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The Months Before the War

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Six years ago, I began researching archive film, historical documents and first hand accounts of the turbulent years of British history which culminated in Prime Minster Neville Chamberlain’s statement that His Majesty’s Government would guarantee Poland’s borders in the event that they were attacked by a foreign power. This, essentially, made it certain that Britain would be at war with Germany some time in the foreseeable future.  The result of my toils led to the publication of my first novel, The Blue Pencil, a political thriller which centred on Chamberlain’s efforts to appease Hitler and thus prevent war.


Three years later my second novel Two Families at War was published. The narrative began in Germany just before the war but climaxed in London as a family of Jewish refugees crossed swords with a crime family in the north of the capital. The novel was a portrait of how men, women and children committed dreadful offences while sheltering under the confusion and devastation caused by the blitz and the blackout. Like its predecessor, Two Families at War took real events and wove a story around mostly fictional characters. Many of the people from The Blue Pencil re-appeared here.

Last month my third novel The Summer of ’39 was launched at the Durham Book Festival. It had been published in September. Having dealt with appeasement, politics and blitz and blackout set crime, I now turned my attention to espionage. Like so many, spy stories  have long been one of my favourite genres and I have been reading them since my teens. Men and women have been spying since biblical times. In the Old Testament book of Numbers, Moses sent twelve spies into Canaan and, later, one of the spies, Joshua adopted espionage as a tool to help capture the city of Jericho (Joshua book 6). As the centuries passed, ever more sophisticated cloak and dagger methods were used in in support of political action and military intrigue. In Elizabethan times, Sir Francis Walsingham led the first recorded network of agents. Their job was to identify threats to England from the combined forces of Spain and the Papacy. And so state surveillance began, although in Great Britain it was not put on a legislative footing until the establishment of the Secret Service Bureau in the early Twentieth Century. Later the Bureau became the secret intelligence Service then, at the outbreak of the Second World War, MI6. Little wonder, therefore, that writers should find this a rich source of inspiration for their tales.

The Riddle of the Sands by Erskine Childers is often thought of as the first spy fiction novel. Childers’ novel was published in 1903. Less than twenty years later he was executed for being on the wrong side in the civil war that followed the establishment of the Irish Free State but the influence of his novel remains to this, day a respected and frequently imitated trailblazer.

The Secret Agent (1907) by Joseph Conrad was followed by a series of novels by John Buchan featuring the reluctant hero Richard Hannay.  The best known of these, The Thirty Nine Steps, has been filmed four times, adapted for both radio and the stage and even marketed as a video game (2013).

The floodgates now opened and spy stories poured off the printing presses. Some of the authors had even served in the intelligence services including Compton Mackenzie, Somerset Maugham, Graham Greene , Ian Fleming and, of course, John Le Carré. Drawing on their experiences as intelligence operatives, Mackenzie, Maugham and Greene fell foul of the judiciary for contravening the terms of the Official Secrets Act which they had signed. Fleming’s James Bond novels were so far removed from reality that there was never any chance they would fall foul of the authorities. Le Carré’s novels, on the other hand, all bear the stamp of authenticity but he has never been accused of betraying state secrets, perhaps because he held on relatively minor roles in Army Intelligence, MI5 and MI6.

Each of the authors have brought their own distinctive approach to spy thrillers. Buchan’s were essentially adventure stories whereas Eric Ambler was the pre second World war master of the atmospheric thriller with great attention to both location and character. Ian Fleming gave us the much imitated but never equalled sexy action tales featuring perhaps the most famous spy of all, James Bond. Both Graham Greene and John Le Carré have focused on fictional narratives with the background of contemporary events. Le Carré’s only serious rival to the title of undisputed king of the late twentieth and early twenty first century espionage tales is Alan Furst who, following in the footsteps of Eric Ambler, has recreated the dark atmosphere of 1930s and wartime Europe in his Night Soldiers series. Of course, there are many others, too numerous to mention here, who have tackled this genre but mention must be made of David Downing’s Station novels, the writings of Len Deighton and the brilliant noir tales of Philip Kerr, featuring his fascinating anti-hero Bernie Günther. One thing that does mystify me is the relative lack of women authors espionage novels. This is especially odd in Britain where so many of the best thrillers are written by women.

What on earth possessed me to try to join this distinguished company? When I started writing, I intended to pen just one novel; a political thriller, The Blue Pencil. When I completed that I found I had a mountain of unused research material and in my reading I had become interested in pre and wartime crime. Readers seemed to enjoy stories with a strong factual background which involved real and imagined characters. One academic even commented that The Blue Pencil would make a useful tool for A Level students studying modern British history!


Encouraged by this I wrote Two Families at War which turned out to have a small but enthusiastic following. Where to go next? A number of my fans contacted me and asked what happened after Chamberlain’s guarantee to Poland in March 1939.  And what happened, they enquired, to Roger Martin, the journalist hero of The Blue Pencil? My research had uncovered the IRA bombing campaign on the British mainland which had begun in January 1939 and the link between the terrorists and the German secret service, the Abwehr. I let the story roll from there. and it did, picking up along the way two young heroes and a frightened Jewish refugee girl who became involved in a blackmail plot. I ended up with an adventure story, more John Buchan than John Le Carré.

Apart from actual events, around which the narrative was woven, I tried to give the story authenticity by involving real people and organisations including Scotland Yard’s Special Branch, the Abwehr, the Gestapo and even London Films whose studio head was Alexander Korda, a naturalised Briton originally from Hungary and a passionate supporter of his adopted country who teamed up with MI6 in allowing spies to be based at his European offices. Along the course of the narrative we meet Wolfgang Gans von Putlitz, anti-Nazi German diplomat who fed information to MI6 from the German Embassy in the Hague where he was based, (Harry) Klop Ustinov, father of Sir Peter and MI5 agent, Claud Cockburn, Communist and publisher of The Week, an anti appeasement news sheet and even Heinrich ‘Gestapo’ Müller.

Roger is a correspondent on The London Evening Globe, a thinly disguised version of the now defunct London evening newspaper The Star. The main research for writing this particular novel comprised reading every single copy of The Star between March 31st. and September 4th. 1939. These are all available, along with most other UK newspapers and magazines, at the British Library in St Pancras in London. Armed with the narrative of the turbulent events of that fateful summer, I was able to shape the narrative almost as a weekly chronicle. Thus the timespan of The Summer of ’39 is five months, compared with between two and a half and three years of my previous novels. Trying to fit all that happens in the book with three plots (an important part of the novel is set in Berlin) presented its own challenges with so much happening against the background of approaching war.

My novels are fiction based on fact but they are written in such a way that I hope the reader might say ‘well, that didn’t happen but it could well have done.’ Or, in others words, I hoped for credibility and a big part of that is accuracy achieved through the study of primary and secondary sources of evidence. Enjoy The Summer of ’39.

The Blue Pencil, Two Families at War and The Summer of ’39 are all published by Sacristy Press.

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