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Prequel to "Finisterre"

Insert for “Finisterre”

I’ve always been fascinated by the Second World War.  My father flew in Beaufighters and fought in North Africa.  My mum was working in London during the Blitz.  Their experiences, plus the tidal wave of books that flooded out of that bottomless conflict, offered me a rich store of experiences, mercifully second-hand.

As a published writer, I was lured into crime fiction and wrote sixteen books powered by the same cast of characters.  It taught me a great deal, but always, at the very back of my mind, I was aware that I’d ducked the really big challenge.  What if I was to treat the Second World War as the biggest crime scene ever, narrow the focus to a handful of characters – some fictional, others not – and see what happened?

The result was Finisterre.  My publisher, Nic Cheetham at Head of Zeus, liked it well enough to offer me a contract but wondered if I could turn this take on World War Two into a series.  The prospect of a recurring single-character,  heroic or otherwise, wasn’t something I wanted to do.  But the more I thought about it and the more deeply I read into the period,  I realised that this global convulsion must have spawned an unimaginable wealth of untold stories as lives were torn apart and men and women faced challenges they could never otherwise have imagined. The potential buried in this tangle of threads might be fictional gold.   

I had a notion, that – book by book – I could weave together series from a loose cast of characters, taking a peripheral character from one book and casting them in a central role in another.  Sol Fiedler, for instance, is found dead in the opening pages of Finisterre.  But what of his life in pre-war Berlin?  As he and Marta faced persecution at the hands of an increasingly brutal regime?  And how about Guy Liddell, the real-life MI5 spymaster charged with control of counter-espionage?  Might he make a reappearance in one of the books to follow? 

 Thus was born the Wars Within.  This notion, which I dubbed “soft-linkage”, is one of the structural elements of the Wars Within, and has proved immensely fertile.  Not least because most of these characters, deliberately or otherwise, found themselves lured into the treacherous swamplands of the intelligence world.

Stefan Portisch, of course, is the perfect example.  Trapped by circumstances beyond his control, and threatened with a firing squad, he’s forced to lie for a regime he’s come to loathe.  Likewise, in book two, Aurore, a young Quaker called Billy Angell becomes radicalised by the loss of a close friend, turns his back on his pacifist principles, and joins Bomber Command as a Wireless Operator.  By surviving his first operational tour he cheats almost certain death.  But what follows, thanks to his recruitment by MI5, opens his eyes to a very different kind of terror. Fate and a mind-numbing despair turned Stefan Portisch into playing a role for which he had no taste but in Billy’s case he was an actor already, a career choice he will later come to regret. 

After Aurore, there will be a third book in the series, Estocada.  Set in 1938, when elements in Germany organised a coup to kill Hitler, it pitches a young German fighter pilot – Dieter Merz – against an ex-Royal Marine put into play by MI5.  His name is Tam Moncrieff.  Both these characters have already appeared in Aurore and theirfirst taste of the secret world will change their lives foreverWhy?  Because the business of war, and the business of spying, combine in ways that stretch mere warriors to breaking point.  Welcome to the Wars Within.

Here are the opening pages of Aurore, book two in the series and the beginning of Billy Angell’s story.  It will be published in hardback in June.  Enjoy.

 

August 1930. A new decade. High summer in Bristol and a storm in the offing after three days of searing heat wave. Daytime access to the theatre was through the battered stage door, the one the actors used.

Billy had spent the morning polishing the brasswork in the dress circle. Now, he gazed at the rickety ladder that led into the roof space above the wings. He could hear the murmur of voices on the main stage, two actors in rehearsal, one of them Irene, the woman who would change his life forever.

He got to the top of the ladder and stepped into the darkness. It felt mysterious, enveloping, impenetrable. The borrowed torch was all but useless. He gave it a shake, then another, and in the dirty yellow light he was finally able to look round.

Huge wooden trusses above his head, heavily cobwebbed. A tiny splinter of sky where a slate had shifted. And off to the left his first glimpse of what he’d come to find: the long wooden gully, gently inclined, supported on trestles and tarred inside for reasons he could only guess at. At fourteen years old, Billy Angell was in love with magic, with make-believe. And here it was: the device they called the Thunder Run.

The cannonballs were backed up behind a little rectangle of wood that fitted into a slot at the top of the run and served as a stopper. Lift the stopper and gravity would do the rest.

The actors on the stage below were rehearsing a scene from a costume drama built around a marriage in difficulties. An earlier incident had sparked a crisis and the wife had finally run out of patience. After an exchange of muted banalities, Irene had lost her temper.

 ‘The situation is intolerable,’ she shouted. ‘Be honest for once in your life, what is it you want from me?’

Nothing at all.’

I don’t believe you. You want all of me. Every last morsel.’

That’s not true.’

Then leave me in peace, I implore you.’

Perfect, Billy thought, imagining Irene and her stage husband locked in a moment of silence, awaiting a sign from the gods. He reached for the stopper and released the cannonballs. They started to roll down the gully, a gathering rumble that could only be the approach of a summer storm. Billy watched them as they began to slow where the gully flattened out. The support trestles were still shaking. This close, he could feel the thunder deep in his bones.

Below, on stage, the actors had abandoned the script. Billy heard the scrape of a chair as one of them stood up. It must have been Irene.

‘Damn and blast,’ she sounded even angrier. ‘I left my bloody washing out.’

The torch flickered and died. Billy was grinning in the hot darkness. Magic, he thought. Make-believe.