Graham Hurley
ARRSE Rating
2 Mushroom Heads
Written by the crime writer Graham Hurley, this historical thriller is listed as part of the Author’s WW2 - related “Wars Within” series of stand alone stories, although it is set completely in the period before the war. The action starts in civil war Spain centring around Dieter Merz, a Condor Legion fighter pilot and serial womaniser, whose success in the air leads him to become an unwilling Nazi poster child, travelling to Japan and having a propaganda movie made about him. Juxtaposed to this the second protagonist is “ex-Marine” Tam Moncrieff, owner of an unsuccessful hunting lodge in the Scottish highlands who is recruited by a semi-official British intelligence organisation to travel to Prague and, er, do spying stuff. To quote the blurb, “as duty collides with conscience, fate will bring both men together”, against the backdrop of the Munich crisis. The book is an easy and undemanding read, presently available in standard hardback format, and costs £18.99 (or free on Kindle if you have Amazon Prime).

The trouble with this book is that it appears to be the direct result of the publisher asking the author to knock up a rip-off of Philip Kerr’s Bernie Gunther novels to fill the catalogue, resulting in this half arsed effort. It fails to convince on several grounds: firstly it’s historically incontinent, sprinkling specious and sometimes incorrect facts in amongst the story’s narrative (presumably in the hope that they’ll sprout leaves and cover up some of the more obvious plot holes), much in the style of Jeffrey Archer. If you like Lord Archer’s books, you’ll probably love this one.

Secondly, the author hasn’t done his homework, including handy technological props to add credibility which if you scratch the surface, turn out not to be quite right. He refers to a new Volkswagen car being used by a character in 1938 – only the Beetle prototypes were produced by then and none were sold to the general public. His reference to an overheating problem in the Messerchmitt Bf109B being solved by fitting a new gauge is a particular low – quite how fitting a new gauge will stop the engine from overheating is something any engineer will find mystifying. I found his referring to German armour as “Panzer tanks” particularly grating; Panzers - fine, tanks - OK, but both? Argh. At one point Merz launches a torpedo at a Japanese battleship (for reasons of whatever) during a training exercise. I’ve never heard of dummy torpedoes being launched against ships in this period, Admirals being a tad touchy about big dents appearing in their shiny new war canoes.

Thirdly, the story is paper thin – segues between the turns in the plot are painful at times, and I could picture the author sitting looking out of a window thinking “How can I get this to link up? Erm…” There seems to be no particular reason behind Moncrieff’s recruitment for instance, and various events just happen with no real examination of why or consideration of any repercussions. The eventual meeting of the two main characters is so contrived that it’s just not believable. The clichéd appearance of Merz’s Japanese girlfriend Keiko (a skilled Reiki practitioner obvs) is frankly ridiculous, and does not fit at all with my understanding of the Japanese or German cultures of the late 1930s. The final twist of the plot was unpredicted purely because it was so outlandishly unconvincing – intervention of space aliens or a second coming of Christ would have been equally plausible.

But the main problem for me is that it really doesn’t seem that the author has any conviction in the story; he’s just gone through the motions and produced a staid but not particularly believable potboiler which would while away a few hours, but is instantly forgettable. The characters (even Merz and Moncrieff) are barely two dimensional, any attempts at back story to fill them out are just tacked on with no real depth or commitment from the author.

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I quite enjoyed reading this, but not for the right reasons I fear; I was just waiting for the next cock-up most of the time, and never had long to wait. This is the sort of book that I would normally only read if there’s nothing else to do; certainly it never gripped me, and if I hadn’t been reviewing it I probably wouldn’t have bothered finishing it. Two mushroom heads; this is one to pick up in the Guardroom if you can't find a Sven Hassel rather than rush out and buy.
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