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CRIME FOR THE COGNISCENTI!

WELCOME TO FULLY BOOKED! If you are a fan of crime writing – old, new, true or fiction – you should find something to entertain you here. Among the regular features will be a focus on real life crimes, both in the UK and further afield, the classic fiction of The Golden Age, and the latest new releases from top authors and publishers. You can also find us on Twitter and Facebook by clicking the buttons.

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ENGLAND’S FINEST . . . Between the covers

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For newcomers to the sublime world of Arthur Bryant and John May, the new collection of short stories written by their biographer, Christopher Fowler, contains a handy pull-out-and-keep guide to the personnel doings of London’s Peculiar Crimes Unit. OK, I lie – don’t try and pull it out because it will wreck a beautiful book, but the other bits are true.

Bryant & May are both impossibly old, and so this gives Fowler the licence to set their investigations anywhere between the Blitz and Brexit. These stories gleefully span the years, and established B&M hands are rewarded with the usual mix of arcane cultural references, one-liner gags, London psychogeography and stunning investigative insights from Arthur. Cosy entertainment? Not a bit of it. Fowler leavens the fun with a sense of melancholy which provides a haunting echo to the laughter.

9780857525697.jpg-nggid047297-ngg0dyn-292x0-00f0w010c010r110f110r010t010Leaving aside the pen pictures, introductions and postscripts, there are twelve stories. They are, for the most part, enjoyably formulaic in a Sherlockian way in that something inexplicable happens, May furrows his brow and Arthur comes up with a dazzling solution. Think of a dozen elegant variations of The Red Headed League, but with one or two being much darker in tone. Bryant & May and the Antichrist, for example, is a sombre tale of an elderly woman driven to suicide by the greed of a religious charlatan, while Bryant & May and the Invisible Woman reflects on the devastating effects of clinical depression. The stories are, of course set in London, apart from the delightfully improbable one where Arthur and John solve a murder within the blood-soaked walls of Bran Castle, once the des-res of Vlad Dracul III. Bryant & May and the Consul’s Son revisits Fowler’s fascination with the lost rivers of London, while Janice Longbright and the Best of Friends lets the redoubtable Ms L take centre stage.

The gags are as good as ever. While investigating a crime in a tattoo parlour, Arthur is mistaken for a customer and asked if he has a design in mind:

“I once considered having something on my right bicep but I couldn’t make up my mind between Sir Robert Peel and Dianor Dors.”

When PCU boss Raymond Land is faced with a difficult choice:

“There crept upon his face the anxiety of an Englishman stricken with indecision. It was a look you could see every day in Pret A Manger when middle managers struggled to choose sandwich fillings.”

Idon’t know Christopher Fowler personally, but I infer from his social media presence that he is a thoroughly modern and cosmopolitan chap and, with his spending his time between homes in Barcelona and King’s Cross, he could never be described as a Little Englander. How wonderful, then, that he is the most quintessentially English writer of our time. His Bryant & May stories draw in magical threads from English culture. There is the humour, which recalls George and Weedon Grossmith, WS Gilbert, and the various ‘Beachcombers’ down the years, particularly DB Wyndham Lewis and JB Morton. Fowler’s eagle eye for the evocative power of mundane domestic ephemera mirrors that of John Betjeman, while his fascination with the magnetic pull of the layers of history beneath London’s streets channels Peter Ackroyd and Iain Sinclair.

This collection of short stories is a bar counter full of delicious Tapas rather than the sumptuous four course meal of a full novel, but the appetisers do what they are meant to do – stimulate the palate and make us hungry for more. England’s Finest is published by Doubleday and is out on 31st October.

For more reflections on Bryant & May – and the genius of their creator – click the image below.

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ALL HIS PRETTY GIRLS . . . Between the covers

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AHPG coverAlyssa Wyatt is pretty much your showcase American Mom. Not Middle American geographically, as she lives in New Mexico, but she ticks most of the other boxes; handsome successful husband, two teenage kids, nice house and a fulfilling career – as a cop. Like so many fictional law enforcement types, she has a dark past centred in childhood trauma, but what is done is done, and she lives for Holly, Isaac and husband Brock.

Detective Wyatt and her professional partner Cord are at the forefront of the investigation into a missing woman. Callie McCormick has no apparent enemies apart from the person who has abducted her from her smart home. There is no ransom demand, no body and no progress in the police investigation. What we do have is an increasingly angry Mr McCormick and a detective squad room with a worryingly empty whiteboard, and fanciful sightings multiplying by the hour once McCormick offers a hefty cash reward for information.

Charly CoxCharly Cox reveals to us the identity of the bad guy fairly early in the piece. Or, rather, she doesn’t. Over enigmatic? Quite probably, but to say more would ruin the fun. Alyssa and Cord chase their tails with more determination than success, while the sadist at the centre of the mayhem plans his next atrocity.

What it may lack in nuance, All His Pretty Girls more than compensates for in punch, narrative drive and sheer energy. Albuquerque, New Mexico, is known as The Land of Enchantment, and also the setting for the epic TV series Breaking Bad. It is also home to author Charly Cox. She says that she enjoys eating copious amounts of green chili and other spicy foods, and there is plenty of heat and burn in this novel. She has come up with a sensational – and very clever – plot twist in this, her debut novel and, although the first half of the story is familiar Silence of The Lambs territory – serial killer, murdered women, frustrated cops desperate for clues – Cox then springs a breathtaking surprise on us and the remaining pages just fly by.

All His Pretty Girls is available as a Kindle on 23rd October, and is published by Hera. Hera is a brand new, female-led, independent digital publisher, founded in 2018. They say:

“We’re on a mission to publish the very best in commercial fiction. From gripping psychological suspense, police procedurals and serial killer thrillers, to romance, heartwarming sagas, quirky uplifting fiction and sexy, glamorous contemporary fiction.”

Don’t be misled, however, into thinking that All His Pretty Girls is Chick Lit. Yes, a female is the central character, but there’s no shortage of graphic violence and enough of the ‘mean streets’ to satisfy fans of hard-boiled crime.

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THE MAN ON THE STREET . . . Between the covers

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J blue greenimmy Mullen has been round the block. In the Falklands War his ship takes a direct hit from an Argentine fighter bomber and he watches his mates consumed by the ensuing fireball. Back home recuperating, with a pittance of a pension, he stacks supermarket shelves, battles with his nightmares and presides over the slow erosion of his marriage as drink becomes his only solace. Walking home one night from the boozer, he intervenes to prevent a girl being slapped around by her boyfriend. All very gallant, but the result is the boyfriend (an off-duty copper) lying insensible on the pavement in an expanding pool of blood.

TMOTSAfter the inevitable prison sentence Jimmy is now out on early release, but homeless, his ex-wife now remarried, and his daughter a complete stranger to him. Home is anywhere he can kip out of the rain. His social circle? A few fellow vagrants, raddled by drink, mental instability, drugs – or a toxic combination of all three. Their home-from-home is a charity called The Pit Stop where volunteers provide, food, showers and clothing.

One night as Jimmy lies under the stars on the banks of Newcastle’s River Tyne, voices intrude on his uneasy dreams. These are not the screaming ghosts of his former shipmates, but real human voices, here and now. And they are arguing. Two men, becoming increasingly agitated. Jimmy rolls over in his sleeping bag and takes a look. One man, tall, bulky, looks a bit like a bricklayer. The other fellow, slightly built, long hair, carrying a man-bag, looks a bit like a social worker. “Not my fight” thinks Jimmy. He learned that lesson years ago on his fatal walk home from the pub. As he drifts back into fitful sleep, he hears what he thinks is a splash, but the cocoon of his sleeping bag enfolds him. The words “not my fight” murmur in his ear.

S blue greenome time later Jimmy sees a newspaper article featuring a young woman appealing for news about her missing father. The picture she is holding is of a man Jimmy thinks he recognises. It is the smaller man from the argumentative pair who disturbed his sleep a few weeks since. Or is it? With the help of a couple of his more social-media-savvy pals from The Pit Stop, Jimmy contacts the woman – Carrie Carpenter – and they are drawn into a mystery involving police (both complacent and corrupt), environmental activists, crooked businessmen and – as we learn near the end of the book – grim sexual deviancy.

This is a well written and convincing thriller with sensitive eyes and ears for the plight of ex-servicemen who, like Rudyard Kipling’s Tommy are only accepted by society when there is rough work to be done.

Trevor WoodA blue greenuthor Trevor Wood (right) has lived in Newcastle for 25 years and considers himself an adopted Geordie, though he says that he still can’t speak the language. Despite this, his phonetic version of the unique Geordie accent is good. Normally, I shy away from books where writers try too hard to convey accents in dialogue, but I think Trevor Wood does rather well here. Perhaps this is a result of my addiction to my box set of When The Boat Comes In.

The Man on the Street, Trevor’s debut novel, will be published by Quercus as a Kindle on 31st October, and as a hardback in Spring 2020.

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SIGHT UNSEEN . . . Between the covers

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E bluenora Andresson is a distinguished English actress. Perhaps slightly past her youthful allure, she remains a beauty who can pick and choose her projects, and her films are highly thought of. She has three problems clouding her horizon. The first is, as they say, a bastard. She has a brain tumour. It has been treated but she is only too aware that she may have won a battle, but not the war. Problems two and three are related – literally. She is separated from her Swedish husband, but they have a son – a young man called Malo – who is something of a wrong ‘un. The third problem relates to the words “they have a son”. Fact is, she does – her husband doesn’t. Malo’s father is actually a millionaire businessman named Hayden Prentice, and Malo was conceived during a drunken one-nighter just before Enora’s wedding. So why is Harold a problem? Although he is now an honest man, with legitimate investments and business interests, he made his initial fortune as a drug baron.

Although Enora and Prentice (known hereafter as ‘H’) are now reunited after a fashion, the relationship does not extend to the bedroom, and Enora’s current interest is Pavel, an enigmatic scriptwriter. Pavel’s Eastern European allure is rather manufactured, however, as his real name is the more prosaic Paul. What he says about the art of story-telling, however, could equally apply to Graham Hurley’s own magic wand:

“The best stories detach you from real life. You float away down the river of fiction, lie back and enjoy he view. The storyteller’s challenge is to cast a spell, and the longer that spell lasts, the better.”

T bluehe main plot of Sight Unseen hinges around the kidnapping of Malo’s Colombian girlfriend Clemmie. When a ransom demand of a million dollars is received her father, who, like many rich men from that benighted republic, has kidnap insurance, simply hands the case over to the experts. H, however, has other ideas, and decides to do things his way.

SUHayden Prentice is a brilliant creation and is, in many ways, at the centre of the book, as he was when we first met Enora in Curtain Call. Formerly known as Saucy from his initials, he is hewn from the same rich vein of villainy that produced the elemental force that was Bazza McKenzie in Graham Hurley’s brilliant Joe Faraday novels. H is blunt, foul-mouthed but very, very shrewd. Hurley will not be at all perturbed were readers to visualise H rather like the formidable Harold Shand, as portrayed unforgettably by the great Bob Hoskins in The Long Good Friday.

As the ransom deadline passes, with the customary video as proof-of-life, and a hiking up of the cash demand, H is increasingly convinced that Malo is, somehow more involved in the affair than simply being the anxious boyfriend. The insidious and infamous County Lines drug trade raises its ugly head, and H delivers a brief but brilliantly incisive summary of the endgame he sees engulfing the England he once knew:

“You think your own little town is safe? You think those sweet kids of yours won’t ever get in trouble with drugs? Wrong. And you know why? Because something we all took for granted has gone. Families? Mums? Dads? A proper job? Getting up in the morning? Totally bolloxed. No-one has a clue who they are any more, or where they belong, and there isn’t a single politician in the country who can tell them what to do about it.”

H has a country mansion, Flixcombe, not far from the Dorset town of Bridport. Despite its artisan bakeries, galleries and twee delis there is a grim underbelly which involves, inevitably, drugs. A local tells Enora that although the main players are little more than children:

“Nothing frightens these little bastards …. streetwise doesn’t begin to cover it. They think they’re immortal. Remember that.”

T bluehe finale is astonishing – a bravura affair which only a fine writer like Graham Hurley could hope to get away with. No spoilers, but it involves a doomed English explorer and an old ballad which once inspired Bob Dylan. Sight Unseen is published by Severn House and is out now.

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THE HOCUS GIRL . . . Between the covers

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I redt was not until the middle of the nineteenth century that Britain had anything like an organised police force. The Hocus Girl is set well before that time, and even a developing community like Leeds relied largely on local Constables and The Watch – both institutions being badly paid, unsupported and mostly staffed by elderly individuals who would dodder a mile to avoid any form of trouble or confrontation. There were, however, men known as Thieftakers. The title is self-explanatory. They were men who knew how to handle themselves. They were employed privately, and were outside of the rudimentary criminal justice system.

THG coverSuch a man is Simon Westow. He is paid, cash in hand, to recover stolen goods, by whatever means necessary. His home town of Leeds is changing at an alarming rate as mechanised cloth mills replace the cottage weavers, and send smoke belching into the sky and chemicals into the rivers. We first met Westow in The Hanging Psalm, and there we were also introduced to young woman called Jane. She is a reject, a loner, and she is also prone to what we now call self-harm. She is a girl of the streets, but not in a sexual way; she knows every nook, cranny, and ginnel of the city; as she shrugs herself into her shawl, she can become invisible and anonymous. Her sixth sense for recognising danger and her capacity for violence – usually via a wickedly honed knife – makes her an invaluable ally to Westow. I have spent many enjoyable hours reading the author’s books, and it is my view that Jane is the darkest and most complex character he has created. In many ways The Hocus Girl is all about her.

T redhe 1820s were a time of great domestic upheaval in Britain. The industrial revolution was in its infancy but was already turning society on its head. The establishment was wary of challenge, and when Davey Ashton, a Leeds man with revolutionary ideas is arrested, Simon Westow – a long time friend – comes to his aid. As Ashton languishes in the filthy cell beneath Leeds Moot Hall, Westow discovers that he is treading new ground – political conspiracy and the work of an agent provocateur.

The books of Chris Nickson which are set in the nineteenth century have echoes of Blake contrasting England’s “green and pleasant land ” with the “dark satanic mills”. Yes, scholars will tell us that this is metaphor, and that the Blake’s mills were the churches and chapels of organised religion, but a more literal interpretation works, too. By the time we follow the career of Tom Harper, all the green has turned black, and the pounding of the heavy machinery is a soundtrack which only ceases on high days and holidays. Simon Westow, on the other hand, half a century or more earlier, sees a Leeds where twenty minutes walk will still find you a cottage built of stone that is still golden and unblackened by industrial soot. There are still becks and streams which run clear, uncoloured by cloth dyes and industrial sludge. Just occasionally – very occasionally – there is an old woman still working on her hand loom, determined and defiant in the face of mechanised ‘progress’.

“Up on a ridge, a large steam engine thudded, powering a hoist. A single stone chimney rose, belching out its smoke. No grass anywhere. The land seemed desolate and wasted, people by miners in pale trousers ans waistcoats, blue kerchiefs knotted at the neck. Women and children bent over heaps of coal, breaking up bog black chunks as they sorted them.

This was progress, Simon thought as he watched. It looked more like a vision of hell on earth.”

I red am not sure if Nickson would have been battling with the Luddites as they fought to hold back mechanisation. He is too intelligent a writer to be unaware that the pre-industrial age may have had its golden aspects but life, for the poor man, was still nasty, brutish and short. His anger at the results of ordinary people being sucked into cities such as Leeds to be set to work tending the clattering looms and feeding the furnaces is palpable. Chris Nickson is a political writer of almost religious intensity who, paradoxically, never preaches. He lets his characters have their hour on the stage, and lets us make of it what we will. The Hocus Girl is powerful, persuasive and almost impossible to put down. It is published by Severn House and is available now.

For more on Chris Nickson’s historical novels click the image below.

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LOVE FROM ANGELA DYSON . . .

A tad early for a Valentine, but hey ho . . . . . . .

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She loves me, she loves me not . . . .

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In the pink . . .

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THE LOVE DETECTIVE: THE NEXT LEVEL  is written by Angela Dyson, published by Matador, and is out now.

THE GEORGIANS RETURN TO VAUXHALL

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After her success with The Familiars (click to read the review) Stacey has moved on a couple of centuries to the 1750s. Bess Bright has reluctantly abandoned her baby daughter Clara to the mercies of London’s Foundling Hospital. This astonishing institution, founded by Thomas Coram on 1741, took in babies whose mothers were unable to care for them.

Foundlings3Zosha Nash (left), formerly Head of Development at The Foundling Museum explained, the care and love bestowed on the children was remarkable, even by modern standards. Their life expectancy exceeded that of many children at the time, and all were taught to read and write. The hospital was also famously associated with Handel, and it was in the  chapel that Messiah was performed for the first time in England

Stacey (below) explained how she had visited the museum and been overwhelmed by the poignancy of the exhibits, particularly the tokens – sometimes a scrap of fabric, sometimes a coin scratched with initials – left with the children so that they might be identified at a later date when the mothers’ circumstances had improved.

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Six years after leaving her, Bess Bright returns to claim her daughter, to be greeting with the shattering news that Clara is no longer there. She has been claimed – just a day after Bess left her – by a woman correctly identifying the child’s token, a piece of scrimshaw, half a heart engraved with letters. The authorities are baffled, but convinced that a major fraud has been perpetrated. Bess’s shock turns to a passionate determination to find Clara.

The Foundling will be published in February 2020.

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SHAMUS DUST . . . Between the covers

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“Lately, I’d lost the gift. As simple as that. Had reacquainted with nights when sleep stands in shrouds and shifts its weight in corner shadows, unreachable. You hear the rustle of its skirts, wait long hours on the small, brittle rumours of first light, and know that when they finally arrive they will be the sounds that fluting angels make.”

Every so often a book comes along that is so beautifully written and so haunting that a reviewer has to dig deep to even begin to do it justice. Shamus Dust by Janet Roger is one such. The author seems, as they say, to have come from nowhere. No previous books. No hobnobbing on social media. So who is Janet Roger? On her website she says:

Janet Roger was apprehended for the first time at age three, on the lam from a strange new part of town. The desk sergeant looked stern, but found her a candy bar in his pocket anyway. Big mistake. He should have taken away her shoelaces. She’s been on the run ever since.”

Make of that what you will, but she goes on to admit that she is a huge Raymond Chandler fan:

“But what really got under my skin was Marlowe’s voice guiding me around the next street corner, and beyond it into a stale apartment block or a down and low bar. He invited me in to look over his shoulder, let me see the highs and the lows, talked me through them and then put me in the seat beside him to drive me home.”

So, what exactly is Shamus Dust? Tribute? Homage? Pastiche? ‘Nod in the direction of..’? ‘Strongly influenced by ..’? Pick your own description, but I know that if I were listening to this as an audio book, narrated in a smoky, world-weary American accent, I could be listening to the master himself. The phrase ‘Often imitated, never bettered’ is an advertising cliché and, of course, Janet Roger doesn’t better Chandler, but she runs him pretty damn close with a taut and poetic style that never fails to shimmer on the page.

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Newman – he’s so self-contained that we never learn his Christian name – fled to to Britain during the Depression, had a ‘good war’ fighting Hitler, and now scratches a living as a PI in a shattered post-war London. It is late December 1947, and the cruelties of a bitter winter are almost as debilitating as Luftwaffe bombs. Newman is hired by a prominent city politician to minimise the reputational damage when a tenant in one of his properties is murdered.

Big mistake. Councillor Drake underestimates Newman’s intelligence and natural scepticism. Our man uncovers a homosexual vice ring, a cabal of opportunists who stand to make millions by rebuilding a shattered city, and an archaeological discovery which could halt their reconstruction bonanza.

There are more murders. The weather worsens. The clock ticks relentlessly towards 1948 as a battered but implacable Newman defies both the conspirators and corrupt coppers to see justice done. Along the way, he is helped – and entranced – by a young doctor, but she seems elusive and beyond his reach. As he goes about his grim business, however, he views London with eyes which may be weary, but still have laughter in them:

“..two paintings in the centre of each of the blank walls, one gray on white, the other white on gray to ring the changes. They might have been Picassos from his plumbing period, or a layout for steam pipes in an igloo; either way, they gave the room the all-round charm of an automated milking parlor.”

“At the street corner there was record store closed for lunch, with a sign over that read, Old Time Favourites, Swing, Hot Jazz, Popular, Classical, Opera and Foreign. The rest it was leaving to the opposition.”

By the end, Newman has played a game of chess in which his board has had most of the key pieces knocked off it by a succession of opponents not necessarily cleverer than he, but certainly with more power and fewer scruples. He survives the endgame – Janet Roger creates a divine metaphor in the final three pages – and his darkness is lifted by an extraordinary act of compassion and generosity to a fellow pawn in the cruel game. I started with Newman’s voice. Let him have the final say as he raises a glass to his lost doctor.

“Waiters ghosted. The company men were long gone. My table was cleared excpt for the glass in my hand. I held it up to the light, turned it round through a hundred shades of red, and wished the doctor all the good luck in the world. Then drank and set the empty glass on its side and called Alekhine over for the check.”

Shamus Dust is published by Matador and is out next month.

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EIGHT HOURS FROM ENGLAND . . . Between the covers

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Anthony-Quayle-848x1024-848x1024To many of us who grew up in the 1950s Anthony Quayle was to become one of a celebrated group of theatrical knights, along with Olivier, Gielgud, Richardson and Redgrave. Until recently I had no idea that he was also wrote two novels based on his experiences in WW2. The first of these, Eight Hours From England was first published in 1945 and is the fourth and final reprint in the impressive series from the Imperial War Museum.

Major John Overton, stoically unlucky in love, combines a rather self-sacrificial gesture with a genuine desire to be at ‘the sharp end’ of the war. He chases up casual acquaintances working in the chaotic bureaucracy of London military administration and, rather randomly, finds himself sent out to Albania in the final days of December 1943. The chaotic country – ruled until 1939 by the improbably-named King Zog – had then been annexed by Mussolini’s Italy but after Italy’s surrender to the Allies in the autumn of 1943, German forces had moved in and had a tenuous grip of the country.

The brief of Britain’s SOE – the Special Operations Executive – was to fan the flames of behind-the-lines resistance in occupied countries. Admirer’s of Waugh’s Sword of Honour trilogy will recall that in Unconditional Surrender Guy Crouchback is sent to co-ordinate similar activities in nearby Yugoslavia but, like Crouchback, Overton finds that the situation on the ground is far from straightforward. On the one hand are the Communist partisans, but on the other are the Balli Kombëtar, a fiercely nationalist group who hate the Communists just as much as they hate the Nazis.

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New Year’s day 1944 brings little physical comfort to Overton, but he is determined to make a difference and, above all, wants to take the war to the Germans. In the following weeks and months he meets unexpected obstacles, chief among them being the Albanians themselves. Their character baffles him. He remarks, ruefully.

“The misfortunes of others were the only jokes at which Albanians laughed, the height of comedy being when another man was killed.”

His courage, tenacity and sheer physical resilience are immense, but are sorely tried. Overton’s private thoughts are never far from England:

“I stayed a while longer looking out over the grey Adriatic where in the distance, the island of Corfu was dimly visible between the rain squalls. It was an afternoon on which to recall the hissing of logs in the hearth of an English home and the sound of the muffin-man’s bell in the street outside.”

EHFE coverOf the three classic reprints which feature overseas action Eight Hours From England is the bleakest by far. The books by Alexander Baron and David Piper bear solemn witness to the deaths of brave men, sometimes heroic but often simply tragic: the irony is that Overton and his men do not, as far as I can recall, actually fire a shot in anger. No Germans are killed as a result of their efforts; the Allied cause is not advanced by the tiniest fraction; their heartbreaking struggle is not against the swastika and all it stands for, but against a brutally inhospitable terrain, bitter weather and, above all, the distrust, treachery and embedded criminality of many of the Albanians they encounter.

Overton survives, after a fashion, but is close to physical and spiritual breakdown. The heartache which prompted his original gesture is not eased, and the method of his dismissal by the young woman provides a cruel final metaphor:

“I put my hand into my pocket and pulled out what I thought was my handkerchief. But it was not: it was Ann’s letter. The blue writing paper had gone pulpy; the writing had smeared and wriggled across the page. Not a word was now legible.”

Quite early in the book, when Overton reaches Albania to replace the badly wounded former senior officer, the sick man makes a prophetic statement as he is stretchered aboard the boat to take him to safety:

“For a moment Keith did not speak and I thought he had not heard me, then the lips moved and he said slowly, and very clearly:
‘I wish you joy of the damned place.’”

Click on the covers below to read my reviews of the other three IWM classic reprints.

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