It’s 1953, and an optimistic America is shaking off the hurt of World War II. Russia is defeated and Germany is now an ally. Former soldier Frank Rye is a small-town cop in rural Missouri, but the war has left him cynical and selfish. When his actions lead to the murder of a fellow officer, guilt drives him into a vengeful hunt for justice. His search for the killer will drag him deep into his own past, to the wartime summer of 1944, when he was stationed in neutral Switzerland, to a clandestine world of love and lies. To unmask the killer, he must uncover the truth about the war and about himself…
It’s been a long wait for a new book from Fergus McNeill, but all good things come to those who wait, some of us less patiently than others, and Ashes of America is a more than welcome return from this always excellent author…
From the outset this book ticked a huge amount of boxes for me, with a split narrative set in post war 1950s Missouri, and also 1940s war-time Switzerland. McNeill captures effortlessly, the zeitgeist of the post war era in America, and immerses us in a period where everyone was touched in such measure by the seismic events of this conflict. None more so than his main character Frank Rye, a cop in Missouri, whose back story surrounding his wartime service brings a real vigour and excitement to what could easily just be a linear tale of betrayal and murder. With the brutal killing of a fellow cop in a real wrong time, wrong place scenario, Rye quickly realises that someone is baying for his blood, and finding himself suspended, he sets out on a maverick mission to catch the killer. All well and good, but here’s the thing that McNeill does so well. By pivoting us back to Rye’s clandestine activities in Switzerland during his army service, McNeill has achieved the not so achievable feat of presenting us with two seemingly unrelated narratives that mirror the energy and suspense of each other.
As a fan of spy thrillers, and crime fiction, this provided a hugely enjoyable reading experience. The 1940s Switzerland based story is a perfect example of a well executed spy story, which thanks to McNeill’s excellent rendition of atmosphere and location, sees us following Rye through the twisted streets and dark corners of this beautiful Swiss setting, chasing shadowy figures, relying on his smarts, and trying to avoid physical harm. When I was reading this, I was instantly reminded of the black and white hues of Carol Reed’s The Third Man as Rye seeks to make sense of the strange situation he finds himself in, and the array of secretive characters he becomes inextricably entangled with in this wartime subterfuge. McNeill employs a real smoke and mirrors feel to this storyline, keeping us and Rye himself in a shroud of uncertainty as to why he is there, and who exactly can be trusted as everyone seems duplicitous to one degree or another. It is a beautifully crafted espionage tale, punctuated by newspaper excerpts, keeping us firmly rooted in this idyllic setting with its own claustrophobic intensity whilst reminding us of the war raging on elsewhere.
In 1950s Missouri, as Rye pursues a murderer and his female accomplice from his backwoods station to Kansas City, there is all the tension and suspense of a crime thriller, where in all the best tales, Rye turns maverick cop, but in true Jack Reacher fashion, reveals a few more sensitive facets to his character, that the opening of the book has firmly disabused us of. With a steely determination and a ready fist, Rye succeeds in antagonising most of those he encounters in his path, which leads to an exciting and tense counter-narrative, which then whips you back to the alpine subterfuge, and the slightly different pace, intensity but no less exciting storyline. When encountering a character like Rye, tough, dogged and cynical in outlook, I almost always take to them, and I quickly thought that there would be a real mileage to this character in further books, dependent on whether he reached the end of the book in one piece. Well, you’ll have to find that out for yourselves, and I would urge you to find this out for yourselves. Really enjoyed this one, and good to see the return of Fergus McNeill.
With thanks to the author for the ARC