Written by Graham Ison — It is London, on the last day of 1915, a year of almost continuous setbacks for the British Expeditionary Force. The old regular army has been decimated at Neuve Chapelle, Ypres, Aubers Ridge, Loos and finally, Gallipoli. Back at home, Divisional Detective Inspector Ernest Hardcastle is seeing in the New Year with his family, but his festivities are cut short by the murder of a local jeweler. The criminals have made away with a quantity of stock in – and this is the only initial clue – a very exclusive and identifiable motor car.
The car is quickly traced to its owner, the haughty and irascible Sinclair Villiers. His son, a serving officer in the Royal Field Artillery, is believed to be home on leave, but staying with Villiers’ estranged wife. Hardcastle and Sergeant Marriott soon discover that the dashing Haydn Villiers has been spending his leave bedding a certain lady – none other than the lonely wife of his commanding officer.
Hardcastle’s search for the jeweler’s killer gets more complex by the hour. It seems that a soldier who is initially suspected of being a deserter, is actually an officer in the Military Foot Police, seconded incognito to the Artillery, in order to keep tabs on the Villiers boy, who is in turn suspected of feeding important strategic information to the Germans. The fascinating backdrop to this apparent treachery is the rising influence of radical Zionists, who are uncertain which is the best horse to back in their search for a secure homeland – the British, or the Turko-German Alliance.
Hardcastle goes at his own pace, supported by his world-weary wife. He generally benefits from being under-estimated, both by his criminal adversaries, and those above him in the police hierarchy. Hardcastle is particularly contemptuous of the nascent Special Branch, and has no time for their politically dominated agenda. The novel gathers pace as marital infidelity, treachery and plain greed combine to create a contrasting home backdrop to the agonies endured by tens of thousands of soldiers suffering in the trenches on the Western Front.
This is solid, well-researched stuff, with impeccable period detail. Ison is thoughtful enough to include a glossary of conversational vernacular used in the book. Those of us with our roots deep in the mid-20th century will be familiar with the curious mixture of Hindi appropriations, Cockney rhyming slang and contemporary cultural references in used in the book’s dialogue. Our parents and grandparents spoke this language fluently, but for younger readers, it will be as familiar as Sanskrit.
The writing is formulaic, certainly – this is the 11th in the series. It seems to follow a proven recipe, so why change the ingredients? Pipe-smoke, trams, a gruff-but-perceptive old school copper, bowler hats, and the therapeutic lunchtime pint, with a few clever plot twists make this an enjoyable read. Yes, it is long on historical atmosphere, and short on psychological depth. This is not a dark exploration into the soul of a career murderer, but an account of an honest policeman, mistrustful of the latest technology – such as the telephone – but determined to do his job against the backdrop of a world conflict. Comfort reading? Possibly, but we all know how delicious comfort food can be.
The book is released on 1 November.
CFL Rating: 4 Stars