J.R. Seeger uses his experience in the military and the CIA to write authentically about the workings of espionage. He is the author of the MIKE4 series, about a family who serves in the intelligence community from World War II to the present, and the Steampunk Raj books that follow the same family during World War I. The Enigma of Treason, published in 2023, is the third novel in the Raj series. You’ll find all of John’s books on his Amazon author page. Read more about his writing in his 2020 interview for SouthWest Writers.
The Enigma of Treason (and your Steampunk Raj series) is a significant departure from your MIKE4 novels. What are the differences between the series, as well as similarities?
The Raj series is designed to be historical fiction with the addition of Central Asian mysticism (or magical realism, as my publisher prefers to call it) as spice to the dish. I have dabbled in historical fiction before in my short stories set in colonial New Mexico, but this is full on historical fiction with historical figures and real events passing through the novels. The only real similarities with the MIKE4 novels are the nature of “the trade” (espionage) and the importance of intelligence operations in the larger canvas of conflict among nations. Of course, for those who have read the MIKE4 series, they will know that the antagonists in the Raj series are related to the protagonists in the MIKE4 series. That connection was underscored in the MIKE4 novel Graveyard for Spies and will be more apparent in the next Raj book.
Who are your main characters? Did they surprise you as you wrote their story? Will those who know you recognize you in any of your characters?
Enigma of Treason continues with the same characters in A School for the Great Game and A Sound like Distant Thunder. The Bankroft family and the O’Connell family are on opposite sides of the imperial battle for control of the Middle East. I worked to make both families believable and have tried to make Michael O’Connell’s transition from an isolated, lonely boy to a hardened enemy of the Raj credible. Probably the most curious character in the books is Chodak. He lives in a shadow world of demons or, perhaps, exclusively in the minds of the main characters. His periodic appearances in the novel did surprise me as I wrote them.
I have worked hard not to put myself in any of my books. I do use my experience with tribal leaders from throughout Central Asia to create believable characters caught in the middle of this conflict of Empires. In the MIKE4 series, there are many characters who resemble composites of real people.
What are the main settings in the book and how do they impact the story and the characters?
The story is set in Mesopotamia — a part of what we would call Iraq today — and in the borderlands between the Ottoman Empire and the Persian Empire. The region was important in World War I as it is today. It is the crossroads of trade and central to the growing dependence on Middle East oil. The strategic significance drew three empires — Ottoman, German, and British — into conflict. Agents of great powers will always be involved in conflict zones where resources are abundant and local political control is weak.
Tell us how the book came together.
The story has its origins in my personal interest in many of the real adventurers in the region during World War I. Most will recognize the name of TE Lawrence, but his work in the Hejaz (western Saudi Arabia and Jordan) was only one of many efforts by “oriental” experts working in support of the German and British militaries. Most of these characters have appeared in the Raj series and there will be others as the series progresses. It seemed only fitting to take my characters from earlier books and place them in Mesopotamia in 1915-1916.
As to the actual craft of writing: The Raj series takes about four months of academic research before I can assemble a plot. Once that is completed, all of my books follow a basic pattern: four–five months to write, another two–three months of editing and then another month of larger assembly/formatting. Mission Point Press has a terrific graphics team that creates the covers and my wife, Lise Spargo, a formally trained, botanical illustrator, agreed to provide the chapter illustrations. From start to finish, my books take about a year from writing the first chapter to their placement on Amazon.
Is there a scene in the Enigma of Treason that you’d love to see play out in a movie?
I have tried to make my stories vivid enough that readers can imagine them in a movie. I think the final confrontation in this book mixing face-to-face combat as well as combat in the mystic plain would be a most interesting scene.
All of your Steampunk Raj books have intriguing titles. How did you come up with the title for this third novel in the series?
The Enigma of Treason title was originally planned for a MIKE4 novel. However, I realized it was a far better match for the Raj series since we have many characters trying to understand how individuals make up their minds to commit treason. As a result, MIKE4 #7 became Playground for Ambition and Raj #3 became The Enigma of Treason. I suppose I am lucky to have attempted poetry which forces compression of an idea into a few words. So far, so good, eh?
What writing projects are you working on now?
I just submitted MIKE4 #8 to my publisher. We probably won’t get it out in time for Christmas, but it is good to see another plot finished and submitted. I already have about 1/4 of the next MIKE4 book written which is another retrospective story of the life of Peter O’Connell, senior. The material written is entirely a function of the fact that I had intended to embed the story into #8 and realized it was too cumbersome for me and, I suspect, for any future reader.
As I said earlier, the Raj series requires serious academic research to match my storyline with the real world. I am about halfway through that research for Raj #4, so that will be a project for the Fall. It will be complicated, because 1916 was such a pivotal moment in the Great War as well as in the history of the British Empire. I have one nonfiction article on the world of intelligence in 1941 that I am shopping to journals as well as an outline for another of my Inquisitor short stories. I always have at least two to three stories ongoing just as my desk and my bedside table always have two to three books.
KL Wagoner (writing as Cate Macabe) is the author of This New Mountain: a memoir of AJ Jackson, private investigator, repossessor, and grandmother. Kat has a speculative fiction blog at klwagoner.com and writes about memoir at ThisNewMountain.com.