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Historical Crime Fiction

THE WRECKING STORM . . . Between the covers

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In the early summer of 1641, London is one of the most dangerous places in Europe. King Charles is facing growing challenges from Parliament and many of London’s people, stirred up by firebrand politicians such as John Pym, sense change is in the air. For Roman Catholics – such as the Tallant family – the mood is doubly dangerous. The Tallants are spice merchants, importing the precious condiments and selling them to those wealthy enough to afford to disguise badly-kept meat with pepper, cinnamon, cardamom and ginger. When two Jesuit priests disappear, Thomas Tallant is asked to investigate. When their bodies are found, it is obvious that they have been executed.

Both Sir Robert Tallant and his son Thomas are Members of Parliament, and they are about to witness one of the most famous scenes in British history, but first they must discover who is behind attacks on their premises – both their warehouse beside the River Thames, and their family home out in what was then countryside beyond the City. Are the attacks at the behest of rival merchants, jealous of the Tallants’ connections to the powerful Dutch East India Company, or is something more personal involved? And who is fomenting the violent activism of the Apprentice Boys?

These days we might think of The Apprentice Boys as purely a phenomenon of the political divide in Northern Ireland, but the Apprentice Boys in London predate the Derry incident by over forty years. The London Apprentices in the 1640s were a loosely organised group of many hundreds of young men who took to the street in protest at what they saw as exploitation by their masters. Inevitably but not necessarily correctly, they equated what they saw as their own servitude with the Royalist cause.

The author gives us a brilliantly described account (albeit moved a few months earlier) of the celebrated visit to the House of Commons by King Charles on 4th January 1642 in order to arrest the five members – John Hampden, Arthur Haselrig, Denzil Hollies, John Pym and William Strode – who he saw as central to the plot to bring him down. In this novel, their absence is attributed to a secret message passed earlier in the day to John Pym, and results in the King declaring ruefully, “All my birds have flown.

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Michael Ward does a sterling job of recreating the political and social tensions on the streets of London during what was, arguably, the most turbulent period of British history. The Wrecking Storm is published by Sharpe Books and is available now.

A CORRUPTION OF BLOOD . . . Between the covers

 

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Simpson_James_Young_signature_pictureAmbrose Parry is the pseudonym used by husband and wife writing team Dr Marisa Haetzman and Chris Brookmyre. As a pseudonym goes, it is a pretty good one, especially for historical novels, as it has a rather convincing resonance to it. Writing partnerships are more common than you might think, and in some cases it remains a mystery as to who contributes what. Not so, possibly, in this case, as Dr Haetzman was a consultant anaesthetist at Wishaw General Hospital in Scotland, and the central characters in this novel are a young doctor in early Victorian Edinburgh – Will Raven – and his mentor, the real life James Young Simpson (left), a pioneer in the use of anaesthesia (chloroform in the early days) in surgical procedures.

This is the third novel in the series so, as ever, there is a back-story, part of which you can find in my review of the previous book The Art of Dying. Raven’s love interest in that book is a young woman called Sarah who was a domestic servant in the Simpson household. She had a brief flirtation with Raven, but then married another Edinburgh doctor. He died, but left Sarah a considerable fortune, which is helping her pursue her ambition to become a doctor. When this book begins, she has left Edinburgh on her version of The Grand Tour, during which she hopes to meet the first woman to be officially recognised as a professional physician, the American Dr Blackwell.

Screen Shot 2021-09-02 at 18.26.27Meanwhile, Raven has met – and fallen in love with – Eugenie Todd, the beautiful and intelligent daughter of another Edinburgh doctor, and has also become involved in a murder mystery. Sir Ainsley Douglas, a powerful and influential man of means has been found dead, and the post mortem reveals traces of arsenic in his stomach. His wastrel son Gideon is arrested on suspicion of poisoning his father, with whom he has had a fairly unpleasant falling-out. Raven is an old acquaintance – but far from a friend – of Gideon. The two knew each other from university and Raven has a very low opinion of his former fellow student, and is very surprised when he is summoned to Gideon’s prison cell and asked if he will investigate Sir Ainsley’s death.

Sarah returns from her trip to the continent, but she is chastened by her meeting with Dr Blackwell, who suggested that she simply did not have the depth of education required to become a physician. Uneasy and uncertain at the news of Raven’s new romantic venture, she distracts herself from this unwelcome news by investigating an illegal trade which involves the selling of unwanted babies.

As Raven attempts to piece together the events of the last evening of Sir Ainsley’s life, the arsenic poisoning looks increasingly unlikely since – if it had been administered by Gideon – a former medical student would know that the poison is easily traced in the body. Raven has more personal matters on his mind, too, as he suspects that Eugenie and her father are keeping something from him about the young woman’s past.

There are some grisly scenes in the novel involving both the living and the dead, but the story is suitably – and fiendishly – complex. Readers will have to wait until the very last few pages for all to be revealed and, for what it’s worth, I didn’t foresee how the plot eventually worked itself out. There are no prizes on offer for guessing which parts of the narrative are written by Dr Haetzman, but these authentic descriptions of surgical procedures and spotlights on the history of medicine blend seamlessly with the crime fiction plot to make for a riveting and convincing murder mystery. A Corruption of Blood is published by Canongate Books and is available now.

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THE MANNEQUIN HOUSE . . . Between the covers

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I do love the mysterious world of Detective Inspector Silas Quinn, RN Morris’s rather distinctive London copper from the 1900s. For reviews of earlier novels Summon Up The Blood, The White Feather Killer and The Music Box Enigma click the links. I say “earlier”, but it’s not that simple, as the Silas Quinn books are being reissued by a new publisher, having coming out a few years ago, but since the events they describe are all from a very narrow time frame, the actual chronology doesn’t matter too much.

MannequinQuinn and his sergeants – Inchball and Macadam – are The Special Crimes Department of the Metropolitan Police. This department has a passing resemblance to Christopher Fowler’s Peculiar Crimes Unit (Rest In Peace) insofar as the unit has been constructed around the unique talents of its lead investigator. Like Arthur Bryant, Silas Quinn has strange gifts, and is just as likely to exasperate his superior officers as win their praise, but he is a bloody good copper.

It is March 1914, and most of the citizens of London go about their bustling business oblivious to the gathering storm which would break over their heads in just a few months. Blackley’s Emporium is one of the most successful department stores in the city. You can buy anything and everything that is made, mined or grown on God’s earth, and you may even be greeted by the beaming proprietor himself as you walk through the doors. You can even – should you be minded to take a break from spending money – visit the in-house menagerie which is full of weird and exotic creatures.

One of Benjamin Blackley’s most profitable departments is his haute couture fashion house, where (plus ça change) slender young women wearing must-have gowns and fripperies parade in front of not-so-slender older women. Blackley ‘keeps’ – and I use the word advisedly – his slips of things in a suburban house, presided over by a formidable matron. When the most beautiful of these mannequins – Amélie – doesn’t turn up for work, and her room is found locked from the inside, the police are called. Two things happen when the door is eventually opened. First, an enraged Macaque monkey runs screaming from the room and, second, Amélie has a very good excuse for missing work, as she is dead on her bed, strangled with a silk scarf.The subsequent post-mortem examination reveals that the girl may have been raped, and also that she has maintained her desirability as a fashion model by disastrous self-abuse of her body. 

Morris takes the classic ‘locked room’ trope and has his wicked way with it. There is some knockabout comedy in this book, particularly with Quinn’s wildly contrasting underlings Inchball and Macadam, but there is a vein of darker material running through the narrative. Quinn may be a clever copper, but he is also psychologically damaged from a traumatic childhood. The uneasy personal dynamics between fellow lodgers at the house where Quinn sleeps are a signal that the detective is not at ease with other people. It has to be said, that later (already available) Silas Quinn novels shine a revealing light on this situation. There is great fun to be had within the pages of The Mannequin House, but we are never far away from the evil that men (and women) do, and you must be prepared for a rather shocking and violent end to the story.

As ever, Roger Morris gives us a delicious mystery, a totally authentic background and an absorbing book into which we can escape for a few precious hours. The Mannequin House was first published in 2013, but this new paperback edition from Canelo is out now.

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WOLF AT THE DOOR . . . Between the covers

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s-l400Rather like Charles Lutwidge Dodgson’s White Rabbit, I am always late. Late, that is, to many excellent crime fiction series that have been on the go for some years. I often come to them a few books in and, having enjoyed what I have read, try to solve the dilemma, which is this. Do I abandon everything else on the TBR pile to read the earlier books, or do I shrug my shoulders and convince myself that the books will always be there, and that I will get round to them “at some point”? Don’t get me wrong, I’m not complaining about being a book reviewer. Publishers send me free books on the understanding that I will read them and that my reviews will help to sell the novels. That’s all good, but one gets locked in to a reading timetable that can be very unforgiving, particularly when blog tours are involved. Reading for pure pleasure and relaxation has to take a back seat, I’m afraid.

That long digression is a background to this review of the latest Bradecote and Catchpoll novel by Sarah Hawkswood. I read – and loved – two of the series, River of Sins and Blood Runs Thicker, and you can read my reviews by clicking the links. Now, the ninth in the series, Wolf At The Door, is with us, and it is every bit as good as the other two have read..

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For people who are even later arrivals to the party than I, we are in 12th century Worcestershire. Hugh Bradecote is the Under Sheriff of the county, and is of noble birth with a degree of hauteur, while Sergeant Catchpoll is Worcester through-and-through, rough and ready, but very street-wise. Walkelin – the apprentice – is something of a ‘gofer’, but is bright, perceptive, and not afraid to speak his mind. This story begins with the discovery of a man who has met a violent death. His face has been removed and his throat has been ripped out. Extensive damage to his limbs suggests an assault by a violent animal. A wolf, perhaps? But even in the Royal hunting Forest of Feckenham1, wolves have not been seen for many a year.

Hugh Bradecote is on what we could call paternity leave. He is particularly anxious about his heavily pregnant second wife, as his first wife died in childbirth. With some villagers of Feckenham convinced that Durand Wuduweard 2 was savaged by a wolf, and the more credulous of them even believing that the killing was the work of a werewolf, Bradecote has to return to duty.

We are some half way into the book before the officers have any concept of who – and what – is responsible for the death of Durand. More corpses and a savage attack on a landowner prompt an even greater sense of urgency to the quest, but then Bradecote, Catchpoll, Walkelin and their boss De Beachamp finally realise that the motive for the crimes is one of the oldest and deadliest – revenge, bitterly fermented and long standing.

One of the qualities of a natural and gifted storyteller is the ability to provide atmosphere. Sarah Hawkswood recreates a cold and grey Worcestershire at the onset of November. Many of the poorer folk will struggle to survive the next four months and will succumb to cold, hunger, disease – or a mixture of all three. The wolves may have mostly disappeared, but the forest is a dark and unforgiving place for the people who have hacked out space within it for their precarious lives. The grimly authentic setting aside, this is a bloody good detective story from one of our finest writers. Wolf at the Door is published by Allison & Busby and is out on 19th August.

  1. Feckenham Forest was a royal forest, centred on the village of Feckenham, covering large parts of Worcestershire and west Warwickshire. It was not entirely wooded, nor entirely the property of the King. Rather, the King had legal rights over game, wood and grazing within the forest, and special courts imposed harsh penalties when these rights were violated.
  2. A Wuduweard (old English) was the warden of a forest. It is probably the origin of the surname Woodward.

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ARROWOOD AND THE MEETING HOUSE MURDERS . . . Between the covers

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The publicity blurb says, “London Society takes their problems to Sherlock Holmes. Everyone else goes to Arrowood.” This is, indeed, a very different world to that of the occupant of 221B Baker Street.

“The Guvnor lived in rooms behind the pudding shop on Coin Street, just down the road from Waterloo Station. There were five of them there. His sister Ellie and wife Isabel slept in the bedroom with their two babies, Mercy and Leopold. Arrowood had a mattress on the parlour floor. Since I’d last been there, the Christmas decorations had been put out.: some holly and twigs strung up to nails on the wall, a few painted baubles hanging from the mantel, a little model of a manger with the baby Jesus on the dresser. The babies slept in their boxes on the table.”

ArrowoodThe narrator is Norman Barnett, William Arrowood’s equally impoverished assistant. Neither man is a stranger to tragedy. Barnett’s wife, ‘Mrs B’ died some months previously, while Isabel Arrowood left her husband to live with a richer man in Cambridge. He died from cancer, leaving her with his baby in her womb. She has since been taken back by her husband, but all is far from well between them. We are in the final years of the 19th century, a few decades since Gustave Doré produced his memorable – and haunting – engravings of the darker side of London, but Arrowood’s London is hardly a shade lighter. Poverty, death and illness are everywhere – in the next room, or just around the corner.

The plot has the lurid and fantastical quality of a magic lantern show. Four black South Africans have escaped the grinding poverty and oppression of their homeland and somehow made their way to Europe. They have been hired to part of a circus cum freakshow run by an unscrupulous showman called Capaldi. Billed to perform as Zulus, the quartet have escaped. Capaldi, having fed and housed them in anticipation of capitalising on their curiosity value to his audiences, is aggrieved and wants them back. They have taken refuge with Mr Fowler, a well-meaning Quaker who works with The Aborigines’ Protection Society 1

Fowler hires Arrowood and Barnett for a few days to act as night-time bodyguards to the Africans  who are sheltering in the Quaker Meeting House, but when they arrive for duty, they find Fowler shot dead and one of the Africans, Musa, tied up, his face battered, and dead from strangulation.  Inspector Napper of the Metropolitan Police takes charge of the murder enquiry but, short staffed, he asks Arrowood for help. The finger of suspicion points at Capaldi and his enforcers, but life is never that simple.

As the case becomes ever more complex, Arrowood faces professional failure, but tragedy looms at home. Finlay has created a complex character. He is physically unprepossessing, overweight, a face like a bloodhound and he is a martyr to piles. When, in order to earn the money for some quack medicine for one of the poorly babies back in Coin Street, he is forced to deputise for one of Capaldi’s freaks – The Baboon Woman – I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry.

MFThere is a rather melancholy soundtrack to the plot, including The Violet I Plucked From Mother’s Grave, reputedly a song frequently sung by the Ripper’s last victim, Mary Lane Kelly. Finlay’s research into the darker aspects of late Victorian life is impressive, particularly in the kinds of medicine available to the general public. Two such potions that probably killed as many as they cured were Godfrey’s Cordial and Black Drops2

Eventually, and with fatal consequences for more than one of the participants, the case is solved, but to no-one’s particular satisfaction. It being late December, there is barely a chink of daylight on the London Streets, and this is echoed by the sombre mood of the narrative. I don’t suppose there is such a thing as Victorian Noir, but if there were, it is here. It’s superbly written, and both chills and grips like a London fog. Arrowood and the Meeting House Murders is published by HQ, an imprint of Harpr Collins, and is out now. Author Mick Finlay has an informative website. Click on his image (right) to go there.

1.The Aborigines’ Protection Society (APS) was an international human rights organisation founded in 1837, to ensure the health and well-being and the sovereign, legal and religious rights of the indigenous peoples while also promoting the civilisation of the indigenous people who were subjected under colonial powers, in particular the British Empire.

2. Godfrey’s Cordial was a patent medicine, containing laudanum (tincture of opium) in a sweet syrup, which was commonly used as a sedative to quieten infants and children in Victorian England. Black Drop was a 19th-century  medicine made of opium, vinegar, spices, often sweetened with sugar and made into something resembling a boiled sweet.

BRASS LIVES . . . Between the covers

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The prolific and ever-reliable Yorkshire author Chris Nickson has been writing his Tom Harper series since 2014 when he introduced the Leeds copper in Gods of Gold. Since then he has stuck to the  theme of metal in the book titles, and now we have Brass Lives. Harper is now Deputy Chief Constable of the city where we first met him as a young detective in the 1890s.

As is customary, the action doesn’t stray much beyond the city and its surrounding (and rapidly diminishing) countryside, but a slightly exotic element is introduced by way of two American gangsters. One, Davey Mullen, was born in Leeds, but emigrated across the Atlantic, where he has found infamy and wealth as a New York gangster. He has returned to his home town to visit his father. Louis Herman Fess, on the other hand has no interest in Leeds other than the fact that it is the current whereabouts of Mullen. Fess is a member of the delightfully named Hudson Dusters gang. They shot rival hoodlum Mullen eleven times, but he survived, and it seems as if Fess has come to West Yorkshire to resolve unfinished business. When Fess is found shot dead, Mullen is the obvious suspect, but try as they may, Harper and his team can find no evidence to link Mullen to the killing.

BrassPolitics are never far away in Chris NIckson novels, and in this case it is the enthusiasm of his delightful wife, Annabelle, for the Suffragist cause that takes centre stage. Note the word ‘Suffragist’ rather than ‘Suffragette’, a term we are more familiar with. The Suffragists were the earliest group to seek emancipation and electoral parity, and they believed in the power of persuasion, debate and education, rather than the direct action for which the Suffragettes were later known. Annabelle has always been careful not to embarrass her husband by falling foul of the law, but she plans to march alongside other campaigners in a march which is shortly due to enter Leeds. (See footnote * for more details) Annabelle’s plans are, however, thwarted at the last moment by a cruel  twist of fate.

There is more murder and mayhem on the streets of Leeds and Tom Harper finds himself battling to solve perhaps the most complex case of his career, made all the more intractable because he faces a personal challenge more daunting than any he has ever faced in his professional life. Guns have played little part in Harper’s police career thus far, but the theft of four Webley revolvers – plus ammunition – from Harewood Barracks, and the subsequent purchase of the guns by members of the Leeds underworld, adds a new and dangerous dimension to the case.

Nickson’s love for his city – with all its many blemishes – is often voiced in the thoughts of Tom Harper. Here, he declines the use of his chauffeur driven car and opts for Shanks’s Pony:

“A good walk to Sheepscar. A chance to idle along, to see things up close rather than hidden away in a motor car where he passed so quickly. All the smells and sounds that made up Leeds. Kosher food cooking in the Leylands, sauerkraut and chicken and the constant hum of sewing machines in the sweatshops. The malt from Brunswick brewery. The hot stink of iron rising from the foundries and the sewage stink of chemical works and tanneries up Meanwood Road. Little of it was lovely. But all of it was his. It was home.”

Harper, rather like WS Gilbert’s Ko-Ko, has a little list. It contains all the victims – and possible perpetrators – of the spate of crimes connected to Davey Mullen. One by one, through a mixture of persistence, skill and good luck, he manages to put a line through most of them by the closing chapters of Brass Lives. The book ends, however, on a sombre note, rather like a funeral bell tolling: it warns of a future that will have devastating consequences not only for Tom Harper, his family and his colleagues, but for millions of people right across Europe.

I believe that this series will be seen by readers, some of whom are still learning to read, as a perfect sequence that epitomises the very best of historical crime fiction. The empathy, the attention to detail, and the raw truth of how our ancestors lived will make the Tom Harper novels timeless. Brass Lives is published by Severn House in hardback, and is available now. It will be out as a Kindle in August. For reviews of other novels in this excellent series, click on the graphic below.

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*The Great Pilgrimage of 1913 was a march in Britain by suffragists campaigning non-violently for women’s suffrage, organised by the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies (NUWSS). Women marched to London from all around England and Wales and 50,000 attended a rally in Hyde Park.

MURDER AT MADAME TUSSAUDS . . . Between the covers

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This is the sixth book in the delightful series from Jim Eldridge set in the last years of Queen Victoria’s reign, and featuring a private investigator partnership between Daniel Wilson and Abigail Fenton. The pair are so mismatched that they make a delightful fit, if that makes any sense. Former policeman Daniel is short, stocky and of solid working class London stock, while Abigail is of more ‘noble birth’,  tall, elegant, and an expert in archaeology, particularly that of the classical world. As you can see from the banner above, they have worked their way around the major museums of England, but now they are called to a slightly less academic venue – Madame Tussaud’s waxworks on Baker Street.

One of the night watchmen is found decapitated, his body (and head) posed next to the instrument of death that caused Anna Maria “Marie” Tussaud née Grosholtz to fear for her own life during the French Revolution – the guillotine. Wilson and Fenton immediately smell a rather large and malodorous rodent. The dead man – Eric Dudgeon – and his fellow watchman, Walter Bagshot, were lifelong friends, and former army colleagues. Now Dudgeon is dead and Bagshot is missing. Even stranger is the fact that some months earlier the previous watchmen, Donald Bruin and Steven Patterson, both left at the same time and, within days, Dudgeon and Bagshot arrived at the exhibition asking if there were any vacancies for security staff.

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Meanwhile, Eldridge has introduced some real life characters (pictured above) – Prime Minister the Marquess of Salisbury, Sir Matthew White Ridley the Home Secretary, and William Melville head of the Special Branch. The men are concerned about a series of successful bank robberies, each of which has been carried out by the robbers tunneling into the bank vault from the cellar of an adjoining building. The sums taken have been eye-wateringly huge – so much so that the government is concerned about a run on the banks. Dedicated Sherlockians, when hearing about the robbers’ method, will raise an eyebrow and say, “A-hah – The Red Headed League!*

The murder plot becomes more twisted, when a young man, working on the basis that if he can scare his girlfriend she will succumb to his advances, hides with her in a Tussaud’s broom cupboard at closing time, and then sneaks out into The Chamber of Horrors. What they find is a genuine horror rather than a wax version, and all thoughts of dalliance go out of the window. Abigail, meanwhile, is courted (in a gentlemanly way) by none other than Arthur Conan Doyle, who wants her to lead an expedition to excavate an obscure group pf pyramids in Egypt. Both she and Daniel have their lives threatened, however; Abigail by an obsessed young woman who lusts after Daniel, and Daniel himself by a powerful and seemingly untouchable crime boss, Gerald Carr. But is Carr the real spider at the centre of this web, or is it someone much more closely connected to high society?

Screen Shot 2021-06-20 at 19.30.31This shouldn’t be dismissed as ‘comfort reading’. Yes, we know what we are going to get – the atmospheric late Victorian setting, the warm human chemistry between Daniel and Abigail, the absence of moral ambiguity and the certainty that good will prevail. Any genuine reader of fiction – and in particular, crime fiction – will know that, rather in the manner of Ecclesiastes chapter III , there is a time for everything; there is a time for the dark despair of Derek Raymond, there is a time for the intense psychological dramas of Lisa Jewell, and a time for workaday police procedurals by writers like Peter James and Mark Billingham. There is also a time for superbly crafted historical crime fiction which takes us far away in time and space, and allows us to escape into an – albeit imaginary – world which provides balm and healing to our present woes. Murder at Madame Tussaud’s is one such book. It is published by Allison & Busby and is available now.

*The Red-Headed League” is a short story by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle in which Sherlock Holmes takes the case of a businessman who feels that he’s been duped. A small business owner named Wilson tells Holmes how a man named Spaulding convinced him to take a job with The Red-Headed League. The League pays Wilson to copy out the Encyclopedia Britannica in longhand. Wilson does this for seven weeks, until the League is disbanded. Holmes realizes that Spaulding just wanted Wilson out of the shop so that he could dig a tunnel into the nearby bank.

SILESIAN STATION . . Between the covers

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Followers of this website will, hopefully, have read my 1st May review of David Downing’s Wedding Station (click link to visit). It is actually the seventh book in the series, but is a prequel, being set in 1933. I was so impressed by it that I have raided my piggy bank and bought several others. This review, then, is of a book I have bought for pleasure, rather than a freebie from a publisher. Silesian Station was first published in 2008, and is the second in the series. The central character is John Russell, an Anglo-American political journalist. He married (but later divorced) a German woman, and as their son Paul is a German citizen, Russell is allowed to make his home in Berlin. We are in the late summer of 1939. Six years into the Thousand Year Reich. Six months since Hitler invaded Czechoslovakia. Just days away, maybe, from an invasion of Poland?

spines029Russell is a survivor, a man who can usually talk his way out of trouble. Multilingual, and with that all-important American passport, he keeps a wary eye on the features he wires back to his newspaper in the states, but has – more or less – managed to stay out of trouble with the various arms of the Nazi state  – principally the Gestapo, the SS and their nasty little brother the Sicherheitsdienst. Russell fought in the British Army in The Great War, but in its wake became a committed Communist. Although he has now ‘left the faith’ he still maintains discreet contacts with the remaining ‘comrades’ in Berlin. With that in mind, it is unsurprising, perhaps, that he has been manoeuvred into the sticky position where both the German and Russian intelligence services believe that he is working uniquely for them, and he is being used to pass on false information from one to the other.

It’s probably not a bad idea at this stage to do a brief political and strategic summary of how the land lay in the late summer of 1939. Germany and the Soviet Union were – in theory – the best of friends, but divided both geographically and in terms of future intent by Poland. Hitler still smarted from the loss of previously German territory after the Treaty of Versailles, while both he and Stalin had eyes on encroachment, to the east in Hitler’s case and to the west for Stalin. Hitler knows that Britain and France are treaty-bound to protect Poland, but is more worried about the reaction from the Kremlin should he try to retake the former German lands of Prussia.

Back to the more human and personal elements of Silesia Station. Russell has agreed to do a favour for his brother-in-law, and investigate the disappearance of a  Jewish girl, Miriam Rosenfeld, who has been sent by her parents – who own a small farm near Breslau (modern day Wrocław) to live with her uncle in Berlin, for the chillingly ironic reason that the family are among the few Jews left in the area, and they feel threatened. Russell – aided by his film star girlfriend Effie Koenen – start their search, but Miriam seems to have vanished into thin air. Effie is integral to the story. Very beautiful, and a fine actress, it doesn’t hurt that Hitler’s minister for propaganda, Joseph Goebbels, is an avid film buff, and has rubbed shoulders with Effie at premieres of her films, and is apparently a great admirer.

Months later, of course, all these ambiguities were wiped out by the fury of war, but John Russell has one other contradiction to deal with. Another acquaintance, Sarah Grostein is ‘walking out’ with a prominent SS officer who is – clearly – unaware that she is Jewish. When their relationship goes disastrously wrong, Russell feels obliged to pick up the pieces.

Aside from the human dramas, Downing describes with great clarity the fateful days before the Soviets and the Nazis – via the short-lived Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact – agreed to allow each other to live and let live, and how that fateful decision gave Hitler the green light to invade Poland, thus triggering six years of death, terror and mayhem.

Is Miriam Rosenfeld found? Where did she go? Can John Russell and Effie Koenen keep one step ahead of both the SS and the NKVD? Well, the fact that they appear in later books will answer the last question, at least, but you will have a few hours of tense reading a classic piece of historical fiction while you find out how. Silesian Station is published by Old Street Publishing Ltd and is available now.
 

WEDDING STATION . . . Between the covers

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Coming late to a well-established series can pose problems for a reviewer but, happily, this book is a prequel to the six published previously. The series is known as the Station Series, written by David Downing, and featuring the investigative crime reporter John Russell. The titles all take their names from railway stations around Berlin. They are Zoo Station (2007), Silesian Station (2008), Stettin Station (2009), Potsdam Station (2010), Lehrter Station (2012), and Masaryk Station (2013).

Fans of the books will have to excuse me while I paint a quick background picture. It is early 1933, and Hitler has been Chancellor for just a few weeks. We begin just hours after the Reichstag fire, and the SA – Sturmabteilung – are going about their grisly business with renewed vigour. Russell is English, a veteran of WW1 – and a former communist – but due to his marriage (now failed) to a German woman, he can happily say, “Ich bin ein Berliner.

WS coverWhile reporting on the death and mutilation of a young rent boy, Russell is asked by a friend to take on another case, this time on behalf of a senior army officer whose daughter is missing. It is a delicate business, because there is a strong suspicion that Lili Zollitsch has run off with a boyfriend who is an active member of the Kommunistische Partei Deutschlands.

Russell seems to collect mysterious deaths and disappearances like some men collect stamps. Hard on the heels of the Colonel’s missing daughter, he hears that a prominent genealogist has been killed in what seems to be a case of hit-and-run. One of Herr Mommsen’s most popular services had been producing evidence of racial purity – as in no trace of Jewish blood – for his clients. Had he made a rather unfortunate discovery and signed his own death warrant? If this weren’t enough, a well-known astrologer has gone missing – believed permanently – and when Russell investigates via one of Harri Haum’s customers he is astonished when she tells him that in a crystal ball-reading session a few days before the event, the seer had predicting the burning of the Reichstag.

But there is yet more for Russell to deal with. One of the friends of the murdered rent boy contacts the journalist and hands him the dead lad’s diary, in which he has faithfully recorded the names of his clients, as well as intimate physical descriptions. As Russell turns the pages, he finds the names of prominent members of the SA. Now while homosexuality is – along with communism, and being Jewish – a big no-no in the eyes of the Schutzstaffel (SS) it is a different matter in the rival organisation, the SA. The SA’s head, Ernst Röhm along with a good number fellow brownshirts are, as coy newspaper obituaries used to say, “confirmed bachelors.”

The final straw for Russelland one that very nearly breaks the back of the proverbial desert beast of burden – is when a knock on the door of his apartment reveals a young woman called Evchen who, years earlier, was a communist comrade. Not only is she still a party member, she has just shot dead one SA trooper and seriously injured another. And now she seeks shelter. How Russell gets himself out of these various pickles is gripping stuff. Some of the tension is obviously diminished by the fact that we know that the journalist survives to feature in six further books, but it is still a very good read.

We are clearly in Bernie Gunther territory here, and comparisons are inevitable, but in no way negative. This is a compelling read and a chill reminder – if any were necessary – of the gathering storm facing Germany and the wider world in the 1930s. Wedding Station is published by Old Street Publishing. The hardback is available now, and the paperback version will be out on 4th May.

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