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MURDER AT MADAME TUSSAUDS . . . Between the covers

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This is the sixth book in the delightful series from Jim Eldridge set in the last years of Queen Victoria’s reign, and featuring a private investigator partnership between Daniel Wilson and Abigail Fenton. The pair are so mismatched that they make a delightful fit, if that makes any sense. Former policeman Daniel is short, stocky and of solid working class London stock, while Abigail is of more ‘noble birth’,  tall, elegant, and an expert in archaeology, particularly that of the classical world. As you can see from the banner above, they have worked their way around the major museums of England, but now they are called to a slightly less academic venue – Madame Tussaud’s waxworks on Baker Street.

One of the night watchmen is found decapitated, his body (and head) posed next to the instrument of death that caused Anna Maria “Marie” Tussaud née Grosholtz to fear for her own life during the French Revolution – the guillotine. Wilson and Fenton immediately smell a rather large and malodorous rodent. The dead man – Eric Dudgeon – and his fellow watchman, Walter Bagshot, were lifelong friends, and former army colleagues. Now Dudgeon is dead and Bagshot is missing. Even stranger is the fact that some months earlier the previous watchmen, Donald Bruin and Steven Patterson, both left at the same time and, within days, Dudgeon and Bagshot arrived at the exhibition asking if there were any vacancies for security staff.

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Meanwhile, Eldridge has introduced some real life characters (pictured above) – Prime Minister the Marquess of Salisbury, Sir Matthew White Ridley the Home Secretary, and William Melville head of the Special Branch. The men are concerned about a series of successful bank robberies, each of which has been carried out by the robbers tunneling into the bank vault from the cellar of an adjoining building. The sums taken have been eye-wateringly huge – so much so that the government is concerned about a run on the banks. Dedicated Sherlockians, when hearing about the robbers’ method, will raise an eyebrow and say, “A-hah – The Red Headed League!*

The murder plot becomes more twisted, when a young man, working on the basis that if he can scare his girlfriend she will succumb to his advances, hides with her in a Tussaud’s broom cupboard at closing time, and then sneaks out into The Chamber of Horrors. What they find is a genuine horror rather than a wax version, and all thoughts of dalliance go out of the window. Abigail, meanwhile, is courted (in a gentlemanly way) by none other than Arthur Conan Doyle, who wants her to lead an expedition to excavate an obscure group pf pyramids in Egypt. Both she and Daniel have their lives threatened, however; Abigail by an obsessed young woman who lusts after Daniel, and Daniel himself by a powerful and seemingly untouchable crime boss, Gerald Carr. But is Carr the real spider at the centre of this web, or is it someone much more closely connected to high society?

Screen Shot 2021-06-20 at 19.30.31This shouldn’t be dismissed as ‘comfort reading’. Yes, we know what we are going to get – the atmospheric late Victorian setting, the warm human chemistry between Daniel and Abigail, the absence of moral ambiguity and the certainty that good will prevail. Any genuine reader of fiction – and in particular, crime fiction – will know that, rather in the manner of Ecclesiastes chapter III , there is a time for everything; there is a time for the dark despair of Derek Raymond, there is a time for the intense psychological dramas of Lisa Jewell, and a time for workaday police procedurals by writers like Peter James and Mark Billingham. There is also a time for superbly crafted historical crime fiction which takes us far away in time and space, and allows us to escape into an – albeit imaginary – world which provides balm and healing to our present woes. Murder at Madame Tussaud’s is one such book. It is published by Allison & Busby and is available now.

*The Red-Headed League” is a short story by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle in which Sherlock Holmes takes the case of a businessman who feels that he’s been duped. A small business owner named Wilson tells Holmes how a man named Spaulding convinced him to take a job with The Red-Headed League. The League pays Wilson to copy out the Encyclopedia Britannica in longhand. Wilson does this for seven weeks, until the League is disbanded. Holmes realizes that Spaulding just wanted Wilson out of the shop so that he could dig a tunnel into the nearby bank.

THE KILLINGS AT KINGFISHER HILL . . . Between the covers

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I am delighted to host a guest review from Andrew Mann. You can find him on Twitter at @YorkshireBook48. He is a fan of Sophie Hannah and her Hercule Poirot books.

Screen Shot 2021-06-20 at 10.35.43This is the fourth Hercule Poirot novel by Sophie Hannah (left), The Killings at Kingfisher Hill is a whodunnit written in the style of legendary crime writer Agatha Christie and captures all the magic of the books first published in the the 1920’s. At 330 pages it is a very enjoyable read and I personally flew through it in a few short days.

The story begins with Poirot and his assistant, Inspector Catchpool boarding a coach to Kingfisher Hill, a country estate with several grand houses one of which we soon learn was the scene of a murder. Frank Davenport, disgraced son of the houses owner Sydney, has been pushed to his death from a balcony. As with many crime books the reader is challenged along with Catchpool and Poirot to work out the identity of the murderer along the way by placing together the clues littered throughout by author Hannah, however this one has a slightly unique twist in that from the off we know that one of the characters has already confessed to being the culprit, although of course all is not as it seems.

In the first chapter we meet Joan Blythe, another passenger boarding the coach who reveals that she has been warned previously if she sits in a certain seat she will be murdered. This of course ends up being the case although in typically genius circumstances and the mystery of how this scenario came about runs alongside the murder and is brilliantly unraveled by Poirot and explained in the conclusion of the book.

As the chapters unfold we meet more characters, all of whom come under suspicion from the various Davenport family members, friends Verna and Godfrey to Oliver, fiancée of the deceased mans sister. To further add to the plot a second murder takes place within the house during the investigation which adds further mystery to the plot.

I absolutely loved this book. I found it very funny in places especially the dialogue between Poirot and Catchpool at times. I felt as though I could relate to the narrator Catchpool who is always one step behind in his thinking and never quite works it all out until the very end. The ending for me was very satisfying and gave a watertight explanation to all the events of the book, in an ingenious manner that I would never have guessed.

If you like classic crime mysteries, I would definitely recommend this book for you. It is a great read that more than does justice to the style and character made famous by Agatha Christie and can of course be read as a stand alone novel if you have not read any Poirot before. The Killings at Kingfisher Hill is published by Harper Collins, and is available now.

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DYING INSIDE . . . Between the covers

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Back in the day when I’m Sorry I Haven’t A Clue was actually funny, and I’m talking about the late 1970s, one of my favourite rounds was Late Arrivals At The Ball, where a servant announces the arrival of . . . cue wonderful and bizarre puns, such as:

(The Astronauts’ Ball) Mr and Mrs Secondstoblastoff and their Scottish son, Fife
(The Booksellers’ Ball) Mr & Mrs Zeen, & their disgusting daughter, Margaret – known as ‘Dirty Maggie’
(The Butchers’ Ball) Mr and Mrs Poundamince and their son, Arfur

I only mention this because twice now, within a few days, I have found a crime series to which I have come very late. This, for an avowed fan of police procedural novels, is pretty damning. At least the Trevor Negus novels featuring Danny Flint was only a three book series, but much to my shame I find that there have been ten previous books in the DCI Nick Dickson series. All I can do, is review the eleventh – Dying Inside – and mutter “mea culpa.” Below, numbers one to five in the Nick Dixon Books.

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51olmknWKqS._SX324_BO1,204,203,200_Nick Dickson works for Avon and Somerset Constabulary, so his beat covers much of England’s glorious West Country from Bristol down to Weston super Mare. He is relatively recently promoted, which is good for his salary and pension, but has dragged him into the vortex of tedium which includes mission statements, performance reviews and coma-inducing courses with titles like Developing Inclusive Management Styles In A Modern Police Service. ( I just made that up, but a pound to a penny something very like it actually exists) Dixon, like his creator, is a former solicitor, so he is very wise to the standard stunts pulled by defence lawyers, and it also accounts for his rapid promotion through the ranks. Witnesses often remark that he looks “too young to be such an important officer”, to which his response is usually a neutral smile

Here though, he has dead bodies to deal with. Not so good for the victims – firstly a number of sheep, secondly a dodgy accountant and then an HMRC manager investigating fraud – but good for Dixon’s state of mind. The two humans and the sheep have all been killed with fatal shots from a powerful crossbow. Were the sheep just practice targets while the killer honed his or her skills, or were they unrelated incidents? And what is the true story behind  the ocean-going yacht owned by the dodgy accountant capsizing and sinking taking with it one of its crew, Laura Dicken?

Bit by bit, Dixon completes the jigsaw, and is convinced that the deaths are revenge attacks by one of the people who were lured into a scam which ruined their pensions and left them more or less destitute. With his bosses anxious for him to wrap the case up and devote himself to the serious business of Neighbourhood Watch Liaison Committees and Diversity Webinars, Dixon has one or two surprises up his sleeve before the case can finally be closed. Dying Inside is a thoroughly entertaining read, full of twists and turns, and is published by Thomas and Mercer. It is out in paperback and Kindle on 22nd June.

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A COLD GRAVE . . . Between the covers

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I had not come across Trevor Negus and his DCI Danny Flint novels, and it was only a browse through Netgalley that brought it to my attention, and I am glad I found it – but sorry to come late to the series, which began with Evil in MInd, and was followed by Dead and Gone. The three books all came out in May this year from Inkubator Books, but A Cold Grave was first published in 2018 with the title A Different Kind of Evil, from Bathwood Manor Publishing, which seems to be no more. I am glad that Inkubator have picked up the torch and are running with it.

I have to say that the police procedural genre is my absolute Alpha and Omega in crime fiction, and chancing upon a new (to me) series is a ‘punch the air’ moment. The acid test of course, is deciding if the book is any good. I think police procedurals are harder to get wrong than most genres, but it does happen. I am happy to say that Trevor Negus does most things right in this novel, and so he hasn’t dropped the Ming vase to shatter into a thousand pieces. The book is set in 1986, so in one sense it is Historical Crime Fiction, but only the absence of mobile phones stands out as a major difference between then and now. One of the elements that make this novel work so well is the sense – and continuity – of place. We certainly aren’t in the most romantic or obviously atmospheric part of Britain, but Negus knows Nottinghamshire like the back of his proverbial, and so he should; his bio reveals:

“In 1975 Trevor joined the Nottinghamshire Constabulary as a Police Cadet, becoming a regular officer in 1978. As a uniform constable he learned his craft in the pressure cooker environment of inner city Nottingham which at that time had one of the highest violent crime rates in the United Kingdom.

During a varied thirty year police career Trevor spent six years as an authorised firearms officer and sniper, before transferring onto the CID. He spent the last twelve years of his career as a detective, becoming a specialist interviewer involved in the planning and implementation of interviews with murder suspects.”

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One of the most notorious places in Nottinghamshire is Rampton Secure Hospital, and it is here that the story begins. Two prisoners escape, after inflicting serious violence on several staff. One is quickly tracked down, but the other, Jimmy Wade, gets clean away, almost certainly helped by a member of the public with a car. Wade is a seriously deranged psychopath, and every day he remains at large is a day of anxiety for Detective Inspector Danny Flint and his team.

Flint has something else on his plate, though. That ever-reliable participant in murder enquiries (real and fictional)  – a dog walker – has discovered the decomposing body of a boy. The boy is soon identified as Evan Jenkins, who has been removed from the ‘care’ of his mother, a drug addicted prostitute, and placed in a care home called Tall Trees. Flint has a bad feeling about the couple who run the home – Carol and Bill Short – and he connects them both to a drug ring and – even worse – a ring of paedophiles  whose members include several civic dignitaries and influential businessmen. Meanwhile, Wade’s whereabouts remains a mystery.

Unlike Danny Flint, we know that Wade is living in a remote cottage on a country estate, aided and abetted by his girlfriend Melissa Braithwaite, who is drawn to him by a poisonous mixture of fear of his violence and the worst kind of sexual attraction. Wade has a revenge mission he hatched while under lock and key – the abduction of two prison officers who had given him a particularly hard time in Rampton. Danny Flint’s hunt for Wade and the paedophile ring responsible for Evan Jenkins’s death is played out against an impressively authentic geographical background – the Nottinghamshire towns of Retford, Newark and Mansfield. A police procedural this may be, but Dixon of Dock Green it certainly is not. It is dark, and sometimes frighteningly violent, but always compellingly readable. A Cold Grave is out now.

BLACKSTOKE . . . Between the covers


HeaderMany readers have come to associate Rob Parker with his energetic thrillers featuring the redoubtable runaway Special Forces operative Ben Bracken (click to read more) but one of his early novels, Crooks Hollow (2018), suggested that he had a flair for the macabre, and here he has produced a fully fledged horror novel.After a brief and enigmatic prologue, which tells us very little but suggests bad times are ahead, we are introduced to the residents of Broadoak Lane, Blackstoke, which is an upmarket but only partially finished housing estate somewhere in the north west of England. We have, in order of appearance:

Peter and Pam West. Married, but not entirely happily, they have two teenage children. Peter, after a promotion at work, has put down the deposit on their large house, but he suspects that the mortgage may be a great test of his equanimity.

David and Christian. They are a couple, and they have adopted a child, Olivia.

Fletcher Adams and his wife, Joyce. Adams is an up-and-coming MP. His long hours at work – or at least long hours out of the house – have placed a strain on their marriage, but Joyce seems to have given up the ghost, and has settled for the comforts of a quiet life. They have twins, unkindly likened by someone to the ghostly pair in The Shining.

Grace Milligan, a young, bright and thus-far successful solicitor, she lives alone – except for her Irish wolfhound Dewey. She is another who is having to make serious sacrifices to keep up the mortgage on a house she never wanted, but her father was insistent that it was the right thing to do.

Quint and Wendy Fenchurch, a retired couple. He spent a lifetime as a police officer, she as an employee of the NHS. He lives his life as if had never left the force, while his gentle wife has never revealed to him that by the end of their careers, she was earning much more than he was.

black032Parker ratchets up the ‘something nasty this way comes’ mood in gentle increments: there is a slight, but unmistakable smell of decay in the air, a much-loved guinea pig meets an unfortunate end, little Olivia makes some distinctly Regan MacNeil sounds over the baby monitor, and Dewey the dog is accused of doing something malodorous and messy. But then, after this phoney war between the residents and whatever is lurking in the shadows of Broadoak Lane, it all goes to hell in a hand-cart and we go into full The Hills Have Eyes mode.

I don’t think I have read a horror novel from choice in years, at least not one that has no supernatural element, but this was highly entertaining stuff. I won’t give any more away, except to say that the mayhem hinges on what was on the Blackstoke site before the unscrupulous developers bought it, and that the menace comes as a result of the terrible things human beings do to each other, rather than any intervention from ghosts or ghouls. If you are likely to cringe at the description of someone being emasculated with a meat cleaver, a man’s skull being decoratively rearranged by a fearsome blow from a cricket bat, or the havoc that repeated consanguinity can wreak with the human body, then you might want to give this a miss. Otherwise, if you enjoy a touch of visceral David Cronenberg style body-horror, then this inventive and fast paced thriller will tick all the boxes. It is published by Red Dog Press and is available now.

OUTBREAK . . . Between the covers

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This is the third Luke Carlton thriller by the BBC Security Correspondent Frank Gardner, following Crisis (2016) and Ultimatum (2018). Carlton is a former Special Forces operative who now works for MI6, the foreign intelligence service of the United Kingdom. The novel begins in the frozen wastes of Svalbard, the Norwegian archipelago formerly known as Spitzbergen, and three environmental scientists from the UK Arctic Research Station have been caught out by a blizzard and, too far from their base camp to make it back safely, they seek refuge in a hut. What they find there makes them wish they had braved the snow and wind and tried for home. They find a gravely ill man, and one of the scientists, Dr Sheila Mackenzie gets rather too close to him:

“As Dr Mackenzie turned back to face the sick man, without warning he arched his body forward off the back of the couch with surprising speed. His whole body shook with involuntary convulsions. In that same moment, he coughed violently. His mouth wide open in a rictus gape, he emitted a spray of blood, bile and mucus into the air, his face less than two feet from hers, before collapsing, quivering on to the wooden floor.”

Screen Shot 2021-06-06 at 18.46.45That, then, is the Aliens moment. Events move with terrifying speed. Mackenzie is airlifted back to England and isolation and the wheels of government and the intelligence agencies begin to whirr. Given that there is a large Russian presence in Svalbard, ostensibly for mining operations, the fingers of guilt begin to point towards Moscow, particularly when the virus is found to be man-made.

Gardner doesn’t allow either Carlton or readers pause for either thought or breath. The action zig-zags between the MI6 building at Vauxhall Cross in London, the Arctic Circle, Vilnius, Moscow, GCHQ in Cheltenham and – less exotic but rather more deadly – a down-at-heel industrial estate near Braintree.

This is an impeccably researched novel, as you would expect from someone with Gardner’s experience in the worlds of soldiering, news gathering and international affairs. Most of the story is all-too-horribly plausible, given what we know about what is euphemistically known as ‘mischief’ from Moscow and Beijing, but then Gardner has a surprise for us. The Russians are involved, certainly, but not the Russians we might have expected. To say more would spoil the entertainment but I did find the identity of the conspirators not entirely plausible, given what we know (or think we know) about terror cells operating around the world. But hey-ho, this is not a documentary but a novel – and a bloody good one, too.

Gardner has a box full of thriller writer tools, and he uses them to great effect – punchy, short chapters, many of them shamelessly cliff hanging, whirlwind globe trotting, a convincing (if rather conventional) hero, something of a romantic backstory, breathtaking amounts of cyber-wizardry, and enough military intelligence acronyms to satisfy the geekiest security geek. You won’t be surprised to hear that Carlton eventually triumphs, but I advise caution. The last twelve words of the book might set alarm bells ringing …..

Outbreak is published by Bantam Press and is out now.

SCARRED . . . Between the covers

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If ever there were an appropriate title for a Henry Christie novel, it is this. For newcomers, former Lancashire copper Nick Oldham created Christie in 1996 with A Time For Justice. Scarred is, I believe the 28th in the series, and while Christie hasn’t quite aged the full twenty five years since we first met him, he is rather like Tennyson’s Ulysses:

“Tho’ much is taken, much abides; and tho’
We are not now that strength which in old days
Moved earth and heaven, that which we are, we are;”

Sticking with the Bard of Somersby, Christie is also;

“Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will
To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.”

Back in the day, Henry Christie was a senior detective with the Lancashire Constabulary. He is now long since retired, running a moorland pub, but unable to resist the call to arms when he is asked to operate as a civilian consultant with his old force. Back to the title, though. Christie has endured many a beating at the hands of his criminal adversaries. He carries scars which are both physical and mental from his days battling bad men – and equally malignant women. Without giving too much away, I can say the word ‘scarred’ has a wider connotation than Henry’s war wounds.

I have become weary in recent years of what I call the “four years earlier – six months later” school of narrative, and I raised the tiniest hair of an eyebrow when I saw that this book starts in 1985, when Christie was (I almost said “nobbut a lad” but then remembered that they say that on the other side of the Pennines, not in Lancashire) a young Detective Constable, trying to nab shoplifters. One particular pursuit ends in Christie being severely beaten, and ending up in intensive care. Wisely, Nick Oldham stays with this period of his man’s career for some considerable time, and doesn’t follow the irritating (to me) pattern of lurching between time slots every three or four pages.

81RhPuniszSThe 1985 episode links crucially with the second part of the book which is firmly in present day Covid-restricted Lancashire, complete with masks and elbow bumps. A teenage boy who was the object of Christie’s near fatal pursuit – but then disappeared off the face of the earth – turns up again, but in an unexpected and deeply disturbing way.

A word or two about the places where the book is set. I have spoken of this in previous reviews of Henry Christie stories, but don’t make the mistake of thinking that because some of the action centres on the Blackpool area, there is any sense of sun and fun, saucy postcards and kiss-me-quick hats. The ubiquitous Google provides a statement from Lancashire Country Council:

“Blackpool (20.9%), in the Lancashire-14 area, has the largest proportion of its working age population employment deprived in England, and the third largest percentage income deprived (24.7%). Blackpool has the largest number of people employment deprived and income deprived in the Lancashire-14 area.

Where you have the ‘D’ word you always have crime, meanness of spirit and Oldham doesn’t shy away from describing the littered streets, the drug-ridden estates, the human desert speckled with steel-grilled convenience stores and tattoo shops, the youngsters who have turned feral by the age of twelve, and the desperate single mothers, endlessly betrayed by the absent fathers of their children, and whose only solace is tobacco and cheap alcohol. It doesn’t make the Henry Christie novels Noir, exactly, mainly because HC is such a decent fellow. He is a man who remains optimistic in spite of everything, and perhaps he is a soulmate of the man so superbly described by Raymond Chandler:

“Down these mean streets a man must go who is not himself mean, who is neither tarnished nor afraid. He is the hero; he is everything. He must be a complete man and a common man and yet an unusual man.”

Back to the book. Mr Civilian Christie has been partnered with a firebrand Detective Sergeant, xxxxx who is fixated on the fact that there has been systematic collusion between the police and criminals in Lancashire over a long period of time. Because of this, she has been shunted sideways into investigating cold case crime, an operation which may make for good police procedurals on TV, but is probably frustrating for officers who want to be at the sharp end of investigation and law enforcement. What starts as a hunt for man who raped a young girl many months ago morphs into the discovery of a huge child abuse scandal, and ends with one of the most ferocious finales you could want to read. Scarred is published by Severn House and is out now. To read my reviews of earlier Nick Oldham novels, click the image below.

 

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SILESIAN STATION . . Between the covers

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Followers of this website will, hopefully, have read my 1st May review of David Downing’s Wedding Station (click link to visit). It is actually the seventh book in the series, but is a prequel, being set in 1933. I was so impressed by it that I have raided my piggy bank and bought several others. This review, then, is of a book I have bought for pleasure, rather than a freebie from a publisher. Silesian Station was first published in 2008, and is the second in the series. The central character is John Russell, an Anglo-American political journalist. He married (but later divorced) a German woman, and as their son Paul is a German citizen, Russell is allowed to make his home in Berlin. We are in the late summer of 1939. Six years into the Thousand Year Reich. Six months since Hitler invaded Czechoslovakia. Just days away, maybe, from an invasion of Poland?

spines029Russell is a survivor, a man who can usually talk his way out of trouble. Multilingual, and with that all-important American passport, he keeps a wary eye on the features he wires back to his newspaper in the states, but has – more or less – managed to stay out of trouble with the various arms of the Nazi state  – principally the Gestapo, the SS and their nasty little brother the Sicherheitsdienst. Russell fought in the British Army in The Great War, but in its wake became a committed Communist. Although he has now ‘left the faith’ he still maintains discreet contacts with the remaining ‘comrades’ in Berlin. With that in mind, it is unsurprising, perhaps, that he has been manoeuvred into the sticky position where both the German and Russian intelligence services believe that he is working uniquely for them, and he is being used to pass on false information from one to the other.

It’s probably not a bad idea at this stage to do a brief political and strategic summary of how the land lay in the late summer of 1939. Germany and the Soviet Union were – in theory – the best of friends, but divided both geographically and in terms of future intent by Poland. Hitler still smarted from the loss of previously German territory after the Treaty of Versailles, while both he and Stalin had eyes on encroachment, to the east in Hitler’s case and to the west for Stalin. Hitler knows that Britain and France are treaty-bound to protect Poland, but is more worried about the reaction from the Kremlin should he try to retake the former German lands of Prussia.

Back to the more human and personal elements of Silesia Station. Russell has agreed to do a favour for his brother-in-law, and investigate the disappearance of a  Jewish girl, Miriam Rosenfeld, who has been sent by her parents – who own a small farm near Breslau (modern day Wrocław) to live with her uncle in Berlin, for the chillingly ironic reason that the family are among the few Jews left in the area, and they feel threatened. Russell – aided by his film star girlfriend Effie Koenen – start their search, but Miriam seems to have vanished into thin air. Effie is integral to the story. Very beautiful, and a fine actress, it doesn’t hurt that Hitler’s minister for propaganda, Joseph Goebbels, is an avid film buff, and has rubbed shoulders with Effie at premieres of her films, and is apparently a great admirer.

Months later, of course, all these ambiguities were wiped out by the fury of war, but John Russell has one other contradiction to deal with. Another acquaintance, Sarah Grostein is ‘walking out’ with a prominent SS officer who is – clearly – unaware that she is Jewish. When their relationship goes disastrously wrong, Russell feels obliged to pick up the pieces.

Aside from the human dramas, Downing describes with great clarity the fateful days before the Soviets and the Nazis – via the short-lived Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact – agreed to allow each other to live and let live, and how that fateful decision gave Hitler the green light to invade Poland, thus triggering six years of death, terror and mayhem.

Is Miriam Rosenfeld found? Where did she go? Can John Russell and Effie Koenen keep one step ahead of both the SS and the NKVD? Well, the fact that they appear in later books will answer the last question, at least, but you will have a few hours of tense reading a classic piece of historical fiction while you find out how. Silesian Station is published by Old Street Publishing Ltd and is available now.
 

SWORD OF BONE . . . Between the covers

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Some critics have compared Anthony Rhodes (1916-2004) with his more illustrious near contemporary, Evelyn Waugh. They were both Roman Catholics, although Rhodes converted late in life. Both wrote novels, biographies and travel books. Both – and this is most relevant here – wrote fictionalised accounts of their service in WW2. Waugh’s Sword of Honour trilogy – Men at Arms, Officers and Gentlemen & Unconditional Surrender – was a much more substantial achievement, but both wrote from the view of public school educated men who had gone on to higher education, in Waugh’s case Oxford, and in Rhodes’s case Royal Military College Sandhurst. The latter, of course, makes Rhodes a professional soldier, but they both wrote with a certain sardonic detachment about the war and the soldiers who served in it.

Sword of Bone begins in the early autumn of 1939 when Rhodes becomes a liaison officer for his army division. He is a gifted linguist, and he is a member of the advance party sent to France. They assemble in Southampton, then:

At three o’clock that afternoon we embarked on a miserable grimy little cross-channel boat called The Duchess of Atholl, which had been painted a dirty grey and which, except for what appeared to be an inexplicable pair of blue knickers drying on the bridge, had little enough connection with her eponymous aristocrat.”

SOB cover014His party work their way at a leisurely pace from Brittany up to the grim and grey slag heaps and factory chimneys in the region of Lille, Lens and  La Bassée. His role eventually settles into that of commissioning supplies of engineering materials – principally those needed to meet a sudden demand for concrete pill boxes.

It is worth spelling out at this stage what exactly was going on in the war in Western Europe. On 3rd September 1939, Britain and France declared war on Germany as a result of Hitler’s invasion of Poland. All through that autumn, until the winter became spring, there was little or no military action on the ground. In December, British warships had engaged the German Battleship Graf von Spee, and forced it to seek refuge in the neutral port of Montivideo, where it was eventually scuttled. Back in France, the French had the largest army in Europe, the best tanks, and were convinced that the complex of fortifications known as The Maginot Line made its eastern border with Germany impregnable.

Not so secure, as Rhodes finds when he is billeted near Lille, is the border with Belgium – little more than a few strands of barbed wire and sentry boxes manned by a handful of bored soldiers. The first half of the book is a series of entertaining encounters with village Mayors, profiteering restaurateurs, blimpish Colonels and the complex hierarchies that exist between different parts of the British Army. In Rhodes’s entourage are other officers, of contrasting temperament and character. There is Stimpson, intellectual, effete, almost, and politically rather ‘unsound’.

When the last politician has been strangled with the entrails of the last general, then, and only then, shall we have peace“, he says one evening in the Mess.

The Padre is emphatically different. He is “a man whose views on the treatment of Indians did more credit to Kipling than to his cloth.

Rhodes catches sight of his first German (through binoculars) when he and other officers visit a Maginot fort near Veckering, in the Moselle region. Rhodes’s Major wants action:

Quick, ” said Major Cairns, turning to a Guardsman with a rifle, “Pick him off. Quickly, man.
Please, ” said the subaltern, without moving, “do no such thing. Our business is to obtain information. We want prisoners, not dead men. Besides, if we fire from here, it will only give our own position away. I am afraid I must ask you not to think of firing, sir. It will only mean an immediate reply from the Boche with mortar fire.
Major Cairns sadly put down the rifle which he had taken from the Guardsman, and we all stood by the trees looking out over the valley.”

Of course, the fun has to end sometime, and after a foray into Norway, Hitler’s forces invade Holland Belgium and France on 10th May. The citizens of Louvain and Brussels, remembering the heroics of two decades earlier, are convinced that the ‘Tommies’ will, once again, give the Boche a bloody nose. As we all know, it was not to be. The Germans have ignored the Maginot Line and are storming down through Belgium. Arras falls, and the French army – on paper, numerically and technically superior – are in headlong retreat along with their British allies. It is very much a case of “our revels now are ended” for Rhodes and his colleagues.

Sword of Bone is a little masterpiece. As it follows the fortunes of a small group of British Army officers in the early days of WW2, it records their journey from champagne and lobster lunches and a seemingly absent enemy, to the terrifying and bloodstained beaches of Dunkirk. Rhodes writes with great charm, gentle satire, pinpoint observation but with total authenticity. The book is published by the Imperial War Museum and is out now.

You can read my reviews of the other books in this excellent series by clicking the image below.

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