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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.

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

HAMMER TO FALL . . .Between the covers

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English author and screenwriter John Lawton has long been a favourite of those readers who like literary crime fiction, and his eight Frederick Troy novels have become classics. Set over a long time-frame from the early years of WW2 to the 1960s, the books feature many real-life figures or, as in A Little White Death (1998), characters based on real people, in this case the principals in the Profumo Affair. In Then We Take Berlin (2013) Lawton introduced a new character, an amoral chancer whose real surname – Holderness – has morphed into Wilderness. Joe Wilderness is a clever, corrupt and calculating individual whose contribution to WW2 was minimal, but his career trajectory has widened from being a Schieber (spiv, racketeer) in the chaos of post-war Berlin to being in the employ of the British Intelligence services.

HTFHe is no James Bond figure, however. His dark arts are practised in corners, and with as little overt violence as possible. Hammer To Fall begins with a flashback scene,establishing Joe’s credentials as someone who would have felt at home in the company of Harry Lime, but we move then to the 1960s, and Joe is in a spot of bother. He is thought to have mishandled one of those classic prisoner exchanges which are the staple of spy thrillers, and he is sent by his bosses to weather the storm as a cultural attaché in Finland. His ‘mission’ is to promote British culture by traveling around the frozen north promoting visiting artists, or showing British films. His accommodation is spartan, to say the least. In his apartment:

The dining table looked less likely to be the scene of a convivial meal than an autopsy.”

Some of the worthies sent to Finland to wave the British flag are not to Joe’s liking:

“For two days Wilderness drove the poet Prudence Latymer to readings. She was devoutly Christian – not an f-word passed her lips – and seemed dedicated to simple rhyming couplets celebrating dance, spring, renewal, the natural world and the smaller breeds of English and Scottish dog.It was though TS Eliot had never lived. By the third day Wilderness was considering shooting her.”

Before he left England, his wife Judy offered him these words of advice:

“If you want a grant to stage Twelfth Night in your local village hall in South Bumpstead, Hampshire, the Arts Council will likely as not tell you to fuck off …. So, if you want to visit Lapland, I reckon your best bet is to suggest putting on a nude ballet featuring the over-seventies, atonal score by Schoenberg, sets by Mark Rothko ….. Ken Russell can direct … all the easy accessible stuff …. and you’ll probably pick up a whopping great grant and an OBE as well.”

JohnLawton.-Credit-Nick-Lockett-318x318So far, so funny – and Lawton (right) is in full-on Evelyn Waugh mode as he sends up pretty much everything and anyone. The final act of farce in Finland is when Joe earns his keep by sending back to London, via the diplomatic bag, several plane loads of …. well, state secrets, as one of Joe’s Russian contacts explains:

The Soviet Union has run out of bog roll. The soft stuff you used to sell to us in Berlin is now as highly prized as fresh fruit or Scotch whisky. We wipe our arses on documents marked Classified, Secret and sometimes even Top Secret. and the damned stuff won’t flush. So once a week a surly corporal lights a bonfire of Soviet secrets and Russian shit.”

But, as in all good satires – like Waugh’s Sword of Honour trilogy, and Catch 22 – the laughter stops and things take a turn to the dark side. Joe’s Finnish idyll comes to an end, and he is sent to Prague to impersonate a tractor salesman. By now, this is 1968, and those of us who are longer in the tooth know what happened in Czechoslavakia in 1968. Prague has a new British Ambassador, and one very familiar to John Lawton fans, as it is none other than Frederick Troy. As the Russians lose patience with Alexander Dubček and the tanks roll in, Joe is caught up in a desperate gamble to save an old flame, a woman whose decency has, over the years, been a constant reproach to him:

“Nell Burkhardt was probably the most moral creature he’d ever met. Raised by thieves and whores back in London’s East End, he had come to regard honesty as aberrant. Nell had never stolen anything, never lied …led a blameless life, and steered a course through it with the unwavering compass of her selfless altruism.”

Hammer To Fall is a masterly novel, bitingly funny and heartbreaking by turns. I think A Lily Of The Field is Lawton’s masterpiece, but this runs it pretty damned close. It is published by Grove Press, and is out today, 2nd April 2020.

 

For more about John Lawton click this link

KILLING BEAUTIES . . . Between the covers

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KB frontThe idea of the female spy has attracted writers and dramatists over the years with its unbeatable combination of danger and sexual allure. Pete Langman comes to the party with his enjoyable new novel, Killing Beauties set in the England of 1655. Remember those old historical movies that began with a dramatic piece of text scrolling over the opening titles, giving us a lurid and enticing potted background to whatever we were about to watch? The blurb for Killing Beauties might say something like, “England’s King Charles is six years dead and the brutal tyrant Oliver Cromwell rules the land with an iron fist, aided by his evil spymaster John Thurloe. While the dead King’s son waits impatiently across the English Channel, a beautiful woman plots the downfall of Cromwell’s savage regime.”

Tornamentalhe beautiful woman is Susan Hyde, whose brother Sir Edward Hyde, Earl of Clarendon is principle advisor to the King in exile. With the aid of another young woman, Diane Jennings, Susan – and other members of the secret society known as Les Filles d’Ophelie – work with The Sealed Knot, coordinating underground Royalist activity in England and preparing for a general uprising against the Protectorate. Readers may be aware that the modern version of The Sealed Knot is a popular organisation of English Civil War re-enactors, but their historical namesakes were in deadly earnest, and organised two major rebellions before Charles II was finally crowned in 1661.

Killing_Beauties_ETP_3In order to succeed in her mission, Susan must use the deadliest weapon at her disposal – her sexuality. The beneficiary of her attention is none other than John Thurloe himself. Thurloe is a fascinating historical figure, and has featured in several other novels, most notably in the Thomas Challoner series by Susanna Gregory, and in the SG MacLean’s Seeker stories. I reviewed MacLean’s The Bear Pit and The Black Friar, and you can click the links to go to the reviews.

Killing Beauties, as you might expect, gives us much general skullduggery, swordplay, concealing messages in all kinds of unlikely places, fatal potions (one swallowed, memorably, by an unfortunate goat) and hearts beating with passion beneath many a female bodice. Langman writes with great energy, and his style reminds me rather of a long forgotten historical novelist whose books I still read from time to time – Jeffery Farnol. Farnol, however was much too delicate – or perhaps his readers were – to revel in the stink and squalor of the time. Langman has no such qualms:

“Walking through the filthy streets of London was always a hazardous proposition for a lone woman. If she wasn’t slipping in piles of animal dung or sliding in puddles of their stale, she was avoiding the buckets of human waste that appeared from every angle …. and once this was negotiated, there was the matter of the animal life. The kicking, braying, pissing, shitting, trotting, running, flying and fleeing animal life that abounded.”

Oornamental.jpgne of the problems facing writers of historical fiction is how to handle dialogue. We know how they wrote to each other in letters, but what were conversations like? Despite one or two of his characters occasionally lapsing into more recent vernacular, Langman negotiates this particular minefield successfully. Killing Beauties is an engaging and well researched piece of costume drama acted out on a turbulent and dangerous stage. It is published by Unbound and is out now.

THE ROOKS DIE SCREAMING . . . Between the covers

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T redhe dramatic events of The Rooks Die Screaming take place in the spring of 1921 in the Cornish market town of Bodmin. The bare bones of the story are that Detective Inspector Cyril Edwards of Scotland Yard has come to Bodmin to investigate murder and treachery involving a group of spies known as The Four Rooks. This book is a sequel to The Woman With The Red Hair, and to say there is a back-story is something of an understatement. The eponymous young woman is called Morag and, amongst other things, is Edwards’ sister-in-law. Elisha Edwards was one of the millions of unfortunates taken by an agent even deadlier than high explosives and machine gun bullets – Spanish Influenza.

The-Rooks-Die-Screaming smallerMorag is now Lady Frobisher. Her husband Harry, heir to The Fobisher Estate on the outskirts of Bodmin, is blind, victim of a grenade in the Flanders trenches. In the previous novel, Frobisher Hall was the scene of great torment for Morag, as she fell into the clutches of Morgan Treaves, an insane asylum keeper and his evil nurse. Treaves has disappeared after being disfigured with a broken bottle, wielded my Morag in a life or death struggle.

If you are picking up a sense that this novel has something of a Gothick tinge (note the ‘k’) you will not be far wrong. It is high melodrama for much of the way; secret tunnels; a sinister woman in the woods who, guarded by a lumbering giant mute forever silenced by the horrors he witnessed in the war, mixes deadly potions; a cottage where a sensitive soul can still hear the ghostly creaking of the former occupant’s body swinging from her suicide beam; a woman who, in falling prey to her own desires, has two terrible deaths forever on her conscience.

Clive-TuckettThat said, The Rooks Die Screaming is inspired escapist reading. It would be unfair to say that Tuckett (right) writes in an anachronistic style. This is much, much better than pastiche, even though there are elements of Conan Doyle, the Golden Age, John Buchan and even touches of Sapper and MR James. So, eventually, to the plot, but we need to know a little more about Cyril Edwards. Like many a fictional detective inspector he is his own man. In another nice cultural reference Tuckett adds a touch of Charters and Caldicott as Edwards explains to the bumptious Standish, a mysterious officer from Military Intelligence;

“‘I love cricket …. When I’m not turning down invitations to join dubious organisations, and thumping arrogant members of the royal family, I love nothing more than to relax at Lord’s and watch a game of cricket.’

Edwards stretched and picked up his Fedora hat, thinking of getting up and walking out of the room.

” I’m hoping to see the Second Test at Lord’s next month against Australia.”‘

S redtandish orders Edwards to investigate the possibility that Harry Frobisher is one of the Rooks, but one who has betrayed his country. Arriving in Bodmin his first task is to explain to the local police how a corpse found on a train is that of a notorious London contract killer. Tuckett’s Bodmin is full of stock characters, including a stolid police sergeant, an apparently tremulous clergyman and a punctilious but respected solicitor who is privy to all the secrets of the local gentry, but is oh, so discreet. To add to the fun, Frobisher Hall also has its requisite roll call of faithful retainers.

The secret of The Four Rooks is eventually revealed, but not before the author throws a few red herrings onto the table. I could probably have done without the finer details of Lady Morag’s marriage bed, and some tighter proof-reading coupled with a more enticing cover would have done wonders for the book. That said, I enjoyed every page and I hope Clive Tuckett has another Inspector Edwards case up his sleeve, especially if it involves the redoubtable Morag Frobisher.

The Rooks Die Screaming is published by The Book Guild and is available now.

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STEALTH … Between The Covers

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StealthLondon in 1967 seems to have been an exciting place to live. A play by a budding writer called Alan Aykbourne received its West End premier, Jimi Hendrix was setting fire to perfectly serviceable Fender Strats, The House of Commons passed the Sexual Offences Act decriminalising male homosexuality and Joe Orton and Kenneth Halliwell featured in a murder-suicide in their Islington flat. This is the backdrop as Hugh Fraser’s violent anti-heroine Rina Walker returns to her murderous ways in Stealth, the fourth novel of a successful series.

I am new to Ms Walker’s world, but soon learned that a brutal childhood deep in poverty, where attack was frequently the best form of defence, and a later upbringing embedded in the world of London gangsters, has shaped her view of life. Although parliament had decreed that chaps could sleep with chaps, provided both were willing, there was little public approval for chapesses having the same latitude, and so Rina’s love affair with girlfriend Lizzie is accepted but not flaunted.

Lizzie has been set up by Rina as proprietor of a Soho club, more or less legit, but with a multitude of blind eyes which fail to focus on minor breaches of the moral code. When a young tart is found in a club back room, battered to death with a hammer, Rina not only takes offence but wreaks summary revenge. The killer, a bare-knuckle fighter called Dave Priest, is not only thumped by his latest opponent on the cobblestoned back yard of a dingy pub, but becomes the latest victim of what might be called Rina’s Law when she kills him and artfully arranges his corpse to look as if he had slipped on the stairs.

Rina is locked into a world where she is forever repaying favours, or earning them and taking rain checks for a later day. One of her debts is to a grim and sordid gang boss who, in turn, owes a favour to a homicidal maniac currently a patient in Broadmoor. This particular penance involves her bumping off a perfectly innocent builder who has had the temerity to offer the maniac’s wife a new life in the dreamy suburbs of Romford. Rina is not totally without moral scruples, although if you blink you will miss them as they whizz past your eye line at the speed of light. She tries to scam her employer by staging the death of the honest builder, but she is found out in a complex sting involving shadowy operatives of military intelligence.

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Is Rina fazed by the step-up in class from bumping off Essex builders to the complex world of international intrigue, Cold War deception and men in expensive suits who never, ever are who they say they are? No, not for one moment. Whether downing large whiskies in backstreet pubs, or sipping chateau-bottled claret in expensive hotel suites, our Rina is equal to the task, be it on home turf or in the romantically sleazy cafes and bars of Istanbul.

The list of fine actors who have turned their hand to crime fiction is extremely short, not to say minuscule. Even more invisible, except via an electron microscope, is the catalogue of crime writing actors who play languid toffs. I yield to no-one in my admiration for Hugh Fraser in his roles as Captain Hastings and – my absolute favourite – his insouciant Duke of Wellington in Sharpe. The difference between Fraser’s screen persona and the world of Rina Walker could not be more extreme.

To cut to the chase, does Stealth work? It does, and triumphantly so. Fraser might be just a tad too young to have experienced the Soho of the mid 1960s, but if the scene setting isn’t from personal recollection, he has certainly done his homework. My only slight criticism is that I found that the constant mood/time/product placement via contemporary pop song titles began to grate after a while. There is a touch of “with one bound she was free” about Rina Walker, and you  would certainly think twice about taking her home to meet mummy and daddy in Virginia Water, but under the capable direction of Hugh Fraser her adventures provide an enjoyably violent and escapist crime read. Stealth is out on 8th October and is brought to us by Urbane Publications.

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THE POSTMAN DELIVERS … Out Of Mecklenburg by James Remmer

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RemmerThe full title of this debut novel from former intelligence operative James Remmer is Out of Mecklenburg – The Unwilling Spy. All the elements of a good WWII thriller are in place, including the usual staples of fanatical Nazis, spies, U-Boats, love, lust – and gold bullion. What gives this novel a boost is the injection of an usual element – the early days of the soon-to-be-famous Argentine army officer, Juan Domingo Peron. Remmer (left) brings a distinctive authenticity to his story, having practiced the dark arts of intelligence gathering – and the spreading of disinformation – in a long and distinguished career in the service of this country.

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Out Of Mecklenburg is published by Matador, which is an imprint of Troubador Books. It is out now and available from all good bookshops – and online.

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