Edward Wilson has been picking up some pretty fine reviews for his Catesby sequence of spy novels, and has even been described as the ‘thinking person’s Le Carré’.’ His latest novel, The Whitehall Mandarin, out now in hardback and on kindle, sees his protagonist threading his way through the sex scandals of London in the Swinging Sixties and into the war-torn jungles of Southeast Asia, on a mission to uncover the truth about a Ministry of Defence official.
And Edward is one of those authors who’s walked the walk. Trained as a spy, he served as a Special Forces officer in Vietnam and received the Army Commendation Medal with ‘V’ for his part in rescuing wounded Vietnamese soldiers from a minefield.
So you can imagine that in this Intel Interview Edward has some absolutely fascinating things to say about the golden age of espionage, dodgy dossiers, wine o’clock, and reading every single review…
The Whitehall Mandarin is a Cold War thriller in the classic style – tell us about it…
All of my books are sequels to Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking Glass. As a Special Forces officer in Vietnam dealing with agents and double agents, I quickly realised that I had stepped through the looking glass into a world that was not rational and where nothing or no one was what they seemed. Jeffers Cauldwell, the ‘villain’ of The Whitehall Mandarin, is a looking glass chameleon who changes shape and voice from chapter to chapter.
And Lady Penelope Somers, the eponymous Whitehall mandarin, is the greatest shape changer of all. The historically accurate plot focuses on the split between the Soviet Union and Maoist China – which nearly erupted into a Communist v. Communist nuclear war in 1969. The West was a bit slow to adapt to the change in the global balance of power, but then did so making what my reviewer in The Sunday Times describes as ‘a colossal strategic blunder lasting decades’.
The truth behind China’s A and H bombs and her rise towards becoming the world’s greatest superpower is the most closely guarded state secret of modern time. The book, however, blends personal secrets with state secrets. The truth about Lady Somers, the first woman to head up the Ministry of Defence and her wild-child daughter Miranda, is devastating. I wept into my keyboard when I wrote the final pages – but there are funny bits too!
Your spy protagonist Catesby has appeared in four novels now – how would you describe him to a new reader?
Catesby is the most conflicted ‘hero’ in the spy genre. He doesn’t know who he is. His widowed Belgian mother brings him up as a French and Flemish speaking Roman Catholic in East Anglia. He’s a ‘normal’ English lad on the school playground, but becomes a European when he goes home. Catesby’s genius for languages enables him to exchange the grinding poverty of Lowestoft for a place studying Modern Languages at Cambridge. Commissioned as an officer in SOE, he is parachuted into France to liaise with the Resistance where he is traumatised by the SS massacre at Oradour-sur-Glane. The memory or Oradour haunts Catesby the rest of his life. After standing unsuccessfully as a Labour candidate in the 1945 election, Catesby is snapped up by SIS (aka MI6). He marries an upper class Englishwoman, but the marriage doesn’t work. Catesby becomes a protégé of spymaster Henry Bone, a discreetly gay aristocrat and friend of Anthony Blunt.
The somewhat sinister Bone ensures Catesby’s advancement in SIS, partly to protect his own secrets. Catesby is distrusted by many in SIS and MI5 for his left wing politics and working class background, but Catesby is always a loyal Briton who loves his country. The name, of course, is ironic – Catesby was leader of the Gunpowder Plot. When the Queen awards Catesby his OBE she gently teases him with, ‘We ought to have scheduled this for the 5th of November.’
How would Catesby cope in the contemporary spy world, do you think?
He would have gone ballistic over Iraq and the dodgy dossier about WMD. Catesby would not have survived in post during the years of the Bush/Blair special relationship. The CIA would have been baying for his blood and his MI6 bosses would have sent Langley all eight pints of it. On the other hand, Catesby would be a valuable asset for dealing with Europe and Francophone Africa. His language skills – he also speaks fluent German and good Russian – would have been invaluable. Catesby would be a good agent to have in Paris or Berlin – and might even have made some sense out of the Ukraine.
The Whitehall Mandarin moves from the sex scandals of the 1960s to the jungles of Vietnam — why were the Sixties such a Golden Age for dangerous secrets?
The Sixties were a Golden Age for spy fiction, but the best single year was 1956! Fifty-six started with Khrushchev’s Secret Speech which signaled the first crack in the Iron Curtain and led to riots in Poznan and the Hungarian uprising. In retrospect, Khrushchev’s speech unchained the forces that led to the Fall of the Wall. In April 1956, Khrushchev sailed to England for a détente summit with Eden. The summit was wrecked by unauthorised bugging and espionage on the part of MI6. Frogman Lionel Crabb disappeared while spying on the Soviet cruiser docked at Portsmouth. The year ended with the Suez Crisis and Prime Minister Eden cracking up as Washington pulled the plug on the pound to force Britain to withdraw from Suez. I write about these events in The Envoy and The Darkling Spy.
But yes, the Sixties was the ultimate Golden Age. The John Vassall spy trial, the Profumo scandal, the Cuban Missile Crisis (I reveal a secret British deal in The Midnight Swimmer), the Golitisin and Nosenko defections, the ‘mysterious’ death of Hugh Gaitskell and the JFK assassination all occurred within a couple of years. Meanwhile, cultural changes were infuriating the Old Guard and turning the colonels puce – and there was still Vietnam and the Wilson Plot to come! And the decade ended with a border war between China and the Soviet Union which almost turned nuclear – see The Whitehall Mandarin for more.
How have your own experiences fuelled the Catesby series?
Being a Special Forces officer in Vietnam was far from the media image of constant combat action. It was more about going native, running intelligence networks and dealing with double agents – experiences which are invaluable for a writer of spy fiction. I was an SF advisor with the CIDG (Civilian Irregular Defense Group), a border screening force that patrolled from remote camps the length of South Vietnam. My CIDG soldiers were Vietnamese, brave fighters certainly, but also heavily infiltrated with sleeper agents. It was estimated that at least 10% of our CIDG were undercover Viet Cong. It was a ‘through the looking glass experience’. Our bravest and seemingly most loyal soldiers were the very ones that we most suspected of being double agents! I did learn the most important lesson for any intelligence officer: you can never be completely certain who anyone is.
I also lived and worked in Germany in the 1970s at the height of the Cold War. I learned the language pretty well and got to understand the culture and politics. This is particularly reflected in The Darkling Spy. I knew a few lower level spies and a diplomat – whom I’m sure had an intelligence function too. On one occasion, I was interviewed by the West German security service – but was assured it was only a ‘routine’ vetting for all Ausländer, foreigners.
Who are the spy thriller authors you admire – and why?
I have to say John le Carré. I am flattered to have been compared to him. Le Carré is to spy fiction what Shakespeare is to Elizabethan drama. But there are other fine Elizabethan and Jacobean dramatists: Marlow, Jonson, Ford, Webster. I see myself as John Webster to le Carré’s Shakespeare. Webster’s work is more noir than Shakespeare’s and deals with a world of false appearances and double dealing. In fact, I regard the drama of the period as very close to spy fiction. The Elizabethan cold and sometimes hot war was between Protestant England and Catholic Europe – and England was full of fears about spies and undercover Jesuits.
My favourite standalone spy novel is Joseph Conrad’s The Secret Agent. The Russians – still Tsarist – run a perfect ‘false flag’ operation out of their London embassy so that an anti-Tsarist anarchist revolutionary group get blamed for an attempt to blow up the Greenwich Observatory. I suspect similar false flag ops have been carried out more recently
Take us through a typical writing day for you?
I get up at six, have a pee, and then a breakfast of two muffins with butter and Bonne Mamam blueberry jam and two cups of tea. I then make a third cup of tea and carry it up to my writing desk. I try to write at least 1,500 words, but might have to deal with urgent emails too. I stop between noon and one o’clock and go for a three mile run and do a hundred press-ups. I have lunch – two slices of Vogel bread with cheese and cucumber – have a shower and then go back to my writing desk.
I continue to work until wine o’clock, which happens after 6 pm – no alcohol ever during working hours. We have supper and then I go back to my writing desk to answer more emails and do research. I try to be in bed by 10:30. My partner insists that I do something else on Saturday or Sunday. I sometimes do a bit of bird-watching from my desk and have a pair of binoculars at the ready. My current favourite is the green woodpecker.
What’s the hardest lesson you ever had to learn about writing?
Entertaining the reader is more important than the writer’s ego. The reader always comes first. If there were no readers, there would be no publishing industry. It sounds obvious, but there are a lot of writers who still don’t realise that.
How do you deal with feedback?
Very seriously. I read every single review – including all the Amazon customer reviews. I respond to praise by trying to reinforce those areas of my writing. I respond to criticism, by trying to fix the problem – but I will never dumb down. I respect my readers as intelligent and creative persons who like a bit of a challenge.
Give me some advice about writing…
Characters come first. In fact, you must let your characters shape the plot – otherwise, the plot will appear artificial. You must also do good villains – preferably a villain that the reader secretly admires like Tom Ripley or Francis Urquhart. Your main character must have a foil: every Holmes needs a Watson. The conversations between the two are an excellent way of developing plot and narrative
Tension is more important than suspense. Everyone knows that Romeo and Juliet are not going to live happily ever after, but we still go to see the play. Sometimes revealing what happens in the first line of a chapter is more effective than springing it later. The reader is going to be on tenterhooks waiting for the dramatic event to happen.
What’s your best advice for an author looking to get into the marketplace…
Learn to pitch your book in fifty words or less – and it’s got to be powerful and original. Agents and publishers get thousands of submissions and they rely on sharp short pitches to persuade them to pick up a manuscript. Also, try to make yourself sound interesting.
What’s next for you?
An insider’s novel about the sinister forces that nearly brought an end to parliamentary democracy in Britain.