Writing Portfolio


Three recently-read modern thrillers

Here are a few of the books I’ve been reading recently. Funnily enough, although these are all modern works set in the modern world, John Buchan crops up in my thoughts on all three of them, sometimes incidentally as I do like to use his definition of a thriller – ‘shocker’ would’ve been the term he used – being a story that marches “just within the bounds of the possible”, although in one case I reckon there’s a nod to the man himself. The fact that I am currently reading The Gap in the Curtain is of course coincidental.

The Righteous Men by Sam Bourne (2006)
Will Monroe is a half-English, half-American journalist, raised mostly by his mother in England after his parents split up. After studying at Oxford, he goes to the land of his father (a judge) to be a post-grad at Columbia and then work for the New York Times. A reporting assignment on a seemingly routine murder in a dodgy part of Manhattan takes on a new angle when someone has something good to say about the victim, a pimp who on one occasion pawned most of his possessions in order to give money to a woman who would otherwise have become a prostitute. For his next assignment, Will’s off to the Pacific Northwest to report on some flooding although he ends up reporting on another murder – this time a survivalist nutter in Montana who, it turns out, had previously donated one of his kidneys anonymously. Although they were rather unsavoury characters, both victims had performed selfless acts of generosity that led them to be described as ‘righteous’. Then Will’s wife gets abducted. This leads him into the world of the insular Hasidic Jewish community in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, where he’s introduced to an old Jewish legend about the well-being of the world being held up by thirty-six ‘righteous’ men who can exist anywhere in the world, and who often try to shield their inherent good nature; when one dies, a new one is born and so there are always thirty-six men making sure that the rest of us are OK. Trouble is, someone’s figured out who they are and is trying to murder them all between the Jewish holy days of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur in order to bring about the end of the world. This is the premise at the heart of The Righteous Men, a sub-Da Vinci Code thriller by Jonathan Freedland, a Guardian journalist writing under the somewhat Dan Brown-esque pseudonym of Sam Bourne. Will is aided by two friends, a computer geek and an ex-girlfriend called TC who he initially goes to because he needs to understand more about Judaism and she’s the only Jewish person he knows, but it just so happens that she was raised in Crown Heights before leaving that life behind to become a highly intelligent if slightly kooky artist (here I started to feel that the old Buchan rule about ‘shockers’ marching just within the bounds of the possible was being not so much stretched to the limit as broken). Amid a rising body-count, Will and TC try to figure out what’s going on via a series of cryptic text-messages sent by a person unknown (they think it’s someone Will met from within the Hasidic community, but after he gets killed the messages keep coming so it must be someone else). When the twists eventually come, they’re rather predicable but by this point I was over half-way through so I felt I had to carry on to the end – this is the sort of novel in which you just know that the people who Will initially thinks are behind the murders can’t possibly be the actual people responsible, and the climactic reveal of the Leigh Teabing figure who’s the evil genius behind it all doesn’t really come as much of a surprise, to be honest. Perhaps ‘generic’ is the word I’m looking for here, and at well over 500 pages it’s a tad over-long too. Would I be interested in anything else that this author has to offer? Probably not.

Shattered Icon by Bill Napier (2003)
Harry Blake is an antiquarian book-seller in Lincoln whose usual dull routine is interrupted by Sir Toby Tebbit, a minor aristocrat with whom he’s had dealings in the past, coming to him with an old manuscript that he’s inherited from a distant relative in Jamaica of whose existence he’d been unaware. As to the content of the manuscript, it’s been written in some sort of code. Unfortunately, some bad people are after said manuscript and will stop at nothing to get hold of it – before long, Sir Toby is dead (not by natural causes) and Harry becomes a fugitive as he tries to decode the manuscript with the help of Zola, an old friend of his (and an expert in maritime history, no less). As it gradually gets decoded, the manuscript becomes the story-within-the-story, relating to the adventures of a low-born but well-educated Scotsman called James Ogilvie who went to London and ended up as a sailor on the ill-fated Roanaoke expedition – a real-life unsuccessful early attempt to establish an English colony in what’s now North Carolina during the reign of Elizabeth I. It turns out, though, that there was an ulterior motive behind establishing said colony – all to do with a new calendar devised by the mathematician/astrologer/alchemist John Dee (an alternative to the Gregorian one; Dee, an advisor to Elizabeth I, really did come up with a Protestant alternative calendar although it was never implemented) which somehow required someone to be at the 77 degrees west line of longitude even though no-one knew how to figure out longitude back then. Into this mix is added a secret plot by England’s Catholics to wreck the whole thing, this act coinciding (they hope) with a successful outcome of the plot to put Mary Queen of Scots on the English throne. An ancient religious icon (a piece of wood that everyone believes to be a fragment of the cross on which Jesus was crucified) is at the heart of the mystery. Back in the present day, Harry and Zola are joined by Sir Toby’s daughter Debbie on a trip to Jamaica which becomes a race to find the icon before the afore-mentioned bad people – a group of decidedly nutty but seriously violent religious fanatics who are plotting an all-out religious war – can get their hands on it. At times, the plot twists are a tad eccentric, but they stretch rather than break the Buchan rule in the way that thrillers do these days thanks to Dan Brown even if this book, while being quite fun to read, wasn’t quite up to that standard. I did wonder if Napier had originally intended this to be an Elizabethan adventure, only for him to turn this into a story within a modern-day framework narrative, what with the prospect of religious war being a topical theme in the post-9/11 world and a modern plot concerning an ancient religious legend or (in this case) item being topical too in the early-to-mid-2000s thanks to The Da Vinci Code (which was published in the same year as Shattered Icon which, by the way, was published as Splintered Icon in the USA which makes more sense given what said icon is). But hey, it had me glued to the point where I was reading it into the wee small hours which is always a good sign where novels are concerned (assuming, of course, that I was genuinely interested and not just unable to sleep, not that I was really in a position to make a judgement call on that as it was too late, or rather too early, at the time). I was, though, amused to discover a discrete reference to Buchan himself amid the excitement – James, our Scottish Elizabethan sailor, hails from a Lowland village called Tweedsmuir, which was the title Buchan took when he was elevated to the peerage.

The Fifth Gospel by Ian Caldwell (2016)
I’d not previously heard of Ian Caldwell, and to be honest I only really picked up this book because it wasn’t long after I’d finished Conclave by Robert Harris (which I enjoyed right up to the last plot-twist, which I felt took things a step too far than they perhaps should have gone, violating the Buchan rule but not as much as Sam Bourne did) and quite fancied another Vatican-based thriller. This one doesn’t involve a papal conclave but I was intrigued by the information provided by the blurb on the back which stated that the protagonist is a Greek Catholic (Eastern liturgy but part of the worldwide Catholic church) priest who lives in the Vatican; that genuinely intrigued me. So – The Fifth Gospel. It is 2004. A mysterious exhibit is being planned in the Vatican Museum, but with a week to go before it opens the exhibit’s curator gets murdered at Castel Gandolfo, the Pope’s summer residence outside Rome. At the same time, the Vatican apartment of the victim’s one-time research partner is broken into. Said one-time research partner is our protagonist (and also narrator), Father Alex Angelou, who takes it upon himself to investigate who’s behind the murder and the break-in; also, his brother, who was largely responsible for his upbringing, has vanished and he reckons (correctly) that this is not coincidental. The brother, Simon, is also a priest – albeit a Roman Catholic, not a Greek Catholic, one (their family is of a mixed religious heritage; their father was a Greek Catholic priest, while on their mother’s side Uncle Lucio is a Roman Catholic cardinal). Thus are two brothers shown as a microcosm of the split in Christendom between Western Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy that forms the backdrop of this novel which also takes in the titular fifth gospel – a work known as the Diatessaron which combines elements of the four gospels and which the curator had been studying in some depth – and its links to a certain controversial holy relic. Father Alex’s quest for the truth takes him to all corners of the Vatican, including one memorable scene in the underground car park where he has to hide in the Popemobile! Admittedly that part sounds a bit ludicrous, but believe me Caldwell pulls off the trick of making it sound just about plausible or, if you prefer, within the bounds of the possible. This is compelling stuff, with Caldwell not just providing us with a highly believable murder mystery which is also religious thriller which has an interesting protagonist (Father Alex), in addition to which there’s a vivid picture of the insular world of the Vatican at the time when John Paul II’s papacy was drawing to a close (the ailing Pope himself is an unseen character until very late on, which works well). Even the persistent use of the present tense, which I sometimes find annoying, seems to work well here, and it definitely passed the reading-into-the-small-hours test. Out of the three books I’m looking at here, this is the one I would recommend the most, by some considerable distance.


King Arthur on the telly

King Arthur, it seems, can still grab people’s attention. The mythical Once and Future King of the Britons has cropped up twice on the telly recently – first with someone coming up with a theory (or rather, another theory) about where Camelot may have been located, and then in the title of a documentary that, as it turned out, wasn’t really about him.

The latest Camelot theory came from the TV presenter Nick Knowles who, while plugging a special edition of his show DIY SOS on The One Show last month, decided to go a bit off-message and state that he, or rather he and a professor from Bristol University, has (have?) a new theory about the location of Arthur’s court. Cirencester, apparently, is where the Arthur and his knights met around a round table that was in fact the old Roman amphitheatre there. In Roman times, the Gloucestershire market town was Corinium, a fort built at the point where the Fosse Way crosses the River Churn which became one of the biggest cities in Roman Britain. 

Archaeological evidence has shown that in the period after the Romans left the amphitheatre was fortified but it takes quite a leap of the imagination to go from there to claiming that this little corner of the Cotswolds was once Camelot – a place that’s also been claimed to have been identified as having been in Cornwall, Hampshire, Somerset or even Yorkshire, and that’s before you take into account the various possible Welsh locations that have been suggested over the years.

I’m not convinced by this new claim. If you’re going to go around stating that the round table part of the King Arthur legend is based on the notion that a Dark Ages warrior leader might have met with his followers in an amphitheatre (which makes sense), then the one at the old Roman legionary fortress at Caerleon over in south-eastern Wales is a much better bet.

Next up was a BBC2 documentary called King Arthur’s Britain: The Truth Unearthed which was broadcast a couple of weeks ago. Fronted by Alice Roberts – a presenter with much more credibility than Mr Knowles, she being an academic (the Professor of Public Engagement in Science at Birmingham University, no less) with shows like Time Team and Coast on her CV – this focussed on a place that has long been associated with Arthur; in fact, according to the legends it’s where his life began. Tintagel, on Cornwall’s north coast.

What followed wasn’t really about Arthur – somewhat unsurprisingly, the story (as told by the medieval chronicler/historian Geoffrey of Monmouth, whose rather fanciful writings provide us with the basis of the King Arthur legends as we know them today) of his having been conceived on a stormy night at Tintagel during which his dad made use of Merlin’s magic to trick his mum into thinking that he was actually her husband was quickly dismissed as legend rather than fact (but then, one of the key things to remember is that much of the Arthur story is more legend than fact; in fact, when touching on anything relating to King Arthur it is worth remembering that line from The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance – “when the legend becomes fact, print the legend”). There were also some rather cheap-looking animated graphics but I think those can safely be disregarded as unimportant.

There were two main strands – an archaeological dig at Tintagel itself (long known to have been a high-status settlement in the Dark Ages, the focus being on the rocky peninsular known as Tintagel Island, upon which the medieval castle was later built; historically, this was always regarded as being distinct from the village on the mainland which was called Trevena until the mid-nineteenth century) and a wider look at archaeological studies across the country in order to find evidence for the Anglo-Saxon invasion during the post-Roman period which provided the backdrop for the legends of Arthur which originate in the Celtic/British resistance to this new influx. Although he wasn’t mentioned in the earliest records of the time (not that there are many of those), it is Arthur who over time emerged in the stories about an heroic leader who led the fight against the invaders. 

Professor Roberts concluded that the available archaeological evidence doesn’t really support the idea of a large-scale invasion, contrary to what the chroniclers (not just Geoffrey of Monmouth but also the monk Gildas, who was writing in the sixth century) tell us; a very detailed study in Yorkshire has revealed evidence for settlement rather than conquest, while a scan of an Anglo-Saxon cross found in a grave in Cambridgeshire and DNA analysis of human remains points more to co-existence and assimilation than conflict. That said, there does seem to have been a clear cultural divide between eastern Britain (which was being settled by the Anglo-Saxons and so was linked primarily with Northern Europe) and the west. The dig at Tintagel unearthed a lot of high-end pottery which hinted at trading links with the Mediterranean world having been maintained after the Romans had left (the most obvious commodity that the Cornish of the Dark Ages had to trade with was quickly and correctly identified as tin). Then there was an inscribed piece of stone which seemed to indicate that the people who lived there were probably Christians. By placing King Arthur’s conception at Tintagel, maybe Geoffrey of Monmouth was alluding to the importance of that place in the Dark Ages?

All very interesting, fascinating in part. Yet I couldn’t help but think I’ve heard a lot of this before. It took me a couple of minutes to figure out where – a TV academic of an older vintage called Michael Wood, who covered King Arthur in In Search of the Dark Ages and in a couple of chapters of a later book called In Search of England. In the former, a TV series which aired between 1978 and 1980 and can now be found on YouTube, he too sought the facts behind the Arthurian legends by looking at how archaeologists were trying to piece together what happened in Britain after the Romans left (during the course of which he visited the amphitheatre at Cirencester) and found evidence hinting at continuity rather than conquest in Dark Ages Britain before going off to look at hill-forts in rural Southern England and concluding by casting doubt on whether King Arthur really existed. In the latter, he referred to a stone with an inscription on it being unearthed at a 1998 archaeological dig at Tintagel, which at the time generated quite a bit of excitement due to the name on it, Artognou, being not a million miles from ‘Arthur’ although it’s a bit of a stretch of the imagination to link the stone with the Once and Future King! 


Babs versus the Blue Bird

Not far from the beach at Pendine in Carmarthenshire is a small museum called the Pendine Museum of Speed, a modest and infrequently open establishment which pays tribute to Pendine’s history as a venue for land speed records attempts. The main feature, albeit one that is often absent from the museum’s otherwise very modest collection, is one of the cars that featured in a couple of those attempts, a white-painted monster of a vehicle that dates back to the 1920s when the boundaries of speed were being pushed by specially-built racing-cars that were fitted with aeroplane engines. The car is called Babs, and back in 1926 she became the fastest car in the world, and she did that on Pendine Sands.

By the 1920s, the land speed record had got to the point where it was no longer feasible to use roads or race-tracks due to the straight-line distances that were required, for as well as the one-kilometre length along which the cars were timed the cars also needed space to accelerate and brake before and after said flying kilometre (it was a kilometre rather than a mile because the record’s first regulators were French). Long and straight stretches of sand beach were being sought out, and the one at Pendine is six miles if you don’t count the bit at the eastern end that curves round towards Laugharne; with the tide out and in fair weather, it was and for that matter still is an ideal venue to drive a car in a straight line as fast as it can go. Twice within the hour, for from the beginning the land speed record had to be an average of two runs, one in either direction in order to negate any benefits that gradient or the wind might give.

The first land speed record attempt at Pendine Sands was made by Malcolm Campbell in September 1924. Campbell, who’d got into motor racing prior to the First World War, set the record in a modified Sunbeam racing-car that he’d called Blue Bird due to his habit of racing in cars painted blue (as opposed to British racing green). Powered by an 18.3-litre aircraft engine, it had been raced at Brooklands and indeed used to set a land speed record at that circuit before Campbell acquired, repainted and renamed it. Before arriving at Pendine, Campbell and Blue Bird had already made two attempts at the land speed record elsewhere, although they were deemed invalid due to the use of unapproved timing equipment. At Pendine, though, his team were using the proper equipment and Blue Bird set a new land speed record of 146mph. The following summer, they were back and the record was raised to 150mph.

Campbell had been keen to break his own record because he’d heard that someone else was preparing for a land speed record attempt in a more powerful car. John Parry-Thomas was a Welsh engineer who, in addition to having made a name for himself racing at Brooklands in the early 1920s, had been involved with the development of the car that came to be known as Blue Bird. This had motivated him to try for the land speed record for himself, which led to the purchase of a large racing-car called Chitty IV from the estate of Louis Zborowski, an aristocratic racing driver who’d been killed at the 1924 Italian Grand Prix (he had designed and built four powerful racing-cars called ‘Chitty’ or ‘Chitty Bang Bang’, which years later would provide Ian Fleming with the name of his fictional vintage car). Built for racing at Brooklands, Chitty IV it was powered by a 27-litre Liberty aircraft engine and was in fact the largest capacity car to race at that famous old circuit. Parry-Thomas, who actually lived in a house located within the Brooklands circuit, not only substantially modified the car for his land speed record attempt; he also gave it a new name – Babs.

In April 1926, Parry-Thomas and Babs went to Pendine. They didn’t just break Campbell’s record – they smashed it, raising the bar to 170mph. Conditions hadn’t been ideal, though, and Parry-Thomas reckoned that with some modifications Babs could do much better.

Campbell’s reaction to this was that he clearly needed a bigger car. A new, more powerful Blue Bird was built, powered by a 22.3-litre Napier aircraft engine (hence this one’s full name, the Napier-Campbell Blue Bird). Although the engine had a smaller capacity than that of Babs, it was the more powerful and as a result this Blue Bird was reckoned to be capable of breaking the 200mph barrier. In February 1927 Pendine Sands would once again be the location for a record attempt. In the event, though, Campbell was only able to raise Parry-Thomas’s record to 174mph; the new Blue Bird had achieved a top speed of 195mph but it was the two-way average speed over the one-kilometre course that counted.

Parry-Thomas, meanwhile, had not been idle, having spent the winter of 1926-27 rebuilding Babs’s bodywork. His work complete, Babs was ready for another record attempt and a month after Campbell’s new record had been set, Parry-Thomas was back at Pendine. On 3rd March 1927, he set out to win back the land speed record but he would end up going down in motorsport history for a very different reason.

Quite what happened once Parry-Thomas had got Babs up to a speed of around 170mph has been a matter of debate; some reckon that the drive-chain snapped, although it’s more likely that there was a failure regarding one of the back wheels. What we can say for certain is that the car went out of control at high speed and rolled over, killing her driver who became the first person to die while attempting to break the land speed record.

That was the last time Pendine was used for a land speed record attempt; later that month, Henry Seagrave topped the 200mph barrier at Daytona Beach in Florida, and it was to this location that Campbell would take the Napier-Campbell Blue Bird for his next (successful) land speed record attempt the following year.

As for Parry-Thomas, his body was buried in a churchyard not far from Brooklands; Babs, however, was buried underneath the dunes at Pendine Sands, and she would remain there for over four decades.


The mysterious pyramid in Falmouth

Reading about the Killigrew family in The Grove of Eagles sparked my curiosity the next time I went to Falmouth. Their manor house, Arwenack, was mostly destroyed in the Civil War although later it was partly restored and now stands today on Avenue Road, opposite the Discovery Quay car park. Also in the immediate vicinity is the family’s memorial, which takes the form of an unmarked granite obselisk – or rather, given that its surfaces are triangular and they converge in a point at the top, an unmarked granite pyramid.

At least, it is generally assumed to be the family’s memorial.

Known locally as the Killigrew Monument, it was erected on the orders of one Martin Lister (d.1745), a soldier who had married into the Killigrew family – and who’d had to change his name to Lister-Killigrew in order to benefit from his wife’s inheritance, his wife Anne being the daughter of Sir Peter Killigrew (d. 1705) and, as they had no children, the last of the line. After his wife’s death in 1727, Lister-Killigrew left Falmouth but later sent instructions to his steward at Arwenack that the stone pyramid be built. These instructions were apparently quite detailed but its exact purpose is unclear as Lister-Killigrew was adamant that there should be no inscription. Apparently he never saw it completed as he never returned to Falmouth.

Standing some 44 feet high, the lack of inscription means that the Killigrew Monument is something of a mystery although it is generally assumed to have been intended as a memorial to the family who founded the town of Falmouth in the seventeenth century. It has been moved a couple of times since being erected, and has been at its current location since 1871. Local legend has it that during one of the previous relocations, two wax-sealed glass bottles were found underneath it. Accounts of this vary – some say the bottles were filled with parchment or coins, while others say they were empty (which sounds unlikely).

One of the more fanciful stories is that the pyramid is in some way a means in indicating the location of buried treasure, for there has been more than one story about the Killigrews of Arwenack being involved in nefarious activities, from smuggling and receiving stolen goods to piracy and murder. One of them, Mary Killigrew, who lived in the sixteenth century (the actual years of her birth and death are unknown), was actually convicted of piracy and sentenced to death although she was pardoned by Elizabeth I. She had sent her servants to raid a Spanish ship that had sought shelter in Carrick Roads (one of the largest natural harbours in the world and the reason for Falmouth’s existence), and she is reckoned to have buried some of her ill-gotten gains in the grounds of Arwenack House.

So could the Killigrew pyramid be a way of indicating where Mary Killigrew’s treasure might be buried? It sounds unlikely, but as Martin Lister-Killigrew didn’t say why he wanted the monument to be built, we’ve no way of knowing for sure.


A story of Elizabethan Cornwall

Who was it who once said that you shouldn’t judge a book by its cover? Not so long ago, I came across a very tatty paperback (spine cracked, cover page rather faded and held on with Sellotape, original UK retail price 80p) by Winston Graham, best known as the author of the Poldark books. This, though, was one of his other ones, an historical novel called The Grove of Eagles which was first published in 1963. The blurb was very complimentary indeed, and despite having never previously read anything by Winston Graham (or even bothered with Poldark, for that matter) I decided to go for it.

The Grove of Eagles is very much about the Killigrews, an influential Cornish family who were governors of Pendennis Castle in Tudor times and who were later responsible for founding and developing the port and town of Falmouth (being a semi-regular visitor to Falmouth as part of my work, I already knew a little bit about this family, who as well as being the local landowners were also heavily involved in smuggling and piracy in that part of the world; their memorial, a granite pyramid erected by the last of them, stands in Falmouth today opposite Arwenack House, the old family home which was destroyed during the Civil War and rebuilt in the eighteenth century). In the historical notes at the end, Graham describes them as “a not unimportant Cornish family whose history appears and disappears tantalisingly among the records of the time”. Which, I suppose, makes them an ideal canvas for an historical novelist.

Several of the Killigrews of Arwenack House were called John (it seems to have been a family tradition that this was the name given to the eldest son) and there has been some confusion among historians not only about the various John Killigrews but also their wives; due to knighthoods, history records more than one Lady Killigrew and one such – a woman who was born Mary Wolverston – has been confused with both her mother-in-law and her grand-daughter-in-law, in addition to which we know neither the year in which she was born nor the year in which she died! What we do know is that this particular Lady K. often received stolen or smuggled goods at Arwenack House, and that furthermore she was charged with piracy in 1582 when the crew of a Spanish ship that had sheltered from a storm nearby were murdered and their cargo stolen; she was actually sentenced to death for this but was pardoned by Elizabeth I.

At the hands of Winston Graham, Lady Killigrew became one of the more influential characters in The Grove of Eagles, she being the formidable widowed mother of the master of Arwenack House, John Killigrew (who in real life was born in c.1557 and died in 1605). At the time in which the novel is set, the last years of the sixteenth century, this John Killigrew was in a key position. As well as being the local landowner, and a rather ruthless and unpopular one at that, he was also the governor of Pendennis Castle and as such responsible for the defence of the mouth of the river Fal, “a great natural anchorage, one of the finest in the world”, which could have been of great strategic importance in the event of a Spanish invasion. Alas, the defences as organised by John Killigrew were found wanting at the times of both the Spanish raid on Cornwall in 1595 and the invasion threat of 1597 (of which more later). Although his excuse was that he couldn’t afford to properly garrison the castle (something of which he had informed the government on several occasions), there were inevitably rumours about how loyal he actually was to Elizabeth I – was he, perhaps, secretly in cahoots with the Spanish via intermediaries such as the pirate captains with whom he associated? Although allegations of treason on his part were unproven, in 1598 he was nevertheless deprived of the governorship of Pendennis Castle, and he died in poverty seven years later.

In real life, he had a large family by his wife (herself a member of the Monck family); to this brood Winston Graham added an illegitimate son, a boy unaware of his mother’s identity but nevertheless acknowledged by John Killigrew as his son and brought up with that surname. It is this boy, Maugan Killigrew, who narrates The Grove of Eagles (which refers to the meaning of the name Killigrew, the family coat-of-arms being a double-headed eagle which of course hints at all sorts of duplicity on the grounds that it faces both ways), and what a tale his creator has him tell!

This story of Elizabethan Cornwall, told from the point of view of someone who is of gentry blood yet expected to have to make his own way in the world, is a very good one. Graham, who in the novel’s postscript makes much of having drawn on manuscripts from the time, shows a really good understanding for the period. Where it gets really interesting, though, is when you realise the extent to which The Grove of Eagles is not only populated by real people but based very much on real events, most notably events from the war between England and Spain which lasted from the mid-1580s until the 1604 Treaty of London. Maugan is caught up in the resistance to the 1595 Spanish raid on Cornwall in which troops from four galleys landed in Mount’s Bay and sacked Mousehole, Newlyn and Penzance, beating back a local militia under Sir Francis Goldolphin (whose first wife was a Killigrew; when not trying to defend England, he is shown to be warning his in-laws about how their reputation for lawlessness will lead them to ruin) before withdrawing. Later, Maugan is taken on as a secretary to no less a person than Sir Walter Raleigh – for some reason, Graham makes a point of spelling his surname ‘Ralegh’ – and as such he gets to participate in the English capture of Cadiz in 1596 which allows Graham to provide a fantastic description of this event.

Much is made in The Grove of Eagles of the Killigrews’ misfortune; what with the fate of one of the John Killigrews (see above) it is a running theme in the book, with the set-piece hearing before the Queen herself coming towards the novel’s end. Early on, Graham gives an explanation of this via Maugan. Having referred to the rebuilding of Arwenack House in the mid-sixteenth century on a grander scale than before by another John Killigrew (this one being the grandfather of Maugan’s father), it is noted that the Killigrew family, “for all its ancient lineage and good estate, lacked the solidity of great possessions such as could maintain without strain the extravagant way of life he set for it. From his time, therefore, there was a hint of the feverish and the insolvent in our lives. Each generation tried to re-establish itself; each generation failed in greater measure than the last.” It is this which becomes key to both the family’s apparent lack of regard for the law (any ship that uses the Fal estuary as a haven is fair game, it seems) and the question of John Killigrew’s supposed treachery.

Maugan seems to be particularly unlucky. Captured by the Spanish in a raid on Pendennis Castle, he’s assumed to be dead and as a result his love interest – a young lady whose family has been evicted from their house by the Killigrews for defaulting on the rent – marries someone else (a circumstance that Winston Graham also bestowed on his more famous creation, Ross Poldark; apparently he got this particular idea from hearing the story of a pilot who he met during the Second World War). Later on, our narrator (a bit of a rogue, but one with a conscience of sorts – no Flashman, he) manages to get captured by the Spanish again when returning from Cadiz – he gets put on a ship home by Raleigh after getting injured in a fight while attempting to loot a church, and after being imprisoned for several months he finds himself sailing on the ill-fated Spanish Armada of 1597, the plan being that he will liaise with his father once the invaders have landed in Cornwall. Fortunately for England but not for Maugan Killigrew, this little-known attempt to invade founders thanks to the weather, the result being that Maugan actually gets to go home by way of being shipwrecked off the Cornish coast (the failure of this invasion attempt, which happened in October 1597, really did owe much to a storm that wrecked and scattered the Spanish ships; England was at the time very poorly defended, not just because of John Killigrew but also because most of its ships were absent on the Earl of Essex’s ill-fated expedition to the Azores). For anyone wondering about who Maugan’s mother is, rest assured that this gets revealed at the end although you could probably make an educated guess before then.

Having finished The Grove of Eagles, I’m rather disappointed that Graham didn’t write a sequel; even after more than 500 pages I found myself wanting more. Towards the end, Maugan starts to work (against his better judgement) for Lord Henry Howard, a courtier who would in a few years play a key role in putting James VI of Scotland on the English throne after Elizabeth I’s death (for which he was ennobled as the Earl of Northampton) and turning said king against Raleigh, a man whom Maugan admires. It would have been fascinating to have Graham relate the story of how this played out. As it is, The Grove of Eagles ends with a pensive Maugan getting married, following which there’s a ‘postscript for purists’ which begins with Graham asserting that “bibliographies in the historical novel are pretentious” – this at a time (1963) before the likes of George MacDonald Fraser and Bernard Cornwell made historical notes a standard practice for the historical novelist.

After revealing where he got the ideas for some of the events of his novel from (for example: “the extent to which John Killigrew became committed to the Spanish cause is perhaps arguable, but the evidence which exists does seem to me conclusive … the conclusive testimony comes from the Spanish side … I have no evidence that Ralegh [sic] spoke up for John Killigrew when he was brought to London to answer for his behaviour, but it is not out of keeping with his character that he should have done so”), he explains what happened to some of the characters in the novel who were actually real people (“the mystery of Jane Fermor’s dowry has never been cleared up”, “Jack Arundell of Trerice became Sir John Arundell and was governor of Pendennis Castle in 1646”, etc) before mentioning that Maugan was inspired in part by one Robert Killigrew, a friend of Raleigh’s “who was later innocently involved in the murder of Sir Thomas Overbury”. I found myself wanting to know more about this, and also wondering about what might have been had Winston Graham decided to give Maugan another outing; here, alas, a character whose slender luck sadly didn’t extend to a second novel.

But the first and only adventure of Maugan Killigrew, though, is definitely worth reading. I just hope that, should you decide to do so, you can find a copy that’s in better condition than the one I found!