Monroe, Aly - 'Icelight'
England in 1947 was suffering the coldest, bleakest winter for many years. Following the end of the Second World War Britain was severely depressed economically, having borrowed huge amounts of money from the USA to purchase armaments. Although the war had been over for nearly two years, severe rationing was still in place and this wouldn't be completely eliminated until July 1954. So the population was freezing from the severity of the weather and the appalling food shortages meant people were both hungry and cold all the time without adequate nutrition and the shops only gave out very limited food when ration books were produced. Rationing affected everything including even books and newspapers. People did not have even much coal to heat their homes (this was rationed also) and central heating of course was not generally available until many years later. In fact it was so cold the Thames froze over.
Peter Cotton, a former English Army Officer, who reached the rank of colonel despite being only in his late twenties is authorised by the heads of both MI5 and MI6, because both services are riddled with traitors, to be seconded to "Operation Sea-snake". Homosexual acts were then illegal and there was much homophobia at the time and Cotton is asked to protect an atomic scientist who is being pursued because of his gay tendencies. The scientist's body is eventually found in a down at heel hotel room, with a syringe of poison near the body, but was it suicide or could other people be involved?
Cotton has a very difficult job checking out all the possibilities in these very extreme conditions and is constantly being checked on by his boss, who fortunately stays abroad mainly in the US and sends intermediaries to hassle him instead. Cotton has many exciting adventures before the ultimate conclusion.
ICELIGHT is a wonderfully atmospheric book. It not only illuminates the murky world of espionage, but really makes one feel relatively cheerful in that the present dire economic climate we're facing now is so much better than the wonderfully evoked life and terrible conditions of the 1940s described in this book. Cotton and his boss enter a west London hotel and a plate of sandwiches and coffee is ordered by the boss. After a long delay a plate of fish paste sandwiches and an substitute coffee made from chicory essence is brought to their table. They refuse it. This is a good example of the difficult conditions faced by businesses in trying to provide a service when basic food stuffs are just not available because of import embargoes and rationing.
ICELIGHT is not a fast read with James Bond-style car chases and shoot-outs and bombings, no this is set at a much slower but convincing pace with much comment on the everyday details of daily life in the most difficult of conditions, which gives it an authenticity which I found extremely entertaining.
This is Aly Monroe's third book about Peter Cotton and I enjoyed this one more than the first, THE MAZE OF CADIZ. I found it a joy to read and a real page-turner and I hope this author writes many more such books, and I look forward to reading them.
Terry Halligan, England