It’s my turn today on the blogtour for the debut novel by counter-terrorism barrister Barnaby Jameson, published today. It’s a 500-page doorstop of a wartime thriller, which I absolutely devoured!
I knew that the novel was inspired by a real WWII spy story, but such is the lack of depth to my history knowledge of the period, I couldn’t knowingly recall the name Noor Inayat Khan, who became the first female radio operator (Codename: Madeleine) to be dropped into occupied France. She’s that celebrated, she was posthumously awarded the George Cross, has a blue plaque and statue in Bloomsbury where she lived – and was even a character in Doctor Who a couple of years ago in one of the specials. Apparently, her life has also been the subject of many a film, documentary and novel already. Still, not knowing anything about her history meant that I could immerse myself in her story fully without worrying about the detail.
Noor’s story is the central axis of the novel around which all the other strands of the novel coalesce. It begins with her father, Inayat Khan, descended from an Indian noble family, who is destined to become a garlanded concert musician on the surshringar, an Indian lute. An encounter with the wisdom of Sufi mystic Rumi takes his life on a slightly different path as he embarks on a journey as a travelling mystic after seeking enlightenment with a Sufi master. He travels west, where in Santa Fe, he meets Ora who takes the name Amina when they marry, travelling ever westwards to Russia and Moscow where he is to set up an order of Sufis. It is there in 1914 that Noor will be born, but they have to head west again when war breaks out reaching London via Tallinn. After the war, they moved to Paris, where Noor studied at the Sorbonne, and also became an accomplished harpist. At the outbreak of WWII, Noor’s family returned to England, where in 1940 she joined the WAAF beginning a trajectory that would ultimately lead to her joining the Special Operations Executive (SOE) and being dropped in France and I shall say no more about her outcome.
Two other main characters begin their stories during The Great War, and continue through into the Second World War. One is French soldier Georges Morel, who is rescued from otherwise certain death, having been scalped by a German shell. A replacement metal skull plate is made for him and riveted into place; miraculously, he suffers no infection. Georges will go on to become a key part of one of the resistance groups, known as ‘circuits’ in and around Paris. The other is Oberleutnant Wilhelm Canaris of the German navy, who begins as a POW in Chile after his ship the Dresden is forced to surrender to the British off the Falklands in 1915. Canaris is assisted to escape, eventually making his way back to Germany where he begins his rise through the ranks to Admiral. Along the way, he will encounter Reinhard Heydrich, who also started in the navy. Canaris finds Heydrich’s methods and promiscuity personally distasteful and has to keep his feelings in check as it’s clear Heydrich will leapfrog into the Nazi stratosphere.
There are many other documented characters from history in this sprawling thriller: notably Leo Marks, the cryptographer, from the family that owned the bookshop Marks & Co, immortalised in Helene Hanff’s 84 Charing Cross Road. Others include Maurice Buckmaster, head of F Section at the SOE; Francis Suttill who ran the ‘Prosper’ Circuit for the SOE in and around Paris which Noor was to join; Henri Déricourt the French agent amongst other named resistance fighters.
Jameson has obviously done his research really well, but this is a novel, remember? Jameson has surrounded his real characters with sympathetic support. These include Doris aka ‘Treasure’, who begins her career in 1916 as a high-class prostitute at a house in London’s Balcombe Street that serves, in the words of Mrs Morgan, the brothel-keeper, ‘the Lords Spiritual and Temporal’, i.e. assorted generals and the like. Whilst there, Doris develops a penchant for reading… and will become a regular customer at Marks & Co – and thus the wheels of this novel turn, as characters we meet earlier will recur later in the book, enabling Jameson to link events and people effectively. I liked how a ribbon of the wisdom of Rumi, often spoken by Inayat Khan, runs through Noor’s life to ground her and keep her father close in her memory after he passed away.
The chapters mostly follow one main character. Inayat Khan and then Noor herself get the lion’s share as Noor’s story forms the backbone of the book as I’ve already said. Canaris, Treasure, Georges and Leo Marks each gets their share, and some of the key SOE personnel and the agents will provide the linking sections. Although there are a lot of people to follow in this thick book, it was not a problem to keep track of those who mattered, and I was engaged from the outset. By necessity, there is quite a lot of exposition needed to explain some of the situations, but it’s done in a light, almost reportage style – as in detailing the theatre of war in the South Atlantic close to the novel’s outset. This is a narrative rather than dialogue-driven novel, the characters really come to life, although I felt Noor was a little underwritten and harder to get a handle on than the rest. Also, Jameson had a tendency to repeat certain points, over-reminding us multiple times of the ‘plangent cadences’ of the sound of Inayat Khan’s surshringar, and that Noor had a poisoned hatpin and cyanide pill in a button, however, these are small criticisms.
As debut thrillers go, I found Codename: Madeleine compulsive reading, devouring all 500 pages over a couple of sessions. I really engaged with the main characters, and having recently read Lyndsey Fitzharris’s new book The Facemaker about plastic surgery during WWI was interested in Georges’ story in particular. The sense of jeopardy as the Gestapo closed in on the resistance networks in Paris was palpable too. I was really glad to have learned Noor’s story, and reading some of the background information I linked to above highlighted what personal risks she and the other agents took for us during the war – you couldn’t make it up – and Jameson tells it well. If you like a chunky novel, wartime settings, a large cast of characters and a thrilling story based on real events and people, this thriller may be just the thing for you to get stuck into this summer.
Source: Review copy – Thank you! Whitefox publishing hardback, around 500 pages. BUY at Blackwell’s via my affiliate link.