Book Review

Photo by Warren Wong on Unsplash

Blackout, by Simon Scarrow

This is a book which, in my humble opinion, does live up to its hype, with reviews from Anthony Horowitz & Damien Lewis, no less. It could be seen as an analogue of SS-GB, by Len Deighton; although the main difference, apart from the location, is that the former is set in the real world, albeit a fictional protagonist, whereas the latter is set in the imagined ‘alternate reality’ of a Britain conquered by Germany in 1940. This book is one of a numerous series of books on the subject of conflict and/or warfare in different timeframes by this author: he has also co-authored with Lee Francis & T J Andrews. The protagonist in Blackout, published in 2021 by Headline Publishing Group, ISBN 978-1-4722-5856-4 [paperback], is Criminal Inspector Horst Schenke of the Kripo [Kriminalpolizei]; Scarrow uses British terminology wherever possible, even down to the inexorably ubiquitous Nazi Party salutation “Hail Hitler”, but since there are few direct equivalents of military ranks, Scarrow does use the German terms.

It is December 1939 in Berlin, which is a sensible timeframe for a murder thriller story set there, because the country is now at war, with all the consequent exigencies & paranoia, but it is before the shock & physical effects of an Allied fightback started to appear; whether Scarrow has one or more sequels in mind as the war progresses is not indicated. Schenke has avoided military service, to his shame, because he has a permanently injured knee, courtesy of an accident during his former career as a driver for the prestigious Silver Arrows Mercedes-Benz racing team: he was lucky to survive the crash, but it left him with a game leg. He is, however, a diligent & moderately successful police officer, and he is “requested” by Heinrich Müller, the head of the Gestapo [Geheime Staatspolizei, State secret police] to investigate the death of Gerda Korzeny, aka Gerda Schnee, a once-famous actress whose career ended somewhat abruptly when she married a rich Berlin lawyer. Schenke is confused as to why he has been conscripted in this way, because the death did not occur in his area; however, he has so far resisted pressure to join the Party, which has been assuming ever more influence over all aspects of German life, including the police, and he quickly realises that, as well as having no obvious allegiance to any of the fractious factions which Hitler’s system has produced, he could be a very convenient fall guy if he discovers anything the Party deems inconvenient.

Schenke is initially unamused to be assigned an “assistant”, who just happens to be an SS Scharführer [sergeant] by Müller, and he sees it as an obvious device to keep tabs on him & his investigation [the officer’s name is Liebwitz, which I think is a nice little in-joke for German speakers, as the young officer has no sense of humour]; however, on reflection, Schenk realises that this could actually be an advantage, given the clout that even a sergeant in the Gestapo with SS accreditation can wield; he also shows assiduous diligence in his work. Also, Müller gives Schenk a letter of authority, which proves to be useful a few times. When another woman is murdered in almost identical circumstances, Schenk begins to wonder if, perhaps, this isn’t an investigation of one murder which could prove to be uncomfortably sensitive but, instead, one of a series by a psychopathic killer willing to take advantage of the wartime blackouts; further investigation by one of Schenk’s team suggests that this could, indeed, be the case… This is as much as I can reveal without spoiling the plot, but the tension as the investigation nears its conclusion is very well built, and the dénouement is very plausible, so if you enjoy a thriller with a wartime historical context, I can heartily recommend this book, and I would not be sorry to see a sequel.

Book Review

Photo by Alexander Andrews on Unsplash

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.

Book Review


Photo by Forest Katsch on Unsplash

V2, by Robert Harris

A Robert Harris novel is always an enticing prospect, for me, and this one didn’t disappoint, because I knew in advance that it would be based on meticulous research. The science & technology which facilitated this murderous & potentially catastrophic final chapter of the war is well known & catalogued, as is the personnel on both sides who were involved, although Harris did invent the British defence unit in the story, and the principal German character; what he doesn’t specify is whether the named casualties of the rockets were real, but it would seem disrespectful if they weren’t, so I think it must be safe to assume that they were. The idea for the novel came to Harris after reading the obituary of a 95-year old ex-WAAF officer who had been posted to Mechelen, Belgium, in November 1944, and then her two-volume memoir. It is also well known that Wernher von Braun and other scientists involved in Hitler’s last desperate attempt to subdue & conquer Britain were persuaded [although probably not a great deal of persuasion was necessary] to work for the USA, albeit in secret, because of the sensitivity of their recent enemy status, in the USA’s postwar ballistic missile, and subsequently civilian space programmes: this extraction operation was known as Operation Paperclip.

The narrative is effectively a two-hander with, on the one side, the German participants; most of whom are scientists, but there are also some military characters; and on the other side, the British participants, the protagonist being the WAAF, Section Officer Angelica Caton-Walsh, known as Kay, based on the aforementioned officer, Eileen Younghusband. Kay works at Danesfield House; renamed RAF Medmenham after the closest village, near Marlow in Buckinghamshire; she is a photographic analyst in the Central Interpretation Unit, working in what was known as Phase Three: examination of recent aerial photographs from the enemy theatre of operations for potential longer-term tactical use. She has been having an affair with Air Commodore Mike Templeton, but Mike is injured when the building in which his London apartment is located, Warwick Court — near Charing Cross, just off Chancery Lane in Holborn — is badly damaged by a V2 rocket strike; Kay receives only very minor injuries. She is more emotionally wounded when Mike warns her against accompanying him to the hospital, but she is pragmatic enough to know the reason for that.

She is asked to accompany her section leader, Wing Commander Leslie Starr [known as The Wandering Starr, for fairly obvious reasons with so many female subordinates], to a meeting at the Air Ministry to formulate an urgent response to the exponentially-increasing number of disastrous V2 incidents. To her amazement, Mike is there, hobbling on crutches and swathed in bandages, but he acts as if they have never previously met; although this is, again, not entirely unexpected, Kay resolves to make a clean break and request a transfer to a forward new radar analysis unit which is proposed for the closest location in Belgium to the apparent launch site of the latest V2s: Scheveningen, in Holland. The female officers needed for the new unit have to be mathematicians, but Kay’s mathematical prowess is rudimentary, although she knows her way around a slide-rule & logarithmic tables, so she feels confident enough to prevail upon Mike to facilitate her transfer, as one last favour. The idea is that the trajectory of the rocket’s flight, and hence the launch position, can be retrospectively calculated using the first observed position after launch, direction, and speed, then factoring in the strike location and working back using the flight parabola.

On the other side, at Scheveningen, is an old colleague & friend of von Braun from their early days of rocketry experiments, the technical liaison officer from the Army Research Centre at Peenemünde. He is keen to improve the efficiency of the rockets, especially in view of the investment the Nazis have made in their development, and several embarrassing & costly failures [both in financial and human terms] have always been a cause for concern; latterly, he has begun to consider the implications of his actions: both he & von Braun were always more interested in the rockets’ potential for space exploration, and von Braun, particularly, saw the war as an unavoidable distraction from their main purpose, but also with the advantage of providing funds & facilities to achieve that. Graf’s anxiety is exacerbated by the arrival of SS Sturmscharführer Biwack of the National Socialist Leadership Office, one of the Nazi Party commissars, recently embedded in the military on the Führer’s orders, to kindle a fighting spirit: “Real die-in-a-ditch fanatics.” He has full security clearance, and it is obvious to Graf that, as well as his stated purpose, he will also be snooping everywhere, always on the lookout for lack of enthusiasm or even possible sabotage.

The action progresses from one side to the other and, naturally, anti-fascists will root for Kay & her associates, but it is not difficult to also feel some sympathy for Graf; less so for von Braun, perhaps, as he never hesitates to use his SS credentials to further his career & aims, although he does assist Graf in more than one sticky situation. The outcome of the war is known, of course, and not too much space is devoted to the race against time to locate the launch sites, but it is nicely paced, and there is also a neat little coda where Kay & Graf actually meet: entirely fictitious, of course. Overall, I found the book reassuringly enjoyable, although I do have a couple of minor [and very personal] quibbles: for me, it was disappointing to see American terminology used in a couple of places, e.g.: wrench for spanner, flashlight for torch. US troops were stationed in Britain in 1944, but British usage would have prevailed, plus the character where they were used was German. Also, the author uses what I consider as the lazy habit of referring to a German army officer as Nazi, when not all were members of the Nazi party: many were actively critical of it, dangerously so. I don’t cite these as a deterrent, however, so I would unconditionally recommend it. I read the hardback version, published in 2020 by Hutchinson, London, part of the Penguin Random House group: ISBN 978-1-78-633140-3. There is also a Wikipedia article, which gives more background to Operation paperclip.

Book Review

Photo by Steve Harvey on Unsplash

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

tompile2

The Disappearance of Tom Pile, by Ian Beck

This is a relatively new book (published in 2015 by Penguin Random House UK, ISBN 978 0 552 56776 3), whose full title, too long for the paperback cover, is The Casebook of Captain Holloway: The Disappearance of Tom Pile, and the author is new to me, but I have to confess that I was drawn to the book by the cover (thereby refuting the well-worn adage) and, given the author’s background, I was surprised that he didn’t design the cover himself: “Ian Beck has worked as a freelance illustrator for many years (including such notable artwork as the record [remember those?] cover for Elton John’s Goodbye Yellow Brick Road album). Ian turned to writing and illustrating children’s books when his own children were born.” This isn’t a particularly long book at 267 pages, so it is an easy read, especially if, like I do, you enjoy science fiction which has a reasonable plausibility, even if one’s disbelief does have to be suspended to some extent. The book also includes some monotone photographs which have been edited to support the narrative although, somewhat perversely, they don’t always exactly match the section of the story they support; that’s only a minor quibble, however.

Without wanting to give away too much of the plot, the story concerns the eponymous Tom Pile who, we learn, went missing and was quickly presumed dead, in the year 1900, only to inexplicably return forty years later, having not aged at all, in exactly the same location, which is a part of Dorset I know slightly, having had family whom I occasionally visited with my parents, living there, and some still do. The area, according to the story, has been subject to strange lights in the sky going back to some years before Tom’s disappearance; the author claims not to “know if strange lights have ever been seen over the hills of Dorset…”, and that could well be true, but there are military establishments not too far away (although they possibly didn’t exist when the lights were first noticed), so that would lend some credibility to the theory that curious extra-terrestrial visitors (since that is the obvious, albeit not initially stated inference to draw from these events) have been investigating earth’s military capability. However, to use a well-known saying of the time, “there’s a war on”, so the fictitious (probably) government department investigating these phenomena has to use the threat of a German invasion to cover its enquiries, in the person of a young, precociously gifted Londoner by the name of Jack Carmody, who is sent to deepest, darkest Dorset, to see what he can find.

There is a twist at the end which is not entirely unexpected, and the dénouement could have been extended somewhat, but what could have been a tragedy turns out not to be so, entirely anyway, and it would appear that this is the first book in what could be a series, given that there is at the end of the book an “exclusive extract of the next story about Captain Holloway [Jack’s superior officer], Corporal Carmody and Tom Pile: The Miraculous Return of Annick Garel”; however, one disappearance (this book) and a “miraculous return” (the next book) don’t necessarily suggest an open-ended series: time will tell, of course. This is definitely not hard-core science fiction (apologies if that upsets hard-core science fiction aficionados), but I think that will make it more attractive to a broad audience, including perhaps a lucrative demographic, the ‘young adult’ readers, although this book doesn’t appear to be specifically targeted there. If the paranormal and/or unexplained phenomena irritate you, this is probably a book best avoided, but given that there are indeed many reports globally of people who have mysteriously vanished, and/or experienced time loss (they can’t all be mad or looking to make an easy buck, surely?), as I said earlier, it does (in my opinion, of course) have a reasonable plausibility, so if you can handle that, give this little book a whirl. If it helps to convince you, on the Penguin Books page marketing the book, no less an icon that Philip Pullman gives the book a glowing, albeit oddly brief, endorsement: “A cracker . . . Utterly convincing”: it works for me!