Book Review

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The Mitford Trial, by Jessica Fellowes

When I saw the name Mitford in the title of this book, my mind immediately suggested a connection with Oswald Mosley, who was a very prominent personality in my book Black Shirt and Smoking Beagles, the biography of my grand uncle Wilfred Risdon, who worked closely with OM from 1930 until just before the start of the second world war. This book being reviewed is actually one of a series by this author, featuring the Mitford family, but this particular one does have a tangential connection with Mosley, hence my interest was piqued. If the author’s family name is familiar, it is because she is the niece of the author Julian Fellowes, who created, according to Ms Fellowes’s website, the television series Downton Abbey, with which many people [not including me, however, for ideological reasons] will be familiar; although how many of these would be able to name the writer is another matter. Without wishing to cast any aspersions, the success of the television production was very useful for Ms Fellowes, as she has written five “official companion books”. The first book in the Mitford series, The Mitford Murders, was her tenth book, and the book under review here is her fifth Mitford book. From the information given on her website, it would appear that the lady is very much part of the upper classes so, presumably, she knows of what she writes.

This also begs another question—how close is her relationship with the Mitford family, because it might be considered incautious to write about the albeit avowedly fictional exploits of a real family, without some sort of dispensation, especially as a family such as this might tend toward the litigious if its reputation should be impugned, notwithstanding real & documented historical events. This closeness or otherwise is not stated, so can only be guessed at. In this story, former lady’s maid Louisa Cannon is asked to spy on Diana Mitford; who later went on to marry Oswald Mosley, despite his known philandering; and her younger sister Unity, a fervent supporter of Hitler from around the time of his accession to the post of Chancellor in Germany. This spying is to take place on a cruise to Italy, and Louisa is unenthusiastic about the idea, especially as the man who persuades her to do it, “Iain”, is not prepared to reveal for whom he is working [but it is probably fairly safe to assume that it must be MI5]; his only ammunition for expecting her to comply is to play on her patriotism, telling her bluntly that Germany is preparing for war, which must be prevented at all costs, and the Mitfords’ possible knowledge of, and connection with these preparations could be vital to the British government. Despite having only just married a detective sergeant with Scotland Yard, the excitement she feels at being asked to undertake this underhand mission overrules her misgivings, especially as she is exhorted to reveal nothing of her task to her new husband.

The narrative appears to be historically accurate; I would have been surprised if it had not been; there are precious few direct references to Mosley’s political activities, but one is right at the beginning of the book, on Louisa’s wedding day: a rally at Trafalgar Square on the 15th of October 1932, only a couple of weeks after the founding of the British Union of Fascists at the former New Party office in Great George Street, London. Apparently, “the crowds are bigger and more rowdy than expected…”, so all police leave is cancelled, and Guy, Louisa’s new husband, must accompany his superior, DCI Stiles, in a car to the meeting. Stiles seems biased against Mosley for no discernible reason, although perhaps this is just a reflection of his copper’s innate fears of public disorder, if the lower orders are given something to encourage them to be rebellious: “I don’t like the idea of that many people [at a London rally] thinking the BUF has got something to offer them.” This is endorsed by the reaction of a cockney beat copper, who happens to be in the car with them: “Sounds all right to me, if you ask, guv: [Ramsay] MacDonald’s a shower, isn’t he? A traitor to the Labour party. We need a real leader, someone who believes in the Brits and the working man.” I’m not sure about that term “Brits”, but I don’t have the time for the research to prove that an anachronism.

There is a murder on the cruise, and it just so happens that Guy is, fortuitously, also available to help unmask the perpetrator, because he joined the cruise in mid-stream [although not literally], as he couldn’t bear to be parted from his new wife for so long so, because the death occurred in international waters, he assumes control of the investigation. The relationships involved with the murder suspects are somewhat murky, and there is also a historical element to them, so they take quite some untangling, and the added complication is that Louisa is not able to reveal her reason for being less than forthcoming with information about the Mitfords. The murder, and the consequent trial, is based on a real murder which took place in 1935, but I will reveal no details of this, as it could easily prove to be a plot spoiler; the character of “Iain” is loosely based on Maxwell Knight, of MI5 and, according to Fellowes, the MI5 file on Mosley was opened in 1933, “with a report from Detective Constable Edward Pierpoint, who had been at a fascist public meeting in Manchester.” I would question if a public meeting can be described as “fascist”, but no matter; what I am reasonably sure of is that, as Mosley’s first Director of Propaganda, Wilfred Risdon would have been responsible for organising this meeting.

This is quite a decent ‘whodunnit’, aside from any observations on class in early 20th century British society; then again, it is almost impossible to escape those, especially if one includes the epitome of this genre, Agatha Christie, so they can be seen as background colour, which helps to shape the characters. This book was published in paperback by Sphere [Little, Brown Book Group] in 2021 [2020], ISBN 978-0-7515-7397-8.

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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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.