Written by Robert Goddard — Spring 1919. The Great War is over. Farmers along the former Western Front struggle to restore the shattered landscape. A new war is beginning. Not a war of bullets and shrapnel, but a war of words and promises, both kept and broken. Not a war fought in the chaos of No Man’s Land, but in the splendid hotels and conference halls of Paris. The victorious powers – Britain, France, the US, Italy and Japan – have sent their politicians and diplomats to the French capital to pick over the carcass of the old Europe. Amid the great and the good in their frock coats and Daimlers, stands a young Englishman, James ‘Max’ Maxsted. The ex-Royal Flying Corps pilot has come to Paris to investigate the mysterious death of his father, minor diplomat Sir Henry Maxsted.
Max’s brother Ashley has inherited the family estate, and when Max is determined to find out the truth behind their father’s alleged suicide, Ashley seems intent on scuppering his brother’s plans to open a flying school on their land. Max is joined in Paris by his former airforce mechanic, Sam Twentyman. It becomes clear to the pair that Sir James died because he was meddling in a dangerous game of espionage and information selling. At centre of it is the amoral American wheeler-dealer Travis Ireton. And another key player in the intrigue is the Kaiser’s spymaster, the elusive and ruthless Fritz Lemmer, who has disappeared with a metaphorical treasure chest of wartime secrets. Max is used, first by Ireton, then by the British Secret Service and other more shadowy organisations, to try to smoke out Lemmer.
With his brother and wife plotting against him at home, and competing agencies seeking his downfall on the streets of Paris, there are few that Max can trust, least of all the devious Foreign Office official Lionel Brigham, an ex-lover of Lady Maxsted, Max’s mother. There is a dark secret from the family’s past which involves Brigham, and despite the dogged support of Twentyman, Max finds he is more alone and in greater danger than when he was battling the Luftstreitkräfte in the skies of northern France.
This an engaging book, but one that presents a few challenges. The cast list is a long one, and it was necessary to do some page turning occasionally just to keep in mind exactly who was who. The main characters have their personalities and moral compass established on their introduction, and while this works on one level, it gives a rigid feel to the plot, because with a couple of exceptions, the individuals do not develop as the story goes on. There is one nicely-worked surprise, but we’ll leave that for you to discover…
The historical detail is immaculate, and a cold spring in Paris is beautifully described. However it’s unnecessary for waiters to say things like, ‘S’il vous plâit, Monsieur’ or ‘Le temps est épuisé’ to remind us that they are French. Niggles aside, the cauldron of deception and high stakes which was the Paris Peace Conference makes a riveting backdrop, and there are hours of entertainment here for those who like their history spiced with danger and a couple of alluring femmes fatales. Max is an engaging character; a little old-school perhaps, with a nostalgic touch of Biggles and Bulldog Drummond, but equally brave and resourceful. Judging by the final pages, there is more to come from him, and I look forward to his further adventures.
The Ways of the World is out on 4 July.
CFL Rating: 4 Stars