K Class, but the New York Yacht Club turned him down. He had an aircraft factory in Hamble and post-war it did much to raise the popularity of sailing as a mass participation sport thanks to the Firefly dinghy, which is still around today.

Sopwith might well have won the Cup in 1934 if it wasn’t for a strike by many of his professional crew. They wanted a little more pay to make up for the late date of the Cup match, which meant that they would miss the beginning of the fishing season, losing their places on the boats. Sopwith refused to negotiate and took a largely amateur crew in their place – which many observers at the time believed to have made the difference in the 1934 Cup match. 

There was also a female MI5 agent who worked undercover amongst the right-leaning elements of the British establishment. Joan Miller was partly responsible for the rounding up of a spy ring centred on the Russian Tea Rooms in Kensington. Her boss was Maxwell Knight, head of the anti-political subversion unit and possibly Ian Fleming’s inspiration for ‘M’.

I hadn’t realised before I started The Fulcrum Files quite how much research was involved in historical fiction – everything has to be checked, nothing can be taken for granted. The research, like the writing, took a long time – one of these days I’m going to try and get a research/reading list together, but just the idea of typing it all out makes me feel tired.

If you are interested in the background events that provided the starting point for this book, then you might like to read Pure Luck, Alam Bramson’s biography of TOM Sopwith, and Joan Millers autobiography, One Girl’s War. As for me, I think I’ve read enough history for a while, the next one will definitely be set in the present day, even if it’s not set in contemporary culture...

Mark Chisnell ©

It’s Only Taken Three Years...

The 2008 Lehman Brothers bankruptcy was the watershed moment of the current financial crisis. And three years later, we’ve finally got around to protesting the right people for the tsunami of subsequent consequences. The Occupy movement quite properly began in Wall Street, but it has rapidly spread around the world, as the public have latched onto the opportunity to put the culprits in the stocks. Sure, the regulators and politicians were asleep at the wheel / complicit / paid off (delete as applicable, but watch Inside Job first), but this debacle started and finished with the avarice of some (not all) of our banks.

This is what happens if you put Defectors in charge of the money.

Defectors and their converse, Cooperators are central to a Games Theory puzzle called The Prisoner’s Dilemma. Read my own description in the foreword to The Defector, a suspense thriller in which it features as a central plot device. Or take a look at the Stanford Encyclopaedia of Philosophy (SEP) entry. The interpretations described by the SEP have a common theme: this is about self- versus group-interest; about getting rational, selfish agents to cooperate for the common good; about altruism versus selfishness.

In the on-going debacle that led up to the crisis of 2008, key players in some of the major banks found ever more imaginative ways to take ever greater risks with other people’s money, so they could pay themselves massive bonuses and salaries, knowing full well that when the music stopped and the money ran out, they ran no personal risk at all – but that others would lose everything.

Their behaviour was selfish to a degree that you might find difficult to imagine. But we have to imagine it, and we have to imagine it happening again. Right now, three years after the crisis boiled over, and as global protest belatedly kicks off, the selfish are still way ahead of the game. Anyone see the rules change? Anyone see those bankers handing the money back? Nope? So, what to do?

The only way for Governments to make the debt go away is to inflate it out of existence. So don’t put any cash under the bed to keep it out of the hands of the financial services industry. Buy the kind of stuff that has real long-term value in any kind of economic system - land perhaps, at least you’ll be able to feed yourself when the apocalypse comes. Although you’ll probably need a machine gun and barbed wire to keep it out of the hands of the starving, marauding hordes.

Ok, that’s a pretty dark view - let’s hope it doesn’t come to that, but there are few signs of anything changing. A couple more of these financial shocks and the whole house of cards really could come tumbling down. And even if there was the political will to regulate the financial sector properly then it will fail again, for the same reasons. The bankers will always have the money to lobby and cajole the regulators and their political masters into changing the rules in their favour.

So perhaps we need to use the power of Games Theory to persuade the bankers that a more Cooperative approach is in their interest. Here’s one idea, it may be a little impractical, but I think it starts us in the right direction.

Fundamentally, the banking system works on what is - in Prisoner’s Dilemma-terms - a group-interest, Cooperative notion: that we don’t all want to get our money back at the same time. If we did, the banks would collapse – they just don’t have the cash to pay everyone all of their deposits back simultaneously.

A run on a bank happens when this Cooperation breaks down – and we all become Defectors. If enough people suddenly believe that a bank is short on money (and remember, compared to what’s been deposited, banks are always short on actual, cash-money reserves), and then come to believe that the bank is going to crash, they will rush to get their money out - to hell with everyone else ... And lo and behold – even if the bank wasn’t previously in trouble, it is now.

So, the next time a bunch of self-satisfied bankers award themselves huge salaries and/or bonuses, the depositors organise to take the bank to the brink of bankruptcy. And you do it by removing just enough cash. Take enough of a bank’s capital reserves out as cash, and I think you’ll find that you will scare its executives and shareholders witless. Then offer to give the money back, so long as they pay themselves reasonably.

This is not a game for the faint-hearted, and it’s not a game for Defectors – it requires serious Cooperation, real belief in the project, in the collective group interest to get the right amount of money out. If too few people are prepared to do it then it doesn’t work, no one gets scared, and those who did remove their cash just lose the interest on their savings. Or, if too many people take all their money out, because they’re frightened it might all go wrong and the bank might crash - then the bank will go under. And you don’t need me to tell you that that would be bad for everyone...

Does our new, connected, social-media-powered world have the capacity to organise a bank’s depositors to take that bank right up to the limits of its reserves ... but not over? Where are the limits of the power of an internet advocacy organisation like Avaaz? We don’t know yet, but some people are all ready trying something like this – check out Bank Transfer Day – be afraid, be very afraid? We’ll see...

What Price Glory?

It’s the afternoon of November 23rd 1984 and I’m sitting in a room in the Fort Worth Hilton. I’ll come back to how I came to be there at that particular moment, but for now let’s keep our attention on the television in the corner, because there’s a big college football game on – the University of Miami is playing Boston College and two spectacular quarterbacks are putting on one hell of a show.

Anyone with even the most limited knowledge of American football knows where I’m going next – Doug Flutie’s Hail Mary. It has a spot on any worthwhile ‘top sporting moments’ list – but it just so happened that this was more or less the first gridiron game I ever watched. The basics were being explained as it unfolded (ok, ten yards in four throws, got that... but what’s a down?) and then Flutie threw his bomb. Obviously, it was all downhill from there. I was never going to see anything quite so cool again, and sure enough nothing from a gridiron field has embedded itself into my memory as strongly as that 63 yard pass almost 27 years ago.

Plays like that are to be treasured, but what drove me to the keyboard was not the value of such moments to the spectator, but the cost to the players. The thought was provoked by a story about the fate of the Chicago Bears Dave Duerson - dead at his own hand at the age of 50, apparently unable to live with the damage done by all the concussive injuries from football. But I didn’t really need Duerson to start thinking about the price that athletes pay for those moments of glory - a couple of the guys that were sat beside me watching Flutie’s Hail Mary went on to become professional bullriders.

I’d flown into LA with $400, and after two and a half days on a Trailways bus I had arrived in Muskogee, Oklahoma. I had the surname of a relative of a school friend of my mother’s and not much else - not least because Trailways had mislaid my rucksack. The banks were shut and they were about to close the bus station. I had $6.50 in my pocket and there were four people with the right name in the phone book. I got lucky on the third (and last) go - down to my final fifty cents of change before I was thankfully swept up by some incredible southern hospitality.

I was a suburban Brit, brought up in a commercial fishing town that was nestled beside a series of inland lakes. And there I was in rural Oklahoma, hanging with a family that owned a rodeo ranch - supplying the bulls and other livestock to the event promoters. I travelled with them to the National Youth Rodeo in Fort Worth, and we were killing some time before that night’s contest when Doug Flutie did his thing. Here’s the link to the injuries page on the Professional Bull Riders website: http://pbrnow.com/riders/injury/. Let’s be honest, it’s pretty terrifying – and this is today, with vests and helmets – these guys are tough, but they can pay a heavy price for what’s been dubbed the most dangerous eight seconds in sport.

US National Youth Rodeo 1984
Now, I write suspense thrillers that have some sort of moral dilemma for the main character and I’m usually pretty clear where I fall on the issue (even if the hero isn’t) - but I must confess that it isn’t easy to see my way through this one. Is it possible to separate the joy of moments like Flutie’s Hail Mary from the consequences for some of those that play the game? Is the price of glory too high – can we watch all this and still feel comfortable?

At first glance, it isn’t going to make any difference whether we watch or not – people will do stuff that’s reckless, violent and potentially injurious regardless of whether dangerous professional sport exists or not. But there are still moral consequences from the decision to watch. Like it or not, you are both complicit in the action and helping to facilitate it; by paying for tickets, merchandise, cable tv or whatever other paraphernalia the sports marketing juggernaut throws at us.

So, what does it take to settle comfortably into the armchair quarterback position, without your conscience sticking a huge moral spike up your ass?

I think there is an important distinction to be made between sports like professional boxing, where violent injury is the intent, and sports like bull-riding and gridiron, where violent injury is an unfortunate or even tragic side effect. While I loved watching heavyweight boxing back in the days of Ali, Frasier and Foreman, what’s happened subsequently (to Ali in particular) makes me a little uneasy about watching it now. And I will certainly not go north of that line, towards cage fighting, with its echoes of the Roman Coliseum.

I can feel more comfortable watching sports where violence and injury are an unfortunate side effect, but with a couple of provisos. I love the Tour de France, but this Versus commercial for their 2011 TdF race coverage made me seriously queasy – don’t glorify the violence and the danger, it might come back to haunt you.

However, for me, the straightest route to a moral comfort zone is the care and attention that’s taken by the sport for the participants. The extraordinary recent documentary about Ayton Senna showed us how far Formula One has come since that dreadful weekend at Imola in 1994 – Senna was the last man to die at the wheel of a Formula One car. Boys will be boys but they often need to be saved from themselves. Health and safety legislation may be as out of control as the legal reprisals for negligence, but nevertheless, these days, I need to feel that the organisers are doing the right thing, even if it’s against their will.

It was said that the NFL lockout was as much about health as it was about money - and if that was the case, then the result should be something that we can feel a little bit happier about when we settle down to watch those early season games. Let's hope for no more Dave Duerson's...