Larry Loftis is the international bestselling author of the nonfiction spy thrillers, Code Name: Lise – The True Story of the Woman Who Became WWII’s Most Highly Decorated Spy and Into the Lion’s Mouth: The True Story of Dusko Popov – World War II Spy, Patriot, and the Real-Life Inspiration for James Bond.
His books have been translated into numerous languages and can be found in Portugal, Holland, Serbia, the Czech Republic, Taiwan, India, Australia, New Zealand, and throughout the UK.
Here’s a little info about Code Name: Lise:
Odette Sansom decides to follow in her war hero father’s footsteps by becoming an SOE agent to aid Britain and her beloved homeland, France. Five failed attempts and one plane crash later, she finally lands in occupied France to begin her mission.
It is here that she meets her commanding officer Captain Peter Churchill. As they successfully complete mission after mission, Peter and Odette fall in love. All the while, they are being hunted by the cunning German secret police sergeant, Hugo Bleicher, who finally succeeds in capturing them.
They are sent to Paris’s Fresnes prison, and on to concentration camps in Germany, where they are starved, beaten, and tortured. But in the face of despair, they never give up hope, their love for each other, or the whereabouts of their colleagues.
Paul Burke: What is it that attracts you to history and in particular the Second World War and the secret/resistance world? Did you always want to write about heroic characters?
Larry Loftis: I was a Political Science major in college and loved it. And WWII was really the only truly global event in history, and the most significant event of the 20th century. It was the “perfect storm,” if you will, of clashing nations, technology, warfare, espionage, intelligence, intrigue, drama, leadership, and all the rest. And it’s the one subject with almost endless stories.
PB: You like to infuse the history with a sense of drama, recreating scenes that come alive for readers. It’s important to stick with the facts, of course, but do you think a lot of history writing is a bit inaccessible? Tell us a little bit about your approach. I liked the phrase you used to describe the book in the introduction; ‘violent and original’. It sets the tone, this is a very dark period of history and Odette’s story can be a tough read.
LL: Indeed, I write nonfiction thrillers, which sounds a bit like an oxymoron because most nonfiction books are dry and academic. And you’re right; much history writing is inaccessible because few other than scholars can push through endless information with no plot, no pace, no surprises, no romance, little dialogue, and no cliffhangers.
But I love thrillers, especially from old masters like Elleston Trevor, Alastair Maclain, and Ian Fleming, and I never saw a reason why—if you had a great true story—that it couldn’t be written as a thriller.
I’m often told that my books read like novels because of the dialogue, but those quotes all come directly from the primary sources themselves.
So my approach is always to find a story with enough twists, turns, and intrigue to be structured as a thriller. Alfred Hitchcock once said that a good movie is like life, with the boring parts taken out. That, in fact, is what I try to do with my stories (take out the boring parts … and move them to the end notes!).
PB: It’s obvious that you dedicated a lot of time to researching Code Name: Lise and your first book Into the Lion’s Mouth. Do you enjoy that part of writing a book? There must be so many stories to uncover in the archives of the SOE (Special Operations Executive)?
LL: Indeed, it all starts with research, which I do enjoy. A book is very much like a skyscraper: what you see in the bookstore with the fancy cover—all 80,000 to 100,000 words of it—is the building above the ground. But to produce that you have to dig deep first, as is done with a skyscraper before the foundation is poured. For nonfiction books, that is the research. Into the Lion’s Mouth took two years of research, and Code Name: Lise took one, but part of that shortcut was due to the overlap of WWII intelligence I had acquired from researching ILM. And it’s not just the SOE, but also MI5, MI6, BSC, the OSS (American), the French Resistance, the Abwehr (German military intelligence), and the S.D. (Nazi intelligence). So my library has books grouped in these categories.
You can easily see if a nonfiction author has dug a proper foundation by looking at the quality and depth of the end notes and bibliography. With Into the Lion’s Mouth, for example, I remember that my end notes alone were 75 pages, and that my bibliography included well over 300 sources.
PB: Tell us a little by about the SOE and the role they played in the Second World War, particularly F-section. As you say in the back of the book, it’s no always been seen as positive.
LL: Well, I don’t want to give away spoilers, but the SOE was designed to “set Europe ablaze,” as Winston Churchill famously directed. While SOE agents were classified as spies because out of uniform, they were generally tasked for sabotage operations and to assist the French Resistance. It was a very dangerous job, to put it mildly.
PB: One of the amazing things about Odette, the most decorated spy of the war, is that her story is relatively unknown. Surely as we approach the seventy-fifth anniversary of the end of the war it’s good time to remember her?
LL: Precisely why I wrote the book! Odette was famous in 1950 because that’s when the movie about her hit the UK and U.S. But that was 70 years ago, and I’ve never met a single person who has even heard of the film.
PB: Of course, because of the time lapse, the events of the war are slipping from living memory into purely written history. Do you hope that a comprehensive account of Odette’s war will help new generations discover her?
LL: Indeed, I and Odette’s family do. And as you see in Code Name: Lise, it’s not just her; there were many other heroes in the story, including Peter Churchill, Arnaud Rabinovitch (their radio operator), and Paul Frager. This not to mention the six SOE women on the train to Germany with Odette.
PB: Is it fair to say that Odette, mother, not poor but not rich, educated to school level, and living as normal a life as the war would allow, was an ordinary woman? Is Odette an example of how ordinary people rise to the challenge, achieving extraordinary things in difficult times? (She didn’t smoke, drink or swear but was a trained killer and operative.)
LL: Indeed, Odette was an ordinary woman, just as the 18 year olds who stormed the beaches at Normandy were ordinary men. And that’s what makes WWII so fascinating because the vast majority of heroes were “ordinary” people, whether we’re talking about the SOE, the regular military, French Resistance, medics, nurses operating close to the front lines, and so on.
PB: If there’s one thing about Odette that stands out for you, that would make people aware of how incredible she was, what would it be?
LL: I can say it in two words: Avenue Foch. The reader will know when they get to that section of the book.
PB: You mention the 1950 film Odette, it may be the only view of Odette many people have, how do you think it stands up today, after everything you’ve uncovered?
LL: I have not seen the movie.
PB: Necessity played a part in the decision to use female spies, couriers, saboteurs during WWII, which went against the prevailing attitudes to women. Can you explain about the Service du Travail Obligatoire, and why male spies were not always practical in the field?
LL: Oh, I don’t think it went against the prevailing attitude about women. Women were not generally used by the SOE as saboteurs, but they were ideal candidates for spies and couriers, and the SOE actively recruited them. And even in the SOE Section F (France) office, Major Buckmaster’s senior assistant was a woman (Vera Atkins). As for the Service du Travail Obligatoire, I’ll leave the book to detail that since it’s a small spoiler.
PB: Odette was fearless, after reading your account of her time in Nazi hands, that’s so evident. She knew the risks, arrest and possible execution (half of the couriers for F-Section didn’t make it). Can you tell us about what an agent could expect when they arrived in France. (Treachery, betrayal, good luck and bad, capture.)
LL: The SOE in general was highly dangerous, for men and women. But because women were mostly used as couriers, who were constantly exposed to checkpoints, they generally ran a higher risk. SOE women were told that their chances of coming back were about one in two. As it turned out, 42 percent of the SOE’s female couriers were either executed or died in captivity. After Bomber Command (45 percent fatality rate), it was the most dangerous job in the war (on the Allied side).
PB: Odette formed an extraordinary bond with fellow agent Peter Churchill and he has a fascinating story of his own. Tell us a little bit about the confusion over his relationship to Churchill please.
LL: Well, they have the same last name, of course, but it would be a huge spoiler to say more than that because it plays an extraordinary role in the story.
PB: What do you think Odette’s legacy is?
LL: Patriotism and courage. Because of Odette’s love of England and France, and her sense of duty and patriotism, she took one of the most dangerous jobs in the war. And as for courage, you’ll see that quite clearly when you get to … Avenue Foch.
Paul’s review of Code Name: Lise will be published on nbmagazine.co.uk on 26th February as part of the blog tour.
Code Name: Lise by Larry Loftis
Mirror Books 9781912624713 pbk Feb 2020