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Black Isle writer Neil Lancaster takes his troubled hero back to Sarajevo in his third Tom Novak thriller

By Margaret Chrystall

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THERE’S a new set of tests from Black Isle thriller writer Neil Lancaster for his undercover specialist Tom Novak in Going Back – facing his traumatic past in Sarajevo.

Infiltrating a terrorist cell left Tom and readers with a cliffhanger ending to book two, Going Rogue.

Neil Lancaster returned his character Tom to Sarajevo.
Neil Lancaster returned his character Tom to Sarajevo.

But any challenges set for his emotionally-closed hero in the new one were matched for Neil by the tests he faced creating the most complex of the three books.

“I did enjoy writing it, but it was more of a struggle than the others because I went down a couple of blind alleys then had to dig my way out,” he laughed.

Barely home after the events of book two, Tom finds himself called upon by his American friend Mike to head to Sarajevo to helpinvestigate and neutralise a deadly new weapon in the hands of ruthless criminals funded by a sinister global cartel.

“I really wanted Tom to go back to his homeland, just because it seemed to throw up a load of potential issues for him, psychologically, because he had a troubled time there. I thought it would be interesting and fun to do, plus Sarajevo is such a great city to write about.

“In these books, I wanted Tom to be on a bit of a journey because he had a terrible start in life from the age of 12, orphaned and having to flee Sarajevo. I wanted him to continue on that.”

Later Tom was fostered by a couple in the Cairngorms, before a career in the Marines, Special Reconnaissance Regiment and London’s Met.

In his writing Neil uses his own background in the RAF military police and 25 years in the Met, mainly as a detective with a surveillance and covert role, before retiring to the Black Isle.

Going Back, the latest Novak challenge.
Going Back, the latest Novak challenge.

In Going Back, there are thrilling insights into that life, Neil sharing his expertise to add authenticity: “It’s being a bit subtle about it and not ‘info dumping’ on people.”

These days his background has led to a new role alongside writing,commentary for Sky Crime and Investigation.

And his newest book shifts from the Novak thrillers to a police procedural, since last Christmas an irresistible gift of an idea came his way.

“We were invited for a day to Pitlochry by friends and the father of one of them, who lives in Australia, was over, with the biggest Scottish accent ever, even though he’s lived out of the country for 50 years! He was a cop in 1960s Glasgow and told me about researching his wife’s family tree which took him to an old abandoned graveyard away up the A9, where he found one particular grave and on the top of it, it just said, ‘This grave never to be opened’.

“I thought ‘What a hook into a book’ and it just made me think ‘I need to write that!’.

“So I came up with a new character and found an agent who wanted to represent me. I hadn’t even written the thing – but had a one-page outline, the first five chapters. And he said ‘I love it, can I represent you for it?’.”

For his third thriller featuring Tom Novak, Neil takes the character back to his childhood home of Sarajevo to help out his American friend Mike and the FBI. It seems a much bigger arena from the last two. Where did the idea for Going Back start?

"I really wanted Tom to go back so I needed a vehicle and a reason for Tom to go back there and that probably wasn't going to come from British law enforcement. So I made it come from American. I just thought it'd be a nice little thing to have this sort of interplay between Mike and the Americans and Tom.

Neil Lancaster
Neil Lancaster

"The last book Going Rogue was a little more domestic, even though obviously, Tom ended up ‘going rogue’. I wanted him to go back to Sarajevo and using the American influence was the way to get there."

As usual in the Novak books, there is a sense that we are learning about life in surveillance and covert operations, using your own knowledge from your background, I guess?

"I’m not giving any state secrets away, obviously. It's a hard balance because you want to give enough information to let people know that, certainly with my background, ‘Oh, you know, the guy knows what he's doing’ and it will hopefully shine through in the writing, but without making it too obvious, but still making it interesting so people do get a feel that they are getting some kind of insider info."

Has the process of your writing changed or moved on from book one to book three?

Neil said: "I always start and there is a lot of navel gazing! The first third is a bit of a struggle, but then I can write very quickly once the story's going and I know exactly what I'm doing.

"Certainly the last third of this one I wrote incredibly quickly, probably quicker than I've ever written anything. The words just seemed to fly and I knew what I was writing because I had it quite well mapped out in my head, even if it wasn't mapped out particularly on paper. I guess it probably took me three months to write."

Neil has said that he is not a writer who plans absolutely everything out and writes it all on post it notes and things.

But the plot of Going Back is the most detailed and intricate plot yet.

"Yes, it did get more intricate and this plot did need a very big edit to sort it out.

"I had introduced a few things that didn’t quite work, so it did need a lot of work in the second draft to make it right.

"This plot is more complex than my other books. But then in the end when I realised where I was going and I could knit it all together I was really pleased with the plot.

"I don't write detailed synopsis or outlines like that, but I am changing a little bit.

"The new book I've just finished writing is a completely different one and I have actually employed the post it note!

"Especially now I've got a dedicated writing space at the front of the house which I share with my wife as she now works from home as well.

"I do sort of end up wallpapering with notes of various things to write down so that I don’t forget."

Neil appreciates the number of fellow writers – and crime and thriller writers – based in the Highlands, and being able to talk to them about writing and comparing notes on planning techniques.

"The Inverness writer Margaret Kirk, I know, plans everything. There is a full chapter plan done, w.hereas Ian Rankin, who I was having a chat with the other day, he doesn’t know who has done the murder till three-quarters of the way through the book.

"He doesn’t want to know and I think I fall into that camp a little bit more.

"My books are very much thrillers, the first three Tom Novak books.

"But the new book I have written is a little bit more of a police procedural with a bit more of a whodunnit element to it, therefore that has needed thought.

"There are things I hadn't planned to write, then it just occurs to me as I hit something – ‘That would work quite well if I made this happen’.

"And I think maybe some of those really good ideas that I’m really pleased with, I don’t think they would have come to me if I'd had a detailed chapter plan. I think my best ideas do arrive on the hoof, so to speak."

In Going Back, you have three Eastern European characters who are in different ways almost parallels to Tom – the ruthless criminal Babic who is almost a kind of opposite. Then there is the electronics expert Cerovic who had been a young orphan like Tom but was fostered abroad – he is a triumph of annoyingness!

And the arms dealer Pavlovic was also a child in the siege of Sarajevo like Tom, but he remained in the country and was cared for by the authorities, joined the services there and is very self-sufficient. Was it fun to write them?

"I loved writing Cerovic, I thought ‘What would be really annoying?’. I wanted him to have no self awareness and I thought it would be really funny to make him have a New York accent and a nasal voice, I just thought it would be great fun to write this really irritating character who is actually really clever."

Neil laughed: "I really enjoyed him. You try and make your villains villainous, but they don’t always follow the plan!"

The arms dealer Pavlovic was another almost-twin of Tom and his childhood traumas in that he had a very similar experience as a youngster?

"He grew in the edit! He was a bit of a side character who wasn't really supposed to do anything very much apart from be someone who was talked about, he was a vehicle to get Tom to go in undercover.

"But then my editors suggested I made a bit more of him, make him more three-dimensional so he has some skin in the game. So they said 'Can you make him meaner and a bit more intimidating?', so I wrote the second chapter with a scene there just to make him more of a significant adversary."

Tom’s experience undercover and in his past in the Royal Marines and the Special Reconnaissance Regiment and the Metropolitan Police means as well as his training he has an unerring instinct.

When the character says ’Something just doesn't feel right’, you know to expect trouble because Tom’s instincts are so infallible?

Neil said: "I call them ‘combat indicators’ where it doesn’t feel right and it doesn't feel right for actually factual real reasons.

"If you look at things out there they actually tell you why it doesn’t feel right. And it’s not just based on instinct, it’s based on fact. Observable, objective fact."

Tom is a character Neil has created who finds it hard to connect to his emotions, he knows that himself and doesn’t understand it and wrestles with it throughout the books.

Neil Lancaster, now based on the Black Isle.
Neil Lancaster, now based on the Black Isle.

Going back to Sarajevo in this book gives him the chance to find out why he is the way he is, as he hopes to find out more about his late father.

Neil said: "Through the books I wanted him to be on a bit of a journey because he has had this terrible start in life from the age of 12 and I wanted him to continue on that journey finding some sort of degree of self-awareness.

"None of these are going to be revolutionary shifts, he is always going to have some degree of difficulties with emotion and being available – and empathy.

"But I want him to be on a journey and having his friends around him, the recurring characters who will help him and understand him.

"I love introducing these characters and keeping them in because I love the dynamic with Tom."

Neil has quickly become a popular guest at book festivals on panels with other writers and enjoys appearing and talking about his books.

Lockdown put some things on hold this year.

Neil said: "I was going to be going down to Bloody Scotland and was being considered for a panel event at Capital Crime.

" I did do something at Granite Noir in Aberdeen. And I have done some online festivals.

"I did an online panel for Lyme Online Crime with an author called Tony Kent, a serving barrister and another barrister called Imran Mahmood – also a thriller writer – Lisa Cutts who is a serving cop and an author, and we had a judge on the panel as well, and that seemed to go down really well.

"I'm lucky enough to get lots of other authors to retweet for me which means I reach a wider audience and I’ve been on some podcasts – I was on the Tartan Noir podcast. The Scottish crime writer Denzil Meyrick featured my book on it with the presenter Theresa Talbot, and that definitely sold some books!"

Where are you at with your new book?

"It's at the second draft stage – it’s all based in Scotland apart from a little bit of time in London. It is going to be a full-on Scottish crime thriller when it comes out, a gangland thriller that touches on Scottish crime and police corruption and I’m quite excited about it.

"I have an agent representing me and we'll be going on submission to different publishers with it."

It sounds quite different from the Tom Novak books. Where did the idea come from?

"A one-liner this Christmas. We went to Pitlochry to visit some friends coming from all over the world to spend time together and the father of one of our friends who lives in Australia was over.

"He was a Scottish guy with the biggest Scottish accent ever, even though he has lived out of the country for 50 years, and had been a cop in the 1960s in Glasgow.

"He was telling me about some research into his wife's family tree he was doing.

"He said he had visited an old abandoned graveyard away up the A9 in the middle of nowhere beside a chapel that had fallen down years and years ago, two centuries ago, maybe.

"He had found one particular grave and on top it said ‘This grave never to be opened’ and I just thought ‘What a hook into a book!’

"And I thought 'I need to write that!’.

"I came up with a new character, a new concept and had written a one-page outline, sort of first five chapters and an agent read it and said ‘I love it, can I represent you for it?’.

"So we’ll see how that all goes, but I am excited about it. I’m confident it’s pretty good – and hopefully I can write more Novaks."

Having retired from work in the services and the Met to live in the Black Isle, Neil enjoys his new role writing.

"I'm just happy to have the time to write.

"As someone who just worked in the realms of fact and policing, to be plucking stories out of the air and making 400-page books is fantastic fun."

Going Back (e-book £4.99 and preorder paperback £8.99 from launch date August 21) here: https://burningchairpublishing.com/product/going-back/

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