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May 2021

SWORD OF BONE . . . Between the covers

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Some critics have compared Anthony Rhodes (1916-2004) with his more illustrious near contemporary, Evelyn Waugh. They were both Roman Catholics, although Rhodes converted late in life. Both wrote novels, biographies and travel books. Both – and this is most relevant here – wrote fictionalised accounts of their service in WW2. Waugh’s Sword of Honour trilogy – Men at Arms, Officers and Gentlemen & Unconditional Surrender – was a much more substantial achievement, but both wrote from the view of public school educated men who had gone on to higher education, in Waugh’s case Oxford, and in Rhodes’s case Royal Military College Sandhurst. The latter, of course, makes Rhodes a professional soldier, but they both wrote with a certain sardonic detachment about the war and the soldiers who served in it.

Sword of Bone begins in the early autumn of 1939 when Rhodes becomes a liaison officer for his army division. He is a gifted linguist, and he is a member of the advance party sent to France. They assemble in Southampton, then:

At three o’clock that afternoon we embarked on a miserable grimy little cross-channel boat called The Duchess of Atholl, which had been painted a dirty grey and which, except for what appeared to be an inexplicable pair of blue knickers drying on the bridge, had little enough connection with her eponymous aristocrat.”

SOB cover014His party work their way at a leisurely pace from Brittany up to the grim and grey slag heaps and factory chimneys in the region of Lille, Lens and  La Bassée. His role eventually settles into that of commissioning supplies of engineering materials – principally those needed to meet a sudden demand for concrete pill boxes.

It is worth spelling out at this stage what exactly was going on in the war in Western Europe. On 3rd September 1939, Britain and France declared war on Germany as a result of Hitler’s invasion of Poland. All through that autumn, until the winter became spring, there was little or no military action on the ground. In December, British warships had engaged the German Battleship Graf von Spee, and forced it to seek refuge in the neutral port of Montivideo, where it was eventually scuttled. Back in France, the French had the largest army in Europe, the best tanks, and were convinced that the complex of fortifications known as The Maginot Line made its eastern border with Germany impregnable.

Not so secure, as Rhodes finds when he is billeted near Lille, is the border with Belgium – little more than a few strands of barbed wire and sentry boxes manned by a handful of bored soldiers. The first half of the book is a series of entertaining encounters with village Mayors, profiteering restaurateurs, blimpish Colonels and the complex hierarchies that exist between different parts of the British Army. In Rhodes’s entourage are other officers, of contrasting temperament and character. There is Stimpson, intellectual, effete, almost, and politically rather ‘unsound’.

When the last politician has been strangled with the entrails of the last general, then, and only then, shall we have peace“, he says one evening in the Mess.

The Padre is emphatically different. He is “a man whose views on the treatment of Indians did more credit to Kipling than to his cloth.

Rhodes catches sight of his first German (through binoculars) when he and other officers visit a Maginot fort near Veckering, in the Moselle region. Rhodes’s Major wants action:

Quick, ” said Major Cairns, turning to a Guardsman with a rifle, “Pick him off. Quickly, man.
Please, ” said the subaltern, without moving, “do no such thing. Our business is to obtain information. We want prisoners, not dead men. Besides, if we fire from here, it will only give our own position away. I am afraid I must ask you not to think of firing, sir. It will only mean an immediate reply from the Boche with mortar fire.
Major Cairns sadly put down the rifle which he had taken from the Guardsman, and we all stood by the trees looking out over the valley.”

Of course, the fun has to end sometime, and after a foray into Norway, Hitler’s forces invade Holland Belgium and France on 10th May. The citizens of Louvain and Brussels, remembering the heroics of two decades earlier, are convinced that the ‘Tommies’ will, once again, give the Boche a bloody nose. As we all know, it was not to be. The Germans have ignored the Maginot Line and are storming down through Belgium. Arras falls, and the French army – on paper, numerically and technically superior – are in headlong retreat along with their British allies. It is very much a case of “our revels now are ended” for Rhodes and his colleagues.

Sword of Bone is a little masterpiece. As it follows the fortunes of a small group of British Army officers in the early days of WW2, it records their journey from champagne and lobster lunches and a seemingly absent enemy, to the terrifying and bloodstained beaches of Dunkirk. Rhodes writes with great charm, gentle satire, pinpoint observation but with total authenticity. The book is published by the Imperial War Museum and is out now.

You can read my reviews of the other books in this excellent series by clicking the image below.

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THE DISTANT DEAD . . . Between the covers

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I was gifted this to review by Head of Zeus, so huge thanks to them. The Distant Dead is the eighth in a series by Lesley Thomson, so I am coming late to the party. What attracted me to the book? Two things, really. Firstly there was a mention of a WW2 element, and I am a sucker for anything war-related. Secondly, some of the action takes place in the Gloucestershire town of Tewksbury. Years ago now, a very dear friend of mine, Miles Amherst – long since gone,sadly – founded a choir school at Tewksbury Abbey. I had taught with him in Ely, but we had gone our separate ways. When the choir school was running, I was teaching in a Shropshire prep school, and I always had a half day on Mondays. It was a bit of a drive, but sometimes I used to motor down to Tewksbury, rehearse with the choir and help them sing Evensong. Afterwards was always beer, food – and an small-hours drive back to Salop.

So, happy memories, but what of the book? I am not the biggest fan of split time narratives, but many authors are, so it is what it is. In this case, at least, the connection between the narratives is clear. In Blitz-torn London, a young woman is found dead – strangled in an abandoned house. The pathologist called to the scene, and who later carries out the post mortem, is a man called Aleck Northcote. He tells the police investigating the case that the woman, Maple Greenhill was a common prostitute.

TDDYears later, Northcote has retired to Tewksbury, but is found dead. His wastrel son is convicted of his murder. Pretty much present day, Stella Darnell, the daughter of a policeman, now working as a contract cleaner in Tewksbury, meets a man named Roddy March who has produced a podcast about the 1963 murder of Northcote. Roddy investigates cases where he thinks the wrong person went to prison – or, in this case, the gallows. When Roddy is found murdered next to an ancient tomb in Tewksbury Abbey, Stella feels connected enough to find out the truth about how past and present have merged – with fatal consequences.

So, what exactly happened in 1940?. We know – from the prologue – that Maple Greenhill has gone into an empty house with a man friend, and that he strangles her. When her body is found, London copper George Cotton is called, but his investigation leads nowhere until a cigarette lighter is found at the scene. It is engraved with the initials AXN. Cotton puts two and two together, and assumes that the pathologist – Aleck Xavier Northcote – must have dropped it when he was called to look at the body. Then, in a separate breakthrough, a garment repair ticket is found in Maple’s coat. When Cotton visits the tailor, he is astonished to be joined by a woman who says she has lost the self-same ticket. The woman is Mrs Aleck Northcote.

Lesley Thomson switches the narratives very cleverly and poses important questions as the book progresses. Was Northcote Maple’s man-friend, and did he kill her? If he did, how then did he avoid prosecution and survive to be murdered in his own house twenty three years later? And if Giles Northcote – who had visited his father on than fateful evening to ask for money to pay off a gambling debt – didn’t kill his father, then who did? And was the killer somehow connected to the death of Maple Greenhill.

Obviously, I am not about to reveal the answer to the conundrum, but you will enjoy – as I did – how Lesley Thomson has Stella Darnell – and her companions –  searching for, and then finding, the truth. The actual solution to what turns out to be multiple murders is breathtakingly complex, but this a clever, literate and totally convincing murder mystery – and thoroughly, thoroughly English. People who follow the news know that Tewksbury is notoriously susceptible to flooding, standing as it does at the confluence of the rivers Severn and Warwickshire Avon, and Lesley Thomson uses the power of the river as it hurtles over weirs and beneath bridges as a very effective metaphor for the violence in human souls. The Distant Dead is available now, and the previous books in the series are pictured below. If you click the image, you will be taken to Lesley Thomson’s website.

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THE WAITER . . . Between the covers

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Kamil Rahman is a Bengali Muslim, but in name only. He enjoys a beer, and his job as a detective with the Kolkata Police Force gives him little time for religious observance. His father was a distinguished cop before him, and he tries hard to live up to that reputation. When a famous Bollywood film star is found dead in a plush hotel, Kamil is astonished to be given the job of finding the killer of Asif Khan.

We are getting ahead of ourselves. The killing of Asif Khan was in July, but the book opens in the October of the same year, and we find Kamil not heading up a crack team of investigators in the capital city of West Bengal, but waiting tables in a curry house in London’s Brick Lane.

Waiter cover007The restaurant is run by his relatives Saibal and Maya, with help from their daughter Anjali. At this point is worth  reminding people that families are the big thing in the sub-continent, and most of the characters in the book are related in one way or another. The story starts on the evening that the restaurant has been booked to provide the food for the lavish 60th birthday party of rich entrepreneur Rakesh Sharma. He and his new wife Neha – half his age – are installed in a lavish mansion on Billionaire’s Row near Hampstead Heath. It’s also worth mentioning at this point that Sharma’s first wife (and son by that union) are still very much on the scene.

As the party gets into its stride, Sharma shocks his audience when he announces that he is going to sell all his holdings and divert the rest of his life to charitable works, dedicated to his young wife. As Kamil and the other functionaries are driving home in the small hours, they receive a chilling ‘phone call. Sharma has been found dead – apparently battered about the head with a heavy object. They return to the mansion, slightly ahead of the police.

The big question with which Ajay Chowdhury teases us is, of course, why has Kamil ended up in a walk-on part in one of London’s innumerable Indian restaurants, rather than being an important detective in Kolkata. Chowdhury uses a ‘then-and-now’ narrative. It’s not my favourite literary device, but at least we have only two time slots to keep track of. We are deep into the book before we discover why Kamil is bowing and scraping in London, rather than advancing his career – and his marriage prospects to his smart and beautiful lawyer fiancée Maliha – back in West Bengal. The answer comes in the form of a terrible betrayal.

This is just a crime novel, albeit a very good one, but it does raise questions about probity in public life. People of my age have had a lifetime of reading about the depth of corruption in India and Pakistan, and Chowdhury paints an unflattering picture of the wheels-within-wheels in the Kolkata Police Force. Are we any better here? Is the corruption just more subtle, and more in people’s peripheral vision rather than in full view? I write this review at a time when news bulletins remind us of the awful, unbridgeable gulf between the haves and have-nots in present day Covid-blighted India.

Eventually, Kamil’s Kalkota downfall is explained, and we also learn who killed Rakesh Sharma. There is much entertainment on the way to the finale. The Met Police copper’s last words suggest that we haven’t heard the last of Kamil Rahman.

We are always looking for skilled detectives from diverse backgrounds.”

This is a confident and sure-footed debut, with a likeable and warmly credible hero. Chowdhury deftly captures the contrasting – yet uncannily similar – mileus of Kolkata and Brick Lane. The Waiter is published by Harvill Secker, and will be out on 27th May.

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GLADYS MITCHELL . . .A writer revisited

Guest writer Stuart Radmore explores one of the lesser-known female authors of the Golden Age, and he feels that the revival of interest in her books by modern readers is justified.

Gladys Mitchell (1901 – 1983), of Scottish descent, was born in Cowley, near Oxford.  She spent much of her childhood in Brentford, Middlesex.  After taking a degree at the University of London, she taught (English, History and Games) altogether for some thirty-seven years at a variety of schools in what is now West London.

Away from her teaching life Miss Mitchell created the first notable, and still the best known, example of a psychiatrist-detective in the formidable person of Mrs (late Dame) Beatrice Adela Lestrange Bradley, consultant psychiatrist to the Home Office.

She is sometimes extremely orthodox in her methods.  While some of her deductions allude to Freudian theory (one of the author’s many enthusiasms) she appears to obtain her results by intuition – or something more.   Elements of the occult – witchcraft, the supernatural, folk superstitions or practices – sometimes play too large a part in many of the books, to the detriment of their quality as detective stories; though this at least makes it clear that Mrs Bradley is as much a witch as a psychiatrist. 

In fact, Gladys Mitchell well understood that her books had about them the basic unreality of an all-ends-well comedy.  “I regard my books as fairy tales” she said, “I never take the crime itself seriously”. 

It’s been noted by others that Miss Mitchell was obviously a woman of some inquisitiveness, and that what she finds out, she shares.   Throughout her many books while it’s inevitable that there is a wide variation in subject, this sometimes also results in a variation in quality.

Everyone has his favourites, but it’s generally thought that her best books were those written up to the early 1950s – ‘St Peter’s Finger’ (1938) The Saltmarsh Murders’ (1941) and ‘The Devil’s Elbow’ (1951) are particularly praised – with only a handful thereafter reaching this earlier high standard.   Of these later novels ‘Dance to your Daddy’ (1969) should be singled out.  It’s light on the supernatural, while maintaining an air of unreality throughout.   The author herself has said:

… apart from ‘Laurels are Poison’ (1942) I like most ‘The Rising of the Moon’ (1945) which recalls much of my Brentford childhood. (I am Simon in the story and my beloved brother Reginald is Keith) and the same two children appear as Margaret and  Kenneth in the 50th book, Late, Late in the Evening’, which is about the two of us in Cowley, before the motor works got there “. 

Let the final words come from the poet Philip Larkin, who was a great admirer of the novels. In 1982 he wrote:

Miss Mitchell has always stood splendidly apart from her crime club confreres in total originality – even when, as today, there are almost none left to stand apart from. The originality consists in blending eccentricity of subject matter with authoritative common sense of style”.   

THE BULLET TRAIN . . . Between the covers

Kōtarō Isaka (and his translator Sam Malissa) have created an story that is totally improbable, manic – but quite wonderful. Five killers board the Shikansen (Bullet Train to us) which goes from Tokyo to Morioka. I use the word ‘manic’ because the journey only takes just over two and a half hours, and this is a book of over four hundred pages, so you immediately know we are pretty much operating in real time. The five passengers are:

  • Kimura. He is a drunk, a former gangster, and his six year old son lies in a coma after being pushed from the roof of a department store by –
  • Satoshi ‘The Prince’ Oji, a teenage psychopath.
  • Lemon and Tangerine, two villains who are working for Mr Minegishi, a crime boss. They have rescued his kidnapped son and have retained the intended ransom money, which is packed in a suitcase. Incidentally, Lemon is obsessed with Thomas the Tank Engine and its different characters.
  • Nanao, a hapless minor gangster, and a walking example of Murphy’s Law, but still a killer. His job is to relieve Lemon and Tangerine of the suitcase full of cash.

By page fifty, it’s all happening, and it is all about the suitcase full of cash. Satoshi is expecting Kimura, stuns him with a home made taser, and has him trussed up with tape in the seat next to him. Nanao has stolen the suitcase, but is prevented from leaving at the first stop, Ueno, by the arrival of another gangster called Wolf who has a score to settle with Nanao. Wolf barges him back into the train before he can leave, but Nanao kills him in a struggle. Lemon and Tangerine have discovered that the cash is missing, but return to their seats to find Minegishi Junior has, inexplicably, expired.

Two simple graphics add to the fun. The first (left) is a schematic of the stations on the journey itself. Though simple, this is a very clever device, because it allows the author to have the characters – albeit briefly – engage with the world outside the confines of the ten coach train. The second is of the coaches in the train (below) and is used as chapter headings as events play out.
BTSatoshi ‘The Prince’ Oji is the darkest character of the five. He is utterly without compassion. Other human beings – school teachers, teenage friends, other adults – only have value to him in the sense that they can be used for his entertainment. He is highly intelligent, but one of the more malevolent fictional villains I have encountered in recent times. Everything is thought through and planned in the minutest detail, such as his grip on Kamura. The grizzled gangster could, physically, chew up Satoshi and spit out the bones, but the teenager convinces Kamura that he has an insider in the hospital where the man’s son is lying in a coma, and should Satoshi fail to answer periodic calls to his mobile ‘phone, then this insider will find a way to disconnect the little boy’s life support system.

There is a thread of darker-than-dark comedy running through the chapters. Nanao’s attempts to rearrange Wolf’s corpse to make it look as if he was just taking a nap put me in mind of Basil Fawlty in The Kipper and the Corpse, while Lemon’s obsessive knowledge of Percy, Gordon, and James the Red Engine is like something that Flann O’Brien might have dreamt up given that, with Tangerine, Lemon has just left a crime scene where, between them, they have shot dead at least fifteen men. Add to the mix a couple of random cross-dressers, a stolen wig – and an escaped snake – and you have two and a half hours of mayhem. As passengers become corpses, one by one, the unlikely intervention of a pair of grandparents brings matters to a bloody conclusion.

I don’t doubt that other reviewers have used this analogy, but it is still worth saying that Bullet Train is something of a cross between a Tarantino movie and a Manga comic. There is the same implausible detachment from reality found in both, but also the same joyful sense of anarchy. The train itself, hurtling onwards at 200 mph, echoes the sense of high speed forward movement and drive in the narrative. The internet tells me that Hollywood have snapped up the book, and a film is being produced starring Brad Pitt. As whom? – I have genuinely no idea, but this brilliant and daring novel is published in Britain by Harvill Secker, 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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