Rule Britannia

Written by Alec Marsh

Review written by LJ Hurst

Initially, L. J. Hurst worked in the backrooms of the media industry. He now divides his time between work for an international scientific publisher and a rather more British independent bookseller. In years past he was a regular attendee at the Shots on the Page Festivals from whence Shots Mag sprung

Rule Britannia
Accent Press
RRP: £8.99
Released: September 26 2109

Having finished Alec Marsh’s Rule Britannia I was unsure whether it is a dog’s dinner or an Eton Mess. It is labelled as “The debut Drabble and Harris thriller”, but hero Ernest Drabble spends most of his time with Kate Honeyand in a chase through the West Country, rather than with his friend Percival Harris.

I was waiting for a shocking stocking scene like Madeleine Carroll’s in Hitchcock’s 39 Steps but it never came, though as this is set in 1936 there would be stocking tops a-plenty under those lady-like skirts. On the other hand, while Alec Marsh avoids the sex elements of many a thriller, he lays the violence on with a trowel, and a shotgun, and an electricity supply: most of it being received by poor old Harris, who has been left in London while Drabble has gone travelling.

Alec Marsh has picked the tropes of the pre-war thriller: first encountered in a London gentleman’s club, Drabble is a historian specialising in the Carolingian Interregnum who is also a skilled mountaineer, “the Bouncing Don”, who has received a message out of the blue from his old colleague, Dr Wilkinson, has gone to find out more about Cromwell’s head, and finds the old boy dead instead. After persuading Wilkinson’s secretary, Miss Honeyand, that he is a pukka sahib, she and he escape in a classic sports car to return to London, only to find themselves being hunted by mysterious men, and – of course – by the police.

It is late in 1936, the abdication crisis is in full fervour, with scarcely any support for King Edward beyond Winston Churchill and a few of his friends. Outside parliament the Black Shirts – they never had any MPs elected – are another force in favour of The Crown. What Drabble will be shocked to learn is that there are villains inside on the government benches, Black Shirts who have disguised themselves as Conservative MPs, who are determined to use the crisis as their opportunity to take power as dictators have done in Germany, Italy, Austria, Portugal and more. And somehow possession of Cromwell’s head will aid this process.

If poor old Harris had read a few more contemporary thrillers – Graham Greene, perhaps, but there were others – he would know that paranoid assaults on an innocent man such as himself, who has no idea what might be going on, are perfectly normal at such times. Electric shocks, small scale mutilation – neither can make him talk or reveal what he knows, because his captors refuse to believe that he knows nothing. For Harris, as Drabble manages to evade capture, things go from bad to worse, while Drabble is just able to use his climbing skills to enter the coastal fort now being used as a Black Shirt army base. It is there that he learns the secret in Cromwell’s head.

I know that Oswald Mosley (though Alec Marsh calls him something else) is coming back into fashion as a villain – he is to appear in the latest series of the BBC’s Peaky Blinders, but Peaky Blinders is aimed at an adult audience. When I had finished Rule Britannia I was unsure if I had read a Young Adult (YA) novel or not: certainly there is none of the usual sex, even though there is considerable violence on a helpless man. Then there is the swearing – there’s an awful lot of soft ‘ruddy hells’, but elsewhere the language is strong – the dog’s dinner again.

Dealing with real political events in genre fiction is difficult. An episode of Foyle’s War dealt with the Right Club (a society of Conservative MPs who sympathised with Hitler, and were interned in 1940 along with Mosley) and struggled. Rule Britannia struggles too. On the other hand, when Swallows and Amazons was re-made as a film in 2016 it added foreign spies to the mix, receiving favourable reviews on release. More significant have been the books of Matt Lynn and Robert J Harris which continue the adventures of John Buchan’s Richard Hannay (quick shiver as we remember Madeleine Carroll’s stockings again): clearly there is a demand for the older style of thriller written by today’s authors. Rather than re-use someone else’s characters, Alec Marsh has invented his own, sometimes manipulating them in ways that have become familiar, sometimes – like the secret of Cromwell’s head – inventing new surprises. The result could be considered a dog’s dinner – but if you like constructive anachronism you may find Rule Britannia a delightful Eton Mess, a classic delightful dessert.

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