Wednesday, 23 March 2016

The Spies of Croydon

"Icelight", Aly Monroe

When Melita Norwood of Bexleyheath was exposed as a long time Soviet spy in 1999 there was a sense of mild bemusement that a sleepy piece of London south of the river could be linked to the high politics of the the Cold War. Maybe it shouldn't have come as a surprise, Michael Bettaney lived in Coulsdon, and there's no real reason why spies who have little regard for the niceties of sovereignty should eschew territory the other side of the Thames from Whitehall.

Aly Monroe's Icelight holds no truck with London's north-south divide. Travelling down the route from Victoria neighbourhoods of Croydon, Carshalton, and Sanderstead are given star billing. For those familiar with the terrain there's a ring of authenticity, with pubs like the Greyhound, the Swan and Sugarloaf, and the Red Deer all still being identifiable today. This might raise the question of whether Monroe backfilled present day locations to make it feel real, but even if this is the case, it's perfectly credible that this would have been the landscape of 1947.

Making perhaps a link with Michael Bettaney, described variously in this rather good contemporary BBC News account as a 'solitary bachelor with a tendency to drink', known for 'consorting with homosexuals', and guilty of 'fare dodging', Icelight deals with security service persecution of the gay community and low level organised crime throughout, portraying the period in a suitably bleak light, matching the evocation of a cold winter in the face of continued rationing and economic malaise. Paraphrasing Monroe, this England is a fortress island defended against pleasure rather more effectively than it had been against Hitler's bombs.

Over the last few years I've had a few encounters with Aly Monroe's writing. I was initially a bit ambivalent of her first, The Maze of Cadiz, finding the character of Peter Cotton a little hard to grasp. Over the years though Cotton's become more engaging, just as reading about has been. 2009's Washington Shadow brought a vein of darkness, and with Icelight there's a distinct amount of steel throughout the character and the narrative. It compels not just with the strong sense of place that's evoked, but with an ambiguous plotline hinting at the richness buried beneath the strictures of late 1940s Britain.

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