Omnimystery News is pleased to welcome M. L. Malcolm, whose latest novel of suspense is Heart of Deception (Harper, April 2011 Trade Paperback, 978-0-06-196219-6).
Today M. L. writes about ambiance and how important it is to a book ... indeed, in her opinion, it makes all the difference.
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Photo provided courtesy of
M. L. Malcolm
Perhaps more than any other genre, mysteries are enhanced by their surroundings; the place becomes essential to the mood of the story, and often directly affects the behavior of its characters. What would Sherlock Holmes be without London? How could James Lee Burke’s Dave Robicheaux exist outside of New Orleans? How could the Easy Rawlins’ mysteries by Walter Mosley be set somewhere other than 1940’s Los Angeles? Or Janet Evanovich’s Stephanie Plum do her bond bailsman thing anywhere else but New Jersey?
I enjoy discovering and then sharing fascinating facts that I uncover in relatively unexplored historical corners, so when deciding upon the opening setting for my latest novel, Heart of Deception, I wanted to find a place that would allow me to do exactly that. My research quickly led me to Tangier.
This city has long played a role in the popular imagination, from the era of the Barbary Pirates to the Bohemian days of the 1970’s. Even Mark Twain, in Innocents Abroad, suggested, "I would seriously recommend to the Government of the United States that when a man commits a crime so heinous that the law provides no adequate punishment for it, they make him Consul-General to Tangier."
But other than World War II buffs, few people realize the strategic role the city held during the early days of that massive war. The first American casualties in Europe were not inflicted by the Germans; they came at the hands of the French, when the Vichy government elected to honor their agreement with Hitler and defend North Africa. Tangier was the base of the espionage operations that helped pave the way for that invasion, code-named “Operation Torch.”
My main character, Leo Hoffman, is recruited to work as a spy in 1939. The American O.S.S. wasn’t operating in Europe until 1942, but President Roosevelt personally sent the diplomat, Robert Murphy, to North Africa in 1940 to keep tabs on what was happening there. Murphy recruited twelve men—nicknamed “the Apostles”—who were allegedly vice-consuls monitoring compliance with foreign trade agreements, but who were in fact serving as gatherers of intelligence for the U.S. and its allies. I knew that’s where Leo needed to end up as well.
He would work under the command of Colonel William Eddy, a real marine who had an outstanding service record in WWI in military intelligence, and was personally tapped by William “Wild Bill” Donovan, founder of the American Office of Strategic Services, to head up the spy network in North Africa. (In 1944 Eddy went on to become Minister Plenipotentiary to Saudi Arabia, where he continued to serve as an important source for the Central Intelligence Agency.)
Eddy had been born in Syria to missionary parents, had spent much of his life there, and was totally comfortable living in the Middle East. The first thing he did was to move his operations from Cairo to Tangier. This got him out from under the British, whom he didn’t trust, especially the head of the Secret Intelligence Service in Algiers, whom Eddy once said “would sell his country, his soul, or his mother for a peseta.” It also put his headquarters just twenty miles from Spain, which facilitated communication with the European continent.
The other advantage was Tangier’s near-lack of a functioning government. The eight-nation governing council allegedly in charge of the independent city-state had collapsed; the lack of control made it a perfect home base for spies. As my character, Leo Hoffman, notes in the opening scene of Heart of Deception, “The city was an enormous spider web of intrigue. One small vibration in one isolated corner, and out scurried the predators with a thousand eyes, ready to feast on the vulnerable.”
In fact the mystique surrounding the city of Casablanca after the release of the 1942 movie really belonged to Tangier. In the play upon which the movie was based, “Everybody Goes to Rick's,” Rick’s Café was modeled on the bar at the Hotel El Minzah, where Leo is having coffee in the first scene of Heart of Deception. But there was not an official Nazi presence in Tangier, so moving the action to Casablanca gave Hollywood the bad guys it needed for the movie, because that city was officially under Vichy control.
The ancient streets of the Medina, the desperateness of the many international refugees, the threat of murder and mayhem around every corner—in 1940 Tangier was the perfect setting for a newly-minted spy. If “the clothes make the man,” I believe “the setting helps make the mystery.” And Leo’s story would not have been quite the same had I put him down in any other place.
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Although born in New York, M. L. Malcolm spent most of her childhood in Florida. Her education gradually brought her back north, as she earned degrees from Emory University and Harvard Law School. However, after practicing law for three years, M. L. determined that "she and the law were not meant for each other," and she is now a self-described "recovering attorney."
M. L. has won several awards for her fiction, including special recognition in the prestigious Lorian Hemingway International Short Story Competition, and a silver medal from ForeWord Magazine for Best Historical Fiction Book of the Year 2009. She has also amassed an impressive hat collection (and yes, she does wear them). Visit her website at MLMalcolm.com.
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About Heart of Deception: A man of many contradictions, Leo Hoffman is a Hungarian national with a French passport, a wealthy businessman with no visible means of support, and a devoted father who hasn't seen his daughter in years. He is also a spy.
Recruited by the Allies to help lay the groundwork for their invasion of North Africa, Leo intends to engage in as little espionage as possible—just enough to earn his American citizenship so he can get to New York and reunite with his daughter, Maddy. But while Leo dodges death in France and Morocco, Maddy is learning shocking truths about her father's mysterious past—haunting knowledge that will compel her down her own dangerous path of deception and discovery.
Heart of Deception is available in Trade Paperback and popular eBook formats (see icons below book cover).
Read the first chapter of Heart of Deception below; use the Aa settings button to adjust font size, line spacing, and word density.