Written by Dominick Donald — They say something isn’t an antique until it’s 100 years old. Does the same apply to calling a novel historical? I’m guessing the answer is no, because Breathe is set in the early 1950s and that sense of past is strong. This may be a debut, but it’s historical crime at its most evocative.
We’re in London, in 1952, and following Richard Bourton, a probationer policeman based in Notting Hill. He’s older than the other newbies, having fought in both World War II and in Korea, and he’s from Gloucestershire farming stock so he has a strange way of saying things. There’s already enough to make him stand out from the crowd, but he’s also a man who likes to take the initiative, which gets him in bother with his superiors and earns him the nickname of Dick Barton with his colleagues.
Bourton is awaiting the arrival of his bride to be, a woman he met and fell in love with while he was in the army. Anna is about to change his life – and not all for the good. A White Russian who isn’t all that she seems, Anna has a troubling cough, something she tries desperately to hide from her new husband. But when the smog strikes, she reaches the end of her tether and turns for help to a stranger she meets in a coffee shop. It’s a big mistake, and one which could bring the mysterious beauty’s carefully constructed persona tumbling down around her ears.
Not that Dick is likely to notice, mind you. He may be smitten by his new wife but he’s also kept busy working his turns at the police station with extracurricular detective work on the side too. You see, Bourton is convinced that there’s a killer on the loose in London, someone who strikes when the pea soupers are at their densest and whose victims are being misdiagnosed as natural deaths. Trouble is, nobody seems to believe him.
Anyone who recalls the old Dixon of Dock Green television series will feel right at home in the place and period so vividly brought to life by the author. This is a city that’s still recovering from the battering it was given during the Blitz, where people are still having to cope with rationing and there are bombsites all around. There’s a raw authenticity about Breathe, the characters, dialogue and setting all hitting their mark with precision, so much so that you may even imagine a a black and white newsreel spooling through your head as you read.
Throughout this book, lurking in the nooks and crannies, insinuating itself into the landscape and the narrative is the London smog, so vividly recreated that is is a central character in all that occurs. Prepare to experience the eerie light created by the pea soupers, the all-encompassing blanket of silence that comes along with it, the gritty residues it leaves behind both inside and outside of the post-war homes and, most of all, the way it is feared and dreaded by people who suffer from any kind of breathing difficulties.
It’s obvious that Dominick Donald has worked hard researching the background to his novel, and in among a cast of fictional characters there are scattered the occasional real-life inhabitant of the period. One of them is a notorious criminal who I won’t name so as not to spoil the fun – but for me, his inclusion weakens the power of the narrative and sends the story off onto an unwarranted branch line when it is running full speed ahead like an express train.
Those misgivings aside, Breathe is an assured and eminently readable debut. Its pace echoes that of the investigations of the time, but this only adds to the enjoyment of a book that offers a chance to time travel without leaving the comfort of your armchair.
For an entirely different but equally striking rendering of London, try Jonathan Lyon’s debut, Carnivore.
Hodder & Stoughton
CFL Rating: 4 Stars