Wednesday, June 29, 2016
Francine Mathews--A View From the Shadows
DEBORAH CROMBIE: Okay, here's a really bad thing about BOOK JAIL. My friend Francine Mathews (aka Stephanie Barron) is in Dallas for a few days, staying downtown, and I CAN'T HANG OUT. Boo. I am so totally bummed out. I was really looking forward to seeing her. Fortunately, Francine understands, because she has a book to finish, too.
The good thing is, we all get to talk to Francine here on the blog, today. Francine and I go way back. You may know her better as Stephanie Barron, author of the Jane Austen mystery series, which I adore. But Francine also writes terrific spy thrillers. And she has the chops to do it, because she was a real spy. Here's Francine to tell you about it, and about her latest novel, an historical thriller set in 1943 and featuring Ian Fleming--yes, that Ian Fleming--as the protagonist.
Here's a synopsis:
A tense and enthralling World War II thriller: British Naval Intelligence officer Ian Fleming races to foil a Nazi plot to assassinate FDR, Churchill and Stalin.
November 1943. Weary of his deskbound status in the Royal Navy, intelligence officer Ian Fleming spends his spare time spinning stories in his head that are much more exciting than his own life...until the critical Tehran Conference, when Winston Churchill, Franklin Roosevelt, and Joseph Stalin meet to finalize the D-Day invasion.
With the Big Three in one place, Fleming is tipped off that Hitler's top assassin has infiltrated the conference. Seizing his chance to play a part in a real-life action story, Fleming goes undercover to stop the Nazi killer. Between martinis with beautiful women, he survives brutal attacks and meets a seductive Soviet spy who may know more than he realizes. As he works to uncover the truth and unmask the assassin, Fleming is forced to accept that betrayal sometimes comes from the most unexpected quarters--and that one's literary creations may prove eerily close to one's own life.
THE VIEW FROM THE SHADOWS
I discovered the world of espionage early in life. I was the last of my parents’ six children, and thus was permitted a degree of freedom unknown to my five sisters. I suspect this was due to weariness with the whole business of parenting—there are as few photographs of me as a child as there were rules. Regardless, I was packed off to bed each night with the understanding that I would almost immediately creep back downstairs and sit behind my father’s wing chair in the den, where he would invariably be established with his newspaper, and the older girls would be watching television. As long as I made no sound, everyone would pretend that I wasn’t there. As a result, I saw a lot of movies and television I was not supposed to see. From toddlerhood, I found that lurking in the shadows gave the best view of life.
I grew up on Bonanza, Petticoat Junction, Wild, Wild West, and John Wayne films. Sometimes it was Laugh In or Lost in Space. But often it was Get Smart, which I absolutely adored. Never mind 007; I wanted to be Agent 99. Agent 99 was funny, glamorous, more intelligent than the men around her, and far more competent. Plus, she could wield any sort of weapon or gadget with an insouciance that was enslaving. In go-go boots.
Once I could read, I graduated to sitting in my father’s wing chair with my legs thrown over one arm, while I consumed the adventures of the Dana Girls and Harriet the Spy. This is the only book I know of that truly captures the mind and heart of an adolescent bent on observing, collecting and analyzing intelligence in an effort to understand and predict her uncertain world—until she’s blown, and the blowback from her espionage makes her that sad figure in diplomatic circles: persona non grata. It’s a wonderful object lesson in the necessity of cover.
From Harriet, I went on to the novels of Helen MacInnes—one of the great and unfortunately less-celebrated-than-she-ought-to-be novelists of the last century. MacInnes worked for the British SIS during World War II, and her books are filled with women who are glamorous, competent, and intelligent—Agent 99s, all of them. In one of my favorites, The Venetian Affair, the male protagonist—an amateur unwittingly embroiled, as men so often are, in a life and death episode of international intrigue—is astounded to discover that the innocent blonde he has his eye on is in fact a trained CIA professional; the Paris apartment he’s been sharing with her is a safehouse. Reason enough to love Helen MacInnes.
Bond is harder for a woman to love. I say that as someone who’s read everything Ian Fleming wrote, as well as biographies of Fleming himself, memoirs of him written by his friends—and even biographies of his friends written by total strangers. I’ve read nonfiction histories of World War II that Fleming haunts like an unquiet ghost—the best being rousing rales like Ben MacIntyre’s Operation Mincemeat.
But it’s Bond’s women that are the problem for female readers. Unlike Agent 99 or Helen MacInnes’s pros, they have ridiculous names and a habit of dying in pathetic ways. I’ve noticed this is usually because they have a fatal girl flaw—they trip while racing through the dark in high heels, or they can’t drive a stick-shift getaway car, or they drown when the chamber in which they’re imprisoned unaccountably fills with water, because their lung capacity is lower than men’s.
This is a trope of Bond stories; Fleming must have had a fear of drowning. I give him that experience in my book, Too Bad to Die, which is the story of Ian Fleming going undercover as a spy named James Bond during World War II, in an effort to prevent the Germans from assassinating Churchill, Roosevelt, and Stalin. But I also give him something much more valuable: Siranoush, an assassin trained by SMERSH—the division of the KGB’s wartime precursor, the NKVD, responsible for counterintelligence. (You thought Fleming invented SMERSH, didn’t you? Nope. He just followed its activities during his own operative period. SMERSH is a Russian acronym that translates as “Death to Spies.”) Siranoush knows all the tradecraft and techniques Ian Fleming lacks as a London-bound desk jockey. Plus, she introduces him to vodka—shaken, not stirred. I thought it was time Bond took lessons from a competent, glamorous, and intelligent woman for a change.
I often tell people that all writers begin life as readers—and that the things we’re obsessed with as children have a way of following us through the years.
So it can hardly have been a surprise that, having exited seven years of higher education without any skill beyond the ability to read and write, I applied to the CIA. One year-long FBI background check and a polygraph later, I found myself in the Agency’s Career Trainee program—required of those slated for the covert world, but granted like a special treat to a few of us destined for Harriet’s analytic life. For the space of several months, I got to do what every proto-spy dreams of. I rappelled off a helicopter skid with an M16 strapped to my back. I endured escape-and-evasion survival training, while helicopters with forward-looking infra-red hunted me from the air. I fired grenade guns at tanks and took agent meetings in safehouses and was fitted with a disguise by the Agency section we lovingly call Q branch, after the Bond films. I left exposed film cartridges in a discarded milk carton under a particular step on the Exorcist stairs that run between M Street and N Street in Georgetown—otherwise known as a dead drop. I tried to keep my husband from spilling the beans about my mysterious absences from “the State Department” each week while I lived at The Farm, the Agency’s covert ops facility.
I learned to admire and love any number of people who live life in the shadows. I learned to treat espionage, its risks, and its immense value, with appropriate seriousness. But eventually, I came back around to my Destiny—and quit the job to write about it.
Truth may be stranger than fiction. But getting to tell a story is most of the fun of living it.
What are your spy-girl fantasies, friends?
Until next time—
DEBS: I am so ashamed to admit that I've never read Harriet the Spy. BUT, I discovered Ian Fleming's Bond novels when I was thirteen or fourteen, and loved them. Fortunately--I think--they didn't encourage me to wear high heels with bikinis, or drown.
I loved Helen MacInnes, too, particularly The Venetian Affair, which I intend to revisit. Spy fantasies? Not a Bond girl. But a Helen MacInnes heroine, definitely. The latest? I loved Rebecca Ferguson's Ilsa Faust in Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation. (And as a fun side note, it's Ilsa who saves Ethan Hunt from drowning in the big underwater scene.)
REDS and readers, did you read Fleming? And what are your Spy Girl fantasies?
Francine Mathews is the author of 25 novels of mystery and suspense, including the Jane Austen Mystery Series, written under the pseudonym Stephanie Barr