Over the years, I’ve had the pleasure of welcoming Alison Morton to my blog on several occasions. Originally, this was in connection with her excellent alternate history series, Roma Nova (and yes, I am SO happy to hear that there will soon be additional instalments in the Roma Nova series) but since some years back, Alison has decided to spread her wings and write contemporary thrillers. Mind you, her Roma Nova stories are thrillers – bursting with action and plot twists that leave me incapable of seeting the book down until I’ve finished it. I blame Alison for many nights of too little sleep…
Recently, the second in her Mélisende series, Double Pursuit, has seen the light of the day. As always, Alison gives us a tough and self-sufficient heroine – albeit Mel does have her own kryptonite in the shape of…Nope, not gonna tell you. Anyway: I asked Alison to pop by and give us some background to Mel’s hard-as-nails facade, so with that, I turn you over to Alison and a post about women in the armed forces.
Is the French Army a place for a woman?
Soldiering, with honourable and remarkable exceptions, has been a man’s business through much of history. Women attached to the military, particularly as healthcare workers (mostly nurses), drivers or messengers, played an important part in the First World War. In the Second World War, their roles spread out further to include vital communications and anti-aircraft roles and as interpreters, technicians – you name it. But apart from those special operations forces women, seen as brave but rather odd, regular women military weren’t allowed to anything as unladylike as carry a weapon, let alone fire it. The idea of a woman who gave life terminating the life of a fighting man was seen as a step too far. In the 1940s, a woman with a loaded gun made the (male) powers that be shudder.
Of course, things changed. They had to. In the post-war period, further opportunities opened up to women in the services; some technical, logistic and communications roles were very near or even within combat zones, especially in insurgency theatres. Women were trained to defend themselves with small arms. At my time in uniform, weapons training was standard for both men and women in my special communications unit. Now, subject to being fit for the role, women in most western countries join armed forces on an equal basis including front line combat and support roles.
French women could join the armed forces more than a century ago as part of the military health service. We know about members of the Resistance, formally designated as FFI (French Forces of the Interior), but the first official unit of French women military, nicknamed Merlinettes, worked as signals operators from 1942 based in North Africa. From 1972, women and men have enlisted under the same terms. But the percentages of women are highest in the health services (58% are women), then the airforce, and navy with the land forces trailing at only 11%.
Women have reached all rank levels, including the highest command posts. In 1976, Valérie André was the first woman appointed to the rank of general. But there are still only around twenty female generals across all branches today.
That was the (very brief) “history lesson”.
And for Mélisende/Mel, the heroine of my new thriller?
Unlike my Roma Nova alternative history adventures, Double Pursuit is a contemporary thriller, the sequel to Double Identity. Our heroine has just been promoted to adjutant-chef in the French Armée de Terre (land forces), equivalent to warrant officer in the UK army. She chose to join as a direct entrant at the non-commissioned officer (NCO) level at 18. She could have gone to the officer training school at Saint-Cyr, but she had itchy feet after leaving school and wanted to get going with an active career rather than buckle down to more study. She had twice refused promotion to a more senior position because those roles include much more admin. She did eventually accept promotion but is still reluctant to take up her colonel’s recommendation for a commission as an officer. Her priority remains serving on the front edge of the action. Well, for now…
So what’s the French Army like for a woman?
Today, the French military is one of the most feminised in the world; 15.5% or 31,424 of the 202 964 military are women. Israel leads as you might expect) with 33%, with Hungary at 20% and the US 18.8% (10.9% UK).
All trades and specialities are open to women, subject to merit and ability. In 2015, the first woman battalion commander was appointed at the officer training school of Saint-Cyr. In 2015, the Navy decided to include female officers (on an experimental basis) in a crew of a nuclear submarine in 2017. Women participate in external operations on the same basis as men, but in 2015, 6.7% of the French military overseas were women as were 4% of French forces serving with UN peacekeeping operations.
Yes, there is sexism, as in all military forces, but similar to many other countries’ armed forces, there is a strong formal structure in place to combat this. Of course, these things are never as straightforward as the written regulations would have them. Mel won’t stand any nonsense in this respect, but she doesn’t have eyes open in the back of her head all the time. However, respect is gained through achievement. As in every military force, you’re only as good as your last job.
Where did Mel train?
Unlike in the British armed forces, applicants can join the French armed forces at NCO (sous-officier) level, but it’s an intense and steep learning curve! The National Active Non-Commissioned Officers School (École Nationale des Sous-Officiers d’Active, ENSOA) is a combined arms military school created by the French Army in 1963. As of 2006, the ENSOA also trains reserve NCOs. The school is located in Saint-Maixent-l’École in the Deux-Sèvres department, not that far from Mel’s Poitou home.
ENSOA provides eight months of intense military, intellectual and personal training for direct entry non-commissioned officer candidates as Mel was when she joined. They should be aged 18-29, hold a baccalauréat, (higher school leaving certificate), a higher technical certificate or a university diploma in technology. Around 45% of applicants are direct entrants; the other 55% come from the other ranks. As experienced soldiers, their conversion training is four months.
At the end of their course, subject to passing the assessment, the new non-commissioned officers are awarded a first level military certificate (CM1) and leave for specialist training in their chosen arm (army, navy air force). The ENSOA training programme is considered physically and mentally demanding, so you have to be pretty fit before joining!
From 2009, the school took over second level general training which prepares (now experienced) NCOs for advancement to the second part of their career.
And what does Mel do?
As one of a group of intelligence analysts attached to the special forces, she’s based at Strasbourg, on-call for any operation whenever they need an English-speaker and/or an intelligence analyst on the ground. Apart from English, she speaks some Italian and with mixed English and French parentage she’s equally at home with both French and ‘Anglo-Saxon’ mindsets, an asset for liaison missions. Mel loves her job – she’s been all over the world, especially when some discreet but decisive action is required. Above all, she is a tough, effective soldier. Mel even relishes the hard training required for her role.
For her, the camaraderie and sense of shared purpose in taking decisive action which leads to a positive outcome can’t be beaten. And I know this from my own time in uniform. But she’s not always a good judge in affairs of the heart…
Thank, you, Alison, and I agree: Mel has had some serious bad luck when it comes to te men she falls for. Let’s hope she’s turned a corner with a certain burly and somewhat surly Brit!
Double Pursuit – the second in a the new contemporary Mélisende thriller series
She’s hunting arms smugglers. But who is hunting her?
One dead body, two badly injured operatives and five crates of hijacked rifles.
In Rome, former French special forces intelligence analyst Mélisende des Pittones is frustrated by obnoxious local cops and ruthless thugs. Despite the backing of the powerful European Investigation and Regulation Service, her case is going nowhere. Then an unknown woman tries to blow her head off.
As Mel and fellow investigator Jeff McCracken attempt to get a grip on the criminal network as well as on their own unpredictable relationship, all roads point to the place she dreads – the arid and remote African Sahel – where she was once betrayed and nearly died. Can Mel conquer her fear as she races to smash the network and save her colleague’s life?
So what did I think of Double Pursuit? Well, this is my review:
I have grown accustomed to being thrown straight into the action when reading Ms Morton’s books – and Double Pursuit does not disappoint, with the first murder victim popping up on the first page. Our heroine Mel is in Rome at the time, and other than a sequence of breath-taking action scenes in this city old as the seven hills upon which it perches, Ms Morton throws in several elegant and vivid descriptions, complete with a somewhat supercilious Italian policeman.
The violence becomes personal: one colleague is badly injured, Mel and partner (in more senses than one) Jeff are almost blown to pieces as they doggedly follow what few leads they can find. Clearly, they’ve trod straight into a hornet’s nest—and even more intriguing, there seems to be a personal angle.
Mel and Jeff bounce from Rome to Brussels to the UK to the south of France. Slowly, a pattern emerges, one that leads directly to the Sahel in Africa and the terrorists that hide in its wide expanse. The Sahel…the mere name has Mel shivering, drowning her in memories of betrayal and loss she would prefer not to have.
Things are further complicated by the rising tension between Jeff and Mel, leaving our heroine very alone as she is obliged to face the lethal combination of new terrorist threats and the restless ghosts of her past.
As always, Ms Morton’s dialogue is crisp and pitch-perfect. As always, she presents us with complex characters. As always, she creates a strong sense of place with her descriptions, be it of the empty wastes of the Sahel or the interior of an English pub. Most of all, Ms Morton gives us a deliciously intricate thriller, with each little twist peeling off like yet another layer of an onion as Mel slowly digs her way down to the truth. And as Mel digs, this reader holds her breath and crosses her fingers, quite, quite incapable of tearing herself away from the book. That, IMO, is the hallmark of a truly gripping read!
About the author: Alison Morton writes award-winning thrillers featuring tough but compassionate heroines. Her nine-book Roma Nova series is set in an imaginary European country where a remnant of the ancient Roman Empire has survived into the 21st century and is ruled by women who face conspiracy, revolution and heartache but with a sharp line in dialogue.
She blends her deep love of France with six years’ military service and a life of reading crime, historical and thriller fiction. On the way, she collected a BA in modern languages and an MA in history.
Alison now lives in Poitou in France, the home of the heroine of her latest two contemporary thrillers, Double Identity and Double Pursuit. Oh, and she’s writing the next Roma Nova story.
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