What makes a good WW2 espionage novel?

IMG_1462 I’m a sucker for The World War Two espionage genre in fiction.  And judging by the output on that subject, I’m not alone.   But what makes it so compelling?  The following would be my answer. Novels in the genre are often based on true events or real people.  Charlotte Gray, for example, was based on the life of Nancy Wake, an SOE agent.  This lends instant credibility to a fictional work.  The reader can be informed and entertained simultaneously.  And even when the writer invents the story entirely, by referencing real historical events as part of the context, a similar result is achieved.

The atmosphere is also appealing.  The danger, the stakes, the uncertainty, the inability to trust, all lend the genre a foreboding tension.  Alan Furst is a master of this art.  Even when little seems to be happening in the lonely life of an agent, the enemy is normally closing in, or a trusted ally is succumbing to treachery. Atmosphere can be physical too.  The buildings of 1940’s Paris for example- the music, food, clothes, drinks, cigarette brands, vehicles and of course the people, can all add to an authentic portrayal of place and time.  As can the manner in which people talk and behave, their vocabulary, their concerns, their politics and the way they treat others.

The morality of the time is also fascinating.  Social status, the position and perception of women in society, and religious belief were unrecognisable by today’s standards.  This, and the existence of a sense of duty, patriotism and the racial and sexual prejudices of the day, are fertile ground for the writer. For this reader (and writer), all of the above combine to make wonderful stories.  When a young woman is a trained killer who parachutes into occupied France to liaise with the Resistance, and is hunted by the Gestapo, her life under threat every moment…call me a sucker, but please do count me in.

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