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Friday, February 24, 2012

On Secret Service East Of Constantinople. Peter Hopkirk. (John Murray) 1994

A gripping and fascinating history of the attempts by Germany to launch a Holy War in Central Asia as part of its World War 1 strategy. The intention was to create a war that would spill into British India and place intolerable pressure on the British Empire. The subtitle for the book is "The Plot to Bring Down the British Empire". It could have been as easily titled "The Plots to Carve Out a New Empire I Central Asia by Germany and Turkey".
The story is an astonishing one taking place before technology had completely transformed travel and spying, when remote regions were genuinely isolated and the crumbling Ottoman Empire was a pot of riches for whoever could grab them and hold on to them. The region had a long history of secret warfare and espionage as the Great Game between Russia and British India was played out. This game only came to a close in the face of the mutual threat from Germany and Turkey. The Kaiser had an explicit plan to foment a Holy War by the Muslim population in Central Asia against both Britain and Russia, this Holy War would be lead by the Ottoman Sultan, the political and religious leader of Muslim population. Hidden inside this plan was another plan to replace Russia and Britain as the imperial power in the region, gaining the riches of the the Caucasus and India.
The plan was to use a limited number of German soldiers, diplomats and spies armed with some gold, more propaganda and a lot of promises to maneuver Turkey into a declaration of Holy War against the infidels. This would unleash the muslin population into a war that would be funded by the gold seized from Russian and, chiefly, British banks in the region. This would be a very cot effective war if the plans were realized. Peter Hopkirk describes how the plans were made, the move and counter move made across the region, the desperate and frequently confused actions of Germany, Britain and  Russia, before and after the revolution, collided and intertwined.
At its hear this is a story of a number of incredibly brave men from Germany and Britain who fought a secret war against each other. It is a flat out adventure story with daring escapes, endurance, luck and heart stopping courage that grips the reader like a vise. Without technology these men, they were nearly all men though the incredible courage of the women caught up in the wars, massacres and revolutions is fully acknowledged, had to rely on their wits to save themselves and complete their missions.
Peter Hopkirk manages to balance the wider picture of the war across the globe with the details of the struggles in the region, placing the individual stories within a wider context. The results of the actions of that time are still very relevant today, the fantastically cavalier way that the Allies disposed of the the countries in the region, carving them up for their own benefit post war without any reference to the people who lived there is still bearing bitter fruit today.
This is wonderful narrative history, the sweep and dash of the events are told with clarity and a due appreciation for the astonishing people involved.

Friday, February 10, 2012

Dark Side. Belinda Bauer. Bantam Press. (2011)

A superb crime story, as cold and griping as the bleak winter Exmoor landscape that the story is set in. Belinda Bauer has located the battered skull beneath the skin of the English village murder story. A severely disabled, elderly lady is murdered in the small village of Shipcott in midwinter. PC Jonas Holly, the village policeman is quickly sidelined by the investigative team sent to handle the case. The abrasive Detective Chief Inspector Marvel finds Jonas a considerable nuisance and deals with him as such. A second murder places everyone in the village under significant pressure and the investigative team and Jonas in particular. The plot uncoils steadily, the reveals are cunning staged and the conclusion is wholly unforgiving and satisfying.
Belinda Bauer takes the basic structure of the English village murder mystery , the way the community knows everything except what it does not wish to know, the comfort of familiarity and the suffocating closeness of knowing everyone and uses them to amplify the force of the savage story. The cast are varied and bursting with life, the smallest walk on part is so finely drawn that they insist on the readers attention, without ever upsetting the balance of the narrative. PC Jonas Holly is a great leading character, he is not a moss covered village bobby, he returned to Shipcott for a deeply serious reason, the failing health of his wife. The murders in the village are a considerable burden to him, both on a personal and a professional level. That such events could happen on his watch is pressure enough, being very publicly excluded from the investigation adds severely to it. It forces him to act to regain and retain his position within the village, the community expect something from him that he struggles to provide.
The lead investigator, DCI Marvel should be a walking cliche, an abrasive double outsider, transferred from London to the local force and an outsider to the village, he is abrasive, enraged and frustrated. He avoids all the obvious pitfalls he seems set up for and emerges as as gripping and deeply unlikable person in his own rounded right. He gets a deeply satisfying and viciously sardonic treatment from Belinda Bauer and deserves all of it, in particular the happy unfairness meted out to him at the end.
The astonishing skill with which the plot threads are woven and twisted up to the last words of the book is a joy to read. The reader is reminded that justice is a freezing cold process that does not encompass mercy in any way. This is a superb book, very strongly recommended.