'The Mask of Dimitrios' by Eric Ambler
Ambler, publishing first before the Second World War, is seen as the precursor of post-war spy thriller novelists notably Len Deighton and John Le Carré. Having read a lot of Le Carré this year, I feel he needs to go back to his Ambler to get an idea of pacing and excitement. This book features a novelist, Charles Latimer, in late 1930s Turkey who becomes friends with Colonel Haki, head of Turkish secret police and is shown a body apparently of Dimitrios Makropoulous, a renowned criminal. He travels Eastern and Central Europe unearthing the career of the man before ending up in Paris to find out the final truth.
The book moves briskly. It shows an ordinary man being sucked into extraordinary situations, but ones which appear highly feasible. There are nasty, but believable people. It is a thriller, but one you can believe in. Though published in 1939, now that the Cold War is over and drug and people traffickers are back working the same kind of routes, it has a more contemporary appeal that, say back in the 1970s.
Much of the story is related by other characters, but it is Ambler's skill that this is engaging. Unusually for a British novel, almost every character is not Anglo-Saxon and the protagonist actually speaks fluent Greek and reasonable French; he has to enlist help with other languages, which he does in a credible way. The novel also highlights many historical developments in Eastern Europe of the 1920s which these days are often overlooked; the violence of the Greece-Turkey War 1919-22 is an notable example, but also unrest in Bulgaria and Yugoslavia feature.
In many ways the book is grim, but it is a good read and is a useful lesson for anyone wanting to write thrillers today about how to keep them taut and the reader engaged in a story which is intriguing but rooted in reality in a way some contemporary authors fail to achieve. Probably the best book I have read this year.
'The Mammoth Book of Historical Whodunnits' ed. by Mike Ashley
There is now a whole plethora of these 'Mammoth Books' but this one dates from 1993 and, like those others I have read has a very wide assortment of stories under the umbrella of a genre, one which was blossoming at the time but has expanded immensely since. This book, stimulated by the writing of Ellis Peters who provides the foreword and one story, is a collection of 23 detective stories set historically to when the author was alive and runs from 2000 BCE up to 1910 in chronological order. One of the authors, Herodotus, is a well-known historical figure in his own right but even he wrote a detective story set in Ancient Egypt, a thousand years before he lived. I must say that there are far too many locked room (or even sealed tomb) mysteries that by the end you tire of this conceit.
As with collections of 'rivals' to Sherlock Holmes I have read, one thing is such collections tend to show you why the novelists you know best in the genre, in this case both the story by Peters featuring Brother Cadfael and one by Robert Van Gulik featuring Judge Dee, both of whose work I have read before, though not these stories, stand out from the others in terms of the crispness of the story and the language. Though there are some half-decent Roman detectives and the stories John Maddox Roberts and Wallace Nichols show how Rome changed in going from Republican to Imperial rule, few stories were sufficiently engaging for me to want to find other work by these authors, saying that having a slave as detective as Nichols does, creates a fascinating dynamic.
There were some that I found interesting for the setting. One was a Sister Fidelma story by Peter Tremayne set in 7th Century CE Ireland and it is fascinating in terms of the potential for a nun to play a part in the legal process of that time and what a High King needed to attain the throne. Paul Harding's story has some of this in featuring a 14th Century coroner in London. Another is 'Captain Nash and the Wroth Inheritance' a full length novel by Raymond Butler, set in 1771 in London and the English countryside though a little burdened by the sexual mores of the mid-1970s when it was published. It is adventurous and intriguing and well conjures up the contrast between the squalor and decadence of the era.
Overall this is an interesting collection and may expose readers to some forgotten historical detective authors, especially from the mid-20th century who may now be pretty much neglected. You feel a number of the characters have not been taken far enough and it would be nice to see them revived today in full-length novels, just as long as none of them feature a locked room murder or robbery!
'The Decisive Battles of the Western World 480BC - 1757' by J.F.C. Fuller; edited by John Terraine
This book was published in three volumes entitled 'The Decisive Battles of the Western World and Their Influence Upon History' from 1954-56. In 1970 John Terraine was asked to edit them down to a two-volume set. This book was from the 1981 edition of that set. Abridging is always a challenge, but I think it was handled particularly poorly in this case. As well as the particular battles, Fuller wrote connecting text taking the reader through the centuries between each set of conflicts, explaining developments in Europe and noting innovations in warfare. What Terraine has done is cut this down to much briefer sections, clearly written in his own voice and at times referring to Fuller in the third person and even quoting him in what is supposed to be Fuller's book. Thus, we end up with three types of chapters. The chapters about the actual battles are the best, followed by the linking chapters by Fuller which precede them. The worst are the forward linking chapters by Terraine which are a mess and cause confusion, plus a horrible jarring in voice.
Being a book of the 1950s, it assumes all readers can speak French and Latin as well as English and Terraine did nothing to alter this even in the 1980s. So you may need to translate certain passages. Especially in the early chapters about the Classical World, there is a tendency to rely on florid quotations from Victorian historians and some of these are overblown. There are a reasonable number of line-drawn maps, my favourite and they do act to clarity. Sometimes Fuller goes off on grandiloquent commentary, somehow seeing the conquest of Granada as unleashing global exploration but when focused on specific battles, he is very perceptive and many of his portrayals of the battles are more incisive than those by modern readers. His commentary on the Battle of Hastings 1066 and the Siege of Constantinople in 1453 are excellent. He is also very good at showing how Gustavus Adolphus, Marlborough and Frederick the Great were revolutionary in how they carried out war. Prejudices do creep in at times: he is incredibly hostile to Calvinists and Lutherans, seeing them as nastily political rather than religious movements.
I turned to this book as I was interested in potential counter-factual analysis and stories. Though Fuller does not go into this in depth, he does show why he thinks the battles were decisive. Despite the title, he actually starts in 1479BCE. In some places it is surprising which battles he does not include, such as the Battle of Poltava 1709, but he does note these. His writing on complex conflicts like the Thirty Years' War and Seven Years' War are sound, but can be breathless at times meaning you need to read back over to find out which general went where. Though a densely written book (with small print in my edition - hence taking me 19 days to read), it sweeps along briskly and is thought provoking. I have the second volume, which runs 1792-1944, to read later in the year.
You may be interested to know which battles Fuller feels were decisive in this context:
Battle of Megiddo - 1479BCE; Battle of Marathon - 491BCE; Defence of Thermopylae - 480BCE; Battle of Salamis - 480BCE; Battle of Plataea - 479BCE; Battle of Arbela - 331BCE; Battle of the Metaurus - 207BCE; Battle of Zama - 202 BCE; The Teutoburger Wald Campaign 9CE; Hunnish invasion of France 451; Muslim invasion of France 735; Battle of Hastings - 1066; Battle of Crecy 1346; Siege of Orleans 1428-9; Siege of Constantinople 1453; Conquest of Granada 1491-2; The Armada Campaign 1588; Battle of Breitenfeld 1631; Battle of Lützen 1632; Battle of Blenheim 1704; Battle of Rossbach 1757 and Battle of Leuthen 1757.