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From the author of Messiah, Storm and Vodka comes a thrilling mystery set during the Great Fog of post-World War Two London, a time of secrets and intrigue.
At first, it seems the Great Fog has claimed another victim. A drunk, perhaps, wandering unsighted through Hyde Park and stumbling into the icy shallows of Long Water. But Max Stensness was stone cold sober when he died. And in the hours before his death, the young biochemist had claimed to be in possession of a secret that would change the world. Having traded MI5 for New Scotland Yard, Detective Inspector Herbert Smith thinks he has left the murky world of espionage behind him – until he begins retracing the final footsteps of Max Stensness. Suddenly he’s being tailed, and thinly veiled threats are issued–danger lurks at every turn in the investigation. The CIA, KGB and MI5 are all vying to get their hands on the dead man’s secret, and as the body count climbs, it’s clear there’s someone who will stop at nothing to claim it.
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Boris Starling has worked as a reporter on the Sun and the Daily Telegraph. His first book, Messiah, has been made into a mini-series on the BBC, for which Starling is the series creator. Starling studied at Cambridge and currently lives in London with his partner and their new daughter.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
The fog was coming, without and within.
On the far side of the river, the first smoky tresses were stroking the rooftops with fingers as slim and elegant as a concert pianist’s. If a man had watched for a while, he would have seen the mist crawling slowly across the cityscape, its purposeful stealth that of a prowling cat.
And if a man had watched for a while, he might have felt the first hazings in his head, a gauze which would make the world opaque and through which he would have to reach for his very thoughts.
The fog had come before, but rarely with such purpose. Londoners were nothing if not survivors, however, and they knew when trouble was ahead. Certainly they needed no warning from the weathermen to brace themselves for a bad one.
New Scotland Yard was a riverside riot of turrets, crenellations, and people; a Gothic extravagance that swallowed thousands of worker bees every morning and spat them out again come dusk. Overcrowding was a permanent endemic; the place had grown like Topsy, with new buildings added every few decades to ease the strain, but the problem remained resolutely unallayed. Bounded by the Thames in front and Whitehall to the rear, New Scotland Yard’s room for expansion was running out fast.
Shifts in the Metropolitan Police’s Murder Squad came in threes: the morning, 6 a.m. until 2 p.m.; the afternoon, 2 p.m. until 10 p.m.; and the night, 10 p.m. until 6 a.m. On the days when Herbert Smith, once of the British Army, latterly of MI5, and now a member of said Murder Squad, was scheduled for the afternoon slot, he liked to lunch beforehand with no company save for that afforded by a pie, a pint, the Evening Standard, and the Times crossword. He frequented a pub off Smith Square, which at ten minutes’ walking distance from the Yard was at least twice as far as any of his colleagues were liable to venture, even those adventurous enough to seek grounds more exotic than those of the staff canteen.
This day, he read Milton Shulman’s film reviews in the early edition of the Evening Standard, making a mental note to go and see The Narrow Margin at the London Pavilion (“an exciting journey” wrote Shulman), and to miss The Road to Bali, on at the Plaza and succinctly dismissed as “a cul-de-sac.” Herbert usually found Shulman’s opinions pretty accurate, though as he only ever went to the cinema on his own, he had never discovered whether this was a majority opinion or not.
The Standard duly read, he polished off three-quarters of the Times crossword–particularly proud of decoding Writing implement dripped red ink? (7) as “N-I-B-B-L-E-D”–and found without surprise that forcing himself into the office was a genuine physical strain.
It was not that he wanted to stay in the pub–he was not a big drinker–but simply that anywhere was surely better than another afternoon in the office.
There, in a nutshell, was the contradiction at the heart of working the murder beat. Days in the Yard, cramped, airless, and noisy, were dreadful; but to get out of there, someone had to have been killed, and Herbert had seen enough violent death in his time not to wish for more of it.
And, if he was to be honest, cramped, airless, and noisy weren’t the half of it. No one else on the Murder Squad seemed to mind the conditions, but then no one else on the Murder Squad felt as though their presence was at best tolerated and at worst resented.
Herbert was not one of them. He hadn’t done his time in the ranks, and he was still learning how to do things the Scotland Yard way. As far as his colleagues were concerned, therefore, his time at Five might as well have been a sojourn in the inner circles of Hell. Suspicion between arms of the law was always bad; when an espionage service was involved, it was exacerbated tenfold.
Of the five men round the table when Herbert walked into the office, only Tyce and Veal acknowledged him, and only Veal did so with anything that approximated a greeting in recognized English. Tyce gave a curt nod. The others, Connolly, Tulloch, and Bradley, glanced at him as though he were something the cat had brought in, and turned their attention back to the matter at hand; that matter being the case of Christopher Craig, an unlovely, manipulative psychopath, and Derek Bentley, an illiterate, impressionable epileptic, who had broken into a warehouse in Croydon the previous month.
The police had arrived. Craig had drawn a gun. Bentley had shouted: “Let him have it, Chris.”
A plea to surrender the weapon, or an exhortation to murder?
Craig, clearly taking it as the latter–assuming that he had listened to Bentley at all, which given their relationship seemed unlikely–had shot two policemen. Detective Constable Frederick Fairfax was hit in the shoulder, painful but not too serious. Police Constable Sidney Miles was killed.
Killing a policeman was so far beyond the pale as to be invisible. Bentley and Craig were due to stand trial at the Old Bailey the coming Tuesday, the ninth, and there was not one man in Scotland Yard who felt anything other than that they should both be convicted of murder.
No, that was not quite true. There was one man who felt otherwise, one man only–and that man was Herbert.
The problem, as far as Herbert was concerned, was this. The death penalty applied only to those over eighteen. Craig, who deserved to hang as much as anyone Herbert had ever encountered, was only sixteen. Even if he was found guilty, he would not be executed.
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