The celebrated Fleet Street journalist who broke the story of Russian dissident Alexander Litvinenko’s assassination in London has this week warned that the coronavirus pandemic offers the “perfect cover” for further KGB attacks on British soil.
Former Fleet Street investigative reporter Tony Bassett was the first on the scene when Litvinenko, a vocal critic of Vladimir Putin, was rushed to hospital after receiving a lethal dose of the radioactive isotope polonium-210 in 2006.
Litvinenko, a former spy, was poisoned with a cup of tea in a London hotel. Working with Scotland Yard detectives as he lay dying, Litvinenko traced the lethal substance to a former comrade in the Russian secret service.
Now, just one month after the second anniversary of the Wiltshire Novichok murders, Tony fears the outbreak of Covid-19 could give the KGB the “ideal opportunity” to assassinate others in the UK.
He believes social distancing, fewer police and an increasingly overwhelmed NHS will leave many defectors isolated and “particularly vulnerable”.
Tony, who worked for The Sun and The Sunday People for nearly 40 years and covered most major events during the Cold War, says Britain and Russia are locked in a new, covert battle that could have catastrophic consequences for the British public.
If the government takes its “eye off the ball”, even in the midst of a pandemic, many others could die, he warns.
Tony, who retired from journalism in 2015, is now a full-time author of spy thrillers. His books draw on his extensive experience of investigative reporting.
His latest, “The Lazarus Charter”, was inspired by the Wiltshire poisonings and a rising paranoia among the British public over Russian aggression.
Featuring amateur detectives Bob and Anne Shaw, as introduced in Mr Bassett’s 2018 debut, Smile of the Stowaway¸ the novel is focused on the exposing of Russian intelligence operations in the UK.
It has received the blessing of both Litvinenko’s widow, Marina, and from the parents of Novichok victim Dawn Sturgess.
Tony, 69, said: “Though the British Government has tried to play down suspected Russian attacks on British soil, it is clear in my mind that a new Cold War is taking place and that the coronavirus offers the KGB perfect cover for many more attacks.
“Having covered every major development in the Cold War era, it feels like all the uncertainty and fear associated with those dark times have come back with a vengeance.
“Covid-19 and its widespread consequences on policing and hospitals makes defectors particularly vulnerable, especially as social distancing and lockdown comes into nationwide effect.”
Tony, who lives in Bexley, Greater London, adds: “Russia is once again a threat to our national security and it therefore seemed only logical to incorporate a Russian intelligence operation into my new novel.
“I only hope that future attacks remain firmly within the realms of fiction, but we need to be prepared for any eventuality.
“The government and our security forces are doing all they can to protect the wider British public from Covid-19, but cannot afford to take its eye off the ball when it comes to Russian agents, not even for a second.”
The Lazarus Charter by Tony Bassett is available now in paperback and eBook formats, published by The Conrad Press and priced £9.99 and £3.99 respectively . Visit Amazon or for more information go to www.tonybassettauthor.com/
EXCLUSIVE INTERVIEW WITH AUTHOR TONY BASSETT
Since his retirement from the national press, Tony Bassett has turned his writing skills to contemporary thriller fiction. In this exclusive interview, he discuss
Q. Why did you decide to become an author of thrillers after stepping down from Fleet Street?
A. Thank you very much for giving up your time to interview me. I’d always wanted to write fiction but had never had the time while I was working as a journalist. Being a journalist is a 24/7 occupation. Since becoming semi-retired, I have had some free time and have managed to write five books so far (two of which have been published). I’m currently writing a sixth. I have always been fascinated by crime, so I naturally gravitated towards thriller writing.
Q. How has your training and background as a journalist helped you make the transition to novelist?
A. Being a journalist gave me the opportunity to meet a huge variety of different people and inquire into a myriad of different incidents and scenarios. I’m able to draw on this fund of knowledge for my writing. While working as a journalist, I also received a thorough grounding in how to research topics and this has also set me in good stead for writing books.
Q. What have you found the most challenging elements of being an author to master?
A. There are so many challenges, I don’t have enough space here to list them! I have found writing fiction far more demanding than I thought it would be and there is a lot to learn. One of the greatest discoveries I’ve made is that writers these days need to be marketeers and publicists as well as authors.
Q. Your novels feature amateur detectives Bob and Anne Shaw. Why did you decide that they’d be the perfect protagonists, and how would you sum up these characters?
A. I learned early on that the days of the English detective investigating crimes in a country village were numbered. The trend now was for amateur female detectives, so I created the character of Anne Shaw. As I needed a narrator, I introduced her husband, Bob, and they quickly morphed into a husband-and-wife detective team. Anne is the practical, down-to-earth part of the team who is the skilful detective, while Bob is the patient partner, who is better-educated but supports his wife as they face challenges together.
Q. In brief, can you explain the process you follow in writing a new novel from beginning to end?
A. The writing process begins with the kernel of an idea. In my first book, Smile of the Stowaway, it was: How do you react when a stowaway emerges from beneath your vehicle? In my new book, The Lazarus Charter, it was: How do you react when you see a friend, who died three months earlier, alive at a station? Once that core idea has been established, thoughts begin to flow about the possible consequences.
A vague sequence of events forms in the mind and I begin writing. Although I do some advance planning, I tend to let the characters take over the story and let things develop that way. I don’t usually come up with ideas for an ending until I have written three quarters of the book. Even then, I will have two or three possible endings in my mind before I finally select one to close the novel.
Q. Which authors or works would you compare or contrast your latest novel with, and in what ways?
A. I wouldn’t like to compare my books with those of any other author. The writers I most admire have been writing novels far longer than me. However, I have most enjoyed the works of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, John Buchan, Val McDermid, (whom I used to work with on the Sunday People), Peter James and Ian Rankin.
Q. Your latest novel, The Lazarus Charter, has received endorsements from the family of Dawn Sturgess and the widow of Alexander Litvinenko. How did this come about?
A. Since the novel concerns Russian agents, I thought it would be useful research for the book to contact Alexander’s widow, Marina, and the parents of Dawn Sturgess. Everyone has been very helpful. I also feel strongly that these victims of an enemy power have been rather overlooked and as such I felt moved to dedicate the book to Dawn and Alexander.
Q. What have been the responses to your new novel from readers that you are proudest about?
A. I’m very proud of the fact that the book has been selling extremely well in Dawn Sturgess’s home city of Salisbury. I’ve also been encouraged by the book’s reviewers, who have rated the book extremely highly. I’m not sure why! I felt it was a book I had to write, so I would have been happy with it securing just average success.
Q. What are your golden rules for writing captivating thrillers?
A. I don’t really have any hard-and-fast rules. However, I always try to introduce engaging characters that readers can relate to. I aim to devise an intriguing plot; I endeavour to end every chapter with a cliff-hanger; and I try to create an ending that is revelatory, surprising or, at least, satisfying.
Q. What’s next for you as an author?
A. I’m currently writing a psychological thriller with a completely fresh set of characters. I don’t want to say more at the moment so watch this space!