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Thursday, 13 December 2012

Agatha Christie with added mayhem - The Ratcatcher

Tim Steven

Like many thriller readers and writers, particularly of the male variety, I grew up on the novels of Alistair Maclean. What appealed to me about his books wasn’t just the exciting adventure plots, but also how they nearly always contained a ‘whodunit’ element. The best of them had a disparate group of people trapped in a life-threatening situation, and you always knew from early on that one of them was a traitor or a saboteur of some kind; part of the fun was trying to work out which of them it was. It was like Agatha Christie with military weapons.

In my début thriller Ratcatcher I wanted to do something similar. A group of disaffected former soldiers are planning to assassinate the Russian president at a summit meeting in Estonia on the Baltic Sea. Which of the three British MI6 agents trying to foil the plot is actually working with the terrorists? To complicate matters, I made the treacherous MI6 agent one of the point-of-view characters. To complicate them further still, I included both women and men among the suspects, so the sex of the traitor was in doubt.

I got round the problem of hiding his/her identity in the point-of-view scenes by referring to our rogue agent throughout as ‘the Jacobin’, a nickname allocated by one of the other characters. Trickier was the task of disguising the person’s sex, and it involved a fair amount of stylistic and grammatical gymnastics to avoid all reference to ‘he’ or ‘she’. Not that this has any bearing on the finished product – readers want to enjoy a good story, not marvel at how cleverly the author has wielded the language, unless they’re fans of Martin Amis – but I actually found this quite a stimulating exercise as a writer.

The other element of mystery in my novel was the method of assassination chosen by the terrorists. In an odd way, it was like one of the central puzzles in a country-house murder mystery, except the question wasn’t, ‘How could the murderer possibly have done it when the room was locked from the inside?’ but ‘How are the terrorists going to kill the president when every point of access to him has been anticipated and closed?’ This posed a serious problem. I had an idea how to pull it off, but it took extensive (and admittedly very haphazard) research online to find out if a particular piece of technology existed that might serve my purposes. And I did want to stay within the bounds of plausibility; I wasn’t writing science fiction.

Once I’d discovered that the technology needed by my terrorists did in fact exist, I needed to find out more about it. And everywhere I looked, I found the same basic information, but not the in-depth, down-and-dirty detail I wanted. I asked a couple of ex-soldiers I knew, but it was beyond them. I joined a few online forums to pick the brains of the military eggheads there, but had no luck. One person even emailed me with a friendly warning that I had to be careful about asking questions like this online, as they might come to the attention of shadowy outfits monitoring the web for signs of terrorist activity.

In the end, I decided it didn’t matter. If detailed information about a particular weapons system was so secret that only the manufacturers and their military sponsors were aware of it, then I could safely speculate about the nuts and bolts in my book without worrying about looking sloppy in my research to the average reader. This works as a general principle for writers of fiction, I think: do your research, but don’t be so terrified you might get a few details wrong that it takes your focus away from writing a good story.

Oh, and if anyone reading this is an insider in the armed forces or intelligence services of a certain Middle Eastern country and decides to read my novel, I’d welcome your feedback and corrections. With not a little trepidation, I should add.

The Ratcatcher


The police have Internal Affairs departments. 
British Intelligence has John Purkiss, the Ratcatcher.

Purkiss's job is straightforward. 
Track down agents of the intelligence services who are taking kickbacks, committing crimes and bring them to justice. Straightforward doesn't mean easy . . . 

After a renegade British former spymaster, Fallon, is sighted in the Baltic city of Tallinn on the eve of a historic summit meeting between the Russian and Estonian presidents, Purkiss is despatched to investigate, and uncovers a conspiracy that threatens to tear the world apart. 

But it's become personal--Fallon murdered Purkiss's fiancée. A murder that Purkiss witnessed.

As the countdown to a catastrophic conflict begins, Purkiss must keep his desire for revenge under control.

'RATCATCHER is both an adrenaline fuelled action adventure novel and a hardboiled mystery story which exposes the world of the spy, in which few motives and actions are purely black or white.'

Author Tim Stevens
Tim Stevens was born in London and grew up in Johannesburg. He lives in west Essex, England, with his wife and daughters, and works as a doctor in the National Health Service.
His début novel is the acclaimed thriller Ratcatcher, and both it and its sequel Delivering Caliban, featuring the return of John Purkiss, are available in all ebook formats. Severance Kill, a thriller without John Purkiss, was published in November 2012.
Tim Stevens's other publications are the espionage novella Reunion and novelette Snout, and his collections of macabre short stories, Woodborn: Six Tales Of Unease and Quarry: Six Tales Of Dread.

Tim Stevens’s blog is Dead Drop meet him there!


  1. Interesting insights there, Tim. I particularly like the concept of doubtful traitor sex ;-)

  2. Interesting to know how you went about your research Tim and your tale sounds most intriguing.

  3. Thanks for the comments, and I'm now the proud owner of a cheap NFL jersey.