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Friday 21 June 2024

SECRETS OF MALTA - Book review

 


Cecily Blench’s second historical novel Secrets of Malta was published in 2024. It is set in 1943, primarily in Malta but also in London, Tunisia and Egypt; there are flashbacks to Syria in 1926.

The dreadful plague of air-raids on Malta has lessened by now.

As the title suggests, the story involves intelligence activities of the Allies against the Axis forces. Dennis Pratchett is sent to Malta to root out a suspected mole in the intelligence community of Malta. ‘Chap called Morton runs our networks in North Africa and he’s got several operatives who go back and forth’ (p20). Pratchett’s senior, Sir Harold informs him the suspected agent was active in the last war and used the code-name Nero; and the man was believed to be responsible for a couple of murders in Europe before the war. The presence of Nero in Malta at this critical time is most serious – for reasons that will be explained in the book much later...

Margarita is a cabaret singer in Valletta; she has just ended an affair with Henry Dunn. Mrs Vera Dunn accosts Margarita in the night club and reveals that Henry has gone missing. There is no animosity between them; indeed, they seem sympathetic towards each other.

In 1926 Vera was one of four young archaeology students working on a dig in Syria for Professor Curzon. The relevance of these flashbacks only becomes significant as the book progresses.

Now, Margarita is courting a submarine officer, Arthur. Several submarines are involved in covert missions, landing spies in Tunisia, which was recently occupied by Axis forces.

The two women conduct their own investigations, and secrets are revealed...

Vera is a pragmatist: ‘Nothing does more to stimulate one’s sex drive than a war’ (p131).

The author has captured the period and the situation both in Malta, Tunisia and in Syria. Her characters provoke interest throughout. There were some clever misdirections, too; which only seems appropriate in a book about spying and deception!

Perhaps more could have been made of the awful destruction from the almost continuous bombing of 1942, and the stoic response of the inhabitants; but that’s a minor quibble.

I kept turning the pages; it was a quick read, made enjoyable because the setting was familiar.

Editorial comments:

‘Arthur had complained that Malta had no beaches, but Margarita had taken him to one of her swimming spots, where they swam off warm rocks...’ (p59). I’ve heard this nonsense before. There are plenty of sandy beaches on Malta!

There are a lot of ‘sighs’ and ‘sighing heavily’ – which do not detract from the reading pleasure; but perhaps the editor could have addressed some of them.

‘Her eyes brushed past and then returned to settle on him’ (p366). To avoid the surreal image, it would read better if ‘gaze’ was used instead of ‘eyes’!

Thursday 20 June 2024

NOBODY TRUE - Book review


James Herbert’s 2003 novel Nobody True is another excursion into ‘life after death’ with a similar dark tone to his earlier book, Others (1999).

It begins intriguingly with the sentence ‘I wasn’t there when I died’ – which echoes his epigraph at the front of the book: ‘It’s not that I’m afraid to die. It’s just that I don’t want to be there when it happens – Woody Allen’.

As he grows up the narrator, James True, realises that he can induce an ‘out-of-body experience’. This is akin to remote viewing. Apparently, he was absent from his body when he was murdered in a hotel. He now finds himself a floating soul, able to fly and view but not able to touch or feel anything in a physical sense.

His back-story is interesting. He studied graphic art and went into advertising. In one of several footnotes he mentions those adverts which are so clever yet the brand name goes unnoticed. Herbert was writing from experience as he studied at Hornsey College of Art and went into advertising.  Eventually, True starts his own agency with his friend Oliver and marries Oliver’s ex-girlfriend Andrea, and they have a daughter Primrose. The firm and their marriage seem successful.

After about seven years of marriage, the city is alarmed by a vicious serial killer who, when we encounter him, proves quite terrifying. The killer is blamed for James True’s murder, apparently.

True has to take time to adjust to his new life as an invisible non-physical entity. Gradually, he gets on the trail of the killer. Along the way in this page-turning book there are many twists and turns, littered with broken trust, guilt and greed.

Herbert brings to the fore much of his esoteric knowledge about the supernatural, including Kirlian auras. Long before the end, James True is belaboured with dreadful and hurtful revelations, to the point where he asks, ‘Was nobody true to me?’ (p482).

Classic Herbert and with an ending as poignant yet strangely as uplifting as that of Others.

Editorial comment:

‘Andrea kept her voice low, only the gravity of its tone reaching Prim and I on the sofa’ (p158). Of course that should read ‘Prim and me’.

Wednesday 19 June 2024

AFTER THE ACT - Book review

 


Winston Graham’s suspense novel After the Act was published in 1965.

Playwright Morris Scott has been married for seven years to Harriet, a rich older woman, his muse, who suffers from ill health. Over those years she supported and encouraged him: ‘You ought to be relentless, Morris. Relentless to writing it down. Once the bones are there you can drape them and undrape them at will’ (p63) And now he is successful and planning for one of his plays to appear in Paris.

It had not been planned. ‘I was a man going to meet a girl, surrounded only by the anticipation, tautened like a bow-string with pleasure’ (p17). Inevitably, he has an affair with Alexandra Wilshere, a secretary to a rich couple in France. Passion, obsession... ‘We walked on the quay and walked together through the little town, which was murmurous with people. Cars probed the narrow streets like medical isotopes in a bloodstream...’ (p67)

A budding writer could learn from some of Morris’s observations:

‘Half of writing is gestation’ (p26).

‘You have to be tough to reach the top in any profession these days. Stamina’s an essential part of genius, whether you’re a four-minute miler or a composer of symphonies’ (p27).

‘How easy it is for a writer to lie, the inventions spring to his lips’ (p47).

The suspense deepens when Harriet falls to her death from a Paris hotel balcony. Was it an accident, or murder, or carelessness? ‘We all make mistakes; the error is in trying to hide them’ (p197). That phrase could well be the epitaph of many a politician’s career! The fact is that now Morris is free to wed Alexandra. If his conscience will permit it. ‘To be honest around a central lie is like building a house with the foundations unlevel’ (p135).

Graham the craftsman has delved into life, death and guilt. ‘The sun set. Dusk crept in like the beginning of death’ (p191).

Editorial note:

‘a passionate unsophisticated fumbling in the dark... among the heather and the bickering cicadas’ (p75). Long ago I was corrected: cicadas make their noise in the hot day, crickets make their noise at night, and this seems borne out by my time in Spain.

Tuesday 18 June 2024

TO HAVE AND TO HOLD - Book review

 


Mary Johnston’s classic novel To Have and To Hold about love and intrigue in seventeenth century Virginia was published in 1899.

Beginning in 1621, it’s a first-person narrative by Captain Ralph Percy; his cousin is the Lord of Northumberland (which happens to be my home county, where I now live!)

Johnston’s prose is of its time, naturally, but easy to read, and her descriptions are excellent, such as that for preacher, Jeremy Sparrow, a giant of a man: ‘his face, which was of a cast most martial, flashed into a smile, like sunshine on a scarred cliff’ (p16). Another example: ‘Each twig had its row of diamonds, and the wet leaves we pushed aside spilled gems upon us. The horses set their hoofs daintily upon fern and moss and lush grass. In the purple distances deer stood at gaze, the air rang with innumerable bird notes, clear and sweet, squirrels chattered, bees hummed, and through the thick leafy roof of the forest the sun showered gold dust’ (p48).

A ship from England has brought a number of women for betrothal to boost the numbers in Jamestown; the usual purchase price is a quantity of tobacco, to pay for the passage. Ralph Percy is not particularly keen but finds himself defending the honour of one of the women and then determines to wed her there and then. Her name is Jocelyn. Impulse purchase, perhaps.

Later he learns that she is Lady Jocelyn Leigh and was a ward of the King. But when she learned she was to be betrothed to Lord Carnal, the sovereign’s favourite, she fled the Court and embarked on the ship destined for Jamestown, one among the many women.

Nearby are friendly Indians, including the Powhatans and the Paspaheghs. ‘The Indian listened; then said, in that voice that always made me think of some cold, still, bottomless pool lying black beneath overhanging rocks...’ (p123). Yet the friendship is strained...

Yet Lord Carnal soon arrives in the settlement, hell-bent on taking Jocelyn back to England with him. He is a man who gets what he wants, even if it means killing.

There is suspense – when Lord Carnal attempts to drug Ralph – and humour with the irrepressible Preacher Sparrow. Johnston is sympathetic to the Indians, too: ‘Why did you come? Long ago, when there were none but dark men from the Chesapeake to the hunting grounds beneath the sunset, we were happy. Why did you leave your own land, in strange black ships with sails like the piled-up clouds of summer? Was it not a good land? Were not your forests broad and green, your fields fruitful, your rivers deep and filled with fish? Ill gifts have you brought us, evil have you wrought us’ (p336). And there is fighting and action aplenty, and a piratical interlude as well. Betrayal, love, humour and honour – all are here. And some of the action actually occurred – a slice of history.

Despite its age, To Have and To Hold this remarkable book of adventure is a page-turner and can rank up there with the novels of James Fennimore Cooper.

Johnston died in 1936, aged 65. The book has been adapted for film three times, most recently in 2014 featuring Aiden Turner.

Thursday 23 May 2024

MAIGRET AND THE IDLE BURGLAR - Book review

 


Georges Simenon’s Maigret and the Idle Burglar was published in 1961 and translated in 1963 from Maigret and the Lazy Burglar.

It’s winter in Paris. Maigret has been called out to a murder and his wife advises him to ‘dress up warmly. It’s freezing hard’. Simenon captures the scene with a few pen-strokes: ‘Drawing back the curtain, he saw frost-flowers on the window. The street lamps had the special brightness that only comes with intense cold, and along the Boulevard Richard-Lenoir there was not a soul to be seen or a sound to be head – just one lighted window, in the house opposite; must be someone ill there’ (p3).

The call-out is unofficial as this is Inspector Fumel’s case.

Fumel’s marriage is on the rocks and he has a mistress. He ‘always had a soft spot for women, in spite of all the trouble they had brought him’ (p114)

Maigret is still fuming about how the Ministry of the Interior organisation has changed – ‘the whole bunch of college-educated law-givers who had taken it into their heads to run the world according to their own little ideas’ (p3).

The face of the dead man was bludgeoned. However, Maigret recognises a tattoo. Eventually, the man is identified as a burglar who Maigret had interviewed on several times. Maigret’s superiors are eager to dismiss the killing as an underworld vendetta, something the police should not concern themselves with: ‘Let ’em kill one another, down to the last man. That’ll save the hangman trouble and the taxpayers money’ (p52). Besides, it was not his case. They were more anxious that he track down the perpetrators of several post office robberies.

As usual, there are a number of fine turns of phrase from Simenon; here’s one: ‘Typewriters clicked like falling hailstones’ (p105).

While leading his team to track down the robbers, Maigret also spends time on finding out who was responsible for killing the burglar. In his investigations he meets a number of interesting characters, all sympathetically described.

Editorial comment:

Maybe changed in translation, but I thought that capital punishment in France at the time was not by hanging but by guillotine (two were executed by this method in 1961). The death penalty was abolished in 1981, ratified in 2007.

Monday 20 May 2024

ON WINGS OF SONG - Book review

 


A strange book, this. Critically acclaimed yet a commercial failure, Thomas M Disch’s science fiction novel On Wings of Song won the 1980 John W Campbell memorial Award. It was published in 1979.

The first part relates Daniel Weinreb’s childhood in twenty-first century town of Amesville in Iowa, whose strict Christian Right regime of the Undergoders prohibits almost all music. ‘Why were people like that so bent on patrolling people’s most private thoughts?’ (p111).

With a friend he sneaked away and crossed the border to watch a musical movie. ‘This, then, was what it was all about. This, when it issued from within you, was the liberating power that all other powers feared and wished to extirpate: song. It seemed to Daniel that he could feel the music in the most secret recesses of his body, an ethereal surgeon that would rip his soul free from its crippling flesh’ (p31).

Daniel’s world changes when his minor rebellion – in the form of circulating a radical newspaper – condemns him to the local prison at Spirit Lake. He is fourteen. While here, he hears prisoners play music. ‘... there seemed to be this difference between the language of music and the language of words: it didn’t seem possible, in the language of music, to lie’ (p52). The prison is without bars – for each prisoner carries an electrically controlled explosive in his stomach (after a fashion, pre-empting the Rutger Hauer 1991 movie Wedlock).

Daniel, like many people, is aware that with the help of special apparatus providing some kind of feedback, the users can fly when they sing. In essence, the singer’s body stays fixed to the apparatus but the ‘soul’ – or referred to as the ‘fairy’ – floats away, something like remote viewing which was postulated and seemingly adopted by Ingo Swann in the early 1970s.  Daniel is captivated by this idea and is determined to learn to sing and then to fly...

Released from prison, he becomes friendly with Boadicea, the daughter of local tycoon Grandison Whiting, usually referred to as Boa. Inevitably, they fall in love. ‘... and felt himself to be, with her, ineffably, part of a single process that began in that faraway furnace that burned atoms into energy... the moment when he had felt needles of light piercing his and Boa’s separate flesh, knitting their bodies like two threads into the intricate skein of that summer’s profusions’ (p152).

National shortages – due to many factors including terrorism – affected the people in New York and elsewhere. Chris Moor's cover illustration depicts the decadent milieu Daniel is embroiled in. There’s a poignant episode where a body builder cannot obtain his proteins either legally or on the black market: as his muscles waste, he deteriorates and ‘he blew out his brains’ (p241).

A great deal of musical knowledge is displayed, notably operas. Eventually, Daniel does learn to sing. Bearing in mind that some aspects of the novel can be construed as a bitter satire, the ending is probably apt, though I didn’t like it.

As may be gleaned from the above quotations, Disch was also a poet. The writing is very good. Sadly, Disch suffered depression after the death of his life-partner Charles Naylor and about three years, in his New York apartment, later he shot himself. He was 68.

Editorial note:

‘The table was set and everyone was watching a panel discussion about the new fertilizers in the living room’ (p139). Presumably there were no fertilizers in the living room. This should read: ‘The table was set in the living room and everyone was watching a panel discussion about the new fertilizers’.

Friday 17 May 2024

ONE MORE SUNDAY - Book review

 

John D. MacDonald wrote many standalone novels, besides twenty-one books in his popular Travis McGee series. One More Sunday is one of them. Published in 1984, it concerns the Church of the Eternal Believer – a big fundamentalist business using all the tricks of the religious trade.

Reverend John Tinker Meadows is the leader now; Matthew, the founder, his father, is in the throes of dementia. ‘But the face was like a castle where once a king had lived, a castle proud and impregnable. But the king had left, the pennons were rags, the gates open, moat dry, and an old wind sighed through the empty corridors’ (p56). Alongside John is his sister Mary Margaret, strong and devout.

The New York Times considered the book ‘highly topical and controversial’. John’s sermon at the outset probably justifies that comment: ‘Once upon a time our nation was great. Now we sag into despair. The climate changes, the acid rains fall, the great floods and droughts impoverish millions, taking the savings of those who thought they could be provident in these times. We see all our silent factories, all the stacks without smoke, like monuments to a civilization past. Selfish owners refused to spend for modernization. Selfish unions struck for the highest wages in the world. We see rapist and murderers and armed robbers turned loose after a short exposure to that prison environment which gratifies all their hungers and teaches them new criminal arts. We see an endless tide of blacks and Hispanics entering our green land illegally, taking the bread out of the mouths of those few of us still willing to do hard manual labour’ (P11) – and so on...

Ray Owen is an investment broker taking leave from his work. He is trying to find his missing wife, Lindy, who had been writing an article on the Church of the Eternal Believer for her New York magazine Out Front.

Glinda Lopez works for the Church, using a voice synthesiser, imitating Matthew Meadows, and telephones Church members delinquent in their tithes.

Joe Deets is a computer nerd – and clever. He has programmed the computers to cream off some funds donated to the Church. He is also a sexual predator of young women. ‘There was a beast in a cage in the back of his mind, in the shadows, pacing tirelessly to and fro, showing only the glint of a savage eyeball, the shine of a predator’s fang’ (p43). He was presently indulging himself with Doreen, one of the Church’s ‘Angels’.

The Meadows family lives well, travels first class, and have their own jet planes. All thanks to the generous donations.

Within these pages you’ll find hypocrisy, greed, pathos, anger, murder, redemption and hope.

MacDonald masterfully presents a fairly large cast of characters, all individual, each with their own past and failings, their hopes and dreams.

Not much has changed in the last forty years since this was written.

Sunday 5 May 2024

SOLO by Jack Higgins - Book review


Solo
, by Jack Higgins, was published in 1980 and even at this distance in time is still a good page-turner thriller.

An intriguing concept: an internationally renowned concert pianist who also happens to be a hired assassin. Mikali showed promise as a pianist when young, but didn’t seem fulfilled, so, as you do, he decided to join the French Foreign Legion. In this elite fighting force he found a purpose – and learned to kill. After being invalided out, he took up the piano again and was soon popular – not only with audiences but with women. Yet women did not provide the excitement he gleaned from killing. He hooked up with an unsavoury lawyer who guided him towards his first targets – men who deserved to die. However, as time passed, not all those he killed were villains or deserving.

Asa Morgan was a killer, too, though officially sanctioned in the British armed forces, and sometimes working for the British Secret Intelligence Service (DI5). And then Asa’s daughter is killed by a hit-and-run driver who was fleeing a professional hit.

Inevitably, Morgan’s search brought him to the paradox that was Mikali. 

We meet one of Higgins’s regular characters, Brigadier Charles Ferguson, manipulator of men and women, director of DI5.

And of course there’s a female complication: Dr Katherine Riley, a psychologist, who has become infatuated by Mikali and is also, strangely, attracted to Morgan. There will be a confrontation and a reckoning...

I don’t know why Higgins insists on referring to MI5 as DI5 in his books. Maybe he wants the fictional department to be part MI5 and part MI6 (respectively national and international espionage). 

Saturday 4 May 2024

MAIGRET IN COURT - Book review


Georges Simenon’s Maigret in Court was published in 1960 (translated 1965).

Chief Inspector Maigret, 55, is attending court to give evidence. A woman and her child were brutally murdered in their flat. The accused is the victim’s nephew, a quiet picture-framer, Gaston Meurant. He is fortunate to be appearing before Judge Xavier Bernerie, ‘the most scrupulous and the most passionate seeker of the truth. Thin and in poor health, his eyes feverish, with a dry cough, he resembled a saint in a stained-glass window’ (p2).

Meurant’s wife Ginette was in the witness box too: ‘underneath her make-up (she) had the paleness of women who live in a hothouse atmosphere’ (p44).

In philosophical mode, Maigret compared his appearance in court with that of his friend, Pardon, the local GP, who constantly bemoaned the limited time allocated to each patient. ‘Each patient is a separate case, and yet I have to work on the conveyor-belt system...’ (p49). While for Maigret in court there’s a need to be concise: ‘The number of the witnesses is reduced to the minimum, as are the questions that are put to them... The case is merely sketched in with a few strokes; the people concerned are no more than outlines, caricatures almost...’ (p50).

In the event, Maigret cannot reconcile the violent portrait the court paints with the man his investigation revealed.

We again meet Maigret’s long-suffering confederates Janvier and Lucas; and Maigret is looking forward to retiring in two years with his wife.

This, like many of his works, is a slim volume, yet it is steeped in the minutiae of police procedurals and court procedures in France and makes riveting reading.

Simenon was a literary phenomenon, writing over 400 novels; he wrote 75 Maigret novels and 28 short stories featuring the detective. Simenon died in 1989, aged 86.

Friday 3 May 2024

THE COUNTERFEIT CANDIDATE - Book review

Brian Klein’s debut novel The Counterfeit Candidate (2021) – was written during Lockdown, doubtless one of many resulting from that misguided response to the Covid-19 pandemic.

 


The book is based on the widespread premise that Hitler did not actually die in the ill-fated Berlin bunker in 1945. Stalin believed the Führer had escaped – as did many other conspiracy advocates.

The main action takes place in 2012, in Buenos Aires and San Francisco.

Chief inspector Nicolas Vargas of the BA Police Department is investigating an audacious bank heist, where hundreds of safe deposit boxes have been stolen. Puzzlingly, as he begins to track down the culprits, he comes up against a dead end – and dead crooks, all of whom were tortured before they were executed.

A tenuous link leads to San Francisco and the powerful Pharma group The Franklin Corporation. The head of this corporation is Richard Franklin, whose son John has just secured the Republican Presidential nomination which is highly likely to lead him to the White House.

Vargas enlists the help of San Francisco Lieutenant Troy Hembury, a 50-year-old muscle-bound African American, to investigate.

Their probe is soon fraught with lethal danger...

Spelling out anything else would spoil the story. This is fast-paced writing, with slick scene shifts and flashbacks, to be expected from an accomplished television director with over 25 years’ experience.

Pick it up and you won’t want to put it down until the end.

And then there’s the sequel, already out: The Führer’s Prophecy which again features Vargas and Hembury, some ten years after the events in the first book. 

Thursday 2 May 2024

THE LONELY SKIER - book review

 


The Lonely Skier was Hammond Innes’s tenth published novel (1947).

Neil Blair, the narrator, is recently demobbed, unemployed, married to Peggy, and penniless. He stumbles upon a job with an old Army comrade – writing a screenplay set in the Italian Dolomites. Though in fact the screenplay has been written already by his pal, Engles; what his friend wants is for Neil to ‘keep your eyes and ears open. I’m interested in the slittovia [sledge lift] and the hut, the people who are staying there, regular visitors, anything unusual that happens’ (p10). Apparently the rifugio [ski lodge] Col da Varda, near Cortina, and the slittovia were previously owned by a German War Criminal, who has since committed suicide. The place is up for sale: ‘an incredibly beautiful property, thoroughly equipped by brilliant German engineers, a small hotel with finer panoramic views than the Eagle’s Nest at Berchtesgaden’ (p40).

Neil is accompanied by photographer Joe Wesson. They are others stay at the refugio: a hot-tempered Italian Contessa Forelli, a racketeering pimp, Stefan Valdini, a Greek criminal, Karamikos, and the mysterious worldly Gilbert Mayne.

Neil is witness to the conflicting personalities of these characters in the claustrophobic situation and begins to realise that something is very wrong. Dangerous. Even deadly. And stemming from the recent inglorious past. Ultimately, he is pitted against someone who is determined to kill – and he is among those targeted!

As ever, Innes brings his descriptive powers to bear on the story. He underwent a skiing course in the Dolomites a while before writing the book. The narrative is swamped in verisimilitude; the reader is there. Naturally, as it’s a first-person story, we know he will survive. But others are in jeopardy, not least the likeable if clueless Wesson.

The book was made into a film titled Snowbound – ‘Another few hours and we’ll be snowbound up here’ (p99). Dated 1948, the film featured Robert Newton, Dennis Price, Stanley Holloway, Herbert Lom, and Zena Marshall, among others.

Oddly, throughout the book the spelling is ski-er, while the title is hyphen-less.

It’s not a true spoiler since it is mentioned in the back cover blurb: ‘It lies somewhere beneath the snow, high in the Dolomites, Nazi gold, tainted with the blood of murdered men’. The gold is in essence Hitchcock’s McGuffin. Some of the chapter headings come very close to being spoilers in themselves.

Talking of spoilers, in this Vintage copy there’s an introduction by Stella Rimington; don’t read this first, read the novel then the intro.

As covers go, it's okay, but I prefer the 1980s Fontana colourful renditions.

Wednesday 1 May 2024

THE SCARLET NIGHTINGALE - Book review

 


The Scarlet Nightingale (published 2018) is another excellent novel from the talented Alan Titchmarsh. His output is varied, to say the least. This outing begins along similar lines to Shute’s Requiem for a Wren – in other words, the female protagonist Rosamund is dead. The post-war Rosamund was a successful novelist and she had left behind a buff folder: ‘souvenirs and accretions of a life that had mostly had its share of romance... but which had also put a young woman in danger. Rosamund might have come from a privileged background, but it was something that she had been quite prepared to sacrifice in the name of love and duty. This is her story’ (p3).

The narrative is mostly in the third person, however interspersed are small insertions from Rosamund’s notes in first person (a good writer’s ploy which brings the character to life at a deeper level).

As ever, Titchmarsh reveals his gift for short telling character descriptions: Dr Armstrong ‘wore a wing collar and his eyebrows were long and upturned, giving him the look of a rather frightening owl’ (p31). Rosamund’s French governess Celine has to break the sad news to her charge: the girl had become an orphan and was to stay with her aunt Venetia in London (in 1938).

Venetia, the sister of Rosamund’s father, had married well and was now Lady Reeves and lived in Eaton Square. When war came, her aunt was loath to hide in the nearby air-raid shelter, preferring the basement in her house. Quite a character: ‘her aunt, in a floral Hartnell creation, half reclined on a sofa so generously furnished with brocade-covered cushions that she seemed in serious danger of suffocation’ (p125). ‘She might give the impression of being unworldly and ethereal, but the razor-sharp mind was clearly in no need of a whetstone’ (p125).

Venetia’s cook, Mrs Heffer, had a helpful brother who did odd jobs: ‘He was not exactly a liveried footman, but he did wear his three-piece Sunday suit and employed a liberal amount of brilliantine to tame his unruly thatch, which, on a bad day resembled an exploded Brillo pad’ (p220).

Rosamund meets and falls in love with Harry Napier who seems to be involved in secret war work. Before long, like many socialites of the period, Rosamund joins the SOE and is dubbed the Scarlet Nightingale; she is landed in France with others to sabotage a factory...

There are details about her training and the actual mission. Naturally, the reader is aware that she will survive, even if captured, because she died at the ripe old age of ninety-three (p1); however, there is still plenty of tension concerning the other operatives involved.

Titchmarsh has a gift for creating sympathetic characters. As Aunt Venetia says, ‘If we do not approach life positively, if we succumb to the naysayers and the defeatists, then we might just as well throw in the towel now, because such negativity becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy... I cannot and will not be bowed down by a bunch of thugs who want to rule the world by bully-boy tactics. The only way to beat bullies is to stand up to them, and that – as you have discovered – is often painful and can have tragic consequences’ (p317). [That applies to any period, even today... – Ed]

A bitter-sweet tale, well told.