Written by Phil Lecomber — George Harley is a decorated veteran of World War I who worked for British intelligence post 1918. Now he is scratching out a living as a private investigator in 1930s London, steering a hazardous course between the criminal underworld and the Metropolitan Police, neither of whom is sure of his true allegiance. Harley rescues a teenage rent boy from a beating, gives him shelter, but subsequently finds him murdered. Thus he’s drawn into a web of intrigue and corruption involving an emerging British Fascist party, a struggling government, and a society blighted by The Great Depression.
With widespread unemployment, economic hard times, Far Right parties are gaining traction at home and abroad. The British Brotherhood of Fascists is led by the aristocratic Pelham Saint Clair, who has friends in high places and is gaining support. Saint Clair is manoeuvering to discredit his opponents – the Jewish community, and the British Left. Harley discovers that the murdered boy is the third to be killed, and the killers seem to be searching for something. But what?
Harley is commissioned by his erstwhile army commander, General Swales, to investigate the series of murders, and he quickly discovers the meddling influence of Girardi, an agent in the service of Italy’s dicatator, Benito Mussolini. With the right wing newspaper The Oracle whipping up anti-communist fervour, Harley must get to the bottom of a conspiracy which seeks to blame the Labour movement for a series of bombings and atrocities. Both helped and hindered by his Met Police assistant Albert Pearson, Harley calls in a series of favours from his criminal friends, while suffering a series of nightmares connected to his experiences in the trenches, and the horrific death of his fiancée, Cynthia.
This is an intriguing read if you love 20th century history. Some of the political characters are easily recognisable celebrities of the period. Ramsay MacDonald appears as himself, leader of the National Government. Saint Clair is clearly Sir Oswald Mosley, and we hear about real events such as The Siege of Sidney Street (1911), and a threatened march by the fascists through London’s East End, which would later be known as The Battle Of Cable Street (1936).
George Harley himself is a working class Richard Hannay and a Bulldog Drummond of the lower ranks. He has a huge chip on his shoulder, yet he respects the courage and integrity of his former WWI commanding officer. Like Sherlock Holmes, Harley resorts to using substances when his inspiration flags, but his stimulants are far more exotic than Holmes’. Lecomber has positioned his main character perfectly for what will hopefully be a long and successful series. Like Philip Kerr’s wonderful Bernie Gunther, Harley is of an age to have seen service in both world wars and all the events that occurred in between.
The smoky and smoggy atmosphere of 1930s London is captured beautifully. The writing is pacy and all the characters are convincingly written. The plot is an inventive mix of contemporary events and age old folk beliefs – hence the unusual title. As Harley assembles the jigsaw pieces of evidence, he finds he has just hours to foil an audacious plot to overthrow an elected government and establish a dictatorship which threatens everything he holds dear. The dramatic finale is magnificently melodramatic, and ends the book – an excellent debut – in fine style.
Watch for our interview with the author during out upcoming themed month, New Talent November.
CFL Rating: 5 Stars