David Gilman’s new high octane thriller, The Englishman, was released on 9th July. Although Gilman is best known for his Master of War series set in the fourteenth century this new novel is a modern adventure crackling with excitement and pulsating action. Gilman also write for TV in the early days of his writing career, including Frost and Dalziel and Pascoe. NB spoke to the author about the new book and his writing in general.
Penal Colony No. 74, AKA White Eagle, lies some 600 kilometres north of Yekaterinburg in Russia’s Sverdlovskaya Oblast. Imprisoning the country’s most brutal criminals, it is a winter-ravaged hellhole of death and retribution. And that’s exactly why the Englishman is there.
Six years ago, Raglan was a soldier in the French Foreign Legion engaged in a hard-fought war on the desert border of Mali and Algeria. Amid black ops teams and competing intelligence agencies, his strike squad was compromised and Raglan himself severely injured. His war was over, but the deadly aftermath of that day has echoed around the world ever since: the assassination of four Moscow CID officers; kidnap and murder on the suburban streets of West London; the fatal compromise of a long-running MI6 operation.
Raglan can’t avoid the shockwaves. This is personal. It is up to him to finish it – and it ends in Russia’s most notorious penal colony.
But how do you break into a high security prison in the middle of nowhere? More importantly, how do you get out?
Congratulations on the publication of The Englishman. It would be interesting to start with a little insight into how your novels evolve.
My ideas usually begin with a character and the type of person they are. Readers need a character that they are drawn to and once I have found him someone like Thomas Blackstone in the Master of War series or Raglan in The Englishman, drive the story forward. The characters are flawed, they have weaknesses, often disguised, sometimes expressed. For example: in Night Flight to Paris I had the SOE send a middle-aged academic to find a traitor in Nazi-occupied France. Harry Mitchell was an academic, a pacifist, who abhorred violence and yet had to inflict it. Thomas Blackstone started the Master of War series as a 16-year-old archer being thrust into the brutal reality of battle because I wanted the reader to experience through the innocence of youth the fear of a boy fighting for his life and coming through the baptism of fire. In The Englishman, Dan Raglan was a runaway teenager who joined the French Foreign Legion after being falsely accused of a killing, and no matter how experienced a soldier he became years later the eyes of the dead haunt him.
Your novels deal with real history/geopolitics, very recent in the case of The Englishman. How important is it not only tell a story but also to be true to the history in your fiction?
There always has to be some leeway in the telling of a historically accurate period – as evidenced in Master of War. The men fighting on the ground never see the entire battle, and my characters can never see the big picture that the reader can. I highlight the facts but fill in the cracks. The Englishman interests me because of the Russian connection that has come into our lives over the past few years. Russian-backed organized crime is documented and the streets of our cities are not safe from their lethal activities. In this story, I was reflecting the pervasiveness of Russian aggression here and how Raglan went against his brief as an outsider, defied a politically sensitive directive not to go after Russian killers. But I did not wish to paint a clichéd picture of all Russians being the villains, which is why I believe there are those in the Russian criminal system who try to circumvent the Kremlin’s corruption.
Something that follows from that. You clearly research your books deeply, I get the feeling that you like finding out things. Does this shape the story or just frame it?
It’s the old story I’m afraid: don’t write what you know but know what you write. As an example: when I finished writing the last series of A Touch of Frost, I was uncertain what direction to take next. My instinct was to write crime novels but I had seen a fresco by Paolo Uccello in the Dumo in Florence. It was of an Englishman who was a mercenary in Italy during the 14th century. That piqued my interest and I began researching the period and from that came Master of War. The germ of an idea for The Englishman was planted a few years ago when I saw a fascinating documentary by an Italian crew of a remote penal colony in the Russian Urals. It was clear that no one could ever escape this bleak hell hole. But if they could who would be able to? First, they had to be inside. Why? And that was Raglan.
Your stories range from the medieval period to the Boer War, to WWII and now the present day in The Englishman. Is it just what strikes you at the time of beginning a new novel/series?
Even when I write a series I want a rich and often complex story in every novel. I do not want to write the same story over and over. I have a low boredom threshold. I hope that if it interests me to write the book readers will join me on the journey.
The Englishman is set in Mali/England/Russia. Each place has to feel authentic. Do you think of place as a character in your novels?
Yes. The smell and noise, the imagery, how the light plays and the sounds carry, are a major contribution to drawing in a reader and of them ‘being there’.
Raglan is a fascinating character. When we meet him he’s in the French Foreign Legion, (an organisation with a universal cachet). Did you like the mystique or is it that this says a lot about Raglan? He’s never felt comfortable at home in England, he’s an outsider.
There has always been a mystique about the Legion and I find that very appealing for a character to have served in it. It is common these days to have heroic characters who were former SAS or SEALS and I feel their sense of mystique has been reduced. I also wanted the international characters who served in the Legion to be available for my ongoing stories. Once the orphaned Raglan was obliged to leave the UK the Legion became his broader family. Raglan will always be an outsider who can live anywhere.
How would you describe Raglan? Did you meet men like him in the services?
Raglan is a modern day knight errant. He moves across borders, he responds to requests for help and he has a tightly knit network of men from different nationalities who served with him in the Legion. He is drawn from my imagination, observation and personal experience. I came across some noteable characters during my time in the Parachute Regiment including US Special Force personnel and Legionnaires. Raglan emerged from an amalgamation of many – and he’s someone who few of us are ever likely to meet but who I suspect many of us would like to be. Capable and compassionate but ruthless when the need arises.
Raglan has humble beginnings, as does Thomas Blackstone in the Master of War series (although he rises through the ranks), is this a conscious choice to write about the common person?
It’s a good starting point. There are emotional echoes in both Thomas Blackstone and Raglan of my early life. Perhaps that’s why I started both characters off young and grew with them through their stories and experiences. My background was a roller coaster upbringing. Lots of moving around – always the outsider – my family went from financial security to being virtually homeless and penniless. As a young boy, I dined with the rich and famous and soon after ended up sharing an attic bedroom with a lodger in my grandmother’s boarding house.
The tension ramps up in a story comes when the hero is tested to the limits. This is not easy with Raglan, he’s an experienced soldier, so getting him out of his comfort zone is tough. He faces trouble throughout the novel but the Russian penal colony is deadly dangerous even for him, is this what you were looking for?
One of the most challenging places on earth to survive in has to be a Russian penal colony. Once I researched the story as fully as I could and explored the type of person incarcerated there it became a test of Raglan’s determination and fortitude to get inside. The story also reflects his intelligent approach to achieving his goal. No matter how tough Raglan is he uses his brain. And he is vulnerable. Raglan gets hurt, has to recover from injuries and being a former Legionnaire specialist commando helps but that doesn’t stop a bullet.
You like strong female characters in your books, in this case it’s Major Elena Sorokina. Tell us a little bit about her please.
The Russian Federation is corrupt but that does not make all Russians so, and I can imagine that there are serving officials and police officers who strive to do their jobs as effectively as possible. I have always sought out strong female characters in my novels and for The Englishman, I chose Major Sorokina who had survived and succeeded in a predominantly male environment. Russians are tough and historically their women fought alongside the men and Elena Sorokina fitted that mould. She had the motivation I needed to help send Raglan into Russia.
The Englishman action packed, from battle to kidnapping, not to mention life in a Russian penal colony. Yet the novel is very clear, as you are with the Master of War series, that violence has consequences. Both physical and mental scars are real and emotionally engaging. The kidnap has consequences for the family which Raglan has to deal with. Do you believe violence should serve the story and reflect the real harm it does?
Readers, like film-goers, understand that violence depicted on the page or screen is a heightened and choreographed visceral experience. Your question reflects my intentions because the scars are real and the emotional fallout never fades in my novels. In my Master of War series hardened men weep for their fallen comrades, in The Englishman Raglan’s toughness is his shield against the innocent dead that haunt him. It is a managed response to seeing and being involved in the violence that reflects reality rather than fiction.
Do you recognise that there are writers who have influenced your work, not just the authors you like, but those who’ve been an impetus to your writing? In what way?
Whatever impetus has been gained has most likely been an unconscious one. I read across the board and some books linger without thinking about it. Early reading was the mass market author Leon Uris and I can still recall the characters from his Battle Cry. Norman Mailer, The Naked and the Dead and then his Executioner’s Song. I have an abiding memory of John Le Carré’s The Honourable Schoolboy and what is arguably the best thriller yet based on historical fact is Freddie Forsyth’s The Day of the Jackal. Now there’s a master storyteller.
You started writing for TV before the novels came along, (Frost, Dalziel and Pascoe). I’m curious how this came about and whether that was a help in writing novels after that experience.
I began writing radio plays and serials and that was a marvellous learning experience, next to novels the ideal visual experience for a listener. Television came along and a different discipline was required, each medium has it’s demands and skill set, finally, when it came to writing novels I suspect all these elements came together. I write visually strong stories with understated passages for the reader to form their own imagery. Characters are drawn lightly enough for the reader to imagine their appearance. It’s a shared experience.
You served in the army and spent time in German, crossing into the East at times, during the Cold War. Tell us a little bit about your experience, has that formed part of your writing?
Every life experience adds to the creative process. Berlin in the 70s was a fascinating place. The difference between east and west was stark. We went in four men teams and tried to gather whatever intelligence and observations could be valuable and of interest to the military and intelligence services. It was not uncommon for the Stasi to try and entrap us, a fake attempt of someone begging to be smuggled across Checkpoint Charlie. I know of one American patrol that fell for it and they were surrounded, blankets were thrown over their car and the men trapped inside for a couple of days while political protestations were made. If we came across, say, a hidden armament dump we could be rammed – which we were on one occasion. We found a secret political prison one day. East German soldiers tried to box us in but I spun the car around the dead-end street. The Stasi were alerted and gave chase and we raced through the cobbled streets of East Berlin and made it back into the west. At times it was a high stakes game.
Readers will want to know if The Englishman is an opener for a new series? If so, what can we expect from Raglan in the future? Any hints?
One of my readers of my Master of War series contacted me a few years ago from the USA. He had a similar background in some respects to my own. He mentioned that he worked at the Pentagon and if I wanted a private tour he would arrange it. I did not know he was a retired senior United States Marine Corps officer until I arrived on his doorstep. So for the next Raglan, there’s a story that begins in Marseilles, develops in Washington D.C. and ends up… I don’t know where yet. Part of the fun when I start writing is not knowing how and where it ends.
And finally, who are reading at the moment, are there any recommendations you’d make of something you really enjoyed recently?
My recent reading list has been mostly non-fiction because of the amount of research I undertake, but I would always recommend Dennis LeHane. I also reach for an Elmore Leonard for a snappy, slick and entertaining read. I’ve just started and am enjoying Kate Atkinson’s Big Sky. I have started reading the late Philip Kerr and his Bernie Gunther books and I can see they will be a favourite.
Thank you very much David Gilman, all the best for the new novel.