Book Review

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Oranges and Lemons, by Christopher Fowler

To borrow an analogy from Forrest Gump, dipping into a new [as in either previously unread, or the latest] Christopher Fowler book; most of which feature his characters detectives Arthur Bryant & John May, who work for London’s Peculiar Crimes Unit; is similar to opening an exotic box of chocolates: there will, very possibly, be plenty of oddities, most of which will be enjoyable, but there is also the reassurance of at least two familiar elements, which will perform as expected. I have remarked before about the humour to be found in these books [The Lonely Hour & Hall of Mirrors]—I think the description ‘quirky’ is somewhat overused now [at least it’s not zany]—but police procedurals can be somewhat dour [cf. the Shetland series, by Ann Cleeves; the Vera series maybe not so much] if not leavened by some humour, provided it isn’t inappropriate to the gravity of the situation.

This story, as in Hall of Mirrors, starts with a meeting in an eatery, but it is also bookended by another one, during both of which Bryant’s harassed editor, Simon Sartorius, is trying to make some sense of the former’s rambling efforts at encapsulating his life experience for a memoir; in the first, Bryant is about to hand his notes [sic] to his ghostwriter, Cynthia: “… an extremely skilled forger … a numismatist and IMHO a fine prose stylist … and … a terrible kleptomaniac.”; and in the last, he delivers the finished manuscript. Once again [or, more accurately, probably a virtually perennial Sword of Damocles], the PCU is under threat of closure, but this time, it is more than that: the sentence is in the process of being carried out, by “the barbarians … storming the gates of Rome” [specifically, “the Home Office agents in the employ of their police liaison CEO, Leslie Faraday”] thanks to a combination of authentic budget restrictions and the offence & outrage felt by the administrators of the aforementioned budget, as a result of the Unit’s actions—the previous story, The Lonely Hour, is referenced in this context. Arthur Bryant has gone missing, and there is also the not insignificant matter of his erstwhile partner John May’s recuperation, after being shot in the line of duty, so the latter’s movements are necessarily restricted, initially.

The Unit is permitted a reprieve of sorts, albeit an avowedly temporary one, after the Speaker of the House of Commons is almost murdered in a bizarre way—grist to the Unit’s mill, of course—when he is crushed under a large quantity of fresh oranges & lemons: ostensibly a delivery, rather than an obvious weapon, but one which was made in a life-threatening way; luckily for Michael Claremont, he survives being impaled by a shard of wood from one of the packing crates, but the attack frightens the government enough to allow London’s most unconventional police unit to investigate, hence the stay of execution. A short time prior to this, a bookshop in Bury Place, Bloomsbury, suffers an arson attack, and its owner, an expatriate Romanian, is arrested on suspicion of committing the crime, but subsequently, he apparently kills himself in his police cell; these two incidents are not initially linked, but Arthur Bryant is intrigued enough about the latter, especially given his love of esoteric bookshops, to try to discover the truth—indeed, promising the man’s widow that he will do just that. With regard to the former crime, he immediately latches onto the nursery rhyme significance, expecting a pattern of further attempts at murder to be carried out.

May wearies of home-bound recuperation so, as soon as he is physically able, he returns to work, and now that Bryant has returned from his sojourn of self-awareness—trying out various different forms of spiritual exploration—they work together again. More successful  [for the unfortunate, but apparently unconnected victims] murders occur, and they appear to support Bryant’s theory about the nursery rhyme connection, and each time, the police come frustratingly close to preventing it, and apprehending the unknown perpetrator, but failing. In the meantime, Bryant deduces that the murderer, or the person ordering them, must be a very rich, and therefore powerful, businessman: but the problem is proving it. Following his movements doesn’t give the team any leads. The team has been supplemented by two new members: one is a young intern, who seems to have inveigled her way onto the team; and the other one is a young man, Timothy Floris, who is a liaison/observer from the Independent Police Complaints Division of the Home Office. The former is given to making mostly inexplicable, gnomic statements which demonstrate some sort of intelligence, whilst the latter appears determined to remain neutral.

The culprit is finally unmasked without any of the mayhem caused by Bryant in previous stories, but as usual, he seems to be the only member of the team with sufficient insight, albeit arrived at by a circuitous route, to perceive the truth. There are none of the repartee word games from previous stories in this one, but perhaps B&M have grown out of them? Or perhaps it is because of the circumstances under which they are having to work; probably a bit of both. Another very enjoyable edition in the series, and the next one, London Bridge is Falling Down, is eagerly awaited. The paperback I read was published in 2021 [2020, Doubleday, an imprint of Transworld Publishers, London] by Penguin/Bantam, ISBN 978-0-8575-0410-4.

Book Review

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State of Terror, by Hillary Rodham Clinton and Louise Penny

The fact that Mrs Clinton had been assisted by an established thriller writer for this story didn’t surprise me; I already knew of the former from her recently terminated political career, and I thought it might be interesting to discover what sort of a job she could do with a political thriller—politics at a high level being her primary area of expertise—having recently read a ‘what if?’ version of her life, reviewed here, but also without being aware of any of her other fiction writing, such as it might be: she has, according to the book’s flyleaf, written seven other books, including one with her daughter Chelsea, but from the titles, it seems most likely that they are all non-fiction [I could confirm that on t’internet, but, ya know…..], so it is probably a sensible guess that she provided the political ‘dope’, and Penny wrote it up. The latter’s name was vaguely familiar, but I soon realised that I had already read one of her books, albeit eighteen months ago [yay, memory!] and reviewed it here, A Great Reckoning.

It is jumping forward somewhat to reveal this, but I was quite gratified to discover that Penny’s primary protagonist in the aforementioned story also appears here, albeit late in the story and in a minor rôle, but as to what his involvement is, the Book Reviewer’s Code of Ethics absolutely forbids me to reveal it, so I won’t. The real identities of two of the principal characters are, to me anyway, immediately transparent: Secretary of State Ellen Adams is Clinton—having undertaken that function herself, so she should, by all rights, know what she’s talking [sic] about—and former President Eric Dunn [the story being written in 2020] is clearly Donald Trump, whose fictional character features highly in the story, although not as a main ‘player’. Adams’s personality is modelled on a former colleague in Congress, and the former’s best friend & advisor is modelled on her own best friend from school days, so they are well qualified to be realistic; Clinton also, graciously, credits her husband, “a great reader and writer [who knew? Not I] of thrillers, for his constant support and useful suggestions, as always”.

Dunn has been defeated in his reëlection attempt, and “After the past four years of watching the country she loved flail itself almost to death”, a fellow [of Adams] Democrat,  Douglas Williams, has been installed as President; there’s one major problem with that, and her current position in the new administration: “It had come as a huge shock when [Williams] had chosen a political foe, a woman who’d used her vast resources to support his rival for the party nomination … It was an even greater shock when Ellen Adams had turned her media empire over to her grown daughter and accepted the post.” So: she was never going to get an easy ride—self-inflicted? arguably—and her first foray into the literal & metaphorical world of international power-brokering, in South Korea, had been at best a failure, and could easily have been interpreted by those so disposed to do so as a fiasco. Not an auspicious start; so when a bus bomb explodes without any warning during the morning rush-hour in London, Adams suspects that she is going to be tested to the extreme, and that does, indeed, prove to be the case. What follows is a tense whirlwind of globetrotting negotiations, all the while trying to locate a psychopathically murderous arms dealer and prevent him carrying out his heinous threat, when the US government has identified it.

In politics, as in the world of espionage, one of the biggest problems is knowing whom to trust, and in Ellen Adams’s world, the dangers associated with making a mistake are gut-wrenchingly great, especially when highly-placed actors [in the life-rôle sense] remain from the previous administration, and this proves to be very testing & difficult for both Adams and Williams, especially given their previous antipathy, which they have no alternative but to work through, if they are going to thwart the jeopardy. The tension racks up very nicely during the narrative; Adams’s son, his girlfriend, and Adams’s daughter, Katherine, the media mogul, are closely involved, and there is even a literal countdown for a final escalation so, notwithstanding one’s attitude toward America’s militarism & arrogant, Christianity-dominated assumption of global moral advocate status, this is an excellent, albeit simultaneously worrying [if one takes the narrative too literally] thriller for our times. Perhaps it should have ended with the classic [British television, paraphrased] Crimewatch advice: “It’s alright: don’t have nightmares!” The paperback I read was published in 2022 [2021, Macmillan] by Pan Books, an imprint of Pan Macmillan, London, ISBN 978-1-5290-7973-9.

Book Review


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Birdman, by Mo Hayder

This is another new author to me: as at 2008, she has written seven DI Jack Caffery stories, and three standalone thrillers. Nearly all of them appear to deal with the worst of human depravity, which makes me wonder how someone can actually enjoy writing about it, but we are all different, I suppose: quite often, I am mightily glad to reach the end of a story which deals with murder, torture, and other varieties of violence, but it must be fair to say that as a species, we seem to take vicarious pleasure in other people’s suffering, and a police procedural, into which category most thrillers fall, would probably be perceived as somewhat boring or unexciting if it dealt with non-violent crimes such as tax fraud. That said, the violence & depravity in this story plumb depths which I would struggle to conceive if I wanted to write a thriller. That is not to say that this story, and others in this series, won’t be successful; of course, it is touted, on the cover, as a “Sunday Times bestseller”, which must be true, if it’s in a newspaper?

Jack Caffery is a detective Inspector in London; presumably with the Metropolitan Police, although that isn’t specified; he is only 34, which seems quite young to me, to be in such a relatively high rank, but I have very little knowledge of the internal workings of the police. He is a member of an Area Major Investigation Pool [AMIP for short], transferred recently from CID, and according to the acknowledgments at the end of the book, this appears to be a real element of the contemporary police structure. Some bodies have been found on a piece of waste ground, a half-derelict aggregate yard in north Greenwich, near the deserted Millennium Dome. Although some of them are badly mutilated, they share a peculiarity which causes the perpetrator to acquire the sobriquet Birdman. The victims are all young women; a sadly highly vulnerable societal group, but the way they have been mutilated suggests to the police that the killer they are looking for must have some medical, and possibly surgical, experience.

Jack has some helpful and, occasionally, accommodating colleagues, and a tolerant superior; he does, however, have a thorn in his side in the form of a DI from another AMIP group, which has been drafted in to assist with this investigation, but this DI, Diamond, seems to make it his business to thwart Jack at every possible opportunity, and because they are equal in rank, there’s not a lot Jack can do about it. He also has a needy but rich girlfriend, Veronica, whom he is trying to find a good reason to ditch, but this is complicated by her recent cancer treatment; he does, however, have the, by now slightly stereotypical classic car, an old Jaguar, even if it is described as “battered”: no Vauxhall Cavalier for him! Just to complete his psychological palette, he is still carrying a weight of guilt from when his older brother Ewan disappeared from their back garden when they were children, and he is certain that their rear neighbour, Ivan Penderecki, a convicted paedophile, is responsible, except that he has never been able to find any evidence to implicate Penderecki.

The investigation is not helped by Diamond’s certainty that a local black low-level drug dealer is responsible, thereby clearly exposing Diamond’s colour prejudice, and the author uses an idea in the plot which must be fairly uncommon, but probably not unique; suffice to say that it prevents them from identifying the perpetrator before there is another killing, and by this time, Jack has become romantically involved with one of the main characters who, needless to say, puts herself in deadly jeopardy by being, with the best will in the world, stupidly headstrong. I am somewhat ambivalent about recommending this book: if you enjoy gory thrillers, this will be “right up your street”, but if you are of a nervous disposition, perhaps best to avoid it! That being said, this is the first in the Jack Caffery series, so subsequent stories might be slightly less gory; but, then again, maybe not…… The paperback I read was published in 2008 [2000] by Bantam Press, a division of Transworld Publishers, London, ISBN 978-0-5538-2046-1.

Book Review

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Tooth and Nail, by Ian Rankin

This is another of Rankin’s early Rebus books; number three in the series, so the character is still developing, to some extent, but compared to the only other one of the Rebus canon I have so far reviewed, A Question of Blood, he is easily recognisable as the character we know—those of us who are already Rebus aficionados, that is. He is, however, out of his comfort zone, transplanted from his Edinburgh stamping ground to the glowering, febrile fleshpot that is the sassenachs’ capital. The story was originally entitled Wolfman, but Rankin’s American publisher thought this made it sound like a horror novel [although it is, of a sort], so recommended changing the title to the current one for the American market, and Rankin thought it sensible to do the same for his domestic audience.

Rebus has been somewhat unwillingly seconded to the Met, because of a perceived skill—unwarranted, in Rebus’s opinion—in catching serial killers; one of whom, who has acquired the sobriquet Wolfman, has been latterly terrorising London. This being the case, Rebus has to operate without the support of his Lothian and Borders Police [as it was then—the early 1990s—known] colleagues, especially his trusted lieutenant, DS Siobhan Clarke, and he is unsure, with some justification, it has to be said, how well he will be received south of the border; or understood, come to that. He is partnered with Inspector George Flight who, it later transpires, actually requested Rebus to assist them, having read about his prowess, which Rebus considers, not exclusively modestly, to be unnecessarily glamourised. As usual, Rebus is something of a maverick in his conduct, compared to the stolid Flight, but whose fastidious attention to detail & procedure Rebus comes to admire, only too well aware of the ease with which police prosecutions can be derailed by clever barristers [Advocates in Scotland] zeroing in on sloppy police work or behaviour.

This is, however, also an opportunity for Rebus to catch up with his ex-wife, Rhona, who is now living in London with their daughter, Samantha, whose current boyfriend is definitely the sort who sets alarm bells ringing in Rebus’s head, and not just from paternal or proprietorial concern. Rebus’s alienation & solitude is alleviated somewhat by a young psychologist, Dr Lisa Frazer, who coincidentally has Scottish ancestry, and has offered to profile the killer they are seeking; she is also not immune to Rebus’s grizzled charm, so a very probably unprofessional, if not actually unethical, relationship quickly develops, but it does focus Rebus’s mind, to some extent, on the psychological makeup of the man they are seeking; although it is safe to reveal that they also have to consider that they could be looking for a woman. This allows me to say that this is part of the delicious red herring which Rankin throws into this story—I thought I had worked out who the killer was, but nope: I was wrong.

The final section before the killer is caught is quite amusing, and could make for very good television, if the right supporting actor could be found [I’m not suggesting myself here—not because of false modesty—because I know my appearance would be inappropriate], but I fear Rebus’s television career is now in the past, which I regret; the stories, however, will continue to be read & enjoyed for a long time to come. To those of us who already know & love the character, there is no need to recommend this story; other than to add it to the collection, if not already in your possession; but if it should be your first Rebus story, you will not be disappointed and, hopefully, it will ignite a desire to find all of them if possible. The paperback I read was published in 1998 [1992, Wolfman, Century] by Orion Books, London, ISBN 978-0-7528-8355-7.

Book Review

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The Bourne Treachery, by Brian Freeman

Strictly speaking, this is Robert Ludlum’s The Bourne Treachery, because the original author has to be credited when a character’s arc is continued; this is Freeman’s second novel in this canon, and an author called Eric Van Lustbader has also written twelve [count them!], in addition to the, by comparison somewhat paltry, three originals. They all have a noun associated with the character’s name, so they are surely soon going to run out of credible options? I suppose we could have The Bourne Tea Party, but I digress 😉 This one was published last year, so Covid is known about, but it doesn’t play a significant rôle in the plot. These stories are pulp, to a large extent, and if you’ve seen any of the films [given that this is a very profitable franchise (aka money-making machine)] you know pretty much what to expect, but as long as you can accept some questionable ethics when justice is dispensed, they make reasonably enjoyable, albeit undemanding reading.

If you’re not familiar with the character, Jason Bourne is a skilled assassin who works for a highly secret [aren’t they all?] ’Black Ops’ organisation, called Treadstone, funded by the American government, but ultimately deniable, and it is tasked with keeping “The Free World” [i.e., America] safe, which generally involves killing people indiscriminately, if they are perceived as presenting a credible threat. Incidentally, there has recently been a television series called Treadstone, which purported to present the organisation’s origin, but I found it very confusing, the way it bounced back & forth in time, and it was difficult to keep track of all the characters, of which there were many, so I gave up on it after about half a dozen episodes. At some point in Bourne’s past, he has suffered an injury or a medical procedure which has robbed him of his long-term memory, which is a very useful plot device, because it means that characters from his past can be introduced, and he won’t know them until it’s possibly too late; although we should know by now that Bourne is a character who can’t be written off too quickly.

At the beginning of this story, Bourne is living in Paris, still unclear about much of his past, and his habits are too regular, but it is almost as if he is tempting possible assassins; Treadstone, from which he is estranged, being one of the candidates; to come after him. He does keep in touch with a particular Treadstone agent though, and through Nash Rollins he learns that his particular skill-set is wanted to neutralise a threat to one of the speakers at the forthcoming annual meeting of the World Trade Organisation in London. The threat comes from a highly skilled & dangerous assassin called Lennon, who three years ago was responsible for murdering a turncoat ex-KGB man named Kotov, whom Bourne & his erstwhile partner and lover, Nova, were exfiltrating from Tallinn, except that the ferry he was travelling on was blown up, killing many innocent people in addition to the target. This action is described in a prologue; Lennon also seems to know an uncomfortable amount of personal information about Bourne himself.

Most of the action which follows is set in London [thankfully, not London, England], and there is even a section located in a north-east coast town I know very well: Whitby! There is the obligatory Dracula reference, of course, but it is only really in passing, and it doesn’t have any bearing on the story; being an actor of ‘a certain age’, I can see that I would be just right for one of the minor characters there, were this episode to make it to the big screen [must call my agent………]. Not a classic of English literature, by any standards, but a good & engaging yarn, so if you like this sort of scenario, I would quite happily recommend this entry in the Bourne canon. The paperback I read was published in 2022 [2021] by Head of Zeus Ltd., part of Bloomsbury Publishing Plc, ISBN 978-1-7895-4658-3.

Book Review

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A Study in Crimson, by Robert J. Harris

In common with his near namesake, this Robert Harris seems to enjoy writing books which are tributes to historical characters such as Leonardo da Vinci & William Shakespeare; but he has also written two Richard Hannay books and, more pertinently for this review, The Artie Conan Doyle Mysteries, “a series featuring the youthful adventures of the creator of Sherlock Holmes”, which I am presuming are young adult stories, despite the front blurb nor specifying that. The inspiration for this iteration of the inimitable sleuth, subtitled Sherlock Holmes 1942, was the series of British films featuring Basil Rathbone as Holmes, and Nigel Bruce as Watson: “films which…have been favourites of [his] entire family for many years.” As far as he is aware, “it has never occurred to anyone to base a novel on this version of Sherlock Holmes.” He felt that he could “remain faithful to Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s immortal characters, while at the same time viewing Holmes and Watson in a new light.” I suppose that is perfectly reasonable [although purists would probably disagree], and characters as strong as these would probably work in any timeframe, as evidenced IMHO by the success as the oft sobriqueted Benedict Cumberbatch & Martin Freeman in current times.

It might be interesting to compare this iteration with the Sherlock Holmes pastiche, set in a similar time period [but with Holmes ageing from his original setting] by Michael Chabon, The Final Solution, which I reviewed here; this story retains the traditional Baker Street setting, merely transposed to 1942, and I feel that the only hint of criticism which could be levelled is that, notwithstanding the relatively quieter atmosphere after the exigencies of the Blitz, the war impinges on the story hardly at all—that aside, it is easy to accept that this is the natural temporal home for Holmes. There is a slightly odd prologue to the story; although not listed as such, and it runs over three chapters; which doesn’t seem to have any connection to, or bearing on the main story, other than to introduce the characters, but I would venture to suggest that the vast majority of readers would already be well acquainted with them? No matter: at worst, it is an amusing diversion before the gore of the main story is encountered. It appears that someone; presumably a man; has taken it upon himself to emulate the ghastly exploits in London of Jack the Ripper, in 1888, ‘operating’ under the moniker of Crimson Jack, hence the book’s title. Aside from Holmes’s inherent disgust at such heinous activity, given the setting, there is also the national security aspect to consider, which is where Holmes’s less well known, but arguably [not least by himself] more intelligent older brother, Mycroft, comes in; all too briefly, unfortunately, as the interplay between the two brothers can be a very rewarding source of amusement.

As for why that particular time was chosen for this awful repetition, more cannot be revealed without spoiling the nuance of the plot, but suffice to say that Holmes solves the case with his usual aplomb; albeit not immediately; but the motivation for the murderer might not be what it initially seems, and the perpetrator is very clever at leading most of his pursuers in a merry dance. Watson is suitably mystified, although not to the point of potential ridicule: Harris is keen to point out that, despite Watson being “sometimes made a figure of fun for the sake of comic relief”, he has “not followed that course in the novel, though Watson remains suitably baffled by Holmes’s brilliance.” Well, it wouldn’t be a Holmes & Watson story otherwise, would it? Incidentally, towards the end of the story, Holmes reveals that he knows the identity of the original Jack, who is actually a fictional character, but he is apparently based upon one of the real suspects in the Whitechapel murders [you’ll have to read the book to find out whom!]; this will be moot, of course, given the lack of supporting evidence, especially DNA, and the time elapsed—I make no further comment, other than to observe that any further entries in this canon would be welcomed. The paperback I read was published in 2022 [2020] by Polygon, an imprint of Birlinn Ltd., Edinburgh, ISBN 978-1-84697-596-7.

Book Review

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The Lonely Hour, by Christopher Fowler

This book, the [somewhat unbelievably] eighteenth in the series featuring this detective pairing [although two of those are short stories], would appear, if the dénouement is anything to go by, to be pivotal; although, having not read any of the previous books, it is altogether possible that this outcome might be a regular occurrence, which is actually quite possible, given the nature of the setup. The two principal characters, British police detectives by the name of Arthur Bryant & John May—Bryant and May: more than a match for any other police duo, har har!—work for a fictitious department of the Metropolitan Police, called the Peculiar Crimes Unit which, to quote the book, is “A specialized [sic] London police division with a remit to prevent or cause to cease any acts of public affright or violent disorder committed in the municipal or communal areas of the city.”  It should be said, by way of context, that this description comes courtesy of the Unit Chief, Raymond Land [only semi-affectionately referred to as “Raymondo”, by Bryant], who is a rather pompous & ineffectual individual.

Despite these characters not existing in a fantasy world, there is something a bit Pratchett-like in the humour, which is definitely a plus, for me, and Philip Pullman is also given a nod; not that it is largely whimsical, because it does deal with the mundane problems of ‘real’ life. There is also an interesting mix of cultural references, including bang up to date with Uber, but also more whiskery ones, including “Ruth Ellis curls”, and the characters Julian & Sandy from Round the Horne. I was gratified that Fowler is careful with his writing, using the correct plural form of cul de sac [culs de sac, not cul de sacs, as I often see], and the feminine filipina, when referring to a Philippine woman; I did wonder, however, if he was trying just a tad too hard to impress us with his articulacy, albeit via the voice of Bryant, who is old enough to have retired years ago, but persists in working to keep his mind occupied; I used to enjoy the increase your wordpower [correct me if I’m wrong] section in Reader’s Digest, but there are too many arcane words in the narrative to list here, and it does become a wee bit tiresome encountering yet another word which one is never likely to need in normal situations [and don’t forget: “Nobody loves a smartarse!”].

The PCU has a pioneering approach: its founding principle is “to seek new ways of dealing with criminality and to ensure that these experimental methods found [sic] purchase within the legal system, creating precedence.” Given “the unit’s unprofessional approach to policing”, and the fact that the PCU only handles homicides, this unfortunately serves to infuriate every one of the twenty-four murder investigation teams within the Met. This story isn’t a whodunnit, because we encounter the perpetrator, albeit initially anonymous, right at the outset, although his backstory slowly emerges, so it is a whydunnit, and the tension builds through the narrative as the PCU team struggles to discover who is murdering a succession of apparently unconnected individuals, and why; although there are two elements which provide a link, albeit tenuous: the murder weapon, and the time of despatch—04:00, referred to eponymously as the lonely hour. Unsurprisingly, there are disruptive dynamics within the department, which hinder its operation somewhat, plus the ever-present threat to the department’s very existence, from the more dogmatic & less flexible overseers in the Met.

I appreciate that I have come to this series at a very late stage, by accident rather than design, so as stated, I don’t know how the pairing of the two detectives originated, and how the PCU was set up, but I like to think that this won’t be any sort of impediment to my enjoyment of any previous stories, should I find any, which I would be more than happy to, having enjoyed this one. Standard police procedurals can be easy to read, even undemanding, to some extent, but I think there is something attractive about the inclusion of slightly quirky characters, as some of these are; if only as an opportune avenue for offbeat humour. The paperback I read was published in 2020 by Bantam; first published in 2019 by Doubleday, an imprint of Transworld Publishers, London, ISBN 978-0-8575-0408-1. Happy New Year!

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

Photo by noah eleazar on Unsplash

The Consequences of Fear, by Jacqueline Winspear

This is a Maisie Dobbs novel, and it is one of at least fourteen by this author; there is some confusion about this number between the biography at the back of the book, and the publications list at the front, but no matter: suffice to say that this character has had plenty of outings, presumably in the same time period, which is in the early years of the second world war. She is also known as Lady Margaret, courtesy of her late husband, who died in the previous war, but for her professional work, that of an investigator, she prefers to be known by her maiden name. She lives part of the time in close proximity to her late husband’s parents, in rural Kent, but she also keeps a small flat in London, for when she is working. She also has a gentleman friend, “a diplomat of sorts. An American, working at the embassy”, but they are rather like the proverbial “ships which pass in the night”, so understandably, she worries how much longer the relationship can last.

This case starts with an apparent murder being committed on a bomb site, during the blackout on a dark night, and observed by a young messenger runner; apparently, in reality, during the war, young boys [and only boys] who could run very fast were chosen to run messages between Air Raid Precautions [ARP] dépôts, which was dangerous, especially as they were expected to continue even during bombing raids. This character was actually suggested by the work of the author’s own father, and in the story, messages are also carried between government departments and private addresses.

The boy, Freddie Hackett, tells the police what he saw, but he isn’t believed, so when the opportunity arises to tell Maisie Dobbs, he does so. Maisie also happens to work for a “secret government department spearheading covert operations against the Nazis [sic]”; again, the lazy association of the Nazis with all wartime German forces, but this is all too common, I regret to say; Maisie instinctively believes the boy, taking the commendable view that children should be listened to, counter to the still predominantly prevailing view that children should be seen and not heard. Unfortunately, nearly everybody whom Maisie tells about the incident, people she knows she can trust, tend to the view that the boy is either exaggerating, or that he dreamed the whole thing up during the stress of a bombing raid.

As the narrative progresses, and the plot unfolds, more information becomes available to Maisie to support young Freddie’s assertion, but she still encounters some official opposition, especially because her covert work is so secret that nothing can be allowed to compromise it, especially when it involves sending SOE agents into occupied France. The period feel of the story is realised well, and it is reasonable to make the main character a woman of some substance, given the timeframe, albeit not too high in society to arouse resentment when dealing with the lower orders; she is also very caring when it comes to trying to help the boy’s family escape from an abusive husband & father. Maisie finds the killer in the end, but the resolution is not as satisfactory as she could have hoped for. The paperback I read was published by Allison & Busby, London, in 2021, ISBN 978-0-7490-2668-4.

Website Update

With reference to my previous post, as a result of, sadly, inevitable postage price increases, and very probably an indirect result of Britain’s recently leaving the EU, it has become necessary to update the Wilfred Books website to reflect this, because the postal charges included for despatch of the print version of Black Shirt and Smoking Beagles have been insufficient, for all areas of the world, for some time now. I should also point out that the book’s retail purchase price has NOT increased, neither are there any plans for this to happen. To achieve this update, certain sections of the site have been ‘refactored’, as it’s called, but it has not been a simple matter of just editing a few items of text; the reason for this is that a new price group, specifically for delivery to the EU zone, needed to be introduced: previously, the first non-UK price group included Europe, but this is no longer the case. More details can be found on the website’s about page, where there is a link to the book’s own page, and there is also a purchase link there.

Another complication is that there is now a veritable plethora of possible screen sizes for all of the devices which people can now use to access websites, compared to when the book was first published, in 2013; and, indeed, there are now even narrower screens than the first smartphones had [which I find slightly incredible, but I’m old-fashioned, and prefer a laptop for accessing websites]; so, each possible screen size had to be checked, to make sure that the new layout of the page a buyer is taken to when purchasing a print version of the book, looks acceptable with the new EU postal delivery price group included, so although this was relatively straightforward, as mentioned above, it was not a quick undertaking!

I hope the page looks acceptable across all devices, but I must stress that I am not a professional website developer; although I was confident that I could produce a functional & attractive site to make my book available direct, with no middle-man in the process, other than PayPal, which processes the purchase securely. So, if I have missed a new device size, or slipped up when formatting the page for an existing device, please don’t hesitate to let me know in the comments.

Finally, dare I remind readers that a present-buying opportunity [in addition to normal impulse-buying] is rapidly approaching, so if you know of someone [or yourself!] who would enjoy reading a comprehensively-researched examination of the febrile inter-war period of the 1920s & -30s in Britain, please ensure that a purchase can be delivered in good time! The book focuses specifically on what made an ardent socialist like Wilfred Risdon from Bath, who saw action as a medical orderly in the first world war, and worked in the Tredegar coal mines alongside Aneurin Bevan [who, as we know, went on to a sparkling political career], drastically change his political allegiance to support Oswald Mosley who, although he started out also as a socialist with the best of intentions, fairly soon swung to the opposite side of the political spectrum before the second world war. During the war, after a short period of internment in Brixton Prison under the notorious Emergency Regulation 18B, Wilfred sensibly decided to leave politics behind as far as possible, and concentrate on his passion for animal welfare, advancing to the position of Secretary of the prestigious National Anti-Vivisection Society, before his death in 1967; before that, he engineered the bold [and confrontational!] move of the Society’s London headquarters to Harley Street, the heart of the British medical profession, that still [and continues to, sadly] relied upon animal testing, which involved [Wilfred would argue, unnecessary] hideous & painful procedures. Given the state of the world in general, and British politics in particular now, a knowledge of how we arrived at this point can be very illuminating, so I can heartily recommend Black Shirt and Smoking Beagles: but, then again, why wouldn’t I?