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Grand & Batchelor

THE BLACK HILLS . . . Between the covers

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He may not have been the first to do so, but George MacDonald Fraser entertained many of us with the idea of writing novels where we get to meet actual key players from history. His archetypal bounder Harry Flashman, himself nicked from Tom Brown’s Schooldays, rubbed shoulders and crossed swords with a variety of celebrities, including Otto von Bismarck, Abraham Lincoln, and Emperor Franz Joseph. The late Philip Kerr narrowed things down as he introduced us to Heinrich Himmler, Reinhardt Heydrich and Joseph Goebbels in his Bernie Gunther novels.

MJ Trow is a former history teacher who knows his stuff. He has written successful series featuring a much-maligned Inspector Lestrade, a nosy (autobiographical) history teacher-cum-sleuth ‘Mad’ Maxwell, and the Elizabethan dramatist and, if Trow is to be believed, spy – Kit Marlowe. The Black Hills is the latest in the series featuring former US army captain Matthew Grand, and London ex-journalist James Batchelor. Click the links to read my reviews of The Ring and The Island – two earlier episodes in the career of these private investigators.

TBHOne of the enjoyable conceits of the series is the comparison of how the two men behave when out of their cultural comfort zone. Grand is no gnarled backwoodsman, as his parents are wealthy New Hampshire patricians, but there is generally more fun to be had when Batchelor is trying to navigate the social niceties – or lack of them – in America. Trow, like MacDonald Fraser and Kerr, is a shameless name-dropper and we are not many pages into The Black Hills before we have bumped into George Armstrong Custer and broken into The White House to have a conversation with its current occupant, Ulysses Simpson Grant.

Custer is, to my generation and those before it, a ‘big name’. His vainglorious death at the Battle of The Little Bighorn remains the stuff of legend, but it was only fairly recently that I learned of his dashing exploits in the American Civil War. Back, however, to our current plot. Custer is a key witness in a financial fraud case which threatens to expose grave wrongdoings at the heart of US government and, after an attempt on his life on the streets of Washington, Grand and Batchelor are given the task of watching his back when he returns to Fort Abraham Lincoln, an outpost in North Dakota beyond which lie only the eponymous Black Hills and numerous ‘hostiles’ – those we now call native Americans but, in the usage of the day, ‘injuns’.

CJI readily put my hand up. When I read the words The Black Hills, the first image that flashed before my eyes was that of Doris Day in her buckskins and with her blonde bob under a troopers’ hat. Yes, my age is showing, but the 1953 film Calamity Jane starring Doris Day in the title role featured great songs like The Deadwood Stage, Secret Love and The Black Hills of Dakota. Trow is pretty much of my generation. He was a couple of years behind me at a minor public school (but don’t hold that against either of us). Never one to miss a trick, he features Calamity Jane in The Black Hills but, my oh my, Doris Day she ain’t. Short, pug-ugly and a stranger to personal hygiene, Jane Cannery is a fixture at Fort Abraham Lincoln. She is rarely sober and earns her living by washing the long johns of the Seventh Cavalry men who guard the frontier. She is notoriously quick on the draw with her Navy Colt, and the soldiers take care to give her a wide berth when she is in one of her moods.

Military history buffs will wince when I tell them that Frederick Benteen and Marcus Reno are among the officers who cross the path of Grand and Batchelor in this hugely entertaining novel, as they will know precisely what lies ahead. Even a wonderful storyteller like MJ Trow cannot rewrite history but they can bring it to life and weave an enthralling story between the threads of what actually happened.

The Black Hills is published by Severn House and is available now in print. The Kindle is out on 1st November.

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THE ISLAND . . . Between the covers

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5179+K0SrKLThe Island is the latest episode in the eventful partnership between two gentleman detectives in Victorian London. James Batchelor is a former journalist, a ‘gentleman’ in manners and intelligence, if not by upbringing, while his colleague Matthew Grand is an American former soldier, and scion of a very wealthy patrician New Hampshire family. We first met them in The Blue and the Grey (2014), when Grand – who has recently served with the victorious Army of The Potomac – comes to London in pursuit of one of those who conspired in the murder of Abraham Lincoln on 15 April 1865.

It is now the spring of 1873, and Grand is treating his colleague to a holiday in American, in the shape of an invitation to his sister’s wedding. Poor Batchelor, however is, at best, an indifferent sea voyager but, after eleven emetic days on board the Frisia, the pair eventually arrive safely in New York, having left their London house in the somewhat clumsy hands of their housekeeper, Mrs Rackstraw, who is somewhat less discreet and high minded than another lady fulfilling a similar function to another pair of gentlemen a mile or so across town in the busy thoroughfare of Baker Street.

On their journey north to New Hampshire, Grand and Batchelor pick up Edward Latham, a New York Times hack, who has blagged a wedding invitation in order to track down a participant in the recent financial corruption scandal known as the Tammany Hall affair – and Grand’s Uncle Josiah, who is disturbingly rich, but often – and equally disturbingly – drunk. The wedding guests duly reach the settlement of Rye and the palatial house causes Batchelor to gasp in admiration, despite being assured by Grand that it is little more than a weekend retreat compared to their main establishment.

cruise culture 012A few words in praise of the author. Meiron Trow (right) is one of the most erudite and entertaining writers in the land. Over thirty years ago he began his tongue in cheek series rehabilitating the much-put-upon Inspector Lestrade, and I loved every word. I then became hooked on his Maxwell series, featuring a very astute crime-solving history teacher who, while eschewing most things modern, manages to be hugely respected by the sixth-formers (Year 12 and 13 students in new money) in his charge, while managing to terrify and alarm the younger ‘teaching professionals’ who run his school. I was well into the Maxwell series before I realised that MJ Trow and I had two things (at least) in common. Firstly, he went to the same school as I did, although I have to confess he was a couple of years ‘below’ me and would have been dismissed at the time as a pesky ‘newbug’. Secondly, and much more relevant to my love of his Maxwell books, I discovered that we were both senior teachers in state secondary schools, and shared a disgust and contempt for the tick-box mentality characterising the so-called ‘leadership’ of high schools.

Mark TwainI digress, so back to New Hampshire in the early spring of 1873. The guests begin to arrive, and the ‘downstairs’ staff under the stern eye of the enigmatic butler, Waldo Hart, are emulating the proverbial blue-arsed fly. Trow, at this point, gleefully takes the template of the traditional country house mystery, and has his evil way with it. Despite the title of the book, we are not quite in Soldier Island (And Then There Were None) territory, but Rye is far enough from Boston to make sure that when the first murder happens, the real policemen are too far away and too engrossed with their city crime to pay much attention, even when when of the possible suspects is a certain Mr Samuel Langhorne Clemens. (left)

With Martha, Grand’s sister, well and truly hitched to a young man who may well be an utter bounder, and two hatchet-bludgeoned corpses lying in state in the stables, the Boston police eventually arrive in the shape of Chief Savage and Sergeant Roscoe. The amateurs and the professionals regard each other with ill-disguised suspicion, while Trow scatters a healthy basket of Rubrum Clupidae to keep us all guessing. Don’t be misled by Trow’s endless enthusiasm for verbal gags into thinking that this is a ‘cosy’ novel. Far from it. The finale is dark and bloody, and shadows real-life 1873 events on the remote and windswept Smuttynose Island. The Island is published by Severn House and is available now.

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