Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 1 October 2020

'The Stranger': How Simon Conway uses his expertise in defusing mines to craft an authentic thriller

The former British army officer's latest novel pits an MI6 operator against an elusive ISIS mastermind

Author Simon Conway also works as a landmine clearance operator
Author Simon Conway also works as a landmine clearance operator

Simon Conway’s day job certainly gives him some colourful anecdotes to weave into his novels.

In his latest thriller The Stranger, released last Thursday, his ability to describe bombs and those who plant them is well researched. For the past three decades, Conway, 53, has worked as a landmine clearance operator for the Halo Trust, a charity dedicated to removing debris left behind by war, particularly landmines.

The writer, a former bomb disposal expert, has assembled the ingredients for an excellent thriller

In The Stranger, Conway takes his readers from the 2003 occupation of Iraq to a former CIA detention centre in Syria, a refugee camp in Jordan and the corridors of power in Whitehall, London.

He admits his day job gave him plenty of real-life experience for his sixth novel. “I’ve been very fortunate that my work with Halo sends me to a lot of interesting places that are remote and hazardous. In the past five years I’ve been in the Middle East setting up country programmes in Syria, Iraq, Libya and Yemen. I’ve been to those places, smelled the air and seen the terrain.”

This on-the-ground experience lends his novels an authenticity some struggle to achieve. Conway has also met some interesting personalities through his work, as organising mine and bomb clearance requires an ability to mix with all sorts. The former British Army officer has a depth of knowledge that clearly give his characters credibility.

His latest novel’s protagonist is an MI6 operator called Jude Lyon, his nemesis is the eponymous Stranger, an elusive ISIS mastermind. The plot involves a victim called The Engineer who is abandoned in a former interrogation centre in Syria after a CIA rendition flight – while the country was still “friendly” – but is later freed during the civil war by ISIS.

Lyon is sent to track down The Engineer in a journey that takes him to Syria, Iraq, Europe and Jordan, where he discovers a cover-up by his own intelligence people. The Engineer leads Lyon to The Stranger, who the MI6 officer discovers is planning a terrorist attack in London of “implacable horror”.

“One of the things I’ve become really interested in is the way terrorism works in a free-market economy, according to the law of supply and demand,” Conway says. “There is a commonality in making IEDs [improvised explosive devices]; there is a small cottage industry the length of the Euphrates Valley that ISIS controls that churned out IEDs to a common design.”

Conway is also concerned at ISIS becoming more dangerous, having hidden away money digitally. “ISIS is not defeated in Iraq. From the research I’ve done, I believe they have hundreds of millions in cryptocurrency from oil revenues and antiquities sales.”

The writer-turned-bomb disposal expert has certainly assembled the ingredients for an excellent thriller, which he says people in the region should read. “I hope they see it is a sympathetic and knowledgeable portrayal of a difficult situation. I’ve known the Middle East since I was a child so I try and capture the complexity of the situation while also entertaining people.”

The Stranger is published in hardback by Hodder & Stoughton

Updated: August 17, 2020 02:31 PM

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