Paul Letters’ first novel is a thoroughly researched historical thriller, which criss-crosses the territories of Europe against the backdrop of the first half of the Second World War. It has the style of a classic British drama and it name checks some of the main cultural players of the time, Emile-Maurice Hermes and Pablo Picasso to name but two. The plot, however, centres on some of the less well-known aspects of the war. That of the plentiful but hopelessly obsolete Blenheim bomber, the Czech rather than the French resistance and the assassination of Reinhard Heydrich.
The action is gripping and the military detail lends it an authentic feel, while the author weaves the plot from occupied Eastern Europe to the tearooms of London and back. Throughout the book, historical fact and fiction overlap and the characters, both real (Churchill has a cameo) and imagined, interact around the major events of the period and the shadowy world of the newly formed SOE. Thus it is against the backdrop of the Nazi occupation of Bohemia and Moravia that much of the action takes place and the reader is left in no doubt as to the horrors awaiting any operative who is picked up by the SS. This is the brutal environment in which Heydrich helped to conceive the holocaust, and the massacre of the inhabitants of the Czech village of Lidice is recounted as a chilling hint of the genocide to come.
“A Chance Kill” is a novel set in the 1940’s with the feel of a 1940’s novel, and it lures the reader in with the aroma of the dusty shelves of a Charing Cross bookshop. Some of the characterisation is a little wooden, but this is a criticism I would also apply to say “Casablanca” and many enjoyable novels, including some by weathered craftsmen such as Graham Greene. I pictured the action in Pathe Newsreel black and white, while my imagination projected the likes of Trevor Howard and a young Deborah Kerr onto the protagonists. Whether this is intentional or not, the effect on the reader is to make one feel as if you’ve just spent a wonderfully indulgent Saturday afternoon on the couch, watching a well crafted example of British wartime cinema.