I don’t normally review books on this blog because that’s not what I do. But I’ll make an exception for Howard Linskey’s Hunting The Hangman, not just because it is a cracking read, but because its genesis struck a chord with me.
In 1994 I read a sentence in a motor racing report in the Guardian that said: “..and the Monaco circuit is much the same as it was in 1929, when Englishman Grover-Williams (who went on to became a Special Operations Executive saboteur in France during WW2) won the inaugural event.” Hold the phone. A Bugatti-driving Grand Prix champion joined SOE’s F Section? Not only that, I quickly discovered, so did two others, Robert Benoist and Jean-Pierre Wimille. There’s a book there, I thought.
Indeed there was, but, for various reasons (including access to the then still-sealed SOE files), it proved difficult to write. Early One Morning didn’t get published until eight years later, by which time I had already produced three US-set thrillers.
Howard Linskey’s novel has had an even lengthier gestation. His equivalent of that sentence about Grover-Williams was catching the second half of a documentary on the History Channel about the assassination of Hitler’s heir apparent, the ruthless Reinhard Heydrich, in Prague by an SOE-trained Czech hit team. Fascinated, he began researching everything he could find on subject. That was in 2000. Seventeen years later, and after six well-received, hardboiled northeastern noir books (No Name Lane, The Search, The Damage etc. – also well worth seeking out), his novel about Operation Anthropoid (as the mission was christened) has finally seen the light of day. Makes mine look like speed publishing.
In fact, I always felt fortunate that Early One Morning wasn’t my first novel. It meant I could get some rookie mistakes out of the way in the first three thrillers, which didn’t trouble the bestseller charts – something writers rarely get a chance to do these days, it being perform or die with the majority of publishers. Early One Morning turned out to be, and remains, my most successful novel in terms of sales.
I don’t remember Howard Linskey making any rookie mistakes in his first book, The Drop, but again the delay might have been fortuitous, in that by his own admission the early version he produced was a mix of fact and fiction that he was uncomfortable with. The Hunting the Hangman of today is meticulously researched and firmly based, as they say, on actual events.
Having written about WW2 organisations such as SOE, MI9 and MI19 myself, and seen a couple of movies about Operation Anthropoid, and the terrible retributions in its aftermath, I thought I knew the story well. But, in fact, Howard uses his novelist’s skills to really flesh out not only the monstrous Heydrich, but also the assassins, who are far from the usual bland action-hero stereotypes. There’s bravery, of course, in the tale, but also terrible treachery and cruelty. Historical fiction like this isn’t easy to pull off – cleaving to the facts and the real-life characters while creating novel-like suspense. Howard Linskey has pulled it off. It’s been a long time coming, but Hunting The Hangman was worth the wait.