Written by Jonathan Hicks — Last year, Hicks introduced us to Captain Thomas Oscendale, of The Military Foot Police. In The Dead of Mametz, he was investigating treachery and murder during the Battle of The Somme. Now, he is in the Ypres Salient, and it is 1917, a year later. Oscendale is trying to solve a serious of horrific murders in Barry Island, Wales. They appear to link to strange events that happened in Gallipoli in 1915, echoing unexplained deaths of soldiers both at the Front and at home.
Oscendale falls for a beautiful war widow in the process, and when he finds that his most likely witness to corruption in high military places has been invalided home with neurasthenia, he has to resort to drastic measures that threaten his own life and sanity. The action takes us from the dust, heat, flies and bloated corpses of 1915 Gallipoli, through the bleak and devastated flatlands of Flanders, to small-town Wales, with its shattered and impoverished war widows, deserters at their wits’ end, and heroes who have been crippled both physically and mentally.
Oscendale is a convincing character. We find him very much warts and all. He is brave, intelligent, and occasionally foolhardy, and he does – dramatically on occasions – make mistakes. He is tired of the War, has seen too much death and misery, and is contemptuous of superiors and colleagues who claim that the conflict is sanctified by God being on their side. This contempt turns to something more like cold fury when he suspects that a high ranking officer has been falsifying statements and accounts of bravery in order to advance his own career. As Oscendale begins to look under the stones, even he is not prepared for the full horror of what he finds.
The plot is very complex, and with the action ranging backwards and forwards between Wales and Belgium, with a vital flashback scene thrown in for good measure, it is hard to keep track of the connections between the characters. Hicks ties things up fairly convincingly by the close, but there are just one or two slightly loose ends which could have done with being tightened. The technical military details are impressive, although I did raise an eyebrow at the rather early appearance of German sub-machine guns, and the farming family that spoke French rather than the more likely Flemish/Dutch. These are just the quibbles of a WWI buff, and there are no anachronisms in the book to spoil the enjoyment of the general reader.
As in The Dead of Mametz, the scenes with the greatest urgency and authenticity are when Oscendale walks the streets of his Welsh homeland. The quiet grief of desolated wives, parents,brothers and sisters is vividly described, and despite the well-researched Western Front settings, and no shortage of graphically described action, the reader is never more convinced that they are walking in Oscendale’s footsteps than when he is confronted with the wet slates and soot-stained brick terraces of his home town. The Dead of Mametz was fun and intriguing, but flawed. This latest outing for Jonathan Hicks and Thomas Oscendale is a great leap forward, and propels the series nearer to the Premier League of British crime fiction.
CFL Rating: 4 stars