Frank Hurst’s crime novels follow the adventures of intelligence officer Mike Rawlin as he tries to capture a dangerous international drugs trafficker in South East Asia. Frank was himself a former drugs intelligence officer who travelled widely during his career. The books are about secrets, romance, and rivalry in the dangerous jungles of the Golden Triangle and the corridors of power in London where deception and conspiracy loom at every turn. Go to http://www.frankhurst.com for more information.
KC: Frank, welcome to Thailand Footprint. Let’s get this party started: Tell me about your works of fiction as if you were pitching them as screenplays.
FH: Pitching for a screenplay – now that would be a thing!
Well, the plan is to write three books under the collective title “The Golden Triangle Trilogy”. The first two, “The Postmistress of Nong Khai “and its sequel “The Chiang Mai Assignment” are already out there. I know that as I spotted them in Asia books in Bangkok yesterday! The third is a work in progress – I’m hoping to complete it in the next few months.
Essentially the books are set in the world of drugs smuggling and more specifically in the Golden Triangle area of South East Asia where opium and heroin production was so rife in the seventies, eighties and nineties. It’s a story about two people, Mike Rawlin, a slightly past it, but dogged British Customs investigator on the trail of Bart Vanderpool, a dangerous Dutch heroin trafficker, Vanderpool is a much younger man – charismatic, clinical and ruthless. Although Rawlin is as determined as a Bulldog and is the more likeable of the two men, he has some serious personal weaknesses and is prone to severe errors of judgement. These central characters dominate the plot as one tries to out-smart the other. As the story progresses the rivalry turns to dislike, then hatred and by the end each is out to terminate the other man. There is love rivalry too. In the first book, Mike Rawlin recruits an informant, a beautiful Thai woman, who also happens to be Vanderpool’s current lover. Rawlin falls for her and it all gets very messy. The informant, Lek is the character in the book’s title – The Postmistress of Nong Khai, passes messages for Vanderpool and for a while Rawlin is able to intercept them. But infatuation takes hold and during a sea chase off the coast of Phuket Rawlin has to make a choice – does he want the girl or the man he has been hunting…?
The second book “The Chiang Mai Assignment” follows on from the first. At the outset, Rawlin is back in Britain, personally wounded, a broken man, relieved of his front-line job in Bangkok and resigned to sorting paper clips in the London Office. Both Lek and Vanderpool have survived but the Dutchman has ditched her for another model, and now his drugs operation is flourishing again. Rawlin is recalled unexpectedly out of the wilderness to track him down. His first task is to find Lek and turn her. By the end of the book, he travels undercover to Thailand using a false identity, and after some adventures and with the help of newly recruited Lek, he locates Vanderpool and plans his downfall. Meanwhile, back in London MI6 have offered to help Customs bring Vanderpool to justice. Between them the two agencies hatch a plan to stage the theft of a valuable Dutch masterpiece from a London gallery which they think will coax Vanderpool out of the shadows. But all is not what it seems. MI6 have a hidden agenda and their true motives are hidden from Customs and Rawlin. The book culminates in the destruction of Vanderpool’s home, the seizure of his latest heroin consignment and “death” in a drive by shooting. But is he truly dead? His body is not recovered. “The Chiang Mai Assignment” is as much about the dangerous world of Thai drugs smuggling as it is about skulduggery in the corridors of power in London.
The third, will follow on from book two and will be the final chapter in the saga. It’s half written at the moment. It will be set in Thailand and many of the old characters will resurface as will quite a few new ones … I like to think that the settings, both drugs intelligence work and Thailand are authentic. Many of the scenes actually happened to me – but some did not!! Just as well really!
KC; When did you catch the writing bug? Did you have any role models? Who are your favourite writers of crime fiction, dead and alive.
FH: “The Great Game” by Peter Hopkirk made a big impression on me. It was about British and Russian spy networks in Northern India and Central Asia. The fact it was a true account with real people made it even more spellbinding. Since I left the service a few years back, I have started to read more fiction but I’m a bit of a fuddy-duddy and seem to like the old stuff the best. Graham Greene and George Orwell have been very inspirational. The lines are so simple but so descriptive at all sorts of levels. My love of the Far East has been a reoccurring theme and so I found Orwell’s first book “Burmese Days” brilliant to read – tragic and politically very thought provoking, and Greene’s “The Quiet American” set in 1950s Vietnam is simply wonderful. I modelled Mike Rawlin on the central character in that book to some extent – past his best, nervous about the future, willing to do bad things to get his own way. I also really enjoyed “The World of Suzie Wong” by Richard Mason set in 1950’s Hong Kong. The first story about a man falling in love with a bar girl – very sensitively written and it had a happy ending! I feel embarrassed to say that I hardly ever read modern crime novels – I should of course, even if its just to see how a proper bestseller is written by an expert but I’m too set in my ways – I just seem to plough on – oh dear!
KC: Fill me in on your work history and how that plays into your fiction.
FH: I got very fluky in my career. More by luck than judgement I was recruited into the investigation arm of HM Customs in London within weeks of joining the British Civil Service. As a result, I spent the next nearly forty years chasing criminals, mostly drugs smugglers and often in some far-flung corners of the globe. I remember asking an ancient colleague, shortly after I’d joined, what opportunities there were to serve the Crown overseas. He shook his head gloomily and said “None whatsoever!” Fortunately for me, I managed to prove the old fellow wrong and after fifteen years cutting my teeth catching drugs smugglers at Heathrow airport and Dover docks, I was sent to Thailand to try to develop intelligence about Howard Marks, perhaps the most famous British drugs smuggler of all time. I was totally bowled over by the place and instantly recommended that we open an office there – with me in charge of course! The Department, perfidious as ever, did open an office in Bangkok but sent me to New Delhi instead. What a joy India was though! Meanwhile I’d been collaborating with the US DEA and the Canadian RCMP among others on the Marks case and between us, with the yanks in the vanguard, we managed to bring him to justice. Marks was a truly international drugs man, highly intelligent, charm personified with a coterie of followers in all the important drugs producing countries, including in Thailand. To his credit he never dealt in hard drugs, keeping himself strictly to weed, but he made a ton of money and had a lot of fun doing it. My character Bart Vanderpool is loosely based on Marks although I’ve made Vanderpool much more venomous and cold-blooded. Vanderpool is a heroin trafficker – Marks was not. In my book that’s an important distinction to make. After Marks, Thailand and India I was dispatched to the Eastern Caribbean where I did six years on the trail of the groups who smuggled cocaine north from south America in fast boats. That was quite an adventure too. In my time in the service I worked at Scotland Yard, doing my best to encourage cooperation between British Customs and the British police. Mostly it was preventing them from trying to strangle one another! I also spend a period in charge of Customs maritime and aviation operations and both these spells have informed my books one way or another. The constant turf warfare between so called cooperating crime and intelligence agencies was not very edifying at times and I write about this in all my books. And my spell amongst the boats and planes has given me an opportunity to weave in story lines about this type of smuggling too. Although I never got my dream job – in charge of the Bangkok office I made sure my character Mike Rawlin did! And so my love affair with the country continues.
KC: Great to hear about Mike. A lucky guy. Have you spent any time in prisons? As a visitor hopefully. What was that like?
FH: Yes, I have! Too many to count! Although it might add colour to my career if I’d been a serving inmate it would also have meant no career, so my prison visiting has been exactly that – visiting prisoners, usually ones that I’d had a part in locking up. The basis for visiting prisoners is quite simple. To extract information from them – to try to recruit them away from the dark side and become a crusader for the cause … that’s what they tell you. In fact, it’s often a bit more complicated than that. I try to capture some of this in the books and there are quite a few scenes set in Klong Prem gaol in Bangkok. Prisons can be harsh places especially the ones I visited in the third world. Tihar gaol in Delhi and a prison in Kathmandu spring to mind. The worst prison I’ve visited in Thailand in terms of conditions is undoubtedly the Immigration gaol in Bangkok, but that was a few years ago. Overcrowding, poor sanitation and other violent inmates are the main dangers. Mind you, it’s a little artificial visiting as an official. You always get given a clean airy place to talk, knowing full well that at the end the poor man will be carted off into a much less attractive part of the building. Cigarettes were always important – I always carried fags (English not US slang!) They were a kind of currency and it was amazing what intelligence a couple of packets could buy. Whether the information passed was any value was another matter… Sometimes colleagues of mine have been called on to visit someone on death row. This can be a disturbing experience – trying to ply information from a human being who is destined for the drop in a couple of weeks. In general, I was always amazed by the resilience of most of the prisoners I encountered, which served to inform me how much a man (or woman for that matter as I’ve visited some women’s prisons too) can endure and in particular how much they can adjust when the chips are down. For a professional criminal its treated as an occupational hazard I suppose. Even those, lower down the food chain – the couriers or drug mules, some with ten or twenty years ahead of them are rarely crushed. It brings out a hidden resolve in most, which is kind of encouraging.
KC: Tell me how drug enforcement is different in the UK than the USA. Has a post 9/11 and 7/7 environment seen any changes for either you or your former colleagues? How has the enforcement game changed, if it has?
FH: Wow, Kevin this is a huge topic!! I could go on about this for ever!
US and UK law enforcement are similar in many ways – they share roughly the same goals but there are significant differences, mostly related to organisation and money. In a nutshell, in the drugs law enforcement area alone there are a host of different, and dare I say competing agencies, in the US ball park. In the UK there are relatively few. This can cause difficulties in the US in terms of cooperation and coordination; in intelligence sharing in particular. If the British have challenges with turf warfare (which they still do in part), the US has this in spades. A British colleague working in Miami a few years ago counted over 90 different agencies in Florida alone with a remit against drugs crime. From the parks police to the FBI. From a district task force to the DEA there are hundreds of them. And that is where the money comes in I think. Someone has to bankroll their budgets. In the US my impression is there is more money, pound for pound, available at national, state and district levels to fight drugs crime than there is in the UK. The problem is it is not too well synchronized. And overseas budgets in the US are huge compared to the UK. From crop substitution programmes in Afghanistan to the purchasing of planes, helicopters and high-tech equipment for small Caribbean countries, the list is endless. UK interventions have tended to be more subtle – intelligence related generally, an area in which I think we have punched above our weight.
One major judicial difference, the one we often used to talk about is in the area of wiretapping. In both jurisdictions telephone interception as we Brits call it is legal. You need a warrant of course. But in the UK intercepted communications can only be used as an intelligence tool. In America they can be adduced as evidence. You will never here the recording of a conversation between two drugs traffickers played out in a British court. There will not be a transcript either. The British investigator must gather the intelligence gleaned from the wiretap and use it to point him towards where he can catch the criminal – in the act preferably. This is a constant theme in my books – otherwise it might appear too easy. Knowing a man is drugs smuggling by listening to him talk about it is not enough. You have to bring other evidence before the court if you are to convict him.
As far as the changing landscape post 9/11 and 7/7, there has indeed been a change of emphasis. From a UK perspective alone, there was a significant shift post the collapse of the Berlin wall also – but in the opposite direction … Let me explain. After the end of the Cold War and the Soviet Union was wound up, UK security agencies – MI5 and MI6 were left with huge resources, vast expertise but no one to fight – no enemy. What did they do? They ploughed their skills and know-how into the war on drugs and offers to assist the traditional law enforcement agencies – police and Customs came flooding in. New Government Departments were created, others were dismantled or amalgamated. It was a big upheaval and I think we are still recovering from it. It was not all good. And now of course since 7/7 and 9/11 the shift has move away again, the security agencies have been forced to reduce their assistance in the war on drugs. In Islamic extremism they have found a new enemy and have more on their hands than they can manage.
KC: Fascinating. I’d be remiss if I didn’t ask you about your own drug use: pre, post and during your enforcement career. Were you a Boy Scout or a Bad Boy? What is your personal belief about recreational drugs and drug use. Again, pre, post and during employment. I remember an old fact or myth that “Cops have the best drugs.” Truth or hyperbole?
FH: It’s a question I have been asked often by inquisitive friends – usually close ones when in drink. I suspect they think my answer is probably a little disappointing … I did try cannabis while I was at university – a right of passage I suppose. Usual story; a joint – ganja from Jamaica – was passed around one day, I inhaled and enjoyed it. This happened a couple of times and then someone brought in some resin – Lebanese gold, I recall. I puffed away happily and then was overcome by a terrible feeling of fear and paranoia. After an hour I was violently sick and since then I have never indulged; although I have been tempted. When I became a drugs investigator any thoughts of taking drugs were quickly supressed. If asked by work colleagues about my history with drugs, I lied. Simple as that. If I hadn’t I would have been out of a job. On reflection, I’m pretty sure most of my colleagues lied too. I have never bought drugs, taken cocaine, heroin or any of the amphetamines and in truth I’ve never had the urge to try. I saw at close hand what heroin in particular can do if unchecked and it frightened me. As law enforcement officers we were not expected to have an opinion on the legalisation question. We had a job to do and we just got on with it. Catching smugglers could be a lot of fun! In terms of our opposition – the smugglers themselves – I enjoyed being in the company of the cannabis and hash guys much more that the hard drugs merchants. They tended to be more sympathetic, they always had an interesting story to tell and led a freewheeling lifestyle that appeared quite attractive. Cold hearted profit seemed more important to the heroin guys and I found little in common with them. Having said that, many of the cannabis traffickers like Mr Nice, Howard Marks had to do deals with suppliers that dispensed a wide range of gear, so their links to the hard drugs trade could become a little blurred at times. The legalisation of drugs is a complex matter and it would take too long to express them here. But in handfuls, I would be opposed to the legalisation of most of the hard stuff but be broadly supportive of a more relaxed approach to cannabis for example. Fairly predictable eh? Of course, legalisation would not stop smuggling because governments would have to tax the product and this would leave an opportunity for smugglers – cigarette and alcohol smuggling is still huge business for example. And in order for legalisation to be effective you would have to carry the majority of the world’s jurisdictions with you, otherwise countries where drugs were legal would become attractive places for smugglers to operate from – I think the Dutch have had problems with this for instance. In terms of cops and drugs, I can put my hand on my heart and say I’m confident that none of my colleagues in the UK ran a side-line in drugs trafficking. Unfortunately, this is not the case elsewhere and during my long international career I came across many examples of law enforcement complicity and worse in some cases. I remember an investigation once when we seized a consignment of ten kilos of cocaine and the forensic analysis revealed traces of finger print dust in the mix. Enough said…
KC: Why Thailand? Where is home base? How did you make that location decision.
FH: I was born in South London, but I now spend most of my time in the rural English county of Sussex, travelling to Thailand three or four times a year. I first came to Thailand in pursuit of Howard Marks in the 1980s and fell in love with the place. Many business trips followed over the years and when I was stationed in India we used Thailand for R&R. A week before the 2004 Tsunami my wife and I signed a contract to buy a condo in Phuket. We moved in six years later – it took that long to build it after the catastrophe. Nowadays I use Phuket as a base to travel the region and it’s in Thailand that I do most of my writing. I love the north in particular and use the locations as backdrops for the books.
KC: A Bangkok expat once told me about Thailand: You can make friends easily but you have to choose them carefully. How do you make and choose friends in LOS? Do you ever thin the herd?
FH: Land of Smiles! I love that label. Although, I think your friend’s observation is very true of pretty much everywhere in fact. Given my former occupation and background I’ve always had to choose my friends very carefully. I’m not outwardly gregarious and it takes me time to work people out. Part of my government schooling I suppose!! The ones I’d count as true friends are few if I’m honest, and they have been around a long time – mostly. The thought of culling any of them would be painful. As I get older I wish I’d trusted people more when I was younger. Wariness of others can be quite destructive. These days, now that the official shackles are off, I’m trying to train myself to be a lot more approachable! Hopefully this will bring me many rewarding experiences and new friends in the future.
KC: One last one, A Multiple Choice Question:
I see myself as:
A. A writer
B. An author
D. A hobbyist
E. All of the above.
FH: All of these and more probably! If I had to plump for one, I’d maybe say writer. It sounds a bit pompous though … The fact is I get a lot of joy from writing and I wish I’d started in earnest a lot earlier. Better late than never, and now I have been introduced to a whole new exciting world. I have a lot of other interests but at the moment the writing seems to be in the ascendant. Long may it continue!
KC: Thanks, Frank. Best of luck on your third Mike Rawlin novel and the new exciting world you have found.
You can follow Frank on Twitter @FrankHurstBooks