So, Craig Thomas is no longer with us.
To be fair most of us had resigned ourselves to having read the last of him, the long 12 years of silence at 1999's "Slipping into Shadow" communicated the message that this was all over reasonably clearly, and in our minds I think we all knew that his finest work was behind him even then, but it's still sad to see someone who could genuinely be seen as a master of British cold war fiction leave us, and it's only appropriate to pause and reflect on what his work was all about.
In 1985 I 'discovered' the spy thriller. I was 13 and the pair of Clive Cussler and Craig Thomas served to introduce 'adult' fiction to my shelves with something of a bang. Almost overnight collections of W E Johns and Swallows and Amazons went, making way for anything I could lay my hands on from my small local second hand bookshop in Dalkey. In retrospect it seems almost disrespectful to mention Cussler and Thomas in the same breath. Clive Cussler writes fantastic gung ho rollicking adventures, but in his long running character Kenneth Aubrey Thomas produced a creation to rival Le Carre's Smiley.
Most of the obituaries emerging have latched onto "Firefox" as being his signature novel, and it was this which first drew my attention to Thomas, initially, and perhaps somewhat unusually not through the Clint Eastwood film, but the laser disc arcade game, then as the first of his books to be read by me - closely followed by its sequel, "Firefox Down". It would be a huge shame for this to obscure his triumphant journey through British intelligence as portrayed by the Kenneth Aubrey series (Aubrey has a bit part in "Firefox", grotesquely played by Freddie Jones in the film), the high point almost certainly being "The Bear's Tears", a sinuous tale of betrayal spanning Cold War Europe and Afghanistan topically at the time wrapped up in the suspicions that British intelligence was penetrated at a high level by a Soviet agent. "The Bear's Tears" is enormously readable and while perhaps it suffers from undeniably coming after "Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy" it deserves a much higher profile than it currently enjoys. I loved reading it during what I distinctly remember was a bleak November in the mid 1980s, and it has borne periodic revisiting.
The universe of Aubrey and his Australian man-of-action Patrick Hyde ran on for five further books and while all were highly polished political thrillers, I don't think the same heights were quite scaled. This was punctuated by a return of Firefox's Mitchell Gant, in a pair of slightly underwhelming books, and what initially promised to be the start of a new series, with 1995's "A Wild Justice" which set a group of dedicated Russian police fighting the smuggling of weapons of mass destruction in the chaos of the collapsed Soviet Union. Most notably this was supported by very high profile marketing in British broadsheet newspapers with mock electrical store adverts plugging "Unbeatable deals of top brand Nuclear Weapons".
Steam undeniably ran out towards the end. The final Gant book, "A Different War" draws almost word for word on "A Hooded Crow" for its denouement, and in "Slipping into Shadow", largely set in Burma's Golden Triangle, there's a perceptible sense of lassitude. It was a disappointment, but probably not a surprise that nothing more was forthcoming from Craig Thomas.
He may have stopped writing a long time ago, but it's still sad to draw a line under this, and confirm that there really is nothing more to come. So, tonight's a time to raise a glass to the memory of Aubrey, Hyde, and their very talented creator, Craig Thomas.