Written by Rory Clements — It is 1936 Berlin and Nancy Hereward is a privileged young woman with left wing ideals who is dodging Nazis to deliver papers to a Jewish scientist. Nancy has a predilection for morphine and a few months later is found dead in her home in Cambridge. There is a silver syringe by her side and the evidence point to an apparent overdose. She is found by her friend Lydia Morris who calls her neighbour Thomas Wilde for help. Wilde is a history professor at Cambridge who coaches his young students on the need for scholars of history to be great detectives. He has a particular interest in Francis Walsingham and the birth of the secret service in Elizabethan England.
Nancy and Lydia were together at the Cambridge college, Girton, along with Margot Langley. Lydia suspects murder and they start probing. Wilde soon gets involved with Philip Eaton, The Times Special Correspondent, who arranges for him to visit the newly discovered scene of two brutal murders. Margot’s parents have been slaughtered in what seems to be politically motivated killings. Margot is in the wind and the scene is now set for fascism and communism to collide in a tumultous week in December 1936. There is a very real sense of global events overtaking the players as Thomas Wilde unravels the conspiracy.
With American and Irish heritage, our main protagonist Wilde is something of an outsider. He is not entirely comfortable with the traditions of an ancient Cambridge college but he is admired for his intellect. He is a boxer, a birdwatcher and loves his motorbike. Calling him a maverick might be stretching it – refusing to attend High Table hardly qualifies as hardboiled but Wilde is engaging as he needles the establishment. Rory Clements is an experienced hand at historical fiction and the period nuances are subtle but telling. For instance, the artful blending of the detail of Wilde starting and riding his Rudge Special across the the frosty landscape of the Fens gives an effortless but authentic evocation of the 1930s.
This is a rich and complex story with a very large cast. In the early stages it is not quite clear how the narrative is being driven forward. It is just on the cusp of stalling as we digress to introduce yet another set of characters. The story settles into its stride as the halfway mark is passed and many of the characters are memorable. Men like comrade Yuri Kholtov, a communist lecturing in Britain, and Horace Dill, fellow at Cambridge with Bolshevik tendencies railing against the King, Hitler and the Tories, are particularly vivid. For a few short scenes we also drop in on Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin and his discussions with Edward VIII as the king teeters on the brink of abdication to be with his beloved Wallis Simpson. And the new characters keep coming – the exotic German intriguer Sophie Gräfin von Isarbeck and Major Harold Middlemass, aide-de-camp of the Duke of York (soon to be King) offer a delicious sub plot.
Those who prefer a more direct narrative with a limited and deeper perspective may find the scope of this book dizzying. It all comes together for the final surging third of the book. An omniscient viewpoint and multiple characters give this novel the gravitas of Le Carré and it is highly accomplished. The 1930s are quite a decade in which to set a new series and with Bolsheviks, Nazis, treachery and political manoeuvring set against a looming global conflagration this is rich pickings for a skilled storyteller. It is impressively executed and Clements delivers a multi-layered historical spy thriller that few can emulate.
CFL Rating: 4 Stars