Having had the idea of becoming an author fired by a visit to Cranbrook School by Hammond Innes, a household name and an Old Cranbrookian, it was over ten years before I started my first novel. In fact Hammond Innes was not the first famous writer I had chanced upon but sadly when I met Geoffrey Household who had written the classic thriller Rogue Male, I was too young to take on board what a privilege that really was.
Robert Hale Limited
My first novel was Case for Compensation and this became the first of a trilogy based on a Bristol solicitor called Alistair Duncan. It was published by Robert Hale Limited but under a pen-name of Cameron Ross. Because I was a practising solicitor, the Law Society in their fuddy-duddy ways at that time, refused to let me use my own name because it was advertising. How times have changed with solicitors now advertising wall-to-wall on TV and radio!
My book attracted considerable national publicity because besides being a pacy mystery set in England and France, it also exposed the flaws in the compensation system for severely injured accident victims. To the media, I was a campaigning solicitor which was a useful tag-line for my books and my legal career.
The follow-up, Villa Plot, Counterplot exposed another scam I had come across when helping a client. Like countless others, she had bought a building plot in Spain without understanding the legal pitfalls. Too often, these contracts proved to be worthless and pursuing legal rights could be dangerous because of criminal fraternity involved. Despite the book now being over thirty years old, the storyline still holds good today with Spanish villas being bulldozed because they were built illegally. Other titleholders found their building plots were far offshore under the Mediterranean!
The third Alistair Duncan book was The Scaffold. This had nothing to do with the French revolution! It was inspired by a dramatic industrial “accident” I had investigated which I proved to be murder (though nobody was ever charged). The ease with which the murderer got away with his crime led me to create a different scenario involving an “accident” on a West Country building site. The three books are now out-of-print but I have a few that I still hold to use as freebies and happily MP Publishing have now published them as eBooks. The Sunday Times tipped them as worthy of a TV series but nothing ever came of it.
Two things happened during this time – firstly I was keen to move on from the constraints of a single character, much as I enjoyed Alistair Duncan. Secondly, the Daily Mail published a prominent article without my knowledge saying – “We know who you are, Cameron Ross.” The Law Society relented and allowed me to use my own name. Many years later, I met Lee Child, the mega-selling author of the Jack Reacher series and he told me that I should have continued to build on the Alistair Duncan brand while diversifying if I wished into new characters for other books. It was great advice but many years too late! Peter James with his Roy Grace detective has also succeeded in building a global brand as did Martin Edwards with his Harry Devlin and his Lake District series. This is what I should have continued to do but nobody gave me this advice at the time.
Collins Crime Club
So I moved to a different character – a London solicitor called Bart Fraser and to boost profile and sales, I switched publishers to the prestigious Collins Crime Club, following in the steps of Agatha Christie, Ngaio Marsh and Reginald Hill (Dalziel and Pascoe). The result was Cellars’ Market about a wine war between France and the USA. I am at present re-writing this book with a 21st century slant and this is proving to be a fascinating experience. With a working title Wine War, it will emerge as a paperback and eBook in the next year or two. Freed of the Crime Club format for length, I have opportunities to build on the plot and characterisation.
Cellars’ Market did well but had not given me the paperback that I wanted. At that time, that was my yardstick of success. It had however been optioned twice for a movie deal and a script was developed. In the treatment for one producer, my very British Bart Fraser had undergone a sex-change and was now an American woman! In Hollywood, I was introduced to Victoria Principal who this producer wanted to star in it. At the time she was perhaps at the peak of her fame from the Dallas TV series. But in the end, nothing came of any movie! Bart Fraser remained a true Brit after all!
Having lived for two months in Dallas, I set my next book, The Dallas Dilemma, in Texas and London – aiming again at the elusive paperback market. However, Elizabeth Walter really wanted another story written to match the Crime Club formula but I had (wrongly) moved on to another lead character and different length of book. Then, shortly afterwards, Rupert Murdoch’s empire bought out Collins to create what is now Harper Collins and he wanted the Crime Club imprint wound down. I had to find other publishers. This was with considerable regret because Elizabeth Walter had been an enthusiastic supporter and a terrific editor.
In my legal career, I had opened a London office close to the Old Curiosity Shop in the heart of Charles Dickens’ London. This was a turning–point for my writing too. I developed a niche helping the zany team led by Esther Rantzen (now Dame Esther) on BBC TV’s That’s Life. One of the presenters, Gavin Campbell encouraged me to write a law-book and so with some input from him, A Family at Law was published by Fourmat Publishing. Gavin got the colourful writer / actor / cartoonist Willie Rushton to provide some magnificent cartoons, the one of the QC being my particular favourite. The book played very much on the campaigning solicitor epithet harping back to Case for Compensation. It was designed to help accident victims get through the legal minefield. Esther wrote the foreword because of her concern about the flood of legal horror stories in her postbag. The book followed the disasters that befell the fictional Henderson family and when we did the UK promotional tour, Gavin did the most brilliant readings drawing on his talents as a Shakespearian actor.
White Lodge Publishing
At that time, Fourmat were developing a fiction imprint under the name White Lodge and so with the demise of Collins Crime Club, they published The Dallas Dilemma.This thriller had yet another solicitor character and was inspired by claims I had made for clients who had suffered horrifying side-effects from a variety of pharmaceutical drugs. Although proof-read for libel, there were a handful of words which caused an American pharmaceutical giant to take umbrage. Both I and the publishers received a demand to pay $10 million in compensation for damage to the sales of their arthritis drug. That letter arriving spoiled my entire breakfast, I can tell you!
To contest the allegations, I provided my very supportive research to an expert witness who, before delivering his opinion, fell onto a railway track (don’t ask or even think about asking)! My research was blown away – literally gone with the wind! Both I and the publishers were left naked and defenceless when the US attorneys flew over breathing fire and brimstone. At a meeting in my office, we covered our embarrassment with a white flag of surrender and a deal was struck. All readily available copies were withdrawn and I did not have to pay $10 million from my petty cash! The publishers were by now being taken over and the new owners closed the fiction imprint and the rights returned to me. Some rare copies of the first edition are still out there. One chancer on the web was advertising it at $1,000! Happily MP Publishing will now be releasing it as an eBook edition in 2015 with the controversial words deleted. Back then though, once again, I was without a publisher.
The ICC International Maritime Bureau
A few years previously, I had read a brief news item about crime at sea. I was captivated! It included a quote from Eric Ellen, then the Chief Constable of the Port of London Police Authority. He was frustrated at the billion dollar crimes and unsolved murders at sea that nobody seemed capable of tackling. I met him and was gobsmacked at the audacity of the criminals. There was abundant material for a new thriller.
Back in 1979, Eric had a vision of forming what is now the ICC International Maritime Bureau. This was to combat maritime crime and a year or two later he went on to become its first Director. With his constant supply of background material, I started to write Undercurrent as an international thriller. But events took a strange twist when reality took over from fiction. One pivotal point in the plot was deliberately sinking (scuttling) a supertanker to make huge but bogus insurance claims.
Doing my research, in early January 1980, I travelled to Dakar in Senegal to use the West African port as a great setting. An earlier meeting with two London shipbrokers had pointed me there. Over lunch in the Boot & Flogger pub, I had asked them to suggest a good place to scuttle a ship and get away with it. ‘Nowhere much better than the Atlantic Ocean, old boy. Just off Dakar. Bloody deep there! Your feet certainly wouldn’t touch the bottom! Get the right crew aboard – ones who know how to sink a ship and who’ll keep their mouths shut. We could tell you a name or two; Greeks are specialists. Masters and Chief Engineers who’ll do the business. Reverse the jolly old pumps. Open the hatches. Get a load of seawater in instead of out. Then bingo, down she goes! Just guarantee the crew won’t get their feet wet when the old tub goes down.’
‘What type of ship do you suggest?’
‘A big one. A supertanker. Plenty of them sail up the West African coast. Too big for the Suez Canal. They go from the Gulf to Rotterdam round the Cape of Good Hope.’
Six weeks later, as the winter temperature in Dakar pushed 33 degrees, I met Lloyd’s shipping agent out there. He is the eyes and ears of the shipping community. His reports are vital to trade and to insurance interests. ‘No,’ he said. ‘Nothing suspicious has gone down here. But 100 miles out—it’s deep.’ At the Dakar Port Authority, I received similar confirmation, so I flew home well pleased that my plot was a winner. However, within two weeks, the giant supertanker Salem had been scuttled precisely there! It was hailed as the insurance scam of the century. The $50 million fraud dominated the news as reality overtook my fiction – so I put Undercurrent on ice. It was over ten years later before Undercurrent was published. The extraordinary true story of the Salem is covered as one of the horrifying true crimes in Terror At Sea – further details below.
I often wonder what the Lloyd’s agent and the Dakar Port Authorities thought of the Londoner who had been asking if there had been any good scuttlings recently! And those shipbrokers in the Boot & Flogger? Had they picked up a buzz? If they knew nothing, then as palm-readers or soothsayers they could make a fortune. They had predicted the location, type of vessel, the scuttling and key players in what the media called the maritime crime of the century!
When Undercurrent was ready to be published, White Lodge had long gone and so once again, I was without a publisher. Fortunately, a benefactor linked to the book trade underwrote the publication and it was published in the mid-1990s under the imprint of Magnus Books Limited. It became W H Smith’s Paperback of the Week, an accolade that boosted both sales and profile sufficiently to lead on to another book on maritime crime. Undercurrent was also optioned for a Hollywood movie deal – but, like the ship in the plot, that too sank without trace
Of Ships and Casinos
During the late 1990s, I had an idea for a new thriller involving casinos, money-laundering and Formula One racing to be called Late Bet. At about the same time, I had chaired a shipping crime conference in San Jose, California for Eric Ellen involving global experts in various aspects of shipping crime. The outcome was Shipping at Risk published by the ICC International Maritime Bureau and I was privileged to be a contributor. It was a useful addition to my CV as appears below.
By 2001 I was well advanced on Late Bet when two things happened – firstly I moved to the USA and secondly Eric Ellen recommended me to German publishers to write a non-fiction book on crime at sea. He and I had remained good friends and this was an act of great kindness. Even after Eric retired from the Bureau, I retained a friendship with him and with his successor, Captain Pottengal Mukundan.
German publishers Marebuch wanted a new book – and fast! Their contract coincided with my move to Las Vegas, Nevada. Over there, I had an opportunity for extensive consultancy work and after looking at fourteen cities, we settled on Las Vegas for a wide variety of reasons. It certainly fitted into writing Late Bet and another non-fiction book called Roulette, Playing to Win on which I had also been working – both started long before the concept of living in Las Vegas had hit my radar.
In 2002, Marebuch published Piraten in Germany and the paperback rights were later sold to Piper. Besides maritime crime of the century Salem, Piraten included a dozen or so amazing stories of modern piracy, murder and mega-frauds like ship-stealing and people-trafficking. In 2007, under the English language rights that I owned, I published Piraten in the USA as The Brutal Seas. It looked like racing up to Number 1 on Amazon but then stalled at Number 4. More recently, MP Publishing were excited by the topicality of the book but wanted more emphasis on terrorism. Accordingly, I agreed to update it to reflect the rise of Al Qaeda, the hijackings around Africa and terrorism at sea. The original stories remained timelessly powerful but with more material on terrorism, they have re-branded the book as Terror At Sea. This will be released in mid-2015 both in print and eBook.
My move to Las Vegas owed nothing to Roulette, Playing to Win which I had started long before I had dreamed of living in Sin City but the move was certainly helpful. It was a fascinating book to write and research in many countries far from the glitter of Las Vegas. It was published in 2004 by Oldcastle (High Stakes) under the name Brett Morton and became a Number 1 best-seller for about 12 weeks in the gambling books charts – something it repeated when released more recently as an eBook.
Late Bet was published in 2007 just as I left the USA to return to Europe. A Hollywood contact was enthused about the movie potential and a Canadian producer / director produced an impressive treatment – but he failed to raise sufficient funding. Another contact saw potential but wanted a simplified plot, so for the first time, I wrote a much-changed screenplay cutting out the side-plots in the novel. However, with the global and Hollywood recessions, the project died. But the script proved to be time well spent anyway. I have now written a new thriller inspired by Late Bet but based on the script. MP Publishing will be launching this as Tables Turned in late 2015 /16 as a print edition and eBook.
We left the USA for a variety of reasons but the most prominent was the disgust we felt at the USA’s legal system which had failed us twice. The more significant example was when seeking compensation for a serious neck injury my wife had suffered when putting our baby into the car. Another driver rammed our vehicle. My wife was blameless. The police issued a citation to the other driver who admitted causing the accident. After years of medical treatment and major spinal surgery the case went to court.
The attorney for the insurers persuaded five out of six jurors that I, as a fiction writer and experienced litigation lawyer, had invented the accident! The evidence of the police officer who told the jury he attended the scene and interviewed the driver was ruled inadmissible by the trial judge and the other driver denied on oath being present at all. My evidence and that of my wife was rejected by the jury.
Our attorney was incensed at the defeat and set out to expose the chicanery and uncovered some considerable startling evidence. The truth was better than fiction and so I wrote Insult to Injury which would have made a considerable national impact in the USA because insurers over there were already under the cosh for dirty tricks. However, when it was ready to be published, my wife could not face all the inevitable media attention once the scandal was exposed. The book was therefore published only for family and friends as a horror story of the US legal system at work. It would have made a great movie as a courtroom drama.
Hard Place is my new international mystery thriller due for release in the USA and UK in mid-summer 2015 from MP Publishing. It is being published in print and as an e-book. I am launching this in New York City in July when I will be attending Thrillerfest, organised by the International Thriller Writers of the USA. This event is open to the public and a great occasion for me to meet readers – and I hope to see you there. The book was inspired by real events and written with insight from a chance introduction to a woman in the UK’s Metropolitan Police.
The cross-border plot follows sport-loving Detective Inspector Todd “Ratso” Holtom. He is battling to bring down a drug-gang masterminded by Boris Zandro, an Albanian billionaire. Zandro has morphed into London society as an establishment figure. For too long, through his political contacts, he has proved untouchable. Ratso’s hands are also tied by conflicts involving Whitehall and the Pentagon on how to prevent the world’s heroin supply leaving Afghanistan during the war with the Taleban. The investigations take Ratso to the USA, the Bahamas and elsewhere in Europe. As the investigations race towards a climax, Ratso is helped by his two battle-hardened sergeants and by svelte Fort Lauderdale detective Kirsty-Ann Webber who has troubles of her own – to say nothing of the powers in Washington DC watching her every move.
MO – Crimes of Practice
Along the way, I was delighted to be asked to join other members of the Crime Writers Association to contribute to an anthology of short stories and even more pleased when The Inglenook was accepted by editor Martin Edwards. The book was published by Comma Press to considerable acclaim.
Ellie is a screenplay I wrote having acquired the rights to a novel called Stolen Birthright. It had been written by a good friend of mine who writes under the name of J B Woods. It was a fabulous story based on solid unbelievable truth. Doing what everybody had done to me, I wrote the screenplay with a very different slant and I remain optimistic that as the global economy mends, someone will pick up this startling tale of a banking fraud starting in Edinburgh and, the Cotswolds in the 19th century and climaxing in a court in contemporary New York City.
2015 and Beyond
To summarise, this is the future busy schedule:
- Hard Place – launching mid-summer 2015 – mystery thriller
- Terror at Sea – launching mid-summer 2015 – non-fiction.
- Tables Turned – 2015 /2016 – mystery thriller.
- Wine War (working title) – late 2016 – mystery thriller
- Dark Days (working title) – 2016 / 2017 – a new Det Insp. Todd “Ratso” Holtom mystery thriller.
- Ellie – script marketing.