Sunday, July 06, 2014

Craig Thomas (1942-2011)

Craig Thomas was at the forefront of the spy/adventure genre known as the techno-thriller, novels in which technology—usually cutting-edge military hardware extrapolated from current technological advances—is central to the plot. Thomas’s 1977 novel Firefox featured the fictional MiG-31, an aircraft so advanced that it would immediately give the Russians the upper hand in the Cold War.

At the time, the Russian’s had the MiG-25 Foxbat, the fastest reconnaissance bomber and interceptor in the air with a top speed of Mach 2.8. Thomas’s Firefox could achieve speeds of Mach 5, had stealth technology which made it invisible to radar and a guided missile system controlled by the pilot by thought alone. Realising the implications to security in the West, British spymaster Kenneth Aubrey suggests an audacious plan to steal one of the two prototype aircraft.

Firefox was filmed in 1982 with Clint Eastwood both directing and starring as Air Force Major Mitchell Gant, an American fighter pilot and Vietnam P.O.W. traumatized by seeing a young girl incinerated by napalm.

The book was a bestseller, Sphere gambling on then recent real-life events—the 1976 defection of Soviet pilot Viktor Belenko to the USA via Japan with a Foxbat—to risk a 250,000 paperback edition. The book went through 33 printings over the next 17 years, helping to propel Thomas’s sales to over 20 million by the time Mitchell Gant made his fourth and final appearance in A Different War (1997).

Although not technically minded, Thomas was able to steep his books with intricate detail, the result of meticulous research; background material for Firefox was provided by friends formerly with the RAF and the Russian setting was derived from guidebooks and photographic books. A teacher’s wages would not allow him the luxury of visiting Moscow—a situation soon solved by the book’s tremendous success, which allowed him to become a full time writer—and, afterwards, he did not think it prudent to holiday in Russia, saying, “I don’t think I’m their favourite novelist!”

David Craig Owen Thomas was born in Cardiff on 24 November 1942, the son of John Brinley George Thomas, a rugby journalist on the Western Mail, and his wife, Gwen (Gwendolin Megan, neé Owen). Educated at Cardiff High School and University College, Cardiff, he would later say that his five years at university completing an MA on Thomas Hardy sealed his fate: “It was a life connection with literature, with the magic of words.”

Thomas began teaching English at schools in the West Midlands and, after a day of Shakespeare, Dickens and Keats, would read thrillers—John Le Carre, Frederick Forsyth, Len Deighton, Alistair MacLean, Jack Higgins and Adam Hall--for entertainment. When he joined the ranks of thriller writers himself, he read the classics for pleasure.

Thomas had begun writing as a boy, firing off short stories to magazines without success. As a teacher, he tried writing radio scripts for the BBC, having discovered that he did not need to write the whole thing, just a cast list, an outline of the plot and six sample pages of dialogue. He continued to write these “in a rather amateurish and occasional way” for five or six years until one of the editors who read his outlines offered some advice, saying that whilst Thomas could write, radio drama was not his medium and he should try writing a novel instead.

“Perhaps he hoped never to hear from me again,” said Thomas, “but he provided what was the single most important piece of practical advice I have ever received. It changed my life.”

At the time Thomas was toying with an idea for a thriller as his next submission to the BBC. Instead, he spent eighteen months turning it into a novel. Even Thomas could see the end results would require a lot of editing and rewriting and he put it aside. But the experience did not go to waste: his next attempt, Rat Trap (1976), about the hijack of a British Airways 707 by an American and five accomplices who want to trade passengers for an imprisoned Arab terrorist named Nasoud, took three months to write and sold to Michael Joseph. He immediately followed it with Firefox, which took only four and a half months of intense writing to complete.

Quitting his position as senior English master at Shire Oak School, Walsall, Thomas continued to write tales of espionage. Wolfsbane (1978) established the history of two characters already seen in Thomas’s work: Kenneth Aubrey (from Firefox) and Hilary Latymer (from Rat Trap). In 1944, they are both working for SOE and, by the time of the novel’s 1963 setting, are with the SIS, of which Aubrey would subsequently become head. Aubrey was a key link in all sixteen of Thomas’s espionage novels, often at the forefront—in Snow Falcon (1979), The Bear’s Tears (1985, as Lion’s Run in the US) and All the Grey Cats (1988, as Wildcat in the US)—or playing a background role, usually to Mitchell Gant or Patrick Hyde.

Gant was reintroduced in Firefox Down, which begins seconds after the events of Firefox, and Winter Hawk (1987), about a Russian orbital weapons platform; his final appearance, in A Different War, saw him investigating the destruction of a prototype airliner.

Australian ex-SAS officer Patrick Hyde took the lead in seven of Thomas’s novels, including Sea Leopard (1981), Jade Tiger (1982), The Bear’s Tears, The Last Raven (1990), A Hooded Crow (1992), Playing With Cobras (1993) and Slipping into Shadow (1998).

Other characters—others included Aubrey’s assistant Peter Shelley, Mitchell Gant’s Russian nemesis, Dmitri Priabin, and KGB agent Alexei Vorontsyev, who had leading roles in Snow Falcon and A Wild Justice (1995)—were woven into these interconnected novels, creating a much larger tapestry.

Thomas wrote two further, unrelated novels as David Grant: Moscow 5000 (1979), about a terrorist plot to bomb the Moscow Olympics, and Emerald Decision (1980), in which a father (in the 1940s) and his son (in the 1980s), both seek out the truth about Nazi involvement in Ireland.

Outside of writing, Thomas’s interests included watching cricket, gardening and listening to music (classical and jazz). His fascination with philosophy and political theory led him to write There to Here: Ideas of Political Society (1991) and, completed shortly before his death, a two-volume study of Friedrich Nietzsche.

Thomas was married in 1967 to Jill Lesley White, who acted as his editor, secretary and bookkeeper and in whose judgement Thomas trusted implicitly, saying in 1981 “If I’d written three hundred pages and she said no, then I would have to scrap it.” They lived for many years in Staffordshire, but recently moved to Somerset. Thomas died aged 68 on 4 April 2011 from pneumonia following a brief but intense battle against acute myeloid leukaemia.

Obituaries: BBC News (8 Apr); The Guardian (13 Apr); The Independent (13 May); Daily Telegraph (26 May). 


Novels (series: Kenneth Aubrey; Mitchell Gant; Patrick Hyde; Alexei Vorontsyev)
Rat Trap. London, M. Joseph, 1976; New York, Bantam, 1979.
Firefox (Gant). New York, Holt, Rinehart & Winston, Aug 1977; London, Joseph, Aug 1977; adapted for children (by David Fickling), Oxford, Oxford University Press, 1980.
Wolfsbane (Aubrey). London, Joseph, 1978; New York, Holt, 1978.
Snow Falcon (Aubrey/Vorontsyev). London, Joseph, 1979; New York, Holt, 1980.
Sea Leopard (Hyde). London, Joseph, 1981; New York, Viking, 1981.
Jade Tiger (Aubrey/Hyde). London, Joseph, 1982; New York, Viking, 1982.
Firefox Down (Gant). London, Joseph, 1983; New York, Bantam, 1983.
The Bear’s Tears (Aubrey/Hyde). London, Joseph, 1985; as Lion’s Run, New York, Bantam, 1985.
Winter Hawk (Gant). London, Collins, 1987; New York, Morrow, 1987.
All the Grey Cats (Aubrey). London, Collins, 1988; as Wildcat, New York, Putnam, 1989.
The Last Raven (Aubrey/Hyde). London, Collins, 1990; New York, HarperCollins, 1990.
A Hooded Crow (Aubrey/Hyde). London, HarperCollins, 1992; New York, HarperCollins, 1992.
Playing with Cobras (Aubrey/Hyde). London, HarperCollins, 1993; New York, HarperCollins, 1993.
A Wild Justice (Vorontsyev). London, HarperCollins, 1995; New York, HarperCollins, 1995.
A Different War (Gant). London, Little, Brown, 1997; Boston, MA, G. K. Hall, 1997.
Slipping Into Shadow (Hyde). London, Little, Brown, 1998; Thorndike, ME, Thorndike Press, 1999.

Firefox, Firefox Down, Sea Leopard. St. Michael, 1987.
Craig Thomas Omnibus (contains A Different War, Slipping Into Shadow). London, Warner, 2002.

Novels as David Grant
Moscow 5000. London, Michael Joseph, 1979; New York, Holt, 1979.
Emerald Decision. London, Michael Joseph, 1980; New York, Holt, 1980; as by Craig Thomas, London, Fontana, 1987.

There to Here: Ideas of Political Society. London, Fontana, 1991; New York, Harper Perennial, 1991.

(* This column was originally published 13 April 2011, the bibliography appearing as part of a partial cover gallery. Bar a couple of minor alterations, this is the original text that  I submitted to The Guardian which was trimmed before publication.)

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