Today I am so pleased to welcome Elin Gregory to Joyfully Jay. Elin has come to talk to us about her latest release, Eleventh Hour. She has also brought along…. Please join me in giving her a big welcome!
Spies Who Write
It struck me a week or two ago that if you’ve spent your entire working life living a series of well-constructed lies, it must be very hard to settle down and stick to one mundane identity. I wonder if this is why so many people who have been involved in national security work turn to writing later in life or even while clandestinely serving their country. Some write officially sanctioned autobiographies, others write kiss and tell exposés and the government tries to suppress them. But there are others who turn their own exploits, or those of friends, or stuff they make up, into very successful and riveting fiction. Here are just a few of them.
Poet, playwright and a contemporary of Sharespeare, it’s assumed that Marlowe was recruited at Cambridge, as so many spies have been. It isn’t known what he was doing – keeping tabs on the comings and goings of a Stuart household by acting as tutor to the daughter of the house is one suggestion – but it took him away from his studies to such an extent that it was only the intervention of the Privy Council, commending him for his “faithful dealing” and “good service” to the Queen, that won him his MA.
The manner of Marlowe’s death, ostensibly in a silly tavern brawl over who paid the bill, has since been open to other interpretations. At the time Marlowe was in deep trouble with the Privy Council, the Walsinghams, several foreign powers and numerous other individuals. He was due to be questioned at a Privy Council meeting and was whiling away his time until summoned. In any case, it is known that the men with him, Ingram Frizer, Nichaolas Skeres and Robert Poley, were all in the spying game and had been or were employed by the Walsinghams. Perhaps someone was concerned about what he might say?
Sir Richard Francis Burton
Expelled from Trinity College Oxford, ostensibly for attending a steeplechase, Burton joined the east India Company’s army. It was there that he first showed his facility for dropping into another character as he carried out spying missions for Sir Charles Napier. Scholar, swordsman and absolutely self-reliant, Burton spoke about 40 languages and dialects well enough to pass as a native and immersed himself in the culture and customs of the lands he explored, including opting to be circumcised to reduce the possibility of detection when travelling in Muslim countries. He is famous for his books on his travels and also for his translations or adaptions of The Kama Sutra and The Perfumed Garden. But he has also inspired other authors. He is the hero of Philip K Dick’s Riverworld series and of Mark Hodder’s steampunk Burton and Swinburne adventures.
Alfred Mason also attended Trinity, with rather more success than Burton. He was an accomplished cricketer, an actor and playwright as well as writing many wildly successful novels, including several that later became plays and films. He also served in two different services – as a Captain in the Manchester Regiment during the Great War then transferred to the Royal Marines as a Major where he worked for naval intelligence setting up counter espionage organisations in Spain and Mexico.
He is best known for his book The Four Feathers, an adventure set in the Sudan where a young army officer branded a coward by his friends and fiancé goes undercover in the Sudan to try and prove himself. It has been filmed many times, most recently with the late Heath Ledger in the leading role.
W Somerset Maugham
Too old to enlist on the outbreak of WW1, Maugham volunteered and served as an ambulance driver. While on leave he was introduced to a high ranking official in the intelligence service and in 1915 was established as ‘our man in Switzerland”. He served there with distinction and was later entrusted with a mission to Russia, in 1917, to offer support to the Provisional Government. In 1938 Maugham wrote: “Fact and fiction are so intermingled in my work that now, looking back on it, I can hardly distinguish one from the other.” That seems to be the case in his famous Ashenden stories, which are laconic and gritty and show a much bleaker view of the spies life than we are used to seeing.
I would love to know more of Maugham’s story. His meeting the love of his life, Frederick Haxton, another driver in Maugham’s ambulance unit. Their travels together in the south Pacific in 1916, Haxton’s capture on a Japanese freighter in the Pacific and imprisonment in a German prison camp. Haxton’s deportation from England in 1919 and Maugham following to live with him in France for 30 years until Haxton’s death. It almost reads like a romance!
Do you recognise this young lovely? Later in life he penned Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and James and the Giant Peach, but during WW2 Roald Dahl was stationed in New York. He had been a fighter pilot in the RAF but was transferred there after surviving a horrendous crash. Handsome, sophisticated young RAF officers were sought after companions amongst the socialites of New York and he was recruited by Bill Stephenson, a Canadian businessman who operated a British counter espionage network and anti-propaganda organisation based on the 35th floor of the Rockefeller Centre. Exactly what Dahl did for his country isn’t known but one smitten lady described him thus: “He was very arrogant with his women, but he got away with it. The uniform didn’t hurt one bit – and he was an ace. I think he slept with everybody on the East and West coasts that had more than $50,000 a year.” We can only speculate what confidences he was able to pass on to his handler.
There are many more, of course. Ian Fleming’s career is well known. Erskine Childers was writing from experience when he described the adventures of Davis and Curruthers in The Riddle of the Sands. Geoffrey Household’s time in the secret service informed his choice of plot in his book Rogue Male. And then there’s John Le Carré who wrote his first three novels while working for MI5 but went on to explore a long and successful career as a writer rather than an agent and who admits to having once too stupid to understand his gunnery officer’s instructions, leading to exploding a 25lb shell in the midst of a flock of Welsh sheep. I don’t think that made it into any of his novels.
Borrowed from the Secret Intelligence Service cipher department to assist Briers Allerdale – a field agent returning to 1920s London with news of a dangerous anarchist plot – Miles Siward moves into a ‘couples only’ boarding house, posing as Allerdale’s ‘wife’. Miles relishes the opportunity to allow his alter ego, Millie, to spread her wings but if Miles wants the other agent’s respect he can never betray how much he enjoys being Millie nor how attractive he finds Allerdale.
Pursuing a ruthless enemy who wants to throw Europe back into the horrors of the Great War, Briers and Miles are helped and hindered by nosy landladies, Water Board officials, suave gentlemen representing foreign powers and their own increasing attraction to each other.
Will they catch their quarry? Will they find love? Could they hope for both?
The clock is ticking.
Elin Gregory lives in South Wales and works in a museum in a castle built on the edge of a Roman fort! She reckons that’s a pretty cool job.
Elin usually writes on historical subjects, and enjoys weaving the weird and wonderful facts she comes across in her research into her plots. She likes her heroes hard as nails but capable of tenderness when circumstances allow. Often they are in danger, frequently they have to make hard choices, but happy endings are always assured.
Current works in progress include one set during the Great War, another in WW2, one set in the Dark Ages and a series of contemporary romances set in a small town on the Welsh border.
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