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The Toff at Butlin’s by John Creasey

John Creasey was a writing phenomenon, one of the most prolific authors of all time, with at least 700 titles published. Creasey was not only prolific, he was fast. He could write two or three full-length novels in a week. To read them, you would never know that they were written at speed. They are quality examples of crime fiction.

Although, Creasey is best known as a crime writer, he also wrote romances, westerns, thrillers – the cross-genre list goes on. As a crime writer, Creasey is up there with the best. Think of his creations; The Baron, The Toff, Gideon of the Yard, Inspector West, the Department Z novels – the list goes on and on.

When I was younger I used to see dozens of Creasey titles on the racks everywhere; in bookshops, railway stalls, newsagents – all with their distinctive covers. He was well regarded in his profession. The Crime Writers’ Association give awards in his honour.

I’ve been meaning to write about Creasey’s books for some time, for he is one of the masters of the craft.

His character the Hon. Richard Rollison, better known as The Toff, made his first appearance in Thriller magazine in 1933, his first book outing Introducing the Toff appearing five years later. There were about 60 Toff books published, Creasey would often write several in a year – four of the titles appeared after the author’s death.

The premise of the Toff is that well-brought up gentleman Rollison goes into the East End of London to fight crime, acquiring a reputation and the nickname. He has a calling card showing a gent complete with top hat and monocle, wearing a bow-tie and sporting a cigarette holder. He has an eye for the ladies and a rather nice flat in Gresham Street in Mayfair.

But really Rollison belongs to what the thriller writer Geoffrey Household called “Class X” – he fits in as well with the slum-dwellers of the East End as he does with posh society.

The trappings of the upper-class are present in these stories, but there is none of the dreadful snobbery you get with writers like Sapper and Wheatley. Rollison is a righter of wrongs, with friends he values right across Britain’s ridiculous class divide.

Like all good crime-fighters, the Toff has a winning supporting cast; there is his “man” Jolly, who puts on a pretence of being thoroughly miserable; Superintendent Bill Brice of Scotland Yard, who doesn’t really approve of Rollison, but welcomes his help; Bill Ebbut, who trains fighters in the East End and provides muscle to the Toff when needed. All of them delightfully drawn by the author.

Now, although I’ve been re-reading the Baron stories by Creasey, I hadn’t read the Toff for many years. Then, browsing in an antiques shop in York, while researching backgrounds for my next William Quest novel, I came across a battered copy of The Toff at Butlin’s. My copy had clearly originated at the Butlin’s Camp at Filey, for it is autographed by many of the redcoats working there during the 1954 season – including at least two who went on to become famous in the UK – the comedian Charlie Drake and the entertainer Eddie Keene, although the story is actually set at a Welsh holiday camp.

Now, for readers outside the UK, Butlin’s was and is a very famous holiday camp enterprise, set up by Billy Butlin in the late 1920s. Holidaymakers, usually on limited incomes, could come to Butlin’s for a fixed fee holiday, which included lots of entertainment provided by the famous redcoats (many British variety stars began their careers as redcoats). It was cheap, but it was very cheerful, for Billy Butlin was the complete showman in every sense of the word.

At some point, and I don’t know quite when it started, Billy Butlin approached several writers asking them to set books in one of his holiday camps. Dennis Wheatley, an arch-snob, famously turned him down. But several rather forgotten writers accepted, and two writers at least who are still highly regarded – John Creasey and Frank Richards, creator of Billy Bunter.

Now, the thought of the Hon. Richard Rollison staying at Butlin’s to investigate the disappearance of a trio of redcoats might seem strange, but it works wonderfully. Mostly, because Rollison is never portrayed as a snob and can mix with anyone.

And, by the 1950s, the Toff is rather hard up, putting out his sleuthing skills for money. He has to pay the bills so, when Billy Butlin (who makes a cameo appearance in the novel) invites him to his holiday camp at Pwllheli to investigate why redcoats keep vanishing, Rollison is quite eager to go – spurred on, it has to be said, by the photograph of a pretty girl on the cover of the Butlin’s brochure. His man, Jolly, thinks it all rather undignified and is outraged at the suggestion, but then, well, they do need the money. Some of the most amusing scenes in the novel explain Jolly’s conversion to the Butlin cause.

But what is the mystery which brings the Toff to Butlin’s? Well, I’m not going into any detail, for this is a wonderfully entertaining novel that you really should read for yourself. Sufficient to say that, along the way, there are robberies, the disposal of stolen goods, murders, and the Toff himself under threat from deadly opponents. And just who can the Toff trust? Not everyone can be trusted.

Never has a holiday camp been so menacing in a work of fiction – or so much fun. And the reaction of the campers when they discover that a celebrity like the Toff is in their midst is wittily drawn.

I would think that Sir Billy Butlin must have thought the book a hoot. It’s certainly as readable and fresh as the day it was written.

I shall certainly re-read the Toff novels as I find them. I know his agent is working very hard to make these titles more widely available. But how lovely it would be to see the paperbacks, with the original cover art, back in the bookshops.

And, I must say, I rather like this idea of setting a crime novel at Butlin’s. Sir Billy Butlin is long gone, but if anyone from Butlin’s would like to offer me a chalet for a week or two, I’ll see what I can do…

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John Buchan’s “Greenmantle”

John Buchan’s classic thriller “Greenmantle” – first published a hundred years ago this October – is the second of his novels to feature the character Richard Hannay, whom Buchan introduced in “The Thirty-Nine Steps” (see blogs passim).

The plot covers an attempt by the Germans, for their own strategic advantage in World War One, to persuade the Turks to participate in a Jihad against the Allies. This makes it singularly relevant for modern times, when the word Jihad is constantly banded about. (Jihad is usually interpreted as meaning the summoning of a holy war; it actually means working for Islam in all sorts of ways).

The book starts with Hannay, recovering from wounds received on the Western Front, being summoned to see spymaster Sir Walter Bullivant (from “The Thirty-Nine Steps”), who gives him a slip of paper with three very slender clues, and then despatches him to discover their meaning.

Hannay, disguised as a South African of Dutch origins, makes a perilous crossing of Germany, partly in the company of the Boer Peter Pienaar, and the American John Blenkiron. In my view these German-set passages are the most interesting in the book. While the chief villain, von Stumm, is portrayed by Buchan as something like the baddie of anti-German propaganda of the time, the rest of the Germans are represented with considerable sympathy. Which is quite surprising for a British writer in 1916.

Hannay, in his disguise, is introduced to the Kaiser, whom Buchan portrays with surprising understanding, showing him as much a victim of events as anyone else caught up in the Great War. He also gives us a German engineer called Gaudian, whom Hannay likes very much (he reappears in the later Hannay adventure “The Three Hostages”).  Even von Stumm is shown as a balanced figure – you can see where he is coming from.

There are passages where Hannay is ill and given shelter by a German family, and a chapter where he works in great harmony with the German captain of a barge travelling down the Danube. Hannay learns from his experiences that the horror of the war is that it often pits decent people against each other.

Given the anti-German propaganda of the time, this is all the more remarkable. Buchan has too often been labelled as a racist and anti-Semite (usually by people who’ve never read him). He is neither. His humanity shines through his work. If his characters sometimes use expressions that sound uneasy on the modern politically-correct ear, it is because that is the way people spoke at the time. And the views of a writer’s characters do not represent what the writer might believe anyway.

In this book we are introduced to Sandy Arbuthnot (based mostly on Buchan’s university friend Aubrey Herbert.) Sandy is a master of disguise, a man who has lived rough in many parts of the east, and can pass himself off as a native in many countries. The character might sound far-fetched, but the real-life Aubrey Herbert did all of that and more. Peter Pienaar is a hunter from the African veldt, a simple man of great courage. Blenkiron abandons the American neutrality of the time to work for the Allies. Buchan was very fond of Americans and this character is a tribute to many friends.

The other villain of the piece is the German agent Hilda von Einem, who has an obviously sexual obsession for Sandy Arbuthnot, even as he is thwarting her plans to inspire Jihad.

Eventually the four heroes of the book find themselves in Constantinople, a city portrayed in a very claustrophobic and threatening way. Here they discover the secret of Greenmantle, before journeying to the front line in the war, at Erzurum, where the Germans, Austrians and Turks are fighting off a Russian advance. Buchan shows sympathy for the Turks, despite the fact that they are Hannay’s enemies. Sandy is shown to have a considerable empathy with the Turkish people.

The novel ends with our heroes surrounded and fighting against massive odds. I won’t say more because I think you should read “Greenmantle” for yourself. But I think it interesting that Buchan, against the fashion of British thrillers of the time, is not afraid to make Hannay and the others scared.

John Buchan was a great writer in so many ways. He is particularly good at describing landscapes, taking the reader right in there with his characters. You really feel you have undertaken Hannay’s journey across Europe to Turkey.

A century on, “Greenmantle” is still an exciting read. More than that, it is prophetic, given the circumstances of the modern world.

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Jack Higgins’ “The Eagle Has Landed”

It’s now forty years since Jack Higgins published his bestselling war thriller “The Eagle Has Landed” and a good ten years since I last read it. Time for a re-read and a very satisfying read it was.

Now if you’ve only ever seen the very inferior film version put it out of your mind and find the book. And when I say find the book I really do mean find the extended version published in more recent years, rather than an early edition or the film tie-in edition. You can usually tell the one you want by the fact that it has an author’s preface by Higgins.

The more recent editions give the text as Jack Higgins actually wrote it. Higgins had published a number of thrillers under various names before this breakthrough novel. When he presented the idea of “The Eagle is Landed” his publisher commented that it was the “worst idea he’d ever heard of.”

But Higgins persisted. The first edition was butchered during editing, with whole scenes and characters cut. This is why I suggest buying a later edition where Higgins has restored the book somewhere nearer to his original intentions.

Not for the first time, a publisher has been proved wrong. “The Eagle Has Landed” proved to be an immediate bestseller, first in America and then everywhere else. By the mid nineties, when my copy was published, Higgins could remark – no doubt with some glee – that his book had sold 26 million copies and been translated into 55 languages.

The plot is relatively simple. Following the rescue of Mussolini from Italy by Otto Skorzeny, Hitler demands to know why his secret service, the Abwehr, can’t bring him Churchill out of England? The head of the Abwehr, Admiral Canaris, instructs his operative Max Radl to produce a feasibility study. As Radl progresses he finds that the task could actually be accomplished.

The plot soon takes wing: Radl finds that Churchill will be visiting a lonely village in Norfolk for a quiet weekend. Furthermore, the Abwehr has a spy in the village, a seemingly respectable mature lady called Joanna Grey. He sends in a skilled IRA gunman, Liam Devlin, to assist her ahead of the kidnap attempt. To carry out the mission he finds a disgraced paratrooper Colonel Kurt Steiner and his men to parachute into Norfolk and then…

I’ll leave it there, for this is so good a thriller that you need to read it for yourself.

Now if all of this sounds like common thriller material you couldn’t be more wrong. By the time he wrote “The Eagle Has Landed”, Higgins had learned a great deal about his craft. This is not just a thriller but a terrific novel full stop, written by a writer at the height of his powers. It always irritates me that, certainly on this side of the Pond, we have an awful snobbery about genre fiction. Thrillers and their like are somehow considered to be inferior to many other kinds of novel. And that’s a pity for some of the finest writing is in that genre.

“The Eagle Has Landed” becomes superior to the many similar war thrillers because of the tremendous characterisation. For a start it was written at a time when war thrillers abounded in Britain, where the Germans were portrayed – usually – almost as cartoon villains.

Higgins has said that he wanted to write about good men fighting for rotten causes. We see the horrors of the Nazi regime here, but we are also shown how people get caught up – for good or bad – by the march of history.

Max Radl, is a disillusioned war hero, slowly dying of wounds sustained on the Russian front. Kurt Steiner had been disgraced for rescuing a Jew from the Warsaw Ghetto. Joanna Grey, the Abwehr’s enemy agent in Norfolk, is being torn apart by her love for England and her hatred of the English, because of her experiences in the Boer War. Liam Devlin is a member of the IRA who’s become tired of some of the methods used to achieve a united Ireland.

Devlin is the star turn of the novel. (Higgins uses the character again at different ages in other books). He is by the English definition an Irish terrorist, though a very questioning terrorist. He is a poet who starts the book lecturing in English literature at the University of Berlin. He remains loyal to his cause throughout, but deeply suspicious of everyone else’s. This character is portrayed with such depth, integrity and understanding that any writer of literature would be glad to own him. Devlin stays in your mind a long time after you close the pages.

“The Eagle Has Landed” has one of the best openings of any thriller, with Higgins himself, as a character, visiting Norfolk in the 1970s; gradually uncovering the truth about what happened there in 1943. This beginning is a wonderful example of just how an opening chapter should be, each sentence drawing the reader further and further in. You’ll learn more from studying it than you would from a hundred text books or writing courses.

While the idea of Nazis arriving undercover in an English village is not new – it was first contemplated in an exciting film called “Went The Day Well” made during the war – Higgins was the first to portray the situation fairly from all sides. And to include an IRA gunman as a hero, well an anti-hero I suppose, in a thriller written at the height of the Troubles of the 1970s was a particularly brave move. Higgins moved the thriller genre on by providing a greater depth of understanding. Thriller writers have benefitted ever since.

The film version might pass an hour or two on a wet afternoon, but it shows none of the subtlety of Higgins’ writing. Whole sections of the book are lost and one major character is not there. Michael Caine’s Steiner looks as though he’s wandered in from some other film, Jean Marsh’s Joanna Grey is good but far too young. Larry Hagman’s American Rangers Colonel is a bit like JR Ewing doing his war service. Only Donald Sutherland as Liam Devlin comes close to the literary original. (Incidentally, Caine was originally supposed to play Devlin, but apparently thought that portraying an IRA soldier might be a bad career move. The late Richard Harris had a go as well, before the director decided on Sutherland). The direction of the film is unimaginative and some of the dialogue is occasionally risible.

“The Eagle Has Landed” deserves a more intelligent remake, perhaps as a mini-series where some of the depth of Higgins’s original could be explored.

But if you enjoy thrillers – certainly if you’re thinking of writing one – do read or re-read “The Eagle Has Landed.” Jack Higgins is a master of the craft.

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The Prisoner Of Zenda

The Prisoner of Zenda
(and Rupert of Hentzau)

Anthony Hope’s novel “The Prisoner of Zenda” became a bestseller when it was first published in 1894 – and has remained in print for the past 121 years. It is also the only thriller I can recall that begins with the hero eating a boiled egg.

Thriller did I say? Well, yes, the Kingdom of Ruritania is fictitious therefore it can’t be an historical novel. And it is set much in the period when Hope was writing. I suppose, to use an old-fashioned term, we might call it a swashbuckler. But it remains a very thrilling one.

The story is familiar to many because of two really good film versions (starring respectively Ronald Colman and Douglas Fairbanks Jnr., and Stewart Grainger and James Mason – other minor film adaptations and parodies aren’t worth bothering with).

I suspect fewer people these days have ever read the novel. Which is a pity because it’s a cracking read, written in a style that seems as modern as if it were written last week. Not having re-read it for about forty years I was surprised how good it is. Many of the misconceptions of my memory of it were easily dismissed looking again. For instance I’d remembered the heroine Princess Flavia as a bit of a drip, which is the way she’s usually portrayed in the films. She isn’t. She’s a strong well-rounded character up there with the leading men.

The plot is relatively simple. Rudolf Rassendyll, a distant relative of the royal house of Ruritania returns to that kingdom for a holiday. His resemblance (they are not identical as in the films, where the same actors had to play the part) to its wastrel king is noted and, following a sequence of events I won’t spoil for you, he is forced to take the monarch’s place.

There is a great deal of conspiracy, some sword-fights, a dramatic rescue from a castle, a bit of romance, and some hints about the wider European situation which are quite prophetic. The tale is told in the first person by Rassendyll himself.

I do wonder if the seeds of the story were planted in Hope’s mind by what happened at Mayerling in 1889, when the heir to the Austrian Empire and his lover committed suicide at a hunting lodge. The stories are different, but the Mayerling incident triggered off a great deal of mystery and speculation at a time when Hope might have been contemplating his book.

The joy of the piece is the villain Rupert of Hentzau, young, dashing, immediately likeable for all his erring ways. He just happens, through personal ambition, to be on the wrong side. If you like swashbucklers he is iconic – and his influence has permeated down to a number of lesser works. The other villain, Duke Michael, the King’s brother is tamer by comparison.

Interestingly, there is a kind of social and political edge to the conflict of the book. In the capital of Ruritania, Strelsau, there is an old town and a new town. The new town backs the king and the hero’s side in the debate as to who would be the best ruler. But in the old town, where the working people live, there is greater support for Duke Michael and Rupert of Hentzau. I often found myself wondering whether I was backing the wrong side, as we’re supposed to like and be fighting for the existing king and the status quo?

The story ends with one of the best – and realistic – rescue sequences in literature. Terrific stuff! And a sad but satisfying ending.

Anthony Hope (properly Sir Anthony Hope-Hawkins, born 1863) began his career as a barrister, becoming a full-time writer at much the same time as “The Prisoner of Zenda” was published. Interestingly, his first novel “A Man of Mark” (1890) was self-published. He wrote a great many, now mostly forgotten, plays, lots of other novels, often set in fictional countries, and journalism. Apart from the two Ruritanian novels, his other great hit was “The Dolly Dialogues”, about Victorian society and still worth a read. He was knighted in 1918 and died in 1933.

Following the great success of “The Prisoner of Zenda” he wrote a sequel “Rupert of Hentzau” four years later. Rassendyll returns to Ruritania to settle matters left outstanding after his first adventure. Though “The Prisoner of Zenda” is told by Rassendyll in the first person, this second and longer story is narrated by Fritz von Tarlenheim, one of the secondary heroes of the first book, though there are accounts of certain incidents by other players in the drama, Tarlenheim’s own account often framing theirs.

This interesting demonstration of narrative technique is a positive master-class in how to use first person properly. It’s worth studying for that technical aspect alone.

“Rupert of Hentzau” is, in many ways a better novel than its predecessor, both in character psychology and plot development. A swashbuckler too but, well, something finer and more ambitious. A swashbuckler that is a tragedy, perhaps with that hint of the Mayerling incident thrown in. The characters are never pure heroes or villains. You can see where their ideas come from, and most have an uneasy recognition of what might be the consequences of their actions.

And it has the joy of a perfect villain in Rupert of Hentzau himself, too good to be literally written off in one novel. Rupert is given more space than in “The Prisoner of Zenda”. We are allowed to see the depth of his motivation. And few rogues are as likeable. The final drama of the novel is satisfying; it has a roundness, a completion. A fine piece of writing.

The two books should really be read one after the other to get the full effect. They are novels you can get quite lost in. Hope has that good novelist’s gift of leading you entirely into his world.

I had maligned Anthony Hope in my memory of four decades as a second-rater. He isn’t. These two novels are page-turners of the very best kind and I’m happy that my misconceptions were so pleasantly banished. Hope was a much better novelist than he is usually given credit for. And his Ruritanian swashbucklers are grand pieces of their kind. The fact that they’ve never been out of print and always had an audience proves that.

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The Riddle of the Sands

Erskine Childers’ novel “The Riddle of the Sands – A Record of Secret Service” has never been out of print since it was first published in 1903. It has influenced a great many thriller writers since, a god-parent, if not quite the father, of the modern thriller novel.

It is very much a creation of its time – Edwardian England, when the British Establishment was becoming increasingly concerned about the way Germany – still a relatively new nation – was equipping itself for war. It was also a period when new techniques of espionage were being defined, though, thankfully, before anything approaching modern technology had taken over.

Anyone who has undertaken any sort of covert observational work would attest to the accuracy of the pace of the spying and the scale of the operation. There are no master-villains, just ordinary Germans, something like Carruthers and Davies themselves, carrying out their own strategy at a time of increasing international paranoia and the race to an inevitable war. There is a baddie, though I won’t spoil the story if you haven’t read it by going into any more details. All I will say is that he is both a towering and tragic individual, torn by conflicting loyalties, not really a villain at all in the traditional sense. There’s a girl too, though fortunately the romantic elements of the novel are understated.

This is very much a feet-on-the-ground spy story, perhaps I should say sea-boots for this is one of the great novels about sailing.

The plot line is relatively simple, and I won’t give too much away. The story is told by Carruthers – a name to conjure with, a kind of byword for an Establishment figure in the century or more since – who is invited to join his old friend Arthur Davies who is sailing his yacht amidst the Friesian Islands, off the German coast in the North Sea or, as it was popularly known at the time, the German Ocean.

Carruthers takes up the invitation expecting his friend to have a comfortable yacht in the luxurious sense, complete with servants. Instead the Dulcibella is barely big enough to cope with the two of them. Carruthers works for the British government – the Foreign Office – but is on leave. A lot of the book is taken up with the details of this sailing voyage (the book comes complete with maps and charts – if you had a yacht of your own you could follow their adventures and route with little difficulty.)

This is not a page-turning thriller in the modern sense. There is as much about their voyaging as there is about espionage, those gripping scenes being scattered throughout the book. But this does give the yarn an air of reality. And you do keep wanting to turn the pages to find out what happens as the two young men are drawn into a German plot to invade England.

This is espionage as it really was, and perhaps still is. The book is presented with an introduction and epilogue by Childers, suggesting that Carruthers has related the account almost as a kind of report to him – a literary device, admittedly, but it is worth remembering that Childers worked at Westminster for much of his career, and also in Intelligence. Writing for him was very much a side-line. “The Riddle of the Sands” is his only novel.

It was published to great success, soon achieving both a popularity and also a great fear in the public mind; waking up the political establishment and the people of Britain to the possibility of a war with Germany. It’s said that, before the novel was published, the east coast of England was little prepared for defence and all the great naval bases were elsewhere. The British had always assumed that the traditional enemy would always be France. Few novels and thrillers have led to a rethink of defensive strategy – “The Riddle of the Sands” is probably the only one to make a significant tactical difference.

There is an element of verifiable truth in the novel. Childers had undertaken a similar voyage to his two heroes just a few years earlier. The details of the islands, the movements of the tides, the hazards of the sea fogs are taken from life, and conjured up on the pages. Childers is very good at evoking a sense of place, in much the way his admirer John Buchan did a few years later. You can smell the salt water and the mud of the islands even as you read. The sights and sounds of the journey are brought to life by the skill of the author.

Interestingly the plot inspired two Royal Navy officers, both amateur yachtsmen, to undertake a similar voyage in 1910, where they genuinely did spy on German naval defences.

Erskine Childers’ book is not just a thriller but a considerable work of literature. It might not race along like a Robert Ludlum, but it really does give a flavour of spying at the time.

Erskine Childers’ end was tragic. He sympathised with the cause of Irish Nationalism, joining the Nationalists when the Free State was established. In the Civil War that followed the schism between the Nationalists and the proponents of the Free State, he was arrested and executed by firing squad. Today we might call it judicial murder. A tragic end for a brave and far-seeing individual.

“The Riddle of the Sands” has been filmed, in a British version with Simon MacCorkindale, Michael York, Alan Badel and Jenny Agutter – a beautifully photographed film, made on location, which really captures the essence of what Childers wrote. There is, interestingly enough, a German version, though I’ve never managed to see it.

But even well over a century after its publication “The Riddle of the Sands” is well worth seeking out. And unlike some of the thrillers published today, I think it’s safe to say that this is very much how Edwardian espionage must really have been. Childers’ novel not only inspired a generation of spy novelists but almost certainly a whole generation of real-life spies.

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About Balmoral Kill

The autumn of 1937 – A desperate race against time to find a deadly killer…

In 1936 the British royal family were rocked by their greatest scandal as Edward VIII gave up the throne in order to marry an American divorcee.

Many ordinary people regretted the loss of their popular king. In the dark corridors of power, not everyone was sorry…

A year later the Abdication Crisis seems forgotten and all eyes are on the Coronation that summer. In August the new King George VI will retreat to Balmoral, his remote holiday home in the Highlands of Scotland.

As the shadow of war falls across Europe, a sinister conspiracy lies deep within the British establishment.

A man lies dead in a woodland glade. An unfortunate accident or has the first shot been fired in a secret war?

Sean Miller is recalled home to take on his deadliest challenge – but where do his loyalties really lie?

In a frantic chase, from the slums and sinister alleys of London to the lonely glens of the Scottish Highlands, Miller must hunt and bring down his most dangerous opponent.
His mission – to foil the final shot that will plunge Europe into the abyss of a new Dark Age.

Now in paperback and on Kindle.

Just click on the link below for more details or to order. Thank you.

http://www.amazon.co.uk/Balmoral-Kill-Sean-Miller-Adventure-ebook/dp/B00Q8I7LGO/ref=sr_1_1?s=digital-text&ie=UTF8&qid=1422807472&sr=1-1&keywords=balmoral+kill

 

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