Techno Thriller Heaven: Ghost by James Swallow
I think that the old adage “never judge a book by its cover” is a terrible piece of advice. How can you do anything else when you first encounter a book? It’s an instinctive act, and not one to be lightly dismissed. In truth, I love the art of the book cover.
We can all identify the familiar tropes. Historical fiction: a lady in Tudor costume in the hallway of a stately home. Serial Killer novel: a single isolated house on a bleak hillside or maybe a lone child lost in the wilderness. International spy thriller: a Dutch-Tilt image of someone running down an alleyway, maybe with a famous building in the background.
I like the mechanics of covers, the design and the structure, and I have to say, I’m a sucker for a very particular kind of cover art – the imagery I tag in my mind as “retro-techno-thriller”. Books that show shark-like submarines framed against neon-glowing sonar screens; covers heavy on military hardware, steel-coloured foils or embossing; or that ultimate benchmark for the genre, a plane flying out of an explosion.
Titles that sound brisk and muscular are the order of the day – Red Storm Rising, Sidewinder, Vortex, Counter Strike, Firefox, Cyclops, Sky Masters and the like. The more dynamic, the better. When I scan the shelves of used book stores and come across these gems from the era of Cold War pulp, I can’t help but buy them; I often entertain the idea of setting up a blog or a Twitter feed – call it “Techno Thriller Heaven” – just to share these awesome bits of cover art with the world.
It’s partly for the nostalgia kick and partly because these are the kind of stories I love. There’s a place that exists in that Venn diagram sweet spot for me, where thriller crosses over with action, heroics, jet planes, submarines, cool tech and escapism.
Back in the day, I devoured books like this. The golden age for these kind of novels was when Top Gun was in movie theatres and The Hunt for Red October topped bestseller charts. Out in the real world we were on the cusp of a state-change in the Cold War, but in the realms of fiction that conflict was still raging strong.
There was an unabashed appetite for stories where cool-eyed heroes equipped with the most cutting-edge warfighting tech faced off against implacable enemies. These were “airport novels”, they were “beach reads”, regarded somewhat sniffily by the lit-crit crowd, but mass market readers consumed enough of them to sink an aircraft carrier.
When the old NATO vs Warsaw Pact rivalries faded away in the 1990’s, the techno-thriller arguably lost its greatest asset – a monolithic enemy that also happened to have a nigh-unlimited budget for military spending. The genre floundered and lost ground, fading from popularity until it re-emerged in a new form with The Da Vinci Code and works of a similar stripe; gone was the Cold War backdrop, and a new breed of airport novels replaced it with mystery thrillers and historical enigmas.
And about here is where I came in; I got my start writing SF and tie-in fiction in the early 2000’s, but I always wanted to write thrillers that harked back to those I had enjoyed reading in the 80’s and 90’s, high-octane plotlines with characters running the ragged edge and risking everything to stay alive.
That impulse would eventually crystalize into my series of novels featuring ex-MI6 field officer Marc Dane – the most recent, Ghost, out now in paperback – but getting that book off the ground wasn’t easy. There was a sense that that present-day thrillers had their time and that historical spy stories or tales with a mythological element were the way to go; critics talked about the modern espionage thriller as a dead-end genre, a relic of the bad old days only fit now as a setting for period fiction.
Then Terry Hayes came along with the blockbuster I Am Pilgrim and reminded everyone that the beach read high stakes thriller was very much alive and kicking. In the wake of Pilgrim’s huge success there has been a renewed appetite for adventure thrillers across the board, with writers such as K.J. Howe, Gregg Hurwitz, Matthew Richardson, James Brabazon, Frank Gardner, Andrew Reid (and me!) more than happy to tell those kind of tales.
And one only has to cast an eye across the news media to see we are staring down the barrel of a new Cold War, this time a digitally-enhanced version waged on the dark web as well as in dark alleys. For thriller writers, the new arena of espionage and adventure storytelling – a realm of agile threats, asymmetrical warfare and bleeding-edge technology – calls out for new heroes…
(c) James Swallow
James Swallow is a New York Times, Sunday Times and Amazon bestselling author, a BAFTA nominee, a former journalist and the award-winning writer of over forty-five books, along with numerous scripts for videogames, radio and television.
His latest novel GHOST – the next in a series of fast-paced action thrillers featuring protagonist Marc Dane – is out now from Bonnier Zaffre. For exclusive content, information on new releases and a FREE deleted scene from his novel NOMAD, sign up to the Readers’ Club here: www.bit.ly/JamesSwallow
You can also follow James on Twitter at @jmswallow for more updates!
A terrible threat from the depths of the dark net.
A devastating betrayal at the heart of a covert strike force.
A deadly pursuit across a digital battlefield.
A ruthless terrorist fuelled by revenge.
As devastating attacks unfold across the globe, Marc Dane must call on all his skills and ingenuity to track down the mysterious figure behind it all – a faceless criminal known only as “Madrigal”.
Before they plunge the world into war . . .
Order your copy online here.