Stratton’s War ~ Laura Wilson

I read a lot of crime fiction and have done so even more while I’ve not been well and my little grey cells have been under-performing, but I don’t normally blog about it, seeing it as very much my way of escaping from any form of responsibility and compulsion.  I want to make an exception, however, for Stratton’s War, the first in Laura Wilson’s series about the London policeman, Ted Stratton.

Reflecting the fact that it is set in 1940 when, despite or perhaps because of the war, the pace of detecting was necessarily slower, the book lacks the feeling of the constant discovery of new clues, new evidence, new scientific data tumbling onto the detective’s desk-tops (literal or metaphorical) that characterise much crime fiction set in the present day.  This is a piece of good, old fashioned police work, slowly uncovering the facts that lead from the apparent suicide of a ‘retired’ silent movie star to the even more dubious suicide of a high ranking official of the Secret Service.  I very much enjoyed the plot, particularly trying to anticipate how the two apparently disparate strands would eventually come together.

However, what I really appreciated about this book, what will take me back to the series as soon as the library can get the second novel for me, and what made me want to recommend it here, was the picture that Wilson draws of wartime London, struggling at the height of the Blitz.

In Conway Street, three houses at the end of a row of five-storey dwellings, mostly rooming and boarding, were down, and several more had had their fronts blown off. Testing the dust in his mouth, Stratton round his tongue round his teeth and grimaced. The road was covered in a mixture of bricks, slates, shattered glass, and wooden beams and joists, and where one house has been sliced into you could see, high on the fourth floor, a man’s coat still hanging from the back of the door. Above that, balanced precariously on ragged boards, was a child’s cot. Stratton thought of Pete and Monica, safe in the country, and wondered what had happened to it occupant.

Ten or fifteen oldish men and women were standing about, red-eyed and haggard. Had these being their homes? One woman was holding a china basin – the remnants of her life, perhaps – in shaking hands. Next to her, an elderly man in a Homburg hat was staring at the debris. The brick dust on the groups clothes made them look as if they were wearing shrouds. As he passed, Stratton heard Homburg hat say, ‘it’s happening right across London.’ He pronounced it ‘acrawss’ in the Edwardian way.

The old woman said, ‘Will they find us somewhere to go before tonight?’

‘Everywhere,’ said the man. ‘The whole of London.’The woman ignored him, and kept repeating, in a quavering voice, ‘We haven’t anywhere to go. Will they find us somewhere?’

I still find that difficult to read.  What did happen to all of those people?  How can man do that to man?

Rather than the raids themselves it is their aftermath and the dull, repetitive existence that they forced on the people of London that Wilson brings home to the reader.  It reaches the point where you cease to mentally comment on the fact that Stratton and his wife, Jenny sleep every night in an Anderson shelter in case their house should be hit by one of the flying bombs.  You accept that it is going to take a character half a day to get from one part of London to another, not because of the snarled up traffic but because roads have been destroyed and buildings flung across a bus’s regular route.

And, this is, it seems to me is a realistic portrait of what it must have been like in the Capital on a day to day basis.  We hear about how everyone pulled together and made the best of things and I’m sure that’s right, but there can have been nothing romantic about that and what we see here is the simple acceptance of the fact that things were as they were and there was nothing you could do about it. No one is having a knees up in the Old Kent Road, they are just getting on with life as best they can.

Of course, for some that best is better than it is for others.  One strand of the plot allows Wilson to explore the immunity given to the reputation of those power, if not always to their person.  Those with titles cannot be seen to be ‘letting the side down’ either in their public or personal lives, even if that means that other crimes have to be covered up to ensure ‘the morale of the country’ is not threatened.  The trouble with that argument, of course, is that it can too often be used to permit those wielding it to quietly bury their own misdemeanours or, more likely, continue to practise them.

Apparently, Wilson wrote a number of one-off titles before embarking on the Ted Stratton series and I shall be looking for copies of those as well.  Has anyone read any of them and, if so, which would you recommend?  Certainly, I can strongly endorse Stratton’s War.


11 thoughts on “Stratton’s War ~ Laura Wilson

  1. I don’t read much crime fiction at all but when I do I like books like this one best. Will add it to my list to consider when the mood for crime strikes next.

    1. Each of the four books moves ahead quite a leap (4-5 years) Stefanie, and its going to be fascinating to see if she is percipient in respect of each, especially as by the time we reach number four she is going to be writing about a time I remember.

  2. I’ve read a couple of Laura Wilson novels and very much enjoyed them. I believe one was called ‘A Little Death’ (or ‘A Little Dying’) – sorry my memory is not what it was! And I can’t remember the title of the other. But this messy comment is really intended to say that I think pretty much anything she writes is very well done. I have Stratton’s War to read and am doing that foolish thing whereby I save it up for a rainy day and therefore don’t get around to it. Really must stop doing that!

    1. Oh, I do that all the time. It is so silly. What if I never get round to them? So, I’ll check that title and get an order in for it because if it’s as good as ‘Stratton’s War’ I am definitley going to want to read it. Thanks.

  3. I don’t typically read much in the way of historical crime fiction. However this year several set in WWII Germany have found their way into my hands. I may give this one a look if my library has it. There is something compelling about the good detective under the pressure of wartime.

    1. I heard Wilson talking the other day and she made the point that she was trying to explore the way in which Britain changed over the forties and fifties as much as writing crime fiction. I am definitely going to read them all.

  4. Alex, I hope you enjoy Laura Wilson’s Stratton series as much as I do – ie a lot!
    She’s a marvellous writer, and Stratton himself is a compelling character. The sense of period and place is carefully and convincingly evoked, and the characters deftly drawn. The plots contain numerous shockers, with set-pieces that resonate in the mind long after reading. As a insatiable devourer of crime fiction, I frequently find myself failing to remember much about far too many of the crime novels I’ve read. This is not the case with Laura Wilson.
    I know you’ve now acquired a tottering pile of books TBR in this genre; but at the risk of causing the whole lot to tumble, may I recommend you try Tana French?

    1. Min, how nice to meet you. I’ve just finished the second of the Stratton books and enjoyed it every bit as much as the first. I shall certainly be getting hold of the others as well as her one off books. She is clearly a writer of great intelligence and it shines through her writing. As for Tana French, I’ve been there ever since ‘In the Woods’, so there’s no need for you to worry about the TBR pile because her books never get anywhere near it. I’m usually already reading them as I walk home from the library!

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