When you’ve been at this business as long as me you’ll learn not to be surprised by anything. One day you’re arresting people. Next day you’re protecting the same people. The day after, who knows? They’re shooting you, or you’re saluting them.
Echoland by Joe Joyce has been selected as the 2017 Dublin One City One Book. The novel was originally published in 2013 and is the first in a trilogy that includes Echobeat and Echowave. Set in Dublin in summer 1940, the spy novel is about a country paranoid about a possible invasion from Germany (a possibility that some characters welcome as they see it as a chance to unite Ireland), as well as about life as it was lived in the city during ‘The Emergency’.
There are also fears of a British invasion. “We’ll end up a battleground for both of them. Just a matter of who comes first.”
Several real-life figures mix with historical characters, and Dublin of the ‘40s is wonderfully evoked. There are very few cars featured in the novel, and when they appear, it’s notable – this is because most of the characters travel by bicycle or on foot (this may be one of the few spy novels I can think of where people are spied on by a bloke on a bicycle).
The plot is set in motion when real-life figure Stephen Held’s house in Templeogue is raided by Special Branch searching for a suspected German officer who parachuted into Ireland, and find plans for a German invasion (Plan Kathleen). Held was half-Irish, half-German, and his house was one of many safe houses used by the German spy Herman Goertz. The historical raid happened in May 1940 – Echoland takes place shortly after. Joyce uses the real events of Plan Kathleen to set the scene for his fictional spies and spy-catchers.
The fast-paced thriller has a number of plot threads and is quite convoluted. Principally, it concerns the comings and goings of a set of German nationals, who are being spied on by G2, the military intelligence wing of the Army, in conjunction with the Special Branch – in classic spy novel fashion, the two sections of Government don’t get on. As it happens, the two principals seem to get on rather well. Country boy Paul Duggan is the newly-promoted member of G2 – he has got the job because he can speak German. Peter Gifford is the Special Branch man, a cynical Dubliner. (“One of the originals. Here since before the Vikings”)
Duggan and Gifford spend most of their time spying on suspected German agents, slagging each other in Jackeen vs Culchie style, and competing for the affections of their assistant, Sinead (a character who seems to exist only to make tea).
As well as the spy-work, Duggan is also engaged in a private investigation – the disappearance of his cousin, Nuala. Her father, Duggan’s uncle, Timmy Monaghan is a prominent Fianna Fail TD, decidedly pro-German, not averse to dropping hints that Churchill is willing to give up Northern Ireland in return for Irish support against the Nazis, and who may or may not be entangled in some spying of his own.
‘The lion has had its day’ Timmy went on, pacing every word as if he was coming to the climax of a public speech. ‘Going to find out now what it’s like to be an occupied country, But’ – he raised a finger – ‘the lion can be dangerous when wounded. Lash out. You know what I mean? Last desperate twitch of the tail.’ He paused. ‘Don’t be surprised if they come over the border. Try to take back what they lost. Churchill has never forgiven us for beating them the last time, you know. Nothing he’d like better than to get revenge. Play the game again. Hitler’s right about him, he’s a war monger. They made a bad choice there. And he’ll use any excuse to invade. The ports. Pretend to be protecting us from the Germans.’
Dublin in 1940 is a city on edge. Britain has recently suffered humiliation at Dunkirk. France surrenders. Europe is now in German hands. The war, less than a year old, seems in some circles to be on its last legs (people keep asking when Churchill is going to sue for peace). There are rumours of a possible German invasion of Ireland (possibly with the help of the IRA). Letters to German nationals residing in the city are intercepted and German nationals spied on even as backdoor channels to Berlin are kept open in the event of a Nazi victory.
The city’s atmosphere is very well described: tramlines, bicycles, dances at the Metropole, Sweet Afton cigarettes, and many, many cups of tea (usually with Marietta biscuits, sometimes with Kimberley). There are shortages, though, of petrol, sugar, and so on, and when Duggan visits his parents in Galway, fields where hay would be growing have all been tilled.
But in spite of the hardships, there’s a great deal of humour in the book – maybe it’s gallows humour, especially around the contradictions thrown up in a neutral country still coming to terms with its own past. Chief Censor Frank Aiken, for example, objects to the name Kingstown Presbyterian Hall as there is no Kingstown anymore, but “that Protestant rag the Irish Times wouldn’t rename it the Dun Laoghaire Presbyterian Hall.”