During the 1936 Olympic Games in Berlin, a young Englishwoman delivers vital forged documents to a Jewish scientist. This is her first ‘assignment’, she is out of her depth and justifiably scared – and in a very short time she lies dead of an apparent heroin overdose in a Cambridge bedroom.
So begins Rory Clements’ new spy thriller, establishing that what is about to follow in this very British university town is directly linked to the tragic turmoil engulfing Europe. The rest of the action, with brief visits to the Suffolk coast and Windsor takes place in Cambridge and its environs. It is an ideal setting for the conspiracies and crimes that come to light during the course of the story, for if anywhere exemplified the polarisation of politics in Britain during the 1930s, it was here. Lingering beneath the narrative and characters’ partisan choices are the effects of the Great War, the Depression and its effect on the working population, plus the idealism that led many into communism and fascism as a means of achieving a better tomorrow, and sent young men to Spain to fight in a foreign Civil War. And amidst all this, splitting friendships and families, is the Abdication Crisis – when a British king wanted to marry a divorced American commoner, putting the role of the monarchy into jeopardy.
While it is not yet front page news, Britain at the end of November, 1936, is taken up with the rights and wrongs of the potential abdication of King Edward, who is said to be a personal friend of Adolf Hitler. Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin is in the process of edging out the king in order to place the more malleable Duke of York on the throne. This is the crux of the story, and the communists and fascists we have met so far are awaiting the event. Both sides are affected by the crisis, but one side is poised for action.
Taking the reader from the opening scene in Germany, where Nancy Hereward, a left-wing idealist and daughter of a Nazi sympathiser, is trying to help the Jewish scientist escape, through her subsequent death, Clements establishes his novel as a murder mystery on a grand scale, for then, the parents of Nancy’s friend Margot, who are also friends of fascist Germany, are brutally murdered. The murderer, who walks naked through an Englishman’s blood, is apparently a psychopathic communist sympathiser, although the reader can also see this might not be the case. The story moves on, through assassinations, attempted rape, blackmail, the transportation of stolen bullion and devious political conspiracies . . . events seen mainly through the eyes of Tom Wilde, a very likeable American history professor who is an expert on Walsingham’s Elizabethan spy networks, and Lydia Morris, a bohemian, waifish poet with a tiny publishing company. They are aided – although this is never certain because one feels even he is not to be trusted – by the suave Philip Eaton, an MI6 operative posing as a journalist. As in Le Carré novels, each character has a back-story that affects the action to a greater or lesser degree.
Corpus is a compelling novel, the writing is subtle, appalling events are handled skilfully, and whether you are susceptible to conspiracy theories or not, the research makes the plot utterly convincing. Clements kept this reader guessing right up to the last page – and beyond. I found myself musing over motives and hidden agendas, and trying to decide whether I should have liked or feared the enigmatic yet potentially dangerous Philip Eaton, for his role was (deliberately) never quite clear. This is a clever historical crime story and a very plausible thriller.