ALY MONROE: SETTING THE PLACE FOR ICELIGHT

Written by Aly Monroe

A convincing sense of place is important not just to readers, but writers as well. Here, spy novelist Aly Monroe describes how childhood memories of Purley and South London influenced her new novel Icelight, the third in her series featuring intelligence agent Peter Cotton which is published by John Murray on 13th October.

 

When I was a girl, I lived for some years in a place called Purley. My father had been asked to start a department at Unilever and, unfamiliar with London, he and my mother took advice on where to live. Purley was regarded as a safe, convenient, well-schooled place in which to live and bring up children, prime commuter belt. And that is why we lived there.

I have not been back for a long time, but Purley was nice and quiet. Very nice, and awfully quiet. I remember, aged about twelve, walking down a tree-lined road and wondering how anyone could inject an element of surprise or danger there. A fat cat trotted over a lawn, belly swinging. A blackbird sounded the alarm. Then everything went quiet again.

Off the Brighton Road, Purley is hilly, with lots of trees and some very large Edwardian houses of the kind G. K. Chesterton called ‘villas’, and then smaller twenties and thirties houses. In 1963, I remember my parents were slightly embarrassed to learn that Purley was supposedly rather rich – if I recall, the average salary came in at over 3,000 pounds.

When I originally approached my publishers, I did so with a scheme for a series of books to chart the progress of Britain’s Imperial decline through a Colonial Intelligence Officer called Peter Cotton. The first book, The Maze of Cadiz, set in 1944, showed how Cotton came to join the Intelligence Services. I then planned to take him to Malaya in 1954, and to Ghana (then the Gold Coast) in 1955 - all places I or close members of my family have experienced directly.

But when I finished The Maze of Cadiz, I changed my plan. I saw something in John Maynard Keynes’ frantic visit to Washington DC to get a loan from the USA to keep Britain afloat in late 1945. That turned into Washington Shadow.

After that, my idea was to get to work on the Malayan book – but after various chats with my publishers we decided to keep the novels closer together in time, and work on the continuing development of Cotton’s character (as opposed to snapshots at separate points in his career). It was also suggested that I might think of keeping Cotton ‘closer to home’ for the third book.

So I thought again. And as a starting point, I took ‘home’ literally. Kicking off with a memory of Purley long ago, I produced a book plan and characters within very few days. This wasn’t actually so hard to do. I simply let the memories flow, did some research and checked back against the winter or 1946-47, one of the worst in still living memory. I remember 1963 as a stinker. 1947 was even worse

Aly Monroe



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