Thursday, 9 May 2013

Aly Monroe talks Peter Cotton and Black Bear

Aly Monroe is the author of four books in the critically acclaimed Peter Cotton series. The third book in the series Icelight won the 2012 Ellis Peters Historical Dagger Award. Her latest book Black Bear is released today.

In early 1947, a lady called Carmel Snow from Harper’s Bazaar in the USA coined the phrase ‘New Look’ for Christian Dior’s first collection of clothes.  In retrospect the phrase may not seem that inventive, not after WW2 and at a time when, in Europe, strict rationing was in force. But it certainly stuck.

Dior himself had used the words Corolle, meaning a small circle of flower petals, and Huit, French for the figure eight.  He is even supposed to have said ‘I have designed flower women.’

The collection and its description met the times and within a couple of years, Dior’s ‘New Look’ on its own accounted for five per cent of France’s exports.  Governments were keen for women to return to domesticity, motherhood and the kitchen. In addition, if they could afford Dior or knock-offs, women were to be both fragrant and resemble slightly elongated egg-timers. When not pregnant that is, because this was the original baby boom time. The style was not, as Dior himself would later say, ‘limber’ but it certainly provided a structure for post-war feminine roles and aspirations. Carmel Snow described ‘well-dressed women with well-dressed minds.’ She also said ‘Elegance is good taste with a dash of daring.’  For my own taste it’s all a little ‘Honey, I’m home!’  

I had been mulling over my reaction to Dior’s way with percale and nipped in waists when my husband came in.  I was watching Skyfall (on offer at my local Sainsbury’s) on DVD. He was looking for something.

‘Is that Sid James?’ he asked.  Ouch. It is true that Daniel Craig was looking particularly rough at the time. ‘He was pretty good as the Black Fingernail’ did not help. We later agreed that perhaps it was time for glasses. But once the comparison had been made, it was hard to shake off. If you have seen the film, there is a suggestion that Bond is, physically and psychologically, not up to the job and modernity.

Now I have to make a confession.  When I first began writing about Peter Cotton and Britain’s decline I was not quite aware of what genre I was in. I didn’t think ‘thriller’. I did consider ‘spy novel’. Now I am reasonably sure I am writing ‘Intelligence novels.’

The reason is pretty simple.  I am not the bloodiest minded of writers. And I do not think violence is purely physical. In addition, standing as I do at five foot two, I am not an expert on brawn.

What I do think, possibly naively, is that violence takes many forms - verbal or emotional to name only two.  It also seems to me that violence of that sort is difficult to combat. I’d say I work on character and psychology at the sharp end of historical circumstance.

To put it another way, while my new novel Black Bear has little human blood, I think of it as the most violent book I have written so far.  Why? Because, while bones do indeed crunch, personality and identity can also be disorientated. I wanted to show not a punch to the nose, but something like the effects of a punch to the mind.

 Around the time of Dior’s ‘New Look’, the Navy Department in the USA began developing ‘Operation Chatter’.

Rather charmingly, one of the stated aims of this operation was to look for chemical ways of circumventing discredited interrogation techniques – in other words of getting information from unwilling subjects without recourse to torture.  To do this, ‘Chatter’ experimented with drugs on several thousand people. Some were volunteers, others were what might be called ‘volunteered’ – that is young Americans doing national service contributed to the data without having been given possible downsides to their collaboration – and some were unwitting. There were a number of suicides and ruined lives as a result.

The late forties were full of more or less medical experimentation.  An effective polio vaccine began to be developed but was delayed because of a fear of public reaction to experiments that involved children who already had polio. (The argument was over ‘dead’ and ‘live’ vaccines.’)  Against that, at least according to Tom Wolfe, lithium urate turned out to be a ‘Freud killer’ in 1949, when the Australian psychiatrist  John Cade used it to help a person with what is now called bi-polar disorder, then known as manic-depression. Previously, lithium chloride had been used as a substitute for table salt in certain heart patients but had been banned in 1947 for having killed some of them. Similarly lithium citrate had also been banned in soft drinks like Seven Up. In the US, Cade would have found lithium experiments hard to do.

Operation Chatter did not have those legal constraints and used a wide variety of drugs.  One was scopolamine, which in Columbia is called ‘The devil’s breath’.  The legend is that it takes away your will but allows you to drive to the ATM and remember your PIN number. It also removes your memory of your time under its effect. It was used into the sixties in labour wards. It didn’t suppress the pain of childbirth. It suppressed the memory of it. Judging by her manner, Betty Draper in Mad Men may have had some during the birth of her third child.

Scopolamine does not of course work well as a ‘truth-drug’.  Someone who has had it is not a good witness. Instead it causes confusion. This was already known. During WW2 on D-Day large doses were given to some American paratroopers, a new take on experiments ‘in the field’. That experience was not repeated. This is not to say scopolamine has no uses. Very small amounts of the drug are still used today to combat travel sickness.

Then there was mescaline and sodium amytal.  A variation of the latter had been used in the Battle of the Bulge to counteract ‘battle fatigue’. Again the results had not been ‘entirely satisfactory’. There is something ‘floral’ about that description - a prettifying of a decidedly gruesome reality. No egg timers for when the effects would wear off; indeed some of the troops went into contortions caused by re-lived terror.

Of course it is very difficult for any of us to understand what we are seeing when we have few clues as to the cause of the visible effects we are experiencing. It’s not as simple as my husband getting glasses to be able to separate Daniel Craig from Sid James.

And the title of this new Peter Cotton novel? Many years ago in Spain, I was unlucky enough to see a dancing bear advertising a circus. The animal looked mangy, exhausted and somewhere between bored and pained. From time to time the handler allowed the bear to take a sniff of something. For a few seconds, the bear teetered like a drunk and then began dancing again. That was the image I took with me for the effects of drugs on a man in Black Bear.  

You can find out more about Peter Cotton and Aly Monroe via her website, on Facebook or on Twitter.

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