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Ashes of Berlin

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I’ve been something of a devotee of Luke McCallin’s Reinhardt books since the first one. There was something about the adventures of a distinctly non-Nazi Wehrmacht officer investigating murders in the Balkan territories. It was a region about which I knew little and a time which oddly fascinates me, despite being far from my own era of choice. And interestingly McCallin’s familiarity with the locale and the subject shone through and gave the books great depth and value. I loved both books one and two.

I hesitated over book 3. Honestly, despite loving the first two I really hesitated. Because the war has ended after book 2 and that means that book 3 was guaranteed to be vastly different. Ashes of Berlin is set in 1947, in a city that is divided and overseen by an uneasy alliance of British, American and Russian, with the Germans still there and downtrodden or working desperately with one group or another. I couldn’t see this possibly being anywhere near as engaging as the previous two. But… because it’s McCallin and Reinhardt, I went to it anyway.

In fairness, it took me perhaps the first 10% of the book to get into it. For a while I thought my doubts had been borne out over the setting. But oddly the plot was still grabbing. And so it pulled me along. And I’m glad it did, because after that initial adjustment, I came to appreciate what a rich setting it is.

This world is very different from the wartime Balkans of books 1 and 2, and yet oddly similar in some ways. For Reinhardt, now serving back in the police in Berlin as he once had long ago, he is still beleaguered, untrusting and downtrodden by superiors. They’re just different superiors now. And the brutality and horror of post-war Berlin is every bit the match for the brutality and horror of wartime Sarajevo. McCallin has really pulled out the stops in his research. I cannot imagine how much reading and note-taking he must have gone through for this. But it is a triumph.

The plot is actually better than both the first two. Where books 1 and 2 tended to wander a little by necessity, this one is much tighter and more defined. It is also much harder to anticipate. It unfolds slowly and carefully and caught me out numerous times. I like a good mystery and only with a good plot do I start to guess and work out ahead of the reveal. I was wrong. Several times I was wrong. McCallin has thrown so many curve-balls I kept getting hit in the back of the head.

There are 3 major triumphs in this book for McCallin. The Plot, which I’ve already mentioned. And there’s no point in me trying to explain any of it, but it starts with a man who drowned on dry land, put it that way. Then there’s the world. The atmosphere, the landscape, the descriptive. It is stunning. It becomes immersive and all-consuming. I felt I came to know 1947 Berlin intimately. But thirdly, there is the matter of character. I’d felt there was nowhere really to grow Reinhardt after the war. Gods, but I was wrong. And he is surrounded by a stunning cast. In particular one American, one Brit and one senior Russian. They are so beautifully drawn and realistic it is hard not to picture them in your head.

So there it is. You might have read books 1 and 2 (The Man from Berlin and The Pale House) or you might not. If you haven’t give them a read. If you have, do not be put off by the change of scene with book 3. It outstrips its predecessors. Just read McCallin. He’s a master of the craft.

Written by SJAT

August 12, 2017 at 8:32 pm

Dark Asylum review and Q&A

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I am a devotee of novels set in the ancient world and much of my reading centres around that period, though over the past few years I have strayed more and more outside my comfort zone. I have found myself becoming increasingly fascinated with the darker side of the 18th and 19th centuries, and with that I’ve found a resurgence of my old love of mysteries and whodunnits. Action and adventure novels set in the Victorian era have to be truly exceptional to attract me, but I am becoming a sucker for a good 19th century mystery. D. E. Meredith, Essie Fox and Robin Blake are some recent highlights.

How nice to have discovered another author who knows how to weave an enthralling mystery in such a dark and fascinating world. Dark Asylum is actually Thomson’s second novel and, while I have not read the first, I will now have to remedy that. I’m sure I’m in for a treat.

Thomson conjures up a dark and chilling world full of vivid and memorable characters all bound up in a (in this case certainly) complex plot that kept me guessing right to the end. Actually, I thought I had it pinned down twice and was wrong both times, which is nice to experience. And despite the darkness of the setting and the subject matter, Thomson manages to interject just enough quirky humour to keep the book a hearty read that drew me back in every spare minute. In fact, while there are moments in the book that made me squirm a little, there were also moments that made me chuckle out loud and note down the page number to repeat a humorous passage to my wife.

Dark Asylum takes us on a voyage through the world of Victorian madness, its diagnosis and treatment, the institutions that dealt with it and the world from which it sprang. There are doctors here both likeable and dreadful, who are experimenting with phrenology, drugs, lobotomies, therapeutic treatments and so much more. It is a world of medical upheaval and change, and not all of that change is pleasant or tasteful. One thing worthy particularly of note is the characters. They are both vivid and interesting, and they are each memorable and individual, which is not always the case in such a genre.

It is not until about 1/4 of the way through the book that we begin the true mystery, though the lead up to this point, introducing the characters and their world, is made all the more relevant by a side-tale running throughout, telling the backstory of our villain. That information is slowly released throughout, and never too early. Best of all, the unveiling of the truth towards the end is another corkscrew of twists and surprises.

This is, quite simply, a cracking book and deserves to be read. Go get yourself a copy. And as an extra treat, I have been in contact with the publisher and E. S. Thomson agreed to answer a few questions for me, so if the review alone has not tempted you to delve into Jem Flockhart’s adventures, have a little peek into the mind behind them…

* * * *

Are the locations in Dark Asylum based on real buildings either extant or now-vanished? Do you visit buildings of the period to flesh out your vision in preparation for describing them?

In this case no, I didn’t. I made everything up or used books of the period that described places.  The apothecary, the asylum, the convict transport ship are all out of my own head but based on what I read. I have been in a Victorian asylum building – I used to work in one (Craighouse, in Edinburgh) – and very grand it was too.  But it was built in the 1870s, and Angel Meadow was an old asylum, from before the asylum building programmes of the 1870s and 1880s.  Most of these sorts of places – smaller asylums – no longer exist. 


Dark Asylum is set in a harsh and very dark world. The Victorian London of which you write is a Gothic masterpiece of gloom, misery and wickedness. Given both this and the grisly subject of which you were writing, how do you attempt (and clearly succeed) in lightening the tone with moments of humour? It must be something of a balancing act.

Actually, I find I do get tired of the gloom and darkness. And at those points, just when it seems too much, I put in some humour – mainly to give the reader a rest.  I think that people are often absurd, even when they try not to be.  Dr Mothersole and his curious ideas for treating the mad, or Mrs Roseplucker, the brothel-keeper who turned to writing Penny Dreadfuls, were very easy to do.  As you say, the difficult bit is knowing when do do it, for how long, and when to stop.  Did I succeed?  I’ll let others be the judge

I was interested to see how far you pushed the boundaries in this novel in places. Is there anything about the era or setting that you are tempted to write out, or are uneasy about describing?

I suppose it depends where you think those boundaries are. I’m  uneasy about describing child prostitution – which is probably why I had the child who was pimped by her mother leap out of the bed and beat her would-be rapist to death with a poker before he had chance to do anything to her.

You have some truly colourful characters in Dark Asylum, a number of which I loved. Do you find it difficult to create characters who stand out so when the setting of your books is an era of conformity and often drab uniformity?

No I don’t find it difficult. I think there were more eccentric people in this period than people realise.  What is difficult is finding roles for women that are not boring or completely anachronistic.  I got round this by having a cross-dressing main character.  But if you want feisty women in your novel (and I do), this is not as straightforward as it is when writing a novel set in the present.

Jem is an interesting character and I found myself often wondering how she gets by without accidentally revealing her true gender. Clearly there are moments in the book where people have an inkling, but presumably you are limited in the situations you can describe (for instance having to share a room/bathroom with someone?)

Jem is based on James Barry, who spent her life dressed as a man, and practiced medicine as such in the British Army for her whole working life.  Barry graduated in medicine from Edinburgh university some 40 or so years before women were permitted to study medicine. Clearly, if she could live her life disguised as a man in such a male environment then I can manage it for Jem in a novel.  She doesn’t share a room, so that’s never a problem.  Some people seem to guess than Jem is disguised – but no one ever comes out with it and says “you are a woman!” – so you never really know whether they have worked it out or not.

Your first Jem Flockfart novel was set in the same locale as this, and I note from the back matter of the book that your next is also set in London. Are you not tempted to set a novel somewhere more familiar to you (Lancashire or Lothian for example?) Edinburgh clearly has rich pickings in the Victorian era

I left Lancashire 30 years ago, so it is not familiar to me at all anymore.  As for Edinburgh, in fact, almost all of the medical history details in the books are Scottish – mainly because I know about it thanks to my PhD, and also because Scottish medicine and medical education were surprisingly dominant in this period. Scotland punches well above its weight in the history of medicine.  So in fact i am using a lot of Scottish detail.  However,  I set the books in London because I wanted a large anonymous city, much of which has been rebuilt since the 1850s, rather than the smaller more intimate locations of Edinburgh, where everyone knows everyone else’s business.  I based the location of the first Jem story on St Thomas’s hospital in London, which was indeed knocked down to make way for a railway in the late 1840s.  Yes, I know Edinburgh intimately – I’ve been here for 30 years, but I didn’t want so distinctive a place to have a central part in the novel.  London in this period was massive, stinking, sprawling – and undergoing great change.  I wanted all this in my novel. Besides, Edinburgh is currently very well represented by historical novelists.  As a result, I don’t think the pickings are as rich as you might think.

A frivolous one to finish: what do you like to read for leisure.

Crime fiction mostly – Sherlock Holmes is an old favouite.  At the moment I’m reading Chris Brookmyre.

* * * *

Thank you, Elaine, for your time. There you go, folks. Buy Dark Asylum and immerse yourself in a great read.

Written by SJAT

March 13, 2017 at 1:18 pm

Vita Brevis

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The seventh novel in Ruth Downie’s Ruso and Tilla series takes us from Roman Britain (the setting for the majority of the books) for our first glimpse of Hadrianic Rome. And what a glimpse it is.

If you follow my reviews at all, you’ll be well aware by now of my opinion of this series and Ruth Downie’s awesome talent for storytelling, so you’ll be unsurprised to know that this is one of my highest rated books.

Following a former commander from Britain, Ruso brings Tilla and their new baby to Rome, seeking the good old ‘streets paved with gold’, only to find out that they are, in fact, paved with charlatans, criminals, gawpers and cockroaches. Oh, and barrels with bodies sealed inside. Yes, Ruso’s getting himself involved once again, entirely through atrocious luck, with a mystery. He receives an offer he cannot refuse: a ready made medical practice with patients, including a rich patron, and accommodation, all just waiting for him. But entirely apart from the delivery of the body in a barrel, he starts to worry that something is wrong because the former doctor has vanished without trace. Cue once again a truly complex, labyrinthine plot. As Ruso and Tilla battle debt collectors, wicked morticians, medical con-men, angry patrons, credulous neighbours, Christians and so many more, Ruso finds his life spiralling once more out of control, his reputation hanging on  knife edge, Tilla trying to hold things together.

As with all Ruth’s plots, Vita Brevis is a masterpiece of subtlety and complexity intertwined. As with all her books, character, colour, detail, pace and humour are prime movers. The characters are so well constructed, and we’ve known that since book 1, but the fact is they have have 6 books to grow, and they are now old friends. Well, the main characters are. The supporting ones are new, obviously, but are instantly dislikeable. Oh, some are likeable, but the majority are unpleasant, oily, corrupt Roman city-folk. And colour? Well, you just won’t believe the colour of the Rome Ruth paints until you read it. Detail? Well there are very few writers I have read who have anything close to Downie’s knowledge of her era. She is skilled as an author but also knowledgeable as a historian and archaeologist. I always feel confident with her work that I am experiencing the closest thing to actually being there. Pace is easy. It is almost impossible to put down a Ruth Downie book. They drag you in and then pull you along until you blink in disbelief that you’re at the end. and finally, humour. Well, there is so little light-hearted or humorous material to be found in the genre, that to see the ongoing quirky humour of Ruso and Tilla is always a heartwarming thing.

Gods, but Vita Brevis (Life is Short) is the latest in the series. This is the first time I’ve finished a Ruso book without there being another one waiting to be read. Come on Ruth. Maybe we can somehow push the calendar forward a year? In short: buy this book. Read this book.

Written by SJAT

November 22, 2016 at 10:22 pm

Tabula Rasa

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Only an excellent writer with a superb set of characters and an imagination full of fresh ideas can fuel a series to last more than maybe 4 or 5 books in a series. The fact that Tabula Rasa is book 6 in Ruth Downie’s series, then, is telling. The fact that, yet again, it is an absolutely cracking tale is even better.

I figure I’m past having to explain why I love Ruth’s books at this point, but to recap my view over the whole series, this is it in a nutshell:

  • Truly believable, very sympathetic and engaging characters
  • Intricate, carefully-crafted plots
  • Deep, realistic, historically accurate portrayal of the ancient world
  • Fascinating details that add colour and realism
  • Quirky sense of humour that always hits the spot
  • True historical mysteries, shot through with shrewd social observations

So there you go. That’s why I love the Ruso books. This book, in particular, brings in some of my favourite characters in the whole series. Some returning, some new. Tribune Accius, Valens, Albanus, Virana… and in particular Pertinax and Fabius. Oh, boy but Fabius is one of my fabourite supporting characters of any book I’ve read.

Tabula Rasa (‘Clean Slate’) is set in the forts on the Stanegate during the building of Hadrian’s wall. Ruso is back with the army, along with his better half, Tilla. He is serving as the medic in a tiny fort in the middle of nowhere that happens (much to his chagrin) to be close to the farm of one of Tilla’s relatives. Essentially the root of the tale is a case of ‘missing person’. Well, missing persons, at least. Ruso’s clerk has vanished, while his uncle Albinus is coming north to see him. And a local boy has vanished. As if the tension between locals and Roman invaders were not enough, the medicus pulls what I am coming to think of as ‘a Ruso’ and exacerbates the situation completely by accident. What follows is an excellent investigation that roams across the Stanegate forts and even beyond the wall, searching for the boy and trying to piece together why he was taken.

This area is somewhat home turf for me, so it was fascinating to read about places I know well. And I have to say I’d not twigged what was going on until Ruth revealed the truth towards the end of the book, so kudos there.

As usual, Tabula Rasa is pacy, clever, witty, thought-provoking and fascinating. I am starting to twitch at the thought that I now only have one Ruso book left before I will have to wait like everyone else.

Highly recommended as always. Ruth Downie’s books sell themselves.

Written by SJAT

October 21, 2016 at 9:02 am

Semper Fidelis

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Book 5 in my tour of the life of Ruso and Tilla. It’s a rollercoaster ride, for sure. I’ve followed Ruso and his slave/housekeeper/girlfriend/wife from Chester to Northumberland, to the south of France, then London, and now to York. It’s like a pit-stop tour of some of my favourite places guided by two of my favourite characters and penned by one of my favourite writers.

If you don’t know how much I love Ruth’s books by now then you’re clearly new to the blog. The Ruso mysteries are at the very top level of their genre – atmospheric, elegantly-plotted, immersively historical and delivered with rich prose. And yet also truly human tales, shot through with a sense of humour that never fails to make me smile and occasionally with deeper pathos. Ruso is not so much hapless as unlucky. He is skilled and clever and full of innovation, and yet regularly makes rather critical mistakes and finds himself in a mess. Tilla is practical and sensible and yet prone to headstrong decisions that show little forethought. Together they should be able to tackle any problem and yet more often than not they cause each other problems and worsen the situation exponentially. It makes for really engaging reading.

In Semper Fidelis (‘Always Faithful’, the motto of the US Marine Corps) we are brought to York as Ruso joins a small unit of the 20th legion who are there training recruits as they await the arrival of the 6th legion, who will be based there shortly. Ruso is back with the army now after his brief foray into the world of fiscal investigation, and the army is the focus of this book. For in York (Eboracum), the largely empty fortress has played host to native British legionary trainees, martinet centurions, beleaguered medics and desperate camp-followers. And a series of accidents and incidents that are believed to be a result of the curse on the unit point- to a clever investigator, anyway – to brutal and unacceptable behaviour on the part of the training officers.

Ruso and Tilla finds their selves delving into the incidents that have taken place and uncovering unpleasant truths within the army and landing their selves in deep trouble, which is only compounded all the more when the emperor Hadrian, his wife Sabina, and a unit of Praetorians arrive rather unexpectedly. Ruso knows Hadrian of old, since long before he came to power. You might think he could count on an old comrade to look after him. You might think that….

Semper Fidelis is yet again a beautiful offering from the pen of Ruth Downie and deserves to be read and enjoyed by all.

Oh, and the dog bite… Heh heh heh.

Go read it folks. It’s a treat.

Written by SJAT

October 6, 2016 at 8:51 am

Caveat Emptor

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I suspect Ruso was my favourite investigator of crimes by the time I’d finished the first book in Ruth Downie’s Medicus series. The second book expanded this world to include darker themes and the wild north. And by the time Ruso went home to Gaul in the third book he was not only my favourite investigator, but one of my favourite characters in any book series. Left with something of an uncertain future at the end of that book, I wasn’t sure what to expect from the fourth book, other than being sure it would be highly entertaining.

Caveat Emptor takes us back to Britain, where Ruso and Tilla (now man and wife) find themselves dragged into problems galore. Tilla becomes a friend and helper to a native woman who has got herself into disastrous trouble, her man the tax collector having disappeared with the money. Ruso finds himself appointed by the province’s assistant procurator to investigate the disappearance of the tax collector and his money.

What follows is a complex and thoroughly engrossing investigation taking us from the docksides of Londinium (London) to the finance offices of Verulamium (St Albans). A plot that involves a fascinating and shady cast of characters from lurking town guards to power-hungry councillors to weaselly clerks to half-blind noblemen and so on. A plot that, I might add, while I grasped parts of the solution half way through, parts kept me guessing to the end. A plot that is not all it seems at any given point.

But once more, the major wins of the book are the main characters and Ruth’s writing. Having met Ruth now, and discovered what a truly nice lady she is, it amazes me how she seems to be able to get into the mindset of hen-pecked males or vicious mysogenists or the like so well that they read as truly authentic. Ruso is at times hapless, at times heroic, mostly beleaguered and often confused. He is a man who tries to do the right thing, even though at times he’d like nothing more than to do the wrong one. Tilla is no barbarian, nor is she a Roman matron. She is not a charicature but a person, with all the complexity that implies. And as always with Ruth’s writing, the threads of gentle quirky humour that run throughout add counterpoint to the seriousness of the situations in which they find themselves and make the books something special and a delight to read.

As a last treat, here’s just a taster of the sort of writing that makes me love Ruth’s work:

As the ostler had promised, the ginger mare was keen to go – but not necessarily forward. After winning the argument over which of them was steering, Ruso urged it out under the archway and onto the wide expanse of the North road.

If that kind of writing doesn’t make you want to read, then I reckon nothing will.

Caveat Emptor. A beautifully constructed mystery. And now I go on to read the next book – Semper Fidelis.

Dark Waters

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I find myself exultant that I was once more able to immerse myself in Blake’s world of 18th Century Preston, and yet also saddened that I have now read all the Cragg and Fidelis mysteries written thus far and am looking across a probably long span until book 5 puts in an appearance.

As with the other three of these books I have read (and not, sadly in the correct order, for this is book 2) Blake has done a damnably good job with Dark Waters. As a mystery, it hits all the right spots, being more filled with red herrings and misdirection than a poorly-signed crimson fishery. What seems initially to be a simple case of death by misadventure soon becomes obviously politically motivated as Preston undergoes an election. But there is more to it than that. So much more that you’ll not grasp the truth until Blake chooses to reveal it near the end. With most mystery novels I am comfortable at least having a stab at a solution part way through. Not with this one.

The characters are as wonderfully drawn as always. In particular our two heroes, the stolid coroner and the light-hearted doctor. But also the entire supporting cast – both those who will go on to other books and those who are just one-shot characters – are lifelike, colourful and eminently readable.

But pushing aside plot and character, once again for me the great achievement of Blake is to make a long-gone era in place that is familiar to me in its modern incarnation a vivid and engaging place. 1740s Preston is displayed in all its fascinating seediness, for there is much more seedy and underhanded to this world than glorious and noble. It is a world of blood and mud and poverty and vile things, scattered with pockets of humanity and civilization as the world gradually modernises. In the other books we have been treated to the unseenly underbelly of the noble classes, the stinking rotten world of the tanners and more. In Dark Waters we are treated to an 18th century election. And if you think modern elections are dirty, underhanded and wicked things, wait til you read this!

Once again, Blake’s work is a triumph. I for one can’t wait to see the next installment.

A Dark Anatomy

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Having been enthralled with Blake’s third and fourth books in the Cragg and Fidelis series, I felt it only right to go back and cover the ones I’ve missed. This, then, is the first book of the series. Having gone from the latest to the first, I expected to be less impressed, for it’s natural for writers to grow and improve with their work, but all I can say is this must have been a heck of a debut, for it matches his more recent novels in quality, style and content.

And I also expected some sort of lengthy introduction to the characters and the setting, and to experience the moment when the two title characters of the series meet and become friends. But no. Not for Blake. We are thrown straight into the world as it stands with no messing about, for a mystery waits to be untangled. That was rather refreshing, I think, for ‘origin stories’ can often take up enough of a first book that they rather eclipse the plot. Not so: Dark Anatomy.

The plot of this first book revolves around a squire’s wife found dead in the woods with a cut throat. But this is no simple murder. Far from it. For there lurk deep undercurrents of dissatisfaction among the locals, marital troubles, potential dark magicks brought back from the New World, troublesome con-men, secretive itinerant workers, stolen bodies and so much more. I won’t delve any deeper into the plot than that for fear of spoilers. But suffice it to say that I had more than one surprise as the plot unfolded. The plot itself was a work of genius and if anything is better than the other two I read, for the solution is simply masterful and ingenious.

Blake paints a picture of Regency north-west England that is at once realistic and immersive, and yet accessible and eminently readable. His characters are believable and the protagonists sympathetic. The whole thing comes out as a well-wrapped package of mystery that will give you a few very happy hours opening.

I highly recommend all Robin Blake’s books, but start with this one.

The Scrivener

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Every now and then I come across a new series of books and wonder ‘why haven’t I come across these before?’ This is most definitely one of those. Robin Blake has created an immersive series set in, for me, a largely unknown era.

The Scrivener is in fact the third in a series, currently of 4, of mysteries set in mid 17th Lancashire. The book is billed as a Cragg and Fidelis mystery. Cragg is Preston’s coroner, and his friend Fidelis is a doctor. Between them, their skillsets and authority give them most of what they need to pick apart complex murders and plots, but it is not quite that straightforward. In fact, the book is written from the point of view of Cragg, and Fidelis seems to be more of a supporting character. In fact, Cragg’s clever and forthright wife is almost as helpful in their solution as Fidelis, though I have thus far read only one of the four books.

The Scrivener is a complex plot, which seems to have several threads with at best tenuous connections. A businessman shot dead in Preston, who seems to have been swindled. A trade mission to Guinea which is being investigated by an insurance agent. A trove of Civil War treasure found on Preston moor by a man now suffering a dreadful disabling medical condition, a will with peduliar conditions… it’s a wealth of fun for the mystery fan. The threads tie up nicely as the book draws to a close in the manner of all good mysteries. If I had one complaint about the plot it was a minor dissatisfaction that not everything in those threads is fully detailed and viewed by the reader. Some of it is reduced to a single line of second hand report. Still, this is merely the tidying up of the case. It just set my OCD twitching. The one that got away still nags at me, but enough about that in case I cause spoilers.

The writing is excellent, in that Blake manages to evoke the feel of the 17th century and create a brooding atmosphere while at the same time making everything relevant to the modern reader, easy to digest and at times perfectly light-hearted and enjoyable. The characters are likeable and believeable. They do not so conform to stereotypes that they  are common, which is nice, since mystery protagonists often do. Again, with characters, there is one thing that nags at me, which is that the protagonists (or Cragg at least) is at times a little too good and politically incorrect for the time, in respetc of slavery and bear-baiting, for example. It really doesn’t spoil the book, mind, and probably makes it accessible to a number of readers who would otherwise be put off. Blake’s history and social culture of 1740s Lancashire is stop on, thorough, and fascinating, to the extent that I lost track of the things I learned in this book. Best of all, for me, is that I live just across the Pennines from Preston and have spent quite a bit of time in the area, so a lot of this is quite familiar to me.

I would recommend this book (and therefore probably the series) to readers of historical fiction, and to lovers of mystery. To those who fill the middle group in that Venn diagram, you’ll love it. I see readers of D.E. Meredith’s Hatton and Roumande mysteries loving Robin Blake, for example.

Written by SJAT

May 12, 2016 at 10:01 pm

War Games

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I’ve been a fan of Doug Jackson’s writing for a long time, from his Roman work on the Caligula series and the Hero of Rome series to his Jamie Sinclair novels. Quite simply, unless he contemplated regency romance, there probably isn’t a Jackson novel I wouldn’t read. When I learned that he had taken an unpublished manuscript and released it himself as an ebook I was clearly going to read it.

The first thing that strikes me is that I read a lot of fiction released by big publishing houses and I read a lot of independent fiction (which varies in quality from the sublime to the ridiculous). This is the second time I have read an independent release by an otherwise traditionally published author. And what I noted straight away is that it further blurs the line between the two. A good independently published book is better than a poor traditionally published one. And this is for certain a really good independently published book. In fact, Transworld might have slipped up in letting this one pass. Well, Transworld’s loss is our gain, as you can buy the ebook of War Games for £2.15.

Tell you about the book, you say?

Alright. War Games is a modern thriller rooted in Scottish history, which occupies that same niche as the author’s Sinclair novels, or any number of investigative thrillers. But it is different. The protagonist of War Games is… a psychic investigator. The urge to add ‘Duh, duh, duhhhhhh’ after that is almost irresistable. The concept might put some folk off, I’ll admit. I’m not a huge fan of the psychic angle in book or film myself, but if it is done well, then it’s a great read. I’ll come back to the plot after a couple of tangents.

The book is set in the lowlands and borders of Scotland, which is Doug’s home territory, and the level of depth of knowledge and love that has gone into the descriptions of the locations is wonderful. And I am familiar with the area, having spent time at many of the locations myself, so I can vouch for how spot on Doug’s descriptions are.

The book is set in the present day (give or take a few years) but the plot delves into a background that covers anything from the ancient world up, focusing very heavily on the 12th to 14th centuries. Since we are familiar with the author’s historical knowledge and ability from other books, it should be no suprise how well this informs the plot and text of War Games.

The narration is told in the first person, and with an almost ‘voice-over’ aspect that puts me in mind of the classive film noir detectives, or the original theatrical release of Blade Runner. To some extent this can ham up a plot, but that can be a drawback or a bonus, depending on how it is integrated into the story. In War Games I found it positively endearing. It was evocative of so many detective movies of my youth and cast a certain ‘book noir’ aspect to it that worked for me.

As I said, I generally avoid all things psychic, but saying that I absolutely love the Necroscope novels of Brian Lumley which feature a whole slew of psychically-enabled investigators working for the British government. The reason? It was REALLY well done. It was believable and played to the realist in me rather than promoting the fantastical. Jackson’s hero does the same. The psychic aspect of it is such a minor facet of the whole and is so downplayed and shot through with strains of realism that it comes across as perfectly normal, which is hard to do, and works well.

So go on… back to the plot. Glen Savage – Falkland islands and Northern Ireland veteran and unhappy psychic is living close to the breadline trying to support himself and his wonderful wife, who suffers badly with MS, when he is offered a lucrative contract by a Muslim Scot with seemingly unlimited funds. Having spent the time between his military service and this point with a brief flare of a career as the psychic that helps the police – at least until that cash cow caught foot and mouth – he is the only choice Mr Ali can turn to when his daughter goes missing and the police are particularly unhelpful.

Cue an investigation into a crazed serial killer who is driven by madness and an odd identification with a long-dead crusader to murder those he sees as enemies of the faith.

And that’s enough of plot. I don’t want to ruin it. A last few notes, though. This is a tale with a serious leaning towards religious schism and long-standing creed hatred combined with a serial killer tale on a par with the top writers in the field. The writing is excellent as always, but with a raw edge and ‘noir’ aspect that adds atmosphere to the story. And the sideline exploration into the world of living with Multiple Sclerosis is fascinating too.

In short, War Games is a really absorbing story that hits the mark in a number of ways. I heartily recommend it.

And to give you a great glimpse into the world behind the book, I managed to get the author to answer a few questions. Thank you, Doug, and here we go…

SIMON: Most of the locations in War Games are strewn around the borders and lowlands of Scotland. I’m quite familiar with a few of the sites myself and I know that you’re from the area. How much were the locations selected in line with your plot, or was the plot to some extent tweaked by the inclusion of locations you were dying to use?

DOUG: When I finished my first novel (it became Caligula, but I didn’t then have publisher) I had no idea what to do next, but I’d enjoyed it so much it seemed a pity not to write another. By then I knew I was I capable of writing a historical novel, so why not try something different? What came next was a crime novel written in the first person because the main character started talking to me in my sleep in a kind of Fifties Noir Sam Spade voiceover kind of way. When I started writing it I had an idea that I wanted to make the Borders a character, in the way James Lee Burke does with so successfully with New Orleans and the Bayou. I suppose there was also an element of passing on my love of what is a very special place and encouraging others to visit it.The actual locations were dictated by the need to have links with one of the main historical figures in the book.

*Note from Simon: this answer came after I had written the bulk of the review, and I am fascinated by the synergy between what I got from the book and what Doug intended.*

SIMON: Was it interesting writing about a subject that is local in both time and place rather than the ancient world or thrillers that range around the globe? Did you find anything different about the process?

DOUG: Probably the most difficult thing about writing a contemporary novel in a place you’re very familiar with is to ensure that none of the events or locations comes across as mundane. When Glen Savage walks down a street or drives along a road he always has to be thinking something fascinating to do with the case, or his own, very specialised situation, and experiencing the sense of place very vividly.

SIMON: There is something of a religious conflict theme to the novel which in light of more recent events is actually quite current, but also runs the risk of that old chestnut of something you should never discuss. Were you nervous about touching on the religious theme and the relations between Islamic and Christian characters, and were you forced to make any changes to your story to avoid trouble?

DOUG: I had to think long and hard about some of the religious and cultural aspects of the book and the actions of some of the characters. But when you’re writing a murder mystery about a contemporary killer whose actions are being driven by events that happened hundreds of years ago you’re on relatively safe ground. The events and the inhumanity we see all around us every day go far beyond anything in the book.

SIMON: I have always been impressed by your level of research and knowledge when writing your Roman novels, but it is plainly obvious from your other works that you are well versed in the subject of the modern military. Added to that the police procedural aspects of War Games, and I’m led to ask how much your career in reporting and newspapers has contributed to your wealth of knowledge?

DOUG: My background as a journalist certainly helps. It is amazing the detail you pick up along the way. I’ve attended dozens of trials, several of them involving murder, and that gives you an insight into how the police work. That said I don’t need too much detail about the likes of forensics and pathology because Glen only knows what he knows and any other information he gets is from internet research in the same way I do. I’ve always been interested in military matters. When I was young I wanted to join the army, but as I got older it became clear I was too much of a wimp. I have hundreds of books on the subject and have read many hundreds more over the years. As far as the army etc are concerned I’m comfortable in just about any age, though I sometimes have to research the fine detail. I love playing at being a general. If only they’d let me join at that rank, with a batman with a G&T at hand at all times.

SIMON: Despite writing novels based in the Roman era (a very superstitious time) and esoteric modern thrillers which touch on mysterious subjects, your protagonists have thus far all been solidly rooted in the pragmatic world. For all the realism of the lead character in War Games, the fact cannot be avoided that he is a Psychic Investigator. What led you to explore such an idea, and was it difficult keeping the ‘real feel’ of the novel with such an unusual lead?

DOUG: I think that if you’re writing a contemporary detective novel in such a crowded genre your character has to have something that makes him different, so that and the fact that the police do call on psychics was the trigger for the psychic angle. The Savage character is actually based on a sergeant in the Scots Guards I met on a freezing day in Crossmaglen, young and very personable man, but hard as nails and probably the most – I think the word is competent – individual I’ve ever met. The most difficult part was deciding just how psychic to make him. He can’t know too much or he’d just be able to point to the killer, and he can’t use it too little or what’s the point of having the ability. In the end I decided to make his powers sporadic and relatively unreliable, so that sometimes he’s as sceptical of his ability as other people are. He’s a man who exudes confidence, but his experiences in the Falklands have left him mentally fragile.

SIMON: Will there be another Glen Savage mystery?

DOUG: War Games is actually the second Glen Savage book I’ve written, but people I showed it to thought the first – Brothers in Arms – which documents what happened to him in the war, as well as investigating the mysterious deaths of some of his former comrades – worked better as a second book. The problem with that is that I had to incorporate several key introductory scenes from Brothers into War Games, so I need to do some rewriting before I self-publish it. I’m slightly off the pace with my current Valerius novel, so unfortunately I don’t have the time at the moment but hopefully before Christmas.

Well all I can say is how much I enjoyed the book and how grateful I am that the author took the time to answer my questions. Thank you Doug for your insight.

Go buy the book folks, right HERE