Quick, slick and exciting, David Malcolm’s riveting thriller is a lesson in first person narrative. Modelled on a traditional hard boiled detective, Harry Draffen is sharp, witty and occasionally funny, offering a bleak but believable depiction of later end of World War One.
Peppered with brief asides which show an acute understanding of human nature and an eye for small drama, the narrative showcases a real flare for empathy.
Characterisation is executed primarily through dialogue, a technique which is underused but not unappreciated; it lends the novel a believability that is often difficult to come by in historical crime fiction.
Set in 1916, the novel centres around Draffen, a secret agent working for the British Government. Grumpy and tired of the war, his life is clandestine in every sense; both his job and his private life, including his relationship with a desperate widow, are swathed in secrecy.
Everyone throughout the novel is differentiated primarily through dialogue or description, all deployed to the reader through Draffen’s curt prose. The one thing the novel lacks is any hint of an unreliable narrator- Draffen is nothing if not trustworthy. His enigmatic persona is somewhat comprised by his unwavering consistency, but ultimately he is a rounded, relatable character who acts as a bridge between the reader and a world which is completely alien to them.
Setting is also depicted primarily through Draffen’s speech and unique descriptive powers, and the murkiness and deception is mirrored in the protagonist: he is an enigma to everyone he encounters, both kind and cruel in equal measure.
Overall this is an enjoyable book, and one which does not ram history down your throat. If you are looking to learn more about the war, this is not the book, but for hardboiled fans this is perfect, offering an innovative spin on the genre.