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Career in undercover work powered international conspiracy thriller

By Margaret Chrystall

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SPEND some time talking to former Metropolitan Police and military man Neil Lancaster about covert operations and you will never see undercover cops in TV thrillers the same way again.

For a start, the real ones wouldn’t be sitting in their cars outside the villain’s house snapping away with a telephoto lens.

“I’m thinking ‘come on!’,” Neil laughs at the thought.

He was, for example, one of the team tracking down Levi Bellfield in an episode written about by Colin Sutton in his book and TV film Manhunt.

His expertise in law enforcement – including investigating serious and organised crime, chasing murderers, human traffickers and drug dealers – makes it easy to see why he intended his first book to be a police procedural.

Having retired from detective roles to live in the Highlands, Neil planned to write his first fiction.

“I found myself with time on my hands and I’ve been a reader all my life, so I thought I would try to write a book.

“I just sat down, and I had it in my head that I would write a police procedural. That’s my knowledge, that’s what I know about – butI thought I would just start writing and see what happened.

“And the book came out completely differently!”

Now Neil’s book, Going Dark, is a thriller featuring policeman and former Royal Marine Tom Novak, a one-time child refugee from Bosnia fostered in the Highlands, who struggles with boring police routine – and an emotional disconnect that worries him.

“I wanted Tom to be someone different,” said Neil.

“He is Bosnian by birth and is a refugee from Sarajevo. His father was murdered by paramilitaries around 1992 when the conflict really began to erupt. So Tom fled to the UK, as did quite a few young people back then, and he ended up being brought up in the Scottish Highlands, not far from Carrbridge.

“He is an asylum seeker, granted asylum and aged 18 he joins the marines. But because of his troubled background, he is left with some unusual characteristics.

“But he is a good man because he has been taught to be good, rather than instinctively knowing.

“I literally have plucked him out of the air. He is not based on anybody, he is certainly not based on me.”

With his former special reconnaissance regiment background, Tom is trained in undercover work, so when a request for him to infiltrate a gang of people traffickers, he jumps at the chance.

Going Dark is Tom Novak's story.
Going Dark is Tom Novak's story.

But he is compromised and discovers he can trust no-one, not even his police bosses.

So Tom has only one option. To ‘go dark’ and off-grid to discover the identity of those who blew his cover.

The book is a page-turner that takes you from London to Bosnia and back to Tom’s Highland home.

Neil feels Going Dark has become more like the adventure stories that powered his imagination as a youngster than the police procedural novel he originally intended.

“I started reading at quite a young age and by 12 I was reading Hammond Innes and Alistair MacLean and Desmond Bagley – traditional old-school adventures.

“I think those influences have stuck more than I ever gave them credit for. I didn’t intend to, but I ended up writing an adventure book! I think my book seems to be like those 1970s thrillers – which I am happy about because they are the books I love to read.

“It is not a traditional crime novel. It’s based on crime, undercover covert policing, intelligence policing, but at its heart it’s an international conspiracy thriller. I ended up writing a book I would want to read.”

Before he knew it, Neil had written 100,000 words and he credits local crime writers Margaret Kirk and Mike Walters with helping him massively improve – and slim down – the early version of Going Dark.

“I got chatting to Margaret on Twitter and mentioned the book and she said ‘Give it to me and I will have a look’. She was really honest. She told me ‘It’s a really good story but it is not there yet, you need to do more work’. I took her lessons and applied them and cut 7,000 words off to make the book loads better. Mike Walters read it, came back and said ‘I really like it, it’s tense, it’s exciting’ – and has given me a lovely quote!”

Above all in the book, there is a sense of authenticity which comes from Neil’s own knowledge and experience.

“Obviously there are things I can’t talk about. There are things you don’t want criminals – or the general public – knowing!”

Going Dark, published by Burning Chair Publishing, is out now, available as an ebook on Amazon and other online retailers and as a paperback.

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