Aly Monroe is the author of a series involving an Intelligence Agent called Peter Cotton. The background to the stories is Britain’s Imperial decline post-war. She suspects she is making some of the points Jeremy Paxman is making in his latest book about the lasting effects of empire on Britain, but is doing so with more detail and within the context of thrillers. Here she talks about reality meeting, and possibly informing, fiction. She speaks to Crime Time about her latest book, Icelight
In 2005, in a sizeable house near Guadalajara in Spain, I met an elderly gentleman who I have called the ‘real’ Peter Cotton. When I met him I had already thought of my character and plans for a series on the decline of the British Empire as experienced by a young spy, aged 25, in 1944. So meeting him was a sort of living bonus that I have already written about in detail on the Beyond the Books Page of my website.
After I was informed of his death in 2010, aged 91, by his step daughter Caroline, I listened again to the recordings I had made on my visits to him. The man I met suggested two things to me. One, which I am writing about now for the fourth Peter Cotton novel (to be called Black Bear), involved something he claimed to have happened to him while working for British Intelligence. It is gruesome.
The other is included in the just published Icelight, and is a kind of challenge he issued me.
I had begun the Peter Cotton series unhappy with the idea of using ‘real’ people except for roles off, powerful shadows in the background setting the circumstances round the invented stories.
The old spy in Guadalajara suggested I was ‘missing a trick.’ The ‘real’ behavior of ‘real’ people could, he assured me, match invention.
‘I’d really like you to pay the bastards back,’ is the way he put it. “At one level, they are, of course dead. But by pointing them up you’ll be bringing history up to date – this kind of stuff continues unabated.’
I am not entirely sure I have done what he asked. I have however made it clear in the afterword that two characters in Icelight are NOT Lord Arnold Goodman or Lord George Wigg.
There are two reasons for this. One was the advice I was given that ‘the dead can’t sue’. I am too squeamish for that. The second was that I was writing fiction and should not inject too much reality.
But there was a third reason as well. Any reader can look up both of the men mentioned above. But who actually remembers them now? Indeed who remembers Prime Minister Harold Wilson, for whom they both at different times worked?
Yesterday I watched Niall Ferguson’s interview of Henry Kissinger. It was a remarkably controlled performance. Mr Kissinger’s vocabulary was very striking. His self-important and very careful choice of words was once interrupted by a request to stop filming. It was time for a re-set. As he resumed, his intervention in Chile became as smooth and syrupy as a canned lychee.
I hope interviewee and interviewer are happy. I saw the relationship of self-regard to the realities of serving a president like Richard Nixon.
And that’s really one of my points in Icelight. There are people who can use the word morality and then look chaste (not chastened) when discussing the disposability of others less fortunate and without the ear of elected power.
Icelight is published by John Murray