Alex Gerlis was a BBC journalist for nearly thirty years and is the author of nine Second World war espionage thrillers, all published by Canelo.
His first four novels are in the acclaimed Spy Masters series, including the best-selling The Best of Our Spies which is currently being developed as a television series. Prince of Spies was published in March 2020 and was followed by three more in the Prince series. His latest series is the Wolf Pack novels, with Agent in Berlin published in November 2021 and the second in the series due to be published in July 2022.
Alex was born in Lincolnshire and now lives in west London with his wife and two black cats, a breed which makes cameo appearances in all his books. Alex has two daughters and two grandsons and supports Grimsby Town, which he believes helps him cope with the highs and especially the lows of writing a novel. He’s frequently asked if he’s ever worked for an intelligence agency but always declines to answer the question in the hope that someone may believe he actually has.
Football and the NazisThink of the Nazis and sport and it’s usually the 1936 Berlin Olympics which comes to mind, with the Games turned into a sophisticated in propaganda exercise, which the International Olympic Committee and too many participant countries happily went along with.But ...
Benson Railton Metcalf Freeman looked every bit the archetypal English officer and gentleman: serious, smartly dressed, complete with the moustache that was so fashionable among RAF officers in the early days of the Second World War. Born in 1903, the son of a Royal Navy officer, public school ...
I’m not sure who it was that first used this particular formula for good historical fiction – and especially espionage fiction. The idea is that you choose a peculiarly mysterious or ambiguous moment in recent history and then you weave your plot around it.William Boyd did it very ...
Alex Gerlis, Agent in Berlin opens with the attack on Pearl Harbor – you’ve described it brilliantly – did you research provide you with first hand accounts of this shocking event?
Photograph taken from a Japanese plane during the attack on Pearl Harbor
With Pearl Harbor I was more concerned to get the details of the day correct, especially the chronology and the names and locations of the ships that were hit by the Japanese. I try to avoid eye witness accounts of specific events because I’m always concerned that I could subconsciously use those experiences instead of those of the characters in the book. I relied on my imagination for much of this chapter, helped and inspired – by my research.The 1936 Olympics also features. We now view it as unprecedented, a blatant propaganda exercise by Hitler. Was that how it was viewed both prior and during the Games?My sense is that most of the participants probably realised they were being ‘played’ but didn’t really care too much about it. They were most likely just grateful that the Games were well organised and with state-of-the-art facilities. Unfortunately, we’ve seen that too often with events like the Olympics and the FIFA World Cup, where the organisers and participating countries seem happy enough to turn a blind eye to the excesses of the host country. After all, a year from now the World Cup will be taking place in Qatar, of all places.Frank Foley was an amazing man, could you tell us a bit about him?
He really was quite an extraordinary man. He rose from a fairly humble background in Somerset to become an officer in the First World War and in the 1920s joined MI6, eventually becoming the head of the MI6 station in Berlin. He remained in that post until the war began, by which time he’d issued thousands of visas to German Jews desperate to leave the country – it’s estimated he saved 10,000. He was helped in this by his cover in Berlin, which was running the Passport Control section of the British diplomatic mission, which was on Tiergartenstrasse. He was expected to do this job in addition to his espionage duties. Foley also had to deal with the negative attitude of the embassy in Berlin and the Foreign Office, which was probably a combination of snobbery and an establishment disdain for espionage, unless it was to deal with communists. Frank Foley died in 1958 at the age of 73, long before his work in the 1930s became public.The plot of the novel is set around the development of the Focke-Wulf 190 – what was the potential of this aircraft, and how could have changed the war?The development of the FW 190 is one of the plots of Agent in Berlin and I’d be wrong to set myself up as a military aircraft expert. I was more interested in the plane as a device for espionage rather than go into detail about its capabilities, but as I understand it, air forces took the view that they should not rely on just one model of aircraft – so the RAF had the Hurricane and the Spitfire and the Luftwaffe felt that as successful as the Messerschmitt 109 was, they needed an alternative to it too.FC Schalke 04 was the Bayern Munich of the day, but interestingly Bayern (nowadays the archetypal Bundesliga club – hugely successful, both domestically and in Europe), at the time it was viewed very differently by the Nazi leadership, despite many of them having Munich connections. Why was that?Bayern Munich certainly wasn’t the archetypal German club under the Nazis: 1860 Munich was the club which attracted the support of the Nazis. Although Munich didn’t have an especially large Jewish population Bayern did have strong Jewish connections and was called the Judenklub or ‘Jew club’ by the Nazis. The club had a Jewish president - Kurt Landauer – and two Jewish coaches, Richard Dombi and Otto Beer, all of whom fled to Switzerland after the Nazis came to power.There’s rigidity in the upper or upper middle classes that you capture well in the novel – was it a challenge to get that detachment and formality right during the writing?It is a challenge but then it’s a challenge to make all characters feel authentic. I think this is especially tricky when the story is set some eighty years ago. If the setting was hundreds of years ago that would be one thing, but with it being in the relatively ‘recent’ past I think it’s especially challenging because the reader will quickly sense if the dialogue is not quite right – they’ll be more or less familiar with the type of language used, even if they can’t quite put their finger on it. The challenge for the writer is to try and set the dialogue in that period without it coming across as parody. My background as a television producer helps, I’m quite comfortable writing the spoken word. I’m constantly checking and re-checking what I write to root out what I’d describe as contemporary language.Pearl Harbor resulted in Hitler declaring war on America – but do you think if he hadn’t done that, America would limited their involvement to the Pacific, thereby leading to a major problem in the European theatre?
Roosevelt declares war on Germany
I know less about the Second World War in the Pacific than I do about it in Europe – where all my novels are set. Having said that, I wonder if the United States would have entered the war at all had it not been for Pearl Harbor? It’s important to remember that while President Roosevelt was in favour of entering the war, that was not the majority view in the USA at the time. There is a theory, which is unproven but which I do allude to in Agent in Berlin, that Roosevelt knew about the attack on Pearl Harbor but was prepared to let it go ahead so as to give him an excuse to enter the war. The decision to enter the war in Europe was really taken out of Roosevelt’s hands when Hitler declared war on the USA on 11th December, just a few days after Pearl Harbor, which is regarded as a big error on Hitler’s part.Many events are well-known to readers – how do you keep the story exciting when the reader knows the Allies win?Good question and it probably goes to the heart of why the Second World War has such enduring appeal in terms of literature and TV/film so long after the event. I think that the fascination the war holds for readers is not the eventual outcome as such, but more the stories of what happened during it. I always look for one or two real events that happened in the war for my stories and build the plot around them, sticking as closely as I can to known facts. I’d hope that the excitement comes from the plot and the storylines and an uncertainty about the fate of the main and the secondary characters. That latter point is an important one: I don’t believe in comfortable and convenient endings; my stories don’t end happily ever after – mainly because life’s not like that.Were there any books you used for research that you’d recommend to readers?I’ve not dared count how many history books I have in my study but it has to be hundreds and I’d say that for each novel I use around a dozen all the time. I also have around twenty ‘reference’ books on WW2 which I refer to constantly. A few random titles from that stack of books … The Second World War (Antony Beevor); History of the Gestapo (Rupert Butler); World War Two Infographics (remarkable French book published in UK by Thames & Hudson); British Aircraft of the Second World War (John Frayn Turner); Total War (Calvocoressi/Wint); Berlin at War (Roger Moorhouse) and the official histories of MI5 (Christopher Andrew) and MI6 (Keith Jeffrey) – but there are literally dozens more. I also have half a dozen original Baedeker Guides from the 1930s, which are invaluable to my research – and my extensive map collection from that period, some originals, some reproductions.Which other espionage writers inspire you?I read less WW2 espionage fiction now because I worry about sub-consciously absorbing plots and characters – plus I spend so much time reading non-fiction books on the war. But I’d unhesitatingly name two other espionage writers: John le Carré and Alan Furst. Le Carré is unquestionably the master of espionage fiction, though of course he never set any of his novels in the Second World War. Alan Furst writes beautifully about Europe before and during the war. Midnight in Europe in particular is a magnificent book.I’d like to mention two other books which have had a profound effect on me, even though neither comes into this category. Man’s Search for Meaning (Viktor Frankel) – the experience of the time this very eminent psychiatrist spent at Auschwitz and The Ghetto Speaks (Marek Edelman). I have a personal connection with the Warsaw Ghetto as we’ve relatively recently discovered that a cousin (and not that distant either) was a fighter in the Uprising and almost certainly was responsible for killing the first German troops in it. This book is the account of the Uprising by one of its leaders, one of the few to survive. Marek Edelman was orphaned at a young age, went on to be a leader of the Jewish Socialist Bund in the Ghetto and after the war became an eminent cardiologist in Poland and a leader of Solidarity.This is the first in a series, how many more do you think you’ll write?Three in this series – that’s the deal with my publisher Canelo, at any rate. I’m probably going to send the follow-up to Agent in Berlin to Michael Bhaskar at Canelo in a fortnight and then the notes and editing, proof-reading process etc follows. In the normal course of events, I’d start on no 3 straight away, not least because that way I feel I keep the continuity and energy and behaviour of the main characters on track. However, the plan is to set the majority of this third book in and around a city I’ve never been to (apart from when we drove through it one August Saturday by mistake many years ago, but that’s another story). I can’t write the book without going there and I’m been planning a research trip, but I’m worried COVID may prevent that, so am thinking around a new plot for no 3 at the moment just in case … Alex Gerlis is the author of the acclaimed Spiesseries of four Second World War espionage thrillers. Agent in Berlin is his latest book.Aspects of History Issue 6 is out now.
Alex Gerlis, what prompted you to choose the period that you wrote your first book in?The Best of Our Spies was the first of my (nine) novels and I wrote it after I covered the 50th Anniversary of D-Day for the BBC in 1994. I spent some time out in Normandy and became fascinated by the story, not least the fact that the Allies victory in the Battle of Normandy owed so much to the extraordinary deception campaign. This was designed to trick the Germans into thinking the Allied invasion would be in the Pas de Calais region rather than Normandy – and is at the heart of the plot of my book. So, in that sense the period chose me.What is your approach to researching your novels? Has the process changed over the years?I have literally hundreds of books about and relating to the Second World War and they give me ideas for the plots and I also use them for research. If I’m writing about the Allied bombing of the Ruhr for example (the plot of my new novel due out in 2022) then I’ll read at least half a dozen books on that subject, as well as using another dozen or so core research books that I consult all the time. Another important research source for me is maps: I have dozens of them, many being originals and facsimiles from that period. I also have an invaluable set of Baedeker guides from the 1930s covering Germany, Switzerland and France – the three countries I tend to use most as locations in my book. I also try and visit all the major locations featured in my books, or at least I did when travel wasn’t the big deal it has now become.Historical fiction is a great introduction to history. Can you recommend any historians to our readers to learn more about your period?Antony Beevor’s The Second World Waris a general history that I always come back to and his books on Stalingrad and Berlin are masterpieces. Martin Gilbert’s Second World War books are excellent and Mark Arnold-Forster’s World at War is a very useful concise chronological account of the war – sometimes one wants a summary version of an event rather than too much detail on it. The Holocaust is a theme in most of my books and I’d recommend David Cesarani’s Final Solution and Saul Friedlander’s The Years of Extermination. Marek Edelman’s The Ghetto Fights is a powerful account of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising and books like Roger Moorhouse’sBerlin at War give a powerful sense of what the war was like away from the front lines.What three pieces of advice would you give to a budding historical novelist, looking to write and publish their first book?1: Do your research, which means reading around the subject and try and get a real sense of what life was like for ordinary people. Avoid too much military detail.2: Find a balance between the factual context of the book and the fictional elements of it – the plot, the characters. You need to establish a subtle dividing line in the book, where the reader understands – subliminally perhaps – what is fact and what is fiction.3: Try and visit the locations you’re featuring. This has its limitations of course because places change and evolve enormously over time and you’ll be visiting somewhere decades if not longer after the period you’re writing about. But having said that, it does help give you a sense of place which is very important to bring across in any historical novel.If you could choose to meet any historical figure from your period, who would it be and why? I guess Winston Churchill is too obvious an answer, in which case I’d probably go for Sir Stewart Menzies who took over as the head of MI6 a couple of months into the war in 1939 and remained in charge until 1952 – so throughout the Second World War and well into the Cold War. I’d have plenty of questions but whether he’d answer any of them is another matter.Similarly, if you could witness one event from history, what would it be and why?I’d choose between one of two ‘liberations’. The first would be the liberation of Paris on 25th August 1944 when General von Choltitz surrendered the city in defiance of Hitler’s orders to destroy it. The city was liberated by units of the French Resistance, Free French forces under General Leclerc and the US 4th Infantry Division. The drama and excitement of that August must have been extraordinary to witness, as would have been what followed it.The second liberation came five months later and would have been very different and even more dramatic – the liberation of Auschwitz by units of the Red Army on 27th January 1945. Other death camps, like Treblinka and Majdanek, were more or less abandoned by the time the Red Army reached them, but Auschwitz was largely ‘intact’ and around seven thousand prisoners still alive there. One of those was Primo Levi who subsequently wrote about how exhausted the prisoners were and nervous this would be a trap. They only realised they were free when a Jewish Red Army colonel assured them in Yiddish, they’d come to liberate them.Which other historical novelists do you admire?The one I admire most is unquestionably Alan Furst. He brilliantly captures the atmosphere and tension of Europe during and just prior to the Second World War. I’ve read all of his novels: The World at Night and Night Soldiers are particularly powerful.When first sketching out an idea for a novel, which comes first - the protagonist, plot or history?When I start thinking about a new series, I’m looking first for a couple of strong and interesting characters, ones who’ll be able to sustain the reader’s interest over at least three books. At the same time I’m also thinking about the history and the location and how these characters will fit into that – and often the location will dictate who the character’s are. The plot then follows, but from the very outset I’m striving to look for stories, characters and locations that feel both credible and authentic. That requires a fair amount of planning and a lot of work on the back story and the timelines before I even start the first book.Do you have a daily routine as a writer? Also, how important is it to know other writers and have a support network?Not sure how helpful I’m going to be here because I don’t have a routine as such and nor do I really know other writers or have (or need) a support network. My writing day depends very much on where I am in the process, but broadly speaking the most creative and enjoyable part is writing the first draft and I’d say broadly speaking I start writing around nine thirty and then write for four hours and possibly another three to four hours in the afternoon/evening. I aim to write two to three thousand words/day, though there’ll also be days when I pause and review what I’ve written or plan the next three or four chapters. As far as other writers go, I know a few and that’s very nice but I wouldn’t say that’s essential to the writing process. As for a support network – well, I have my publisher, my agent and my wife (in reverse order, of course) but as for the actually writing I prefer to go it alone, so to speak.Can you tell us about the project you are working on at the moment?I’m currently in the middle of a new series for Canelo, The Wolf Pack novels featuring two unlikely but highly effective British spies: Sophia von Naundorf, the wife of an SS officer and Jack Miller, an American sports journalist. Agent in Berlin was published in November 2021 and the second in the series has just gone to my publisher and is due to be published in June or July 2022. I’m now at the planning and research phase of the third and final one in the series. I like to start that process before the preceding book is finished, in case I need to change dates etc. It’s important to ensure the continuity of the back story, for example, makes sense.Alex Gerlis is the author of the bestselling Spies series. His latest novel is Agent in Berlin.