I lost track of Ted Stratton, Laura Wilson's steady, salt-of-the-earth London detective in about 1944 as he and his City were being subjected to the dying throes of Nazism in the shape of Doodlebug rockets.
Between that dramatic second installment of the Stratton series, An Empty Death, and this fifth episode, The Riot, 14 years have passed. I'm sorry I missed them. Since the opening book, Stratton's War, "a wonderfully gripping, atmospheric triumph", Wilson has delivered a series of fascinating vignettes into life in the capital during periods we only think we know well.
Here in 1958, Stratton finds himself transferred from the West End to west London where racial tensions are rising around Notting Hill as black immigrants began to face a backlash from their white working class neighbours, a situation exploited and exacerbated by political fire from the far right. (The parallels with modern Britain are clear, where the new bogey figures for the right are eastern Europeans and Muslims.)
The murder of a rent collector in a flat block owned by a Jewish landlord who encourages black tenants drags Stratton into the heart of the racial melée. His initial interviews with the dead man's neighbours and other acquaintances unveil a full spectrum of attitudes and outlooks. The black men are predominantly frustrated, disillusioned or angry about the lack of economic opportunities they have discovered in the "promised land". The white population ranges from outwardly hostile to the newcomers to suspicious and fearful through to accepting, whether resignedly or enthusiastically.
Stratton's investigation has not progressed far before a second person is murdered, this time a black man apparently "stepping out with" a white woman. Where the first murder appears to contain an racial element - associated with rent control and the possible exploitation of black tenants - with the second there is no doubt. And as Stratton moves ever closer to solving the crimes so the rising social tension threatens to explode.
The Riot works well on two axes, as a piece of social history during a pivotal developmental period in race relations in London and secondly as a murder mystery. Stratton is a convincing and likable character, who benefits from not being weighed down by the burden of his own personal problems in the way that so many detectives are. Furthermore he is also given a sympathetic new superior officer, a man who supports and helps Stratton. This again is relatively rare in police fiction where the over-political, over-bearing and interfering boss is a plot device that is over used and often horribly unconvincing.
I am also an admirer of Wilson as a writer. She has a languid, unhurried style and allows her stories to develop in their own time.
But I didn't have the same response to The Riot as I did to the previous two Stratton novels I read. It was somehow slightly less than the sum of its parts as at times I felt the plot was almost too involved and occasionally tricky to follow. That said, I enjoyed it and will look out for Stratton when he next appears.