The Hidden Man - Articles

Penguin On-Line Interview

The following interview was conducted by Penguin On-Line in June 2004.  

What gave you the idea for The Hidden Man? 

The Hidden Man began life as a screenplay. Like any self-respecting arts graduate in his early twenties, I started writing film scripts more or less as soon as I'd left university. This is about 10 years ago. At the time, it wasn't really possible to walk down the street without bumping into six or seven people who were also hoping to make it big in the movie business. (It's like the famous Peter Cook joke: Two guys are at a party. One says, "I'm working on a novel" and the other replies, "Neither am I.") Anyway, I was moonlighting as a waiter in a Polish restaurant and drawing housing benefit, so the whole experience felt very authentic. Except the screenplay was lousy. I forget what it was called, but a distinguished film critic (and family friend) to whom I sent the manuscript was honest enough to tell me it was sophomoric. Nevertheless, the basic hook of the story remained with me - a son whose father abandons him at a very young age, only to re-appear many years later. At that stage, it was just one son, not two, and the father certainly didn't work for MI6. I think he was in hosiery.

Is the book autobiographical in any sense?

Only inasmuch as Ben is an artist who spends a lot of time working on his own in London. That sense of his daily routine is pretty much based on my life as a writer. Everything else is fictitious. Alice Keen, for example, is an ambitious, adulterous, scheming vixen, but anyone who knows my wife will tell you that she's about as far removed from that description as it's possible to imagine. I don't have a brother, both of my parents are still alive, and my father certainly didn't walk out on me when I was seven years old.

Your first novel, A Spy By Nature, was written by a first person narrator in the continuous present tense. The Hidden Man is a more traditional novel told by a 3rd person narrator in the past tense. Was that a conscious decision?

Very much so, but it cost me a lot of hard work. I'd become so familiar with Alec Milius, the hero of A Spy By Nature, that I began to think that I wouldn't be able to write any other kind of story, in any other kind of style. The first person allows you into a character's thoughts and can create an extraordinary sense of intimacy with the reader. At the same time, I found descriptive prose much easier to write when looked at from Alec's point-of-view. So it was a challenge that I set myself, as much as anything else, to write a book in what you describe as the more "traditional style"; that is to say, from several different points of view, with many different characters, each carrying equal weight in the story. The third person also makes it easier to create suspense, through the use of dramatic irony and so on. But the project started badly. I couldn't find my voice and had to scrap about 20,000 words of the first draft. The Hidden Man also became extremely complicated in plot terms. Trying to tie it all up was like trying to solve a Rubik's Cube with a blindfold on.

But you've succeeded...

I hope so. It's a complex story for such a short book; you have to concentrate. In any case, I firmly believe that plot is of secondary importance to character. It's not what happens, it's who it happens to. If the reader isn't interested in the principal players, then the writer has failed in his task, no matter what twists and turns the story might take. For me, the reunion dinner between Ben and his father at The Savoy is far more important dramatically than anything I might have to say about MI5 or Russian organised crime. That's been borne out by the reaction to the book: people have responded to Alice and Ben's marriage, to the rivalry that exists between the two brothers. They talk about that long before they talk about cryptonyms and dead drops.

If the book has a flaw, what is it? 

Graham Greene said that there's always one character who refuses to come to life, no matter how hard the writer might try to lend him depth or substance. In that respect, Taploe was always a problem. I was worried that he would come across as a caricature. But I was having lunch the other day with somebody who had worked in the Security Service. We were discussing the book and she pointed out that Thames House was stuffed with small-minded bureaucrats in the Taploe mould. I could have hugged her. 

The novel turns on the rivalry between MI5 and SIS. What point were you trying to make here? 

In-fighting within any organisation is bound to be counter-productive, but it's catastrophic within an intelligence community. Look at the lack of communication between the CIA and the FBI in the run-up to September 11th. Thankfully, things appear to have improved, at least on this side of the Atlantic. MI5 are still touchy about SIS desk officers in London treading on their toes, but there seems to be far greater co-operation between the two services now than there was, say, 10 years ago. On a more personal note, it struck me that people whom I had observed rising to the top of organisations tended to become selfish and corrupt in direct proportion to the level of their responsibility. In other words, people look after number one long before they look after Queen and Country. 

A long section of The Hidden Man is concerned with the CIA and MI6's secret war in Afghanistan during the Soviet occupation. How did you research this? 

Most of the information is in the public domain, and I've listed a number of sources at the end of the novel. Kurt Lohbeck's book about the CIA was indispensable, and I also found a fascinating pamphlet published by the RAND Corporation about morale and behaviour in the Soviet army during the occupation. This formed the basis of Robert Bone's long letter to Ben about Dimitri and Mischa Kostov. This sequence was also influenced by Haruki Murakami's amazing book, The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, which contains two stunning set-pieces about human behaviour in war. 

Will we be seeing any of the characters in The Hidden Man again? 

I don't think so, but never say never. Ben will just carry on painting and putting up with Alice. I don't think he's an Alec Milius type. It should be fairly obvious by the time you finish the book that he's not cut out for spying.

Speaking of Alec, is it true that you're working on a sequel to A Spy By Nature? 

Yes. It's called The Spanish Game. Set six years after the events depicted in A Spy By Nature, it's due to be published next summer. Alec Milius is living in Madrid and working part-time for a private bank. In the course of his work he meets a pro-ETA politician who subsequently disappears. Alec tries to find out what happened to him and becomes drawn into a conspiracy involving MI6, ETA and the Spanish government. It's a novel about paranoia, about exile and lies, the middle part of a planned trilogy of Milius books, the last of which will be set in the United States. I'm really enjoying writing it.