Tuesday 9 May 2023

The making of Joe Wilderness IV : Moscow Exile


Photo ©Nick Lockett

How do you invent a character? I’ve no idea. Perhaps boredom plays its part. In 1983 I was tending orange groves in Spain, so far south that the Rock of Gibraltar loomed up outside my bedroom window like an unfinished skyscraper and Morocco’s Atlas Range looked like a wallpaper freeze.

Oranges do not ask a lot of you. Their small talk is microscopic. The highlight of the day would be when the locals, other farmers, passed by to marvel at the sheer whiteness of a kid from the north of England. The day might have livened up if they’d asked what I was doing there, but no one ever did. So … Troy was born out of boredom. I told myself stories to stave off the noonday devil and at dusk I wrote them in the sky on the tips of the Atlas mountains. 

Troy began as an honest copper, in the vein of Roderick Alleyn or Charlie Luke. Soon got fed up with that and over the course of my first novel he evolved into something far more complex — a lethal, deceitful philandering bastard. A few books into the series a CNN reviewer said to me, “I used to wonder why Troy got the shit kicked out of him in each book. It’s because he deserves it.” Correct. Then he said, “Wouldn’t you just love to write about someone who was … well … decent?”

Thus was Joe Wilderness born. He’s the hero of my latest novel —Moscow Exile — and of three earlier books. Unlike Troy he’s very English, working class (from Whitechapel in the East End of London) and he’s honest. He would never cheat on his wife or kick the cat. He believes in trust. Betrayal of trust would never occur to him. That said, he’s also a burglar, smuggler, MI6 agent and con-artist. Still … an honest man.

The centre of Wilderness’s world has never been London. Berlin, East and West, is his personal magnet. In part this location is down to my father’s all-too-brief narrative of his time in Germany in 1945 — his war ended in the British Sector of Berlin — and Joe’s good or bad fortune is down to two of my university tutors in the 1960s, Peter Frank and David Lane, both Russianists who’d been drafted just after WW2 and given a stark choice. Cue the voice of the late William Hartnell, “Right, you ’orrible lot. You can spend two years square-bashing or you can bugger off to Cambridge and learn Russian.”

They chose Cambridge, became fluent in Russian and in their modest way became spies. I gave Joe Wilderness the same choice. And after Cambridge, Hamburg and after Hamburg … Berlin. And after Berlin … Moscow.

I left Joe at the end of Hammer to Fall with a bullet in his back, flat on his face, on the Glienicker Brücke, where West Berlin met East Germany. The bridge was deeply fictionalised as The Bridge of Spies by Steven Spielberg … I say ‘fictionalised, as I’ve never seen a photograph in which the bridge resembled the one he filmed. As the book ends Joe is hauled away by the KGB to whatever fate awaits him. Finis … been there … done that … bought the T-shirt.

However … ya gets asked fer sequels.

And ya cain’t say … ‘Fuuuuuuuck off!’

So … Moscow Exile. The life and misadventures of Joe Wilderness in Moscow, exile … prisoner … defector? To say more would be a spoiler.

But … how to get there? That wasn’t obvious and the oddest idea occurred to me … a prequel-sequel, a book in which much of the outcome is already anticipated and the narrative task is to get back to that point. This might be called ‘backstory’ — a phrase I had never heard until the great Robert B. used it as a title — more properly termed prolepsis.

Risky … but from the standpoint of the writer … er … appropriately challenging. No risk, no fun. So once the prelims were over I rolled the plot back thirty years to London and then to Washington, aiming all the time for Moscow in 1969.

I based the prequel, very loosely, on the life of Pamela Harriman, daughter-in-law of Winston Churchill, who later married the former US ambassador to Moscow, Averell Harriman, and became, quite possibly, the queen of Washington society, renowned for her celebrity-packed dinner parties, and for the little Asprey’s silver notebook in which she recorded the gossip of the DC elite.

It’s a long time before ‘Coky’ (that’s what I named her) meets Joe Wilderness.

And before I could type the words ‘The End’ (so pleasing to the eye) Joe is back at the bridge in the heartland of the mid-century spy — Berlin — Moscow still a memory so fresh as to sting, still in pursuit of the pot of gold at the end of the spook’s rainbow.

Moscow Exile by John Lawton Published by Atlantic Grove (Out Now)

Charlotte is a British expatriate who has recently settled in Washington, D.C. with her second husband, but enviable dinner parties aren’t the only thing she is planning. Meanwhile, Charlie Leigh-Hunt has been posted to Washington as a replacement for Guy Burgess, last seen disappearing around the corner and into the Soviet Union. Charlie is surprised to cross paths with Charlotte, an old flame of his, who, thanks to her gossipy parties, has a packed pocketbook full of secrets she is eager to share. 

Two decades later, in 1969, Joe Wilderness is stuck on the wrong side of the Iron Curtain, held captive by the KGB, a chip in a game way above his pay grade – but his old friends Frank and Eddie are going to try to spring him out of the toughest prison in the world. All roads lead back to Berlin, and to the famous Bridge of Spies…

John Lawton has written three previous novels starring Joe Wilderness - Then We Take Berlin (2013)The Unfortunate Englishman (2016), and Hammer to Fall (2020). He has also written eight Inspector Troy thrillers -, Black Out (1995), Old Flames (1996), A Little White Death (1998), Riptide (aka Bluffing Mr Churchill) (2001), Flesh Wounds (aka Blue Rondo) (2005), Second Violin (2007), A Lily of the Field (2010), Friends and Traitors (2017). One standalone book – Sweet Sunday (2002) and a number of other books.  

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