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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.
 

THE GREAT DARKNESS . . . Between the covers

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Cambridge, in the early autumn of 1939, is like every other city and large town across Britain: war has been declared, the army is everywhere – as are rumours of German spies and infiltrators under every metaphorical bed. Observers scan the skies night and day vainly searching for enemy aircraft while in Belgium, the British Expeditionary Force sit waiting the German Army’s first move. In hindsight, of course, we know that this was the ‘phony’ war, and that Hitler’s forces had, for the moment at least, more pressing work further east.

Jim004In this febrile atmosphere are many men and women who have memories of “the last lot”. One such is the latest creation from Jim Kelly, (left) Detective Inspector Eden Brooke. He saw service in The Great War, but were someone to wonder if his war had been ‘a good war’, they would soon discover that he had suffered dreadful privations and abuse as a prisoner of the Turks, and that the most physical legacy of his experiences is that his eyesight has been permanently damaged. He wears a selection of spectacles with lenses tinted to block out different kinds of light which cause him excruciating pain. For him, therefore, the nightly blackout is more of a blessing than a hindrance.

One of Brooke’s stranger habits is moonlight bathing in the River Cam. It is on one such visit to the river that he overhears a conversation. Because of blackout, he can see nothing, but it seems a group of ‘squaddie’ soldiers under the command of an NCO are digging pits to bury something – and it is not a pleasant job. Daylight, and an inspection by one of Brooke’s officers, provides no answer.

With the mysterious burials in St John’s Wilderness nagging away at him like a toothache, Brooke must divert his attention to violent deaths. With military minds convinced that barrage balloons will prove the answer to death being delivered from the skies by the Luftwaffe, the ‘blimps’ are tethered all over the city. To us, they have a slightly comedic aspects, but when one breaks free from its mooring and catches fire, the results leave no-one laughing. As the balloon careers across the Cambridge rooftops it trails a deadly mesh of netting and steel cable. A man, subsequently identified as American research student Ernst Lux, has been caught up in this obscene accidental fishing expedition and when his body eventually returns to the ground it looks as if it has been savaged by some dreadful predatory beast. The second death is just as brutal but mercifully quicker. The body of Chris Childe, a conscientious objector and an active member of the Communist Party, is found slumped over his parents’ grave in Mill Road Cemetery. He has been shot through the head at point blank range.

Brooke is pulled this way and that with the investigations, but then there is a further complication. Three lorries, running on false plates, are found parked up on Castle Hill, their drivers gone. When the investigation gathers speed it becomes clear that this is an operation in black market meat, controlled by criminal gangs in Sheffield. Brooke is convinced that there is a military connection between all these events, but in order to make any sense of them he needs to get straight answers from the top brass at regional army HQ out at Madingley Hall. The Inspector is, literally, an ‘old soldier’ and he knows precisely how the military mind works, so attempts by officers such as Colonel George Swift-Lane to ‘baffle him with bullshit’ are doomed to failure.

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The relationship between the deaths, the digging and the dirty dealing are eventually laid bare by Brooke’s intelligence and persistence. Kelly’s writing has never been more atmospheric and haunting; he gives us one spectacular and horrific set-piece when a demonstration by the Auxiliary Fire Service goes terribly wrong, and he makes sure that the killer of Chris Childe dies a death more terrible than that of his victim. Above all, though, we have a brilliant and memorable new character in Eden Brooke. There is a little something of Christopher Foyle about him, although his wife Claire is very much alive, but Brooke’s son is also away doing his bit, with the BEF in Belgium, waiting for the push that would eventually. just seven months later, drive them into the sea.

 

Brooke’s portrait is subtle, nuanced and, while revealing up to a point, leaves us with the impression that this a man who we may never completely understand, and that he is someone whose actions, thoughts and decisions will always have the capacity to surprise us. I can only say to Jim Kelly, “Thank you, Mr K – this is as brilliant and evocative a piece of crime fiction as I will expect to read all year. You’ve gone and done it again!”

The Great Darkness is published by Allison & Busby and will be generally available on 15th February.

For a background to Jim Kelly’s work and his use of landscape, place and history in his novels, click the link below.

LANDSCAPE, MEMORY – and MURDER

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JIM KELLY . . . Landscape, memory – and murder

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Phil RickmanWhen it comes to creating a sense of place in their novels, there are two living British writers who tower above their contemporaries. Phil Rickman, (left) in his Merrily Watkins books, has recreated an English – Welsh borderland which is, by turn, magical, mysterious – and menacing. The past – usually the darker aspects of recent history – seeps like a pervasive damp from every beam of the region’s black and white cottages, and from every weathered stone of its derelict Methodist chapels. Jim Kelly’s world is different altogether. Kelly was born in what we used to call The Home Counties, north of London, and after studying in Sheffield and spending his working life between London and York, he settled in the Cambridgeshire cathedral city of Ely.

jim kelly Small_0It is there that we became acquainted with Philip Dryden, a newspaperman like his creator but someone who frequently finds murder on his doorstep (except he lives on a houseboat, which may not have doorsteps). While modern Ely has made the most of its wonderful architecture (and relative proximity to London) and is now a very chic place to live, visit, or work in, very little of the Dryden novels takes place in Ely itself. Instead, Kelly, has shone his torch on the bleak and vast former fens surrounding the city. Visitors will be well aware that much of Ely sits on a rare hill overlooking fenland in every direction. Those who like a metaphor might well say that, as well as in terms of height and space, Ely looks down on the fens in a haughty fashion, probably accompanying its haughty glance with a disdainful sniff. Kelly (above)  is much more interested in the hard-scrabble fenland settlements, sometimes – literally – dust blown, and its reclusive, suspicious criminal types with hearts as black as the soil they used to work on. Dryden usually finds that the murder cases he becomes involved with are usually the result of old grievances gone bad, but as a resident in the area I can reassure you that in the fens, grudges and family feuds very rarely last more than ninety years

deat1In the Peter Shaw novels, Kelly moved north. Very often in non-literal speech, going north can mean a move to darker, colder and less forgiving climates of both the spiritual and geographical kind, but the reverse is true here. Shaw is a police officer in King’s Lynn, but he lives up the coast near the resort town of Hunstanton. Either by accident or design, Kelly turns the Philip Dryden template on its head. King’s Lynn is a hard town, full of tough men, some of whom are descendants of the old fishing families. There is a smattering of gentility in the town centre, but the rough-as-boots housing estates that surround the town to the west and the south provide plenty of work for Shaw and his gruff sergeant George Valentine. By contrast, it is in the rural areas to the north-east of Lynn where Shaw’s patch includes expensive retirement homes, holiday-rental flint cottages, bird reserves for the twitchers to twitch in, and second homes bought by Londoners which have earned places like Brancaster the epithet “Chelsea-on-Sea.”

With these two best-selling series under his belt, Jim Kelly would have been forgiven if he had played safe and simply ping-ponged Dryden and Shaw in his future novels. But, like Ulysses of old, he has given us a new character.

“’Tis not too late to seek a newer world.
Push off, and sitting well in order smite
The sounding furrows; for my purpose holds
To sail beyond the sunset …….”

I am not suggesting for one second that Jim Kelly is anywhere near his metaphorical sunset but, just as Ulysses pushed his boat off into unknown waters, so Kelly begins a voyage that takes us to Cambridge in the golden autumn of 1939. Britain is officially at war with Germany, and Detective Inspector Eden Brooke has mysterious deaths to solve. Set in the glorious university town – yes, ‘town’, as Cambridge did not become a city until 1951 – The Great Darkness will enthral Kelly fans and new readers who like the landscape to be a significant character in their fiction.

The Fully Booked review of The Great Darkness will be available in the next couple of days, but here are several links to features on Jim Kelly and Phil Rickman.

All of a Winter’s Night by Phil Rickman

Jim Kelly – A Landscape of Secrets

The Seaweed That Started A War

Books Of The Year 2016

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DANGEROUS CROSSING … Between the covers

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ADC014It is the summer of 1939. In Germany, the bitter ashes which have been smouldering for two decades since the punitive reparations after Versailles have been fanned into flames, and the fire is set to spread across Europe. As Hitler prepares to march into Poland, in Britain the world carries on as normal, although few would know that this would be the last summer of peace for more than six years.

In the dock of the Essex port of Tilbury stands the ocean liner Orontes. The crowds on the quayside watch and wave as their loved ones board the ship, which is bound for Australia. One of the passengers is Lily Shepherd, a quiet but pretty young woman who has had enough of waitressing at a Lyons Corner House in London, and has signed up with a scheme which will take her to Australia to work as a domestic servant.

Rachel Rhys begins the book with the closing scene. The Orontes has docked in Sydney, but before the passengers disembark, we see police escorting a woman from the ship. It is obvious she has committed some grievous crime, but her identity is not revealed and so the book becomes less of a whodunnit? than whowilldoit? Rhys carefully follows the conventions of mystery stories which take place in the enclosed spaces of ships and long distance trains, and she has assembled an excellent cast of characters. Again sticking to the tried and trusted formula, Rhys describes how most of the characters are running away from something – or someone.

Edward Fletcher and his sister Helena are travelling to Australia for the good of Edward’s health. He is suffering from tuberculosis. Months in a sanatorium have saved his life, but only the Australian climate will guarantee that it will be a long one. George Price is an embittered young man who has been sent by his father to work on a relative’s farm in New Zealand. He makes no bones about the fact that he sees Hitler’s rise to power as the best thing which could have happened to Germany in particular, and Continental Europe in general.

The typically staid and reserved social dynamic between this little group, who all share Lily’s dining table, is shattered by the arrival of Max and Eliza Campbell, an American couple who escape the stifling atmosphere of their First Class lounge hoping to find a little fun slumming it in Tourist Class. On the very fringe of things, but growing ever more dependent on Lily’s friendship, is Maria Katz, a Jewish girl who has managed to escape impending disaster in her native Austria. Her parents, however, have not been so fortunate.

Lily is ‘adopted’ by the Campbells but the couple have very different motives. As well as being dazzled by the louche and extrovert Americans, Lily begins to fall in love with the shy and hesitant Edward. As she does so we learn, little by little, about the tragic consequences of her only previous love affair.

RRRachel Rhys (right) is nothing if not a skilled storyteller, but we should not be surprised as Dangerous Crossing is no debut novel. Under her real name, Tamar Cohen, she has written a string of best selling psychological thrillers. So, as the Orontes proceeds on its stately voyage to Australia, we share Lily Shepherd’s mixture of discomfort and amazement as she goes onshore to visit such exotic places as Pompeii, Cairo and Colombo. Rather after the fashion of a modern day Patricia Highsmith, Rhys has the main players gradually revealing their secrets to one another. The rack turns, one ratchet at a time, but so elegantly and cleverly are things concealed that the crime, when it does happen, is completely shocking and unexpected.

 Dangerous Crossing is published by Doubleday and is available here.

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