If there is one thing I dislike more than the task of reviewing complete rubbish, it is reviewing a book
that promises much and delivers less. When you are sure that a writer could have done much much better, it is harder
to find the words to make this fact palatable. Writers who are not capable of better work tend to sail through life churning
out disaster after disaster, blissfully unaware of their limitations. A reviewer can be fairly sure that such people will
ignore all criticism, constructive or otherwise.
I feel worse about this review, knowing from the dedication that the author of the book is no longer living.
The book has been published in his memory by his family. Much as I can understand their reasons, I wonder if he would
have been happy to be remembered for this very imperfect work. I wonder when he wrote it, whether he realised its shortcomings,
and whether he would have attempted a revision, given time. An editor could perhaps have done something with this book,
but it is clear that not even a proof-reader was employed to look at the manuscript.
The book is wrongly classed as "historical fiction" when in fact it is a spy thriller. I use the word "thriller"
with hesitation. It must have been Mr Ullrich's intention to thrill, but the narrative reads like non-fiction.
It is not that the pace is slow. On the contrary, events succeed one another at break-neck speed, as though the author has
a story he wants to tell and is determined to tell it without interruption. It is a good story, but there is no evidence
that Victor Ullrich did what a good writer should do – put the work aside, come back to it later and see how it reads;
or better still, get someone else to read it.
Take the dialogue. Do you know anyone who talks like this? "I am sorry to disturb you but there is a man
who wants to talk to you. He says it is urgent." It is correct English, the kind of language absolutely no one uses in direct
speech. Using dialogue in a book like this is the correct thing to do. It should contribute to both the action and the characterisation,
but when used clumsily it slows down the first and adds nothing to the second.
The characters are one step up from stereotypes. Much more could have been done with White, the villain,
with his complex background and secret life. Conversely, Calder, the blackmail victim, with whose predicament the reader should
at least feel some sympathy, does not inspire any emotional response at all. His wife, with her overweening ambition and casual
affairs, is even worse. When a gay character is introduced, he signals himself by calling everyone "darling". It takes more
than this to portray homosexuality convincingly.
One last word of advice to self-publishers. We all know that print-on-demand publishing pushes up the unit
price, but if you try to sell an ordinary paperback by an unknown author for £8.99, you can generally guarantee low sales
figures, and those you do sell will be to family and friends. (I know, I’ve tried it.)