Pirate Irwin, what first attracted you to the period or periods you work in?
Summer holidays when I was a nipper in France sparked a fascination with the moral conundrum faced by the people with a war hero Petain having agreed to collaborate with the Nazis to preserve part of France as theirs. Follow him and a politician with gravitas Pierre Laval or oppose their judgement and resist led by an unknown General Charles de Gaulle based in London. The human element of those who denounced their neighbours or Jews, some terrified admittedly of the revenge wreaked by the Nazis in their village for acts of resistance but most through envy or the basest human instincts, and those who simply had the moral courage to resist fascinated me. This to me could be extrapolated to cover any country it being human nature at play.
What is your approach to researching your novels? Has the process changed over the years?
A fair amount of book reading, help from French colleagues and friends in rooting out radio programmes relevant to the era, which was a huge help for the research into the murder of Robert Denoel for The Redeemed Detective. The internet has evidently revolutionised a lot of research but I always double or triple check it. Sadly, to interview someone from that era is very rare given the passage of time.
The common phrase is that history is written by the victors. Do you think this is true?
I guess so though Joachim Fest is a German historian whose books I have read. If you are asking do we just get the victors side I would argue that historians such as Max Hastings and Patrick Bishop to name two are always fair in their appraisals and highlight moral weaknesses or bloopers in the Allies execution of actions and plans. Certainly, at school it depended on the history master one had as to the angle we were presented with.
Are there any historians who helped shaped your career? Similarly, can you recommend three history books which budding authors should read?
Not exactly shaping my career though RJ Unstead was the match that lit the flame for me. Hastings (Max not the battle) inspired me to mix journalism with writing though I was never cut out to be a war correspondent, the safer pastures of sports attracted me instead! Three history books waow that is tough!…Max Hastings’s magnificent Vietnam, Alistair Horne’s How Far From Austerlitz and Nathaniel Philbrick’s The Last Stand: Custer, Sitting Bull and the Battle of the Little Bighorn
If you could choose to meet any historical figure from your period, who would it be and why?
Colonel Claus von Stauffenberg, who edges Breaker Morant and Fletcher Christian. Why? To ascertain from him his prime motivation for wanting to assassinate Hitler and what he saw as Germany’s future afterwards? Peace or an Army junta. So few of the plotters survived the war and some like Hans Bernd Gisevius appear to have traduced his name and what his aim was if the attempt had been successful. As for the event the final march of the splendid Old Guard at Waterloo and to hear what their commander General Cambronne really said when asked to surrender..was it ‘Merde’ or “The Guard never surrenders, it dies.” Though it did the former none the less.
If you could add any period or subject to the history curriculum, what would it be?
Lord erm I guess I would opt for the Occupation of France and subsequent collaboration and the lessons learned or rather not learned from it by the French, whose post Liberation leaders including de Gaulle were most reluctant to address how enormous Vichy’s crimes were and that collaborators there were aplenty from the highest officials to the local farmer. Also that one should not be smug and think the UK would have been any different had they been conquered.
If you could give a piece of advice to your younger self, either as a student or when you first started out as a writer, what would it be?
Revise better for exams!!! As a writer that a short novel can be more effective than dragging out a story just so it looks to you at least at 300 plus pages worth the effort.
Can you tell us a little bit about the project you are currently working on?
Another Lafarge. Although an officer he is sent to a non-commissioned officer, ordinary rank soldiers POW camp after France’s surrender as there have been several murders in the Stalag amongst the French prisoners. His reputation as a top-class detective attracts the attention of the German authorities who would prefer there is a Frenchman investigating along with a German officer. It just so happens that a certain Francois Mitterrand is also a POW in that camp.