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1943

THE CUSTARD CORPSES . . . Between the covers

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Sometimes a book comes along with very little by way of advanced publicity or hype, and it hits the sweet spot right away. One such is The Custard Corpses by MJ Porter. Strangely-named it might be but the reason for the title becomes more obvious - and appropriate - the more one reads. A few sentences in, and I was hooked. It ticks several of my favourite boxes - WW2 historical, police procedural, likeable and thoroughly decent English copper, the West Midlands and a plot which is inventive without being implausible.

We are in the Birmingham district of Erdington. It is 1943 and Great War veteran Sam Mason is a uniformed Chief Inspector at the local nick. He is not yet on the downward slope heading for retirement, but he is 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;
One equal temper of heroic hearts,
Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will
To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.”

Screen Shot 2021-04-05 at 19.39.14Mason is a man given to reflection, and a case from his early career still troubles him. On 30th September 1923, a boy’s body was found near the local church hall. Robert McFarlane had been missing for three days, his widowed mother frantic with anxiety. Mason remembers the corpse vividly. It was almost as if the lad was just sleeping. The cause of death? Totally improbably the boy drowned. But where? And why was his body so artfully posed, waiting to be found?

Mason and his then boss, Chief Inspector Fullerton, had never solved the crime, and Mrs McFarlane died without knowing the whys and wherefores of her son’s death. When  Mason learns that there had been a similar case, a couple of years later, he is close to despair that it hadn’t come to light earlier. He realises that the fault was theirs. They hadn’t circulated the strange details of Robert’s death as widely as they should.

Attempting to make amends, albeit two decades too late, he has a circular drawn up, and sent to the police forces across England, Scotland and Wales. To his dismay, a succession of unsolved killings come to light; the dead youngsters are of different ages, but there is one bizarre common factor – the bodies have been posed as if in some kind of sporting action. Mason is given permission to devote his energies to this macabre series of killings, and with the resourceful Constable O’Rourke, he sets up an incident room, and begins to receive case notes and crime scene photographs from places as far apart as Inverness, Weston, Conway and Berwick.

Picture_Post_21-Sep-40One evening, after he has taken images and documents home with him, his wife Annie makes a startling discovery. Like nearly two million other readers across the country, she is a great fan of the magazine Picture Post, and while thumbing through a recent copy she notices that the sporting youngster drawn in an advertisement for a well-known brand of custard is posed in a way that has a chilling resemblance to the way one of the victims that Sam is investigating.

At this point, the investigation sprouts wings and takes flight and, in a journey that takes them across England, Mason and O’Rourke eventually uncover a tale of horror and obsession that chills their blood. MJ Porter has written a  series of historical and fantasy novels, mostly set in what we call The Dark Ages – Vikings, Goths and those sorts of chaps. That doesn’t tend to be ‘my thing’ but, my goodness, Porter is a good writer. The Custard Corpses goes straight onto my early shortlist for Book of The Year, and I do hope that he can tear himself away from his tales of ravens, rape, swords and general pillage to bring us another novel featuring Sam Mason. The Custard Corpses is out now.

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.

PUTC cover

City Plough cover

Trial cover

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