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Noose by Bill James

noose

Noose by Bill James, a pseudonym of James Tucker, (Severn House, 2013) is playing the identity game but with a twist. Under the usual rules, the character under review is based in contemporary times. Because we know the culture, we can understand the process to achieve the particular outcome. But this has changed the timeframe. We’re now back to a twenty year or so period from the 1930s to 1950s in Britain. To the majority of modern readers, this might just as well be science fiction. Readers are transported to a different world and have to begin learning the new behavioral constraints. As I was growing up, we were rebuilding after World War II. I listened to my grandmother telling me what it was like when Queen Victoria was on the throne. As we’ve aged, my generation has been passing on our personal experiences of the bomb damage, food rationing and austerity as it used to be. We’re a link to the past. But when it comes to the 1930s, personal knowledge is not available. It’s all secondhand. That Britain was in a transition phase. The class barriers had been breached and the frustrations of life could more clearly be seen. That was my mother and father’s time. They never seemed to have much to say about the 1930s. Coming back to this novel, the result is a slightly metafictional exploration of the life of one Ian Charteris. We watch forces shape him. We see what might have led the Government to try recruiting him as a spy. It’s a fascinating story, or portrait or life narrative.

 

We start off in the 1950s. The young woman who may be his sister from the wrong side of the sheets has just ended up in hospital. She’s an actress and he’s a journalist reluctantly invited to extract her story for publication. Perhaps there was a time when ethics formed a part of the journalist’s equipment but, in the early fifties, we’d moved to a time when morality was more flexible and permitted behaviour that focused on generating profits without worrying so much about the means. Hence, the editorial powers see Charteris as their inside track to discover why the “young thing” should have attempted suicide. And even if she didn’t make the attempt, the story can always be written up to imply she’d been unlucky in love and had tried to end it all. Charteris was good at telling stories.

Bill James

Bill James

 

When he was younger, he’d given evidence in a murder trial. The accused had hung for killing a man in a public air-raid shelter during a bombing run. Journalists often come with emotional baggage. It gives them insights into the troubles of others. It helps build bridges so that trust can be established and confidences exchanged. The storytelling had been learned at his farther’s knee. His father had been a sailor in the 1930s and switched from pleasure craft to the inshore merchant marine when hostilities began. He was a great raconteur even if prone to repeat the same stories. The story of his heroic rescue of Emily Bass had entered the mythology of the family and the area. There was even a special memorial service to mourn the loss of the brave captain who (idiotically) also dived in to try saving the young woman. That was certainly something to remember. A working class hero and a gentleman who couldn’t survive in difficult waters let alone rescue the girl.

 

I knew men like the captains of the passenger vessels who were racing each other into the harbor. They ran their ships and businesses like unaccountable barons. If anything went wrong, which it often did, they walked away from blame by virtue of their class status. That made men like Charteris Snr. very bitter. They did all the work and carried the can when things did go wrong. That’s why the father was always upset his son had involved himself in the events surrounding the murder. It brought unwanted attention to the family. The fact the boy was only eleven and had yet to perfect his understanding of how the word worked was no excuse. It soured the relationship a little. Later, of course, the son meets the rescued girl again. She’s about forty and tells her side of the story. It explains aspects of his family’s behaviour he’d not fully understood.

 

Later, as a journalist, he hears many other stories. That’s the nature of his “profession”. How far he’s prepared to go to act on these stories is another matter. It all comes down to trust. People exchange stories for different reasons. Some are laudable, others less so. That’s why I mentioned the problem of ethics earlier in the review. Just what does a journalist do with the information he gleans from all those he talks with? This book provides a fascinating answer. It may reach the end in 1956 but, as a parable, the issues still resonate with us today as Wikileaks and the activities of whistleblowers like Edward Snowden provoke debate about the covert activities of governments. Journalism always has been a difficult and sometimes dangerous role to play. Noose shows us why some people are attracted to the life and the price they sometimes have to pay. It also fairly successfully passes the history fiction test. There’s enough here to enable modern readers to get a real feel for all the main characters and their motives. It’s a clever and engaging read.

 

For the reviews of other books by Bill James, see:
Disclosures
Snatched: A British black comedy.

 

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

 

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