Heartfelt novel set in LONDON and BRISTOL
Novel set mainly in Berlin, Summer 1940
8th December 2017
Solitaire by Jane Thynne, novel set mainly in Berlin, Summer 1940.
This is the first book I have read by Jane, and it won’t be the last. The meticulous research and extremely polished writing skills combine to make this a very readable novel. Set at the heart of the Nazi elite, actress Clara Vine has infiltrated the high echelons of German command. She is part German, part British and as a spy for the British over the past 7 years, she has had a very fine line to tread.
Now, however, she has the ear of Goebbels and ironically he sends her to other European cities – Paris and Lisbon – to work as a spy for the Nazis. She would love to return to England but she is caring for a child and it seems that that relationship is being used leverage, she has no choice but to comply with his wishes.
The author weaves several strands into a well rounded narrative, taking her readers from the world of orphanages of the time (all part of the Lebensborn project) to a series of terrifying and random attacks on the Berlin Underground – U Bahn. It is possible that Clara inadvertently stumbled upon the attacker in the early part of the book!
‘Normality’ of the period is really quite shocking for people who know little about the era and the author really brings the reality of the time, the ways of thinking, the little details to sobering life. The Babelsberg Studios, where Clara works, are still a powerhouse of film production – after all, the movies are a good way to disseminate the Nazi creed with a touch of glamour, something all too absent in everyday life for the average German..
“Berlin was a city full of fear”
Clara lives in Winterfeldtstrasse, near Nollendorfplatz, which actually exists in the city today. When one visits Berlin, one can really feel history permeating the fabric of the buildings one still sees. There are real echoes of footsteps past.
Well researched detail conjures up a colourful history – who knew the Nazis wore phosphorescent lapel badges to show their allegiance in the dark; or that Goering kept lion cubs at home; or that Himmler suggested men take two wives. And particularly relevant for this time of year is that at Hitler’s Obersalzburg residence in the Alps, branches would be left in the salt mines below and extracted at Christmas when they would be covered with a glittering deposit of crystals, making a festive and impressive display.
I read this novel whilst in Berlin and it really got me thinking about the history, the people and how there is still such resonance from the war years built into the fabric of the present day city. Highly recommended.
Tina for the TripFiction Team
Over to Jane who shares her research of location for the novel:
#TalkingLocationWith… Author Jane Thynne talks about research of setting for her latest novel, Solitaire
Solitaire, like all the Clara Vine novels, is largely set in Berlin. Before I began writing about Berlin I had always seen the place as a granite city, grey and forbidding, but reading the journals of young British women who went over to Germany in the 1930s to learn the language, gave me a different perspective. Berlin was an exciting, cultured place, and like many other actresses Clara Vine headed for Babelsberg Studios, the Hollywood of Europe. Everyone wanted to work at Babelsberg – directors like Fritz Lang, who made Metropolis, and screenwriters like Billy Wilder – but everything changed overnight when Hitler arrived. I mean literally overnight, because when Hitler took power at the end of January 1933, most of the top talent got straight on a train and crossed the border.
Setting a novel in a culture that had changed so radically was part of its appeal – Berlin had been the capital of sexual and cultural liberation, now it was a terrifying and repressive police state. It seemed a great moment to introduce a new character, in this case the Anglo-German actress Clara Vine who becomes a spy for British Intelligence while moving among the Nazi elite. By the time Solitaire opens in 1940, Germany is at war with England and Clara’s existence is more perilous than ever. The city is being bombed, so I visited the bomb shelter of an ordinary apartment block to see how people sheltered in the terrifying air raids.
I’m a journalist by training – I started at the BBC before moving to The Sunday Times and The Daily Telegraph – so the research is the bit that I love. I’ve visited Germany numerous times in the course of writing the Clara Vine series, and have probed every area of the city, but some of the best bits of research are serendipitous. It was when I was wandering through the Schwanenwerder pensinusla, where all the Nazi VIPs had country villas, that I came across the first Reich Bride School. The idea of a residential school where girls learn to be obedient wives was thrilling – such an obvious place for a murder! – and I incorporated that into The Winter Garden.
In Solitaire, Clara is summoned to Joseph Goebbels’ lakeside house at Bogensee, where he utilised one of his many casting couches. The house still stands, and has presented a problem for the authorities, who want to sell it without it becoming a Nazi shrine. Goebbels’ request, however, takes Clara to Lisbon, where the Duke and Duchess of Windsor are hiding out.
Lisbon was fascinating in 1940 because it remained neutral, so the city was a magnet for refugees, royals, Jews and spies. The Windsors were cooped up in a villa at Cascais, and the Duke visited the nearby casino at Estoril every night. I loved riding the rackety yellow trams on the winding streets up to the castle Sao Jorge and walking along the seafront near the waterfall called the Boca do Inferno – the Jaws of Hell.
Whenever I’m in Berlin I have the weird experience of the city of my imagination overlying the Berlin of today. Some sites remain exactly as they were – Goering’s Air Ministry for example, that was known as the house of a thousand windows, or more rudely, Goering’s wardrobe, because of his love of dressing up. The Propaganda Ministry is still there, minus its swastikas, and walking down Unter den Linden reminds me how Hitler cut down the trees so that his soliders could walk twelve abreast. There is a new phenomenon in Berlin of laying what they call stumble stones – little bronze plaques – into the pavement to mark where Jewish people used to live, and for me this seems just one more way in which Berlin is a palimpsest of everything that has gone before. Something about those granite streets, the spies, the layers of all too recent history that lie beneath your feet, is irresistible for a writer. Every corner you turn holds the memory of tumultuous political events, so it’s no surprise that when it came to setting a thriller series, for me Berlin was an obvious choice.
What are your 3 top writing tips? Or your favourite 3 pieces of writing advice that you’ve ever heard?
1 – Have a daily word count and complete it. It doesn’t matter what the count is – Graham Green did 500 words a day, some writers I know complete 4,000. What matters is that you hit the target. Then edit.
2 – Find a few writers whose work you really admire and study their style. Keep reading them. An awful lot of writing is reading.
3 – Keep at it. If you’re born to write, you’ll only be half alive if you give it up. Every writer, including all the famous ones, has unpublished work in their drawer.
Do also look out for our Solitaire giveaway starting Sunday, 10th December 2017!
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