Former Northern Ireland -based MI5 officer talks dyslexia and becoming a bestselling thriller writer
Former MI5 officer and anti-007 Tom Marcus has used his real-life experiences to write a hard-hitting thriller. Not bad for someone who can't even read, discovers Andy Martin
We did not meet in a casino. He did not order a dry martini, shaken not stirred. He did not have lightly clad, beautiful women hanging on his every word. Just me.
He was not wearing a dinner jacket either. Tom Marcus was every inch not James Bond. Nor Jason Bourne. And Tom Marcus is not even his real name. But he was utterly convincing as a soldier and spy turned writer. Because that's exactly what he is.
He had a knack of passing himself off as an anonymous, shabby drifter in the street, because that is what he once was.
After his bestselling 2016 memoir, Soldier Spy, he has now turned his hand to fiction in the shape of Capture or Kill, a non-stop, fast-paced thriller set in contemporary Britain and reeking of authenticity.
"I'm not John Le Carré," he said, on the 15th floor of a hotel in London. He is 30-something. His accent is northern, between Yorkshire and Lancashire, somewhere not too far from Manchester (I have to guess because he is not allowed to reveal his exact origin). "There are some intellectual writers who can spend 800 pages describing the weather. Whereas for me when it's hot I just write, 'It's hot'."
The Tom Marcus hero and narrator, Logan, says flat out "I never read books". When he accidentally wanders into a bookshop he tells the "elderly lady in a light-blue cardigan" who is trying to get him to read one, "At least you're not going to run out of things to chuck on the fire to keep warm."
Marcus is the same way. He hasn't even read Andy McNab, the writer he is closest to in spirit. Even though he can write, he can't read. He is "severely dyslexic", so that "reading anything is hard work for me". No one will ever accuse him of plagiarism. His books are a form of streetwise vernacular anti-literature. And he writes in a way to "get to people who wouldn't usually pick up a book - might be barely literate. Like me. I didn't even get GCSE English". He dropped out of school aged 16, with two GCSEs, maths and science. "And I had to cheat to get them."
His qualifications were enough to get him into the Army, "looking for the family I'd never had". His father was an alcoholic who took his own life. And his mother was "very detached", as he puts it. He was on the streets from the age of six, dossing in warehouses, going to school but trying to fade into the background and keep out of the way of social services. "I was good at hiding," he says. "Blending in. I was just the dirty kid in the corner. No one took any notice of me."
He joined the [Royal] Engineers, but they quickly established he couldn't fix anything. On the other hand, he could run, so they gave him a job as physical training instructor. He soon had the colonel, the highest-ranking officer, on remedial PT, at 6am, every day for a week, for failing to do his 50 sit-ups.
When, at the pre-Christmas party, the man-mountain regimental sergeant major comes stomping up to him and gets him to stand to attention, he assumes he is going to spend Christmas in the cooler for disrespect. Instead of that the colonel hands him a bottle of champagne "for having the biggest balls in the regiment" and whispers in his ear, "You won't be coming back, you're going to special operations." Code for counter-terrorism.
He was the youngest to pass the test. He spent years undercover in Northern Ireland, then transferred to Britain where he set about foiling terror plots against innocents as a "mobile surveillance officer". "Agent" is just "publishing talk" he says. They were tough kids from rough backgrounds, not like the Oxbridge-educated spooks in the office. "We're normal. We don't hang around in casinos. I'm usually dressed in a hoodie soaked in my own urine."
He taught himself to type, types fast, and relies on spellchecker to correct his mistakes. He started writing two hours a day because it was such hard work. Now he writes up to 10 hours at a stretch, turning out between five and eight thousand words a day, finishing Capture or Kill in 11 weeks flat. "It just comes out," he says. He doesn't plot or plan or structure. "It's not polished, because I'm not. If it's polished it looks false."
Of course, such is the world of spies and writers, all of this could be a pose and everything Tom Marcus has ever written is pure fiction and fantasy and he started ordering the dry martinis as soon as my back was turned. And popped into the casino on his way back to his stylish bachelor pad in Bayswater. But probably not.
If I were to run his book through a text analysis engine, I suspect the word "f***" (with variants) would come out somewhere near the top of the word count, right up there with "the" and "and".
"It's a sweary world I live in," he says. "There's no please or thank you. You're surrounded by wolves waiting for you to show any sign of weakness."
His first editor got him to take out a few expletives. Then he told him to put them all back in again because "it didn't sound like me any more". Hence (in Soldier Spy) "and if you even think about trying to hurt us, my friends will find you, and f***** destroy you". The "C" word is further down the list.
The rule of naturalism applies similarly to his choice of rampaging jihadis as bad guys. The threat had to be real and believable, "representative of what we face now. I didn't want someone taking over the world. Dr No or Smersh or whatever. I don't know anything about that. I only write about what I know."
His hero tends to kill people brutally (stabbing, stamping, strangling, suffocating), but he does feel bad about it afterwards. "I have to feel it," he says. "This is going to sound poncey, but I can't write unless I'm feeling fearful or sad or happy or something. If I don't feel it no one else will."
Which might explain in part how he ended up with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). "The speed of operations - you're always on. I wasn't dealing with it - you don't have time."
Marcus says he never had any aspirations to be a writer. Writing came to him as a form of therapy, or catharsis, a way of fixing his mental health. "You're taking the carnage out of your head and putting it on paper." He started writing only after his treatment had finished. "I'm good at remembering details. It's what I do. It's a blessing and a curse. The hyper-vigilance. You can't forget anything. You see all the faces."
But it's also a form of nostalgia. When he was diagnosed with PTSD, he was expecting to walk out of the surgery with some pills for the nightmares and go back to his team and get on with the job. In fact, he never saw them again. "That was the hardest thing." Pensioned off, working in isolation, he re-discovers them in his writing. Relives the kill-or-be-killed encounters. "I miss being with the team," he says (with feeling). But there's no going back - except in fiction.
In Capture or Kill, Logan is working for MI5, but is taken up by a shadowy, off-the-books organisation called "Blindeye" with a 007-style licence to kill. Thames House - home to MI5 - does not allow him to say whether or not it is based on truth, but it would be surprising if it wasn't.
His writing technique is relatively unusual. He sits in a corner with his laptop, only a wall in front of him, and puts his headphones on. Then he switches on loud, angry, heavy metal music, something like Marilyn Manson. And only then can he start to write.
He says he couldn't write in a log cabin in the Cotswolds with birds singing and he'd rather write in the back of a van on Moss Side. "If I don't have the carnage, I don't have the calmness." It's as close as it comes to doing his old job. "The sacrifice, the intensity, the inability to protect yourself" - this is where non-fiction and fiction coincide.
There is something oddly fragile about Tom Marcus. I didn't expect that. Vulnerability alongside the stoicism. Still the little boy lost. Somebody really ought to adopt him. His novel may be fact-based, but there is a strong element of dreamy wish-fulfilment too.
I asked Tom Marcus a few probing questions, but the fact is, he asked probably the most interesting question of the lot. "If you're faced with a terrorist planning to kill as many people as possible, do you want someone elegant and eloquent in the way - or do you want me?" And something similar applies to his career as a writer too. He's not Marcel Proust, nor Ian Fleming, but he gets the job done.
Capture or Kill is published by Macmillan. Andy Martin is the author of Reacher Said Nothing: Lee Child and the Making of Make Me, and teaches at the University of Cambridge