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Season of Darkness by Maureen Jennings

In one sense, I suppose I should be falling over myself in excitement. Not only is Season of Darkness by Maureen Jennings (McClelland & Stewart, 2011) written about the kind of people I grew up with, but I also know this part of the world rather well, having lived for many years just a few miles away from the countryside where this is set. It creates a slightly fuzzy, nostalgic feeling when time and place coincide. Unfortunately, my excitement stops just after the conceptual level and fails to rekindle when I get to the execution. The first problem comes with the sense of place. Although it mentions local landmark pubs, hotels and a nearby hospital, there’s very attempt to give a sense of the community, although some of the xenophobic panic of the time is mentioned. In this place, being so close to the Prees Heath internment camp, the presence of so many of the 27,000 people rounded up and held as a threat to national security, would have been more dominant in local culture. At the time, the fear-mongering from the popular press had induced an irrational level of fear in all parts of the country — even those not seriously at risk from German attack. History records that the conditions under which people were detained at Prees Heath were bad. There was chaos in most of the places used for internment, made significantly worse because the military had no idea why these people had been rounded up nor what was to be done with them. Until the majority were moved to the Isle of Man, this remains one of the more shameful exercises perpetrated by the British Government during the early part of the war. The rest were deported to Canada and Australia with many of the internees beaten and robbed by the soldiers. One ship full of Jewish internees sank on the way to Canada.

Maureen Jennings skillfully hiding the loose jaw

While it would be unfair to say Maureen Jennings has completely sanitised the history, the conditions as described in the Prees Heath are remarkably humane and the military arrangements not unduly oppressive. I suppose it remains politically inconvenient to draw attention to the potential British anti-Semitism which led to this appalling treatment. In this part of Shropshire, holding so many behind barbed wire in tents and generally squalid conditions would have been well-known in the surrounding towns and villages. The police and the military worked together to keep order on both sides of the wire. So the idea that our “hero”, Detective Inspector Tom Tyler would not have had routine liaison meeting with the officers at the camp and discussed security is a non-starter. More importantly, there would have been a steady watch on comings and going at the camp. As far as I know, there were no cultural events as described until the detainees arrived in more permanent accommodation in the Isle of Man. However, since authors these days are supposed to engage in meticulous research before committing anything to paper, I suppose all this is documented and I will defer to the author on this.

We also have some importance accorded the debacle at Dunkirk, sometimes better known as Operation Dynamo as our hero’s son is still feeling the adverse effects. So, with two young men back in the small town, everyone has an opinion on the way the war is going. Except, of course, the farming community is rallying round the local monied class to help beat the food rationing system, while the Land Army has drafted in some willing young ladies to help lift local spirits. As to the story, we have the death of one London girl. She’s had the good fortune to stumble on a blackmail opportunity except, before she can really cash in, she’s knocked down early one morning and, when this isn’t immediately fatal, she’s shot in the head. Later, her best friend also disappears. As a puzzle, we’re shown early on that everything is going to turn on the relationship between the town and the camp. So the structure of the book walks us through the local community and gives us a sight of the camp and some of the detainees. Note the speed level I picked. There’s little sense of urgency. It’s not that our detective doesn’t do his job, supported with reasonable efficiency by a doctor to do an autopsy and constables to fetch and carry. But no-one is breathing down his neck with threats to draft in help from the county or even call in Scotland Yard. The investigation just makes steady progress as information is accumulated. On the way, our hero discovers an ex-girlfriend is working in the camp as an interpreter which gives him the opportunity to reassess his own marriage and wonder what it might have been life had different choices been made.

As a plot, there’s some meticulous attention to detail. Everything fits together perfectly as a puzzle. It’s just there’s no real interest or excitement in the solution. I had barely registered the ultimate villain on the way through and, by the time the more thrillerish bit comes at the end, I can’t say as I cared very much who it was. I suppose the final reveal is a nice touch but, by then, it was all too little, too late. I had given up on Season of Darkness. So, unfortunately, I can’t honestly say I can recommend this. I was hoping it would replicate the interest of the Detective Murdoch Mysteries which are a nice balance of history and police procedural. I think this fails because it can’t make up its mind whether it wants to be detective fiction or a World War II historical novel or an adventure story/thriller.

A copy of this book was sent to me for review.

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