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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’!

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