Tag Archives: The Thirty-Nine Steps

Calamity In Kent by John Rowland

Another seaside read for late summer this week, Calamity in Kent, one of the British Library Crime Classics. This has the bonus of an interesting introduction by Martin Edwards and another breezy railway poster cover. The novel was published in 1950 and this is the first reprint. It is set in the fictional resort of Broadgate, a very lightly disguised Broadstairs. We can be sure of this as Rowland describes the topography in detail and mentions the real area of North Foreland, just beyond the town.

Broadstairs is a charming place, full of historic interest, with two claims to literary fame. Dickens loved the town, visiting many times and writing much of David Copperfield there. John Buchan and his family were staying at Broadstairs in the summer of 1914. His wife’s cousin was renting a cliff-top property which had a flight of steps leading to a private beach. They and the town are the inspiration for the end of The Thirty-nine Steps.

Calamity In Kent is narrated by Jimmy London, a journalist recuperating at Broadgate after an operation. His illness is unspecified but we know he’s been staying there in a boarding-house for some weeks. Taking a turn on the prom before breakfast, he sees a man who’s had a bad shock. He’s the operator of the cliff railway who has just discovered a body in the locked cliff railway carriage.

Jimmy’s newshound instincts make him excited to be first on the spot. There follows an amusing interlude where he views the body and manages to despatch the lift attendant to fetch the police. Left alone, he not only frisks the corpse, finding out his identity but finds a notebook – uncomfortably near splatters of blood – and cheerfully pockets it.

Jimmy immediately phones a Fleet Street editor and gets himself appointed special correspondent for the murder story. He can scent his way back to replenishing his funds and landing a staff job.

In my time I had been in on a few scoops. This, however, was the first time that I had ever had the inside story of a murder handed to me on a plate. And I knew that a recent increase in the newsprint ration meant that the papers would give a bit more space to the case, if it was truly sensational, than they had been able to do in years.

Then Jimmy meets up with an old friend, Inspector Shelley of Scotland Yard, who happens to be staying with the Chief Constable. Not having much faith in the unimaginative local man, Inspector Beech, Shelley suggests that he and Jimmy London pool their knowledge.

I think it would be as well if we agreed to share the work of investigation. You see, there are people who might talk to a journalist, who, on the other hand, would not so readily talk to a policeman. Queer, no accounting for personal taste.

I’ve noticed quite a lot of reviews with readers complaining about this unrealistic device but I’m happy to suspend belief if I’m enjoying myself. (We never miss Midsomer Murders or Father Brown.) It is rather convenient how Jimmy finds one lead after another and everyone readily tells him useful information – instead of where to get off. Even so, I did enjoy Calamity in Kent very much.

Jimmy London is an engaging protagonist. Optimistic, resourceful, unscrupulous, he’s very believable and you can’t help taking to him. Inspector Shelley is likable too and is John Rowland’s usual detective. The narrative gains added interest in being from Jimmy’s point of view. The plot is great fun and builds to an exciting denouement. This has a sense of real danger and comes close to the feel of a fifties thriller or black and white film.

Calamity in Kent has an interesting transitional feel in the world of 20th century crime fiction. The setting is familiar to that of a Golden Age detective novel but contains many post-war references. A character has a limp from a war wound. We hear about newsprint rationing, the difficulty of obtaining motor spares, identity cards, nationalisation of the coal mines and the black market. Britain’s seaside resorts have resumed their heyday – although they’ve only a decade or so before holiday-makers will fly away to the sun. But things aren’t quite the same. The barbed wire’s been taken off the beach, the Home Guard disbanded and the blown-up part of the pier repaired. There’s another list of names  on the war memorial. Even in a real life Walmington-on-sea, times are changing.

Please click on the link to see editions:

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John Buchan and The Thirty-Nine Steps

Last year marked the centenary of the first book publication of John Buchan’s classic thriller. I blogged on the book itself on March 19th 2015 in celebration. But I want to recommend to you a quite excellent book about the background and genesis of The Thirty Nine Steps, which I’ve really enjoyed reading.

The title is John Buchan and The Thirty-Nine Steps – An Exploration by John Burnett and Kate Mackay, published by National Museums Scotland.

If you enjoy reading Buchan as much as I do, you’ll love this book. The authors begin with a brief biography of Buchan himself, before examining the thriller in considerable detail, looking at the book’s origins, describing the events within chapter by chapter – there are spoilers here, so I would recommend that you read the thriller first if it’s new to you.

If you’ve ever thought of writing your own thriller you’ll find this book quite inspirational; it takes you on a journey across the Galloway and Borders landscape through which Buchan’s hero Richard Hannay escapes his enemies, look at the characters of the various Scots he meets on the way, takes an in-depth look at the way disguise is used in the novel, and investigates pre-Great War espionage and its links with the chase thriller.

There are a number of nods in the direction of other Buchan thrillers as well, so the devotee of his work will find much of value here.

John Buchan is only now getting the reputation he deserves as an important writer of Scottish fiction. It is good to see the appearance of books like this which examine his work with such readable scholarship.

To order a copy please click on the link below:

http://www.amazon.co.uk/gp/product/1905267878/ref=as_li_tl?ie=UTF8&camp=1634&creative=6738&creativeASIN=1905267878&linkCode=as2&tag=johnbainbridg-21

 

 

 

 

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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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John Buchan’s “The Three Hostages”

In previous blogs I’ve looked at two earlier Richard Hannay novels by John Buchan. But “The Three Hostages” is very different from “The Thirty-Nine Steps” and “Mr Standfast”. It is more contained than the Hannay spy novels set during the Great War. Here the conspiracy is a criminal plot. And there is one prime villain, a member of the British Establishment. A gentleman about town, a member of Parliament, no less, a popular character on the London scene.

Today we tend to view politicians with considerable suspicion, supposing, fairly or unfairly, that most of them are lining their own pockets at our expense. Only in it for what they can get. Reading “The Three Hostages” you have to remember that Buchan lived and wrote during a more reverential age, when politicians were viewed as genuine public servants – there, even if you disagreed with their political stance, to contribute to what was perceived as the greater good. The idea of making such a man a sinister villain might have been a tad more shocking for the readers of 1924 than it is now.

This is very much a novel about the breakdown of society and order after the chaos of a world war. Quite topical when you think of the rise of Mussolini and Hitler in the reality of the 1920s.

I don’t think I’m spoiling anything by saying right here and now that the villain of the piece is one Dominick Medina. Buchan makes this obvious from almost the start of the novel.

The basic premise is simple. In order to safeguard his criminal conspiracy, Medina has kidnapped three hostages with Establishment connections. Before Scotland Yard can close the net on the criminals Richard Hannay has to find and rescue them all.

As with all good thrillers, there is a tight deadline and Hannay only has a piece of doggerel verse to work from as a clue.

Hannay, snatched from the peace and quiet of life as a country gentleman, is also put at a considerable disadvantage by falling victim to the sinister hypnotic powers of Medina himself. The scenes where Hannay becomes – or so Medina believes – his stooge are some of the most powerful that Buchan ever wrote. Buchan himself once expressed the great fear of what it must be like to find your mind being taken over, the horror of losing self-control. It might all sound far-fetched, but remember how characters like Hitler manipulated an entire nation, in a similar bout of near mass-hypnosis.

Unlike the earlier novels, “The Three Hostages” is rooted very firmly in London, though there are episodes in the Cotswolds, Norway and Scotland. In an early Buchan novel “The Power House”, which is rather unfairly neglected these days, we saw how cleverly Buchan portrayed the dangers of London, the sinister quarters of the city which lurk just below respectability.

Here we have a similar portrayal of menace. Buchan is as good at evoking shadier areas of Fitzrovia and Gospel Oak as he is the wild landscapes of the Highlands. There is a sense of claustrophobia in this novel – a feeling that the outdoorsman Hannay is also having to fight his surroundings as much as the chief villain.

Buchan also poses an interesting dramatic situation for his hero. How can Hannay have the freedom to search for the hostages and investigate Medina when he is at the beck and call of Medina for most of the time.

The author uses other familiar characters from the earlier novels to give Hannay moral and practical support. We have here the hero of “Greenmantle” Sandy Arbuthnot (now Lord Clanroyden), Hannay’s wife Mary, the airman Archie Roylance. Buchan reprieves the character of the German Herr Gaudian, from “Greenmantle”, an ally now in Hannay’s quest, rather than an enemy. A sympathetic German in English fiction in 1924 shows Buchan’s horror at what had just happened in the trenches. It was not a very fashionable viewpoint in a Europe where vengeance was the greater motivation.

As matters are revealed there is a dramatic conclusion in the Scottish Highlands. Perhaps the finest duel in thrillerdom. A chase and gunfight on a bleak mountainside.

Now as it happens I’ve just written a similar battle myself, where two men fight it out in the Scottish mountains, in my own thriller “Balmoral Kill”.

And I found it incredibly hard to do. I stand in awe of John Buchan who raised the bar so high that any attempt to do anything similar is daunting to say the least.

The only other writer I know who comes anywhere close is Geoffrey Household in his thriller “The Watcher in the Shadows” (see blogs passim), though his location is a meadow in the Cotswolds.

Buchan was so good at these sort of scenes because of his vast experience of mountain climbing in the Highlands, the long days out in all weathers. Buchan may not have had to fight personal tournaments in such places, but he knew the locations backwards. And it shows. I climb mountains myself and I’ve undertaken long walks in Scotland and elsewhere. I can vouch for Buchan’s veracity. No writer of Scottish fiction gets the spirit of place quite so right as John Buchan.

And it’s interesting that, despite Hannay being in this wider landscape rather than the disturbing back-rooms of Medina’s London, the sense of menace – of danger creeping ever near – never goes away. Buchan makes a mountain range seem almost as ominously claustrophobic as the shadowed streets of inner London.

And as Hannay is attacked mentally as well as physically we find ourselves previewing many of the thriller plots that came along later in the twentieth-century. Where the mind and spirit are subdued every bit as much as the body. Where the survival of the individual’s moral conscience is often very much in doubt.

“The Three Hostages” is probably the best constructed of all the Hannay novels – and I don’t mean that disparagingly, for the Hannay novels in total are a hallmark of excellence in the world of thriller writing.

But here Buchan had obviously considered the plot and the issues within for a long time before he took up his pen. He produced, in my view, not only a classic thriller but one of the finest novels of the 1920s. A state of the nation piece, which makes Buchan’s homeland, coming as it was away from the traumas of the Great War, a very uncomfortable place indeed.

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John Buchan’s “Mr Standfast”

In the Gaslight Crime blog of March 19th, I looked at John Buchan’s classic spy thriller “The Thirty-Nine Steps”, the first of his novels featuring his hero Richard Hannay. Today I want to look at the third Hannay novel “Mr Standfast”’

Although “Mr Standfast” is the third novel in the sequence (Greenmantle comes second) it is very much a sequel to “The Thirty-Nine Steps” – it concludes some of the outstanding matters of the first novel.

The novel starts in the summer of 1917, with Richard Hannay journeying to an idyllic manor house in the Cotswolds. Hannay, very much the amateur spy-catcher in his first adventure, is now a Brigadier-General, who has made his mark as a soldier on the Western Front. Suddenly he finds himself torn away from the trenches to participate in the old game of nailing a master spy and finding out how secrets are being sent from Britain to Germany.

It is a journey that takes Hannay from a English Garden City full of pretentious individuals to the poverty-ridden tenements of Glasgow. Then on a puffer steamer through the Hebrides before Hannay embarks on a long walk through the Scottish Highlands to the dramatic mountains of the Cuillin on Skye.

Buchan, a great walker himself, and a terrific describer of landscape, is at his best here. As a writer he had a considerable gift of summoning up Temenos – the spirit of place – in just a few words. Unlike a lot of authors, Buchan was no carpet-bagger when it came to backgrounds, particularly Scottish scenes. He had done all of these walks himself and in his youth was a rock-climber of some renown. The scenes in Skye are amongst the finest Buchan ever wrote. Nobody does it better.

But Buchan can write urban scenes as well. Hannay returns to London during an air-raid. He conveys very well the sense of shock in a city than finds itself under aerial attack – an unpleasant novelty for the people of England at that time. Then to the Western Front which Buchan depicts with great validity. He had been in the trenches and the dug-outs himself. Here we have some familiar though welcome Buchan elements; a sinister chateau, sudden and hurried journeys in the dead of night, the tales soldiers tell to stave away buried fears.

Then to neutral Switzerland where Hannay finds himself under cover once more. There is a description through a snow-bound Alpine pass which deserves its place as a classic of mountaineering literature – he captures the physical exhaustion, the sudden bursts of fear, the satisfaction that emerges when the climb is done, in a way that perhaps only a mountaineer can fully appreciate. Then back to the trenches for a thrilling, almost Wagnerian conclusion, where victory is achieved but at a terrible cost to Hannay.

In this novel we see a good example of what Buchan’s biographer Janet Adam Smith described as his “root-of-the-matter treatment”. Buchan takes a character and presents him at first unsympathetically, and at odds with the philosophy of his hero. And then he reveals aspects of the character which show a different side to that person, winning admiration. Here it is with the character Launcelot Wake, a conscientious objector to the war, holding views which are initially anathema to the warrior Hannay. At first it seems quite impossible that they could ever be comrades. Then gradually, over the course of the book, Wake’s real courage is revealed. We see him as a better rock climber and mountaineer than the skilled scrambler Hannay. A man who is prepared, despite his opinions, to fight courageously. The once unsympathetic character becomes someone Hannay can really admire.

Now in the 21st century, when our views on the Great War have become somewhat revised, we can side more with conscientious objectors. But when Buchan published the novel in 1919 the subject of pacifism, of men who simply refused to fight, was still almost too raw to be mentioned. That Buchan can go so bravely against a warlike dominant ideology and show both the martial and anti-war philosophies is a mark of a great writer, and that he can present a conscientious objector sympathetically is stunning given that it was written when the guns were still firing. The popularity of “Mr Standfast” as a novel may well have done much to create a better understanding of the wartime role of the pacifist in the immediate aftermath of the horror of the trenches.

For “Mr Standfast” is more than just a thriller. It looks deeply into issues such as courage. Hannay is no stock wartime hero. He often admits to very real fear, he recognises the bravery in others. His sympathy with the rank-and-file soldiers of a mostly working class army is portrayed as genuine and touching.

Hannay is what another thriller writer, Geoffrey Household, described as ‘Class X’. Despite being apparently part of the Establishment he can mix well and empathise with almost anyone, whether they be Clydeside ship workers, hill shepherds, private soldiers, or ministers of the crown and generals. It shows Buchan’s immense interest in people as individuals, rather than stock characters or folk penned into an artificial and quite ridiculous class structure. If he occasionally falls down to the modern reader with language that might be judged politically incorrect, it is because he was a man writing near a century ago, in a very different world with much different mores.

John Buchan famously described the Hannay novels as ‘shockers’, not intended to be taken very seriously amongst his wider canon of historical novels and straight histories. I think you can take humility too far. And I do wonder, in his heart, if he recognised just how good a novel like “Mr Standfast” really was?

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Edward VIII and the Nazis – Background to a Novel

Edward VIII and the Nazis – Background to a Novel
It is at first sight the very stuff of romance: the King who gave up his throne for the woman he loved. Growing up in England in the 1960s it was still a tale on the lips of the older generation, the Abdication of Edward VIII in December 1936, so that he might marry the American socialite Mrs Wallis Simpson. Had it not happened we may never have had Edward’s brother King George VI on the English throne during World War Two, or the present Queen reigning to this day.

In my youth there was still a feeling of distaste amongst older people that a popular monarch had been forced from the throne by a po-faced Establishment. Although a lot of the people detested Mrs Simpson, they were equally uneasy about the role played by other members of the royal family. I suspect I could have asked at random a number of people who were alive at the time and there would still be a feeling of betrayal. The affair with Mrs Simpson was kept from the British people until the last moment. Although it was widely reported in the American press, the British press barons made a “gentlemen’s agreement” with Buckingham Palace to keep the intrigue under wraps in Britain.

That was the story as I heard it as a child. But it is a mere percentage of the whole truth. Only in recent years has more of the background to the Abdication come out. And a lot more about the character of King Edward VIII, who became the Duke of Windsor after his abdication.

I have recently published an historical thriller, Balmoral Kill, which is set several months after the Abdication. In my book my characters have to deal with the very real crisis that overhung Britain in the period between the Abdication and the outbreak of World War Two in 1939.

The idea for the novel occurred to me several years ago when I saw a television interview with an elderly gentleman who had served as a British army officer in the events leading up to the fall of France in 1940, and the evacuation of the British army from Dunkirk. After arriving safely in England he had been billeted with an aristocratic family in southern England during the period of the Battle of Britain. He had said in the interview that he had been quite shocked when he found out that a number of landowning families thought that Britain should surrender to Hitler so that they might preserve their landholdings.

I was aware, of course, that there was a great deal of sympathy for Hitler in the British Establishment during the 1930s. This was in many cases quite overt. Even mainstream British newspapers such as the Daily Mail regularly heaped paeans of praise on the Third Reich, and published membership forms for Sir Oswald Mosley’s British Union of Fascists so that their readers might have the opportunity to join.

There was also a strong pacifist belief. Britain was still shocked by the slaughter in the trenches of the First World War. Many people thought that almost any accommodation with Nazi Germany was well worthwhile if it prevented another war. These individuals genuinely believed that Hitler would not interfere with Britain and its Empire if he was left alone. So deep was the fear of war that many chose to turn a blind eye to what Hitler as doing in Europe.

And while the majority of the British people were wise enough to have no truck with fascism and Hitlerism, there were elements of the British Establishment who thought that Hitler should be either appeased – the majority – or embraced – a very substantial minority. Indeed, appeasement was the policy of the British government, firstly under Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin and then his successor Neville Chamberlain. Well-meaning politicians both who simply couldn’t accept that anyone could be as evil and devious as Hitler. Former Prime Minister David Lloyd George visited Hitler in 1936 and was full of praise, considering him the “George Washington of Germany”. Newspaper barons Lord Northcliffe and Lord Rothermere, who were to be instrumental in hushing up King Edward’s affair with Wallis Simpson, were lavishly entertained by Hitler and subsequently praised him in their newspapers.

Even as late as May 1940, the British Foreign Secretary Lord Halifax, an arch appeaser himself, said that he had been “deluged with letters from a number of the nation’s greatest aristocrats imploring him to propose a policy of surrender and appeasement to Hitler, so that they might keep their great estates.” At the time King George VI favoured Halifax as Prime Minister instead of Churchill.

As a writer, I was interested in just how far people would go to keep Britain out of the war or to try and bring Nazism to Britain. I was fascinated with the notion that Winston Churchill, grandson of a duke, and a fully paid-up member of the British Establishment, was prepared to jeopardise his own political career to put forward a contrary point of view. To warn the British people of the dangers of Hitler right from the beginning. For much of the 1930s Churchill was a voice crying in the wilderness, unheeded and even laughed at. But history was to prove that his minority voice was wiser that of the cacophonous roaring of the appeasers and fellow-travellers of the Nazi regime. Researching further, I was surprised to find just how deep the roots of Nazism went into the very depths of the British Establishment.

Edward and the Nazis

Edward VIII, or the duke of Windsor as he became after the Abdication, does not actually appear at all in my novel Balmoral Kill, though his shadow drifts across, and is the motivation for, much of the plot. His brother and successor George VI does make a brief appearance.

The British royal family had had an uncomfortable twentieth century in many ways. In World War One, following air raids on London, they had been obliged to change their surname from the Germanic Saxe-Coburg -Gotha to Windsor, at a time when shops and businesses with German names were being attacked by mobs in the street. For two hundred years, from the accession of King George I, the family had been essentially German, considering German their first language over English. World War One had brought along the embarrassment of finding their country at war with King George V’s cousin, Kaiser Wilhelm II. As the 1930s progressed a number of their other German cousins were very obviously embracing the policies of Hitler’s Third Reich, at least one of their relatives even being an officer in Heinrich Himmler’s dreaded SS.

Given the British government’s policy of appeasing Hitler in the 1930s this didn’t actually present a problem to the royal family. Before the outbreak of World War Two, Nazism was a subject open for discussion – as far as the royal family were concerned. Edward VIII’s brother, the duke of Kent, made many visits to Germany and professed a fascination for all things Nazi. His Nazi relative in Germany, Prince Ludwig von Hessen-Damstadt noted “Duke of Kent. Very German friendly. Clearly against France. Not especially clever, but well informed. Entirely for strengthening German-English ties. His wife is equally anti-French.” (The duke of Kent’s opinion changed when Hitler started dropping bombs on London in 1940.)

All through the 1930s Edward VIII, both as Prince of Wales and King, entertained many Nazis on their visits to Britain, including von Mecklenburg – a notorious member of the SS – in 1933. Edward took great pains to excise any mention of the visit from the official Court Circular. He was on friendly terms with Joachim von Ribbentrop, the Nazi ambassador to London. Wallis Simpson may well have been on even friendlier terms with Ribbentrop. The talk of London was that she was having a sexual relationship with the ambassador at the same time that she was courting King Edward. Ribbentrop sent her seventeen red roses every morning during their time together in the British capital.

Edward hated the very concept of democratic monarchy. He wanted to be a king who ruled as well as reigned. He spoke on many occasions as to his regret that Britain and its people couldn’t be “controlled” by one ruler in the way that Hitler led Nazi Germany. Even in the pro-appeasement British Establishment the alarm bells were beginning to ring.

In December 1936, King Edward VIII, who had reigned for less than a year, abdicated, when the Church of England made it quite clear that no British king could marry a divorcee. It was sold in the newspapers that were sympathetic to him as a touching and very moving love story, the very essence of tragic romance. How far the church and other elements of the establishment were pressured to jettison a king who had become a political liability, using his romance as an excuse, is still open to debate.

But there were elements in British Intelligence, already contemplating the need to fight Hitler, who were thrilled to bits. His successor, his brother Albert, became King George VI. As it happened the new king also favoured a rapprochement with Germany, though not to the pro-Hitler extent that Edward had favoured. But, as far as British Intelligence was concerned, the removal of a solidly pro-Nazi king like Edward was a step in the right direction.

Winston Churchill despaired of Edward, or the duke of Windsor, as I shall call him from now on. He had loathed the very idea of the Abdication and was personally fond of the duke. There is little doubt that he thought that the duke should have kept the throne and, initially, viewed his extreme politics and sympathy with the Third Reich as a fad that he might grow out of. In the years that followed he changed his mind.

In 1937, the duke and duchess of Windsor made a visit to Germany that acquired considerable notoriety. To Churchill’s dismay they sailed to the country on the German liner Bremen, giving the Nazis a propaganda coup. During their time in Germany the pair visited a Nazi training school, inspected the already murderous SS and had tea with Hermann Goering. A few days later they dined with Hitler’s propaganda chief Dr Josef Goebbels. On 22 October 1937, the duke and duchess had a private and reportedly very friendly meeting with Adolf Hitler. On several occasions during the tour, the duke was to be seen making the infamous Nazi salute.

The duke and duchess settled to live in France and stayed there after the outbreak of World War Two. As a serving British army officer, the duke carried out inspections of France’s defensive Maginot Line. The suggestion has been made (see Martin Allen’s book Hidden Agenda) that he sent classified information about France’s defences to the Nazis, care of his friend Charles Bedaux, an American businessman who was spying for Hitler. The truth regarding this alleged treachery may never be known. Bedaux committed suicide in 1944 after being arrested by the FBI.

The Windsors were hastily moved to Lisbon when France fell to the Nazis in 1940. But even in neutral Portugal, the duke of Windsor was thought to be in contact with well-known Nazi officials and the Abwehr, German military intelligence. In despair, the British government decided to ship the couple off to the haven of the Bahamas, a British colony where they could be kept from German influence. At first the duke refused to go. A despairing Churchill reminded the duke that he was a serving British officer and that he would be court martialled if he refused to obey this direct order.

It was around this time that J. Edgar Hoover, head of the FBI, on the direct order of President Franklin D. Roosevelt, ordered surveillance on the couple, noting that the duchess in particular, still an American citizen, “was exceedingly pro-German in her sympathies and connections.” FBI files noted a great many links between the couple and the Nazis.

My own researches suggest that there is little doubt that the Third Reich favoured the return of the duke of Windsor to the British throne, almost from the time of the Abdication and his visit to Hitler in 1937. The duke of Windsor himself almost certainly considered such a possibility. How far he would have gone, if the circumstances had allowed it, is debatable. I doubt, for instance, that he would have tolerated the assassination of his brother and successor George VI, though had anything removed King George from the throne in any other way, there is a possibility that he might have returned either as king or regent.

I based the plot of Balmoral Kill, and I must stress that my book is an historical thriller and not a history volume, on the possibility that certain elements of the British Establishment contemplated such a scenario. Although in reality matters never went as far as I have imagined in my pages, there is little doubt that the idea behind it was given much serious consideration amid less patriotic elements of the British elite. It was only after doing further research into the period after I had finished writing that I realised how close I had got to some sort of truth.

Joachim von Ribbentrop certainly proposed that the duke of Windsor should become a puppet king if Britain fell to invasion in 1940, and King George VI and his family fled to Canada. Buckingham Palace was bombed no fewer than nine times during the London blitz. At the Nuremburg Trials, Ribbentrop said that he had personally offered the duke 50 million Swiss francs if he would make a claim on the British throne. The duke of Windsor denied that any such sum had been offered.

Aftermath

King George VI, overcame his shyness and his stammer and became a considerable figurehead for British resistance during World War Two. On his premature death in 1952 his daughter Princess Elizabeth became the present Queen. The duke and duchess of Windsor lived quietly in Paris, the duke dying in 1972 and the duchess in 1986. Their connections with Hitler’s Germany were skated over in their respective memoirs.

But at the end of the war, a military intelligence officer, Anthony Blunt, later Sir Anthony Blunt, subsequently Surveyor of the Queen’s Pictures, was sent to Germany by officials at Buckingham Palace with the task of seeking out and removing from the Nazi archives any documents that might incriminate members of the royal family. Any papers he found were probably secreted in the Royal Archives at Windsor Castle. Many years later, Blunt was discovered to be a spy for Soviet Russia. His only real punishment for treachery was the removal of his knighthood. The British public were amazed at this mild treatment of a traitor. Suggestions were made at the time, and have been since, that he was protected because he knew too much.
If we are ever to know the absolute truth about the relationship between the duke and duchess of Windsor and the Nazis, then the relevant files are probably in the archives of the United States. As late as 1953, Winston Churchill, British Prime Minister for the second time, asked President Dwight D. Eisenhower to suppress any FBI documents that might suggest that the duke and duchess of Windsor were sympathetic – or even worse complicit – in the activities of the Nazi regime.

Sometimes when you write a work of fiction based on real events, you find that the events themselves are more astonishing that anything that could possibly be imagined.

John Bainbridge

John Bainbridge read history and literature at the University of East Anglia. Apart from Balmoral Kill he has written the Victorian thriller The Shadow of William Quest, the historical novel Loxley – The Chronicles of Robin Hood and several books about the British countryside. He has contributed to a great many newspapers and magazines. As a writing team with his wife he writes the Inspector Abbs historical mysteries, so far A Seaside Mourning and A Christmas Malice.

Balmoral Kill is available in paperback and on Kindle, Kobo and Nook eBooks.

Balmoral Kill is at: http://www.amazon.co.uk/Balmoral-Kill-Sean-Miller-Adventure-ebook/dp/B00Q8I7LGO/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1418549432&sr=1-1&keywords=balmoral+kill

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Rogue Male by Geoffrey Household

Geoffrey Household’s “Rogue Male” has always been one of my favourite thrillers. I’ve read it countless times, not just for the exciting story but for Household’s wonderful descriptions of the countryside.

It jostles in position with John Buchan’s “The Thirty-Nine Steps”, as the greatest chase thriller ever written.

The novel was first published in 1939 on the eve of World War Two, and was immediately popular. Household wrote some memorable and very readable novels afterwards – many with a chase theme – but never quite again touched the greatness of “Rogue Male”, though all of his books are worth seeking out.

The tale of a man who flees to the lonely countryside of Dorset after an attempt to kill an unnamed dictator, in point of fact Adolf Hitler, is gripping and a real page-turner. Even after all my many reads I never want to tear myself away when I pick up the volume once more.

As a fugitive the hero crosses Germany to reach England. There are memorable chapters in a very threatening and sinister London, and a long section set in Dorset.

Household, like Buchan, is particularly brilliant at giving a sense of place. For a thriller there are some quite beautiful portraits of landscape: the long reaches of the Wessex hillsides with their ridge-paths and hollow ways, the forests and rivers of Bavaria, the rural towns where danger lurks.

And the people encountered are realistic too. A shrinking dissident trying to survive in the Nazi state, the farmers of the Westcountry, a merchant navy sailor, shopkeepers, working people on holiday. Every single one beautifully drawn.

And a memorable villain, which to me is a requirement of all good thrillers.

Household really gets over what it’s like to be the subject of a manhunt. The fear and often sheer desperation and tiredness that drives you on and on. The need to cross ground without being observed. The knowledge of when to lie low and when to move on. When to go to earth – which the hero of “Rogue Male” does, literally.

If you’ve ever had to cross country without being seen you’ll know the veracity of Household’s treatment of the theme. Few writers have captured these feelings of escape and evasion quite so well as Household does. And in a writing style that is not only literate but quite beautiful in its descriptions.

There is now a splendid new edition of “Rogue Male” available with a perceptive introduction by the writer and landscape interpreter Robert MacFarlane. I commend it to you. MacFarlane describes an expedition he made with the late Roger Deakin into the depths of the Dorset countryside, in search of Household’s locations.

MacFarlane does an excellent job, whether writing about the tropes of the chase thriller or the countryside that provides the setting of “Rogue Male”. This novel benefits from having an introduction by a writer who loves the English countryside as much as Geoffrey Household clearly did.

I’ve tramped these same places myself and lived rough alongside the ancient paths and hollow ways of Dorset, often for weeks on end. I often used to take my own battered old edition of “Rogue Male” with me, and read it as the dusk fell and the owls began to call.
Fortunately, I never had the Gestapo on my trail.

“Rogue Male” is the hallmark against which all good thrillers should be tested.

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The Country of Balmoral Kill

I always like to root my plots and characters in a real landscape whenever that is possible. I might alter it, fictionalise it, or just change the odd feature – but I like to start with a reality. And at some point in my fiction I like to use an actual place I know, walk around it and imagine my characters playing out their adventures upon it.

Loch Muick (c) John Bainbridge 2015

Loch Muick (c) John Bainbridge 2015

I always knew, right from the beginning, that my Victorian thriller The Shadow of William Quest would come to a dramatic conclusion on Holkham Beach in Norfolk. And I knew that the final duel between my hero and villain in Balmoral Kill would have to be in some remote spot in the Cairngorms, though within easy reach of the royal residence of Balmoral Castle.

But I wasn’t sure where.

In all my Scottish stravaiging I had never been to Loch Muick (pronounced without the u), though I had read about it in my numerous Scottish books and looked at it on the map. It seemed an ideal location for the conclusion of a thriller.

Glas-Allt-Shiel House (c) John Bainbridge 2015

Glas-Allt-Shiel House (c) John Bainbridge 2015

So last summer, when we were staying in Ballater, we walked up to take a look, circling the loch and examining the wild mountains and tumbling rivers round about. Plotting a gunfight (even a fictional one) takes some care. I wanted it to be as probable and realistic as possible. This is, after all, a book about experienced assassins. I wanted the line of sight of every rifle to be exact.

We also had to check out the hills around. Both my hero and villain are great walkers and “walk-in” to places where they expect to see some action

And a beautiful wild place Loch Muick is. It was a favourite picnicking place of Queen Victoria, who used to linger for days on end at the lonely house of Glas-Allt-Shiel, in mourning for her beloved Prince Albert. Today’s royal family picnic there even now. The house is as I describe it in the book, as is the surrounding scenery. Believe me, I checked out those sightlines. Every shot described in the book could be taken in reality. Even now when I think of that loch and the Corrie Chash above it, I think of my characters being there. Sometimes they are all very real to me.

Loch Muick looking up towards where Balmoral Kill comes to its conclusion. (c) John Bainbridge 2015

Loch Muick looking up towards where Balmoral Kill comes to its conclusion. (c) John Bainbridge 2015

We also revisited Balmoral Castle (actually they only let you into the ballroom!), strolled through its grounds and examined the countryside round about. I was able to work out the exact routes taken by all of the characters who found themselves on the shores of Loch Muick on a late summer day in 1937.

Other areas of Scotland feature in the book too. I partly fictionalised the places I used in the Scottish Borders, though those scenes are based on the many walks I’ve done around Peebles, the Broughton Heights and Manorwater. In one flashback scene in the Highlands I have a character journey from Taynuilt and out on to the mighty twin peaks of Ben Cruachan, and then into the glens beyond, to kill a man in Glen Noe. Some years ago I did a lot of walking in that area and had considerable pleasure in reliving my journeys as I penned those scenes.

Balmoral Castle (c) 2015 John Bainbridge

Balmoral Castle (c) 2015 John Bainbridge

The book begins in London and journeys into the East End. I’ve walked the streets and alleys of Whitechapel, Stepney and Limehouse by day and night over the years. Balmoral Kill is set in 1937, so there has been a great deal of change in nearly eighty years. The East End was very badly bombed in the War and thoughtless planners have destroyed a lot more. But enough remains to give you the picture. Once more, I could take you in the steps of my characters through every inch of the places mentioned.

Very often going to these locations inspires changes to the writing. Balmoral Kill was half-written by the time we explored Loch Muick. The real-life topography of the place inspired me to make several changes to the novel’s conclusion.

And now I’m writing an historical novel set in the 1190s. The landscape where it is set has changed very considerably in the centuries since. So more imagination is needed, though I still try to root my scenes in reality.

As a walker as well as a writer I find going on research trips is the best way to conjure up locations with the written word.

If you haven’t yet read Balmoral Kill please do give it a try. It’s out now in paperback as well as in eBook form on Kindle, Kobo and Nook. I’d be pleased to know what you think of it. And if you ever do get the chance do take the journey from Ballater up to Loch Muick. It’s well worth while.

Click on the link below to read Balmoral Kill.

http://www.amazon.co.uk/Balmoral-Kill-Sean-Miller-Adventure-ebook/dp/B00Q8I7LGO/ref=sr_1_1_twi_1_kin?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1427296531&sr=1-1&keywords=balmoral+kill

 

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