Friday, 1 December 2017

Two historical novels you might be interested in

The Last Legionnaire by Paul Fraser Collard

This is the fifth Jack Lark story. It starts with Jack coming back to his childhood home and takes a while to get into its stride with the return of Ballard, the spymaster from Lark's earlier adventures. Ballard, for reasons he refuses to explain to Lark, is determined to find a man who is serving with the French Foreign Legion in Italy and to bring him back, by force if necessary, to his home in England.

The plot rambles a bit, with some implausibilities here and there, but the point of it is to get Lark to the Battle of Solferino. Never heard of it? Neither had I, but I should have.

Ballard's summary of the politics behind the battle (basically the French and the Sardinians were trying to drive the Austrians out of northern Italy) neatly provides the historical background that you need. From then on it's just a matter of manoeuvring Lark into a situation where it seems perfectly natural for him to disguise himself as a French legionnaire and join the fighting.

Lark finds his man, who is duly returned to England, but the story does not quite resolve itself. I think there is supposed to be a shock revelation toward the end, but I doubt it will come as that much of a shock to many people and the end of the story leaves Lark very clearly set to start straight into another adventure.

One thing I have always respected Collard for is that he does not flinch from the brutality of 19th century warfare and, if there is a certain repetitiveness as Lark thrusts his bayonet into victim after victim, that probably represents the reality of battle. Solferino was, as Collard’s usual useful historical note explains, a battle that left nearly 40,000 casualties. For Lark, it represented his first contact with the reality of what we might think of as modern warfare, with rifled artillery enabling whole units to be mown down before they even engage the enemy. The historical note explains that the horror of Solferino led eventually to the formation of the International Red Cross.

This is far from the best of the Jack Lark books, probably because it is really about a single battle rather than a campaign, so much of the book is filled out with sub-plots, some more engaging than others. Still, it told me a lot about a battle that I had not known anything about before. Solferino did mark a development in the way that men wage war and it deserves to be better known. Collard has done us a service by writing about it, and, if the book does not entirely work on its own, it has set the characters up well for the next in the series. If you are Jack Lark fan, you will enjoy The Last Legionnaire, but if you have not read him before it's probably not the place to start.

Circle of Shadows by Imogen Robertson

It's always disconcerting to pick up a book and discover that it's the fourth in a series where you haven't read the first three. I would definitely have enjoyed the book more if I had started at the beginning of the Crowther and Westerman books, but Robertson provides enough background to the characters and their history for you to get along even if you are, like me, starting in the middle.

Circle of Shadows is a mystery set in late 18th-century Germany. Germany at the time had many tiny independent states where the rulers compensated for their relative obscurity, as rulers go, by building ever more elaborate palaces filled with courtiers who took part in ever more elaborate ceremonials. This fictional state is about to celebrate a royal wedding, so the amount of ceremonial has been dramatically ramped up. The last thing anybody wants in the middle of all this is a mysterious murder, let alone the series of mysterious murders that confront Crowther and Westerman when they arrive from England to sort all the confusion out.

Although the killings are ritualistic and quite unpleasant, this is essentially a traditional "cosy crime" story, albeit with a well realised historical background. I am generally irritated when books present 18th-century women doing things that they would be unlikely to have got away with in real life, but readers clearly enjoy female detectives and, in Harriet Westerman, Robertson has produced a credible character. Harriet is a widow – a position that gave women of the period a degree of independence. She is also presented as an unusually feisty lady and would probably be even more convincing if I had read the first book in the series. In any case, it is the background that is historically well observed. The story is not intended to be wildly realistic and there is a definite hint of magic about the resolution.

If you enjoy detective stories and you enjoy historical novels, this nicely written combination of the two should serve well for Christmas. But you might like to start with the first book in the series: Instruments of Darkness, as you ask.

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  1. both books sound good - I will have to check them out!

  2. If you like the Burke series, you will probably enjoy Jack Lark, though he is more straightforwardly military with a bit of light spying on the side, rather than the other way around. I do recommend you start with the first one, though: 'The Scarlet Thief (review at