The Shadow Network by Deborah Swift: Enthralling real history, pulsating action, spies, saboteurs and treachery – book review –

The Shadow Network by Deborah SwiftThe Shadow Network by Deborah Swift
The Shadow Network by Deborah Swift
Not every hard-fought fight of the Second World War took place on battlefields across the globe... some were waged in absolute secrecy and were far more subtle.

Deborah Swift, the bestselling Lancashire-based author of a whole raft of dazzling historical novels, turns back the clock to those crucial early years of the conflict as Britain developed pioneering new strategies to target and disrupt the onslaught of the Nazi war machine.

Swift, who lives in Warton, near Carnforth, used to work backstage as a scenographer in many North-West theatres, including Liverpool Playhouse and the Duke’s Theatre, Lancaster, and it is her imaginative flair, and keen eye for drama and authenticity, that is making this superb Secret Agent Series so viscerally real and exciting.

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The Shadow Network – the second gripping book in the series – was inspired by the wartime Radio Aspidistra campaign which used a Sussex-based, high-powered, mainly underground transmitter (nicknamed Aspidistra after a popular song by Gracie Fields) to send out ‘fake news’ radio station broadcasts to unsuspecting Germans.

It was a classic use of ‘black propaganda,’ an important tool which aimed to undermine the Nazis’ own effective propaganda, and was led by the newly formed Political Warfare Executive under the direction of Tom Sefton Delmer, a British journalist of Australian heritage who was born in Berlin and spoke fluent German.

Harnessing this fascinating backdrop of wartime radio with a cast of real and fictional characters, Swift brings us an enthralling and heart-pounding tale of spies, subterfuge, treachery and immense courage as a young, half-Jewish German woman must sacrifice everything to uncover the truth.

When student Lilli Bergen’s widower father is arrested and taken away from their Berlin apartment by a group of Hitler’s Brownshirt thugs in 1938, she is hidden by a neighbour and manages to make her way to London where her penfriend lives.

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A fluent English speaker, half-Jewish Lilli is angry that her future has been ‘whipped away’ by the Nazis but she has papers to work as a domestic servant and with a fine singing voice, she enjoys performing at the popular Tip Top Club.

Her life changes again in 1940 when the police detain her as an ‘enemy alien’ and she is sent by boat for internment on the Isle of Man. Despite the frustrations of being forcibly detained, Lilli is desperate to do something pro-active for the Allies so when she is approached by the Political Warfare Executive, Lilli jumps at the chance.

She is recruited as a singer for a radio station broadcasting propaganda to German soldiers... a shadow network trying to do everything it can to damage German morale on the grounds that ‘the right kind of poison news can be just as deadly as bombs and bullets.’

Lilli’s ‘minder’ is Neil Callaghan, a former Special Operations Executive worker whose life has gone off the rails and who harbours a dark secret, but is determined to make ‘reparations for his wrongs.’ Lilli is more than a little intrigued – and attracted – by the kindly, courteous and elusive Neil but her world is flipped upside down when her ex-boyfriend, Irishman Brendan (Bren) Murphy, appears at her workplace.

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Lilli always thought Bren, a fellow student in Berlin, was a Nazi sympathiser, and strongly suspects he betrayed her father to the Brownshirts, so what is he doing in England supposedly working against the Germans? Lilli is sure Bren is up to something and must put aside her blossoming relationship with Neil to discover the truth... but can she expose him before it’s too late?

One of the secrets of Swift’s success as a historical novelist is the amazing depth and detail of her research, an aspect of her writing which she finds the most enjoyable and rewarding, and this portrayal of a fascinating and little-known section of Britain’s war effort brings the past to life in all its daring duplicity, danger and drama.

It’s an eye-opening story which highlights some of the many challenges that faced Britain, not least developing a practical misinformation and demoralisation strategy to counter the highly professional propaganda that was churned out by the likes of the Nazi mastermind Joseph Goebbels.

Loosely linked to several characters who featured in The Silk Code – the first book in the series – this new thriller can easily be read as a standalone and treats readers to a thrilling, page-turning cat-and-mouse chase in which Lilli covertly battles to unearth the truth about Brendan Murphy.

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The love affair that simmers enticingly between Lilli and Neil is only half the story of The Shadow Network as we are plunged into not just the perils of wartime intrigue but also a reminder of the challenges of internment for Germans who were either resident on these shores, or fled to Britain as refugees but were still under suspicion of being ‘the enemy.’

With a slice of enthralling real history at centre stage, pulsating action, spies, saboteurs and treachery, this is the past made perfectly thrilling!

(HQ, paperback, £9.99)

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