Alex’s debut WINTER DARK was short listed for Best Opening Chapter and Best Pitch at the York Festival of Writing and was the number one best selling Audible Thriller of the Year 2019. It was nominated for an Audie in 2020 and won the J.M.M. Audiofile Earphones award.
Alex read history at Oxford and the British School at Rome and was set for a career in academia until the beginning of the tech boom woke a life long interest in the internet. She has spent twenty years in the City studying the rise of technology and its transformative effect on industry. She describes the ‘internet of things’ as the internet of increased attack surfaces.
Winter Dark is dominated by Firestorm, eBay for the contract kill market. As an analyst in the telecoms and electronics sector at the height of the dotcom boom, Alex watched the internet sweep away barriers, break down borders, transform every industry. Ever since, she has been fascinated by its potential to facilitate crime – a potential that, to date, has yet to be fully realised. She spends her days visiting London’s high security hosting sites and speculating about what might be.
Alex Callister in conversation
Alex Callister talks Nabokov, Lee Child and assassination markets
Tell us about Firestorm, the website at the heart of Winter Dark.
Firestorm is the fastest growing website in history.
But what does it do?
It kills people.
Talk us through that.
Like eBay – you post your job description and then Contractors bid to do the work. The lowest price wins. Anonymity guaranteed. Star system to rate your Contractor. Speed of comms etc…
And this has proved popular?
Hell yes. People are basically murderous if they think they can get away with it.
And this one site has changed the world?
It taps into human nature – everyone has someone they care about, someone they don’t want to see up on Firestorm. The potential for intimidation and coercive control is massive. This has tilted the balance of power – the State is losing control and organised crime are taking over. It wouldn’t take much.
I have always been fascinated by how fragile law and order is, how easily society breaks down. William Golding does a great version in Lord of the Flies.
So Winter’s world is a dystopia? A kind of Gotham City?
Very much so. Firestorm is the catalyst that has united organised crime and given them the tools to dominate.
I have spent my career watching the internet transform industries, accelerate their progress. It has massive potential as a crime facilitator which, so far, has not been realised.
I wouldn’t say that. What about WannaCry and all the ransomware?
Drop in the ocean of what is possible.
What do you make of the real life, so called, assassination markets?
These are basically betting sites that have come out of block chains. Take Augur, for example, a decentralised app based on the Ethereum blockchain which allows you to make a market in anything you like, ‘bet’ on an outcome. House prices, cricket scores, whether someone will die by the end of the month. Because it is decentralised and anonymous, if someone takes the other side of the bet, it is kind of like a perfect hit man contract. In theory. That is what commentators are saying. Not me obviously.
I don’t really understand
Well, let’s say I wanted to put a hit on you.
I could go onto one of these sites and bet you would still be alive by the end of the month. If someone else takes the other side of that bet and then you just happen to die, the bet pays out to them.
Right. But that’s illegal?
The physical act of murder is illegal. Otherwise, it’s a grey area. Legislators are always light years behind on this kind of thing. There’s much debate in the cyber community at the moment about the purity of block chains and their right to anonymity etc…
That’s kind of scary
As a society we are fundamentally underestimating the facilitating power of the internet. We are charging, hell for leather, towards maximum realisation of human nature. When that happens we are going to find out, like Lord of the Flies, whether, as a species, we are fundamentally good or fundamentally bad.
I think I know the answer.
The internet makes the world small. It brings people together. People who would not, otherwise, have found each other. It facilitates.
So, the dystopian world of Firestorm needs a hero. Tell us about Winter.
‘Cometh the hour, cometh the man.’ Or in this case, woman.
Winter has this, ‘call to arms’ moment where she decides she is going to cross the line (go to the dark) and she says, ‘No one is waiting for me to come home,’ which is the point really. She is not subject to the same pressures as everyone else. She is the ultimate loner. She steps up. It is all about how far she will go. Are the ends justified? What is she prepared to do, to find the man behind Firestorm?
A GCHQ field agent. Is that a thing?
No, it’s not a thing. I wish it was. It needs to be a thing. GCHQ are you listening?
Also, you relocated GCHQ from Cheltenham to Bank in London. Why was that?
It is all about location and connectivity. I have GCHQ sitting beside Europe’s biggest hosting site. Which makes sense when you think about it. I haven’t got rid of the Cheltenham site, I’ve just created a more relevant one.
Who is Snow White?
Snow White is Winter’s alter ego, her undercover identity when she joins organised crime. She gets away with murder.
We have to touch on the sex.
Winter sleeps with six people in the book, three men and three women. Was that deliberate?
Yes. You open a book with the words, ‘sexually omnivorous’ you are making a pretty big claim. She wouldn’t want to be found lacking.
It is a great opening line.
I love first lines. I could write a whole book made up purely of first lines. Winter Rising’s first line is
‘A man walked into a bar.’
That is the sequel to Winter Dark. Is it a stand alone or does it carry straight on?
The time line carries on, the central romance continues to the next stage but otherwise it is a totally standalone story. It is about how Firestorm works and Firestorm’s top rated contractor, The Guardsman.
Winter has been compared to Bond and Bourne. How do you feel about that?
I think there is something very satisfying about the hero, who you know, come what may, has got this. Things may look bad but you know they are going to kick ass. Like Granny Weatherwax in the Terry Pratchett books, when she looks like a poor, beaten old woman, you know someone is going to get shaken down till their teeth rattle. I find that very satisfying as a reader.
What about Reacher?
I love it when people say Winter is like Reacher. I remember the first one I read really clearly. The way the language was a character all by itself. Even in the third person, you could feel Reacher there in the room with you.
‘the night clerk gave him a room, which had all the features Reacher expected, because he had seen such rooms a thousand times before. There was a raucous through-the-wall heater, which would be too noisy to sleep with, which would save the owner money on electricity. There were low watt bulbs in all the fixtures, likewise. …..The furniture was made of wood, all dark and bruised…
All as expected. Nothing he hadn’t seen a thousand times before.
But still dismal.’
The punch of those last three words. Raymond Chandler is great at this as well. But personally, I think Lee Child has the edge.
It must have made a big impression if you can sit there and quote a whole paragraph from memory.
I missed some bits. I think there was something about stains and bedspreads.
Still impressive. Can you do anyone else?
I have a pretty good visual memory. Not photographic like Winter but pretty good.
‘She was Lo, plain Lo in the morning standing four feet ten in one sock. She was Lola in slacks. She was Dolly at school. She was Dolores on the dotted line.
But in my arms she was always Lolita.’
And English wasn’t even Nabokov’s first language, mark you. Note the one sock. The power and picture of it.
I love the rhythm and flow of words. Stories are meant to be read aloud.
WINTER DARK, the Audible Thriller of 2019 is out March 21.
Interview August 2018
Winter is a GCHQ field agent and the heroine of the Winter series.
‘The dread-locked teenager lounged, side on to the glass….Face on she had the kind of looks that bypass beautiful and go straight to unobtainable: long dark lashes, striking green eyes, sharp angular features. Not pretty. Spectacular.’
‘I lift the MP5 from the corner where I left it at the start of the evening. I check my boots with the eight throwing knives, I check the thigh holster ruining the line of my white satin evening dress. My reflection scowls in the glass panel of the door. A weaponised Grace Kelly.’
‘I’m not good with suffering. Other people’s suffering. I have to finish it. I don’t even like watching moths in a trap. My own suffering? I’m OK. I go into my head and it takes quite a lot to get me out of it. It took Everard five hours in the GCHQ medical centre to break me.’
On Snow White, her alter ego
‘I stare at my face in the tiny Eurostar toilet window and a Disney princess stares back. Long dark hair, big eyes. Snow white – my hitman alter ego. It was Snow White that took down Alek Konstantin.
It’s good to see you, Babe.
I swig ibuprofen for the swelling and Snow White winks.
Back in the game.
Snow White has never had to pass a psych test.
Which is just as well.’
‘He takes an elbow to the face, snatching at my arm. His fingers tear at my T-shirt and he is forcing me to my knees. I dip and heave and he goes over my shoulder landing hard on his back. Triumph burns through the dead, dark core of me. The blackness descends. I open myself up to it, drawing it around me like a mantle. I kick him hard to the head, his nose streams with blood. Once, twice, three times. I watch Snow White from above, kicking a corpse.’
‘subject is a sexual predator with a moral compass that points due self.’
In the Cage
‘The fury spits through me. I turn a three sixty, my canines snarling. The Arena looks different from down here. Light surrounded by darkness. I can hardly see the crowd but I can hear them. Anger at this collective insult. The spotlight shafts pick out pools of brilliance in the darkness. The lights dance against my eyes, messing with my vision. I shake my head against the angry buzzing in my blood.’
Extract from psych report
Overconfidence causes Winter to underestimate all around her. Under pressure she falls back on behaviour that has served her well in the past; physical aggression or seduction.
Fight it or fuck it.