I write spy thrillers set during the Cold War, and as a result there’s a certain expectation that they will feature exotic deaths. I think this is partly due to the James Bond films, in which characters are fed to piranhas, burned alive or sucked out of airplanes, and partly to some of the real methods of assassination developed by intelligence agencies during that era. Last year, I wrote an article for The Times listing my top 10 real-life spy gadgets, and included a CIA dart gun and the exploding briefcase developed by British boffins during World War Two. But none of these appear in my novels.
It’s hard to write an exotic death once the KGB has assassinated someone with a ricin-tipped umbrella. Many spy novelists have tried, of course, but the danger is that you come across as a spoof. Plus, the Bond films have used up most of the good methods. So instead I tend to kill characters off fairly conventionally, but try to make things more interesting through setting. So my first novel, Free Agent, culminates with an assassination in a Red Cross clinic during the Biafran War. My second, Free Country, which will be published in 2010, features deaths in London’s Smithfield meat market (following a fight with some electric saws, of course), in an installation in the Galleria Nazionale d’Arte Moderna in Rome and even one on top of St Peter’s basilica.
In fact, the latter is probably the most exotic way I’ve killed a character: my protagonist, British agent Paul Dark, is chased down the dome by several villains, and ends up killing one of them. I suppose I won’t surprise anyone who knows thriller-writers that we can be a sick bunch: I had a great time planning the scene on a research trip to Rome. While all the other tourists were photographing the views of the Eternal City and the statues of the Apostles, I was clicking away to get the angles of some railings and grinning at the fact that they looked perfect for what I had in mind. No piranhas or lasers, sorry, but this is as exotic as I get:
‘He stood to his full length and his mouth formed a grim smile: he thought he had me. He was grasping something in his hand, and it glittered momentarily in the sun. It had a long, thin blade: a stiletto knife?… He saw his chance and leapt forward, pushing me further down the roof and towards the line of railings that enclosed the flight of stairs. As he jerked the knife down, I threw my arms up and grabbed hold of his wrist, managing to stop the blade a few inches from my neck. He grunted, his mouth clamped shut and a hissing noise emanating from his nostrils, and the blade moved closer. I pushed back against him with every sinew and fibre, but I knew that I could only hold out for another second or two at the most…
There was a blur of movement and his free hand came round in a tight fist, aiming low, and I recognized the old commando move and made to counter it with my forearm. I caught it just in time, but in the meantime the blade continued its descent. I pushed back again. Beads of sweat dripped into my eyes, stinging them, and I tried to blink them away, to no avail. He grunted again, and as the blade dropped another fraction of an inch I prepared myself for it to pierce into me.
But then I realized with a flash of intuition what I had to do, and I abruptly relaxed my grip and jerked my head away sharply at the same moment, and the surprise and momentum were too much for him to correct and as his arm came down he lost his balance and the whole upper half of his body tipped over with it, and then I was looking down at the cluster of railing spikes emerging through the top of his head, the tips covered in some dark slimy mixture I didn’t want to think about. He moaned one last moan, and then his limbs went into a final spasm and he was still…’And here’s are some photos of the location, and of the railings in question.