“Few writers mix tension and action as effectively as Robert Wilson...his carefully drawn characters inhabit unusual, intriguing and psychologically intricate plots that never leave the realm of possibility...Excellent.”
“...the engines driving The Hidden Assassins through to its satisfying, nuanced finish are old human emotions: greed, obsession, love...[Wilson] allows the reader enough room to breathe and, most important, to care about the main and supporting players.”
As Inspector Jefe Javier Falcón investigates a mutilated, faceless corpse unearthed on the municipal dump, a massive explosion rocks the beautiful, peaceful city of Seville. An apartment building collapses and a nearby pre-school is devastated, killing and wounding men, women and children. When it's discovered that there was a mosque in the basement of the apartment building the media is quick to assume it's the work of Islamist terrorists.
As a late, high summer heat tightens its grip, panic sweeps through the city and the population flees while the region is put on red alert. More bodies are dragged from the rubble and terror invades the domestic life of the flamboyant judge, Esteban Calderón, and the troubled mind of the captivating Consuelo Jiménez.
With the media and political pressure intensifying, Falcón refuses to be swayed and begins to realise that all is not as it seems. But just as he comes close to cracking the conspiracy he makes the most terrifying discovery of all, and then the race is on to prevent a major catastrophe far beyond Spain's borders.
A different kind of terror
On March 11th 2004 ten bombs exploded on four commuter trains at the height of the Madrid rush hour, killing 191 people and injuring many more. Spain was suddenly, dramatically and irrevocably changed. It was an event that could not be ignored, especially as I was writing about the capital of Andalucia, which has a long history with the Arab world and today has a Moroccan population of more than 6,000. This is the largest single body of immigrants and, at the time of writing the book, they were seeking to build a mosque for 700 worshippers on a site at Los Bermejales, to which there was considerable local opposition.
During research I came across a text from Abdullah Azzam, a renowned preacher and leader of the Afghan resistance against the Russian invasion, which read as follows:
'This duty will not end with victory in Afghanistan; jihad will remain an individual obligation until all other lands that were Muslim are returned to us, so that Islam will reign again: before us lie Palestine, Bokhara, Lebanon, Chad, Eritrea, Somalia, the Philippines, Burma, Southern Yemen, Tashkent, and Andalucia.' That last word was like a bolt from the blue to my creative brain. Given that the theme of my Seville books was appearance and reality, I thought about making an incident look like an Islamist terrorist attack, but which would have far more serious and sinister implications.
Listening, not judging
It was a colossal undertaking just to bring myself up to speed on international terrorism and al-Qaeda and then add into that explosives, counter-terrorism, Spanish intelligence, and perhaps most important - the Arab point of view. The latter task was made easier by a friend who had a contact in a clothing factory near Rabat, in Morocco, who allowed my wife and I to interview a dozen members of her staff, from the directors to the men and women on the factory floor. In three days we heard a range of personal and political views from the extreme to the moderate. And because we were there only to listen and not to judge, nor to argue any point of view, it was utterly fascinating.
The humiliation gap
It became apparent that there was a very deep communication rift between the Muslim world and the West, emanating from the profound humiliation felt at the plight of the Palestinians. The whole of the Arab world feels their pain. I found it shocking, rather than absurd, to hear the firmly-held belief that 9/11 was an Israeli Mossad operation and that Ariel Sharon was commander-in-chief of the US forces in Iraq. I realised that there were two things at work here: the first was that Moroccans were so appalled by 9/11 that they couldn't and wouldn't believe that it was the work of Arabs. The second was that their humiliation was so complete that it had induced a collective tunnel vision: all things evil came from Israel. Never had I felt that the straits of Gibraltar were so wide.
The power of the past
I had already done a lot of research before I carried out these vox pops so, when one of my interviewees mentioned the Balfour Agreement as if it had happened yesterday, I knew that this was a letter from the British Foreign Secretary to the leading British Jew, Lord Rothschild, dated 2nd November 1917. In it he wrote:
His Majesty's Government view with favour the establishment in Palestine of a National Home for the Jewish people, and will use their best endeavours to facilitate the achievement of this object, it being clearly understood that nothing shall be done that may prejudice the civil and religious rights of the existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine, or the rights and political status enjoyed by Jews in any other country.
At the time of Balfour agreement there was no political entity called Palestine. There were 700,000 Arabs and 56,000 Jews living in those lands at that point. So the Arabs resented their description as 'non-Jewish communities'. As far as they were concerned they were descendants of people who had lived there for at least 1000 years, whereas this phrase implied that they were intruders. For this presumed slight still to be felt like a recent welt ninety years later is indicative of the intractability of the problem in the Middle East.
Two women supervisors in their twenties gave us another insight into the Arab world. They were funny, vivacious, intelligent and had jobs but were unmarried. We asked them why. It was because the men they knew didn't have jobs and without a job you cannot marry and if you're not married you can't have children and if you have no children you have not fulfilled your fundamental task as a Muslim man. Not only was it sad, but you could see how that could work on a young man's mind.
After these interviews I decided that I would have to have a chapter in the book that would give the reader an idea of the differences in thinking between Islam and the West. Although I realised that this was not the stuff of thriller writing, shedding light on the central problem became important to me.
There is a fundamental difficulty with writing a book about terrorism and that is the preset level of repugnance in the reader at the cold-blooded ruthlessness of the fanatics who carry out these horrific acts. How does a writer deal with that? We can respond to the tragic death of a few but find ourselves floored by the enormity of too many victims. I needed to bring a human scale to the incomprehensibly grotesque.
Microcosm of terror
I could do this through the developed characters I already had at my disposal, whose lives would be tragically altered or extraordinarily transformed by a terrorist act - or an act of terror, like a sickening episode of domestic violence.
Psychology of terror
The psychological effects of terrorism affect us all, whether we have shuddered in the blast of an explosion and survived or just seen footage of an attack on the news and been left feeling nervous. I wanted to emphasise this in Consuelo's story. Her psychological turmoil mirrors that of the population's reaction to the terrorists, who are like neuroses in society, they can surface at any moment and have the capacity to destroy.
THE HIDDEN ASSASSINS
HarperCollins Publishers Ltd; New Ed edition (16 April 2007)