Title: The English Agent
Author: Clare Harvey
Publisher: Simon & Schuster UK
I’m very excited to be part of the blog tour for Clare Harvey’s The English Agent, which is available to buy now!
Read on for a brilliant guest post by Clare, all about how a fascinating real-life story inspired the novel, and also my review!
How far will two women go to survive a war?
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) helping the resistance in Paris offers a fresh start. Codenamed ‘Yvette’, she’s parachuted into France and met by the two other members of her SOE cell. Who can she trust?
Back in London, Vera desperately needs to be made a UK citizen to erase the secrets of her past. Working at the foreign office in charge of agents presents an opportunity for blackmail. But when she loses contact with one agent in the field, codenamed Yvette, her loyalties are torn.
[Clare Harvey – The story-behind the story: what inspired The English Agent]
There were two things that led to the creation of The English Agent. The initial seed was planted more than six years ago, in the autumn of 2010, before I had even begun writing my debut, The Gunner Girl. Back then we were living in Kathmandu, Nepal (my husband was posted there with the British Army to support the Ghurkha recruitment). Sometimes, when I felt a little homesick, I’d have a look online for news local to Devon, which is where I grew up, and where my parents still live. There was one story that particularly captured my interest: a cat-loving old woman who’d died alone in a Torquay flat was discovered to have been one of the heroines of WW2. Perhaps it was because of her codename, ‘Rose’, the same as my youngest daughter, but more likely it was because of the details of her exploits (parachuted into France aged 22, captured whilst transmitting secret messages, escaping from prison camp), but Eileen Nearne’s story lodged itself at the back of my mind. There was something fascinating about this brave young woman who’d worked undercover behind enemy lines at the height of the Second World War.
In 2011 we were posted back to the UK, and I wrote The Gunner Girl – inspired by my mother-in-law’s time on the ack-ack guns in WW2 – when my husband was away on an operational tour of duty in Afghanistan with the army in 2012. By the time The Gunner Girl was accepted for publication in 2014, 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? Then I remembered the news piece I’d seen about Eileen Nearne, and I knew there was a story just waiting to be written.
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, like Eileen Nearne. And I 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 situation. 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).
Researching The English Agent was fascinating and humbling. I was blown away by the courage and stoicism of the young women who worked within this top-secret organization. I was so engrossed that at times it felt as if the book were writing itself. Who wouldn’t be inspired by the lives of these incredible women, pioneers of the Special Forces, amidst the chaos and carnage of World War Two?
You can catch up with me here:
The English Agent is a well-written, enjoyable novel about a subject that doesn’t always get as much coverage as it should: the women’s effort during the war, particularly female agents that risked their lives to help the resistance against the Nazis in France.
The story unfolds from two perspectives: agent Edie (codename Yvette) who is fresh out of training on her first mission abroad, in Nazi-occupied France, and Vera, who trains and looks after the agents. This way you see snippets of info about the war from both France and London. You really get a feel for what life must be like for both women, and the danger that Edie in particular faces.
The story is fast paced and kept me enthralled. I love novels set in WW1 or WW2, so hoped I’d really enjoy this – and I definitely did!
The English Agent felt like a well-researched story, and two of the characters were apparently based on real people. There were parts that were probably over-dramatised for the purpose of the story, but none of it felt completely unbelievable, which was good. I liked that the characters weren’t completely ‘good’ or ‘bad’ depending on whether they were Allies or not (and perhaps this is partly because . Most of the characters had their own faults or errors in judgement, despite being generally good people, whilst people you’d assume would be bad through and through weren’t necessarily presented in such an obvious way. There are some really inspirational women in this novel that I loved reading about, and found it fascinating to read about people involved in the war that we don’t often hear much about.
There is quite a lot of the story that jumps around, and sometimes I got a little confused as to whether we were in the present day or ‘remembering’ past events. Bits of the characters’ memories are sort of ‘teased’ out throughout the novel, which I really enjoyed reading and added extra tension to the story!
Clare Harvey’s other novel, The Gunner Girl, features Edie in it too, and I’d like to read more about her (though I suppose that would be a sort of prequel to The English Agent) – still, I’ll definitely still be adding it to my reading list!
The English Agent is definitely a truly entertaining, well-written and enjoyable read that I’d really recommend!
Many thanks to Simon & Schuster UK for providing a copy of this novel on which I chose to write an unbiased and honest review, and for the spot on the blog tour!
Here’s who else took part in the blog tour: