It’s been a while since I’ve written one of my ‘Behind the Scenes’ blog posts, exploring the real-life historical background to my books, the Sinclair’s Mysteries and new series Taylor & Rose Secret Agents. However, today I thought I’d write a little bit about the Secret Service Bureau – the top-secret government spy organisation which appears in my latest book Taylor & Rose Secret Agents: Peril in Paris.
If you’ve read the ‘Author’s Note’ at the back of the book, you’ll already know that this organisation takes its inspiration from a real-life Secret Service Bureau, which really was set up secretly by the British government towards the end of 1909, to carry out intelligence work. Although it was initially very small, the SSB soon grew – and was divided into two separate divisions, one which focused on counter-espionage at home in Britain, another gathering intelligence abroad. Today, we know those two divisions as ‘MI5’ and ‘MI6’.
My version of the SSB is very much fictional – but has some basis in real-life history. In Peril in Paris, we rejoin young detectives Sophie and Lil in 1911, and find them working for the newly-formed Secret Service Bureau as secret agents, helping to outwit German spies. Early in its history, the real SSB actually did employ private detectives to carry out their intelligence work in this way – although I’m afraid that in all my research, I didn’t come across any real-life examples of young women detectives working for them!
The focus on routing out German spies is also based on real history. In the run-up to the First World War, there was growing tension between Britain and Germany. Suspicion abounded about a network of German spies working undercover in Britain, gathering secret information to pass back to the German government. Interestingly though, today there is some debate amongst historians about how established or successful this German ‘spy network’ really was. Some have suggested that the government officials who first set up the SSB may have been influenced by wild rumours circulating about spies (Lord Esher commented ‘spy catchers get espionage on the brain’), stimulated by the writings of novelists such as William Le Queux, who wrote hugely popular novels such as The Invasion of 1910 and Spies of the Kaiser which whipped people into a frenzy about the threat from Germany. (Other popular spy books from this period include the likes of The Riddle of the Sands and The Thirty-Nine Steps.)
In the same way, whilst he is also very much fictional, ‘C’, the boss of the SSB who appears in Peril in Parisowes a little something to the two directors of the real-life SSB – Vernon Kell (sometimes known as ‘K’) who headed up the domestic branch (later MI5) and Mansfield Cumming (known as ‘C’) who looked after foreign affairs (later MI6).
The two men were very different and sometimes clashed with each other. ‘K’ spoke many languages, and had served in the military in both Russia and China before returning to London to work for the War Office, before being chosen to head up the SSB while still only in his mid-30s. He was known to be quiet, tactful, diplomatic and charming – a strategic thinker, highly organised. ‘C’, by contrast, was an extrovert – cheerful and amusing, who considered intelligence work ‘capital sport’. He had several eccentricities, some of which I borrowed for my own fictional ‘C’, including that he always signed his name in green ink. (‘C’ was later to become a customary name for all later directors, coming to stand for ‘Chief’).
In my research into the real SSB, I also found out about some of the people who worked for them. These included William Melville (sometimes known as ‘M’) a former police detective and Superintendant of Scotland Yard’s Special Branch who had helped foil an assassination plot against Queen Victoria. He officially retired in 1903 but went on to secretly carry out intelligence work for the government, later becoming an important part of K’s department who focused on searching out German spies. He eventually even founded a ‘spy school’ in Whitehall to help train other secret agents. (One of my favourite facts about him is that he apparently befriended the illusionist Harry Houdini, who taught him to pick locks!) Other key figures included Sidney Reilly, the famous ‘Ace of Spies’ who worked undercover in Tsarist Russia, and was involved in so many dramatic incidents that many have speculated he was the original inspiration for the most famous fictional spy of all – James Bond.
What’s more, the fictional German spymaster Ziegler who is mentioned in Peril in Paris also has a real-life counterpart – Steinhauer, who was the head of the German intelligence service from 1901. He had spent a lot of time in America and spoke fluent English. Ironically he actually worked alongside Melville in the early 1900s to prevent an assassination of the Kaiser organised by Russian anarchists. He was responsible for placing German spies in Britain before World War I and is supposed to have recruited many of them himself, travelling to Britain under various secret identities, often in disguise.
There’s lots more that I could write about the real-life Secret Service Bureau – there are dozens of books about it, including both official and unofficial histories. Some that I read included MI5 in the Great War edited by Nigel West, Spooks: The Unofficial History of MI5 by Thomas Hennessey and Claire Thomas, The Defence of the Realm: The Authorised History of MI5 by Christopher Andrew and Spies of the Kaiser: Counter-Espionage before the First World War.
Ultimately, however, in Peril in Paris I had a lot of fun imagining my own version of the SSB, inspired partly by this research, but also by the traditions of the spy thriller. Because of course, no classic spy story would be complete without a visit to a mysterious head office, where the secret agent receives their instructions from the charismatic director – whether it’s ‘M’ in James Bond films, ‘Control’ in John Le Carré’s novels, or Alan Blunt and Mrs Jones who appear in Anthony Horowitz’s Alex Rider books.
Of course, that’s exactly what happens to Sophie at the beginning of Peril in Paris when she goes to the SSB to meet ‘C’ and be given an exciting new assignment – which will soon see her setting out to Paris on an undercover mission to investigate a mysterious murder …
Peril in Paris has already been out in the world for a whole month, and I’m only now getting round to writing about it! That’s because it’s been a super-busy few weeks – not only have I recently moved house, I’ve also been enjoying lots of fun celebrations to welcome the first book in the Taylor & Rose Secret Agents series.
Several exciting things happened in the run up to publication. First of all, with the help of Arcus Studios, publisher Egmont created this incredible animated trailer for the book using Karl’s illustrations, which perfectly evokes what the book is all about. (Make sure you’ve got your sound on – the music is a treat!)
As soon as the book hit shops at the beginning of August, I went out and about on a little tour of London to sign lots of copies, including visits to Waterstones branches at Finchley Road, Islington Green, Trafalgar Square, Piccadilly and Kings Road. I also made this ‘shelfie’ video for Waterstones in which I recommend some of my favourite children’s books which, like Peril in Paris, have female friendships firmly at their heart.
To celebrate the new book, I met up with my brilliant agent and editor for some delicious French treats at Maison Bertaux – magnifique!
Next, in what may have been one of my most unapologetically ‘extra’ book launch celebrations to date, I headed off to Paris for a celebratory day-trip with my friends Katie, Nina and Claire. We had a truly superbe day enjoying the Paris shops, strolling past the sights, and taking a boat trip along the Seine – as well as eating some tasty French food and taking about a million photos. What a treat – thanks guys, I honestly can’t think of a better way to welcome Peril in Paris into the world!
Next up was a trip to the Edinburgh International Book Festival, one of my very favourite book festivals and always a highlight of the year! I teamed up with Robin for an event as part of the festival Schools Programme, and then with Natasha Farrant for an event about thrilling adventures, also featuring her book The Children of Castle Rock. I got to read from Peril in Paris for the very first time; signed lots of books for the readers who came along; and Natasha and I even had a dog join us on stage – I think that’s definitely a first!
Another exciting happening at this year’s EIBF was getting to meet the brilliant Chelsea Clinton (see above). Chelsea was in Edinburgh to talk about her new children’s book She Persisted Around the World, and was kind enough to join us for a special recording of Down the Rabbit Hole, where she spoke to me and to her fellow guest Katherine Webber about her book, as well as her favourite children’s books. Have a listen here.
Finally, another amazing thing that happened was this – a Peril in Paris themed milkshake! I’m thrilled that SBlended have created the brilliantly-named ‘Moo La La’, inspired by the book – look out for them in their shops. They’re running a competition too, find out more here. (I certainly never could have imagined that one of my books would inspire its very own milkshake – and I can’t wait to try one!)
There have been lots of lovely responses to Peril in Paris already: if you’ve read it, do let me know what you think of Sophie and Lil’s latest adventure. If you haven’t read it yet, you can of course get a copy from Waterstones, The Hive or Amazon. It’s also currently available as part of a promotion in both Waterstones and WH Smith Travel stores, so do look out for it there!
And if you fancy finding out a bit more about the book then check out my Peril in Paris Pinterest board, and stay tuned for some more posts about the historical background, coming up shortly!
It’s that time of year again! September is here and the new term is almost upon us. I know not everyone feels the same way but I love this time of year: picking blackberries, the first crunchy autumn leaves, getting to wrap up in cosy jumpers… and of course buying new stationery for those ‘back to school’ vibes.
Of those of you who are actually going ‘back to school’ in the next week or two – teachers, you can now find a brand new masterclass for my books on Authorfy – Mystery & History with Katherine Woodfine.
The Peril in Paris masterclass is ideal for KS2 pupils who would enjoy reading about spies, mysteries, daring-do in 1900s Paris, an intrepid sausage dog, and lots of cake! There’s also a KS1 masterclass inspired by Rose’s Dress of Dreams, which we filmed in the gorgeous surroundings of the Victoria and Albert Museum as you can see above. Each masterclass includes videos, extracts and a detailed scheme of work. Find out more here.
There are also lots more free resources on my website that you can access here – including a 3 week lesson plan for The Clockwork Sparrow, posters and activity sheets to download for my books, and much more.
And if you’re interested in booking in a school visit for the new school year, you’re welcome to get in touch: my calendar is currently booked up until May 2019, but please do feel free to contact me here regarding events for the summer term onwards.
A few early copies have already been sent out to reviewers, bloggers and authors (looking very gorgeous indeed in wrapping paper using Karl James Mountford’s beautiful illustrations) and it’s been very exciting to hear that people are reading and enjoying this brand new adventure for Sophie and Lil.
If you’d like to preorder a copy, you can do so now from Waterstones, The Hive or Amazon (though I’d always encourage you to buy from Waterstones, The Hive or another high street bookshop if you can – in doing so you’ll help support our wonderful bookshops!)
For anyone attending YALC this weekend, you’ll also find early copies available in the Waterstones bookshop. I’ll be there to sign copies on Friday morning from 11am. I’m also chairing a panel with brilliant YA authors Sara Barnard, Sally Green and Non Pratt at 3pm. If you’re there, make sure you come and say hello (or should that be ‘bonjour’?)
Look out on Twitter and Instagram for all the details of how to win a copy of the book (plus lots of other goodies) from Egmont – and make sure you’re signed up for my author newsletter. The next edition will be hitting your inbox very shortly, and will also you the chance to win the book – as well as a special one-off prize.
My brand new book Rose’s Dress of Dreams is now out in the world – and I couldn’t be more delighted! I’ve had such a wonderful time working with incredible illustrator Kate Pankhurst and the team at publisher Barrington Stoke on this book for the super-readable Little Gems series.
Like my Sinclair’s Mysteries books, Rose’s Dress of Dreams takes inspiration from real-life history. The story is inspired by Rose Bertin, Marie Antoinette’s dressmaker – who is often described as ‘the world’s first fashion designer’, and the creator of haute couture as we know it today. Here’s a bit more about the book:
Young Rose dreams of sewing stunning dresses for the women of Paris. But when a chance encounter with royalty changes her life, Rose must draw on all her skills to create the most breathtaking dress of them all.
Inspired by the life of Rose Bertin, the woman credited with inventing haute-couture, this is a story to inspire bold girls and boys everywhere.
To celebrate the new book’s publication, Barrington Stoke organised a fabulous mini blog tour with special content (including an advance look at some of Kate’s gorgeous illustrations) hosted by an array of lovely bloggers. You can catch up on the tour here:
5) Almost Amazing Grace: Q&A with me (with extra questions from Year 6 at Shakespeare Junior School in Eastleigh)
If you want to read more about the book, then you could check out this piece I wrote about it for the website Female First and also this piece for Foyles in which I explore the historical background to the book – and the story of the real Rose Bertin – in lots more detail (if you love my ‘Behind the Scenes’ blog posts, then this one is for you!)
I’m especially thrilled that Rose’s Dress of Dreams has been selected by Children’s Books Ireland to be part of their fabulous Bold Girlsproject, celebrating the centenary of women’s suffrage in Ireland. Bold Girls is highlighting and reviewing books that feature strong, intelligent, self-possessed female protagonists in children’s books – and their Reading Guide features both Rose’s Dress of Dreams, and the anthology Make More Noise! The reading guide is crammed full of loads of brilliant book recommendations, and also celebrates twenty female Irish authors and illustrators, both emerging and established, who have made an exceptional contribution to the canon of Irish children’s literature. You can download it here – as well as lots of other material such as classroom resources and a beautiful poster.
To celebrate the publication of Rose’s Dress of Dreams, I also wrote this piece for them about why I think Rose is a brilliant example of a ‘bold girl’!
Finally for publication week, Barrington Stoke organised a lovely celebration of Rose at the London Book Fair – complete with a special chocolate cake. Sadly I couldn’t go as I was at home with tonsilitis (feeling very sorry for myself!) but I’m so pleased that everyone was there to wish Rose well – and I’m looking forward to more celebrations very soon!