Aly Monroe - Washington Shadow Q & A


Why Washington in 1945?

 The end of the Second World War marked the demise of Britain’s importance as a world power. It was the start of a new order and Washington, this rather inconvenient, provincial place, stuffed with new dealers, dollar-a-day men, vastly increased government departments and agencies, was the nerve centre of a new world in the making - but having to learn how to be so. Washington DC did not even have a proper airport until the early 1940s.

For the British – and it was different for those in Washington and those in London – it was a shock to be both nominal victors and desperate beggars.

How do you see the character of Cotton developing in this book?

Well, on a personal level, we see how uncertain Cotton’s own position actually is. Although the war is now over, he is still officially doing his national service, awaiting his demob papers and, perhaps, the offer of a job in a bank or his old university.  If The Maze of Cadiz is Cotton’s apprenticeship, his adventure in Washington leads to the setting out of his career path. He will be involved in dismantling the British Empire.

On another level, we see a lot more of Cotton as a person here. We see him with his father, learn something about his dead mother, and of course, sending him to the US means that he has the opportunity to visit his sister and her family, who live there.  And in one, rather unhappy sense, he has to choose whether or not to remain British.

 The atmosphere portrayed in this book is a big contrast with The Maze of Cadiz. How important is setting for you?

Very. It’s what makes stories, what the characters emerge from and react to. I am trying to give each of the Peter Cotton books a distinguishing atmosphere, to give the reader the feel of what it was like for the people who were living through it - in that place and at that time. 

Compared to the poverty and the desultory pace of life in Cadiz, and the deprivation in Europe at the time - people forget, for example, that potato-rationing in Britain only came in after the war because potatoes were needed in Europe – Cotton, like the other Brits, finds 1945 America is the land of plenty.

And holding the purse strings for the new world order.

Exactly.  This is the year Maynard Keynes was sent to Washington to negotiate a loan from the Americans to keep Britain afloat. Cotton’s cover is as part of the back up for the Keynes delegation, and to keep an eye on the economic implications for the British colonies. But what he finds is a lot less settled.

In The Maze of Cadiz, part of Cotton’s ‘maze’ was not knowing who and what he could trust. We could say something similar about Washington Shadow - although the context is totally different.

Absolutely. In 1945 the OSS was disbanded and the CIA had not yet been formed. The various different US intelligence agencies were engaged in a ferocious power struggle. 

One aspect of the story shows how messy and humble intelligence work can be - people working blind, trying to make sense of snippets of possibly unreliable information, getting things wrong; how people are used and manipulated, how your own side can be as damaging to you as the ‘enemy’. The British are trying to work out who to back without alienating other possible power centres.

You have a Soviet presence in the book.

The Soviets were moving their operations from New York to Washington. It is important to remember that they had been allies during World War 2 and were now on their way to being the Cold War enemy.  Intelligence and government agents who had previously been encouraged to collaborate with the Soviets, suddenly found themselves under suspicion for having done so.  The seeds for the soon-to-come McCarthy era had long been sown.

You also mention American race relations.

Yes. In 1945 a lot of Americans would have described President Obama as a ‘mulatto’.  President Truman’s Secretary of State was James F Byrnes from South Carolina, Time Magazine’s Man of the Year in 1946. In some ways, Byrnes was regarded as a moderate progressive as regards Negro rights - later, as Governor of South Carolina, for example, he banned the wearing of masks, except on Halloween, as a measure against the Klu Klux Klan!  But he was a believer in segregation, in the ‘Separate but Equal’ policy then propounded by many white Americans, not just in the South but, for example, in Kansas. That ‘Separate but Equal’ really meant ‘Inferior’ was not established until 1954.

Cotton gets a crash course in US race relations and, with the help of Dr Aforey, gets a glimpse of what British colonialism means to the colonised.

Is Dr Aforey based on a real person?

No, he is a fictional character. Originally I was going to call him Dr Appiah, but that would have identified him as coming from Ghana and might have led readers to look for a real person or a direct commentary on the build up to independence there.

So I came up with a non-specific name that would fit a world in which most Europeans had never seen a black person. This includes Cotton. The US was different, of course. But there is some irony, for Cotton certainly, in representing a colonial power in an anti-colonial country with a race problem. Washington DC has had a sizeable black population for many years. ‘Negro’ was then the acceptable word for people who would later be called coloured and are now defined as ‘African-American’.

There is also quite a lot about the role of women in the US at that time. Could you say something about that?

Even the US had problems as the troops came back and the economy adapted from war to peace. There is a New Yorker cartoon of the time in which a group of businessmen, tanks rolling off a production line behind them, contemplate the future – a small tin toy on the table in front of them.

That’s the cute version of the problem. Despite the increase in the production of domestic goods like washing machines, dishwashers and so on, the change-over was not smooth, male unemployment was relatively high, and women - who had taken essential and very active roles during the war – were discouraged from some work and encouraged to go back home and be mothers.  That was the other side of the “Bring Daddy Back” campaign.

Katherine Hay is a privileged, ambitious, clever, and attractive young Vassar Graduate working for the State Department, who Cotton falls for. To a large degree her story is about the resources she can muster in an extremely masculine world and the psychological difficulties she encounters. She bottles things up, tries to deal with hostility herself.

By the way, the newspaper and magazine quotes in the book are all real. I am particularly fond of the quote describing young girls in love as ‘Smitten Kittens’.

How did you handle the mix of real and fictional characters in the story?

There are quite a lot of real people mentioned in the book. Apart from Maynard Keynes and his entourage we also catch a glimpse of Donald MacLean, who was First Secretary to the Embassy when Cotton is there, but who later (along with Kim Philby) became more famous as a Soviet spy. And others are mentioned in conversation - J. Edgar Hoover a lot, Roald Dahl (though not by name) and others now less known like Harry Dexter White, Spruille Braden and Elizabeth Bentley (again, not by name).  But all the speaking parts in the story are purely fictional.

Was this a deliberate policy?

Actually, it’s something I began doing instinctively. It felt right that way. It only became policy when it was pointed out to me!  To put words into real people’s mouths made them seem false. The characters felt real when they were completely fictional.

Were any elements of the book sparked off by personal experience, as happened for example with the character Ramirez in The Maze of Cadiz?

Not in such a directly pin-pointable way. The most important thing for me in this book was the atmosphere of Washington. US politics always strikes outsiders as an extraordinary mix of energy, openness, pork barrel and infighting.  The infighting in 1945 was extraordinary.

In fact, I was lucky enough to witness some of this peculiarly direct brand of American action personally, with my own family. Considerably after the time when the book is set, a close family member (British) received a telephone call out of the blue from a US Secretary of State, asking him to go to Washington for urgent consultations on ‘organisational strategies’.

Startled - and understandably cautious - he checked.  The British Government told him that the Secretary of State had read some papers he had written. He was not only given the all clear, he was encouraged ‘to help our closest ally’ and within 24 hours was flying over the Atlantic.  In Washington he was whisked to the White House. Although the interview was supposed to be secret he found he was already being introduced as ‘Irish’. (This is similar to something that happened in 1945 when an Australian, Robert Jackson, in effective charge of UNRRA and thus a foreigner in charge of US funds, was described in Congress as Scottish because everyone knew the Scots were thrifty).

Extraordinarily, the US government was offering him a job as a ‘tsar’ – that is as the head of a government organisation with a single purpose, in this case to reduce US dependence on foreign oil and encourage Americans out of gas guzzlers. 

To a European, this all sounded rather strange and innocent, though the Secretary of State was keen to warn him that if he took the job, he would be the most hated man in America. The Secretary evidently thought this rather a come-on. As a clincher, he said ‘If your Queen asked you to sacrifice yourself, would you even hesitate for a second?’  The answer, I fear, was ‘I’d certainly think about it.’

I was struck by how open and direct all this was.  Americans try, it doesn’t work out, they try something else. I think they abandoned the tsar notion. 

Your first book, The Maze of Cadiz, was set in Spain, where you lived for a long time. Did you find the process of writing this book very different?

My relationship with Washington and the US in general is obviously different, but I have a long-standing interest in the US and have a lot of family there - principally in Washington, New York, California and Rhode Island. 

When I was writing about Cadiz, I did research to ensure that the city I described was as it was in 1944, but the Franco era was not overly dynamic and, although there were changes, there weren’t that many.

Washington today, on the other hand, is considerably different from Washington in 1945. So a lot more of the description of the city described in this book is, necessarily, based on research, reading, and old photographs. There were lovely surprises. The original State Department building, for example, once described as ‘the ugliest building’ in DC, has to be seen to be believed.  And then, there were the details. I did not know it was Nixon who had finally got rid of all the temporary buildings round the Reflecting Pool. Trickiest were the social shifts, that Georgetown was being gentrified during this period, that Anacostia was a white area then, and where the Embassies were.

So, yes, a different process. But a fascinating one. I love the research part.

So where will you send Cotton next?

Cotton is going home. He will be in London during the winter of 1946 - 47, a winter so severe that pneumatic drills were used to prise potatoes from the frozen ground. Power shortages meant people worked in offices by candlelight.

This will be the icy background to Cotton in Colonial Intelligence, but with a job to do that involves an M.P.