I recently had the pleasure of reviewing an advance copy of Cobra Gold, Damien Lewis’s latest blockbuster novel. Cobra Gold takes as its subject a factual event, a huge bank robbery in the mid-1970s in war-ravaged Beirut, Lebanon. A robbery that to this day has no suspects and from which the gold is still missing!
This is a wild fictional romp about one possible scenario, and well worth reading. Action-packed, and moving faster than a projectile from an AK-47, we have terrorists, gold, greed, and great storytelling. I had the opportunity to chat with Damien.
So who is Damien Lewis?
I’m a 41-year-old British author, who’s spent the last twenty-odd years as a war reporter working in some of the world’s less-visited trouble spots - Sudan, Burma, Zimbabwe, Syria, Eritrea, Nigeria to name but a few. Predominantly, I’ve been reporting for TV news or documentary, the usual suspects – BBC, Channel 4, CNN, Sky. In 2000 I was laid low for several months following spinal surgery, and during my recovery period I wrote my first book, a biography called Slave. It went on to be published in 21 different languages, and is a number one international bestseller. It won the 2004 Index on Censorship Book Award.
It was serendipity that led me to write that first book, and by then the flood gates had been opened. I went on to write several other military non-fiction books, and then this year I published my first fiction -- Cobra Gold -- which is based upon the true story of the world’s biggest-ever bank raid, that took place in the 1970s Lebanon civil war. I’m now looking at writing a series of three further fictions -- all based upon true stories -- and developing the same characters throughout. I still do the war-reporting side of things: in 2003 I was filming in the Sudan war zone for three months, making an award-winning feature documentary called War Hospital.
In November last year I went to report from the Darfur conflict zone, and the article I wrote -- ‘Darfur’s Inferno’ -- has just won the One World Popular Features Awards. My work in war zones -- my experiences with rebels armies, terrorists, war lords, freedom fighters, genocidal leaders and all the rest of it -- is the powerhouse of real life experience that drives my fictional writing.
Damien, you have produced a powerhouse book - how did you come up with the idea?
I met a guy who is ex-British military, who came to me via a mutual friend. Over several mugs of tea in a café in London he told me the story of the world’s biggest-ever bank robbery, in 1976 war-torn Beirut city. Of the minimum 50 million dollars stolen -- some 200 million dollars at today’s values -- the majority was gold bullion. None of that loot has ever been recovered and the robbery remains a mystery. The man talking to me suggested a scenario: that perhaps the world’s elite military force, the British Special Air Service (SAS) had been sent in to rob the bank, because its vaults contained terrorist documents of high intelligence value to our own and allied governments. Whilst robbing the vault of those documents, the band of SAS maverick warriors decided to help themselves to the gold, as well. This was all theoretical, he stressed, but might it not make an interesting basis for a book, he asked me? Indeed it might, I agreed. I went away and used my extensive military and related contacts to further research the story – research that took the best part of a year to complete. The more I looked into the story, the more amazed I became. The world’s biggest bank raid ever is also the world’s ‘perfect’ robbery – for whoever did do it they got away with it completely. From that point I began plotting out Cobra Gold.