BEHIND THE BOOK: Dana Haynes

Doing research for my latest novel on the island of Cyprus led me to a strange paradox.

The island may be split by rival military forces. But most Cypriots just don’t care that much. Those I spoke to found the division of their island to be, at worst, a bit annoying.

What passes back and forth isn’t bullets or shells, these days, but snarky tweets.

I was reminded of this in November when the island celebrated the first new open route between the Greek and Turkish sides in about eight years. 

“Today is good day for Cyprus,” Elizabeth Spehar, head of the UN peacekeeping force on the island, told the BBC.

I traveled to Cyprus in 2016 to do the preliminary research for ST. NICHOLAS SALVAGE & WRECKING, the thriller/mystery being released in March by Blackstone Publishing. The story follows two modern-day bounty hunters, an American ex-cop and a Spanish ex-spook, who secretly, and illegally, round up the worst-of-the-worst bad guys for the International Criminal Court.

I wanted to set up my heroes — Michael Finnigan and Katalin Fiero Dahar — in Cyprus because the dodgy banks there and the influx of Russian mob money means its relatively easy to hide a company that deals with kidnapping international criminals and smuggling them to The Hague. But I also wanted to set some of the story in Cyprus because it’s the last split country in that part of the world. The capitol, Nicosia, is walled off like Berlin used to be. My friend Tim King and I would walk up to a Greek security post, get our passports checked, get the nod, then walk 20 paces to the Turkish security post, get our passports checked, get the nod, then walk into the other side of the ancient city. All under the watchful eye of the U.N. “Blue Helmets.”

The split dates back to 1974 and a military coup backed by Athens. As a result, Turkey invaded the north and established a de facto government which, today, is acknowledge by no other country on earth, despite more than four decades of military occupation.

There’s a long-standing tradition in the mystery/thriller world of setting stories amid ambient anger. If the setting is a lovely, bucolic picnic and one character is mad enough to contemplate murder, then that emotion will stand out like … well, like a blood stain on a picnic blanket. However, set your story in a world where emotions are high and violence is a factor, and you can cloak the motives of your primary characters.

Think about where Cyprus is: Turkey at 12 o’clock to the north. Syria and Israel at 3 o’clock. Egypt at 6 o’clock. You couldn’t invent a better setting for a modern-day political thriller!

That was my other reasoning for setting a story in Cyprus: The location and the occupation meant roiling tension. Right?

Not so much.

I brought Tim along because he’s one of the world’s greatest schmoozers. There is no cabbie, no waiter, no bartender Tim can’t get to open up. The man plays the barstool the way Jascha Heifetz played the fiddle.

Everyone we talked to on the Greek or Turkish sides of the island said the military presence and the border was bad. But it’s the way it’s been for 40-plus years. Many Cypriots can’t remember when it was any different. It’s the not-so-new normal. Greek Cypriots said they didn’t trust the Turks. Turkish Cypriots said the didn’t trust the Greeks. 

Did they want the military-enforced division to end?

The United Nation’s blue-and-white barrels of sand that denote the border between Greek Cyprus and Turkish-occupied Cyprus, in Nicosia, the last split capitol on Earth. Photo by Dana Haynes

Well, sure. A bit. They said they didn’t think about it much.

One potter in Larnaca told us his family had lived in the north and had been displaced by the Turks. The border is passable. Taxis and buses drive through several times a day. Had he ever gone back?

No. Larnaca was his home now. 

When we asked a hotel manager in the south who he trusted the least, he listed (in this order) Americans, because we were only there for the oil; Russians, because they were only there for the corrupt banking; and the Turks.

I know for a fact that not every Cypriot feels this way. Some harbor strong resentments on both sides. Peace talks flare and falter every few years. Diplomats from Athens and Ankara throw barbed quips at each other.

This is a great example of why doing research on the ground is so damn important. No amount if Internet noodling would give you the strangely benign acceptance of the split in that nation the same way that walking through Nicosia, or Gazimağusa, or Kyrenia (the headquarters of my heroes, Finnigan and Fiero), does. You can only get that sense of the place by being in the place.

Not every writer has that luxury. (In 2016, I’d been fired from a political spokesman job at City Hall and had, let us say, some free time.)

But for those who do: Traveling to the place you’re going to write about is the boon of eyesight, space and liberty. 

And, if you have to do it on a gorgeous island filled with Greek and Turkish food — not to mention coffee! — then hell, what are you waiting for?

Dana Haynes is the author of seven mystery and thriller novels published by Bantam Books and St. Martin’s Press. His eighth, “ST. NICOLAS SALVAGE  & WRECKING,” will be released in March 2019 by Blackstone Publishing.

 

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