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by Andrew Martin
Faber & Faber, June 2012
304 pages
7.99 GBP
ISBN: 0571249612

Buy in the UK | Buy in Canada

Jim Stringer, newly promoted to Captain, is back in England in 1917, having almost recovered from wounds suffered in the vicinity of the Somme. His father has given him a little money and told him to treat himself and his wife to a short stay at the Midland Grand Hotel before he has to return to his unit in France. It says something about Jim that he decides to spend one evening at a meeting of a railway club, leaving his wife to amuse herself in the hotel. There he encounters Lieutenant Colonel Shepherd, a rather puzzling and suspicious character who, it turns out, is stationed in Baghdad. A few days later Stringer learns from the War Office that he is to travel to Baghdad in order to find out if an accusation of corruption against Shepherd is justified.

Apparently 1917 was a particularly hot year in the country known to the soldiers as 'Mespot' - modern day Iraq - and Martin goes to considerable pains to prepare the background. There seems scarcely a page when someone or other is not described as sweating profusely - only the fragrant Harriet Bailey manages to remain cool and, to make things worse, the local water is undrinkable. Special arrangement have to be made in Stringer's quarters for some kind of mechanical fly trap and, of course, the mosquito net is essential, even if it is not always effective. The streets are very much a rabbit warren and the stench hardly bearable. As well as being introduced to Baghdad, the reader is also told what the British and Turkish armies are doing there, as well as what the local Arab population feels about both. Clearly, Martin has been involved in a considerable amount of research to provide this background and is determined to make use of this in print.

Unfortunately, the plot is so slight - and so uninteresting - that the preparation is rather wasted. There is an impression that the book is a novella rather than a novel and that the frequent descriptions of parts of Baghdad and the seemingly pointless railway journeys (an unconvincing attempt is made later on to provide a reason for them) are there as padding. Equally unnecessary are the descriptions of the various meetings of the Railway Club and, in particular, the talk Stringer gives on 'the affair of the already clipped tickets'. These do allow the introduction of some of the characters who form part of the plot, but it is done in a very mechanical way. Providing a precise summary of the actual plot is not easy. Somehow the details get lost in the middle of the research and the train journeys and some action as Stringer's group comes into contact with a Bedouin tribe. There are plenty of rather unconvincing false leads but the identity of the real villain is not at all surprising.

The characters are as unsubstantial as the plot. Even Stringer himself appears to have no consistency. The other main characters, Harriet Bailey, Findlay and Stevens, are all very flat and it is difficult to sustain any interest in them. The batman, Jarvis, has a certain life about him but even he is not believable in the end.

Martin has a fan base of readers interested in railways and the age of steam. Those familiar with Edward Thomas's ADLESTROP will understand the attraction. However, it is, perhaps, an interest that is sustained emotively by stories set in Great Britain and which does not transfer well to Iraq.

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

Reviewed by Arnold Taylor, July 2012

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Contact: Yvonne Klein (ymk@reviewingtheevidence.com)

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