Death and the Dreadnought, by Robert Wilton. Published Sharpe Books, Feb 2019.
The year is 1910. Britain and Germany are racing for naval armaments superiority. The Dreadnoughts – possessors of large gun turrets providing uniform and overwhelming firepower – are the new British answer to the German threat. The Germans are desperate to catch up, and will cavil at nothing to turn the tables in this superpower conflict.
Into the pre-war powder keg plunges Sir Henry Delamere, impoverished English baronet, Boer War veteran, and rather popular man with the ladies. He’s the ultimate British imperial hero, muscles packed into designer tweeds, and yet with the faintest flavour of Indiana Jones too. With a handy and engaging Cornish sidekick, of course; his gentleman’s gentleman, the ever-ready Quinn.
This taught, pacy spy thriller is set against the well-researched backdrop of the tensions leading to WW1, complicated by rising trades unionism and a suggestion of embryonic Bolshevism, just to further muddy the international waters.
Beginning on the first page with a jolting murder in a dockyard where a Dreadnought is being built, the witty writing rushes us from one scene of danger to another. Framed for that first death, Delamere dodges and weaves his way between more bodies towards revelation, narrowly escaping time after time as he and Quinn try to escape both the long arm of the law and their increasing ranks of enemies. Along the way they are helped by not just one, but two beautiful and resourceful ladies. This may be a trifle unlikely, but we have to forgive Sir Henry his dalliances and acknowledge the ladies’ suffragette instincts. There’s even a bit of bromance, as the hapless baronet and his police nemesis, Inspector Bunce, grow to grudgingly respect each other.
The baddies are satisfying Machiavellian too, and live up to their evil reputations with growing body counts.
The final climax uses the much-loved chase scene – with a twist. As the cast of characters are gathered onto a train hurtling north to save the nation’s greatest secret, clever switching of rail wagons threatens to foil Delamere at the last. And then, when Delamere arrives at the final confrontation with the German spies, Rob Wilton neatly twists back in a parallel plot line to provide unexpected and reluctant allies, in the nick of time. But then there’s another tightening of the screw, and the bad guys seem to be getting away. Can plucky Sir Henry, alone and unarmed, foil the deadly Hun at the last? What do you think, dear reader?
Lovers of Rob Wilton’s earlier Comptrollerate-General novels will be well aware how consummate a historian he is, along with a talent for telling gripping tales. This story follows honourably in that tradition. Rob’s skill at interweaving a rich historical background into his frenetic plot is a lesson to all historical thriller writers (especially me). Amongst his techniques is the use of time-appropriate imagery, such as “the atmosphere [of the crowd] felt more like a rugger scrummage or the last stand at Stormberg”. Occasionally the late Edwardian tone drops momentarily, and there are a few repetitions and one or two places where the editor’s pen could have been wielded more tightly, but these are very minor quibbles. Perhaps the beginning of chapter 67 could have included a mention of the yard being cobbled, so that when someone begins hurling cobblestones around we know where they’ve got them from. But again, tiny tiny grumbles, and nothing to lessen my five star rating.
In the final paragraphs, when we realise that even the apparent climatic ending is not the end of the story, and there remains one more traitor to be flushed out, we can only gasp as Delamere uncovers an unsuspected villain and ties off the last mystery, neatly bookended back into the shipyard. Whew.
Will we see more of Sir Henry? Oh yes please!