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Caroline Scott

THE PHOTOGRAPHER OF THE LOST . . . Between the covers

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Occasionally I review a novel which lies outside the crime fiction genre, but within my own field of interest. Such a book is The Photographer of The Lost by Caroline Scott. It is centred on the events of 1914-18 but, more particularly, their aftermath. Picture a Britain where over 800,000 fathers, brothers, husbands and sons have been killed. The vast majority of those – if they have a known grave – are buried far from home. Sometimes the only things relatives have left are the initial fatal letter from the authorities, a mass-produced scroll of honour ‘signed’ by the King on behalf of a grateful nation and probably a Death Penny – a large copper disc bearing a picture of Britannia and inscribed with the name of the deceased.

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TPOTL coverIt is 1921. In Britain, dignified war memorials, paid for by public subscription, are beginning to be dedicated. In France and Belgium most cities and towns within artillery range of the Old Front Line stand in ruins, while villages are usually reduced to random piles of shattered bricks. The dead are everywhere. In places where the living have yet to re-establish themselves there are crosses. Thousands upon thousands of simple wooden crosses, distinguished one from the other with a basic aluminium strip, letters stamped on it and pinned to the wood. A former officer, now a worker for what would become the Commonwealth War Graves Commission explains his mission:

“There are going to be cemeteries with white grave markers – gardens of sleep – real English gardens. There will be wallflowers and forget-me-nots and pansies and bible words cut in stone. They’ll be places that their families can visit and hopefully find some comfort. I was meant to bring their boys home; this is the best alternative that I’m able to offer.”

Harry Blythe makes his living meeting a macabre but necessary demand. He travels the shattered countryside, on commission from relatives, taking photographs of the crosses, or the places of which dead men spoke in their letters home. There were three Blythe brothers, Will, Harry and Francis. Only Harry has survived the conflict. As in other silent houses across the country, mothers did what mothers always do – adjust and try to get on with things:

“In the weeks after Will’s death, Margaret Blythe had cleaned out his room, boxing up her son’s books, birds’ eggs and football boots ….. everything of Will had moved up into the attic.”

The story hinges on Harry and Francis’s widow Edie. Edie has received an envelope in which is photograph of Francis. No words. No explanation. No sender. The postmark is smudged beyond interpretation. She and Harry have, in the years since Francis was reported missing in action, exhausted themselves interrogating an overwhelmed bureaucracy in a vain attempt to locate a grave.

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“Most of the burials here have no names, he sees. These men have all been swallowed up by the earth, their identities gone, along with their futures. Thy have lost their bones, their blood, and the name that bound it all together and made them into that particular man.”

Harry and Edie travel to The Old Front Line independently, but their paths converge. There is a painful frisson running through the narrative because Harry is – and probably always was – deeply in love with Edie, and in one of their last conversations, fuelled by whisky and within the sound of the guns, Francis bitterly confronts his brother with the prospect of Edie being a fraternal legacy after his own death.

By 1921, pilgrimages to The Old Front Line have become big business. Visitors are everywhere, armed with commercially printed guide books; some search for graves, others visit their old haunts. Caroline Scott lets us shadow Harry and Edie on their heartbreaking journey from the Houthulst Forest and Ypres in the north, via Arras and down further south to the point where the French manned the front line trenches of a line that ran from the Belgian coast to Switzerland.

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Ironically, the answer to the mystery of Francis and the anonymous letter is revealed not on Flanders Fields but far away in the dusty south, in a sun kissed village physically untouched by the carnage, but with a brand new memorial to its missing sons waiting to be unveiled.

Wilfred Owen wrote, concerning his work, “The Poetry is in the pity.” Caroline Scott echoes this message. Such was the disconnect between life in the trenches and home that, for many men, returning on leave was not the joyous temporary reprieve from hell that we might imagine:

“How could she admit to anyone how difficult she had found it to be with him? That she didn’t know how to speak to him? That she felt some relief when the week ended and he went back? How can she tell anyone how she opened all the windows after he went, and scrubbed the floors, and boiled the bed sheets?”

The power and poignancy of this novel will cause it to be spoken of alongside such classics as Covenant With Death, the Regeneration Trilogy and Birdsong. It is available now, and published by Simon & Schuster.

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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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