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.