1899, South Africa: As the Boer War rages, Captain Ingo Finch of the Royal Army Medical Corps pieces together casualties at the front. Then, recovering in Cape Town, he is woken by local police. A British officer has been murdered, and an RAMC signature is required for the post-mortem.
Shocked by the identity of the victim, the bizarre nature of the crime and what appears a too-convenient resolution, Finch turns detective. He is soon thrust into a perilous maze of espionage and murder.
Along with an Australian nurse, Annie, and an escaped diamond miner, Mbutu, Finch finds he has stumbled on a terrifying secret, one that will shake the Empire to its core…
The black shape of the field hospital eventually hove into view. Outside, two Indian porters – Hindus, skinny, barefoot – were waiting with a stretcher.
Finch eased himself over the splintered tailboard.
“I’m afraid you wouldn’t pass muster at the officers’ mess,” boomed a voice behind him.
“What the hell, sir? We went out there under a truce,” Finch spluttered. “A medical mission. White flag—”
Major Cox gave a discreet cough and bade Finch follow, his immaculate brown boots crunching a path across the gravelly dirt.
The Afrikaner cattle ranch had been stranded the wrong side of the border, a few miles west of the Free State. Requisitioned by the Royal Army Medical Corps, it was serving well in its new guise – modest but solid, preferable to canvas.
Finch hobbled after his superior, making heavy weather of catching up. From the barn, with its corrugated iron roof, he could hear the lowing – not of beasts but of men, casualties from the afternoon assault, their pain a constant, ambient dirge.
Cox ducked after the major under a dewy awning. In a jerry-rigged ante-chamber, an adjutant sat at an upturned orange crate, prodding at a battered typewriter in the halo of a hurricane lamp, a Morse tapper set to one side.
In the outhouse behind it, Cox stooped through a doorway, lit his own lantern and hung it from a hook in the beam of the low ceiling. A worn green baize card table served as his desk. A canvas cot, with regulation blanket, neatly folded, ran under the window.
“Brandy?” he offered.
Finch shrugged, feigning nonchalance.
Cox set two enamel mugs on the table all the same and, from somewhere, produced a dusty bottle of Santhagens.
He uncorked it, poured two generous measures, and tapped the side of his nose conspiratorially as to its provenance.
In one letter home, Finch had recorded his first impression – that on civvy street Cox would have made a slick businessman. He looked the part – the belly, the shining leather, the sleek hair, the oiled moustache.
Cox was going to make him wait – the theatre of superiority. There were two canvas chairs. Cox took the one behind the desk and gestured for Finch to sit before it.
There was a low distant rumble, like far-off thunder – the Royal Navy guns wheeled up from the south. The biggest, ‘Joe Chamberlain’, could send a shell five miles, or so they said.
Cox’s cup vibrated against the bottle, a high-pitched rasp that sounded like a bumble bee.
“Spent a whole day pounding the hills only to discover the blighters have dug themselves into the ground.”
“I’m no strategist, sir, but sending neat squares of men to march at a heavily armed trench in the middle of the day does not appear the most prudent fighting tactic.”
Some of the Highlanders he’d tended in the field were still clutching lengths of knotted rope, tied off at 6ft intervals, the means by which they could maintain perfect formation, right up to the last.
“You’re right,” came the touché. “You’re not a strategist.”
Until recently, medical personnel had not been given leave to dress up in khaki, still less trusted with a corps formed in their honour. That Cox, a cavalryman, had been seconded to oversee a bunch of fey medics seemed a lingering source of resentment.
“What the hell was the brass thinking, sir? Us, the Boers. We were treating the wounded. Together. They were helping us for God’s sake. Then the bloody artillery starts shelling, right in the middle of it. We’re stuck out there. No provisions, no weapons, nothing. Sitting ducks.”
“It was unfortunate.”
“Unfortunate? I was there for five hours. Shot at for fivehours …”
Finch slumped back. It was hard not to drift away. He ran his hands through his hair. It was thick for a man of 40, at least his Italian barber flattered him. He was in decent shape too, if maybe half a stone for the worse. But he was no soldier. That was for the kids; the obedient, unthinking kids – kids like Miles.
“The private … Lancashires. I’ll see that he gets commended. And you—”
“I’m not after a bloody medal.”
Cox shot Finch a look, then softened.
“Ingo,” he said. “I’m grateful.”
There followed a perfunctory raising of mugs, a clink and a silent, savouring sip.
Finch had never known tiredness like it. It gnawed at the muscles around his eyes and scrambled his thoughts such that the words that slurred out of his mouth did not necessarily correlate to the ones forming in his head.
“Your casualty … the lieutenant?” asked Cox.
“Bruised, battered. He’ll be okay.”
“Did he talk?” Cox added.
“You know, say anything?”
Laid out on the sacking on the floor of the cart, the lieutenant had groaned periodically, then began muttering in a delirium.
“A day’s worth of African sun can do terrible things to a man.”
“Nothing coherent? No names, orders?”
Finch shrugged. Logic had ceased to have any place in war.
“If he does …” said Cox.
There was a knock on the door – the adjutant brandishing a chit. He handed it to Cox and took a pace back. Cox absorbed the information. He held up an apologetic palm while he did so.
“Right away. Right away,” he muttered, then gave the slip back to the adjutant and dismissed him.
The major rose. Finch had had his moment.
“Good work, Captain. That will be all … Staff will arrange for a hot drink and some grub.”
Finch was about to protest that he was required in surgery.
“They’ll send it over.”
And, with that, the major was gone.
Finch took a minute or two to finish his drink. The guns rumbled on. He stood up and stretched his aching body. His left knee, in particular, would need disinfecting, patching up.
Outside, feathers of sleet swirled in the air. On the wind came the pop–pop–pop of small arms fire. The infantry assault was underway. At this distance, it sounded so ineffectual, so childish. He thought he heard the skirl of pipes.
The barefoot Indian stretcher bearers were congregating, hunched together. Very soon, the first of what would be an endless stream of ambulances would come rattling into the yard.
An RAMC sergeant with a clipboard and two staff nurses emerged and huddled under an overhang, ready to direct the wounded to the correct area – dressing, theatre or to be laid on the straw in the far end of the barn where the only attention they’d receive would come in the form of some trite ministrations from the chaplain.
Finch asked an orderly to fetch him the strongest mug of tea he could brew, with enough sugar in it to make a spoon stand up.
A realistic historical crime drama set against the background of the Boer war.
Captain Finch, a doctor, becomes an unlikely detective as he investigates the death of his superior officer. Told primarily from Finch and Mbutu( An escaped diamond miner) points of view, they describe different events that are cleverly linked as the story progresses. Annie, a nurse, joins the story later and she becomes a vital source of strength for Finch as the conspiracy deepens and their lives are endangered.
The historical detail is vivid and absorbing and illustrates the horror of war for civilians, soldiers and animals caught up in the mayhem. The racial prejudice of the time is realistically depicted and demonstrates how poorly the indigent population were treated by both sides in the war.
The characters are well drawn and fit perfectly into this sinister murder mystery scenario created at the end of the 19th-century in war-torn Africa. Finch is a courageous man, but his trusting nature leads him to make some questionable choices, which make his and Annie’s survival precarious. The antagonist takes many forms, but ultimately the real evil is more potent than Finch could envisage.
The story is detailed and lengthy but full of action, historical interest and a well thought out whodunnit.
I received a copy of this book from Canelo via NetGalley in return for an honest review.
Jeff Dawson is a journalist and author. He has been a long-standing contributor to The Sunday Times Culture section, writing regular A-list interview-led arts features (interviewees including the likes of Robert De Niro, George Clooney, Dustin Hoffman, Hugh Grant, Angelina Jolie, Jerry Seinfeld and Nicole Kidman). He is also a former US Editor of Empire magazine.
Jeff is the author of three non-fiction books — Tarantino/Quentin Tarantino: The Cinema of Cool, Back Home: England And The 1970 World Cup, which The Times rated “truly outstanding”, and Dead Reckoning: The Dunedin Star Disaster, the latter nominated for the Mountbatten Maritime Prize.