Feb 062012

About fifteen miles northwest of Dubrovnik is the island of Mljet where part of Dancing with Spies is set. Mljet is claimed to be the ancient island of Melita where St Paul was shipwrecked on his way to Rome to spread the Christian religion to the place which is now its centre. The tradition is that, while sheltering here from a storm, he was bitten by a viper. It is also believed that Odysseus encountered the nymph Callisto here on his travels.

Mljet is claimed to be one of the most beautiful islands in the Mediterranean – in a sea full of beautiful islands. It is a thickly forested island with three saltwater lakes at the northern end which were created when a huge limestone cavern collapsed. The sea has broken through a narrow tidal waterway and flooded the hollows created.

These lakes are surrounded by steep wooded hills which were originally the walls of the cavern. In the larger lake is an islet on which was built a Benedictine monastery, now converted into a hotel. It is here where the love scene and part of the action leading to the climax of Dancing with Spies takes place. It is hard to imagine a more delightful location.

Behind the hotel is a hill covered in small trees and scrub. A path circles the islet climbing to a high spot the other side of the hill. In this location there is a viewpoint on top of a small building which once served as an ossuary where the remains of the monks were secreted (burial was not practical in the rocky soil). It was here that Ralph hid until he was rescued by Caroline.

Mljet’s ancient history claims Odysseus encountered the Nymph Calypso here and St Paul is supposed to have visited the island (then called Melita) and rid the place of venomous creatures.

For modern travellers the romance and secret peace of the island is all that one can ask for.


Jan 292012

The southern Yugoslav republic of Montenegro had claimed for some time that the Dubrovnik area should be a part of its territory despite the fact that the population was more than 80% Croatian. They saw the secession of Croatia from the Yugoslav Federation as the excuse to invade. In this they were supported by Serbia who had several brigades of the JNA (the Serbian dominated Yugoslav National Army) in their country.

On 1st October 1991 JNA forces from Montenegro invaded the area south of Dubrovnik as far as Cavtat which is only about six miles from the Old City. In doing so they over-ran the international airport at Cilipi and looted the navigational equipment. A Serbian frigate was patrolling the Kolocep Channel to the north and so Dubrovnik was effectively cut off from the outside world and the rest of Croatia.

In addition to the resident population of the city (approximately 50,000) there were a further 55,000 refugees from other parts of the country crowded into the city with no means of escape. To these could be added a small number ot tourists who had failed to leave before the attack got under way. All these people soon suffered further privations with the cutting off of the fresh food, water and electricity supplies by the invaders who now completely surrounded the landward side of the city.

By 5th October the JNA had occupied the high land around Dubrovnik. Instead of invading the city and engaging in direct combat with the pitifully small defence forces which manned the ancient walls, the army chose to start shelling the Old City. On the first day they succeeded in killing the local poet Milan Milosic.

Despite an international outcry, the attacks continued. The heaviest shelling took place on the 6th December – known as the St Nicholas Day Bombardment – which killed 13 civilians and injured more than 60. By the time the shelling ceased in early 1992 more than 500 buildings in the Old City had been damaged (about two thirds of the total number) and a dozen or so had been totally destroyed. Under the circumstances it was remarkable, and a tribute to the solidity of the ancient buildings, that the human toll of lives wasn’t very much higher.

Some relief was received in November when about 2000 refugees were rescued by sea and a partial ceasefire occurred at the end of December which relieved the city from the worst of the shelling. Croatian forces were able to enter the area in April and the outbreak of the much more serious war in neighbouring Bosnia Herzegovina removed the pressure on Dubrovnik. In July the warring forces agreed to withdraw and allow a United Nations supervisory commission to take over the area. But despite generous donations from around the world it took ten years and cost more than ten million dollars to restore the damage of those few months.


Next week I will tell you about the beautiful nearby Island of Mljet which features in Dancing with Spies.


Jan 222012

Modern Dubrovnik is a substantial city and port. But a lot of the action in Dancing with Spies takes place in the Old Town which is the World Heritage Site and the main place of interest for tourists.

The main entrance to the old part of the city is from the north through the Pile Gate. Emerging from this little fortress which forms part of the city walls into the old town, Onofrio’s Fountain (ancient source of water for the city) is to the right. However the visitor finds their gaze drawn down the length of one of the most remarkable pedestrian streets in the world. The Placa (see photo) is a broad concourse, paved in white marble, which leads right across the city almost to the old harbour. Down either side are grand three-storey buildings with small shop-fronts let into the ground floor. This is the gathering area in the evenings for the local population who stroll up and down, involved in serious discussions or friendly greetings.

To the left of the Placa narrow little streets of steps climb the steep hillside towards the city walls. To the right the streets are a little less narrow and not so steep. At the bottom end of the street it opens out into a square with the church of St Blaise (Dubrovnik’s patron saint) on one side, the Sponza Palace (now a museum) on the other, and the City Hall which contains the theatre in front. Through small gateways the harbour appears, crowded with little boats and the occasional larger tourist excursion vessel.

St John’s fortress dominates the harbour on the sea side and steps can be taken from here onto the city walls. Dubrovnik is one of the few old cities completely surrounded by walls round which the visitors can walk, enjoying the views to the west across the sea to the islands, east inland to the mountains and, as they slowly work their way round the circle of the city, private views down into gardens where children are playing or wives are hanging out washing or old men are sitting, dozing in the sun with their drinks on a small table in front of them. From time to time there are views through windows into the interior of houses, just as Caroline saw her first violence in Dancing with Spies.

The Old Town contains many places worth exploring. The market place is not far from the cathedral. There are cloisters and squares planted with trees where the tired tourist can sit and drink in the shade. Not far away is the forested island of Lokrum which is easily reached by water taxi if a refreshing swim is required. Day tours by water to places up the coast and to other islands can be organised and I will tell you about a very special island called Mljet in a future blog.


Next week I will tell you how this sunny paradise was temporarily destroyed in the Yugoslav Civil War.


Jan 152012

Dubrovnik is now a part of the independent nation of Croatia which is an unusually shaped country. The majority of its land mass consists of productive plains situated in the northern part of the former Yugoslavia and is sandwiched between Hungary and Slovenia to the north and Bosnia-Herzegovina to the south. In the east there is a fairly short border with Serbia.

However Croatia also includes the coastal strip of Dalmatia which takes up most of the coastline of Yugoslavia and includes about eight hundred islands which are the projecting tips of ancient flooded mountain ranges.

Towards the southern end of Dalmatia the city of Dubrovnik stands on a projecting headland (formerly an island linked to the mainland). This part of Croatia is cut off by land from the rest of the country by the short Bosnian coastline. To the south of the city is the only really productive area of coastal plain on this side of the Adriatic and that is also the location of the Dubrovnik international airport.

Its isolation from the rest of the country by the bare, rocky coastal mountain range caused Dubrovnik to be an independent maritime state for much of its history. Indeed there was a period in the middle ages when it competed strongly with Venice. However the city was devastated in 1667 by a serious earthquake and, although it continued to enjoy a type of independence, it never recovered its former importance. Napoleon finally annexed it to his province of Illyria and, at the Treaty of Vienna in 1815, it became a part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. In 1919 Croatia and Dalmatia were incorporated into the new nation which became Yugoslavia in 1929.

When Croatia declared independence and seceded from the Yugoslav federation early in 1991 nobody foresaw that any reprisals would be visited on the Dubrovnik area which was strategically unimportant and contained the beautiful ancient city which had been designated a World Heritage Site. The population was overwhelmingly Croatian with only about seven percent being Serbs. It had no effective defence, consisting of just over a thousand troops, police and volunteers armed with just two 3-inch guns supplied by Russia in 1942.

So, when a sudden unprovoked attack was launched on the city by 20,000 JNA forces from Montenegro in early October 1991, the population of Dubrovnik and any visitors left in the city found themselves in a desperate situation.

The photo shows the view from one of the mountain peaks above the city.

I will tell you more about what happened in Dubrovnik next week.


Jan 082012

My novel Dancing with Spies is set in and around the beautiful city of Dubrovnik (see photo) in 1991. At the start of the novel Dubrovnik is still nominally in Yugoslavia, but it is actually part of the breakaway state of Croatia

The country of Yugoslavia had only existed as an entity since 1919 when it was created by the victorious allies in the peace treaty of Versailles at the end of The Great War (or First World War).

It was cobbled together from the territories confiscated from the former Austro-Hungarian (or Holy Roman) Empire and Turkey and tagged on to Serbia which had been an independent nation since 1878. The new nation consisted of six different states with different ideologies, speaking three different languages, writing in two different alphabets and worshipping in three distinct religions. It didn’t really stand a chance.

It didn’t actually call itself Yugoslavia until 1929 and had hardly settled down to try to build its new identity when the Second World War burst upon it. The country was invaded by the Axis powers and the German Nazis particularly in the north set about exploiting the divisions and suspicions which existed between the different constituent states. They set up a puppet fascist regime in Croatia which was responsible for murdering large numbers of Serbs, Muslims and Jews and other ethnically different Yugoslavs. This greatly increased the tension between the rival groups in the country.

Marshal Josip Tito and his communist partisans, with Russian help, drove out the invaders by early 1945. Under his powerful leadership all opposition to his communist People’s Party was ruthlessly suppressed and for the next 25 years Yugoslavia had the outward appearance of a united federation of states.

However, when Tito died in 1980, no strong leader emerged to replace him. Yugoslavia entered a period of federal government where there was no uniting power. Gradually the constituent states began to take their own course towards independence. The northern states of Slovenia and Croatia developed stronger economies and resented propping up the remainder of the Yugoslav nation.

Meanwhile Slobodan Milosevic had emerged as leader of the Serbians who had the greatest population. His policy of repressing smaller dissident factions in the other states led to open rifts. In June 1991 Slovenia and Croatia declared their intention to secede from the Yugoslav Federation. The attempts of Milosevic to prevent this and to stop other states following their example led to a brutal civil war in which Dubrovnik was one of the first cities to suffer.


I will tell you about what happened to Dubrovnik next week.


Aug 212011

This week I was hoping to be able to tell you that my new novel Dancing with Spies would be available for down-loading in a matter of days. However there has been a hitch. The people who provided a photo from which an extract was taken to include in the cover design refused to permit us to use it for reasons best known to themselves, so Kelly is having to redesign the cover using a new photo. We hope this will only put back the launch of Dancing with Spies for a week or two.

Meanwhile I thought I would tell you how I discovered the character of the heroine in this book. Dancing with Spies is the first novel which I have tried to write entirely from a woman’s view-point. You can imagine it was not easy. I needed a role model for my heroine who is just an ordinary everyday woman – not a female James Bond. Of course I soon realised that the ideal role model was my wife. I knew for sure that she was a real heroine.

Sue is my second wife. I have only known her for twenty years. I wish I had met her three decades earlier. About twelve years before we met she reached a crisis in her life when she was told she had breast cancer. This was soon after she found out her husband was having an affair with a teenage girl who she  employed .  He had promised it wouldn’t happen again but she suspected he was still seeing her. And he wouldn’t give her any support when she went for surgery.

This was more than thirty years ago and the treatment she had was dreadful. With no-one to turn to for help or advice, she was bullied into having a mastectomy which she was later informed had not been necessary. After the operation she was very poorly for a week. She says she still remembers the first time she was allowed to go to the bathroom alone.

She opened her dressing gown and the buttoned nightdress and looked at the flat side of her chest with the jagged scar reaching from the middle of her body up into her armpit and it was like being slapped violently across the face. It took her breath away.

“What chance will I have with one breast against a seventeen year-old?” she thought and burst into tears.

Some months later she received a silicone implant that restored some of the confidence she’d previously had in her body but her husband could never bring himself to look at her in the nude again. Their relationship continued to deteriorate and some years later they were divorced.

The fact that she has only one breast of her own has never been an issue between us. In fact, at 65, I still think she is the sexiest woman that I have ever met.

Of course there is no direct similarity between my wife and the heroine of my novel. But I hope that some of the spirit she showed in adversity shines though in development of the main character in my novel, Caroline Daley. I would be pleased if you tell me what you think.



Aug 142011

Dancing with SpiesExciting news! I have received the design for Dancing with Spies, my new mystery adventure novel, from Kelly Walsh and you can see it below. I think Kelly does brilliant original designs and this lives up to the standard she had set on my other book covers.

We wanted the sun-drenched setting of Dubrovnik to be shown, as it is by this photo-extract of a coastal view from the Old City walls. But overhead hangs the gloomy threat of the Yugoslav Civil War about to break on this beautiful part of the world. In the background is the shadowy figure of the heroine involved in the conflict of spies and the dance which she has in Chapter 18 with two of the spies in contention.

I attach an extract from Chapter 11 which I hope captures the heat and the confusion that Caroline feels as she gets dragged into the hostilities:-

 The ground seemed to be moving slightly under her feet. Did they have seismic activity in this area? There was a crack in the rendering not twenty feet in front of her. The crack seemed to twist and move upwards. She closed her eyes again.

“Am I going mad or is it just the heat?”

When she looked again, what she saw made her smile. The moving crack was a long green lizard. It undulated onto a window cill and paused. She turned to call Brian. At that second the shutters were pushed half-open.

From the corner of her eye as she turned away Caroline had the impression of a woman at the window. Her mouth was open in a soundless scream. In the room behind her a man was seated on a chair. He was sitting stiffly upright as though he was tied to its back. There was blood on his mouth and his hair was disheveled. Another man stood in front of him – short, swarthy, with iron-grey hair. As Caroline turned back to look at the scene the woman disappeared, the shutters were banged shut and it was as though nothing had been there. Even the lizard had disappeared.

 If you want to contact Kelly Walsh to discuss this cover or her approach to design in general she can be reached at keleonie@gmail.com.


Aug 072011

In 1991 Croatia was attempting to secede from the Yugoslav confederation and gain independence. Croatia is an unusual-shaped country. The bulk of its land mass is in the north of Yugoslavia but it also has a long narrow coastal strip running down a large part of the eastern side of the Adriatic including the coastal islands. At the southern end of this strip, and cut off from the rest of Croatia by the short length of the Bosnian coastline, there is the World Heritage City of Dubrovnik and its environs.

In the autumn of that year the area was besieged by the Serb-led JNA (Jugoslav National Army) and a Serb-crewed frigate was patrolling the coast. JNA guns were trained on the international airport and Dubrovnik was effectively cut off from the outside world. The international community was doing plenty of talking and the American sixth fleet was patrolling the southern end of the Adriatic, but they were refusing to take military action at that stage to try to resolve any of Yugoslavia’s problems, It was this inaction that was a partial cause of the tragedies which were to blight that unfortunate country in the following years.

Montenegro had long laid claim to this southern outpost of Croatia. However nobody could believe that the Serbs and Montenegrins would actually open fire on the beautiful old city which had no effective defences against modern high velocity guns and where the Croatian defenders numbered less than 1500 men with few effective weapons. On the other side the JNA had nearly 20,000 troops with modern tanks and artillery.

This is the historical setting for my latest novel called Dancing with Spies. My heroine finds herself trapped in the old city and gets caught up in the underground tangle of complex machinations between Serbs, Croats, Montenegrins and the other races who are trying to gain the upper hand in the escalating struggle.

Caroline Daley is an ordinary everyday woman who is escaping from a disastrous marriage in the English Cotswolds.  The siege puts her in danger and forces her to fight for her survival and the causes she believes in. It also leads to unexpected love, self-discovery and fulfilment of her desires by the time the conclusion of the story is reached.

Jul 242011

Mljet is claimed to be one of the most beautiful islands in the Mediterranean – in a sea full of beautiful islands. It is a thickly forested getaway destination with a small population and relatively few facilities.

The most spectacular thing about Mljet are the saltwater lakes created when a huge limestone cavern collapsed, allowing the sea to enter through a narrow tidal waterway and flood a large part of the northern end of the island. Now these lakes are surrounded by steep wooded hills, originally the walls of the cavern.

In the larger lake is an islet on which was built a Benedictine monastery, now converted into a hotel. It is here where the love scene and part of the action leading to the climax of Dancing with Spies takes place. It is hard to imagine a more romantic location.

Mljet’s ancient history claims Odysseus encountered the Nymph Calypso here and St Paul is supposed to have visited the island (then called Melita) and rid the place of venomous creatures.

For modern travellers the romance and secret peace of the island is all that one can ask for.

Jul 162011

When I last visited Dubrovnik they had nearly finished restoring the beautiful old city from the devastation caused when it was under siege and attack during the Yugoslav Civil War.

The beautiful setting of the traffic-free city with its encircling walls which can be walked round; the little harbour with the fortress towering over it; the dark narrow alleys stepping up the hills; the heavily wooded off-shore islands – these all combined in my mind to build an ideal setting for a spy story.

When you add to that the city under siege; the mix of races and religions mingling in the narrow streets; desire for independence; the threat of the powerful Serbs and Montenegrins to open fire on the isolated community – it all adds up to an exciting storyline.

That was the beginning of the inspiration which led me to write Dancing with Spies which will be published in e-book formats later this month or in early August.

To know more visit  http://mikehillier.com