This is such a well-researched spy story that you won’t be able to tell where real events end and the author’s keen imagination takes over. It’s set in WW2 in the ‘phoney war’ phase of 1940. Operation Sealion is on the cards but hasn’t been launched. The Battle of Britain has yet to fill the skies. America’s interests are hard to fathom. And there are many who believe that a political solution can resolve the differences between Germany and the UK… especially if influential figures such as Edward, Duke of Windsor, can be convinced to help end hostilities.
If all that sounds like too much epic history on an earth-shattering scale, fear not. Author Jack Grimwood adroitly focuses his narrative on a tight cluster of engaging characters: the ne’erdowell thief, given the choice between the hangman’s noose or a near-impossible task for SOE. The classic ice-woman assassin, so hardened by repeated trauma that she’s all sharp edges and vengeance. The teenage survivor whose determination and vulnerability brings them together.
These three collide in a near-perfect espionage plot, set on the occupied Channel Islands. Good Germans, bad Nazis, local collaborators and resistance fighters abound – and somehow our thief must navigate this mix, steal the Nazi plans for the German invasion of the British mainland, and make his perilous rendezvous with a submarine without being discovered, shot, maimed or murdered by all or any of the above. A tense page-turner? You bet.
However, you will need to take your time over the opening chapters which establish the historical situation and the extensive supporting cast. There are two or three (or four…) parallel storylines running, and it takes a little while to get them straight in your head. The author uses a variety of devices to bring us up to speed, and the chopping betwixt eyes-only memos, secret assignations and newsreel footage on both sides of the Channel (and the Atlantic) can be a tiny bit bewildering.
Stick with it: the payoff is well worth your effort. This is a story that’s stuffed full of authentic historical characters – and not just Nazis. There’s even a reference to TE Lawrence and his penchant for highly-strung mechanical contraptions. And Grimwood is something of an assassin himself; painting the abdicated Edward as an impossible nincompoop but yet with a few saving graces.
The author earns another round of applause for actually finishing with a real cliff-hanger, although I preferred the car chase par excellence, in which classic British sports cars screech around precarious hairpin bends in exotic Continental locales. That sequence forms part of an extended tip of the hat to Ian Fleming’s spy stories – and the man himself even gets a significant supporting role… and rather wonderfully shares his recipe for a perfect breakfast!
I haven’t enjoyed a British spy story this much since I was 13 and first discovered Casino Royale.
Reviewed by Rowena Hoseason
Island Reich by Jack Grimwood is available at Amazon
Love a gripping spy story?
Meet the Killing Sisters, and the covert agent sent to stalk them…