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espionage, intrigue and romance
on March 22, 2012
All Ben Clayton wants to do is take to the Atlantic Ocean and America as engineer on board the yacht `Windflower', and it looks as though this dream is about to become reality, when - in a scene as memorable as the opening chapter of Ian McEwan's Enduring Love - a shocking accident changes everything. Clayton suddenly finds himself drawn into an increasingly complex tale of murder, politics and espionage.
Having read and reviewed both of Mark Chisnell's previous novels, The Defector and The Wrecking Crew, I was surprised and curious that he had chosen this time to write an historical thriller, based on real events. But he carries it off with great assuredness.
In the English boatyards around Hamble and The Solent pre-World War 2, there is more concern with class divisions than the seemingly unlikely prospect of another war. Yet beyond the upper-class gambling clubs and expensive racing yachts; beyond the struggles and hand-to-mouth existence of the striking fishermen, other forces are at work. When the action moves to Germany, Munich is painted as fashionable, vibrant and alive, but the bonhomie of the beer halls is undermined by the chilling presence of uniformed Gestapo on the streets. It is to the writer's credit that despite the reader's knowledge of the historical outcome, there is still, through Clayton's eyes, the sense of a moment in time: where such things have not yet come to pass.
As ever with a Mark Chisnell novel, we are treated to his pre-occupations with psychology, philosophy, and of course, sailing. The moral dilemma this time is represented by the conflict Clayton faces given his commitment as an avowed pacifist, when pitted against the enormity of the potential threat that looms. And there is a thrilling chase, starting off by train and overland that, as other reviewers have said, is reminiscent of John Buchan's The Thirty-Nine Steps, before taking to the sea, in an open homage to Erskine Childers' The Riddle of the Sands.
I have compared his previous novels to `Boy's Own adventures', so am delighted to say that this time Chisnell gives central roles to not just one, but two female characters, and that both are convincingly portrayed. There is feisty, loyal Lucy, who sails boats and is naturally beguiling even when kitted out as a deckhand in an oversized seaman's jacket; and by contrast, the sophisticated, seductive and mysterious Anna. Clayton is a social maverick, who easily straddles the divide between fisherman's daughter Lucy and upper-class Anna, but which way will he fall when the romantic chips are down? Overall, there is a maturity to Chisnell's writing in this novel; for alongside the intrigue and the fast-paced action, there are some very credible and alluring scenes of tenderness.
As such, this may well be his best novel so far.