Category Archives: Scottish authors
Dull. Dreary. Dry. These are not words I would ever have expected to use to describe a novel by William Boyd.
I used to love his work. Sadly the William Boyd who wrote the masterpiece Any Human Heart and the highly enjoyable Brazzaville Beach and A Good Man In Africa, seems to have disappeared. The new incarnation if Love is Blind is anything to go by, is but a pale imitation.
Love is Blind is fundamentally a historical romance featuring a Scottish piano tuner and his obsessive love for a Russian singer. In the late 1890s, Brodie Moncur works for Channon & Co, an Edinburgh-based piano manufacturer. He’s thought of so highly he gets sent to Paris to help establish a branch in the city and drum up new business.
He comes up with a clever marketing scheme to get leading pianists to always use Channon pianos for their performances. It’s through this project he encounters John Kilbarron – “The Irish Liszt” – once a brilliant pianist but now finding his powers at an ebb. It’s also how Moncur meets and falls for Kilbarron’s lover, the would-be opera singer Lika Brum.
Discovery of the lovers’ trysts triggers a breakdown in Moncur’s professional relationship with Kilbarron. The piano tuner ends up criss-crossing Europe finding work as best he can and trying to stay one step ahead of Kilbarron’s vengeful brother. Lika flits in and out but even when she is not physically with Moncur he can’t stop thinking about her. His love for her is indeed so blind he can’t see what is patently obvious to readers: this woman can’t be trusted.
Why Love Is Blind Is Boring
First of all, Love is Blind moves very slowly, particularly at the beginning. It takes 50 pages before Moncur is even in Paris and another 50 before the relationship with Kilbarron materialises. A fair chunk of the early pages are taken up by a trip to his home in Scotland and a hostile encounter with his father. It’s an odd episode. There’s a history between this pair that William Boyd hints at but never fully explains so the point of the episode was wholly lost on me.
Most of the novel takes place in Russia, Paris and the French Riviera but Boyd manages to rob these locations of any kind of atmosphere.
He brings Scotland to life well as on his first visit home after many years:.
“The dog cart clip-clopped through the village and led them past the church, St Mungo’s, still looking new – pure Gothic Revival with flying buttresses, finials wherever a finial could be placed and a tall bell tower with no steeple. Its rowan- and yew-dotted cemetery was crowded with ancient graves, former parishioners, the late, good folk of the Liethen Valley. Then they turned into the gravelled carriage drive of the manse, set in a wide dark garden filled with ornamental conifers – monkey puzzles, larches and cedars – and beech trees. Beeches grew well in the Liethen Valley soil.”
But when it gets to some of the greatest cities in Europe, we got what sounded more like bland travelogue. Here’s how in a letter to his brother in Scotland, Moncur describes one of the grandest streets in St Petersburg:
Think of Edinburgh’s Princes Street transported to Russia and double the width. Shops, apartments, grand hotels –and there are three of these great boulevards radiating out from the Admiralty complex of buildings on the southern bank of the Neva river. Perhaps Piter’s Champs-Elysees might give you a better sense of the huge scale of these streets.
Doesn’t give you much of sense of the place does it? Even so, its better than the picture we’re given of Graz in Austria:
… the provincial capital of Styria, a venerable small city situated 120 miles or so to the south of Vienna. Graz was divided by the river Mur, surrounded by the high mountains of the eastern Alps and dominated by its own castle on a hill, the Schlossburg.
If this had been written by a less well established author I’d be harbouring suspicions that they’d just copied text from the state’s travel brochure….
How Not To Show Historical Context
To add to my frustrations Boyd seemed to think it necessary to contextualise the story by stuffing his novel with lists of world events. And so in Biarritz, Moncur picks up a newspaper:
An anarchist had shot at – and missed – the Prince of Wales in Belgium, the Olympic Games were about to start in Paris, and the Automobile Club of Great Britain had completed a 1,000 mile trial run from London to Edinburgh They not only felt awkward they served no useful purpose. I used to love his work but will be very reluctant to pick up anything by him in the future.
Earlier, while in Paris recuperating from his first episode of tubercolosis, he occupies his days reading newspapers.
He read about the continuing animosities of the Dreyfus Affair, the celebrations being organized around Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee, the economic tribulations facing President McKinley , and a review of a shocking new novel called Dracula.
Every time I encountered one of these passages, it had the effect of deadening what was already unremarkable prose.
Love is Blind has sadly very few redeeming qualities. It was one of the dullest books I’ve read all year.
The plot was pedestrian; the obsession not obsessive enough, none of the main characters were well rounded. As for Moncur, well frankly I didn’t feel strongly enough to care whether he captured the girl of his dreams or remained blinded by love.
It wasn’t so bad that I felt compelled to abandon the book before the end (though I really kept going only because it was a book club choice). But it was poor enough to convince me that it will be a long time before I pick up another William Boyd novel. I shall just wallow in the pleasure of the past rather than have any expectations for future pleasure.
The Franchise Affair by Josephine Tey
Sometimes a classic mystery or crime novel is the only type of book that will satisfy my mood. I don’t want the kind that oozes with blood or is ultra complex but equally the novel shouldn’t be ‘cosy’, or pedestrian.
Josephine Tey’s 1948 novel The Franchise Affair fitted my recent requirements perfectly.
It’s what I would class as an ‘intelligent’ mystery/crime novel. There are no bodies to be counted, no trail of blood, no criminals to be tracked down and unmasked in a grand dénouement (á la Poirot) and no unexpected plot reversals (á la Christie). Instead Tey presents her readers with a puzzle and invites them to follow along with the ‘detective’ as he seeks to find the truth among a knot of lies and inconsistencies.
The job of sleuth in this novel falls on the shoulders of Robert Blair, a respected solicitor in a respected family law firm in the country town of Milton. He’s called upon to defend Marion Sharpe and her mother who live in “The Franchise”, an imposing house on the outskirts of town.
They’re accused of kidnapping fifteen-year-old Betty Kane, holding her prisoner for a month and beating her when she refuses to do their cleaning. This is far from Robert’s usual kind of case but he’s been feeling lately that his life is rather unexciting and predictable. He’s rather taken with the Sharpe women and their sensible, forthright manner but he distrusts Betty’s story even though she can describe accurately items and rooms inside The Franchise.
Robert begins a painstaking search for clues that will prove his clients’ innocence and reveal that Betty is more of a cunning minx than the butter-wouldn’t-melt figure she presents to police and jurors.
Media ethics in the spotlight
The Franchise Affair is a cleverly paced novel. The first half is very much about Robert’s inability to find the holes in Betty’s story. Though he learns some surprising facts about her, he’s frustrated there is no real breakthrough. The second half has more tension; a race against time as the Sharpe’s find themselves arrested and the evidence appears to be firmly stacked against them.
Beyond the mechanics of the investigation lies a well crafted portrayal of how the media and a community react to a scandal in their midst.
Marion Sharpe and her mother were already viewed with suspicion in the town. They’re ‘outsiders’, for one thing and have acquired a reputation for being rude. The conservative townies think Marion looks like a gypsy with her dark hair, browned skin and colourful scarves. Perhaps, it’s whispered, they are witches…
The people of Milton find it easy to believe that these women who live in a ramshackle ugly house behind large gates, could be kidnappers and abusers. They find it equally easy to believe in Betty’s story, particularly when the girl’s youthful appearance and clothes makes even sober men think of “forget-me-nots and wood-smoke and bluebells and summer distances.”
This is a novel about the way people jump to conclusions. The townsfolk assume Betty is innocent because she looks that way and because she was orphaned during the war . They assume Marion Sharpe and her mother are wrong-doers because they live in a large house (hence must be wealthy) and are a little odd.
Tey clearly doesn’t have much time for people like this. But she is even more disapproving of the way the media feed their prejudices. One newspaper, the Ack-Emma is described as:
… the latest representative of the tabloid newspaper to enter British journalism from the West. It was run on the principle that two thousand pounds for damages is a cheap price to pay for sales worth half a million.
The Ack-Emma’s sensational headlines are instrumental in whipping up public animosity against the Sharpes. They take Betty’s story at face value, publish a picture of the Sharpe’s house (which then becomes a target for vigilantes) and allow abusive missives about the Sharpes to appear in their letters’ page. Tey’s narrator bemoans this new style of reporting. Time was, says the narrator, when newspapers could be relied upon to exercise sound judgement about the contents of their editions. But newspapers like Ack-Emma’ don’t confirm to those old principles.
However the narrator also acknowledges the Ack-Emma’s new style of reporting has clearly found favour with readers since sales had boomed and “in any suburban railway station seven out of ten people bound for work in the morning” were reading its pages.
The Franchise Affair is a darn good story pepped up with sparky social commentary. It also has some first class characters. Robert Blair is a joy as the lifelong bachelor with a peaceful life. He has tea and biscuits brought each day to his desk on a on lacquered tray covered with a clock. He can clock off work after the post has gone at 3.45pm, just in time for a round of golf before dinner. He’s also waited on hand and foot by a devoted aunt). I
His client ‘old’ Mrs Sharp is a fun character. Her acerbic tongue matches her name but she has has an equally sharp eye for spotting a winning race horse.
Pride of place however goes to one of the members of the supporting cast; Robert’s Aunt Linn: “a solid little figure with the short neck and round pink face and iron-grey hair that frizzed out from large hairpins.” She’s a woman perfectly content with her life which revolves around recipes, church bazars and film star gossip gleaned from magazines. Though she’s not too keen on her nephew taking on the Sharpe’s case because the people at The Franchise “aren’t the kind of people I naturally take to” she is one of the few people in Milton who doesn’t let appearances get in the way of a desire for justice.
Though there are aspects of The Franchise Affair that situate it in a particular period (a post-war England which still has the death penalty) it deals with issues that are still relevant today. Questions about media responsibility and accountability and the way communities take ‘justice’ into their own hands, are just as pertinent in 2019 as they were in 1948.
About the author
Josephine Tey was the pseudonym of Elizabeth MacKintosh who was born in Inverness, Scotland in 1896. She also wrote plays under the name Gordon Daviot, a surname that might have been chosen because it was the name of the place near Inverness where she spent family holidays.
Her first published work appeared under the name of Gordon Daviot in The Westminster Gazette in 1925. Her first mystery novel, The Man in the Queue, was published in 1929, marking the first appearance of Inspector Alan Grant from Scotland Yard. Grant makes a few brief appearances in The Franchise Affair.
Why I read this novel
I read and enjoyed another of Tey’s novels, The Daughter of Time in 2017. It’s an unusual novel, an investigation into the mystery of a historical event (the deaths of the Princes in the Tower). I was taken by her writing style, enough to want to read more of her work and luckily found a copy of The Franchise Affair in a charity bookshop. Incidentally this novel was included in a list of recommended crime novels published by The Sunday Times.
The Comforters was Muriel Spark’s first novel. She went on to write a further 21, gaining a reputation for blending wit and humour within darker themes of evil and suffering.
It contains two broad plot lines.
Once concerns the suspicions of Laurence Manders that his elderly grandmother Louisa Jepp is heavily involved in a diamond-smuggling operation. The other focuses on his on-off girlfriend Caroline Rose, a writer who is a recent convert to Catholicism. While working on a book about 20th-century fiction called “Form in the Modern Novel” she is visited by what she calls a “Typing Ghost”, an invisible being that repeats and remarks upon her thoughts and actions.
Every time Caroline has a thought, it gets echoed by the Typing Ghost. One day she writes: On the whole she did not think there would be any difficulty with Helena.
“Just then she heard the sound of a typewriter. It seemed to come through the wall on her left. It stopped and was immediately followed by a voice remarking her own thoughts. It said: On the whole she did not think there would be any difficulty with Helena.”
Most of the novel is connected to the differing reactions of Laurence and Caroline to these mysteries. Laurence is excited and intrigued when he discovers jewels hidden in a loaf of bread at his grandmother’s cottage and finds her in a conflab with three mysterious figures. Mr Webster the baker and the Hogarths, a father and his crippled son could, he surmises be “a gang … maybe Communist spies”.
Caroline on the other hand is is frightened by her mystery. Her friends cannot hear the noises of typewriter keys being tapped and a voice that sounds “like one person speaking in several tones at once”. Nor do they manage to record them on tape. Caroline thus fears the worst, that the visitations mean she is going mad. This adds to the isolation she feels because of her religious beliefs and the fact other converts she encounters are either distasteful or a bit dense.
With the aid of Laurence, her friends, and her priest, Caroline comes to see that another writer, “a writer on another plane of existence” is writing a story about her. She, and everyone around her, exist as characters within a fictional realm of an unknown author’s imagination. The Comforters is thus about the question of reality versus truth using a variation on the device of a novel within a novel.
I’m conscious that this summary of the plot doesn’t truly convey how complex and convoluted this is as a novel. As it progressed I found it more and more confusing. I reached the final third hoping all the pieces would fall into place but they never did so I abandoned the book.
I noticed that The Comforters was lauded by Graham Greene and Evelyn Waugh, both of whom saw a manuscript of the novel and encouraged Muriel Spark to find a publisher. Greene called it “One of the few really original first novels one has read for many years” while Evelyn Waugh deemed it ‘Brilliantly original and fascinating.’ Waugh did however seem to suggest that the first part of the book worked better than the latter sections.
That was also my reaction.
I enjoyed the light comedy opening where we’re introduced to Granny Louisa and Laurence, a young man which a lively imagination who sees nothing wrong in opening letters addressed to other people or rummaging through the drawers of their cupboards.
There were times when I thought this part of the novel wouldn’t have been out of place in an Ealing comedy film. We get a part-gypsy old lady who relies on pigeons for communicating with her ‘gang’ members, diamonds smuggled inside plaster casts of saints and transported to a London-based fence in granny’s home-made pickles. Stanley Holloway would have been perfect as a gang member with Katie Johnson (from The Ladykillers) as Granny Louisa.
The plot line involving Caroline’s hallucinations was an interesting meta-fictive element but the rest of the book was way too jumbled. I couldn’t work out the point Spark was making through the Baron (a bookseller friend of Caroline’s) who is obsessed by a man he thinks is England’s leading Satanist or the oppressive, malevolent figure of Mrs Georgina Hogg, a former servant to Laurence’s family. Other, more astute readers, will probably have understood the significance but it went over my head, and I wasn’t so deeply engaged with the novel otherwise that I wanted to expend any more energy in trying to work it all out.
About the book: Muriel Spark finished writing The Comforters in 1955 but it was not published until 1957. It quickly became a commercial success, though not to the same extent as The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, published in 1961.
Why I read this book: Ann at Cafe Society has embarked on a project to read something from every year of her life. I’m dipping my toe in these waters too. Since 2018 is Muriel Spark’s centenary and her first novel was published in my first year on this planet, I thought The Comforters would be as good a place to begin as any. I’ve also enjoyed the two other Muriel Spark novels I’ve read (Prime of Miss Jean Brodie and The Girls of Slender Means) so expected I would be similarly entertained by this one. Hmm.
I wouldn’t like to be drawn against Graeme Macrae Burnet in any game that requires participants to keep a straight face while lying through one’s teeth. He’d be far too good for me to spot if he was telling porkies. Not that I know the man personally you understand – I’m basing my depiction of his character entirely on the subterfuge he concocts in his novel His Bloody Project.
This is a book that is written to make you think it’s a true story. It’s subtitled “Documents relating to the case of Roderick Macrae” for one thing and contains a preface declaring that these documents relate to a murder trial that the author uncovered while researching his family history. The documents ‘found’ in the Highland Archive Centre in Inverness include a manuscript in “handwriting… admirably clear with only the most occasional crossings-out and false starts” about a triple murder. Burnet keeps up the fiction that this is a ‘true’ story through the rest of the book, presenting it in the style of a case study into the murders in late 1860s and the subsequent trial. And so we get witness statements, a written account by Roderick Macrae, the 17-year-old crofter accused of the murders, an extract from a (fictional) investigation by the (real) pioneering criminologist James Bruce Thomson and local newspaper accounts of the trial.
But this is neither a story about one of his ancestors nor a fictionalised account of a real incident. However, according to a newspaper interview with Burnet there is some grain of truth in His Bloody Project. In the novel, for example two of Roderick Macrae’s uncles die in a shipwreck – a similar accident befell two of Burnet’s own family around the same time as the novel is set and close to the location of the fictional tragedy. There actually was a triple murder committed some forty years earlier by a crofter just like Roderick Macrae but both these incidents only came to light after Burnet had finished the first draft of his novel.
This is one ingeniously plotted novel. We know from the early part of the book that Roderick is in prison accused of beating to death the local constable Lachlan Mackenzie who had waged a war of intimation against his father. There is no question that Roderick is the culprit – he was seen with blood on his hands and he confessed to his actions. In his testimony he says “I carried out these acts with the sole purpose of delivering from father from the tribulations he had lately suffered.” What we don’t know at the start of the book is who the other two victims are nor why he might have killed them. His former teacher describes him as an exceptionally intelligent boy who could have gone on to greater things but for his father’s insistence that he works on the land. Neighbours however describe him as a bit of an idiot, a lad who was always “wrong in the head.” Did he intend to kill or did he suffer a temporary loss of sanity, a form of moral insanity so that he is not responsible in law for his actions? The prison doctor and a criminologist are brought in to give their opinions on the state of his mind, leading to some blackly funny dialogue about whether all murderers share common physical characteristics.
The book’s pretence at veracity is one of the pleasures of reading His Bloody Project. Along with that we have the presence of not just one, but several unreliable narrators to keep us wondering where truth lies. Add to the mix the fact Macrae brings into focus the hardships of life for poor crofting families in the Highlands of Scotland who have to scratch a living from impoverished soil, and you have a highly enjoyable reading experience. A minor niggle for me was the lucidity of Macrae’s testimony – he makes an apology at the outset for “the poverty of my vocabulary and rudeness of style’ and then proceeds to turn in some fluid and perfectly grammatical prose. Even the schoolteacher’s assessment of the boy’s superior intellect didn’t convince me that a boy from such a poor background with little formal education beyond a village school could write so coherently. Overall it didn’t markedly spoil my enjoyment of what was in essence a well conceived and well executed novel that I highly recommend.
The Book: His Bloody Project was published in 2015 by the small independent publisher Saraband. It went on to be longlisted for the Man Booker Prize in 2016. Though it was considered an outsider because it fell into the genre of crime fiction (which isn’t a genre the Booker judges tend to select), it beat off strong competition to get onto the shortlist.
The Author: Born and brought up in Kilmarnock, Graeme Macrae Burnet worked for several years as an English teacher in Prague, Bordeaux, Porto and London, before returning to Glasgow and working for eight years for various independent television companies. His first novel, The Disappearance of Adèle Bedeau (Contraband, 2014), received a New Writer’s Award from the Scottish Book Trust. His Bloody Project is his second novel. His third is currently in progress.
Why I read this book: The day the Booker longlist was published I noticed this book was available an an e-version at a ridiculously low price so I bought it intending to read it before the shortlist announcement. I started it but got the impression it would be one of those books that has crucial information at the beginning so you need to keep turning back – which I find impossible to do on an e-reader. I requested a hard copy instead from the library but it arrived when I was out of the country and then I didn’t have time to read it so back it went unopened. But clearly the fates were determined I would read this because in February my sister turns up to visit me in hospital with a paperback copy, declaring “you really should read this.” Who could argue with that? So third time lucky for Mr Burnet…
The discovery of skeletal remains under a public car park in Leicester a couple of years ago re-awakened interest in King Richard III, the man forever lodged in the public imagination as a murderous hunchback with withered arm. Archaeological and forensic evidence of the skeleton revealed a spinal deformity but established unquestionably that both the withered arm and the hunchback were myths. What about that other accusation that Richard was a murderer? Did he actually have his two young nephews, the real heirs to the throne, killed in the Tower of London in order to clear the way for his own ascent to the throne? Or is that an invention of Tudor-era historians keen to separate the new dynasty from the past?
Richard’s role and culpability has long been a subject of fascination but most of the debate took place in the narrow confines of historical academia. In 1951 however, the question became popularised with the publication of The Daughter of Time by the Scottish novelist Josephine Tey.
It’s rather an odd book; a mash-up of historical novel and detective story; in which a modern-day detective ‘investigates’ the crimes of which Richard has stood accused for centuries. All the investigation takes place from the confines of a hospital bed where Inspector Alan Grant (the central figure in Tey’s crime fiction series) lies flat on his back having broken his leg by falling through a trap door. He’s desperately bored. He knows every crack on the ceiling and has zero interest in the pile of books brought by well-meaning visitors. He perks up when his actress friend brings him a collection of portraits attached to historical controversies. After years in the police force Grant thinks he can tell a villain from an innocent just by their face so when his eye falls on a portrait of Richard III, his curiosity is aroused. What he sees is not the face of a murderer but a man “used to great responsibility, and responsible in his authority. Someone too conscientious. A worrier; perhaps a perfectionist.” The more Grant reads about Richard, the more convinced he becomes that there is a mystery waiting to be uncovered. He quizzes hospital staff about their knowledge of the Princes in the Tower and reads whatever he can get his hands on – fortunately for him, one of his nurses has kept her old school history book.
All good detectives in fiction need a side kick to do the running around on their behalf, digging out the info from which the great brain will make his deductions. In The Daughter of Time the side kick role is allocated to Brent Carradine, a young American researcher at the British Museum. Together the pair read chronicles from Richard’s time and the Tudor era; delve into assessments by more contemporary historians and track down original documents. Grant dismisses the assessments of chroniclers like Thomas More (whose History of Richard III is the primary source for the conventional story of the murders) as “back-stair gossip and servants’ spying.” More after all was just five years old when Richard seized the throne so couldn’t possibly have written his account based on personal knowledge.
Nor does Grant have much faith in latter-day historians. “They see history like a peep show, with two-dimensional figures against a distant background” he tells his actress friend. Instead Grant relies on his ability to judge a man’s character by the cut of his jib and to spot the gaps in evidentiary documents – skills honed from his years at Scotland Yard. On the eve of Grant’s departure for home, he summarises the case for Richard’s defence and the case for seeing a wholly different culprit – his successor on the English throne, King Henry VII.
This is a novel that was immediately popular upon its publication. It took a subject seen by many as ‘dry’ and made it into a quest for justice and the truth. It caused many readers to burrow in their attics for their dusty school history books and re-acquaint themselves with the fifteenth-century equivalent of Who’s Who. A radio program based on the book followed in 1952 and then a spate of novels, plays, and biographies sympathetic to Richard throughout the 1950s and 1960s.
If Tey’s intent was to rehabilitate the reputation of a man best known as the villain of Shakespearian drama, she certainly succeeds in creating doubt about the veracity of that portrayal. But as a work of literature it has its faults. By necessity a lot of background information needs to be provided and explained so we get large chunks of narrative along these lines:
Do you know about Morton?
He was a lawyer turned churchman, and the greatest pluralist on record. He chose the Lancastrian side and stayed with it until it was made clear that Edward IV was home and dried. Then he made his peace with the York side and Edward made him Bishop of Ely. And vicar of God knows how many parishes besides. but after Richard’s accession he backed first the Woodvilles and then Henry Tudor and ended up with a cardinal’s hat….
Then we get multiple conversations between Grant and Carradine which go along the lines of
I’ll tell you something even odder. You know we thought that XYZ……… Well, it turns out that …….
Yes you may well look startled.
Are you sure?
Not exactly riveting dialogue is it? I know a certain amount of exposition is required for the benefit of readers who are not familiar with the period or the key figures but Tey goes over-board on this. I didn’t feel I needed to have everything spelled out and it deadened what would otherwise be some fascinating insights into the machinations of the times. The shame is that it marred an otherwise fascinating book. My knowledge of the period isn’t deep enough to judge for myself whether it’s Henry we should consider to be the instigator of what happened more than 500 years ago. But Tey does make a persuasive case for re-evaluating Richard’s reputation. She’s also re-awakened my interest in the period – tonight I’ll be watching the BBC version of the Shakespeare’s play (the final episode in the Hollow Crown series). Then tomorrow I plan to head for the library hoping they might have a history of Richard’s reign.
The Book: The Daughter of Time was published in 1951, the year before the death of its author. In 1990 it was voted number one in The Top 100 Crime Novels of All Time list compiled by the British Crime Writers’ Association.
The Author: Jospehine Tey was one of the pen-names of Elizabeth MacKintosh, a teacher from Inverness, Scotland. She started publishing novels in 1929 under the name Gordon Daviot, using that pseudonym also for some historical plays. A Daughter of Time was her final novel. She left her copyrights to the National Trust.
Why I read this: I tried reading another of Tey’s novels – Brat Farrar – but found it rather dull so gave up. I found a copy of The Daughter of Time in a second hand shop at very low cost and since I’m a sucker for the Wars of the Roses period in history, my curiousity was awakened. The 1951 Club, the latest in a series of events hosted by Simon of Stuck in a Book and Karen of Kaggsy’s Bookish Ramblings, gave me the impetus to take it out of the bookcase.
C.J Sansom took a gamble with his political thriller Dominion in which he imagines a world where, having failed to defeat the Nazi regime, Great Britain becomes one of Germany’s subject territories. The idea wasn’t entirely new – Len Deighton based his 1978 novel SS-GB (shortly to become a BBC drama series) on a similar premise so Sansom needed to come up with an additional sparkle.
He did so with a further gamble – using some historical figures as members of the new puppet regime and thus effectively positioning people like Lord Beaverbrook, Marie Stopes and Oswald Mosely as collaborators. Although he was never at risk of defamation claims needless to say his approach proved controversial when the novel was published in 2012 and readers saw how Stopes had been portrayed as a contributor to the Ministry of Health’s programme for eugenic sterilisation and the newspaper tycoon Beaverbrook as a meglomaniac Prime Minister.
Sansom sets his adventure in 1952 when Britain has been subjected to Nazi rule for 12 years. Some aspects of life have changed – Lyon’s Corner Houses have been rebranded for example to remove vestiges of their Jewish origins, an enormous picture of Hitler hangs in the lobby of the National Portrait Gallery and critics of the regime such as W.H. Auden and E.M. Forster, have been silenced. Though Britain is not an occupied country, the Gestapo and the SS are evident, working closely with Special Branch and the new Auxiliary Police to rout out members of the growing Resistance movement led by Winston Churchill. Sansom doesn’t tiptoe around the fact that there is a considerable level of anti-Semitism in the country though the moderates are distressed when British Jews are rounded up in preparation it is believed for deportation to German camps.
It’s a very credible scenario due largely to Sansom’s credentials as a trained historian – he meticulously documents his extensive research at the back of the novel with his bibliography detailing all the books which have influenced the final novel. The result is as believable as the world of the Tudor monarchy he created for his Shardlake series of historical crime fiction.
But Dominion isn’t purely an alternative history novel; it’s a thriller based on that old chestnut of a man with a secret who is on the run from various factions who either want him silenced or want the secret for themselves. The man on the run in Dominion is an unlikely hero figure – an unassuming geologist by the name of Frank Muncaster who is incarcerated in a mental asylum near Birmingham after learning a secret that the Germans and Americans dearly want because it will give them the edge in the race for a nuclear weapon. The Resistance deploys their extensive network of resources to spring him from the asylum, and get him to the east coast for a rendezvous with an American submarine. One of Frank’s university friends, David Fitzgerald, a civil servant acting as a spy for the Resistance, is despatched in a race against time. Will he save Frank before the Gestapo’s ace man-hunter Sturmbannfuhrer Gunther Hothform reaches him?
Much of this novel is a pretty typical thriller of co-incidences, chases, narrow escapes and unlikely plot devices. I lost track of the number of times characters declared it was unsafe to share information except on a need to know basis yet seemed very lax with details about their own identities when it suited the plot. I could tolerate most of these as par for the course with this genre but I was more concerned by the clunky characters and uninspiring dialogue. David Fitzgerald and Gunter Hothform are two of the few fully-formed characters (the women are less fully realised than the men) but they are surrounded by characters who seem to exist primarily for the purposes of exposition or to enable Shardlake to show a point of view. Fair enough to want to illustrate how the British population was divided in their attitudes but much of the resulting narrative reads like a summary of a pamphlet. Discussions about the Jewish situation are natural given the setting and topic of the novel but Sansom also introduces a key theme of nationalism and the merits of giving independence to members of the British Empire like India. Sansom’s own view becomes evident when at one point he has a character declare:
Whenever a party tells you national identity matters more than anything else in politics, that nationalism can sort out all the other problems, then watch out, because you’re on a road that can end with fascism.
That Sansom is using Dominion to make a political point becomes ever more evident and is reinforced by his historical note at the end of the novel. In it he expresses deep concern about the growth of nationalist parties like UKIP and the Scottish Nationalist Party (SNP). The SNP is, in his view, a threat to all of Britain with their tendency to shift political ground in favour of whatever policies will bring independence regardless of the consequences. He was writing of course on the eve of the 2016 Scottish Referendum but makes no secret of his own views on how the Scottish population should vote.
If this book can persuade even one person of the dangers of nationalist politics in Scotland as in the rest of Europe, and vote ‘no’ in the referendum … it will have made the whole labour worthwhile.
One wonders what he makes of President Trump. Somehow I can’t seem them becoming best chums……
The Book: Dominion by C. J Sansom was published by Mantle in 2012. My edition is a paperback from 2013.
The Author: Christopher John Sansom hails from Scotland. He read history at Birmingham university and, after a PhD thesis on the British Labour party’s policy towards South Africa between the wars, left academia for a career in the law. His first novel – Dissolution which introduced the hunchback detective Shardlake – was published in 2003.
Why I read this book: I’ve read and enjoyed four of the Shardlake novels and knew this was an author who could be relied upon to bring the past to life. I was curious whether he could be as effective when portraying the twentieth century as he has been with the sixteenth.