Hazel McHaffie

Past Caring

Missing presumed dead

Thiepval. The Memorial to the Missing of the Somme. ‘A massive, brick-arched statement of our collective conscience.’ Bearing the names of 73,412 men without a grave, ranked and filed for war.

My uncle’s name is etched into that stone: NEVARD HP. I never knew him, of course; neither did his youngest sister, my mother; he was killed, in the week of his 21st birthday, in 1916, before she was even born. I have a rose in my garden called Somme, planted to mark the centenary of his death; it’s in flower right now.

So, the name Thiepval has a special resonance for me, and that drew me to In Pale Batallions, a novel by one of my favourite authors, Robert Goddard. Thiepval forms the starting point for a mystery in the family of Leonora Galloway.

When we first meet her, she’s a recent widow, visiting the site for the first time, accompanied by her daughter, Penelope. Together they look at her father’s name commemorated on the massive stone monument, and check the records inside:
HALLOWS, Captain the Hon John, son of Edward, Lord Powerstock … aged 29 years.

But … the date of Captain John’s presumed death is recorded as 30 April 1916 … Leonora wasn’t born until 14 March 1917 … Penelope immediately suspects a simple wartime romance and illegitimate birth. Could this be the cause of the rift between them and her mother’s aristocratic heritage? But no, her mother, says, she has always known John was not her real father; Olivia, the second Lady Powerstock, made sure of that! But only now that her husband is dead, does Leonora feel free to confide in her daughter, tell her who she really is, and what she has discovered about her history.

Part 1 it told through the voice of Leonora. Hers was a lonely unloved childhood. The Powerstock title having ended with John’s death on the Somme, her mother, Miriam, having died of smallpox when Leonora is only a few days old, she is brought up by her paternal grandparents though neither money nor title ever finds its way to her. When her grandfather dies, his second wife, Olivia, becomes Leonora’s sole guardian, a vicious woman who loses no opportunity to taunt Leonora with her mother’s sullied reputation and her own illegitimacy, turning Leonora into an unpaid domestic servant in her own home, isolated from the world outside, timid, reclusive and introspective. Until, that is, the war happens, and soldiers are billeted at the family home. Captain Tony Galloway brings love and trust into her impoverished life, and when the war ended, they marry.

Two children later, Leonora is in the kitchen alone when a tall, sombre, rather shabbily dressed man appears at the door. ‘It’s about your father’, he says. Now that the second Lady Powerstock is dead, this man, Lieutenant Tom Franklin, John’s fellow officer in the Great War, who had actually met her mother and her grandparents, is free to tell her the truth about her family, about what happened thirty-seven years ago. And it’s this key witness who takes up the story in Part 2.

Feeling acutely the loss of his friend, John, Franklin jumps at the chance to convalesce in the Powerstock ancestral home, but nothing there fits with expectation. Everyone seems awash with carefully guarded secrets: John’s father hiding himself from the world in self-imposed exile in his study; his stepmother behaving with abandonment and contempt of Lord Powerstock; his beautiful wife pregnant by another man. The whole edifice of ancient British honour, and what John was fighting for, seem a sham. And yet images of John, the rightful heir to this place, seem to haunt Tom everywhere, awake or asleep.

Then the murder of a thoroughly unlikeable American guest of Lady Powerstock precipitates Tom into the role of prime suspect. But the police, under pressure from powerful sources, choose instead to brand an innocent convalescing officer who has taken his own life, as the murderer. Officially case closed, but Tom needs to know the truth – besmirching a reputation, even posthumously, goes totally against the grain. What he finds is intrigue and deception beyond his wildest imaginings; truths the family simply can’t afford to have unearthed.

Leonora takes back the narrative in Part 3. Now in possession of the facts behind her existence from this surviving witness, she has questions of her own to pursue. How did she end up in the care of the Powerstocks?  Who really was the murderer of the odious American guest? What other secrets are still to be revealed? The Powerstock’s family solicitor refuses to give her answers. Tom Franklin has vanished without trace … until, that is, she receives an eerie posthumous message from him fifteen years later.

Leonora’s husband … then Olivia, Lady Powerstock, add their evidence … then the murderer himself …. and a scruffy painter in Cornwall! Each time, just as you feel you are grasping the truth, another witness snatches it away, takes you down a different path. Immensely clever plotting and elegant writing. Indeed, its the kind of devilishly convoluted plot that makes you want to go back, with the benefit of hindsight, and read it again just to marvel at its cleverness and see the clues you missed. But at nearly 400 pages of densely packed text that’s a rather daunting prospect.

For me, personally, reading In Pale Batallions, there was something more than exquisite writerly skill on display. It’s many many years since I first discovered Robert Goddard’s Past Caring, which has remained top of my 100 favourite books. He is a past master at taking the reader deep into a story that just keeps on unravelling. But this time I entered more profoundly into my uncle’s death on the Somme than I ever have before. With his death only ‘presumed’, my mother used to dream of one day seeing him walking down the street. In Captain John Hallows it felt as if he was walking off the page.  And it seemed so very appropriate to be feeling this precisely 1006 years later.

Not only so, but curiously enough the story also takes Leonora to the Isle of Wight, where my father’s family come from, as well as the West Country, where I grew up, and Goddard’s hauntingly familiar descriptions of those quaint houses and narrow streets transported me there too. Bewitching.


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A Place of Execution

Every once in while a book comes into my orbit that’s so well crafted that it leaves me buzzing. Sacred and Profane, Fingersmith and Past Caring spring to mind.

This week I’ve been awed by the skill of crime writer Val McDermid in A Place of Execution. Written in 1999 it’s not new but it’s only just come to my attention, recommended unreservedly by a friend – thanks, Barbara.

The main story is set in the early 60s in Derbyshire around the time when the Moors murderers were perpetrating their deadly attacks on children in the Manchester area. The historical context, together with the unembellished matter-of-fact account of the investigation seen through the eyes and mind of a young detective in charge of his first major case, gives a sense of real-life happening to this fiction which got me off to a promising start.

When thirteen-year-old Alison Carter goes missing from the tiny hamlet of Scardale there are those who believe the events are linked. Law graduate, fast-tracked-for-promotion, Inspector George Bennett is not among them. His every instinct tells him the squire’s step-daughter has been abducted and murdered by a local person. But gathering evidence in a close-knit in-bred community, hostile to anyone from outside its ranks, is an uphill struggle. Each fragment of evidence comes at a price.

PARTIAL SPOILER ALERT. If you plan to read this book you might want to skip the rest of this post. It doesn’t reveal the most important facts but it does indicate the progress of the investigation, trial, outcome and subsequent findings.

A compelling case builds as George is guided towards his goal:

– two people swear to seeing a man walking the fields when he claims he was elsewhere;

– a fragment of wool, a smear of blood, a duffle toggle, and trampled vegetation suggest a struggle in nearby woodland;

– a disdainful old woman points them in the direction of a disused mine-working long forgotten by the locals but recorded in a book in the squire’s library;

– torn woollen tights and semen-stained gym knickers found in that mine indicate rape;

– the squire’s wife finds a gun wrapped in a bloodied made-to-measure shirt hidden in a dark room, damning evidence of a terrible crime;

– photographs hidden in an underground safe give incontrovertible evidence of foul goings on in Alison’s bedroom.

George and his colleagues are so appalled by what they find, so convinced of the man’s guilt, that they pursue the criminal with all the resources at their disposal and at the expense of their own private lives. The fact that George is about to become a father for the first time adds zeal to his crusade. A compelling case is built for the murder of Alison Carter even in the absence of a body. But the rapist has powerful lawyers with formidable reputations on his defence team. George’s own motivation and integrity are dragged through the mire in the courts.

The evidence of the photographs, though, is powerful stuff; the jury are appalled by what they see and unanimous in their verdict. The first part of the book ends with a stroke-by-stroke account of the hanging of the perpetrator of this terrible violation and murder. As the man falls through the trapdoor and his neck is dislocated, George’s firstborn son enters the world. One life begins as another one ends.

But the reader is left with a sense of unease. Everything points to this man’s guilt but something isn’t right. The rest of the novel (146 of 549 pages) is devoted to events thirty-five years later. A journalist who grew up not far from Scardale and who was contemporaneous with Alison Carter, has finally persuaded George Bennett, now retired, to talk for the first time about his experience of the Carter case, for a book. He finds it unexpectedly cathartic. The manuscript is almost ready for submission to the publisher when George is persuaded to revisit Scardale. What he finds there so shocks him that he feels forced, without explanation, to withdraw permission for publication. So powerful is his reaction that he ends up in Intensive Care fighting for his life after a severe heart attack.

But the journalist is too close to the scoop of the century to back down so easily. She too visits Scardale. She too sees what George sees. What should she do? What will she do? If she agrees to withhold the book she will lose the opportunity of a lifetime; is she publishes she will ruin many other lives.

The truth about what actually happened in Scardale in 1963 is immensely more complex and unexpected and horrific than George ever dreamed of. Far more people suffered than he knew. But the fact that a man was hanged for a murder he did not commit because of his own actions will haunt him for the rest of his days.

This is a beautifully executed tour de force of a book with a subtlety and intricacy that mark McDermid out as a brilliant writer. I found it compelling reading and wanted to start all over again to seek out the cues I missed first time around. And it’s very rare for me to say that about any book.



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In praise of Robert Goddard

I’ve just had the great indulgence of three long days secreted away on trains travelling the length of the country, keeping myself deliberately out of communication by phone or email. Hours and hours lost in books! Bliss.

You may remember one of my New Year resolutions was to acknowledge brilliance when I found it. This week I want to sing the praises of one of Britain’s best mystery writers whose books were my companions on the said journeys.

Robert Goddard is one of those authors whose skill leaves you reeling. His debut novel, Past Caring, is in my personal top five. I rarely read a book twice – too many books, too little time – but this one I did. And I was riveted both times.

The hero is flawed – a disgraced teacher, a history graduate, with a failed marriage and no prospects. His help is enlisted by a shadowy figure in Madeira, to research a 70-year old mystery. The backdrop is the Liberal Government’s constitutional crisis just before the First World War and the Suffragette movement, and in Past Caring the historical context really comes alive. Fluid writing, intricate plotting with loads of twists, believable characterisation – a totally gripping read.

Take no FarewellGoddard’s fond of flawed protagonists. Take no Farewell, another favourite, features a failing architect – a deliberate ploy to enable the author to indulge his love of architecture of that period. Geoffrey Staddon has never forgotten his first important commission, to build the best house he ever designed. But when life is disintegrating around him he reads that the love of his life, Consuela, the mistress of that house, is on trial for murder by poisoning. Remorse and shame come flooding back. He absolutely has to save her from the gallows. Twists and turns, revelations and secrets, keep the reader on tenterhooks to the very end.

So what can we say of Robert Goddard overall? He specialises in suspense and intrigue, unlikely heroes, altered reality, redemption. He’s a stickler for authenticity in his locations and history. He’s the kind of author who does his research thoroughly – but he has the skill to make the topics accessible to the uninitiated. The reader is left with the choice to pursue the contexts to whatever level of detail they choose, not doing so doesn’t detract from the enjoyment of the story itself. And the range of subjects this writer weaves through his varied stories is a measure of his own great interest in life in all its forms and vagaries.

But if you like simple linear plots – he’s not for you. Just when you think you’ve grasped the way things fit, he spins you back out of control again. Relationships, eras, acts and consequences, they’re all juggled simultaneously. And if you find it hard to hold names in your head, you’ll need a very large piece of paper to list all the characters and how they fit … or did, until the plot twisted for the umpteenth time. But if you love Prague or Madeira or Devon or wherever the book is set, you’ll find his narrative so evocative of the place you’ll be walking those streets with him.

Two reviews, I think, sum him up:
‘Combines the expert suspense manipulation skills of a Daphne du Maurier romance with those of a John le Carré thriller’ New York Times

‘His narrative power, strength of characterisation and superb plots, plus the ability to convey the atmosphere of the period quite brilliantly, make him compelling reading’ Books

I’ve been adding to my Goddard collection for years and was recently delighted to find several tucked away in a National Trust property bookstall, with an honesty box next to them. Pearls indeed. OK, OK, OK, I know that authors should blaze a trail for writers everywhere receiving a just reward for their labour. Of course they should! But I really couldn’t resist these. And the money did go to a worthy cause. I hope Robert Goddard would be somewhat mollified by this tribute to him.

I’ve never met him but there’s a fascinating interview with him on //www.youtube.com/watch?v=BTAXug1lJBE&feature=related
in which he explains why he writes as he does. And he interviews as well as he writes. Enjoy!

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Reflections and resolutions

Phew! The last day of 2009 – time for a reflection or two.

One of the things that has touched me greatly this year has been the messages sent by readers. I acknowledged each one individually, but I want to thank you more publicly too.

Writing’s an essentially lonely occupation, and every time a new novel comes out, I get the heebie-jeebies. Is it any good? Will anyone buy it? Will anyone like it? March is fast approaching and I’m going through the same qualms with Remember Remember. Editing fiercely; hoping.

Just knowing real people have read my books, engaged with the characters, and formed an opinion is heartening; the personal touch so much more meaningful than sales figures. I particularly like to hear that people have lent them to friends – a much stronger affirmation than knowing X people have bought (but not necessarily read) them … although, if my publisher’s reading this – I am promoting sales, honestly!

To my shame I’ve been remiss myself in giving feedback to authors. However, there’s no mileage in regret, so I decided before 2009 ends to compile a list of ten books that come instantly to mind (without consulting my bookshelves); books that I’ve loved and recommended/lent to other people. My little tribute to some giants among writers, whom I should have contacted and didn’t. (I’ve deliberately left out the classics to make the choice more personal.)

In no particular order
Past Caring Robert Goddard
Sacred and Profane Marcelle Bernstein
Fingersmith Sarah Waters
We Need to Talk about Kevin Lionel Shriver
The Jigsaw Man Paul Britton
The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime Mark Haddon
The Third Twin Ken Follett
Still Alice Lisa Genova
Take No Farewell Robert Goddard
Rebecca’s Tale Sally Beauman

I salute all these authors. And add to my New Year resolutions:
Be more active in acknowledging literary brilliance in future.

My very best wishes to you all for 2010 – whether or not you’ve contacted me! And happy reading!

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