Ted Bell, the New York Times bestselling author of the Alex Hawke adventure series, is back at it again, full throttle, with his latest thriller “Tsar.”
The British super spy’s escapades that Bell created for “Hawke,” “Assassin,” “Pirate,” and “Spy” burst forth again in this novel, which starts with Hawke recovering his health at his cottage hideaway in Bermuda when another call to service sends him back into harm’s way. A resurgent Russia with dreams of a renewed empire sets Hawke and his team scrambling to ramp up intelligence operations to Cold War levels.
Little does Hawke realize that his new love interest, the beautiful Russian artist Anastasia Korsakov, whom he meets on a pristine beach, is the offspring of the major architect of the New Russia, Count Ivan Korsakov.
Indeed, Count Ivan is the mysterious Dark Rider, whose titanic ambition has pushed even the tough and durable Vladimir Putin to the curb.
At first, Dark Rider’s existence is mere speculation, only whispered about in American corridors of power and CIA strategy meetings. Hawke and his team must race to put a face on this dangerous specter, find out what mischief he is up to, and stop him.
Though Dark Rider is all but invisible, he is pulling strings -- hard. The Russians have their finger on the switch to the European economy and an eye on the American jugular. Most importantly, they want to be made whole again. Should America interfere with Russia’s plans to “reintegrate” its rogue states, America will pay in blood.
That payment comes to pass and explodes across the pages of “Tsar.” A diabolical killer known only as Happy the Baker brutally murders an innocent family and literally flattens the small Midwestern town they once called home. Just a sample, according to Count Ivan, who has himself proclaimed the new tsar.
The evil count oversees the unfolding havoc from the vantage point of his huge modern dirigible, a floating headquarters jammed with luxurious appointments and lovely ladies.
No less a figure than the U.S. president decides that the only man who can save the world from careening into global war and destruction is Hawke. Our secret agent man must literally and figuratively defuse the ticking bomb.
As Hawke boldly enters the count’s lair, the reader is rocketed along on the ride. The spy hero uncovers a plot so diabolical that it threatens major cities around the world with instantaneous extinction. As Hawke fights to foil it, he takes time out to rescue the U.S. vice president’s wife, who has been kidnapped with a flock of other dignitaries aboard the count’s infernal airship.
Bell’s consummate storytelling skills make the rollicking climax a shock and a surprise that will not disappoint.
Newsmax caught up with the author in Aspen, Colo., where he gives us an exclusive inside look at the anatomy of a thriller.
Newsmax: Knowing the lead time for a new book, I’m going to assume that the Russian invasion of Georgia was hardly a fait accompli when the germ of the plot for “Tsar” occurred to you. What triggered the idea?
Bell: First of all, going back to my ad days, I was always wary of “trends.” I thought following trends was the antithesis of creativity. So when I sit down to write a Hawke book, the first thing I do is look around at what everybody else is doing and then go in the opposite direction.
At that time, seemingly every thriller out there seemed to be quasi-“DaVinci Code” or about al-Qaida and the big bomb hidden in Washington or New York. And that was the germ of the Russian idea.
No one seemed to realize that they were a growing threat, not at all friendly toward the West, getting richer by the day. What about Russia? I thought. The idea excited me. So I started reading everything I could get my hands on about Russia: Russian political history, biographies of Putin and so forth.
And somewhere in all those books was a quote that intrigued me. Can't remember who said it, Peter the Great maybe. Here it is: “The only way to protect our borders is to expand them.” Boom. Book idea. I booked a trip and spent about a month and a half inside Russia -- Moscow, St. Petersburg, the Baltics.
Russia wants “irredentism,” to go back to the old Soviet borders, invade the former vassal states. The other word that kept popping up in my research was “revanchism” -- revenge.
That's what Putin wants, I think. He was humiliated by the dissolution of the Soviet Empire and the loss of the Cold War. And he’s lifetime KGB. And the only thing KGB cares about is power. I was also intrigued by Putin as a man, trying to see behind those eyes. I’ve got a pretty good handle on him now.
Newsmax: Bermuda, of course, is a main venue for the action. What’s your connection with that beautiful island in the stream? Does Hawke’s marvelous but Spartan cottage really exist?
Bell: Sorry, Teakettle Cottage doesn’t exist, but ever since I first visited that magical place in my early 20s, I’ve been dreaming about living in just such a cottage. I liked the idea of it being a safe house for British spies during WWII, and then a bachelor pad for guys like Douglas Fairbanks Jr., Errol Flynn, and Ernest Hemingway.
I’ve spent a lot of time on the island, renting houses, etc, and, again, it was a location no one has used since Peter Benchley in “The Deep” and the movie shot there with the famous Jacqueline Bisset wet T-shirt shot. Once I had it as the location, I went back and researched locations there like the Royal Navy Yard,
I hired a boat and guide and spent a day diving some wrecks. That day I discovered Nonsuch Island, real name, and it ended up playing a big part in the book. I hope the Bermudians like “Tsar.” They're wonderful, cheerful, hard-working people.
Newsmax: Without giving up one of the gems of the book, Putin makes a wonderful cameo appearance and shows some noble colors. Is Putin in your opinion really a great patriot of Russia? Misunderstood by some in the West?
Bell: He’s the great enigmatic dichotomy that originally got me so psyched about this book. Most people at the time I began writing saw him as a friend of the West. Saw Russia as a friend. Cold War’s over, let’s get on to the next problem. But I just wasn’t buying it. I think the recent invasion of Georgia was a real wake-up call for a lot of people in this country. And that’s what I meant the book to be: a wake-up call. He beat me to the punch, that's all.
Of course, he makes me look very prescient, so I owe him one. We did an ad for the book: “Has Putin Read ‘Tsar’?” Because he certainly knows the plot!
So, what Putin is depends on which side of the fence you’re on. From our side, he’s our old enemy resurgent. But from the Russian point of view, yes, he really is a great patriot of Russia.
They were in total freefall when he came on the scene: Mafia gangsters having shootouts all over Moscow, oligarchs looting the country and sending all the money offshore. They were flat broke and ruled by criminals. And he turned that all around.
That's why I gave him those “noble colors.” I certainly don’t agree with his new police state dictatorship, but I admire his moral toughness and the way he brought a nation back from the brink. He has an 80 percent approval rating now. There's something in the Russian psyche that likes a boot on the back of the neck.
Newsmax: You’ve jammed your usual quotient of neat hardware into this latest thriller – the exotic small arms, the device that snags the in-flight airship, the killer computers, etc. What research fleshed all this out for you?
Bell: I think this sort of stuff just goes with the territory, as long as you don’t start telling people how long the screws are in a submarine bulkhead. But, again, I try for something new. In this book, it’s airships. I’ve loved airships since I was a kid and this was a chance to bring them back in a modern way.
The more I researched them, the more I saw them as a very viable form of transportation for today. Think about it. You can spend eight hours crossing the Atlantic jammed in an aluminum tube. Or, you can cross on a behemoth with thousands of other people and take five days. But what if you could cross at 150 mph, in total silence, with enormous spaces to move about, and open a window and watch the dolphins playing 200 feet below? Personally, I’d prefer the latter.
And I really liked the challenge of figuring out a hostage rescue on one of these things. SEAL teams can board hijacked ships, no problem. And airplanes eventually run out of fuel and have to land and they are trained constantly for those situations. But an airship? How the heck do you handle that? So that was a fun puzzle to solve in the book.
Newsmax: What’s lovely and endearing about Hawke is that he comes equipped with an inventory of human foibles. He likes his dark rum and is not beyond bumming a Russian cigarette from Putin. He even falls in love. Is this Hawke purposely more vulnerable than the Hawke from the previous thrillers?
Bell: Definitely, I am trying to deepen and expand Alex’s character with each book. All of the characters, actually. But in “Tsar,” I decided to take away all the glamorous rich playboy gear and try something different. So I put him in this old sugar mill house, falling down around his ears, no jet, no yacht, with only his beloved Norton motorcycle to get around the island on.
It was very refreshing as the writer to see him this way. I hope readers will respond the same way. I loved having one character telling him, “You better be careful, the Bermuda police have little tolerance for bums and hoboes.” That was a new Alex Hawke.
Newsmax: The world is such a dangerous and volatile place these trouble times. Add to that the economic woes that threaten to engulf the whole world. On such a canvas it must be difficult to grab the reader with something even more horrific than the headlines. Have you had to wrestle with this?
Bell Yes, but I approach it from a totally different perspective. What the world needs now are heroes. Real heroes with the courage and stamina and moral wherewithal to take on these threats. Not just in America, all over the world. Where’s Maggie Thatcher when we need her? I think the people who read my books do so because they have a real hero to root for. Of course I have to make the villains as dastardly and devious as I can so as to provide a credible challenge to Alex Hawke. I think Count Korsakov in “Tsar” is a worthy opponent for Alex and that is not accidental.
Newsmax: What are you hearing from your many fans out there? From your agent? From potential filmmakers?
My fans are passionate about the Hawke series and that is incredibly rewarding. Some even read and re-read the books, which is amazing to me. The people who “get” the Alex Hawke books just “get” them. The people who don’t aren’t picking up on the fact that they are deliberately a little outside the genre, a little quirky, a little tongue in cheek.
They think I’m serious and so they react negatively. Fine. There is of course, a lot that is deadly serious. But there is also a great deal of humor within the stories. I can’t keep the humor out. It just pops up. And I have fun writing those scenes or that dialogue and so I assume the reader is right there with me, having fun.
Favorite quote from a fan who just read “Tsar:” “What I love is, I’m laughing my butt off on one page and scared stupid on the next. That’s basically what I’m trying to do. I get criticized for being “over the top.” What the hell is wrong with “over the top?” Beats the hell out of “under the bottom.”
As to Hollywood, I’ve been out there and had numerous conversations with major “name” stars. I am enough of a marketing person to know there is huge franchise potential for this series and when the right set of people come along with the right ideas and right deal I am certainly willing to listen.
I have no illusions about Hollywood and would frankly rather never make a Hawke movie at all than make a bad one. I think sitting in a dark room seeing my characters die a slow death up there on the screen would be the worst experience possible. I think it would kill me.
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