Barbara Cleverly, Tug of War (Carroll and Graf Publishers, 2007)

Although I didn't think they were all of the same superb quality, I enjoyed reading the first five books in Barbara Cleverly's Joe Sandilands series (see my omnibus review of these here). So I was quite pleased to receive a review copy of the latest in the series, Tug of War, from the publicist handling Carroll and Graf titles. Mind you, at this point in time, the very existence of Carroll and Graf is moot; it's in transition between being an imprint of Avalon Publishing Group and having its books absorbed into the Perseus Books Group. But I digress. . . .

Joe Sandilands is a Scotsman who fought and was wounded in the First World War. He served a stint in Military Intelligence before transitioning to civilian police work after the War. Single, good looking, smart and a generally decent bloke, he makes a fine protagonist for a mystery series! The first four books are all set in India; the fifth one, The Bee's Kiss, finds Joe back in London and environs. In Tug of War, Barbara Cleverly moves her hero back to his old stomping grounds in France, roughly seven years after the war ended. His traveling companion is Dorcas Joliffe, a street-smart adolescent Joe and his married sister Lydia befriended in The Bee's Kiss. As is the case with all the novels in this series, the book begins with a prologue chapter that contains a clue to the mystery. It's set in the Champagne region of northern France in September 1915.

Joe had originally planned this trip as a journey into his past, with the side goal of conveying Dorcas to visit her father and siblings at an artists' colony in the south of France. When the action of the book begins in August 1926, Joe is meeting with a high-ranking officer in the Directorate of Military Operations and Intelligence who is trying to convince Joe to take on an assignment. Obviously knowing Joe pretty well, Brigadier Sir Douglas Redmayne tells him just enough about the assignment to pique his interest. The assignment, of course, becomes the very well-drawn plot of this novel.

With more than a little help from Dorcas, Joe sets out to unravel the mystery. A middle-aged man, obviously a late-returning prisoner of war, has turned up in a mental hospital in Reims. His records are missing and he seems to have lost both his memory and his capacity to speak. Newspaper ads placed in an effort to determine his identity have yielded four claimants. The French authorities are stymied. When the psychiatrist at the mental hospital finds the man (whom he calls Thibaud) speaking in English while in a trance-like state, he wonders if Thibaud may in fact be English. Joe's assignment is to meet with the local authorities, the psychiatrist, Thibaud, and the claimants, and from the evidence collected, to sort out his identity and recommend his disposition.

A quick read at just over 250 pages, the novel is fast-paced and entertaining, but never breezy (I find that a derogatory word, don't you?). As Joe and Dorcas meet the various parties, they begin to piece together a story that is truly quite fascinating and that reflects Cleverly's careful research into the experiences of some of the French and British soldiers, as well as the French civilians, during the Great War. I found the ending eminently satisfying but not at all predictable, the mark of a good mystery. Oh, yes, there is a murder -- one anticipated by the scene portrayed in the prologue. 

Although Tug of War is indeed sixth in the Joe Sandilands series, I think that you could enjoy it as a stand-alone pretty easily. With the exception of Dorcas, there are no other continuing characters, and Cleverly provides enough of Joe's background and his relationship to his sidekick in the opening chapters to enable you to make sense of the situation. Likeable though he surely is, Joe doesn't develop much from one novel to the next, and there is absolutely no reference in Tug of War to his work in London or his somewhat extended sojourn in India. If you read this one and like it, you could dip back into the earlier books in the series. They are all easy enough to find from the usual 'Net-based sources.

To be honest, I have only two rather small quibbles with the book. One is that I found it more difficult than I expected to keep track of the four claimants to Thibaud's person and pension as the story unfolded. This may have been a consequence of my reading the book during a particularly hot and sticky period of summer when my synapses just weren't firing properly. Or it may just be that some of them were more memorable than others. My other quibble is one that I seem to make about most of the books I review -- I would have loved a simple line map showing the places that Joe and Dorcas visited on this trip. But these are minor.

[Donna Bird]