Wilson, Elizabeth - 'War Damage'
There is a fashion among British publishers, if not a fad, at the moment for crime fiction set in or around World War II, almost invariably in and around London. It is a trend that has been coming for three of four years, starting with Foyle's War on television and well-regarded novels from John Lawton and the late John Gardner. The latest in this particular sub-set of the genre is one of the best and must be a front-runner for this year's Ellis Peters Award for historical mysteries.
Elizabeth Wilson's WAR DAMAGE is set in Hampstead in 1949 and peopled with a brilliantly-drawn cast of characters who have not so much been broken by the war, but bent out of shape. Some struggle to keep up appearances; most struggle to keep secrets which peacetime threatens to expose – just one of the several types of 'damage' resulting from the war. There is would-be socialite Regine, a vibrant beauty with more than one skeleton (and more than one husband) in the closet, a flamboyant homosexual who ends up murdered on Hampstead Heath, a doe-eyed young police detective well out of his depth, faded ballet dancers and deluded Bohemians, dodgy Cabinet Ministers and resurgent Blackshirts seeking to revive the career of Oswald Mosely. There is also a very spooky gay schoolboy with something of the Tom Ripley about him.
This Hampstead Ship of Fools survives on its uppers, scrabbling to hide their individual (and usually dirty) little secrets and Wilson provides the microscope through which the reader can examine this human insect colony, though she does it with some humanity and not the cold, antiseptic cruelty which, say, Ruth Rendell, might.
The un-credited member of the cast is, without doubt, London itself and Wilson's portrait of the city feels like an old and grimy oil painting discovered in a dusty attic. This is a London where everybody smokes, buildings crumble and bleed dust from bomb damage and dereliction (wartime restrictions on building materials were not lifted until 1949) and, of course, there are the famously thick London fogs, or 'pea-soupers' which Wilson describes as effectively as Margery Allingham did in TIGER IN THE SMOKE in 1952. And you can't say fairer than that.
Mike Ripley, England
Mike Ripley is the author of the 'Angel' series and writer of a monthly Getting Away With Murder column for Shots Ezine.