‘The Marlows and the Traitor’, Part Four

Thursday Afternoon (1): Lawrie Runs for It

This book may be an action-packed thriller, but there’s still room for some droll humour. In this chapter, it’s revealed that Lawrie’s grand escape is actually the result of her accidentally tripping over while daydreaming, falling into a hollow and getting separated from the others by the thick fog. I also liked film-obsessed Lawrie’s reaction to the initial appearance of Foley:

“…to meet a man with a gun in an empty house seemed to Lawrie a perfectly possible thing to happen. Really, when you remembered the number of times it happened in films, it was only surprising that it hadn’t happened sooner. She was, she found to her annoyance, a bit scared, because even though spies and gangsters always came to a sticky end in the last reel, the innocent people quite often came to stickier ends before that. All the same, in spite of being scared, Lawrie, in an odd way, was rather enjoying herself. She kept thinking: ‘This is how it feels–this is how my feet go–when I’m in films I must remember this.’”

I am rather disturbed to find myself having something in common with Lawrie, because this is exactly how I’ve reacted to crises in the past, except my thoughts tend to run along the lines of ‘I must remember this for when I write a scene like this in a novel.’

In a rare burst of common sense, Lawrie restrains herself from running after the others and instead waits till they’re safely out of earshot, then climbs over a wall (unfortunately landing in a tangle of nettles and brambles). She also remembers to check whether the others are somewhere on the foreshore, perhaps bound and gagged, before going for help. But that is the end of her level-headedness. She stumbles back to Farthing Fee, convinced by her overactive imagination that someone is following her and that even when she reaches the hotel, she won’t be safe:

“You couldn’t tell, when it was a matter of spies and gangsters, who mightn’t be in league with the enemy. Suppose the hotel manager was? Suppose by now Foley had got in touch with him through his secret transmitter? Suppose they were waiting for her when she got in and pretended to let her telephone and then drugged her or something? Lawrie had seen plenty of films where that sort of thing happened and she wasn’t going to be caught like that.”

What she is caught by is the conductor on the bus, because she hasn’t brought any money with her, even though the children were planning to catch the bus back from Farthing Fee after their visit to Mariners – presumably Lawrie always expects Nicola or one of the others to pay her fare. The situation is not helped by an interfering passenger who is “fat” and wears “too much lipstick” (Antonia Forest really does have issues with women who wear colourful clothes or make-up). Laurie tries to explain she’ll pay later, gives her name and explains she’s staying at the Majestic Hotel, and is bewildered when the others don’t believe her:

“But if she could have seen herself–scratched, grubby, her shorts and cardigan torn, her jersey stained green–she wouldn’t have wondered. She didn’t look in the least like the sort of child whose parents might be staying at the Majestic.”

Mind you, even though she looks grubby, I presume her clothes are expensive, her accent is upper-middle-class and her sense of entitlement is pure Marlow, so I’m not entirely convinced by the adults’ reactions in this scene. It doesn’t really matter, anyway, because Lawrie wrenches away, dashes off across the road and is immediately knocked unconscious by a car. Robert Anquetil turns up as the ambulance arrives and confirms that she is a Marlow staying at the Majestic – except he thinks she’s Nicola. Interestingly, this is the first time anyone’s ever confused the twins. Even at school, where they wear the same clothes, no one ever seems to get them mixed up. They do have very different personalities and mannerisms, though, so it’s not surprising that Robert wouldn’t be able to distinguish unconscious Lawrie from Nicola, especially if he doesn’t even know Nicola has a twin.

Thursday Night (1): Midnight Conference

This is a very exciting chapter, full of big revelations. Robert Anquetil works for Naval Intelligence! He’s just been pretending to be a fisherman! Except now he’s pretending that he’s a plain-clothes policeman to poor Mrs Marlow, who’s just arrived at the hospital to find one of her children having emergency surgery and three others missing, possibly dead. Well, that’s what happens when you leave Ginty in charge. Mrs Marlow does explain the injured child is probably Lawrie because “Lawrie would be more likely to forget her bus fare.” Okay, I did laugh out loud at that, despite the seriousness of the situation.

Robert has summoned his boss, Commander Whittier, to the police station, where they discuss the situation. Robert has already searched Mariners and found a scrap of code that was left behind, but no Foley or Talisman. Robert then helpfully explains the background of the case to Whittier (and us), even though Whittier’s read the file. A year ago, the British Navy discovered that a clerk called Ida Cross was stealing naval secrets and sending them out of the country. Meanwhile, some U-boats (that is, German submarines) had been spotted near the coast and a Baltic agent reported that some Nazis wanted for war crimes were being forced to carry information (presumably by the Soviet Union, but this isn’t explicitly stated). It’s also thought that these Nazi agents are using U-boats to travel to Britain.

Still, the Navy couldn’t work out how Ida Cross was handing over the secrets to the Nazis. But the intelligence people discovered the U-boats were hanging out near the St-Annes villages, Robert Anquetil’s boyhood home. So he moved home and pretended to be a fisherman, until finally he happened to spot Ida Cross making her way to Mariners. And then he realised – Ida was passing the secrets to Lewis Foley, who used the Talisman to meet with the U-boats and hand over the secrets.

Before I get onto further revelations about Foley, I have a number of questions. The author’s note states this book is set in the late 1940s and it was first published in 1953. So – why Nazis? Robert says the Nazis, who were “SS men, three guards from various concentration camps [and] a number of minor Party officials […] had been given their lives on condition they acted as go-betweens”. Would Russians who’d experienced the horrors of the Battle of Stalingrad actually allow Nazis to live, let alone trust them to carry secrets from the West? Would Nazis really become spies for their sworn enemies, the Communists? Given that Western powers would be more likely to show leniency than the Soviets, why wouldn’t the Nazis pretend they were picking up secrets, then go to the British authorities and offer to tell all they knew in return for immunity from prosecution? Why is there no mention of Britain’s actual Cold War enemy, the Soviet Union? Now it’s true that there were Germans who spied for the Soviet Union during this period (for instance, Klaus Fuchs) but these were people who were life-long Communists and fervent anti-Nazis, who’d worked for the Allies during the war.

I find it hard to believe that Antonia Forest was fervently pro-Communist and therefore wanted to avoid casting the Soviets as the bad guys. So why complicate things with this implausible post-war Nazis-as-bad-guys plot? Maybe she thought her child readers were so used to equating ‘Nazi’ with ‘enemy’ that they’d get confused by non-Nazi enemies? Maybe she just wanted to use U-boats in her story? Possibly I’m missing something obvious here. However, I was impressed to see her description of the Portland Spy Ring eight years before it was actually uncovered. Ida Cross, the “plain creature” who uses her job as a clerk to steal secrets, bears a remarkable resemblance to Ethel Gee, the “spinster” filing clerk who stole secrets to pass on to a Russian agent and was arrested and sent to prison in 1961.

Robert also discusses Foley, who

“…has no loyalties, only enmities. I don’t think for a moment he’s an ardent Communist. I think he’s only in it, because he gets a peculiar kick out of being on his own against the rest of us. He always did.”

Foley’s sounding a bit like Guy Burgess, a contrarian from a ‘good’ naval family who worked for the Foreign Office until 1951, when they realised he was a Soviet agent and he fled to the Soviet Union.

There’s a bit more discussion about whether Foley is likely to have killed the children in cold blood. Robert thinks this is unlikely, although Foley has “a shocking temper for about thirty seconds at a time”. It’s also unlikely Foley has handed them over to the enemy, because how could he have had time to arrange a rendezvous with the U-boat? The Marlows were an unexpected complication for him.

But then, dramatic news! The coastguard has found bits of wreckage of the Talisman!

Next, Thursday Afternoon (2): Shipwreck

3 thoughts on “‘The Marlows and the Traitor’, Part Four”

  1. “I am rather disturbed to find myself having something in common with Lawrie, because this is exactly how I’ve reacted to crises in the past, except my thoughts tend to run along the lines of ‘I must remember this for when I write a scene like this in a novel.’ ”

    EXACTLY! Maybe this is why I can’t help being fond of Lawrie. I think she comes off pretty well in this chapter actually, she is quite resourceful (for her) and we must remember, she is only twelve (I think). Agree about her posh voice, that scene doesn’t seem plausible really.

    I must admit I hadn’t thought through the Nazi/ex-Nazi/Soviet tangle in any detail, and you’re right, it’s a mess. But I suspect your hunch about the U-boat is the correct one. AF sometimes does get herself in a knot with the details of plots where she seems to have hit on a general set-up she wants to explore and had to work out the logistics later (esp Run Away Home, which is full of holes! Oh, also The Thuggery Affair, aka the drug-smuggling pigeon book).

    1. But I don’t want to be Lawrie! I want to be Nicola! (I’m probably most like boring Karen or boring Ann.)

      There were a lot of fascinating ways that secrets were passed on to enemy agents, but I suppose if you want your navy-obsessed characters to show their strengths, you need to involve ships of some kind – and U-boats are pretty cool.

  2. War criminals would have been hanged in England but I guess they might have got immunity if they handed themselves in and could give info. Maybe they just didn’t have enough info to negate their war crimes.

    Maybe in the end they preferred having the independence and adventure being spies and had no families, or families wanting to know them, to go back too. Maybe the were also traumatised by what they’d seen during the war (even if they were on the side dishing it out) that they couldn’t imagine themselves being ordinary family men.

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