In Australian author V.M. Knox’s If Necessary Alone, clergyman Clement Wisdom goes undercover to the icy shore of Scotland to discover who has been leaking information that may lead to a Nazi invasion of the British Isles. Knox spoke to BookLife about the spine-chilling whodunit that won her a starred PW review.
What sparked the idea for this novel?
If Necessary Alone is the second in the Clement Wisdom series. The initial inspiration for Clement’s story came from a question on the television program QI. Stephen Fry asked, “Who or what were the Scallywags?” It turned out scallywag was a euphemistic title for the secret Auxiliary Units, a stay-behind guerrilla network of fighters set up in anticipation of the Nazi invasion of Great Britain in the summer of 1940. Research revealed that the only person who knew the true identities of the men in these guerrilla cells was the local senior policeman—who would become the cell’s first victim once the Nazis landed. These clandestine cells led to the initial book, In Spite of All Terror. By the end of this book, Clement had left his parish and joined Special Duties Branch. This was a bland name given to the people who held a secret and unusual role. For me, Clement had by now taken on a life of his own, which led to his next adventure, If Necessary Alone.
Creating a clergyman who’s an undercover agent is ingenious: ministers can go almost anywhere unobserved, especially in wartime. How did you hit on the idea?
The idea of making the central character a clergyman had to do with mirroring his inner turmoil with the events of the time. As the titles of the books in this series—phrases from Churchill’s wartime speeches—tell us what is happening at a national level, so Clement is experiencing inner conflict with his choices and how he deals with this struggle. I thought this parallel made the character more interesting, creating a tension between what he was asked to do and his conscience. I interviewed several ministers of religion, who all said that, had they been in Clement’s position, they would serve their fellow man and country similarly, as laying down one’s life for loved ones and country did not sit uncomfortably with their faith.
Clement is grieving the recent death of his beloved wife. What inspired his reflections on loss?
Sadly, the experiences of loss for Clement reflected my own grief at the loss of a family member just before I began writing If Necessary Alone. As Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth said of the September 11 tragedy, “Grief is the price we pay for love.”
How much historical research did you do to create If Necessary Alone?
I love history, and I love finding the smallest detail around which I can craft a story. Two historical facts underpin If Necessary Alone. First, a Nazi fighter plane strafed the lighthouse on Stroma Island, just off the northern coast of mainland Scotland, on Feb. 22, 1941, causing little damage and injuring no one. So why did it happen? Second was the raid on the Lofoten Islands in Norway on Mar. 4, 1941. While Clement isn’t involved in this raid, the event has a direct impact on the story.
Another aspect of this story is the overheard transmission of an enciphered message. I wanted the message to work and so spent six hours learning how to do a columnar transposition encryption. The book includes the algorithm to decipher the encryption, but, should anyone want to try, remember: it’s in German! There are other accurate details—the bygone airfield at Thurdistoft, and the radar station on Dunnet Head, where concrete pillboxes still exist. An entry pass was needed for Caithness, a restricted area during the war; a train operated daily from London to Thurso, as there were over 10,000 military personnel stationed there. Since the Royal Navy was based in nearby Scapa Flow, the security of Caithness was of vital importance.
Practically a character in its own right is the icy climate of late-February Scotland. Did you travel there?
I visited Caithness twice. Once in February so I could experience the conditions that would have faced Clement. Caithness receives the warmer air currents off the Atlantic so the level of snow isn’t as deep as one might imagine. However, the wind is fearsome, especially on Dunnet Head. The other fascinating feature is the rain. I walked along the roads around Canisbay Kirk in the dark, and the rain seemed to come at me horizontally, like icy daggers.
How do you map out the story line when you’re writing?
I do quite a bit of mapping, and I usually have the ending in mind. However, sometimes Clement or the story will decide differently. I do remember sitting at my computer when writing If Necessary Alone, pushing back my chair, and thinking, “How am I going to get you out of this?”
Karen Clark is a writer and editor who received an MFA from the City College of New York after owning an antiquarian bookshop in Manhattan.