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Graham ison

HARDCASTLE’S SECRET AGENT . . . Between the covers


Before I became a reviewer
, and earned (I hope) the privilege of being sent books and .mobi files by publishers, I had been a lifetime library user. Crime Fiction was my first and last love, and in my regular Saturday afternoon trawl through the shelves, there were certain authors whose names I always sought out. In no particular order, these would include Jim Kelly, Phil Rickman, John Connolly, John Sandford, Val McDermid, Mark Billingham, Jonathan Kellerman, James Lee Burke, Graham Hurley, Christopher Fowler – and Graham Ison.

The Graham Ison books were slimmish-volumes, usually the Brock and Poole series, but my favourites were always the Hardcastle books. Ernie Hardcastle was a London copper in and around the years of The Great War. He could come over brusque in his dealings, but other might use the word ‘avuncular’. He distrusted innovations such as the telephone, but had a true copper’s nose for villains. A couple of his books are reviewed here, but inevitably, ‘time, like an ever-rolling stream, bears all its sons away..‘ Thankfully, in Hardcastle’s Secret Agent, Ernie is still with us, but long since retired, and the Hardcastle concerned is his son Walter, now a rising star in the Metropolitan Police.

HSAWe are, as ever, in London, but it is 1940. The Phony War is over, and the Luftwaffe are targetting industrial sites they believe to be involved in making parts for military aircraft. When several important employees of one such factory are burgled – clearly by an expert – but with nothing other than trinkets stolen, Hardcastle believes he may be on the track of a German spy on the look-out for plans, blueprints or important military information. Hardcastle has to deal with The Special Branch, but finds them about as co-operative as they were with his father a couple of decades earlier. This has a certain tinge of irony, as part of the author’s distinguished police career was spent as a Special Branch Operative.

The search for the German spy withers on the branch, but Hardcastle has other fish to fry. A prostitute – or at least, a young woman who was free with her favours –  has been found beaten to death, and the hunt for her killer takes Hardcastle into military quarters.

Eventually, Walter Hardcastle gets both of his men, and on the way we have a vividly recreated world of an England struggling to come to grips with a new world war. Not one that is being fought far away on some foreign field, but one which is brought to people’s very hearths and homes every single night. Hardcastle’s Secret Agent is published by Severn House/Canongate Books and will be out on 1st May.

Sad to relate, Graham Ison died suddenly in late 2020 before he could complete this book. It was finished with the help of his son Roger. Graham Ison was prolific, certainly, and critics might argue that he stuck to a reliable formula in each of his series, and never ventured into unfamiliar territory. Neither was he a darling of the crime fiction festival circuit, but I suspect after decades working as a policeman that never bothered him. What he was, however, was a reliable name for readers who bought his books and – importantly – library borrowers, who knew that they could rely on him for a story well told, and if his words took them into familiar territory, then that was nothing for either reader or writer to be ashamed about.

HARDCASTLE’S QUANDARY . . . Between the covers

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London, 1927, and Divisional Detective Inspector Ernest Hardcastle is summoned to the office of Chief Constable Frederick Wensley[1], who has received a letter from a Norfolk parson. The Rev. Percy Stoner is convinced that his nephew Guy has met with misfortune. The former army Captain has disappeared, and when Hardcastle despatches men to visit the business young Stoner had set up with another Great War veteran, they make a chilling discovery.

Hardcastle himself was too old to serve in the war, but for his younger colleagues who knew the Western Front, body parts hold few terrors. The human remains found in the burnt-out premises in Surrey are examined by none other than Sir Bernard Spilsbury[2] and his findings complicate Hardcastle’s case. Is the first body that of Guy Stoner, or is it that of his business partner? And who was the young woman whose butchered remains shared the same ignominious burial place?

HQForced to play cherchez-la-femme, the detectives stumble down one blind alley after another, but as they do so they learn a few home truths about the fate of the young men who went to fight in the war-to-end-all-wars, and returned home to find that their birthplace was not the ‘land fit for heroes’ glibly promised by politicians. There is a peacetime army with no place for young officers whose courage was welcome in the trenches, but whose humble upbringing is now seen as an embarrassment as the cigars are lit, and the port passed in the correct direction at mess dinners. Such young men, not all heroes, but men nevertheless, are forced to find civilian employment which is neither honest, decent nor lawful.

Eventually, after an investigation which takes the detectives on many a trip into the provinces and away from their metropolitan stamping grounds, the case is solved, and there is work for the hangman to do, but not before an intervention by the Home Secretary.

GIGraham Ison is a master story-teller. The Hardcastle books contain no literary flourishes or stylistic tricks – just credible characters, excellent period detail and an engaging plot. Cosy? Perhaps, in the sense that we know how Hardcastle and his officers are going to react to any given situation, and their habits and small prejudices remain unchanged. Comfortable? Only because novels don’t always need to shock or challenge; neither do they always benefit from graphic descriptions of the damage humans can sometimes inflict on one another. Ison (right) credits his readers with having imaginations; he never gilded the lily of English life in the earlier Hardcastle cases which took place during The Great War, and he doesn’t start now, nearly a decade after the final shots were fired. The suffering and trauma of those four terrible years didn’t end at the eleventh hour on that eleventh day; they cast a long and sometimes baleful shadow which frames much of the action of this novel.

Hardcastle’s Quandary is a great read. As well as being a fascinating period police procedural, it is a gently reflective but sharply observant look at England in the 1920s. We sense that Hardcastle, deeply conservative and instinctively opposed to the steady advance of technology, has entered his autumn period. Colleagues like Marriott and Catto tolerate his idiosyncrasies and work around the fact that he sometimes appears to be a creature from a bygone age, preserved in his own block of amber. Hardcastle’s quandary? That is for the reader to judge, and it may only be resolved in the final pages. The novel is published by Severn House and is available here.

[1] Frederick Porter Wensley OBE KPM (28 March 1865 – 4 December 1949) was a British police officer from 1888 until 1929, reaching the rank of chief constable of the Scotland Yard Criminal Investigation Department. Serving in Whitechapel for part of his career, Wensley was involved in the investigation of the Jack the Ripper murders, details of which he would later publish in his memoirs in 1931.

[2] Sir Bernard Henry Spilsbury (16 May 1877 – 17 December 1947) was a British pathologist. His cases include Hawley Harvey Crippen and the “Brides in the Bath” murders by George Joseph Smith,. Spilsbury’s courtroom appearances became legendary for his demeanour of effortless dominance.

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THE GREAT WAR AND CRIME FICTION … part 2

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PREVIOUSLY …
The Great War and Crime Fiction … Introduction
The Great War and Crime Fiction … Part 1

Robert Goddard and his ex-RAFC/RAF pilot and family black sheep James ‘Max’ Maxted start the ball rolling in our continuing look at crime fiction set in, or influenced by The Great War. Goddard introduced Maxted in 2013 with the first part of a trilogy, The Ways of the World. It is Spring 1919. The Great War is over. but a new war is beginning – a war of words and promises, both kept and broken and a war fought in the splendid hotels and conference halls of Paris. The victorious powers – Britain, France, the US, Italy and Japan – have sent their politicians and diplomats to the French capital to pick over the carcass of the old Europe. Amid the great and the good stands a young Englishman, James ‘Max’ Maxted. The ex-Royal Flying Corps pilot has come to Paris to investigate the mysterious death of his father, minor diplomat Sir Henry Maxted.

 

Max Trilogy

Max is used, first by an American wheeler-dealer called Ireton, then by the British Secret Service and other more shadowy organisations, to try to smoke out a German renegade called Lemmer. The story continues in The Corners of the Globe (2014). Max has still to uncover the truth about his father’s demise, and in addition to the Germans who will not accept defeat, there are some equally villainous Japanese thrown into the mix. The series concluded in 2015 with The Ends of the Earth, and it finds Max still battling the elusive Lemmer, but also locking horns with an evil Japanese aristocrat, Count Tamura. In some ways this is old-fashioned stuff, but there are hours of entertainment here for those who like their history spiced with danger and a couple of alluring femmes fatales. Max is an engaging character; a little old-school perhaps, with a nostalgic touch of Biggles and Bulldog Drummond, but equally brave and resourceful.

DMLRobert Ryan, also known as Tom Neale, is an English author, journalist and screenwriter. He has written a host of successful adventure novels and thrillers, but our microscope focuses on his Dr Watson novels. He is not the first writer to exploit the potential of Sherlockiana, nor will he be the last. M J Trow wrote an entertaining series of books featuring the much-maligned Inspector Lestrade, so the earnest, brave, but slightly dim companion to the great Consulting Detective must surely be worth a series of his own. Ryan takes our beloved physician and puts him down amid the carnage of The Great War. Too old to fight, Watson’s medical expertise is still valuable. In Dead Man’s Land (2013) Watson investigates a murder in the trenches which is due, not to a German bullet or shell, but to something much more sinister, and much closer to home.

The Dead Can Wait followed in 2014, and our man has returned from the trenches, mentally shattered by his experience. He has little time to recuperate however, as he is called to investigate what appears to be a mass killing – in a top secret research facility set up to develop a weapon that will be decisive in ending the war.

 

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2015 brought A Study In Murder, and Watson has mismanaged his life to the extent that he is now in a wintry prisoner of war camp, far behind German lines. It is 1917, and the outcome of the war hangs in the balance. Murder, however, is no respecter of history, and when some poor fellow inmate is murdered, ostensibly for his Red Cross food parcel, Watson smells a sizeable and malodorous rat. January 2016 brought The Sign of Fear. The rather clumsy amalgam of two canonical Sherlock Holmes stories finds the indefatigable Watson once more at home, but a home at the mercy of a new terror – bombing raids from German aircraft. Our man is forced to untangle a mystery involving kidnap and a floating ambulance sunk by a German torpedo.

MaisieMaisie Dobbs is both the title of a novel by Jacqueline Winspear, and the name of the central character in a series which has now run to twelve novels. In the first of the series we learn that Maisie has seen the worst of The Western Front during her time as a nurse, but now she has returned to an England which is definitely not a land for heroes. She uses her acquaintance with a distinguished French investigator to set up her own agency.   Although the series takes Maisie through the years between the wars, right up to the rise of Nazism, the shadow of the dreadful years of The Great War is cast over many of Maisie’s cases. The author herself says:

“The war and its aftermath provide fertile ground for a mystery. Such great social upheaval allows for the strange and unusual to emerge and a time of intense emotions can, to the writer of fiction, provide ample fodder for a compelling story, especially one concerning criminal acts and issues of guilt and innocence. After all, a generation is said to have lost its innocence in The Great War. The mystery genre provides a wonderful vehicle for exploring such a time,”

MametzDr Jonathan Hicks is a Welsh academic with an abiding interest in The Great War, and he has written a graphic and superbly researched history of a battle which was both one of his countrymen’s finest hours, but in terms of loss of life, arguably their darkest. A detailed look at The Welsh at Mametz Wood, The Somme 1916 is outside of our remit here, but its scholarship and interpretation of history is clearly reflected in what was his first fictional Great War novel, The Dead of Mametz (2011). His central character is Captain Thomas Oscendale of the Military Foot Police, and he has a problem to solve. An attractive French widow has been found raped and murdered in a nearby town. In her clenched fingers is a button from a British army tunic. A Welsh NCO, reputedly her lover, has just turned his Lee Enfield rifle on himself after apparently killing two of his colleagues. A mysterious British officer attends the crime scene, but then disappears. As Oscendale tries to unravel the tangle of clues, he finds a map purporting to show a site in the middle of Mametz Wood where a fortune is buried. Blind-sided by German spies and a conspiracy way above his rank, Oscendale must apply his police training to combat corrupt officials, military incompetence and the disdain – bordering on hatred – felt by front-line soldiers for ‘Red Caps’.

Oscendale
Oscendale returned
in Demons Walk Among Us (2013) and he falls for a beautiful war widow in the process. When he finds that his most likely witness to corruption in high military places has been invalided home with neurasthenia, he has to resort to drastic measures that threaten his own life and sanity. The action takes us from the dust, heat, flies and bloated corpses of 1915 Gallipoli, through the bleak and devastated flatlands of Flanders, to small-town Wales, with its shattered and impoverished war widows, deserters at their wits’ end, and heroes who have been crippled both physically and mentally. One of the strengths of the Oscendale novels is that Hicks combines the horror of The Front Line with less dramatic but equally menacing events back home in Wales.

History. Crime Fiction. Railways. It’s as if Andrew Martin has written a series of books specifically tailored to three of my abiding interests, but within his Jim Stringer, Steam Detective series there is even more icing on the cake – a pair of novels set in The Great War. Jim Stringer is a railwayman through and through, and we first met him as a young man in an intriguing account of The Necropolis Railway, where he investigated shenanigans connected with the funeral trains that used to run from near Waterloo Station out to Brookwood Cemetery in Surrey.

the-somme-stations-andrew-martinBy 1916, however, Stringer has several years of crime detection under his belt, but he is sent to France where he survives the carnage of 1st July, and is picked out to supervise the running of ammunition trains carrying vital supplies up to the front line. The Somme Stations (2012) is both a chilling account of everyday life on The Western Front, but also an excellent murder mystery, with Stringer investigating a criminal death – as opposed to one of the scores of men killed daily by bullets and shells.

1917 sees Stringer invalided away from the trenches, but sent out to Mesopotamia to investigate apparent treachery within the British military establishment. In The Baghdad Railway Club (2012) Lieutenant-Colonel Shepherd is said to have accepted a bribe from the fleeing Turks.

BaghdadStringer goes undercover as a railway advisor to investigate, but his contact Captain Boyd is discovered murdered in an abandoned station. No further help will be sent, so Stringer is on his own catching the murderer, and preventing a giant betrayal of the British effort. He has to do so whilst navigating an unfamiliar landscape, avoiding getting caught up in an Arab uprising, fighting off a case of malaria during a sweltering Baghdad summer, and treading a careful path as he investigates members of the officer class.

We will finish with the Inspector Hardcastle novels by Graham Ison. In one sense they are well-crafted – but otherwise unremarkable – police procedurals with a period setting, but Ison has created a sequence in the series where criminal events in London are set against successive years of the war. Hardcastle is a bluff, tough, pipe-and-slippers kind of copper, but the novels have a subtle sub-plot which reflects how the war is being fought on the home front, with the inevitable shortage of manpower in the police service, and the ruthless advantage taken by those who live outside of the law. The books have a cosy tinge to them, but are none the worse for that. Ison doesn’t flinch in his portrayal of the effect of a brutal war on hard-pressed families as well as those who are financially more comfortable. For those who like a good London novel, you will find no current writer who is better than Ison at period detail and the creation of an authentic atmosphere.

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