The Momentum Blog

Interpol Confidential: What happens when a former Interpol staffer turns to satire

Posted February 15, 2016 by Momentum

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The he first question people are asking me is why would a thriller writer with three solid successes under his belt and a growing reputation decide to switch to satire? Well, it’s not just any old satire. It’s a satire about Interpol, so it’s still very much in the world of police and crime fighting and deception and double-crosses. So I guess it’s not all that far removed from the sort of world where my Frank Delaney character operates in the thrillers, really. And remember that because this is a satire about Interpol, just the name, the very word Interpol, breathes intrigue and mystery.

In fact I referred a fair bit to Interpol in my last thriller and had a couple of Interpol characters in that one, The Tsunami File, so I could see clearly the potential for stories and characters drawn from Interpol. But because I worked at Interpol myself, and was so immersed in that organisation, I just thought that in a number of ways the best way to tell the Interpol story was through satire. After my experiences there I wanted to give a sense of the craziness of it all, the intensity of the way that place works, and all major police organizations, really, the way they do crucially important work but get caught up too in personalities and politics and ambition and, not to put too fine a point on it, straight-out human craziness.

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I suppose in a way this could have been a satire about the FBI or the NYPD or Scotland Yard, just as easily. It just happens that I worked at Interpol after I left journalism, that’s what I knew for a while and I wanted to have some fun with it. The thrillers published by Momentum are what I want to do, of course, they’re my main interest as a writer, and there’s a fourth one in the series underway, but as a breather I wanted to explore the absurd side of police work and, really, of any big organisation, police or otherwise.

People ask me how much of this book is based on real events. Well, any writer, whether a satirist or a thriller writer or a writer in any genre, bases his or her stories on experiences and situations and characters they have encountered along the way. But we build on those and mould them and change them to suit the story we want to tell. And if it’s a humorous story, then of course you can go even further and really pump it up.

But it’s stuff that anyone who’s worked in a bureaucracy can tell you about, and maybe more, I’d say, anyone who has worked in a big police bureaucracy. And, yes, some characters display some of the traits of people I’ve met or worked with, and not just at Interpol. In newsrooms when I worked as a journalist. In universities, when I was teaching. There are strange, idiosyncratic, flawed, amusing people, and therefore potential fictional characters, everywhere for the taking.

And the character of the Interpol Secretary General. Who inspired that guy? There are some people saying he very, very like the disgraced former head of the International Monetary Fund, Dominique Strauss-Kahn. Really ambitious, flawed, a schemer, a philanderer. And from a French bureaucracy background. Sounds an awful lot like my Didier Herriot-Dupont character, right down to the double-barrelled last name. Right?

Well, here’s what I have to say about that. I’ve never had the pleasure of meeting Mr Strauss-Kahn. I wouldn’t have the faintest idea what people talking about! “Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental”. That’s what it says at the front of my book. Right?

I want people to remember, though, even though I’ve had a lot of fun with this new book that Interpol a serious organisation, despite the fun I’m poking at it. These days, in an increasingly interconnected world, especially in the world of police and intelligence and security work, you absolutely need an organisation like Interpol. Absolutely. And there are some exceptionally good police officers working at that headquarters building in France, really fine police from all over the world doing important work.

But is everyone like that? Are there no problems and failures and mix-ups and messes? Are there no strange or inept people in there? Of course that’s impossible. Just as it’s impossible in any big organisation, police or not police. It always gets down to people, and people screw up, they get themselves into trouble, they try to hide their mistakes, and all this is a wonderful bed for satire.

I hope people will finish the book feeling they’ve had a peek inside Interpol. But taking a peek inside any police organisation, even any local police station, will have its funny side. So I tell at least a part of the Interpol story, but I do it through humour and a lot of made-up stuff. I had a lot of fun writing it, I really let myself go. I hope people will have fun reading it.

But now it’s back to writing thrillers. My Frank Delaney character is itching to get back in the game.

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Why I Love John Wick, aka The Theory of Unorthodox Motivation In Heroes

Posted March 17, 2015 by Momentum

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Charles Purcell joins us on the blog today to talk about the hero’s journey:


According to the well-known theory of The Hero’s Journey, there are several steps each hero takes during any quest. They include the call to adventure; facing guardians; battling challenges and temptations; diving into a personal or very real hell or abyss; being transformed by the experience; and returning as a newer, more powerful hero.
The first of those steps is perhaps the most important: the call to adventure. As in, why has the hero or heroine embarked on their epic quest? What gets them out of bed to don their armour, sheath their sword, power up their laser or get their metaphorical Millennium Falcon out of the Mos Eisley hangar in the first place?

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It is this question of motivation that most intrigued me while watching Keanu Reeve’s last effort, John Wick. Described as one of the best action films of 2014, it’s a welcome return to form for Reeves, a pacy shoot-’em-up that reminds me of the excitement and vigour of the first Taken movie. The shooting scenes are particularly interesting as Wick takes down Russian Mafiosko close up, almost using his pistol as a third hand or extra fist.
Yet what stuck out in my mind was Wick’s motivation for bring the pain: the Russian mafia killed his dog. Or rather, they killed the dog that was the last gift from his late wife. But still … it’s all about the dog, whose collar Wick keeps on his bedstand as a reminder to keep his rage fresh. Several Russians can’t believe that Wick would go postal over a pooch. After all, who goes all Rambo over a dog?

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But it’s a welcome twist from the usual tired themes of revenge movies. The “they killed/kidnapped his wife and family … and now it’s personal” gambit has been played out in everything from Taken to Commando. It might have seemed fresh in 1986’s The Princess Bride  – “Hello, my name is Inigo Montoya. You killed my father. Prepare to die” – but now it’s old, familiar terrain.
So … we all know how the hero’s journey will go. What keeps us engaged and interested are the twists and tweaks on the content of the journey and the motivation of the hero.
It’s the twists on the how and why that keep us coming back.

Maybe that’s why I’m the only person I know who enjoyed National Lampoon’s Loaded Weapon 1. Emilio Estevez stars as a parody of Mel Gibson’s character from the Lethal Weapon movies, a psychotic, burnt-out cop who grieves for the loss of his pet dog Claire. His motivation is rage at the world for taking Claire away from him – and then more rage when he realises that she is still alive.
Again … it’s all about the dog.
Incidentally, pooches seem a popular theme for alt-revenge: the theft of a gang boss’s beloved Shih Tzu is also the inciting incited for Martin McDonagh’s clever comedy Seven Psychopaths.

The eponymous hero from my own novel The Spartan is also motivated by unusual beliefs and desires: namely, the belief system of the ancient warriors of Sparta. How one maintains those beliefs while serving as a special forces soldier in modern America – a hedonistic, “Athenian” paradise far removed from the harsh world of 500BC – is the crux of his personal battle. (No dogs are featured, though. Just lots of mobsters, rogue special forces soldiers and elite Chicom assassins.)
I’d like to see a lot more movies in the John Wick vein.  I’d like to see a revenge fantasy based on a burnt-out Italian hitman taking revenge on the Russian mob for a bad customer rating on eBay. I’d pay good money to see gunmen battle it out over a stolen parking space. I’d book early online to see a psychopathic version ofSideways where snobs go at each other hammer and tongs because someone brought merlot to dinner. I’d definitely tape a movie called Revenge For Flipper … and at least watch the first 10 minutes of The Artisanal Bread Massacre.

Missing cats, neglected goldfish, overgrown hedges, crude personal graffiti on toilet walls, disses on Facebook, poor service in stores and social exclusion in high school now writ large in the adult mind are all real-world fodder for alt-revenge … providing said revenge is exacted on tough, demanding, armed foes and not, say, innocent teen fry cooks.
Perhaps a gun-toting gluten-intolerant could take their intolerance out on the gluten-loving world at large in some bizarre remake of Falling Down (“at first he was gluten intolerant … now he can’t tolerate anything”). Perhaps a $10,000 Apple Watch could be the McGuffin in the suitcase in Pulp Fiction II, the item avaricious gangsters fight and die over. Maybe pimped-out grocery carts could be transformed into Mad Max-style battle vehicles as the apocalypse comes to the frozen food section of your local grocery store (“Everyone is checking out on aisle nine in Store Wars: Episode III”).
I await Hollywood’s best efforts.


My ebook military thriller, The Spartan, is now available.

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Time Travel and the Problem of Paradoxes

Posted October 21, 2014 by Momentum

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Graham Storrs joins us on the blog to discuss all things TIME TRAVEL.

“Paradox is the poisonous flower of quietism, the iridescent surface of the rotting mind, the greatest depravity of all.”  – Thomas Mann

What, you’re not a quietist? Never mind, we’ll come back to that.

As a writer of time travel novels, I spend a lot of time with paradox. It has become a friend. A shabby, disagreeable friend, I have to say, but one for whom I have an inordinate fondness. There are two ways of looking at paradox. Either it is a hideous monster of purest logic that prevents all possibility of time travel, or it is a sly creature of silken charm that whispers in the writer’s ear, urging creative trickery to make that story possible.

To be clear where I stand on the physics, let me just say that time doesn’t really work the way story-writers want it to. We don’t really travel in time. We travel in spacetime. Yes, you can describe space as a dimension something like the spatial dimensions to get a geometrical description of spacetime and, yes, it does seem as if you can move (in one direction) along that dimension at different rates. But consider this, if time is slowed in the vicinity of massive objects (which it is – ask Einstein), why does the Earth (a much smaller mass) not race ahead of the Sun in time, eventually leaving it far behind?

Time, as it affects us, is something like the ticking of a clock that can be different in each “inertial frame” (you’ll have to Google that one). If a spaceship moves past you at near the speed of light, the ticking of its clock seems slower than your own. If a suitably cooled and shielded man stands on the surface of the Sun, his clock also ticks relatively slower than yours. There’s a sense in which time is merely the rate at which events can unfold in your local spacetime. You can manipulate that rate by moving at different speeds or moving between different strength gravitational fields but, as far as we know, you can’t reverse it or even stop it, just slow it by applying unimaginable amounts of energy. You can maybe cut corners by moving through wormholes from one spacetime location to another by a route that is shorter than would be available in normal space, and that’s sort of like time travel, but not really.

There is a sense in which time travel, as we conceive it in science fiction, where we physically leave the present and reappear in the past or the future, would require jumping outside of time itself, jumping outside the Universe we know. If that is possible, no-one has ever worked out how. To a physicist, it probably just sounds silly. Yet that is the premise behind every single time travel story ever written (except for the Rip van Winkle and time dilation types).

As if this wasn’t argument enough against time travel, it’s very easy to conclude it is impossible just by looking at paradoxes. If I were able to travel back in time and shoot myself yesterday, I wouldn’t be alive today to travel back in time and shoot myself. Paradox! Most physicists conclude that this kind of paradox (known as the grandfather paradox) is sufficient reason to believe that we cannot travel back in time. The “many worlds” interpretation of quantum mechanics is a get-out-of-jail-free card for the grandfather paradox, since it allows a whole new Universe to be created whenever you go back and shoot yourself. So your own timeline is preserved and the one with you dead instead of alive is simply unfolding in parallel. The paradox is avoided but it’s an unsatisfactory kind of time travel if you ask me.

Paradoxes really are the spanner in the works for time travel. They don’t only happen for backwards travel, they also work if you travel into the future. Imagine you go forwards twenty years, meet your own sixteen-year-old child and immediately shoot yourself. You never went back and conceived the child. It’s a paradox!

You might have noticed that what all these paradoxes actually rule out is backwards time travel, not forwards time travel (in the previous example, the paradox arises because you can’t go back). And that makes sense, of course, because we are all, at this very moment, travelling forwards in time. If we went on a near-light-speed trip, or stood near the event horizon of a black hole, or had ourselves cooled to a fraction above absolute zero, we could slow down the rate at which time passes for us (our own local clock would run slower) and we would effectively zoom off into the future relative to everyone else. So going faster into the future is also possible. But note that you never leave the “present” for all the observers around you. They can still track your spaceship with radar, or monitor you on that event horizon, or watch you in your cryogenic chamber.

The time traveller who disappears from the present, goes to the future or the past, and then comes back, does seem to be a complete fiction. The physics of the real world, plus the logic of paradoxes seem to rule out such a thing. And yet time travel story writers from H G Wells onwards have imagined it just like that.

I’ve done it myself – knowing all that I know about the physics – because time travel stories are just so incredibly fascinating. However, in my own work, I have striven to remove the paradoxes and allowed myself the luxury of inventing new physics. The logic of paradoxes is a much more rigid barrier to creativity than the physics of reality. We can always imagine a future world in which what we think we now know about relativity or quantum theory is augmented or supplanted by a new understanding. But the logic of paradoxes does not depend on the science. It is eternal and unbending. You just cannot get around it.

So I used a version of time travel in one novel where you can jump around in time but there is only one, immutable timeline and your jumping around is already part of it. This is known as the Novikov self-consistency principle. Thus, if you go back and try to shoot yourself yesterday, you’ll miss, or the gun will backfire, or whatever. Something will always happen to prevent it. Why? Because that’s what must have happened in order for you to be alive the next day to go back in time!

In the Timesplash novels I used a different trick. My time travellers can go backwards in time and they can cause anomalies to their hearts’ content but the Universe can only be bent out of shape temporarily. It quickly springs back into it’s original form and spits out the time travellers like the irritants they are. So the past goes back to how it always was. No paradoxes, guaranteed. However – and this is what gives the books their dramatic interest – the disturbance caused, if it’s big enough, flows through to the present and causes massive acausal weirdness. It’s like a major acid trip but played out in the real world, not just someone’s mind, and it can be enough to topple buildings and kill people. But if you like chaos and the trippy effects of seeing causality completely messed up, jumping back in time is a great way to get people off and fuel the best underground parties ever.

Oh yes, and the quietists? They’re group of philosophers who think that by describing problems in a way that makes the misguided reasoning they’re based on apparent, they will put an end to all confusion, and set us on the path to intellectual quietude. And they really don’t like paradoxes. But then, who does? Maybe they should spend a bit more effort on clarifying the problem of time travel.

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Great opening lines from thrillers

Posted February 10, 2014 by Mark

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We’ve done science fiction, fantasy and horror novels. Now, we turn our attention to some great opening lines from thrillers. Feel free to add your own suggestions in the comments!

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“I was arrested at Eno’s diner.”Killing Floor by Lee Child

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“The truth is, if old Major Dover hadn’t dropped dead at Taunton races Jim never would have come to Thursgood’s at all.”Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy by John LeCarre

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“Her stomach clutched at the sight of the water tower hovering above the still, bare trees, a spaceship come to earth.”What the Dead Know by Laura Lippman

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“Behavioural science, the FBI section that deals with serial murder, is on the bottom floor of the Academy building at Quantico, half-buried in the earth.”The Silence of the Lambs by Thomas Harris

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“When I think of my wife, I always think of her head. The shape of it, to begin with. The very first time I ever saw her, it was the back of her head I saw, and there was something lovely about it, the angles of it. Like a shiny, hard corn kernel, or a riverbed fossil. She had what the Victorians would call a finely shaped head. You could imagine the skull quite easily.”Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn

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“The scent and smoke and sweat of a casino are nauseating at three in the morning.”Casino Royale by Ian Fleming

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“Johnny Merton was playing with me, and we both knew it. It was a fun game for him. He was doing endless years for crimes ranging from murder and extortion to excessive litigation. He had a lot of time on his hands.”Hardball by Sara Paretsky

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“She lay on her back fastened by leather straps to a bed with a steel frame.”The Girl Who Played with Fire by Stieg Larsson

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“Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again.”Rebecca by Daphne Du Maurier

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“Since Maria had decided to die her cat would have to fend for itself.”Child 44 Tom Rob Smith

 

 

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Gravity and the tradition of space films

Posted October 9, 2013 by Craig Hildebrand-Burke

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Films set in space have always been about more than just, well, space.

With the release and subsequent success of Gravity, it’s worth considering the tradition that the film finds itself a part of, a tradition that an audience may only be semi-conscious of during the 90 minutes of Alfonso Cuaron’s story.

There are subtle homages to films of Space Cinema Past dotted throughout Gravity, but there’s three that I feel are worth exploring as the archetypes of all modern films set in space.

In doing so, it’s possible to get an idea of just how dense Gravity is, how lofty Cuaron’s ambitions are despite the film’s ridiculously lean run-time, and that on the surface its narrative is quite straightforward and singleminded, in comparison to those below.

Also, while we’re in space, here be SPOILERS.

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1. Space as nightmare – Alien

Probably the most used and abused style of space film, it really hasn’t been surpassed by Ridley Scott’s Jaws-in-space. The alien to me is the manifestation of all of our nightmares about space: cold, dark, unspeakably unnatural, and in every direction it leads to death. The creature itself is slithering, dripping, screaming mortality.

There is nothing so horror as the alien in Gravity, but where it really evokes the idea of space as a nightmare is in the fragility of our lives in space. The Nostromo spaceship in Alien is a hulking, clunking piece of machinery, held together as much by the will of its crew as it is the advancement of our technology. So too are the shuttles and space stations of Gravity – essentially drifting coffins of technology, foolishly pretending that they can sustain life when there is nothing but death all around.

To live in space is unnatural, a fallacy, and Gravity shows us that a film doesn’t need rows of hyper-extending teeth to make our nightmares real.

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2. Space as psychology – Solaris

I’m using Andrei Tarkovsky’s version here for reference. Solaris uses the isolation of space travel as means of exploring a character’s innermost psychology. The act of stripping the person from their normal terrestrial lives, jettisoning them from civilisation, allows a film to explore what makes a person human, and explores their desires, their failures, the essential keys to their humanity.

Gravity takes a far less ethereal and cerebral approach than Tarkovsky did in Solaris, but the journey of Sandra Bullock’s Dr. Ryan Stone is one that reflects the tradition best exemplified in the earlier film. Her physical travel in space is complemented by her psychological quest, one that is only possible in the quiet of space, in the remoteness of it, in the ability to lose all the paraphernalia of life and see the core of our existence exposed.

At its core, at its most pure, Gravity brings existence down to its essence: breathing. Every inhalation, every exhalation, they’re all felt during the 90 minutes – you feel them counting up, you feel them running out. And this is without even considering the visual rebirth of Stone, complete with umbilical cord and amniotic buoyancy: a space embryo.

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3. Space as humanity’s past, present, future – 2001: A Space Odyssey

Easily the most influential and the most highly regarded of all space films. Kubrick’s magnum opus has after shocks of influence in just about every scene set in space ever filmed. I won’t try to condense the thematic concerns of 2001 into a short paragraph, but it’s the exploration of our past, our present and our future as a life form that I think is worth addressing as a major element of Gravity.

Kubrick’s film covers vastly different landscapes, vastly different spacescapes, and covers almost an infinite amount of years in its 142 minutes. Cuaron’s only takes 90 minutes and one major setting to cover what is only a few hours in the life of its main character. The scope could not be more different on the surface, and yet to me they are remarkably similar.

Kubrick was interested in the unity of life, in the unison between our origins and our endings, between the lifeless matter of space and the organisms that flourish on earth. And in between, the joy and sadness, the love and cruelty, the full spectrum of emotional existence that we have. It’s huge.

Cuaron is, as mentioned, far leaner yet I think aims for the same unity of vision. The ending of the film is so primeval it is primordial, taking us from the heights of advancement and technological mastery to the origins of it all. To really see this, it’s worth considering the title. If anything, Cuaron is drawing attention to the one thing the film lacks: gravity. It is an exploration of what happens to us without gravity, what happens to us in space.

The film is a question about life, its meaning and purpose, and about what a miracle existence actually is. To rise about the nightmare, to explore who we are and where we come from, and then what our ultimate purpose is.

It is, like so many space films, more than just a film set in space.

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