In February 2001 two Belgian smugglers met their contacts in the town of Doornik. There was some small talk, a few jokes, then the smugglers showed off the merchandise. Copies of a comic book called Tintin in Thailand. The buyers flicked through a few pages and pulled out handcuffs. They were undercover police.
Shortly after, Antwerp police raided the home of the mastermind behind the operation: Baudouin de Duve, 50-year-old former expat and member of a prominent Belgian family. His uncle had won the Nobel Prize for Medicine.
Tintin is a comic book hero created in Belgium but globally famous. Hergé (aka Georges Prosper Remi) first drew the adventurous boy detective for the kids’ section of Brussels newspaper Le Vingtième Siècle in 1929. For the next 54 years the Belgian cartoonist sent his creation exploring a ligne claire world, from the African jungle to outer space. Most readers encounter Tintin in the elegantly slim hardback versions of the comic strips. Tintin in the Congo, Tintin in Tibet, Tintin and the Picaros, and 21 more.
But Hergé never wrote a book called Tintin in Thailand.
Colonel ‘Mad’ Mike Hoare is the best known mercenary in the English-speaking world. He was all over the news in the 1960s as commander of the 5 Commando mercenary force in the Congo; in the 1970s he inspired and advised the blockbuster film The Wild Geese; in the 1980s he did prison time for trying to take over the Seychelles.
Now in his 90s, he’s still going strong in the South African sun.
Hoare got his start as a mercenary in Katanga, a short-lived secessionist state originally part of the Belgian Congo. The Colonel has never been publicity-shy, with several autobiographical books to his name, but he’s never discussed important details about his time in Katanga.
On 24 September 1963 Alexander Irwin Rorke climbed into a twin-engine plane at Fort Lauderdale airport. He was never seen again.
The good-looking 37-year-old with black hair and blue eyes was a well known figure in the murky world of Florida anti-communism. He had been a free-lance photojournalist in Cuba covering Fidel Castro’s revolution until critical comments about the new regime’s leftward drift got him in trouble. Some jail time and a deportation order later, he was up to his neck in CIA agents, right-wing Cuban exiles, soldiers of fortune, and ultraconservative American patriotism.
In 1961 he scattered anti-Castro leaflets over Havana by plane. The next year was secret boat trips to Cuba for guerrilla warfare. Early in ’63 he was back in the air, bombing a Cuban oil refinery. FBI agents warned him off. Rorke ignored them.
Now he had another mission.
The gunmen came in through the back door of Umberto’s Clam House at 4:30 in the morning. Mafia legend Crazy Joe Gallo had his back to them when they started shooting.
Umberto’s was supposed to be neutral ground, a freshly opened restaurant in New York’s Little Italy district owned by Matty “the Horse” Ianniello. It was one of the few places Crazy Joe felt safe enough to sit with his back to a door.
Joe had been at the Copacaba club all night celebrating his 43rd birthday. Comic Don Rickles was on stage, insulting everyone. When the show was over Crazy Joe, his wife, her daughter, Joe’s bodyguard Pete the Greek, and Pete’s girl headed for Umberto’s for seafood.
When they walked in, a guy sitting at the bar gave them a long look, got up, and walked two blocks to see some friends. Crazy Joe didn’t even notice.
When the ambulance crew got there they found Stepan Bandera dead on the block’s third floor landing outside his apartment. The crew guessed the fifty-year-old Ukranian had died from a fall. Bandera’s crying wife insisted he had been murdered. It was Thursday 15 October 1959.
It took until the following Tuesday for the coroner’s report to reach Munich police. The Ukrainian had traces of cyanide in his stomach. Now it looked like suicide.
‘We are completely in the dark as to the motive,’ a police spokesman told reporters.
Some time in the 1920s a Scot called James Alan Rennie went to a Central American country for a petrol company to guard oil wells.
Rennie was a prolific writer of the postwar period, turning out novels, plays, and history books at an industrial rate. In 1962 he wrote his autobiography Past Horizons. Rennie had lived a hell of a life: upbringing in Scotland, youthful service in WWI, art school, prospecting in Canada, travelling through America, nightclub bouncer, logger in the arctic circle. And briefly a mercenary for an oil company.
Rennie passes over the episode in a few pages, careful not to give too much away. He doesn’t tell us the name of the country, the company, or very much about what he did to protect oil wells from revolutionaries.
William Baldwin was 27-years-old when he arrived in Kenya looking for adventure. The University of Colorado-Boulder graduate had no money and his papers weren’t in order. He needed a job. The young American joined the Kenyan police.
The British colony was two years into an uprising by members of the Gĩkũyũ tribe. The authorities called them the Mau Mau and accused them of dragging Kenya back into a violently prehistoric past. The rebels called themselves the Kenya Land and Freedom Army (KLFA) and demanded national independence.
The uprising had a taste of inter-tribal civil war: the number of Gĩkũyũ in the Mau Mau was matched by those who remained loyal to the British, fighting against the rebellion. Add the casual racism of white settlers and soldiers determined to hang on to their corner of the empire, and you had a recipe for bloody conflict.