This Yank will confess that as recently as a few years ago, I had only the vaguest familiarity with the history of fascism in England. But the Blackshirts of the British Union of Fascists are having a new notorious moment. Their creepily charismatic leader, Oswald Mosley, had a long character arc in the dark and brooding cable series, "Peaky Blinders." The BUF's lingering malign influence on English society in the 1960s was featured in the recent excellent BBC series, "Ridley Road." Now comes author Jason Monaghan with his contribution to the British fascist canon, Blackshirt Masquerade. And it's a marvelous stemwinder of a novel that's not to be missed by fans of historical mystery or great general fiction.
In this unabashedly character-driven mystery, Monaghan serves up two intricately drawn—and deeply flawed—main characters. Hugh Clifton, scion of new-money minor aristocracy, seems a haplessly misfortunate spoiled rich boy. Too young to have shared in the tragic heroism of the First World War, he's packed off to India as a subaltern, only to be cashiered in disgrace after being conveniently (and falsely) scapegoated for the killing of unarmed civilians. Having received what were thought mortal wounds during this atrocity, he neglected to die and therefore must by necessity be court-martialed. He returns in disgrace to England and embarks upon an indolent life of lassitude until recruited by an acquaintance of his father to penetrate the BUF and gather intelligence on the movement's finances. He soon encounters Sissy Rockwell, daughter of much more noteworthy nobility, who had been attracted into the fascist movement as a fashionably exciting antidote to her disastrous marriage.
What begins as a search for the BUF's financial lifeline inexorably morphs into a murder mystery revolving around a friend of Sissy's who went missing without a trace the previous autumn. And when that thread is pulled, the serpentine course of Hugh and Sissy's investigations lead them into an elaborately woven tapestry of dangerous intrigue wherein nothing and no one is what they seem. This is indeed strange soil in which Hugh and Sissy's deepening relationship blooms, but flourish it does.
The author develops both his vividly drawn characters and convoluted storylines—of which there are several—with unerring skill, a consistent and distinctive voice, and enviable craftsmanship. The book is impeccably structured and flawlessly edited, with an internal coherence that keeps the pages effortlessly turning. But the apex of Mr Monaghan's artistry is his characters. These are all full-blooded, multidimensional, and utterly believable.
The book is impeccably researched and set within a malign movement few know much about. In the hands of an author as accomplished as Jason Monaghan, this is the finest of historical fiction. Blackshirt Masquerade is touted as first in a promised series that will give us additional endeavors of the Hugh and Sissy investigative team. I for one anxiously await the next installment, Blackshirt Conspiracy.
© Jeffrey Walker