Chris Morgan Jones
For eleven years Chris Morgan Jones worked at the world’s largest business intelligence agency. He has advised Middle Eastern governments, Russian oligarchs, New York banks, London hedge funds and African mining companies. An Agent of Deceit is his first novel.
Are you a bookgeek?
I think so. I certainly love books, and always have. My tastes are fairly broad, but I wish they were broader. I have a bad habit of rereading the ones I love. Frank Sinatra’s character in the Manchurian candidate is sent a box of randomly chosen books once a month by an obliging bookshop. That sounds like an ideal arrangement.
What’s the best piece of writing advice you’ve ever been given (and do you follow it)?
Distrust your easiest work. A brilliant piece of advice by my friend Alex Butterworth. It is extraordinary how often I will look back at a passage that had flowed particularly well and discover it’s rubbish – and how often something that really didn’t want to come out turns out to be surprisingly good. And yes, having seen the truth of this I now have a keen sense of anything that seems too easy.
Which authors do you find most inspiring as a writer?
Robert Louis Stevenson, for writing the most beautiful, economical sentences and for mastering – perhaps inventing – half a dozen genres. James Lee Burke, for creating such a dark and thrilling world without sacrificing his style. Dickens, for the endless savagery and fun, and for the jokes. And a writer who’s less well-known than he should be – Rex Stout, author of the Nero Wolfe novels, which were PG Wodehouse’s favourite books and are more or less perfect comic crime novels.
Do you have an audience in mind when writing, or do you just write for yourself?
That’s a good question, and not as easy to answer as you might think. Perhaps my wife, who is unerring in her ability to spot things that don’t work. Anticipating some of her objections is a good idea, but on the whole I think I just write. There’s a responsibility to the story, and if you pay attention to that the reader will probably thank you for it.
Where do you write, and why?
I tend to start books in the British Library, where I’m less distractible, and when they’ve taken root I take them to my office, a room in a house in north London. That’s where the actual writing gets done. In the library I’m surrounded by people working hard on all manner of things and I’m shamed into following suit. But my office is perfect when I’ve found my rhythm – it looks out onto the backs of the houses in the next street and the space in between is quiet and green.
Tell us the book you most wish you had written.
Perhaps Humboldt’s Gift by Saul Bellow. I don’t think I’ve ever read anything so far beyond any talent I might have. The Prelude would fall into the same category.
You worked for Kroll, a business intelligence agency, for a long time? It may seem like an obvious question, but how did that experience influence your choice of subject matter and your approach to plotting?
I did – eleven years, during which time I came across dozens, probably hundreds of stories. Some of them seemed resonant, and interesting, and those jostle around finding ways to come out. An Agent of Deceit started as a preoccupation with a particular sort of character that I would come across often in my work – the financial frontman whose job it is to hide money on behalf of others. It struck me as a compromised and sleazy position that was always filled by ostensibly respectable men, lawyers and accountants, who at some point had sold their dignity and their honour to people more powerful than themselves. The rest of the novel was built upon that point.
I imagine that the plot of the novel is underpinned by all manner of habits and assumptions picked up from the world I used to inhabit. I was keen that the action be believable, and everything that happens has happened – if not to me, then somewhere nearby.
As someone well placed to offer an opinion – is truth stranger than fiction in the world of Russian organised crime?
Stranger, yes, but possibly more boring too. Some of the excesses of the oligarchs are scarcely credible but they’re hidden in a slightly dreary mess of contracts and shareholder registers and offshore holdings. The stories don’t need embellishment so much as translation. But the essence of the truth and the fiction is the same, I suspect – that power and money have become concentrated in the hands of people who in the main have no sense of responsibility to their country.
Do you think the post-Cold War world does much more than pay lip service to the power and influence that Russia has in the world through its energy reserves?
I think Russia is certainly more dangerous than it appears. For all the government’s bluster it’s not a confident state, and its many insecurities are more likely to cause trouble internationally than any strength it may have. Putin would like it to be a great country, but I fear he believes that can be accomplished by the force of his own will alone. Challenges to the rather pointless political process that has resulted will cause him to act in ever more blinkered ways – that’s why Russia is supporting Assad and banning domestic protest and stigmatising NGOs. It knows that its energy reserves help it get away with this but more and more I think it detects a purely political opportunity to check what it sees as the hostile Western democratic programme by standing shoulder to shoulder with other non-democracies – China being chief amongst them. In other words, the real conflict, diplomatic for now, is between different visions of the world and of how to govern it.
An Agent of Deceit is more character-driven than action-fueled – will you be returning to any of the characters you created here?
The second book is written and will be published in the UK and the US early next year. It’s called The Jackal’s Share and it’s a story involving Ben Webster from the first book. Although he is the protagonist of An Agent of Deceit we get to know him less well than I would have liked, and the new book concentrates more exclusively on his character.
What’s next? Are there any particular themes or topics you feel an urge to tackle?
I’m currently planning and researching book three, which will not be a Webster book but will feature characters from his world. I’m not quite ready to talk about the story, but two things have prompted me in a certain direction: I wanted to write a book whose action occurred more or less in one place, after two books that roamed everywhere; and I’m particularly interested at the moment in what might happen to the freedom won by people all over the world in the last twenty years – whether it’s permanent or more delicate than we might imagine. Russia may well appear again.
Chris is appearing at Theakston’s Old Peculier Crime Writing Festival on Friday 20th July. Follow Chris on Twitter: @chrismjauthor