Speaking exclusively to the novelist, who has dedicated his latest book to the poisoning victims, they also air their concerns about Russian intelligence operations in the UK.
It has been said that the world has now entered a Second Cold War, as Russia and other superpowers once again flex their military muscles on the global stage.
The poisoning of former Russian military officer and double agent Sergei Skripal, and his daughter Yulia, on British soil two years ago this month dramatically underlined this shift in attitude and tactics.
The terrifying incident in Salisbury, and the increasing public paranoia over Russian aggression that has followed since, has been tapped into by Fleet Street veteran reporter and author Tony Bassett for his latest novel, contemporary spy thriller The Lazarus Charter.
The book exposes Russian intelligence operations in the UK and the plot has been described by one reviewer as if it “could have been taken out of today’s headlines”, which perfectly sums up the author’s modus operandi of writing novels inspired by the news.
Set in the UK and seeing the return of amateur detectives Bob and Anne Shaw, as introduced in Mr Bassett’s 2018 debut, Smile of the Stowaway, The Lazarus Charter begins with a classic mystery.
Bob spots an old university friend, Professor Gus Morley, in the London Underground. The only problem is that he attended the same man’s funeral five weeks before.
His wife fears that the figure on the train was simply a lookalike and starts to worry that her husband is losing his mind. Bob, however, is convinced that he was not mistaken. He discovers that the man is making regular trips to a plastic surgery clinic and begins digging into the facts of Professor Morley’s apparent death in a car crash.
Soon, the Shaws find themselves pursued by a team of Russian agents who use a variety of poisons to kill their victims as they strive to uncover the shocking truth.
The Lazarus Charter is a gripping read replete with all the obligatory twists and turns that makes for an unmissable thriller.
This is only compounded by the reference to real-world events. Though a work of fiction, the fact that sinister forces have successfully infiltrated our country, and could strike again, keeps you glued to the page.
Mr Bassett, who enjoyed a 37-year career as a reporter and investigative journalist within the national press, has, fittingly, dedicated his novel to two victims of the new Cold War: Dawn Sturgess and Alexander Litvinenko.
Ms Sturgess, who is referred to in the novel, was an unanticipated casualty of the Skripal poisonings. In June 2018 she and her partner, Charlie Rowley, found a discarded perfume bottle in Salisbury, Wiltshire, which contained the same novichok nerve agent that had been used by suspected Russian agents months before.
The mother-of-three, 44, tragically died in hospital just over a week later, though her boyfriend survived.
Mr Bassett recently reached out to Dawn’s parents and was able to secure a rare and exclusive interview, in which the Sturgesses spoke of how they feel “abandoned” by the British Government as the second anniversary of their daughter’s death approaches.
Dawn’s father, retired builder Stan Sturgess, told him: “We’ve had no contact from the Government at all and nothing from our MP. We’ve been left very much on our own.
“Our anguish goes on. Obviously, we feel abandoned. We’ve heard nothing..
“Apart from the lack of interest from the Government, the date of the inquest into Dawn’s death keeps getting put off.
“This is partly because the family have challenged the scope of the inquest, but all the same it adds to our ordeal.”
In the Queen’s speech in December, it was revealed the Government is considering the registration of foreign agents, revising the Official Secrets Act and updating the treason laws.
“We obviously support these measures but just wish the government would get on with it,” Mr Sturgess added.
The couple said they were pleased that Mr Bassett had dedicated The Lazarus Charter to Dawn.
Caroline Sturgess, Dawn’s mother, said: “We are so grateful that Tony got in touch with us and told us about his book. We both hope it is well received by the public. What a lovely gesture to dedicate the book to Dawn.”
Mr Bassett has also spoken with the widow of murdered Russian dissident Alexander Litvinenko, who died in a separate poisoning incident in London back in 2006—a story that he covered at the time for the national press.
Marina Litvinenko, 57, expressed her deep sympathy for the family of Dawn Sturgess and all the Salisbury people affected by the poisonings.
She said: “I feel very sorry for the family of Dawn Sturgess – the poor woman who died at exactly the same age as Alexander, forty-four. It is not just one or two lives that are affected. Doctors, nurses, police – everybody is affected.
“In 2018, it was a nightmare. Novichok is dangerous from beginning to end. In many ways, it is more dangerous than the polonium that killed my husband.”
She said sanctions against Russia had been ineffective and called for more imaginative solutions to the problem posed by foreign agents operating against the law.
“Sanctions haven’t had much effect on Russian policy,” she said.
“There are a lot of restrictions now on government and security officials from Russia coming to Britain. But the Russian authorities are creative. You never know what they will do.”
Unlike the Sturgesses, however, she doubts that the British Government’s proposal to register foreign agents would work.
She said: “If you do this, Russia immediately says: if you do that we will register the BBC as foreign agents. With every move the British government makes you can expect Russia to react against it. If you act against us, we will act against you.
“From the British side, there is always humanity. But from the Russians, it’s manipulation. However, the British Government should do a lot more to stop what the agents have been doing.”
Mrs Litvinenko gave her support last year to a legal challenge to force Prime Minister Boris Johnson to publish a report on alleged Russian meddling in British politics.
But legal moves were halted when the General Election came. She is now waiting for Parliament’s intelligence and security committee to take a decision.
She said : “We are now waiting to see if the new government will publish the report. But, if it is not released, we will go back to court again.”
Mrs Litvinenko, who refers to her late husband as “Sasha,” reveals she was astonished to learn that Mr Bassett’s book was called The Lazarus Charter.
“The day after Sasha died, Putin was at a conference in Helsinki when a journalist pointed out Litvinenko blamed the Russian leader for his death in his final words.
“Putin then said: ‘Those who did it are not the Lord and Litvinenko is not Lazarus.’ Then two years later, when the restrictions were lifted on my house and I collected his notebook of words and poems, I opened the last page and found to my astonishment he had written about Lazarus.
“The words were from the Bible: ‘He cried with a loud voice: Lazarus, come out . . . Jesus said: Unbind him and let him go. Many of the Jews therefore, who had come with Mary and had seen what he did, believed in him.’
“‘I was really shocked to see these four lines. It was as if Sasha was answering Putin. So I was amazed when I saw the title of the book.”
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
We speak to veteran Fleet Street reporter Tony Bassett about his career working for the nation’s favourite newspapers, including The Sun and Sunday People, and his reinvention as an author of gripping contemporary thrillers.
Q. You must have covered thousands of news stories over the years for the national press. Looking back, which are you proudest of breaking, and why?
A. One of my proudest moments was uncovering the story in the late 1980s that The Rolling Stones’ Bill Wyman, then 52, was going to marry eighteen-year-old Mandy Smith. I got the story by interviewing Mandy’s sister as she leaned out of an upstairs window in Muswell Hill. Within hours, it was on the front page of The Sun.
I also took an escaped prisoner, Mickey Ishmael, back to jail. This followed a Sunday People story I wrote about him absconding while on an escorted visit to hospital. His new girlfriend insisted he return to HM Prison Long Lartin to see out his sentence and she phoned me. Photographer David Graves and I—along with the girlfriend—drove the East End gangster back to Evesham. But on the way he insisted on stopping to buy her a bouquet of flowers.
Q. You started out in journalism as a local reporter back in the early 1970s. How has the media changed the most between then and now?
A. The greatest change has been the arrival of the internet. Journalists outside London tended to cover just their local patch. Now a journalist anywhere with access to online news websites can cover a story hundreds of miles from their office. Mobile phones and computers have also revolutionised the journalist’s craft.
Q. As an investigative reporter, what were the most remarkable experiences you had in the pursuit in of a headline?
A. I helped ensure a vice and clubs detective who drove his girlfriend to Soho to work in the sex industry every day got the sack. I bought 200 bogus MOT certificates from a London criminal and once checked out a criminal’s claim to have sneaked into a judge’s private Old Bailey chambers by doing the same thing myself!
Q. How do you think your experience has a journalist has influenced your work as an author?
A. It has encouraged me, at least with my first two books, to take account of issues in the news. My first book, Smile Of The Stowaway, was inspired by a news story I wrote in 2014 about an immigrant who clung underneath a motor-home to enter Britain. My latest, The Lazarus Charter, was influenced by the deaths of Alexander Litvinenko and Dawn Sturgess.
Q. What are your own favourite thrillers, and for what reasons?
A. My favourite novel is The Thirty-Nine Steps by John Buchan. Other crime and thriller writers I admire are Conan Doyle, Agatha Christie, Val McDermid and Ian Rankin.
Q. Your latest novel, The Lazarus Charter, starts with a bang and only gets more intense from there. How did your idea for the storyline come about?
A. The main inspiration for the opening pages came to me in February 2019. I was waiting on a London Underground platform as a train came in. One of the passengers leaving the train vaguely resembled a friend of mine. I wondered what would happen if someone spotted a friend on a train whose funeral they had attended weeks before.
This became the starting point for my novel. In my mind, teacher Bob Shaw (who featured in my first book, the crime novel Smile Of The Stowaway) became the man standing on the Underground platform and his close friend, Professor Gus Morley, became the man on the train.
I went home and the next day, as soon as I started writing, the rest of the plot simply fell into place. Three months later, in May of last year, the first draft was completed.
Q. It has received endorsements from the family of Dawn Sturgess and the widow of Alexander Litvinenko. How does this make you feel?
A. Very humble. They have shown remarkable strength of character and fortitude since the tragic loss of their loved ones.
Marina Litvinenko has also shown immense bravery in standing up to the regime which she holds responsible for her husband’s death.
Q. We are now said to be living in a new Cold War era. How do you think this is influencing authors of contemporary thrillers?
A. I have felt very strongly myself about foreign intelligence agents smuggling unstable poisons into Britain and using them illicitly. However, I’m not aware that the re-emergence of a Cold War has had a major effect on other writers. I think jihadism and the rise and fall of ISIS has possibly had a greater influence on writers.
Q. Putting your journalist hat back on for a moment, what is your assessment of the threat that Russia now poses to the UK?
A. There seems to be greater tension now between Russia and the UK than any time since the fall of the Berlin Wall. Russian planes—possibly spy planes—have been intercepted on numerous occasions entering UK airspace. The British public is being kept in the dark about aspects of Anglo-Russian relations.
Q. Since retiring you have published two novels inspired by real-world events. What will your next novel be about, and how is this coming along?
A. I have written a crime thriller and a spy thriller. I’m now in the process of writing a psychological thriller set in Australia. I’m a quarter of the way through writing it.