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Inspiration and Challenges: City of Spies by Mara Timon

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City of Spies

By Mara Timon

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Inspiration comes in a lot of forms, and my inspiration for City of Spies came from a lot of different directions.

I first heard about Special Operations Executive on a BBC2 history programme, and became intrigued by the “Baker Street Irregulars.”  They were more than just spies.  Although they did their share of espionage and reconnaissance, the more traditional spy roles, they were also involved with sabotage and subversion, liaising with and trained local resistance groups.  Winston Churchill directed them to “set Europe ablaze”, and they did, with panache, breaking rules that were no longer relevant, not the least of which was when, in 1942, they began recruiting women to work behind enemy lines. 

How cool was that?  So what did it take for these women, back in the early ‘40s, to sign up for a job they didn’t understand (SOE, unsurprisingly, were fairly light on the job description), but who were given, like their male counterparts, a 50% chance of survival?  These women had to fight to be considered in the first place, and fight harder to remain in SOE.  In training they were used to spur the men on, the first to jump from the planes in training exercises, as well as into action. 

And yet, of the 39 extraordinary women that were sent into France alone, all but 13 survived. Their stories read better than most thrillers – and I mean that with no disrespect to my fellow thriller writers! 

Fun fact:  SOE agent Anne-Marie Walters’s autobiography Moondrop to Gascony won the John Llewellyn Rhys Prize in 1947.

These women were colourful, and recruited from a wide range of ages (At 20 years, Sonia Butt was the youngest woman to be sent into France. Yvonne Rudellat, at 45, was the oldest).  It wasn’t a class thing either, with recruits from the working classes (I’ve read that Violette Szabo had Cockney accent) as well as the aristocracy (Noor Inyat Khan the daughter of an Indian prince, and Krystyna Skarbek was the daughter of a count).  And not all of them were British; Virginia Hall was American, Nancy Wake was from New Zealand, and Krystyna Skarbek was Polish.  Some were prim, others flamboyant, but what they had in common was their determination, and their fluency in French.  They broke rules, in an organisation known for breaking rules, and while my characters aren’t based on any one agent, but are inspired by all of them.

After binge-reading their stories, I became determined to write about them, or rather, fictional accounts of fictional agents, but staying as close to the history as I could. 

From a stylistic perspective, I learnt a lot from reading the early Jack Higgins books.  I loved the way he made me sympathise with his baddies, who weren’t really bad but were just fighting on “the wrong side” of the war.  It made those stories much more interesting, so I passed that on, allowing my readers to grumble when they found themselves liking, even rooting for, characters they “shouldn’t”.

Finally, I became inspired by places I write about.  Lisbon had a complex history during the war.  Dr António de Oliveira Salazar, Portugal’s conservative, nationalist, and Catholic dictator, might have distanced himself from German fascism/Nazism, but he did consider Germany the last bastion against communism. Portuguese neutrality was a balancing act.  Siding with the Germans risked breaking the Anglo-Portuguese pact, and most likely losing some, or all, of its colonies. Siding with the Allies, would likely have risked tipping Spain over to the Axis, or even opening themselves up to an attack from Spain. It wasn’t until October 1943, when the tides of war were truly turning towards the Allies that Salazar allowed the British access to the Azores to build a base.  With this backdrop, Lisbon was a melting-pot, hosting large swathes of exiled European nobility and aristocracy, desperate refugees fleeing the Nazis, diplomats, merchants, smugglers, and of course spies. 

What better place to set my spy novel?

But writing isn’t without its challenges.  And while part of the fun is researching the story, like my main character, I don’t speak Portuguese, which made parts of my research a bit tricky (although the National Archives in Kew was terrific).  The other thing with research is knowing how much is enough, and when I’ve wasted too much time looking into something that I find interesting, but isn’t relevant to the story.

By far the biggest challenge was balancing my writing alongside a demanding full-time job.  I went to a webinar the other day on how to achieve a work/life balance, hoping for a holy-grail type of revelation.  Needless to say, there was no holy-grail revelation and the only key to balancing work, life, and writing is to carve time out of the day to write.  And to protect that time, even from myself. 

(c) Mara Timon

About City of Spies:

LISBON, 1943.

When her cover is blown, SOE agent Elisabeth de Mornay flees Paris. Pursued by the Gestapo, she makes her way to neutral Lisbon, where Europe’s elite rub shoulders with diplomats, businessmen, smugglers, and spies. There she receives new orders – and a new identity.

Posing as wealthy French widow Solange Verin, Elisabeth must infiltrate a German espionage ring targeting Allied ships, before more British servicemen are killed.

The closer Elisabeth comes to discovering the truth, the greater the risk grows. With a German officer watching her every step, it will take all of Elisabeth’s resourcefulness and determination to complete her mission.

But in a city where no one is who they claim to be, who can she trust?

‘Perfectly captures the conflicted loyalties of wartime espionage in neutral Portugal . . . atmospheric . . . tense’ Sarah Armstrong, author of The Wolves of Leninsky Prospekt

‘Casablanca meets le Carre’ A. K. Turner, author of Body Language

Order your copy online here.

About the author

I’ve always been fascinated with history, and while watching a BBC documentary on WW2 a few years ago, I began to think “what if…” I followed one “what if” after another until my first book began to emerge.
A New York-born, London-based, self-declared citizen of the world, I write commercial espionage thrillers set during WW2. While both my characters and novel are fiction, they are based, as much as possible, on what was really happening at the time.
I’m represented by James Wills of Watson, Little and am delighted that my debut novel, City of Spies, is published by Bonnier Zaffre.

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