Last weekend I went to the local flea market.
I didn’t find much. Indeed, I didn’t find a thing, except for a washed out English-language paperback which cost 2/6 when it was published back in 1956 by Penguin Books. Entitled “Death To The French,” it had originally been published in 1933 by the author, C.S. Forester, for The Bodley Head.
I remember reading Forester’s Hornblower novels when I was a boy in the 1950s, and reading them over and over again, but “Death To The French,” (or “Rifleman Dodd” as it was titled in America) was a novel that I had never come across at the time.
Some years ago, I enjoyed reading Mark Urban’s “Rifles – Six Years with Wellington’s Legendary Sharpshooters” (Faber, 2003), a vivid history of the 95th Regiment of Foot (Rifles), and I remember thinking that there was plenty of material for historical fiction there. In his introduction, Mark Urban mentions Forester in a one-line throwaway, saying that “Forester often used riflemen in his books,” but he made no mention of “Death To The French” or any other novel by C. S. Forester.
It’s a classic story of one man’s fight against the might of the French during the Peninsular Wars in Portugal as sharpshooter Matthew Dodd gets cut off from his regiment – the 95th – and attempts to make his way back to safety through the French defences.
While the story has its ups and downs – Forester needed to introduce secondary figures in the form of a French sergeant and his men who try to capture the English rifleman, and Portuguese peasants who fight a guerrilla war against the French longside Dodd – the solitary figure of Matthew Dodd, who speaks no Portuguese and communicates by signs and a mere few shared words with his new comrades, is especially interesting.
He might have come straight out of Mark Urban’s “Rifles.”
Urban’s introduction mentions the difficulty of researching the history of the 95th Rifles, particularly regarding the riflemen themselves. While officers left memoirs, and regimental records provide information regarding troop movements and engagements with the enemy, most of the men, like Dodd, were ordinary fellows with little education. Equally, like Rifleman Dodd, they appear to have had a strong sense of duty and of belonging to an honourable regiment. Indeed, it seems that the US Navy made the book obligatory reading for new recruits to give them an overview of what it means to be a fighting man and belong to a company of warriors!
Forester’s descriptions of the Peninsula War and his use of history and real events as the basis for his novel are an object lesson in writing historical fiction, faithfully respecting the first rule of the genre. Matthew Dodd does only what was possible (and probable) within that precise historical context.
If there is only dead horse or putrid mule to eat, then that is what he eats!
Clearly, Forester had done his homework.
Given the invariable attention paid to the usual ‘bestsellers,’ there is a real danger of missing something special when it comes along. Ralph Spurrier’s debut novel, A Coin For the Hangman, won’t be pushed in your face by Amazon. Not yet, perhaps. But that may soon change.
This is a book that deserves to be noticed.
I came across it by picking up on an editor’s Twitter invitation to read it before it was published. I was intrigued by the title, immediately drawn into the dark and secretive professional world of Reg Manley, described by the author as ‘the last British executioner.’ As Spurrier notes in an Afterword, Reg Manley, the hangman at the centre of the tale, is a fictional character, though he owes a great deal to the real-life British executioner, Albert Pierrepoint, and his published “Autobiography” (2005), especially in the chilling descriptions of how the hangman went about his peculiar trade. More intriguing, perhaps, are the psychological insights into the sort of man who carried out such an unusual job, and his relationships with his wife, his assistant, and the prison authorities who had delegated the ghastly task to him. This where Ralph Spurrier excels, and nowhere better than in his portrayal of the ties that bind the hangman and the man he hangs.
The murder around which the story unfolds has its peculiarity – which I will not mention in any detail for fear of spoiling the reader’s pleasure in a novel which is both well-constructed and well-written – though it is certainly not gruesome. Indeed, the ambiguous nature of the crime calls into question the central problem relating to capital punishment, i.e., the possibility that the hanged man may be innocent of the crime for which he has been condemned to death. Indeed, the story of the hanged man, Henry Eastman, is told with intricate care and leads to the core of the mystery which unfolds in the closing chapters of the book.
Set in an historical context, the detailed description of post-war Britain, the prevailing social conditions, and the difficulties faced by servicemen returning to civilian life after having witnessed some of the most appalling crimes in human history, are treated with great skill.
I read all two hundred and fifty-two pages of the story in a couple of sittings, and was spellbound.
If I have any reservation at all, it regards the four-page Afterword, as it adds nothing to the story, and contains the sort of information relating to what inspired the author which might have been used to greater effect in post-publication interviews.
A stunning read!
And first review...
‘Think Wolf is fast-moving thriller showing off a wild and beautiful part of Italy which remains (so far) relatively undiscovered by the hordes of tourists who invaded Tuscany to the north or flock to Rome further south. Ominously, even one of the gangsters in the book, admiring the spectacular view from his Spoleto hotel, thinks that in terms of tourism: ‘Umbria was a goldmine waiting to be discovered’.
Mike Ripley – Getting Away With Murder
We’re celebrating the publishing of THINK WOLF tomorrow with truffles!
What are truffles?
Truffles belong to the tuber family. Potatoes are also tubers, and they are easily cultivated, while truffles are found only in the wild. That’s why truffles are so expensive. It takes an expert to unearth them. They are used to add an enticing aroma to fine food. In Umbria, they are usually served with hand-rolled spaghetti called strangozzi, but they can be used to flavour risotto, or to add piquancy to grilled trout or meat.
Where are truffles found?
Truffles are found in close vicinity to certain types of trees which facilitate germination. These include all varieties of oak trees, including the holm-oak, which thrives in Umbria, especially in the mountains around Spoleto and in Valnerina, which is the valley of the River Nera, where our latest novel, Think Wolf (Severn House) takes place.
Is there only one type of truffle?
There are many varieties, which are found at different times of the year. Price depends on quality, availability and aroma. The white truffle is the most highly prized, though it has hint of garlic which is not to my taste. I prefer black truffles from Norcia and Spoleto (Tuber Melanosporun Vitt), or the cheaper so-called ‘summer truffle,’ the humble scorzone.
How are they found?
Truffles have an aroma which attracts animals. Wild animals, such as foxes, boars and badgers will devour any truffles that they find. The animals play an important role in spreading the truffle spores around the forest. Domestic animals – mainly dogs – are used by cavatori (as truffle-hunters are known in Umbria) to find truffles and bring them to market. The animal paws the ground when it smells the truffle, and the hunter digs it out of the soil. (The Italian verb cavare means ‘to extract’).
Are truffles ever cultivated?
Attempts have been made for centuries. More recently, efforts to plant and cultivate truffles have met with limited success. The major problems regard the suitability of the soil, the length of time for the tuber to mature, and the cost of the investment before results are evident. It takes at least five years from planting to the first spontaneous regeneration of the spores, and there is no guarantee of success.
The name of the game?
The name of the game is proliferation and smuggling.
From being a locally based cottage industry, the demand for truffles, particularly in the USA and the Middle East, has multiplied demand and increased the price a hundred- or a thousand-fold, depending on the type and the quality of the truffle. The most highly prized truffles are from Italy and France. The problem is that truffles with virtually no aroma can be found in many countries throughout the world, notably areas of China with a landscape, soil and climate which is similar to Italy’s. Chinese truffles are incredibly cheap, and attempts to smuggle them into Europe and pass them off as Italian truffles are increasingly frequent.
Cooking with genuine truffles?
Here’s a recipe for two people – my favourite as it happens – and very simple.
10. Serve hot with a cold white wine such as Trebbiano or Sauvignon.
11. Don’t worry if you cook too much spaghetti. You can heat it up the next day in a frying-pan with a few more drops of extra-virgin olive oil, and it is even tastier!
12. The great secret about olive oil is to avoid overheating it. The higher the temperature, the greater the loss of the qualities for which Italian extra-virgin olive oil is renowned.
Why are we celebrating THINK WOLF with truffles?
Read the book, and find out!
Our second Seb Cangio novel is due for release on March 30th, and we are excited!
After grappling with the murderous Calabrian mafia, the ’ndgrangheta, in Cry Wolf, the first tale in the series, the new novel, Think Wolf, takes national park ranger, Sebastiano Cangio, into the woods and the mountains of Umbria in pursuit of a scam which threatens the integrity of the area’s most prized and precious product...
Can you guess what it is?
Criminals don’t care about the damage they cause.
The ’ndrangheta will sacrifice lives without a second thought in pursuit of profit and power.
It isn’t always easy to see the signs...
But Seb Cangio is from Calabria.
When greed and cruelty join hands anything can happen.
He has seen it happen before, and he doesn’t want it to happen again.
And Cangio will not be defeated.