How on earth can I have missed knowing about the novels of Laura Wilson? They are SO up my street in every possible way. Crime, yes, but of the most intelligent kind --perhaps better to call them psychological thrillers. But add to that the fact that they are mainly set in the war and post-war period, of all things my most absolute favorite era, and you have a package absolutely guaranteed to make me love them.
Anyway, all that has changed now as I have just finished An Empty Death and have two more waiting to be started. Actually I started reading in the wrong place, strictly speaking, as this is the second of four novels featuring Inspector Ted Stratton, a London policeman (the first, Stratton's War, is on its way to me as we speak). But never mind that -- the novel stood up perfectly well to being read out of order.
An Empty Death starts in the summer of 1944, almost five years after the beginning of the war. And how thoroughly sick of it everyone is. The blackout, the bombing, the anxiety, but perhaps most of all the endless privation -- the food rationing, of course, but also the shortage of razor blades, face powder, perfume, all the things that make life comfortable and bearable. Add to that the fact that Ted and his beloved wife Jenny, like many other couples, have reluctantly evacuated their two children to the country to keep them safe, and you have a situation that is sometimes almost impossible to put up with. And, while we in 2012 can look back and say, Oh, but the war will be over soon, people living through it had no idea when it would end.
Ted Stratton is a great character, solid, reliable, devoted to Jenny but deeply appreciative of other female beauties. He is quietly intelligent and, even more quietly, capable of deep feeling and sensitivity. But, for me, probably the most brilliant thing about this novel is the character of the man who becomes Stratton's adversary. Here's how we are introduced to him for the first time:
It was time to die again. That was how he thought of it - dying and being re-born, at the same time. He always felt a sense of loss at such times, although he couldn't have said what it was that he was losing. He'd been relieved - delighted - to walk away from his first life, to cease being the useless, despised failure who got everything wrong. The selves that came after, personas of his choosing, had been more successful, but it was never enough. This one would be different. He'd wanted to be a doctor ever since he was a child, and now he had a name - a life - ready and waiting for just this opportunity. This was simply the penultimate step in his plan.
This, though we don't discover his original name until much later in the story, is the man who started life as Walter Strang, but who has, over the past ten or so years, adopted many new names, and personas to go with them. As the novel begins, he is giving up his job in the mortuary of the Middlesex Hospital and, having changed his name and appearance, will soon be working in the hospital again, this time as Dr James Dacre. He has assumed the identity of an old schoolfriend who died shortly after completing his medical training, and has no difficulty in convincing the staff at the hospital that he can step into the shoes of another doctor who has recently and mysteriously been murdered. And indeed, though at first frequently almost paralysed with nerves, and having often to rush upstairs to look things up in his medical textbooks, Dacre proves to be a good doctor and soon wins the confidence of his fellows among the physicians and nursing staff. He also meets and falls violently in love with a beautiful nurse, who, though seemingly shy and modest, appears to reciprocate his feelings. But everything changes one day when he finds himself washing his hands side by side with the pathologist who was his employer in the mortuary, and who, despite the man's carefully altered appearance, seems to have spotted a tell-tale scar on Dacre's hand. Soon Dacre's life will be forced to undergo another change, but not before events have put Stratton on his track.
Although Dacre/Strang is technically the villian of the piece, I'm tempted rather to call him the anti-hero. His life and his ambitions blighted in his teens by his father's loss of money and status, he has been unable to go to university and train for the career he always longed for. And, both here and at the hospital he works at later, there is no doubt that he has real talent in the fields of both physical and mental health. In the most powerful and moving scene of all, the contents of which I cannot reveal to you, his relationship with Stratton becomes unbearably complex, and Stratton is unable to forget the man who arrived meaning to kill him and ended up saving his life. And, since so much of the story is told from Strang's point of view, I found it impossible not to feel a good deal of sympathy and admiration for him, despite the far from admirable things he sometimes does, or is forced into doing.
I actually found this novel at times almost intolerably tense but of course all the better for it. And if that was not enough, the social and historical background seems to be astonishingly accurate. Laura Wilson had a long pre-novel career as a writer of factual history books aimed at young readers, and her research skills are obviously superb. I could not see any false notes at all in the evocation of life in wartime London, nor was my normally rather over-sensitive ear ever offended by an infelicities or anachronisms of speech.
Perhaps you already know Laura Wilson's books. If not, you can find out more about her, and them, on her own website. And I am hoping to persuade her, at some time in the not too distant future, to do an interview for the blog, so watch out for that. Great stuff and highly recommended.