'Better to Die' - some of the influences
So, now the novel, Better to Die, is finally out there, quite a few readers have been asking me what my influences have been. I must say, they’re pretty eclectic. As a kid, I thrived on the works of Captain W E Johns, whose granite-jawed, flying hero, Biggles, invariably overcame all challenges through an admirable combination of bravery, honesty and fair play. Although Biggles books are now aimed at children, it seems that Johns’ target audience shifted over time. In one early short story (The Baloonatics) the prize for capturing a German observation balloon transforms from being a case of Scotch whisky in the earliest version to one of lemonade later!
At about the same age (8-12), I also discovered the works of G A Henty, who wrote some boisterously exciting adventure stories in the 1880s. A particular favourite, passed down to me through the family, was Jack Archer, which centres on the adventures of two young Royal Navy midshipmen at the time of the Crimean War. Again, the emphasis is on bright-eyed young chaps of exemplary bravery and character. Unfortunately, my own ‘hero’, Jack Adair, doesn’t always manage to live up to such high moral principles!
More modern fiction has included Joe Abercrombie’s novels – especially The First Law military/fantasy trilogy, described by The Guardian as ‘delightfully twisted and evil’. Joe’s writing style – notably his use of dialogue – is absolutely compelling, and I wish I could write that well.
Of course, it’s all very well being influenced by fiction, but to achieve some level of realism, there as to be an intimate acquaintance with military life ‘on the ground’. Not surprisingly, having served as a career Army officer myself, a lot of the detail comes as second nature. Indeed, one former colleague described Better to Die as ‘your autobiographical novel’. Well, yes, I have had the dubious pleasure of being ambushed by the IRA (they missed!) and seeing bombs go off at close quarters – but I needed to draw on more than my own narrow perspective. To that end, it’s been really useful to dip into some contemporary memoirs and works of non-fiction.
The Operators, by Michael Hastings of Rolling Stone magazine, gives us a shocking, behind-the-scenes portrait of life at the highest levels of command during the war in Afghanistan. At the other extreme end of the scale is the classic, Bravo Two Zero, by Andy McNab, which tells the gripping story of an SAS patrol, led by a sergeant, during the first Gulf War. Of course, McNab sparked a veritable avalanche of SAS books in similar vein – both fiction and non-fiction. In fact, it now seems to be an unwritten rule that military action/thrillers have to have the SAS cap badge featured somewhere on the front cover. The success of the British TV series SAS: Who Dares Wins, which takes a bunch of civilian ‘victims’ and puts them through a mock-up of Special Forces’ selection for a week, has unleashed a new rush of related books. But, whereas before, the emphasis was on Special Forces troops as super heroes, it has now shifted to embrace human frailty, with descriptions of shattered childhoods, petty crime, prison sentences, alcoholism, broken marriages and PTSD. It may not always be heroic stuff, but it’s real, and that’s what I wanted to achieve with Better to Die – a touchstone with the heart of the British Army (as well, of course, as writing a rip-roaring adventure!).
Finally, I have to mention Bomb Hunters, which details the exploits of British Army bomb disposal teams in Afghanistan. Although I had, myself, been a ‘high threat’ counter-IED operator early in my career, the sheer bravery of these young men and women still struck me as astonishing.
So…those have been some of my influences. There are, of course, many, many more. But I hope you find they add to the depth and realism of my first novel Better to Die.