Eyes Turned Skywards: Monique Dubois a.k.a. Vera Duval
Vera Duval, who is known through much of the book under her cover name of Monique Dubois, is one of the two central characters in Eyes Turned Skywards, alongside Wing Commander Robert Sutherland.
Vera’s story, which she tells Bob while the two are locked up together in a cellar in Caithness, is a remarkable one. She was born in 1912 in Barnaul in Siberia. She never knew her parents, and was adopted by a couple who became her Danish father and her Polish/Ukrainian mother. After the Russian revolution in 1918 the family took their then 5-year-old daughter Vera to Denmark, where they bought a farm. After they moved to Paris in 1924 Vera attended ballet school. She was touring Europe with a ballet company by the time she was sixteen and performing as a cabaret dancer in Paris when she was 17.
In 1930, aged 18, she met and married an exiled White Russian count, who turned out to be a drug dealer who was spying on the communists. She acquired a cocaine habit as a result, and left him after a year, continuing her career as a dancer in Paris. In 1932 she was recruited by the British Secret Intelligence Service, MI6, to keep an eye on both the White Russians and the communists. Then, in 1936, she was (with MI6 approval) recruited into the Abwehr, the German intelligence service, by one of its senior officers, Hans Friedrich von Wedel. She subsequently married him, after her first husband had been shot as a spy in Russia. In 1938 Vera travelled with von Wedel to London to cultivate German sympathisers: while all along reporting back to MI6.
Von Wedel was killed in a car crash in 1940, and Vera was trained by the Germans in Norway to infiltrate Britain as part of the preparations for their planned invasion. On 29 September 1940, after the invasion had already been shelved, she was landed by seaplane with two other agents in the Moray Firth off Port Gordon. All three were quickly arrested. Her two companions were subsequently shot as spies, while Vera transferred from M16 to MI5 under a false identity. It was while working for MI5 that she first met Bob, a year before the events of Eyes Turned Skywards, and she meets Bob again in the book while pursuing another investigation on behalf of the Security Service.
This is all pretty far-fetched stuff, isn’t it? No author in his or her right mind would invent a character like Vera Duval and expect their readers to accept her as credible? Fortunately, I didn’t have to invent her. Vera Duval is a fictitious alias for a real woman. The real Vera Ericksen, or Vera Schalburg, or take your pick from any number of other aliases, had a story that was even more complex and even darker than the one Vera Duval told Bob Sutherland in the book. The real Vera Ericksen disappeared during the war after the two spies she landed with at Port Gordon were tried and executed. It is quite possible she changed identity. Her companions on that mission appear as real people in Eyes Turned Skywards, as do her two ill-fated husbands.
I knew when I stumbled over Vera Ericksen’s story while researching Eyes Turned Skywards that I had to build her into the novel as a central character. I like to think she’s paid me back with interest for doing so, as in my view the story is far more powerful because of her involvement.