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political thriller

THE SERPENT’S MARK . . . Between the covers

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Modern readers don’t need history degrees to understand the savagery with which followers of different religious views are prepared to torture, maim and kill one another. Sunni against Shia across the Middle East; Roman Catholic against Protestant in Northern Ireland; both are all too recent in memory.

TSM coverLondon, 1591. Queen Elizabeth has ruled England for over three decades, but the religious fires lit by her father and then – literally – stoked by the Catholic zealots driven on her half-sister Mary, may just be glowing embers now, but the mutual fear and bitterness between followers of the Pope and members of the English church are only ever a breath away from igniting more conflict. Just a few short miles from England’s eastern coast, war still rages between the rebels of The Seventeen Provinces of The Low Countries and the armies of King Philip of Spain.

Nicholas Shelby is a young physician, brought up in the rural calm of Suffolk but, in adulthood, trained in medicine. He has practised his skill among London’s poor but also in the battlefields of Flanders, dressing wounds, binding shattered limbs and offering comfort to the dying. During a dramatic episode in the service of Robert Cecil, the Queen’s spymaster, Shelby has courted death, and endured the trauma of being unable to prevent his wife and child both perishing in childbirth. He has survived a period of suicidal alcoholism and is now slowly putting his life back together in the company of Bianca Merton an Italian born apothecary and keeper of a boisterous tavern – The Jackdaw – on the southern shore of the River Thames.

The arrival of a Venetian ship on Bankside brings not only Bianca’s cousin Bruno Barrani but a violent encounter in The Jackdaw which leaves the Venetian near death with a terrible head wound. Shelby ministers to the grievously wounded Italian, but is then summoned to an unwelcome reunion with the saturnine and deeply dangerous Robert Cecil. Shelby is already aware that Samuel, the young son of his former military commander Sir Joshua Wylde is afflicted with The Falling Sickness (epilepsy) and is being tended in rural Gloucestershire by a controversial Swiss doctor, Arcampora. Shelby has already agreed to give Wylde a second opinion, but when Cecil offers him a large sum of money to do exactly the same thing, he welcomes the opportunity to both repay a favour and line his pockets.

With Shelby is away in Gloucestershire, Bianca discovers that her cousin has brought to England a coded message concealed in the lining of an elegant and expensive pair of gloves. Shelby returns with serious concerns about the welfare of Samuel, and when he and Bianca decode the mysterious message, they realise to their alarm that they have uncovered a plot to use a hitherto-unknown child of Mary Tudor to undermine the rule of Queen Elizabeth and return England to Catholicism.

SW-Perry-photo-1-2-300x482This is a riveting and convincing political thriller that just happens to be set in the sixteenth century. The smells and bells of Elizabethan England are captured in rich and sometime florid prose, while Nicholas and Bianca are perfect protagonists; she, passionate, instinctive and emotionally sensitive; he, brave, resourceful and honest, but with the true Englishman’s reluctance to seize the romantic moment when he should be squeezing it with all his might. SW Perry (right) has clearly done his history homework and he takes us on a fascinating tour through an Elizabethan physic garden, as well as letting us gaze in horror at some of the superstitious nonsense that passed for medicine five centuries ago.

Screen Shot 2019-05-29 at 21.06.14is a reference to the Rod of Asclepius, which was a staff around which a serpent entwined itself. This Greek symbol has always been associated with healing and medicine, existing even in our time as the badge of the Royal Army Medical Corps. SW Perry’s novel is published by Corvus and is out now.

 

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THE POSTMAN DELIVERS . . . Exit Day by David Laws

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As the row over Brexit gets worse and worse by the day, and outrage, offence, accusation and malice sweep like a remorseless bush fire across the country, I am reminded of a brilliant poem written in 1919 – and what a chilling centenary we may be about to see. WB Yeats wrote The Second Coming about the destructive nature of the movement for Irish self-rule. The first verse alone is worth repeating:

Turning and turning in the widening gyre   
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere   
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst   

Are full of passionate intensity.

 

david lawsThose last seven words kill, and journalist David Laws (left) has written a novel about the “passionate intensity” which sparks political assassination. The fateful day of Britain’s exit from the EU is dawning, and a vicious conspiracy is about to make all the previous months of political bickering seem like a garden party in comparison. Inadvertently, a journalist called Harry Topp has embedded himself at the heart of the plot, and he blunders on in search of a lifetime scoop, blissfully unaware of what is unfolding around him.

Laws is a seasoned press man himself, and so his account of the cynical world of newspaper journalism is vivid and authentic. We can only hope that this fascinating novel of what happens when ideals and passionate beliefs spur men and women into madness is just a work if entertaining fiction and not a prophecy. Exit Day is published by Matador, and will be out on 28th January.

 

Find out more about Exit Day on David Laws’ own website

 

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THE MOSUL LEGACY . . . Between the covers

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The Mosul Legacy
by Christopher Lowery
puts us firmly into the mid-teens of the 21st century. We have four narrative anchors. Ibrahim is a devout but deluded Muslim living in Koln, Germany. He is an Iraqi exile, his father has been killed while serving with ISIL, and he is determined to ‘do his bit’ to establish The Caliphate. Karl is a battle-hardened and indisputably brave ISIL soldier. He has seen his forces capture the ancient city of Mosul against tremendous odds, but now, courtesy of Western firepower, his men are about to be overwhelmed. Faqir-al-Douri is a restaurant owner in Mosul. He and his family are, unfortunately for them, Christians. He has traded food, accomodation and money with the ISIL conquerors. Their part of the bargain? They let him live. Max Kellerman is a German police officer with particular responsibility for preventing or – in the worst case, finding those responsible for – acts of terror.

Mosul009Lowery sets out his narrative stall with those four threads which will eventually weave together to powerful effect. Ibrahim, his puppet strings pulled from afar courtesy of the internet, plans a terrorist bomb attack which goes spectacularly wrong and he goes on the run. A revered and respected fighter, Karl, has to watch in frustration while his ISIL soldiers are outgunned and overwhelmed by coalition forces, and his position is undermined by over-promoted jobsworths in his own organisation. Faqir has finally had enough of living in the shell-torn morgue that Mosul has become, and gathers together his hard-earned savings and is determined to find a better life for his family. Battling German privacy laws which prevent him from publishing photos of his suspect, Kellerman presses on and is determined to bring his man to justice.

Understandably, the geographical action involving Faqir and Ibrahim darts about like a firefly, while the doomed Karl and the determined Kellerman, fight on their own ground, be it of their own choosing or not. Of course, the various strands of the book are fated to converge, but just how, when and where is not for me to reveal.

Christopher_Lowery-745x1024This is a big, sprawling novel – nearly 450 pages – but it is grimly readable. I say ‘grimly’ because it goes behind bland newspaper headlines and ten-second TV news video clips, to reveal the whole Iraq – Syria situation as the ruinous, depressing and insoluble shambles it has become. It would be impossible to write a novel like this with it being political, but I don’t think Lowery (right)  allows himself to become partisan. For sure, he pulls no punches in his scathing depiction of the social intolerance of many Muslim communities, and the genocidal fanaticism of ISIL which is as close to mental illness as makes no difference. He is, however, just as clear sighted in his scepticism about the real reasons why America and its allies – most pointedly Britain – became involved in Iraq in the first place.

Sometimes the ironies in the novel are cruel in the extreme, most pointedly as we watch the deluded zealot Ibrahim waltz through Europe unimpeded, thanks to the Schengen Agreement and his German passport, while Faqir and his family have to creep across borders at the dead of night, pay off unscrupulous traffickers at every turn, and suffer harrowing mental and physical torment caused, principally, by people such as Ibrahim and Karl.

Novels dealing with large scale political and military cruelty don’t have a duty to explain why men commit the evil deeds they do. Despite the brilliant writing of Philip Kerr in his Bernie Gunther novels I am no clearer now as to why Heydrich and Goebbels acted as they did. Lowery has written a deeply disturbing account of Islam’s revenge on ‘infidel’ Europe, but my understanding of the motives of his characters remains a blur. I can see that Karl does what he does because he believes ‘x’. Why does he believe ‘x’? Next question, please.

Sometimes, novels entertain in a transitory and peripheral sense. We enjoy the language, shiver at the thrills and bite our nails at the suspense, and then say to ourselves, “Well that was fun – thank goodness it’s only fiction.” This is a book which lies heavy on the soul, to be honest, because it takes no liberties with reality. We gaze into an abyss which has been created by our own governments, and has engulfed real people. Don’t read The Mosul Legacy as a holiday diversion or an imagined escape from whatever world enfolds you. This is now. This what we have created. The Mosul Legacy is published by Urbane Publications and will be available on 27th September.

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