Category Archives: Historical Fiction

Munich by Robert Harris

Hutchinson | 2017 (21 September) | 342p | Review book | Buy the bookMunich by Robert Harris

It is September 1938 and Europe hovers on the brink of war. Hitler is just hours from invading Czechoslovakia. British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain has achieved the almost impossible – a last-minute conference in Munich with Hitler and Mussolini. Behind the scenes, diplomats, politicians and spies step up their work. Germany is not as behind their leader as he might think. The stakes are high but there are conspirators high in the German ranks who need to manipulate events to suit their own dangerous agenda.

Hugh Legate is one of Chamberlain’s private secretaries. His knowledge of German makes him invaluable in these delicate negotiations. Paul Hartmann is a German diplomat and one of the anti-Hitler conspirators. These two men were close friends at Oxford University years before. They might not have seen each for years but they trust one another, a fact that will be exploited. It is imperative to many that both men are among the entourages brought together in Munich. And so, as Chamberlain labours to achieve ‘peace in our time’, he has no idea what else is going on behind the scenes. But how far are Legate and Hartmann prepared to go?

With Munich, Robert Harris proves yet again, as if more proof were needed, that he is one of the finest writers of historical and contemporary thrillers you can read, if not the very best. The ingenious Conclave was my favourite novel of last year, Dictator (completing Harris’s superb series about Cicero) was one of my top three books of 2015, and Pompeii is, I think, my favourite historical novel of all time. These are impressive credentials and yet Robert Harris never fails to amaze me with the breadth of his novels’ subjects and the sheer quality of their execution.

As before, with Munich Harris doesn’t go for the obvious. Instead of focusing on 1939 and the actual outbreak of war he takes us to the previous year and into the painfully tense conference room of Munich, via Chamberlain’s flight from London and Hitler’s train journey from Berlin. This is reminiscent of the worried claustrophobia of Conclave – the idea that something is going on behind closed doors that will affect the whole world and yet, for the moment, is utterly secret and confined. There is a ritual to the drama. It’s quietly spoken. There is etiquette. And yet this is all skin deep, as we are reminded by the unwelcome presence in Munich of the despised Czechoslovakian representatives. The brutality of the Nazi regime lurks in dark corners and it oppresses the mood.

Munich is exquisitely written. The prose perfectly paints the London offices, the train, the plane, the Munich conference hotel. We watch the people move through them, men and women, in possession of secrets, weighed down by their responsibilities. This is particularly evident in Legate and Hartmann, who have to make some serious decisions about everything that matters to them, especially Hartmann, but it also shows in Neville Chamberlain. Harris provides a fascinating reinterpretation of Chamberlain’s character. It looks kindly on him. The stress is clearly shattering the man. Chamberlain remembers World War I. He has to do everything to avoid a repeat, even accept Hitler’s lies.

Munich is a relatively short novel and not a page of it is wasted. History tells us how all this was to turn out but this in no way damages the impact of the book, which is increasingly tense and dramatic as you realise how differently events could have unfolded. It also reminds us of history’s warning – and relevance – to the present day. There is a play-like feel to the novel’s structure as we move from room to room, or from vehicle to vehicle. Its dialogue is of paramount importance. Every uttered word must be studied for its hidden intention – the world’s future is at stake.

With no doubt at all, Munich will feature in my top ten list of the year and will be a contender for my favourite novel of 2017. It is a privilege and joy to read a new novel by Robert Harris. I’ve loved everything he’s written and I have no doubt that I will continue to do so. His novels are impeccable.

Other reviews
An Officer and a Spy


A Column of Fire by Ken Follett

Macmillan | 2017 (21 September) | 768p | Review copy | Buy the book

A Column of Fire by Ken FollettWhen Ned Willard returns home to Kingsbridge from the Continent in a snowstorm in 1558, it seems as if medieval feudalism is alive and well in this prosperous market city. His mother Alice might be one of the more successful and influential merchants in the city but his hopes of marrying Margery Fitzgerald, the daughter of gentry, are as doomed as ever. Margery is betrothed instead to Bart, a Viscount and son of Swithin, the Earl of Shiring, a man as cruel and despotic as his forefathers. To compound matters, the Willards are Protestant while the Shiring family is Catholic and Bloody Mary sits securely on the throne, thanks to her husband, King Phillip of Spain. But, even though the Shirings have the power to destroy the Willards and persecute and even burn all challengers, using church authorities to help them, Ned knows that Kingsbridge, England, and even Europe are about to change – Elizabeth Tudor waits in the wings. Ned will serve her, becoming her most trusted spy, and the future will be theirs.

France may be securely Catholic but to some not enough. The tolerant policies of Catherine de Medici, the French royal matriarch, challenge the ambitions of the mighty family of Guise, who exist just a hair’s breadth from the French throne, exerting their influence through the marriage of one of their own, little Mary Queen of Scots, to the French heir and future King. Pierre Aumande has little, living off his wits in the gambling dens and bars of Paris’s poorest streets but he has a dream. He believes that he is the illegitimate son of a Guise and he is determined to become recognised in that family. To achieve that he is prepared to do absolutely anything they ask – anything. And if that means infiltrating and informing on Paris’s growing Protestant population, pushing them onto flaming pyres, then so be it.

These are tumultuous times, not just for England and France, but also for Scotland, Spain, the Netherlands, the rest of Europe and even further afield to the New World. Men and women travel across borders and seas, often fleeing persecution, taking new technologies with them and carrying new ideas. There will be murder, judicial or otherwise, and there will be wars. Very little will be the same as the world moves into the 17th century.

Years ago, back in 1989 when it was first published, I read and fell in love with Pillars of the Earth, the first of the Kingsbridge series and followed years later in 2007 by World Without End. Nobody writes historical sagas quite like Ken Follett. He is a master of them, as shown once again and more recently in his epic Century trilogy. How fantastic it is to return once more to Kingsbridge, a city that we have seen grow and develop, suffer and endure, through centuries of history. Prior Phillip still rests in his tomb in Kingsbridge Cathedral, a reminder of those distant days when the ancestors of those who still live within the city walked its streets and built its walls and bridges. The battle between good and bad continues but now there is more to it than divides of influence, wealth and status – religion is now involved and, more than ever, individuals can break free of their bonds and rise to dominance, whether it’s through engineering, the civil service or captaining vessels.

A Column of Fire is an extraordinary achievement. As you’d expect and hope from a Ken Follett saga, it’s a mighty tome at 751 Pages (at least according to the proof). But every single one of these pages works its magic because we are taken through a whole world of stories, moving from place to place, picking up on people’s lives, following them through a period of over forty years. The novel’s heart lies in Kingsbridge but a great deal of time is spent elsewhere, predominantly in Paris, but also in the Netherlands, southern Spain, throughout England and Scotland and across the high seas to the Caribbean. The story involves people at all levels of society and the main characters aren’t just fictional, they’re also prominent historical figures, such as Elizabeth I, Mary Queen of Scots and the Dukes of Guise. Certain characters move among them, especially Ned and Pierre, bringing us into the centre of European political affairs during the Elizabethan Age, while also highlighting the intellectual, religious and literary achievements of these glorious European courts. But the suffering that religious persecution brought is made real by showing its effect on the men, women and children of this city in England that we have grown to love – Kingsbridge.

There is nothing about A Column of Fire that isn’t a joy to read. Huge ideas and swathes of history are covered, including the Massacre of St Bartholomew’s Day, the imprisonment of Mary, Queen of Scots, the Spanish Armada, but all in the most accessible yet immersive fashion. There are many characters but they all seem individual and each has a fascinating part to play in the bigger picture. As usual with Ken Follett’s novels, plenty of the character spend what time they can obsessing about sex, which you just have to put up with in these books, but it doesn’t interfere too much and it’s good to spend time with these people in those moments when they can escape the stress and danger of history. And there are always fabulous baddies to hate. There are some corkers here and I also particularly enjoyed the portraits of the Dukes of Guise with their scarred faces and scarred souls. These people were devious! They are perfect for historical fiction.

I read A Column of Fire in just two days and what a fantastic two days those were. I did not want it to end. I savoured it. Ultimately this is a novel about love and hate and trying to find the middle ground, the path of tolerance and peace. It isn’t easy to find and the characters here often fail but following Ned and Marjory through these years is a wonderful thing to do. These Kingsbridge novels don’t come along too often and when they do they’re very special indeed. Arguably, A Column of Fire is as fine an achievement as Pillars of the Earth, I certainly loved it as much.

Other reviews
Winter of the World
Edge of Eternity

Onslaught: The Centurions II by Anthony Riches

Hodder & Stoughton | 2017 (21 September) | 386p | Review copy | Buy the book

Onslaught by Anthony RichesOnslaught is the middle book in Anthony Riches’ new and really rather brilliant trilogy on the Batavi Revolt of AD 68-70. Although, if you really had to, you could read this without having read the first in the series, Betrayal, I don’t recommend it. Onslaught follows on from Betrayal perfectly so do read that one first. This review assumes that you’ve done just that.

It is AD 69 and Rome’s problems extend far beyond the grumbling tribes of Germany – the new emperor Vitellius is in trouble already, with Vespasian threatening from the East. As a hugely respected soldier and general, Vespasian is a popular choice for several of the legions and so the Roman army is split. And when some of the most experienced soldiers are marched south from the Rhine to join Vitellius’s forces against Vespasian, the ones left behind are extremely vulnerable to the might of the Batavi. Once bodyguards to the emperors, the Batavi haven’t forgotten the shameful way in which recent emperor Otho dismissed them from his service and sent them home. Their rebellion, led by prince Kivilaz, has gone quiet after their victories of the year before, but this is merely a lull. And the prospect of Vespasian on the horizon has given Kivilaz just what he needs to tear the Romans apart.

Onslaught brings us the story of the Batavi Revolt through four centurions – Marius, Antonius, Alcaeus and Aquilius – as well as their superior officers and the men that they command. Once all four fought on the same side, especially in Britannia, but now they oppose each other in civil war. The action moves between the camps that line the Rhine, the Roman border, which goes right through the tribal lands of the Batavi. Old Camp is particularly vulnerable and it is there that the Batavi decide to attack.

This is thrilling stuff. Tension, fear, martial prowess and incredible courage are all on display here as we move up and down the Rhine, following the marching, disciplined Batavi troop – who, as soldiers, are in a way more Roman than the Romans – as well as watching the Romans prepare for a siege. Because we are drawn into both sides of the conflict, we care for soldiers on both sides. Our sympathies really are split, at least on an individual level. There are people here we care for – they banter, they squabble, they give each other nicknames, and they all have to bury friends. This is an enemy with a face, no matter which side you’re on. It raises the stakes.

You do have to have your wits about you when reading Onslaught. There is a lot of moving around and it can be quite difficult, at least during the first third, to keep track of who’s who. There are some similar people and place names as well. But this is not a simple story, happily, and if you take the time and effort, it’s very rewarding. There is, though, a very useful dramatis personae at the beginning as well as a couple of handy maps.

I love sieges in Roman military fiction and this is one of the very best. Anthony Riches knows his Roman military history inside out and we reap the benefits of that here. Every time you think that the siege couldn’t get any more difficult or desperate, the level is raised once more. This is brutal and it’s bloody. But I also felt that I was learning a great deal about Roman warfare, especially its weaponry and tactics, which I really enjoyed and appreciated. Combining this with exhilarating action, I did not want to put Onslaught down at all. I also liked very much the added political element, going on behind the scenes, of the fight for the empire between Vitellius and Vespasian.

Anthony Riches doesn’t pull his punches, nor does he mind throwing in a few shocks. You can’t count on any of these characters making it through to the end, so I did take a few blows to the heart. But this is war, after all. There was one moment that really made me think, when one of the centurions has to decide how to treat men who have had enough and don’t want to fight anymore. This is not black and white. These are three-dimensional characters and their personalities shine even though they’re hard at work most of the time just staying alive.

Retribution will complete the trilogy next spring and I can’t wait. You only have to look at the list of reviews below to see how much I love Anthony Riches’ work. His Empire series, which I adore, now has a rival for my affections in The Centurions.

Other reviews and features
Betrayal: The Centurions I

Empire I: Wounds of Honour
Empire II: Arrows of Fury
Empire III: Fortress of Spears
Empire IV: The Leopard Sword
Empire V: The Wolf’s Gold
Empire VI: The Eagle’s Vengeance
Empire VII: The Emperor’s Knives
Empire VIII: Thunder of the Gods
Empire IX: Altar of Blood
An interview for The Eagles Vengeance
An interview for The Emperor’s Knives

Cover reveal – Day of the Caesars by Simon Scarrow

I’m a huge fan of Simon’s Scarrow Eagles of the Empire series and on 16 November Headline publishes the 16th – Day of the Caesars! I am delighted and more than a little thrilled to present here, exclusively, the cover reveal for the novel. And doesn’t it look good?!

The contents sound pretty fab as well:

AD 54. The Emperor Claudius is dead. Nero rules. His half-brother Britannicus has also laid claim to the throne. A bloody power struggle is underway.

All Prefect Cato and Centurion Macro want is a simple army life, fighting with their brave and loyal men. But Cato has caught the eye of rival factions determined to get him on their side. To survive, Cato must play a cunning game, and enlist the help of the one man in the Empire he can trust: Macro.

As the rebel force grows, legionaries and Praetorian Guards are moved like chess pieces by powerful and shadowy figures. A political game has created the ultimate military challenge. Can civil war be averted? The future of the empire is in Cato’s hands…

A review will be appearing here nearer the publication date but, in the meantime, here are past reviews of Simon Scarrow’s work.

The Blood Crows
Brothers in Blood
Invader (with T.J. Andrews)

‘The origins of The Vintener Trilogy’ – guest post by Michael Jecks

Last week, Simon and Schuster published Blood of the Innocents, the final part of Michael Jecks’ Vintener Trilogy, a series of books that takes us back in time to that most troublesome of centuries – the 14th – and the Hundred Years War. To celebrate the publication, I’m delighted to host a fascinating in-depth guest post from the author. In it, Michael looks at the origins of the trilogy, its historical inspiration and its growth into a series that is now complete.

Blood of the Innocents by Michael JecksFirst, a little of what Blood of the Innocents is about

France, 1356: Ten years have passed since the battle of Crecy, and the English fighters are still abroad, laying siege to cities, towns and even small villages. Meanwhile the Prince of Wales raids across France to draw King John into a battle for sovereignty.

Berenger Fripper, having lost everything to the plague, is now captain of a company of mercenaries, but treachery and deceit dog him when his travels with the company lead him to Uzerche. And then his path crosses that of Prince Edward and his men as they embark on their latest chevauchée to bring death and disaster to the King of France’s subjects.

Enlisted as Vintener under Sir John de Sully, Berenger finds himself drawn into a new struggle. Can the English defeat the much larger French army, or will they find themselves finally overcome when their weary feet bring them at last to the field of battle near Poitiers…

The origins of The Vintener Trilogy

It was a surprise four years ago when my new editor at Simon and Schuster suggested I should consider a change of direction.

Until then I had been a cheerful writer of crime thrillers which happened to be set in the far-distant past – during the reign of King Edward II and his deplorable friend Sir Hugh le Despenser (and if all you know about those two was that Edward died in a particularly nasty manner in Berkley Castle, and that they were gay, then you need to read my books and prepare for a minor revisionist shock).

But no, my new editor wanted me to stop writing my Templar series, which had reached thirty-two titles at that stage, and consider a violent war series.

‘I thought you might have some ideas,’ she said, looking at me hopefully.

‘Medieval?’ I guessed. I knew she liked blood and stabbing weapons.

She smiled and nodded.

‘Um,’ I said.

Because starting out with a new concept is always tough. There are no rules, no existing plot-lines and characters – not even the outline of a landscape. Everything is open. Some people say that sitting down with a blank sheet of paper is terrifying when they are about to embark on a new novel; well, after thirty-two titles in a series in which I knew the landscape, history, people, legal issues, and already had a bank of seven or more different potential murders, I was happy to write more in that line. It was much harder to start from scratch.

And yet …

There was a period I had always wanted to cover: the Hundred Years War.

Fields of Glory by Michael JecksMany years ago – I’m guessing 1978 – I was a member of a mail order bookseller which specialised in history and warfare. One month there was a book with a wonderful write-up. It was The Hundred Years War, written by Desmond Seward. It gave only a brief introduction to the war, which is hardly surprising bearing in mind it covered so many events, but I was engaged by the colourful characters, from Sir Walter Manny, Lord John Talbot, Sir John Fastolf, the Duke of Bedford, to the Kings of both countries. Later I read Jonathan Sumption’s books for more detail, yet Seward’s book was so vividly written, the author so obviously enthusiastic about his subject, that I was gripped.

I would write about the Hundred Years War, then, but that was little help. When you are confronted with a new project, you have a series of difficult questions to answer: how should it be written, and from whose perspectives? Should it be a story about the rich and famous, about Kings and their avarice, or a tale about the scruffy fellows at the bottom of society? And which period of the war should I cover?

I wasn’t overly keen on Agincourt, since so many others have marched behind that banner – in fact I rather liked the idea of starting with Sluys, or one of the chevauchees launched by King Edward III, but then I had a stroke of luck.

If you love books, you tend to recommend them to others, and lend your copies. Often they don’t come back. One book I was very annoyed to lose was “Quartered Safe Out Here”, by George MacDonald Fraser. It was the story of his experiences during the Burma campaign. He fought under General Slim, stopping the Japanese and crushing them. A great warrior, Slim was an inspirational leader who had joined as an ordinary soldier in 1914, fought through the hell of Gallipoli, and rose through the ranks purely on the basis of his own merit and courage. The ordinary troops adored him: GM Fraser said, “he had the head of a general with the heart of a private soldier.”

“Quartered Safe Out Here” is the best war memoir I have read. MacDonald Fraser wrote about his platoon, Nine Section. Suddenly I had a vision of a vintaine of men, archers marching across France, rarely knowing what each day would bring, trudging ever onwards, cold, wet and bored – their hunger and thirst interspersed with flashes of pillage and drunkenness – and occasional bouts of terror. I could look at the motivations of each soldier, his background, his reasons for exchanging hearth and home and comfort for the dangerous life of a medieval soldier.

I loved it!

So I selected a group of men. I had a rich palette to choose from: Falstaffian characters, ruffians, the semi-sorcerers of the gunpowder-makers and gunners, and then, of course, the deplorable mercenary types. And as soon as I started I realised that my main issue would be writing this rag-tag group of men so that modern readers could identify with them.

Don’t get me wrong: I am a firm believer that the society that gave us Boccaccio and Chaucer was not so dissimilar to our modern version. People have not changed radically in outlook or behaviour, but murder is more frowned upon in the present age. The idea of depicting an army on the rampage, slaughtering all within reach, raping women and behaving with abhorrent disregard for others – and depicting them as sympathetic characters or heroes? That would be tough.

If I have a rule as a historical writer, it is that I will not lie. I could not ignore the baser acts of the English in France. I wanted to show them. For that I hit on the idea of writing from the perspective of a French woman dragged into the fighting, who wanted only to escape. Bringing her into the story balanced it, allowing me to look at the war from the point of view of those affected by it. We are used to pictures of refugees trudging their way across the countryside trying to find safety. The Second World War had many images of peasants with overfilled carts; the Vietnam War, the Bosnian War, the Russian attacks on Chechnya, Georgia and Ukraine, the wars in Iraq and Syria all have their victims. I wanted to show that none of this is new. History repeats itself.

There was one thing I was determined to do with this first novel, and that was to exclude the King and his top advisers. I wanted this to be a story of ordinary soldiers. However, there was one aspect I had to look at.

Historians tend to fall into one of two categories: those who believe Edward had no intention of fighting a major battle – he was a terrorist bringing a wave of brutality to the French countryside, and did all he could to evade the French when he realised they were hurrying to catch him; or those who say that he had a deliberate war plan – that he force-marched his men to Paris to torment the French into joining battle, and led the French to the field he had chosen many years before: Crécy.

I had to try to show how Edward III was thinking.

My immediate thought was to pick a servant who could listen with brazen impudence to what his superiors were planning, but that didn’t quite hack it for me. A cheeky servant is rather a cliché nowadays, and I didn’t think that a man who spent his time obviously listening in to the King’s war-planning meetings would have a good life-expectancy. I had to think up a new character.

Blood on the Sand by Michael JecksI didn’t get my man until I recalled a grave in Crediton’s Church of the Holy Cross and The Mother of Him Who Hung Thereon. Up at the far right-hand side behind the altar there is a tomb dedicated to a Sir John de Sully. He was a knight of that period. He fought in his first battle, possibly, at Bannockburn in 1316. After that he had a starring role in almost every major battle of the 1300s, rising to become one of the Black Prince’s most trusted men, still fighting with his Prince in 1367, when he would have been in his 80s (I assume more in an advisory capacity than as a warrior). He was so famous and respected that he became one of the early knights of the Order of the Garter, and died greatly honoured at the age of about 106. Yes, that isn’t a typo.

With Sir John I had a character whom I could use to great effect as a link between my vintaine force of archers and the main plans and issues of the English King on the march. My archers would be a vintaine serving under him in this book, and he would give the perspective of the commanders without actually being a part of them. Through him my archers would get their view of the campaign and planning.

I had my men, I had their commander, and now I was leaning towards the march to Crécy for my book. That would make a good climax. Job done, I thought.

But as I planned and outlined my story, it became clear that there was more for me to look at. For example, when the battle of Crécy was done, the English marched on. Edward was determined to take a port to facilitate further incursions into France and chose Calais to be his bridgehead. He would take it and hold it for England. Clearly the capture of Calais would have to become a sequel to the first book about Crécy. And again, after Calais, there was the horror of the Black Death, and the subsequent return to battle that ended in the battle of Poitiers.

So my book would have to become a trilogy, and a trilogy more about a small group of men and how they coped with life in the army, but later on, how they coped with the most appalling tragedy Europe has coped with – the plague.

There are always a lot of problems when writing, such as the difficulty of knowing when to stop researching and start writing. I have always firmly believed that it’s essential to visit a place before trying to write about it. One thing I always try to do is paint a specific area, because by analysing a scene as a painter, I find myself looking more carefully at individual features of the landscape.

I was fortunate enough to be able to go to Poitiers on holiday in 1315 while planning Blood of the Innocents, and there I found the main battlefield and memorial, which was very touching – it’s dedicated to the fallen of the French, Gascon and English armies. I took a lot of photos all about the area, and planted it firmly in my mind by making a few sketches.

The trilogy is a strong story of how war affects victors and victims, the soldiers, but also the refugees. I don’t gloss over the way that the English treated their enemies or the local populace. It wouldn’t be fair to do so. But I try to give a feel for how the English thought, felt, and reacted which is, I hope, fair. At the end of the day, it’s up to the readers to give their opinion – so, I hope you enjoy the books, and hopefully that they inspire you to find out more about this astonishing period of English and French history.

Happy reading!

Follow Michael on Twitter
Michael’s website

‘Historical sources for Another Woman’s Husband’, Guest post by Gill Paul

Another Woman's Husband by Gill PaulEarlier this month, Headline published the latest novel by Gill Paul, Another Woman’s Husband, a novel that brings together the stories of two significant women in 20th-century British royal history – Wallis Simpson and Diana, Princess of Wales. I’ll be posting my review in November for the paperback release, but, in the meantime, I’m delighted to host here a guest post from Gill in which she discusses the historical sources for her novel.

First, a little about what Another Woman’s Husband is about:

Two women, divided by time, bound by a secret…

1911. Aged just fifteen, Mary Kirk and Wallis Warfield meet at summer camp. Their friendship will survive heartbreaks, continents, and the demands of the English crown, until it is shattered by one unforgivable betrayal…

1997. Kendall’s romantic break in Paris with her fiance is interrupted when the taxi in front crashes suddenly. The news soon follows: Princess Diana is dead. Trying to forget what she has witnessed, Kendall returns home, where the discovery of a long-forgotten link to Wallis Simpson, the Duchess of Windsor, will lead her to the truth of a scandal which shook the world…

Historical Sources

When I decided to write about Wallis Warfield and Diana, Princess of Wales, both of them controversial women, the first choice was which of the dozens of books about them both I could trust. Back when I was studying history at uni, we were taught to question sources. Who wrote it? What audience were they writing for? What were they trying to achieve by writing? What information did they have and what did they not know?

Sometimes it makes sense to read the most recent biographies first, since you can assume their authors have read the preceding ones. Anne Sebba’s That Woman is a brilliant read and highly recommended, although I don’t agree with her assertion, originally proposed in Michael Bloch’s biography, that Wallis suffered from Androgen Insensitivity Syndrome. The evidence for this seems flimsy: large hands, male bone structure, deep voice. None of her lovers ever reported that she had male characteristics in her genitalia; she was clearly a sexually confident woman so it seems to me a curious leap to make.

The first-ever biography of Wallis was written in 1937 by a woman called Edwina H. Wilson. Wallis suspected Mary Kirk of having collaborated with the author, but I don’t think she did. There would have been far more detail in the childhood sections if she had, and surely a more negative view of her character, since it was written the year after Wallis and Mary fell out.

Wallis’s autobiography, published in 1956, is fascinating because it allowed me to hear her voice, but it contains a lot of revisionism. For example, according to her, Ernest was present when the Prince sent an on-board telegram just as she embarked for New York in March 1933. He wasn’t, and it was a clear sign of the Prince’s personal interest in her at an early stage. Wallis tries to make out that until the summer of 1935 his friendship was more with Ernest than with her – but I beg to differ.

Mary Kirk is all but written out of Wallis’s autobiography but I managed to find a biography of her, written by her sister and niece. It’s a short, self-published, photocopied transcript of letters that Mary wrote to her sister Anne, and replies that her sister imagines she might have sent, along with interspersed explanations. A strange book altogether, but immensely valuable to let me hear Mary’s voice and the phrases she used, such as “rich as mud” and “I’m on the outs with Wallis”.

When it comes to Diana there is as yet no academic, properly verified and footnoted account of her life, although she richly deserves one. Andrew Morton is the obvious starting place when it comes to biographies, as he is immensely well connected in royal circles even twenty years after Diana’s death. But his bestselling book was secretly based on interviews with Diana herself, was written as her marriage was imploding and had her seal of approval, so it clearly had its own agenda and its own bias.

I decided not to write about Diana as a character but to let her be a ‘ghost’ in the novel, while others investigated the circumstances of her death. My time frame was very tight – 30th August to 28th December 1997 – and I had to be careful not to include information discovered after that date, which Alex in the novel wouldn’t have known about. I watched the Panorama documentary made two weeks after the crash, as well as the ITV and Channel 4 ones made the following year. Martyn Gregory’s account Diana: The Last Days seemed the most trustworthy of dozens of books about her death – not least because he lists his sources in endnotes – and with his help I pieced together a timeline of when information was revealed. I couldn’t include the strange story of James Adanson, a paparazzo who may or may not have been driving the white Fiat and who died soon after the crash in mysterious circumstances… But I think there were already enough anomalies to give Alex plenty of material for his own fictitious documentary.

Other posts
Guest post: Gill Paul, author of No Place for a Lady, ‘on feminism, bereavement and squeamishness’
A review of The Secret Wife

For other stops on the tour, please take a look at the poster below.

Treason’s Spring by Robert Wilton

Corvus | 2017 (7 September) | 404p | Review copy | Buy the book

Treason's Spring by Robert WiltonIt is 1792 and the age of the mob has brought violence and chaos to the streets of Paris, in particular the Place de la Révolution where Madame Guillotine holds centre stage. All of Europe reels from it, especially England which is still enduring the aftermath of the recent American Revolution. These are the early days of The Terror, the King and Queen of France are only recently imprisoned and the National Convention, the revolutionary ruling body of France, doesn’t quite know what to do with them. The Ministers, several of whom held position under King Louis, are anxious. A wrong word uttered, a whiff of sentimental nostalgia, the slightest slip is enough to consign even the most powerful to a public, humiliating death.

As the Ministers juggle for power and safety, their wives play the society game – politics now plays out almost as much in the drawing rooms and ballrooms of the fashionable as in the governmental hall of the Tuileries Palace. Intrigue competes with flirtation, and spies hide in plain sight. And behind the glamour and wit, there lurks the dirty reality of revolution – the torturer, the murderer, the joy of the hunt.

Joseph Fouché is a member of the National Convention and its master spy. He suspects everyone but more than anything he wants to find the lost correspondence of King Louis. These letters are believed to contain the names and details of the Revolution’s enemies, all ripe for the blade. But this is a bigger game than Fouché might have first suspected. The imprisonment of the king, the turmoil of France, is an international concern and there are other spies at work in Paris, from England, Prussia and elsewhere. A cat and mouse hunt is underway but which is the cat?

Treason’s Spring is the first novel in a new trilogy from Robert Wilton but it continues a theme that has filled all of his novels and made them unique and extraordinarily clever and rewarding. This, and the other novels, are presented as the archives of the Comptrollerate-General for Scrutiny and Survey – in other words, the secret records of the English government’s chief spy. Past novels have taken us to Napoleonic France, the English Civil War and the outbreak of World War 1. Each stands alone but the structure and appeal is the same. The archives themselves, such as letters and interviews are combined with a dramatised narrative of what was learned at the time and since. This is an omnipotent author, writing with the benefit of hindsight, but his interjections are few and far between. Instead, the spies, their lovers, their masters and their victims are allowed to speak for themselves. And they tell fascinating tales, providing an irresistible perspective on some of the most tumultuous events in recent centuries.

The cast of Treason’s Spring is large and complex and the narrative moves between them all, sometimes in past tense, occasionally in present tense. One man in particular is believed to hold the secret of what has happened to Louis’ letters and also to his stolen jewels, a British man called Henry Greene. And everyone is in pursuit of Greene. He moves like a shadow across the novel, barely seen, but the subject of whisper and rumour. And so too are the men and women who seek him. Their lives regularly cross. They speak the language of lies and deceit.

Nobody is quite what they seem. Identities are easy to borrow, lives just as easy to lose. You’d have thought from this that it would be hard for the reader to grow attached to any of the people of this novel, but this is far from true. Robert Wilton is a masterly writer. These are all well-rounded personalities and I was attached to many of the characters – in fact, I was concerned for all of them. With the exception of Fouché and his torturing thug. I was going to list the characters I enjoyed the most when I realised that this is almost everyone on the list of dramatis personae that can be found at the start of the book. But I must point out that the women are as important as the men in this novel and the role they play is vital and every bit as dangerous, perhaps more so because they have so much more to lose.

Treason’s Spring is an enormous achievement. It is immensely clever, controlled and ambitious and it succeeds in all of its aims. I was engrossed. I admired its intellectual brilliance while also being moved to tears by the horror and sadness of events. Personal tragedies were played out time and time again during The Terror and this novel captures so well the fear and uncertainty of these bloody, chaotic months. Revolutionary Paris is itself brought to life. This opening novel suggests that we are embarking on a trilogy of significance and I will drop everything to read the succeeding novel, Treason’s Flood, which we’re told will take us to the field of Waterloo. I cannot wait!

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