Friday, October 01, 2010

Buckle Up for “Bolt”

Rap Sheet readers already know about my fascination with conspiracy thrillers. Well, a little while back I heard that Nick Sayers, the publishing director of Britain’s Hodder & Stoughton, had picked up an interesting-sounding debut novel called Bolt Action. It was part of a two-book deal with a UK-born, Fiji-reared scribe named Charlie Charters. I was curious about the novel’s tense plot, which incorporates international espionage, Muslim militants, counter-terrorism efforts, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and a thrilling jet-hijacking scenario. But, of course, many authors have built their tales around terrorism and war in the last few years, so I remained wary that cliché might only be a reveille away. What finally won me over was this short précis of Charters’ storytelling trajectory:
Set on a plane--where, since the 9/11 attacks, the door between the cockpit and the cabin must be locked--Bolt Action tells the story of what happens when the pilot and crew have all been poisoned.
Despite a maddening workload, I recently tore through this just-released novel, in the process acquiring a damned paper cut, so fast was I turning the pages. Nick Sayers was right to call Bolt Action “a high-octane thriller with terrific military and spycraft background and a ... nail-biting climax.”

Like all of the best modern thrillers, Bolt Action hinges on a simple premise, in this case the post-9/11 requirement that cockpits on commercial airliners be locked to prevent any attacks by rogue passengers. In Charters’ yarn, an Al-Qaeda-linked steward cons his way into the cockpit of a Boeing jet bound for the U.S. mainland, and dispenses poisoned drinks to members of the flight crew, all of whom die. The steward then bolts the cockpit door shut and resets the combination, so nobody else can follow him in.

This tale alternates between the high drama in the air and that on the ground as the politics of war and terror play out on the broadest of canvases. Charters introduces into his narrative a maverick band of British ex-soldiers, including eye-catching Captain Tristie Merritt and her subordinate, the wonderfully named Whiffler. And the author uses humor effectively in describing the frantic machinations that lie behind this airliner-in-distress tale. The situation is nowhere so simple as the locked-room theme premise, because back on the ground, the CIA and MI5, together with politicians and the press, contemplate the unthinkable: mounting a military response to the incoming jet.

Demonstrating a deep understanding of military politics, Charters has created a rectum-clenching tale that speeds along almost as fast as the jet of its focus. He hits all the techno-thriller conventions, but also delivers characters of uncommon complexity, not the cardboard variety so often seen in such books. Charters’ debut is one of the most assured I’ve ever read in a long while, and I eagerly await his future storytelling.

Shortly after closing the covers of Bolt Action, I contacted delightful Hodder & Stoughton publicist Kerry Hood (who had organized my short but memorable meeting with Stephen King back in 2006). She put me in touch with Charlie Charters straightaway. He, in turn, kindly agreed to provide Rap Sheet readers with the following insights into how he’d pushed his first book into print:
My story starts with what is probably the lousiest book pitch of all time.

The date is February 2008 and I’m in a pub in Fulham with my agent, trying to explain the winning premise of my next book.

Despite three swift pints of cider, I’m rattling with nerves as I get myself ready for the Big Pitch. Everything he needs to know about why this book is The One That Will Get Published. As opposed to The Previous Two Books That Were Rejected By All and Sundry.

What should be flowing effortlessly from me is something like this: there’s a vengeful Pakistani general who unleashes a mid-air hijacking on a New York-bound passenger jet, the simplicity and cunning of which the world has never seen. Mixed up in all of this are a group of ex-para[trooper]s led by a female former Army officer who are running from the very British government they have been holding to ransom in order to improve the lot of veterans and their families.

Die Hard meets Tom Clancy’s Executive Orders with a sprinkling of Seven Samurai and The A-Team, or words to that effect.

Instead of which I am stalling, staring into the crisp bubbles of cider rising effortlessly to the surface of my drink, my eyes locked rigid on the wonderful effervescence. My agent waits patiently ... what are the right words here? Where do I start? What is the killer pitch?

All afternoon I’ve felt the tension rising within me, measured in a sickly breathlessness, to a point now that I’m quite literally brittle with anxiety. Then suddenly it happens. I feel something go rising deep inside of me, and I’m beginning to unravel.

I do something I have never done in my life before, I mean never, being an ex-rugby player, six-foot-seven and all. For no obvious reason and in public, I burst into tears.

And no matter how hard I try, the same thing happens again and again. I just can’t seem to explain myself without tearing up. There is something buried deep in this book that opens a trapdoor for me.

I do know the trigger for this. And at this point, you need to have a bit of background.

I am not military, not even remotely, but have a number of friends who have served or continue to. Also, coming from Fiji (there are about 3,000 Fijians in the British forces) and living in the UK, I have family and extended family in the Army who regularly come to visit. Through this spider’s web of contacts, I was hearing stories of troops not being properly equipped and, if injured, being effectively discarded by the Ministry of Defence [MoD] with a derisory sliding-scale of compensation (Google Ben Parkinson, if in any doubt).

By 2007, when I was casting around for ideas for a new book, Iraq was a short-term military success that had morphed into a political and civilian disaster ... and, only a year on from British troops being committed to Helmand province, it appeared Afghanistan was following the same script. Whether you supported one or both of the interventions, or neither, it was clear the British Army would be seeing more deaths and casualties, rather than less.

The politicians, senior Army officers, and MoD worked hard at being reassuringly upbeat.

But, in one of those Great Teachable Moments, like the run on the bank that happened the moment the government said Northern Rock was safe, the public just didn’t believe. Their response was, If these aren’t bare-faced lies we’re being told, they’re certainly half-truths. And from this flowed many spontaneous and original outbreaks of civic action--from the creation of Help for Heroes to the emotional scenes at Wooton Bassett.

My book,
Bolt Action, was born of those times, when right-thinking people could see the injustice being visited on the soldiers, but the soldiers themselves, locked into a top-down command structure, were powerless to speak out.

So I wrote
Bolt Action to try to give voice to those soldiers, quoting at length from the Military Covenant that sets out the moral code that is supposed to ensure the armed forces are fairly treated.

My sense of anger had been sharpened by a wonderful documentary series called
Guarding the Queen, in which the filmmakers had access to one of the companies in the Household Division of the Grenadier Guards. A particularly powerful sequence [showed] the young man who the filmmakers followed through basic training at Catterick and then to his first posting at Wellington Barracks in London.

To the lad’s great embarrassment, his mum spoke movingly on his account, genuinely saddened by the upbringing she had not been able to provide for her boy. It was clear she’d fallen in with some bad men, and that her poor choices had put her children in harm’s way. It had been up to the son to protect Mum, and to effectively raise his little sister too. He had clearly seen things, done things in his young life, to protect his family that had shamed his mother. Becoming a soldier, a Guardsmen, was a great moment of redemption.

In my research this soldier’s tale bears out an almost universal truth about the Army, that they recruit from poverty. That the reason many of the country’s best soldiers (but not all, of course) take so well to the strictures and discipline of military life is because their own young lives have been dysfunctional, by some measure or another.

And that is the premise or motivation, that betrayal of the Armed Forces, that helps explain why a female Army officer called Tristie Merritt is able to recruit six former paras and form them into a group she calls Ward 13--after an infamous psychiatric unit at a military hospital in Woolwich.

This was the reason for my becoming so tearful as I tried to talk: that out there, far beyond the coziness of a Fulham pub, soldiers were returning home in caskets or on stretchers. They were not the sort of people to make a whining fuss, or gum up the courts with lawsuits. These were honorable people looking to their higher-ups to honor their end of the so-called Military Covenant ... and in a totally dishonorable way, this was not happening.

It made me angry then, and it makes me angry today. And for one night in Fulham, trying to explain myself to my agent, it also made me feel so humbled, and damn grateful too, that they were on our side. That was when I knew I had to write this book, and that this definitely this was The One That Will Get Published.
With its velocious pace, magnetic players, and intriguing explorations of military tradecraft, Bolt Action looks destined to find a place on Best Thriller of the Year shortlists. It’s also likely to be tapped for film adaptation soon. But don’t wait for the movie. This book is one hell of a thrill ride. Grab a seat before they’re all taken.

(Author photo © 2010 Charlie Charters)


Winifred said...

What a great bloke. Know exactly how he feels. Just wish I could have written something like that. It's on my list to read.

Kiwicraig said...

Oooh... this was amongst a big pile of books I've received for review in the past fortnight, and to be honest I hadn't paid any particular attention to it yet.

You've intrigued me though, and now it will be jumping right up the TBR pile. Might even start it tonight.

Thanks for the heads-up.

dick adler said...

I'd buy this in a minute with my own money if I don't get a review copy.