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Europe is in turmoil.
The Nazis have marched into the Rhineland.
In Russia, Stalin has unleashed his Great Terror.
Spain has erupted in civil war.
In Berlin, a young Englishwoman evades the Gestapo to deliver vital papers to a Jewish scientist. Within weeks, she is found dead in her Cambridge bedroom, a silver syringe clutched in her fingers. In a London club, three senior members of the British establishment light the touch paper on a conspiracy that will threaten the very heart of government. Even the ancient colleges of Cambridge are not immune to political division. Dons and students must choose a side: right or left, where do you stand?  When a renowned member of the county set and his wife are found horribly murdered, a maverick history professor finds himself dragged into a world of espionage which, until now, he has only read about in books. But the deeper Thomas Wilde delves, the more he wonders whether the murders are linked to the death of the girl with the silver syringe – and, just as worryingly, to the scandal surrounding King Edward VIII and his mistress Wallis Simpson…

Corpus sets the scene for a new series of novels from historical crime thriller writer Rory Clements, already established with his John Shakespeare series. To be honest if Mr Clements had chosen a different career path, I and others may well have passed their history exams in a much more convincing fashion. Clements packs this book full of political and social detail, not only of England in a time of unrest and uncertainty, but extending the locus of the book to the worrying events across Europe. It is immensely gratifying to read a book that not only entertains and thrills consistently throughout with its compelling storytelling, but that uses the backdrop of historical events in such a clear and assured fashion, so much is learnt along the way too. Although as something of a Red, I’ve always had a lively interest in Russia and the Spanish Civil War, my previous knowledge of events in England, in particular, during this period was a little sketchy to say the least. Hence Clements’ depiction of the political scheming behind the abdication, and the social period detail did prove of real interest to this reader, and what a cast of absolute rotters Clements was given leave to draw on in the process.

The author perfectly incorporates some of the most momentous events from this period to add a vivid and atmospheric feel to the central plot, whilst also touching on issues of class and gender and the constraints of these on some of his protagonists. Equally, there is a studied and dispassionate air to characters from either the upper classes, or those who walk tall in the corridors of power, and who so firmly influence the lives of the masses. Using the Cambridge based American Professor Tom Wilde as a main character, is a clever touch, as the more nonsensical aspects of English and European society and politics are filtered through him to the reader, so we too can stand back and wonder at the rise of the fascists in England and abroad, and just how dangerous the establishment can be. Also by using the hallowed confines of a Cambridge college, Clements has a nice opportunity to expose some of the dissenting voices to the English political system with their communist leanings, albeit from the safety of their academic rooms.

There is an utterly convincing cast of characters in this book, each with an absolutely integral part to play as the plot twists and turns, and dangerous conspiracies are revealed. The reader is truly filled with an intriguing and alternating sense of trust and distrust, but also a real sense of empathy as Clements really does mete out some cruel and unusual punishments along the way. I was particularly drawn to Lydia Morris, a friend of the murdered girl, with her shambolic lifestyle, poetic leanings, appalling dress sense, and her earnest belief in helping others less fortunate than herself, though sometimes this doesn’t pan out too well. Clements really puts her through the wringer, as more by accident than design, she is drawn into the amateur investigation by the dashing Professor Wilde of murder and political skulduggery. They prove themselves an interesting combination as plotting toffs, Russian spies, and debonair double agents seek to impede their progress, and Clements ramps up the sense of peril as their investigation continues. Another stand-out feature of Clement’s characterisation is how neatly he forms our impressions of individuals even if they only have a minor part to play and appear solely at random intervals, leaving behind a striking visual image of themselves, but firmly rooting them into their particular niche in quite an extensive cast of characters.

All in all, I was rather impressed with this one, not only as a tense tale of political conspiracy and derring-do, but also as a very well characterised and compelling historical thriller. Looking forward to the next in the series too. Highly recommended.

(With thanks to Bonnier Zaffre for the ARC)

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