In Stratton's War, 1940s London's seedy underbelly is brought to life
In Stratton s War, acclaimed crime writer Laura Wilson has brought 1940s London and its seedy underbelly vividly to life – and it s only the first in the series, writes David Crozier WITH March barely here and the spine still being chilled as much by
In Stratton's War, acclaimed crime writer Laura Wilson has brought 1940s London and its seedy underbelly vividly to life - and it's only the first in the series, writes David Crozier
WITH March barely here and the spine still being chilled as much by the cold wind as by the pens of our finest mystery writers, it seems a bit early to be talking about Crime Book of the Year.
And yet lapping up Laura Wilson's wonderful new novel Stratton's War (Orion, £9.99) it struck me that if there's any justice, this fine addition to an already thriving genre deserves to feature in many top 10 lists come the end of the year. There's no doubt it will be in mine.
Stratton's War, set in 1940s London, is the first in a series of books to feature likeable DI Ted Stratton, a 35-year-old, honest copper - and I'm already looking forward to the next one.
Wilson, who lives in Englefield Road, Islington, plans the series - at the moment five books - to take us right through to Stratton's retirement in the 1960s.
"It's a chance to show how society changed over that time and it's a time which did have the greatest degree of change," she said.
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To do this, she has deliberately written Stratton as not only likeable but also given him a fairly 'typical' personality. He isn't a reformed alcoholic, someone with a sordid secret or any of the other cliches which crop up far too readily in crime fiction. He's just a happily married man with two kids, trying to do his job while the Luftwaffe blow London to bits all around him and crime gangs try their hardest to use the confusion to their own ends.
Although no stranger to crime fiction, it's the first time Wilson has written a book with the central character a policeman. Her previous novels have been, she says, "why-dunnits rather than who-dunnits". They've also been showered with awards and accolades. Her first novel was shortlisted for both the Ellis Peters and the Anthony Award for Best Paperback original and her most recent prior to this, A Thousand Lies, was shortlisted for the 2006 CWA Duncan Lawrie Dagger.
Changing from more psychological to procedural is, however, not only deliberate but also well planned.
"Too many of my author friends have inadvertently started a series with their first novel and then regretted it," she said. After all, whatever you give your character at the start - whether it's a gammy leg, a stammer or a drink problem - you have to live with forever. And she was determined not to fall into the same trap.
So Stratton is someone Wilson feels she could live with for as long as necessary. He is, she imagines, rather like a young version of actor Frank Finlay - big, burly and somewhat bruiser-ish but goodhearted.
In Stratton's War, the action begins with the body of a once famous silent movie actress discovered impaled on railings outside her London home. The coroner - and Stratton's superiors - put it down to suicide (as was alarmingly common among silent movie stars who failed to make the move to talkies). But Stratton thinks differently and soon realises the death might actually be the work of one of Soho's most notorious gangsters.
Meanwhile, MI5 agent Diana Calthrop is working with senior official Sir Neville Apse on a covert mission when she discovers he has a lot to hide. But she must tread carefully - he's a powerful man and bringing the service into disrepute isn't going to be a good idea - especially in wartime.
As the story unfolds and Stratton's path crosses Diana's, we begin to get to the truth - and it's a truth as compelling as it is surprising as it seems that the intrigues of the Secret Service are alarmingly similar to the machinations of wartorn London's underworld.
In some respects, the story is strangely topical. There are distinct parallels between Defence Regulation 18B, which allowed undesirables to be arrested if it was felt they might endanger the public, hinder the war effort or damage the country, and the Terror Laws introduced over recent years. At one point, Colonel Forbes-James of the secret service comments: "We can't keep frog-marching people off to gaol if we don't like the look of them." Such parallels are, however, purely coincidental Wilson says. "It only occurred to me as I was on the second draft," she said. It does, however, add even more intrigue to what is already an accomplished and compelling read.
The second novel in the series is nearing completion and should be published in about a year's time. It's set in 1944 around D-Day and is as yet untitled. Can't wait.
Stratton's War by Laura Wilson is available now from Orion, price £9.99 (trade paperback).