The English Agent is set in London and Paris in 1943 and interweaves the stories of Edie, an SOE agent who has been parachuted into Occupied France, and Vera, her agent handler back in Britain:
Having suffered a traumatic experience in the Blitz, Edie feels utterly disillusioned with life in wartime London. The chance to work with the Secret Operations Executive (SOE) in Occupied Paris offers a fresh start. Codenamed ‘Yvette’, she’s parachuted into France and met by two other members of her SOE cell. But surrounded by enemies, who can she trust?
Back in London, Vera desperately needs to be made a UK citizen to erase the secrets of her past. Working as an agent handler for the SOE presents an opportunity for blackmail. But when she loses contact with one agent, codenamed Yvette, her loyalties are suddenly torn.
The idea behind The English Agent came from my personal circumstances. Now, this may seem odd: I am a mum-of-three in Nottingham, and The English Agent is based on the exploits of a secret agent in Paris and her agent handler in London, at the height of the Second World War – where is the connection?
Let me give you some background. By the time I’d finished writing my debut novel, The Gunner Girl (which was inspired by my mother-in-law’s wartime record, and written whilst my soldier husband was away on operations with the British Army in Afghanistan), my husband was undertaking his final army posting, supporting the Special Forces (SAS & SBS). Now, just to make it clear, my husband wasn’t, and never has been, a member of the Special Forces himself.
He was a major in the Royal Engineers at the time; however for his last two years of army service he acted as the Special Forces’ ‘tame’ engineer, advising them on building projects in the UK and overseas. What this meant in practice was that, because he’d signed the Official Secrets Act, we never knew where he was. For a whole two years he never wore his army uniform; he was always in civilian clothes. He’d come home on Fridays (sometimes suspiciously suntanned and with a sandy passport), we’d have a regular family weekend, and then on a Sunday night, he’d pack up his bags and prepare to set off again.
If he were working in the UK, I’d have an idea where he’d be, and would know how to contact him. But quite often he’d say, “I’m overseas this week.” And I’d know I could not ask where in the world he was going to be, or who with, because if he told me, even by making an inadvertent slip of the tongue, he risked imprisonment. So all this was going on in the background, whilst I was thinking what book to write next.
I began to wonder: did the Special Forces exist in WW2? If so, what did they do? I’d been surprised when I discovered that there were women soldiers on active service in the Second World War, and this revelation was what had spurred me on to write The Gunner Girl. Could there have been women recruited into special forces-type roles, too?
The answer was an emphatic yes.
The forerunner to today’s Special Forces was the Secret Operations Executive (SOE). Originally an offshoot of the Foreign Office, it was set up by Winston Churchill with the stated aim to ‘set Europe ablaze’. SOE agents were not spies; they were saboteurs. The idea behind the organization was foment resistance to Nazi rule in Occupied Europe. Intelligence gathering was left to the spies of the Secret Intelligence Service (SIS). The SOE was all about arming, supporting and training freedom fighters, by any means necessary. Importantly (and excitingly for me as a writer), women were also recruited into the SOE – as many as forty may have worked undercover in Occupied France alone (there is still some argument about the actual numbers involved) – parachuted into enemy territory under cover of darkness.
Once I started researching I found many stories of incredible bravery amongst the female SOE agents.
I also discovered that SOE’s French section’s agent handler was also a woman, Vera Atkins, and that there was a huge conflict of interest right at the heart of her psyche. She was impossible to ignore. So I decided then to twist the real-life story of agent handler Vera with a fictitious agent, codenamed ‘Yvette’ (who some of you might remember as Edie from The Gunner Girl).
I had so much fun researching The English Agent (and not just because the book’s setting necessitated a research trip to Paris!). The Secret Operations Executive is endlessly fascinating and I was blown away by the courage and stoicism of the young women who worked within this top-secret organization amidst the chaos and carnage of World War Two.
If you win a giveaway copy, I do hope you enjoy reading it as much as I enjoyed researching and writing it!
The English Agent is available now in hardback, paperback and Kindle on Amazon, as well as in bookshops and supermarkets nationwide from 23rd February.
EDITOR: Read my 2015 interview with Clare here. There will be a competition announced on the website soon for two lucky members to win a signed copy of The English Agent. My thanks to Clare and Simon and Schuster.