Friday, February 27, 2015

Comfort Reading—What Does It For You?

Last Sunday afternoon I slipped a disk. This came on top of a couple of weeks of increasing misery—the abscessed tooth, the itchy skin rash from the medicine for the abscessed tooth, and before that the other thing, what was it? Oh, crap, right, the colonoscopy. Increasing misery. After exhausting all the available reruns of Foyle's War I understood that the time had come to read something, preferably something comforting.

The First World War has always interested me. My grandfather was a Royal Canadian Army officer who fought in the trenches. So I like stories about that, and about spies and sabotage, like the story I told you last week where Werner Horn tried to blow up the Vanceboro bridge. In the course of researching Von Papen the spymaster, Germany's naval attache in the U.S., I came across a wonderful book by another spymaster of the early days of the war, a more competent man than von Papen, or so he says. Captain Franz von Rintalen wrote The Dark Invader: War-Time Reminiscences of a German Naval Intelligence Officer, about his days in the sabotage business before the United States entered the war.

American munitions factories were in full production, and though the U.S. was officially neutral, the arms were shipped only to the Allies, since the Central Powers were effectively blockaded by the British navy. Von Rintalin recruited an inventor of timed incendiary devices and a ring of Irish dockworkers in New York, who hid the devices on ships in places other than where the munitions were stored. Far at sea, fires broke out. The munitions had to be soaked with water to save the ships, ruining the cargo but sparing the men.

At some point the clumsy Von Papen was exposed and expelled from the country for activities of his own. He claimed diplomatic immunity as he traveled through Britain, but the British made him surrender his papers. The whole network of German spies and saboteurs in America was blown by the fleeing diplomat's check-book stubs, carefully inscribed with names and addresses. Von Rintalin went to jail. The Irishmen went home and started the Easter Rebellion.

But I was talking about comfort reading. My favorite book about spy work in the First World War is Manning Coles' Drink to Yesterday, a bittersweet account of the life of a British spy in Germany, followed by the more upbeat sequel, A Toast to Tomorrow. I could read those again and again, and after I did the thing to my back (it's getting better, by the way, not to worry) I rushed to the bookshelf (as best I could) and got them down to read once more.

I'm proud to say that the best of my own work has been considered comfort reading. My first agent told me she read one of my manuscripts while recovering from gum surgery. You might ask, why don't I write spy stories, if I like them so much? The answer is that the life of a secret agent is completely foreign to my experience. I would have nothing true to say about it. Okay, there was the time forty years ago, at the height of the divorce paranoia, when I dressed up in a wig to take the train to Manhattan and meet a man for a steak dinner. That was good for a couple of sinister thrills. I'll tell you the story sometime.

Or maybe not.

© 2015 Kate Gallison


  1. Now, Miz Gallison, I'm sitting here waiting to read about the bewigged journey into darkest Manhattan for a man who feeds you steak... was it rare or well-done? Angus beef or more mundane... we're dying to know what restaurant... tjstraw

  2. I'm always interested in hearing about what people read when they're miserable. I always like to add things to my own list.I think it is true that many of the best spy stories have been written by people were spies. Le Carre is the most obvious example. And I, like Thelma, want more details about that steak dinner.

  3. By the way, Kate, you're lucky to have "The Dark Invader." I was just looking at it on line and it's rather dear (as they used to say)

  4. I don't actually have it. Too rich for my blood. There's a copy on the Australian Gutenberg site.