The bestselling crime writer, Chris Ewan, describes how rumours and gossip of protected witnesses hiding out on the Isle of Man inspired him to write his first stand alone novel Safe House and has gone on to inspire his latest novel Long Time Lost.
A few years ago now, I wrote my first standalone thriller, Safe House. The novel was set on the Isle of Man, where I was living at the time, and the story grew out of rumours I had heard of the island being used to relocate people involved in UK witness protection programmes. I had no idea if the rumours were true. Some of the hearsay seemed outlandish. Some, perhaps, had a degree of plausibility to it.
One of the more colourful rumours had it that the landlord of a particular pub was living under an assumed name after giving evidence in a high profile criminal trial in Manchester. The landlord, so the story went, had never run a pub before, and given the standard of food that was served there, it was something I could halfway believe.
There were legends of cameras being snatched and destroyed by people who didn’t want their photographs taken. Passing references were made to IRA safe houses being dotted around the island during The Troubles.
Like wildfire: rumours and lies on a small island
In 2010, the rumours took a much darker turn when Wayne Dale, 19, was successfully prosecuted for making false allegations on Facebook that Robert Thompson, one of the two ten-year-olds who murdered James Bulger in 1993, was working at a branch of B&Q on the island. Dale appeared before the High Bailiff’s Court in Douglas where he admitted the charge of “provoking behaviour”. He was sentenced to three months imprisonment, suspended for two years.
Needless to say, few of the rumours merit any kind of serious consideration. And yet, I could understand how they developed. The island has a population of 80,000 people, hemmed in on a chunk of rock thirty-two miles long by fourteen miles wide, so hearsay – or “skeet”, as the Manx prefer to call it – spreads quickly.
More to the point, the island is comparatively remote, located in the middle of the Irish Sea between the Lake District and Northern Ireland, so it would make a pretty good place to hide out. While its culture and customs are unique, life on the island would be reassuringly familiar to anyone forced to relocate from the UK and Ireland. And believe me, the picturesque and rugged terrain makes for a stunning place to lie low.
Historical precedents add another layer of credence to the idea. Some of the Enigma code interceptors were trained in secret on the island. Internees were imprisoned on Manx shores during the Second World War.
But still, the rumours, such as they were, didn’t offer enough for me to believe in. There were people I could have approached to find out more, but I couldn’t think of anyone who would tell me the truth nor any reason why they should.
Exploring themes of hiding and disappearance in fiction
And anyway, whether it was just hearsay or more didn’t really matter. The rumours were enough to stir in me a fascination for fictional stories about people who disappear or go into hiding; for tales of life on the run; for stories about the lives of those left behind and for stories about the improbable return of loved ones who reappear against all odds.
Those themes coalesced into Safe House but they continue to recur in my writing, most recently in my latest novel, Long Time Lost.
In writing Long Time Lost, I thought a lot about government schemes that exist to help hide and protect people, most often with regard to witness protection. In particular, I read a number of non-fiction titles about people involved in the Federal Protection Program in the United States, and I was intrigued not just by the emotional strains placed on those individuals being hidden, but also by the enormous responsibility placed on the law enforcement officers tasked with keeping them safe.
We all fantasise from time to time about walking away from our jobs, reinventing ourselves, starting afresh, but it is a different prospect entirely to do it for real, especially if it’s not your choice.
I began to ask myself what it would take to make me run. I wondered who I would turn to if the government couldn’t help me. And gradually, an idea began to form.
What if someone created their own highly illegal, highly bespoke protection scheme hiding at-risk people across Europe?
I had never heard of such a thing being done before. I couldn’t think of a thriller novel based on the premise. I grabbed an A3 sketchpad and began to plan my own.
A year later, Long Time Lost was finished. The action in the book takes place right across Europe, from Hamburg to Prague, from Arles to Rome, from central Switzerland to Dubrovnik. But perhaps inevitably, given where the story originated, there was really only one place it could begin: a lonely cliffside house on the Isle of Man.
Born in Taunton in 1976, Chris Ewan now lives in Somerset with his wife, Jo, and their daughter. Safe House, his first stand-alone thriller, was a number one bestseller in 2012 and was shortlisted for the Theakston’s Old Peculier Crime Novel of the Year Award. Dead Line, his second thriller, was published in 2013 and is optioned for film. Dark Tides was shortlisted for CrimeFest’s eDunnit award for the best crime fiction eBook.