Alex Rider’s nemesis: from terrified teen to assassin
Anthony Horowitz’s new novel tells the backstory of Alex Rider’s arch enemy, the killer Yassen Gregorovich
Anthony Horowitz: ‘It’s an interesting aspect of children’s books, isn’t it? The glee with which the parents are killed in the first chapter.’ Photograph: Jon Cartwright
Anthony Horowitz is breaking bad. At 58, the creator of the clean-cut young adult hero Alex Rider has turned his spotlight on a hired assassin- in his new novel, Russian Roulette, a prequel to the Rider series.
“I can’t think of a single children’s book ever published in which the lead character is unremittingly bad,” Horowitz says. “I mean, you have shades of grey; Artemis Fowl, for example. But even he is, at heart, quite a good boy.”
Horowitz, who is also writer of the TV drama series Foyle’s War and some 40 books for children and young adults as well as the recent Sherlock Holmes novel The House of Silk, is a man who knows a good story when he sees one. And the story of Yassen Gregorovich as told in Russian Roulette is a cracker.
An ordinary kid growing up in a sleepy village 600 miles from Moscow, Yassen’s only ambition is to be a helicopter pilot – until an explosion blows his village and his family to smithereens.
It’s a dramatic opening sequence that raises the double-headed real-life monster of secret government research and biological warfare. It also makes an orphan of Yassen. “It’s an interesting aspect of children’s books, isn’t it? The glee with which the parents are killed in the first chapter,” Horowitz says. “It’s true of Harry Potter. It’s true of Percy Jackson. I suppose it’s part of the rite of passage of the child hero. They have to lose everything they’re familiar with and be pushed out of their comfort zone in order for the hero or, in this case, the villain, to emerge.”
Yassen has been Alex Rider’s nemesis since he was despatched to kill him in Stormbreaker, the first volume of the series, published in 2000. But he is also something of an alter ego for the young spy. “Alex and Yassen are almost distorted reflections of each other,” says the author. “They’re recruited by organisations which have some requirements of them – and they’re both given very little choice in what becomes of them. But in character, I think they’re very different.”
Russian Roulette traces Yassen’s evolution from terrified teen to assassin with the aid of a mafia psychopath, a young killer called Colette and an elegant, art-loving Italian countess draped in pearls. Because, as Yassen says, a successful contract killer has to wear the right clothes, walk the right way, order the right wine. “A killer is not just someone who lies on a roof with a 12.7mm sniper rifle, waiting for his prey to walk out of a restaurant. Sometimes it is necessary to be inside that restaurant . . .”
Horowitz plans to end the bestselling Alex Rider series with a volume of short stories. Then, he says, he wants to write a series featuring a character who, for a change, has a regular family. Clearly he’s not daunted by the crowded nature of the current young adult publishing scene? “I don’t think it’s any more crowded now than it was 20 years ago,” he says. “Publishers are more nervous. They’re all trying to find the next big thing. I think they’re publishing with a certain amount of competitiveness, which wasn’t there before. You must be number one. You must be number two. You must have a huge, long-running series. In a sense the perfectly charming, simple children’s book is missing out.”
He was, he happily admits, a slow reader. “My first love was Tin Tin comics. I wasn’t a very bright kid, and it took me a long time to get into books.” At 11, he discovered Willard Price’s African Adventures. “If you read Willard Price, you’ll find the chemical formula for an Alex Rider book: page-turning, lots of action, lots of activity, good strong characters.”
As he works in such a variety of genres, how does Horowitz organise his writing time? “At the moment I’m writing the new Sherlock Holmes book, which will be out next February,” he says, adding that his wife is not too pleased, because he should be writing the third episode of the new series of Foyle’s War. His wife, Jill Green, is the producer of that show, whose last series also began with a bang, recreating the first-ever test of an atomic bomb in New Mexico in 1945. “We shot that on a beach just outside Dublin,” he says. “We had three hours to assemble the set before the tide came in and took it all away again – or somewhat damaged the illusion that this was a desert.” Dublin, he adds, was an “absolutely amazing” location to shoot a TV drama series. “Not just because we got 360-degree views, so much period detail and relatively few TV aerials and stuff to hide, but also because everybody was so bloody nice. We had a lovely time.”
The sepia-tinted second World War drama might seem to have little to do with the snazzy, Bond-style world of the Alex Rider series. But everything penned by Horowitz is marked by his skill as a storyteller.
“I love narrative,” he says. “I love magic and illusions. Keeping people guessing. I love to lead people down a dark corridor and open a door that will take them somewhere very surprising.”
Russian Roulette is published by Walker Books