Friday, June 19, 2015

The Romance of the Spy

I have to admit: I’m a sucker for a good adventure romance, especially if it has history thrown in. Some near-universal favorites don’t sweep me up—for example, I loved the film of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy but have never managed to get into the book, despite repeated attempts. It has to be me, not LeCarré, but that changes nothing. Give me The Scarlet Pimpernel, though—Baroness Orczy’s purple prose and love for “tell, don’t show” notwithstanding—and I gobble it down like artisanal chocolate, no matter how many times I have read it before.

So you can imagine my delight when, during a magical media lunch in New York a month ago, I learned from Lisa Chaplin, author of The Tide Watchers, that there really was a British spy in the era of the French Revolution who went by the code name the Scarlet Pimpernel. Where Orczy learned of him (if she did), I have no idea. It seems too big a coincidence that she made the name up—let’s face it, can you imagine a goofier code name for a secret agent?—if a real person with that moniker existed. But I had never heard before that the ineffable Sir Percy might have a real-life counterpart. And if he did, that counterpart almost certainly belonged to the nobility, since most of the high-level espionage agents at the time came from that class.

Lisa and I don’t talk about the Scarlet Pimpernel specifically in this month’s interview for New Books in Historical Fiction. But we do talk about female spies, a real-life would-be assassin popularly known as the Mad Baron, Robert Fulton’s bizarre love life, the fun of research (and speculation), and the path from contemporary romance to contemporary espionage to the romance of the spy in Napoleonic Europe. So listen in; I’m sure you won’t be disappointed.

Here’s a teaser, as usual taken from the post I wrote for New Books in Historical Fiction:


From World War I, we jump back more than a hundred years and across an ocean. Napoleon, still First Consul, has convinced the surrounding nations to accept a series of treaties that he violates as it suits him. Great Britain, weary of war, clings to the Treaty of Amiens, determined to play the ostrich even as evidence mounts that Napoleon is massing an invasion fleet on the northern coast of France. What are the alternatives? In 1802, the Battle of Trafalgar has not yet happened. Half the renowned British fleet is in mothballs, the other half dispersed to distant lands. And no one knows (or wants to know) where Bonaparte will strike next: Egypt, the Caribbean, the Channel Islands, Cornwall. Any target is as plausible as any other, or so the Parliament and the lords of Whitehall insist.

Amid the confusion, a small group of British spies, the King’s Men, works to gain what intelligence it can on Bonaparte’s movements. Talk of assassination plots mingle with rumors of troop deployments and underwater boats capable of launching carcasses (bombs) and torpedoes to destroy the Royal Navy before its officers know what has happened to them. And smack in the middle of the plot is Elizabeth Sunderland, daughter of a King’s Man, who realizes too late the wolf hidden behind the charming face that wooed her away from her family. Lisbeth wants her son, her estranged husband wants revenge, the King’s Men want information, and the American inventor Robert Fulton wants only to be left in peace to pursue his research into submarines. In The Tide Watchers (William Morrow, 2015), Lisa Chaplin masterfully weaves these warring desires into a fast-paced story that will keep you riveted in your seat as the pages turn.

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