Book Review

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Blunt Force, by Lynda la Plante

I hope my regular readers will bear with me, if my book reviews are not so frequent or regular for the next few weeks: I am currently in the midst of a significant refactor of the Wilfred Books website; long overdue, I regret to say, because of the inexorable rise in postage costs by Royal Mail, which has meant that I have been losing money on every physical book sale for a while [downloads aren’t affected: prices remain unchanged] and, with Christmas approaching again, as it does with monotonous regularity, I thought I should be prepared for the expected rush of book sales before the big day. Sorry: just my little joke! Suffice to say that I am struggling to keep up with the demands of book reviewing as well as the essential website maintenance, but I am confident that normal service will be resumed as soon as possible: watch this space! Anyway: on to the book review.

This is the sixth of the early career Jane Tennison novels, and now she finds herself, still a detective sergeant, kicking her heels in a quiet police station in Gerald Road, Knightsbridge, a part of London which is described as “sleepy”, after being unceremoniously dumped from the Flying Squad: at the end of the previous book, she was very nearly shot, but one of her colleagues was, when an operation went badly wrong. She had been aware, right from the start of her tenure in The Sweeney, that she was the proverbial square peg in a round hole, given the male-dominated, chauvinistic nature of the officers, but that didn’t deter her from trying to make her mark; unfortunately, the mark she made was a black one. Now she is relegated to paperwork & petty crime, if she’s lucky; she is also working with an old colleague, DS Spencer Gibbs, who is also in some disgrace, after having been demoted. It seems a bit odd that Jane appears to accept being regarded as subordinate to Gibbs, even though they are equivalent in rank: probably right for the timeframe, though, and she knows that being assertive isn’t always a good idea, unless she is in a very strong position.

Of course, this would make for a totally uninteresting, non-story, so there is a murder in her area, which galvanises the station into very welcome action. A theatrical agent, Charlie Foxley, is brutally murdered, in his apartment; he is not only bludgeoned to death with a cricket bat, but also his throat was cut in the bathroom, and he was disembowelled in the bedroom; so if this was the action of one person, there must have been a very serious motive to initiate this level of brutality. In the course of the story, we are vicariously thrown into the sometimes seedy world of acting, and latterly modelling, as Foxley had recently opened a thus-far loss-making agency called KatWalk, a ‘wacky’ way of spelling the British term catwalk – the elongated platform on which models display ‘fashion’ outfits. There are several possible perpetrators who have to be eliminated from the inquiries, including Foxley’s ex-wife Justine, who has been a successful actor, but is now living in her own house with their daughter, and suffering intermittently from mental illness. Jane is also labouring under the supervision of less than accommodating superior officers, and despite her best efforts, she still occasionally slips up, which doesn’t go unnoticed.

This is quite a long book, at 411 pages, and the pace is fairly slow; this isn’t necessarily a bad thing, if you enjoy working through all of the stages of police procedurals, and the main character/s is/are interesting and/or attractive. However, there are a couple of narrative elements which seem somewhat surplus to requirements, although one of them serves the purpose of wrapping up a previous plot element, and the other one could be introducing a plot element for a future story, either being planned or already being written. The former is apprehending her corrupt erstwhile superior officer in The Sweeney, as part of the real-life Operation Countryman—this occupies only a small part of the story, admittedly, and it comes very near the end of the book. The latter is her introduction to firearms training, which seems like a good idea, given her inept behaviour around guns previously, but it doesn’t play an active rôle in this story. The other aspect of the narrative, aside from the murder investigation, which produces an interesting twist, is her ongoing lack of a love-life; although to be fair, that is hardly surprising, given the demands of the job. One aspect of the writing I found slightly implausible was the lack of contractions used in conversation, especially among police colleagues: it makes the conversation seem somewhat stilted. All in all, this is probably one for the Tennison/Prime Suspect devotees: otherwise, readers might find it unexciting. The hardback version I read was published in 2020 by Zaffre, London, ISBN 978-1-78576-985-6.

Book Review

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The Killings at Kingfisher Hill, by Sophie Hannah

This isn’t the first of Sophie Hannah’s homages to Agatha Christie’s Poirot canon [it is actually the fourth], with full permission & endorsement from the Christie estate, but it is the first I have reviewed. In view of that, it must be said that any of my comments about the similarity between Hannah’s & Christie’s writing & plotting styles, aside from the relative merits of this book’s plot, should be considered within the context of my knowledge of Christie’s writing in general, and the Poirot stories specifically, which isn’t encyclopaedic: I have read several of both, but by no means all. After reading the first few chapters of this one, I was initially minded to observe that the setup seemed rather laborious, but by the time I reached the end, it was obvious that the slow pace was essential to provide the details necessary to the complex plot: entirely appropriate for one of Christie’s characters, and I am happy to admit that Point is one of my favourites.

Kingfisher Hill is a private estate, near Haslemere in Surrey, to which Poirot and his by-now [early 1931] regular Scotland Yard associate, Inspector Edward Catchpool [Chief Inspector Japp presumably having retired] have been invited; specifically to one of the substantial homes on the estate, Little Key, by one of the sons, Richard, of the owner, Sidney Devonport, to ascertain whether Richard’s fiancée, Helen Acton did, indeed, murder his brother, Frank, who also happened to be Helen’s fiancé at the time. The invitation is necessarily surreptitious, because the paterfamilias Sidney, who is notoriously brusque & controlling, and his wife, Lilian, both see no reason to disbelieve Helen’s admission of guilt, made immediately after Frank’s fatal fall from an upstairs landing, and are perfectly happy and, indeed, willing, to see Helen hanged in retribution for the crime. As the narrative progresses, it becomes clear that Helen doesn’t actually love Richard, despite claiming that she fell in love with him at first sight, while she was still affianced with Frank, whom she really did love.

On the way to the Devonports’ home, at which the two guests are invited to stay, on the pretext of being sufficiently interested in, enough to potentially facilitate an investment, a board game [claimed to be better than the recently extremely popular new game Monopoly, or The Landlord’s Game] called Peepers, developed by Sidney Devonport and his friend & business partner, the American Godfrey Laviolette, a very strange incident occurs. A female passenger on the motor coach, on which Poirot & Catchpool are scheduled to travel, makes a scene in which she claims that she has been told she will die if she sits in a certain seat on the coach; needless to say, by the time she boards the coach, the sole remaining seat is the doom-laden one; Poirot manages to persuade her that she will be safe, by the expedient of changing seats, so that he occupies the threatening one, and the woman travels adjacent Catchpool. This is the setup which, at first, I felt was unnecessarily long-winded, but as the narrative progresses, the connections to the main plot are revealed, which is why it had to be related so carefully.

Hannah has certainly captured Poirot’s character & mannerisms quite well: there is rather more to a good homage to a very well-known & -loved character in fiction than merely describing him as being self-satisfied, and possessing extravagant moustaches & an egg-shaped head. Notwithstanding the complexity of the plot, I was slightly concerned, at least two-thirds of the way into the narrative, when Poirot gives Catchpool a list of seven tasks which he should achieve to advance their investigation, when Poirot has previously declared on at least one occasion that he has virtually solved the case! Aside from that, the plot is very cleverly worked out, and the investigation exposes secrets, lies, deliberate misdirection & character flaws, which would distract and inhibit any other investigator of a lesser intellect from arriving at a motive and exposing the perpetrator. The book was first published by HarperCollinsPublishers, London, in 2020; the paperback version which I read was published in 2021 ISBN, 978-0-00-826455-0.

Book Review

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V2, by Robert Harris

A Robert Harris novel is always an enticing prospect, for me, and this one didn’t disappoint, because I knew in advance that it would be based on meticulous research. The science & technology which facilitated this murderous & potentially catastrophic final chapter of the war is well known & catalogued, as is the personnel on both sides who were involved, although Harris did invent the British defence unit in the story, and the principal German character; what he doesn’t specify is whether the named casualties of the rockets were real, but it would seem disrespectful if they weren’t, so I think it must be safe to assume that they were. The idea for the novel came to Harris after reading the obituary of a 95-year old ex-WAAF officer who had been posted to Mechelen, Belgium, in November 1944, and then her two-volume memoir. It is also well known that Wernher von Braun and other scientists involved in Hitler’s last desperate attempt to subdue & conquer Britain were persuaded [although probably not a great deal of persuasion was necessary] to work for the USA, albeit in secret, because of the sensitivity of their recent enemy status, in the USA’s postwar ballistic missile, and subsequently civilian space programmes: this extraction operation was known as Operation Paperclip.

The narrative is effectively a two-hander with, on the one side, the German participants; most of whom are scientists, but there are also some military characters; and on the other side, the British participants, the protagonist being the WAAF, Section Officer Angelica Caton-Walsh, known as Kay, based on the aforementioned officer, Eileen Younghusband. Kay works at Danesfield House; renamed RAF Medmenham after the closest village, near Marlow in Buckinghamshire; she is a photographic analyst in the Central Interpretation Unit, working in what was known as Phase Three: examination of recent aerial photographs from the enemy theatre of operations for potential longer-term tactical use. She has been having an affair with Air Commodore Mike Templeton, but Mike is injured when the building in which his London apartment is located, Warwick Court — near Charing Cross, just off Chancery Lane in Holborn — is badly damaged by a V2 rocket strike; Kay receives only very minor injuries. She is more emotionally wounded when Mike warns her against accompanying him to the hospital, but she is pragmatic enough to know the reason for that.

She is asked to accompany her section leader, Wing Commander Leslie Starr [known as The Wandering Starr, for fairly obvious reasons with so many female subordinates], to a meeting at the Air Ministry to formulate an urgent response to the exponentially-increasing number of disastrous V2 incidents. To her amazement, Mike is there, hobbling on crutches and swathed in bandages, but he acts as if they have never previously met; although this is, again, not entirely unexpected, Kay resolves to make a clean break and request a transfer to a forward new radar analysis unit which is proposed for the closest location in Belgium to the apparent launch site of the latest V2s: Scheveningen, in Holland. The female officers needed for the new unit have to be mathematicians, but Kay’s mathematical prowess is rudimentary, although she knows her way around a slide-rule & logarithmic tables, so she feels confident enough to prevail upon Mike to facilitate her transfer, as one last favour. The idea is that the trajectory of the rocket’s flight, and hence the launch position, can be retrospectively calculated using the first observed position after launch, direction, and speed, then factoring in the strike location and working back using the flight parabola.

On the other side, at Scheveningen, is an old colleague & friend of von Braun from their early days of rocketry experiments, the technical liaison officer from the Army Research Centre at Peenemünde. He is keen to improve the efficiency of the rockets, especially in view of the investment the Nazis have made in their development, and several embarrassing & costly failures [both in financial and human terms] have always been a cause for concern; latterly, he has begun to consider the implications of his actions: both he & von Braun were always more interested in the rockets’ potential for space exploration, and von Braun, particularly, saw the war as an unavoidable distraction from their main purpose, but also with the advantage of providing funds & facilities to achieve that. Graf’s anxiety is exacerbated by the arrival of SS Sturmscharführer Biwack of the National Socialist Leadership Office, one of the Nazi Party commissars, recently embedded in the military on the Führer’s orders, to kindle a fighting spirit: “Real die-in-a-ditch fanatics.” He has full security clearance, and it is obvious to Graf that, as well as his stated purpose, he will also be snooping everywhere, always on the lookout for lack of enthusiasm or even possible sabotage.

The action progresses from one side to the other and, naturally, anti-fascists will root for Kay & her associates, but it is not difficult to also feel some sympathy for Graf; less so for von Braun, perhaps, as he never hesitates to use his SS credentials to further his career & aims, although he does assist Graf in more than one sticky situation. The outcome of the war is known, of course, and not too much space is devoted to the race against time to locate the launch sites, but it is nicely paced, and there is also a neat little coda where Kay & Graf actually meet: entirely fictitious, of course. Overall, I found the book reassuringly enjoyable, although I do have a couple of minor [and very personal] quibbles: for me, it was disappointing to see American terminology used in a couple of places, e.g.: wrench for spanner, flashlight for torch. US troops were stationed in Britain in 1944, but British usage would have prevailed, plus the character where they were used was German. Also, the author uses what I consider as the lazy habit of referring to a German army officer as Nazi, when not all were members of the Nazi party: many were actively critical of it, dangerously so. I don’t cite these as a deterrent, however, so I would unconditionally recommend it. I read the hardback version, published in 2020 by Hutchinson, London, part of the Penguin Random House group: ISBN 978-1-78-633140-3. There is also a Wikipedia article, which gives more background to Operation paperclip.

Book Review

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The Final Solution, by Michael Chabon

This is not a Holocaust story, per se [but see below], but a Sherlock Holmes story [I seem to be reading a few of these pastiche/hommage stories latterly: is this synchronicity? Or is it just fantasy?]; except that it isn’t: nowhere in the narrative is this revered name mentioned, although the narrative is structured in such a way that no alternative can be considered. There has to be a reason for this, although Chabon, whilst not specifically evasive, is somewhat elliptical in his explanation, in the “About the Book” end section, which is the transcription of an interview with Steve Inskeep, host of NPR’s Morning Edition, in December 2004, following this book’s publication. He says “The first writer that [ouch!] I really fell in love with was Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, and in particular his Sherlock Holmes stories, and the first story that I ever wrote was a Sherlock Holmes story. It was a kind of pastiche. … It was called ‘The Revenge of Captain Nemo’.”

Asked if he went back & reread that story to prepare him for this latest book, he says: “No, I didn’t.” Other than that, the only reasoning which throws any light on his decision to leave the protagonist unnamed is a desire to direct more credit to the original author: “I found it was all just still so vivid to me, and I think that’s a testimony to what a truly fine writer Sir Arthur Conan Doyle is, and I don’t think he is really given enough credit for the quality of his writing. … [Inskeep: Do you hope that there might be people who will pick up this Sherlock Holmes story, this mystery that you’ve written, who might not otherwise have read some of your work?”] You know what I would really hope would be that a lot of people who might be inclined to pick up this book and read it because it’s one of my books, might then think, ‘Hey, maybe there’s more to this Arthur Conan Doyle than I thought there was’, and go back and pick up some of those fantastic stories.” So: still no categorical admission — I’ll keep my observations to myself, but I find this somewhat uncomfortable.

As I also do with the book’s title, notwithstanding the subtitle: A Story of Detection. Chabon is quite open about his Jewish heritage; in 2005, his latest novel, entitled The Yiddish Policemen’s Union, was set in Alaska, in Chabon’s imagined alternative Jewish homeland. That said, I am ambivalent about the title of the book under review; it feels uncomfortable to borrow the notorious title of a ghastly genocidal scheme for a novel, despite the association, in a different context, with the story’s main character being appropriate [although, *Spoiler Alert!* — given that he survives to potentially continue detecting at the end, it might not be his final solution to a mystery?], and that the other main character, a nine-year old boy called Linus Steinman, is evidently an escapee from the Holocaust, by virtue of having been allowed to leave Germany during that awful period; but, on the other hand, it could be argued that Chabon has more right to claim ownership of the reference than someone not of his heritage, so perhaps I’m just being pernickety.

The boy is lodging with a family consisting of a high-church Anglican vicar, the Reverend Panicker, who is “a Malayalee [sic] from Kerala, black as a boot-heel”, his wife, “a large, plain, flaxen-haired Oxfordshirewoman [sic]”, their son Reggie, and several other lodgers. The boy is mute, possibly the result of some past trauma, but he also has an African Grey parrot, who speaks mainly, but not exclusively, German which consists predominantly of strings of seven single-digit numbers; although it also is given to singing, and “reciting bits and scraps of poems of Goethe and Schiller known to every German schoolchild over the age of seven.” The boy had already encountered the retired detective, when the latter was concerned enough to tear his thoughts away from his beloved bees to persuade the former to remove himself from the electrified railway line at the back of the detective’s house, along which he was walking.

When one of the Panickers’ lodgers is murdered, and the parrot disappears, the detective, despite currently having no appetite for the vicissitudes of his former calling, is persuaded to investigate; there is, of course, a local police Inspector, the grandson of an Inspector of the detective’s former acquaintance, Sandy Bellows, who, along with his lumpen colleague, DC Quint, defers to the great former detective in this curious case. The case is solved successfully, inevitably, but I did feel that Chabon was trying too hard to emulate the contemporary style in which Conan Doyle wrote, making it feel, for me anyway, unnecessarily verbose. That said, it is a short novel; perhaps more accurately a novella, at 120 pages in length, including some quite good full-plate monochrome pencil drawings; so it is not an onerous undertaking to read it, and the conclusion is neat, as should be expected. The paperback edition I read was published in 2008 by Harper Perennial, London, ISBN 978-0-00-719603-6.

Book Review

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Double Agent, by Tom Bradby

This author’s name might already be familiar to some of my British readers, given that he has worked extensively as a journalist & correspondent for the Independent Television Network, and that work has encompassed political affairs, so at the very least, it can be said that he knows of what he writes: much more than your present humble blogger, anyway. In addition to the Kate Henderson series, of which this is the second member, he has also written six other novels which, notwithstanding that he had, to 2020, been with ITN for thirty years [which is slightly belied by his annoyingly youthful-looking photograph accompanying the bio on the inside back cover], does beg the question of how demanding his ‘day job’ must be, but to be fair, and with no disrespect intended, authors who churn out piles of books, seemingly on a conveyor belt, tend to be part of a committee, rather than independent scribblers, slaving away in a garret, so it’s probably not too difficult to find a spare hour or so to commit some thoughts to an electronic record, which can then be scrutinised & knocked into shape by editors & proofreaders.

As stated, this book is the sequel to the story which introduced the character, Secret Service [possibly rather too generic a title, but no matter], but that is no impediment to an enjoyment of this story because the backstory is either detailed right at the beginning, or nuggets are drip-fed into the narrative as it progresses; this is a very common device, and perfectly acceptable, and has been adopted by television drama for story arcs [although the somewhat irritating practice of previewing the next episode at the end of the current one, “Next time!”, is now very common, and it is even more irritating in ‘real-life’ documentaries & travelogues, where it is used at the end of each segment, “Coming up!”, before the commercial break!]. That said, I would be happy to read the previous story, even though I now know the ending: there is a school of thought that we enjoy a story more when we already know the ending, so perhaps this proves it.

Kate Henderson is a senior Secret Intelligence Service, aka MI6, officer; head of the Russia Desk; and, although it is presumably more common now for women to hold senior positions in the security services, she is perhaps unusual in that her husband was also an MI6 operative, but defected to Russia because he was unmasked as a mole, codenamed Viper. This was understandably traumatic for her, so at the beginning of this story, she is still suffering the effects of the fallout from this bombshell, and only just managing to hold her work together. She is, however, lucky [possibly implausibly so?] that her aunt is the head of the Personnel Department, and spends a lot of time at her home, to help look after Kate’s two children; also an old and close friend works with her in the same department. One major fly in the ointment is that Kate has been assigned a deputy, Suzy Spencer; “slim, pretty, northern, state-educated and half Vietnamese”, who has been seconded from 5 to replace her former deputy & friend, Rav, who was killed at the unsuccessful end of the previous mission, “Operation Sigma”. This is quite clearly the result of her husband’s treachery, so it is just one more thing for Kate to be concerned about.

The ‘meat’ of the story concerns the potential defection of a senior Russian Intelligence officer, Mikhail Borodin, as well as his father, Igor, the former head of the SVR, Russia’s Foreign Intelligence Service, and his wife. This has come about by having fallen out of favour somewhat, as a result of tensions between the SVR [the successor to the KGB] & the GRU, Russia’s military espionage agency: apparently, Igor has been ousted in a coup, orchestrated by the GRU, and his colleague, Vasily Durov, is already under arrest. What would sweeten the deal is that they would supply allegedly categorical evidence that the current British Prime Minister is an agent for Russia, and has been for many years; this evidence would include financial payments, and video footage showing the man engaging in sex with underage girls, when he was a soldier in Kosovo. Naturally, there is always the chance that this evidence could be faked, so Kate knows she has to proceed very carefully, but this awareness is complicated by her suspicion that at least one of her current colleagues could also be a mole. During the action, Kate meets up with an erstwhile colleague [and old flame, natch] from her time at University in Russia, and even endures a somewhat awkward overnight stay with her estranged husband in Moscow. It’s not a bad yarn, as spy stories go, so I will keep my eyes open for other publications by Bradby. The Penguin paperback I read was published in 2020 by Bantam Press, ISBN 978-0-5521-7553-1.

‘A Novella Collection’ is FREE This Weekend

FREE books from Stevie Turner: this weekend only! 02 & 03/10/21

Stevie Turner

4 of my novellas are FREE for THIS WEEKEND ONLY. ‘A Novella Collection’ is usually $4.99/£3.70 and features the following stories:

The Pilates Class: Humorous/Romance

Cruising Danger: Suspense

Lily: Historical/Paranormal

The Noise Effect: Suspense

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Book Review

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The Darkest Evening, by Ann Cleeves

Oh, the joy: a new Vera story! Even though, as I’ve mentioned before in this respect, there is a disparity between the characters in the source material & the televised dramatisations, it is still possible for me to enjoy these stories, and this one doesn’t disappoint; although, that said, there are perhaps one or two signals that Vera might be entering the final phase of her career: I hope not, but as the saying goes, all good things……… This story starts in what is now referred to as ‘the run-up to Christmas’, and Vera herself commences the narrative by uncharacteristically having a minor mishap on the road on her way home from work, despite driving her customary ancient Land Rover, because the road she takes is made treacherous by snow. She discovers an abandoned car, but it is suspicious for two reasons: although the motor isn’t running, the driver’s door has been left open, and a small child has been left strapped into a car seat in the back. Thankfully, the child is unharmed and, apparently, unperturbed by its abandonment [gender thus far unknown] so, despite being not the most maternal of females, Vera decides that the safest thing for the child will be for her to take it to a place of safety, given that no mobile signal is available.

The nearest possible place of safety is a manor house, called Brockburn, which just happens to be the ancestral home of the Stanhope family, of whom Vera herself is one, albeit the daughter of a persona non grata member, Hector. Despite not having visited since she was fifteen years old, and the fact that guests are either already present, or expected for a dinner evening, she is made welcome there by all except the dowager Harriet, whose deceased husband, Crispin, was Hector’s nephew: Hector’s older brother, Sebastian, the heir to the estate, and wife, Elizabeth, are long dead. In short order, by the simple expedient of a nappy change [not by Vera herself!] it is established that the child, approximately a year old, is a boy, and subsequent to her call using a landline to the police station, the owner of the car is identified, but she is a 67-year old woman, so unlikely to be the mother. After speaking to Constance Browne, the mother’s name is given as Lorna Falstone, and she has general permission to borrow Connie’s car, but Connie was unaware until Vera’s phone call that the car was in use that day; no father of the child is available, and according to Connie, Lorna’s relationship with her parents, who also live locally, is somewhat distant. Before Vera can ascertain any further information, a local farmer, Neil Heslop, who had arranged to collect his two daughters, who had been waitressing for the evening at Brockburn, arrives in his tractor to report to the police that he has found a woman’s body: this launches Vera into the next phase of the incident.

What follows thereafter is the regular police procedural [although directed in Vera’s inimitable style] which produces an unravelling of the tensions in the relationships between all the characters in the story, who are all either interviewed informally, or just spoken to casually [but no information goes unremarked], over a period of the next few days, to establish salient facts and eliminate potential suspects, of which there are a few, as usual. There is another murder before very long, and in her usual style, when she has decided the identity of the killer, Vera inadvisedly confronts the person alone, risking her own death in the process, but I think it is safe to reveal that she survives, as I wouldn’t like to frighten devotees of this lovable detective into thinking that this is Vera’s last hurrah! All in all, this is a worthy new member of the canon, and the hardback I read was published in 2020 by Pan Macmillan, London, ISBN 978-1-5098-8951-8.

Book Review

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Liberation Square, by Gareth Rubin

I really wanted to enjoy this story; it is the first novel by this author, whose CV is very brief, and his current work environment is somewhat contradictory: as well as being an author [possibly something of an exaggeration, given that as stated, this is his first novel], he is a journalist, who writes for the Observer and Daily Telegraph, which in my humble estimation, do not make obvious or comfortable bedfellows—perhaps he is just endeavouring to be even-handed? The cover of the paperback I read; published by Penguin Books, 2019, ISBN 978-1-405-93061-1 [originally published by Michael Joseph, 2018]; is a striking monochrome image of an imposing domed building, but the surmounted red star, vertical draped red banners, on the frontage, showing a white hammer & sickle under a white outline star and over a white surrounding wreath, on the road in front a red London double-decker bus with an upper-level banner showing Russian cyrillic script, and a woman [rear view, retreating] wearing a coat in the same hue of red, all seem somewhat superimposed, instead of being fully integrated into the scene: but perhaps that is a deliberate device to communicate the origin of the story? Background information under the book’s title is: “London, 1952. The wrong side of the Wall.”

This was a fascinating premise for me: as a refreshing change from the [albeit mostly enjoyable] alternate universe scenarios in which Britain lost WWII and ‘now’ is an outpost of the German Third Reich, this one posits that, although this initial prerequisite was satisfied, Germany was then ousted from England in short order by Russia, with assistance, albeit unsought, from America. A helpful pair of maps is provided at the front of the book, showing England divided into the Republic of Great Britain [presumably evoking an earlier age], which occupies the territory below a line arcing from the eastern tip of The Wash, through the border city of Oxford, to the Bristol Channel, approximately 15km [all metric now] above Bristol, and the Democratic United Kingdom, occupying the rest of the British Isles & Northern Ireland, as a result of American forces landing in Liverpool and preventing a wholesale Russification. An inset to this first map shows London divided, as an analogue of postwar Berlin in the ‘real’ world, with the RoGB occupying 2/3 in the north, east, and south, and the DUK occupying a rump in the north-west; the passageway between the London DUK and the remainder of the country is apparently a narrow corridor terminating in Oxford, known as “the Needle”. A second, larger-scale map shows central London, from the Tower of London in the east, to Hyde Park in the west, with the later dividing wall bisecting the Thames, running south from above Westminster Bridge, and west to the National Gallery, where there is a Checkpoint Charlie [not sure about the plausibility of that one, but whatever], then north west to curve around the northern periphery of Regent’s Park and onwards further north west toward the northern perimeter.

This should have been a good palette on which to paint a portrait of a postwar Soviet satellite, but unfortunately, it disappointed me for two reasons: firstly, notwithstanding that it is a fictional narrative, and not an alternative ‘real’ history, there was insufficient background information [except in a “Chronology” section at the end, which should have been superfluous] to support the premise that Russia had just been able to sail a warship up the Thames in 1947 and oust all the remaining German occupying force from the southern sector; and secondly, the meat of the story is a somewhat squalid tale of the death of a beloved British actress, Lorelei Cawson, who supported the new régime and made propaganda films for its benefit, and the quest of the second wife, Jane, of the actress’s first husband, Nick Cawson, to find out if she was actually murdered, and whether the husband had continued to see his ex-wife in secret. The story is narrated by Jane, and although this might seem a somewhat harsh assessment, I was continually irritated by how weak-minded she was, but I am prepared to concede that this might be an unfair judgment, given that she must have been traumatised by finding Lorelei dead in a bath, and suffering concussion when she blacked out & hit her head on the bath. When Nick is arrested by NatSec [National Security] on suspicion of causing Lorelei’s death, Jane has to take in Nick’s fourteen-year-old daughter, Hazel.

Jane manages to establish a working relationship with a police sergeant who was also present when Nick & Jane were first questioned, before Nick’s arrest; Tibbot is a “Blue”, one of the civilian police who deal with non security-related crime, including suspicious death and, although initially reticent, it soon becomes apparent that the Blues are made to feel subservient to NatSec, so he is not averse to working independently to help Jane, although he makes it very clear to her how careful they will have to be to ascertain the facts in this situation. A certain amount of the party apparatus is illustrated on the way to the dénouement; several names familiar to us from the period are used for authenticity: Anthony Blunt here is Comrade First Secretary, and other personalities are scattered about in various rôles, including Guy Burgess, Kim Philby, Arthur Wynn, and John Cairncross. I wouldn’t want to deter potential readers from this book, but for me anyway, it could have been slightly better constructed; I would be willing to investigate any further efforts, in the hope that progress has been made.

Book Review

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Guilty Not Guilty, by Felix Francis

In case the reader should be in any doubt about the provenance of the author and the genre to which this book appertains, there is a helpful attribution at the bottom of the front cover; of the paperback anyway, published in 2021 [2019] by Simon & Schuster UK Ltd., London, ISBN 978-1-4711-7319-6: this is a Dick Francis novel. Now, not being either an aficionado or a connoisseur of this particular genre, I don’t know what qualifies this book to be so described: unless there is a specific character or characters who recur in every story, it strikes me as odd that another author, however closely related or otherwise, should claim some sort of continuity with & from the original; in this particular case, it seems unlikely, other than the tenuous connection with the world of horse racing. All that said, on the evidence of this one, I might be tempted to read one of this author’s father’s books, having been reticent previously, given my general lack of interest in the so-called sport [and my growing concerns about the animal welfare aspect], a not insignificant dislike for the more well-heeled patrons, and an inherent disdain for the compulsive & addictive gambling entailed.

The horse racing element is minimal in this story, which is a murder mystery, in which the main character, Bill Russell; aka the Honourable William Herbert Millgate Gordon-Russell; has to deal first with the news, given to him while he is volunteering as a Steward at Warwick racecourse, that his wife, Amelia, has been found by her brother Joe, strangled in her kitchen at home while he has been away; then he has to contend with being accused of this awful crime, and all the repercussions for his life which proceed therefrom. He suspects that he has been accused of the crime by his brother in law, who had latterly become an abusive and potentially violent individual, targeting Bill, Amelia, and her mother in roughly equal measure. Much of the story is written in the first person, narrated by Bill, and it is reasonably clear that he is truly innocent, and not schizophrenically deceiving himself, or spinning a fictitious narrative, in the style of the protagonist of one story by another well known [arguable the best known] murder mystery writer, in which the narrator is eventually proved to be the killer.

Endeavouring to prove that Joe Bradbury was the killer is doubly difficult, because initially, the police cloddishly believe that Bill is guilty, but also because Bill has to contend with the grief of losing the wife he loved desperately, and it is this aspect of the story which is handled with a good degree of sensitivity. Not unexpectedly, the media cast Bill in the rôle of villain, and this opprobrium only exacerbates his feelings of guilt, despite having been as accommodating as he could possibly have been with Amelia’s depression and suicide attempts, aggravated to no small degree by her brother’s venom. He needs to find the real killer, but when nearly everyone, with a few notable exceptions, believes that is he, that is a very difficult task. The story is nicely paced, and there is a twist at the end which is suitably poignant. I would certainly be willing to entertain another of this author’s books and, given that he has written eight others, and co-authored four with his late father, I would say that was an even money bet.

Book Review

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Defend or Die, by Tom Marcus

Tom Marcus doesn’t exist: given that he is a former member of MI5, the use of a nom de plume must surely be not only recommended, but essential, for reasons too obvious to list. This book is his second novel, succeeding Capture or Kill, and they both follow his first book, Soldier Spy which, according to the bio at the front of the book, was cleared & vetted for publication by his former employer, so it must be a safe assumption that the two novels were too. I will refrain from further comment about his background, not least because of my beliefs about the way national security is manipulated globally, but murderous outrages have been perpetrated around the world and will continue to be, whatever the security services do, so whatever can be done [within reasonable limits] to prevent them should be done, failing more accommodation at a global level of differing belief systems, which I fear will only arrive very slowly, and probably painfully. While reading this book, I had to suspend my dislike of authoritarianism, and see it as a street-level spy yarn, which I did.

Matt Logan is a member of a British ’black’ government organisation [i.e.: totally secret & deniable] known as Blindeye; which is certainly not an original idea; and it is tasked with neutralising threats to the UK’s national security. The latest threat [because there always is one, isn’t there?] comes from our favourite bête noir, Russia, so the prime candidate, a billionaire oligarch living in London, is put under surveillance. At the same time, but seemingly unconnected, initially, two people with prior connections to MI5 have died from a heart attack and a car accident, but at least one of the team finds this suspicious: the problem is finding evidence linking their deaths & the circumstances surrounding them. There is a network around the oligarch, including the inevitable security operatives, but surveillance doesn’t immediately reveal anything obviously suspicious. Logan is compromised to some extent, because he is still traumatised by the recent deaths of his wife & young son, whom he ‘sees’ and talks to when he is on his own, but he manages to operate at a tolerable level of efficiency, even when he has to undergo total isolation to facilitate a ‘spiritual cleansing’ as part of the latest undercover operation.

It takes a while for the reality of the threat to be discovered, but when it is, inevitably there is a race against time to neutralise it: Logan is totally lacking in scruples or emotion when it comes to dispatching people who stand in his way, but he hasn’t completely lost his humanity in the process. How believable the characters in this story are is very difficult to assess: there is no shortage of previous associated fiction with which to make comparisons, but given that we are never going to learn the true extent of how any country’s security services work, we have to treat such stories as fiction with an arguably greater or lesser degree of truth to them. For my own part, I think I enjoy reading this genre more if I think the fiction quotient is higher, because it is easy to become prey to so-called ‘conspiracy theories’ [many of which subsequently are found to be true, incidentally, when more evidence comes to light] when grains of truth of governments’ duplicity, deception & thuggery are revealed. This story was published in 2020, by Macmillan, and as yet, no sequel is in evidence; the paperback, ISBN 978-1-5098-6364-8, was published in 2021 by Pan Books, London.