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.

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Posted in Book Reviews, Uncategorized

The Mauricewood Devils

Book Review: The Mauricewood Devils shines light on a dark chapter in mining history

ON the September 5, 1889, at the Mauricewood Colliery, near Penicuik, Midlothian, 65 men and boys were working in the mine. Around lunchtime, some wooden boards caught fire and the flames quickly spread to a coal seam, creating a smoky inferno.

Two men survived and 63 died, including a 12-year-old boy. It devastated the lives of their dependents, many relying on the miners to keep their families from the poor house. Outside of the immediate area, the disaster is little-known today.

Drawing on her own family history, Dorothy Alexander has fictionalised the events of 1889-1890, telling the story through the eyes of Martha, the daughter of a miner, and her step-mother, Jess, both having lost the man they loved. She intersperses their narratives with contemporary, factual reports, which demonstrate how differently the authorities assessed the events. Alexander has arranged these in 50-word paragraphs in traditional ballad metre. These blunt reports, which concentrate on the financial losses, provide a callous counterpoint to the grief and despair of the families left behind.

The key to the story working as a novel is making Martha’s seven-year-old voice convincing and Alexander achieves this with aplomb. In order to relate the story, Martha must impart facts that most children wouldn’t know or understand but Alexander seamlessly slips them into the child’s narration. Martha is a bright and endearing character who has lived with her grandparents and sister Helen since the death of her mother shortly after her birth. Her grandmother is a hard woman who never fails to let Martha know that she “killed” her mother. The two girls are always hungry and spend most of their time out of school doing chores. They always look forward to their father’s visits with his second wife, Jess, knowing there will be ample food on offer.

Jess is a no less sympathetic character, waiting anxiously until March 1890 for her husband’s body to be brought up from the mine. She works at the nearby paper mill which affords her more choices than many women of the time. She has always wanted her husband’s two girls to live with them but their grandparents want to keep them close at hand. Jess tries to support the women whose men have already been brought up for burial knowing she must face that traumatic day herself.

Through Jess, we see the women who became known as the Mauricewood Devils in a different light from that which is recorded. When the authorities decided to cap the still burning mine, only 30 or so bodies had been recovered. Many families were left in limbo, grieving but without a body or a grave to mark their loss. Several women got together to demonstrate against the mine owners, demanding the mine should be opened and the remaining bodies recovered. Many were taken aback by the women’s courage in taking on such powerful figures; many were horrified that women should behave in such a manner.

The mine was finally reopened in March 1890, and the rest of the miners were recovered. It soon became clear that several men were still alive when the mine shaft was capped, which compounded the families’ horror.

Alexander has used the memories and stories related by members of her own family to add colour and authenticity to her story. The monologues bring a sharp focus to 19th-century life in small mining communities, through the eyes of both a child and an adult. The work was backbreaking with very few health and safety measures, and it wasn’t so long before this period that women and girls worked in the mines too. The social conventions of an underprivileged, working-class community are revealed as people try to pull together and survive the disaster. There was a fund set up to assist the dependents of the Mauricewood miners but the rules as to who qualified were strict. A woman who remarried was immediately cut off and once children reached 14 years they too were left to fend for themselves.

This is an engrossing story about a vital piece of social history. If that sounds dull, be assured that Alexander’s finely wrought characters are anything but. Martha and Jess sparkle amongst the poverty and coal dust, their voices ringing out down the years that have seen too many people lost in industrial disasters. It is an important tale, beautifully told, and deserves to be better known.

Published by Freight Books.