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«Read Regional 2020

Oliver Harris: A Shadow Intelligence

I wanted to write a spy novel as contemporary as possible, to capture something of the crazy geopolitical moment we’re in, and how espionage has changed since the Cold War. This included an explosion in the use of psychological warfare enabled by social media. I was fascinated by its exploitation by Russia but also the involvement of private companies such as Cambridge Analytica.

The other theme I wanted to explore was the growing privatisation of intelligence work. Alongside private military contractors, this is now a huge and very lucrative field, often involving former state intelligence officers in the pay of big business or private individuals.

My main character, Elliot Kane, reflects an older aspect of espionage. The individuals it drew in were often, of necessity, mavericks: chameleon-like, intellectual, with the contradictions you’d expect from someone leading double lives for a living. Kane’s fascination with other cultures led him into intelligence work, along with a hunger to understand the world – to see history unfold up close. But the fantasy of being merely a passive observer has crumbled. He walks the line between spying as a pursuit of knowledge and the more active, destructive elements of the intelligence service that seek to control events.

A Shadow Intelligence is primarily set in Kazakhstan. Again, I wanted to anticipate which areas of the world would gain significance in the future, and this fascinating former-Soviet country captured my imagination. There are not many places where you find camels wandering among the snow, secular Islam rubbing up against a communist legacy, Chinese influence from the east, Russia from the north, and the West felt in burgeoning consumerism. I was particularly taken by its new capital, Astana, built out of oil money in the middle of the desert – a shiny but hollow Disneyland of dictatorship.

Questions for Readers

What can a thriller do that non-fiction sources can’t, and why might this be important?

Have you been subject to fake news? What can we do about it?

Thrillers need ‘baddies’, but this risks demonising groups of people. Is this avoidable?

Is it ever justifiable to attempt to manipulate events in other countries?

Recommended Reading

A Treachery of Spies by Manda Scott
Black Water by Louise Doughty
The Big Breach by Richard Tomlinson
Snowdrops by AD Miller
Night Heron by Adam Brookes
Deep Shelter by Oliver Harris

Oliver Harris was born in London but now lives in Manchester where he teaches at Manchester Metropolitan University’s Writing School. He has published four novels, three featuring the police detective Nick Belsey, and now A Shadow Intelligence, the first in a new spy series. He has also written one work of non-fiction exploring Greek myth and psychoanalysis.


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Tuesday 14 July, 6.30pm

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