Book Review



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Launch Code, by Michael Ridpath

This novelist’s name is not one I have encountered before, but he has written eleven other novels, as well as five novels set in Iceland, during the writing of which he “fell in love” with that country: he now also publishes a blog called writinginice, from which a non-fiction book, Writing in Ice: A Crime Writer’s Guide to Iceland, has sprung. The bio on his website tells us that he was privately educated and worked first as a credit analyst, then a ‘junk bond’ trader, so it is unlikely that his experience could be categorised as the ‘school of hard knocks’, but nevertheless, he seems to have an impartial take on humanity’s character flaws: “Working in the City, I had come across some pretty dodgy characters … the shades of grey interested me.” This novel starts off as a thriller, time-shifting between what became known as the Cold War, specifically 1983-4, and the present day; it then morphs into a murder mystery, and quite a tense one at that.

Former Lieutenant William (Bill) Guth, USN, previously assistant weapons officer on the USS Alexander Hamilton, has made a home for himself and his five daughters in Norfolk, after being transferred to England by his American employer; unfortunately, his wife, Donna, died some years ago, but she still figures very strongly in his memory, and in this story, which is played out by the use of regular flashbacks. An incident occurs on board the nuclear missile carrying submarine which brings the world to the brink of nuclear war, but it was clearly averted, or else there would be no present day story to relate. As the narrative develops, details are released gradually as to what occurred on the sub, but only enough details to give the reader one version of the story, which is then changed as new information is released, of necessity in response to the death of a British researcher who is trying to discover the true extent of the danger the world faced, and how close to destruction it came.

The main character of Bill Guth is deliberately, but also cleverly, presented as being ambiguous in his motives, and for a while suspicion falls on his eldest daughter Alice, to the consternation of her loving, but increasingly concerned British husband, Toby; the security services of both countries are also in the mix, which adds another layer of intrigue to the story. I think this is a worthwhile effort, because it throws some light, albeit guesswork to some extent, on the procedures designed to prevent the accidental release of nuclear weapons, and the questionable value of them as a deterrent (all the more so, given Boris Johnson’s pig-headed determination to ill-advisedly increase the size of Britain’s nuclear ‘arsenal’), and the fairly obvious fact that the world has escaped destruction only because brave individuals on both ‘sides’ were prepared to risk their careers, and possibly also their lives, to overrule the automatic systems that were supposed to be foolproof; commendably, the Russians are portrayed as being no more belligerent, and just as fallible as the Americans, as the two quotes at the beginning of the book illustrate:

Never, perhaps, in the post-war decades was the situation in the world as explosive and hence more difficult and unfavourable as in the first half of the 1980s.


Mikhail Gorbachev, leader of the Soviet Union, 1986

We may have been at the brink of nuclear war and not even known it.


Robert Gates, Deputy Director of CIA and later Secretary of Defense

I will certainly look out for other books by this author, and look forward to reading them as & when I find them. This one is published in paperback by Corvus, London, 2020, ISBN 978-1-78649-701-7.

Book Review

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Crossing the Line, by John Sutherland

This book was first published in 2020, but an updated version, with an epilogue written in December of that year, was published in 2021 by Weidenfeld and Nicolson, London, ISBN 978-1-4746-1237-1. The epilogue included the author’s response to the pandemic, to the time of writing of course, but also events which had happened between finishing the first publication in 2020 and the end of that year and were relevant to the theme of this book. The title, in conjunction with the cover image of the blue & white striped tape used by police to close off crime scenes, might lead one to suppose that this is an account of instances of when police officers have ‘crossed the line’, or transgressed against their calling, but in fact, the subtitle immediately removes any doubt: Lessons from a Life on Duty. John Sutherland was a Metropolitan Police officer until his retirement after twenty-five years of service, and he is very well aware of the low regard with which officers of all ranks are nowadays regarded, from across the whole spectrum of British society [meaning England & Wales; Scotland & Northern Ireland having their own police services].

It isn’t until well into the book that the author reveals that he suffered a nervous breakdown in 2013, although he was able to return to work after a period of recovery, but that revelation does give some perspective to his observations, because as well as being obviously articulate, he makes it clear that he is not an officious disciplinarian, seeing no need to question the status quo. He is obviously distressed about societal disintegration which he sees as the catalyst for the majority of crime, but he also analyses why this should be, and how it can be rectified. He is unequivocal that the majority of police officers are conscientious, joining the service from a genuine desire to help people, and he separates the areas of crime affecting British society today into ten different ‘challenges’, as he refers to them (although there is inevitably some overlap), and the subject areas are clarified in my brackets:

        I: Drunk and Incapable; [alcohol]

      II: Possession with Intent; [‘drugs’]

     III: Just a Domestic; [domestic violence]

     IV: On a knife Edge; [knife crime]

      V: Places of Safety; [mental health]

    VI: Learning to Listen; [community relations]

  VII: Keeping the Peace; [public disorder]

VIII: The Rise of Extremism; [extremism]

   IX: A Question of Belief; [sexual offences]

     X: On the Register. [child abuse]

Item VII is an area where opinions are generally distinctly polarised: the right to freedom of expression; in this case, the right of the British National Party to operate a bookshop. Although Sutherland, who was still in his probation and hadn’t completed his riot training, missed the violence by the time he arrived on the scene of an earlier riot in October 1993, he takes what he considers to be an impartial view: “Though I may despise the BNP and all they stand for, I am still bound by duty and law to protect what’s theirs.” This has a bearing on the research I did for my biography of Wilfred Risdon, Black Shirt and Smoking Beagles, and the right to express contentious views is just as controversial now as it was in the 1930s.

I can’t share his implicit support for the “respectable folk from rural communities” who participated in “a large demonstration [arranged by the Countryside Alliance] to protest against government proposals to ban fox hunting”, which descended into a standoff between officers & demonstrators near Parliament Square. He says that “At the time, I didn’t hold any particularly strong personal views about fox hunting, but I was very clear what I thought about people trying to break into Parliament.” In my view, “respectable folk from rural communities” can become violent very quickly when their ‘right’ to slaughter innocent non-food animals is called into question. After the incident, “The then Commissioner, Sir John Stevens, admitted that the disorder had taken the Met by surprise. He also confirmed that the force would identify lessons to be learned from the events of the day and that they would examine the actions of individual officers to see whether any had overreacted in their treatment of protestors. And that is exactly as it should be, because the police don’t always get it right. On occasions, whether individually or collectively, they get it terribly wrong. The death of Ian Tomlinson during the G20 protests of 2009 represents a particularly grim reminder of just how badly things can end.”

So, a commendably even-handed exposition, and he can now comment as an ex-police officer: “I will defend with my last breath your right to protest: about human rights, about foreign wars, about basic poverty, about government policy, about state visits by the leaders of totalitarian regimes, about austerity, about any of the myriad things that matter to you. Now that I am retired, I might even line up alongside you. And I will defend your right to challenge the police to be better at what they do, to act with restraint and to say sorry when they get things wrong. Indeed, I will join you in making that challenge. But I will never defend violence or criminality of any kind. Those are the things that render a just cause lifeless.” Room for subjective judgements there, of course. He does try to end on a positive note, but unfortunately, it only serves to signal that there is plenty of room for improvement: “… hope is not a passive thing: it demands action. We know what needs to be done; we just have to get on and do it. We need to understand that, while the cause could not be more urgent, nothing of lasting worth is going to be accomplished overnight…it is going to take time to mend all that has been broken. It might actually take our lifetimes. In the meantime, we need to recognise just how much it is costing to get things wrong and to start spending our money in a completely different way: independent of political agendas, guaranteed for the long-term and focused relentlessly on the first things that must always come first.”

Whatever your place in British society, this is a book worth reading, to go beyond the stereotype presented by the media and those with axes to grind; police officers are human beings too, and improvements to the system under which they work might have been made, but in June 2021, there are obviously still problems with the Metropolitan Police, perceived or otherwise: Guardian article from the 24th of June here. The Daniel Morgan inquiry, recently concluded, has also not helped inspire public confidence: article from The Canary here.

Book Review

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An Officer and a Spy, by Robert Harris

This is a weighty tome, running to 608 pages and, ordinarily, I might be deterred by this, but seeing the name of Robert Harris on the cover was all the incentive I needed to convince me to read it, having read a few of his books before now. Also, I was curious to discover how well he would handle a real historical situation, although he is no stranger to setting fiction in different time periods; this book concerns l’Affaire Dreyfus, or The Dreyfus Case, and I had vague recollections of having to apply myself to it in History lessons at school but hitherto, I wouldn’t have been able to present a cogent synopsis of the events that transpired. Given that these events actually happened, Harris’s freedom to create a fictional narrative was necessarily somewhat constrained, but he tells the story from the point of view of a fellow army officer, Marie-Georges Picquart, previously professor of topography at the École Militaire, now deputy to the head of the Third Department of the War Ministry (Operations & Training), who soon after Dreyfus’s conviction becomes promoted to Head of the Second Department, the Statistical Section, otherwise known as Intelligence; this arrangement had been in operation since Napoleon’s time.

Before his public military degradation (an essential part of his punishment, involving the removal of all his regimental uniform decorations & the ceremonial breaking of his sabre, in front of the first military parade of the Paris garrison) Dreyfus allegedly confessed to the captain guarding him that he did indeed pass documents to the Germans, but Picquart decides this is unreliable, which is helpful for him, as he had just given a verbal report to the Minister of War that Dreyfus continued to protest his innocence at the parade, in contravention of normal custom. Alfred Dreyfus, captain of the 14th Artillery Regiment, certified General Staff Officer & probationer of the army’s General Staff, was found guilty of delivering to a foreign power or to its agents in Paris in 1894 a certain number of secret and confidential documents concerning national defence; he was a Jew from Mulhouse, which was in the disputed Alsace Lorraine territory, now part of Germany, following the humiliating defeat by Germany in the 1870 Franco-German war; he also spoke with a slight, but discernible German accent, which was another thing, in addition to being identifiably Jewish, which counted against him. Unfortunately, at that time, institutional anti-Semitism was casually accepted as an attitude by the majority of the population, including Picquart himself.

In addition to the humiliation of the military degradation, Dreyfus’s penalty also included discharge from the army and deportation to a fortified enclosure for life: this was Devil’s Island, 15km from the coast of the penal colony at Cayenne (French Guiana, on the north east coast of South America); the island was reopened especially for Dreyfus, although there were many who called for the death penalty for what they considered to be a heinous crime, particularly in that time of heightened tension between France & Germany. It was once Picquart became established in his position as head of the Second Department that his suspicion begins to grow that Dreyfus has, indeed, been falsely accused, and that a despicable miscarriage of justice has occurred, especially when he learns that secrets are still being passed to the Germans so, albeit somewhat unwillingly at first, he makes it his mission to discover the truth, even if that means that Dreyfus is innocent; unfortunately, in the course of his investigations, he encounters obfuscation, opposition, and outright hostility from his superiors, but also, which proves to be more dangerous, for his career and even, potentially, his life, from his own close colleagues. He suffers many tribulations, threats, and even murder attempts during the course of the narrative, but he proves to be strong enough to survive them all, and the help he receives from a few valued friends, and later associates, a few of whom are as illustrious as the author Victor Hugo, whose publication J’Accuse eventually proves to be powerfully influential, contributes to his eventual success.

This is not to spoil the plot: the story is known, and can easily be researched, but where Harris succeeds is in weaving a plausible narrative for the character of Picquart. Harris himself says at the beginning of the book:

None of the characters in the pages that follow, not even the most minor, is wholly fictional, and almost all of what occurs, at least in some form, actually happened in real life. Naturally, however, in order to turn history into a novel, I have been obliged to simplify, to cut out some figures entirely, to dramatise, and to invent many personal details. In particular, Georges Picquart never wrote a secret account of the Dreyfus affair; nor did he place it in a bank vault in Geneva with instructions that it should remain sealed until a century after his death. But a novelist can imagine otherwise.

Robert Harris

I can highly recommend this book, and I don’t think you need to be an aficionado of history to be able to appreciate it: it’s a thumping good story, including a criminal conspiracy (which never seem to go out of fashion!) and it’s always good to be able to read a story which has any sort of resolution, especially a positive one. The paperback I read was published in 2014 by Arrow Books, London [part of the Penguin Random House Group], ISBN 978-0-09958-088-1.

WAKE UP, SHEEPLE!

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This is a reblog of a post with the above title (used deliberately ironically, of course), on my own personal blog, which I use to vent my spleen about issues that are engaging me; generally, but not exclusively, politics and the repercussions therefrom. I normally avoid airing my personal views on this Wilfred Books WordPress blog, preferring to confine it to subjects & themes that might have concerned Wilfred Risdon, the subject of my biography, Black Shirt and Smoking Beagles: for further information, please click through to the about page on this site.

Link to the blog:

http://www.jonrisdon.co.uk/blog/database/alt_blog080521.html

Book Review

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Lovecraft Country, by Matt Ruff

This is not an easy book to review; not because I don’t know what to say about it, but because I know virtually nothing about H P Lovecraft’s writing, so I wouldn’t want to jump to any lazy conclusions about the presumed connection between this book and Lovecraft’s own oeuvre. I was attracted to the book because I recently watched (and enjoyed, albeit with some ongoing confusion) the HBO dramatisation, which was shown serially in Britain on Sky (and seems to have taken some considerable liberties with the narrative, but I suppose that is only to be expected, using the mitigating excuse of “dramatic licence”) and, inevitably, two of the drama’s main characters were depicted on the latest edition of the book’s front cover: this paperback was published in 2020 by Picador, London, ISBN 978-1-5290-1903-2. Unfortunately, the book’s Wikipedia page isn’t a great deal of help here:

Lovecraft Country is a 2016 dark fantasy horror novel by Matt Ruff, exploring the conjunction between the horror fiction of H. P. Lovecraft and racism in the United States during the era of Jim Crow laws, as experienced by Black science-fiction fan Atticus Turner and his family.

See above for citation

Lovecraft’s own Wikipedia page is somewhat more helpful, but I will return to that at the conclusion of the review. The book is actually a portmanteau of eight separate, but connected stories, the first of which gives the book its name. The story starts in 1954, with the return of Atticus Turner, who has just been released from military service, having served in the American war in Korea, to his home in Chicago. Although the story starts in an apparently ‘normal’ world, it very quickly becomes clear that this normal world is a very difficult one for black people (or ‘coloured’, as they are often referred to, which is at least polite), and that the events which ensue are going to be seen & interpreted through the lens of this difficult, and very often painful reality.

Before long, magic becomes an inescapable part of the fabric of the story, which makes the journey upon which our protagonists have embarked, even more perilous. Atticus’s father, Montrose, has gone missing, and in New England, where they hope to find him, Atticus, his uncle George, and his childhood friend Letitia encounter thuggish & provocative white police officers (inevitably), but also the white, patrician Braithwhite family: father Samuel and son Caleb will figure in the rest of the story, and become a presence that it is impossible for Atticus & his associates to ignore. The Braithwhites are members of one of a loose confederation of quasi-Masonic Lodges, but this appearance is merely superficial, as their main purpose appears to be the use of magic; and not always a beneficent one, unfortunately. Atticus’s family also appears to have a knowledge of the same esoteric arts practised by the Braithwhites, and George & Montrose are also members of a Chicago Masonic Lodge; one exclusively for Black members, of course.

To give any more plot details would be unfair, but it might be helpful to add a few details about Lovecraft himself here, to support the description of the environment which Atticus & co. encountered as ‘Lovecraft Country’. Lovecraft’s Wikipedia page states, somewhat confusingly, that he began his life as a Tory, which is normally understood as a British political persuasion, but despite apparently becoming a socialist after the Great Depression, it is clear that some of his views were also incontrovertibly right-wing, to the extent being arguably fascist; although the page also states that the form of government advocated by Lovecraft bears little resemblance to that term; I would take issue with that, having researched fascism for the biography of my relative, Wilfred Risdon, because in the early 1930s at least, it was possible for fascism to also embrace socialistic principles. Unfortunately, his racial attitudes were not unusual for the time, although it would seem that his earlier (prior to the 1930s) denigration of non-white races later modified somewhat, to an opinion that different ethnicities should remain in their area of origin and, ideally, not intermingle, unless they, presumably only the white races though, were prepared to assimilate completely.

However, returning to the book, it is an engaging story; and having seen the television dramatisation, notwithstanding the dramatic liberties, does help to a large degree with visualisation of the action (but I appreciate that not all readers would be able to avail themselves of this facility); but the battle of wits between our protagonists and the white antagonists, not least because the Black characters are able to show, with considerable ease, that they are really the match of (and, often, superior to) their white oppressors, both actual & putative, makes the narrative very enjoyable, especially if equality, fairness, and human rights are important to you. This is highly recommended, and you don’t need to be a connoisseur of fantasy fiction to be able to enjoy it; although that undoubtedly helps!

Book Review

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Two Tribes, by Chris Beckett

I have to confess upfront that this book was something of a disappointment for me. The book back blurb includes the paragraph: “Two Tribes is a reflection on the way our ideas are shaped by class and social circumstances, and how they change without us even noticing. It explores what divides us and what brings us together. And it asks where we may be headed next.” So far, so good, and the book starts well enough, but I could see the book’s thickness rapidly diminishing as I was reading, and I was wondering why the wider story outside the characters’ immediate actions, which is threaded right through the book, was not moving forward as quickly as I thought it could. The book is categorised as ‘speculative fiction’ (which is a new category to me), and Beckett is clearly an intelligent & thoughtful writer, detailing the thought processes behind the characters’ action.

The story is presented as a reconstructed history of the time in England immediately following the Brexit vote, from the point of view of a historian & archivist, Zoe, who works in the Cultural Institute in “the bleak, climate-ravaged twenty-third century”, after she discovers the two hundred and fifty year old diaries of the two main characters, Harry, an architect, and Michelle, a hairdresser, so a certain amount of ‘embroidery’ is practised by Zoe, to flesh out these two people’s lives, and she actually resorts to explicit fabrication in the creation of some characters with whom Harry & Michelle come into contact, for the novel she has decided to write, although it is outside her professional remit, to the consternation of Zoe’s friend, and putative lover, Cally.

England is under the ostensibly benign supervision, in the form of the Guiding Body, of China, as a result of some sort of catastrophic societal breakdown (and living conditions are still rather primitive for some of the population), and this is the aspect of the story that I felt Beckett could have developed better; of course, it would inevitably be speculation & hypothesis, but I feel it is something of an abrogation of the author’s responsibility, to work back from an imagined future with only lightly sketched details of how that future came about. Harry and Michelle are from different backgrounds, but for Zoe, it is “an extraordinary stroke of luck” that another diary, Michelle’s, overlaps both chronologically & geographically with Harry’s, so it is possible for Zoe to present the very real discord that has been experienced in Britain following the ‘leave’ Brexit vote through the eyes of a character effectively from each side of the divide; and people’s accents & enunciation are examined in some detail to emphasise their social difference. Beckett points out our own hypocrisies & blinkered thinking in the discussions the characters have and, for me, this is the most successful aspect of this book, because in the real world, it is widely recognised (possibly more by the ‘remain’ side than the ‘winners’ of the vote) that this episode in our early twenty-first century history is producing many more negative than positive repercussions.

Where the book falls down is in not projecting forward, apart from in the very broadest brush strokes, to describe how the societal collapse came about. At some stage, ‘normal’ life broke down sufficiently (which might have coincided with a collapse of democratic government) for armed conflict to begin, with two factions, the possibly somewhat clumsily named, but easily understood, Liberals & Patriots fighting for dominance. China must have had sufficient investment in the country, presumably, to want to protect it, and an agreement was reached whereby the country was invaded, enabling a Protectorate to be established, creating a Guiding Body “of qualified, able and scientifically minded people”, using Nine Principles to develop the country in a way appropriate to one of the factions, albeit patrolled by armed militiamen, which is roughly when the story starts. How did social media ‘argy-bargy’, and current-affairs navel-gazing programmes, descend into armed conflict? Would having a theoretical scenario presented here prevent it happening in real life? Probably not, but knowing how bad things could become should spur us on to work ever harder to preserve peace. The paperback version of the book that I read was published in 2021 by Corvus, London, ISBN 978-1-78649-933-2.

Book Review


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London Rules, by Mick Herron

This book, published by John Murray (Publishers) in paperback in 2018, ISBN 978-1-47365-740-3, is the fifth and latest in a series of five spy thrillers that are presented in the flyleaf as “Jackson Lamb thrillers” and, inevitably, comparisons are made with Graham Greene and “the spycraft of le Carré”. This book follows closely on the heels of the previous story, Spook Street, which featured a character called David Cartwright, referred to privately, but fondly, by his grandson River as “the old bastard”, or OB for short. I could be mistaken, of course, but this choice of name, for the former, is very likely a tip of the hat to the author’s rôle model, John le Carré, real name David Cornwell of course, and recently deceased. At the end of the previous story, the OB is consigned to a rest home, as a result of his obvious dementia (which shouldn’t be any sort of plot spoiler, if you are able to read that story, as this condition is evident from the start of the book), but his grandson who, arguably, occupied the lead rôle in the narrative, also figures in the latest book, again as a member of what can only loosely be described as a team, known as the “slow horses” (a description not particularly difficult to fathom) working out of a secret service London backwater known as Slough House. Only having read these two stories, back-to-back courtesy of my gratifyingly efficient local library, I can’t include the other three in this assessment, but on the surface, these stories are not so much “Jackson Lamb thrillers” as “slow horses” thrillers, as they appear to dominate the action; however, this is possibly missing the point, that Lamb undoubtedly rules his roost, in his own sardonic, sarcastic, and frequently scatological way, and is experienced enough to know when to allow the operatives who have been foisted upon him, for a variety of reasons, to operate on their own initiative, but also to defend them, provided they don’t make the fatal error of crossing him. He also has a healthily pathological dislike of authority, and makes it his business to accumulate ‘dirt’ on any superior who might make the mistake of trying to compromise him.

It must be difficult to conceive of a completely original scenario for a spy story, but this one starts with a series of apparently unconnected incidents in England that fall into the category of terrorism, and a member of the department, Roderick Ho, known as Roddy, is allowing himself to be manipulated by his “girlfriend”, Kim, into helping her with certain computer-related tasks, mistakenly believing that she is infatuated with him (as, indeed, are all females with whom he comes in contact: in his own mind, of course). This is not known to his colleagues initially, for obvious reasons, but when an attempt is made on his life, and one of them is present, they start to take notice, and follow him, only narrowly preventing a second attempt. The terror incidents appear to have an amateurish quality about them, and this possibly explains why the murder of Roddy Ho by the same team also failed, although the presence of some of his colleagues did contribute to this. Before long, an explanation for the terror campaign is suggested by another of the team, a psychologically damaged young man by the name of J K Coe, who seems to be perpetually dressed in hoodie and jeans, and plugged into an iPod which isn’t necessarily playing any music. His previous activity in the service is known as “psycheval”, so it isn’t unduly surprising that he is a deep thinker who is very sparing with his verbal output. His hypothesis brings into contention two politicians, one more generic than the other; this is Zaffar Jaffrey, “outside the London mayor, … the highest-profile Muslim player in the country”, who is well-placed to win the position of Mayor in the West Midlands; the other is pretty obviously modelled, albeit with at least one significant difference, on Nigel Farage: “the showboating MP who orchestrated the Brexit vote”. His wife is the “tabloid columnist who’s crucifying Whelan in print”, Whelan being the relatively new First Desk of MI5 at Regent’s Park, Claude Whelan, who is also very conscious of the machinations of “his own deputy, who’s alert to his every stumble”, given that she regarded the position as hers, before being supplanted by Whelan. Dodie Gimball, the wife of the Brexiteer, has also been furnishing her husband with information with which to discredit Jaffrey, because in addition to his obvious bigotry, he suspects that, given this penchant for racial stereotypes, Jaffrey is too good to be true.

The dénouement of this latest story is not a great surprise, but it does tie up the loose ends neatly enough, and it isn’t quite as traumatic as the aforementioned previous story, if that is any sort of incentive for you to read it! These are eminently readable books, especially if you like spy thrillers, which can sometimes be too clever for their own good, and after reading only two of them, which dovetail nicely together, I have developed an affection for the variously damaged slow horses, who can occasionally be effective, in spite of Lamb’s contempt, which becomes more transparent as the narrative proceeds, but one explanation for this is that he doesn’t want them to think (let alone believe) that they are anywhere near as clever as he is, and perish the thought that he might actually respect any of them….. In a way, this makes Lamb the most difficult character to identify with, and certainly to like, but that isn’t necessarily a bad thing, and it is comforting to know that, however badly any or all of the slow horses might foul up (which they do), Lamb will always be there to cover their backs (to ensure that his own back is covered in the process, of course), even though he will complain mightily and make their lives almost (but not quite) unbearable for a time. The mind boggles to think that this setup bears even a passing resemblance to a real section of the British secret service, so probably better to ignore that, and just enjoy these stories for what they are, very cleverly written fiction.

A book for Christmas?

Wilfred Risdon at his office desk in 1937

Just by way of an annual reminder (you can’t have forgotten, surely?), books make an excellent Christmas present, especially at the moment, when we might have rather more time on our hands than hitherto, so if you enjoy reading biographies of people with fascinating/engaging or even objectionable lives, why not think about, either for yourself, or as a gift, the life story of Wilfred Risdon? He was a man whose career divides itself quite neatly into two distinct halves (although there was some overlap, to be fair, in terms of the principles that drove him): the early political activism, fighting for the interests of the British working man (and woman, or course), which took him eventually down the dark road of fascism, in its British manifestation; and the second half, fighting the cause of defenceless animals, endeavouring to impede where possible, or ideally curtail completely, the barbaric practice of experimenting on animals in the cause of human medicine.

The book is available in paperback (and it still only costs GBP15.00, plus postage & packing!) and delivered by post (so please take delivery times into account when ordering), and digital download forms (still only GBP5.00): all variants are available; PDF, ePub, and both popular formats of Kindle, .mobi & .azw3. Each chapter is fully supported with comprehensive notes, and there are also several appendices at the end, with faithful reproductions of literature which was relevant to Wilfred’s life; the most significant of which was his interrogation by the Defence Regulation 18B(1A) Appeal Committee in July 1940, to decide if he could safely be released from internment in Brixton Prison; and even some biographical information about a (second world) wartime Polish pilot, Jan Falkowski, who bought Wilfred’s house in Ruislip, north west London. Whatever your views about the rights and wrongs of right & left in political affiliation, this is a very detailed examination of the life of a 20th century activist who is not well known, but whose work does deserve to be better known. The book can be ordered direct from the Wilfred Books website (which is, assuredly, safe, despite what over-cautious browsers might want you to think) by clicking on this link. If you do order the book, thank you, but nonetheless, Merry Christmas!

Book Review

Devil’s Feast, by M. J. Carter

Alexis-Benoit-Soyer-FB

This is not the sort of book I would generally feel was worthy of review; it is not a biography (but see below, to explain the main image), but a workmanlike murder mystery set in Victorian times, published by Penguin Books, 2017 (ISBN 978-0-241-96688-4), and although the pace is somewhat stodgy, it is a decent enough read, with the culprit not being revealed until very near the end; also, the contemporary historical detail, including the political climate of the time, seems authentic; what interested me, once I had finished the book (with only a small sigh of relief) was the historical afterword. This explains that a few of the characters, and most of the places in the story really existed, although the timeline has been adjusted in places, to suit the narrative.

The setting is London, and the primary location is the Reform Club, which was set up in 1837 by a group of Radical MPs (I am shamelessly lifting these details from the book), including one William Molesworth, one of our characters. There was some tension between the Radicals and the Whigs, who later formed the main body of the Liberal Party, but these comprised the membership of the Reform; Molesworth remained a Radical all his life and was the only one to serve in the Liberal government of 1853. An added element of tension, albeit very mild, is injected into the story as one of the ‘sleuths’, ex-East India Army Captain William Avery, is a Devon Tory by birth and conviction (so thereby treated with some suspicion or even hostility by some of the club’s Committee), which seems somewhat odd, given that he is a man of modest means & upbringing; although that is possibly to judge him too much by current standards?

When the Reform Club’s grand new building opened in Pall Mall in 1841, its kitchens were dubbed “the eighth wonder of the world”: the most modern & advanced of their kind, and thousands were able to take tours of them. Credited with the excellent reputation of these kitchens, in no small part because he invented numerous “practical, ingenious ideas”: cooking paraphernalia as well as pioneering the use of gas as a cooking method; a Frenchman, Alexis Soyer, 1810-1858, “was the first real celebrity chef, a brilliant inventive cook and a shameless self-publicist … part Heston Blumenthal, part Jamie Oliver.” Throughout his time at the Reform Club, Soyer had a stormy relationship with its Committee: he was censured for insolence and, in 1844, for financial dishonesty, when he was accused (although he was not alone in that) of having falsified the butcher’s account; despite a vote of the Committee to sack him being narrowly lost, he resigned anyway. Another of this story’s characters, the club Chairman, Sir Marcus Hill, was able to use his influence & careful management to get Soyer reinstated; however, the matter “left a permanent bitterness in the relations with the club.”

Three are several murders in the story, although not all are initially interpreted as such, and the second of the pair of sleuths, albeit the more proficient of the two, Jeremiah Blake, is not able to participate actively in the investigation until roughly half-way through the book, for reasons that I won’t reveal here; in fact, for the majority of the investigation he has to masquerade as Avery’s manservant, which is understandably somewhat inhibiting, although more for Avery than for Blake himself! There is also some historical information about poisonings in the afterword, given that it is the method of murder here, which I don’t think is revealing too much about the story, and mention is also made of Thomas Wakley, founding editor of the Lancet, and he is also one of the book’s characters. Week after week, in the pages of the Lancet, still one of the world’s most respected medical journals, Wakley exposed evidence of food swindling: legislation didn’t arrive until 1860. So as said, not a top-flight story, but easy if slow reading, and for me, at least, the historical accuracy makes the story all the more enjoyable.

Book Review

Westwind, by Ian Rankin

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Image credit: The Reading List

I like Ian Rankin’s work; or, I should qualify, what little of it I have read hitherto; but, given that this is not a detective novel per se, in the Rebus oeuvre, I thought it would be worth reviewing. It is almost science fiction, but (so don’t panic) not quite, for reasons which should become clear in the course of this review. It is also presented, on the cover of the 2019 edition which I read, as “The classic lost thriller”: hyperbolic, perhaps, but it seems that one doesn’t win many prizes in publishing for understatement. After the probably inevitable, and understandably somewhat grudgingly undertaken rewrites, the book, actually his fourth, was published on March 1, 1990, to an almost deafening silence: one small review in The Guardian. “So I decided that it would rest in a dark corner of my consciousness, never to see the light of day again.” Somewhat later, a surprise: Twitter to the rescue! Fans using this estimable service, and one in particular, combined to persuade Rankin to look again at this book, which he duly did, and it was republished in 2019, after giving “the original printed text a polish, … [a] few words have been added here and there, while others have been removed or altered, but it is essentially the same book it always was, just thirty years older and a little wiser . . .”

The story, which is set in a slightly alternate version of our world in 1990 (where Germany is still divided, for example), begins with parallel situations of a British government listening station, monitoring satellites, especially ‘our’ spy satellite, called Zephyr (the significance of which will become clear near the end of the book), and a space shuttle mission, Argos,  to launch a satellite ends disastrously (not unknown, unfortunately), when the shuttle crash-lands, killing four (all American) out of the five astronauts (or are some of them already dead?), and as a consequence, the British surviving astronaut becomes a hate-figure, because American military forces are being unceremoniously kicked out of mainland Europe, which considers that it is capable of defending itself against the old Adversary, Russia. At the same time, there has been a panic at the listening station at Binbrook, Lincolnshire, that has lost contact with Zephyr for over three minutes, which is unprecedented: it was not a drill, and yet the military overlords do not seem unduly concerned. One of the monitoring operatives, Paul Vincent, who is relatively new to the job but very well qualified, thinks he has spotted something worthy of mentioning to his superiors, but before his older friend, Martin Hepton, can quiz him further, Vincent is mysteriously sent on sick leave, to a nursing home, even though Hepton knows him to be very fit & healthy. Hepton is able to visit Vincent on a day off, but their eventual clandestine conversation appears to have been observed by two well-muscled ‘orderlies’, so when Hepton drives away, he becomes fearful for his colleague’s safety.

After this, the story develops into a cat & mouse chase, with an assassin thrown into the mix, and the British astronaut, Mike Dreyfuss, is brought back to England to assist the British security services get to the bottom of what has happened, and how much of a threat Hepton’s suspicions, and Dreyfuss’s near-death experience might be; not only to Britain, but to the whole world. There is many a slip along the way before the purpose of the satellite launched by the Argos mission is revealed, and as usual in any story involving security services, the reader is given clues as to who might be untrustworthy, or actively working for ‘the other side’: it is suggested that one of the main characters might be a wrong’un, but this turns out to be a red herring. It is clear (to this reader, at least) that, despite being one of Rankin’s earliest efforts, it is nonetheless a well-crafted thriller, and the pace of the action increases to a pitch where the book, which is not overlong at only 288 pages, not including the new introduction by the author, attains that epithet that has become something of a cliché: ‘unputdownable’! The story isn’t a classic in the way that, say, Doctor Zhivago, Jane Eyre, or Lolita are considered to be, but it is a thumping good mystery, and I recommend it.