The three best spy thrillers – Terry Hayes

Terry Hayes, the writer behind Mad Max 2, From Hell, Dead Calm and other many cult classics of the 80s and 90s gives us a run down of his top three spy thriller books ahead of the publication of his own debut, I Am Pilgrim


Terry Hayes 1 (c) Kristen Hayes

“I explained that The Avengers and narrative structure aren’t even on nodding acquaintance, let alone speaking terms.” Screenwriter turned debut novelist Terry Hayes.

You bring them up as best you can.

You change their nappies, sit by their cots in the small hours, rock them to sleep, try to teach them about narrative structure.

It isn’t easy.

I’ve got four children – the oldest is twelve now – and I’ve spent countless hours reading to them and then listening as they dog-paddled across the endless oceans of their first books. I don’t mean to complain, but am I the only one who thinks that by the twentieth book, Zac Powers gets a little repetitive? How many adventures can one mouse have Never too many, according to the creators of Geronimo Stilton.

But I take my responsibilities as a parent seriously. I have tried to explain to the children that, in my view, character and plot are the two sides of the same coin; beginnings are easy and endings are hard; a writer is like a smuggler – he has to convey important information without the reader ever seeing it. How can you pay a big moment off without setting it up? But, on the other hand, if the reader sees it coming you might as well put honey on it – you’re toast.

Despite my best efforts, I found that I was failing: narrative structure and its related aspects were heading into the same mental basket as algebra. I know I can’t be the only parent who has confronted this.

Luckily, help is at hand. I hit on a brilliant idea – no longer would I sit with them, read books together and stop every few pages to discuss its inner mechanics. Instead, I would use a much easier story-telling tool: movies.

“You mean like The Avengers,” my six-year-old asked hopefully when I told him about the idea.

Patiently, I explained that The Avengers and narrative structure aren’t even on nodding acquaintance, let alone speaking terms. No, we would watch brilliant films – Bridge On The River Kwai, Gone With The Wind, the spaghetti Westerns of Sergio Leone, the first Star Wars, Philadelphia Story, High Noon, Casablanca and so on.

We viewed them on DVD, I was armed with the remote, and every few scenes I would stop and point out character moments, themes being set up and discuss the ever-elusive narrative structure. They kept moaning about the constant interruptions and begging me to be quiet. Little rascals, I knew they were just joking.

We settled into a pleasant rhythm until, one night, I slipped the disc in – as usual, its title unknown to anyone except me – and we all settled back to watch. The terrific opening credits of the first Alien unspooled and the kids were pleased – they like science fiction, the two boys especially because there is always the imminent prospect of shooting, explosions and general mayhem.

Then we got to the famous “chest-buster” scene and all four of them ran screaming from the room. Worse still, as you can appreciate, none of them heard how this important event tied-in with the plot dynamics and the effect it had on further story developments.

Several weeks later my wife allowed me back into the house.

After reviewing that Friday night’s movie options, I decided that The French Connection might be suitable. The winner of five Oscars, it was a thriller based on real-life events about an attempt to smuggle a large amount of narcotics from Marseille to New York. It would also, my wife reasoned, give her the opportunity to discuss with the children the issue of drugs, the importance of law enforcement and the value of basic common sense. The latter was probably the most important thing, she said, and looked at me sharply for some reason I couldn’t quite comprehend.

The movie, made in 1971, not only had a terrific screenplay and a great cast, it was also shot in the style of documentary realism – a ground-breaking creative choice at the time. But, probably, the most memorable thing about the film was a hair-raising chase between a car and an elevated train roaring overhead.

It was directed by William Friedkin – two years before he won another Oscar for The Exorcist – and that gave it one other advantage as a Friday-night special: I had worked with Billie on a film at Paramount. Apart from making some inspired choices about material, he had shown outstanding professional judgement in one other area – he had married a woman who became the head of the studio. For that reason we had every expectation that the movie we were working on would be made. That was until another memorable Friday night when it was announced that his wife no longer held the job. It was hard to tell what left the lot faster – her car or our project.

Nevertheless, the kids always enjoyed hearing some inside connection to a movie – they liked nothing better than if I pointed at the screen and said: “I know that person.” So we settled down – the kids with their trainers on and the doors open, just in case I had another shocker in store – and I had high expectations for a successful night.

It lasted all of twenty minutes.

The problem wasn’t that they didn’t like the actors, follow the story, or object any more than usual to my use of the pause button and its attendant explanations. No, they were bored.

What had once been ground-breaking choices – the subject matter of the film, the down and dirty realism, the no-holds barred car chase – had all been so successful that they had been copied countless times. First, in other movies and then on TV. The kids watched what was on the screen and said – we’ve seen all this before.

And so they had. But back in 1971 there hadn’t been anything quite like it. Now, though, the original – the five-time Oscar winner – looked just like one of the multitude of knock-offs. It was, truly, a victim of its own success – yes kids, the remarkable soon becomes the ordinary.

While we sat there in the dark – watching Popeye Doyle and Cloudy Russo work the dark side of New York – much to everyone’s relief, I forgot about the remote and the running commentary. I got to thinking about how it is really difficult to divorce a creative work from its time and era.

Continue reading to discover Terry Hayes’ top three spy thrillers…


I Am PilgrimYou can Click & Collect I Am Pilgrim from your local Waterstones bookshop (, buy it online at ( or download it in ePub format (

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