Aly Monroe - Icelight Q & A


For this book, you have brought Peter Cotton home, to London. Did you feel that this was a significant break from the last two books?

Not at all. Peter Cotton is really an expat, the son of expats, brought up between South America and boarding school in the UK, then university in the UK and the army, before being recruited by Intelligence.  For him, nowhere is really ‘home’. London has become his base but he doesn’t yet know much about London or the people who live there.  To a great extent he sees Britain as a dispassionate observer. That’s partly down to his family. His sister is married to an American. He himself, in 1945, seriously considered marrying an American and settling in the USA. His father only retired to Surrey after a working life abroad in 1939. These circumstances have given him a certain detachment but also caused him problems understanding the structure of British society.

The settings for the first two Peter Cotton books portrayed Cadiz and Washington at particular moments in their history. How have you continued this theme in Icelight?

The winter of 1946-47, when the book is set, was particularly grim and cold. Though Britain was nominally victorious the country was broke and urgently in need of reconstruction. Rationing became even worse than during the war. The Labour Government was attempting an ambitious program that we’d now call the founding of the welfare state. They were also nationalising large industries. In 1947 things broke down in the bad winter. There wasn’t enough coal and the weather made transporting what there was impossible. Factories had to close, people had to keep as warm and fed as they could.   

On an international level the breakdown simply emphasised Britain’s decline.  As we saw in Washington Shadow, set the year before Icelight, the US was acutely conscious of this. The British establishment – the new one as well – responded with a certain fraudulent huff about still being a big player or ‘punching above our weight’-   I’d say the UK is only just digesting the consequences of continuing this attitude postwar now.

From an American point of view, while Russia had been an ally in the Second World War in the fight against Hitler, it had now become a grand threat. The Americans were getting jumpy about security, and wanted “the traitors within” the UK to be identified and dispatched.

This is the setting for the story, in which Cotton’s job is to curb the over-zealous activities of a part of the intelligence service, whose pursuit of “vulnerable targets” has become a witch hunt for homosexuals, while the traitors we now know about   remained unidentified . 

The changing role of social classes in Britain after the Second World War is one of the underlying themes of Icelight. How does Cotton fit into this?

Cotton does not understand the British obsession with class. But he knows it’s there and he knows the establishment has changed. Major Bertie Briggs, who is an example of a new kind of Labour MP –  not one of the old establishment - recognizes that Cotton is ‘not a toff, but not like me’.  He is also aware that Dickie Dawkins from Special Branch has an entirely different experience of how cruel and counterproductive the class system is. At one level Cotton feels as fraudulent as Britain, partly because of his rank of Colonel, an administrative promotion.

Icelight is the third in the Peter Cotton series. How has his character developed over the three books?
This has been one of the most interesting things to do. The publishers and I agreed to change tack and show a much more detailed and tighter-timed development of Cotton’s character. This as opposed to a number of snap shots a couple of years apart.  So in The Maze of Cadiz, he is young, inexperienced, even innocent. In Washington Shadow things are less basic, more confused and he learns more of his own resources. In Icelight he is much more decisive, resilient and manipulative. The world has not got less complicated but he moves better in it.

At the beginning of Icelight, his Washington MI6 boss, Ayrtoun, tells him that the Americans want him to handle a special operation because “They think you’re honest and direct ... I have the impression they may even think you’re slightly prickly and puritanical – like woollen underwear.”  The Americans are wrong but Cotton takes what he is given and works with it.

The attitude to homosexuals is a central theme in the book. Could you say something about that?

When this subject hit the pre-publication blurb I received a charming and helpful note from a reader of the first two books who told me – he was a young man in 1947, with a widowed mother receiving a pittance of a pension – that nobody knew anything about homosexuals at that time. They weren’t mentioned.  That would be one of my points.

Why? Because this silence allowed one part of the British Intelligence Service to pursue homosexuals as ‘vulnerable targets’ and therefore potential traitors. This department had been operative since 1939. As Ayrtoun puts it “Have you ever seen an American gangster film? They spray bullets, turn cars into a lot of holes with bits of metal round them? ... ‘These days if we riddle a queer instead of a traitor, that’s aim enough for them.’

 The persecution would not become public knowledge until the fifties and sixties. And while Ayrtoun loves to be blunt and attribute things to Americans, the larger point is that pressure applied to get results usually ends up squeezing an alternative, easier to get at, group.

What’s next for Cotton?

He’ll be in the US at the end of May, 1947, sent to ‘build intelligence into the foundations of the United Nations’. However he will find himself on the receiving end of certain drug experiments.