The Ambassador of Good Fiction: ‘Dragonfire’ by Ted Bell

Ambassador Fred Eckert interviews author Ted Bell
August 31, 2020 Updated: August 31, 2020

It takes a great deal of writing and storytelling talent to author a novel that can keep the reader enthralled when the novel alternates between two very different stories. Few can pull it off well. Ted Bell is one of those very few.

In his latest release—“Dragonfire”—Bell vividly demonstrates this rare skill. You find yourself equally immersed in one tale that is occurring right now and another that happened eight decades ago. The earlier tale happens when China was an ardent U.S. ally, and the current one occurs with China an increasingly more brazen enemy of the United States.

As “Dragonfire” opens, protagonist Lord Alexander Hawke, a top British intelligence officer, is tricked into rushing into a surprise attack by Vladimir Putin’s top assassin that leaves him clinging to life. While still recovering at a Bermuda hospital, he receives word that he must find ASAP and return safely home Prince Henry, the Queen of England’s favorite grandchild, who has mysteriously gone missing.

The prince, who also happens to be Lord Hawke’s godson, was last seen at a super-luxurious, by-invitation-only resort in the Bahamas called the Dragon Fire Club. The queen insists that the only one she trusts to head this mission is Lord Hawke, who had once saved royal family lives.

The link that connects the two alternating stories in this highly entertaining novel is that, in the days following Pearl Harbor, Alex’s grandfather, Churchill’s nephew, became best friends with the newly arrived Chinese ambassador to the United States, a young, exceptionally gifted scion of a centuries-old Chinese crime family. And now Alex and that Chinese ambassador’s grandchildren are pitted against one another in his search to find and rescue the prince.

This two-tier, fast-paced adventure novel is a fun read that keeps you flipping pages anxious to discover what awaits next, while, along the trail, you encounter one fascinating character after another. That Bell enjoys including historic figures and giving us a good feel for them is a nice plus.

There’s good reason that Ted Bell’s Alex Hawke is called “the new James Bond.” And plenty of reasons why Bell has had 12 consecutive mega-bestsellers. This man can really write and has a remarkable imagination.

Before retiring in 2001 to pursue writing, he was a giant in the advertising world. Beginning as a junior copywriter at Doyle Dane Bernbach, at age 25 he became its youngest-ever vice president and sold his first Hollywood screenplay. Later joining Leo Burnett Co., Inc. as a creative director, he, at age 40, was named president and chief creative officer. Next, he joined Young & Rubicam, London, where he became vice chairman and worldwide creative director. He has won every award the advertising industry offers.

I interviewed Ted Bell from his home in Greenwich, Connecticut.

Ted Bell Author
A recent photo of author Ted Bell. (Courtesy of Ted Bell)

Ambassador Eckert: What are some of the advertising campaigns you created or played a major role in?
Ted Bell: A brief list would include McDonald’s, United Airlines (“Friendly Skies”), Miller Lite, The Marlboro Man, Volkswagen, AT&T, Benson & Hedges, Sony Worldwide Entertainment, Porsche (“Nothing even comes close”), Procter & Gamble, Ford Motor Company, GM, Hallmark, Chivas Regal, Jamaica Tourist Board, Wrigley’s, Kellogg’s, 20th Century Fox, Levy’s bread, and Australia tourism.

Amb. Eckert: Did you always want to be a novelist?
Mr. Bell: I started writing short stories at age 8, in the third grade, and never stopped. Wrote my first novel starting in college and spent a year in Europe completing it. Never published. Whilst living in London, I got the idea to write a 20th-century version of “Treasure Island” in terms of its scope and adventure. My first published novel was “Nick of Time,” followed by “Time Pirates.”

Amb. Eckert: You’re so very American: graduate of a Virginia college, selected by the Department of Defense to be a civilian member of a standing group that supports the U.S. military, adviser to the U.S. State Department, member of the advisory board of George Washington’s Mount Vernon. How is it that, for your protagonist Lord Alexander Hawke, you created a character who is so very British?
Mr. Bell: I’ve always been inspired by Ian Fleming’s world. I simply thought my spy character would be more romantic or charismatic as an English lord than, say, a Chevy dealer from Weehawken. That’s it.

Amb. Eckert: What do you try to accomplish in your novels, and what do you think explains why you’ve been so successful as a novelist?
Mr. Bell:  Create heroes and heroines who surmount impossible odds. They engage, they grow, they never fail to entertain and inform. My editor at Random House Penguin Berkley told me he was signing me because he thought that I was “a natural storyteller.” That’s high praise, and I think a good explanation for my success as a novelist.

Amb. Eckert: What writers have had the most influence on you?
Mr. Bell: F. Scott Fitzgerald, John Updike, Dickens, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, P.G. Wodehouse, Robert Louis Stevenson, John D. MacDonald, Mark Twain, Cormac McCarthy, Philip Roth, Harper Lee, J.D. Salinger, Melville, Nabokov, Edith Wharton, Graham Greene, Jack London, Norman Mailer, Elmore Leonard, Raymond Chandler, E.L. Doctorow, Robert Frost, Kipling, William Butler Yeats, Dylan Thomas, Ford Madox Ford, Wallace Stegner, William Styron, John Cheever, Ring Lardner, O. Henry, Thomas Wolfe, Hemingway (short stories), Tennessee Williams, Jane Austen, Orwell, Charlotte Brontë, Thomas Hardy, Ian McEwan, Kazuo Ishiguro (“The Remains of the Day”), Arthur Conan Doyle, etc., etc. …

Amb. Eckert:  So you’re a zealous reader?
Mr. Bell: Sure am. I’d advise anyone who aspires to be a novelist to spend every spare moment of every single day reading good works.

Amb. Eckert: Which current writers do you enjoy reading?
Mr. Bell: Currently, Ian McEwan is by far my favorite novelist. I was blown away by “Atonement.” I very much admire Mark Greaney. I adore anything written by Ann Patchett. Her “Bel Canto” is one of my all-time favorite novels.

Ted Bell's Dragonfire
Ted Bell’s latest Alex Hawke novel.

Amb. Eckert:  How did you come up with the idea for “Dragonfire”?
Mr. Bell: One day my agent and I were heading to lunch; he asked what I had in mind for my next novel. Sort of automatically what popped out was the idea of a novel along the lines of “The Godfather”—but what if I used an ancient Chinese crime family (Triad) instead of an Italian mob family? He loved it.

Amb. Eckert: Among your many diverse experiences, you served on the advisory board for George Washington’s Mount Vernon. How did that come about?
Mr. Bell: A friend who headed the Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association mentioned they were producing to screen at the new Washington museum a film about George Washington’s Christmas crossing of the Delaware in his brilliant surprise attack that defeated the Hessian mercenaries in the Battle of Trenton. They had footage but no idea how to put it together effectively and asked if I would edit it for them. They loved it.

She proposed me for the Advisory Board, and I was elected. I’m a great admirer of “The Father of Our Country.”

Amb. Eckert: You became a visiting scholar at the UK’s Cambridge University sponsored by Sir Richard Dearlove, former chief of MI6, British Intelligence. How did that come about? What was it like?
Mr. Bell: Sir Richard happened to come to one of my book signings at Barnes & Noble in New York with another Cambridge professor, and they invited me to join them for dinner. Richard was fascinated with my take on Vladimir Putin and said, “Wouldn’t it be fun to have someone who thinks like Ted to be at Cambridge?” So I went for a year. It was heaven. Like living in a “Harry Potter” movie surrounded by some of the smartest people in the world—and a ton of spies to boot!

Amb. Eckert: You were also writer-in-residence at Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge.
Mr. Bell: One requirement was that I write a novel that showed the college and Cambridge University in a positive light. That’s when I wrote “Warlord.”

Amb. Eckert: You also studied at Cambridge University’s department of political science and international studies under the tutelage of Sir Dearlove who was master of Pembroke College. What was that like?
Mr. Bell: Lots of lectures, mostly about the rise of China being the biggest problem on the horizon, trips into London for briefings from the Royal Navy.

Once, in the middle of a lecture from Sir Richard on Libya, an aide walked in with a big square box and handed it to Richard. He withdrew four of five solid gold plates which had been removed from the palace of Muammar Gaddafi and passed them around. I got a lot of ideas during my days at Cambridge, some of which are key factors in “Dragonfire.”

Amb. Eckert: It must be fun to see the protagonist you created in Lord Alex Hawke so often compared with Ian Fleming’s James Bond. In “Dragonfire,” Alex’s grandfather and Ian Fleming team up in a great adventure deep inside Nazi Germany. What made you decide to do this?
Mr. Bell: I cannot tell you what a fascinating part of my imagination that Ian Fleming has always played. I have always wanted to use him as a real character in one of my books.

Amb. Eckert: Very few 007 fans have any idea that Ian Fleming was actually a much more impressive agent than his fictional James Bond is. Have you ever considered writing a biography of Ian Fleming?
Mr. Bell: Absolutely—a book—but not a bio. I would like to write a spy novel starring Ian Fleming that could possibly be turned into a feature film or streaming TV.

Amb. Eckert: If you had to advise someone who hasn’t read any of your novels, which two or three would you recommend?
Mr. Bell: I love the whole family, but I’d have to say “Warlord,” “Tsar,” and “Dragonfire.”

Amb. Eckert: What’s coming next from Ted Bell?
Mr. Bell: I’m halfway into my next Hawke book. It involves an epic sea voyage. And that’s all I can say now. Someday I’d like to use Ian Fleming’s life as a bio cum novel, and possibly a feature film. I now have a film production company, El Dorado Entertainment; and my partner, John Adler, and I already have a deal for the Hawke books. We’re working on developing screenplays of other projects of mine for features or streaming content, including my time-travel books.

Dragonfire
Ted Bell
Berkley Books
416 pages, hardcover

The “Ambassador of Good Fiction” series will be recommending to our readers a work of fiction, giving information not just about the novel but also what makes its author worth checking out—and, when possible, interviewing that author.

A writer and favorably reviewed novelist himself, Fred J. Eckert has been a member of Congress and twice served under President Ronald Reagan as a United States ambassador.