Conflicts of Interest by Terry Stiastny
Review & Q&A
Terry Stiastny is a former BBC News reporter and she kindly answered some questions for me about her new novel, which follow my review below.
I very much enjoyed Terry’s first novel, reviewed here, Acts of Omission is a thoughtful political spy thriller moving between Berlin and London. The main protagonist is a former TV producer turned politician and Stiastny won the Paddy Power Political Novel of the Year award for her debut. Her second, Conflicts of Interest, is another thoughtful thriller with another former TV man, a documentary maker, taking the lead, but this time a shady side of the world of business is the main subject, politics is there too but more in the background.
I used the word ‘thoughtful’ to describe Stiastny’s novels. They are not traditional action thrillers, although there are moments that meet that criterion. They are products of her background in journalism, drilling down into the subject matter, but weaving that into a web of drama that carries us along.
Conflicts of Interest is ultimately about second chances, and as it opens, it is Lawrence Leith who is deciding how he will get his, or even whether he wants one…
It was either nine or ten. The church bell always missed the top of the hour by a few minutes, but then it chimed twice. It gave you a second chance. Lawrence look down at the space on his wrist where his watch used to be, where the skin was a smoother texture, the hairs rubbed away, still paler than the rest of the arm even now, in the late summer. He listened again for the second peal of bells, counting them this time to be sure. Ten.
Lawrence has recently had two big slices of bad luck. His marriage has ended and he lost his job. He has retreated to the small village in the south of France where they had a holiday home, leaving Harriet and the girls back in London. When Lawrence’s old colleague Martin arrives in the area for a holiday, Lawrence could be forgiven for feeling jealous. Martin, who owns a PR company, still has his wife and family, he has a big villa, new influential friends high up in French business and, he confides in Lawrence, he’s been nominated for a peerage.
Lawrence manages to remain immune to all the trappings of Martin’s life, but he does miss his TV career. When Martin suggests that Lawrence could make a film for one of his clients, a French NGO charity, Lawrence is tempted – but, and there is a big but – it would mean returning to Africa, to the area where Lawrence and Martin nearly died making a film some years ago. It is meeting the French eye surgeon who is behind the NGO (and sister of Martin’s new French business friend) that convinces him that he should make the film.
Something isn’t quite right though, and cracks begin to appear in Martin’s control of his life, things start to get difficult for the new peer and Lawrence is ultimately forced to choose between his old friend and the truth. But once a journalist, always a journalist, as he explains to his daughter:
But as to your second question, how could I bear to see atrocities that I couldn’t do anything about – I know it’s a cliche but someone needs to witness things, someone needs to tell the world what is going on. Then, I’m afraid, you’ve got to leave it to the people with power to try to sort it out.
Lawrence and Martin are both superb and believable characters. Lawrence is very likeable, a little world-weary but principled, a seeker after truth. By contrast, the pair’s wives are their opposites: Lawrence’s ex Harriet is another media type, gossipy and brittle, whereas Martin’s wife is a warm and welcoming artist.
With Martin, it’s all about spin, but as we know, spin all so often turns around again to bite you. As the novel progresses, it’s clear that Martin is having a mid-life crisis – as evidenced by his cycling. Not for him a superbike or sports car, no, he wants to be King of the Mountains on his carbon-fibre bike, ascending Mont Ventoux in a trial of proving his manhood. Martin has made a series of poor decisions and got into murky water. Before, his boyish enthusiasm has carried him far, but his political naivety will cost him dearly.
I really enjoyed Conflicts of Interest. It held my interest throughout, being page-turning in a quiet way, which is quite refreshing. There may be no great surprises in terms of plot, but the quality of Stiastny’s writing stands out to raise this novel above the ordinary.
Here’s to more thoughtful thrillers! (9/10)
And here’s the Q&A…
Annabel: Firstly, I’d like to say I enjoyed both your novels very much. Given your background, it’s not surprising that both have protagonists who’ve had a TV career, but whereas Acts of Omission (review here) was set firmly in the world of diplomacy, spooks and politics, Conflicts of Interest is more about business and some of its murkier sides, and politics comes second. Was that a deliberate move to write about different subjects?
Terry: So glad to hear you enjoyed both books Annabel — thank you! In Conflicts of Interest I was keen to explore something that I think has been very important in recent politics: the role of public relations and lobbying and their relationship with politics and the media. We’ve heard a lot about it in the press but it hasn’t been addressed much in fiction. Martin, the PR man, is keen to get in to the political world and have influence, but he doesn’t do it through the traditional route of standing for election; instead, he’s a political crony. The status that he gets is through his networking and the people he knows. I wanted to look at where power lies and this seemed an interesting way to approach it.
- Annabel: Lawrence’s old friend and colleague, Martin, persuades him to return to Africa to make a charity film – to a place where the pair of them nearly got killed in the past (we don’t find out what happened back then until later in the book). Martin won’t be going, sending his friend instead – he goes through the book doing rather uncaring, even callous things, but comes across as slightly naïve at times and certainly needy considering he’s such a high-powered businessman. He’s an interesting and complex character – can you comment on him?
Terry: Part of Martin’s success and one of his flaws at the same time is that he desperately wants to be liked. One of the things he prides himself on is being an excellent host. He cultivates those he sees as the ‘right’ people. But, as you point out, there’s a down side to this as well. He also wants to like people and he is prepared to overlook certain things. He manages to convince himself of the story that he’s telling, and selling, to others. He glosses over anything unpalatable. And when things become inconvenient or difficult he tends to delegate the tricky parts that he doesn’t want to handle himself.
Annabel: The central friendship between Lawrence and Martin is at the heart of the novel, and the conflict between that relationship and, as the blurb says, “personal betrayal and double-dealing”. How did you deal with the trust issues between Lawrence and the others?
Terry: Lawrence and Martin’s friendship was formed when they worked together as journalists; those friendships made on the road can become strong very quickly. But they have drifted further apart over the years and there’s always a distance that creeps in between journalists and the people they might have to report on. That’s why Martin’s guest, Victoria, who’s a politician, is instantly mistrustful of Lawrence and the French politician, Sylvie, even though she has met Lawrence many times, is still distant with him. Even Lawrence’s own daughter distrusts her parents to a certain extent, because both Lawrence and his ex-wife are prone to see the lives of others as good copy. Lawrence has a strong sense of duty and wants to do the right thing, but he’s not always sure what that is and — without revealing too much — he doesn’t always make the best choices.
Annabel: I love the South of France – such a wonderful main setting for this novel. I remember driving up Mont Ventoux and passing all the men on bikes struggling to emulate the riders in the Tour de France. It’s a real test of manhood and thus a bit of a metaphor – how did you choose this area in particular?
Terry: I chose the area because it’s one I know well — my parents moved down there a few years ago in fact, so we visit often. It’s hard to avoid the cyclists, particularly in the summer season. And I also have friends in London who are obsessed with cycling, and yes, it’s usually men of a certain age who get a wistful look in their eyes when you mention the Ventoux. So it seemed like a natural location for the story.
Annabel: And finally, I always ask this… what are you enjoying reading at the moment?
Terry: I started reading Tim Shipman’s All Out War, a fascinating non-fiction account of the lead-up to Brexit, but with all the news at the moment I needed something more distant from the here and now. So I have just started Anthony Quinn’s Freya, which seems to be just the kind of book I was looking for.
Thank you Terry.
Source: Publisher – Thank you.
Terry Stiastny, Conflicts of Interest (John Murray, 1 June 2017), trade paperback, 304 pages.