Category Archives: Earlier 20th C

Corpus by Rory Clements

Zaffre | 2017 (26 January) | 384p | Review copy | Buy the book

Corpus by Rory ClementsIt is the end of November in 1936 and the people of Britain are being kept in ignorance about the crisis facing the country’s monarchy. But all is about to be revealed, thanks to the independent America press and King Edward VIII himself who is determined to put life with the woman he loves above duty to his country. The upper reaches of society and government are in turmoil and matters aren’t helped by the conflict between fascist and communist which has spread beyond Germany to Spain and elsewhere, including Britain. It’s the time of rallies and demonstrations, calls to arms, idealism and cynicism, spies and treachery. The time is ripe for murder.

Professor Tom Wilde teaches history at Cambridge University. His specialism is Francis Walsingham, Elizabeth’s spymaster who was responsible for bringing about the fall of Elizabeth’s greatest rival, Mary Queen of Scots. Wilde knows better than most the potential dangers of the time in which he finds himself living. His students are divided between the left and the right. He can only urge them to consider the significance of evidence and prejudice in our understanding of the past and the present.

Wilde himself will need all his skill to help Lydia, the young poet who lives next door to him. Her schoolfriend Nancy has suddenly died, apparently of a heroin overdose, and then the parents of another friend have been found butchered in their home. When other individuals emerge with an interest in the murders, Wilde searches for connections and these take him into the dangerous and dark heart of Europe’s turmoil in these grim cold days of the winter of 1936.

Rory Clements is familiar to many for his wonderful Elizabethan mystery series featuring the spy John Shakespeare, last seen in Holy Spy. In many ways, Corpus would seem to be entirely different but it is a stroke of genius to create a new character, Tom Wilde, who is so fascinated by and knowledgeable in John Shakespeare’s world, who demonstrates the constant timeless themes of history which endlessly recur. The events of 1936 are relevant to the 1580s just as they are also relevant to today. This perspective illuminates Corpus and adds such depth to its events and attitudes. Rory Clements is a fine writer of such clever novels and in Tom Wilde he has created a character to do him proud, every bit as much as John Shakespeare.

You need to have your wits about you when you read Corpus. This is a very clever book, rich in intrigue and deceptions, with an army of characters to keep track of. I had to do a fair amount of looking backwards into the novel to remember who certain people were, particularly during the early part of the book as we move from one location to another – Cambridge University, country homes, London hotels and more. But all becomes much clearer as the novel continues and the rewards for the reader’s attention are high.

The storyline is marvellous! Its complexity is very satisfying to unravel and it captures so much of the sinister world of 1936 Europe. Hitler and Stalin walk in the shadows of this novel. Their reach is almost limitless and for many in this book their appeal is intoxicating and powerful. But the novel never forgets how much is at stake – there are frequent reminders of the bloody war in Spain, the King’s abdication promises chaos in Britain and the violence of the novel increases as several of the characters emerge from their disguises. There is a social divide here, too, with many types of people represented – the upper classes, politicians, immigrants, academics, miners – but some things unite them, including murder.

Rory Clements writes as brilliantly as he plots and this is a novel steeped in atmosphere, menace and history. The fact that we know what happened after 1936 adds a certain tension and also means that we know how believable and plausible the events described here are.

If I had to find fault with Corpus, I’d be out of luck. This is a standout historical novel and a gripping spy thriller. Clearly Rory Clements can turn his attention to any period of history he likes and in it he will find gold.

Other review
Holy Spy

The Last Days of Leda Grey by Essie Fox

Orion | 2016 | 279p | Review copy | Buy the book

The Last Days of Leda Grey by Essie FoxDuring one of those endlessly hot days of 1976, journalist Ed Peters discovers the Edwardian photograph of a beautiful young girl in a seaside town junk shop. Ed is immediately captivated by her face and learns that she lives nearby in White Cliff House. Her name is Leda Grey and she was once an actress, and the house was owned many years ago by Charles Beauvois, a director of silent films. Ed is desperate to learn more about the life of this woman, not seen for decades, and so he visits White Cliff House determined to win Leda Grey’s trust and hear her story which, he is sure, will bring a lost silver age to life.

Leda Grey and her house, decaying, unlit, perched precariously on the edge of a cliff, bewitch Ed Peters. Despite her years, Leda Grey still evokes the artistry and wonder of those days of silent movies and her house is full of reminders of those days and of the films that she made with Charles Beauvois. As Ed watches the films, winding the handle of the ancient projector, and reads Leda’s memoirs, her Mirrors, she and Ed relive those years long ago when one day Leda could be Lady Macbeth and on another she could be Cleopatra wearing a crown of snakes.

Leda Grey is the mistress of playing femme fatales roles and this air of doom and tragedy gently breathes through the pages of The Last Days of Leda Grey. The very title is laden with foreboding and the novel’s opening page declares that death should be expected. Ed Peters, one feels, is a lonely, searching individual, his yearning for something inexplicable enhanced by the summer’s sleepy heat. He is ready to be enchanted by Leda Grey and so he is and the story she tells doesn’t disappoint.

The novel moves between Ed’s experiences at White Cliff House and the retelling of the past thanks to Leda Grey’s Mirrors. The title of the memoirs is apt because mirrors, reflections and lights play an important role in the novel, all hinting at the trickery of film-making, as well as self-deception, a lack of knowledge and lies. As Ed Peters tries to understand he becomes increasingly knotted in the events of the past and the atmosphere of the novel grows more and more heavy with danger, mystery and sin.

The Last Days of Leda Grey is an intoxicating, bewitching sometimes sinister read. Essie Fox writes beautifully and immerses her reader in the story, which is often theatrical, sometimes sexual and increasingly disturbing. At times I found its atmosphere a little too heavy for comfort and I welcomed brief breaks to clear my head but I was soon ready to immerse myself once more. The Last Days of Leda Grey is a relatively short read, perfectly suited for a long winter’s evening, but the impression it leaves is much more lasting.

The Bone Tree by Greg Iles

The Bone Tree | Greg Iles | 2015 | Harper | 850p | Review copy | Buy the book

The Bone Tree by Greg IlesNext spring Mississippi Blood is published. This is the final and highly anticipated book in Greg Iles’ trilogy begun by Natchez Burning and continued in The Bone Tree. As part of the celebrations, I was so pleased to post a review of Natchez Burning for an international blog tour back at the end of August and now it’s the turn of The Bone Tree. The Bone Tree follows on directly from Natchez Burning and so this review assumes you’ve read the earlier book first.

Penn Cage, attorney and Mayor of Natchez, a small town in rural Mississippi, continues to hunt for his father Dr Tom Cage, the town’s popular doctor for many years, who is now on the run for the murder of Viola Turner. This elderly black woman was once, in the sixties, Tom Cage’s much loved nurse. She was also the sister of a man brutally murdered by the Double Eagles, a splinter group of the Ku Klux Klan, and she suffered greatly at their hands. Everyone involved is now much, much older and some are in the mood to confess before death claims them. Journalists Henry Sexton and Caitlin Masters (also, just to complicate things, Penn’s fiancée) are working together to expose the truth, and one of the best ways to do that will be to discover and reveal one of the Double Eagles’ killing grounds, hidden within the Mississippi swamps – the Bone Tree. Legend has it that the Bone Tree contains, in addition to the bones of the murdered, evidence that links these men to one of the most devastating and notorious crimes in American history.

The plot of The Bone Tree is a complicated business, as you’d expect from a novel that comprises 850 pages and one that also succeeds the equally substantial Natchez Burning, one of the most satisfyingly structured and richly layered crime novels I’ve read. There are multiple threads and many characters and we move between them – there can be a fair few chapters before we return to each strand – but at the heart of the novel we have Caitlin’s pursuit of the truth, Penn’s hunt for his father and Tom’s struggle to survive at as little cost to the lives of others as possible. All set within a fascinating re-examination of a dark period in Mississippi’s history, one that might not be as safely buried in the past as one might have hoped.

But The Bone Tree differs from Natchez Burning in that there is another investigation on top of all of the rest and for long stretches of the novel it takes precedence over anything else – FBI Special Agent John Kaiser’s investigation into one of the biggest crimes of modern American history. For the time being, the Double Eagles will have to wait.

There are sections of The Bone Tree that are utterly harrowing, tense or thrilling – or all three of these at once. There are moments here I’m not going to forget, there is one in particular that is totally shocking. But these sections are surrounded by great swathes of meticulously detailed discussion into the big, arguably unsolved, mystery of the 1960s. I’d argue that The Bone Tree contains within it a superb, much shorter novel but this, and the pace, has been lost to some degree by the material that surrounds it.

The events of the novel take place over a period of just a few short days and the events of each are described over hundreds of pages. Nevertheless, my interest was kept alive throughout because, despite it all, the evil of the Double Eagles and their terrible deeds can still be traced through the pages. Tom and Penn continue to focus on their crimes, refusing to be sidetracked by Kaiser’s ulterior motives, and Caitlin’s pursuit for the truth is absolutely dedicated, but the author’s fascination with Kaiser’s investigations takes precedence far too often, in my opinion, for the flow of the novel.

This is an extraordinary trilogy, welcoming the reader to become fully immersed in its portrait of evil, focusing on events that took place over just a few days. The conclusion of The Bone Tree is so tense and gripping that it left this reader so excited for the concluding novel Mississippi Blood. It sounds as if this final novel will be half the size of its predecessors which makes me think that its focus will be narrowed further and this time the emphasis will be on the answers we are all so desperate to learn.

Other review
Natchez Burning

Thin Air by Michelle Paver

Thin Air | Michelle Paver | 2016 (6 October) | Orion | 240p | Review copy | Buy the book

Thin Air by Michelle PaverIt is 1935 and Dr Stephen Pearce is medic on a five-man expedition that aims to climb and conquer the Himalayan mountain of Kangchenjunga, the world’s third highest peak. He is the last-minute replacement doctor, doing his older brother Kits, also on the expedition, a favour. Shortly before they set off, the team attend a party at the home of Charles Tennant, one of only two survivors of another expedition that tried and failed, so spectacularly, to claim the mountain’s peak in 1906. Tennant, now old, his feet amputated after that awful climb, refuses to see anyone – but Pearce stumbles by mistake into his rooms and hears more than enough to fill his heart with dread at the thought of the trial to come.

And so we venture onto the mountain in the last few days before the monsoon season closes it to all climbers. The men, along with their small army of porters, follow the trail of that earlier Lyell expedition up the mountain, pitching camps where they had also pitched, Kangchenjunga looming above them, the ice closing in. At first all goes well, spirits kept high not least because of the dog that adopted Pearce in the foothills and has now become a member of the team in his own right. But the discovery of cairns, the final resting places for the Lyell’s expedition dead, changes the mood, especially when Pearce realises that not all of the dead were given a grave in which to rest in peace.

Michelle Paver’s earlier novel Dark Matter continues to be one of my favourite horror novels, a ghost story set in the frozen Arctic which terrified me. It takes quite a lot for a novel to frighten me, generally only ghost stories succeed and then not all of the time, but Michelle Paver knows just which way to do it. There are similarities between the two novels. Thin Air also takes place in a frozen, perilous environment and is set in the 1930s. Only a few characters are involved, adding to the mood of isolation, lonely dread, even the fear of madness. But Thin Air is no imitation. It is every bit as good as Dark Matter, every bit as frightening. I read the second half late at night by lamplight. Perfect.

The story is told to us by Stephen Pearce himself, a man of science but filled with curiosity about the doomed Lyell expedition – although not as much as his brother Kits who is almost obsessed by it. In a way, Stephen is the last man on the expedition that you’d expect to become so haunted during those days and long nights on the avalanche-swept mountain but this is an environment that promises the unexpected.

There is another side to the novel that is also fascinating – the relationship between the British climbers and the sherpas and porters that do their bidding. Barefooted, the Sherpas are only offered boots when they are too far up the mountain to disappear. There is ingrained racism, suspicion and utter dependence. But there is a religious side to it as well. Pearce hates the mythology and superstition with which the locals have surrounded this mountain but Pearce is a man about to change.

The relationships between the five-man team, plus the dog, are beautifully treated by Michelle Paver. The brotherly relationship between Stephen and Kits is just one part of this.

Thin Air is a short novel – I read it in two sittings over one day – but it is long enough for the reader to wallow in its chilly darkness. It is rich in atmosphere, the environment stunningly described. Kangchenjunga is a formidable character in its own right and it is a deadly one. But it is also such a satisfying ghost story, so perfect for these darker evenings, and it is wrapped within a beautifully told and sad tale. Thin Air succeeds as an excellent ghost story and horror novel but it is also a wonderful piece of historical fiction and I thoroughly recommend it.

Other review
Dark Matter

Natchez Burning by Greg Iles

Natchez Burning | Greg Iles | 2014, Pb 2016 | Hodder | 853p | Review and bought copy | Buy the book

Next spring is published Mississippi Blood, the final and highly anticipated book in Greg Iles’ trilogy begun by Natchez Burning and continued in The Bone Tree. As a run-up to the big day, I am so pleased to be part of a blog tour that will review Natchez Burning through September and The Bone Tree during October. I jumped at it. This tour has provided me with the perfect opportunity to read books I should have read a long time ago. I’ve heard nothing but good things and, as I read Natchez Burning, I kept asking myself why on earth I hadn’t read it before. I must have been barmy.

On with the review…

Natchez Burning by Greg IlesNatchez Burning might be the fourth Penn Cage novel by Greg Iles but it is the first in a distinct trilogy. Earlier books are referred to and characters do reappear but you certainly don’t need to have read them to get every bit of satisfaction out of this wonderful book.

Penn Cage, once a prosecuting attorney, is now the mayor of Natchez, a small and relatively quiet community in Mississippi. It wasn’t always that way. Natchez, now reeling from Hurricane Katrina, was once caught in the fire of civil rights abuse, held to hostage by the Ku Klux Klan and, even worse than the Klan, the Double Eagles, a local KKK splinter group that tortured, raped, murdered, with no fear or expectation of justice. Justice in Natchez at that time and place was white and it was supremacist. Few people then stood firm against the Klan, albeit carefully, quietly, and one such man was Dr Tom Cage, Penn’s much loved father and a very well-liked and caring doctor. But, to Penn’s bewilderment, Tom Cage has been accused of murdering Viola Turner, his immensely popular African-American nurse from the 1960s, who, now an old woman, had recently returned home to Natchez to die but had instead met a death that was anything but peaceful.

Tom Cage refuses to defend himself for reasons he will not explain and so Penn is compelled to hunt for the truth. To do that he must tear open the wounds of the past and what he finds is utterly horrifying and terrifying. Natchez is a town rotting with secrets, so many of its citizens stinking of past crimes, but not all of these crimes are in the past and the more that Penn prods the beast, the more it stirs. The murder of Viola is just one of the many mysteries facing Penn as he uncovers hints of a conspiracy that, if revealed, could leave American history in need of a rewrite. It could also mean the death of Penn and Tom. Just how well do you know anyone? This is a fundamental question that now faces Penn.

Natchez Burning is a substantial novel at about 850 pages but its size hides the fact that these are pages that will fly through the fingers. Greg Iles is a great storyteller and he keeps this immensely complex and multi-layered plot well under control so that at one moment you can sense everything coming together while, at the next, you become well aware of a whole new mystery developing legs. And what that means is revelation after revelation, not to mention shock after shock as Penn uncovers the truth, or at least some of it (some secrets are even deeper buried), about the town’s past. This scrutiny of such a terrible period in recent history is also a great thriller and it enthrals from start to finish. The narrative itself moves through time, taking us and Penn even closer to events.

The victims of the Double Eagles, their lives, hopes and deaths, receive care in this novel and in a way provide its heart.

Natchez Burning is a full and satisfactory novel in its own right but it leads directly into The Bone Tree and that is where I’m heading next. I expect great things and I have every confidence that my expectations will be exceeded.

The Secret Wife by Gill Paul

The Secret Wife | Gill Paul | 2016 (25 August) | Avon | 404p | Review copy | Buy the book

The Secret Wife by Gill PaulIn 1914, not long after the start of World War I, cavalry officer Dimitri Malama is injured on the Russian-German front. He is sent to a hospital close to St Petersburg to recover, but this is no ordinary hospital. The rooms of the summer palace of the Tsars, the Catherine Palace, have been converted into wards for officers and one of Dimitri’s nurses is Nurse Romanov Three, otherwise known as Her Imperial Highness, Grand Duchess Tatiana, the second daughter of Tsar Nicholas II. Tatiana is no stranger to Dimitri. He is of aristocratic birth and before the war he had been one of the royal family’s imperial guard, keeping a respectful distance. But these new circumstances change everything and Tatiana and Dimtri fall in love.

From that moment on, everything changes for Dimitri. Through war and revolution, Dimitri will do all he can to love and protect Tatiana as her status is reduced radically from princess to prisoner, the threat against the imperial family increasing almost daily as they are moved around this immense nation, the chains tightening little by little.

In the present day, Kitty Fisher escapes a personal crisis in London by fleeing to a remote cabin in the Lake Akanabee, New York State, which had been left to her by a great grandfather she had never known. His only surviving relation, she becomes absorbed by his story, especially after she finds a valuable and tantalising piece of jewellery lost beneath the cabin’s front steps.

The Secret Wife moves between the stories of Dimitri and Kitty, both of which illuminate this great love of Dimitri’s life, a love that haunted his entire existence. It’s not difficult to understand why Kitty should become so consumed by it because this novel absolutely enthralled this reader at least with its emotional and powerful story of love and loss.

The tragic story of the Tsar and his family is well-known but its power to shock, as well as fascinate, continues and Gill Paul makes excellent use of her sources to present the full horror of events, while still reminding us, albeit gently, of the appalling conditions faced by ordinary Russians (and Russian soldiers) under Romanov rule. But the emphasis throughout is on the love affair between Dimitri and Tatiana, mostly focusing on Dimitri as he is forced to make choices that he knows he may live to regret. At times Dimitri is ruthless, knowingly so, in direct contrast to the purity of his love, and there are a few moments that demonstrate that there is nothing he won’t do for Tatiana.

We know Tatiana relatively little but Dimitri is not always an easy man to like. But he doesn’t want to be liked. He wants to save Tatiana and her family. Gill Paul cleverly, without filter, shows the results of this tunnel vision on the lives and feelings of the people around Dimitri.

I was completely engrossed in The Secret Wife, as a thoroughly entertaining historical novel and for its love story. There are so many emotions on display here and it’s hard not to be moved as history overtakes love. The book skilfully combines fact with fiction. I didn’t fall for Kitty Fisher’s story particularly but it played a relatively minor part in the novel’s structure and worked well as a device to bring the story up to the present day. It was the story of Tatiana and Dimitri that captivated me and ensured that I finished the novel in one glorious day’s reading.

Other post
Guest post – Gill Paul, author of No Place for a Lady, ‘on feminism, bereavement and squeamishness’

The Constant Soldier by William Ryan

The Constant Soldier | William Ryan | 2016 (25 August) | Mantle | 400p | Review copy | Buy the book

The Constant Soldier by William RyanIt is 1944 and soldier Paul Brandt has returned home to Germany from the Eastern Front. He is not the man he was before and not just physically. Brandt’s obvious life-changing wounds only hint at the deeper psychological damage and shame that the war in Russia has left him with. His home village isn’t what it was either. It lives under the shadow of a luxurious hut where the SS officers from the nearby concentration camp get their R&R. Waited on hand and foot, they are in need of a steward and Brandt, no longer any other use to the army, is perfect for the task. Not that Brandt wants the job but on his return to the village he glimpsed one of the hut’s female slaves, still somehow clinging on to life, and he recognised her in an instant.

Meanwhile, the Russian front is coming closer and helping to push it on is a young Russian woman, a tank driver.

The Constant Soldier is an immensely powerful, emotionally charged, beautifully written novel. In these final months of the Second World War, we’re shown the impact of five years of war, and longer of fascism, on a small community that knows only too well what will happen when the Russians finally arrive. The village itself is depleted of everyone Brandt used to know who has been judged deviant by the Reich, while in the hut we see men perhaps crazed by power, others shamed by spending their war here and not fighting elsewhere. And watching closely are the female prisoners imprisoned in the bunker, let out only to slave for their masters, the hut reminding us all of what is happening in the nearby concentration camp.

The novel moves between Brandt and the others in the hut. Brandt’s feelings are easier for us to empathise with but there are portraits of other men here that are absolutely – and horrifyingly – fascinating. The commander Neumann in particular is so well painted. It’s a portrait of a man who almost knows how evil he has become and who is consciously trying to be normal – sometimes – and yet we are reminded of the personal cost he has paid. There’s no question that we sympathise with him, that would be impossible, but his character is complex and he’s hard to forget.

There are multiple tragedies in The Constant Soldier. This war, the Reich, has done its work and now the young and the old must pay the price as the Russian tanks approach and so few are left to defend the village. The focus is on a small community but we are given glimpses of the wider war through the characters’ memories. The concentration camp, though, reproaches from the shadows, barely referred to but always there.

The female prisoners are central to the story and all men are judged by how they behave to them. We are given insights into the women’s thoughts but only comparatively rarely. This is a cold, dark place. There are moments here that might make you cry, especially one moment in particular.

The Russian woman in the tank is an interesting figure, giving us a glimpse into the Russian army that we might be unfamiliar with. These sections add to the tension of the novel as the harsh early months of 1945 freeze the ground and I really enjoyed them.

The Constant Soldier is a novel in which thoughts and fears must often be silenced, kept hidden, with character slowly explored and revealed in its true nature, but during the final third of the novel there is a strong sense of all hell being let loose and these chapters are very tense indeed. While William Ryan takes us into very dark and sometimes distressing territory, there are glimpses of hope – the war will end.