Review: Gordon Ferris – Pilgrim Soul

Pilgrim SoulI was in the middle of reading Pilgrim Soul by Gordon Ferris when it was announced that the novel had reached the shortlist of the CWA Ellis Peters Historical Award for 2013. It’s come as no surprise that such a well written and interesting book should have caught the judges’ eye. I feel I’ve come late to Ferris’s books. Pilgrim Soul is the third in the series featuring journalist Douglas Brodie and I suspect that the author already has a dedicated following. Although I’ve read a lot of books set in the post-war period, and am familiar with the story of ‘ratlines’ that existed to smuggle Nazi criminals out of Germany, this is one of the best books I’ve read on the subject.

Brodie is an ex-policeman turned journalist who is asked by the Jewish community in Glasgow to solve a series of burglaries. His initial investigations become chaotic when the thief, Paddy Craven, is murdered by a householder. Craven was taking gold to a Jewish pawnbroker who is convinced that some of the items came from the bodies of people killed in the extermination camps. Brodie suspects that a ‘ratline’ is going through Glasgow and he is recruited by MI5 back into his former army division and asked to attend Nazi trials taking place in Hamburg. Unhappy at revisiting the horrors he experienced after the liberation of Belsen, he nevertheless attends the interviews with prisoners which confirm the existence of an escape route taking Nazi’s off the continent, via Scotland and on to South America. Back in Glasgow, Brodie is determined to find the local contacts in the escape chain but his efforts are hampered by the Jewish population of the city whowant to mete out their own form of retribution.

Fans of Aly Monroe’s Peter Cotton series will love this book. You get the same sense of post-war austerity with the bitterly cold winter and the shadow of the past looming over ordinary people’s attempts to carry on with their lives. Douglas Brodie is a strong character. There’s a sense of damage, only natural considering what he has experienced, which manifests itself in stressful situations as barely repressed violence. His girlfriend (and landlady), Samantha Campbell, is a fascinating character. A lawyer, she refuses to get married as it will destroy her career, and through working on the Hamburg trials, she is struggling with her own horror at the emerging stories. Particularly shocking in the book is the role of women, both in policing the camps and in the ratlines. It throws up once again the question of why, when women participate in despicable acts, it seems so much worse.

The post-war Jewish community in Glasgow is something I knew little about and it is brought to life here. The book is a very strong read and well deserving of its place on the Historical Dagger short-list. I’ll keep my fingers crossed for it.

Thanks to Atlantic for my copy of the book.

Review: Catriona McPherson – Dandy Gilver and a Bothersome Number of Corpses

It’s good when you read a book without any preconceptions at all. Dandy Gilver and a Bothersome Number of Corpses looked like a light-CMcPhearted fun read, based only on the book cover and the accompanying blurb. It turned out to be much more than that, a well written and witty story and it’s great that I’ve found a new series to catch up with.

Dandy Gilver once spent an idyllic summer with the Lipscott family in Pereford. With no men in sight, Mrs Lipscott and her three daughters lived in a comfortable bubble and Dandy forecast a glamorous future for the three girls. But the youngest, Fleur, gave up her charmed life and disappeared to teach English in a remote Scottish girls school. One her sisters calls Dandy and asks her to go to the school and discover what is wrong with Fleur. With her business partner Alec, Dandy travels to St Columba school in Perthshire and discovers an odd timetable, disaffected students and school mistresses with secrets to hide.

Light-hearted crime novels don’t usually do it for me, but this book’s greatest strength is the quality of the writing. You get the witty dialogue and 1930s flavour that readers expect but the writing is intelligent and thought provoking. McPherson provides a wealth of detail that gives the book a period feel but also elevate it above the usual historical mystery. So we get the entertaining pronouncements from the irreverent Dandy Gilver but we also get a subtlety of characterisation. The tension between her feelings for her stick-in-the-mud husband and the charming Alec for example is finely portrayed and adds depth to all the characters.

The book is full of surprises. You are lulled into a ‘cosy’ feel, with the enclosed girls school and eccentric characters, but the motive behind the crimes is quite brutal. There is also an edge to the writing. Dandy’s kind heart is taken advantage of and exposes weaknesses in the people that she trusts.

Dandy Gilver and a Bothersome Number of Corpses was a different sort of crime novel to ones I normally read but it’s a lesson in how I need to keep an open mind when trying new fiction. It turned out to be a very enjoyable and relaxing book written for a an intelligent reader. This is always appealing.

Thanks to Hodder for my review copy.