Act of Oblivion, by Robert Harris

Summary: a fine historical thriller based on the manhunt for the regicides of Charles I

The Act of Oblivion was a key law in British history. It paved the way for restoration of the monarchy by promising to forget the offences of most, but not all, of those who had waged war on Charles I.

Exempted from the act were the regicides, those who signed the death warrant of Charles. For them the fate of hanging, drawing and quartering awaited.

Many foolishly surendered to the crown and were tortured to death in this way in spite of their pleas for mercy. Others had to be hunted down.

Robert Harris’ book focuses on the manhunt for two of the regicides: William Goffe and his father-in-law Edward Whalley. Goffe and Whalley have had the good sense to make for North America as Charles II approached English shores. But, they wonder, as the search for them reaches across the Atlantic, is this far enough?

Act of Oblivion is a fine thriller. It is also a fine historical novel. It would be a superb introduction to the English Civil War for anyone ignorant of the subject. It is, appropriately enough, a warts and all portrayal of the period, charting the descent of the parliamentary cause into a horrendously bigoted, brutal military dictatorship. It also details the bloody revenge of the royalists following the collapse of the Commonwealth

Other reviewers have described Goffe and Whalley’s principle pursuer, a fictional character called Richard Naylor, as a “monster.” But I think this misses the point of the book.

While the principle sympathy of the book is with Whalley and Goffe, Nayler has become what Goffe and Whalley once were and would have continued to be had they not fallen from power: a merciless zealot.

Early in the book Harris quotes the biblical verse “an eye for an eye.” Because Martin King was not born until the 20th Century he cannot go further. But this book is an illustration of King’s point that, if pursued, this maxim of vengeance leaves the whole world blind.

Ashenden, by W Somerset Maugham; The Mask of Dimitrious, by Eric Ambler; and Bad Actors, by Mick Herron

Summary: a glimmer of a new day on Spook Street?

As the increasing brutality and lawlessness of Boris Johnson’s British government becomes manifest, the forlorn cry of “We are better than this” emerges from time to time from the ineffectual British Left. To which, many South Asians, Africans and Irish respond with the question, “When exactly?”

England has certainly been different to this, as the attitudes on display in these three spy novels written over the course of the past century demonstrate. But it is not clear that it was much better when they were written.

Somerset Maugham’s Ashenden concerns the adventures of the eponymous writer who is recruited into British intelligence during the First World War, as Maugham himself was. The book is mostly set in and around Geneva, Maugham’s own principal intelligence haunt during his spooky days.

Starting in Istanbul, the superb Mask of Dimitrious traces a route through central Europe to Paris in the interwar years. It concerns another writer, Charles Latimer, as he tries to piece together the career of a man who has taken advantage of the bloody chaos following the collapse of the Central Powers to reinvent himself as a master criminal.

Bad Actors, is Mick Herron’s eighth novel in his glorious Slough House series. It follows the hilariously grotesque Jackson Lamb and his Joes as they collide with on-going Russian machinations to take advantage of Brexity Britain.

Each book echoes its antecedents. All three have a fine sense of place. But aside from this they are tonally quite different: Maugham a master of supercilious Englishness; Ambler more hard-boiled but with a keen awareness of the pity of post-First World War European history; and Herron is carefully attuned to how the farce of Brexit nourishes a similar authoritarianism to that which haunted the central Europe of Ambler’s book.

Taken together with Greene and Le Carre these novels suggest a society that has fundamentally changed over the century, shedding at least some of its ignorant self-satisfaction. Instead there appears to be a growing awareness of how Britain has often been an amoral or malign influence in the world. Now, reflected in Herron’s black comedic works, Britain’s silliness is increasing in proportion to its diminishing economic prospects and political influence.

Perhaps then there is a faint glimmer of hope that Britain can become “better than this.” Until then, different generations of spy writers offer interesting insights on how well it has understood what it has actually been.

The Slough House series, by Mick Herron (Slow Horses; Dead Lions; Real Tigers; London Rules; Spook Street; Joe Country; Slough House)

Summary: extraordinarily bingeable, spooky epic

I started reading Mick Herron’s Slough House series a month or so ago thinking this will be a series to keep me entertained over a year or two, a palette cleanser between volumes such as Caro’s biography of Lyndon Johnson or other more “worthy” reading material.

Thing is, once I’d finished volume one, Slow Horses, I had to check out volume two… and once that was done, there was an urgent need to find out what was going on in volume 3…

So, in the end, I’ve read all seven books in the series in about a month, and it’s one of the most pleasurable reading experiences I’ve had in many a year.

The Slough House series recounts the misadventures of the denizens of Slough House, a bunch of failed MI5 officers, stuck into a run down office in the Barbican area of London under the supervision of the vile Jackson Lamb. (“You broke the arm of a 23 year old woman.” “I’d have broken the arm of a 40 year old man too. This is what a feminist looks like.”)

Tina Fey once discussing her comic creation Jack Donaghy, for her sublime TV series 30 Rock, described him as an archetypal nightmare boss: not just one who was repulsive, but worse still one who was right an awful lot of the time.

Mick Herron’s creation, Jackson Lamb, turns this all the way up to eleven: a misanthropic, rude, bullying, flatulent, unsanitary nightmare who is, nevertheless, very funny, ferociously smart, protective of his subordinates from anyone apart from him bullying them, and just the sort of violent talent you want at your side when the chips are down.

Mick Herron has been compared with John Le Carre, and the Slough House series shares a similar milieu, and political concerns, charting the rise of authoritarianism in Brexity England. But this is Le Carre on acid. The books are very funny, often violent, and pervaded with a deep sense of dread that arises from the knowledge that your favourite characters dwell in these pages under mortal threat.

Having finished the latest novel in the series, Slough House, I am bereft. Treat yourself and jump in.

The Thursday Murder Club, by Richard Osman

Summary: The genteel art of murder

This book does much what it says on the tin: a small group of pensioners living in a retirement community get together on Thursday evenings to examine cold murder cases as a way to keep themselves amused and mentally active.

Then a real murder crops up in their midst. So it would be churlish of them not to investigate. As is the wont with these sorts of stories, the bodies soon pile up.

Osman’s book is a genteel affair: there is little jeopardy for our heroes; the murderees are a thoroughly reprehensible bunch so there is little grieving for their losses. But it is still a very enjoyable book. It doesn’t quite have a twisty plot but it does have an engagingly droll and rambly one. The likeable cast of characters are thoroughly multicultural but are never troubled by racism or Brexity xenophobia. So it’s a quintessentially English story, even if the England it portrays, if it ever existed, is as dead now as the crooks and gangsters whose corpses the Thursday Murder Club pore over.

These Honored Dead; and Perish from the Earth (Lincoln and Speed 1&2), by Jonathan F Putnam

Summary: Abe and Joshua thwart crime in pre-Civil War Illinois

In March 1837 newly qualified lawyer Abraham Lincoln, just arrived in Springfield, enquired at the general store if the manager, Joshua Speed, knew of any accommodation he could rent. Speed did and immediately sub-let half of his own double bed above the store to Lincoln. So began perhaps the closest friendship of both men’s lives.

Me and Abe

All that is in the history books. What is not in the history books is that subsequently Abe and Joshua established a formidable crime fighting partnership – incorporating Speed’s younger sister, Martha, when she arrived in town – to combat evil doers across the state of Illinois. Something in the spirit of the classic John Ford movie Young Mr Lincoln, this is the conceit of Jonathan Putnam’s series of books which begin with These Honored Dead, and Perish from the Earth. (Both titles come from Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address.)

The books are narrated by Speed, who over the course of the first two, becomes something of an unofficial investigator for Lincoln as he tries to defend his clients from accusations of murder.

The books are wonderful on multiple levels. They are a fine introduction to aspects of the politics and culture of pre-Civil War Illinois, exploring how these impacted on Lincoln’s own evolving political thinking. They are an elegantly written portrait of a burgeoning friendship between two young men who are, at the beginning at least, on opposite sides of the issue of slavery. Both Speed and Lincoln were migrants to Illinois from Kentucky. But while Speed came from a wealthy slave-holding family, Lincoln was from a background so poor that, as a child, his own father ended his schooling and sold him to a neighbour to pay off a debt. These life experiences manifest in different attitudes to the murderous “peculiar institution” when it intrudes into these stories.

The books take details of this historical period, and the biographies of real people who rarely are granted more than a sentence in a history book and breathe life into them. This elegantly illuminates aspects of history which many may feel they know, but cannot easily empathise with. Added to this is Lincoln’s own warm laconic humour and some twisty plotting and the result is something pretty close to irresistible.

The Undiscovered Country

The tree was in the river and the kid was in the tree… The kid couldn’t have been more than ten or eleven. He looked like a ragdoll caught in the branches.”

So begins my novel, The Undiscovered Country, which, after a long road to publication, is finally out in time for Second Lockdown/ Christmas. The Irish Times has called it, “‘A smart and pacy debut that details a historical period that deserves further exploration.”

For Hamlet, the “undiscovered country” was death. That lurks within these pages alongside reflections on Dutch people’s relationship with beer and cheese, the origins of the idea of the rule of law, and the true meaning of red-headed women in Renaissance paintings. These ruminations are my protagonists’ equivalent of whistling in the dark as they try to get to the truth about a murder that they stumble upon in the midst of a war for another “undiscovered country”, the emergent Irish republic in 1920.

Try it, you might like it. 🙏

It’s available on Hive https://www.hive.co.uk/Product/Aidan-McQuade/The-Undiscovered-Country/24931562

and on Amazon, https://www.amazon.co.uk/dp/1783528079/ref=cm_sw_r_cp_api_i_rSTAFbSQ8WKS0

To Kill a Man, by Sam Bourne

Summary: a meditation on the debasement of justice disguised as a pageturing thriller

Natasha Winthrop is a big deal. A high-profile Washington human rights lawyer who has just gained national attention as Democratic counsel in televised Congressional hearings.

Then a man breaks into her apartment intent on rape. This is the man’s last big mistake as Natasha manages to kill him in the course of the attack. The cops though… the bleeding cops! They never liked Natasha. It’s getting like they can’t murder black people in broad daylight any more without some bleeding-heart lawyer like her taking a law suit against them. So, if there are a few discrepancies in Natasha’s story, well then there’s no doubt that she’s going to get the benefit of. 

Natasha though, she’s a smart enough cookie to know when she needs reinforcements. So she picks up the phone to Maggie Costello, sometime international peace mediator and counsellor to presidents, but full-time Dublin street fighter who’s never seen a trouble she couldn’t shoot. 

Sam Bourne’s (Jonathan Freedland) Maggie Costello series is set, for the most part, in Washington DC politics. This is a subject that Freedland knows well as a former Guardian correspondent. The series specialises in plots that resonate with major contemporary issues. These have included having a megalomaniac imbecile in the White House, and the undermining of the factual framework for public discourse. It also should be said that, while not the main issue, a not inconsiderable achievement of these books is that Freedland captures the cadences of Dublin speech so well. Maggie’s exchanges with her sister are a particular pleasure, note perfect in the rhythms of Irish sibling banter.

This episode of Maggie’s adventures focusses on the disturbing fact that in the US, similar to many other places, less that 1% of perpetrators of rape or sexual assault ever see the inside of a prison cell.  Given this, the book ponders, is society saying sexual violence is actually now as acceptable as speeding or doing weed?

To Kill a Man is a deeply satisfying, thought-provoking thriller and meditation on the state of the Brexity, Trumpton world in which we live. It is, paradoxically, a perfect summer distraction from the insanity of that world which, nevertheless, reminds the reader of just how insane it remains.

The Big Sleep, by Raymond Chandler

Summary: A routine blackmail case opens a whole nother can of worms for Marlowe

img_1848If Rusty Regan had still been around General Sternwood would never have had to call Marlowe. But Rusty took off weeks ago and Sternwood needs someone discrete to handle this Geiger fellow’s blackmailing grift.

It seems like a straightforward gig to Marlowe. Then Geiger turns up dead. And everyone starts getting real interested in the whereabouts of former IRA commandant Terrance Regan.

Four things you can always count on Chandler for: twisty plots, strong atmosphere, femmes fatales, and prejudice. Just as I was feeling that The Big Sleep was remarkably free of the sort of bigotries that mar his other books, such as The Long Goodbye, Chandler decides The Big Sleep needs a discourse on gay men. Unsurprisingly Chandler’s thoughts on the subject are of the sort that probably render the reader just a little stupider in their reading.

There are bona fide loose ends in The Big Sleep: it’s never quite clear who killed everyone or why. But a thing that has always intrigued me about The Big Sleep is whether Chandler based the character of Regan on Ernie O’Malley.

Regan?

O’Malley, a former IRA commander and writer, spent a chunk of the late Twenties and Thirties in the US hanging out amidst artistic and literary circles. I can’t find any indication that Chandler and O’Malley ever met. But Chandler’s description of Regan does sound very like O’Malley: “a face that is sad rather than merry, more reserved than brash… a forehead broad rather than high, a mat of dark, clustering hair… the face of a man who would move fast and play for keeps.”

Admittedly this question is probably only of minority interest. What is more important is that if you can stomach Chandler’s horrible prejudices for a bit, this is a classic piece of hard-boiled detective fiction, beautifully written with moments of poetry, and gripping from start to finish.

Blood and Sugar, by Laura Shepherd-Robinson

Summary: A gripping historical detective story, probing the dark heart of the system of slavery that made Britain rich.

The origins of Britain as a leading commercial and industrial nation lie in two comparably genocidal events: the trans-Atlantic slave trade, and the conquest of India.

These are atrocities that the majority of British people know little about. Insofar as they may be aware of the slave trade they probably only know of William Wilberforce’s parliamentary campaign to end it. The painstaking and arguably more important work by Clarkson, Sharpe, Equiano and the Quakers, that made parliamentary action possible by shifting the tide of public opinion against this industrialised trafficking of human beings, is much less well known.

Well, if British people remain ignorant of this for much longer, it will not be for Laura Shepherd-Robinson’s want of trying.

Blood and Sugar starts with the gruesome murder of an abolitionist lawyer in the slave port of Deptford. But, horrific as this event is, as veteran of the American war, Harry Corsham, discovers when he begins to probe into the death of his erstwhile friend, this is not the worst thing that those responsible for the slave trade have done.

Blood and Sugar is a gripping and richly detailed historical detective thriller that probes unflinchingly into the savagery of the trans-Atlantic slave trade. Its power is magnified by its verisimilitude: while the foreground figures may be fictitious there is nothing made up about Shepherd-Robinson’s descriptions of the horrors of the Middle Passage and the tortures routinely inflicted upon enslaved Africans.

Shepherd-Robinson has already gained deserved praise from other exemplars of the historical detective story. But even if comparably entertaining to the best of this genre Blood and Sugar is something altogether more important. It is an act of remembering, bringing to, potentially, a whole new audience one of the foundational events of modern Britain. If readers are also stirred to remember that slavery still afflicts some 40 million people across the globe, many of them still in conditions akin to those described in this book, then all the better.

Blood and Sugar is a mighty accomplishment.

The Long Goodbye, by Raymond Chandler

Summary: The Shamus’s Shamus shows how it’s done, but rarely explains why.

Terry Lennox was the politest drunk Marlowe ever met. Not the worst sort of guy to share a gimlet with on a Los Angeles evening. So when he shows up at Marlowe’s place one morning with a Mauser 7.65 automatic in his hand and a worried look on his face, what sort of a heel would Marlowe be if he didn’t give his pal a lift to Tijuana, just like he asked?

Then Terry’s wife shows up dead and Marlowe finds himself in a jam of his own when the cops show up at his door curious to know why he seems to be the last person Terry was in touch with.

Raymond Chandler thought of The Long Goodbye as his finest novel, though critics, I read, have been more divided on it. I loved it, though, like his other books, this one is rather tainted by the casual racism of its day. Marlowe is, as always, a tarnished knight errant, more moral than Sam Spade, less enlightened than Spencer, and very much a man of his times, a subject upon which he waxes lyrical.

There is a legend that Howard Hawkes and William Faulkner, director and screenwriter respectively of the classic screen version of another of Chandler’s novels, The Big Sleep, finished the picture with no real knowledge of who was killed or why.

This is of course nonsense. But, like the movie The Big Sleep, chunks of Chandler’s books can race by leaving the reader in some sense of bewilderment as Marlowe’s acerbic comments and laconic attitude rarely lets the reader completely into his thought processes.

But, perhaps because of this, it is intoxicating to be taken along for the ride. Los Angeles’ mean streets never had a better guide.