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 the 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 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 track down German spies. Early in its history, the real SSB actually did employ private detectives to carry out their 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 famously commented ‘spy catchers get espionage on the brain’. These rumours could have been 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 Paris owes 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 …
Check out my other ‘Behind the Scenes’ posts exploring the historical background of the Sinclair’s Mysteries and Taylor & Rose Secret Agents