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Saturday, April 29, 2017

A To Z Challenge... Reflections

As I wait for my Anzac biscuits to come out of the oven, I am thinking about the last month. It has been an interesting process. Last year I did it unofficially. People were talking about it on line and I just...did it. I didn't sign up or post to the A-Z web site. My topic of choice was crime in Australia, because I'd written a children's book on the subject and it gave me somewhere to start.

This time, I took it up officialły and posted every day. I learned how to do a linkable link when commenting, which will come in very handy. I read posts on topics that interested me and responded to others who had commented on my posts and learned quite a lot from them too. I followed some so that I can see what they blog about when they're not A-Zing, and I have six new followers on my own site.

 There were three delightful folk who share my love of SF, and who are also funny people, so I followed them on Twitter, because it was too hard to follow on their Wordpress blogs. I tweeted merrily back and forth with them one night, wished them a good night and woke up next day to find twenty notifications, as they had gone right on tweeting to each other! 

I made myself write something every day, something that will help me to jog my brain into gear with my other writing, though teaching preparation is likely to interrupt. 

Yes, a fascinating experience! 

I chose this year's topic for the same reason as last year: I did a book about it. The book, Your Cat Could Be A Spyy(North American title This Book Is Bugged) was published in 2006 by Allen and Unwin, then Annick Press(North America). It's a children's book which sold out but due to most copies being sold by Scholastic Book Club, which is totally necessary but pays very little to the author, I have never made any royalties out of it. It's officially out of print, but you can still get it on line or ask your bookshop to order it, as it's gone to Print On Demand. If you enjoyed reading my posts, please consider buying the book. It's gorgeously illustrated by the amazing Mitch Vane. 

Ah! The oven has gone "ting!" Got to go. Feel free to drop in and read my book posts(thus us actually a book blog.)


Z Is For... Agent Zigzag: A To Z Challenge 2017


Public domain.He looks like Errol Flynn! 
His actual name was Eddie Chapman. During World War II he became a spy and not, originally, for his own side. MI5 called him Zigzag.

Like some other spies I have written about in this challenge, Eddie was a petty crook and con artist before he became a spy - and, in his case, afterwards! 

If you want to know the full details of his criminal career, I'll give you a link to the Wikipedia article. It's enough to say that he was in the Channel Islands, hiding out from a mainland sentence, when the Germans invaded. He had been jailed on the island of Jersey for a smaller crime than the one he was in trouble for on the mainland. While in jail, he was recruited by the Nazis and taken to France for training. The plan was to parachute him into England so he could sabotage the Havilland aircraft factory, but he dropped down a distance from the place and was caught. The British needed spies too, and instead of imprisonment he was recruited as a double agent. 

They had to pretend his mission had been a success, of course, and damage was faked. According to Wikipedia the illusion of damage was created by stage magician Jasper Maskelyne. I wrote about him in my book Your Cat Could Be A Spy, but in recent years his achievements have been questioned, so I don't know how accurate that is. Still, it sounds good, and the Germans took photos, so something was certainly done to make it look convincing, and why not by Jasper Maskelyne?

Next, MI5 gave him a cover story for when his Nazi masters questioned him and made him practise his interrogation techniques. Unfortunately, the Germans refused to come and pick him up. He was told to make his own way back via Lisbon in Portugal. He did that, with MI5 support, contacting the German embassy, and to convince them he was on their side, suggested letting him plant a bomb on the English ship that had brought him. Of course, it didn't explode, but there was a pretend inspection of the ship when it got back, with the fake information being given to the Nazis.

After this, he was sent to teach at a Nazi spy school in Sweden, with a spy "handler", Baron Stephan Von Groning.

Talk about putting Dracula in charge of the blood bank... Even more interestingly, he was actually awarded a medal for his work as a Nazi spy! 

Eddie was charming. People liked him, including his Abwehr handler, who stayed friends after the war  and came to his daughter's wedding years later, even knowing what he had done! He had two fiancées during the war, though he ditched them both when the time came and returned to his original fiancée, Betty Farmer. 

In 1944, he was sent back to England to report on the effectiveness of the German bombings of London, and told them it was going well, though it wasn't as successful as they thought, so they kept bombing the wrong spots and not as much damage was done as might have been. 

Of course, Eddie was still Eddie and went back to his life of crime in wartime England. MI5 had to dismiss him, though he was paid out quite well. 

He and his wife set up a health farm. He must have done very well because they also owned a castle in Ireland. He lived till 1997. 

A memoir he wrote about his wartime experiences was scrapped for a long time because of the Official Secrets Act, but a film, Triple Cross, was made, starring Christopher Plummer as Eddie Chapman. It would be fun to see a new version made now, when it doesn't matter any more. Who could play the role, do you think? 

Here's my final post for this challenge - hope you enjoyed reading it as much as I enjoyed writing it, and thank you to those of you who commented! Do stop by again when I'm blogging about books! 

Friday, April 28, 2017

Y Is For Dr Yes and Other Oriental Get Smart Characters: A To Z Challenge 2017


There are four Oriental characters in spy comedy Get Smart and none of them are played by actual Asians. There is The Claw("not Craw, Craw!"), played twice by Leonard Strong, who also appears as a Chinese tailor in fourth season episode "The Laser Blazer". Joey Foreman is Harry Hoo, who appears in two episodes(and he also played the role of a CONTROL lawyer(not Asian)in "The Little Black Book." And there's Dr Yes, the title character in the episode of that name, played by Donald Davis. See? Not a single Asian in the lot.

It was fairly common at the time to have Europeans as Asian characters, just as white actors were playing Othello. Not that Asians never played Asian roles; most of the cast of the Flower Drum Song film were Asian, for example, though more Japanese than Chinese actors took part in that very Chinese-themed musical. But "yellow face" was common.

Two of the Get Smart Asians were villains, two were good guys. But the villains were humorous anyway.

The Claw, head of the Oriental branch of KAOS, called this because he has a huge metal claw for a hand, first appeared in the second episode of the series, "The Diplomat's Daughter" in which Max and 99 have to look after a Scandinavian princess in Washington. Blonde girls have been getting kidnapped from outside the hotel where she is staying. It's fairly obvious that KAOS is after her, but when asked why he has been kidnapping the other girls the Claw says almost apologetically that they all looked the same to him, a clear joke about how many Europeans say this about Asians.

The Claw has the stereotyped accent which doesn't let him say "l" so when Max calls him "Mr Craw"  he snaps, "Not the Craw, the Craw!"

He appears again in "The Amazing Harry Hoo" which also introduces the title character, who will appear in two episodes". In this one, KAOS is using a Chinese laundry as a front. It's the episode in which Max says, " a kumquat." When 99 prompts, "Yes?" he says, "Life isn't a kumquat?"

Harry Hoo is a send-up of Charlie Chan, who had several movies in the 1930s and 40s(also played by a non-Asian, Warner Toland). He is a Hawaiian detective working for the San Francisco police department. Interestingly, when we first meet him, the police with whom he works seem to respect him. Maybe it's working with Max that makes him comical? He always wears white suits(except in summer, as he tells Max), Charlie Chan style. He has his own words."Amazing!" is usually said after Max has said something particularly dumb. "Moment, please!" and "Two possibilities," are other Hoo-isms. 

Swedish Warner Toland as Charlie Chan. Amazing! Public domain.

His second episode is "Hoo Done It," an Agatha Christie spoof. 

Harry Hoo is the most developed of the Oriental characters. But Lin Chan, the Hong Kong tailor/inventor of "The Laser Blazer" comes close. In just one scene, he tells us a lot about himself. First he is discussing his gadget quite sensibly and intelligently with the Chief of CONTROL(who, for some reason, is in Oriental disguise.). Then Max enters and drives him crazy with questions about what he thinks is just a jacket - Lin Chan can't explain, because there's a KAOS agent in the shop. Max later tells 99 that when he returned to the shop next day, Lin Chan had been taken away(to a mental hospital). 

When you think about it, though, there is a cliche even about this Asian version of Q. He is one of those Hong Kong tailors who make up suits speedily for you. 

Dr Yes is a spoof of Dr No. The James Bond movies were just starting at the time, with Sean Connery in the role. The title character, a KAOS agent, has a base under a lake, from which he has been interfering with missiles. He is a Fu Manchu figure in Chinese robes, and he has long nails, one of which is poisoned. He is surrounded by minions who,say, "Yes!" in their own languages. "Oui!" "Ja!" "Da!" Max fights him with scissors, cutting all but the poisoned nail. Attacked by an artificial mosquito, he scratches...

Given that this is a Mel Brooks creation, it's possible to think that the stereotypes are send ups in their own right rather than just stereotypes. The Asian characters are no more ridiculous than any of the others, certainly no worse than Max himself. 

It would just have been nice if they had been played by Asians. 

Thursday, April 27, 2017

X Is For... eXtras: A To Z Challenge 2017


Okay, it's a bit dubious, but if there is any spy-related thing beginning with X I haven't found it. I've done pretty well so far, so please forgive me for cheating a little!

So, in this post, I'm doing a few more "Did You know?" snippets, things that didn't make it into the posts themselves. 

Spies in the Bible! 

Well, the one we all know is the story of Joshua's spies who sneaked into Canaan ahead of his armies. The Israelistes had been out in the desert for a long time. The first lot of spies came back with a report saying it was full of "giants" and no, Joshua sir, not a good idea to go. The second lot came back with that famous line about "a land flowing with milk and honey" and some fruit to prove it. There's an Israeli wine with a logo showing two men carrying a huge bunch of grapes between them like a souvenir of the hunt. 

In Jericho, there was a woman called Rahab, who hid the Israelite spies from the watch, then asked for her family to be spared when the Israelites arrived. They agreed and, in fact, she got to marry Joshua, though I don't imagine anyone quite trusted her again. 

There are plenty more stories, especially from the time of David, but we'll move on. 

Bestselling Spies

In an earlier post, I mentioned Aphra Behn, the spy who started writing plays and books when she got home because she was broke, not having been paid, and turned out to be a huge bestseller. I also mentioned the inspiration Ian Fleming got from real-life spy Dusko Popov.

They were not the only ones. Recently, we've read that Ernest Hemingway was a not-too-successful spy for the KGB; he should have stuck to his writing. 

Have you ever read Robinson Crusoe? The author, Daniel Defoe, was known as the Father of the British Secret Service. His spying was mostly to do with the Union of England and Scotland, against the Jacobites. He was in trouble several times, over the Monmouth Rebellion, in which he picked the wrong side, over debt and then over a satirical pamphłet, but eventually he put forward a proposal for a secret service, which he would run, and he travelled England as a merchant called Alexander Goldsmith. Really, he deserves a post to himself, but he isn't getting one this time. 

Christopher Marlowe, an Elizabethan playwright, was almost certainly one of Francis Walsingham's agents, but after Walsingham died, so did he, supposedly over the bill in an "ordinary", a sort of pub run out of a house. The theory is that he knew things that he shouldn't. In any case, his killer, one Ingram Frizer, was never punished for it.

Some (More) Civil War Spies

"Crazy Bet" Van Lew was a Quaker in the South during the American Civil War. She lived in Richmond, Viginia. Her sympathies were with the North. She pretended to be mad and asked one of her freed slaves, Mary Bowser, to work at the Southern White House, for President Jeff Davis, and listen in. A network of couriers took her information North, coded or in invisible ink. Mary Bowser got the information to her in hollow eggs. 

As we know, the North won the war, but Crazy Bet was not a winner. She was considered a traitor and made the mistake of staying in Richmond. Not a good idea. 

Belle Boyd spied for the South. She got away with it because nobody thought a woman would do that sort of thing. They kept releasing her. An event in her life, when she shot a Northern soldier who tried breaking into her mother's home inspired a scene in Gone With The Wind. She ended up marrying a Northern soldier she met when her ship to Europe was captured and settling in England with him. Unfortunately he died only a year later. She made her living telling her story. 

Hope you enjoyed these bits and pieces! All except Hemingway and the Biblical spies appeared in my book Your Cat Could Be A Spy

The pictures of Daniel Defoe and Belle Boyd are both public domain. 

Wednesday, April 26, 2017

W Is For...Francis Walsingham, Elizabeth I's Spymaster! A To Z Challenge 2017


She drove him crazy, constantly changing her mind. At one point, she banished him from court for several months. But Sir Francis Walsingham  was a good and loyal civil servant and without him, Elizabeth I stood a much greater chance of being assassinated or losing her throne.

Let's face it, Elizabeth had plenty of enemies, as did the rest of her family, ever since her grandfather Henry VII grabbed the throne off Richard III. There were all those young men in Henry's reign popping up claiming to be his wife's brothers and therefore the rightful heirs to the throne. There were real relatives of the York family who might be a threat(his son Henry VIII got rid of the last of those).

And then the Tudors started marrying off daughters. And THEY had children with Tudor blood who were, maybe, entitled to inherit, and why bother waiting to inherit, especially when That Woman currently on the throne wasn't even a Catholic? It didn't help, in this respect, that she hadn't married and produced her own heir.

And the biggest of her enemies, apart from her brother-in-law, Phillip of Spain, was Mary, Queen of Scots. Mary was Elizabeth's cousin, through her grandmother, Margaret Tudor(who remarried after her first husband's death and produced another potential heir...), and not only that, but she had married and produced an heir. Who, by the way, did end up becoming King of England, but that was later. Mary hadn't been capable of running her own country, let alone Elizabeth's, which was why she ended up in England, with plots going on all around her. Elizabeth didn't know what to do with her. Well, she did, but she didn't think it was a good idea, for quite some years. And then she hated doing it. 

Elizabeth needed her faithful spymaster to find out who was plotting what and deal with it. And boy, was there a lot of plotting going on! Elizabethan England was a golden age of spying. Francis Walsingham was the right man to be running it. 

Francis was born in 1532, the son of a lawyer, and became one himself. When Elizabeth's sister Mary came to the throne, he fled the country; it was not a good time to be a staunch Protestant in England. He didn't waste his time overseas, studying local law in Italy. 

Returning in 1558 after Elizabeth became Queen, when it was safe, he was elected to Parliament. By 1568, he had started working for her Principal Secretary William Cecil, doing a little spying among French and Italians living in London, gathering information about plots by Spain and France to kick Elizabeth off the throne and replace her with Mary Queen of Scots. 

Later, he became Ambassador to France, where he was during the Bartholomew's Day Massacre of Protestants. That happened in 1572, and he had a lot of sorting out to do. 

Returning to England the next year, he got a job on the Privy Council. His career as a spymaster took off. 

Francis organised a huge intelligence network. He used double agents. In fact, when Mary Queen of Scots was under house arrest in England, he didn't just unearth the plots around her, he had his double agents fool her agents into using communications methods they had supplied! "Here's a nice beer barrel we can use to smuggle messages in..." 

He had his own experts who developed and used codes. Through other experts, he had ways of opening sealed documents without the people they were sent to suspecting they had ever been opened. I can't help wondering if he, like Eugene Francois Vidocq, might not have employed criminals... He certainly used them in prisons. He had spies in countries outside England, even in North Africa! And he used statistics, economics, methods of government, to help him in his work. It makes sense. If you hear a country you don't trust is having economic difficulties, for example, it's worth keeping an eye on them. 

Thanks to Francis and his work, an invasion of England by Spanish and French troops in favour of Mary was avoided in 1583. He had a spy in the French Embassy, who warned him in time to arrest the head conspirator and seize maps and plans that told their own story. 

And then there was the (Anthony) Babington plot, only three years later, when Francis's double agents managed finally to get proof that Mary was a part of those plots against her cousin, through those beer barrels, and she was executed. Francis could breathe again.

But his work wasn't done. In 1587 he made sure the Spanish didn't catch on that Francis Drake was about to raid their harbour at Cadiz - and when he knew through his network that the Spanish had their own plans for invading England, he made sure they were fed fake information through the English Ambassador in Paris, whom he was pretty sure was in their pay. (Clifford Stoll would like that!). This reduced the Spanish Armada's chances when they set off to invade England. There were other factors, of course, but even Francis Walsingham couldn't control the weather. He just gave the English a fighting chance.

When he died in 1590, Elizabeth had lost a major asset. I hope she realised it. 

My main source for this post was Britannica On Line. Both illustrations are public domain.

Just Read...Pale Guardian by Barbara Hambly. Severn House 2016

This is not a formal review, just my thoughts. 

The Great War is raging in Europe. The battlegrounds of France are looking like the land of Mordor(not surprising - that's where Tolkien got the idea). Young men from England, France and Germany are dying all over the place. For the vampires of Europe, it's like all their Christmases have come at once. Yum! All that food and nobody will even ask questions when you turn up in an ambulance.

But there are worse things than vampires, as Lydia Asher, the doctor wife of James Asher, university academic and former spy for the Queen, discovers. At least vampires just kill you. In this universe, you have to want to be turned. If not, you're just dead. Fini! 

Lydia has volunteered her services as a nurse. Her husband is home, recovering from his latest bout of pneumonia and looking after their small daughter. There are strange, scary things wandering the night, tearing dying soldiers to bits - even the vampires are spooked by them. Things Lydia last saw in China a couple of books ago. And James has seen one in London, but it's worse than not being believed by administration. Admin knows about them all too well...

I've been reading this series from the beginning. This is the seventh. I'm not usually a fan of series books, but Barbara Hambly seems able to keep up the quality. Whenever I spot one of these or, even better, Benjamin January historical crime fiction, on the library shelves, I pounce with cries of glee. I have yet to be disappointed by any of them. 

She doesn't just write vampire books. She thinks about the consequences. There are the basic ones, such as... However sexy a male vamp might be - and the Ashers' vampire friend Don Simon Ysidro, a sixteenth century Spanish nobleman, is incredible sexy! - he can't actually take you into his manly arms and make mad passionate physical love to you. He just can't! No blood circulation, you see. This would no doubt disappoint the average teenage girl, who is used to YA vampire fiction, but it makes sense. And I cried,"At last! Someone said it!" 

Simon himself admits you have to be very, very selfish to want to become a vamp, but as the Ashers' friend, he is loyal and brave and looks after Lydia, always. The Ashers both feel guilty about hanging out with a mass murderer, but he just keeps coming through for them. Well, mostly for Lydia. But still. In the second novel in the series, Travelling With The Dead, Simon accompanies her to Turkey in search of her missing husband, but he is a Renaissance era gentleman. A lady does not travel alone and she doesn't travel with just a male companion other than her husband. He uses his vampire powers to persuade a woman to come as a companion. When Lydia refuses to travel with him unless he promises not to feed along the way, he agrees - and keeps his word. It's not good for him, but he does it because he's a gentleman - and cares about Lydia. 

I adore all the regular characters in this series, but minor characters are also well drawn. Simon, posing as a British Colonel, shamelessly uses his vamp powers to persuade a young officer that they are on a top secret government mission, and act as his driver and daytime organiser. Young Palfrey is such a nice lad, but Simon points out to Lydia that he's going to do a lot less damage as his aide than he would if put in charge of some poor soldiers. 

There are some truly scary villains in this, at least two of whom think they're doing their evil for the Homeland. 

At the same time, most of the vampires are decent enough, if you can get over the fact of how they stay alive. They do ordinary things like gossip about each other and play cards in between raids. At least, Lydia can work with them and James can get information, since they know one. 

And the author shows sympathy even for the poor shambling creatures that were once humans, though you really wouldn't want to get within reach of one, especially if you survive!  

You really need to have read at least the first couple of books to get an idea of who the characters are and what their motivations are, but it's a great series, so why not read the lot? 

Tuesday, April 25, 2017

V is For ... Eugene Francois Vidocq: A To Z Challenge 2017


Vidocq. Public domain

You may have heard the saying: "Set a thief to catch a thief"?

Eugene Francois Vidocq, now known as the father of modern criminology, began as a thief and a con artist. When he began his group of undercover agents in Paris, the men he chose also had criminal backgrounds. 

Born in Arras, France, in 1775, the son of a wealthy baker and corn dealer, Vidocq committed his first theft at thirteen, when he stole silver plate from his parents. It was not to be the only time he stole from them. Over the next few years he got into a lot of scrapes, even, at one time, stealing money to help him get to America. That voyage never happened. If it had, perhaps he would have founded a police department there instead. Or maybe he would have remained a crook. 

Before he was out of his teens he had joined the army and fought in two major battles; the second one was fought after he had deserted one regiment and forged new records to allow him to join another! 

I'll leave you to look up the details here, in Wikipedia. 

Let's just say that Vidocq was a very naughty boy and spent a lot of time in prison - deservedly so - before 1809 when he decided he had had enough and offered to do some spying for the state. Oddly enough, he was doing his spying behind bars, serving a real sentence. For twenty-one months he was feeding information about unsolved mysteries to the authorities from his cell at La Force Prison in Paris, through a woman called Annette. As he couldn't get away with it forever, the police chief, Jean Henry, arranged for him to "escape."  The trouble was, he still had to act as an agent. He was too useful to be allowed to go free. He knew his way around the underworld. That helped him as a spy. 

In 1811, he began working properly for the police force, founding a plainclothes branch of the police that would become the Surete Nationale, the detective branch of the French police force still around today. 

As head of the Surete, he trained his undercover agents in disguising themselves. Sometimes he went out in disguise himself. For eighteen years he worked for the police in a France which had constant changes - from Napoleon to Louis XVIII and then changes of King. His boss retired and he didn't get on well with the next. He even found himself facing serious charges from his previous life.

Finally, when he was fifty-two, he handed in his resignation. He tried life as an entrepreneur, founding a business which was a flop. The monarchy changed again and after handing over some useful information Vidocq was back in business, once more in charge of the Surete in 1832. 

It didn't last. There was a general feeling of "once a crook, always a crook" and the pressure was on for him to resign. The Surete was re-established, criminal-free. 

Now he started the world's first private detective agency, using ex-crooks as detectives. That might have worked, but questions were asked about his methods, which were dubious to say the least, if successful.

Eventually he retired and lived to be eighty-one. 

You might be interested to know that some of France's top novelists, such as Balzac and Victor Hugo,  wrote him into their fiction. Balzac created a Vidocq character called Vautrin and Hugo used him in Les Miserables, with elements of him in both Jean Valjean and Javert - who would have thought it? The hero AND the villain inspired by the naughty boy from Arras who became a top undercover police agent!

By the way, a fantasy film, Vidocq, in which he was a character was made in 2001, with Gerard Depardieu in the role. 

Monday, April 24, 2017

Rereading...The First Third by Will Kostakis

I've read three Will Kostakis novels - I believe there's a fourth, but it's part of a publisher series and I seem to have missed it somehow - and they were all wonderful. Loathing Lola was about those fifteen minutes of fame and how little they bring you,  written by a young man still at school himself at the time, who went on to work for the Big Brother TV reality show. The Sidekicks was a beautifully written story with three different viewpoints to it, with three boys who have only one thing in common, friendship with a boy who has died, learning about themselves through it.

All wonderful books and I loved them all.

But for me, this is the author's masterpiece so far. It's not controversial like The Sidekicks, which saw the  author's invitation to speak withdrawn unless he skipped that one. (Why? Really, why? I can only hope it sold lots more copies as a result!)

It is, however, gentle, funny, sad and wise and it's giving me comfort as I reread. I got this copy at a Reading Matters conference, where it was part of the showbag. It's an uncorrected proof, but I haven't spotted any errors so far. I thought I'd donated it to my library, but no. When it turned up on my pile of  bedside books, I simply started reading it again, and loving again the story of Billy Tsiolkas, who has to complete the bucket list of his wise and lovable grandmother, his Yiayia, to get his divorced mother a husband, to bring his big brother back home to Sydney and fix the problem that is keeping his younger brother from communicating with his family.

While he's about it, he needs to get himself a girlfriend and help his delightful, wise friend Lukas aka Sticks to get a boyfriend despite his physical disability.

It's about family, friendship, kindness and being Greek. Actually, being ethnic. My family are from Eastern Europe and felt the connection!

And I'm loving the reread. Really. If you've missed this one, go and get it. 

T Is For...Harriet Tubman, Civil War Heroine: A To Z Challenge 2017


Reward notice for Harriet(Minty) and her brothers. Public Domain

Today's post is brought to you by the letter T, for Harriet Tubman.

Woodcut of Harriet with her gun. Public Domain

You may well have heard of Harriet Tubman, the woman called Moses, the conductor on the Underground Railroad, who never lost a "passenger." Harriet Tubman, leader of Union troops during the war. Harriet Tubman the feminist who found a new cause after the war, fighting for women's right to vote. Harriet Tubman, the ... spy? 

Harriet in 1885. Public Domain

An amazingly successful one, actually. 

Born into slavery in the 1820s as Araminta Ross, Harriet suffered narcolepsy for the rest of her life after a lead weight thrown at another slave hit her in the face. She had a back full of scars from whippings. She married a free African American called John Tubman, but that didn't make her free, and any children she had would belong to her owners. She escaped in 1849, when she was about to be sold - John disagreed, so she simply left him - and then went back, first for her family, then for others - hundreds of others. She volunteered to work for the Union army as a scout and a spy. 

Her spying career began in 1862, with a visit to a Union camp in South Carolina where there were many liberated slaves for her to speak with. It wasn't easy. For one thing, she didn't speak their language - they spoke a sort of mixture of English and African languages. They laughed at her attempts at communication. Then they resented the rations she was getting when they weren't. She won their trust by giving up the rations and making a living selling pies and root beer to the troops, and running a laundry, something male spies probably didn't have to do.  But she had a mission.

Finally, she was ready to go, and she chose around a hundred scouts to get the lay of the land to avoid traps in Confederate territory, doing some scouting herself. She even had a budget for paying for useful information!  As a result, she was able to organise an 1863 raid by boat along the Combahee River, with black troops. They knew about mines laid in the river due to the information she had acquired. This raid, as well as fulfilling its military objectives, liberated seven hundred people, who rushed for the boats with great enthusiasm. A hundred of them later joined the Union army. 

As I've mentioned in another post, it wasn't hard for African American slaves to overhear secrets. They were almost invisible. Their owners had no more hesitation about speaking freely in front of them than they did about speaking in front of the sofa or the cows. That made them very useful sources of information for spies such as a disguised Harriet Tubman. For the same reason, Harriet and other African Americans made good spies. They were much less likely to be noticed than white spies. Which didn't mean it wasn't extremely dangerous, especially for Harriet Tubman, who was well known for what she was doing. She would have died horribly if she had been caught. 

But she wasn't caught. She survived the war, found a new cause and lived to a ripe old age. It would be nice to say she was appreciated by the government she had helped to win the war, but she wasn't. She had help from admirers, but only a small pension from her husband's war service and a very small one for her service as a nurse, not as a spy - and she had to fight for that. When she died of pneumonia in 1913, she was buried with semi-military honours at Fort Hill Cemetery in Auburn, New York, where she had settled with her family.

There is now an asteroid named for her, and I hear she is going to replace President Andrew Jackson on the twenty dollar bill in 2020. As she might have said, like Hedy Lamarr, "Hmph! About time!" 

If you'd like to read and view some more, here are a couple of my sources: 

and which has a couple of videos as well as an article. 

I started this from a chapter in my book Your Cat Could Be A Spy, but it was a very short one and the book was published in 2006, a long time ago, so I thought I'd look again and see if the information had changed since then. 

U Is For... Undercover Agents: A To Z Challenge 2017


Free to use clip art from

Undercover agents are a kind of spy who work for the police force. The first organised group of undercover agents was started by an amazing man called Eugene Vidocq in France, but I'll tell you about him tomorrow. He deserves his own post.

Undercover agents have the job of infiltrating groups of criminals or terrorists, or sometimes befriending individual crooks, then turning them in at the appropriate time.

According to Wikipedia, this can often be a problem for the agent. You are under stress, in danger all the time, away from your family and friends - and sometimes you end up feeling bad for the person you're about to betray or even, heaven forbid, joining them! 

You'd have to be a very good actor and quick-thinking to do this job, like other types of spy. You'd have to hope that nobody you know saw you and blew your cover!  

In fact, one retired FBI agent, interviewed here, did once see some people he knew in a hotel lobby where he was with the people he was investigating. He hadn't seen them in years and they came from a long way off - how likely was he to have run into them? Fortunately, he was able to make them undrstand with a hand gesture that now was not a good time to approach him.

And if you were doing it for a while, you'd really have to hope that nobody who could harm your family would find you out! 

On the other hand, it isn't always what you might think. In this interview with a Department of Homeland Security agent who did undercover with drug cartels, he points out that, unlike in the movies, it isn't in their best interests to kill you when they suspect you might be an agent, or demand that you prove yourself by killing someone or taking drugs(though, he says, if you have to smoke something to prove yourself, the Department will understand). If they get caught smuggling drugs, the worst they can expect in the U.S. is a trip to court, where they can fight it. They are, he says, more likely to try to convince you that they aren't doing anything wrong than kill you. Murder might be a bit harder to get away with. 

Still, it's a dangerous job, which, at the very least, might make you feel sick with disgust, such as the time when the FBI agent was penetrating a pedophile ring, though he was in no physical danger from that kind of criminal. 

 Well, somebody's got to do it. You have to be a certain type of person. And this man admits that he misses the adrenaline rush he got out of it when he was working. 

What do you think - would you make a good undercover agent? 

Friday, April 21, 2017

S Is For Clifford Stoll And The Hanover Hacker: A To Z Challenge 2017

The year was 1986. In the Lawrence Berkeley Lab the computers had impressive amounts of disk space and memory - a hundred megabytes of disk space and one hundred and twenty eight k of memory. They were huge machines too, a long way from the little smart phone in your pocket or even your laptop computer. 

In this day and age, computer hacking has become a large part of spying, but in those days it was new. The Internet was in its infancy.  

An astronomer called Clifford Stoll was just starting a new job in computer programming when he was brought a puzzle to solve, a small accounting error of an unpaid 75 cents. He thought at first a student had been fooling around, but it was more than that. Much more. 

Someone was logging into the network with system manager privileges, under the name "Hunter" which belonged to a staff member who hadn't been there for a year. The system was being used to enter other networks. 

Networks that had access to military secrets. 

Cliff sometimes slept in the lab because the hacker was logging in at night. Over ten months he got piles of printouts which showed the mysterious hacker logging into military bases. He could have blocked the hacker, but they would only have found another way in and then he would have lost track of them. 

It took a while to get the interest of the CIA and FBI. It was all so new - who had even heard of hacking in those days? But with their unofficial help, the hacker was traced to Bremen in Hanover in West Germany. He was a man called Markus Hess, who, with a group of four others, was selling information to the KGB. 

Cliff had an idea. If the hacker wanted military secrets, he'd supply them. They didn't have to be real military secrets, of course. A trap was set, a fake military network called SDInet. SDI was the official name for the Reagan program nicknamed Star Wars. It was what Hess had shown most interest in. 

The confirmation came in the mail to "SDInet", through a Bulgarian spy, using nonsense from the fake files, from Markus Hess's customers, trying to check they were getting their money's worth. 

Hess and his fellow hackers went on trial, but before they could serve their long sentences the Berlin Wall fell and among all the fuss they only received a two year suspended sentence for what they had done. One had apparently committed suicide - if only he had waited...

Clifford Stoll received only a thank you certificate from the CIA for what he had done, but he also wrote a bestselling book about it all, The Cuckoo's Egg,  so that was all right. And eventually he began making quirky items called Klein bottles, three-D Möbius strips which sell very well to mathematicians. 

Interestingly, these days he is not a great fan of the Internet, which he feels is destroying communication rather than improving it, and is putting people like me(librarians) out of work. I do have to disagree with him about library card catalogues, which he thought were beautiful. If he'd ever had to spend hours first writing out five or more catalogue cards for one book, typing, filing them, then pulling them all out if the book turned out to be missing during stocktake, he would, like us, embrace the library computer technology he sneers at. And by the way, we used to throw out those beautiful artistic cards ourselves when they weren't needed because someone had stolen the book they described! 

However, it is fascinating to wonder how a twenty-first century Clifford Stoll would handle a spy-hacking case. I believe hackers are actually hired to point out weaknesses in security systems these days, but it goes on. With the Internet and constantly improving computer technology, the genie has really been let out of the Klein bottle. 

For an interview with Clifford Stoll, one of my sources for this post, check out this link.

Thursday, April 20, 2017

R Is For Roman Espionage


In an earlier post, I mentioned the Romans and their spying methods, such as the frumentarii, supply sergeants who were a useful source of intelligence, and Julius Caesar's private spy network, which brought him a list of the assassins moments before he was killed, a list he didn't read.

I felt that Roman spying deserved its own post - besides, it was that or the Rosenbergs and I found that topic too depressing for me. 

The Romans were big on winning by fighting - and they were very good at it, as we all know. Before they started conquering other countries, they began at home, with the other nations located on the Italian peninsula. 

And what does an army need? Good intelligence gathering, of course! Roman scouts did a good job of finding out what was needed, but there were other methods. There were the frumentarii, of course, who worked for the army, collecting wheat for the soldiers and information for their commanders while they were about it. I believe they were involved in tracking down Christians during the persecutions; fortunately, the Christians had their own information-gathering networks. But these came later, from about the reign of Hadrian onward. 

Hannibal Crossing The Alps. Poussin. Wikipedia Commons

During the Punic Wars, fought against Carthage, the Romans learned about spying from someone who really knew the job: Hannibal. His agents were good. They had to be; one unlucky spy who sent his army to the wrong city instead of one with a similar name, was crucified for his mistake. Whoops! 

Scipio Africanus. Rubens. Wikimedia Commons

But Scipio Africanus, the Roman leader, had his own methods. In one case, he sent officers to an enemy camp to discuss a truce. They took along a bunch of "slaves", actually officers in disguise. One of them was an officer who might have been recognised and he needed the freedom to snoop around the camp. He was given a sound beating. The Numidians, whose camp it was, were never going to believe a man of standing would allow that sort of thing to be done to him, so they paid no attention. The so-called slaves were now free to poke their noses into the layout of the camp, numbers and such, while their colleagues were keeping the enemy talking. 

Actually, the Romans had a lot of spies and spying, but not really anything that would correspond to MI6 or the CIA. This is because, apart from the agents working for the Emperors, there were a lot of private networks. Every highborn Marcus, Gaius and Gnaeus had his own people working to find out what was going on somewhere else and protect him. Some of them employed people to keep track of what was going on in their own homes! It was a messy system. 

And even the ones who did work for the state had two jobs rather than a cover identity.  There were the above mentioned frumentarii, for example. Augustus started a postal and courier service that provided a chance to communicate vital secret information. I keep getting this vision of a postie carrying state secrets in his bag... 

Those working for the Emperors were working specifically for the Emperors, to keep them alive. 

Did it work? Not really. It has been estimated that about seventy five per cent - three quarters - of Roman Emperors were assassinated. 

Monday, April 17, 2017

Bryce Fegan: A Guest Post On Fairytales

As a brief break from the A to Z Challenge, I thought it might be interesting to give you a guest post by Bryce Fegan, whose picture storybook The Grumpface will be available in the next couple of weeks. Bryce is an Aussie writer living in Canberra, and thought the post by fellow Canberra-dweller Gillian Polack was fascinating, though, of course, unconnected with children's fiction. He is sharing his thoughts about the importance of fairytales and explaining how this entered his book. Enjoy!

Where did all the Happily-Ever-After’s Go?
Books have long been portals into worlds otherwise inaccessible to us. They take us to places of incredible depth and wonder, and make us long for the adventures and meaning our protagonists inevitably find. Books often describe worlds that not even major films can fully capture. In books we are free to experience these worlds at our own pace. We are free to dwell in moments of inspiration, wonder or emotion. We are free to let our imaginations soar – constructing scenes that have meaning to our own experiences and our own desires. These small, rectangular objects are precious, because in the complex and changing world around us, they not only offer us refuge but they allow us to escape into another dreamer’s imagination. It is here that hope abounds. Hope for a better world, a more exciting world, a world of meaning. It is here that we are confronted with the strange reality – that despite the acceptance we have for the world around us, we all yet have a deeper hope that there might be something more. 
What makes fairy tales so powerful, is that they generally distil this deeper hope into the simplest of narratives. They don’t try to be outstandingly clever or to produce tear-inducing twists. They are safe and accessible stories. Stories that have an undefinable magic to them. Stories that feel cosy and warm, while describing scenes that are otherwise dark and cold. They are stories that are constructed so simply, they can be understood by young children, yet so deep, they somehow maintain their pull on us, well into adulthood.
Fairy tales tend to capture our hopes in broad and relatable terms. They often echo our natural desire that good always wins over evil, that success comes with hard work, and that the fantastical exists in even the most mundane places. They reach into our deepest yearnings, and whisper to us through the dark – that magic may yet exist, that our true destiny may yet be revealed, and that our life may yet have an incredible purpose. It is the ability of a fairy tale to play so masterfully upon these hopes that makes them so timeless. 
Unfortunately, by and large, the magic of fairy tales have been eroded by our modern reality. Replaced by narratives that prefer to reflect on ‘issues of the day’, or the harsh realities of life. Even the emerging trend of ‘modern fairy tales’ or ‘fairy tales with a twist’ tend to reflect the idea that our evolved societies are required to update the simplicity and relevance of these narratives to reflect our more mundane, daily struggles. Certainly there is nothing wrong with these modern styles of books – many are written very well and are indeed quite relevant. Yet I would argue that many of these modern retellings borrow only the surface-elements of a fairy tale, while leaving behind the very thing that has made our traditional favourites so transgenerational.
I have already touched on some of the broad hopes that are injected into every memorable fairy tale. However many fairy tales will also include additional concepts that contribute to their uniqueness. The most obvious, is that they tend to be made up of morally consistent characters. These morals will inevitably dictate their destiny. So naturally, the honest, pure-of-heart and caring characters will always win. The evil, selfish and greedy will always be stronger, but without a change of heart, will always lose. The greatest fairy tales throughout history are often those with characters that exist in relative obscurity, only to rise (against all odds) to the heights of mastery or true-purpose. And this, is perhaps the most important hope that fairy tales play upon. Put another way, fairy tales provide us with the hope that happily-ever-afters really are possible.
The Grumpface
I decided to write The Grumpface after looking through a number of modern fairy tales and feeling as though they were missing something crucial. It took some contemplation but it appeared to me that these modern tales had traded that deeper hope we tend to see in Andersen, Perrault and Grimm, in order to appeal to the sensibilities of our time. Some were fantastic books in their own right, yet none of them contained that deeper magic (to borrow from C.S. Lewis). I yearned for new titles with the familiar enchantments of those older tales, and having been one of those people who has written fiction their whole life, I turned my attention to filling this void.
The Grumpface is a fairy tale that (at the very least, attempts) to hark back to those familiar stories we grew up with. It is about a clumsy young inventor’s quest for love, and the challenges he must face to find it. But it is also a tale of bravery, absurdity and happiness, and the power of these qualities over negativity and sheer grumpiness.
Our tale begins in a small village that sits beside a dark forest. Dan, the hero of our story, is an optimistic, young inventor who suffers the unfortunate trait of being clumsy. Working day and night on his inventions, he hopes that his efforts might gain the attention of Bella, a flower girl whom he secretly admires.
When it comes to his attention that Bella has no more roses to sell, he decides to brave the dark forest in order to find her one. The only problem is that the forest is inhabited by a grumpy creature known as the Grumpface, and this creature is not known for his kindness to lost travellers.
It doesn’t take long before our poor hero is confronted by the Grumpface who quickly challenges the young inventor to three tasks. If he is able to pass even a single challenge, he will be freed, if not, he will remain forever in the forest.
It is my hope that this tale is enjoyed by children and adults alike. After all, most good fairy tales are. I have also tried my best to inject that magic and wonder that these tales are known for. Yet if there is one thing I hope The Grumpface does more than anything else, it is that it reconnects those who read it with that deeper hope. 
The Grumpface will be available in Kindle, ePub, Hardcover and Paperback from most online bookstores from May 1.

About the Author
BCR Fegan is an Australian author who has written a number of fairy tales and fantasies for children and young adults. He is inspired by stories that resonate deeply with our desire for adventure, yearning for magic and search for meaning.

N Is For ... Ninja! A To Z Challenge 2017


Ninja, Hokusai print. Public domain

There has been a lot of nonsense spoken and written about the ninja, the professional spies and mercenaries of Japan. My favourite idiocy is the story of the dwarf ninja who came up from a toilet pit and killed his victim while he was relieving himself. Ouch! Also, they were supposed to have mystical, magical powers.

Actually, I imagine the ninja clans would have been only too happy for people to believe they had magical powers - it made for good marketing. If you want to read some wonderful fiction set in a world in which the ninja actually do have supernatural powers, I recommend Lian Hearn's series Tales Of The Otori. But that's fantasy fiction. 

But the stories were spread because they were very good at what they did do - espionage, arson, assassination, mercenary soldiering, etc. Their disguises were excellent. If they had spent all their time in those cool black costumes we imagine them wearing, they might have had trouble convincing anyone they were not spooky assassins! 

In feudal Japan, you couldn't ask samurai, the equivalent of European knights, to go sneaking around spying and killing people without facing them "mano a mano". That was - tacky. Worse, it was dishonourable. So the daimyos, the lords, had to hire professional spies. If caught, they would die horribly, like the vile, dishonourable, loathsome creatures they were. But hey, it was a living! 

There were two clans, from the Iga and Koga areas of Japan, who set up training in remote villages. A ninja - or shinobi as they're known within Japan, from a word meaning "hidden" - started training in childhood. They learned martial arts, of course, and did a lot of tough exercises, but also learned a regular occupation they could carry out while gathering information. Medicine was useful as an occupation, for obvious reasons. But there were plenty of others. 

Not that there weren't security efforts going on. For example, there were the famous squeaky nightingale floors, so called because they "sang" when someone stepped on them. That would definitely get the attention of the guards. But what could you do when the ninja you wanted to avoid were actually living in the castle as sleeper agents? And while they couldn't actually walk through walls, as legend had it, there were plenty of crawl spaces for those who knew where they were. 

And then there were ninja working for the lord of the castle. In the case of one siege, a ninja slipped out into the enemy camp and stole the banner. Next morning it was waving from the castle walls. Maybe it would have been more useful to simply kill the enemy leader, but that kind of psychological "Nyah, Nyah!" worked too. 

In the 1400s there were around seventy ninja clans on Honshu, the main island of Japan. The leaders were jonin, the middle men the chunin, whose job was to arrange contracts with employers. The genin were the actual fighters, who often didn't know who their boss was, probably wise. 

There were ninja working for just one noble family. The most famous ninja leader, Fuma Kotaro Noboyuki, was part of the Fuma clan who were working for the Hojo family. He lived in the sixteenth century and has become a part of Japanese folklore. Kotaro led a group of 200 ninja. Apart from the spying, he led them in a night attack on the Takeda forces. First, they faked an attack, sending in horsès with straw dummies as riders, while the real ninja smuggled themselves in. In the dark and confusion, the Takeda were doing the ninjas' job for them, killing each other instead of Kotaro's men. 

I can imagine the enemy leaders crying out, "Oh, the cads! That is completely dishonourable!"

Sneaky but smart!

Tomorrow: O is for Odysseus!