Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Craig Thomas: Teacher who became spy master

The Welsh author died in April this year.
Craig Thomas, the English teacher who became a well-known novelist and who died on April 4, 2011, aged 68, introduced technology to spy thrillers long before other writers of this genre did, most notably the famous American author Tom Clancy.

While Thomas’ novels lacked the high-octane drama and edge-of-the-seat action associated with Clancy’s works, the Welsh author captured your imagination no less.

His main characters worked for British Intelligence (Secret Intelligence Service or MI6), wore dark overcoats and bowler or trilby hats, and quietly went about their cloak-and-dagger activities of keeping the world safe, usually from the Soviets. They were commonplace and could pass of as your next-door neighbour who left for work every morning.

For instance, in one particular scene in Snow Falcon (1979), Sir Kenneth Aubrey, the veteran of many Craig Thomas novels, sits in on a debate in the public gallery of the House of Commons at Westminster and ruminates over his long career in MI6 which is about to come to an end. Moments later, a junior officer approaches the ageing Aubrey and escorts him downstairs to discuss an espionage matter with a ranking military officer. The conversation, amidst upturned collars, is brief and banal, but effective. That apart, the Cold War story revolving around a high-tension arms-reduction summit between the two superpowers keeps you glued to Snow Falcon.

Thomas shot to fame with Firefox in 1977, which was adapted into a film by Clint Eastwood. In this book the CIA and MI6 hatch a daring plot to steal one of two advanced MiG-31 Firefox prototype aircraft built by the Soviets. Firefox can go completely off radar, attain speeds of Mach 5 or more, and is armed with weapons controlled by the thought impulses of the pilot. This was long before America produced stealth aircraft.

Seven years later, in 1984, Tom Clancy wrote The Hunt for Red October, the first of many techno-thrillers, where the US tries to get hold of a highly-advanced renegade Soviet missile submarine defecting to America. A story idea that originally belonged to Craig Thomas: in his Sea Leopard (1981), the Russians are out to "kidnap" a British nuclear submarine with the most sophisticated anti-detection equipment in the world.  

Thomas wrote nearly two-dozen novels that included his first Rat Trap (1976), Wolfsbane (1978), Sea Leopard (1981) and A Different War (1997), each with an intricate plot, graphic detail and an utterly believable story.

Craig Thomas and Sir Kenneth Aubrey will be missed.

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