The Historical Dimension of the Spy Thriller





12-11-12

Simon Tolkien is an acclaimed author and former barrister. His fourth novel, "Orders from Berlin," will be published in December 2012. He is the grandson of J.R.R. Tolkien.


Heinkel He 111 over London's East End, September 7, 1940. Credit: Luftwaffe/Wiki Commons.

My last two novels, The Inheritance and The King of Diamonds were set in 1960 and in both books the characters’ lives were haunted by events that occurred during the Second World War. Now, with my new novel, Orders from Berlin, I have gone back twenty years to the London Blitz. A mole has burrowed deep inside MI6 and is planning to assassinate Winston Churchill. He has received his orders from Berlin and only a young detective stands in his way.

Why this time setting? Partly because of personal experience. As a child I was passionate about history and I went on to study it at Oxford. The period that always fascinated me the most was the Second World War. I was born only fourteen years after it ended, and my parents and uncles had vivid experiences of it that they told me about when I was growing up. My father trained to be a fighter pilot in South Africa; one of my uncles was a rear gunner in bombing missions over Germany; and another was decorated for bravery during the fighting that followed D-Day. My mother lived through bombing and our next door neighbour saved himself and his friend by swimming out to the waiting ships from the beach at Dunkirk.

And the war fascinates me as well because it’s the moment when the fate of the world hung in the balance, rather like it does today with the Middle East in flames and a new war on the horizon. In September of 1940 France had fallen like a house of cards and Britain stood alone against the might of Nazi Germany. If Britain had not held out then Hitler might well have succeeded. He would not have had to fight a war on two fronts when he invaded Russia the following year. The Third Reich could still be with us today.

Churchill’s determination to fight on at whatever cost made the difference. Without him the appeasers in his party would probably have negotiated a peace with Germany, which is what Hitler wanted. He had no wish to fight Anglo-Saxons; it was a racial war against the Slavs in the east that obsessed him. Churchill’s pivotal importance must have been obvious to the Nazis; they would have realised that removing him from the equation would have changed everything. This was the foundation stone for my book. I realised that at no other point in modern history would an assassination have made such a difference to the course of events.

The charismatic personalities of Hitler and Churchill were vital to what occurred during the Second World War and I wanted to see if I could bring them to life, interacting with fictional characters in a novel. I read about them voraciously, looking for the details that made them real and I watched Eva Braun’s home videos of Hitler on YouTube over and over again, trying to get a sense of the man behind the image.

But it wasn’t just the leaders and the events that attracted me to this moment in history. I wanted to try to recreate what it would have been like for ordinary people to live through the first protracted aerial bombing of a capital city in history. How did people cope? How did the city’s infrastructure survive? I remembered the stories that I had heard as a child and supplemented these by delving into the great archive of primary accounts available on the internet as a result of the interviews conducted by the BBC for the People’s War research program. I also read many contemporary accounts of the Blitz.

Just as in my previous novels, the characters in Orders from Berlin are influenced by past events. Here the back story concerns the soldiers who were shot at dawn for cowardice during the First World War. Their fate remains controversial even after they were given a general pardon by the British government in 2006 and is significant today with army suicide rates rising and so many veterans suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder. Also in a wider context I have always been interested in the Great War because my grandfather, J.R.R. Tolkien, fought on the Somme in 1916 and his experience there had a huge effect on The Lord of the Rings.

Last but not least, my new novel is a book about spies; about MI6 twenty years before Le Carré -- the same smoke-filled, claustrophobic, cloak and dagger world but with the characters playing for even higher stakes.


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