Icelight is the third book in Aly Monroe’s Peter Cotton series. It is 1947 and Cotton has returned from Washington DC to a bleak post war Britain where seemingly everything is rationed. The country is about to face the coldest winter freeze up for decades while struggling to recover from the war. Interestingly despite Britain receiving the largest share of Marshall Aid there were still bomb sites all over the country when the next freezing winter occurred in 1963.
Cotton working in the Colonial Department of the Intelligence Services is co-opted by MI5 and MI6 to work on Operation Sea-snake. The Americans are applying pressure for Britain to tighten up security, and this has been an encouragement to what we would now call a homophobic campaign group, and what is referred to by Cotton’s boss Ayrtoun as ‘ a pansy-crushing department’. Cotton’s job will be to curb the excesses of those searching for traitors and quite prepared to ruin the lives of any homosexuals they find along the way. The law at the time made homosexuality a crime and this made people very vulnerable to blackmail.
When an atomic scientist commits suicide Cotton must interview all those associated with him including a collection of seedy characters ranging from rent boys, and adulterous wives, to MPs and lawyers. Along the way Cotton meets up with journalists, Soviet attaches with a liking for rare roast beef, Special Branch detectives, Glasgow razor gang boys, and German and Czech émigrés who hope for a better future.
Much of the action in this novel takes place in Croydon, Purley and New Addington areas that I know well from my teenage years and also later in the 1970s. The New Addington estate is brilliantly referred to in the book as ‘New Siberia’; in my day the main road Lodge Lane was known as Dodge City. Not only did the references bring back personal memories, but also the fact that in Sapper’s first book in the Bulldog Drummond series Carl Petersen takes over a house in Godalming as his HQ. Our horizons were much more limited back in those days.
Icelight is all about creating atmosphere, accurate detail and the build up of tension. The author educates the reader with little biographies about real life characters and also paints sharp portraits of fictional and semi-fictional characters. The manners, attitudes and opinions of people of that time are accurately reproduced giving the reader a glimpse into both a murky world of post war intrigue, and of a class conscious population exhausted by war struggling to cope with disastrous weather conditions.
While some of our attitudes have changed for the better other factors haven’t changed that much from 1947:
.…the British Government had embarked on a disastrous over-commitment;it was spending heavily to maintain the country as a world military power and had also insisted on an expensive policy of nationalizations and the establishment of a welfare state, all while ignoring the creation of wealth that made such policies practicable.
I sometimes get irritated by silly blurbs but those on Icelight mention Graham Greene and John Le Carre and in this case I think they are justified. The Peter Cotton series is getting better and better, and in Icelight the internecine squabbling of the security services is a prequel to the real life problems during the Cold War.
I am really looking forward to the next book in which Cotton returns to the USA for the formation of the UN.
‘Mayhew,’ said Cherkesov. ‘Christopher Mayhew. Pro-Arab.’ He frowned. ‘You do have a lot of T.E.Lawrence romantics in the Foreign Office.’
‘I know, said Cotton.