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.

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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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.

Book Review


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Paris Spring, by James Naughtie

Listeners to BBC Radio Four (of whom I have to confess I am not one) will very likely be familiar with this name, but as a presenter, rather than an author (unless either or both of his novels to 2016 has/have been reviewed on that august station). His previous, first, novel was called The Madness of July, and it also featured this book’s main character, Will Flemyng, and was set in the mid-1970s; it garnered a 2.78 star rating on Goodreads. This current book is a prequel to the first, being set in 1968, and Flemyng is stationed in Paris, at a very volatile time for the world in general, but for Paris in particular, with revolution in the air. A handful of years later, Flemyng will be a Foreign Office minister, but the use of the term stationed should indicate that previously, he was, according to the blurb on the back of Paris Spring, a “secret servant at the British Embassy”. Will has two brothers: Mungo, who lives at the ancestral home (not a mansion, however) in Scotland, and lives a relatively hermetic life; and Abel, who does a similar job to Will, but for the Americans, for reasons which are best explained by the narrative.

The primary element of the narrative is the contact that is established between Will and a young man who presents himself as being implicitly East German, and who obviously wants to either set himself up as a contact on the communist side for the British, or who perhaps even wants to defect. This is where the aspect of the book which I found slightly irritating is evident; it soon becomes apparent that the young man is not what he seems, but establishing exactly what he is becomes complicated by the elliptical nature of the dialogue: by this, I mean that people & situations tend to be alluded to, rather than specified clearly. Perhaps Naughtie is trying to emulate the author who must indubitably be a guide for him in these endeavours: John le Carré, given that there is a cast of Secret Intelligence Service bods who don’t seem to be able to operate without letting their own tensions and social resentments influence their activities. Having said that, Flemyng’s superior, Freddy Craven, as well as being experienced & capable is a likeable and avuncular figure who is very protective towards Will, and is clearly and easily worth whatever he might have been paid, not that he would have accepted that this was the primary motive for his employment.

The irritating nature of the dialogue aside, the tension in the story develops quite nicely, building on a slightly unexpected murder in a world-famous location, and the revelation of the identity of the young man who makes contact with Will on a local train at the beginning is something of a surprise; this is after the three brothers have spent more time together intermittently than the schedules of the two peripatetic siblings have allowed hitherto, and this is something of a relief for the predominantly homebound brother, who is almost permanently concerned about Will; although his lifestyle, and at best sporadic contact were primary causative reasons for that. I found the dénouement, with the death of one of the main characters genuinely moving, so overall I would say that this novel is a success, and I would relish reading the first book ‘in the right order’, chronologically speaking; other readers might not find the elliptical dialogue quite so irritating! Paris Spring was published by Head Of Zeus Ltd. in 2016, ISBN 9781784080211 .

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

Photo by Miguel Carraça on Unsplash

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.