The cold war is over, the spy thriller dead. Long live the spy thriller! Thom Dibdin talks to Tim Sebastian, a journalist who crossed the line to write authentic thrillers based firmly on real-life events.
Three days after the attempted Russian coup of August 199]. Tim Sebastian became the first Western journalist to gain entry to the Central Committee Archives in Moscow. The archives are a mausoleum of the myriad facts. secrets and rumours collected by the Soviet state on its citizens and. more revealingly.
its contacts with other govemments.
The secrets he learned. Sebastian revealed in the Sunday 'limes: the Soviet Embassy‘s former contacts
with the Labour Party. the route taken by money from Moscow to the coffers of the National Union of
Mineworkers. The secrets he didn‘t learn remain locked up in those dusty rooms. in ﬁles with zero circulation. Even then. what Sebastian saw was vetted — he was not. for instance. allowed access to material on the British Conservative government. being told by one archivist. ‘this information you want . . . it’s too incriminating. There is blood
dripping from every ﬁle.‘
‘There are 70 million files in there.’ says Sebastian. ‘Dirt on everybody. Enough. say the archivists, to bring down half the governments in Western Europe: all the deals. all the accommodations that were made over the last 50 years. i wanted a whole lot of stuff
of and behind us.‘
11m Sebastian: fact into fiction
which l didn't get. The moment we got in and started getting the material out. doors were closing in front
Sebastian used a tiny window of opportunity when, thanks to the coup. the old laws didn‘t apply and new ones had yet to be written. ‘Nobody knew what they
3 could and couldn’t do. So we got in and got some papers out in that brief period. Since then. as the story in Last Rights says. it‘s been about Western governments trying to block out the past. trying to prevent disclosure of material which compromises
Last Rights. Sebastian's latest spy thriller. is the
fiction made frorn those ﬁles. stolen at the time of the coup. brought to London. tnislaid and taken back to Russia. it is also the story of a family who. having lived through the relative stability of the Cold War. are now trying desperately to survive the turmoil of its demise. It is a terse. cold book. full of outrageous coincidences and cliched phrases. But once you get beyond genre contrivances. it sucks you in like a bad dream. This is reality written in a way that newspapers can only glimpse.
‘You go about researching a book in much the same way as you research a story. except that you get to ask more interesting questions.‘ says Sebastian. ‘lf you’re doing a news story. it‘s what happened today and what‘s going to happen tomorrow. but the nice thing about talking to people for a book is that you actually get to ask about their lives and what matters to them. then you try to put it into the light of perspective. I don't know how i could have told the story i wanted to tell. a realistic story based on facts. without going into ﬁction.‘
The Soviet system. according to Sebastian. encouraged people to inform on each other. destroying their trust in human relationships. ‘You were afraid of and for your relatives.‘ he says. ‘The mother in the novel is based on a woruan who l
worked with. who spent ten years in a labour camp
and still doesn‘t know why: no formal charges were levelled against her. When her father came to see her.
he was too afraid to ask why she was in there.‘
Sebastian believes that Russia now faces a terrible dilemma over the files. ‘If you do let out all the ' information then you risk dividing society from top to bottom. opening up all sorts of wounds and 5 making them worse. lfyou don't. then you risk condoning the lies and allowing them to go on. Even L though the Cold War is said to be over. the legacy is still there and will be there fora very long time.‘
Last Rights is published by Bantam at £8. 9‘).
Still reeling from the harrowing closing pages of Anne E. Imbrie’s ‘Spoken in Darkness’, I caught the tail end of the Radio 4 news: ‘the sentence of the boy who attempted to rape an eight-year-old girl is to be reconsidered, following an outcry at the judge’s description of the victim as “not entirely an angel”. And finally, in the wake of the killing which took place earlier this week, Virginia Bottomley has promised steps to ensure that dangerous psychiatric patients are not released into the community.’ It’s hard to imagine more compelling or timely testimony to the pertinence of Imbrie’s new book Spoken in Darkness, in which she tells the story of lee Snaveley, her best friend during their turbulent early- adolescent years. Born on the wrong side of small-town America’s tracks,
Anne Imbrie: ‘Cruelty is individual, but
silence and neglect are collective.’ unfettered by nagging parents, lee was the perfect companion for adventures with boys, bras and burgeoning sexuality. It was only years later, after the two had drifted apart, that Imbrie Ieamed of her friend’s violent death at the hands of a serial killer - a psychotic discharged from hospital despite serious medical reservations.
In depicting lee’s short life, Imbrie eschews both sensationalism and the all-too common tendency, in stories of this kind, towards endless Iascivious pop-pyschological speculation as to the warps and whys of the murderer’s
psyche. ‘l was much more interested in the way much of this man’s thinking about women, although extreme, is not too unfamiliar in terms of larger cultural attitudes. But more than that, I wanted to redress the imbalance, to give as much space as possible to the victim - the readers have 200 pages to get to know her before the murder, which takes place right at the end.’
Imbrie draws on her own memories, those of others who knew lee later, and from successive entries in county records and police files, documenting her progress from step mother to foster home to gaol for drugs and prostitution-related offences. Above all, though, she feels her way imaginatively beneath the facts in order to identify with experiences dramatically different from her own. ‘All her life long, my friend was a victim of others’ failure to see what was happening to her, to empathise. Of course the ultimate responsibility for her death lies with the man who killed her, but in many ways her history made her so much more vulnerable. Cruelty is individual, but silence and neglect are collective.’
‘Durs was a very homogeneous community - people looked alike — which gave a greater force to the sense of rules one had growing up,’ lmbrie continues. ‘That extreme conformity made it much more difficult for somebody like lee who didn’t fit the picture, but also more difficult for me not to internalise the values and attitudes that caused her so much pain. looking at this life
which converged with and diverged from mine has allowed me to free myself.’
If Spoken in Darkness is a plea for the breaching of social barriers, it also defies generic definition: it is an autobiography in which somebody else is the main character, a true-crime story which repudiates sensationalism, a detective story in which you know whodunnit on page two. It is only to be hoped that this powerful and beautifully written book does not fall foul of bookshop categorisation; it deserves all the readers it can get. (Catherine Fellows) Spoken in Darkness: Small-Town Murder and a Friendship Beyond Death i is published by Bloomsbury at £16.99.
The List l6—29 July l993 53