Ashes to Ashes by Barbara Nadel

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Ashes to Ashes by Barbara Nadel

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Category: Crime
Rating: 4/5
Reviewer: Sue Magee
Reviewed by Sue Magee
Summary: At the height of the blitz Francis Hancock takes refuge in St Paul's Cathedral. People are dying in the fires outside but inside a murderer is on the loose. Some of the best descriptions of the blitz that I've read in fact or fiction and an elegant mystery. Recommended
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 288 Date: July 2008
Publisher: Headline
ISBN: 978-0755336203

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On the night of 29 December 1940 Francis Hancock, undertaker from the East End and veteran of the First World War, left his aunt's house to head home when he was caught in the worst of the blitz that hit London that night. Incendiary bombs were falling all around him, buildings were burning and collapsing and he sought refuge in the only place that he could – St Paul's Cathedral. He wasn't entirely welcome as the cathedral was manned by a watch tasked by no less a person that Winston Churchill himself to save the cathedral at any cost. Outsiders might disrupt the work – and for some people having an outsider witness what was intended that night was not to their taste.

You might have visited St Paul's Cathedral. You might have read about the blitz. I've done both on several occasions, but this was the first occasion when I could truly say that the horror of the blitz – wave after wave of incendiary bombs falling and starting numerous fires which spread rapidly and burned for hours with white hot flames – came home to me. St Paul's was more than a place of worship. It was a symbol of all that the British people stood for. Yes, it would have been rebuilt, as it has been before, but the loss would have been of more than a building. I knew that the cathedral survived, but reading Ashes to Ashes I was terrified that it would not. With so little water at their disposal I couldn't see how the watch could smother every incendiary bomb and save what was, ultimately, a very fragile structure.

With so many dying outside who would worry about the fate of individuals inside the comparative safety of the cathedral? Why is it that so few people seem concerned about the pretty young girl with the foul mouth who came into the cathedral and now can't be found anywhere? And why are people so reluctant to admit that the people who die in the cathedral that night have been murdered?

You will feel the heat of the fires in this book and you will have a sense of what lies behind the public façade of St Paul's Cathedral. You'll be taken back in time too to the casual racism of the nineteen forties. It wasn't necessarily meant offensively – it was just the way things were said and thought in those days. There was a different attitude to prostitution too, on the part of men and of parents with regard to their daughters.

After the initial horror of the fires it took me a little while to get into the book, possibly because the more formal forms of address between people meant that it was a little while before I could tell the men apart from each other, but it was worth persevering. The book is worth reading for the atmosphere alone, but there's also an elegant mystery with some surprising twists in the tail. Recommended.

I'd like to thank the publishers for sending a copy to The Bookbag.

If crime from this period appeals to you then you might also enjoy Coroner's Pidgin by Margery Allingham.

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