Tag Archives for " Scotland Yard "

In an alternate history, the Nazis occupy England

alternate historySS-GB, by Len Deighton

@@@@ (4 out of 5)

In the literature of alternate history, Nazi Germany often wins World War II. Philip K. Dick’s The Man in the High Castle, Fatherland by Robert Harris, and Jo Walton’s Farthing Trilogy (Farthing, Ha’penny, and Half a Crown, all reviewed here) are prominent examples. There are many others, of which the one I’ve read most recently is SS-GB by the British thriller writer Len Deighton.

A favorite theme in alternate history

It’s November 1941. World War II ended in Europe on February 19 when Great Britain surrendered to Nazi Germany. A puppet Prime Minister has replaced Winston Churchill, who is imprisoned in Germany. King George VI is being held in the Tower of London. Jews have been rounded up and sent “to the notorious concentration camp at Wenlock Edge.” A curfew is in effect in London. Rationing is severe throughout the occupied zone. Thousands of British soldiers are being held in POW camps or in forced labor camps on the Continent. Everywhere, there are “signs of battle damage unrepaired from the street fighting of the previous winter. Shell craters, and heaped rubble, were marked only by yellow tapes, soiled and drooping between roughly made stakes.”

At Scotland Yard, Detective Superintendent Douglas Archer reports to SS General Fritz Kellerman, “whose police powers extended over the whole country.” The Superintendent is “Archer of the Yard,” “the Sherlock Holmes of the 1940s.” He’s the country’s most famous detective because of his success in closing several high-profile murder cases. Archer and “the other half of the murder team,” Sergeant Harry Woods, are investigating a mysterious murder when they receive word that an SS Colonel is coming from Germany under express orders from Reichsfürer Heinrich Himmler to take over the case. Archer will now report to the new man, Dr. Oskar Huth. Huth lives up to the reputation of the SS for arrogance and ruthlessness. As the story advances, the murder case becomes fraught with connections to high-level intrigue. Archer, Huth, and Kellerman warily circle around each other in a high-stakes game that puts all their careers—and their lives—at risk.

Resistance is widespread

Meanwhile, Resistance to the German occupation is growing. As one woman remarks to Archer, “‘In the towns it’s just bombs and murdering German soldiers. In the country districts there are bigger groups, who ambush German motorized patrols . . . ‘” But Resistance is underway at a much higher level: senior British officials in the puppet government are plotting to release the King from the Tower and spirit him off to the United States, where he can lead an eventual effort to bring the Nazis to account. Archer discovers that his seemingly straightforward murder investigation is closely related to this plot—and he becomes deeply involved in the dangerous action that follows.

Not only did Deighton live through World War II as a teenager—he was born in 1929—he thoroughly researched this topic. SS-GB is alternate history of the first rank.

About the author

Len Deighton is often ranked with John le Carre and Ian Fleming in the pantheon of spy novelists. His most familiar books include The Ipcress File, Funeral in Berlin, and the Samson series (Berlin Game, Mexico Set, London Match, and subsequent novels). At this writing, he is 88 years old.


Inspector Rebus goes to London to catch a serial murderer

serial murdererTooth and Nail (Inspector Rebus #3), by Ian Rankin

@@@@ (4 out of 5)

A serial murderer dubbed The Wolfman by the press has killed and mutilated three women in London, one a month. The pressure is on the police to catch the killer before panic spreads further. Now, someone at New Scotland Yard has written to Edinburgh to request help from Inspector John Rebus, much to his surprise. Whoever it is has mistaken Rebus for an expert on serial murder, because the difficult case he had solved was very personal and held few lessons for other investigators. But orders are orders. And no sooner does he arrive in London than he learns from the radio that The Wolfman has killed a fourth woman.

Thus opens Tooth and Nail, the third novel in Ian Rankin’s venerable series of detective novels featuring Inspector Rebus. The trouble starts virtually as soon as Rebus makes contact with Inspector George Flight, who has been assigned as his partner: Flight can’t understand a word he says because of Rebus’ strong Scottish accent. Practically everyone else in the homicide department resents his having been called in—and they’re not the least bit shy about showing it. They can’t understand him, either.

No reader of the series will be surprised to learn that matters soon go further downhill. The disagreeable Scot manages to alienate all his new colleagues at Scotland Yard by ignoring established procedure and disappearing without explanation to investigate on his own. Since this is fiction, we’re confident that Inspector Rebus will eventually identify and catch the killer, and in short order. However, there’s a great deal of confusion and conflict before that happens, and Rebus is saved from arrest himself only because he manages to resolve the case.

In a sense, Tooth and Nail is a traditional whodunit, since many suspects surface in the course of the investigation and Rebus’ job, above all, is to sort through them to find the one who is guilty. But Rankin is a much more skillful writer than most. He manages to create a credible portrait of his difficult hero and to convey a sense that he fully understands police procedure. This is one detective novel that’s genuinely suspenseful to the end. The conclusion took me by surprise—and that doesn’t happen all that often. This is a very satisfying read.


Nazis, pacifists, and spies in 1930s Britain

pacifists: A Lesson in Secrets by Jacqueline WinspearA Lesson in Secrets (Maisie Dobbs #8), by Jacqueline Winspear

@@@@ (4 out of 5)

December 1932. Adolf Hitler is agitating to become Chancellor of Germany as his following grows. Many Britons, too, especially the aristocracy, are finding a lot to like in Herr Hitler and his Nazi Party. In increasing numbers, they are campaigning to resist any effort by the United Kingdom to go to war with Nazi Germany—a war that many wiser heads are already predicting. The Nazis and the Fascists are joined by many pacifists. But Maisie Dobbs is not among them. She abhors the anti-Semitism of the Nazis as well as the home-grown Fascists and regards pacifism as naive. But more mundane concerns preoccupy her.

Maisie’s business as a “private inquiry agent” is growing, making for more work than she and her assistant, Billy Beale, can comfortably handle. Her mentor, Dr. Maurice Blanche, has willed most of his considerable estate to her. She’s now a wealthy woman. But Maisie is not happy. Her aging father stubbornly refuses to move into the large house she has inherited from Maurice. James Compton, the man who is “courting” her, has postponed his return from Canada. And now she discovers that she is being followed wherever she goes.

After eluding the three-person team who is tailing her, Maisie surprises (and embarrasses) them. Learning that they’re police officers from Special Branch at New Scotland Yard, she demands they take her to their boss, Chief Superintendent Robert MacFarlane.

When Maisie arrives at MacFarlane’s office, she soon learns that she was being followed as a test of her ability to detect a tail. And a surprise visitor soon arrives in the office: Brian Huntley, a senior officer in the Secret Service. The Chief Superintendent has undertaken the exercise in collaboration with Huntley. In short order, Maisie learns that her life and work are about to take a radical turn, as Maurice had predicted shortly before his death.

Huntley presses her to sign the Official Secrets Act and then describes her strange assignment. She is to apply for a position as a lecturer in philosophy at a private college in Cambridge. The College of St. Francis, dedicated to the pursuit of peace, is attracting students from all around Europe. The Secret Service will ensure that she gets the job. Her assignment is merely to keep her eyes and ears open, looking for anything suspicious that may turn up at the college.

Not long after Maisie takes up her job, she finds an abundance of suspicious activity among the pacifists on the faculty. And then the founder and head of the college is murdered in his office. In A Lesson in Secrets, Jacqueline Winspear’s eighth Maisie Dobbs novel, Maisie becomes involved in the murder investigation and in uncovering a growing Nazi threat. The story is suspenseful, engaging, and full of surprises. It’s a delight for any fan of the series—and for anyone who seeks out mysteries and thrillers that avoid the violence and gore so prevalent in the genre.

My review of Maisie Dobbs, the first novel in the series, is at A female detective like no other. The second, Birds of a Feather, is here: The cost of war hangs over the action like a shroud, and the third, Pardonable Lives, is here:  Maisie Dobbs: living the legacy of World War I. I reviewed #4, Messenger of Truth, at Class resentment in Depression-era England, and #5, An Incomplete Revenge, is at The pleasures of reading Maisie Dobbs. My review of the sixth in the series, Among the Mad, is Shell shock, madness, the Great Depression. The seventh, The Mapping of Love and Death, is Another great detective novel from Jacqueline Winspear. You might also be interested in my list of 48 excellent mystery and thriller series.


Uncovering corruption at Scotland Yard

corruptionGarden of Lamentations (Duncan Kincaid/Gemma James #17), by Deborah Crombie

@@@@ (4 out of 5)

Let me see if I’ve got this straight. There are lots of cops in Deborah Crombie’s latest detective novel, Garden of Lamentations. Six of them, for starters. Co-protagonists Detective Superintendent Duncan Kincaid and Detective Inspector Gemma James are married. They’ve been reassigned from New Scotland Yard to separate precincts elsewhere in London. The pair have an adopted teenage boy, a 3-year-old foster daughter, and an even younger boy of their own. In addition to Kincaid and James, there are two lower-ranked officers, Doug Cullen and Melody Talbot. Melody’s father is Ivan Talbot, a London press lord, but she’s keeping that a secret. Then there’s Kincaid’s “guvnor,” Detective Chief Superintendent Denis Childs, who has been mysteriously missing for several months. Oh, and Ryan Marsh, also a police officer, had died in some unstated way three months earlier after he and Talbot rushed into a fire started by a grenade tossed into a crowd. Oh, yes, and Kincaid and James’ friends, Hazel and Tim, also figure in the story. The pair had been involved in an earlier case in Scotland, where Hazel had moved to manage the family’s distillery. I think that’s the gist of it. It took me quite a while to figure all this out.

In other words, it would pay to have read the preceding novels in the Duncan Kincaid/Gemma James series. This is the 17th. I’d read many of the others, but too long ago to remember so many details.

If you understand all those things, you’re good to go. As Garden of Lamentations opens, a young nanny is murdered, Denis Childs is assaulted and left for dead after hinting at police corruption, and Kincaid and Talbot are still puzzling over the death of Ryan Marsh. The story that unfolds is engrossing and suspenseful. You’ll find yourself caught up in a tale that involves corruption at Scotland Yard, undercover police, a locked-garden murder mystery, and the travails of a complicated family with two parents holding professional jobs.



Another great detective novel from Jacqueline Winspear

Jacqueline Winspear: The Mapping of Love and DeathThe Mapping of Love and Death (Maisie Dobbs #7), by Jacqueline Winspear

@@@@@ (5 out of 5)

It’s 1932, Maisie Dobbs’ third year in business as an “inquiry agent.” (That’s British for private detective.) As usual, Maisie’s life is complicated. Her assistant, Billy Beale, is working shorter hours to care for his wife, who has just been released from a mental asylum. Maisie’s beloved mentor and former employer, Dr. Maurice Blanche, is in declining health. And two attractive, wealthy men are pursuing her despite her reluctance to take time away from her work. Her agency is doing well even in the Depression. Then a friend she’d known from her service as a nurse in the Great War writes from America to ask that she help an American couple freshly arrived in London.

The Cliftons, it turns out, are in their late seventies. Edward Clifton had emigrated from England to the U.S. as a young man. There he built a huge property development business, in which their children are now assuming leadership. He and his wife just arrived from France, where the remains of their youngest son were uncovered in an old battlefield. Letters uncovered with his body reveal that the young man had had an affair with a young woman during the war. Maisie’s assignment is to locate her. But Maisie discovers almost immediately that the job isn’t just an old missing-persons case: a close reading of the autopsy report makes clear that Michael Clifton didn’t die in battle. He was murdered.

While spending time with the dying Maurice and navigating the attentions of two competing would-be husbands, Maisie sets out to determine who murdered Michael Clifton and identify his long-missing lover. Her investigation immerses her in the dynamics of the large and complicated Clifton family. Then, when the aged Cliftons are attacked in their hotel and left to die, Scotland Yard enters the scene. Maisie is then forced to collaborate with the detective who has caused a great deal of trouble for her in the past.

The Mapping of Love and Death is the seventh novel in Jacqueline Winspear’s delightful Maisie Dobbs series. (The reference to mapping in the title refers to Michael Clifton’s chosen profession as a cartographer and his work in a British Army cartography unit on the front lines in France.) As in its predecessors, World War I looms large in the background. Winspear deftly portrays the difficulty the English had to leave behind the terrible consequences of the war even a decade and a half later. However, the shocking conclusion to this novel reveals that future books in the series may take a turn toward the coming, Second World War. Given the skill she demonstrated in the first seven novels in the series, I’m looking forward to more from Jacqueline Winspear.

My review of Maisie Dobbs, the first novel in the series, is at A female detective like no other. The second, Birds of a Feather, is here: The cost of war hangs over the action like a shroud, and the third, Pardonable Lives, is here:  Maisie Dobbs: living the legacy of World War I. I reviewed #4, Messenger of Truth, at Class resentment in Depression-era England, and #5, An Incomplete Revenge, is at The pleasures of reading Maisie Dobbs. My review of the sixth in the series, Among the Mad, is Shell shock, madness, the Great Depression. You might also be interested in my list of 48 excellent mystery and thriller series.



A British detective novel that doesn’t measure up

British detective novelA review of Search the Dark (Inspector Ian Rutledge #3), by Charles Todd

@@@ (3 out of 5)

What is it that keeps fans reading book after book in a series of detective novels? I should know as well as anyone, since I keep going back again and again to the work of Michael Connelly, Karin Slaughter, Henning Mankell, Jacqueline Winspear, James Lee Burke, Cara Black, John Sandford, Tana French, Elizabeth George, Sara Paretsky, and others, embarrassingly too numerous to mention. These writers have few things in common other than ingenious plotting and strong writing. There is one thing, though: their protagonists are unfailingly interesting.

I’d hoped I might think the same about Inspector Ian Rutledge. I’ve now followed Charles Todd‘s accounts of the man through the first three books in the series featuring the intrepid Scotland Yard detective in the years following World War I. Having just struggled through Search the Dark, the third of nineteen books to date, I’ve decided I’ve had enough of Charles Todd. (As you may be aware, the name is actually a pseudonym for the mother-and-son writing team of Caroline and Charles Todd.) Inspector Ian Rutledge and his ghostly sidekick, Hamish MacLeod, have tried my patience for the last time.

The central conceit in this series, or at least in the first three novels, is that Inspector Rutledge suffers from what then was called “shell shock.” Wracked with guilt over a murder he was forced to commit in the course of the war, he is literally haunted by the man he killed. This device could work well in one book, or even in two. But it has already become tedious in the third.

If you want to read detective fiction set in England during the 1920s and 30s, I suggest you turn instead to Jacqueline Winspear’s fascinating Maisie Dobbs series. Enough said.

Maisie Dobbs: living the legacy of World War I

Legacy: Pardonable Lies by Jacqueline WinspearPardonable Lies (Maisie Dobbs #3), by Jacqueline Winspear

@@@@ (4 out of 5)

Before the advent of World War II, the “Great War” — World War I, the “war to end all wars” — was the most tragic event in modern history. Earlier, Attila’s rampage through Asia and Europe was probably more traumatic.  However, in the early decades of the twentieth century, as the Continent’s best and bravest young men fell by the hundreds of thousands in one pointless battle after another, scarcely any observer could imagine a worse fate for civilization.

The shadows cast by war

It’s easy to see how those events could have cast such long shadows over the later years of the unfolding twentieth century. The subsequent history of every major combatant nation, and every new sovereign state created out of the wreckage of the war, was shaped in large part by the blunders and miscalculations of that terrible event. So were the lives of so many millions in Britain, Germany, Central and Eastern Europe, the Middle East, and China. Increasingly, historians of the twentieth century are inclined to suggest that the two world wars are more properly seen as a latter-day Thirty Years’ War, a singular event marked by a brief and turbulent pause in hostilities.

Living the legacy of war

In her series featuring the “Psychologist and Investigator” Maisie Dobbs, the English mystery writer Jacqueline Winspear dwells at length on the legacy of World War I. Pardonable Lies, the third novel in the series, is grounded in that theme, as are both of her previous books. Set in 1930, a dozen years after hostilities ended, Maisie, her now brain-dead fiancee, her assistant, her best friend, her mentor, and virtually every other major character in the novel bears deep scars from the conflict. As the Great Depression gathered steam, it was impossible to live in England and not be deeply affected by the staggering cost of the war.

A detective unlike any other

Maisie Dobbs is a detective unlike any other. Trained over many years by the mysterious and brilliant French physician, Maurice Blanche, and by Khan, the aging South Asian mystic he sent her to, Maisie has been imbued with such lessons as “seeing was not necessarily something one did with the eyes; there was a depth of vision to be gained from stillness . . .” In Pardonable Lies, Maisie puts teaching such as this to the test, outmaneuvering Scotland Yard and cleverly sidestepping several threats to her life.

After a long apprenticeship with Dr. Blanche, Maisie is now well-established in a practice of her own. She is supported by her resourceful assistant, Billy Beale, a former soldier who has finally left the wounds of war behind. Together, the pair take up two parallel and similar investigations, one official, the other a favor for Maisie’s best friend, Patricia Evernden Partridge. In both cases, Maisie must return to France to determine what became of two promising young men, both of whom were reported missing and presumably killed in the war. Winspear skillfully weaves the two plotlines together, converging them in a highly satisfying climax. Pardonable Lies is a satisfying read both as historical fiction and as a mystery story.

About the author

Though born and educated in England, Jacqueline Winspear has lived in the United States since 1990. The first two novels in the Maisie Dobbs series both won the Agatha Award; the next two, including Pardonable Lies, were nominated for the same award. She began writing the series in 2003. Her most recent novel was published in 2016.

My review of Maisie Dobbs, the first novel in the series, is at A female detective like no other. The second, Birds of a Feather, is here: The cost of war hangs over the action like a shroud. You might also be interested in my list of 48 excellent mystery and thriller series.

The cost of war hangs over the action like a shroud

The cost of war: Birds of a Feather by Jacqueline Winspear Birds of a Feather (Maisie Dobbs #2), by Jacqueline Winspear

@@@@ (4 out of 5)

Birds of a Feather, the second book in Jacqueline Winspear’s bestselling Maisie Dobbs series, is set at a time more than a decade after the conclusion of World War I — but entirely under its shadow. As the Great Depression gathered steam, England and the nations of the Continent were just beginning to emerge from the terrible aftermath of the Great War, their countries littered with clinics and rehabilitation facilities where the front-line victims of the fighting lay, legless, armless, or otherwise badly damaged under the eyes of their devastated lovers or families. Maisie’s lover, Captain Simon Lynch, a physician, lies in a coma in one such place. Her faithful assistant, Billy Beale, is far more fortunate but deeply affected nonetheless by a leg wound and thirteen years of incomplete recovery.

The terrible cost of war

“M. Dobbs, Psychologist and Investigator,” is thirty-three years of age as Birds of a Feather opens. The year is 1930. Maisie has opened her own practice, having emerged from the tutelage of her mentor, Maurice Blanche. She now lives on her own in a London apartment, while her aging father tends the horses at the country estate of Lord Julian Compton and his wife, Lady Rowan. It was there that Maisie was transformed from a poor girl of thirteen, entered into service at the estate, into a polished young woman with a Cambridge education.

Maisie’s practice is thriving. In the midst of other, minor cases, she is hired by one of the richest men in all of Europe to track down his missing daughter, a seemingly simple assignment. But complications arise soon as one of the daughter’s old friends is found murdered in her home. Detective Inspector Stratton of Scotland Yard’s Homicide Squad reluctantly finds that Maisie is conducting her own investigation of the murder, obviously a conflict in the making. It’s clear that the two will collide as the plot unfolds and the investigation broadens. Throughout this suspenseful and intriguing novel, the terrible cost of World War I hangs over the action like a shroud.

About the author

Jacqueline Winspear was born and educated in England but now lives in Marin County, California. She has written a total of twelve Maisie Dobbs novels to date. As her website (linked above) explains, “Jacqueline’s grandfather was severely wounded and shell-shocked at The Battle of the Somme in 1916, and it was as she understood the extent of his suffering that, even in childhood, Jacqueline became deeply interested in the ‘war to end all wars’ and its aftereffects.”

My review of Maisie Dobbs, the first novel in the series, is at A female detective like no other. You might also be interested in my list of 48 excellent mystery and thriller series.

Before PTSD, there was “shell shock”

shell shockA review of A Test of Wills (Inspector Ian Rutledge #1), by Charles Todd

@@@@ (4 out of 5)

The phenomenon we know as PTSD has probably been around since the time roving bands of Australopithecus afarensis beat each other to death with clubs on the savannah. But it doesn’t appear to have been widely noticed for what it is until World War I, when it was given the name “shell shock.” Then, the nightmare of trench warfare on the Western Front crowded millions of men together in a stalemate, subjecting them to the seemingly endless threat of sudden death in the artillery barrages that preceded every futile effort by either side to break through the other’s lines.

Shell shock from the inside out

In A Test of Wills, the first of Charles Todd’s excellent novels featuring Inspector Ian Rutledge of the Metropolitan Police (Scotland Yard), Rutledge has recently been released from the clinic where he was being treated for shell shock. He has forced himself to return to work out of desperation, still haunted by the unimaginable horrors he experienced as an officer on the Front but unable to continue facing the mindlessness caused by the drugs he was forced to take. The armistice has been signed, the peace treaties are being negotiated, but the war continues for Rutledge in the person of Corporal Hamish MacTavish, a soldier who died under his command and continues to haunt him day and night. Todd’s portrayal of Rutledge’s suffering has the ring of truth.

Shell shock on the home front

Rutledge’s superior, Superintendent Bowles, is for some unstated reason determined to drive him from the force. When Bowles is asked to assign an officer to a difficult murder case in Warwickshire, he sends Rutledge, hoping that the Inspector will stumble into a trap that could get him fired. The trap is obvious: a highly regarded colonel in the British Army has been brutally murdered near his estate, and the obvious killer is the decorated Captain who is engaged to the Colonel’s ward; unfortunately, the captain wears the Victoria Cross, the kingdom’s highest honor, and is a favorite of the royal family, who will not look kindly on the embarrassment of finding their fair-haired boy in the dock for murder. However, as Rutledge arrives in Warwickshire to take up the case, he quickly finds that the witness who has identified the captain as the murderer is a drunkard who is suffering from an extreme case of shell shock. And he’s not the only former soldier in the area who has returned from the war emotionally crippled.

About the author

Charles Todd is the pen name of Caroline and Charles Todd, the American mother-and-son team who write the Inspector Rutledge series of detective novels set in post-World War I England. There are now eighteen books in the series. The pair have written an additional ten works of detective fiction.

A murder mystery that’s suspenseful to the end

murder mysteryA review of The Last Detective (Peter Diamond #1), by Peter Lovesey

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The Last Detective, published in 1991, was the first in a series of Peter Lovesey’s 15 murder mysteries featuring detective Peter Diamond. Earlier this year I read and reviewed the fifteenth, Down Among the Dead Men, which I enjoyed enough to send me back to the early days in the series.

A fiendishly clever murder mystery

The Last Detective begins like a traditional murder mystery but quickly veers off course into a series of puzzling discoveries. The plot is full of suspense. It’s no wonder Lovesey was encouraged to extend the series for so many years (nearly a quarter-century now).

An antihero for our times

Disgraced by a false charge of intimidating a suspect at New Scotland Yard, Detective Superintendent Peter Diamond has been sent to the sticks. He now holds forth, precariously, under continuing suspicion, from the Avon and Somerset Police; Diamond is based in the city of Bath in southwestern England.

Diamond is a large, fat man, and anything but jolly. He is, in fact, a thoroughly disagreeable person who strikes fear in his subordinates and intimidates most of the other people he comes into contact with. He distrusts computers and any information they disgorge, holds DNA testing in contempt, loathes cell phones, and disdains modern technology in general — and he makes these opinions known loudly and often. In short, Peter Diamond is a tough man to like. But there is hope for him still. His wife, Stephanie, clearly loves him, and he has a soft spot for children (though they have none of their own).

The man’s troublesome personality notwithstanding, Diamond is a brilliant detective who has solved four of the five cases that have come his way to date in Bath (the fourth is still unresolved).

Shifting perspective

The Last Detective consists of six parts. In the opening section, the author uses the third person to burrow into the heads of several characters and introduce our hero, Peter Diamond. The second part is told in the first person from the perspective of Gregory Jackman, head of the new English department at the local university. In the third section, Lovesey switches back to the omniscient third person. The fourth part is written in the first person from the point of view of the leading suspect in the murder case. Parts five and six shift back to the third person, describing Diamond’s perspective. The constant shifting back and forth is a trifle disorienting.

About the author

Peter Lovesey has been writing professionally since 1968. He published his first novel in 1970. In addition to the 15 Peter Diamond novels, Lovesey has written dozens of other novels and short stories. He was born in England in 1936.

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