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Declassified MI5 files, and other research for The Spies of Shilling Lane

A few years ago, a number of files were “declassified” by the British spy agencies, including some from MI5 covering the spies infiltrating underground fascist groups within Britain during the war. I duly went to the National Archives in London to see them.

It was astonishing! These were the real documents that the spies typed up every evening. They covered every meeting, who was there, where it was held, and then index cards on each person present and what threat they posed, or how they could otherwise be used by the British spy agency to gain access to Nazi secrets.

Incredibly, the main spy reported that many of the fascists liked to meet in cellars and disused antique shops—it added a suitable air for clandestine meetings, appealing to their romantic notions of espionage. They also favored the use of invisible ink, even though it wasn’t necessary. It was clearly suggested that the majority of fascist supporters had some form of mental illness, which created a toxic, unstable espionage environment. From these accounts I was able to recreate the underground group and their meetings.

Biographies and memoirs of agents in the Second World War provided another fascinating source. As all British spies had to sign the Official Secrets Act, they were unable to divulge their exploits. But one woman’s memoir, that of Joan Miller, was published posthumously by her daughter—in Ireland, and even then MI5 fought its publication all the way. Joan Miller was an undercover agent infiltrating a Nazi network.

The incredible danger and insane situations these spies found themselves in must have given them nerves of steel. I read of more than one account of an agent having to kill someone—quickly and on the spot, often by strangulation—in order to keep their cover.

One subject that I didn’t cover in the novel is the undiagnosed PTSD that many agents of this era had for the rest of their lives. I could read within their accounts deep-seated feelings of paranoia. They had a pit of fear that left them always looking over the shoulder, waiting for someone to recognize them, or the ghost of someone long dead come to make their own gruesome revenge.

Joan Miller, the MI5 agent who posthumously published her memoir in Ireland

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