Francis Clifford ranks among Britain's bestselling novelists, with two of his books made into films and others translated into 15 languages, includina Polish and Icelandic.
While many have read "The Naked Runner," which sold over 300,000 copies, their author is among the least known of popular writers in Britain. Talking with him in his handsome bungalow home, which he shares with his wife and son in Weybridge, Surrey, PETER NOLAN became aware of the reason for the.lack of publicity.
Despite his achievements, which include a DSO won fighting the Japanese while in the Burma Rifles, Francis Clifford hides behind a barrier of excessive modesty. He said: "I think 80 per cent of my success is due to luck, only about 10 per cent to my creativity."
Born in the West Country, his parents died when he was very young and he was brought up by an Anglo-Catholic clergyman, ensuring that his early memories included plenty of altar-serving.
At first working for a firm in the Far East, he volunteered for the Army in 1939. His war experiences, which included working behind Japanese lines, influenced his writing in two very different ways.
First, after being wounded, he returned to join the Special Operations Executive in -Baker Street, London, and developed his style in writing up reports on the Far East for his superiors.
The second influence was more fundamental. He learned that under fire an individual who appeared reliable and helpful could become a selfish coward, while an unsociable misfit could be converted into a brave and generous comrade.
"I believe very strongly from my experience in the war that the real person emerges under stress," he said.
This sort of transformation is depicted in many of his 18 novels, including the latest, "The Grosvenor Square Goodbye," published in September, which became the twelfth on which film options were bought.
It is the story of a gunman with brain damage holding the American ambassador and others as hostages, and Francis Clifford describes this novel as a new departure for him "written with the head rather than the heart." His popularity with film makers he attributes to the fact that "I write visually."
With the encouragement ol his wife. Mr. Clifford began writing professionally in the early fifties, working until one o'clock each morning after returning from his job . with a steel company.
His main inspiration was a desire to rationalise and understand his experiences during the war. "I wrote to find out what I thought," he said.
His conversion to Catholicism was also a result of his military experiences. "I felt after the war that I needed discipline, a code to live by, and began to examine the historical claims of the Church of Rome."
Brought up an Anglican and educated at Christ's Hospital, Horsham, Sussex, he said he had spent some time as an agnostic because "I suppose I was over-exposed to religion when I was young."
A member of his local parish council, he describes himself as "very much a traditionalist . . . very much a Catholic who happens to be a writer rather than a Catholic writer." Religion does enter into a number of his novels and very often the main character faces some form of moral dilemma.
Mr Clifford said the writings of Graham Greene had "an enormous influence" on his becoming a Catholic, especially his novel "The Heart of the Matter." But for an instant he had feared this introduction might have scuppered his chances of being accepted into the Church.
On first presenting himself
for instruction after he had acknowledged the novel's influence, the priest approached, rolled his eyes and quietly muttered "Oh my God!" But the instruction proceeded.
Many of his novels have exotic settings in South America and Africa, revealing also an apparently expert knowledge of firearms and cameras.
But when asked if he did a great deal of research on such details. like the late Ian Fleming, or insisted on living in the places his stories were set in, like Hammond Innes, he denied it.
An excellent novel on Biafra, with realistic descriptions of war-torn Nigeria, he said he had largely got from the stories of Holy Ghost Fathers interviewed on television. He has never visited South America.
Far from merely having to pick up a pen for the words to begin flowing, he finds writing was an effort for him and produces about 500 words a day and a novel a year.
Writing was not so much what he wrote but deciding what to leave out. he said. "I try to pare it down and make it crisp."
What critics said about his books affected him on two levels, he said. The first was purely commercial: bad reviews could affect sales. "But on the other level some critics mean a great deal to me, their analysis is constructive."
One of these is Harry Keating, a past literary editor of the Catholic Herald and a writer himself, who shares with Mr Clifford the ability to write credibly about places he has never been to.
After a series of books with an Indian hero, Inspector Ghoti, he had only this year visited India for the first time, Mr Clifford said.
One of Mr Clifford's novels, "A Wild Justice," which he himself thinks one of his best, features the IRA of 1916 in Dublin: he has lived in County Wicklow for some years. But an amusing story he told reveals research on such topics has been made increasingly difficult by current events. A story he was working on required some knowledge of the manufacture of a bomb. First he contacted ICI. who manufacture explosives, and was sent from department to department by nervous employees, until finally recommended to ask a Professor of Explosives.
Asked by the professor what
he wanted the information for, he explained: "I need to know about an explosive strong enough to blow out a prison wall. It's for a story I am writing." The professor brought the conversation swiftly to an end. "They all say that," he said.
Many people unfamiliar with the trade believe the writer's life to be an idyllic one, his time his own, with great freedom to travel.
In fact, even for those as successful as Mr Clifford, with all his novels in paperback their livelihood largely depends on regular successful publication. For many matters will improve when the Government, responding to pressure from the Writers Action Group, of which Mr Clifford is a member, introduces legislation which will result in authors benefiting from loans of their books from libraries.
Mr Clifford believes suspense novels are an important contribution to contemporary fiction and may in time receive proper recognition in the form of a special Nobel Prize.
His own writings are a superb illustration of his belief in the importance of a good story, and once begun are difficult to put down. I must confess to having read the last chapter of "The Blind Side" — about two English brothers, one of whom was a priest, the other a Communist spy — before I had reached it.
Francis Clifford, born Arthur Bell Thompson, chose Francis, because he admired the saint, on becoming a full-time writer in 1951.
The "Clifford" has an origin that would delight the crossword addict — "Clif" comes from Clifton diocese, where he was born, and "ford" from Waterford, the home town of his wife, whose experience as 'a publisher's reader greatly helps him.
For a writer whose novels share a generally optimistic tone, if not always a happy ending, it is surprising to learn that his particular muse is a brand of melancholy. "1 am driven by an inward despair at myself and at the world," he said.
"Inside me there is a serious writer trying to get out. I write suspense novels because it seems to me you can write better novels that way. The novelist must make the reader turn the page."