x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 18 January 2018

Chris Morgan Jones' suspense novel pays dividends

The author's previous book was not only a great success, it hinted at a new genre unencumbered by secret agent cliche. He tells us why he's set the follow-up in Dubai.

"That hidden world of stolen, corrupted, misappropriated money... it's fascinating," says Chris Morgan Jones. Stephen Lock for The National
"That hidden world of stolen, corrupted, misappropriated money... it's fascinating," says Chris Morgan Jones. Stephen Lock for The National

"This is the most entertaining place on Earth," says one of the characters in Chris Morgan Jones' new thriller, The Jackal's Share, gesturing at the Dubai skyline. The moment of jollity can't, however, mask the sense of foreboding and unseen menace lurking in the shadows of the narrative. It might as well be subtitled Things to Do in Deira When You're Dead.

"Dubai is so, well, other. So very different to what most people are used to," says Morgan Jones, in the middle of a distinctly colder London winter. "And that makes it a great place to set a book. I once had a meeting in one of its very tallest buildings, and looking down there was this sense of complete unreality yet tremendous control. Whenever and wherever I went I felt there was something interesting happening. The people I talked to were always fascinating. I think it has a slight frontier town quality to it."

The Jackal's Share is Morgan Jones' second book, and although it is not wholly set in Dubai, the city plays a large part in the portrait of an elderly, charismatic billionaire Iranian emigre, Darius Qazai. He appears to be whiter than white, a generous philanthropist and Middle Eastern art collector as well as a brilliant businessman. But when he fails to sell his company, he suspects his reputation has been sullied and he employs the investigator Benjamin Webster to scrutinise his affairs to give him a very public clean slate. Naturally, since this is a thriller, Qazai has a dark secret, pleasingly hidden until the book's denouement. But as Webster uncovers murder, arms deals and mysterious offshore accounts, his own safety is critically compromised.

"It's about one man, Qazai, who has spent his whole life trying to escape from his past, and another, Webster, who knows that simply isn't possible," says Morgan Jones. "But it's also about money. In a society that prizes the generation of cash above all else, then it will corrupt, absolutely. I mean, if I was to go on a crusade it would be about offshore accounts. There is a staggering amount of money floating around. Every single job we did at Kroll led offshore in the end. That hidden world of stolen, corrupted, misappropriated money... it's fascinating, but I would rather not know it existed."

Kroll is a "risk consulting company" dealing in business intelligence, for which Morgan Jones worked before turning to novel writing. He would advise everyone from Middle Eastern governments to Russian oligarchs, which certainly informed his first book, An Agent of Deceit, in which the same character, Webster, tries to track down the frontman of a shadowy, dangerous Russian.

It was a world Morgan Jones knew, and it showed. But he's uncomfortable with the tag of corporate spy. "If I'd chronicled three months of my working life, it would have made for a very boring book."

But he admits that everything in the first book actually happened, if not to him, then someone he knew. This time around, Qazai's situation is believable for similar reasons; Morgan Jones was at one point head of Kroll's London office, with a special responsibility for the Middle East. The characters - if not their exact scenarios - are familiar to him. And because the narratives takes place in London, Marrakech, Milan and Dubai, there's also deeper insight into global issues concerning democracy, economics and conflict than usual for a thriller.

So it's not surprising that Morgan Jones refers to the hit Danish television programme The Killing, since his book attempts something similar: an all-encompassing world where crime, politics and money meet. The deaths, when they come, are shocking, abrupt acts of violence punctuating the menace, something that he admits he loves in the writing of classic spy novelist John Le Carré. There's even a sympathy for Qazai, despite his foibles.

"Qazai's roots are in something quite grubby and dirty," he says. "But I was also interested in how often I've seen people with that much money struggle to have healthy relationships with their children. Genuinely, I had a client ask me how to structure his money if his priority was not the preservation of capital but the sanity of his kids. The answer is that it's more or less impossible, so I do have some sympathy with them, actually."

In the end, Qazai is forced to make a sacrifice for his daughter in a desperate attempt to keep his family intact. He does so as the baddies encircle him, and Webster, back in Dubai. It's not quite the glittering advert for the tourist board that it might at first seem, then.

"Because the action often takes place in Dubai and Marrakech, a friend of mine told me I clearly equate criminal intent with heat," laughs Morgan Jones. "All these crooks running around the desert. But it was entirely coincidental. What I actually had in mind was reflecting this incredibly dry, desiccated business world in the dryness of the desert. It's a very odd world, you know, and it would be overreaching to say I completely understand it. But I do get how bits meet and touch and I love sharing what I've seen."

The Jackal's Share (Mantle) is out on Thursday