On the eve of the release of my second book, Dark In The Darkening Mist I’ve been given, by an accidental question in a radio interview, a chance to look soberly what it might mean to have spies in the family. I have, like all writers, made use of experiences from my own life, and those of my family to enrich the lives of my characters. I have created a character in Lane Winslow who is somewhat modelled on my mother, because she was a phenomenal linguist and beautiful and charming. It was a bonus that she shared some of her stories about her brief episode of spying for the British when she and my father and my older brother lived in South Africa during the Second World War. She tended to describe her war time work as if the whole thing was a colossal lark, and she was comically incompetent.
Now looking back though, I see that there were two kinds of secrecy in my family. The one she employed, of just sharing selective stories that obscured the more difficult and dangerous part of the work, and the absolute silence that my grandfather maintained with his children. My mother, like Lane, was a situational spy. She wanted to help the war effort, and when it was over, was happy to get on with her life.
My grandfather, on the other hand, was what I described during the radio interview at Roundhouse Radio in Vancouver, as a ‘proper spy.’ Intrigued, the radio host asked me to share some stories about his exploits. In the too-long silence that followed, it came to me that she never told me one story about his life as a spy, except the final one, when he died in a Nazi prison during the war. And that was because she had never learned one story from him.
This sobering realization made me think about the impact on families of having someone who works in intelligence with a serious and long-term commitment. My grandfather was ostensibly a businessman, involved in the production of flax and linen. His family would never know anything about the other side of his double life. He would no doubt be away ‘on business’ a good deal, and unable to share even the smallest, insignificant detail of what he ever did.
The silence she maintained about her father was a great dark void in my family history. I knew that he was handsome, had won my grandmother away from a fiancé who was kind and loved her until the end of his life. And I learned that my grandfather was a hard man, and though he may have loved his wife and children in his own way, was hard on them. We know from studies about what makes a good spy that besides the obvious traits such as being good at languages, sharpened survival skills, sang froid, a fluid intelligence, there has to be an ability to tolerate ambivalence, secrecy, dishonesty. A willingness to give up the intimacy of normal family life in return for the clandestine life. Often these traits are honed and developed as survival mechanisms in difficult and unloving childhood lives.
Lane Winslow, we learn in Death In The Darkening Mist, has never gotten on with her father, and finds she must come to terms with what his silence and secrecy mean to her.