Like many 19-year-olds, Patrick McGuinness was looking for “something interesting to do” when he set out for Romania in 1987. What he found was a police state in a state of heightened paranoia.

Teaching English in Bucharest, he met a colourful selection of spies and counter-spies, Communist Party apparatchiks, black marketeers and ordinary Romanians.

A few months after he returned to England, he was glued to the television watching the violent overthrow of dictator Nicolae Ceausescu — and the deaths of thousands of dissidents.

Now a professor of modern languages at Oxford University, he has never been back to Romania but it still haunts his dreams. He has written poetry about it, and now The Last Hundred Days, a thriller narrated by a naïve young English student who witnesses the final bloody days of the regime.

He added: “For years I have had dreams about Bucharest. I’m back in Romania trying to go down streets that I used to know that have been bulldozed and replaced by cold marble kitsch – Stalinist dictators’ palaces. Things are blank and threatening, and that became one of the themes of the book.”

It’s a powerful story, with an ending that reverberates in the mind as protests in Libya, Syria and Greece flash on our TV screens. Serbian axeman Milosevic makes a walk-on appearance as the author examines the dark side of political upheaval.

Prof McGuinness was aware of the pitfalls of poets’ and academics’ novels, and adopted a vivid, page-turning style. He confesses this may have been influenced by his liking for Oxford author Colin Dexter’s early Inspector Morse books.

“I wanted it to be poetic because that was how I experienced the city and the place and I wanted to get that across, but I’m very conscious that there shouldn’t be too much description — that’s a well-known problem when poets write novels.”

Students and other dissidents are dicing with death, organising clandestine operations while infiltrated by the secret police. Meanwhile, one of their lecturers, Leo, travels the city collecting icons and art from demolition sites, as well as old guides and maps pinpointing Bucharest’s historic treasures. He also boosts his income with black marketeering.

The author said: “Obviously, it had been in my subconscious for a long time. It really was possible at that time to walk down a beautiful street and enjoy it, and a week later there would be nothing but rubble.”

His experience of relationships in a police state also echoed down the years. “You like them and they like you but you know that they are reporting on you.”

Without giving away the end, it is fair to say that Prof McGuinness does not believe Romania has escaped its totalitarian past. “The Romanian revolution was the most violent but the least conclusive. Unlike places like Bulgaria and Czechoslovakia, there was not a clear-out. It was still the old security system, the old guard, running the country.”

And he is not surprised by subsequent events. “There were things that you could see coming, like people trafficking, drug-running and racism. Everyone in this book has a theory about how the world should be. The only people who manage to be free are people who don’t care about things. They just work with what’s there.”

Like his unnamed narrator, he is a “passer-through” having been born in Tunisia in 1963 to a Tyneside Irish father and a Belgian mother and travelled the world with his father’s job with the British Council. Asked why he has a Welsh accent, he says: “I married a Welsh girl.” He combines his Oxford life with weekends and vacations with his family in Caernarvon.

Despite his high academic standing – or perhaps because of it – he loves thrillers with a sense of place – Ian Rankin’s Edinburgh and the Scandinavia depicted in Wallander and Larsen -- and says this probably influenced The Last Hundred Days. “The city of Bucharest is the biggest character – pure anonymity and totalitarianism. That’s why the narrator has no name.

“I like reading all genres of books and I’m an obsessive consumer of places. I have to really get to know them; smell them. When I moved to Wales, I threw myself into it, learning the language. The culture really changed me and the way I write. Now I’m beginning to feel that way about Oxford.”

His next project is a book about The Real Oxford, a non-fiction exploration of the areas he loved in the early Morse books – “like Abingdon Road and Kidlington”.

* The Last Hundred Days is published by Seren at £8.99.