Review: Aly Monroe – Icelight

As I’ve mentioned in a previous post, I’m a big fan of historical crime fiction. I’m not particularly choosy about the period in which the novel is set but it does need to be well written. One award that recognises excellence in this genre is the CWA Ellis Peters Historical Dagger which announced last week its 2012 winner, Icelight by Aly Monroe. I had only reviewed one book on the list, the excellent Prague Fatale so I was keen to read the winner.

Icelight is set in 1947 London, the winter of the deep freeze. Forget everything that you have read in Scandinavian crime fiction about the romance of a cold climate. In post-war Britain, it is unrelentingly grim. Water is freezing in taps, fires are unlit due to a coal shortage and coats and scarves are worn inside the house for warmth. Against this backdrop of harsh deprivation we enter the world of counter-intelligence where Russian and American officials dine in luxury at London’s top class hotels on food of dubious provenance.

Peter Cotton is working on the Malayan Desk in the Colonial Department when he is seconded to Operation Sea-snake. His task is to rout out homosexuals in key positions in British society who are considered to be a security risk. An atomic scientist commits suicide after losing his security clearance and to investigate the man’s death, Cotton has to negotiate the inner workings of both British intelligence services, Special Branch, MPs and Glasgow gangs.

I have to admit a weakness for spy stories and I enjoyed this book very much. It took a while to get going; there was plenty of background information on Peter Cotton going about his job and lunching with various agencies in an attempt to gauge what exactly was the security risk posed by homosexuals. The wonderful descriptions of government bureaucracy, establishment suspicion of the post-war Labour government and attempts by ordinary people to feed their families occasionally overshadowed what was a fairly complex plot.

The character of Peter Cotton was very engaging. Icelight is the first book I’ve read by this writer, but it is the third in the series. There were occasional references to the two previous books, particularly to Cotton’s sojourn in the US but it didn’t hamper my enjoyment of the book. In fact I am likely to go back and read the first two in the series. He has an romance in Icelight with a young Czech girl working in the theatre which is a transient affair and serves merely to highlight the situation of refugees seeking a new life in Britain and the suspicion that they worked under.

Overall I thought the book excellent and although the blurb made comparisons to Le Carre, I thought it more in the vein of the novels of Alan Furst. The book’s greatest strength in my opinion was to show how much Britain has moved on as a society since 1947 with the legalisation of homosexuality, the expectation of a national health service and the acceptance of a Labour government in mainstream politics.

The book has also been reviewed at Crime Scraps and Eurocrime.

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