Fanfare for the common man (and woman)
Nicholas Searle is originally from Cornwall and now lives in Yorkshire. Before becoming a writer, he enjoyed a long and successful public service career in intelligence and security. A Traitor in the Family is his second novel, following the Sunday Times bestseller, The Good Liar, which was shortlisted for the CWA John Creasey New Blood Dagger for the best debut crime novel. It tells a story of shocking, intimate betrayal and asks whether a treacherous act of the most personal kind ever be, in a darkly violent world, an act of mercy? Below, exclusively for Foyles, Nicholas explains his fascination with the interaction between big-picture events and decisions and the rest of us, and how that plays out in his new book.
Author photo © Mark Vessey
I’ve always been fascinated by the interaction between big-picture events and decisions and the rest of us. I must confess I’m actually more interested in the ‘rest of us’ bit than the grandiose stage. But it’s undeniable that politics and national and global events affect us in all kinds of ways. That a decision by a Secretary of State (another individual, by the way) on benefits, or international aid, or HS2, has immense implications for millions of people is self-evident yet strangely invisible to many. It occurred to me that Ireland has provided so many striking and poignant examples of this. And many of us were born in an era when all – or most – of this had stopped. There is a generation who cannot recall just how deep an impact the Troubles – to use that horrible euphemism, hinting at slight awkwardness rather than terrible suffering – made on Ireland and Britain.
Our collective experiences in Ireland over the years provide a wealth of tragic experience – whether you’re an Irish mother, an English schoolboy, an MP or an Australian tourist holidaying in Europe. It is instructive – and sobering – how much suffering can be caused when the madman gets to the controls of the machine that no one normally is interested in. Between 1969 and the period leading up to the Good Friday Agreement of 1998 the people of Ireland and Great Britain weren’t well-served by any of the parties making the choices that led to harm, death and widespread suffering.
These thoughts were in the back of my mind when I began work on A Traitor in the Family. But I didn’t want them to dominate my thinking. Nor could I afford to: I was writing a novel, not a polemic or an earnest dissection of that period of Irish history. My work in the effort to counter terrorism was done; now I was far more interested in the individuals. One of my initial working titles for the book (I’m not very good on titles) was The Small Picture. So I tried to find the people who would inhabit my imagination and then the book.
This is where I began: a fierce concentration on the characters yet an awareness of the bigger picture. Rather than trying to cram in my own perspectives I let my characters lead me where they needed to go. They were the people who were affected by the strategic goings-on and I needed them to be real, and not mouthpieces for my views.
Bridget and Francis O’Neill, the main characters, are individuals caught up in the flow of history who face the prospect of losing grip of their own lives (both figuratively and actually) as a result. Just how far have they actively elected to participate in events? How can they now exercise their will and opt out? Do they have any scope at all for decisions? And then, of course, as well as being the victims of history, they are actors as well. They cause things to happen that affect the larger picture, potentially seismically.
Into the mix came Joe Geraghty, a senior IRA man and a pivotal figure for Francis and Bridget as well as bigger events. What must be going through his head as he tries to keep all the plates spinning? Is he a visionary or a tyrant? Victim or perpetrator? And it was the same with those shadowy figures, Richard Mercer and his colleagues. How does it feel to be an actor in such significant events? Are you impelled, do you react or can you control matters? How does personal morality rub along with professional duty?
As I wrote the book the characters were teaching me several lessons. That these judgements by people in strategic – not necessarily high-ranking – positions that have genuine impact, good or bad, on the everyday lives of large numbers of people are close calls and are often decided by blind instinct rather than any purpose. That in making those judgements people can feel that there is very little scope for personal choice: they can often make rushed, over-emotional decisions because they’re driven by events rather than driving them. And that in such situations a decision to opt out may be close to impossible.
What is it that makes a group of men believe that it is right to seize a widowed mother of ten from her home and kill her? What is going through their minds as, coldly, they plan the abduction and what follows in order to prevent detection? How can a man watch Arsenal versus Manchester United on the television and then calmly go out and kill people he’s never met and who are very like him? What’s it like to build an explosive device, knowing its destructive capability? Do you push that knowledge to the back of your mind and just get on with it? How can a police officer whose professional purpose is to maintain law and order and serve justice and who is imbued with the liberal, pluralist values of our society find it appropriate to beat and torture a man in his prison cell? Does he somehow think that inhumanity can serve humanity? How does a cowering individual find himself a secret agent? And, of course, how can the sadistic killer and instigator of mass terrorism in the space of a few short years become rehabilitated and airbrushed as a hero and beacon of the peace process?
All the heroes and villains are ordinary people, just like you and me. Like John Boy in the book, who drives for the IRA but whose day job is as a driving instructor, they have occupations, families, passions and foibles.
The bigger picture is this: when we permit the unprincipled, the self-seeking, the irrational and the inhumane to decide on our lives – whether it’s a bunch of Islamist fanatics in Raqqa or a huddle of vainglorious alt-right liars in a Western capital – the rest of us are in trouble.