Behind the Book: The Spies of Shilling Lane by Jennifer Ryan

From bestselling author Jennifer Ryan comes The Spies of Shilling Lane, a thrilling new WWII story about a village busybody determined to find and rescue her missing daughter, discovering both herself and a second chance at love along the way. We are delighted that Jennifer Ryan has given us a inside look into her process and the inspiration behind this wonderful novel . Read on to discover more!

Your previous bestselling novel The Chilbury Ladies’ Choir was also set against the backdrop of WWII. What draws you to this time period and setting?

The Chilbury Ladies’ ChoirMy warm and wonderful grandmother used to tell hilarious stories about the Second World War in Britain, and ever since then I’ve cherished a love for the era. After she died, I tried to rekindle her presence by reading personal accounts of the war in Britain—from journals, and letters to biographies and memoirs—to the point whereby I can close my eyes and imagine it all: the danger, the freedom and opportunities for women, and the racy hedonism.

“War is the most catastrophic instigator of social change,” sociologist Francis E Merrill declared in 1946, and this was not lost on British women. The war offered new openings for women to fill the men’s shoes in what were then known as masculine jobs. Women were needed, and that meant that they had more importance, more of a voice. If they were to be treated like men in the workforce, they could begin to speak out for themselves in society.

Shockingly, the majority of women I interviewed about the war told me that it was the best time of their lives. It seemed that the continual danger—over 40,000 civilians were killed by bombs in Britain—combined with the freedom led to parties, boyfriends, and the type of close-knit community that only war can bring.

Overlaying that, I simply love the way people spoke, the way their world looked, their firm and unwavering beliefs. In many ways it was a simpler time than these. War makes life and death incredibly stark: gripping hold of what’s good is the best that anyone can do.

What type of research did you do for this novel? Did anything interesting come up in your research that you weren’t able to include in the book?

A few years ago, a number of files were “declassified” by the British spy agencies, including some from MI5 covering the spies infiltrating underground fascist groups within Britain during the war. I duly went to the National Archives in London to see them.

It was astonishing! These were the real documents that the spies typed up every evening. They covered every meeting, who was there, where it was held, and then index cards on each person present and what threat they posed, or how they could otherwise be used by the British spy agency to gain access to Nazi secrets.

Incredibly, the main spy reported that many of the fascists liked to meet in cellars and disused antique shops—it added a suitable air for clandestine meetings, appealing to their romantic notions of espionage. They also favored the use of invisible ink, even though it wasn’t necessary. It was clearly suggested that the majority of fascist supporters had some form of mental illness, which created a toxic, unstable espionage environment. From these accounts I was able to recreate the underground group and their meetings.

Biographies and memoirs of agents in the Second World War provided another fascinating source. As all British spies had to sign the Official Secrets Act, they were unable to divulge their exploits. But one woman’s memoir, that of Joan Miller, was published posthumously by her daughter—in Ireland, and even then MI5 fought its publication all the way. Joan Miller was an undercover agent infiltrating a Nazi network.

The incredible danger and insane situations these spies found themselves in must have given them nerves of steel. I read of more than one account of an agent having to kill someone—quickly and on the spot, often by strangulation—in order to keep their cover.

One subject that I didn’t cover in the novel is the undiagnosed PTSD that many agents of this era had for the rest of their lives. I could read within their accounts deep-seated feelings of paranoia. They had a pit of fear that left them always looking over the shoulder, waiting for someone to recognize them, or the ghost of someone long dead come to make their own gruesome revenge.

Which character was your favorite to write about? Did a person in history or in your own life serve as inspiration for a main character?  

Spies of Shilling Lane Book JacketA few years ago I interviewed a twinkly-eyed old lady about her war, Mrs. Underwood, who worked for one of the British spy agencies, MI5, during the war. With a wry little smile, she explained that she had to sign the Official Secrets Act, which meant that she couldn’t tell me what precisely she did.

Was she a spy? I thought, utterly intrigued.

“My mother loathed me working for MI5,” she told me with a smirk, as if defying her mother even now. “She wanted me to do the old-fashioned thing and find a wealthy man to marry. She didn’t see that the war meant we women had a chance to do exciting things.” She took a deep breath and gazed out of the window as if remembering the excitement. Beneath the white wispy hair and pale skin, her blue eyes still gleamed with the enthusiasm of youth.

And there she was: Betty Braithwaite, one of the characters in THE SPIES OF SHILLING LANE. The twenty-year-old bright spark who had what it took to be a spy, in spite of what her mother said! The old lady was an absolute gem, and it was in imagining her as a girl that I formed the basics for the book. The bombastic mother, of course, became our beloved Mrs. Braithwaite.

Like Betty Braithwaite, many younger women were drawn to London to take advantage of the great opportunities now opened up to them by the men leaving for the front. Betty’s mother, Mrs. Braithwaite, from an older generation, thinks she should stay at home to find a good husband, a true mark of success as far as she is concerned. But will the war challenge that view?

What are you working on next?

Readers are pressing me to write a sequel to THE CHILBURY LADIES’ CHOIR, and I have a few terrific ideas for those brave and spirited women. I confess that I fell in love with those characters. When I came across a discarded chapter written by dear Kitty, my heart broke to hear her humorous, direct voice again. I’d love to know what happened to her, as well as her older sister Venetia. And if anyone deserves happiness, it has to be Mrs. Tilling, although she is probably the most likely to put herself in danger. I worry about her!

If you’d like to read the extra Kitty chapter, you can go to my website and find out how to download it:

Meanwhile, Kirkus Reviews very kindly thought that readers of THE SPIES OF SHILLING LANE would want a sequel, too. And I have to say that it was so much fun to write. I literally woke up and bounced downstairs to my office to see what was going to happen to them that day. The characters were so big, and the differences between them provided such wonderful opportunities for humor and growth. I would be honored and delighted to send them all out on another hair-raising adventure.

If you’d like to read more about my books, please go to my website:

Jennifer Ryan Photo

JENNIFER RYAN is the author of The Chilbury Ladies’ Choir and lives in the Washington, DC, area with her husband and two children. Originally from Kent, and then London, she was previously a nonfiction book editor.



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