Frank Hurst is a British retired career intelligence officer and investigator who has been calling Phuket, his home since 2011. In this interview he talks about his life experiences and his latest book The Chiang Mai Assignment, a thriller set in Thailand.
I believe you’ve had quite an “exciting” life as an intelligence officer…
Yes, I have been very fortunate. I really enjoyed my work and even better it took me to parts of the world that I never thought I’d visit. I had always hoped that my work would allow me to travel and I was lucky enough to have been in the right place at the right time.
Were you stationed in Thailand?
My office first sent me to Thailand in the mid-eighties. We were investigating a syndicate led by a man called Howard Marks who was a very big drugs smuggler in those days. He died this year in fact but he wrote a lot of books about his life – Mr. Nice became a bestseller. After my trip, I recommended that we open a full-time office in Bangkok and then I spent a lot of time between London and Thailand setting things up. I thought that they would ask me to open the new post, but they sent me to New Delhi instead! I spent six years there and then another six based in the eastern Caribbean.
Why did you choose Thailand as a retirement base?
I kind of fell in love with the place when I started travelling here for work. I found the people enchanting; it was such a colourful, in your face, kind of experience – and on the business front we enjoyed a lot of excellent cooperation and I made a lot of friends. I’d never had anything quite like sticky rice and mango either!
Then, when I was posted in India we used to R&R here and I discovered the golf courses – so that gave me a different perspective – I saw a different side. As a boy I had lived in Singapore and Hong Kong, and so the Far East was always close to my heart. But Thailand stole it in the final analysis. We bought a small place in Phuket ten days before the Tsunami. That gave us a fright but it all worked out in the end and now we are regular visitors – 3 or 4 times a year. I do the bulk of my writing here.
Was it here, in Chiang Mai, where you found your passion for writing?
In a way. In fact, I was in Phuket when I first started to scribble but the stories were always going to feature the North West as that is where the opium trade was in those days and I had got to know it quite well through my work. The first book is set largely in Phuket though. The sequel is centered around Chiang Mai and Chiang Rai as the title suggests.
The Postmistress of Nong Khai, your debut novel, received a warm welcome…
Yes, it was a big thrill to see The Postmistress of Nong Khai on the shelves at Asia Books and I was happily surprised by the positive reviews. And more than a bit shocked when it won a commendation in book prize competition! The whole thing had really started as a sort of, semi-autobiography. People tell you that at first writers write what they know about and most start with themselves… But as I started to write things down a story emerged from the pages and then it was as much as I could do to keep up with it. It was as if I was reading the story as I was writing it and I never knew how it would finish until the end. A strange experience but a very good one – for me anyway!
And now you’ve just published The Chiang Mai Assignment, also set in the Golden Triangle. What fascinates you about this area?
Well, as I said, the area used to be very important in the opium and heroin trade. Not so much now. But back in the last few decades before 2000 it was crucial to us. We needed to know about what was going on up there and how it affected drugs smuggling to Europe. Then there was a famous war lord character called Khun Sa who controlled a private army and much of the border areas between Burma and Thailand. It’s quite remote and was a sort of no go area. These days it’s much more accessible and the opium crop has been largely substituted by tea and coffee.
How much of the plot is inspired by your life experience with Her Majesty’s Customs, Scotland Yard and the British Foreign Office?
Pretty much all of it! And of course, my experiences in Thailand and my love of the country has added a lot to the mix. My initial working years were spent with British Customs and it was with them that I first started as an investigator and had my first foreign assignment. I then spent four years at Scotland Yard working in collaboration with the police and it was during this time I first came to Thailand. My posting to the Caribbean was when I was seconded to the Foreign Office to lead a team tackling the growing problem of cocaine smuggling from South America.
I like to think that the writing has an authentic feel. The Chiang Mai Assignment is a book about secrets, romance, rivalry and deception in the intriguing but destructive world of “need to know”. It is set 37 years ago in 1990; in London and Thailand.
Although the characters and events are fictitious they are all based on actual cases or experiences I had. The books also expose the shenanigans that used to go on behind the scenes, between competing agencies and organisations who are tasked to investigate drugs and organized crime. Especially in The Chiang Mai Assignment I have tried to show that while agencies are supposed to cooperate with one another – it doesn’t always work out like that and rivalries surface – turf warfare and lack of trust. “Need to know” we used to call it. If someone doesn’t NEED to know – we won’t tell them!
Are we still fantasizing or romanticizing the Golden Triangle area? Is it still the no-man’s land we saw in movies and read in fiction books?
No, not really. My books are set in a time when the Golden Triangle was a dangerous area, both politically and from a self-preservation point of view. But now so much has changed. An initiative by the late King has helped to restore law and order to the region and while I’m sure that opium is still being processed in remote areas it is not the drugs factory it once was. This has shifted west to what we used to call the Golden Crescent – Afghanistan, Iran and Pakistan.
What’s the next title you’re working on?
I’m working on the final book in the trilogy – The Golden Triangle Trilogy. The series follows the adventures of one man and his dogged pursuit of an international drugs smuggler. On the way a lot of things happen to him. He falls in love with his informant – something not to be recommended! And his career has many peaks and troughs. The man he is trying to capture has a similar biography and in many ways the two are alike – each on a purpose – each equally determined. I just need to work out how to end it! I have a plan to write some short stories about Thailand too. Hopefully that will be after The Golden Triangle Trilogy is completed.
There are fewer and fewer expat writers publishing in Thailand… Do you think the local publishing boom in English has worn off?
I’m not sure about that. I still see a lot of expat books about Thailand on the shelves. Most of them seem to have a similar theme though. Maybe that’s why the boom has fallen away somewhat. Maybe the books are too similar. Hopefully mine are a bit different. It would be nice to think they were at least!
Thank you for your time.