I was slightly less than ten years old when I first read John Goldsmith’s book, ‘The Accidental Agent’. An account of his time as an agent of the Special Operations Executive, posted behind the lines of occupied France, this was one of the most thrilling books of my childhood, partly because it was so very real.
The section that stayed with me throughout my life was his account of a tortured Resistance man who jumped from a several story building. The fall was fatal, but it was the fact that one of his eyes had been partially gouged out that drove him to jump. I had nightmares for months after that.
As an adult, that still leaves me feeling ill, but the paragraph that leapt out at me when I came back to it during the research for ‘A Treachery of Spies’ was this:
“Pierre, the man who betrayed me…had been assassinated by one of the Resistance’s teams of trained killers – equipes de tueurs – within three days of my arrest… The killer teams normally did no other form of Resistance work and were therefor above suspicion. Their numbers included harmless-looking, under-developed students and one or two anaemic girls. I got the impression that the weaker they looked the more deadly they were.”
I was part way into the structural plotting by then, looking for the key to one particular character who links both the contemporary and historical threads. She needed to be extraordinary, and I’d been reading about Christine Granville, Pearl Witherington, Nancy Wake and the dozens of other amazing women of the SOE. None was quite the model I was looking for, though, and then I came across this, and the bulbs lit up all across my writing mind. ‘The weaker they looked, the more deadly they were.’ Perfect. In four years of reading and writing, I haven’t read a single other line about les equipes, but I don’t need to.:John Goldsmith was there and he knew whereof he spoke.
Thus was born Sophie Destivelle, a woman of many names and many guises, whose impetuous, implacable hatreds drive the narrative of a book that explores some of the deeper questions of the war and its impact on the present day. Specifically, I wanted to know how is it that we went from the absolute, undeniable heroism of men and women of the SOE, the Jedburghs and the French Maquis… to the anti-democratic totalitarianism of the NSA and GCHQ?
Part of the answer comes from my second question: ‘What happens to the body politic of a nation, when the virus of fascism is injected undiluted into its major arteries?’ This, paraphrased, is posed in Nick Cook’s book, ‘The Hunt for Zero Point’. The answer lies, I think, in the shadier details of Operation Paperchase, which saw the nascent CIA take 1600 high ranking Nazi officers (and their families and friends) and give them new identities in the US. Thus was the virus introduced into the body politic of the world’s most aggressive superpower and we are living with the result.
Sophie, therefore, carries the heroism of the past, but is aware of the toxic impact of that virus on the future. A Treachery of Spies is the book I’ve been wanting to write since I was seven and gave up dreams of flying Spitfires. I got to play with ciphers and codes, and to explore the horror, the pain, the courage – and the exhilaration – of war. And I got to look at the moment when the moral compass took a 180 turn and the heroism became contaminated. This is, without a doubt, the most challenging book I’ve ever written, and therefore by far the most satisfying. I hope you enjoy it.
A Treachery of Spies is published by Bantam Press