Author Ken McClure talks about latest thriller

Ken McClure. Pic: Phil Wilkinson
Ken McClure. Pic: Phil Wilkinson
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EX-Special Forces medic Dr Steven Dunbar is back... and this time he’s taking on the CIA and the governments of the world, in East Lothian author Ken McClure’s latest novel.

Over the last 27 years, and 22 novels, the internationally best-selling author has built a reputation for producing the best medical thrillers in the business - the Daily Telegraph once declaring: ‘His medical thrillers out-chill both Michael Crichton and Robin Cook.’

The reason for this ‘chill factor’ is McClure’s ability to weave fact with fiction in such a seamless way that his readers never fully know which is which. That he also happens to be an award-winning research scientist, who worked with the UK’s Medical Research Council, just adds to the authenticity of his tales.

In the tenth and latest Steven Dunbar thriller, McClure’s reluctant hero finds himself up against, not just the CIA, but his own paymasters at the Foreign Office.

When the investigator gets news that an old friend, Dr Simone Ricard of Medicins Sans Frontieres, has died in an accident while attending a scientific meeting in Prague, he determines to investigate.

Ricard and her team had been working to eradicate polio on the Pakistan/Afghanistan border. Having discovered a possible reason for the failure to do so – fake teams put in by the CIA - she had gone to Prague to publicise her findings... only to meet with a ‘tragic accident’. McClure, whose books have now been translated into more than 20 languages, is known for his meticulous research. Recalling the origins of The Secret, he reveals, “It started off with a scientific interest of mine.

“I was wondering why the World Health Organisation (WHO) had not managed to wipe out polio, when they’d been really successful with smallpox a few years back.

“Polio is now at the level smallpox was then, so it should have been possible for them to use a very simple technique, to go to every outbreak and vaccinate everyone within a mile or two-mile radius, thus stopping the disease from spreading.

“The virus needs live cells to survive, it can’t live in the ground or water as bacteria can, so you basically stop it because there’s nowhere for it to go and that’s the end of it.

“Obviously, the WHO thought they’d have the same success as with smallpox. They even had a target date for eradication. It came and went. They gave it another target date. That came and went. Wondering what the problem was I had a look at the areas of the world where polio was still around. I found an area where, not only was it still around, but it was endemic, an everyday disease for the folk living there, and that was on the Afghanistan/Pakistan border.

“Now, of course, you are invited to believe there are lots of difficulties there; it’s very mountainous and isolated and there are political difficulties, various terrorist groups and the antipathy between India and Pakistan over the north.

“It would be very easy to say that is why there is still polio. On the other hand, big charities like Medicins Sans Frontieres and the Red Cross have really been putting in lots of vaccination teams there.

“Then I stumbled across a news paper article from that region protesting loudly about some vaccination team having been exposed as imposters - they turned out to be CIA.

“The awful truth was that the CIA were looking for intelligence because they believed Bin Laden was around somewhere. It was actually one of those fake vaccination teams that gained access to Abbottabad and brought out material on which they identified Bin Laden’s DNA.

“Then the SEAL teams went in, killed him, and the Western press concentrate on the bravery of the SEAL teams and the success of the States getting ‘the man who shot their pa’ sort of thing. But they left a really awful legacy behind, in that all trust has been lost in the vaccination teams.

“Medicins Sans Frontieres have had to withdraw because their people have been attacked. It’s just a bad situation.”

In The Secret, this is the point Dr Dunbar steps in to right the wrongs.

“If only he was real,” says McClure.

Of course, his hero is fiction, although sometimes it’s difficult to tell where fact ends and the fiction begins in McClure’s novels.

“That’s exactly what I want,” he says. “I graft a fiction onto the fact and then deliberately blur the edges to make people wonder.”

It’s a technique that has worked so well that TV companies are falling over themselves to option the rights to bring the Dunbar books to the screen.

“A couple of producers took out options on the novels. They actually got backing from a big charity, The Wellcome Trust, and I was quite optimistic. They stuck at it for about two years but didn’t succeed and I thought, ‘Well, that’s the end of that.’

“But almost immediately another company stepped in and took options on all the Steven Dunbar stories, and they are the people who recently did The Fall on television, which I thought was excellent.”

In the meantime, however, McClure reveals there’s already another novel in the pipeline.

“I’m finding it harder and harder to uncover interesting factual stories, so I had no idea what the new book would be about until a month ago when I read a story about epigenetics.

“Having done a bit of background reading I saw immediately my problem was going to be using this subject in a way that people could pick up on.

“I always have to explain various bits of science in the books - that’s a personal hobby-horse hidden in the background of all my novels - but epigenetics, that’s a challenge.”

To explain it, he offers, “I found someone who describes your DNA as the hardware inside you, and epigenetics is the software. You can’t change the hardware, but you can change the way it is switched on and off and things like this. That’s interesting, so it’s going to be the basis for the next novel - I’ve written 50 pages so far.”

First, though, discover how Dunbar gets out of his latest tussle with the CIA when The Secret hits bookshops in the Capital tomorrow.

The Secret, by Ken McClure, published by Polygon in hardback, £16.99

DOCTOR’S ORDERS

DR Steven Dunbar is no ordinary physician. He first appeared in Ken McClure’s 1998 novel Donor. An ex-Para, who fell into medicine to acquiesce to his parents’ wishes, Dunbar eschewed the everyday things of being a GP in favour of field medicine with the Special Forces. Now he has been recruited by an elite government agency, the Sci-Med Inspectorate, which is charged with investigating high-tech crime in the world of science and medicine.

The Secret is the tenth in the Dr Steven Dunbar Series, which comprises Donor (1998), Deception (2001), Wildcard (2002), The Gulf Conspiracy (2004), The Eye of the Raven (2005), The Lazarus Strain (2007), White Death (2009), Dust to Dust (2010) and Lost Causes (2011).