In a couple of weeks, on April 27 to be precise, ex-copper Ted Stratton will be 105. Or he will if Laura Wilson chooses to keep him on his feet that long.
For now, we know that he joined the Met in 1922, and climbed as far as Detective Inspector by the outbreak of World War Two. He is still on the job by 1944 and as he is at the heart of a series, it seems reasonable to expect that The Empty Death of Wilson's second title is not his either.
Such speculations are invited by an explanatory Background to the Characters which concludes Stratton's War, in which she gives an almost post-modern elaboration of her thinking. Stratton is 'neither a drunk, a compulsive gambler nor an adulterer' rather 'an ordinary man with a realistic background for someone who born in 1905 and joined the police force.'
"Lower middle-class, the son of a tenant farmer, he is an intelligent, humorous individual, but with rudimentary education; he is cynical but kind and humane, and happily married but with a wandering eye. Above all he is pragmatic."
Put another way, he is pretty much like a lot of other people we might know, just born a few years earlier, in a Britain of different values and facing greater real and present dangers and privations than most alive have encountered. He lives in a London where class counts for more than today, and where gender defines limits and freedoms to a greater extent, and racial and sexual tolerance has sharper limits even brutal limits.
Fertile ground, indeed.
Further, Stratton is a man written by a woman, and somehow it shows. There is an (unavoidable) knowingness to the novel which is a little distancing, but it is a warm, engaging, even compelling read. We know that this is a novel set in 1940 with all the insights and hindsight that perspective imparts, but that doesn't stop us wanting to know who murdered faded silent film star Mabel Morgan (as we of course do know it was murder, not suicide).
And we want to know how Stratton's detection will bring his narrative together with elegant, beautiful, married and naive MI5 agent Diana Calthorp, her doomed love and her infiltration with unpleasant Nazi sympathisers.
It is a well-plotted novel that carries strongly over 400-plus pages, with strong characters that just about stay the right side of caricature, and a string of circumstances that stay just within acceptable coincidence.
- Stratton's War, by Laura Wilson (2009), Orion paperback).