Martin Patience: We live in difficult times – it’s fertile ground for thriller writers
Martin Patience was reporting for the BBC near to the Turkey-Syria border in 2019 when a mortar passed narrowly over his head before exploding a short distance away. It was a vivid reminder for the Scottish foreign correspondent of just how dangerous his chosen career had become and enough of a shock to make him think about doing something else.
After a career which included postings in Afghanistan, China and Nigeria, Patience left the BBC in 2021, moving to Washington DC with his American wife and young son.
“I burnt out,” he says. “I spent almost 20 years overseas – 16 years as a BBC correspondent – in some really tough, gruelling postings, often working in difficult and dangerous conditions.
“It takes its toll. Frankly, if it doesn’t take its toll, you’re probably a psychopath or something else is really wrong with you!”
It was while living in Beirut – a city which has undergone considerable upheaval in the past few years, not least the huge explosion which claimed more than 200 lives in 2021 – that Patience began work on a novel set in the world of Scottish politics.
The Darker the Night is set against the backdrop of a future independence referendum where nationalist First Minister Susan Ward’s campaign threatens to become derailed by the high-profile murder of a civil servant. The story is partly inspired by A Murder Foretold, an article published in the New Yorker about the killing of an attorney in Guatemala.
“I remember reading that article about 10 years ago and thinking that it could happen anywhere,” Patience says. “It’s about the mood music in the country, whether the stakes are high enough. I do think Scotland is at that high-stakes stage – both Scotland and Britain – and it’s interesting how that moment could be manipulated.”
Perhaps unsurprisingly, the hero of Patience’s novel is a journalist, an old-school reporter with a bulging contacts book who despairs about the clickbait-obsessed, opinion-driven newsroom he now finds himself in.
As a journalist who has spent almost his entire working life outside of his homeland, I ask Patience if the novel is meant to be a comment on the Scottish press.
“People say that in the 2014 referendum there was a debate and there was one egg thrown,” he says. “If there was to be a second referendum, there would probably be less of a debate, more poison, and a lot more eggs thrown.
“What role has the collapse of the media played in that? I would probably argue quite a lot because you need a public square where people can have debate. If you don’t have a strong media, then I think that’s detrimental to society and does lead to polarisation. I think what we’re seeing in the Scottish media – largely because of money – is that opinion sells, opinion is cheap and reporting costs money.
“When newspapers need to make financial savings then, inevitably, decent old-school journalism is going to fall by the wayside. I think that’s a deep worry not just for Scotland but for other countries where that’s happening. I’ve lived in countries where you don’t have a functioning media – if the media doesn’t function, the country doesn’t function.”
Patience during his time working for the BBC in Afghanistan
Patience, who now works for National Public Radio (NPR) in the US, says he wanted to turn his back on conflict, so was he worried about entering into Scotland’s constitutional debate with his first novel?
“I wanted the referendum to be a backdrop, but I did steer very clear of Scottish politics. It’s still in there a little – I present both sides’ arguments, but I think that’s been drilled into me as a BBC correspondent (and I am still a journalist) so I think it’s important not to have a strong take on it.
“But also you don’t want to get bogged down in the details of Scottish politics. It’s about the political juncture we’re at in British history – that’s what I’m really interested in and how that’s going to play out.
“Would I ever talk publicly about where I stand on the issue of Scottish politics and Scottish independence? I’ve been shot at; I’ve had mortars go over my head – I know when to keep my head down. This is one of these occasions.”
Following her resignation last month, Nicola Sturgeon, a bibliophile who often tweets book recommendations, said she hoped to spend more time at book festivals after standing down as first minister. Patience’s publisher has already sent her a copy of his novel, but he says any similarities between Sturgeon and his fictional first minister are purely coincidental.
“I was worried that people would draw the parallel purely because she’s a woman,” he says. “But then I thought, hang on, why is that a big issue? I think one of the remarkable things about Scotland is the number of female political leaders we’ve had.
“[Sturgeon] has been sent a copy. That I know. I don’t know if she has read it. Of course, if she does read it and tweet about it, then copies will be made available to all major political leaders in Scotland!”
While his novel is set in Scotland, Patience says there was no conscious effort for it to be seen as Tartan noir – he’s already begun work on the follow-up and it’s not based in Scotland.
“I’ve lived in a lot of countries, but the only country I really know is Scotland. The thing I love about being a foreign correspondent is that you walk down the street every day and you learn something new.
“The thing I love about coming home is that you walk down the street and understand everything – for better or worse. That’s always a lovely feeling when you feel completely at home. For me, being at home is understanding everything that’s going on.
“I think it’s a fantastic time for thriller writers. It’s a time when you’ve got conflict in the world…thriller writers need tension and if we’re living in a world with lots of tension, that’s very fertile ground.”
The Darker the Night, published by Polygon, is out now.