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September 2020

SQUADRON AIRBORNE . . . Between the covers

Elleston Trevor was born Trevor Dudley Smith in 1920, and became a hugely prolific and successful novelist under many other different pen-names, most notably as Adam Hall, writing the Quiller series of spy novels.

He served throughout WW2 as a Flight Engineer, and it is this experience that he drew on to write Squadron Airborne, first published in 1955. It is an intense and sometimes harrowing account of just a few days in the life of a young RAF pilot, Peter Stuykes, in that unforgettable summer and autumn of 1940 that we now call the Battle of Britain.

We are in high summer, and the nineteen year-old Stuykes arrives at the fictional RAF base of Westhill in southern England. He has been taught how to fly, but has never been in combat. A brief training session in the air under the watchful eyes of Squadron Leader Mason passes without major disaster, but it is only a matter of hours before he is in the air again, and makes his first kill.

There are heart-stopping descriptions of aerial combat, vividly imagined because the author was not a pilot himself. He makes us well aware of the unglamorous but vital work of the ground crews who made sure that the aircraft were as fit and functional as they could be. He also hints at a dark reality – aircraft were much harder to replace than young men in their late teens and early twenties.

Perceptions of the past are ever-changing, and the current wisdom, eighty years after the event, has it that the “gallant few” version of the events of 1940 is misleading. Yes, the defeat of the Luftwaffe contributed to Hitler’s disastrous decision to invade Russia. Yes, the bravery and sacrifice of the young pilots was immense, but the reality was that RAF deployment of resources and its mastery of radar meant that the tactic of massed daylight raids by German aircraft was doomed to failure.

Trevor was writing for readers who would have been totally familiar with technical terms, abbreviations and wartime vernacular. I grew up hearing my father use many of these terms, picked up during his wartime service, but younger readers may be interested in clarification. Here are some unfamiliar terms used in the book:

ERKS: low ranking RAF personnel
FLAP: an emergency of some kind
FRUIT SALAD: Medal ribbons
IRONS: as in ‘eating irons’, cutlery
MAG-DROP: a decrease in engine power due to magneto failure
OLEO: a hydraulic shock absorber used in aircraft landing gear
SIDCOT: a standard RAF flying suit
SP: Service Police. The RAF version of Military Police
TANNOY: Public address system
TROLLEY-ACC: a wheeled device containing batteries, used for jump starting aircraft
U/S: Unservicable, broken
WAD: A cake or a bun

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The novel captures the moments of terror and exhilaration of air combat, but also the steady sapping of mental health caused by constant alerts and the ever-present spectre of violent death. Trevor doesn’t ignore the fleeting moments of happiness, whether they be the temporary solace of getting drunk in the local pub, or fleeting love affairs, squeezed in between the dreaded bark of the Tannoy, ordering the young men back into the air. Squadron Airborne has been republished by the Imperial War Museums as part of their Wartime Classics series, and is available now.

For reviews of previous novels
in the Wartime Classics series,
click the image below

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GATHERING DARK . . . Between the covers

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indexCandice Fox (left) is an Australian novelist who is perhaps best known for her collaborations with James Patterson, but back in 2019 I reviewed her solo novel Gone By Midnight, and if you click the link you can read the review. That book was set in the Queensland city of Cairns, but in her latest, she goes Stateside to Los Angeles for Gathering Dark.

To borrow a cliché much loved by sports commentators, Candice Fox leaves nothing in the changing room here in the way of characters. The larger-than-life cast includes former top paediatrician jailed for murder and now working in a fast food joint, her kleptomaniac and drug-addicted chum from prison, a fixated female cop whose career seems to be spiralling out of control, and a six-foot black female gangster and strip-club owner.

What brings this formidable quartet together? The search for the missing daughter of Sneak, the aptly named kleptomaniac. After randomly robbing Blair Harbour at her greasy take-out counter, Dayly has disappeared into the nightmare neon slick that is the criminal underbelly of Los Angeles.

gd014We all love a good coincidence, and cop Jessica Sanchez just happens to have been gifted a sumptuous LA property which sits next door to the house where Blair’s son Jamie has been fostered since his mother’s unfortunate spell in jail. And who was one of the cops involved in Blair being put away for ten years? Christian name begins with J and surname starts with S!

Fox has woven a wonderfully complex web of a plot. Blair isn’t sure why the gangster, Ada, is offering to help, but she thinks it might be because she is returning a favour notched up while the two were in jail together. We eventually learn, a little way before Blair does, that Ada doesn’t do gratitude, and has an ulterior motive.

The cop, Jessica, is pretty much loathed by LAPD colleagues, and she is warned that if she accepts the multi-million dollar mansion, she will be drummed out of the force for accepting bribes.

The unholy Trinity of Ada, Blair and Jessica plough a violent and relentless furrow in their search for Dayly, and it all comes to a head in a claustrophobic and bloody shoot-out in a sewer beneath an LA suburb. Fox is a gifted storyteller and this ‘guns and gals’ thriller will guarantee a few hours of excellent entertainment. Gathering Dark is published by Arrow and is out now in paperback.

THE POSTMAN DELIVERS . . . People of Abandoned Character

There is no single real-life criminal event in history which has captured the imagination of readers, writers, historians and criminologists like the gory saga of the Whitechapel Murders. The word ‘enthusiast’ seems inappropriate to describe someone drawn to the butchering of five women in that dreadful autumn of 1888. How can someone be ‘enthusiastic’ about such carnage? Ripperologist doesn’t work, either, as it seems to conjure up images of a harmless hobby like stamp collecting or fossil hunting.

POAC001There have been countless non-fiction books written on the subject, some providing solutions, but none conclusive. Several fictional detectives have gone head-to-head with The Ripper, and if you click this link, you can read a piece I wrote about the genre. Most recently, Hallie Rubenhold’s book The Five sought to transform the murdered women from mere corpses to real people.

Now, first-time author Clare Whitfield enters the lists with People Of Abandoned Characters, which centres on a  woman who begins to suspect that her new husband, a doctor, may be involved with the unfolding horror of the Whitechapel murders. Do his absences really coincide with the grisly discoveries of the murdered women, or is she putting two and two together and making five?

The advanced publicity says that People Of Abandoned Character:

“… explores the smoke and mirrors of perceived social mobility, the role of wealthy society and the responsibility to the poor (or not as it may be the case), toxic relationships and narcissistic abuse, gender equality and freedom to pursue personal ambition.”

The printed book looks and feels absolutely gorgeous, and I hope the story lives up to the advanced publicity. It is published by Head Of Zeus and will be out on 1st October. Watch this space for the detailed review.

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TRUE CRIME . . . A Warwickshire tragedy

Drive east on the A425 out of Royal Leamington Spa and you will soon come to the village of Radford Semele. The Semele is nothing to do with the princess in Greek mythology or Handel’s opera of the same name, but apparently relates to a Norman family from Saint Pierre-de-Semilly who were lords of the manor in the twelfth century. These days it is a rather prosperous village, much expanded from 1947, when it housed a mixture of the well-off and the rural poor, with nothing much in between.

Number 23 Radford Semele housed the Ashby family. Frederick, aged 48, his wife Marie, 51, son Frederick Philip, 27 and a younger daughter. Frederick junior was in the RAF. In 1947 people didn’t tend to move about as much as they do these days, and the 1911 census tells us that Frederick lived with his grandparents in Radford, while wife Marie had been born in Napton, a few miles down the road. They had married in 1921.

The late winter had been particularly savage, and after a brief heatwave in June, the July weather was cloudy and humid. Those with a radio or a gramophone could have been listening to Frank Sinatra sing Among My Souvenirs, which topped the charts for three weeks. Fred Ashby junior had been a pupil at Clapham Terrace School in Leamington and, being something of an athlete, was a member of the celebrated Coventry Club, Godiva Harriers. After a spell as a draughtsman at the Lockheed works in nearby Leamington, he had joined the RAF. He had come home from nearby Church Lawford on weekend leave, and on the morning of Sunday 27th July, had set off across the fields with a friend, Cyril Bye, to try and shoot a few rabbits for the pot.

It seems that the relationship between Fred Ashby (left) and his father was anything but harmonious. Fred senior, who was a foreman at the Coventry Radiator factory in the village, was often involved in loud arguments when his son was home on leave. At around 4.00pm that Sunday afternoon, a Radford teenager called Rose Marie Summers was standing talking to a friend outside a nearby house, when she saw Fred senior staggering out of the Ashby’s house, clutching his side, in obvious pain. He cried out, “He has kicked me.”

The girl saw Ashby walk round to the rear of the house and return with a shotgun in his hands. He pointed it through the open window of the cottage and fired.

Witnesses who entered the house shortly afterwards never forgot the horrific scene, Young Fred Ashby was kneeling on the floor, his head face down on the sofa. In his back was a gaping wound, pumping blood. The police and ambulance were quickly summoned, and the young man was rushed to the Warneford Hospital, just little over a mile away in Leamington. There was nothing doctors could do to save his life, however, and he died later that evening with his mother at his bedside.

There was never a more cut and dried case for Warwickshire Police. Even as the local bobby, PC Haines, arrived at the scene, Fred Ashby was beside the body of his dying son, trying desperately to staunch the fatal wound, saying, “I did it. I shot him.”

As the case progressed up the ladder of the criminal justice system, from local magistrates’ court to Birmingham Assizes, it became clear that the evidently mild-mannered Fred Ashby was, for whatever reason, regularly bullied by his physically powerful son and, having been knocked about and abused during the afternoon of 27th July, had finally snapped and,in a red mist, fired the shot that ended his son’s life. His plea of manslaughter was accepted, and he was sentenced to ten years penal servitude.

Whatever grief he bore for the killing of his son, Frederick Ashby survived his prison sentence and died in 1984. His wife Marie pre-deceased him by nine years. The senior policeman in the case, Chief Superintendent Alec Spooner of Warwickshire CID, is celebrated by True Crime enthusiasts as the man who led the case investigating the as-yet-unsolved ‘witchcraft murder’ of Charles Walton, at Lower Quinton in 1945, but that is a story for another day.







THE SHOT . . . Between the covers

The late Philip Kerr is justifiably renowned for his magisterial series of fourteen historical books featuring the sardonic German copper Bernie Gunther. Kerr, however, was good enough – and confident enough – to write superior stand-alone novels. I read one such – Hitler’s Peace –  earlier this year and if you click the link it will take you to the review.

41PpZhwb-wLQuercus has just republished The Shot, a 1999 novel by Kerr. We are in America and it is the late autumn of 1960. In the pop charts, The Drifters were singing Save The Last Dance For Me, and a youthful looking senator called John Fitzgerald Kennedy had just won the election to become the thirty-fifth President of The United States.

Just a hundred miles or so from the tip of the Florida peninsula lies the island of Cuba, but its traditional role as puppet state of America, complete with Mafia-owned casinos, sex clubs and hedonistic lifestyles came to an  end in 1958 when communist rebels, led by Fidel Castro, finally overturned the regime of Fulgencio Batista. Cubans have fled in their thousands to Florida, while the American government looks across the waters for signs of Russian influence over the fledgling state.

Central to the story of The Shot is an American assassin who calls himself Tom Jefferson. We never learn his real identity. We only know that his aliases are always those of American Presidents, such as Franklin Pierce and Martin Van Buren. Tom is a military trained sniper who earns his living killing political targets by blowing off the tops of their skulls with a .30 calibre bullet.

PKAs ever with a Philip Kerr novel, we are in a world populated by a mix of fictional characters and real-life figures. Among the latter are Jack Kennedy himself and the Mob boss Sam Giancana. Giancana hires Jefferson to assassinate Fidel Castro so that the revolution will collapse, and the mafioso can return to their old lucrative ways. Jefferson does his homework and seems all set to put a bullet in Castro’s head.

In the wake of 22nd November 1963, Jack Kennedy achieved temporary sainthood, and it is only relatively recently that his less-than-saintly private life has become common knowledge. When one of his exploits affects Tom Jefferson personally, the whole plan to kill Castro is turned on its head. Jefferson goes missing, and becomes the object of a manhunt by the FBI, the CIA and the Mafia.

This novel shows Philip Kerr at his wondrous best. The historical characters are made flesh in front of our eyes, while the fictional participants are vividly convincing. Kerr’s grasp of history is immense, and he serves up a winning mixture of The Day Of The Jackal and The Spy Who Came In From The Cold. The Shot is out now.

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