One of the pleasures of writing and reading fiction – and thrillers lend themselves to this rather well – is the weaving of fact and fiction. And a fact I happily weaved into the fictional world of Shake Off was that one of the few American fiction writers you could buy in English in the 1980s Soviet Union was Dashiell Hammett. This is not integral to the plot of the book, nor is it a particularly startling revelation, but it illustrates a mindset: the Soviets allowed Hammett to be sold in a Moscow bookshop because he was a communist (the Hollywood chapter of the Communist Party was founded in his house), although his flaky allegiance to the party might not have impressed them.
Another, perhaps less well-known fact, was that at the same time, although you could not buy John Le Carré novels in a Moscow bookshop, they were required reading by KGB trainees to get an insight into British Intelligence and its workings. I have a pleasing image of a Russian translator working away on his secret Le Carré translations. It must have been a coveted job: enjoying banned fiction under the legitimate cover of doing it for the good of the party.
Back to Hammett, though, and why I’m pleased to get a reference to a writer of hard-boiled detective fiction into a spy novel. When I left Beirut to return to London in early 1983 I had trouble adjusting to ‘normal’ life, with its distinct lack of air-raids, roadblocks and – Northern Ireland aside – sectarian killing. The world I had returned to was, to be honest, boring compared to the one I had left. It did, on the other hand, put the latter into unflattering perspective. To escape this cognitive dissonance I took refuge in books. I devoured everything I came across, high-brow, low-brow, I didn’t really care, as long as it was well and unpretentiously written. If it spoke to me in some way then I read it. After ploughing through some Russians (Dostoyevsky yes, Tolstoy no) I turned to the Americans, happening upon a rich vein of crime fiction. I tapped it relentlessly. Starting with Raymond Chandler, I moved to Hammett, Jim Thompson and Ross Macdonald – and more recently to George Pelecanos, Lawrence Block, James Ellroy and Elmore Leonard. Perhaps what attracted me to these stories, apart from the pure escapism, was the inherent struggle to right wrongs. A struggle of flawed (read human) characters amongst which the (often but not always) lone detective (i.e. the reader) attempts to mete out some sort of rough justice – a justice frequently absent in real life. I don’t want to overdo the analysis, but the attraction for me then was clear, and it is no exaggeration to say that these books helped me through a difficult time of adjustment. It is also fair to say that a lot of this early reading rubbed off in terms of developing a no-nonsense writing style.
My reading taste has meandered and broadened since then, but I’ll always have a soft spot for hard-boiled crime fiction – indeed within its form you’ll find some of the best-written books you can read (a fact lost on genre snobs).
Eventually I managed to fictionalise some unpleasant events in Beirut into my first novel – not a crime novel, but a novel about a big crime – before deciding to move on to something with wider appeal set against the tribulations of the Middle East. But how to turn this topic into something palatable that would avoid the cliché and makes readers want to turn the page?
To my mind the thriller form is most appealing when it has a political backdrop (I’m a sucker for political thriller films) and I wanted to write something from a unique point of view: a foot soldier in the spy chain – not someone moving chess pieces, but someone who is a chess piece, and a lowly one at that. What’s more, let his unlikely spymaster be the Palestine Liberation Organization. So I took an unsophisticated refugee-camp kid who had been orphaned in the events of my first book and moved him, like a fish out of water, to the west, drawing a little on my own initial alienation upon returning to the UK. And, with a little serendipity and much research, Shake Off was formed. Thanks Dash, and welcome to my world.
Mischa Hiller is a winner of the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize in the Best First Book Category for South Asia & Europe. Raised in London, Beirut, and Dar El Salaam, Hiller lives in Cambridge, England.
Hiller’s acclaimed, first thriller SHAKE OFF has been called “deadly, poignant, and powerful” (The Economist),”Smart and tense and real enough to be scary” (David Morrell), and “A spy thriller of the highest class” (Charles Cumming). Mulholland Books will publish SHAKE OFF in August 2012.
Visit Mischa at www.mischahiller.com.