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When the body of silent screen actress Mabel Morgan is found impaled on railings, DI Ted Stratton is not convinced by the coroner's ruling of suicide. In the face of opposition from his superiors he starts investigating, and the trail leads him from Soho gangsters to the murkier world of counter-espionage.
Meanwhile Diana Calthrop, newly recruited to MI5, is attempting to infiltrate a group of Nazi sympathisers under the direction of her inscrutable boss Forbes-Jones. Trapped in an unhappy marriage she falls for the dashing but dubious Claude Ventriss. Stratton, meanwhile, has his own problems at home his children have been evacuated, and it emerges that his nephew is involved in criminal activity. As the book progresses it becomes clear that Stratton's investigations and Diana's activities are converging.
I approached this book with two very distinct reservations. In the first place my only previous experience of Wilson (HELLO BUNNY ALICE) had been negative; secondly the setting for this book (England in 1940) takes it head-first into territory occupied by two classic mysteries Christie's N OR M? (her most underrated book) and Allingham's Traitor's Purse. This book triumphantly overcomes these reservations.
The plotting and pacing are superb. Wilson manages the two stories of Stratton and Calthrop with extraordinary adroitness, cutting between them at exactly the right moments, maintaining the narrative flow and interest. The characters complement and contrast with each other, so that the dual narrative sustains and develops the book rather than being disjunctive.
Stratton is a compelling central character; a family man, deeply in love with his wife Jenny and their two children, he has, in this book at any rate, no dark secrets; he is not an alcoholic, nor is he bitter and twisted. He is thus the perfect character for Wilson to use to examine the twisted and murky world of counter-espionage in which he, very unwillingly, finds himself. Diana Calthrop, on the other hand, has a whole bagful of problems. Her marriage is loveless, her mother-in-law a monster: she is a mass of insecurities and is terrified and appalled by the secrets which she uncovers.
Wilson very plainly has larger agendas than merely producing an expertly-crafted thriller, though she manages this superbly. Running through the book, and examined through the central characters, are the themes of class and gender and the way in which the war was to question and undermine the values associated with those themes. Stratton is her clear-headed vehicle for examining class as he moves from the Soho under-world, through his own working-class private life, to the upper-class world of MI5 and the Nazi sympathisers.
Calthrop, equally, provides an ideal vehicle for Wilson to examine gender roles. There is a horrific description of marital rape. The war brings her both new freedoms and new opportunities, but also new burdens and problems. When Stratton and Calthrop finally meet they are bound together by this experience of dislocation and change. But where Stratton thinks in terms of class, for Diana the issue is gender, even if she would not express it as such.
It is not only historical issues with which Wilson is dealing here however. The link to the present is, of course, the question of how far civil liberties should be undermined in the fight against an enemy. It is a commonplace of debates about the so-called current 'War on Terror' in Britain to remark that powers which the Government is now seeking were not needed when fighting a real enemy in a time of imminent invasion.
Wilson questions that assumption in this book, showing that the secret services were able to invoke extraordinarily far-reaching powers. But by having Stratton as a moral centre questioning those powers, and the use that is made of them, questioning indeed the whole question of means and ends, Wilson brings the issue of what is happening today into sharp focus. If such methods were dubious in the face of Hitler how much more dubious are they today when the menace is a phantom one?
Wilson achieves the feat of writing clearly and plainly about espionage, never being distracted by its allure. In this STRATTON'S WAR makes a fascinating companion work to Hill's DEATH COMES FOR THE FAT MAN and it is a measure of the merit of Wilson's writing here that this comparison is justifiable; yes, STRATTON'S WAR is that good.
Finally there is the quality of Wilson's descriptive writing. Both London and the war are in their way characters in the book; both are an ever-present background but also at times a dominant foreground. The treatment of well-known subjects the Blitz, Bletchley Park, Nazi sympathisers is always fresh and interesting.
Returning to the two classics which were mentioned at the start of this review; Christie and Allingham were, very properly, writing propaganda. Their books were a contribution to the war effort, defining what it was 'we' were fighting and why 'we' were doing so. Wilson adopts a distanced and nuanced approach to this theme, but never to the point of affected cynicism. As an individual book this is a wonderful tour-de-force; as the first in a series it (the clich้ is unavoidable) leaves one gasping for more.
Reviewed by Nick Hay, December 2007
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