Kevin Doherty Interview

Today we are joined by Irish author Kevin Doherty who has just written one of the most fascinating novels about World War 2, ”Landscape of Shadows”, that I have ever read. 

Kevin, thank you so much for taking time out from your schedule to spend a few moments with us here at ViewsonBooks. Before we begin I just want to tell you how much I enjoyed this book, so much so I just could not put it down until the very end.

That’s great to hear, Blaine! And thank you for inviting me on board.

Could you tell us a little bit about yourself? You education, writing background and what led to becoming a full time author?

I was born and raised in Northern Ireland, and graduated from Queen’s University Belfast with an Honours Degree in English Language and Literature. I worked in advertising and marketing for a number of large international companies, took time out to write my first novel, Patriots, then returned to the corporate business world. Many years later I wrote my second novel, Villa Normandie, and this was when I decided to write full time.

Most all of your books are steeped in history, have you always been interested in history? And, were there any authors who influenced you?

George Santayana said that if we forget the past we’re doomed to repeat its mistakes. I agree, and I think if we understand the past we’re more likely to understand the present. Maybe that’s why I’m drawn to historical settings – it’s about what history can teach us.

It’s hard for me to know when or whether I’m being influenced by other authors. I’d leave it for the reader to judge!

I saw in your official biography that you were living in Belfast during the time of The Troubles, was just wondering if you ever had the chance to read “Troubles” by J.G. Farrell a really fine book set in 1919 about the Anglo-Irish problems right after World War 1?

Now you’ve pricked my conscience – that’s been on my To Read list for far too long! I’ll trade you one for it – have you read James Plunkett’s Strumpet City? Not to do with The Troubles but with the union lockout of 1913. Utterly moving and unforgettable. Watch out for a wonderful character called Rashers Tiernan!

Would you take a few moments to give everyone an overview of “Landscape of Shadows”?

The story is set in France, in 1941. The small town of Dinon is under German occupation. Max Duval, its mayor, appears to have accepted the German presence. He owns the Hôtel Picardie, whose most important resident is Major Egon Wolff, the German commandant. A Resistance team kills two German troopers. One of the assassins, the headstrong and beautiful Sophie Carrière, takes refuge in Max’s hotel. Despite his disapproval of the assassinations, Max keeps her safe. Sophie suspects that Max is a collaborator, but Max is no collaborator – he has his own secret methods of resistance, which she has jeopardized. Sophie discovers the truth about Max’s resistance work, and she and Max are drawn to one another. Egon Wolff decrees that ten citizens will be executed unless the missing assassin is surrendered. Max faces a terrible choice: sacrifice Sophie and betray the cause of freedom for which they are both working – or let innocent citizens go to their deaths.

Were there any historical resources that you referred to when researching this book?

There are many historians whose works were helpful. Robert Paxton for political analysis. Simon Kitson on the Vichy regime. Robert Gildea on what the German occupation felt like at ground level day by day. Ditto Rod Kedward. Matthew Cobb on the development of the Resistance from its beginnings. David Schoenbrun for an exceptionally detailed picture of the Resistance. Martin Blumenson on the story of the Musée de l’Homme group, one of the first Resistance groups. Agnès Humbert, one of the founders of the Musée de l’Homme group, produced her own memoir, now available in English.

Yours is the first book that I have read that highlights the conflicting objectives between different cells of the French Resistance, what led you to focus on this

I felt it was an area that novels haven’t done justice to. It’s an easy mistake to think of the French Resistance as a single unified entity with a clear leadership and an equally clear set of objectives. The reality wasn’t like that at all. People opposed the German presence in their different ways – intellectuals and academics like the Musée de l’Homme group might print and distribute anti-German leaflets because they had the printing equipment to make this possible and weren’t inclined to violence, while another group might have access to arms or explosives and be prepared to kill Germans or blow up a power station.

I never realized that the lack of coordination between different Resistance cells could cause such major problems. Was this common and were you able to document how often this lack of coordination led to such major problems for the average French citizens?

Uncoordinated Resistance actions could bring horrific consequences. For example, in 1941 a couple of young hotheads, acting on their own, attacked and shot dead the German commander of Nantes. This led to the mass execution of about 100 political prisoners in reprisal, including perfectly innocent communists and union leaders who had nothing to do with the shooting. No thought had been given to the safety of these hostages or to their execution as a possible outcome of the attack. Naturally the local population hated the Gemans for what they did – but the affair also alienated many of them from the Resistance itself. The assassination was even condemned by de Gaulle, who was trying to position himself as the leader of the Resistance, with control over all armed activity.

This highlights the political aspect of lack of coordination. De Gaulle, exiled and isolated in London, already considered himself the leader of the so-called Free French. But the Resistance groups had no time for him. Who did he think he was, was their view; he was safe in London while they were at the sharp end. The French communists were particularly at odds with him. They would prove to be important players. They were accustomed to operating undercover and had the best secret networks. They were itching to enter the fray. But because Stalin had aligned himself with Hitler, they were caught in a dilemma – fiercely patriotic despite their allegiance to Moscow, they wanted to hit the German occupiers hard, but were forced to hold back because Moscow forbade them to engage. When Hitler attacked the USSR in June 1941, it came as a massive relief to them: at last the gloves were off.

Against this backgound of strained relationships and conflicting goals, de Gaulle appointed Jean Moulin, a supremely courageous man, to be his emissary to try to bring the various Resistance factions together – under de Gaulle’s leadership, of course. Moulin made the perilous journey back and forth between London and France several times, but was eventually captured by the Germans. He was interrogated and tortured by Klaus Barbie and, having previously attempted suicide, died under mysterious circumstances. To this day the question remains: was Jean Moulin betrayed from within the ranks of one of the Resistance groups with whom he was negotiating?

Sophie comes from the Paris cell, which was operated by Communists, and when planning and outlining the book did you ever consider having Sophie’s character being a male?

From the beginning of my planning I wanted her to be female because we tend not to associate violence with women – a stereotype I wanted to go against, because women did fight and kill for the Resistance.

If you know, how common was it for female Resistance fighters to be sent on “kill” missions? And I found it fascinating how the German commander referred to her as an “assassin.”

I have no information on that question, but logic suggests the answer is very few. It’s been estimated that only about 15% of Resistance fighters were women – and only a small number of those would ever be involved in kill missions like Sophie’s. To my mind that rarity factor made Sophie all the more interesting.

You also did a great job of showing the entire town cowered and fearful of the Nazi forces. Were you able to interview anyone about this aspect of the book or have access to diaries about this situation?

Obviously there are very few people still alive who were around in those days. But memories are passed down to subsequent generations. The internet was a great source of filmed interviews and reminiscences – particularly good for the everyday aspects of life under occupation, because it’s ordinary citizens reminiscing. I found the best thing was to use French Google and search in French. Don’t get me wrong – my French isn’t that great, I was just very dogged and patient!

While certainly not your intent, I could not help but relate the situation in the French town of Dinon to what the people are currently suffering through in the Ukraine. It does appear that Dinon was spared any major destruction, am I correct in that?

You are correct. Dinon was fortunate in that regard. But you raise a telling point about Ukraine. If the Russians believe they’ll ever subdue the population of Ukraine in the way Hitler hoped he would subdue France and Belgium and the Netherlands, I believe they’ll be just as much mistaken as he was. To go back to one of your earlier questions, it would be a clear case of repeating the mistakes of the past.

By the way, while the Germans were certainly bad, the local police chief appears to be a worse person and rather incompetent. Was this a common occurrence in occupied France? I ask because I am Italian and the “police” in Italy during World War 2 were basically thugs.

At grassroots level the police seem to have been as mixed as the civilian population. Some were only too happy to do the Germans’ bidding, while other individuals were willing to turn a blind eye to Resistance activity. Clearly, Jacques Dompnier, the police chief, is in the former group. But at top level the Police Nationale were certainly active collaborators, for example proactively rounding up Jews on their own initiative.

Later on the real out-and-out thugs were the paramilitary militia, the Milice, created by the puppet French government to hunt down and destroy the Resistance. They were vicious, they used torture and summary executions, and they were feared by the Resistance because they were recruited from the local population and therefore had local knowledge – they were the ones who knew who was likely responsible for cutting telephone lines last night or bombing a German convoy, and where they might be hiding, or their family taken into custody as leverage. Unsurprisingly, members of the Milice were often targeted for assassination by the Resistance.

The German Field Commander appears to have been a decent enough person and came off as more of a placeholder for the German occupation until the two German soldiers were killed, and his anger and orders got worse. How do you envision Major Wolff? His methods became brutal but it also appeared to come from higher military orders.

Wolff is a man with a very strong sense of honour who finds himself caught in the demands of war and occupation. He serves an evil regime, but does that mean that he himself is evil? I’ll be careful what I say here, for plot spoiler reasons, but his basic humanity does show through as the story unfolds. And as you know, he turns out to be crucial to the core of the story. Enough said!

While we have read and seen movies about the execution of citizens after a German soldier was killed, this book puts you on the edge of your seat, is hard to write this sort of scenario in a book when you know it did happen in real life?

I think an author has a responsibility to write about these matters with proper respect. Okay, this is a fiction novel and the characters are from my imagination – but they do stand for real people who suffered and died. My responsibility is to write about them in a way that does them justice and moves the reader – but without sensationalising things.

I was so impressed with this book I went out and got some of your other fictional novels. Could you give the readers a brief overview of those works?

Wow – thank you, Blaine! Here’s a quick run-down.

The Leonardo Gulag takes us to the heart of Stalin’s regime of terror when a brilliant young artist is forced to make perfect forgeries of the drawings of Leonardo da Vinci. I see the story as a tale of survival against all odds.

Villa Normandie is a tale of the French Resistance and the struggle for freedom. It’s set in Nazi-occupied France in the weeks before D-Day. If you enjoyed Landscape of Shadows, I think you’ll like Villa Normandie.

Charlie’s War tells the story of a young Spitfire pilot shot down in German-occupied France near a town that holds a terrible secret for him. Dare the local villagers help him – and who is the mysterious stranger who comes to his aid? This is by no means a conventional WWII tale.

Patriots is an espionage thriller of the classic style, set in 1980s Russia and Britain. It’s a story of power politics and betrayal at the highest levels of government and the intelligence services.

Has Covid affected your writing or research, and hopefully you did not contract Covid?

I did contract it, but only a couple of months ago – and a mild version, thankfully. So it didn’t have much effect. I was lucky. But just this morning my wife, who also contracted it a while back, has tested positive, so this thing clearly hasn’t finished with us.

What I will always remember from this period is being emailed by a reader in New York who had read my books during the city’s lockdown, and who thanked me for helping him to get through it. That was incredibly moving for me. It says a lot about how fiction novels can be a refuge for us in difficult times.

Do you have a set writing schedule or do you write “as the spirit moves you”?

When I’m working on an idea, when a book is under way, I write just about every day – seven days a week, and with work hours just like regular people with sensible jobs! If I’m researching, the routine is much the same. But I also have to make time to read. So to an uninformed observer it might look like I’m slacking off – but I’m not!

Finally, what’s next? Are you currently writing or researching a new book and could you give us a hint as to what it will be about? 

Right now I’m just putting the finishing touches to my next book. No one except my wife has seen it so far. It’s another Second World War story. And I hope you’ll forgive me if I don’t reveal any more than that at this stage!

Thanks so much for taking your time to answer these questions. Personally, this is one of my best reads of 2022 and I certainly am going to keep an eye out for more of your works!

Blaine, the pleasure has been all mine. And I’m thrilled that you enjoyed Landscape of Shadows. Once again, thank you for inviting me on board!

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