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fullybooked2017

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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ON MY SHELF . . . September Harvest 2019

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What is it about September and songs? Billie Joe Armstrong wanted to sleep until it was over, Rod Stewart realised he should leave his lady friend and go back to school, while Bing, Frank, Peggy, Dinah and dozens of others remembered it in the rain. It is certainly an evocative time of year and, judging by my bookshelf, it’s also a time for publishers and publicists to get their books out there in the public eye after the languors of the summer. So, here’s an eclectic septet of criminal activity and one book, while not a crime novel, earns its place due to my enduring fascination with The Great War.

GONE by Leona Deakin

Leona_DeakinThere is a definite autobiographical seam in the character of Dr Augusta Bloom, who combines the careers of PI and psychologist. The author worked as a psychologist for West Yorkshire Police before writing this, her debut novel. She turns the serial abductor/victim trope on its head as Dr Bloom tries to convince a complacent constabulary that the alleged victims may be more to be feared that the perpetrator. This will be published by Black Swan on 12th December. A follow up novel, Lost is scheduled for release in April 2020.

CHOCOLATE HOUSE TREASON by David Fairer

David FairerAs the enthusiasm for the recent film The Favourite shows, the life of Queen Anne, thought by history to be hitherto unremarkable, has become something of ‘a thing’. Professor David Fairer of Leeds University is an acknowledged expert on the 18th century and, in, particular, its poetry. How fitting then, that his novel is set in the London of 1708 where The Queen herself is subject to scathing sexual innuendo in the gutter press, and the capital seethes with political and criminal unrest. There are, inevitably, casualties and an unlikely trio of investigators seek to solve two murders and prevent a third. This enthralling historical mystery is available now, and is published by Matador.

DARKNESS by David Fletcher

David FletcherWe could, once upon a time, refer to Africa as The Dark Continent without invoking the fury of The Woke. Working on the assumption that Africa was ‘darker’ the further you went into it, then the Congo was blacker than black. Conrad’s Heart of Darkness and Greene’s A Burnt-Out Case feasted royally on the remoteness of the Congo, and the consequent imaginings of a land where the moral code was either abandoned or perverted.  David Fletcher’s Dan Worthington has suffered loss, heartbreak, and  the almost surgical removal of his life spirit. A chance encounter offers him a renaissance and a reawakening, but there is a price to be paid. A flight to Brazzaville takes him to the divided modern Congo, and a sequence of events which will test his resolve to its core. Darkness is also a Matador title and came out in August this year.

GOOD QUESTION by VR Lyons

Back cover010Sue and Jeff work in a grocery store that is something of a throwback. Old fashioned service, the personal touch, quality products – what could possibly go wrong? The pair are amiable, kind-hearted and loved by customers. This apparent Garden of Eden turns inexorably into a wasteland when the pair become involved in a grim criminal conspiracy which is none of their own making. Published by Matador, Good Question is available now.

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HAPPY EVER AFTER by CC MacDonald

CCM009Fans of comforting and anguish-free crime novels should probably look away now. This debut psychological thriller gnaws away at our anxieties and its mission statement seems to be that no fingernail should remain unbitten. Ostensibly privileged and happily married, Naomi falls both victim of – and pregnant by – an elusive and unscrupulous charmer. His disappearance is one thing, but the threat and menace hanging over her domesticity is something else altogether. Harvill Secker are the publishers here, but you will have to wait until 23rd January next year to grab a copy.

HOLD YOUR TONGUE by Deborah Masson

DEborahEve Hunter elbows her way into the crowded room containing fictional British Detective Inspectors, but she has a reputation to save, and a serial killer to catch. Deborah Masson (left) comes from The Granite City of Aberdeen, which is totally fitting as this, her debut novel, is as dark, flint-hard and gritty as her home town. Hold Your Tongue is due on the shelves on 9th January 2020, and is published by Corgi

POETIC JUSTICE: OXFORD by Fran Raya

Fran RayaRandall Forbes has a powerful gift – or is it a curse? He is endowed with telepathy, which gives him formidable abilities as well as huge responsibilities. Set against the warm limestone and dreaming spires of Oxford, Jan Raya’s novel is a breathtaking account of how Randall Forbes challenges and frustrates the police, while sticking to his own code of conduct – slightly warpd though it may be. Musician and writer? Jan Raya is not alone, as fans of the band Fun Loving Crime Writers will testify! Fran Raya’s novel is out on 28th September and is published by Book Guild.

THE PHOTOGRAPHER OF THE LOST by Caroline Scott

CarolineThe only obvious crime here is the  disastrous waste of a generation of young lives on the killing fields of France and Flanders, but Caroline Scott’s novel explores the emotional wasteland of England in the 1920s, where countless women sought some kind of solace after the death of their fathers, husbands and brothers. The photographing of grave-sites and cemeteries was something of a huge commercial opportunity, as so many relatives were ill-equipped to make the journey across the channel to be reunited with their lost loved ones. Widowed Edie has resigned herself to mourning for husband Francis, but a random photograph sparks a search which may end in joyful reunion or shattered hopes. This book is an elegy to loss, heartbreak and the death of a generation. Out on 31st October, The Photographer Of The Lost is published by Simon & Schuster.

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PLENTY UNDER THE COUNTER . . . Between the covers

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T redhis 1943 novel by Kathleen Hewitt is the third in the excellent series of Imperial War Museum reprints of wartime classics, but couldn’t be more different from the first two, From The City, From The Plough and Trial By Battle. Whereas they were both literary novels shot through with harrowing accounts of men in battle, Plenty Under The Counter is an almost jolly affair, a conventional murder mystery set against the trials, tribulations and financial opportunities of civilian life in wartime London.

PUTC coverA jolly murder? Well, of course. Fictional murders can be range from brutal to comic depending on the genre, and although the corpse found in the back garden of Mrs Meake’s lodging house – 15 Terrapin Road – is just as dead as any described by Val McDermid or Michael Connelly, the mood is set by the chief amateur investigator, a breezy and frightfully English RAF pilot called David Heron on recuperation leave from his squadron, and his elegantly witty lady friend Tess. He is from solid county stock:

“There was his Aunt Jane, enduring the full horror of only having two servants to wait on her. There was an uncle, retired from the Indian Army, now clinging like a cobweb to the musty armchairs in his club.”

R redeaders will not need a degree in 20th century social history to recognise that the book’s title refers to the methods used by shopkeepers to circumvent the official rationing of food and fancy goods. More sinister is the presence – both in real life and in the book – of criminals who exploit the shortages to make serious money playing the black market and for whom deadly violence is just a way of life.

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Hewitt gives us plenty of Waugh-ish social satire on the way, partly courtesy of David’s friend Bob Carter, a young man with what they used to call ‘a dodgy ticker’. Turned down from active service he expends his energy on extracting donations from rich people in order to open a bizarre club, where he hopes that people of all nations (barring Jerry, the Eyeties and the Nips, of course) will mingle over a glass or two and thus further the cause of nation speaking unto nation. There is also the grotesque Annie, who serves as Mrs Meake’s maid of all work. Annie is painfully thin, a little short of six feet tall, and the first thing that most people see of her when she enters a room is her teeth.

T redhe ingredients simmering away in the pot of this murder mystery are exotic. There is Mrs Meake, matronly now in her middle age, but still dreaming of the days when she was a beauty in the chorus line on the London stage; her daughter Thelma, a thoroughly spoiled brat who has movie aspirations above her ability; also, who was the swarthy seafaring man trying to sell a fancy-handled knife in the local pub? David’s fellow residents at 15 Terrapin Road are a study in themselves – Cumberbatch, the retired rubber planter with a secret in his room; Lipscott, the Merchant Navy man besotted with a waif-like girl, and the misanthropic Smedley, with his limp and a sudden need for £100.

Kathleen Hewitt WC_01_AThe story rattles along in fine style as the hours tick by before David has to return to the war. He has two pressing needs. One is to buy the special licence which will enable him to marry Tess, and the other is to find the Terrapin Road murderer. Hewitt (right) is too good a writer to leave her story lightly bobbing about on the bubbles of wartime champagne (probably a toxic mix of white wine and ginger ale) and she darkens the mood in the last few pages, leaving us to ponder the nature of tragedy and self-sacrifice.

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THE PENNY BLACK . . . Between the covers

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No, this is not a novel about stamp collecting, and it would be a skillful writer who could turn the rather dry pursuit of philately into a thriller. The Penny Black is a pub – one of three – in the apparently languid and peaceful Norfolk riverside village of Horning. On the river pleasure boats glide, coots skate and squabble while, beneath the ripples, Esox Lucius bides his time, ready to snap up an unwary Roach or two, or perhaps a duckling who has strayed too far from its siblings.

Rob ParkerThis riparian idyll is about to suffer a tsunami of turbulence however, partly due to one of its temporary residents. To call Ben Bracken, the creation of author Rob Parker (left), a Wild Card is something of an understatement. In A Wanted Man and Morte Point (review here) Bracken manages to use his Special Forces training to run rings around his government handlers, notch up an impressive body count, and still evade the clutches of the men, both good and bad, who would rather like to see him incarcerated either in a prison cell or – better still – a coffin.

Bracken has assumed the identity of an itinerant nobody. His day job is swilling out the chemical toilets on the hire boats which putter up and down the river on their journey through the Norfolk Broads. He lodges with an unassuming local couple who have no idea about his turbulent background. After a chance midnight encounter on the river Bracken learns that one of the local pleasure boats, owned by a villager, is actually a floating cannabis farm. A separate incident involving local yobs pushes Bracken into a limelight that he has to escape from, and in order to establish a new identity, he stages a bank robbery with a difference – he only steals money from his own account.

Penny coverWith the cash needed to pay for a fake passport and drivers’ licence Bracken prepares to bid farewell to Horning, a brutal murder and an encounter with a new enemy puts him – literally – on his back, recuperating in a lonely farmhouse. We learn that Norfolk’s would-be Medellin Cartel are actually dancing to the tune played by a London mobster called Terry “Turn-up” Masters, with whom Bracken has serious history. When Masters and his thugs turn up in Horning at the same time as a government Black Ops unit determined to eliminate Bracken, the scene is set for a spectacular shootout involving a buried cache of Home Guard weapons, gallons of blood sprayed liberally over the walls of The Penny Black and enough corpses to keep the local pathologist busy for weeks.

Rob Parker writes in a full-on style which frequently exceeds the speed limit and sometimes skates dangerously on the thin ice of probability, but he is never less than entertaining. Amid the mayhem, there are some sharp social observations:

“….he looks as retired as anyone I’ve ever seen. Natty purple v-neck sweater over cream chinos, wire glasses on a face near split by age-old laughter lines. He’s the poster boy for an over-fifties life insurance plan.”

There is also poignancy, such as when the elderly villager Eric recalls his late wife, collateral damage in the Horning drug wars:

“She had a mouth on her, at times. Sometimes she would put us in a sticky situation, simply because she had something to say, and couldn’t persuade herself not to say it. I’d sit there sometimes waiting for her to do it, just like a time bomb, waiting for her to go off…… But that’s all. That was the only thing. I used to get a bit wound up by it ….. Everyone’s allowed to have flaws, you’re not human if you don’t have flaws.”

The Penny Black is published by Endeavour Media and is available now.

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NOTHING ELSE REMAINS . . . Between the covers

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WFBTCWe first met London’s Detective Inspector Jake Porter and Sergeant Nick Styles in Robert Scragg’s debut novel What Falls Between The Cracks (review here) almost exactly a year ago. This description of the pair is from that book:

“Styles had his weakness for all things Hugo Boss, his image neat and orderly, close cropped hair, number two all over. A few had referred to him as the Met’s answer to Thierry Henry, until they saw him play five-a-side football. Porter was from Irish stock, his wardrobe more high street fashion and his appearance, while not unkempt, had a more lived-in feel to it; hair so dark it bordered on black, refusing to be fully tamed by gel, but with a sense of messy style to it.”

NERPorter is still haunted by the death of his wife in a hit-and-run accident and, like all good fictional DIs, he is viewed by his bosses – in particular the officious desk jockey Milburn – as mentally suspect. He is forced to go for a series of counselling sessions with the force’s tame psychologist, but after one hurried and fruitless encounter, he becomes totally immersed in a puzzling case which involves an old friend of his, Max Brennan. Brennan has arranged to meet his long-estranged father for the first time, but the older man fails to make the rendezvous. When Brennan’s girlfriend is abducted, he turns to Porter for help.

The heavy stone that Porter turns over in his search for Brennan’s missing father reveals all kinds of nasty scuttling things that recoil at the daylight. Principal among these is a list of missing people, all businessmen, whose common denominator is that they have each resigned from their jobs with minimal notice given, citing personal health issues as the reason.

Meanwhile, Styles has a secret. His wife is expecting their first child and she has grave misgivings about her husband continuing as Porter’s partner, as their business puts them all too often – and quite literally – in the line of fire. Understandably, she recoils at the possibility of raising the child alone with the painful duty, at some point, of explaining to the toddler about the father they never knew. Styles has accepted her demand to transfer to something less dangerous, but as the Brennan Affair ratchets up in intensity, he just can’t seem to find the right moment to break the news to his boss.

This is a well written and entertaining police procedural with all the necessary tropes of the genre – maverick cop, desk-bound boss, chaotic personal lives, grimy city background and labyrinthine plot. Naturally, Porter finally gets to the bottom of the mystery of the missing businessmen, but this point was reached with a fair few pages left to go, so clearly something else is about to happen. Sure enough, it does, and it is clever plot twist which I certainly didn’t see coming. Robert Scragg may be a relative novice in the crime fiction stakes but, to mangle a metaphor, he casts his red herrings with the ease and accuracy of an expert.

Nothing Else Remains is published by Allison & Busby and is available now.

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TRIAL BY BATTLE . . . Between the covers

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Alan Mart is a bookish, completely unmiitary young man who, fresh from Cadet College, is posted as a Second Lieutenant to an Indian Army Battalion in the autumn of 1941. The Japanese army is on the move, but are still believed to be just swarms of little yellow men who will melt away when faced with troops led by decent British officers. Mart is taken under the wing of Acting Captain Sam Holl:

“Holl rose from his chair. He seemed to go on rising for an interminable time, lurching from one side to the other, before he found his stature. He was a large-boned man, corded with muscle unsoftened by any spare flesh; his khaki bush shirt and slacks looked flimsy on him, and his rather small squarish head inadequate as a terminal for his torso. He had pale grey eyes, a thin mouth, and a thin pale feathering of hair, delicate and shallow as seedlings. His teeth were yellowish, with an exclamation of pure gold on the left hand side, and he sucked a great deal at them.”

Trial coverThe figure of Sam Holl struck an immediate chord with me, and I wondered momentarily where I had met him before. He is a more warlike version of Guy Crouchback’s brother in arms, Apthorpe. In Men At Arms (1951) and Officers And Gentlemen (1955) Evelyn Waugh gives us a pompous and priggish chap with completely bogus military and social airs and graces. He invites us to scorn Apthorpe and his pretensions while slyly revealing the pathos of Apthorpe’s real identity; probably an orphan, brought up by an elderly aunt; sent to a very minor public school, and packed of, virtually penniless, to serve in some down at heel colonial service. When Apthorpe dies in hospital as a result of Crouchback having smuggled him a bottle of whisky, the comedy turns to tragedy, and our mockery turns to shame-faced guilt.

Despite Alan Mart being our eyes and ears as the real war gets nearer and nearer to the battalion, Holl is, literally and metaphorically, a towering figure. He has the worst aspects of the blinkered British imperialist, but he displays immense physical courage. His bluster, near alcoholism and debased view of native women contrast poignantly with moments of extreme social vulnerability:

“They stood in the moonlight. There was nothing left except to go to bed, but they hesitated.
‘Good night, Holl,’ said Alan.
‘Good night,’ and Holl turned. But after a few steps, he stopped.
‘Alan.’
‘Yes.’
‘You might call me Sam.’
‘Oh. Of course. I’m sorry. Good night, Sam.’
‘Good night, Alan.'”

Mart goes off to train as a Signals Officer, and treads in the footsteps of his Victorian forbears as he becomes an expert operator of the Heliograph. When he returns to Battalion, however, he finds he has a stack of boxes containing brand new shiny radio sets. In a stroke worthy of Joseph Heller, we learn that all the battalion vehicles have been painted out in wonderful desert camouflage designed to baffle Rommel and his men in the deserts of North Africa – the unit’s undoubted destination. Africa or Iraq here we come? Not a bit of it. The Battalion embarks in a shabby tramp steamer. Destination? The dense rubber plantations and jungle of Malaya.

When Mart and Holl reach Malaya they learn many things, few if any of them to their advantage. The sparkling new radio sets abjectly refuse to work over any distance further than the line of sight and, more disturbing still, the despised little yellow men are resolutely disinclined to scatter at the bark of a British military command. Quite the reverse; they are numerous, well trained, superbly equipped, utterly remorseless and, seemingly, irresistible.

PiperDavid Piper’s biography is covered comprehensively in the publicity for this series, so suffice it to say he writes of what he knows. I am reminded of the lines from the old hymn;

“We may not know, we cannot tell
What pains he had to bear.”

Unlike so many of his comrades, he did survive the brutality of Japan’s POW camps which, although well documented, still take the breath away for their unrivalled sadism and absence of the tiniest evidence of humanity. Trial By Battle is a beautifully written account of men and war; there is no sweeping narrative, no epic battle scenes (but those described are terrifyingly vivid) and no broad historical context. Instead Piper zooms in on the fascinating anthill of conflict until we can see every detail, hear the snap of every bullet and squirm at the awkward pause in every conversation.

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