“Of those [ex-MI6 novelists] that neatly bridged the gap between fact and fiction in the British intelligence community, among the most elegant was Kenneth Benton.”
– Nigel West, ‘Fiction, Faction and Intelligence‘, Intelligence and National Security
This website is devoted to the crime and spy thriller novels written by Kenneth Benton, and named for Peter Craig, the police troubleshooter and counterinsurgency specialist who is the hero of most of the novels.
In Kenneth’s words, Craig “was a character drawn from real-life, which is to say that police advisors like Craig really exist and I worked with them myself. For the hero of a thriller, this is a tremendous advantage, as he can be sent on assignment to Embassies in any part of the world.” The thriller novels were inspired by a mixture of real-life experience in MI6/SIS, extensive travel and a lively imagination.
Republishing the Craig Thriller novels by Dan Benton
I rediscovered my grandfather’s novels in 2011, along with a box of contemporary press clippings and assorted manuscripts. Kenneth Benton’s service in MI6 overlapped with that of John le Carré, a hero of mine, and Kenneth similarly drew on his experiences when he later became a novelist.
While there are some similarities, the differences are more striking: Le Carré has said of his reputation, “In the old days it was convenient to bill me as a spy turned writer. I was nothing of the kind. I am a writer who, when I was very young, spent a few ineffectual but extremely formative years in British Intelligence.” Kenneth spent more than 30 years in British Intelligence, and was certainly a spy first, and a writer second. In a talk to the Writer’s Circle, he said “During all the years when we were moved from Vienna to Riga and then to London, Rome, Madrid, and finally to Peru and Brazil, I was absorbing backgrounds that would turn out to be immensely useful later on. Even the daily routine of life in the Embassy became an important part of many of my books. During free evenings, I read thrillers.”
Le Carré published a dozen novels that underpin the canon of Cold War British spy thrillers, with characters who are by and large conspicuously flawed men, burned out by their responsibilities and wary even of their allies, and continues to evolve his stories in the post-Soviet era; Kenneth wrote well-received novels in a range of genres spanning crime, espionage and historical fiction, and his recurring hero, Peter Craig, is a bluff, canny Scot with little back story, fond of a drink but not an alcoholic, sometimes casually sexist but not a womaniser, pragmatic and thoughtful but not stricken with doubt or remorse.
Craig is on the fringes of counterintelligence – and indeed often reluctant to get involved in skulduggery – a somewhat academic, book-learned security professional, more gifted amateur than a highly trained agent. He is as competent making small-talk with Embassy guests as he is infiltrating a safehouse, and with a range of tactics for escaping from either situation. Craig’s world is one of endless travel for lectures and briefings, guest receptions, formal dress, gin & tonic at sundown – the trappings of British colonial sophistication in otherwise hostile climates at the twilight of the Empire. It’s an easily parodied set-up, after Bond, and none of the novels is entirely unscathed by the three decades since they were written, but nonetheless there are ripples of current affairs – instability and popular unrest in South America, North Africa, Portugal, Greece – no less interesting in my view because the protagonist’s job is generally to help maintain order and save face, and the causes and conclusions are seldom clear or wholly satisfactory.
Kenneth died in 1999, and his novels were out of print for several years. In 2011, when I found notes for a final, unpublished Peter Craig spy novel amongst Kenneth’s papers, with a KGB SMERSH-type group of assassins plotting to end Craig’s interference once and for all, and Craig having finally met his romantic match, it seemed a shame not to publish. Clearly, though, putting out a series finale after so long, with none of the other novels available, would have been a waste of everybody’s time. . . so I decided to republish all of Kenneth’s thrillers novels as ebooks.
Would this ever have happened before ebook self-publishing? For me, almost certainly not, at least without a sizeable outlay, either of money in conventional self-publishing or dignity in pitching to publishing houses who wouldn’t want to take a risk on reprinting half a dozen titles. Digital publishing programmes have removed many of the obstacles to self-publishing – and allowed many novels that would otherwise be condemned to second-hand booksellers to find a second life, and a new generation of readers.
— Dan Benton
This is an edited and expanded version of an article I wrote for BookDagger in 2011.