Paul Mitchell is a World War I researcher, and spends most of his days huddled in a library. One day, he is doing just that, when two men - David Audley and Jack Butler - come to look for him, asking for information about the War. Paul is mystified, but tries to help them by passing them on to his mentor, Professor Emerson. Then he is mugged and nearly killed on his way home by a pair of men who were clearly aiming to kill him and he finds that Professor Emerson died in a deliberate house fire. One of the men who visited him in the library reappears, claiming to be from the Ministry of Defence and needing Mitchell's help now that Emerson, and other associated people, are dead. Before he knows it, Paul has a new identity as a military man and has been moved to the location of the Battle of Hameau Ridge on the Somme. Can Mitchell find out what happened in 1916, and how it is related to the present, before more people die?
I am dreadfully ignorant about World War I, partly because I stay clear of books based during any war - simply because I find them deeply upsetting. However, this book is classed as crime fiction and, as Mitchell's investigation is based in the 1970s (or at least that is when the book was published), it didn't really feel like a book about war, although there are numerous war scenes described. Hameau Ridge was not a real battle, although there were many battles fought on the Somme during the war, and author Anthony Price has clearly done an amazing amount of research, because his descriptions of both the Somme now and back in 1916 are highly realistic. David Audley and Jack Butler are apparently in a number of other spy thrillers that the author wrote, although in this book, they are not the main characters.
As the hero of the piece, Paul Mitchell comes across as being rather dry and more than a little dull. As an academic living with his mother, people skills are clearly not his strongpoint and he is used to relying on his brain rather than his brawn. Nevertheless, he isn't a dislikeable character and he did grow on me during the course of the book. A softer side to his nature is shown when he is attracted to the woman who accompanies him in France as his translator. This isn't a romance and the relationship doesn't really go anywhere, but it does make Mitchell little more interesting. By the end of the book, his usefulness as a detective/spy becomes much more obvious. There certainly could have been a little more characterisation, but ultimately, this is a spy thriller and it is the story that is important, not the characters, especially when the character in question is a one-off.
Dr David Audley appears more in this novel than his usual partner, Jack Butler, does, but he is definitely secondary to Paul Mitchell. He tends to appear at critical moments and is a bit of a stereotype of a military man - brusque and expects his orders to be fulfilled at once. However, compared to Jack Butler, he is a positive softie and he does add a bit of much needed humour to the proceedings with his witticisms. He also believes in Paul Mitchell's abilities, something that Jack Butler certainly doesn't. Butler is very suspicious of everyone, more than a little rude, and is just generally not very likeable. Thankfully, he doesn't really appear in the novel all that much - this is very much Audley's case because of a personal link. I can't say I'm inspired to read more about Butler, but Audley's character does just about make up for him.
Paul is completely bemused as to what he is supposed to be investigating, and, for much of the book, so was I. There is obviously supposed to be some kind of link between what happened in 1916 - mainly with a group of British soldiers known as The Poachers (because that's what they were in real life). They were particularly heroic, but now the survivors are being killed off one by one and nobody knows why. Now the remaining few, and those that are linked with them, are paying their annual visit back to the battlefields and Audley thinks that something is about to happen and hopes that, with Mitchell's help, whatever it is can be prevented. That is about all we know, and right up until the final chapter, we don't really learn much more. This was slightly off-putting, because I began to wonder if there was a point to it at all, and it did ruin my enjoyment of the middle part of the book a little.
Thankfully, the first part of the book is riveting. The link between Paul and Audley seems impossible, until Paul nearly loses his life. At this point, the fact that I didn't know what was going on was really intriguing and I galloped through the pages, only to slow down once I reached the middle. However, the first part was good enough to make me want to carry on and find out what happened - and there is no doubt that it was worth waiting for. The ending was explosive, in more ways than one, and totally unexpected. It was also deeply fascinating - I'm not sure how much of it is based on reality, but I expect the setting, at least, (which I'm not going to give away) is based on truth. It's certainly inspired me to find out more about it.
The writing is exactly the way I like it to be in thrillers. It is economical, managing to paint many pictures with just a few words. I particularly enjoyed the descriptions of the fields around Hameau Ridge as they are at the time of Mitchell's visit, and then the contrast when Mitchell is talking to soldiers who actually were there at the time, when it was a mass of trenches, tunnels and thick mud. There is some French language littered around, but it is either easily understood or, for someone who speaks no French, isn't really important anyway. Price really deserves to be commended for his writing and clearly he has been - he won the Crime Writer's Association Gold Dagger Award in 1974. The chapters are an excellent length, nearly always under 20 pages and sometimes much shorter. The book is also divided into three sections - the first examines Mitchell's experiences in the UK with Audley, the second revolves around his time in France, and the third, very short section, describes Mitchell's experiences immediately after.
Spy thrillers, particularly those involving the war, aren't usually my favourite choice for a book. However, I enjoyed this one - it was interesting and, apart from the slightly duller middle part of the book, it was a compelling story. Price is certainly an excellent writer, because I really felt I had a handle on the setting in particular. I've not heard of the author before, but am more than willing to read some more books from the series - hopefully Audley and Butler will come to life once I find out a little more about them. This book will probably appeal mainly to men, but there is no reason why women who like crime fiction shouldn't give it a try. Recommended.
The book is available from Amazon from £1.09 for a new version and even less for a second-hand one. Published by Orion, it has 256 pages. ISBN-10: 075284766X