Written by Mark Chisnell — Europe in the 1930s and Hitler has ordered the German army back into the Rhineland. German industry is moving forwards with re-armament on a massive scale. His rhetoric is increasingly bellicose and the persecution of the Jewish population is intensifying. Back home in Britain the government is pursuing a policy of appeasement, and dissenting voices such as Churchill’s aren’t being heard. Great Britain, indeed Europe, seems to have no appetite for another world war.
In Portsmouth Ben Clayton is working for industrialist Harold Drummond on his experimental racing yacht The Windflower. There is the prospect of fulfilling a lifelong ambition of racing against the Americans but Ben’s life is complicated. A terrible accident in the boxing ring, and the promptings of his Cambridge University friend Matthew Faden, have turned Ben towards pacifism. His parents, appalled, have stopped speaking to him.
At work, seconded from Supermarine to build the Windflower’s experimental mast with engineering mentor Stanley Arbethwaite, things are also difficult. He doesn’t fit in with management, particularly a character called Charles Lerup, because he didn’t go to the right school. However, he’s too middle class to be accepted by the working class crew, who are also suspicious of his intentions toward local girl Lucy Kirk, daughter of the foreman, Joe. If he loves her, why hasn’t he proposed after their long courtship?
When Stanley dies in an apparent accident on the dock, the crew feel management negligence is to blame. A strike is called but Lerup ups the ante, sacks them all, and has Joe arrested. Meanwhile Stanley’s widow faces ruin as hidden debts are discovered and creditors come calling. Ben is caught in the middle, trying to reconcile his ambition with his sympathy for the crew, and find the time to solve the mystery of Stanley’s double life.
The stakes are even higher than Ben and Lucy realise. Elements of the secret service are convinced that a second confrontation with Germany is inevitable, and if England is to win a war, perparations must be made. If the Government won’t listen to reason, then powerful men like Drummond must be made to see that their factories should be producing war planes like the Spitfire rather than rich men’s follies like the Windflower. Fleming White uses Faden’s homosexuality to blackmail him into joining the replacement amateur crew of the Windflower to spy on Drummond and try to discern his plans. But Faden is playing a dangerous game, having become a member of a radical left wing group.
Ben’s efforts to solve the mystery of Stanley’s life and death place him and Lucy in increasing danger. He has to visit illegal gaming houses, face up to London gangsters, dodge the traps placed in his path by a jealous Lerup, and save Joe from prison. Things come to an exciting conclusion as Ben, and Lerup’s sophisticated girlfriend Anna, must avoid the Gestapo after being sent to Germany to secure more parts for the Windflower. It seems Faden and White are not the only spies.
The Fulcrum Files is very much a period thriller with aspects of romance and espionage also. For such a book to succeed much depends upon the author’s ability to craft a believable background, and when large parts of the story actually happened, this is doubly important. I am happy to say Chisnell manages it with aplomb. The author’s research can’t be faulted. I understand that sailing is something of a speciality for Chisnell, but there was just enough explanation for a novice like myself to keep up without being overwhelming. What really impressed me though was the strong characterisation and plotting. It is rather complicated, but everything dovetails together very nicely at the end. In this regard it reads as if a lot of thought has gone into the book.
One slight complaint would be that the start of the book is a little slow. However, patience is certainly rewarded and once the plot gets going the book held my interest. Fans of David Downing or Alan Furst in particular should give this book a chance.
CFL Rating: 4 Stars