Category Archives: Books

Hurricane: Jan Zumbach

This photograph shows actor Iwan Rheon of Marvel’s Inhumans, Misfits, Riviera and another world-conquering mega-series whose name has slipped my mind. As the shoulder flash suggests, he is in character as a pilot in the RAF’s 303 Squadron, formed during the Battle of Britain. He plays Jan Zumbach, who flew in the mostly all-Polish 303 (he was actually of Swiss descent, but wrote that he was “Polish by upbringing and a Pole at heart”). To begin with the senior officers were British or Canadian, but later in the war Zumbach would become squadron leader of 303.

.Screenshot 2017-10-31 17.30.03

The film this still is taken from, Hurricane, tells the story of the Polish involvement in the Battle of Britain, how, as the highest scoring squadron in the RAF, with the most enemy kills, they were celebrated and feted, before, at war’s end, being abandoned and vilified. There was a shocking survey in 1946 that suggested the majority of the British public thought the Poles should go home. Once there, the returnees who had helped the Allies to victory  were shunned, imprisoned and in some cases executed because the Stalinist puppet government thought they had been tainted by their time in the West. In his autobiography On Wings of War (subtitled My Life as a Pilot Adventurer) Zumbach claimed he was given just three days to pack up and leave this country after serving it for six years, even though he was technically a Swiss citizen. As he wrote: “Some of my comrades went back [to Poland].. at first they were given a hero’s welcome. Within a year they were in prison on charges of spying for the British.”

Jan Zumbach didn’t make that mistake. He became a diamond smuggler, running gems by air, out of Paris and Geneva and into Antwerp, feeding the dealers whose stocks had been depleted by war. He also traded in sterling bank notes, most of which were excellent forgeries by the Nazis. Eventually he went on to fly for rebel air forces (often he was the air force, operating a single plane) in Congo and Biafra, before dying mysteriously in Paris in 1986, aged 70. There are discrepancies in some of his accounts in On Wings of War, but even if half of it is true, his was a remarkable life. Sadly, although I tried with earlier drafts of the screenplay, there simply wasn’t enough room in the movie Hurricane to tell the full story of Jan Zumbach. Maybe next time.

  • Hurricane is filming at the moment. It is scheduled for release in the latter half of 2018.

 

THE LONG DROP

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.

9781843449515

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.

Anthropoid_(film)

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.

 

The Car That Killed Albert Camus

As I know one half of the writing duo R J Bailey very well, I got a sneak preview of the next book (the first one in the series, Safe From Harm, is out soon) and it features a starring role for the same make of car that Albert Camus died in, although the author wasn’t driving the Facel Vega at the time, it was his publisher behind the wheel. The Facel Vega was notoriously tricky to handle – beautiful to look at, with elegant French-American styling, coupled with big, brutal US-sourced engines but not always the brakes to match.   cf1c9d6ba074e764358f48e125b18ffdThe authors unearthed the original owner’s manual, which gives a clue as to its unpredictability:.

Driving your Facel Vega. At high speed drivers are warned to be careful to hold the steering wheel with both hands except when shifting gears; to keep as close as possible to the centre of the road; not to overtake on the brow of a hill; to reduce speed over the brow of a hill as a car might have stopped on the far side; not to look at anything else but the road; not to change the radio programme; not to smoke”

Thank God they didn’t have sat navs and iPhones to distract the unwary driver back then. The novel featuring the Facel Vega (“The Hurting Kind”) will be out at the end of this year. Meanwhile, Safe From Harm  (below) is out in paperback from Simon & Schuster this Thursday (Jan 12).

You can read about the role of cars in that book in my interview with half of the team here:

http://www.crimetime.co.uk/mag/index.php/showarticle/4767

come-quietly

CONAN DOYLE: THE REMIX PROJECT

This blog is actually about some “new” Arthur Conan Doyle stories featuring Sherlock Holmes and Dr Watson. But stick with me for a while…

Back in 1998 Sony Records released Panthalassa, a sound collage of music made by Miles Davis between 1969-74, but given a radical reworking by Bill Laswell. Actually, it wasn’t that radical, he simply updated techniques used by Miles’ original producer, Teo Macero, who was the master of cut and splice and extracting a coherent shape from hours of studio jamming. Regardless of its honourable precedents, there was predictably some outrage from Miles Davis purists, claiming that what Laswell had done was sacrilege. These were the same people who, presumably, were happy to listen to the original In A Silent Way, with its whole section repeated verbatim (or whatever the musical equivalent is) – the last six minutes of the first track “Shhh” are actually the first six minutes of the same track repeated in identical form – the same performance, in fact. (To be fair, only a very few reviewers and listeners noticed this at the time).

Miles732-1

     But there is another reason why the purists are wrong. Laswell did not destroy the originals of In A Silent Way, On The Corner or Get Up With It. Those are still there to enjoy. And in fact, I play the original and Laswell’s versions of In A Silent Way about equally (incidentally, the boxed set of IASW contains two killer unreleased tracks – the blues-soaked Ghetto Walk and Joe Zawinul’s wonderful Early Minor).

The reason I mention this is because today (September 3) sees the release of The Case of The Six Watsons where, like Laswell, I have taken something considered as a sacred text and tinkered around with it. I therefore expect similar opprobrium to rain down on me. For I have taken Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s texts and inserted some of my own words into them, this creating a collage of my own (although the majority of the text remains ACDs). The idea is to create “new” Holmes/Watson stories from the template of his non-Sherlock shorts which, let’s face it, are widely ignored compared to the 56 that make up the Holmes ‘canon’.

Case of the Six Watsons ebook cover

       Five of the six short stories I used are Conan Doyle stories that were among the hundreds (of variable quality) that he produced in addition the familiar Sherlock Holmes cases. Two of them actually make oblique reference to a famous detective, and in some countries are anthologised with the other 56 short stories (there are also the four novels, of course). The other three stories were the ones I thought could easily be transformed into Holmes tales (in fact, as the title suggests, it is mainly Watson who features in all of them) without disrupting the original text too much. The sixth is an original Watson short story by me, set in Egypt in 1915, when Watson would have been in the Royal Army Medical Corps. So the contents are as follows:

  1. The Beetle Lover. This immediately struck me as one of Conan Doyle’s short stories that most resembled a Holmes tale. It has a mysterious newspaper advertisement (as in ‘The Red-Headed League’), a job opportunity at a country house with some strange provisos (‘The Copper Beeches’) and the original narrator of ‘The Beetle Hunter’ (1898) was indeed a doctor, albeit somewhat younger than Watson. Until now. As with all the stories in this collection, I have changed the title slightly (from “Hunter” to “Lover”) so that there is no chance of confusion with the non-Watson original.
  1. 300px-Beetle-hunter-strand-juin-1898-5
  1. The Wrong Detective. This is the story that kick-started the whole idea of recasting ACD stories. In my Watson novel A Study in Murder (for which it formed an appendix), this was called ‘The Girl and the Gold Watches’, a slight twist on the original title, ‘The Man with the Gold Watches’. But I wanted to suggest that Holmes appears in this one, hence the new name. Holmes did get a mention in the version published by Conan Doyle in 1898, as an anonymous ‘well-known criminal investigator’ who offers some of the explanations that Holmes uses here.
  1. The Brazilian Wife. At its core this is an ACD story called ‘The Brazilian Cat’, originally published in 1908. My retelling is set during the Great Hiatus, when Holmes was assumed to have perished with Professor Moriarty at the Reichenbach Falls. I have inserted various events and references from ‘The Final Problem’ and ‘The Empty House’, the two short stories that bracket the Great Detective’s absence. This version sees Watson doubly bereft, with both Holmes and Mary Morstan gone from his life. Is it any wonder he acts irrationally?

300px-B24-strand-march-1899-4

  4. The Prisoner in B.24. Originally written in 1899 (under the title B.24) in the form of a  submission to the court of appeal, with no clear outcome. I have substituted Dr Watson for the court and given it a new ending.

5. The Missing Special. There are some anthologies of the Holmes stories, especially in translation,that include ‘The Lost Special’ (as it was originally called) in the ‘canon’ (or as apocrypha), becasue the celebrated detective who writes to The Times is clearly Sherlock. His identity is betrayed by he opening sentence of his letter – it is a classic Holmes maxim. So I have re-jigged this story to give the Great Detective and Dr Watson a more central role. Plus in the original (published in1898) there is a reference to a villainous Englishman at work, so I have taken the liberty of identifying him.

101px-The_Lost_Special_04

6. The Broken Crocodile. Having played fast and loose with some of Conan Doyle’s work, I thought it about time I gave myself a taste of my own medicine. This ‘samples’ a section of a novel I wrote about TE Lawrence (of Arabia) called Empire of Sand. The setting is from that book, but the mystery of the broken bowl is entirely new, although those who have read Dead Man’s Land – the first in the Dr Watson at War series – will recognise a character in the opening scene. It is set in the spring of 1915.

For a limited period these six stories are available to download for free as an e-book from the Amazon Kindle store.

http://www.amazon.co.uk/The-Case-Watsons-Robert-Ryan-ebook/dp/B00VBY4H1W

And if you don’t approve, then I shall invoke the Laswell Defence, in that the original ACD stories are readily available, unsullied by me or anybody else, in the collections Tales of Unease and Round The Fire Stories.

THE ADVENTURE OF THE LOCKED ROOM

On September 3rd Simon & Schuster will publish The Case of the Six Watsons (see http://tinyurl.com/pcouonn) as a free Kindle book. In it are five variations of non-canonical Arthur Conan Doyle Stories (such as The Lost Special), re-cast to include Holmes and (mainly) Watson. The sixth tale is entirely new and set in Cairo in 1915.

51wJMmWonbL._AA324_PIkin4,BottomRight,-56,22_AA346_SH20_OU02_

But there is a seventh story, based on The Adventure of the Sealed Room by ACD. I did not include it in the anthology because I thought Watson (and the original narrator) too passive. He merely observes, rather than deduces. Nevertheless, it is quite a fun tale and I am including a PDF below for anyone interested in the style of the Six Watsons. The illustrations are by Claude A Shepperson.

An original illustration from The Sealed Room

An original illustration from The Sealed Room

The re-imagined story begins…

THE LOCKED ROOM
A widower doctor of active habits with a busy practice must take what exercise he can in the evenings. Hence it was that I was in the habit of indulging in very long nocturnal excursions from my rooms in Mortimer Street, up towards Regent’s Park and, on occasion, to Baker Street itself. This was during those years when my friend was missing, thought dead, and that street and our old address always brought on an attack of melancholia. So, where possible, to preserve my sanity, I stayed to the east of the park. It was in the course of one of these rambles that I first met Felix Stanniford, and so embarked upon what has been the most extraordinary adventure of those lost years which many now call The Great Hiatus.

Read On:

THE LOCKED ROOM

SPY STORY

I had lunch with a spy last week. A real one. It was part of my research for an article on the history of SIS/MI6 for OMEGA Lifetime magazine. I had heard many of his stories before, but I always liked this one. Unfortunately, when I came to look at the finished article it was almost 4,000 words long. SIS has a lot of history. Just to do justice to the grim Philby era eats up the words. So this story had to go but I thought it worth posting here as an example of the men who fought on the frontline of the real Cold War.  

Unknown

The winter of 1947-8 in Berlin is particularly bleak. The city, under the combined occupation of Russia, France, America and Great Britain, still mostly consists of piles of rubble. Food and fuel are in short supply. The surviving occupants are scarred, physically and mentally, by the brutality shown by the Russian forces when they swept through the city. Now, it’s a wind from the East that is knifing down the wide streets and bringing misery. The bitter cold it delivers is killing the old and the weak. People are selling whatever they can to stay alive – their last possessions, their bodies and above all, information, for Berlin had been plunged straight into the front line of a new war, a clandestine conflict between the Soviet Bloc and the West. The front line of this battle runs right through the former capital (and, a city in a similar plight, Vienna). And the commodity everyone wants most is intelligence about what the other side is up to. James Fraser, not yet thirty but already a veteran of Britain’s various secrets services, is one of the warriors in this Cold War. He is sitting in a shabby café, overcoat and gloves on, his breath clouding the chill air as he sips an acrid cup of adulterated coffee and peers out into the street. Across the road is the Russian sector, marked at this juncture only by a virtual border – no wall, no barbed wire, just the agreed concept that one side of the street is the Red of oppression, the other, Fraser’s side, is the Red, White and Blue of liberty.

Some years later, after The Wall went up. But the job was the same.

Some years later, after The Wall went up. But the job was the same.

Fraser is, ostensibly, an administration officer with the Control Commission for Germany. In reality, he is a member of SIS, the Secret Intelligence Agency, sometimes known as MI6. And he is waiting for Otto, one of his ‘assets’ or agents in the east. As case officer, he is like father and brother to this young man, who is charged with watching train movements to and from the uranium mines of the SAG/SDAG Wismut mining company in Erzgebirge and Vogtland. A mundane job, but vital. The frequency of trains will tell someone, somewhere back in England, just how Russia’s nuclear programme is progressing. It is one of the tiny scraps of information that SIS uses to build a picture of what is happening in the East. Fraser has the madams of several high-end brothels over there in his pay, listening for pillow talk from Russian offers, and other assets working in the Red Army’s kitchens, for Napoleon was right, an army does march on its stomach, and if there is sudden increase in the amount of provisions ordered, it could be a sign that Soviet soldiers are about to move. Into the West, perhaps. Fraser lights a cigarette and checks his watch. Leo is late. That’s not necessarily a cause for concern. He has had to travel across an occupied country where military traffic always has priority. Across the road, a shadowy figure detaches from a doorway. Fraser is careful not to react. Like any good spy coming in from the cold, Otto has been observing the rendezvous, scanning for signs that the meet is compromised. As his prodigal son hurries towards the café, Fraser orders a second coffee for him from the owner. As he turns back, he catches an unexpected movement in the street from the corner of his eye.

*

Almost seven decades later and it is me sharing a beverage – tea, this time – with James Fraser at the Caxton Grill at St Ermin’s Hotel in London, not far from Broadway Buildings, once the home of his old ‘firm’. In fact, St Ermin’s is something of a ‘spy’s hotel’  – plenty of MI6 men used it and  it was once a favoured watering hole of Ian Fleming, who, of course, spent WW2 in Room 39 at the Admiralty as Personal Assistant to the Director of Naval Intelligence. During the war SIS and the Admiralty would have informal meetings at the Caxton, probabaly complaining about that noisy upstart, the Special Operations Executive.

Untitled

Fraser, long retired but still sharp as a tack and with the impeccable manners of a trained diplomat (which is what he pretended to be for so many years), worked for SIS, and before that its sibling Special Operations Executive (SOE), from 1939 until the early 1990s. I have asked him to tell me the story of SIS from his perspective, given he dedicated so much of his life to the organization. He agrees, but with a number of provisos. He will not name names, unless that person is on public record as having been a member of SIS, and he will give no details of operations he was personally involved in (Otto is an exception, as he used him to make a more general point about the nature of intelligence gathering) or which remain sensitive in any way. What he did in postings to Asia, Europe and the USA must remain off the record. This is, he makes clear, deep background only. I agree. And so much of what follows comes from him.

[You can read this missing section in the next issue of OMEGA Lifetime]

Back at the Caxton Grill, James Fraser agrees that the world of spying has moved on since his day. And not always for the better. He misses the world of dead letter drops and seedy cafes. He isn’t alone – how else does one explain the remake of the Smiley books with Gary Oldman and the BBC’s recent The Game series, set in the 1970s, all muted browns and beiges and with more moles than Wind in the Willows? What about Otto? I ask as we finish up. Last seen heading for a cafe in West Berlin? A car pulled up, Fraser explains, a new Moskvitch 400 with Soviet Embassy plates. Otto was bundled inside by some hoods and driven off. A few days later, his belongings were delivered to the SIS HQ at the Olympic Stadium (the very same one where Jesse Owens triumphed in 1936) as a message. Otto was dead. Fraser blinks, drinks his tea and rises to go. He pauses. ‘You know’, he says wistfully, ‘despite computers, satellites and drones, I bet somewhere in the world, right now, there is an SIS agent sitting in a bar or café waiting for his contact to show.’ And somehow, like me, he clearly finds that thought oddly comforting.

STAR TURN

STAR TURN

One of my finest sources of background information when researching my WW2 books (especially Early One Morning, The Last Sunrise and Dying Day)  was John Debenham-Taylor who, over the years, has become a friend. This week I learned that he has just been awarded a medal, 75 years after the event. In fact, he now has two medals gained during the war and two awarded afterwards. Both of the post-war medals concern the Winter War in Finland when, in November 1939, Russia invaded.

Unknown

The Arctic Star

 This conflict is little remembered now in this country, but at the time (during the so-called ‘Phony War’) it was front-page news. Martha Gellhorn sent brilliant dispatches from a bombed Helsinki. An International Brigade, of the sort that fought in the Spanish Civil War, was raised across Europe, with some 12,000 volunteers, including the recently deceased Christopher Lee. Around 50 of these died, a low figure because the Finns (probably wisely) kept most of them from the front line. The Finns were fighting a new kind of war – hopelessly outnumbered, they opted for guerilla tactics. They were the first to mass-produce Molotov cocktails for use against tanks and their lethal, well-camouflaged skiers/snipers became a source of fear among Russian troops. Farmer and hunter Simo “Simuna” Häyhä, known as ‘White Death’ because of his snow camouflage suit, killed more than 500 Red Army Troops with a Mosin-Nagant rifle.

Unknown-1

The British tried to help. It secretly sent obsolete WW1 guns to Finland, although there were no instruction manuals. Which is where John Debenham-Taylor, who was with the Royal Artillery, came in. I already knew his story but digging a little deeper I found an obit of a British pilot who had ferried Blenheim bombers, donated by the British, to the country and had been awarded the Talvisodan muistomitali (the Winter War commemorative medal). Surely John deserved recognition for his service there? So I wrote to the Finnish Embassy:

John was just 19 and was a very good gunner of ‘instructor quality’ and a 2nd Lt. When asked if he would volunteer to help ‘a friendly nation’ under attack (he guessed Finland) he volunteered and along with seven others he was taken out of uniform and sent to Finland in civilian clothes via Sweden.

       He stayed there for months, writing manuals for the guns that SOE had smuggled up (mainly 3 inch anti-aircraft guns). Then, with the diplomatic bag consisting of a briefcase plus great crates of Russian guns and bombs for the British to analyse, he went north to the Artic circle and caught a trawler back to Liverpool

       The whole story is quite an adventure, and although he did not fight, his commitment to the Finns and his love of them and his time in Helsinki and the countryside shines through to this day. (He even introduced one fellow officer to his future Finnish wife). Because it was a secret mission and because he later became a full-blown SOE operative the story never came out. He believes that, as he was the youngest of the group, he is the sole survivor.”

The Finns acted with admirable speed. A new Winter War medal was struck and John was invited to the London Embassy to receive it from the Finnish Military Attaché.

Winter War medal

Winter War medal

But the story didn’t end there. John’s son-in-law discovered that anyone who had served north of the Arctic Circle was entitled to the Artic Star. John had commandeered that trawler, loaded with captured weapons, and sailed in it from the far north of Finland. He even passed Norway while it was being invaded by the Germans. I asked if he had witnessed any of it and, as laconic as ever, he said: ‘Actually, no. I was below. I was suffering from terrible constipation – living on reindeer for six months rather blocks you up, or so I found.’

And so, last week, the Arctic Star arrived through the post, almost 75 years to the day after that escape from Finland. Well deserved, and better late (John is 95 this year) than never.