I was fired-up to become an author following a visit to my school by legendary thriller writer Hammond Innes. I was then a pupil at Cranbrook School in Kent and he was an Old Cranbrookian who had built up a global reputation with his exciting stories. 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 understand what a privilege that really was.
Little did I know then that those seeds would lead me to a wonderfully exciting and fulfilling career as a thriller writer and occasional writer of successful non-fiction. I have been involved with two books that went to Number One in the Amazon charts and produced a W H Smith Paperback of the Week.
During the first faltering steps in the late 1970s, I never envisaged I would go on to become a member of the UK’s elite (but not elitist) Crime Writers Association and of the International Thriller Writers in the USA.
Here is where and how all my fun as a writer began.
The Alistair Duncan Trilogy
My first mystery-thriller was published by Robert Hale Limited. This series centred on Alistair Duncan, a Bristol solicitor. It has now been republished in 2017 by Endeavour Press of London using my own name. Back then, as a practising solicitor, the Law Society in their fuddy-duddy ways, refused to let me use my own name. They considered it to be advertising and so the pen-name of Cameron Ross was born. 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.
Villa Plot, Counterplot
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 the 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 so-called 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 considered to be murder (though nobody was ever charged). The ease with which the likely murderer got away with his crime led me to create a different scenario involving an “accident” on a West Country building site.
The Sunday Times tipped the Alistair Duncan trilogy as worthy of a TV series but nothing ever came of it.
Two things happened during this time – firstly, much as I enjoyed Alistair Duncan, I was keen to move on from the constraints of a single character. Secondly, the Daily Mail published a prominent article without my knowledge saying: “We know who you are, Cameron Ross.” The Law Society then relented and so allowed me to use my own name.
Too 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 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. Cellars’ Market did very well but had not given me the paperback that I wanted. Back then, e-books had yet to be invented. Consistent with the Beatles’ famous song, I wanted to be a Paperback Writer. That was my yardstick of success.
The book was twice optioned 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!
The Dallas Dilemma
Having lived for two months in Dallas, I set this thriller, in Texas and London – aiming again at the elusive paperback market. However, Elizabeth Walter, my editor at Collins, really wanted another story written to match the Crime Club formula with the same character. 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 non-fiction 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
The Dallas Dilemma
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 which I considered to be unreasonable, 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 neither I nor the publishers had to pay $10 million from petty cash!
Shortly after, White Lodge was 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.
Now, Endeavour Press is releasing The Dallas Dilemma with the controversial words deleted. Back then though, once again, I was without a publisher.
The ICC International Maritime Bureau
In the late 1970s, I had read a brief news item about crime at sea. I was hooked! 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 amazing true story of the Salem is covered as one of the amazing 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.
Undercurrent is soon to be released as an eBook by Endeavour Press. I still have a few copies of the paperback from 1994 that I use for promotional opportunities.
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 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 have retained a friendship with him and with his successor, Captain Pottengal Mukundan.
These German publishers called Marebuch wanted a new book on shipping crime – and fast! My contract with them coincided with my move to Las Vegas, Nevada. Over there, living in the middle of the desert, I wrote of sea and ships and Piraten was published in Germany in 2002 with the paperback rights sold to Piper.
Piraten included a dozen or so amazing stories of modern-day piracy, murder and mega-frauds like ship-stealing and people-trafficking.
Terror at Sea – the benchmark on crime at sea
In 2007, AuthorHouse 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. In 2015, I updated it and rebranded it as Terror at Sea and it was published in paperback by MP Publishing Limited. Among the many positive reviews, it was hailed as the benchmark on crime at sea. As updated, it reflected the sinister role of Al Qaeda, the hijackings around Africa and increased terrorism at sea. The original stories remained timelessly powerful but with more new material on terrorism, Terror at Sea is once again becoming available in paperback and eBook through Endeavour Press.
Roulette, Playing to Win
My move to Las Vegas owed nothing to the non-fiction Roulette, Playing to Win which I had started writing in London and long before I imagined ever living in Sin City but the move was certainly helpful. It was a fascinating book to write involving research in many countries many of them that I had visited far from the glitter of Las Vegas. It was published in 2004 by Oldcastle (High Stakes) under the pen-name of Brett Morton and became a Number 1 best-seller for about 12 weeks in the gambling books charts – something it repeated when released as an eBook.
Before I moved to the USA, I had started writing a thriller called Late Bet involving casino crime and Formula One Grand Prix racing. It was set in London and Las Vegas. Ironically, it was published in the USA in 2007 by AuthorHouse just as I left Vegas to return to Europe. Shortly after a Hollywood contact became enthused about the movie potential and a Canadian producer / director created an impressive treatment – but then with the global and Hollywood recession between 2009-2015, he failed to raise sufficient funding.
Another contact saw movie potential in Late Bet but wanted a simplified plot and so I wrote my first screenplay. It was almost unrecognisable from the thriller. However, with the recession, that project also died. But writing the streamlined script proved to be time well spent anyway. I converted it into a new thriller called Deadline Vegas to be published in paperback and eBook in late 2017.
Insult to Injury
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 gullible 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 now 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 considerable startling evidence. The truth was better than fiction and so I wrote the non-fiction 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 to 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.
Det. Insp. Todd “Ratso” Holtom
In 2013 I decided to start a thriller series based around a London detective but ensuring that the plots involved international locations. The majority of other successful detective mysteries are based in the home country of the detective. I sensed an opportunity here to be different. Thus, Ratso was born. Elsewhere on the website, you can find out more about him in his Q & A session.
Hard Place is the first in the series and its second edition is due for release in print and as an e-book in the USA and UK in Autumn 2017. I launched it when I was speaking at Thrillerfest in New York City in July 2015, organised by the International Thriller Writers of the USA.
Hard Place was inspired by real events in the drug war and was written with insight from contacts in London’s Metropolitan Police. The cross-border plot follows sport-loving Detective Inspector Todd “Ratso” Holtom. He is battling to bring down a major and ruthless drug-gang masterminded by an Albanian billionaire who has morphed into London society as an establishment figure.
This is the second thriller in the Ratso series and is set against the backdrop of international sports match-fixing – a multi-billion fraud industry involving organized crime and black-market betting scams. Dead Fix will be published late 2017 in paperback and as an e-book.
MO – Crimes of Practice
Along the way, I was delighted to be asked to join other members of the Crime Writers Association in contributing 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.
In 2015, I was privileged to be asked by successful thriller-writer Alex Shaw to provide a short story for this anthology to be published by Endeavour Press. It appeared early in 2016 and, pleasingly, it went to Number One on Amazon e-books. My own contribution was called Inscrutable and, being the first story in the book, acquired particular prominence on the Internet. The story included Ratso involved in a particularly nasty crime involving the Chinese community in London. If the proposed TV series involving Ratso goes ahead, Inscrutable will be one of the storylines that I would hope to be developed.
Ellie is a screenplay I wrote having acquired the rights to a novel called Stolen Birthright. The book had been written by a good friend of mine who uses the name J B Woods. It was a fabulous story based on solid yet unbelievable truth. Doing what everybody in the movie business had done to me, I wrote the screenplay with a very different slant from the book!
I am pleased to say that a company which funds movie production has recommended it to their movie-maker team in London. Having potential funding in place is a head-start but once again, past experience leaves me only cautiously optimistic.
I am now working on the third thriller in the Ratso series. A prominent television production company in London is also working on development of a TV series starring Ratso. Given past experience of getting from printed page to screen, any optimism has to be cloaked in extreme caution!