Thursday, 14 August 2014

Book Reviews

I review the odd book for the Historical Novel Society. Here's a couple that are covered in the most recent edition of their magazine.

ENGLAND EXPECTS by Sara Sheridan
It's 1953 and Mirabelle Bevan, ex-SOE agent, is adjusting to the peace by running a debt collection agency in Brighton. It doesn't take much to get her playing detective, though, and when a woman asks her to recover the lost betting slips of her murdered brother, Mirabelle and her assistant, Vesta, are soon investigating. Mirabelle, with her helpful police friend, Superintendent McGregor, finds herself up to her neck in bodies. Is it all the work of the Masons? Will Vesta ever allow her boyfriend to make an honest woman of her? And can Mirabelle and McGregor ever be more than just good friends?
It's a solid piece of detective fiction, but the 1950s setting lets it down. Although it drips with period touches, details are wrong. ("Red tops" and "dolly birds" were not terms in common use in 1953.) More significantly, there is no feel for the social realities of the time. Did I not mention that Vera is black? There are frequent references to her colour, but a black woman working in 1953 Brighton would be a constant source of wonderment. Here, her colour is almost incidental. However angry people get, no one ever uses the N-word. You wouldn't know that this is the era of signs reading 'No dogs, no blacks'. There's a similar failure to understand the pervasiveness of sexism. Many pubs, even in the 1960s, wouldn't serve unaccompanied women. Yet Mirabelle and Vesta simply have to put up with the odd bit of male condescension.
Setting books in recent history is always tricky and readers may, by now, not expect too much accuracy. If the occasional howler doesn't worry you and you like light detective thrillers, this may hit the spot. But if you just want a detective thriller, why not buy a contemporary one? And if the 1950s are your bag, there are many stories written in that period that are readily available. Some of them are noticeably better than this one.

This is the sequel to Keane's Company and is probably best read after that book.
Keane is an exploring officer in the Corps of Guides under Wellington during the Peninsular War. In the story, Keane describes himself (and is described as) a "spy" and he often reports directly to Wellington. He moves from being a combat soldier to being a scout, to hunting down enemy agents as what we would nowadays call a counter-intelligence officer, and back to being a combat soldier. He kidnaps enemy generals and seduces their mistresses, advises commanders on the disposition of their troops, develops new ciphers and is attached to Portuguese irregulars to ensure that they stay loyal to the Allied cause. A summary of the plot comes close to suggesting that he wins the war single-handed. While there is a fair bit of reasonably convincing military detail, the plot eventually veers off into a series of Boys' Own adventures and implausible triumphs.
The Guides were actually more like scouts, tasked with mapping the land and observing the movement of enemy troops, and they reported to one of Wellington's staff officers. The version of the Guides that Gale gives us certainly makes for a better story than the real thing, and having junior officers talk directly to generals is a common narrative device in historical novels (although the Wellington we see here bears little resemblance to contemporary accounts). The degree of fictionalization in this approach combines with carelessness over details until the whole thing fails to ring quite true as a novel of the Peninsular War. On the other hand, it is pacily written and succeeds as a spy thriller set against a more-or-less credible historical background.

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