It was a chance remark in the gym, which inspired my new Penguin mystery ‘Coming To Find You’.
I happened to overhear somebody talking about how locals had ‘set fire to their weapons’ at the end of the Second World War on the top of a nearby hill.
My husband and I had only recently moved to the area – in the south-west of England – and my ears pricked up with writerly curiosity.
‘What weapons?’ I asked.
‘They were members of Churchill’s secret army,’ I was told
Seriously? I’d never heard of it. But I did some research and discovered that to my amazement, non-service men and women in the area had been recruited by Churchill’s people to be trained in guerrilla warfare in case our seaside town and those around it were invaded during the Second World War
The reasoning was that locals had far more detailed knowledge of the area than the army which had been drafted in. Men and women who held ‘ordinary’ jobs (such as working in the post office or ‘simply’ being a housewife) were targeted as recruits because their lives provided a plausible cover
I didn’t write my story then and there. Instead, as often happens, the seed took time to grow. I proceeded to write other novels. But I never forgot that conversation in the gym.
After lockdown, I did some more research by talking to the local museum staff. Then I found the author Andrew Chatterton who had written ‘Britain’s Secret Defences’. He put me in touch with the handful of living relatives.
I discovered all kinds of things about these brave people who were trained to use guns and knives against the enemy; how to leave messages in split tennis balls underground; and how to raise the alarm in case of invasion. They were given cyanide pills in case of capture. They weren’t allowed to tell their families which meant sneaking out at night and indeed, were asked to sign the Official Secrets Act. Many went to their graves without telling a soul about their hidden roles in the war. (However, a couple who met when one pointed a rifle at the other by mistake, ended up by getting married. I interviewed their son, now in his sixties.)
My husband and I live in an old house. I’ve often wondered about the people who have lived here over the years. So I got out the deeds, and my imagination began to run riot.
Supposing someone in a house like this had been recruited into the secret army? Our place used to be a bed and breakfast – in those days known as a Boarding House. Supposing the owner had been recruited? What if she was a woman who had taken in evacuees? And so Elizabeth was born.
At the same time, my work as a writer in residence of a high security prison has never left my head.
I worked there for two days a week for three years. You can take the girl out of the prison but you can’t take the prison out of the girl.
One of the phrases that I often heard in prison was ‘the silent sentence’. This was the mental sentence of shame that families of criminals have to live under.
Of course, it’s a very different horror from the relatives of those who have been hurt. But it must be terrible to discover that a loved one had committed a crime. I met some of the relatives of prisoners during open days in the prison. Some were not the ‘kind of people’ one might expect. One had been a former mayoress.
On another occasion, one of my prison students came up to me just before class. ‘I need to tell you what I’ve done,’ he said.
‘Please don’t,’ I said because it was actually much easier to run a writing workshop if you didn’t know you were teaching a murder or a rapist how to structure a paragraph.
But this young man clearly needed to get it off his chest. He had, he told me, been driving at 40 miles an hour instead of 30 when a car suddenly came out of a side road. He went into the driver who died.
‘My sentence is knowing that I’ve caused someone’s death,’ he said. ‘My mother has been unable to leave the house since it happened.’
This is an example of the silent sentence. Enter my second heroine - Nancy. At the beginning of the novel, her brother has just been sent to prison for Life for murdering their parents. The press is after Nancy. She is deeply ashamed of what he has done – but could she also be involved?
I’ve always been fascinated by the Second World War. I was born just 10 years after it ended. Yet when I was growing up, it seemed like ancient history.
It’s only as I’ve got older that I realise what a mark it left on my parents‘ generation and thereby on mine. In turn, I have passed on many hopes and fears from previous generations to my children, and even my grandchildren.
What a huge responsibility.
Yet it is also positive and strengthening. Take the story my mother often told of how she saved her little brother from a doodle bug bomb by pushing him under a bridge.
I’ve re-told the tale to my children. It’s even more special to them because they’re short of family memories (their grandmother died when they were young).
When my 99-year-old father passed away just before Christmas, he asked me what I was writing. I asked him if he’d heard of Churchill’s Secret army. ‘Of course I have,’ he scoffed.
Yet in all those years of telling us stories about the war, he had never once mentioned its existence. It was as though he felt able to talk about something that had been secret, now that he was on the cusp of another stage of his life.
The older I get, the more I feel the urge to show how the past makes its mark on each generation in different ways. I hope that ‘Coming To Find You’ does just that.
My two heroines Elizabeth and Nancy have their faults and hidden crimes, but they are brave women. They wear their courage like the secret pin awarded to those in Churchill’s secret army. Their cloak of bravery and selflessness is made up of many layers of fortitude, strengthened by generations. It is a shield against the inevitable terrors to come. But most of all, it is a tribute to resilience, determination to protect families and make the world a better place.
Coming to Find You by Jane Corry
You can run away from your life. But you can't run away from murder. When her family tragedy is splashed across the newspapers, Nancy decides to disappear. Her grandmother's beautiful Regency house in a quiet seaside village seems like the safest place to hide. But the old house has its own secrets and a chilling wartime legacy . . . Now someone knows the truth about the night Nancy's mother and stepfather were murdered. Someone knows where to find her. And they have nothing to lose . . . So what really happened that night? And how far will she go to keep it hidden?
COMING TO FIND YOU by Jane Corry is published by Penguin Viking on June 22 (and from June 15 as an eBook). Available from supermarkets, booksellers and online.
Follow her on Twitter@JaneCorryAuthor
Photography ©Jerry Bauer