Gwen Moffat lives in Cumbria. Her novels are set in remote communities ranging from the Hebrides to the American West. The crimes fit their environment, swelling that dreadful record of sin in the smiling countryside cited by Sherlock Holmes. The style echoes this: rustic charm masking horror.
In 1956 Britain had not yet recovered from six years of violence and deprivation only to be plunged into a Cold War with Russia. And, too close to Hiroshima, there was always a subconscious awareness of the Bomb. Paranoia was rife in Government circles and while many citizens retreated into a kind of apathy bred of exhaustion there was a veneer of decadence enjoyed by those who had cash. The overall atmosphere was febrile, careless, chaotic, and everywhere, in high society and the slums, there were sharks.
In the Balkans there was rebellion; Russian tanks moved in and Oxford, that dreaming city, became host to Hungarian refugees. Burgess and Maclean had just fled the country, Philby was suspect, and a Special Branch man called McGovern was sent west to sniff out putative Soviet spies among the newcomers. Meanwhile, back in London, Blackstone, a crime reporter, smelled a rat when a prostitute fell downstairs in a sleazy hotel and the verdict was accident. Not two plots here but two threads of a convoluted story, bizarre but bearing a resemblance to more than one strange scandal of a time when boxing promoters mixed with the aristocracy and gangsters, and government ministers were embroiled with call girls. It was an age when our future spies were recruited from Oxbridge, when homosexuality was illegal and blackmail was a growth industry.
The background to this period piece is nicely painted: garish and vulgar as it was, from the glaring neon facades of the Soho nightclubs to the high class madam’s peach-coloured lounge with its net curtains, and the nouveau riche all smoking Balkan Sobranies. Some readers will remember the horrors: the bombed buildings, ghastly food, dead weekends and “the dank melancholy of long-drawn-out Sundays.” The author has a neat turn of phrase and a reasonable plot. Her narrative when delving into people’s minds is superior in content and style – particularly style – to her action and dialogue which come across both stiff and stilted.