Adrian Magson is no stranger to the world of spy fiction. With a galaxy of starred reviews under his belt and comparisons to Ken Follett, Robert Ludlum and Lee Child, he may well be the thriller writer your bookshelf has been missing. His Harry Tate series, which started with Red Station (2010) and follows the eponymous MI5 operative, has been praised for combining substance with gripping adrenaline-fuelled adventure. Magson’s latest spy series, featuring deep cover operative Marc Portman, has been similarly praised. As Booklist put it in their starred review of series opener The Watchman:
“The term thriller hardly does justice to this taut page-turner that’s packed with action, adventure, danger, ingenuity, bravery, horror, and shocking violence.”
Although Magson may be a dab hand at the espionage thriller, that doesn’t mean that writing always comes easily. Following the critical and commercial success of The Watchman, Magson found that writing the sequel, Close Quarters, was more fraught than he could have imagined.
After the success of The Watchman, which went to number one on Kindle in the Espionage category and featured Marc Portman fighting Somali pirates and terrorists, I had to choose an equally challenging yet contemporary setting for the second book, Close Quarters. With the current state of international affairs, I wasn’t exactly short of options.
At the time of writing in 2013/14, Ukraine was heating up to become another point of conflict, with pro-Russian separatists fighting Ukrainian government forces in the east of the country, and increasingly seen to be backed by active Russian forces (or “volunteers”, as they were described by Moscow).
Watching the flurry of diplomatic activity as politicians from various quarters tried to help, I was immediately struck by the possibility of one of these well-meaning advisers being taken captive and used as a bargaining tool. Very quickly that idea gelled into a US State Department official sent to check out the developing situation, and finding himself held prisoner by hostile forces in an increasingly fragile situation.
This became the plot for the story, and Portman was on his next assignment.
Hired by the CIA as a ‘black’ operative to extricate the official, Edwin Travis, from the hands of extremists and get him out of the country, Portman has to get Travis out of Donetsk, which is teeming with several violent groups with different agendas – one of them a mafia killer on the lookout for Portman’s blood after a confrontation near the airport.
With only the distant voice of a CIA communications newbie, Lindsay Citera, to guide him, Portman has to travel across the country to the border with Moldova in order to get Travis out. But the one thing he can’t do in this hotbed political atmosphere is rely on help from identifiable US forces or the embassy. As usual, Portman is on his own.
Unfortunately, the CIA has an enemy in the camp, who would like nothing more than to shut down their black ops and bring their covert activities under control. When this enemy within gets wind of the operative known as ‘Watchman’, he sees a way of using the operation to discredit the CIA, while also taking advantage of the worsening situation in Ukraine for his own ends.
So far, so good. But there was a point during the writing of Close Quarters that I came close to giving up. I was halfway through completion of the manuscript when the news broke about the shooting down over eastern Ukraine of Malaysia Airlines Flight MH17 en route from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur.
I tend to use a flavour of current events where I can, and Ukraine offered a plausible backdrop on which to hang the story. But when this terrible tragedy occurred in the same location, I felt reluctant to continue with it. However, the timeline of Close Quarters was set several months earlier than July, so in the end I decided to continue with the project, since there would be no reference to it in the book – nor would I have had to deliberately ignore it, which would have been unjust for the 298 victims.
For more information about Adrian Magson and Close Quarters, visit his website.