Posted in Book Reviews

The Turncoat – Review

More than 500 died and 600 were seriously injured in Clydebank in two nights of bombing by the Luftwaffe in March 1941

ON THE night of March 13, 1941, German bombers targeted the shipyards and munitions factories in Clydebank, trying to disrupt the British war effort.
Houses close to the docks and factories were bombed out. The Luftwaffe returned the following and deliberately targeted civilian housing, hoping to break the people’s spirit. Clydebank was flattened with only seven houses escaping damage, leaving 35,000 people without a home. More than 500 people died and more than 600 seriously injured, while hundreds more suffered less acute wounds. The Clydebank Blitz was somewhat overshadowed by the tragic events taking place all over the world but it was one of the most devastating attacks on home soil. Historian Alan Murray takes these facts and weaves around them a plausible thriller featuring army intelligence, the IRA and Hitler’s deputy, Rudolph Hess.

The novel opens with a prologue detailing the death and destruction wrought on Clydebank, immediately catapulting the reader into the chaos of 1941. Murray quickly moves his main characters into view as they investigate the suspicious death of their informer, Billy Dalgleish, in Partick. Major George McLean and Sergeant Danny Inglis come from Room 21A, military intelligence, which gives them the freedom to investigate wherever they see fit.
The Major is a former journalist at the Glasgow Herald, an educated and well-read man, who hopes to return to his old job when the war ends. Inglis is more of a loud-mouth, never afraid to get his hands dirty should a suspect require some not-so-gentle persuasion. Both are veterans of the Great War and together they scour the west of Scotland for spies and traitors.
They report to Brigadier Ewen Stuart, a posh old buffer, who at first seems to be a caricature. However, there is a sense that Murray is having a bit of fun with this character, peppering his pompous dialogue with French phrases. He talks about “La Not-So-Grand Guerre” and asks his aide to do things “toute de suite” and keep things “entre nous”. He provides some light relief and may not be quite as ineffective as he seems.
The plot revolves around a whisper that the second night of the Luftwaffe bombing run was so accurate and destructive because the Germans were being fed information from someone in Clydebank. The only strangers in town happen to be two Irishmen, “Cafflicks” passing themselves off as “Proddies” to get a job on the docks. The Major suspects that the IRA might be helping the Germans out. They organise a manhunt to find the men before they escape back to Ireland and try to find Chrysalis, the mastermind behind the spying operation.
Meanwhile, Rudolf Hess crash lands in Scotland, and military intelligence must find out why.
They are joined in their investigations by the very proper Finola Fraser, a reporter for the Glasgow Herald who has a nose for a story and network of people happy to tip her off to anything newsworthy.
“She’s very solid. Middle-of-the-road. A daughter of the manse, you know,” the Brigadier said. “She’s the right type.”
Again, Murray teases as Finola Fraser seems like a parody but turns out to have hidden depths.
The circles that the Major and Inglis observe in the course of their work are less than glorious. Murray paints this parallel universe well, peopling it with black marketeers and petty criminals happy to inform on their colleagues for the right price. He creates a realistic atmosphere of anger, sadness and determination around the destroyed Clydebank, as the community refuses to give up. As a historian, Murray is well-placed to sprinkle telling historical facts throughout the tale, adding to the strong sense of time and place. The privations of rationing mean that even the Major and Inglis are happy to buy cigarettes and whisky from the black market.
There are echoes here of the television series, Foyle’s War, and Murray’s novel unfolds at the same stately pace. This suits the era well, a time when communication was slow and difficult and forensics were basic. Murray’s characterisation is a bit thin at times but a complex plot and plenty of authentic details make for an absorbing and informative read. The Major and Inglis complement each other well and Finola Fraser adds a sharp intellect and a splash of glamour. These are characters that could easily support a number of sequels if Murray is minded to give them another outing.

The Turncoat by Alan Murray is published by Freight Books, priced £9.99.


Freelance writer, editor, reviewer and radio presenter/producer. Cats Protection Giffnock & District Branch volunteer

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