Review published on February 3, 2017.
Corpus is a first rate thriller and a cracking read that will entertain fans of the involved murder mystery, the spy story or lovers of the period leading up to the Second World War and it’s political history.
The novel opens in Berlin, 1936, as Nancy Hereward, a young English woman, slips the surveillance of the Gestapo to deliver false travel documents to a Jewish academic in order to help him escape from Germany. After helping the physicist, Nancy, together with her friend Lydia Morris, makes it back to England and apparent safety. Yet, soon afterwards, Lydia’s world is turned upside down when Nancy is found dead. As far as everyone else is concerned, she was a drug addict, since a silver syringe containing heroin was found by her body. Lydia refuses to believe the death was an accident, although the alternative is too terrible to contemplate. Can she convince anyone to listen to her concerns? Around the same time, in Cambridge, Cecil Langley and his wife are murdered, with Cecil has been savagely tortured prior to death. It is a shocking but highly methodical crime. The murderer calmly cleans himself up afterwards, then leaves a message blaming Langley’s connections to the Nazis and Oswald Mosley as the reason for the crime. Lydia draws Cambridge history professor Thomas Wilde into an investigation of Nancy Hereward’s death. He is also drawn into the stalling inquiry into the double murder of the Langleys by the enigmatic journalist Philip Eaton, a man who appears to know much more than he is letting on. For Wilde, it becomes difficult to escape the conclusion that there are in fact three murders and that the crimes are connected.
Now add to this the abdication crisis about to rock the establishment in London. Edward VIII will not give up his American mistress, the divorcee Wallis Simpson. The Germans and the Russians are preparing to use the Spanish Civil War as a proving ground, helping to tear the country apart. The Spanish Republican Government is seeking a safe refuge for the treasury gold reserves as Franco’s fascist troops head for Madrid. Germany has retaken the Rheinland and Stalin’s reign of terror has begun. Both nations are seeking to influence the politics of Europe in the prelude to war. As Wilde investigates, he begins to delve into the murky political world of spies and assassins.
I really liked the way Corpus opens up like a straightforward, if dark, murder mystery, giving the reader time to acclimatise to the characters and settings before really launching into the conspiracies at the heart of the novel.
The plot is a mix of political intrigue, a deep rooted need for revenge, blackmail, murder and a good measure of red herrings. There are many threads to the story and this gives a sense of the complexity of the times – the background to life across Europe as forces align and nations polarise. Clements manages complexity well, which is no mean feat. He keeps a firm grasp of the minutiae of the many strands of the story and marshals his material to keep the narrative clear and the pace and excitement going right to the end. This is a well covered period, but it is rarely done as originally as Corpus, which can hold its own with the best spy novels set in the pre-war period. Corpus is a murder mystery and spy novel with a genuinely panoramic scope.
Corpus is a novel exploring the ideological sparring between Communism and Nazism across Europe in the 1930s. It recognises that it is not just a political battle, impinging as it does on art and culture, on education and daily life. Cable Street brought the fight to the people and streets of the East End of London. Early in the novel, Clements uses the example of the Crystal Palace burning to the ground to illustrate that Nazi sympathisers and communists automatically blamed each other rather than an accident for the tragedy. Clements creates a real sense of that ideological battlefield leading to the conflagration of WWII. He is at home roaming 1930s Europe and the reader gets a sense of the atmosphere of the time.
The central character of Corpus, Thomas Wilde, is a fine creation; brave, intelligent and likeable. As a professor of history, Wilde uses the tools of his trade (research methods, evaluation of collated information and a questioning nature) to find his way to the heart of the conspiracy.
Corpus represents a departure for Clements from the John Shakespeare novels set during the reign of Queen Elizabeth I. The Shakespeare series, beginning with Martyr in 2009, with the most recent novel being Holy Spy published in 2015, has become very popular (a TV series is now in production). Shakespeare, the chief intelligencer of Francis Walsingham seeks out the traitors and conspirators threatening Elizabeth’s England. Traitor won the CWA Ellis Peters Historical Fiction Award in 2010. It would not be a surprise if Corpus received a nomination or two in the future. Interestingly, there is a connection because Thomas Wilde in Corpus is a professor of history specialising in the Elizabethan secret service and Walsingham, so Clements has not entirely left the 17th century behind.
Corpus is essentially a fast-paced thriller that will keep you re-examining the assumptions you make even though you may know the broad direction in which the novel is going. I think the novel will appeal to fans of Robert Harris and Philip Kerr, although the breadth of the story reminded me of a personal favourite, Hopeful Monsters by Nicholas Mosley, son of Oswald, a literary gem that still resonates. Of course, Corpus is not the same type of novel, but it does make you think about the issues it raises. The good news is that Clements is already working on a follow up, Nucleus, again involving Wilde, but this time set in 1939. Bring it on.
Paul Burke 5/5
Corpus by Rory Clements
Zaffre 9781785762611 hbk Jan 2017
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