Winner of the 2008 Ellis Peters Award for Best Historical Crime Novel
London, June 1940. When the body of silent screen star Mabel Morgan is found impaled on railings in Fitzrovia, the coroner rules her death as suicide, but DI Stratton of the CID is not convinced. Despite opposition from his superiors, he starts asking questions, and it becomes clear that Morgan’s fatal fall from a high window may have been the work of one of Soho’s most notorious gangsters.
MI5 agent Diana Calthrop, working with senior official Sir Neville Apse, is leading a covert operation when she discovers that he is involved in espionage. She must tread carefully – Apse is a powerful man, and she can’t risk threatening the reputation of the Secret Service. Only when Stratton’s path crosses Diana’s do they start to uncover the truth – that the intrigues of the Secret Service are alarmingly similar to the machinations of war-torn London’s underworld.
Writing Stratton’s War
Having written six stand-alone psychological crime novels that concentrated, largely, on examining families in turmoil, I decided in 2006 – propelled by a hefty shove from my then editor, Jane Wood, at Orion – that it was probably time to leave the ‘closed world’ of the domestic setting for a series set on a wider canvas.
I say probably because I tend to approach everything in a swivel-eyed crab-like fashion and because, if I was going to commit to spending the next however-many years of my life yoked to a single fictional partner, I had to make sure that he or she was the right person. I’ve heard quite a few laments from crime authors who have inadvertently begun a series with their first novel. They tend to go along the lines of ‘If I’d known I’d still be writing about him twenty years later, I wouldn’t have given him a stupid name/missing limb/phobia about buttons…’ I was determined, if possible, to avoid such pitfalls.
After taking out several characters on literary blind dates, I decided to plump for a policeman, Detective Inspector Stratton. For me, this was a definite departure from the norm – weirdly, for a crime novelist, I’d never written about a policeman before.
Then there was the question of when to set the books. I’ve always liked the idea of crime fiction as social commentary, and, with a background writing history books for children, I decided that it would be fascinating to show the changing nature of England between 1939 and 1975 through the eyes of a London policeman during his working life. This, after all, was the period during which Britain won the war, lost the peace, discarded the Empire and acquired the Welfare State, while London absorbed thousands of new citizens from different cultures. It was a time when the social, political and economic certainties of the past dissolved into doubt and confusion, and attitudes to everything from sex, class and capital punishment to popular music and skirt lengths underwent radical change.
What I am attempting to do, beginning with the first book, Stratton’s War, set in 1940, is to paint a complex, unsentimental picture of a capital city from its highest echelons to its underworld. In Stratton’s War, the body of a silent screen star is found impaled on railings outside her Fitzrovia home, and Stratton’s investigation leads him, via one of Soho’s most notorious villains, to MI5. Along the way, he discovers that the intrigues of the Secret Service are alarmingly similar to the machinations of the gangsters.
I prefer, if possible, to use real people as spring boards for creating characters. Stratton is a combination of my father and several male friends; gangsters Jack Spot and Billy Hill, active between the 40s and 50s, inspired the character of Abie Marks, and the MI5 boss, Colonel Forbes-James, is taken from a real section head, Charles Maxwell Knight (who also inspired Ian Fleming’s ‘M’). Diana Calthrop, Forbes-James’s glamorous female agent, is drawn from Joan Miller, who, during the war years, was used by Maxwell Knight as a ‘beard’.
The war itself is also a character, as is London – a changing physical entity, a symbol, and an autonomous, and sometimes malevolent, force. Big stuff, and, from a research point of view, pretty labour-intensive. However, I had a lot to draw on – in 1995, I’d written a children’s book about the home front in wartime with the Imperial War Museum, who provided numerous artefacts for the team to photograph. I’d also made extensive use of both their library, and the Mass Observation Archive, for a previous book, The Lover (2004). My parents, who were in their teens during the war, were also helpful. I decided my policeman and his family should live in the north-east London suburb of Tottenham, like my mother’s family did. Mum not only provided me with a detailed ground plan of the family home, but also a number of anecdotes, such as the one about the neighbour who had a disconcerting habit of pegging up her husband’s re-usable condom on the washing line, where it dangled like a small rubber sock. Big stuff may be important, but for me, it is, ultimately, these small details that make a period come alive (all right, that particular one didn’t make it into the book, but it wasn’t for want of trying. Maybe next time).
I decided, at the outset, that I did not want DI Stratton to be a conventionally flawed crime protagonist. He is neither a drunk, a compulsive gambler, nor an adulterer, and his psyche isn’t scarred by past personal tragedy – but nor is he a hero of lonely integrity walking the mean streets or a Dixon of Dock Green-like, salt-of-the-earth embodiment of law and order. He’s an ordinary man with a realistic background for someone who was born in 1905 and joined the police force. Lower middle-class and a father of two, he lives with his family and works in the West End. He is an intelligent, humorous man, but with rudimentary education; cynical, but kind and humane; happily married, but with a wandering eye. Above all, he is pragmatic. He is well aware that police work, far from being a matter of Sherlockian detection, usually comes down to trapping or coercing people into incriminating themselves and others. At a time when the police were less accountable than they are now, he is ambivalent about the grey area of legalised brutality. He knows that British justice is not always blind, especially where class is concerned, and he reluctantly accepts this as part of his job. He witnesses the clear boundaries of respectability begin to blur during the war, and realises that they can never be re-drawn with the same degree of clarity.
I loved writing Stratton’s War, but I’m keenly aware that my policeman and I are still very much in our honeymoon period. However, as with all relationships – even those with imaginary people – one has to work at it. God willing, I shall have my job cut out for the next however-many years…
© Laura Wilson 2007
This article first appeared in Publishing News
‘Laura Wilson’s earlier novel The Lover (2005), set in wartime London, was rightly praised for its evocation of place and period, and she is equally successful with Stratton’s War. This is not simply a matter of period detail – barrage balloons, sirens, ration books, and so on. It is deep in the language of the novel, in the speech of the characters, even in the narrative voice. Everything sounds authentic.’
The Times Literary Supplement
‘Laura Wilson writes beautifully, creates characters we believe in and applies a vivid imagination to well-researched facts.’
The Literary Review
‘Wilson’s seventh novel is atmospheric and exciting… a great book.’
‘A fine book.’
The Sunday Telegraph
The Daily Sport
‘A masterful piece of fiction… With Stratton’s War she has produced not only an outstanding crime story, but a wonderful historical novel. This is a very well-written, totally assured piece of work showing an author totally confident and at ease with her research material.’
The Birmingham Post
‘Like the best crime novels, Stratton’s War coaxes intrigue, challenging the reader to ask questions, second guess the involvement of characters and like all good books, encourages the reader to turn the page.’
Edinburgh Evening News
‘This fine addition to an already thriving genre deserves to feature in many top 10 lists come the end of the year. There’s no doubt it will be in mine.’
Ham & High