“When I was three, she hitchhiked to Alaska with truck drivers while my dad was away,” Iona Whishaw says about her mother. “She packed woolly socks and warm pants and an evening gown.”
One time, while her mother was living in France, a man broke in, brandishing a knife. “She talked the guy down and made him a nice dinner,” Whishaw says. Another time, in Mexico, Mom was kidnapped by two bus drivers. Somehow she convinced the pair to drive her home, where she fed them dinner before ushering them out the door.
After witnessing decades of similar escapades, Whishaw wasn’t as shocked as some daughters might have been to learn, about a year before her mother died, that Mom had worked in intelligence for the British government in South Africa during the Second World War. Growing up in a British community in Latvia, the future spy became fluent in German, French, and Russian along with her native English—useful skills for an attractive woman trying to eavesdrop. “She was asked to go to the parties with the German officers, because she spoke perfect German.”
Whishaw’s mother kept quiet about her wartime adventures, in part because of the Official Secrets Act, but Whishaw encouraged her to document her experiences. Instead, Mom wrote about the bears around Kootenay Lake, saying to her daughter, “Oh, I like my bears.”
As a child, Whishaw was told that her grandfather had been a spy during both world wars. He grew up in Latvia and demonstrated a similar facility with languages. Unfortunately, a family rift meant that Whishaw never learned much else about him. Many decades later, she discovered that her grandfather’s brothers had also worked as spies for MI6, the United Kingdom’s Secret Intelligence Service.
Whishaw bucked family tradition to become a social worker and then a teacher. She wrote poetry and a children’s book while contemplating penning a novel someday. A couple of years before retiring from teaching, she decided it was time to stop procrastinating and follow her dream. She established a new routine: “I got up every day before school at five o’clock, and I wrote 400 words a day.”
In those very first 400 words emerged Lane Winslow, a retired British spy drawn into mysteries in a small B.C. town—similar to where Whishaw grew up—after the Second World War. The fictional character both was and wasn’t Whishaw’s mother. Certainly, real-life traits and adventures have trickled into the mysteries, the 10th of which, To Track a Traitor, came out last week. But Lane Winslow is solid and reliable, in contrast to her real-life inspiration, who “did just crazy-ass stuff.”
It came as a surprise to Whishaw to discover that she enjoys writing books set in the late 1940s. “I wasn’t even that interested in the ’40s,” she admits. “I thought the ’40s were pretty boring.” But she was intrigued by what she calls the “blinding courage” shown by the era’s women, who had carved out new wartime roles for themselves.
Though Whishaw set her books after Lane Winslow’s retirement from espionage at the end of the war, agencies keep courting the former spy, trying to tempt her to return to intelligence work. She seems content doing her amateur sleuthing while slowly falling in love with Inspector Darling. Whishaw isn’t sure how long the series will continue, but it keeps finding new fans around the world. The 74-year-old Vancouverite is currently promoting the 10th book while working on the 11th, due out next year.
One person who might not have enjoyed the series? The intelligent, daring, unpredictable woman who inspired the character of Lane Winslow. Whishaw’s mother had been gone for about 15 years by the time A Killer in King’s Cove, the first book in the series, was published.
“I don’t know if she’d feel honoured or furious. And I really hope she doesn’t come back and tell me.”