In Berlin, a young Englishwoman evades the Gestapo to deliver vital papers to a Jewish scientist. Within weeks, she is found dead in her Cambridge bedroom, a silver syringe clutched in her fingers.
In a London club, three senior members of the British establishment light the touch paper on a conspiracy that will threaten the very heart of government. Even the ancient colleges of Cambridge are not immune to political division. Dons and students must choose a side: right or left, where do you stand?
When a renowned member of the county set and his wife are found horribly murdered, a maverick history professor finds himself dragged into a world of espionage which, until now, he has only read about in books. But the deeper Thomas Wilde delves, the more he wonders whether the murders are linked to the death of the girl with the silver syringe - and, just as worryingly, to the scandal surrounding King Edward VIII and his mistress Wallis Simpson...
Set against the drumbeat of war and moving from Berlin to Cambridge, from Whitehall to the Kent countryside, and from the Fens to the Aragon Front in Spain, this big canvas international thriller marks the beginning of a major new series from bestselling author Rory Clements
This book opens with a Nancy Hereward on some sort of covert mission in Berlin in 1936. I was immediately caught up in the events as she hurried through the streets worrying that she was being followed or that her friend would notice she was missing.
"God she was a fool, a bloody novice. She had been told what to do of course, how she must lose possible pursuers with backtracking circling and stops. How to spot a tail. But that was theory; this was reality."
It reminded me of books like "Charlotte Grey" and "Restless" and I was intrigued by Clements' female character and what exactly she had become embroiled with. The chapters often end with really effective cliffhangers that imply everyone is watching everyone and we really are entering a world of espionage, danger and political games. Nancy may have got back to her friend, may have thought she'd completed her mission but......
"Neither woman saw the boy looking in through the cafe window."
A sense of anticipation is also created through the fact that the book is organised into consecutive days set during one week in December 1936. This is also effective as it is a complicated moment in history which is full of significance both politically and socially so by focussing the story more specifically and completing within a set time frame made it feel less overwhelming. As all readers know what comes next in the subsequent years, Clements creates a sense of a ticking clock which builds further tension. Everyone is very familiar with the events leading up to the Second World War and the rise of Hitler but I felt that Clements had actually breathed some freshness into his spy thriller by choosing Cambridge 1936 as the setting for his adventure.
Following on from Nancy's adventures we then move on to an anonymous narrator who is carrying out a murder with chilling precision. I loved the murderer's attention to detail as he prepares to carry out his violent act. He appears to have all the time in the world, mastery stealth, a whole range of specific equipment and his preparations are so measured that the actual moment when he kills has a huge impact on the reader. The graphic description of the killing is a real contrast from the description of his calm demeanour and it was one of the most gripping murder scenes I have read for a while. Clements writing is very visual and it was easy to imagine this scene as if it were unfolding before me on television.
I liked the main protagonist Thomas Wilde. He is a college professor; intelligent, unassuming, likeable and an unlikely hero for a spy thriller. We are introduced to him through his teaching at Cambridge where he is telling his students that it is essential to "reexamine everything you have ever been told," and "make your own mind up on the evidence you can find...... keep an open mind.." And my favourite bit:
"Become a detective because if you don't you'll never become a historian."
This professor, who "dislikes college politics and tittle-tattle whispers" is a historian who becomes a detective, determined to solve the mystery surrounding Nancy's death and unwittingly finds himself caught up in a political drama which rivals the story lines of Robert Harris and William Boyd. Wilde realises that although "he might know all about the history and theory of espionage and detective work, he had a lot to learn about the practicalities." I liked this aspect of his character and I liked the fact that his character did not feel cliched.
Clements cleverly judges the tricky line between writing an exciting and engaging crime thriller which is simultaneously set within a very real moment in history. There are specific references to King Edward's abdication, the growth of societies like the British Union of Fascists and the book features the real characters of the Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin, Prince Albert and Wallis Simpson.
It's a complex and ambitious story and although not a genre I read a lot, I was pleasantly surprised about how engaging I found it. I really enjoyed the characterisation of the women and their storyline. I liked Wilde and I liked the descriptions of Britain, the houses, the colleges - everything was very easy to picture. It wasn't quite what I expected and it would certainly make a good TV drama series.
I do wonder if the front cover slightly misrepresents the book a little. To me the cover implies a very male, heavy duty war story and yet I think this novel has a wider appeal. I think it would be enjoyed by readers of crime fiction, historical fiction and as I mentioned before, fans of novels like "Charlotte Grey", "The Girl at Lion D'or" and "Restless". Ultimately it is a espionage novel with a complicated political and historical plot. In Thomas Wilde, Clements has created a character who has enough appeal and longevity from which to develop a successful series and I'm sure his book will be successful.
"Corpus" by Rory Clements is published by Bonnier Zaffre on 26th January 2017.
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