A WWII Mystery
The Justine Byrne Historical Mysteries series
@maryannaevans @thecoffeepotbookclub #HistoricalFiction #HistoricalMystery
Justine Byrne can’t trust the people working beside her. Arlington Hall, a former women’s college in Virginia has been taken over by the United States Army where hundreds of men and women work to decode countless pieces of communication coming from the Axis powers.
Justine works among them, handling the most sensitive secrets of World War II—but she isn’t there to decipher German codes—she’s there to find a traitor.
Justine keeps her guard up and her ears open, confiding only in her best friend, Georgette, a fluent speaker of Choctaw who is training to work as a code talker. Justine tries to befriend each suspect, believing that the key to finding the spy lies not in cryptography but in understanding how code breakers tick. When young women begin to go missing at Arlington Hall, her deadline for unraveling the web of secrets becomes urgent and one thing remains clear: a single secret in enemy hands could end thousands of lives.“A fascinating and intelligent WWII home front story.” —Rhys Bowen, New York Times bestselling author for The Physicists’
Thank you very much for taking the time to answer my questions.
How did you become an author? – I’ve always been a reader. At some point, I started writing my own stories down. I had a little bit of training—I’d taken one high school class in creative writing and I audited a short story writing class in college—but I was mostly winging it. I just sat down and started writing stories. They didn’t get published. but they got me started. Later, I took a correspondence course in novel writing, and it helped me finish my first book. It didn’t get published, either, but it got me the agent who still represents me. Her advice was to write another book, and it was the one that sold. It’s been twenty years now since Artifacts came out, and that book changed my life. I still believe in the one that came before, Wounded Earth, so I eventually published it myself in paperback, ebook, and audiobook editions, because I’ve always thought it deserved an audience. Eventually, I went back to graduate school to get some formal instruction in the art form I had chosen for a career. I earned a Master of Fine Arts in creative writing in 2015, and I’ve been teaching college students to write fiction and nonfiction for eight years now.
Tell us about your writing process. – I write in a very comfy recliner. I have an office. It has a desk. But why sit there, when I can fetch something tasty for my chairside table (like maybe a Coke and a Hershey bar, prop up my feet, lean back, put my notebook computer in my lap, and start typing?
How would you persuade readers to buy your book(s)? – I write books for people who want to go someplace fascinating and experience it with characters who care deeply about what’s going on around them. In The Traitor Beside Her, I take my readers into an ultra-secret WWI-era code breaking operation where a traitor is endangering the Allied troops fighting the Battle of the Bulge. My protagonist, Justine Byrne, and her best friend Georgette Broussard are smart and determined, but they’re terribly inexperienced and they’re facing a hardened spy. They are in over their heads. Fortunately, they make a good team, so the Axis powers had better beware. Justine and Georgette are on their trail.
What is your all-time favourite book? What makes it special? – Now that’s like asking me which of my children is my favorite. J Nope. I just can’t do it.
What are you reading at the moment? – There’s a wonderful think about my job that I call “reading for a living.” To write well, you have to read a lot. Also, to teach people to write well, you have to read a lot, so that you can help them find books that will help them on their paths. Since I’m teaching “Writing the Thriller” this fall, I just finished reading David Heska Wanbli Weiden’s Winter Counts, which is a recently published thriller that I admire a lot. Now I’m reading The Da Vinci Code, which perhaps doesn’t have the quality of writing I saw in Winter Counts, but it sure sold a heckuva lot of books and we’ll have a great time in class talking about why it did that.
Which author(s) (past or present) would you invite to dinner? – I do academic research on the work of Agatha Christie, so I would love to sit down for dinner with her and learn about writing mystery fiction from the Queen of Crime.
What do you do when you’re not writing? Do you have any hobbies or passions? – I love to travel, and these days a lot of my travel is to see faraway family. I enjoy playing the piano and singing. I like to garden. And, of course, I love to read!
How important is it to have your historical facts right and are there any instances when you would bend history to fit your story? – I think it’s really important to gain the reader’s trust, and one way to do that is to respect the facts, when those facts can be obtained. Thus, I work hard to gather all the facts that are available, although I have to be really careful not to dump them all into the story. That would bore people to death. Instead, I sift through all my research and include the telling details that will make people believe that they’ve time-traveled to 1944. Because the internet is wonderful, I’ve found photos of the building where Justine worked and floor plans of the dormitory where she lived. I’ve found photos of the elegant club where a man takes her on a date, and I even found a menu, so the food and drinks are authentic.
However, certain things about the code breaking activitiies in Washington, DC, in 1944 were classified for a long time and the secrets may have died with the secret-keeper. In those cases, I make an educated guess based on what I know to have been true. So far, that has worked very well.
Can you give novice writers some tips (do’s/don’ts)? – I’ve already said some of it, but let me pull it all together in one place. 1) Read a lot. You have to know what’s been done, so that you know you’re creating something new. More than that, though, people who read a lot have an intuitive feel for how a story should flow. They know how to create a dramatic moment, how to let the reader reflect on what just happened, then drive home that feeling with one small detail that propels the story forward. 2) Write a lot. Writers learn by doing. 3) Find writer friends. It doesn’t matter if you’re a member of a formal writing group or just an informal circle of friends who like to put words on the page. It doesn’t matter if it’s online or in person. Writers are lovely people who are fun conversationalists, because they love words so much. More importantly, they understand the writing process, so they’ll understand when you need to be supported and celebrated.
What are your future plans as an author? – I’m working on a standalone Gothic novel called The Library of Rockfall House that will be out in early 2025. I love Gothic fiction—Jane Eyre, Frankenstein, Rebecca—so this is a passion project and I’m enjoying it very much.
Mary Anna Evans is an award-winning author, a writing professor, and she holds degrees in physics and engineering, a background that, as it turns out, is ideal for writing her Justine Byrne series, which began with The Physicists’ Daughter and continues with her new book, The Traitor Beside Her. She describes Justine as “a little bit Rosie-the-Riveter and a little bit Bletchley Park codebreaker.”
Mary Anna’s crime fiction has earned recognition that includes two Oklahoma Book Awards, the Will Rogers Medallion Awards Gold Medal, and the Benjamin Franklin Award, and she co-edited the Edgar-nominated Bloomsbury Handbook to Agatha Christie.
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