Book review: Island Reich, by Jack Grimwood

Mixing fictional characters with real historical figures, Jack Grimwood’s Second World War thriller is a flawed but still highly entertaining read, writes Allan Massie

The former King Edward VIII, the Duke of Windsor, alongside his wife, the Duchess of Windsor

Jack Grimwood has been compared to Robert Harris, Joseph Kanon and even John le Carré. This is understandable. Island Reich is a historical thriller, set in wartime (1940), in the first weeks and months of the German occupation of the Channel Islands. There are real historical characters – the Duke and Duchess of Windsor and Nazi leaders, notably Goering and Ribbentrop – and secret agents, while the hero, Bill, a veteran of the Somme turned safebreaker, is plucked from Barlinnie Prison, given what would later in the war be SAS training, and dispatched to Alderney on a secret mission, for which purpose he has to impersonate a louche and nasty Fascist aristocrat.

In truth Bill’s role and his great impersonation recall much older spy fiction, the pre-1914 novels of E Phillips Oppenheim and William Le Quex. That is to say, Bill and his role in the novel are wildly improbable, but presented with enough dash and confidence to be acceptable. I don’t, I confess, see much resemblance to Harris, whose ventures into alternative history are better rooted, and almost none to le Carré, who was not really a novelist of action at all. There is something in the comparison with that fine American novelist Joseph Kanon or one might add, the Master of American spy fiction, Charles McCarry.

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Using real historical people as characters in a novel where they jostle purely fictional characters is often awkward, best done often by presenting them to the reader through the eyes of a fictional one. However, Grimwood shows no sign of having concerned himself with the problem. The dialogue attributed to the Duke and Duchess is rarely convincing, never catching the rhythms of their speech as reported by people who knew them. Probably this doesn’t matter any more than it matters that the author accepts the very dubious story that she had had an affair with the German foreign minister and sometime ambassador in London, Joachim von Ribbentrop. None of this is of much concern except, I suppose, to the few who care for such things, and in Grimwood’s defence one may say that more than 80 years on from Edward VIII and Wallis Simpson the Windsors have long ago become as much tabloid fodder as historical figures.

Island Reich, by Jack Grimwood

The novel is agreeably easy reading – something rarely true of le Carré. For the most part, Grimwood writes in short sentences and short chapters. There are indeed 189 chapters, few longer than three or four pages. Yet there are complications, twists and turns of plot in abundance. Grimwood writes a clear matter-of-fact prose which renders the improbable convincing, and this of course is the essential note to strike in this sort of novel. It would benefit from a few more quiet or reflective passages as in Buchan, however, and the sense of place is weaker than one might wish for.

Nevertheless, the plot is splendidly complicated, stretching the bounds of credulity but never quite breaking them. Like most good adventure novels set in recognizable history, Grimwood offers readers an enticing “what if?” Moreover, he is aware of the need to anchor his fiction, especially at its most improbable, in some sort of recognized reality. We are kept aware by interpolated documents, exchanges between Churchill and Roosevelt for example, some more or less authentic, others invented, of what was happening beyond the author’s imaginary story and purely fictional characters, in the real world of the war where cities were bombed and ships sunk. As for his hero Bill, with his remarkable back-story, he is every bit as credible or satisfying as James Bond, which is just as well since, in Portugal, well away from Bill on Alderney, a naval officer by the name of Fleming is engaged in dealing with the difficult Windsors in what is unquestionably a matter of life and death – a memo from the head of intelligence having been marked “For Your Eyes Only.”

In short, even if to my mind it falls some way short of the best of Harris and le Carré, this is a highly entertaining novel. Anyone stuck in an airport awaiting clearance, or condemned to quarantine, will be delighted to have it.

Island Reich, by Jack Grimwood, Michael Joseph, 529pp, £16.99

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