Historical Thrills

Eau Claire author delves into WWII with new spy novel

Gigi Roelant, photos by Andrea Paulseth |

I SPY WITH MY LITTLE EYE ... Eau Claire author Gary Johnston’s latest is a spy thriller set during WWII.
I SPY WITH MY LITTLE EYE ... Eau Claire author Gary Johnston’s latest is a spy thriller set during WWII.

Veteran thriller author Gary Johnston has taken a daring dive into a new genre with his latest book, Pedigree. The genre shift has been a long time coming for this Eau Claire native. “Having a degree in history, I always find the past interesting,” Johnston said. “It’s not only challenging but also incredibly fun to imagine a possible backstory for what happened and then try to make it believable.” While Johnston’s new book might be historical fiction, he certainly hasn’t left his thriller days behind. Pedigree plays with varying layers of suspense to keep readers earnestly flipping its pages.  A political drama with moments that feel straight out of an action film, Pedigree is a historical spy thriller.

“My research is much like my writing. I might have a certain goal in mind at the start, but I don’t limit where I might wind up or how I might get there.” – author Gary Johnston on writing his new historical spy thriller, Pedigree

The book begins with the death of a World War II veteran and a political standoff among the British, American, and Israeli governments. All three nations want access to the recently deceased veteran, a man with commendations from multiple governments for his work in WWII and secrets he seems to have taken to the grave. And to unravel these secrets the readers go back to the beginning. Back to chats with FDR in a swimming pool, to a perilous paratroop jump behind enemy German lines, and a face-to-face with Hitler himself. The main character, Culpepper, is no 007 or John McClane. He doesn’t so much bumble through the book as he does persevere, surviving often by the skin of his teeth. And while Culpepper might technically be British, his kind-hearted stubbornness will feel very familiar to Midwestern readers.

Culpepper poses as a wounded German soldier in order to get a position as a file clerk in Berlin. His task is a desperate one; in order to get the United States involved in the fight he must find documents to substantiate the eyewitness accounts and rumors about the atrocities committed by the Nazis against the Jews. But he isn’t alone in his task; He has the help of a female paratrooper who poses as his sister and has an agenda all of her own.

The fact that there were female paratroopers in WWII is only one of many historical tidbits readers might be surprised to learn while reading Pedigree. Johnston’s research blends beautifully with the story, a marriage of fact and fiction that creates of tangible truth that is hard not to be immersed in. “My research is much like my writing,” he said. “I might have a certain goal in mind at the start, but I don’t limit where I might wind up or how I might get there.” Johnston had this to say about his process: “(I had) an almost endless need to research the actual event to the smallest detail, to go through material written during that time period to get a feel for how people conversed and interacted, how they reacted to certain situations, and even how they lived their daily lives.”

Pedigree is Johnston’s fourth self-published book. Every element from start to finish speaks as a labor of love; historical spy thrillers are a relatively untapped subgenre, and Johnston has demonstrated just how much potential this type of story has to offer. Johnston is currently working on book four in the Mo Harrigan series and has started on the follow-up to Pedigree. He’s also begun researching a historical novel that will involve a bit of magical realism.

Pedigree is currently available through Amazon books and bookstore.  There will be copies available for purchase at The Local Store, 205 N. Dewey St., and an e-book version should be ready this summer.