Friday, 4 March 2016

Birdkill: Why I Couldn't Quite Get Out Of The Middle East

English: My own work. The wine making headquar...
(Photo credit: Wikipedia)
'You write very well, you know. You just need to get out of the Middle East. It's doing you no favours. We really, really don't care about it.'

So did a prominent London literary agent advise me. The words hit home hard: I had thought being the only person writing spy thrillers set in this most colourful and conflicted area since Eric Ambler gave us The Levanter would be a good thing, but apparently not. The 'we' he referred to was the Great British Public - the people UK publishers want to sell books to.

I didn't have a firm 'next project' lined up after Shemlan - A Deadly Tragedy and I had been toying with the idea of making a book out of my 'Uncle Pat' joke. And so was born A Decent Bomber. I set about abandoning the Middle East with as much distress and compunction as the average psychopath has for his victim. How was I to know that, in terms of attracting British publishing, the next worst place on earth to set a book after the Middle East was Northern Ireland?

By Birdkill I'd given up trying to please anyone but myself, and yet the book was to be set in the UK. It is explicitly not located anywhere in particular. I started out with my short story as a basis and began to construct a narrative around it. That narrative exploded, pages filling with great rapidity as the dreams that had formed the beginning and end of the book raced to meet each other.

Soon enough, Mariam Shadid came calling and simply refused to leave. Great, so now I've got a Lebanese journalist with frizzy hair and a taste for combat trousers and a click-hungry Middle Eastern scandal/gossip website. The Edgware Road poked its damn oud, shisha and cardamom coffee-scented nose in. The pull continued: Robyn's past was drawn inexorably to Zahlé with its restaurants alongside the rushing little torrent of the Berdawni River and its tiled rooftops scattered across the rolling Beqaa. And then, if that wasn't all bad enough, the Château Ksara came calling with its beguiling wiles and wines.

Mary was chatting with Félicie at reception when the Englishman stalked in, an overgrown beanpole of a man, grey-haired with an aristocratic English nose and points of piercing blue under bushy brows. He looked dry and papery, but powerful. The Lebanese have a nose for power, she surmised. Some are attracted to it, seek it; moths to a candle. Others flee it, fearing the trouble and disruption it brings to our precarious lives. She sighed.
‘I would like to speak with Monsieur Delormes as a matter of urgency, please.’ He announced to Félicie who was, and this was her way if you but knew her, unimpressed. She flicked her hair back and glanced over at Mary with a hint of a roll to her eyes.
‘Would you? Who will I say is calling?’
‘Lawrence Hamilton. It is in regard to his new patient.’
Mary tried not to betray her interest. ‘I can take him there.’ She tried to mask her quickening with a shrug. ‘If you like.’

And quite where Sister Mary, the fag-smoking Lebanese nun, came from I could not even begin to tell you, even if you put the thumb screws on.

There's not much Lebanon in there, to be honest, but there's a scattering. Enough to let you know that the Middle East ain't giving me up that easily. Which, oddly enough, I find something of a comfort...

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