Thursday, June 24, 2021

The Gods of War: Guest Post by Graham Hurley

Graham Hurley: The Gods of War

If you’re ever lucky enough to be in Galicia in autumn, find your way to a tiny fishing village called O Porto de Bares, because there you’ll find the modest plaque set into a harbor wall that changed my life. This story happened seven years ago. My wife Lin and I were in our ancient camper van, exploring the more remote corners of N/W Spain. The holiday crowds had largely gone, and the roads were comfortably empty but there was still heat in the sun and the days and weeks yawned ahead. 

As a novelist, I’d spent my last sixteen years writing crime fiction, a bone tossed to me by a big London publishing house unconvinced by my commercial prospects in any other corner of the fiction market. When the invitation was originally extended, I had profound doubts about saying yes, largely because I never read crime fiction, didn’t really understand the genre, and had no appetite for getting stuck in. 

The fridge, however, was dangerously empty, and so I made it my business to get alongside working detectives in the city where we lived. That was Portsmouth, which turned out to be the crime writer’s best friend, and over the following twelve years I put together a series of books — fronted by D/I Joe Faraday and D’C Paul Winter — that sold surprisingly well, both in the UK and in translation across Europe. The French liked Joe Faraday so much that they gave him a new Christian name — Richard — and made a series of feature length adaptations for France2 that ended up in the national top five. 

After Faraday came four more cri-fis, this time featuring a younger D/S from Faraday’s team who — like us — had moved to the south west of England. East Devon, where we live, has none of the inspirational darkness of Portsmouth (known locally as “Pompey”), and as a result it was much harder to generate page-turning drama. By the time we bumped down the narrow road into O Porto de Bares, I was consciously looking for a way out of crime fiction. 

I remember it was a sunny afternoon. Lin and I settled on a bench with a perfect view of the harbor. There were very few people around and after a while I became aware of the nearby plaque in the harbor wall. O Porto de Bares is the most northerly settlement on the entire Iberian peninsula. It overlooks the main shipping lane across the Bay of Biscay, and during the middle years of the war, a storm drove a passing U-boat with engine trouble onto an offshore reef. Local fishermen saved most of the crew, but the plaque memorises the handful who perished as their submarine broke up. 

I studied that plaque for a while, and then we walked along the harbor in search of a beer. The bar where we stopped, as it happened, had a model of that same U-boat, tastefully draped in tar-blackened netting. Eternally superstitious, I took that as a sign. If I was looking for a tunnel out of crime fiction, then here it was. 

We moved west along the coast, and each new leg of the journey, and each new campsite, gave me an opportunity to develop something substantial from that first image seeded by the plaque in the harbor wall. Men, already half-drowned, struggling to survive in the boiling surf. Their rescuers battled huge waves to pluck them to safety. Where was the U-boat headed? Where did it come from? What were the stories behind the men on board? 

By the time we returned to the UK in later October, I had the bones of the plot down on paper. Half the book belongs to the Captain of my invented U-boat, Stefan Portisch. The rest settles around an ex-FBI cop, Joe Gomez, assigned to security duties at the top-secret development base at Los Alamos, where American scientists are building the first atomic bomb. The two storylines flirt with each other, and finally come together in a surprise climax. I called the novel Finisterre, which is the name for the region surrounding O Porto de Bares. Translated from the Latin, it also means “the end of the earth,” which suited the Los Alamos theme rather nicely. 

Back home, I invested heavily in research and then wrote the book, which my agent pitched to a publisher he knew liked my work. Moving from one genre to another, especially if you’ve enjoyed a bit of success, isn’t easy but Nic Cheetham, at Head of Zeus, was a fellow World War Two buff, and had enjoyed my first draft of Finisterre. Most books these days are sold in series, to maximize sales, and most publishers insist on the presence of a central character to carry the narrative. I’d done exactly that with Joe Faraday, and while I’d enjoyed his company very much over a decade, I now wanted to do something different. 

Slightly reluctant at first, Nic promised to take the book on as long as I could come up with a credible series alternative, and so I conjured a plan that called for a handful of characters who would appear and reappear over the series, claiming more or less of the fictional spotlight depending on the demands of the plot. I gave this concept a name — “soft linkage” — and Nic, brave to the last, said yes. 

Finisterre, to our mutual delight, made the short-list for the Wilbur Smith Adventure Writing Award, and since then Head of Zeus has published four more titles. Last Flight to Stalingrad appears in the US in July, and has already done well in the UK. Book 6, Kyiv, will be appearing in hardback very shortly, and book 7, Katastrophe, is scheduled for next year. Book 8, meanwhile, haunts the pile of research reading on the table in my study. 

I look at those books from time to time, and I always remember the taste of the wind off the Bay of Biscay that afternoon we sat by the harbor in O Porto de Bares. The Spoils of War happens to be the title series, but I like to believe that the gods of war — notoriously fickle — were with us that afternoon on the very edge of Europe.


GRAHAM HURLEY is the author of the acclaimed Faraday and Winter crime novels and an award-winning TV documentary maker. Two of the critically lauded series have been shortlisted for the Theakston’s Old Peculier Award for Best Crime Novel. The first Spoils of War novel, Finisterre, was shortlisted for the Wilbur Smith Adventure Writing Prize. For more information, visit

No comments: