CTG Interviews: Edward Wilson about his new book The Whitehall Mandarin

The Whitehall Mandarin cover image

The Whitehall Mandarin cover image

Today I’m pleased to welcome Edward Wilson to the CTG Blog to tell us about his new book – The Whitehall Mandarin – and about his writing process.

So, let’s dive into the interview …

 Firstly, your new book, The Whitehall Mandarin, is coming out in June. Can you tell us a bit about it?

All of my books are literary novels disguised as spy fiction. I try to explore the questions of identity, perception and truth. Can we really know who anyone really is? How can we find truth when it is papered over with lies? My starting point is the party slogan from Orwell’s 1984: ‘Who controls the past controls the future; who controls the present controls the past.’ The Whitehall Mandarin is an ‘insider novel’ that unpeels layers of deception to reveal the most closely guarded state secret of modern times: the China enigma. What is the secret behind China’s rapid rise to become a nuclear armed superpower? And when we think we have found that secret, there is yet another twist.

Lady Penelope Somers, the first woman to head up the Ministry of Defence, seems to have it all: power, beauty and wealth. The superglue that binds together the ruling class is secrecy – but Lady Somers has a dark secret that is unknown to even the inner circle of the Whitehall elite. Catesby’s job is to find that secret and bury it forever.

All of the book’s characters are complex and conflicted. Catesby, an MI6 officer who ironically bears the name of the leader of the Gunpowder Plot, never resolves his working class origins with his OBE and his status as a senior intelligence officer. Cauldwell, a wealthy American reeking of refinement and‘old money’, repudiates his background to become a Communist spy. Henry Bone, Catesby’s boss and mentor, has a closet full of skeletons including a past relationship with Sir Anthony Blunt.

Before writing the Catesby spy series you served as a Special Forces Officer in the US Army, how easy do you find using your real-world experience to inform your fiction?

War is not a good thing for writers or anyone else. I despise writers who become macho war bores and celebrate ‘the cult of the warrior’. Being a Special Forces officer in Vietnam was a lot more than ‘combat’. It was 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 to the CIDG (Civilian Irregular Defense Group), a border screening force that patrolled from remote camps the length of South Vietnam. The CIDG soldiers were mostly Vietnamese or Montagnards, although there were also Khmers and Chinese Nungs. My own CIDG were all 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. None of our operational plans were ever secure, none!

One way of dealing with this lack of security was to change plans at the last minute. I tried this on an ambush patrol with a small team of CIDG . We crept into a village after dark and began, covertly, to ask for information about the Viet Cong. An old man took me aside and led me away from the others. He asked to see my map so he could show me where to find the enemy. I refused because there was classified information grease-pencilled all over it, but I finally let him see a little corner and he pointed to a trail where we should set our ambush. It seemed a much better site than the one we had already chosen. I then rejoined the others and put the plan to the Vietnamese in charge of the CIDG, who responded with a resounding ‘khong’ – which is non, no, nein and nyet rolled into one. I couldn’t order him to move his men; I was only an ‘advisor’. So we set our ambush on the site previously chosen.

Later that night all hell broke loose, but nowhere near us – or the trail the old man had suggested. We later discovered that a Regional Forces (RF) outpost, less than a kilometre from our ambush position, had been overrun and sixteen of its defenders killed.

I’ll never know what really happened. Had the Viet Cong who attacked the outpost passed along the trail the old man had pointed out? Could we have saved those sixteen RF if we had redeployed and ambushed the attacking force enroute? Or was the old man a Viet Cong agent who had tried to lure us to a place where we would have been killed? Or was our CIDG leader an undercover VC who refused to budge because he wanted to protect his comrades? But I did learn the intelligence officer’s dilemma: you can never be completely certain who anyone is. Every human being is a mystery. I hope I bring this into my novels.

Author Edward Wilson

Author Edward Wilson

Could you tell us a little about your writing process, do you dive right in, or plan the story out first?

I begin by doing a lot of historical research to try to uncover something that no one has used before. The great thing about writing spy fiction rather than spy non-fiction is that most relevant documents have been destroyed, suppressed or never existed. When the historical trail of dots finally disappears, I keep going with a fictional version of what happened.

When I’ve got a plot outline, I go for characters. Characters, and not plot, are what make a novel take off. The same characters appear, disappear and reappear in my novels – and each time they reappear I reveal something new about them. I research actual historical characters by background reading, but I also use Youtube clips of them to try to discover their inner essence and quirks – Che Guevara’s shy boyishness; Kim Philby’s arrogance (just after he denied being ‘the Third Man’, he sticks his tongue in his cheek).

When I’m in full flow I try to write a minimum of 1,500 words a day. I know that things are going well when the characters take over and tell me what to write. They become real people – and don’t always tell me all their secrets. I just have to wait until they are ready. I don’t own them; they own me.

What advice would you give to those aspiring to publication as crime writers?

Character, character, character. We don’t remember Raymond Chandler’s plots; we remember his characters. I once had the privilege of sitting next to a crime writer named Phyllis at the Hatchards Authors of the Year party. The first thing that Phyllis (aka PD James) said to me was: ‘What is more important: character or plot?’ Phew, I gave the right answer. In fact, characters must shape the plot – otherwise, the plot will appear artificial and unbelievable.

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. Begin a story: ‘She had never stabbed a man before.’ – and the reader is going to be on tenterhooks waiting to find out what actually happened.

Your main character must have a foil. Every Holmes needs a Watson. Revealing plot and narrative movement is a lot easier when two characters are talking about it – and tension between the two is also good for suspense and character development.

Find out what everyone else is doing – and then write something completely different. Make it new. Agents and publishers aren’t looking for copycats, they’re looking for originality.

Learn to pitch your story in fifty words or less.

And lastly, what does the rest of 2014 have in store for you?

The next few weeks are devoted to travelling and promoting The Whitehall Mandarin – including the Penzance LitFest on 18 and 19 July. Half the job of a professional writer is marketing her or his books and meeting people. We owe it to our readers and our publishers.

The other half of a writer’s life is actually writing. My next book is provisionally titled A Very British Ending – and I hope to have finished a first draft by December. Once again, it is an ‘insider novel’ with Catesby and Bone struggling against internal and external enemies. The action takes place between 1947 and 1976. I don’t write to understand myself, but I do write to understand the country that has adopted me and naturalised me – a country that I love. I hope that my next book will reveal some of the hidden and secret forces that have made Britain what it is today.

Thank you so much to Edward Wilson for joining us today and telling us about The Whitehall Mandarin.

The Whitehall Mandarin by Edward Wilson is published by Arcadia, and is out now in hardback. To find out more pop over to http://www.amazon.co.uk/The-Whitehall-Mandarin-Edward-Wilson/dp/1909807532

The Beauty of Murder by A K Benedict

The Beauty of Murder cover image

The Beauty of Murder cover image

What the blurb says: “Stephen Killigan has been cold since the day he came to Cambridge as a senior lecturer. Something about the seven hundred years of history staining the stones of the university has given him a chill he can’t shake. When he stumbles across the body of a missing beauty queen, he thinks he’s found the reason. But when the police go to retrieve the body they find no trace of it. Killigan has found a problem – and a killer – that is the very opposite of reason.

Killingan’s unwitting entry into the sinister world of Jackamore Grass will lead him on a trail of tattooists, philosophers, cadavers and scholars of a deadly beauty. As Killigan traces a path between our age and seventeenth-century Cambridge, he must work out how it is that a person’s corpse can be found before they even go missing, and whether he’s being pushed towards the edge of madness or an astonishing discovery.”

Wow. Wow. Wow. They are the first three words (or one word repeated) that comes into my mind on finishing The Beauty of Murder.

This is a literary crime thriller which ticks all the boxes with a flourish: intriguing characters, fascinating storylines, gorgeous settings, beautiful prose and a sprinting pace. And it’s A K Benedict’s debut novel.

Stephen Killigan is a likable guy – he’s smart, likes a beer (or two, or more), and is looking for love. He also wants to do the right thing when he discovers the body of a missing woman. But being a good citizen soon turns out to be the start of a journey that threatens to destroy all he holds dear. When the police find no trace of the body, Stephen is determined to find out what happened to her. But as he finds clues to the mystery, each one makes less sense than that before it. Is he losing his mind as so many suggest? As the body count rises, and the links of the modern-day murders with those in 1635 become clearer to him, Stephen becomes the prime suspect. Yet he finds an unlikely friend in Inspector Jane Horne, who is trying to solve the series of seemingly unsolvable cases whilst keeping her own private health battles secret from those at work.

The Beauty of Murder is filled with unusual, memorable supporting characters like Stephen’s friend, Satnam, who likes a few beers and loves the girl in the library, and Robert Sachs, the “poncey philosopher who loves himself” who muses over the beauty of the dead. I think my favorite of these is Iris Burton, the eccentric academic who takes it upon herself to teach Stephen Killigan about time travel including what to carry in your kit bag and how to avoid paradoxes (in my mind she was played by Helena Bonham Carter!).

The relationship between Stephen Killigan and Jackamore Grass has real Sherlock/Moriarty feel to it: two highly intelligent men pitting their wits (and their lives) against each other to solve the mystery (in Stephen’s case) and win the game (in Jackamore’s case). Jackamore, who finds getting away with murder tiresomely easy, is pleased to at last have a worthy opponent, but as Stephen hones his skills and closes in on the truth, Jackamore starts to pick his victims from those close to Stephen.

Quirky, mind (and time) bending, and compulsively addictive, this is an outstanding literary crime thriller. I can’t wait to see more from this author.

Highly recommended.

[A bought my copy of The Beauty of Murder]

Daily Ponder: Book spotting on the Train


Kindle (Photo credit: Simply Bike)

In just a few hours I’ll be heading up to London for the Crime Writers’ Association (CWA) hosted panel discussion “Is crime the new literary fiction?” that’s being held at Kings Place.

One of the things I always like to do on the train ride to London and back (and on the tube) is to check out the books my fellow travelers are reading. Are they crime thrillers, romance, science fiction, fantasy, historical or something else? And, more importantly, have I read them, and do they look like the type of thing I’d like to read.

I’ve even had quite a few bookish conversations with fellow commuters, and got some excellent recommendations from them. But, it’s not quite as easy as it used to be. That’s because of eReaders. I just can’t (or not as secretly) take a sneaky peep at the cover of the book being read. Although, that said, if I’m standing on the train, and someone sitting nearby is reading on an eReader (especially if the font size is set to large) it is possible.

But, not to be deterred (and, of course, being of a rather nosy disposition!) I’ll be book spotting on the train as I travel.

I wonder what crime thriller books I’ll glimpse today …

Events: Is Crime the new Literary Fiction


How to get to Kings Place, London

How to get to Kings Place, London

Do you love crime fiction?

If so, this event could be for you. On 12th November 2012 the Crime Writers’ Association (CWA) are hosting a panel discussion on the topic “Is crime the new literary fiction?”

Chaired by Mark Lawson, the panel will be made up of best-selling crime thriller writers: Lee Child, Sophie Hannah, Peter James and John Banville.

It sounds like it’ll be a lively and entertaining debate.

For more information, and to book tickets, visit the Kings Place website at: http://www.kingsplace.co.uk/whats-on-book-tickets/spoken-word/is-crime-the-new-literary-fiction

It’s in my diary and I can’t wait!