Publisher: Sharpe Books
Page Length: 332 Pages
Genre: Historical Fiction/Thriller
The Western Front has descended into trench warfare. In the East an opportunity arises for the Allies to bypass the stalemate.
Desperate to preserve a truce in his sector of the front and with it the lives of his men, Johnny Swift a reckless former diplomat is caught warning the Germans of a trench raid.
Sir George Smyth, Swift’s former superior has negotiated a stay of execution. In return, Swift is dispatched to Constantinople on a perilous mission to bribe the Turkish government and open the backdoor into Germany.
This does not stop the disgraced diplomat enjoying the delights of the orient, while trying to negotiate the labyrinthine power struggles within the Turkish government.
Swift uses all his guile to complete his mission, but finds his efforts blocked by his old friend and nemesis Lazlo Breitner, now an official at the Austro-Hungarian Embassy.
The agent moves from the drinking dens at the crossroads of the world to the opening battles of the Gallipoli campaign - and with it a chance to redeem his reputation.
A huge congratulations on your Johnny Swift Thriller series. Could you tell us a little about the inspiration behind this series?
Thank you it’s been really hard work, but it’s great to have the first two novels in the series published. I think that it all started with the Flashman and Sharpe series, which chart the rise of the British Empire. My idea was basically to chart the decline of the British Empire as seen through the eyes of a character that combines the best qualities of Sharpe and the worst of Flashman and I came up with Johnny Swift. A character who is as brave as he is degenerate. He is determined not to let his modest middle class background prevent his advancement and continually finds his way blocked by a Conspiracy of Dunces to quote the original Jonathan Swift’s essay and the brilliant John Kennedy Toole novel.
That was my starting point. Although not all the novels will necessarily follow that theme, it will be the ‘arc’ of the series. The novels themselves will generally look at some of the great missed opportunities and turning points of the twentieth century, with Johnny at the centre of things. Ready to snatch defeat and catastrophe from the jaws of victory or on the rare occasion turn the tables against impossible odds.
When researching this era, did you come upon any unexpected surprises?
Yes, quite a few. It’s the surprises that provide the first spark for my novels. I got the idea for my first novel ‘The Assassins’ after I read that the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand happened by accident when his car took a wrong turn and stopped in front of Gavrilo Princip, changing the world forever.
While researching the series I discovered that Naval Intelligence attempted to bribe Turkey into making peace in 1915. This inspired the second book in the series, ‘The Dardanelles Conspiracy.’ If the operation had come off it would have opened the Dardanelles Strait and made the Gallipoli landings unnecessary. The third book in the series, which I’m currently working on, came from the discovery that the officer responsible for Mata Hari’s conviction as a spy, was himself arrested as a spy three days after her execution.
Why do you think this period in history is still really popular with readers?
I think it’s so popular because the early Twentieth Century is still so large in the collective conscious. People have grown up watching films and programmes about the First World War and Second World War. Listening to stories from grand-parents about their experiences is also incredibly powerful and certainly began my interest in history.
Added to this is the fact that the world we live in was shaped by the First World War, especially if you live in the Middle East and Eastern Europe. It is impossible to understand the political make up of the world today without understanding the context of the early twentieth century.
What do you think is the most challenging aspect of writing Historical Fiction during this era?
The main problem I have is that people know the period and the characters concerned so well that they know what will happen in the end. My aim is therefore to focus on the characters, fictional and nonfictional, so a reader cares about their journey rather than the outcome of a historical event. Also when dealing with characters who are quite rightly national icons, like Winston Churchill, I find it hard to portray them in a bad light as I had to do when referring to the Dardanelles campaign. Although it was not his responsibility alone, it was not his finest hour. He was still the same restless, dynamic personality, but it was the years that followed the Dardanelles that helped form the Churchill of 1940.
Another problem I’ve found recently is that a lot of the information I’m interested in is still classified as secret, or has been discretely ‘wormed’ from archives. There are still documents relating to Mata Hari’s case that haven’t been released over a hundred years on. However, this does give me the opportunity to make things up and invent conspiracies, without being constrained by historical fact.
What advice do you have for aspiring Historical Fiction authors?
I’m not sure that I’m quite in a position to give advice yet, but I think with any form of writing the secret is just to write. Get into the habit, do it every day and have a target.
When it comes to historical fiction I think it’s important to try and read as much as you can on a subject, especially memoirs, so you get a full understanding of the events and characters. It is also surprising what little titbits you can pick up that enrich a story and send you off in unexpected directions. However, it is vital not to get too entangled in your research, something that I’ve learnt the hard way and through advice from my publisher. My mantra is now that I’m writing a story not a textbook. Every historical fiction writer wants to entertain and inform but the emphasis, I found, should always be on entertaining.
The last thing he had wanted to do was get involved in the perpetual game of one-upmanship that Crassus engaged in with the world.
‘I prefer a bayonet myself, a lot less fussy,’ Crassus retorted, raising a chuckle from Williams.
Crassus glanced around at the men eating bully beef. The sight made Johnny feel slightly downhearted. He wasn’t sure how much more of this he could take.
‘The wonders of the modern world, Swift. Don’t you think it’s incredible that we’re able to keep all these men on the line with canned food, rather than having them idle in winter accommodation?’
‘I don’t know, Dawkins. The tradition has always been to fight in the spring, but now we can sustain an army in the field indefinitely, it’s all a touch mercantile,’ Johnny said, trying to keep the anger out of his voice. He couldn’t believe that someone could talk like that in front of men living in this icebound waste.
Crassus gave Johnny a filthy look. Johnny knew his comment had been a bit near the knuckle. Crassus’s people owned a chain of grocers and were indeed more than a touch mercantile. Some wit in the officers’ mess had gone so far as to name him after the richest man in ancient Rome.
‘You do talk rot sometimes, Swift,’ Crassus said acidly. ‘I take it you’re aware that a new division is currently being formed from some of the finest regiments in the British Army?’
‘Yes the 29th, you have mentioned it.’
Johnny heard a call from no man’s land and started to lose patience. ‘Look Crassus, it was thoughtful of you to come and have a chat, but was there something you wanted?’
‘Well as a matter of fact I brought your mail.’ Crassus produced a letter from inside his trench coat. There was enough light for Johnny to see his name elegantly written in violet ink.
‘I say that’s most awfully decent of you.’ Johnny almost liked him at that moment.
‘It isn’t done to use a superior’s nickname, especially one as beastly as that, in front of the men.’
‘I’m sorry Lieutenant Dawkins. I didn’t mean to undermine your authority any further.’ Johnny would have said anything at that point. Crassus bowed courteously and passed him the letter.
Johnny ripped open the envelope and read the letter twice within a single match strike. “I’m not your plucky little sweetheart. Yours Lady Elizabeth Smyth etc etc.”
'Bad news? Hard lines Swift, but I’ve got a bit of a stunt on at the moment.’ Crassus cut through Johnny’s bitterness. ‘Plenty of glory to go round and you’re a half decent officer, despite everything.’
Johnny stuffed the letter into his box of tricks. ‘So is this what you do? Swank about the frontline looking for “stunts” to help bolster your posting to the 29th?’
‘Oh come now Swift, you can’t win a war hiding in ditches. England expects you to do your bit!’ Crassus said and pulled at his moustache.
‘Hey, Mr Tommy, have you any jam?’
The call came out of nowhere, unsettling Crassus. ‘Good God if you won’t do something about the Boche I will.’
Johnny climbed up the side of the trench and heaved his head over the disintegrating parapet.
‘Yes, Mr Fritz, we have apple and plum jam,’ Johnny called back in German and saw the surprise on Crassus’s face. He winked at him and added, ‘we’re a veritable grocer’s shop.’
‘You speak German, Swift!’ Crassus asked unable to comprehend what he was witnessing.
‘Yes, one of my many languages,’ Johnny replied. ‘Don’t you?’
‘You sound like a native Swift, have you a touch of Prussian?’
‘My German master at school served in the Pomeranian Grenadiers during the Franco-Prussian war,’ Johnny said in mitigation.
‘We’d be very interested in making a trade with you, Tommy,’ the German called back.
‘Splendid, I take it that you will stick to the rules, Fritz?’ Johnny asked, switching back to German.
‘Yes, we will play within the rules, all very proper and correct.’ The German responded. Johnny thought he heard laughter.
‘Alright, Corporal Williams, tea time’s over. Get the men organised for fatigue. Usual rules apply,’ Johnny said, climbing down from the parapet.
‘You actually fraternise with the Germans?’ Crassus seethed.
‘A bit of bravado with the enemy works wonders for morale. Keeps the men’s spirits up if they see their officers looking the enemy in the eye.’ Johnny said, trying to sound confident.
‘I see.’ Crassus was evidently not convinced, but he wanted something and didn’t pursue it.
‘Won’t you be joining us, sir? The water’s lovely!’ Williams called leading the wiring party over the top. Ordinarily Johnny would have gone out with them, but he wanted to keep Crassus away from no man’s land.
Crassus flustered. ‘It doesn’t do to be overly friendly with the men under one’s command, Swift. I’d have put any man who spoke to me like that on a charge.’
‘I used to,’ Johnny lied, ‘but I found that as quickly as I’d place a man on a charge the offence would be washed out for gallant conduct in the field.’
‘Good God Swift, I can’t believe how inordinately slack you are. You might be a temporary gentleman and a reservist, but you’re still a gentleman!’
‘Aren’t you a temporary gentleman, Crassus?’ Johnny asked.
‘I still have seniority over you, by nearly two years.’
‘I was still at school two years ago.’
‘Yes, it shows,’ Crassus spat, desperate to regain his authority. ‘Now Swift, this little stunt of mine. General Staff are worried. There is a strong feeling that we should be taking the fight to the enemy.’
‘Look –’ Crassus put his hand up to stop Johnny.
‘I intend to show my offensive spirit by raiding the enemy trenches tomorrow night.’
‘You want to raid the German trenches?’ Johnny asked not quite believing what he’d just heard.
‘Yes, so what say you, Swift? Play up and play the game!’