The Piccadilly Plot: A Thomas Chaloner Adventure, by Susannah Gregory
Sphere (2012), Paperback, 496 pages
The second series of Susannah Gregory’s historical crime mysteries, following her Matthew Bartholomew Chronicles set in 14th century Cambridge, takes the reader to London under the reign of Charles II. The hero, Thomas Chaloner, is a former Parliamentary spy now eking out a living under the Restoration as an agent for the Earl of Clarendon. Chaloner is a resourceful individual, skilled in espionage and weaponry, and he needs to be, because there are an inordinately large number of people who don’t like him, and not a few who want to kill him. He also has a wife he’s not sure about and a houseful of surly servants. From the seemingly simple task of finding out who’s been stealing bricks from his master’s new mansion, he winds up in a labyrinthine mystery involving English diplomatic manoueverings in North Africa, the slave trade and a plot to discredit the Queen, which he duly solves, with a little help from his friends, after escaping from numerous life-threatening situations in the nick of time. I had originally dipped into this series at the start, but found it somewhat disappointing after my enjoyment of the Bartholomew series, feeling that Gregory was more comfortable dealing with the 14th century, however, this 7th entry has been a pleasant surprise, a much more confident outing, with humour, pathos and high drama in equal quantities. Chaloner is a likeable character, perhaps more so than the rather vapid Bartholomew. His supporting ensemble is perhaps less engaging, however, this is only the 7th iteration of the series, whereas the Bartholomew series, topping 19 books, has had much more development time. On the strength of this book, I doubt I will be re-visiting the earlier books in the series, however, I will certainly seek out the next entries. Worth reading.
Small Wars, Faraway Places: Global Insurrection and the Making of the Modern World, 1945-1965, by Michael Burleigh
Viking (2013), Hardcover, 608 pages
A good alternative title for this book would be “101 Ways not to De-Colonize your Empire.” A relentless narrative of bungling first by the British & French as they struggled to either hang on to their colonies or escape from them with minimal fuss in the post 1945 world, then even more massive bungling by the superpowers, particularly the Americans, as they sought to influence the said former colonies to follow their particular political path and not that of their rivals. This is a litany of failure, scathing in its condemnation of inept colonial administration and even more inept superpower meddling in the affairs of small nations. This is no dry academic text, the author injects passion and some venom into the story, describing one American ambassador as a “drunken idiot” and lashing John F. Kennedy’s philandering and his dealings with Cuba virtually in the same breath. Truman, Eisenhower and Johnson are treated more sympathetically, although the failings of their administrations are not spared. On the British side, Churchill, Eden and Macmillan are lavished with mild contempt and occassional faint praise in their struggles to first hold the Empire together, then to extract an exhausted Britain with the minimum of bother and expense. This is an enthralling read, short, punchy chapters keeping the momentum going as the author hops the globe from troublespot to benighted troublespot. Even the geographically illiterate and politically uninterested will find this an intriguing story of human greatness and weakness, hopes raised and hopes dashed. Great discussion of a turbulent couple of decades that shaped the world we live in today.
A Spy among Friends: Kim Philby and the Great Betrayal, by Ben McIntyre
Bloomsbury (2014), Paperback, 368 pages
I love espionage stories, and this is a beauty of an espionage story. Kim Philby, who spent three decades embedded in MI6 passing the most sensitive of secrets to the Soviets, is arguably the most damaging traitor in the history of British intelligence, and while I’ve read a number of books in which he’s figured prominently, this is the first I’ve read dedicated primarily to his treachery. The book focuses on the friendship between Philby and fellow MI6 operative Nicholas Elliott, who were the closest of friends from their early years until Elliott, finally convinced of Philby’s guilt after decades of denial confronted him in Beirut just before the traitor defected to the Soviet Union, determined to force a confession out of him. It’s primarily the story of how Philby used his extraordinary charm and the ties of the old boy network that pervaded British intelligence to avert suspicion from himself, playing the loyal British spy while at the same time cold-bloodedly passing secrets to the Soviets that cost the lives of hundreds of agents. Its evident that McIntyre has considerable admiration for Philby’s undoubted skill at espionage, while not stinting on showing the evils that Philby’s betrayal wrought on many lives. The story also details the tension between the two halves of British intelligence and the cultural differences between the middle-class MI5, made up of ex-police and soldiers, convinced of Philby’s guilt, and the aristocratic & upper-class MI6, composed of Oxbridge graduates and old boys of Britain’s top public schools, equally convinced of Philby’s innocence and determined to protect him from MI5’s probing. There is little analysis of Philby’s motivations, and little interest is paid to the origins of Philby’s political beliefs at Cambridge, although these have been dealt with at length in numerous other works on the Cambridge spies. Its is largely the story of Philby’s life as a spy, and how he interacted with others around him, including friends, fellow spies and his three wives. It’s a gripping, fast-moving story, as close to a spy thriller as a true-life story can come. The last third in particular, as suspicions begin to focus on Philby, is particularly absorbing, a tense drama played in the gentrified upper levels of British intelligence. No gunplay, no James Bond derring-do, but every bit as dramatic. Wonderful stuff, a truly great read.
Capital Crimes: Seven Centuries of London Life and Murder, by Max Decharne
Random House (2012), Hardcover, 416 pages
I have read at least a dozen books on the history of crime and punishment in London. Some were seriously academic, some were wildy populist. It seems that the memory of Jack the Ripper and Tyburn exerts a lasting fascination for writers and readers alike. In such a crowded genre, it would be easy to end up repeating what has been covered so many times before. However, Decharne has done a great job of searching out obscure stories, some of which are likely never to have been published before. He avoids the temptation to include the obvious, there is no mention of the Ripper, or Crippen, or Christie or any of those staples. Beginning in the 14th century and continuing up until the 1950s, he presents a variety of cases, all of which have only one thing in common, they were capital crimes and someone ended up taking the short final walk to the stake, the block or the gallows at Smithfield, Tower Hill, Tyburn or Newgate. There are revolutionaries, heretics, highwaymen, cold-blooded killers and those who were just in the wrong place at the wrong time. He captures the flavour of the times by making heavy use of contemporary broadsheet and newspaper accounts, and also is at pains to locate the scenes of the crimes in the context of London’s modern geography. This is an excellent read, well thought-out, extremely well-researched and exceptionally well-written. For those true crime buffs who might be jaded by reading the same old stories over and over again, or anyone just interested in yet another thread in London’s enormous history, I thoroughly recommend this book.
The Lost Abbot: The 19th Chronicle of Matthew Bartholomew, by Susanna Gregory
Sphere (2013), Hardcover, 416 pages
I am a huge fan of this historical mystery series, set in Cambridge and surrounding areas during the 14th century. This is the 19th in the series, an incredibly long run, and although the quality is not quite what it was at its peak, it is still absorbing reading. The series revolves around the monks and teachers at Michaelhouse, one of the constituent colleges of Cambridge University, and in particular the doctor and medical lecturer Matthew Bartholomew. The plots usually revolve around intricately planned murders, which Bartholomew, in his capacity as the university’s Corpse Examiner (did they really such a thing in the 1300s?), and his corpulent friend the University Proctor, Brother Michael, have to solve. The murders always lead to deeper and darker conspiracies, which usually land the pair in great physical danger as they attempt to discover the culprits. This particular entry is set in Peterborough, as the Fellows from Michaelhouse have been delegated to attempt to solve the disappearance of the Abbot (the series has ventured away from Cambridge on a number of occasions now, to Oxford, Lincoln and London among other locales). They find as usual that the Abbot’s disappearance and a number of unexplained murders conceal a web of conspiracy that threatens many lives. One of the best features of Gregory’s books is that she painstakingly peruses the records of the locales she uses to find real events that happened and the names of real inhabitants of the place and time, which she incorporates in the stories. This lends a great touch of verismilitude to the books, and the customary appendix where she details the real story of the place and the names of the real locals she has used are always fascinating. After 19 entries, she has built believable and realistic characters, who become very familiar to the reader over the course of the series. For mine, although Bartholomew is nominally the hero of the series, I find his overweight companion Michael to be far more interesting. Initially just a food-loving, rather loud foil to Bartholomew, his character has now been carefully developed as a politically savvy secret agent whose goal is to manipulate events from behind the scenes before taking power at the University for himself. Personally I find him a far more intriguing character than the rather vapid Bartholomew, who in his thinking is the obligatory modern intrusion among a sea of otherwise authentic medieval mindsets. This particular book is a good solid read for the historical mystery lover. The plot is intricate, as always, the secondary characters are well-realised, and the settings are fascinating. While I feel the series has plateaued somewhat after so many books, it remains absolutely required reading and I look forward to every new entry. May there be many more adventures for Bartholomew, Michael and the Michaelhouse crew.
A Jew among Romans: The Life and Legacy of Flavius Josephus, by Frederic Raphael
Anchor Books, (2013), Paperback, 336 pages
Less a biography of Josephus than a rambling, disjointed series of musings on the Jewish Revolt of AD 66-73 and what it meant to be a Jew in the centuries following the Diaspora. The reader never really gets a coherent picture of Josephus’ life, which is not entirely the author’s fault, since our only sources are Josephus himself, who had personal reasons for censoring his own story, and his fiercely critical contemporary Justus. Nevertheless, the book meanders so much that the chunks of Josephus’ life story never really coalesce. In fact for large sections of the narrative Josephus is not mentioned at all, as the author wanders through post-Diaspora Jewry, up to the present day. For all that, the book is an entertaining read, as the author darts off on interesting tangents, frequently through the copious footnotes. He also does an excellent job of conveying the fractious, tortured milieu of 1st century Palestine, where Joseph Ben Matthias, reluctant Jewish general, leads a brilliant defense of the city of Jotapata, but when the inevitable Roman breakthrough comes, throws himself on the mercy of Vespasian and prophesies that the Roman general will become Emperor, which saves his life. When his patron takes the imperial throne, Joseph ben Matthias becomes Flavius Josephus, Roman citizen, and pet historian of the Flavian dynasty, and gains eternal condemnation from his fellow Jews as their greatest turncoat, their own equivalent of Judas. Raphael muses on what this must havc cost the writer personally, trapped in Rome, fitting into neither Roman society nor that of the Diaspora Jews, although Josephus himself gives few hints of inner turmoil. Its just unfortunate that the author’s attempts to cover too many bases at once means this otherwise informative book never really comes together as a coherent work. Still, those interested in the workings of Roman imperialism, Jewish nationalism or the travails of post Diaspora Jewry will find much in this book to interest them. And as a contribution to the literature on one of the more enigmatic writers of the ancient world, it is a valuable, if flawed, piece of work.