Andy McNab spawned a publishing phenomenon we could all do without. Bravo Two Zero, his account of a doomed mission behind Iraqi lines in the Gulf War, opened the floodgates of information on the SAS and was a surprise best-seller. Fellow soldier Chris Ryan countered his story with his own decidedly anti-heroic account of the mission, The One That Got Away. Bravo was linked to a murder case in which two student fantasists "slotted" a random victim. After the revelations and the rows came the band-wagon hoppers: the latest "SAS" book to thump on the desk is The SAS Driver's Survival Handbook ("How to stay safe and be confident on and off the road"). A lot of people, not just the MOD and Intelligence, must be wishing McNab had never put pen to paper.
I was one of them, until I picked up Remote Control, McNab's first novel. It's a corker. Ex-SAS man Nick Stone is enmeshed in a complex web linking US and British Intelligence, Colombian drug cartels and the IRA, when persons unknown rub out his friend's entire family except for one little girl. Along the way we learn how to deactivate burglar alarms and turn ordinary household items into incendiary bombs. It is the first novel ever to be called in by the MOD for vetting.
McNab is not his real name, of course, and we can't show you his face. A full-time writer since leaving the SAS, he's tanned, lean and fit but not visibly hard. He has a nondescript London accent and is quite ordinary- looking, except for a pair of striking blue eyes. There is nothing obviously cloak-and-dagger about his manner, though he does drop his voice to a whisper when talking about aspects of the SAS.
Being anonymous can be an advantage. Not for him the slog of chat shows and book signings - his books fly out of the shops anyway. I thought the evasiveness had something to do with the Official Secrets Act, but not so: "It's not a rule, it's common sense. There have been certain incidents where the Provisional IRA have taken casualties. I haven't physically killed them myself, but I've been on the ground. So, potentially, you open yourself up... to be killed. It's not just that you're an official target to the Provisional IRA, there's basic revenge as well: these people have friends, they have brothers. And if I were to do signings - it wouldn't be the first time an incendiary device had been found in a bookshop. You've got the official threat, but you've got the fruit factor as well. I get hundreds of fruit letters. So, why do it? Why take that chance?"
He strenuously denies being responsible for the flood of SAS books. "There's always been books about the regiment! Serving officers have written books! It's nothing new. Bravo caught the imagination of the public and, suddenly, it's "first time ever... secrets! Load of rubbish. But it was the first one that wasn't an overview." He puts on a snobbish, "military" voice: "'What I did is, I put these men here...' Mine was the story of what happened to those men. People want to see face-work. You see miners go down the pit, but you don't know what they do when they're down there. They just come out dirty, don't they? So, to hear about what goes on is actually interesting."
McNab's "face-work" is impressively detailed and a bit scary. Nick is required to burgle, stalk and beat up in the course of his duties. His very hardness makes it difficult to empathise with the character. Does McNab ever think that the compassionless SAS mindset damaged him? "Absolutely not. It's something I can cut away from. Doesn't mean to say you don't think about it. Or that you haven't made big-time mistakes that you regret. Sometimes people say, you must miss the adrenaline rush. That's shit! Someone's shooting at you, you've no adrenaline rush: you're scared, you're flapping. I don't particularly want that again. I didn't like it at the time. No, fuck that! I'm not this mad loony running around with guns hanging off me," he says cheerily, then rather spoils the effect by adding, "that's work."
He was tortured for six weeks in Iraq, and opens his mouth to show where a tooth was ripped out. He holds up his hand: "I've still got a sensation and dexterity problem with these two fingers. Nerve damage from the handcuffs." He must, I say, get impatient with the trend for counselling for anyone who's had the mildest trauma. Surprisingly, he disagrees. "Because of the debrief system, when you come back from a job, without realising it, you do go through a form of counselling - certainly by the time the proper boys turn up. Post-traumatic distress is a fact, and if the most you've ever seen is a car crash that you've driven past, then suddenly you're part of something, yeah, counselling - why not? Cos everything's relative."
He is dismissive of his alleged link to the Elsey and Petrolini murder case. "Bravo was at its height at the time, and it was one of many books these characters had. The police said there was no link. But it's happened since then. I worked on that De Niro film, Heat. I had to train the actors and work out the heist and the final shoot-out. Some gun association rated it the most realistic screen gunfight ever. But there was a robbery in LA last year which recreated it. They shot seven police officers - that made me feel quite sad, though nobody died. They even cancelled the robbery by three days because they didn't have the correct bags. Not the same ones as Val Kilmer was carrying. So these people are slightly deranged in the first place."
'Remote Control' is published on 13 November by Bantam, pounds 16.99.
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