Nadel, Barbara - 'Ashes to Ashes'
ASHES TO ASHES is the third book in the series of wartime thrillers by Barbara Nadel featuring Francis Hancock, an East End undertaker still traumatised by his time in the trenches in the First World War. Barbara Nadel may be better known to Euro Crime readers for her award winning police series set in Istanbul featuring Cetin Ikmen.
The action in ASHES TO ASHES takes place during the night of 29th December 1940, when the City of London was subject to particularly heavy Blitz bombardment by the Germans. Incendiary bombs are raining down on Central London, with very limited supplies of water available to extinguish them, and saving St Paul's from immolation is a matter of national importance ordered by Churchill. After running through the streets of London, Francis finally fights down his claustrophobia to take shelter in the crypt of St Paul's Cathedral together with several other Londoners. The upper areas of the Cathedral are packed with a corps of professionally trained watchmen, primarily architects, trying to save the Cathedral from burning.
When Francis learns that a rather coarse mouthed young girl seems to have vanished, he eagerly takes the opportunity to search for her in the Cathedral as a welcome distraction from the bombardment and the traumatic flashbacks it brings of his time in the trenches in World War 1. He becomes more concerned when the watchman, Mr Phillips, who is meant to have brought the girl in, proves to be surprisingly elusive. When one of the many voluntary firemen guarding St Paul's is found dead in mysterious circumstances, Francis realises that there may be evil forces acting inside as well as outside the Cathedral, and his hunt for the missing girl becomes more urgent. Francis is initially sceptical when a church minister confides that a conspiracy of masons will stop at nothing, including human sacrifice, to protect the Cathedral, but when this minister is killed Francis starts to wonder if the incredible allegations may have some substance to them.
Francis Hancock is an engaging and sympathetic hero, very aware of the limitations placed on him by his mental health, working class status, and part Indian background. Barbara Nadel does a fabulous job of capturing the language and speech rhythms of her hero, and the social differences between him and the ordinary London families in the crypt and the architects and other professionals charged with firewatching at St Paul's. Whilst the setting of the novel in one location and over the course of one night benefits the thriller aspect of the novel, I felt that this book was lacking in some of the warmth of the first two books in the series, as Francis's family, friends and wider East End community are largely absent. The mostly interchangeable cast of supercilious professional gentlemen aren't an entirely satisfying substitute. Despite these minor quibbles, I found this a highly enjoyable book, and Francis Hancock to be one of the most personable and fully-realised amateur sleuths that I have read about.
Laura Root, England