Holly Watt is recounting the time she got lost in a nuclear bunker under one of Muammar Qaddafi's palaces. In one corner, she remembers, there were piles of expensive Italian shoes. In another, a shot-up generator, diesel spilling out all over the floor. "You're thinking: 'Yes, that could probably explode, that's quite worrying … ooh, that's interesting,' she says, remembering her career as an investigative journalist for The Sunday Times, The Telegraph and The Guardian.
“We were trying different exit points, and while it never quite reached the point where I thought, I’m not getting out of here, I was pretty bad at assessing when something was properly scary. I just told the fixer it was maybe time to put out his cigarette …”
Little did Watt know then that such vivid experiences would feed into a debut international thriller that has been heralded as "John le Carre meets State of Play". To The Lions is born out of a fascinating career in journalism that has also encompassed Britain's scandal over MPs' expenses, the rogue offshore finance industry exposed in The Panama Papers, visits to refugee camps and chasing pirates around the Indian Ocean. So when a protagonist emerged in her mind that could expose the way money, privilege and power can be used and abused, there was only one field in which her "hero" could operate. Meet Casey Benedict, star reporter at The Post.
Casey is fascinatingly complex. She's certainly not wholly motivated by the moral crusade of uncovering the appalling murders she discovers in Libya, which have a link back to the highest echelons of British finance and government. So what is she taking huge risks for? Is it the thrill of the chase, wanting to further her career or the sheer excitement of seeing "her" story in the papers? It makes Casey – and the dog-eat-dog atmosphere of the newsroom – believable rather than likeable.
“Casey just wants to get the truth out there, but I really didn’t want to make her driven by one thing,” explains Watt. “The underlying question is always what is her motivation, but she really doesn’t know. That was deliberate because I could then explore all these different reasons for why she operates the way she does.”
For all Watt's wealth of exciting journalistic anecdotes, Casey did come out of a period of deep reflection. The Panama Papers investigation had just finished and that experience – "fascinating, but months of sitting in a room looking at data" – gave her some perspective on the undercover assignments that had gone before. Watt had played at being everything from a personal assistant to a lobbyist, a maths teacher to a medical devices expert. One day she started writing about how she did her job, which gradually merged into a fictional storyline she'd been toying with. "It wasn't really planned, it just sort of happened," she says, modestly.
"I started thinking about journalism and the way you work, the way you're trained to think. Certainly for me, the life of a reporter in my field had its complications. I always struggled with the idea that the best day of an investigative journalist – when you've really done your job really well – is the day that you've completely ruined someone else's life or career."
For Watt there is always an element of hunting, of chasing people down. “We want to inform and get stories across, but are you doing that for justice or for the entertainment of your readers – or is it a weird merger of the two?”
In fact, the title To The Lions comes from her editor at the time of the expenses scandal. "He would say to me, 'Remind me who you're throwing to the lions today'" she says with a laugh. It's this fidelity to the way a newsroom operates that gives the novel its credibility, even when the crimes at the heart of the novel seem impossibly dark. Still, the backdrop of the migrant crisis lends the page-turning thriller an extra contemporary relevance, too. Watt admits that she would find it tricky to write from the perspective of a refugee, but it's a striking moment when she depicts a 13-year-old boy in the spare, unfussy language that is the book's modus operandi. "This boy would be sent off, on that terrible modern odyssey … Maybe he'd get to Europe, that precious, precarious dream. Might die, though, of course."
Watt remembers: "When I started writing this in 2016, there was, of course, this urgency about these huge mass movements. When people saw refugees in boats trying to get to Europe, I don't think they realised what they'd been through before they even got to that last phase – every stage of their journey is difficult and unbelievably tragic. Lots of things fed into the book – and it is very much about journalists and how they operate in these circumstances – but I did want to explore what a vast amount of people are living through on a daily basis, and how the decisions we make impact people in ways we can't imagine or perhaps even identify."
Which brings us back to why Watt was in Libya in the first place, just after Qaddafi had fallen. She was trying to discover how international corporations – and governments – had been planning to make gains in the country in the aftermath of the Arab uprisings, finding that many had seen opportunities to do business there, even when Qaddafi was still gripping on to power.
"It was extraordinary that companies felt it was appropriate to do so, but they were moving fast," she says. "The thought process was definitely 'if we don't move in, one of our rivals will get there first'."
And the atmosphere she found in Libya in the early part of this decade perhaps hints at why people such as Casey Benedict in To The Lions are so credible, even if some of her actions are amplified for the purposes of a major new thriller series.
“There was an amazing sense of optimism and opportunity, which was so exciting to cover as a journalist when seeing what you think is history evolve,” she says.
And now? “Now, all that just seems particularly tragic.”