Monday, May 9, 2011

Review of Stratton’s War by Laura Wilson (2008, Orion)

In London 1940 the body of an aging silent film star is found impaled on street railings. It is ruled as suicide, but Detective Inspector Ted Stratton is not convinced, especially when a short while later her room is turned over and her friend beaten up. Ordered to move on to other cases, Stratton keeps digging, looking for clues as to why the woman had fallen to her death. Meanwhile, the young, upper class Diane Calthrop has been recruited by MI5 and directed to infiltrate the Right Club, a group of high powered socialites that advocates appeasing Nazi Germany. Unbeknownst to each other, Stratton and Calthrop are working on intersecting puzzles and slowly they are drawn into each other’s orbits around a plot that threatens national security just as Germany starts the blitz.

Stratton’s War is part of the burgeoning number of crime novels using the Second World War as its backdrop. The intersection here of MI5, police and London underworld makes for an interesting story, and the double, intersecting plot lines of Ted Stratton and Diana Calthrop is for the most part well constructed. Wilson has managed to capture the class divisions and social order of London, and the sensibilities and lives of those working and living in the city. The book recreates the tense, claustrophobic atmosphere of the time and portrays a strong sense of place. However, for all its positive attributes, there were a few things about the novel that undermined my reading experience a little. First, the character and role of Ted Stratton felt somewhat dislocated from his status, especially in the first half of the book where the way he acts and the role he plays seem incongruous. He effectively acts as a sergeant – out and about making enquiries, working for the most part as a lone detective. There is little to indicate he is a Detective Inspector in CID, where he would be running a large team, directing several others to do the kind of basic work he’s doing. This status is also missing in his dealings with his brother in law – he lays out the law to hardened criminals, but is a meek as a mouse to his bullying family member. Second, the workings of the police are extremely simplified in terms of station organisation and dynamics. Several dozen people would be working out of a London city centre police station, but the impression given is just a handful do so. Third, there is a significant subplot that ultimately goes nowhere at all and is left hanging, and the coincidence with respect to a family member was unneeded and unlikely. Finally, the book is too long. Certainly a good fifty or more pages could be cut out, which would serve to increase the pace and dramatic tension. Overall, an entertaining read, but a little undermined by some flaws in the realism of character and context, and unnecessary length.


Maxine Clarke said...

I enjoyed the book more than you did, and think one or two of your comments a little harsh! For example, resources at London police stations would both have been seriously depleted during the war and also stretched because of all the bomb and associated damage. I enjoyed the family dynamics, which are developed in the future novels - Ted Stratton does not treat his family (and extended family) like a typical stereotype of the time, agreed, but I don't find the treatment unbelievable and it is well-developed (eg as both children grow up and as the war ends) in the future novels, sometimes to quite moving effect.

Rob Kitchin said...

Maxine, maybe the comments come across as more harsh than intended - large niggles as opposed to fatal flaws. As I said, I enjoyed it. I agree that police stations would have been depleted, but they would still have had more staff than portrayed here and DI would be mainly managing and coordinating teams, and dealing with all kinds of temporary staff and relations with other bodies. You are never really given the impression of Stratton having senior status, which a DI would have. I agree that the immediate family relations are well done - both Stratton and Calthrop, but I couldn't believe he hadn't but the b-i-law in his box over the previous ten years. I do think the book was overlong and it did have one subplot that went nowhere and another that was unnecessary. The way I reconciled Stratton was I just read him as a sergeant.

pattinase (abbott) said...

I think WW2 played a much bigger role in the life of the British than in the lives of Americans. Being hit by bombs continually has to take a toll even on the next two generations.