Having been sent a copy of Laura Wilson’s third Stratton book by her new publisher, Quercus, I thought I had better read the second, An Empty Death. This was not too onerous a proposition as I’d very much enjoyed the first in the series, Stratton’s War, set in 1940 and combining a police investigation during London’s Blitz, a tale of family life in North London, and an espionage thriller. When in the library on Saturday, I saw a copy of An Empty Death on the shelf, so took the opportunity to borrow and read it.
The novel opens in 1944, four years after the end of the first, when Londoners are truly sick of the war, with the rationing, constant worry about bombs (and, latterly, V2 rockets) and, in the case of Stratton and his wife Jenny, missing their children who have been evacuated to the countryside. The book opens with a crime, possibly, when the body of a doctor who works at the Middlesex Hospital in central north London is found dead in a bomb crater. Stratton would like to assume that the man died during a raid (what passed then for "naturally"), but the pathologist, Dr Byrne, is suspicious and his post-mortem rapidly reveals that the man’s head injuries were from a brick wielded by a human hand. A murder enquiry is opened in which Stratton and his colleagues have to question nurses, doctors and other harried medical staff at the hospital, who at the same time are horrendously overworked with treating the casualties of wartime London as well as all the usual afflictions of patients. The author is particularly strong at conveying this atmosphere, depicting professionals working under extreme pressure, struggling to stay awake after nights in bomb shelters or worse, yet, in the style of the times, rarely mentioning how they feel or verging on “cracking up”, though it's hard to see how on Earth they all kept going under such circumstances.
Another strength of this novel is the depiction of the family life of Ted and Jenny Stratton in Tottenham, together with Jenny’s sisters Doris and Lilian and their husbands, and the immediate neighbourhood. The atmosphere of the times just seems to be perfectly encapsulated. Jenny is missing her children, Monica and Pete, and is somewhat insecure about the country estate where they are staying, which is far grander than anything she or her husband can offer their offspring. She’s a warm and sensible woman, however, and spends most of her days working in a local ‘rest house’, and her evenings cooking and looking after her husband. Near the start of the book, a bomb falls on a nearby street, and Stratton is involved in digging out the victims. One of them, Mrs Ingram, is alive but shaken. Her husband is away serving, so Doris invites her to stay in her spare bedroom until he can be located and come to collect her, setting in motion a dramatic series of events.
The reader knows more about the murder case than Stratton, just, because we know that one of the doctors at the hospital is an imposter. The story of how “Dr Dacre” came into being is cleverly told, with the lack of electronic record keeping, as well as the chaos of a country at war, contributing to his ability to evade capture for so long.
Laura Wilson is a very good storyteller indeed; there are innumerable little touches that I have no space to mention here if this review is to be readable, that add up to a rounded and satisfying whole. I enjoyed this novel as much, or perhaps even more than, Stratton’s War. The earlier novel focused on events that could only have taken place in the context of the war, whereas An Empty Death is a timeless mystery that is given added interest and excitement by taking place during such unusual times. I am not usually a fan of historical novels, nor of books set in World War Two, but the apparent authenticity of the many domestic, professional and general details in this novel, as well as its triple plot, soon had me absorbed. The characters seem so genuine: so often when one reads a contemporary novel set in the past, the characters seem to act knowingly about the future, or to have attitudes that anticipate the modern era. There is none of that here, the author simply presents her characters as of their times, which is very effective.
Naturally I am not going to provide any spoilers, but the novel is highly satisfactory as a crime story, apart from one unusually clunky section sowing the seed of a connection between Dr Dacre and Mrs Ingram. This is the only wobble I experienced in a really rewarding novel. There is a tragic event near the end which I think was inevitable in order for the series to have momentum in the future, and I’m glad the author did not flinch from it. I can’t wait to read the next in this excellent series - not least because on the basis of the first two titles, each book is going to be very different in theme from the others.
Read another review of An Empty Death at Reviewing the Evidence (reviewer Nick Hay).
Laura Wilson's website, including a piece by her about writing this series.
Stratton's War, An Empty Death, and A Capital Crime (set in 1950), described at the author's website. You can download chapter 1 of each novel at these links. Stratton's War won the CWA Ellis Peters award for historical crime fiction. My Euro Crime review of this novel is here.