Re-imagining the Past: Research and Reminiscence in writing The Secret Fire

(This article first appeared on Penguin UK’s website in March 2009.)

I listened, spellbound. It had been nearly 64 years since wartime secret agent Pearl Cornioley’s parachute jump into Nazi-occupied France, but her recollection of that night in September 1943 held me mesmerized.

“It was a static line, and consequently as I dropped I could feel the little bits of string cracking. Pop, pop … pop, pop, pop, until finally I felt the shock of the parachute opening itself …”

As she spoke, Mme Cornioley, a legendary courier and Resistance organizer with Britain’s Special Operations Executive (SOE), conjured up a whole world of sharp, personal impressions from the dark days of World War Two.

It would become the world of  “The Secret Fire”, my second novel.

She described the fear of waiting to leap into thin air through a hatch in the fuselage of a Halifax bomber, just 300 feet above the ground, and what it smelled like in a particular SOE safe house. I learned of her determination as a young woman to fight the Nazi domination of her beloved France, and how it felt to stand for hours on unheated night trains, criss-crossing the French countryside with false identity papers …

“The Secret Fire” is set in London and Paris, during World War Two and in the present day. It is both a stand-alone thriller, and a sequel to my first novel, “The Malice Box”.

In 2007 and early 2008, I tracked down several veterans, all in their 90s, of Britain’s wartime intelligence operations in occupied France, seeking to root my story – a tale of love, betrayal and forgiveness, with a strong supernatural twist – as firmly and accurately as possible in the detailed, gritty reality of the period.

(Photos and audio clips of our conversations, as well as more details about the historical background to “The Secret Fire”, can be found on my website, here.)

I felt honoured to hear their stories, and scared for my interview subjects even decades after the events. I was appalled at the risks they had run, and at the personal price even some of the survivors had paid.

I was grateful for the opportunity to share their memories, and to fold them, fictionalized and transformed, into my own work, alongside eye-witness accounts of wartime London that I’d found in museums and archives — some of them unread for years — and stories of World War Two told by my own parents.

I thought it would be a suitable tribute to try to recapture some of the past they had described to me, in a story that reflected their courage and sacrifice – one in which time itself is treacherous, and even the settled history of nations might be rewritten.

Pearl Cornioley, née Witherington, spoke to me in 2007, just a few months before her death, at the retirement home in central France where she spent the last years of her life.

The distinguished historian M.R.D. Foot, author of the official history of SOE, kindly met me for lunch at a Mayfair restaurant, and reminisced about flying into occupied France as an SAS intelligence officer – a mission he barely survived after hostile French farmers, wielding pitchforks, broke his neck.

A tough Cockney, Arthur Staggs, saw me at his comfortable flat in the Oxfordshire town of Thame to talk about his time as an SOE radio operator in the Lille region – and the terrifying experience of being captured by the Gestapo.

“Rat-a-tat at the door. My friend’s wife opens the door, and who bursts in? Gestapo,” he said. “The Germans walk in, and they’ve got these submachine guns, and one is stuck in my belly. That’s the biggest fright I had. That’s when the shivers came, that’s when the sweat came. I thought: he’s only got to press that trigger, and I’m oblivious.”

Mr Staggs survived weeks of Gestapo interrogation, and was eventually released, his cover story intact. One of his captors even gave him a half-apology, saying they’d thought he was an English agent.

As a result of his wartime experiences, though – the loss of brave friends, the constant strain of clandestinity, his time in captivity — Mr Staggs suffered from what doctors termed “nervous exhaustion” for seven years after returning home.

Readers of “The Malice Box” may recall a few glimpses of World War Two in the history of its main characters. The hard-nosed octogenarian Horace Hencott had fought the Nazis as a member of the American OSS, the forerunner of the CIA. The grandmother of penitent spy Katherine Reckliss may also have moved in espionage circles. There was mention that an alchemical document written by Sir Isaac Newton had been acquired by Nazi agents at a 1936 Sotheby’s auction …

“The Secret Fire” tells the story behind those references – a tale mixing documented fact with fiction. Pre-war Parisian occultists pursue the secrets of the alchemical Great Work that is said to turn lead into gold, even as scientists in the same city – the Curie family to the fore – explore the transmutation of the elements by purely physical means, in their experiments with radioactive decay.

As war grips Europe, both kinds of secrets – the atomic and the alchemical – are sought by the Nazis, and the Allies mount a joint SOE-OSS mission to ensure neither falls into enemy hands.

Heading the mission is a young Horace Hencott. He’s aided, unbeknownst to him, by an array of selfless forces in rural England, for whom the Nazis are only the latest in a long line of threats against their island kingdom, dating back to the Spanish Armada.

Opposing him is the chilling, sadistic Isambard – an acolyte of SS chief Heinrich Himmler, and a leading operative in Himmler’s Ahnenerbe, sometimes known as the Nazi Occult Bureau.

The two men battle, in wartime Paris and through the subsequent decades, for the allegiance of double agent Peter Hale, in a contest that may shape the fate of the world – because time, like memory, can fade and flare in “The Secret Fire”, eddying and flowing in unexpected ways. Guilt and betrayal defy time. Forgiveness can melt its grip.

How different might the world be, Horace asks in the novel, if the Nazis were to manage to set off a weapon of mass destruction in London, just a few weeks after D-Day? Or if one of them could still do so today …?

In exploring such alternative histories, I was inspired by the speculation of eminent historians, for example in a 2004 BBC radio programme marking the 60th anniversary of D-Day, about what might have happened if the Normandy landings had failed. In “The Secret Fire”, I took their musings a step further. What if Himmler’s Ahnenerbe had acquired something akin to an atom bomb …?

In addition to my interviews with wartime secret agents – none of whom were privy to, or responsible for, any of the supernatural elements of my story – I also drew on many other sources.

At the National Archives at Kew, and in the reading room of the Imperial War Museum, perched up in the museum’s magnificent dome as though in a pigeon loft, I inspected eyewitness accounts, official reports and photographs of V-1 flying bomb attacks on London – the dreaded “robot bombs”, to use a contemporary phrase, which terrorized Londoners in the months following D-Day. I gathered as much information as I could about the June 30, 1944 V-1 explosion at Aldwych that features so centrally in “The Secret Fire”.

In rural Northamptonshire I met writer Jean Overton Fuller, who reminisced with me about her close friend Noor Inayat Khan, known in the French Resistance as Madeleine. An SOE radio operator based in Paris in 1943, Ms Inayat Khan was one of the inspirations for my character Rose Arden — a heroine of “The Secret Fire”, and the grandmother of Katherine Reckliss. The real-life Madeleine was betrayed, and sent to die at Dachau.

I read Madeleine’s SOE personal file at Kew, handling heartbreaking scraps of her life – her practice signatures for her false identity, official reports on her training as a clandestine agent, and a pencil-written note sent to London from the field asking for more radio crystals.

It was a privilege for me to gain these glimpses into the lives of people who lived through such extraordinary circumstances. I hope – at least in fiction – to have recaptured a few fragments of their remarkable pasts.

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