An affair to remember


Nelson de Mille

Sphere, $29.99.

Nelson de Mille has a knack for writing male characters that his female readers want to sleep with. Recurring characters former New York policeman John Corey, turned anti-terrorist agent, is cocky and brimming with testosterone; Paul Brenner, former army investigator, now special agent is smart and quick-witted; even ones who don't appear so often, John Sutter, Sam Hollis and Ben Tyson all have their admiring fans.

It's a ridiculous way to start an interview, admitting to an author that you'd love to sleep with one of his characters, but de Mille, it appears, is used to it.

"I consciously write with women readers in mind; they buy books," he says. "About 60 per cent of my fan emails are from women, and my publisher is happy with this, though a bit surprised.

"And, yes, most of my female readers want to sleep with John Corey. A good number would like to spend the night with Paul Brenner."

And now with The Cuban Affair de Mille has given us a fresh character to lust after, Daniel "Mac" MacCormick, an army veteran back from Afghanistan who's found a new life as a fishing-boat captain in Florida. He's 35 - apparently that's the "hot spot" for both publishing and Hollywood, de Mille says - well educated, from a reputable solid family and, as with all de Mille's characters, up for adventure, whether that be with the ladies or with a gun in his hand.

It's misleading, however, to think that de Mille is writing bodice rippers with a few explosions thrown in. Far from it. His books, from the first major novel. By the Rivers of Babylon (1978) to The Cuban Affair, have always addressed issues of the time, from the Middle East to the Vietnam War to the 9/11 terrorist attacks.

"I majored in political science and history in college so I tend to see current events in a broader historical and political context," de Mille says. "Younger readers, badly educated in public schools and universities, believe that history began at their birth.

"As for 9/11, this attack, like the attack on Pearl Harbour or Hitler invading Poland, or any other cataclysmic and seismic event, can't be fully understood or interpreted at the time. All we know for sure is that history has taken a big turn and that the future is unclear.

"A journalist has the advantage of being able to report daily, but a novelist has to digest the event and then watch as history unfolds in the months and years afterward. The best war novels, for instance, are written years after the war. I know this sounds like bullshit, but historians and novelists need time and space to understand and evaluate what happened and why, and what it means."

That's perhaps why it's taken him so long to get to Cuba. Growing up in middle-class Long Island, in New York, de Mille lived near a family of Cuban exiles who were still bitter about losing everything.

"If you live in Florida or New York, you know a lot of Cuban exiles and the children of exiles. They are almost all anti-Communist and anti-Castro, and they are bitter and living for the day that Cuba is free. Cuba was never free, but that's another story.

"Cuban exiles are organised and they play an outsized part in determining American policy toward Cuba. They can, for instance, carry Florida for the Republicans in a presidential election, and they voted predominantly for Trump and carried the state and its many electoral votes for him. I was always very interested in Cuba so I knew I'd have a good time writing the book."

He travelled there, has described it as "hot and sunny with a Soviet pall".

"I knew the place sucked, but I was shocked at the poverty of a country so close to the prosperity of the rest of the Caribbean and to the US - sort of like East and West Berlin before the Wall came down.

"And then there's the political repression which is a sort of Soviet-era, Cold War time warp. I could go on, but I reference a lot of this in The Cuban Affair without, I hope, sounding too ideological."

At 74, de Mille shows no sign of slowing down. He's currently co-authoring a novel with his son Alex, who is a screenwriter, inspired by the case of the US soldier Bowe Bergdahl??? who was captured by the Taliban after deserting.

There's a line on the cover of The Cuban Affair which tags him as "America's greatest living thriller writer". "The tag should have read 'America's Oldest Thriller Writer Who's Outlived The Others'," he laughs.

This story An affair to remember first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.