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The Great War

ROBERT GOODING HENSON . . . A memory

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Robert Henson, the central character in J.M. Cobley’s A Hundred Years to Arras is not a fictional creation. He lived and breathed, but was just one of the estimated forty five thousand men to perish during the 1917 battle. He died of wounds, and is buried in Hervin Farm British Cemetery, St Laurent Blangy, on the outskirts of Arras. The Western Times reported his death on Wednesday 9th May 1917.

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There is no joy in this sad tale, but at least Robert Henson did not leave a widow – or children – back in Somerset. As Cobley’s book relates, Robert’s death plunged his father deeper into a spiral of drink and depression, and all his mother was left with was the War Gratuity – a paltry one pound eight shillings and fourpence, some mass produced medals, and what was sarcastically termed the “Dead Man’s Penny”, below. (This is not Robert’s actual Memorial Plaque, but an artist’s impression)

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s-l1600Robert’s regiment, The Somerset Light Infantry, has a distinguished history. It was founded in 1685 as part of King James II’s response to the Monmouth Rebellion. Under various titles it fought in every major conflict including the Napoleonic Wars, the Crimean War, the Afghan Wars and the Boer War until it was finally merged with other regiments to become The Light Infantry in 1968.

I am old enough to remember when living veterans of The Great War were numbered in their tens of thousands, and I grew up in a country still mourning its WW2 dead, but there was – and always will be – something different about the 1914-1919 war. Poet Vernon Scannell expressed this perfectly: (the full poem is here)

Whenever the November sky
Quivers with a bugle’s hoarse, sweet cry,
The reason darkens; in its evening gleam
Crosses and flares, tormented wire, grey earth
Splattered with crimson flowers,
And I remember,
Not the war I fought in
But the one called Great
Which ended in a sepia November
Four years before my birth.

Robert Henson’s name lives on. Not just in the poignant words of a modern novel, or carved on a headstone in a lonely French cemetery, but much closer to the place he called home, whose trees, streams, fields and cloudscapes shaped his upbringing. This simple plaque is on the wall of St John the Baptist church Skilgate.

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BASED ON THE BOOK BY . . . Paths of Glory (part two)

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HCHumphrey Cobb (left)  was born on 5th September 1899, in Siena, Italy. His mother was a doctor, and his father was an artist. He was sent to England for his early schooling, but then received his secondary education in America. After being expelled from high school in 1916, he decided to join the Canadian Army and was sent to Europe to fight. Remember that America did not join the war until 1917. He kept a war diary, and October 1917 has him at Shoreham Camp, in Sussex, as part of the 23rd Canadian Reserve battalion. January of 1918 has him near Hill 70, in front of Loos. He describes the death of a friend from his platoon.
“What happened to Young, no-one ever knew for sure. Some thought a Fritz potato masher had landed on his respirator and that it had exploded just as he was brushing it off. Evidence: face blown in and right hand blown off. “
He saw the war out, and after being stationed in post-war Cologne for a spell, he finally arrived back in Montreal on 31st May 1919.

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164644The years after The Great War saw Cobb involved in a variety of enterprises. He wrote Paths of Glory while working for Gallup, the advertising and polling company, and it was published in 1935 by The Viking Press. It is believed that Cobb took the core of his story from real events on the Marne front, where for Corporals from the 136th Regiment were executed after a failed attack on a German strong-point near Souain.

So how does the book stand when set alongside the film? Firstly, it has to be said that Cobb died in 1944, so any input from him was clearly impossible. Anecdote has it that Kubrick had read the book as a teenager, and had been deeply affected by it, but a chain of events led to the film screenplay differing in one essential element from the book. In the mid 1950s Kubrick was still an emerging talent as a director, and did not have the clout to persuade big studios to put up the money for an anti-war film, made in black and white. The crucial intervention came with the interest (and influence) of Kirk Douglas. The star clearly had to have a main part in the film, but who?

In the novel, Colonel Dax is a relatively peripheral figure who, reluctantly, goes along with the doomed plan to storm the German bastion which is, incidentally, called ‘The Pimple” in the novel. So, it was a bold stroke in one way for Kubrick to re-imagine Dax as the forthright and confrontational character whose personal bravery is never in doubt, and a man who just happens to have been a lawyer in civilian life. And who better to play Dax than the dimple-chinned Hollywood heart-throb Kirk Douglas?

Cobb focuses almost all of his attention in the novel on the three men who were executed, and on the various reasons why they came to be shot by their own comrades. The book has no pantomime villains, and certainly no one person who has the blood of the victims on his hands. The men die as a result of the inexorable grinding of the military machine and the numbing effect of battlefield casualty statistics. Men are reduced to numbers, compassion is subverted by casualty statistics, and procedure trumps initiative every time. As William Tecumseh Sherman may (or may not) have said, I tell you, war is Hell!

Screen Shot 2020-12-01 at 20.21.47There are places where Kubrick and his screenwriters – Calder Willingham and Jim Thompson – did stick close to the book. The first is with the three man patrol into No Man’s Land where the cowardly and drunken Lieutenant causes the death of one of the men, thus setting up the selection of the other to be one of the judicial victims. The film plays it pretty straight, too with the events immediately prior to the execution. The character of Private Ferol is played with characteristic bravura by Timothy Carey, (right) There is one crucial difference; in the book, Ferol is chosen because he he is anti-social and widely disliked for his unpleasant behaviour, and he continues to be sarcastic and foul-mouthed right up to the point where he is strapped to the execution post. In the film, however, the enormity of his fate finally overwhelms him, and he in the unforgettable procession from the chateau to the place of execution – a chilling via dolorosa – he is reduced to a weeping, stumbling figure, clutching the arm of the Padre.

The final confrontation between Dax and the general doesn’t happen in the book, neither does the powerful final scene where the soldiers in the estaminet boo and mock the captured German girl who is forced to sing to them, but then they are reduced first to silence, with some in tears, and then they join in with the simple old song she is singing. Outside, Dax has just been told that the regiment has been ordered to return to the Trenches, but he walks away, leaving his men to their brief hour of peace.

It is worth repeating that Cobb’s gaze is focused on the rigid mechanism of army life. It whirrs, ticks and chimes the hours with little regard for the human lives caught up in its cogs. He shapes this in many different ways, but never better than when he describes the efforts made to make sure the execution is done ‘properly’.

“Regimental Sergeant-Major Boulanger was there, busy, competent as regimental sergeant-majors always are, in the same way that head waiters are busy, competent, or seem to be so, if they are good head waiters.”

It is to Boulanger that Cobb gives the very last action, in the last paragraph of the book, where he is given the task of administering the coup de grace to the bodies slumped against their posts.

“It must be said of Boulanger that he had some instinct for the decency of things, for, when he came to Langlois, his first thought and act was to free him from the shocking and abject pose he was in before putting an end to any life that might be clinging to him. His first shot was, therefore, one that deftly cut the rope and let the body fall away from the post to the ground. The next shot went into a brain that was already dead.”

I think that Kubrick (below) takes the gist of the novel, and shaped it to his own ends, and in doing so created a magnificent piece of cinema. His anti-war message is different from Cobb’s, but was clearly something he felt very deeply. A decade or so later he was able to return to his theme in Dr Strangelove, but this time he used satire and the comedy of the absurd to make his point.

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BASED ON THE BOOK BY . . . Paths of Glory (Part One)

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Stanley Kubrick’s 1957 film The Paths of Glory was a limited success at the time – it just about broke even at the box office – and was initially highly controversial. It was banned in France for twenty years, and several other European countries refused to show it as a gesture of solidarity with France. It was also banned in all American military establishments. So, why the fuss?

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The film, based on a book by American writer Humphrey Cobb, focuses on a section of The Western Front in 1916 held by the French. Although it is never mentioned in the film, we assume that the action takes place around Verdun, the most costly single engagement in a war that chewed up men’s lives like a meat grinder. The 701st Regiment are ordered to attack an impregnable German position known as ‘The Anthill’. General Miraud, (George Macready, above) after initially protesting to his superior that the attack would be suicidal, changes his mind after being offered promotion.

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Colonel Dax (Kirk Douglas, above) is the officer who will lead the attack. He is dubious about the prospects, but obeys the order. The attack is an unmitigated disaster. German shellfire halts progress in No Man’s Land, while one company is unable even to leave the trench, such is the ferocity of the bombardment. In a rage, Miraud orders his artillery to fire on his own lines in order to force the men to attack.

Miraud feels that his own honour has been impugned, and, after removing the regiment out of the line to a chateau some miles away, orders that 100 of the surviving men be arrested and charged with cowardice. The scheming General Broulard ( Adolphe Menjou, below) suggests that just three men will be enough pour encourager les autres, and Dax is forced to ask three of his company commanders to select three sacrificial victims.

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Three men are chosen: Corporal Paris (Ralph Meeker) is selected because his superior officer, Lieutenant Roget, needs to silence him in case he exposes Roget’s cowardice. Private Arnaud’s name is simply drawn out of a hat, while Private Ferol (Timothy Carey) is a deeply unpleasant individual who, it seems, ‘has it coming’.

The three men are tried
in a mockery of a judicial process, despite an impassioned defence by Dax, who was a lawyer in civilian life. They are sentenced to death. Dax has one last card to play. He has a written testimony that Miraud has ordered gunfire down on his own men, but it is dismissed by Broulard. The men are duly executed, with one of them, Arnaud, strapped to a stretcher after being seriously injured in a fight with his guards.

Broulard and Miraud are enjoying a leisurely breakfast in luxurious surroundings, when Dax is invited to join them. He shares his information about Miraud’s order to shell his own trenches. Miraud is told that he will face and enquiry, and then storms out voicing a sense of betrayal. Broulard congratulates Dax on a very clever plan to secure his own promotion. Dax finally loses his temper at this interpretation of his motives and rages at his superior officer.

Back at the chateau, the surviving members of the 701st Regiment are in an estaminet, drunk and reckless. The proprietor pushes a young German girl onto the makeshift stage and forces her to sing. She hesitantly sings an old song. “Der treue Husar” (The Faithful Hussar). The men’s mockery turns to empathy and then grief, as they join in with the song. Outside, Dax has just been given the order that the 701st are to return to the front line with immediate effect.

In Part two of this feature, I will explore the differences between the book and the film, and attempt to understand what Cobb and Kubrick were trying to say about this tragic episode in European history.

WHEN I COME HOME AGAIN . . . Between the covers

WICHA bannerThe poet Vernon Scannell, himself a veteran of WW2 wrote a haunting poem he called The Great War. The closing lines are:

And now,
Whenever the November sky
Quivers with a bugle’s hoarse, sweet cry,
The reason darkens; in its evening gleam
Crosses and flares, tormented wire, grey earth
Splattered with crimson flowers,
And I remember,
Not the war I fought in
But the one called Great
Which ended in a sepia November
Four years before my birth.”

There is something about that war, something that echoes down the decades. Even now, when those who fought and survived are all long since dead, the conflict is seared into the national psyche. Caroline Scott is, like many of us who lack her grace and talent as a writer, gripped not so much by the military details, but by the colossal aftershock that continued to cause devastation long after the last shot was fired in November 1918.

WICHA coverIn her 2014 novel Those Measureless Fields she began her own personal exploration of what happened to the men and families who had to pick up the pieces of their lives after the Armistice. She followed this in 2019 with what was, for, me one of the books of the year, The Photographer Of The Lost (click to read my review), also known as The Poppy Wife. Now she returns to her theme with When I Come Home Again.

Just weeks after the Armistice, a filthy, dishevelled young man, wearing a tattered soldier’s uniform, is arrested by the police after causing minor damage to monuments in Durham cathedral. In custody, he refuses – or is unable – to give his name, or any other clue as to his identity. The police, thinking they may have a case of severe shell-shock on their hands, put him in the care of a young doctor, James Haworth. For want of any other name, they call him Adam Galilee.

Article006At a rehabilitation centre in the Lake District, Haworth tries to find the key that will unlock Adam’s memory. James and his boss, Alec Shepherd, take a bold decision. They release a photograph of Adam, and what little they know of him, to the national press. This triggers a wave of mothers, wives and sisters who yearn for the impossible – a virtual resurrection of their lost son, husband and brother. From the tragic queue of broken hearted souls, three women seem to be the most convincing. They are Celia Daker, who believes that Adam is her missing son, Robert, Anna Mason, a young wife who dares to dream that she is no longer a widow, and Lucy Vickers a sister who is now bringing up the children of her lost brother.

Haworth is a former soldier himself and is haunted by terrifying dreams of the horrors he experienced during the Battle of The Somme. As he tries to come to terms with the hopes of the three women who believe that Adam is theirs, his own mental health – and with it his marriage – begin to shatter.

I’ll be quite frank here. This is not an easy read. I’ll say that the bleakest and most harrowing novel I have ever read is Thomas Hardy’s Jude The Obscure. If I give that a 10 for heartbreak, then When I Come Home Again is a nailed-on 9. It is, however, haunting and beautifully written and works on so many different levels. In her descriptions of how Adam reacts to the intricacies of the natural world around him, Caroline Scott is surely channelling her inner John Clare, or perhaps remembering Matthew Arnold:

“Through the thick corn the scarlet poppies peep,
And round green roots and yellowing stalks I see
Pale pink convolvulus in tendrils creep;
And air-swept lindens yield
Their scent, and rustle down their perfumed showers
Of bloom on the bent grass where I am laid.”
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As the book builds towards its conclusion, there is the terrible irony of Adam’s palpable fear of returning to his old life – wherever that was – as he retreats more and more into the solace of rebuilding the ruined and neglected walled garden at Fellside House. As for the women who long for Adam to be their son, brother and husband, we fear that they are fated to lose their men twice over, thus doubling the pain. There is dramatic catharsis still to come, and an act of irony worthy of the aforementioned Thomas Hardy. Life must go on, however, and in Adam’s restored garden, perhaps Caroline Scott has created a metaphor for regeneration. There is deep, deep sadness at the very heart and soul of this book but, like the blossom on the damson trees of Fellside Hall, this fine novel leaves us, to borrow Milton, “calm of mind all passion spent.” and with a sense that renewal might – just might – be possible.

When I Come Home Again is published by Simon & Schuster and will be available from 29th October.

THE NOVELISTS WHO WENT TO WAR 3

This is a series of four podcasts about novelists who saw action in various wars. Some were already published authors, while others were young men whose literary careers blossomed in later years.

PART THREE – THE GREAT WAR

Click on the image below. This will take you to my Soundcloud page where you can listen to the podcast.

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Part three of the series – WORLD WAR TWO

 will go live on Thursday 21st May

THE PHOTOGRAPHER OF THE LOST . . . Between the covers

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Occasionally I review a novel which lies outside the crime fiction genre, but within my own field of interest. Such a book is The Photographer of The Lost by Caroline Scott. It is centred on the events of 1914-18 but, more particularly, their aftermath. Picture a Britain where over 800,000 fathers, brothers, husbands and sons have been killed. The vast majority of those – if they have a known grave – are buried far from home. Sometimes the only things relatives have left are the initial fatal letter from the authorities, a mass-produced scroll of honour ‘signed’ by the King on behalf of a grateful nation and probably a Death Penny – a large copper disc bearing a picture of Britannia and inscribed with the name of the deceased.

DEATH PENNY

TPOTL coverIt is 1921. In Britain, dignified war memorials, paid for by public subscription, are beginning to be dedicated. In France and Belgium most cities and towns within artillery range of the Old Front Line stand in ruins, while villages are usually reduced to random piles of shattered bricks. The dead are everywhere. In places where the living have yet to re-establish themselves there are crosses. Thousands upon thousands of simple wooden crosses, distinguished one from the other with a basic aluminium strip, letters stamped on it and pinned to the wood. A former officer, now a worker for what would become the Commonwealth War Graves Commission explains his mission:

“There are going to be cemeteries with white grave markers – gardens of sleep – real English gardens. There will be wallflowers and forget-me-nots and pansies and bible words cut in stone. They’ll be places that their families can visit and hopefully find some comfort. I was meant to bring their boys home; this is the best alternative that I’m able to offer.”

Harry Blythe makes his living meeting a macabre but necessary demand. He travels the shattered countryside, on commission from relatives, taking photographs of the crosses, or the places of which dead men spoke in their letters home. There were three Blythe brothers, Will, Harry and Francis. Only Harry has survived the conflict. As in other silent houses across the country, mothers did what mothers always do – adjust and try to get on with things:

“In the weeks after Will’s death, Margaret Blythe had cleaned out his room, boxing up her son’s books, birds’ eggs and football boots ….. everything of Will had moved up into the attic.”

The story hinges on Harry and Francis’s widow Edie. Edie has received an envelope in which is photograph of Francis. No words. No explanation. No sender. The postmark is smudged beyond interpretation. She and Harry have, in the years since Francis was reported missing in action, exhausted themselves interrogating an overwhelmed bureaucracy in a vain attempt to locate a grave.

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“Most of the burials here have no names, he sees. These men have all been swallowed up by the earth, their identities gone, along with their futures. Thy have lost their bones, their blood, and the name that bound it all together and made them into that particular man.”

Harry and Edie travel to The Old Front Line independently, but their paths converge. There is a painful frisson running through the narrative because Harry is – and probably always was – deeply in love with Edie, and in one of their last conversations, fuelled by whisky and within the sound of the guns, Francis bitterly confronts his brother with the prospect of Edie being a fraternal legacy after his own death.

By 1921, pilgrimages to The Old Front Line have become big business. Visitors are everywhere, armed with commercially printed guide books; some search for graves, others visit their old haunts. Caroline Scott lets us shadow Harry and Edie on their heartbreaking journey from the Houthulst Forest and Ypres in the north, via Arras and down further south to the point where the French manned the front line trenches of a line that ran from the Belgian coast to Switzerland.

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Ironically, the answer to the mystery of Francis and the anonymous letter is revealed not on Flanders Fields but far away in the dusty south, in a sun kissed village physically untouched by the carnage, but with a brand new memorial to its missing sons waiting to be unveiled.

Wilfred Owen wrote, concerning his work, “The Poetry is in the pity.” Caroline Scott echoes this message. Such was the disconnect between life in the trenches and home that, for many men, returning on leave was not the joyous temporary reprieve from hell that we might imagine:

“How could she admit to anyone how difficult she had found it to be with him? That she didn’t know how to speak to him? That she felt some relief when the week ended and he went back? How can she tell anyone how she opened all the windows after he went, and scrubbed the floors, and boiled the bed sheets?”

The power and poignancy of this novel will cause it to be spoken of alongside such classics as Covenant With Death, the Regeneration Trilogy and Birdsong. It is available now, and published by Simon & Schuster.

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THE ROOKS DIE SCREAMING . . . Between the covers

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T redhe dramatic events of The Rooks Die Screaming take place in the spring of 1921 in the Cornish market town of Bodmin. The bare bones of the story are that Detective Inspector Cyril Edwards of Scotland Yard has come to Bodmin to investigate murder and treachery involving a group of spies known as The Four Rooks. This book is a sequel to The Woman With The Red Hair, and to say there is a back-story is something of an understatement. The eponymous young woman is called Morag and, amongst other things, is Edwards’ sister-in-law. Elisha Edwards was one of the millions of unfortunates taken by an agent even deadlier than high explosives and machine gun bullets – Spanish Influenza.

The-Rooks-Die-Screaming smallerMorag is now Lady Frobisher. Her husband Harry, heir to The Fobisher Estate on the outskirts of Bodmin, is blind, victim of a grenade in the Flanders trenches. In the previous novel, Frobisher Hall was the scene of great torment for Morag, as she fell into the clutches of Morgan Treaves, an insane asylum keeper and his evil nurse. Treaves has disappeared after being disfigured with a broken bottle, wielded my Morag in a life or death struggle.

If you are picking up a sense that this novel has something of a Gothick tinge (note the ‘k’) you will not be far wrong. It is high melodrama for much of the way; secret tunnels; a sinister woman in the woods who, guarded by a lumbering giant mute forever silenced by the horrors he witnessed in the war, mixes deadly potions; a cottage where a sensitive soul can still hear the ghostly creaking of the former occupant’s body swinging from her suicide beam; a woman who, in falling prey to her own desires, has two terrible deaths forever on her conscience.

Clive-TuckettThat said, The Rooks Die Screaming is inspired escapist reading. It would be unfair to say that Tuckett (right) writes in an anachronistic style. This is much, much better than pastiche, even though there are elements of Conan Doyle, the Golden Age, John Buchan and even touches of Sapper and MR James. So, eventually, to the plot, but we need to know a little more about Cyril Edwards. Like many a fictional detective inspector he is his own man. In another nice cultural reference Tuckett adds a touch of Charters and Caldicott as Edwards explains to the bumptious Standish, a mysterious officer from Military Intelligence;

“‘I love cricket …. When I’m not turning down invitations to join dubious organisations, and thumping arrogant members of the royal family, I love nothing more than to relax at Lord’s and watch a game of cricket.’

Edwards stretched and picked up his Fedora hat, thinking of getting up and walking out of the room.

” I’m hoping to see the Second Test at Lord’s next month against Australia.”‘

S redtandish orders Edwards to investigate the possibility that Harry Frobisher is one of the Rooks, but one who has betrayed his country. Arriving in Bodmin his first task is to explain to the local police how a corpse found on a train is that of a notorious London contract killer. Tuckett’s Bodmin is full of stock characters, including a stolid police sergeant, an apparently tremulous clergyman and a punctilious but respected solicitor who is privy to all the secrets of the local gentry, but is oh, so discreet. To add to the fun, Frobisher Hall also has its requisite roll call of faithful retainers.

The secret of The Four Rooks is eventually revealed, but not before the author throws a few red herrings onto the table. I could probably have done without the finer details of Lady Morag’s marriage bed, and some tighter proof-reading coupled with a more enticing cover would have done wonders for the book. That said, I enjoyed every page and I hope Clive Tuckett has another Inspector Edwards case up his sleeve, especially if it involves the redoubtable Morag Frobisher.

The Rooks Die Screaming is published by The Book Guild and is available now.

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THE WHITE FEATHER KILLER . . . Between the covers

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TWFK coverI’m a great fan of historical crime fiction, particularly if it is set in the 19th or 20th centuries, but I will be the first to admit that most such novels tend not to veer towards what I call The Dark Side. Perhaps it’s the necessary wealth of period detail which gets in the way, and while some writers revel in the more lurid aspects of poverty, punishment and general mortality, the genre is usually a long way from noir. That’s absolutely fine. Many noir enthusiasts (noiristes, perhaps?) avoid historical crime in the same way that lovers of a good period yarn aren’t drawn to existential world of shadows cast by flickering neon signs on wet pavements. The latest novel from RN Morris, The White Feather Killer is an exception to my sweeping generalisation, as it is as uncomfortable and haunting a tale as I have read for some time.

If Morris were to have a specialised subject on Mastermind, it might well be London Crime In 1914, as the previous books in the DI Silas Quinn series, Summon Up The Blood (2012), Mannequin House (2013), Dark Palace (2014) and The Red Hand Of Fury (2018) are all set in that fateful year. Silas Quinn, like many of the best fictional coppers, is something of an oddball. While not completely misanthropic, he prefers his own company; his personal family life is tainted with tragedy; he favours the cerebral, evidence-based approach to solving crimes rather than the knuckle-duster world of forced confessions favoured by his Scotland Yard colleagues.

London – like the rest of Britain in the late summer of 1914 – is convulsed with a mixture of outrage, mad optimism and a sense of the old world being overturned. There is the glaring paradox of the first BEF casualties from Mons and Le Cateau being smuggled into the capital’s hospitals on bloodstained stretchers while, the length and breadth of the city, young men are jostling and queuing around the block in a testosterone fuelled display of patriotism, with their only anxiety being the worry that it will all be over before they can ‘do their bit’.

Morris takes his time before giving us a dead body, but his drama has some intriguing characters. We met Felix Simpkins, such a mother’s boy that, were he to be realised on the screen, we would have to resurrect Anthony Perkins for the job. His mother is not embalmed in the apple cellar, but an embittered and waspish German widow, a failed concert pianist, a failed wife, and a failed pretty much everything else except in the dubious skill of humiliating her hapless son. Central to the grim narrative is the Cardew family. Baptist Pastor Clement Cardew is the head of the family; his wife Esme knows her place, but his twin children Adam and Eve have a pivotal role in what unfolds. The trope of the hypocritical and venal clergyman is well-worn but still powerful; when we realise the depth of Cardew’s descent into darkness, it is truly chilling.

rogerHistorical novels come and go, and all too many are over-reliant on competent research and authentic period detail, but Morris (right) plays his ace with his brilliant and evocative use of language. Here, Quinn watches, bemused, as a company of army cyclists spin past him:

“The whole thing had the air of an outing. It did not seem like men preparing for war. The soldiers on their bicycles struck Quinn as unspeakably vulnerable. Their jauntiness as they sped along had a hollow ring to it, as if each man knew he was heading towards death but had sworn not to tell his fellows.”

Quinn has to pursue his enquiries in one of the quieter London suburbs, and makes this wry observation of the world of Mr Pooter – quaintly comic, but about to be shattered by events:

“Elsewhere, in the bigger, flashier houses, the rich and servanted classes might indulge in their racy pastimes and let their jealous passions run wild. Here the worst that could be imagined of one’s neighbours was the coveting of another man’s gardenias, or perhaps going hatless on a Sunday afternoon.”

The White Feather Killer is published by Severn House, and is available now. Let Morris have the last word, though, and he takes us back to that autumn when, after those heady weeks when everything seemed possible, innocence finally died.

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HARDCASTLE’S QUANDARY . . . Between the covers

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London, 1927, and Divisional Detective Inspector Ernest Hardcastle is summoned to the office of Chief Constable Frederick Wensley[1], who has received a letter from a Norfolk parson. The Rev. Percy Stoner is convinced that his nephew Guy has met with misfortune. The former army Captain has disappeared, and when Hardcastle despatches men to visit the business young Stoner had set up with another Great War veteran, they make a chilling discovery.

Hardcastle himself was too old to serve in the war, but for his younger colleagues who knew the Western Front, body parts hold few terrors. The human remains found in the burnt-out premises in Surrey are examined by none other than Sir Bernard Spilsbury[2] and his findings complicate Hardcastle’s case. Is the first body that of Guy Stoner, or is it that of his business partner? And who was the young woman whose butchered remains shared the same ignominious burial place?

HQForced to play cherchez-la-femme, the detectives stumble down one blind alley after another, but as they do so they learn a few home truths about the fate of the young men who went to fight in the war-to-end-all-wars, and returned home to find that their birthplace was not the ‘land fit for heroes’ glibly promised by politicians. There is a peacetime army with no place for young officers whose courage was welcome in the trenches, but whose humble upbringing is now seen as an embarrassment as the cigars are lit, and the port passed in the correct direction at mess dinners. Such young men, not all heroes, but men nevertheless, are forced to find civilian employment which is neither honest, decent nor lawful.

Eventually, after an investigation which takes the detectives on many a trip into the provinces and away from their metropolitan stamping grounds, the case is solved, and there is work for the hangman to do, but not before an intervention by the Home Secretary.

GIGraham Ison is a master story-teller. The Hardcastle books contain no literary flourishes or stylistic tricks – just credible characters, excellent period detail and an engaging plot. Cosy? Perhaps, in the sense that we know how Hardcastle and his officers are going to react to any given situation, and their habits and small prejudices remain unchanged. Comfortable? Only because novels don’t always need to shock or challenge; neither do they always benefit from graphic descriptions of the damage humans can sometimes inflict on one another. Ison (right) credits his readers with having imaginations; he never gilded the lily of English life in the earlier Hardcastle cases which took place during The Great War, and he doesn’t start now, nearly a decade after the final shots were fired. The suffering and trauma of those four terrible years didn’t end at the eleventh hour on that eleventh day; they cast a long and sometimes baleful shadow which frames much of the action of this novel.

Hardcastle’s Quandary is a great read. As well as being a fascinating period police procedural, it is a gently reflective but sharply observant look at England in the 1920s. We sense that Hardcastle, deeply conservative and instinctively opposed to the steady advance of technology, has entered his autumn period. Colleagues like Marriott and Catto tolerate his idiosyncrasies and work around the fact that he sometimes appears to be a creature from a bygone age, preserved in his own block of amber. Hardcastle’s quandary? That is for the reader to judge, and it may only be resolved in the final pages. The novel is published by Severn House and is available here.

[1] Frederick Porter Wensley OBE KPM (28 March 1865 – 4 December 1949) was a British police officer from 1888 until 1929, reaching the rank of chief constable of the Scotland Yard Criminal Investigation Department. Serving in Whitechapel for part of his career, Wensley was involved in the investigation of the Jack the Ripper murders, details of which he would later publish in his memoirs in 1931.

[2] Sir Bernard Henry Spilsbury (16 May 1877 – 17 December 1947) was a British pathologist. His cases include Hawley Harvey Crippen and the “Brides in the Bath” murders by George Joseph Smith,. Spilsbury’s courtroom appearances became legendary for his demeanour of effortless dominance.

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