Shunted into a new (police procedural) series by Wilson’s editor at Orion, Jane Wood, now at Quercus, Stratton’s War marks a turning point in this writer’s career. Previously Wilson had concentrated on psychological thrillers; but here we get a series that will take Stratton from WWII through to the 70s, apparently.
I’ll be up front and admit I am not a Laura Wilson fan; well not before now. I tried two of her early works and failed to get into them. I was told on occasions "She’s getting even better, you must try her" by people whose opinions I rated highly, but the synopses of her novels never really appealed. Until now. She has me hooked with Stratton and Stratton is the the main key. So what is Stratton’s War all about?
In a nutshell: set during WWII, two worlds eventually collide in Stratton’s War; that of DI Ted Stratton investigating the murder of a former silent screen star, Mabel Morgan found impaled on railings, and that of MI5 agent Diana Calthrop, new recruit to MI5 but with contacts and reporting lines you might, really, die for. Stratton, a lovely regular plod with old fashioned ideas and great family life – albeit his two children are "safe" in the country, causing some consternation with his wife, prefers to go "off piste" with his investigations, denying the official line for Mabel’s death from the start, as well as what ensues. (Good on him!) It takes longer than the cover synopsis suggests for Calthrop and Stratton to collide, but Calthrop’s story is also one to hold dear and for which we feel the tension: she’s in a fortuitous-at-the-time, but bad marriage as it turns out, with a mother-in-law that makes the Blitz seem like the light option and in the Secret Service she wants to make her mark, but has no idea what happens about her. (Let alone her disastrous hubbie, whose testosterone output knows no bounds.)
Stratton’s War makes for a thoroughly enjoyable read, fully laid out in accurate period detail, with a hero you can aspire to and love (like Instant Whip in a bowl – was that around then?). However, it doesn’t quite have the remarkable presence or caché that John Lawton’s previous Troy series has for period and similar setting, when concentrating on the same era; albeit when Wilson does good, she does very good here. She chews and spits out details from the London homeland during WWII, with an accuracy to be envied, with an eye on community spirit that is very tight.
But, for all that negativity, I was convinced by Ted Stratton and want to read more, and I will. Indeed, I look forward to it. It’s only with the spy stuff involving Calthrop that I felt let down. She was too naïve, in my mind, to make a creditable recruit, too easily manipulated by her bosses and the wayward good-looking bloke in trousers with whom she was tempted. She was warned by her MI5 kindergarten compatriots, but did she get it? Did he make good in the end? Read only: you get no spoilers here.
I look forward to more from Wilson on DI Stratton. But please ditch the spying angle; I believe this is best served by those writers of the XY persuasion who have an innate ability to spread it around. Men, in my mind, do spying better. Robert Wilson and John Lawton have had me rushing to the end of their novels for the explained dénouement – a reflection on me? Perhaps. But where Stratton’s War held no surprises on the spying front, it did have me wanting more of Stratton, his family and more from his working life.
Great on characters, police, setting and period, but off the mark for me on the spying side. Extremely convincing on the one side; hitting a miss on the other.
But I do implore you to read this novel: it’s very good, not without its faults, but very, very good indeed. If Wilson can stick to what she knows best for the future, this series will go from strength to strength and make its mark for the series, its lead character and for her as a crime fiction writer, to be noted with the greats in the UK. Where Morse, Rebus and Frost have left a gaping hole, Stratton might be your fictional man to fix it.