e may not have been the first to do so, but George MacDonald Fraser entertained many of us with the idea of writing novels where we get to meet actual key players from history. His archetypal bounder Harry Flashman, himself nicked from Tom Brown’s Schooldays, rubbed shoulders and crossed swords with a variety of celebrities, including Otto von Bismarck, Abraham Lincoln, and Emperor Franz Joseph. The late Philip Kerr narrowed things down as he introduced us to Heinrich Himmler, Reinhardt Heydrich and Joseph Goebbels in his Bernie Gunther novels.
MJ Trow is a former history teacher who knows his stuff. He has written successful series featuring a much-maligned Inspector Lestrade, a nosy (autobiographical) history teacher-cum-sleuth ‘Mad’ Maxwell, and the Elizabethan dramatist and, if Trow is to be believed, spy – Kit Marlowe. The Black Hills is the latest in the series featuring former US army captain Matthew Grand, and London ex-journalist James Batchelor. Click the links to read my reviews of The Ring and The Island – two earlier episodes in the career of these private investigators.
One of the enjoyable conceits of the series is the comparison of how the two men behave when out of their cultural comfort zone. Grand is no gnarled backwoodsman, as his parents are wealthy New Hampshire patricians, but there is generally more fun to be had when Batchelor is trying to navigate the social niceties – or lack of them – in America. Trow, like MacDonald Fraser and Kerr, is a shameless name-dropper and we are not many pages into The Black Hills before we have bumped into George Armstrong Custer and broken into The White House to have a conversation with its current occupant, Ulysses Simpson Grant.
Custer is, to my generation and those before it, a ‘big name’. His vainglorious death at the Battle of The Little Bighorn remains the stuff of legend, but it was only fairly recently that I learned of his dashing exploits in the American Civil War. Back, however, to our current plot. Custer is a key witness in a financial fraud case which threatens to expose grave wrongdoings at the heart of US government and, after an attempt on his life on the streets of Washington, Grand and Batchelor are given the task of watching his back when he returns to Fort Abraham Lincoln, an outpost in North Dakota beyond which lie only the eponymous Black Hills and numerous ‘hostiles’ – those we now call native Americans but, in the usage of the day, ‘injuns’.
I readily put my hand up. When I read the words The Black Hills, the first image that flashed before my eyes was that of Doris Day in her buckskins and with her blonde bob under a troopers’ hat. Yes, my age is showing, but the 1953 film Calamity Jane starring Doris Day in the title role featured great songs like The Deadwood Stage, Secret Love and The Black Hills of Dakota. Trow is pretty much of my generation. He was a couple of years behind me at a minor public school (but don’t hold that against either of us). Never one to miss a trick, he features Calamity Jane in The Black Hills but, my oh my, Doris Day she ain’t. Short, pug-ugly and a stranger to personal hygiene, Jane Cannery is a fixture at Fort Abraham Lincoln. She is rarely sober and earns her living by washing the long johns of the Seventh Cavalry men who guard the frontier. She is notoriously quick on the draw with her Navy Colt, and the soldiers take care to give her a wide berth when she is in one of her moods.
Military history buffs will wince when I tell them that Frederick Benteen and Marcus Reno are among the officers who cross the path of Grand and Batchelor in this hugely entertaining novel, as they will know precisely what lies ahead. Even a wonderful storyteller like MJ Trow cannot rewrite history but they can bring it to life and weave an enthralling story between the threads of what actually happened.
The Black Hills is published by Severn House and is available now in print. The Kindle is out on 1st November.