‘A post-colonial spy story, full of intrigue and passion.’
Manly, Australia’s favourite seaside town, is a location spotter’s treasure trove. Sitting on a peninsula overlooked by the neo-gothic pile of St Patricks, the town is an architectural mish-mash of Art Deco shopfronts, Federation era cottages, glitzy apartment blocks, and brown-brick walk-up flats. In normal times, thousands of tourist take the thirty-minute ferry ride from Sydney to Manly wharf and amble down the Corso, the street that bisects the peninsula and leads to the ocean beaches. But behind the beachwear shops and restaurants lies another Manly, unseen by the tourists, that offers an edgy fiction setting.
Australia’s COVID-19 lockdown in April 2020 forced me off the seafront promenade into the empty back streets to avoid hordes of gasping joggers deprived of their gyms. But my walks opened up corners of the town I’d barely noticed. Soon my meditative strolls turned into location spotting for the novel I’m currently writing.
The Impeccables is set in Manly in 1978. Why Manly and why 1978? Well, the previous book in the series ended with the main character Pierre Farag exiled to Australia in 1975. I needed somewhere to settle him down for a few years before he finds himself unwillingly involved with a clandestine right-wing group that aims to blow up the Opera House.
And I love a writing challenge: I couldn’t resist the idea of reconstructing the look and feel of the town where I came to live in 1978 — an era before iPhones and credit cards, when the seafront was lined with pre-war blocks of flats rather than glitzy apartments. I’ve spent hours studying the 1978 Sydney newspapers and browsing the brilliant Lost Manly FB group pages.
To recap the series, the novella Ash on the Tongue, set in 1972 in Cairo, introduces Armenian-Egyptian private eye Pierre Farag and his first incursion into the world of espionage. In the full-length novel Cairo Mon Amour, Pierre and his actress girlfriend Zouzou are drawn into a plot to conceal the launch of the 1973 Yom Kippur War. In Bury me inValletta, we meet Pierre and Zouzou in exile in London in 1975. As sleeper agents they are reactivated by the UK government to sabotage an IRA gun-running plot in Libya and Malta. My current novel in progress The Impeccables, finds Pierre and Zouzou exiled to Sydney, where they are drawn into a plan to stage a coup against the Australian government. The novel ends again in exile, but this time to a remote spot in tropical Far North Queensland. I haven’t decided whether there will be a fifth book in the series; it depends a bit on whether I can find a plausible way to get the pair out of exile. I may have painted myself into a plot corner! In addition, I regain the rights to Cairo Mon Amour from my publisher in August 2021, which will give me the option to publish the series as single edition.
All three novels are based on carefully researched historical scenarios, and each includes what I call a ‘moral core’ for want of a better term: Cairo Mon Amour is in part my personal tribute to the resilience of the Armenians in exile; Bury me in Valletta is about the collapse of the relationship between a father and daughter; The Impeccables deals with the far boundaries of betrayal.
But what has surprised me is the development of the relationship between Pierre and Zouzou as its power balance shifts and the couple find new ways to bridge the growing emotional gulf between each another. I never anticipated this when I first put finger to keyboard. This presents another challenge for a possible sequel; are they headed for the divorce courts, or will the balmy tropical climate of Queensland soothe their angst?
But back to Manly. For The Impeccables I installed Pierre and Zouzou in a run-down rented house. It’s in a made-up street called Rialto Close in a muddle of walk-up brick apartment buildings and the backs of dry cleaners and TV rental shops, four streets away from Manly Beach. The name Rialto harks back to a former cinema in the Corso. The site is now occupied by a small shopping arcade, commemorated by the unglamorous Rialto Lane. My Rialto Close could be in any of half a dozen locations around the town, but wherever it is you might spot a dumped sofa.
Meanwhile, I’ve been honing my skills in book design. Right now, you can get a paperback of Bury me in Valletta through Amazon in the US, but there’s a big freight charge and a long wait for Australian readers. So, I’ve produced an additional paperback version with Ingram Spark, which is now accessible through thousands of bookshops and libraries around the world. I was thrilled to receive the proof copy in November — excellent production values, and the interior all designed by me. I incorporated the lovely cover designed by Rachel Ainge for the ebook. This new print version is now available, and I was delighted to get some US and UK sales immediately after the release date on December 1 2020.
Here’s a great customer review of Bury me in Valletta from a reader in Scotland: ‘Gripping from beginning to the end. Brilliant book and great sequel to Cairo Mon Amour. When is the next book of Pierre Farag, Stuart?’ And for an excellent independent review from IBR, click here.
You can find vendor links for my books here, including for the novella Ash on the Tongue, which is permanently free on Smashwords. The Impeccables will be released some time in 2021.
Netflix’s new drama The Angel tackles the story of the enigmatic Ashraf Marwan, who is claimed by both Egypt and Israel as a master spy.
In October 1973, Egypt was planning a secret attack to recover Sinai, occupied by Israel in 1967. Ashraf Marwan, the son-in-law of Nasser and close confidant of President Anwar Sadat, was privy to the date of the attack. The Angel is based on the theory that Marwan warned the Israelis the day before in an altruistic bid to prevent war. Did Israel receive the tip-off? If they did, they failed to mobilise and as a result suffered the ignominy of an Arab army retaking occupied territory.
But Sadat had previously set other secret dates, which Marwan had passed on, leading the Israelis to mobilise uselessly. After these false alarms, they dismissed the real date of Yom Kippur 1973. The Angel uses this ‘boy who cried wolf’ theory to explain why the spy was ignored.
Controversy has swirled around Ashraf Marwan for decades. Unfortunately, he’s saying nothing, having mysteriously fallen to his death in 2008 from the balcony of his posh flat in London.
I was enthralled by The Angel, an Israeli-US production running 1 hr and 54 minutes without a moment to catch breath. Ashraf Marwan, played by Marwan Kenzari, a Dutch actor of Tunisian background, is portrayed as an idealist who struggles to earn the trust of his Israeli controllers, although his idealism is tempered by the need to pay for his expensive lifestyle with the wads of cash he received for information. Was I convinced by this characterisation? I’m not certain. My viewing companion thought the plot needed more depth. But we were still talking about it the next day, which sets this movie apart from 90% of what is dished up the TV.
I have a special interest in The Angel. While I was writing my novel Cairo Mon Amour, Ashraf Marwan hovered in the back of my mind as I combed the literature on the Yom Kippur War. Cairo Mon Amour is an espionage romance that covers the same period as the movie. I happened to be studying Arabic at Cairo University during the Yom Kippur War, and it is not implausible that I passed Ashraf Marwan in the street or sat near to him in the Groppi café.
But the real bonus for me was the handling of the bilingual dialogue. As a PhD in Linguistics and a fiction writer, I’m a serial bore on the topic of foreign languages in English-language movies. If you hear me at a cocktail party complaining about Nicholas Cage’s Italian accent in Captain Corelli’s Mandolin, just move away – it’s not pretty. If you insist on knowing my views, look here.
The Angel did the job beautifully, with the Arab characters moving seamlessly between subtitled Arabic to English and back again. Sometimes, the switch was triggered: In one scene, Egyptian officials are reminded that there is a non-Arabic speaker at the conference table, so they politely switch to English; in another, Marwan and his wife switch to English to hide their words from their small children. When there is no explicit trigger, speakers seem to switch from English to Arabic when the emotional temperature of the conversation rises. OK, so some of the language behaviour was not entirely plausible, but the writers of The Angel produced the best solution I’ve seen in a long time for what I call Chermans in ze movies spik like zis syndrome.
Big ticks from me for The Angel.