Gill Oliver speaks to prolific county author Melanie King

The award for most arresting book title at this year’s festival must surely go to Secrets in a Dead Fish.

Written by Woodstock-based author and historian Melanie King, it’s a fascinating account of spying during the First World War.

Following hours of painstaking research in the Bodleian and elsewhere, she unearthed gripping accounts of how intelligence agents passed vital information to their operatives. Examples ranged from an advertisement for a dog in The Times newspaper, which turned out to be connected with the movement of British troops into Egypt and British officers becoming suspicious of trousers hanging on a Belgian woman’s washing line.

All through the war, spymasters and their networks of secret agents developed clever and sometimes comical methods to communicate covertly. Stacks of bread in a bakery window, puffs of smoke from a chimney, and even woolly jumpers were all used to transmit messages decipherable only to the well-trained eye.

For her book, Melanie drew on the memoirs of eight spies working undercover in mainland Europe, including a former Met police officer who’d once hunted Jack the Ripper, a German secret service officer codenamed Agricola, an American newspaperman and an Austrian agent who disguised himself as everything from a Jewish peddler to a Russian officer.

She explained: “I was working on another project set between 1914 and 1925, when I came across an amusing book which turned out to be the memoir of a British spy. “I carried on digging and discovered there are hundreds of memoirs written by spies, which really surprised me. “In one, a spy wrote of how they were near the River Arras on the frontline in northern France where it was believed the Germans were stuffing messages into dead fish and sending them across the river.

“Two British intelligence officers were dispatched with fishing nets and told to catch anything dead that went racing past. “It is common knowledge that dogs were used by both sides to take messages across the trenches and some were trained to jump over barbed wire. “One memoir tells the story of a dog British intelligence officers named Fritz. “They kept spotting it and were convinced it was being used by the Germans to deliver messages.

“Eventually, they captured Fritz by using a female dog, Rosie, to lure him away long enough to take a look at his collar and sure enough, they found hidden messages.”

Messages were often hidden in everyday objects such as soap, walking sticks and even false teeth. Something as simple as boat sails or washing swinging in the wind in a certain way could be used to send messages to the enemy.

Melanie’s husband is renowned writer and historian Ross King and she says being based at home means they can both work more flexible hours. She said: “I am very disciplined and don’t find it hard to work. “In fact, the opposite tends to be true, in that I become so preoccupied with what I am doing, I suddenly think ‘Oh my God, I have got to get dinner started’.”

The couple sponsor a creative writing competition for students at Marlborough School in Woodstock. The King Prize, now in its third year, encourages youngsters to write 750-1,000 words on any subject and the author of the piece judged the winner is given £100. Secrets in a Dead Fish is Melanie’s fifth book and her earlier titles have equally quirky names, including Can Onions Cure Ear-ache? where she explores the sometimes outlandish but often sensible medical advice from an 18th-century Scottish physician and The Dying Game: A Curious History of Death.

After studying international relations at university, she spent two years in Thailand, firstly with hill-tribe refugees on the Laos border, then as a journalist on Thai national newspaper The Nation. She went on to study for an MPhil at the Refugee Studies Programme at Oxford University, before working at The Royal Institute of International Affairs, Chatham House and the Institute for South and South-east Asian Studies in Brussels. She’s also been a careers adviser in a number of Oxfordshire state schools and Brookes university, an experience which prompted her to write her first book, Surviving Stress at Work: Understand It and Overcome It.

She explained: “I was seeing lots of people who had left university but were still in their 20s or 30s and suffering enormous stress at work.

“I realised this was a real problem and wanted to offer some tools for coping.”

The Dying Game came about partly because of her studies in anthropology but also after the unexpected death of her mother. She said: “I was very upset about my mother passing away. “People were kind but I was shocked at how quickly you are expected to go back to work and just get on with everyday life. “Once I got through my own grieving, I realised I was more interested in writing about it in a more anthropological way and looking at people’s attitudes to death.”

She enjoys giving talks and lectures at literary festivals, history societies and schools and she and Ross are travelling to Canada later this month to speak at Vancouver university.

She added: “Some writers find it hard to stand up in front of people and talk about their work.

“There’s always someone in the audience who asks a tricky question and it’s terrible when you know the answer but your mind goes blank.

“But it’s a part of the job I love because I really enjoy making history come alive.”

Melanie King will talk about Secrets in a Dead Fish: The Spying Game in the First World War on Saturday March 22 at 10am. Tickets cost £11.