Gimme Tension

I’ve watched and read a lot of action thrillers in my time. One of my favourite action thriller writers was Desmond Bagley, and my favourite book of his was a spy thriller called Running Blind (which I highly recommend).

I also really liked Alistair McLean’s action thrillers, but not quite as much.

I also loved Peter O’Donnell’s Modesty Blaise series of books (not the comics!). I adored them–one of the few series that I read over and over. Alas, that is one of the few series I haven’t been able to reacquire since I came to Canada. The books are not available as ebooks, and the print versions are only available as very expensive used copies. I did manage to get the very first book in the series (simply called Modesty Blaise), a couple of years ago–but it cost, all told, between shipping and the price of the book, exchange rates and customs fees, nearly $50 CAD.

I won’t be acquiring the next book in the series any time soon, alas.

It was Running Blind that convinced me I should write spy thrillers of one sort or another. The only thing that stopped me writing one years ago is that the thriller category on Amazon these days is stuffed full of military heroes firing from the hip. (Alas, so is the Science Fiction category.)

It took me a while to figure out that I like my thrillers to be a bit more thoughtful.

I like Alistair McLean’s stories, but I love Desmond Bagley’s books. I love the Modesty Blaise series for the same reason: There’s ass-kicking, for sure, but even the fighting in the Modesty Blaise series is smart and strategic. Bagley’s Running Blind has a single fist-fight, which is summarized in a paragraph, yet it is one of the most suspenseful page turners I’ve ever read. Even knowing the outcome, I still race to the end when I re-read it.

It’s the tension, the suspense, that gets me.

When I watch old WWI movies–Where Eagles Dare springs to mind (more Alistair McLean)–I’m always fascinated by the heart-in-the-throat tension of the hero(es) sneaking inside a German facility, much more than the gun fight that usually comes at the end. I can’t imagine doing something like that myself. Sneaking into enemy territory would take more courage than I think I have. The moment-by-moment terror of wondering when you’re going to be discovered and the consequences of being caught would stop me from ever taking a single step.

Yet the heroes and heroines in spy novels live with that tension every single day, when they’re undercover.

Leonardo DiCaprio’s character, Billy Costigan, in The Departed, spends nearly a year undercover, and the psychological and physiological impact on him was fascinating–he turned into a nervous wreck, and he was a tough character when he started. There’s a quote from the movie (and it’s pithy!)

Look… look, I’m having panic attacks, alright? The other night I thought I was having a fucking heart attack. I puked in a trash barrel on the way over here. I haven’t slept for fucking weeks.

Panic attacks sound like a perfectly reasonable response to the tension of being undercover, to me.

Some of the best spy thrillers are written by English writers — Bagley, Le Carre, Follett are the classics. They’re shorter on the action and higher on the tension, and they have some marvelous cat-and-mouse games of strategy.

That’s the sort of spy thrillers I like. It is also, by the way (and of course) the type of thriller that I aimed for with Hunting the Kobra.

Here’s a snippet:

“Get some sleep, Quinn. We will be busy when we land,” Aslan said.

She wanted to ask where they would land, but didn’t have the energy for it. It wasn’t simply physical exhaustion. She was tired of the games. She was tired of the lies.

Quinn moved forward to the cramped bathroom at the front of the jet, just behind the cockpit. Similar to commercial jets, this plane’s facilities were designed for pygmies. Only, it had a door which closed, which let her be alone for a few short, blissful moments.

Quinn stared in the mirror at her scratched face and her eyes, which were larger than she remembered them being. She looked as if she was stunned. It wasn’t inaccurate.

She was now an international fugitive. She had no way to reach out to Dima. She couldn’t even explain why she had done what she did. Dima and her crew would have watched Quinn inexplicably help Aslan and his people.

The only thing which might redeem her would be to learn about Aslan’s connection to Kobra. She would have to go down the pipe, become one of his people and earn his trust, dig for the truth and find a way to give that information to Dima.

She was on her own.

A tap sounded on the bifold door. It was soft, designed to capture her attention and no one else’s.

Quinn squeezed herself back and opened the door a few inches to peer out. Another bathroom was at the back of the jet. It wasn’t as though someone was impatiently waiting for her to finish so they could use this one. There was only six people on the jet.

Noah leaned so he could see her through the two-inch space between the door and the frame.

“Who is flying the damn plane?” Quinn hissed.

“Autopilot,” he said. “We’re in the middle of the Atlantic, three hundred miles from any commercial traffic lane. I will take a nap after I finish talking to you.”

“That’s exactly what you want to hear the pilot of the plane say,” Quinn whispered back. “What is it you wanted to tell me?”

He lifted his hand so she saw it through the open space. A white pill lay on his big palm.

“I’ve already had a Tylenol,” Quinn said.

“This is something different. Mitchell is only a medic. He can’t risk pushing pills because he doesn’t know the chemistry.” Noah’s gaze was steady. “You’ve had a rough few hours and a lot on your mind. When we land, you will have to hit the ground running. Everyone else here is used to the pace. They are used to people chasing them and always keeping their heads turned away from security cameras. You will have a headache for weeks yet, from keeping it all in the forefront of your mind. Take the pill. It will knock you out and let you sleep. It will be the last peaceful few hours you will get.”

Weeks of it. Quinn felt her stomach churn uneasily. “Am I going to be hooked on painkillers or something after this?”

His one eye rolled. “Take the damn pill, Quinn.”

Quinn reached out and plucked the tablet of his palm.

“Last time I will be nice to you,” he muttered.

“That was nice? Telling me to take a pill because I’m gonna hate myself for weeks?”

“Talk to me in six weeks about this. I guarantee you will feel differently.”

He would’ve closed the door, only Quinn got her fingers up against the edge and hold it open a bare half inch. They had already been keeping their voices down, for reasons Quinn didn’t quite understand. Now she dropped her voice even lower. “Did this happen to you?”

He closed the door without answering her.

Quinn turned back to the basin, pulled a paper cup from the tube attached to the mirror, and poured water. She considered the tablet. It was plain, with no brands stamped into it. It wasn’t a capsule.

Could she take a tablet given to her by a relative stranger? Only, people did it all the time. They took tablets handed to them by nurses they didn’t know, prescribed by doctors they only knew by the name stitched on a white coat pocket.

She remembered the pat on her shoulder Mitchell had given her as he packed up his medical kit. Even Toni’s sarcasm was muted. She had contained herself to a simple observation about the poor quality of the coat which Quinn had stolen. “You couldn’t have found an Amani while you were flinching outerwear?”

Aslan had taken bullets in his shoulder to get her out of the boiling pot.

And now Noah showed an empathetic streak, predicting what her life would be like for the next few weeks. Even though she didn’t like the prediction, was it a reason to distrust the messenger?

She took the tablet and told herself she could trust the man that much and no more. It was as much as she could trust any of them.

It would be a long few weeks. Or perhaps even longer.

How long did it take to uncover a Russian spymaster?

How about you? How do you prefer your spy thrillers?


(Another) excerpt and details on Hunting the Kobra

6 thoughts on “Gimme Tension”

  1. Hi Tracy. I hope you had a wonderful new year.

    My best spy/thriller book and my prized possession is “The Paladin” by Brian Garfield. It’s fiction but based on real fact. About a boy of 15 Christopher Creighton who became a spy in WW2 for Winston Churchill. Can’t get it as an ebook though. Only a used books. I have seen copies at

    1. I did look this up. There’s some very expensive secondhand copies available in Canada, so it’s probably going to be one of those books I trip across in a store or at a garage sale one day…

  2. I’m not much of a reader of “thrillers” but I enjoyed the Lincoln Rhyme Series by Jeffery Deavers and love the Thomas Perry “Jane Whitefield Series” (haven’t had time to read the complete series yet). Have h read some others but can’t remember their names, but these two series I’ve re-read

    The Bone Collector (Lincoln Rhyme Book 1)

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