Historical Fiction




Victorians loved a freak. Think of Joseph Merrick. Think of The Bearded Lady and The Crocodile Woman at traveling funfairs. Are we any better today? Think of Dylan Mulvaney, and I guess not. However, to the book. Twin sisters Keziah and Tilly Lovell are far from identical. They are both fifteen years old, but Tilly hasn’t grown an inch since she was five. Their father uses the pair to promote a fake elixir at his traveling show, but then he sells them to a mysterious Italian impresario, known as ‘Captain’, who senses an opportunity to make money. All roads lead to London, where within Dr Summerwell’s Museum of Anatomy, the twins meet a young man called Theo, and are drawn into a web of intrigue, deceit and criminality. This is published by Orenda Books, and will be out on 22nd June.

TO DIE IN JUNE by Alan Parks

The blurb says, “ONE LOST CHILD. TWO MEN DEAD. A MIDSUMMER NIGHTMARE. This is the sixth in the Harry McCoy series, which is new to me, but the book sounds a cracker. A word-association test using the word ‘Glasgow’ would, certainly among crime fiction fans, produce obvious results. Hashtags might include:

#grit #violence #deprivation #noir #murder #drugs #gangs #extortion #hardman

McCoy investigates the disappearance of a boy, whose parents are devotees of a a bizarre cult, The Church of Christ’s Sufferings. At the same time, reports come in of unexplained poisonings among the city’s down-and-out community. McCoy has a dog in this fight. His own father is one of the dispossed. Throw into this toxic mix a case of police corruption which McCoy cannot ignore, and you have a spellbinding police thriller. Published by Canongate Books, this will be available from 25th May.

SERGEANT SALINGER . . . Between the covers


This fictionalised biography of the life of JD Salinger certainly begins with a name-dropping bang. Within the first twenty pages, we are in Manhattan’s legendary Stork Club, and we are rubbing shoulders with – alongside the young writer himself – Ernest Hemingway, Walter Winchell, Merle Oberon, Peter Lorre, and the bewitchingly erotic daughter of playwright Eugene O’Neill, Oona, who would later – much to Salinger’s chagrin – marry Charlie Chaplin.

FA8rkugXIAMOsiBThis prelude takes place in 1942, but two years later Salinger is in literally much deeper and more dangerous waters. He is a sergeant in the American army’s Counter Intelligence Corps (CIC) and has been posted to Tiverton in Devon, where the 4th Infantry Division is preparing for the D-Day landings. Salinger has to count the corpses as the US Army desperately tries to cover up two separate disasters which result in the deaths of over nine hundred American servicemen. The Slapton Sands fiasco (Operation Tiger) is described here.

The novel follows Salinger’s progress as he survives D-Day and the push through Normandy. He finds himself busy in French villages where former Nazi collaborators are trying to reinvent themselves as patriots, and he witnesses the scenes in Paris where the population takes revenge on men and women who co-operated with the German administration.

By far the toughest part of Salinger’s war, in terms of physical danger, is what he calls ‘The Green Hell.‘ The American forces were held up in the autumn and early winter of 1944 as the retreating German army took up positions in the Hürtgen Forest – over 50 square miles of dense and mountainous woodland on the Belgian German border. With splinters from shell-shattered trees causing as many casualties as bullets, the Americans suffered huge losses and only took the area when the German Army was eventually defeated at what has become known as The Battle of The Bulge.

Worse awaits Salinger, however. Not in terms of his own physical safety, but through a dreadful discovery which was to scar the minds of many of those who were present. As the Americans advance into Bavaria, they come across Kaufering Lager IV – part of the Dachau concentration camp complex. All but a handful of camp guards and administrators have fled, leaving behind them a scene from hell.

“Sonny climbed down from the jeep. He saw several axes near the siding, axes covered in blood. The guards must have been in a great hurry. They’d slaughtered prisoners of the camp even while they were herding them into the cars. Sonny found several bodies without head, hands or feet. He could follow the path of their butchery, footprints etched in blood.”

He discovers that the stationmaster of the railway siding is still hiding in his house. He gives Sonny (Salinger) a kind of perverse and depraved guided tour.

“The stationmaster led Sonny to three barracks that were partly underground, like wooden bunkers, but these bunkers had been nailed shut and set on fire while still packed with ‘citizens’ of Kaufering, the camp’s slave labourers. Sonny had to wear a handkerchief over his mouth and nose, otherwise he would have fainted right in the Lager. He couldn’t understand how the stationmaster had survived the stench, the crippling acid of rotten flesh.
‘Open the barracks,’ Sonny said, ‘Every one.’
‘But that is impossible,’ the stationmaster said, ‘It is not my job. I am responsible for the trains.’
‘Open’, Sonny said, handing him a bloody axe, ‘Or I’ll execute you on the spot.’
The stationmaster saluted Sonny with a sudden respect. ‘Yes, Herr Unteroffizier.’
He chopped away at the wood, pried out the nails, and opened the barracks, one by one. Some of the charred bodies were still smouldering. They were packed so tight, skull to skull, covered in shreds of their own burnt hair, that they had a perverse, horrifying beauty, as if they’d been sculpted out of fire.”


This horrific experience, on top of so many other traumas, tips Salinger into a kind of temporary insanity, and he checks himself into a German psychiatric clinic, where he meets a young German doctor, Sylvia Welter. They have a strange, but doomed attraction to each other and, when, war ends, they marry. Eventually the couple return to New York but, as they set up a kind of home with Salinger’s Jewish parents, it is clear that the marriage is dead, and Sylvia returns to Germany.

Sergeant Salinger is both dazzling and disturbing, and Jerome Charyn has written a brilliant account of Salinger the soldier, Salinger the writer and – above all – Salinger the troubled but deeply compassionate man. It is published by No Exit Press and is available now.


KYIV . . . Between the covers


HEADERGraham Hurley is, for me, one of the outstanding crime writers of this generation. His Joe Faraday series was simply wonderful, and the Jimmy Suttle spin-off books were just as good. His Enora Andresson series is very different, but equally compelling. It is only relatively recently, though, that I became aware of Hurley’s fascination with military history, and so I jumped at the chance to read and review Kyiv. We know the city as Kiev, the capital of Ukraine, and in this novel Hurley starts with the fateful day, 22nd June 1941 when Adolf Hitler, desperate for Ukraine’s agricultural riches, but with an eye on the oil fields of the Caucuses beyond, launched Operation Barbarossa.

Screen Shot 2021-06-16 at 18.48.16Knowing, as we do now, that the invasion of Russia was a disastrous strategic mistake which eventually brought the downfall of the Third Reich, shouldn’t diminish our appreciation of this book. In some ways, we are in John Lawton and Philip Kerr territory here, with the complex mixture of real life characters and fictional creations. For some of the real people, please see the infographic at the end of this review. The novel focuses on two (fictional) people, Isobel ‘Bella’ Menzies and Tam Moncrieff. Both work for British intelligence. Moncrieff is loyal to Britain, but Bella’s allegiance is more ambiguous. She works for both Russia and Britain, and both states seem to be well aware of this. Naturally, before the launch of  Barbarossa, Stalin was – on paper, at least – an ally of Hitler, so what now?

Bella is sent on a mysterious mission to Moscow but, with the fearsome NKVD (Narodny Komissariat Vnutrennikh Del, People’s Commissariat of Internal Affairs) on her case, she diverts to Kyiv, with the German Army Group Centre just days away from capturing the city. Soon, the shattered remains of the Red Army (and party officials like Nikita Kruschev) are scrambling eastwards over the River Dnieper and the bemused Ukranians, most of them no fans of the departing Soviets, look on as the Germans arrive and start what seems to be a fairly peaceful Nazification of Kyiv. This soon changes, however. Pro-Soviet agents have planted huge bombs in many of the city’s major buildings, and in particular those they knew that the new German administration would appropriate as accommodation for their army of bureaucrats. These bombs are detonated, one by one, by radio signal, and all hell breaks loose.

Back in Britain, Tam Moncrieff has been made a fool of by fellow intelligence officer Kim Philby, and is then abducted and drugged. When he finally finds himself free, much of his memory has gone. Someone has used him to send a mocking message to the British intelligence agencies, but who?

Bella, meanwhile, has met Larissa, a Ukranian journalist, and they have become lovers. As the SS attempt to end the bombings Bella falls foul of sadistic Standartenführer Kalb, but with the help of Wilhelm Strauss, a sympathetic Abwehr officer she knew from her days in Berlin before the war, she and Larissa play a dangerous cat and mouse game with Kalb.

Hurley depicts Strauss as a “good German’ in a similar way that Philip Kerr treated Bernie Gunther, but for all his disgust at the tactics of the SS, Strauss is unable to prevent one of the most horrific and bestial acts of the war being visited on the Jews of Kyiv.

William Tecumseh Sherman famously stated, “There is many a boy here today who looks on war as all glory, but, boys, it is all Hell.” Graham Hurley paints as hellish a picture of war as you could wish to read, and spares neither the Germans or the Soviets as he describes their predilection for barbarity. Onto this grim background, he paints a haunting picture of human love and suffering. Kyiv is published by Head of Zeus and is out on 8th July.



THE TAINTED . . . Between the covers (click for full screen)

Tainted Header

When I was offered the chance to read The Tainted by Cauvery Madhavan, I sensed that it wasn’t my usual fare, but I was drawn in by the historical and military background of the story. I’ll say right now that I loved it. The narrative spans sixty years, is set in India between 1920 and 1982 and deals with two very different families – that of an Anglo-Irish soldier, and a young Anglo-Indian woman and her descendants.

The TaintedThis is a fine novel, and as is to be expected with any such story set in historical India – think A Passage To India or The Jewel In The Crown – at its heart are the various tensions that exist between native Indians, Anglo-Indians (people of mixed race) and the British rulers. Cauvery Madhavan doesn’t stop there, however. She introduces another theme of social conflict which shimmers and reverberates rather like the sympathetic strings on a sitar, and this is the relationship between another group of subjects and masters – the Roman Catholic population of The Irish Republic and the English landed gentry who, for so long, governed them.

The story begins in 1920, in the garrison town of Indaghiri. Private Michael Flaherty of the Kildare Rangers falls in love with Rose Twomey, a young woman who works as a maidservant in the house of Colonel Aylmer, the head of the regiment. Historical background is crucial here, but I’ll be as concise as possible. The Kildare Rangers are fictional, but their factual counterparts were the Connaught Rangers. The southern Irish regiments had fought bravely for the British cause in The Great War, but with republican unrest simmering in Ireland, many of the units had been posted overseas.

Rose Twomey is fair of skin, with delightful freckles, but she is mixed race. Her father married an Indian woman, and so Rose carries the crucial taint of being Anglo-Indian and, to use the brutal logic of the time, she is neither one thing nor the other. Michael and Rose sup well, but not wisely, and the result is that Rose, pregnant with Michael’s child, is disowned by both her father and the Aylmer family.

One of the remarkable things about the logistics of the British Army in The Great War was that it was able to deliver letters from home with pinpoint accuracy to even the most God-forsaken trench on the Western Front, and so it that the men of the Kildare Rangers have a ready supply of news from home. And it is not good news. In an attempt to stifle Irish nationalism, the British have created an auxiliary police force attached to the Roral Irish Constabulary. Known as the Black and Tans, they are mostly unemployed former soldiers, and their brutal intimidation of the civilian population is causing unrest among the men of the Rangers. When this unrest turns to outright mutiny, it is soon quashed, but Michael and several other men are arrested and face the firing squad.

Screen Shot 2020-04-20 at 19.56.18The second part of The Tainted jumps forward to 1982. India is rapidly emerging as a modern nation, but it retains the vast web of bureacracy bequeathed to it by the long departed British. Mohan Kumar is the Collector for the Nandagiri district. He is, in the vast scheme of things, a relatively minor functionary, but one with great local power and prestige. He is asked to accommodate a photographer from Ireland, Richard Aylmer, who is none other than the grandson of the late Colonel of the Kildare Rangers. The Colonel was a talented artist, and Richard’s mission is to match contemporary photographs with the scenes his grandfather painted. Mohan points Richard in the direction of Gerry Twomey, a forestry manager whose knowledge of the local landscape is unmatched.

Of course, Gerry Twomey – and his sister May – are descendants of Rose Twomey, and I will say no more other than to promise that what follows is enchanting, heartbreaking and beautifully written. Cauvery Madhavan (above right) takes many risks, plot-wise in this book, but everything not only falls into place, but does so with style and bravura. The Tainted is published by HopeRoad and is out on 30th April.

Men of the Connaught Rangers did stage a brief mutiny against their commanders, and some of the ringleaders were executed. Those buried in India were, as suggested in The Tainted, eventually disinterred and their remains repatriated to Ireland. You can find out more here.

For more about the Raj in 20th century India, take a look at the excellent Christian Le Fanu novels by Brian Stoddart.

THE FAMILIARS . . . A launch to remember

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sidebar1AT THE APPROPRIATELY NAMED DEAD DOLLS HOUSE in Islington, the inventive folks at publishers Bonnier Zaffre launched Stacy Halls’ novel The Familiars with not so much a flourish as a brilliant visual fanfare.

The novel was at the centre of a vigorous bidding war and, having won it, Bonnier Zaffre celebrated in style. The book is set in seventeenth century Lancashire, and the drama plays out under the lowering and forbidding bulk of Pendle Hill. If that rings a bell, then so it should. The Pendle Witch Trials were a notorious example of superstition and bigotry overwhelming justice. Ten supposed witches were found guilty and executed by hanging.

Stacey Halls takes the real life character of Fleetwood Shuttleworth, still a teenager, yet mistress of the forbidding Gawthorpe Hall. Despite being only 17, she has suffered multiple miscarriages, but is pregnant again. When a young midwife, Alice Grey, promises her a safe delivery, the two women – from such contrasting backgrounds –  are drawn into a dangerous social upheaval where a thoughtless word can lead to the scaffold.

Back to modern London. Francesca Russell, now Publicity Director at Bonnier Zaffre, has masterminded many a good book launch, and she and her colleagues were on song at The Dead Dolls House.  We were able to mix our own sidebar2witchy tinctures using a potent combination of various precious oils. I went for Frankincense with a dash of Patchouli. I managed to smear it everywhere and such was its potency that my wife was convinced that I had been somewhere less innocent than a book launch.

We were encouraged to give a nod to the novel’s title, and draw a picture of our own particular familiar, and pin it to a board for all to see. I decided to buck the trend towards foxes, cats and toads, and went for a fairly liberal interpretation of that modern icon, the spoilt and decidedly bratty Ms Peppa Pig.

The absolute highlight and masterstroke of the evening was, however, a brief dramatisation of a scene from the novel. Gemma Tubbs was austere and elegant as Fleetwood, while Amy Bullock, with her Vermeer-like simple beauty, brought Alice to life.

That’s the good news, and I have a copy of the novel. The bad news is that it isn’t out on general release until February 2019. Here’s wishing everyone a happy winter, and I hope you all survive another one. If you need an incentive to get through the long hours of cold, darkness and northern gloom, The Familiars should fit the bill. It will be published by Bonnier Zaffre and can be pre-ordered here.

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