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by Aly Monroe
John Murray, October 2011
448 pages
19.99 GBP
ISBN: 1848544839

Buy in the UK | Buy in Canada

The cover to the book asks the rather surprising question, "So who really won the war?" Presumably this arises from the parlous state in which Great Britain found itself at the end of World War II. It is the winter of 1946/47 and "Britain's plumbing had been exposed." Virtually everything was rationed and the rations were scarcely enough to keep the populace alive. Bomb damage, particularly in London, was widespread and the Government was dependent on American aid to rebuild. As if this were not enough, the winter was the coldest for many years, the Thames froze over and coal supplies were exhausted. It was very difficult to believe in these circumstances that the war had actually been won and the book's opening scene of German POWs clearing a bombsite is, perhaps, a necessary reminder.

Monroe does an excellent job in describing the bleak conditions and we feel just as cold and exhausted as the general population. One aspect of life in those years that will not surprise anyone is that, in spite of the destruction, the freezing cold and the rationing, top hotels could always could always manage to produce a gourmet meal, made from black market supplies, for those on expense accounts, whilst in the Private Members Clubs the champagne continued to flow.

With the cooperation of the heads of both MI5 and MI6, Peter Cotton is recruited to 'Operation Sea-snake' in an attempt to 'soften MI5's efforts at queer-bashing'. That intelligence agency is at war with itself as it seeks to pacify its American counterpart, which suspects MI6 of concealing dangerous pro-Soviet spies. A senior officer has decided that the most likely suspects are homosexuals in important jobs and, together with a lackey in Special Branch, is doing everything he can, legal or illegal, to hound them. Cotton's remit is to look into cases where this is suspected to be happening. An honest, reliable police sergeant from Special Branch is similarly recruited to assist him, together with a rent boy familiar with the homosexual underworld, who proves invaluable as an informer.

Cotton himself is always an interesting character as he carries out his investigations. He is almost entirely self-sufficient, perhaps overly so in his rather unfeeling dismissal of a girl who had attached herself to and become fond of him. Whilst normally polite and courteous, Cotton is quite prepared to use threats and blackmail if he cannot win people over to his side. He is even willing to resort to violence if necessary but in the end he is always on the side of the angels. The other characters are well portrayed, particularly Miles Crichton, a freelance journalist from the Garrick Club and Ed Lowell, an American intelligence officer. The fact that most of the action takes place between highly ranked civil servants/diplomats is reflected in the deliberately ambiguous language that such people tend to adopt. It helps to be constantly alert to the nuances to avoid having to backtrack.

The book does not have much unity of plot and proceeds at a relatively slow pace, reflecting the uncertainty with which Cotton follows the various leads and the diversions he is obliged to make to protect his team. It is never without interest, however, as he encounters violent moneylenders, black marketeers and members of a murderous Glasgow razor gang. This is the third in a series of books featuring Peter Cotton and it is easy to see why Aly Monroe is fast establishing a large fan base.

Arnold Taylor is a retired Examinations Board Officer, amateur writer and even more amateur bridge player.

Reviewed by Arnold Taylor, January 2012

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Contact: Yvonne Klein (ymk@reviewingtheevidence.com)

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