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

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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?

Book Review

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Blunt Force, by Lynda la Plante

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

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

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

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

Book Review

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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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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.