Matthew Dunn, author of A Soldier's Revenge, joins us to talk about his work as a spy for the British Secret Service and how that work informed his writing. We also have an excerpt of the book. This is his eighth novel.
Q: How did your work in the British Secret Intelligence Service (MI6) translate into the plot of A SOLDIER’S REVENGE?
MD: There’s increasingly excellent work being put into supporting our military special forces and other veterans when they leave service. Despite their amazing attributes, it’s so hard for our service men and women because what is there for them to do in the outside world? Yes, they have brilliant transferable skills and are great people but employers are understandably choosy. If they want a top welder, they will select someone who’s been welding for 15 years, not someone who knows how to blowtorch through a razor wire fence and kill the occupants of a jihadist compound. But ground is shifting and at last veterans are being given the attention they deserve. Many of them suffer mental health problems. We don’t owe them a living. But we do owe them tremendous respect and support.
Spies however are overlooked. We carry the very worst burden in our minds – that of operating in almost total isolation and with no trust around us. For spies, there is no battlefront and no return home. The secret world is always all around us. It consumes us.
A SOLDIER’S REVENGE is a spotlight on what a spy will do when everything is against him. I concede it’s a brutal story, but it’s how we spies think. When push comes to shove, we never ever trust anyone. And we react with absolute focus.
Q: Who is the soldier who wants revenge in this book and why do they deserve it?
MD: One of the soldiers is my main protagonist (former special forces French Foreign Legionnaire and American/British intelligence officer Will Cochrane). He is put in an awful situation, culminating in his revenge and redemption of sorts. But the term ‘soldier’ also refers to someone else. I need to be coy in who, given it is integral to the plot.
Q: Do you miss being a spy?
MD: All covert operatives say the same thing in response to that great question – we miss our pals. When people leave service, they go their separate ways, get married or whatever, turn their back on their previous life, and ultimately try to integrate into normal society. We have reunions but they are always weird affairs. We feel uncomfortable. We’re in suits in stuffy parts of London or D.C. And we’re acutely aware that we’d prefer to be hot landing into some God awful part of the world and doing what we were bred for. So, what we miss is the camaraderie surrounding who we once were.
But spying and all covert ops is a young man’s game. I’m a single parent of two kids. No way could I or would I go back to being a spy. It’s too dangerous and I have other responsibilities now. But I tell you this - though they were the most fraught years of my life, I would never turn the clock back and wish I’d never been a spy.
Q: What is the best thing that has happened to you as a result of your writing?
MD: Working with the greatest people I’ve ever worked with. That may sound trite and predictable but it’s not. It’s heartfelt. My editor David Highfill and his team at HarperCollins/William Morrow and my agent Luigi Bonomi are simply excellent people. We all love the written word and strive to get it out there. We have to bend with the wind, depending on latest market trends; and try to keep pace with what’s happening. We’re commercial in that respect. But ultimately we’re guys and girls who love opening a book and reading. For me, I feel in the company of soul mates.
Here's an excerpt from A Soldier's Revenge:
New York City, Waldorf Astoria Hotel, 8:03 a.m.
I opened my eyes to find my hands were caked in blood, and I had no idea why.
More blood stained the Egyptian cotton sheets on top of me. I swung my feet out of bed and onto the deep-pile cream carpet, hands motionless in midair. A nosebleed in the night was a possibility, though that hadn’t happened since I was ten years old. Thirty-five years ago. Urgently, I checked my body—all six foot four inches. Some of my scars were courtesy of my service as a paratrooper in the French Foreign Legion. Others from being an American and British spy. None of the scars were ruptured.
On my right arm was a tiny cut. Maybe I had scratched the area and broken skin while sleeping. It was the only laceration on my flesh, but that wouldn’t account for the quantity of blood.
A warm breeze came through the open windows and swirled around the room, which was furnished with art deco paintings, velvet drapes, upholstered furniture, and a television atop an oak cabinet crammed with fine wines and single malts. A corridor led to the closed bathroom door. The bedroom windows had been shut when I went to bed.
Nothing made sense.
The bathroom door had been open last night. Perhaps I’d stumbled in there half asleep to relieve myself, shutting the door on my way out. I didn’t know. But I was awake now and my mind had finally kicked into gear.
I opened the bathroom door and turned the light on.
The sight that greeted me was like a heavyweight punch to the face.
In the bathtub was a smartly dressed woman—short brown hair, Caucasian. She’d been shot twice in the back of the head at close range with bullets that were sufficiently powerful to leave savage exit wounds.
Her face was an obliterated mess. Within the confines of the tub, her limbs were contorted, her body twisted, the result of a sudden jerk of movement during instant death.
I stayed still, silent, because I’d had too much experience of death to express my emotions. But internally, adrenaline and panic were kicking in big-time.
I looked everywhere for something to tell me what had happened.
Judging by her attire, the woman could have been one of the hotel’s hundreds of wealthy guests or numerous management staff. One of her hands was resting on the side of the tub. She wasn’t wearing wedding and engagement rings, but normally did. Neither had previously been taken off for some time, judging by the buildup of fat around the place where they should have been. They were gone now.
On the floor beneath her hand was an MK23 pistol with a sound suppressor attached. It was a weapon used by specialists. It’s a good gun—zero recoil. Why was it there? Who had left it there? The woman had bruises on her wrists, and one shoe heel was broken off. It was clear to me that she’d futilely fought before death and was placed here while alive, held down, and shot dead. How could I have slept through this? Had I been drugged? This body had been killed and placed here for a reason.
To implicate me.
After washing the blood off my hands, I examined everything in the crime scene—little bottles of Ferragamo perfumed soap on the side of the bath, mostly unused, those open done so by me the night before; blood on walls, floor too, and underneath the woman’s fingernails.
A bloody handprint was on the wall of tile. I held my hand against it and saw its shape and size exactly matched my own. Next to it were five red fingerprints. I dashed into the bedroom, opened my pen, and poured ink into a cup. After dipping one set of fingers into the ink, I pressed them against a sheet of hotel paper. In the bathroom, I held the sheet next to the fingerprints on the wall. A perfect match. It was my fingerprints on that wall.
My life was ruined by the scene in the bathroom. Torn apart, turned to shit.
But ruined by me? I wondered if I’d gone insane. My recollection of how I’d spent the evening before might have been a deliberate false memory. I hadn’t spent a quiet night of solitary reflection in my hotel room, making plans for my future. Instead, perhaps I’d met the woman in the hotel bar and asked her up to my room to join me for a drink. And then? Then she said something that set me off. A naïve or sarcastic comment that triggered memories of past traumas. It wasn’t the woman’s fault; she was just in the wrong place at the wrong time. Regardless, my ordinarily superb moral compass was sent into a helter-skelter spin of confused anger and revenge against the person I’d become. After a life of protecting people and getting no thanks in return, I’d gotten pissed off by something the woman in the bathtub had said. Maybe I shot her. Simple as that.
That would make me a good man turned crazed lunatic. A person pushed over the edge. A man who needed to be put behind bars forever, while receiving treatment for a brain that was firing on the wrong cylinders. The death penalty might be a better way out.
I picked up the pistol, checked its magazine, pulled back the workings, and sniffed the barrel. At least one bullet had recently exited the handgun. Eight bullets remained in the gun. I hadn’t smuggled a pistol into America. This was not my weapon.
I had to hand myself in to the police. I would tell them I didn’t think I’d killed the woman, and certainly had no recollection of doing so, but there was every possibility that I was a lying madman. The chances that I would be found not guilty were slim to nonexistent. Detectives would probe into my background and would get just enough information on my exploits to conclude that their prisoner was a man who’d been instructed to kill far too many times. Motive: acute mental disorder brought about by cumulative traumas. Victim: a random member of the human race. And while I was investigated, I’d be kept in a cage with no chance to establish the truth.
Thing was, though, I knew my own mind.
I kill people who need to be killed.
I didn’t shoot the woman.
I couldn’t trust the police to help me understand what had happened here. For them it would be a no-
brainer. I would be guilty as charged.
There was no one I could trust.
I needed to move quickly. After dressing in jeans, boots, T-shirt, sweater, and jacket, I grabbed only essential items and shoved them into a small backpack, together with the pistol. I removed my cell phone battery and smashed the phone into pieces, collecting all debris and dumping it into a shower cap. When far away from here, I’d dispose of the destroyed phone.
And getting away from here was now my absolute priority.
But I hesitated.
I touched the fresh cut on my arm as I looked at the woman’s bloody nails. She’d scratched me, I was sure. I put the tips of my fingers against hers. I knew I shouldn’t have done so, but I was convinced my DNA was already all over the scene. Almost certainly my prints were on the gun. I kept my hand against hers because I needed the faceless corpse to know that someone really cared about what had happened.
I hated leaving her.
The vast hotel lobby had a marble floor with potted plants and rows of golden pillars that were illuminated by huge crystal chandeliers. Numerous guests were checking in or out or heading to breakfast. It was a civilized place. I was innocent of what had happened in room 1944, but I felt like a guilty murderer. This wasn’t the place for me. Getting out of here was all that mattered.
The concierge glanced up from his computer, smiled, and walked from behind his desk directly toward me. He was carrying a clipboard and a small parcel.
He blocked my path, held up the parcel, and said, “This came for you in the early hours. Hand delivered. We were going to run it up to your room today. Still can, if you like. Or you can take it now.”
Nobody apart from hotel staff knew I was in the Waldorf. The parcel was a small cardboard box, though big enough to contain a bomb that would obliterate me. I wondered whether I should take the parcel far away from here and dump it in a deserted field. But somebody had dragged a woman into my room, shot her, and exited without killing me. He’d have killed me then if he wanted.
I opened the box.
Inside was a hardcover encyclopedia. I flicked though the first pages. Printed in 1924 by a publishing house I’d never heard of, almost certainly the book was long ago out of print. As I rifled through the book I came across the brief handwritten note.
The classifieds section of the Washington Post. Not available online; only print copies. Tomorrow’s edition.
“Just need you to sign for this.” The concierge handed me his clipboard and pen. “Hope you’re having a great day,” he added, his smile broadening.
I took the clipboard and wrote my name.