Manda Scott, A Treachery of Spies,  Into the Fire (Penguin/Corgi, 2015)      Manda Scott is well known for her historical crime novels, though quite where the ‘historical’ line ends and ‘crime’ begins isn’t easy to draw, and thus I found myself reading the previous novel in what is so far a new series. Her detective, Captain Ines Picaut, part of law enforcement in Orléans (the PJ, I think, who are police, not gendarmes), works well with her colleagues, and manages to navigate her way among the usual tough-guy chauvinists around her. Concomitantly, in Into the Fire Scott tells her own version of the Joan of Arc story, which (let’s get real about this) is not something you would find even in a very popular popular history of the Anglo-French wars from 1429 to 1431. Frankly, it’s preposterous, and for some of her claims the only thing to do is turn the pages as fast as you can. Don’t let this put you off. In fact, Scott has an agenda, and over the two books, eventually makes clear that her intention is to examine far right groups in France, one of which (in the first book) is a proxy for the Front National. Even for the FN, this is unbelievable, too, not least for the North Africans whose help Picaut will need if she is to stay alive.

            A Treachery of Spies resembles Into the Fire by running the ‘at the time’ plots of police work now and British and French spies and resistance operatives. It begins with an anonymous body in a car and flashes backward and forward for the rest of what is a long novel. The group of résistants grows and shrinks and changes, right to the end (be careful how you read ‘to the end’ here). Picaud is a good figure, and has come back to work after a long period of repair (from the fire in the previous book). She and her team progress on a series of deaths by violence, in some considerable puzzlement, but readers have the key, because they have the story of the Maquis de Morez which is the underlying history of the book. Well to the fore in both narratives is an aristocrat, Laurence Vaughan-Thomas, who was deeply part of the SOE operations which did so much damage to the Nazis and saved so many résistant lives. Between the two narratives there are timelines of a sort, which mark the formation of the SOE and the landmarks of the war. Both narratives address the complex codes which were so important in Bletchley and on the ground in France.

            What motivates Scott in these two volumes is, aside from her desire for Joan not to have been a peasant, rather someone quite extraordinary, but, quite obviously, a fear of the resurgence of fascism in Europe. That’s the main thing on Scott’s mind. The best way to read these books would be to forget everything you think you know and go with the flow. You’ll probably learn a lot—but these are fictions, and not wholly trustworthy. Where Joan of Arc was concerned, not even partially trustworthy.

John Lawton, Friends and Traitors John Lawton is a writer of elegance whose books offer a history of Britain from the early twentieth century and its World Wars into the Cold War and further on. His characters appear and reappear in different novels, both in the Met and in a variety of military, diplomatic, and espionage units. Somewhere between books there is often time passing and characters disappearing, never to be seen again. There’s a strong whiff of Le Carre, but there’s nothing wrong with that. What’s more, Lawton’s women are better drawn than Le Carre’s. Alongside the historical aspects of Lawton’s writing, there is a considerable amount of attention to social change, achieved without making a fuss. As the culture of deference fades, that brings a new normal. There is also some wonderful writing about music and musicians. This latest novel has Guy Burgess not quite at its heart, but certainly a constant presence. It has taken me quite some time to write this review because I kept going back to earlier novels to make sure I was keeping track of people and places (Ah, Major Tosca–Larissa Dimitrovna Tosca is a wonderful creation.) Read this book now, allowing yourself to circle back as and when necessary. You might need a large blank sheet of paper to keep up.

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