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THE SARACEN’S MARK . . . Between the covers (click for full screen)

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SW-Perry-photo-1-2-300x482SW Perry (left) whisks us away from our disease ridden present misery to – with almost supernatural prescience – the streets of London in 1593, where plague is also keeping the gravediggers and the parsons working around the clock! The late sixteenth century versions of  plucky NHS employees come in the shape of Bianca Merton, a young Anglo-Italian woman who keeps The Jackdaw, a Bankside tavern (and who is also much in demand as a herbalist – a purveyor of what we now call alternative medicine) and her close friend Dr Nicholas Shelby, whose medical knowledge is more conventional.

The disease has, so far, gone about its malevolent business north of the River Thames, but with no daily calls for social distancing, it finds its way south:

“Her name is Ruth. She is returning to the lodgings on Pocket Lane that she shares with her husband. Ruth feels uncomfortable hot. By the time she reaches home, she will have a fever. She will awake the next morning to find painful swellings in her armpits. Young and strong, she is in the habit of thanking God for a strong constitution. But in a few days she will be dead. The pestilence has crossed the river.”

Bianca is much in demand among the worried residents of Bankside for her concoctions:

“Pomanders of rose leaves, tragacanth gum and camphor to hang around the neck … clove and lemon to mix in a posset . . . also a tincture of bezoar and sorrel. Mix that in water or small beer every morning.”

TSM coverNicholas, however, has been sent on a mission by one of the most powerful men in Queen Elizabeth’s kingdom – her spymaster Sir Robert Cecil. England has a complex relationship with what we now call Morocco, and in particular with the ruler of Marrakesh, but the death of Adolfo Sykes:

“..a small, somewhat bow-legged half-English, half-Portuguese merchant with a threadbare curtain of prematurely white hair that clung to the sides of his otherwise- unsown pate.”

… needs to be investigated, as Sykes is a key strand in Cecil’s silken – but deadly – web of spies and agents. When Nicholas finally arrives in Marrakesh, he discovers that Sykes had uncovered a slavery ring involving, among others a brutal and violent sea captain called Cathal Connell. Now that Nicholas is aware of the secret, it is only a matter of time before Connell and his accomplices come looking for him. While the unpredictable world of Moorish politics find him alternating between foul prison cells and  a life of luxury surrounded by servants, back in London ….

“The pestilence has returned with a vengeance. The Savoy hospital has closed its doors to new patients and posted guards on the water stairs to deter visitors. The chapel’s death-bell tolls with increasing frequency.”

This is a richly rewarding novel, full of fascinating historical detail, but Perry never allows the authenticity of  his main characters to be hidden beneath a superfluity of information about what they are wearing, or the contents of their dinner plate, or elaborate architectural descriptions. Bianca and Nicholas are separate from each other for most of the narrative, but each drives the story forward relentlessly. As we are only too well aware just now, plague knows no historical boundaries, but Perry’s skill as a storyteller is equally timeless – and magical. The Saracen’s Mark is published by Corvus, and is out now.

If you like the sound of what the author calls The Jackdaw series,
then read my review of The Serpent’s Mark.

BORROWED TIME . . . Between the covers (click for full screen)

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The latest novel from David Mark, Borrowed Time, is seriously dark stuff. There were times when I felt I had entered the nightmare world of distorted humanity, shocking violence and suffering that was distilled into a kind of bleak poetry by Derek Raymond in such masterpieces as I Was Dora Suarez and The Devil’s Home On Leave.

BT coverAdam Nunn is a decent enough fellow, but like all of us, he has made his mistakes. He lives with Zara, a struggling restaurant owner, but has a child of his own, Tilly, who lives with Grace, her mother. Adam has discovered that he is adopted, and has employed a fairly seedy private investigator to try to trace his birth parents.

When the investigator is found dismembered in a spot notorious for being the burial ground of many victims of old Essex gang wars, Adam is about to have an unpleasant surprise. On the (severed) hand of Larry Paris was a scrawled National Insurance number – and it is Adam’s. The police think they have an instant suspect, but after a bruising initial encounter, they realise they have nothing with which to tie Adam to the killing

Adam Nunn lives in Portsmouth. And it is not a particularly fragrant place:

” A city drawn in charcoals and dirt: a place of suet-faced pensioners, of teenagers in baby clothes; of egg-shaped women and puddled men, big middles and conical legs.”

His search for the truth about his identity leads him inexorably to an Essex gangster family, the Jardines. Alison is the daughter of ailing patriarch, Francis. She runs the firm and is not a woman much given to empathy with some of her Essex contemporaries:

“She likes to imagine all those golden-blond, size eight bitches, sobbing as they inject Botox into their foreheads and splurge their life savings on surgeries and rejuvination procedures; their skin puckering, spines beginning to curve, veins rising like lugworms on their shins and the backs of their age-mottled hands.”

Neither is Alison’s son Timmy someone for whom she has a great deal of conventional maternal affection.:

“He’s an ugly, rat-faced little specimen who, at twenty years old, has yet to master the art of having a conversation without thrusting both hands down his jogging trousers and cupping his gonads. She loves him, but not in a way that makes her want to touch him, look at him, or spend time breathing him in.”

Eventually Adam learns who his mother was, but the nature of his conception and the fate of his mother is just the start of the nightmare. The identity of his father is only revealed after a journey through the inferno, the flames of which threaten to consume him along with everyone else he holds close.

David markAlong the way, Mark (right) introduces us to some loathsome individuals who have all played their part in Adam Nunn’s terrible back story. There’s local politician Leo Riley, for example:

“He knows that cash is an aphrodisiac. Power enough to loosen any pair of knickers. And fear a crowbar to stubborn legs.”

Alison’s fearsome minder, Irons, is a creature from hell:

“His face is a butcher’s window, all pink and red, meat and offal: a rag-rug of ruined flesh. he still has to apply lotions five times a day to stop his cheeks tearing open when he laughs. Not that he laughs often. He’s a quiet man. Hasn’t engaged in much chit-chat since the brothers went to work on him with a bayonet, a blowtorch and a claw hammer.”

There is compassion within the pages of Borrowed Time, but it is in short supply.  We don’t just glimpse the worst of people, we come face to face with them, and close enough to smell their rancid graveyard breath. This is a brilliant and sometimes moving piece of storytelling, but within its pages the only redemption comes in death. Borrowed Time is published by Severn House and is out now.

MAKING WOLF . . . Between the covers (click for full screen)

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Weston Kogi is a security guard in a London supermarket, and the most excitement in his life is when he has to chase shop-lifters across the car park. When he hears that the woman who brought him up, his Auntie Blossom, has died at her home – the city of Ede in the West African republic of Alcacia – he decides to attend the funeral. You will look in vain for Alcacia on a map, but Tade Thomson describes it thus:

“He brought out a map of Alcacia. It was shaped like a sperm whale on the West African map, tiny, squeezed between Nigeria and Cameroon, the mouth of the whale drinking from the Atlantic.”

MW2017At his aunt’s funeral he meets Churchill “Church” Okuta. Church is a nightmare from Kogi’s schooldays, and the meanest person he has ever met. When asked what he does in London, Kogi, on impulse says that he is a homicide detective. Bad move. Church orchestrates the drugging and abduction of Kogi, and when he wakes up he finds that he is in the camp of the Liberation Front of Alcacia, one of two warring rebel groups trying to overthrow the government. Their leader, Enoch ‘Papa’ Olubusi has been assassinated, and the LFA, in the mistaken belief that Kogi is a crack British detective, want him to prove that the killing was the work of their bitter rivals – the People’s Christian Army.

Sucked into a deadly game of recriminations, treachery and mind-numbing brutality, Weston Kogi soon finds himself unsure of who are the good guys and who are the villains. You might think, at first sight, that the People’s Christian Army and the Liberation Front of Alcacia are comedy turns, like the rival factions in Monty Python’s The Life of Brian, but as you turn the pages of Making Wolf, you will encounter graphic and disturbing descriptions of violence in a dystopian Africa where fair is foul and foul is fair. Even everyday domestic scenes have a touch of the nightmare about them:

“Dogs howled at the full moon, took a break, and then howled some more. People came out on raffia mats, deckchairs and carved stools. Children ran around the central wood-fed fire, squealing their delight and roasting wild mushrooms on dirty sticks. Wasps, sand flies, stick insects, confused termites and other arthropods flew into the flames for one shining moment before dying.”

Amid the corruption, cheap death and commonplace brutality, Tade Thompson has a keen eye for the absurd. Kogi and Church pay a visit to a Fagin-like character who is the lord of all the many beggars in Ede.

“The King of Boys wore a crown to receive us. The crown was jewelled with marbles – children’s marbles. It was a band of tin, beaten together from old Burma-Shave containers. His head was completely bald, shining from within the rim of his crown. He had a back tailcoat on and he looked like an impoverished Fred Astaire.”

As he lifts layer after layer of lies and deception, Kogi decides to visit the widow of the assassinated politician, and she invites him to an evening at the theatre. Diane Olubusi has dressed to kill:

“She wore a low-cut white dress, designed in such a way to give the impression of a woman wrapped in a bolt of silk which was about to slip off. She smelled like a botanical garden with all the flowers in full bloom.”

Weston Kogi discovers that Alcacia is awash with money. Hundreds of thousands of dollars – in suitcases, money belts, plastic bags – are traded back and forth between  sinister men in dark suits and their military friends in combat fatigues. All this while little people grind out their miserable lives in squalor and hardship. There is grim comedy, astonishing violence and a certain brutal poetry in Making Wolf. It is a book that will certainly shock you, but make no mistake, Tade Thompson is a writer to be reckoned with.

Making Wolf was first published in 2015, but is being reissued by Constable, and will be available from 7th May.

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THE TAINTED . . . Between the covers (click for full screen)

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When I was offered the chance to read The Tainted by Cauvery Madhavan, I sensed that it wasn’t my usual fare, but I was drawn in by the historical and military background of the story. I’ll say right now that I loved it. The narrative spans sixty years, is set in India between 1920 and 1982 and deals with two very different families – that of an Anglo-Irish soldier, and a young Anglo-Indian woman and her descendants.

The TaintedThis is a fine novel, and as is to be expected with any such story set in historical India – think A Passage To India or The Jewel In The Crown – at its heart are the various tensions that exist between native Indians, Anglo-Indians (people of mixed race) and the British rulers. Cauvery Madhavan doesn’t stop there, however. She introduces another theme of social conflict which shimmers and reverberates rather like the sympathetic strings on a sitar, and this is the relationship between another group of subjects and masters – the Roman Catholic population of The Irish Republic and the English landed gentry who, for so long, governed them.

The story begins in 1920, in the garrison town of Indaghiri. Private Michael Flaherty of the Kildare Rangers falls in love with Rose Twomey, a young woman who works as a maidservant in the house of Colonel Aylmer, the head of the regiment. Historical background is crucial here, but I’ll be as concise as possible. The Kildare Rangers are fictional, but their factual counterparts were the Connaught Rangers. The southern Irish regiments had fought bravely for the British cause in The Great War, but with republican unrest simmering in Ireland, many of the units had been posted overseas.

Rose Twomey is fair of skin, with delightful freckles, but she is mixed race. Her father married an Indian woman, and so Rose carries the crucial taint of being Anglo-Indian and, to use the brutal logic of the time, she is neither one thing nor the other. Michael and Rose sup well, but not wisely, and the result is that Rose, pregnant with Michael’s child, is disowned by both her father and the Aylmer family.

One of the remarkable things about the logistics of the British Army in The Great War was that it was able to deliver letters from home with pinpoint accuracy to even the most God-forsaken trench on the Western Front, and so it that the men of the Kildare Rangers have a ready supply of news from home. And it is not good news. In an attempt to stifle Irish nationalism, the British have created an auxiliary police force attached to the Roral Irish Constabulary. Known as the Black and Tans, they are mostly unemployed former soldiers, and their brutal intimidation of the civilian population is causing unrest among the men of the Rangers. When this unrest turns to outright mutiny, it is soon quashed, but Michael and several other men are arrested and face the firing squad.

Screen Shot 2020-04-20 at 19.56.18The second part of The Tainted jumps forward to 1982. India is rapidly emerging as a modern nation, but it retains the vast web of bureacracy bequeathed to it by the long departed British. Mohan Kumar is the Collector for the Nandagiri district. He is, in the vast scheme of things, a relatively minor functionary, but one with great local power and prestige. He is asked to accommodate a photographer from Ireland, Richard Aylmer, who is none other than the grandson of the late Colonel of the Kildare Rangers. The Colonel was a talented artist, and Richard’s mission is to match contemporary photographs with the scenes his grandfather painted. Mohan points Richard in the direction of Gerry Twomey, a forestry manager whose knowledge of the local landscape is unmatched.

Of course, Gerry Twomey – and his sister May – are descendants of Rose Twomey, and I will say no more other than to promise that what follows is enchanting, heartbreaking and beautifully written. Cauvery Madhavan (above right) takes many risks, plot-wise in this book, but everything not only falls into place, but does so with style and bravura. The Tainted is published by HopeRoad and is out on 30th April.

Men of the Connaught Rangers did stage a brief mutiny against their commanders, and some of the ringleaders were executed. Those buried in India were, as suggested in The Tainted, eventually disinterred and their remains repatriated to Ireland. You can find out more here.

For more about the Raj in 20th century India, take a look at the excellent Christian Le Fanu novels by Brian Stoddart.

BETWEEN THE COVERS . . . The Final Straw (click for full screen)

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I had not come across anything by Jenny Francis before, so I did a little research before beginning The Final Straw, and discovered that the author isn’t one person, but a writing partnership between Patricia Scudamore and Hilton Catt. Furthermore, the pair’s day job, as it were, is writing self-help manuals for commerce and business. Titles such as Successful Career Change, Cover Letters In A Week and The Interview Coach didn’t initially indicate that I was about to read an entertaining crime novel, but I was wrong.

TFS cover019Charlie Moon is yet another fictional Detective Inspector, but slightly different in one or two ways from many of his fellow CriFi coppers. For a start, his patch is the rather unfashionable West Midlands, probably the city its locals affectionately refer to as Brummagem. Also, although he carries the cross born by most of his fictional counterparts – corrupt or incompetent bosses – he has a stable and happy family life, and neither drinks nor smokes to excess. When he goes home at night, it is to the solace of his wife and daughter, rather than the solitary vice of falling asleep on the sofa, whisky glass in hand, while something from his obscure CD collection plays in the background.

Moon is contacted by a notorious local criminal, currently a guest at HMP Winson Green. Denny Wilbur might shrink at being described as public spirited, but he has an injustice to share with Moon. A simple minded black man, Wilson Beames, was twenty years into a life sentence for murdering a teenage girl, Sharon Baxter, back in the 1970s, but he has been found hanged in his cell.

“He couldn’t read or write, yet they reckoned he’d signed a confession. Besides which, he wouldn’t have had the brains to know what he was signing anyway.”
“Are you suggesting he was stitched up?”
“We all know what went on the seventies, don’t we, Inspector? Some naughty people in your mob occasionally did some naughty things.”

When Moon suggests to his bosses that this needs investigating, he is warned off in no uncertain terms. Being a contrary so-and-so, Moon decides to do a little investigating on his own, with the help of Jo Lyon, a local journalist. Bit by bit, they fit the pieces of the jigsaw together, and the emerging picture is not a pretty one. It shows a desperately corrupt senior policeman, a paedophile ring, and a ruthless local businessmen prepared to provide certain services. As Moon closes in on Sharon Baxter’s killer, he is unaware that when he does solve the mystery, it will provide a shock that he could never have anticipated.

The Final Straw is cleverly written, fast paced, and with an authentic sense of time and place. If, like me, you are impressed with Charlie Moon, there are two previous novels to check out – The Silent Passage and Blood Ties. All three are published by Matador, and The Final Straw is out on 28th April.

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THE MUSIC BOX ENIGMA . . . Between the covers (click for full screen)

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Fans of period police procedurals are in for a treat at the end of the month when RN Morris’s distinctive London copper, Chief Superintendent Silas Quinn makes a welcome return. It’s December 1914, and the war that was meant to be over by Christmas is showing only signs of intensifying. DORA – the Defence of The Realm Act – has been enforced, and among the many strictures it imposes on the populace are imprisonment without trial, a ban on publishing any description of war or any news that is likely to cause any conflict between the public and military authorities and, bizarrely, an interdiction on buying rounds in pubs.

MBE coverBut Christmas is coming, and a rather upper-crust choir, The Hampstead Voices, is rehearsing for its seasonal concert, with all proceeds going to Belgian refugees, forced from their homes by the brutal Hun invaders. Directed by Sir Adrian Fonthill, the concert will include not only much-loved carols such as O Little Town of Bethlehem and Adeste Fideles, but choral works by Bizet and Handel. Special guest artistes will include dancers from Ballets Modernes and the distinguished violinist Emile Boland, but the evening will conclude with a performance of Sir Edward Elgar’s A Christmas Greeting, in the presence of the composer himself. It is also believed that Winston Churchill, First Lord of The Admiralty, will be in the audience at University College School on the evening of 24th December.

Silas Quinn may have many qualities, but a musical ear is not one of them, so how does he come to be involved in the doings of The Hampstead Voices? Rehearsals for the concert may not be going too well, perhaps due to the many tenors and basses who have answered the call to arms, but preparations take a distinct downturn when the Director of Music is found dead, slumped at his grand piano, with the sharpened handle of a tuning fork stuck into his ear. As boss of Scotland Yard’s Special Crimes Unit, Quinn is summoned to the scene of this musical murder.

It seems that the late Sir Adrian, despite his musical sensitivities, was not a paragon of virtue. He has a roving eye – and hands – for young sopranos and altos, and has a weakness for gambling which has left him in debt to some very dangerous people. But who stands to benefit from his death? Not those to whom he owes money,surely? A resentful husband, perhaps, who has been cuckolded?

MorrisAs Quinn tries to penetrate the wall of silence thrown up by Fonthill’s widow, his attention is drawn to a mysterious music box sent to Sir Adrian just before his death. When it is wound up and played, however, the resulting tune simply seems – even to Quinn’s tin ear – a haphazard sequence of random notes. But help is at hand. One of the Special Constables from Hampstead Police Station could be said to have an ear for music. He is none other than Sir Edward Elgar, celebrated composer of Salut d’Amour, Variations on an Original Theme and The Dream of Gerontius. Elgar takes the discordant melody and uncovers a message which rveals that Sir Adrian’s death is not to be the last associated with the ill-fated Christmas concert.

RN Morris (above right) gives us an inventive and delightfully improbable conclusion to this very readable novel. If you want something to lose yourself in for a few hours and a diversion to push to one side the misery and discomfort of the lock-down, then you will find nothing better than The Music Box Enigma. It is published by Severn House and will be out in hardback on 30th April.

For a review of an earlier Silas Quinn novel, The White Feather Killer, click here

THE DIRTY SOUTH . . . Between the covers

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John Connolly’s private eye Charlie Parker rarely ventures south of the Mason Dixon line; his natural habitat is the brooding forest wilderness of Maine, a place where he communes with ghosts older than those of his murdered wife and daughter. As the name suggests, The Dirty South, his 18th case, sees him in Arkansas. The books begins and ends in the present day, but the greater part of the action takes place in 1997. The state’s former Governor and Attorney General has gone on to greater things, but his elevation has brought little in the way of material benefits to the small town of Cargill.

81hCyWuPLKLParker is still hunting the man who brutalised and then murdered his family and, thanks to former colleagues on the NYPD, he has a file on a girl murdered near Cargill, the manner of her death – and that of two others – give him cause to believe that her killer may be of interest to him. At this point, Connolly has a little fun with what might be called the In The Heat Of The Night trope. OK, so Parker isn’t black, but he is a stranger in town, asking questions. He is not inclined to say much about who he is and what his intentions are so he gets to spend a night in the town’s jail. While he is under lock and key, the body of another missing girl is found – horribly brutalised and left in woodland on the edge of the Ouachita mountains.

Parker’s back story is determined by a police civilian clerk making a call to New York:

“She picked up and listened as the caller identified himself. She wrote the name CHARLIE PARKER in block capitals across the top of a fresh page, and began taking notes.
‘Christ,’ she thought, as the lines began to fill with her handwriting, ‘Kel and the chief need to get back here, and fast. They need to let this man out of his cage before he has a mind to break out of it himself.’”

P Capitalarker is given an apology, and asked to help with the hunt for Donna Lee Kernigan’s killer. He soon learns that the Jurel Cade, a special investigator for Burden County, has been involved in the investigations – or lack thereof – into the earlier deaths. The Cade family are rich, influential and undoubtedly corrupt. They have also managed to entice Kovas, a massive defence procurement company, to build a plant in the vicinity, a deal which will put food on tables, dollars in wallets and hope in hearts for the long neglected locals. A few murdered black girls mustn’t be allowed to embarrass the PR machine that deals with the Kovas public image.

This is a very different Charlie Parker novel. The only supernatural element comes when Parker communes with his daughter who may be dead in physical terms, but is very much alive in his heart, mind and soul. The unspeakably malign villains of previous novels, all of whom were, in some way, connected with the paranormal, are absent. The disfunctional Cade family, and the malign shadow of serial child abuser Hollis Ward are bad enough, but they are flesh and blood. We do, happily for their fan club, have a brief appearance from Louis and Angel. They are as potent a force as ever, but Angel’s possibly terminal illness is many years away.

C Capitalonnolly writes like an angel, and there is never a dead sentence, nor a misplaced word. Occasionally, within the carnage, there is a wisecrack, or a sharp line which sticks in the memory:

“The radio was playing in Rhinehart’s back office: KKPT out of Little Rock, one of only two classic rock stations the device was able to pick up. Nobody was permitted to change the station for fear that it might never be located again, thereby leaving Rhinehart to subsist on a diet of Christian Contemporary Gospel, and Regional Mexican, until he eventually blew his brains out.”

If ever we needed an absorbing and substantial read to distract us from our nightmare, it is now. The Dirty South is published by Hodder and Stoughton and is out on 20th August. Buy it, blag it or borrow it – but don’t ignore it. It is a brilliant read which will provide a few hours of enchantment away from the miserable present.

More Fully Booked musings on John Connolly and Charlie Parker are available here.

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HITLER’S PEACE . . . Between the covers

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Of modern novelists, the two who have most successfully employed the device of using real characters in their stories are John Lawton and the late Philip Kerr. Lawton, happily still with us, has assembled a cast which has included, to name but a few and in no particular order, Nikita Kruschev, Hugh Gaitskell, Lyndon Johnson, Guy Burgess and Lord Beaverbrook. Lovers of Kerr’s magnificent Bernie Gunther novels will testify that sometimes, Gunther appears to be the only fictional character in the stories. Over the fourteen books we encounter pretty much everyone who was anyone in Nazi Germany, as well as a few post WW2 figures such as William Somerset Maugham and Eva Peron. The 2005 standalone novel Hitler’s Peace is being republished this month, and although there is no Bernie Gunther, the cast list is of epic proportions.

HPWe are in the autumn of 1943. Hitler’s war has, to be vulgar, gone tits-up. In Italy, Mussolini has been overthrown, imprisoned and then rescued by German special forces, but the Allies have a foothold on mainland Italy. On the eastern front, the Wehrmacht divisions and the Red Army have fought each other to a bloody standstill at the Battle of Kursk, but it is clear to anyone but a fool that the Russian advance is inexorable. Against this background, there are voices within the Nazi party – notably SS chief Heinrich Himmler – who are in favour of putting out tentative peace approaches to both the Russians and the Americans.

There are two central characters in Hitler’s Peace. One is very much a historical figure, Walter Schellenberg, the top man in the Nazi intelligence agency, the Sicherheitsdienst (SD) and a confidante of Heydrich and Himmler. The second man is fictional. Willard Mayer is an American philosopher, academic and linguist, who is recruited by none other than Franklin D Roosevelt to work for the Office of Strategic Services (OSS – the forerunner of the CIA).

What is the trajectory which brings Schellenberg and Mayer together? The German is sent to neutral Sweden with secret peace proposals. Roosevelt, with re-election in mind, knows that the tens of thousands of American lives which will be lost should an invasion of France become necessary, earmarks Mayer for a similar task.

Schellenberg, though, has come up with a radical plan of his own. The so-called Big Three – Churchill, Roosevelt and Stalin – are due to meet at a conference in nominally neutral Iran. What if long range Luftwaffe bombers, aided by a ground force of crack troops, could destroy the leadership of Germany’s foes at one stroke? This hit on the Soviet embassy in Teheran could destabilise the Western alliance and make it susceptible to peace proposals from Germany.

SchellenbergKerr’s use of so many real characters is hypnotic. Of course it’s fiction. Of course the writer has only his research – and imagination – to use when describing Himmler’s mannerisms, or those of Roosevelt and Stalin. Of course, it being Philip Kerr, it works beautifully. Schellenberg (right) is a cleverly drawn character; resourceful, intelligent and attractive to women, in particular Lina Heydrich, widow of the Deputy Reich Protector of Bohemia and Moravia. The fictional Mayer, for his part, is equally convincing; urbane, debonair, gifted, hyper intelligent but not lacking in physical courage. His part in the finale of this book is both heroic and crucial.

So what happens in Teheran, when Himmler’s scheming, Schellenberg’s master-plan and Mayer’s secret mission collide? To use a cliché, that would be telling. All I will say is that readers are in for a surprise that, for me at least, was literally breathtaking. Philip Kerr’s grasp of the military and political nuances of the period is masterly; add that to his gift (yes I know we already know he is brilliant) as a storyteller and we have a book that grips from the first page to the last. I tried to ration it, given the current huge increase in available reading time, but it was to no avail – Hitler’s Peace is just too good. Published by Quercus, it is out on 16th April.

For more about Philip Kerr and his novels, click here

THE KING’S BEAST . . . Between the covers

 

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The King’s Beast is the sixth novel in Eliot Pattison’s series featuring the Scottish exile Duncan McCallum, and his adventures in America before the Revolution. The story begins in 1769, just a few years before the start of the actual conflict which saw Americans shaking off what they saw as the dead hand of British colonialism. However, as Pattison points out in his preface, and as readers of the earlier novels will know, the events of 18th April 1775, and subsequent battles, were the culmination of years of political intrigue and discontent.

TKB coverSo who is Duncan McCallum? Like many of his countrymen, he fled his homeland to escape the brutal recriminations following the Jacobite defeat at Culloden in 1746. His father and brothers were not so fortunate. McCallum has nightmares about his kin swinging from an English gibbet, food for crows and ravens. McCallum is a trained physician, but open-minded enough to know that the natural remedies used by the Native Americans he meets can be extremely potent.

Earlier novels in the series have seen McCallum all over the parts of America which had been colonised – Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, Virginia – but now he is in Kentucky, overseeing the excavation of fossils, on the instructions of none other than Benjamin Franklin. Franklin – writer, polymath, journalist, scientist and political activist – has been in London since 1757, lobbying on behalf of Pennsylvania, and is anxious to have the fossils – relics of prehistoric mastodons.

The fossils, known at the time as American Incognitum, are not just historical artifacts but, with tensions rising between various political factions on both sides of the Atlantic, they become chips in an increasingly deadly game. By the time McCallum sets sail for London on the Galileo, blood has been shed, and brave men lie buried.

As McCallum and his friends try to avoid the malign intentions of British soldiers and get the fossils to Franklin, they are sidetracked by efforts to secure the release of McCallum’s mentor, a native American called Conawago, who has been incarcerated in the notorious Bethlehem Hospital – Bedlam. The hospital’s evil reputation is well-earned:

“…noxious smells wafted through the hall. The stench of excrement and urine mingled with those of soap, vinegar and strong black tea. Men in matching brown waistcoats and britches, apparently staff, were emerging from chambers at the back of the main gallery, shepherding patients out of a dining chamber and opening windows, which created new currents of air that seemed to just circulate the same foul odours.”

McCallum finally contacts Franklin, and realises that the American is viewed with some ambiguity by the British establishment. On the one hand his political activism makes him a figure of suspicion, while his learning and scientific mind link him to the most powerful man in the land – King George III. The King respects learning and research, but is surrounded by advisors who do not share his enthusiasm.

I am always slightly wary of historical fiction where some of the characters have remarkably modern attitudes to diversity and cultural tolerance, but McCallum is not a member of the ‘woke’ fraternity transported back two and a half centuries – he is decent, just, honorable, and a convincing man of his time. Pattison’s scholarship is immense, and his grasp of historical detail is formidable. This is to be expected from an international lawyer, perhaps, but this is a historian who can also tell a good tale. Readers will look long and hard before they find another writer who can teach us about a particular period, with all its social and political complexities, while at the same time entertaining and enthralling us. The King’s Beast is published by Counterpoint and is out today, 7th April.

For more about Eliot Pattison, click on the image below.

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