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Thursday 15 February 2024

THE ENGLISH LADY - book review


William Harrington’s Second World War espionage novel
The English Lady was published in 1982. It comprises three parts: 1931-1934; 1938-1940; and 1941-1942 (though the final pages are 1981).

Lady Nancy Brookeford has grown up knowing the rich and famous movers and shakers of Great Britain and the United States, including the Prince of Wales, Winston Churchill and President Roosevelt! ‘Her face was faultless, clear, smooth skin; a small nose, a small mouth with full mobile lips; large, deep-blue eyes; straight, unplucked brows... She had a reputation for being pretty and intelligent’ (p5). The family had relations in Germany, one of whom was Helmut Bittrich, a cousin, who taught her to fly when she visited that country.

Her skill as a pilot combined with her looks gained the attention of Germans, especially Nazis, not least Von Ribbentrop and Hindenburg, and in the early 1930s Göring and Goebbels. By 1934 she found herself being employed as a pilot for Lufthansa. Before long she was brought to the notice of Hitler, who seemed enraptured by her...

However, Hitler was not the only one under her spell: Reinhard Heydrich was intensely interested in her: ‘He was a sensual man – his narrow eyes wandered over her like exploring fingertips... He liked to fly, to fence, to play the violin, and to make love to beautiful women. This was the positive side of his personality. He showed a dark negative in the performance of his official duties, she supposed. Maybe she need not see that side’ (p132).

And then, when returning to England for a funeral, she is faced with a proposition she cannot refuse: to become a spy because war was imminent.

Haydrich observed ‘We have to prepare for war. To save the peace, you prepare for war’ (p183).

A phrase handed down from the fourth century Romans, perhaps: si vis pacem, para bellum. Interestingly, part of this was used as a motto by a German arms maker – parabellum guns and cartridges.

There is plenty of intrigue among the Nazi hierarchy, several of them intent on ridding the country of Hitler and then suing for peace – among these was Admiral Canaris. Nancy is often in the thick of it, all the while getting closer to Heydrich.

Two aspects of the novel create suspense and verisimilitude. The detailed behind-the-scenes behaviour of the Nazi hierarchy and the quite exhilarating flying sequences.

Certain events are touched upon, notably Kristallnacht – the Night of Broken Glass, and Hitler’s detestation of the Soviets. Both monsters, Hitler and Heydrich, are given human faces, no mean feat, though I doubt that this will endear some readers to the book.

Any student of the Second World War will be aware where the book is leading when Heydrich is transferred to Czechoslovakia. While Nancy frequently uses the airfield at Lidice, the book does not mention this town’s awful fate.

William Harrington was a lawyer turned prolific novelist, writing a half-dozen Columbo books and over 17 standalone novels. He died in 2000, having committed suicide aged 68. 

Wednesday 14 February 2024

EXOCET - Book review

 


Jack Higgins’s 1983 thriller Exocet was fresh off the press roughly a year after the Falklands War and presciently deals with Argentina’s search for additional Exocet missiles, as at the outset of hostilities Argentina only possessed very few.

Brigadier Charles Ferguson is head of an adjunct to the British Secret Intelligence Service, Group Four, directly responsible to the PM. Ferguson’s top man is Major Tony Villiers in the Grenadier Guards, attached to the SAS.

Villiers is divorced; his wife was Gabrielle Legrand. They used to work together undercover. She is tasked by Ferguson with getting to know Colonel Raul Carlos Montera, Special Air Attaché at the Argentinian Embassy in London. She must find out what the Argentine intentions were regarding the Falkland Islands.

Galtieri and Dozo figure in the story, as you’d expect.

Businessman Felix Donner is successful – and an illegal arms dealer. He has links with Russia. And he is hired by the Argentinians to obtain a ship-load of Exocets, weapons that could win the war. As the weapons are manufactured in France, that seems a likely place to make a deal...

Villiers is pulled out of the Falklands – he’s part of a four-man reconnaissance team and sent to France to thwart Donner.

The story is non-stop, switching scenes and countries at a fair lick, and never lets up, in the usual Higgins manner. The relationship between the pilot Raul and Gabrielle is handled well and creates tension. Of course history tells us that the additional Exocets were never obtained.

The manipulative General Ferguson appears in other books by Higgins. Interestingly, in Port Stanley, FI, there’s a Villiers Street. Having recently read The Falklands War by the Sunday Times Insight Team (1982), it is quite evident that Higgins read this account for background verisimilitude, and uses the facts convincingly.

Editorial note:

Higgins mentions a Smith and Wesson Magnum revolver with a Carswell silencer (p3). I could be wrong, but I thought it was very rare for a revolver to have a silencer fitted. A Magnum pistol, fine.

His character Dillon’s favourite handgun is a Walther PPK with Carswell silencer...

Tuesday 13 February 2024

THE FALKLANDS WAR - THE FULL STORY


The Sunday Times Insight Team produced this paperback in 1982, not long after the end of the war, which was quite an achievement. The writing team consisted of Paul Eddy, Magnus Linklater and Peter Gillman, though they were assisted several reporters and researchers; participants from both sides of the conflict were interviewed.

The book contains black-and-white photographs, diagrams and maps.

On the night of April 1, 1982 the first Argentine troops landed – variously called the Amphibious Commando Company or the Buzo Tactico - two distinct military groups; depends on whose report is true. According to this book the Argentines attacked Moody Brook barracks with indiscriminate bursts of automatic fire, using phosphorus grenades and riddling each room with bullets. Fortunately, the barracks had already been abandoned by the Royal Marines. ‘The Argentine government made much of the claim that its troops had gone to great lengths to ensure that the invasion was bloodless. That was largely the result but what happened at Moody Brook suggests it was not the intention’ (p15).

According to an Argentine officer, they only used tear gas and intended to take prisoners, and only fired their weapons to alert other troops converging on Government House. (The Argentine Fight for the Falklands by Martin Middlebrook (1989)).

Mid-morning on April 2 the Union flag was lowered, to be replaced by the blue and white flag of Argentina.

Chapter 2 covers some of the diplomatic events taking place at the UN building in February. Talks had been going on for about five years or more, with no headway being made. Talk was that if negotiations got nowhere there would be an invasion in July. Also ongoing was a dispute between Argentina and Chile regarding the Beagle Channel.

Chapter 3 relates the history of the Falkland Islands and the assorted occupiers, going back to the 1500s. In 1690 English Captain Strong stepped ashore and named the islands after Lord Falkland, the commissioner of the admiralty. Frenchmen came in his wake... The poet Byron’s grandfather  sailed into a bay off West Falkland in 1765 and established Port Egmont. As it happened the French had set up a settlement on East Falkland in 1764, Port Louis. In 1767 the French sold Port Louis to Spain for £250,000. ‘Spain formally restored Port Egmont to the British – on September 16, 1771’ (p38).

In 1816 the United Provinces of the River Plate split from Spain and Argentina was born. In 1820 an Argentinian frigate took formal possession of the islands. Some argy-bargy ensued over the years, including the razing of Port Louis by the American corvette Lexington, and the establishment of a penal colony whose prisoners promptly murdered the colony’s new governor. At that point the British sloop Clio hove into sight and was mostly welcomed by the Port Louis settlers. The British raised their flag on January 2, 1833 and stayed. Argentina protested for almost 150 years thereafter, ultimately appealing to the UN whose resolution 1514 of 1960 ‘pledged to bring an end everywhere colonialism in all its forms’ (p41). The UN’s 1965 resolution pressed Britain and Argentina ‘to find a quick and peaceful solution to the problem, bearing in mind the UN charter and the interests of the population of the said islands’ (p41).

In January 1982 scrap merchant Constantino Sergio Davidoff visited the British embassy in Buenos Aires to report his intentions: the scrap metal merchant had a contract to dismantle South Georgia’s four old whaling stations (which were closed in the early 1960s); they belonged to the Christian Salvesen shipping firm in Edinburgh. The Argentinians saw an opportunity to bring forward their intended invasion, using the scrap metal issue as both an excuse and a cover.

On March 19 four British Antarctic Survey scientists were on a field trip to Leith from their base in Grytviken (comprising about 30 BAS people).  They spotted the Argentinian naval fleet auxiliary Bahia Buen Suceso anchored in the harbour. Onboard were a contingent of marines, arms, ammunition, radio equipment, field surgical kit and food supplies. The troops were led by a slim, boyish-looking man whose shock of fair hair earned him the nickname ‘el Rubio’: Captain Alfredo Astiz. (p68). Astiz was a particularly nasty character, responsible for torture and death. He landed about 50 men, some in paramilitary uniform, and raised the Argentinian flag. The BAS scientists reported this to the governor at Stanley.

On March 20 HMS Endurance, with a contingent of Royal Marines was directed from Stanley to South Georgia and authorised to use force if necessary. Three days later Endurance was redirected to Grytviken; however, two marines were landed surreptitiously to an observation post on a bluff overlooking Leith harbour and, on March 25, they noted the Bahia Paraiso arrive and disembark many troops and their equipment. They reported by radio to London via a satellite link; but it was kept a closely guarded secret – why?

MI6 had a base in Buenos Aires. ‘Every Wednesday a meeting is held after lunch time, attended by, among others, the naval and military attachés at the British embassy’ (p78). On March 24 their assessment was that something was up – naval exercises with the Uruguayan navy were not plausible, judging by first-hand intelligence from the naval bases. Their opposite numbers in the American embassy concluded that an invasion was due on April 1.

The machinations in the UN make for interesting reading as certain countries take sides. ‘Guyana, worried about the claims on her territory made by neighbouring Venezuela, was on the British side’ (p114). [And this situation is still contentious today!] Interestingly, the Russians abstained – the issue did not affect their interests. America sat on the fence initially, for Argentina supported the fight against Communism that was spreading in Latin America: ‘We’re friends on both sides,’ Reagan announced. (p115). Ultimately, the British ambassador Sir Nicholas Henderson, with the help of General Haig, brought the Americans on-side. ‘On April 30... America would be allying herself publicly with the UK. “Armed aggression of that kind must not be allowed to succeed” said the president’ (p137).

Chapter 12 – ‘The Empire Strikes Back’ – relates the travails and recovery of South Georgia and the surrender of the Argentinians based there.

The recapture of Port Stanley signalled the end of the conflict with the surrender of the Argentine forces on June 14.

There are chapters and sections on the air-battles and aircraft, the terrible loss of life, the sinkings, and the bravery on both sides. As a piece of ‘instant reportage’ it is an impressive book. Granted, after all this time, as many more facts (and books) have surfaced some of this account will have been expanded upon and even corrected. Still, it’s a worthwhile read for an overview of the conflict.

It concludes: ‘At least the war has guaranteed one thing for the Falklanders on their remote rocks in the South Atlantic. No one will ever again underestimate the dangers they face’ (p265). [Famous last words?]

 

 

 

Monday 22 January 2024

DEADLY GAME - Book review

 


Michael Caine’s debut novel Deadly Game (2023) is a good solid thriller.

DCI Harry Turner is a tough nut who doesn’t suffer fools at all, let alone gladly. ‘Harry hated the phrase “old-school copper” – especially when applied to him, as it often was round the Met. Yes, he liked to get the job done. Yes, he could throw a punch as well as take one. And no, he didn’t think police officers were social workers or local politicians. Their job was law enforcement: pure and simple. Not therapy’ (p26). He was ex-Army, ex-SAS and served in Helmand, Columbia, Georgia and Myanmar – until a sports knee injury got him – ‘It was a tackle that got me, not the Taliban’ (p28). After that, he joined the Met.

Harry joined an elite team in department SO22, headed up by DCS Robinson – a team created because the ‘Met had lost its balls, lost its focus and was too busy covering its arse to make the calls that get proper bad guys behind bars’ (p34).

Then, one day, on Harry’s doorstep, so to speak, a metal box of radioactive material is found at a dump in Stepney, East London. Unfortunately, before the police can arrive, it goes missing. Harry and his team (DI John Williams, Inspector Carol Walker, and Sergeant Iris Davies) are tasked with finding the missing uranium before it gets into the wrong hands.

It seems that an unsavoury criminal gang is involved, and far-right skinheads, and also an aristocratic art Dealer, Julian Smythe and oligarch Vladimir Voldrev; these latter two are quite creepy, each confronted in their own personal fiefdom/lair.

Throughout, whenever Harry is speaking – or thinking – I tend to hear Michael Caine’s voice; the writing and characterisation is that consistent. ‘I think it’s time to prick this prick’s bubble... I don’t believe in ghosts myself. Personally, I believe in crooks and the way they terrorise people. It’s not magic. It’s the oldest trick in history, and it’s always the poorest that get ripped off most’ (p145).

There are deaths along the way, and a shocking explosion, as the team seems to be getting close to their goal. The pace rarely lets up, the pages keep turning, and the denouement contains a neat twist.

Perhaps the swearing could have been reduced by a third - most is apt, in character, but sometimes it seems gratuitous.

I’d be happy to make the acquaintance of Harry Turner again.

Saturday 20 January 2024

PRISONER WITHOUT A NAME, CELL WITHOUT A NUMBER - Book review

Jacobo Timerman’s autobiographical book Prisoner without a name, Cell without a Number was published in 1980, its English translation released in 1981.

Timerman was the editor of La Opinión, Argentina’s leading liberal newspaper. The paper was not popular with the military government because he was not averse to castigate both the Left and the Right for human rights abuses. Inevitably, it came to a head one dawn in ‘April 1977 some twenty civilians besieged my apartment in midtown Buenos Aires. They said they were obeying orders from the Tenth Infantry Brigade of the First Army Corps’ (p9). He was covered with a blanket and bundled in a car and taken away. Eventually, blindfolded and handcuffed, he discovered he was kidnapped ‘by the extremist sector of the army’ (p29) ...which was at the heart of Nazi operations in Argentina...  In effect, they mistakenly believed he was part of a Jewish anti-Argentine conspiracy!

He was held for two and a half years – tortured, abused and humiliated – without charges ever being brought against him.

It was probably because he was internationally known and his wife continued to raise awareness of his plight that he was not murdered – or ‘disappeared’. Certainly, he believed that his only crime was to be born Jewish.

‘Entire families disappeared. The bodies were covered in cement and thrown to the bottom of the Plata or Paraná rivers. Sometimes the cement was badly applied and corpses were washed up along the coasts of Argentina and Uruguay... (others were) thrown into old cemeteries under existing graves... (and some) heaved into the middle of the ocean from helicopters... (while others were) dismembered and burned... Small children were turned over to grandparents or more commonly presented to childless couples in Chile, Paraguay, and Brazil ...’ (p50/51).

Then in late 1979, his citizenship of Argentina was revoked and he was expelled from the country, and then resided in Israel.

Timerman was born in Bar, Ukraine, to Jewish parents. To escape the Russian persecution of Jews and pogroms there, the family emigrated to Argentina in 1928, when he was five years old.

This is a searing account of a brave man. He died in November, 1999, aged 76.

Friday 19 January 2024

A PROPER MARRIAGE - Book review



Doris Lessing’s second book in her semi-biographical ‘Children of Violence’ series, A Proper Marriage (1954) is her sequel to Martha Quest (1952). Certain observations made below are not spoilers – they are mentioned briefly in the book blurb.

The point-of-view is omniscient, so we get inside the heads of several characters, often in the same scene. The story is set in the fictional African country of Zambesia (not a million miles away from Southern Rhodesia where Lessing lived most of her formative years (1925-1949)): ‘The small colonial town was at a crossroads in its growth: half a modern city, half a pioneers’ achievement; a large block of flats might stand next to a shanty of wood and corrugated iron, and most streets petered out suddenly in a waste of scrub and grass’ (p10).

Martha is now nineteen and married to a clerk, Douglas Knowell. She is strong-willed, restless and not particularly enamoured of boring married life – though at the beginning of the book she has only been married five days... ‘Until two weeks ago, her body had been free and her own, something to be taken for granted...’ (p37).

It’s the start of the Second World War, though at the outset this does not seem to affect the township. The townsfolk are conscious that there is a ‘big issue’ with the black population, however: ‘any expression of a desire for improvement on the part of the natives was immediately described as impertinence, or sedition, or even worse’ (p62). The parson’s wife observes: ‘If they learn to use arms, they can use them on us... this business of sending black troops overseas is extremely short-sighted. They are treated as equals in Britain, even by the women’ (p66).

When Douglas and his pals sign up to fight, Martha is taken aback; she is not enough for him, he prefers to ‘rush off to war’... (Douglas) ‘had not known how intolerably boring and empty his life was until there was a chance of escaping from it’ (p80).

When Martha learns that she is pregnant and the illegality of an abortion crops up, she ‘flew into an angry tirade against governments who presumed to tell women what they should do with their own bodies; it was the final insult to personal liberty’ (p106).

Throughout the book there are fine examples of Lessing’s eye for description: ‘The jacaranda were holding up jaded yellow arms. This drying, yellowing, fading month, this time when the year tensed and tightened towards the coming rains, always gave her a feeling of perverted autumn, and now filled her with an exquisite cold apprehension. The sky, above the haze of dust, was a glitter of hot blue light’ (p113). Another brief example: ‘Soon the wings of her joy had folded’ (p124). ‘Martha drifted to the divan, where she sat, with listening hands, so extraordinarily compelling was the presence of the stranger in her flesh’ (p129).

The actual scenes running up to and encompassing the birth are very well done. ‘Every particle of her flesh shrieked out, while the wave spurted like an electric current from somewhere in her backbone and went through her in shock after shock...’ (pp163-167). [Lessing gave birth to her first child in 1940].

One observation is certainly no longer true in the age of social media: ‘... one of the minor pleasures of power is to exchange in private views which would ruin you if your followers ever had a suspicion you held them’ (p188)! Also relevant, perhaps: ‘Unfortunately nine-tenths of the time of any political leader must be spent not on defeating his opponents, but on manipulating the stupidities of his own side’ (p365).

Martha gets involved with a group expounding Communism which appeals to her disenchantment with the rich crowd she has been with; and while Douglas is away training, she also flirts with RAF pilots stationed nearby. This is a depiction of a disintegration of a marriage – a marriage perhaps she should never have embarked upon.

There is very little feeling that there is a war ‘in the north’. No wounded, limbless survivors of conflict appear; food and material shortages are not evident.

Martha will appear next in A Ripple in the Storm.

 

 

Tuesday 26 December 2023

MALTA: BLITZED BUT NOT BEATEN

Philip Vella’s comprehensive account of the Second World War siege of Malta was published in 1985; my copy was the third edition, 1989. In the 1970s a group of Maltese enthusiasts formed The National War Museum Association and over the years they have collected and collated documents, photographs, first-hand reports, interviews and eye-witness testimonies about the Battle for Malta. This large-format book is a result of those endeavours.

Besides relating in detail from the outset of hostilities, it also contains almost a hundred pages of appendices recording convoys, daily rations, buildings destroyed or damaged, honours and awards. There are also dozens of illustrations, maps and black-and-white photographs. It is a treasure-trove for any writer or student of history.

In the summer of 1939, when it seemed that war was imminent, the Admiralty pressed to strengthen the island against air attack by installing 122 heavy AA guns, 60 light AA guns and 24 searchlights. Inertia hampered this process. On June 10, 1940 Mussolini declared war on Britain and France. Malta was in the firing line and by this time the islands only had 34 heavy anti-aircraft guns and 8 Bofors; the number of searchlights was up to strength, however.

‘... Malta’s loss would have denied the Allies of a staging post to the Middle East, jeopardised the fate of the British Army fighting in North Africa, and turned the Mediterranean into an Axis lake’ (p163).

The air-raid sirens sounded to warn of the first raid on June 11, 1940. ‘... ten Savoia Marchetti 79s crossed the 60 mile channel on their way to their target Hal Far airfield’ (p6). Other targets were the dockyard and forts. There were seven bombing sorties that first day, with no planes lost on either side.

That year, Malta suffered 211 air raids. Succeeding years increased in number, 963 and 2,031 for 1941 and 1942 respectively. The devastation was horrendous (as many photographs attest); ‘the Royal Opera House was demolished along with several other buildings in Valletta on April 7, 1942’ (p111); the ruins of the opera house are still there, concrete yet mute testimony to the siege. Two days after that, a bomb penetrated the dome of Mosta Church but instead of exploding merely bounced among the congregation. In the first weeks of 1942 ‘the number of unexploded bombs from heavy daylight raids by German aircraft rose from 6 to 143 per week’ (p128).

Civilians sought refuge in ‘the old railway tunnels in Valletta and Floriana, as well as in the Hypogeum, a prehistoric underground burial place, and also the Catacombs at Rabat’ (p15).

The Royal Malta Artillery recruited ‘a motley crowd of clerks and farmers, shop assistants and masons, intellectuals and illiterates’ (p34). In fact, as early as September 1938, ‘3,000 volunteers enrolled in the Women’s Auxiliary Reserve set up by Lady Bonham-Carter, the wife of the then Governor of Malta’ (p73). The native RMA and the Royal Artillery raised a curtain of flame that was fearful to behold... Captured German pilots admitted that they had been unnerved by it. It probably saved the Island from devastation, saved many a British warship... Remarkable was the stoicism of the civilians’ (p173).

Supplies came by seagoing convoy, the first in September 1940 from Alexandria. Subsequent convoys sailed from Gibraltar as well. Freight was also transported by RN submarines, among them HM Submarines Porpoise, Rorqual, Cachalot, Osiris and Otus [While in SM drafting in the 1970s I sent men to submarines that bore these names, but newer boats of the Porpoise and Oberon class, launched 1958 to the 1960s]. Submarines based in Malta attacked German convoys destined for Rommel’s Afrika Korps, sending to the bottom of the sea some 400,000 tons of supplies. In April 1942 HM Submarine Upholder was lost on her twenty-fifth patrol.

Shortages meant that improvisation was the order of the day; ‘men found fig and vine leaves a substitute, albeit a distasteful one, for tobacco... women made coats from blankets and dresses from curtains’ (p77). By September 1941 the only unrationed items were bread, pasta, cheese, rice and tea. At this stage of the war, the Enigma codes had been cracked and warnings of imminent attacks on convoys could be countered. ‘Cigarette-smokers took a deep breath when, on October 30, 1942, after many months of enforced abstinence, an issue of 30 cigarettes a week was introduced on a ration basis, to be increased to 50 with effect from January 15, 1943’ (p172).

‘Radar... is regarded as one of the main contributors to Malta’s defeat of the enemy. Radio Direction Finding was first brought to Malta in Marsh 1939 when the Air ministry Experimental Station was set up at Dingli Cliffs, one of the highest spots on the Island’ (p83).

Allied aircraft were transported by convoy but many were lost during the air-raids on Ta’ Qali, Hal Far and Luqa airfields. ‘In answer to the 200-240 daily Axis sorties, Malta could seldom muster more than six fighters at one time’ (p101).

In September, 1942, even while conflict still raged, the King presented the George Cross to the Island Fortress and its people, acknowledging the ‘gallant service’ the Maltese people had already rendered in the fight for freedom (p120). On June 20, 1943 the King visited the Island, ‘sailing through a hostile sea, with enemy air bases a mere 60 miles away’ (p184). He was given a rapturous reception by civilians and the armed forces; he toured much of the Island all day, witnessing the destruction and speaking to the Maltese. Prime Minister Churchill visited the Island on November 17 for two days and President Roosevelt arrived on December 8 and presented the people with a citation concerning their ‘valorous service above and beyond the call of duty’ (p197).

With the retreat of the Germans from Italy in 1944, few air-raids occurred and none resulted in any further damage or deaths. The last alert sounded on August 28.

‘... looking back across the years, serving at Malta in spite of the hardships, hunger and the constant presence of danger and death, is curiously one of these parts of one’s life, which if given the chance, one would do all over again’ – Leo Nomis, an American pilot flying from Ta’Qali (p154).

Friday 22 December 2023

RESURRECTION DAY - Book review


Brendan DuBois’s alternate history novel Resurrection Day was published in 1999. The ‘what if?’ scenario is tantalising indeed: What if the Cuban Missile Crisis had become a full-blown war?

It’s 1972, ten years after the nuclear bombs were dropped. Russia was crushed: ‘... no more large cities, no more government. Just tribes of people, trying to survive in muddy villages that could have existed in the Middle Ages, a decade after an entity called SAC had obliterated their nation from the earth’ (p65). California is virtually destroyed, New York has been depopulated, Washington DC lies beneath a giant crater lake. Europe is unscathed – Nato collapsed. Presidential elections are due at the end of the year. What was left of the United States relied on aid from Great Britain; the USA was shamed and ostracised by the international community because it let the nuclear genie out of the bottle.

Carl Landry, ex-US Army, is now a civilian, a journalist on the Boston Globe newspaper. The paper is heavily edited by an army Captain in accordance with the Martial Law Declaration of 1962 and the National Emergency Declaration of 1963. The Land of the Free no longer has free speech. ‘Why torture yourself, remembering  full supermarket shelves, clean clothes, steady power, and a government that didn’t hunt down draft dodgers and didn’t censor the news and didn’t run labour camps for the dissidents, the protesters, the ones that didn’t belong. That time was gone, was never coming back, not ever’ (p99).

Landry is approached by an aging veteran who has some important papers; they arrange to meet next day, but the vet is murdered, his apartment trashed.

Making enquiries, Landry learns of the deaths of the vet’s neighbours and friends. ‘... when the current national death rates and the results of the 1970 census were both kept secret because of national security, well, if life wasn’t cheap, it certainly wasn’t worth much’ (p51).

He begins to dig – and is warned off more than once: ‘Carl knew he had entered the murky land of late-night arrests, ‘disappearances’, and closed-door trials’ (p162). He was also attacked by an orfie gang – comprising feral orphans of the war.

He befriends Sandy Price, a journalist for the Times of London. She’s beautiful and clever. When they are both co-opted on a fact-finding mission to New York for their papers, they jump at the chance. And then things get weird and hairy, not least because there’s a faction that believes President Kennedy didn’t die in Washington, but still lives; his resurrection could screw the forthcoming elections, indeed.

DuBois has managed to create believable and often sympathetic characters, as well as a post-war situation that seems credible. It was an immersive experience. I zipped through the 580 pages in no time.

An impressive addition to the vast library of ‘what if?’ novels.

Editorial comment:

‘Think, he thought. Just take a deep breath and think’ (p471). Probably would have read better like this: Think, dammit. Just take a deep breath and think. No need for ‘he thought’.

Character names: Jim Rowley and Captain Rowland are quite close; never cause confusion but could easily have been more different.

Wednesday 13 December 2023

THE MUMMY - Book review

 


Anne Rice’s 1989 novel The Mummy (or Ramses the Damned) is not a novelisation of the Brendan Fraser film (which came out ten years later!)  Apparently, Rice began this as a film script but she and the studios had conflicting visions about the story so she abandoned the screenplay idea and wrote the book.

It’s a seductive read that begins slowly and then develops with intrigue and murder. It’s 1914, before Carter has found the tomb of Tutankhamen. Archaeologist Lawrence Stratford has uncovered the tomb of Ramses the Great. Puzzlingly, there seems a link to the Egyptian ruler Cleopatra, yet Ramses’ reign was many years before the Queen of the Nile was born... Accompanying Lawrence is his nephew Henry Stratford, a ne’er-do-well. Lawrence’s daughter Julie was in London with her fiancé Alex Savarell, Viscount Summerfield, the son of Elliott, the Earl of Rutherford. The marriage had been arranged when they were children; through this marriage the Rutherford family would gain the Stratford wealth in exchange for the title. However, Julie was a strong-willed independent-minded woman, so the courtship was not going anywhere fast.

It is no spoiler since the blurb announces the fact: Ramses the mummified king awakens and appears before Julie in a dramatic scene. ‘Dear God, she thought, this is not merely a man gifted with beauty; this is the most beautiful man I’ve ever seen’ (p92).

The reason for Ramses not being a dry husk of a mummy is that he was merely dormant, not dead, and was revived by sunlight. He was immortal, three thousand years old, having drunk an elixir centuries ago. He does not need sleep or food, though he is impelled to satisfy appetites that he cannot assuage.

The book is a visual feast: we can envisage the scenes in their entirety. It’s sensuous, particularly as love develops between Julie and Ramses. Conflict is supplied by the unsavoury Henry, who is not averse to killing to get what he wants, and the newly discovered Cleopatra, Ramses’ lost love.

There are many light and amusing touches as Ramses learns about the early twentieth century. He is a fast study, particularly as he does not need sleep. Over the centuries when he roamed the earth he learned a number of languages, too. He adopted the name Reginald Ramsey in order to accompany Julie on their forays through society, all part of his education.

While they are touring Cairo, accompanied by Elliott and Henry, mysterious deaths occur. Mr Ramsey falls under suspicion...

Cleverly plotted, the story reveals the problems of immortality and ever-lasting love.

The book ends with the promise of further adventures of Ramses the Damned; but there was a long wait! There is no great need to take up the sequels, however; the ending of this book was satisfactory enough for me.

The sequels, co-written with her son Christopher are Ramses the Damned: The Passion of Cleopatra (2017) and Ramses the Damned: The Reign of Osiris (2022). Anne Rice dided in 2021, aged 80.

Tuesday 5 December 2023

SOE AGENT - book review

 


The subtitle of the Osprey book SOE Agent is Churchill’s Secret Warriors; text by Terry Crowdy, colour illustrations by Steve Noon. This is number 133 in the Warrior series of Osprey books. There are 62 information-packed pages with many contemporary photographs.

‘Nazi control on the continent was like a virus, intent on infiltrating every level of human existence and perverting it for its own satisfaction’ (p5).  Britain's Minister of Economic Warfare, Hugh Dalton was convinced a new organisation should be created to infiltrate Europe and the ‘new weapons of war would be agitation, strikes, random acts of terror, propaganda and assassination’ – effectively, ‘no holds barred’ (p5).

As early as September 1938 MI6 set up D Section (Sabotage) and the British General Staff formed a research section GS(R) to investigate the possibilities of guerrilla warfare; in May the following year this became Military Intelligence (Research). September 1939 Britain and France declared war on Germany after Hitler invaded Poland.

The book covers the recruitment of SOE agents, their training, and some of their missions, Lysander pickup, coding of messages, and their weapons and types of radio. It is a little treasure-trove for students and writers of that period. Certainly, having recently read Ken Follett’s Jackdaws, I could recognise many salient facts that he used in his narrative.

Related titles in the series are French Resistance Fighter and Resistance Warfare 1940-45; and in the Elite series: Office of Strategic Services (OSS) 1942-45.

Monday 4 December 2023

THE MELTING MAN - book review



In the mid-1960s I read a few books by Victor Canning and thoroughly enjoyed them. For some reason I didn’t read any more (maybe suborned by Helen MacInnes, Len Deighton, Ian Fleming, Gavin Lyall, and Desmond Cory, among others!);  that is, until now, taking up his 1968 thriller The Melting Man, a collector’s item.

This is the fourth (and final) thriller featuring the investigator Rex Carver. Narrated in first-person, it begins with Carver contemplating a holiday, despite the fact that the firm’s bank balance could benefit from an injection of new cash. ‘... eleven months of the year I worked, if it was there to work at, but come September, season of mists and mellow fruitfulness, I took a holiday’ (p9). He told his business partner Hilda Wilkins, ‘I need feeding up.’ She pointedly looked at his lowest waistcoat button and said, ‘That’s not the impression I get’ (p2).

From the outset, the style grabs, with plenty of one-liners, amusing asides, and colourful descriptions. From time to time Carver undergoes a session in the gym run by Miggs, an ex-Commando sergeant who takes one look at Carver and says, ‘My God – a young man in an old man’s body. You’d better let me book you in for a dozen sessions...’ Carver responded: ‘I like to put it on around September. Live off my fat during the winter. Bears do it’ (p6).

His holidaying intentions are waylaid by the arrival in the office of beautiful Julia Yung-Brown. He’d been recommended to her by Miggs: ‘But you don’t quite come up to the description Miggs gave of you. Sort of blurred around the edges somewhere.’ He riposted: ‘Come autumn I begin to disintegrate a little. My best month is May’ (p11).

Despite inferring that Carver was unfit, he manages to hold his own, surviving more than one knock on the head, a near-drowning and a bomb in his car!

Julia and her sister Zelia are the step-daughters of millionaire Cavan O’Dowda, a man with a ruthless reputation. Apparently, Zelia went missing while driving her stepfather’s Mercedes 250 SL in France. Zelia subsequently turned up in Cannes with memory loss and no car. O’Dowda wants Rex to find the car. Simple.

He sets out on the trail of the car – Geneva, Cannes, Turin. And is tracked by his old Interpol pal Aristide Marchissy la Dole as well as the eccentric Alakwe brothers, Jimbo and Najib, together with their sex-mad 6ft 4” lethal assistant Miss Panda Bubakar. It’s obvious that there’s something hidden inside the car that is highly valuable to all the interested actors.

Aristide has appeared in earlier books. He likes his food, particularly if they’re Carver’s croissants ‘which were first made in Budapest in 1686. That is the year the Turks besieged the city. They dug underground passages beneath the city walls at night, but the bakers – naturally working at that hour – heard them, gave the alarm and Johnny Turk was thrown out. In return the bakers were given the privilege of making a special pastry in the form of the crescent moon which still decorates the Ottoman flag’ (p188).

The pace is fast, the characters are larger-than-life, the threats quite real, and the denouement in the millionaire’s mountain chateau is both intense and grim, with a dark and unexpected twist.

Even after fifty-five years, this is a satisfying and entertaining, page-turning thriller.

You can get a used copy for the price of a beer; all four Rex Carver books are available as e-books.

Sunday 3 December 2023

THE TUMBLED HOUSE - book review


 

Winston Graham’s 1959 novel The Tumbled House is a romantic suspense novel long out of print; my copy is the fourth impression dated 1976.

While dropping in on the empty house of her late father-in-law Sir John Marlowe, Joanna commits adultery with an ex-boyfriend Roger Shorn. It is not an affair; perhaps she was lonely since her husband Don, a feted conductor, was away in the States with an orchestra.

Shortly after Don’s return, a couple of anonymous articles are published in a newspaper, The Gazette, denigrating Sir John, claiming the great man plagiarised a book by an old associate (also deceased).

Don is incandescent and determined to discover the writer’s identity and clear his father’s name. He seeks legal advice but that’s not much help as you can’t libel a dead person. ‘What was the purpose of attacking the reputation of a dead man unless there was someone still alive to care?’ (p73). He has the sympathy of Joanna and his sister Bennie but ignores their suggestion that he forget the whole issue.

Unable to forgive and forget, Don finally learns of the writer’s identity and writes insults against the culprit. The added complication is that Bennie is in a relationship with the son of the writer.

This should be a fairly anodyne court case, but the interweaving of the personalities involved and the minor crimes on the periphery that affect Bennie and her beau Michael keep the reader turning the pages.

What lifts the book above the norm is Graham’s acute observation of character and place. The point of view is omniscient. Here are a few examples.

‘The Red Boar Club... Here the temperature was a uniform seventy-eight winter and summer, and tobacco-smoke hung in cirrus clouds about the room. You broke through them going down the steps like a plane coming in to land’ (p38).

In the club Don approaches the editor of the offending Gazette: ‘He had a square rather distinguished face on which the skin hung loosely as if it had a slow puncture. But there was nothing deflated about the way he looked at Don...’ (p39).

‘Sir Percy... was not expensively dressed and his Cockney accent still clung to him like a home-knitted pullover’ (p59).

‘When he opened the door the sunlight crowded in as if it had been queuing there’ (p72).

‘An artist of course was judged by his art, not by his life. It didn’t matter two-pence if Rembrandt was a rogue or Beethoven a bore... (p100) – though in the idiotic modern age of cancel culture that may no longer apply!

Despite the suspense, and Don discovering Joanna’s infidelity, there are smatterings of humour: asked about Don’s interpretation of Swan Lake, he responded, ‘It could well be the most original. Phone Leningrad and tell them to watch Tchaikovsky’s grave. If there’s movement, it’ll mean he’s turning over in it’ (p128).

‘She stared at him with unwinking eyes, a stout old lady with a bulging face like a purse that has never been opened for charity’ (p148).

‘... when they rode together the sun was slanting, and a breeze that came up from the sea had made the young leaves turn and glint like wild silk’ (p174).

‘... his grey, pachydermous face wearing a weary, dusty expression as if too many years of exposing human frailty had left him without illusions and without hope’ (p298).

Bearing in mind the time of writing, there are two uses of the n-word and an allusion to gays before that term was the acceptable description, none of which are malicious.

Graham describes a death without being mawkish: less is more.

The ending is satisfactory.