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by Simon Tolkien
Harper, February 2013
368 pages
7.99 GBP
ISBN: 0007459718

Buy in the UK | Buy in Canada

It is September 1940, the evacuation from Dunkirk has been over for two months and the German blitz on London has just begun. Hitler and his senior military staff are in conference at the Berghof, the Führer's summer residence high in the Bavarian Alps. The subject of discussion is Operation Sealion, the planned invasion of Britain using tug-towed barges. The necessary conditions - in particular, the destruction of the RAF - have still not been met, perhaps because Hitler does not really want a war with Britain and would prefer to attack the Soviet Union and proceed with the enlargement of his eastern empire. He feels England would make peace if it were not for the defiance evinced by Winston Churchill and willingly grants Heydrich permission to go ahead with a plan for his assassination.

The fact that Churchill was not assassinated – a fact with which every reader will be familiar - determines the structure of the novel. We are not so much concerned with the outcome of the assassination plot itself as with the way in which the authorities become aware of it and their reaction to it. At the same time the characters themselves have to be interesting to us and we need to know what eventually happens to them. The plot itself is involved and it is not always easy for the reader to know precisely what is going on. Furthermore, certain aspects of it are rather difficult to believe and we are left feeling that the author could have taken a little more care. It is hard to believe that an educated (and presumably intelligent) man could be so easily persuaded to waive his right to counsel when charged with a murder of which he was completely innocent. It is also difficult to suspend disbelief for a plot to kill such an important and well-guarded man as Churchill that is so amateurish and relies so heavily on chance.

Those reservations apart, however, the author manages to maintain interest in two ways. The first is via the characters he creates. Ava is very convincing as the woman trapped in a loveless marriage who will do almost everything to escape it. Her husband, Bertram, is rather less convincing but is only peripheral to the plot. Constable Trave is intelligent, unlike his self-satisfied and lazy superior, Quaid and - again unlike Quaid - is determined to establish the real reasons for the murder. It is not entirely clear initially why the assassin himself is so set on carrying out his task are but as the book progresses the author provides very convincing reasons for his behaviour.

The historical characters - Hitler and Heydrich at the beginning of the novel and Churchill at the end of it - are merely sketches and are used simply in order to establish the military/political situation in the months after Dunkirk.

The novel is set amongst the falling bombs of the blitz and its consequences are portrayed in grim detail. Whole blocks of terraced houses are split in two by the devastating bombing. People rush down to their basements as the sirens wail but that is not always enough to guarantee their safety and all the inhabitants of the house in which the murder took place are wiped out. The emergency services are quite unable to cope and any sort of movement is very difficult. Trave's train journey to Scotland is used quite cleverly to bring out the contrast between the mayhem of London and the relative peace in the rest of the country.

The final chapters are hectic as Trave and Ava race against time to bring the news that will prevent the assassination attempt. The author does not, however, forget to tell us what happened to the minor characters and the delicious scene between Quaid and the Commissioner is a fine example of Miss Prism's dictum about the good ending happily, and the bad unhappily.

§ Arnold Taylor is a retired Examinations Board Officer, amateur writer and even more amateur bridge player.

Reviewed by Arnold Taylor, December 2012

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Contact: Yvonne Klein (ymk@reviewingtheevidence.com)

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