Today's guest blog post is by Peter Bradshaw who is the Guardian film critic. He also co-wrote and acted in David Baddiel's sitcom Baddiel's Syndrome. The debut crime caper from Peter Bradshaw Night of Triumph brings us back to VE night, 1945, when the teenage princesses, Elizabeth and Margaret, were allowed to leave the palace incognito and join the parties and festivities with their subjects. The Palace was forced to issue a statement that the episode was without incident; but what if…?
I have never attempted pure crime fiction, but my new novel has a criminal person and a criminal act near its centre: Night of Triumph, based on the true story of how Princess Elizabeth was allowed out of the Palace on VE Night 1945 to mingle incognito with the crowds. I have certainly enjoyed placing my trembling toe in the murky waters of procedural detail. In 2003, when I was writing my second novel, Dr Sweet And His Daughter, the fact that it was about an ordinary chap who becomes a hero for accidentally killing someone in a convenience store forced me to engage with how the criminal justice system might look to some ordinary middle-class guy who is astonished to find himself up close and personal with the police. I interviewed a good friend of mine, a barrister, about what happens and when and why and how, and every detail he disclosed was a separate gleaming jewel in a fictional Aladdin’s cave. It was thrilling. No wonder writers and readers are intoxicated by genre fiction. When my lead character was arrested near the beginning of the book, simply reciting the words of the caution was a thrill: “You do not have to say anything, but it may harm your defence if you do not mention when questioned something which you later rely on in court. Anything you do say may be used in evidence.”
For this new book, looking into various aspects of the legend of VE Night, I became inspired by one of the most fascinating books I have ever come across about the 1940s and the home front: Donald Thomas’s An Underworld At War: Spivs, Deserters, Racketeers and Civilians in the Second World War. Naively, I think I assumed that just as normal party politics was suspended for the duration of the war to create a National Government, then surely regular criminal activity would have been temporarily put on hold in the interests of patriotism and tackling the larger criminal: Adolf Hitler.
Nonsense, of course. Crime flourished. It wasn’t simply the question of cheap goods on the “black market” — though it’s surprising how many people now don’t grasp that these goods were cheap and furtively available because they had been stolen — but the fact that a dedicated class of persistent and professional criminals used the chaos in embattled London as a cover for wrongdoing and pure greed. Bombed buildings were frequently looted. Once the inhabitants of damaged houses were removed to places of safety, their homes were horribly vulnerable to being stripped of valuables. Officials and wardens would return to the charred shells of houses to find that the gas meter had been emptied of sixpences. In addition, my reading uncovered the shocking and undiscussed rumours that the wardens themselves may have succumbed to the temptation to help themselves. There is a whiff of pure evil about the crime being discussed here, a whiff that it would not have had in peacetime, because home-front crime was highly damaging to morale and the petty thieves were Hitler’s useful idiots.
In Night of Triumph, I made my character Mr Ware one of them. He is a nasty piece of work, a lowlife and a deserter who has found the war a six-year-long career opportunity in crime. I wanted him to be a Greeneian character in some ways, but without the introspection — the more reflective qualities are given to the book’s lead character, Princess Elizabeth. In my book Elizabeth is unworldly, perhaps more unworldly than was actually the case — but it is this unworldliness, combined with dangerous carnival of VE Night, which brings her into contact with Mr Ware. There is taboo and terror in their encounter.
What to write next? I am drawn to the 1940s period, perhaps especially to that of the post-war Attlee government. In addition, I am fascinated in the idea of a straight crime novel. Crime poses unique challenges. The details have to be right. The narrative has to grip, and of course, there is no alibi for slack or indulgent writing. Surely, my criminal adventure cannot end here.
*Night of Triumph by Peter Bradshaw is published by Duckworth 31 January, £12.99