Early One Morning, by Robert Ryan, is in many ways an excellent novel. I just wish I liked it more.
The book is inspired by the real-life exploits of Robert Benoist, William Grover, and Eve Aubicq. These three were young in the 1930s: the two men were racing-car drivers, and in the second world war all three were involved in the French Resistance movement. Ryan has used this background as the basis for a thriller.
The author's note, at the back of the book, and the bibliography, reveal that Ryan did a significant amount of research. And not just reading, either; he also interviewed some of the Special Operations Executive staff from that era. This is a background which I have used myself in more than one novel, so I can see immediately how much work Ryan has done to get things right. Although, as the author rightly insists, the novel is very much a novel; it is a work of fiction suggested by the historical facts.
Ryan has written three previous novels, which seem to have garnered some enthusiastic reviews. 'Wonderfully exhilarating,' said the Sunday Times of one; 'I doubt whether there will be a better novel this year,' said the Independent.
So, given that the background is of great interest to me, and given that Ryan is so obviously a competent writer, why didn't I really enjoy this book?
Well, it may just be the weather (hot), or perhaps it is my grumpy temperament, as usual; but I suspect that there are technical reasons.
First, the book moves back and forth from 2001 to the 1930s, and then on to war time, 1942/43. Yes, I have used this kind of chronological structure myself, but flashbacks and flashforwards really don't help. The best way to involve a reader is to start at the beginning of a story and go on to the end, and not whizz back and forth.
It is no accident, for instance, that Margery Allingham's novel Hide My Eyes (which I have also just finished reading) confines all its action to twenty-four hours. Allingham knew that keeping things tight pays dividends. Neither is it an accident that when James Grady's book Six Days of the Condor was filmed, the title was changed to Three Days of the Condor. A short time-frame is better than a long one, OK?
The next problem is that, as usual, the book is just too damn long. It runs to 335 pages, which is what publishers these days want, of course. It gives the reader the impression of value for money. But is writing at that length the best way to grab and hold your reader? I take leave to doubt it.
Finally we have the technical question of viewpoint. Really powerful and effective novels view the action solely from the viewpoint of a small number of characters. See Ken Follett's The Key to Rebecca if you want a well-nigh perfect example. (That is another book, incidentally, which is set in the second world war.) And for my money Ryan's use of viewpoint is too diffuse.
However.... Having said all that, I have to say that the reviewers on Amazon take a different view of Early One Morning, and I don't think those particular readers' reports are fakes. The average punter seems to have enjoyed the book. So, if you're looking for a good wartime thriller, give this a go.
Finally, I find myself, as usual, wondering about the economics of all this, and asking myself whether it is likely that Mr Ryan will continue to write novels. He has not been taken up by an American publisher, so his income is presumably dependent on the UK market. Furthermore, good reviews (as I can testify) do not necessarily result in big sales. And Mr Ryan has a wife and three children. So the question is this: Is writing novels a cost-effective use of his time?
Knowing what I do about how long it takes to research and write a novel of this kind, and knowing what I do about the financial return on a not particularly big seller in the UK market, I think the answer is surely No.
A little aside to end with. In the author's note, Mr Ryan relates how he was fortunate enough to interview Vera Atkins, shortly before her death. Atkins was a major figure in the SOE, which parachuted several hundred brave men and women into German-occupied France. These volunteers were, of course, treated as spies, and many of them were shot, tortured, or starved to death. (Robert Benoist, for instance, was hanged by piano wire in Buchenwald, along with 36 other Allied officers, on 12 September 1944.)
During the course of a dinner at the Special Forces Club, Mr Ryan's friend Jack Bond asked Vera Atkins how she viewed the Germans, sixty years after the end of the war.
There was a long pause while she drew on a cigarette, and she eventually said, very softly, but with great feeling: 'As disagreeable as ever, really.'
Couldn't put it better myself.