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Military with a Touch of Adventure: The Devil’s Magistrate by Alex Gardiner

Writing.ie | Magazine | Tell Your Own Story | Writing & Me
Alex Gardiner

Alex Gardiner

The life experiences that inform my writing efforts are essentially military with a touch of adventure thrown in. My background steers me to towards the thriller/crime genre, and a “Boys read,” at that. For this, I cannot apologise because, having seen some absolute dross which has actually made it to the bookshelves, I said to myself, “I can do better than that,” and, I think I have. You may disagree, but to do so, you must first try reading The Devil’s Magistrate, then decide for yourself. First, let me give you a flavour of my treasure trove of military experience.

I left Harrow school on my eighteenth birthday in July 1971 to join the Army in Winchester as a “squaddie.” I was greeted by Sergeant Winkworth, who called across the room, “Oi, Oi, we’ve got a f…. g educated Archie ‘ere.” I got into two fights in my first fortnight, slept little and became very fit. On the plus side, we recruits were paid £20 pounds a week and the food much better than at school. I passed the admissions test for Sandhurst and was commissioned into the Royal Greenjackets in March 1973. This fine infantry regiment recruited men from London, Liverpool and Birmingham. Listening to the soldier’s rapier-like banter in their various accents was a sublime experience. The spontaneity and originality of their wit has stuck with me, ever since. I suppose that in the backstreets and tenement blocks of 70s Britain, formal education and literacy was minimal, so the spoken word was king, with banter elevated to an art form. In stark social contrast, my fellow officers came from well-off backgrounds and spoke with the strangulated vowels of Eton (and Harrow). There was a strain of Brideshead Revisited meets Chariots of Fire. But it was a façade, behind which were men with sharp brains and who were decent, diligent and competent in spite of the cult of “good form,” where overt keenness was disdained. In the officer’s mess, especially when outsiders were present, the very best manners were demanded and any visitor regardless of rank or standing was charmed and plied with hospitality (I once saw the entire officers mess get to its feet when a corporal’s wife happened to come into the ante-room). Thus, the regiment was officered by men whose dilettante appearance concealed talent and ability, some were famously dry-witted. In the ranks, we had the toughest professionals, some barely literate but all wired to fabulous banter, again, some exceptionally funny. This colourful regiment marched to the beat of the deep rapport between officers and men. What a privilege, that fifty-one years later, I am still in touch with Nobby Winkworth.

Devil's MagistrateThis was the early seventies, the Northern Ireland “Troubles,” were peaking and we were heavily committed to tours of duty on the streets of Catholic west Belfast or Armagh’s Bandit country. The pressure, both physical and mental was relentless and mistakes were often paid for in blood: those found wanting were dismissed. Later in my military career I progressed to the SAS and served all over the world, particularly but not exclusively in the Middle East. SAS soldiers are probably the most competitive group of individuals it is possible to control: the soldiering was unforgettable, but sparks occasionally flew. I also soldiered with Dhofari tribesmen of Southern Oman: fascinating for their sour-faced truculence towards their compatriots from the northern provinces. Yet their open-hearted acceptance of Christian foreigners as commanders and their dogged faith in the word and handshake of a British officer has imprinted on my memory.

Though I left the warrior-adventurer world some time ago I can re-visit it mentally, “You can join but you can’t leave.” So, as I craft my fiction I can draw from a vast well of faces and places, characters and incidents. If I Relax, the conditions return to me as clear as ever and scenes need little research: sweat freezing my eyelashes together while I am skiing downhill at 3’oclock in the morning in 10 degrees below zero northern Norway…sitting on a jungle hillside in a tropical thunderstorm, feeling myself sliding downhill and wondering if this is a landslide. I can pluck characters who were real and match them to a story I am creating. At the risk of sounding pretentious, if I am on form the characters take over and I get great dialogue: I was once told, “say, don’t tell.” Obviously, there is a balance to be struck but if I need a crisp exchange, I ask myself, how would “Jeff, Dinger or Ginge,” say this or that.

I showed my first draft, to a writer friend who gave it back too quickly to have read it, telling me, ‘Good story but you need an editor.’ I hired one and we made the MS ready for a return to the fray. This version went before two big agents, both of whom came back with, ‘Good story but you need an editor.’ Clearly the first editor, though paid had not delivered. But with no outright rejection from respected agents, I had a viable story. So, I self-published what I knew in my heart was a flawed MS. Persistence and self-belief pays off, I netted an agent. He found a willing publisher whose first comment was, ‘Good story, but you need a really good editor.’ The publisher then hired the editor. The moment a professional was involved, and the financial element removed, the process went through a step change. It was a delight to have someone work on one’s material: she was objective, brought forensic attention to detail, believed in the story, even saying she saw great potential. At her prompting we plucked out strands of the story, improved them and wove them back into the body of the MS. Crucially, she brought a female reader’s eye to the story and ear to the dialogue, making the story much less of a “Boys read.”

(c) Alex Gardiner

The Devil’s Magistrate by Alex Gardiner published by Nine Elms Books; paperback £8.99.  Available via Amazon or to order in all good bookshops.

About The Devil’s Magistrate:

Devil's MagistrateIf you hide your past, it will surely come back to haunt you.

Living a respectable life in Cheltenham as a magistrate and property landlord, former agent and terrorist Tariq Al Hashmi falls into such a trap.

With Libya’s Colonel Gaddafi no longer a moving part of the Axis of Evil and the Irish Troubles on the back boiler, what could go wrong?

His days as an embedded sleeper agent with a hidden fuse ready to be lit are surely over. But complacency proves an unreliable companion. Those in the secret world that he once occupied have long memories and other ideas. Unexpectedly his world starts to fall apart and Al Hashmi’s former spymasters try to manipulate him in ways he could not have imagined and for purposes he can only guess at.

Author Alex Gardiner’s remarkable debut thriller is written with inside knowledge. The plot’s twists and turns are spiced with intrigue and complexity that will keep the reader guessing until the very end.

Order your copy online here.

About the author

Alex Gardiner served as an officer in the Royal Greenjackets, and then as a troop and squadron commander in 22 SAS before leaving the British Army to command 1st Regiment The Sultan’s Special Force in Southern Oman. Since then, he has covered conflict in Bosnia, Kosovo, Iraq, Afghanistan and Yemen. He is married to the fashion designer Beatrice von Tresckow and is working on his next novel from their home in Gloucestershire.

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