BEIRUT: There are a few elements without which no spy thriller would be complete: good guys, bad guys, double-dealing guys; elaborate plots, twists and turns; car, boat or foot chases; beautiful, strong, yet selectively vulnerable women, and worldly, dominant men who take care of business.
Explosions can be helpful, gunfire is a must, and a gadget watch never goes amiss if you want to keep things old-school. If your thriller happens to be set in the Middle East, you’ll find there are a couple of additional requirements.
Firstly, it helps if you’re an American – or possibly British – journalist – or possibly ex-journalist. At some point you should definitely have been based in the Middle East. This will give you the background knowledge needed to create a flatbread of regional politics, on which to sprinkle the requisite explosions, car chases and double-crossing.
It will also allow your protagonist – who should probably be British or American like you, and who probably shouldn’t speak much Arabic but will have been hired by MI6 or the CIA anyway – to punctuate the less dramatic scenes with basic, foreigner-friendly Arabic words such as “khalas,” “shukran,” “wasta” and “haram,” thus reminding readers that the protagonist is in a VFL, or Very Foreign Location.
Middle East-based journalists Roger Croft, Alexander McNabb and David Rose have all managed this to great effect in recent years,
Croft with his 2010 “The Wayward Spy” and its 2013 sequel “Operation Saladin;” McNabb in his trilogy of thrillers set in Jordan and Lebanon, “Olives: A Violent Romance,” “Beirut: An Explosive Thriller” and “Shemlan: A Deadly Tragedy;” and Rose with his first novel, “Taking Morgan,” which was published earlier this year.
If you’re not a former hack, don’t despair. Elliott Colla, associate professor in the Department of Arabic and Islamic Studies at Georgetown University, was responsible for the excellent “Baghdad Central,” his debut novel released in February. More serious in tone, the nuanced portrait of Iraq under U.S. occupation doesn’t really fit the mold, but Colla’s protagonist, although Iraqi, does tick some of the boxes.
An ex-policeman named Muhsin Khadr al-Khafaji, he is kidnapped from his Baghdad apartment in the dead of night, having been mistaken for a high-ranking Iraqi official wanted by U.S. troops. Realizing their mistake, his captors blackmail him into becoming a collaborator.
Similar circumstances propel the narrator of McNabb’s “Olives,” Paul Stokes, an ignorant, self-serving young British journalist living in Jordan, into becoming a reluctant – and extremely inept – spy. After getting into an altercation with a taxi driver upon arrival, the naive Stokes is blackmailed by Irish spook Gerald Lynch into collecting intelligence on his Palestinian lover Aisha and her wealthy, possibly terrorism-inclined family.
The hero of Croft’s two novels, Michael Vaux, is also a journalist. He is likewise coerced into turning spy when the thoroughly inept pencil-pushers at MI6 discover he has links from his university days with a top Syrian official suspected of attempting to carry out a huge weapons deal with Russia. Her Majesty’s secret service naturally forces Vaux into attempting to gather intelligence by repeatedly outbidding him on the house he is hoping to buy, pushing up the price and thereby ensuring he is desperate for money.
Should your protagonist have chosen the life of a spy – as have Rose’s heroine, American soccer mum-cum-CIA agent Morgan Cooper, and Lynch, the tough Irish hero of McNabb’s second two installments – they should have a healthy sense of disrespect for their superiors and disregard most, if not all, training and protocol. This is entirely the correct attitude. Their handlers will almost certainly turn out to be incompetent, outmoded fools, or sociopaths who are, if not actively trying to get them killed, then at least not doing much to prevent it.
She ensnares Vaux with 'her beautiful face, the sultry eyes, the deep bevel of that Arabian nose'
Male protagonists should drink a lot of whisky. A lot of whisky. Vaux’s firm favorite is Cutty Sark, which he drinks with such dedication and regularity that the hotel he stays in for some weeks in the opening passages of “The Wayward Spy” is forced to purchase a case in his honor. Colla’s Khafaji is a Johnny Walker man, who throws back shots of the stuff when he’s feeling under pressure. Lynch, the roughest, toughest, gruffest man of the lot, isn’t choosy. He’ll drink his whisky when, where and however he can.
If your protagonist is a woman, whisky drinking is not a must. She should share one of the other common characteristics with her male counterparts, however: a penchant for copulation with exotic, olive-skinned Arabs. Rose’s Cooper is kidnapped while sitting down to lunch with her agent in the Gaza Strip, “a man who somehow always managed to look cool,” “with animated dark green eyes, olive skin and a goatee,” and with whom she’s been having a torrid affair.
They are interrupted before they have the chance to get physically re-acquainted, but her husband later has the dubious pleasure of watching them copulate on a video that one of her incompetent handlers involuntarily plays in front of him.
Vaux and Lynch, both of whom are in their late 50s and uniformly irresistible to women, work their way through a number of exotic beauties, the majority of them several decades their juniors, with casually Orientalist ease.
Vaux has a lengthy affair with Veronica Belmont, aka Barbara Boyd, née Alena Hussein, a half-Palestinian, half-British triple-agent and two-time defector. She ensnares Vaux with “her beautiful face, the sultry eyes, the deep bevel of that Arabian nose,” and, when naked, reminds him of “a young dusky islander that Gauguin would have wanted to paint.”
He also seduces the 21-year-old niece of his old Syrian university friend, with “olive-tinged skin, big, brown, almond-shaped eyes, a thin, aquiline nose, and full, sensual lips.” He finds, to his delight, that in bed “her warm, smooth body clung to him like a child.”
Stokes, the unreliable narrator of “Olives,” falls helplessly in love with the beautiful, “big-titted” Aisha, who he describes as “a very shapely girl. She looked every inch the Arab. Her nose curved slightly, her eyebrows were heavy and her lips full with unnerving sensuality.”
Lynch, meanwhile, manages a whole swathe of conquests over the course of “Beirut” and “Shemlan,” from a young student activist – the “beautiful dark-haired Laila, lover of freedom, equality and British spies” – to a sexy older woman, a slinky Monnot brothel madam named Marcelle Aboud, with “dark, kohl-lined eyes,” whose “very movements were languorous and sensual, her voice husky, rolling and dirty.”
Of course, once they’ve given in to the charms of the protagonists you may consider ensuring that these characters have an extremely high mortality rate. This is handy, as it frees up their lovers for future lustful liaisons, or, in the case of Paul Stokes, for a gruesome death in the next book.
All of which brings us neatly onto plot. Don’t worry if it seems a little overblown. In Richard L. Graves 1989 thriller “Cobalt 60” a Red Sea emir disguised as a German photographer tries to kill U.S. leaders by shooting them with radioactive paperclips.
In comparison, Croft’s impenetrable tangle of accidental-, double- and triple-agents, Rose’s kidnapping by Al-Qaeda and midnight journey through a tunnel between Gaza and Egypt and McNabb’s stolen Soviet-era nuclear warheads making their way to Beirut via luxury yacht and nighttime car chase on an Estonian ice bridge seem positively tame.
So, with these key ingredients in mind why not have a go at whipping up a summer spy thriller of your own, seasoned to taste? Or if you’re feeling less ambitious, try giving one of these novels a read. They’re certainly entertaining.