Samuel Marquis is the author of the new novel Lions of the Desert, which focuses on the World War II desert war in North Africa and Operation Condor. His other books include Spies of the Midnight Sun, Altar of Resistance, and Bodyguard of Deception, all part of his World War II series. He lives in Louisville, Colorado.
Q: Why did you decide to focus on Operation Condor in your new book?
A: I didn’t intentionally set out to write about Operation Condor when I decided to write Lions of the Desert: A True Story of WWII Heroes in North Africa. Instead, I had always been intrigued by the 1941-1942 Desert War between Rommel’s Afrika Korps and the British Eighth Army and wanted to write a book about it told from the perspective of four to six point of view characters on both the Allied and Axis side.
Once I dug into the research, I quickly realized who the most important POV characters would have to be in addition to Rommel: Scottish Lieutenant Colonel David Stirling, founder and leader of the Special Air Service (SAS), a brigade of eccentric desert commandos that raided Axis aerodromes and supply lines; Egyptian Hekmat Fahmy, the renowned belly dancer, regarded as a Mata-Hari-like German agent in previous accounts but in fact a far more intriguing and ambiguous character in real life; Colonel Bonner Fellers, the U.S. military attaché in Cairo, who was privy to critical Allied secrets in the North African theater and inadvertently played an important role in intelligence-gathering activities for both sides in the campaign; and Major “Sammy” Sansom and Johannes Eppler, the British Field Security chief and the notorious German spy of Operation Condor that Sansom hunted down in cat-and-mouse fashion.
My historical novels are all character-driven, so once I decided on the most dynamic major POV characters in the Desert campaign, the story essentially told itself by chronologically piecing together the most important and gripping historical events my characters took part in.
Q: What did you see as the right blend between your fictional creation and the actual history as you wrote the book?
A: In my historical novels, I try to stick to the known historical facts while at the same time bringing to life key or previously underappreciated historical figures in a new and interesting way that people may not have seen before based on non-fiction history books.
With respect to the events portrayed in Lions of the Desert, I placed the actual historical figures where they physically were during a given event and used their actual words based on journals, case files, contemporary transcripts, trial documents, memoirs, and other quoted materials. Like Michael Shaara in his Pulitzer-prize-winning historical novel about the Battle of Gettysburg, The Killer Angels, I did not “consciously change any fact” nor did I “knowingly violate the action.”
Most of the scenes in the book were based on known events with specific historical figures present, but a minority were based on incidents that are generally accepted to have taken place but have unfortunately not been documented by history, or that I believe happened under similar circumstances to those described in the book but for which there is no historical record.
In these cases, the interpretations of character and motivation are mine and mine alone. But I do stick closely to the historical facts and actual documented words of the characters to give the novel authenticity.
Q: What kind of research did you do to write the book, and did you learn anything that especially surprised you?
A: To develop the story line, characters, and scenes for Lions of the Desert, I consulted over a hundred archival materials, non-fiction books, magazine and newspaper articles, blogs, Web sites, and numerous individuals, and I visited many of the historical locations in the novel.
The biggest surprise I discovered during my research was that although the romantic Operation Condor story had been told many times before—most famously in Michael Ondaatje’s 1992 Booker Prize winning novel The English Patient and the 1996 Oscar-winning film of the same name—until recently virtually every fictional and factual account had been historically inaccurate.
The reason that the Condor story has been shrouded in falsehood, mischaracterization, and embellishment is simple: prior to the 2006 public declassification of large numbers of WWII government documents, the only historical records on the subject available to the general public were those written by the main protagonists (in particular German spy Eppler, Egyptian army officer and future president Anwar Sadat, and British war correspondent Leonard Mosley), who had access to only limited information and were not privy to the larger military-intelligence picture.
In addition, records have conclusively shown that these participants, despite laying down a solid foundation of verifiable facts, have in a number of critical places distorted and embellished the Condor narrative to enhance their own role in history or embroider the story, making it difficult for subsequent researchers to separate fact from fiction.
I had no idea of these shortcomings when I set out to write my book—but once I discovered them, the opportunity to set the record straight and tell the true Operation Condor story became my raison d’être for penning my work.
Q: What do you hope people take away from the novel?
A: I want them to get to know the fascinating characters and important events of the 1941-1942 Desert War, and to set the record straight on Operation Condor and several of the historical figures’ role in the operation. Getting the history updated and right is a critical component of my books.
Q: What are you working on now?
A: The fifth book of my WWII series, entitled Soldiers of Freedom: The WWII Story of Patton’s Panthers and the Edelweiss Pirates. The book tells the story of General Patton and the U.S. 761st Tank Battalion, the first African-American tank unit of the war, in Occupied France and Germany in 1944-45, as well as the Edelweiss Pirates, the progressive German youth movement that resisted the Nazis during that time in Western Germany.
The dedication for the book reads: “To the officers and enlisted men of the 761st Tank Battalion who triumphed on WWII European battlefields, and to the German youth of the Edelweiss Pirates who fought against Nazi tyranny. Both of these oppressed groups should have been properly recognized during and immediately after the war for their bravery in the name of freedom—and for standing up honorably to the brutality of their own countrymen.”
Q: Anything else we should know?
A: For readers who might want to know more about me, I am the ninth great-grandson of legendary privateer Captain William Kidd and author of not only a WWII series but the Nick Lassiter-Skyler International Espionage Series and historical pirate fiction.
You may also be interested to know that: (1) my novels have been #1 Denver Post bestsellers, received multiple national book awards (Foreword Reviews Book of the Year, American Book Fest Best Book, USA Best Book, IPPY, Beverly Hills, Next Generation Indie, Colorado Book Awards); and (2) book reviewers have most often compared my WWII thrillers Bodyguard of Deception, Altar of Resistance, Spies of the Midnight Sun, and Lions of the Desert to the epic historical novels of Tom Clancy, John le Carré, Ken Follett, Herman Wouk, Daniel Silva, Len Deighton, and Alan Furst.
In other words, if you like these authors, you will most likely enjoy my books. For an independent review of Lions of the Desert, check out the Forward Reviews’ book review.
--Interview with Deborah Kalb