I’m pleased to welcome guest Dick Woodgate to the site for the below book review.
‘I don’t like killing, but I’m good at it.’A Kill in the Morning by Graeme Shimmin
As opening lines go, it’s a good one by any standard. It’s memorable too – I read Graeme Shimmin’s novel, A Kill in the Morning a few years ago now, yet I didn’t need to look up that line. This isn’t a new book, it came out in 2014 – published by Transworld, a Penguin imprint – but it’s one that may have passed you by, and if it did then you really need to know about it. It’s an extremely well written, fun, crazy spy-thriller/alternate history/sci-fi mashup that holds absolutely nothing back. Hold onto your hat while I dive headlong into it for you.
Set in an alternative 1955, A Kill in the Morning opens in Berlin with a grizzly assassination. This first chapter is a well-constructed piece of writing and a strong start, and it provides the reader with the first signs of the richness of writing of which Shimmin is capable – the mention of a lavender’s overwhelming sweet perfume is immediately and unexpectedly followed by a vomiting into a gutter. I just knew at this point that I wanted to read the rest of the book.
The origin of A Kill in the Morning is of interest. A James Bond fan since childhood, Shimmin was also interested in alternate history. He pulled the two things together with the intention of writing an alternate history short story with Bond as the protagonist – the title is a reference to Fleming’s short story, A View to a Kill. He posted an early draft online of what was at this stage, a short piece of fan-fiction, and the feedback he got emboldened him to eventually grow the project into a full-length novel and to take Bond out of the equation – at least in name – Shimmin’s nameless secret agent clearly retains Bond’s DNA.
His ‘M’ character is introduced to us as ‘Major General Sir Stewart Graham Menzies, KCB, KCMG, DSO, MC’. Mercifully, he’s referred to henceforth simply as the ‘Old Man’ – a perfect moniker (Paul Vidich, in his excellent George Mueller series, refers to the director of the CIA simply as ‘the Director’. Though in a way obvious, Vidich makes the conscious decision not to provide the director with a name –an inspired decision). In A Kill in the Morning, the scene in the Old Man’s office is pure Bond. My guess is that this section came early on, when Shimmin was still writing it as a piece of fan-fiction. Here, the author sails closest to the sea of tribute, though he still imparts his own style and craft to the scene. It begins with the Old Man looking out of the window over Regents Park.
He’s staring over the grey rooftops into the sun, his silhouette hunched. He should have retired five years ago, before the vitality left him. He’s tired now, frail even; he has already seen too much. What age is he, sixty-four, sixty-five? He turns and spots me. His shoulders come up, and he straightens his back. There’s a little more to give.
A Kill in the Morning is a book of many parts. It’s a rich recipe jammed full with tasty stuff. But the combination of ingredients is unexpected. It’s like the literary version of a Heston Blumenthal dish: bacon and egg ice cream or snail porridge – or maybe both. And as well as being a fairly hard-boiled spy caper blended with a sci-if element, the book is also of course – and at its heart – an alternative history. Shimmin sites Robert Harris’ Fatherland as a key inspiration. In A Kill in the Morning, the outcome of WW2 is skewed in the Nazis favour – what if it had been Hitler who had the nuclear bomb rather than the United States? What if America had refused to have been drawn into the war by the Allies? and what if Churchill had been taken out of the equation too?
Shimmin writes the book in the first person with his secret agent as narrator. There are two secondary female characters. One of them is Kitty (so named in a half-veiled nod to Pussy Galore), a member of the White Rose – an underground Nazi resistance movement. When the narrator meets Kitty in Berlin, he immediately helps her evade the Gestapo by their pretending to be an English couple having a row, and walking directly through the line of Gestapo agents stationed to capture her. In the extract below, Shimmin’s dialogue is both economical and effective.
‘The officer stares at me. I glance back at him and roll my eyes. He smirks and his gaze moves over my shoulder. We’re through. Four more steps, and our fake argument tails off. Six and the girl wobbles. Eight and she staggers. She’s in shock. In the shadow of the first lime tree we find on Unter den Linden, I let go of her waist. Her lower lip quivers, and the suggestion of a tear glistens in her eyes. My heart’s thumping too.
‘Will you join me for a drink?’ I ask, spotting the Hotel Adlon’s welcoming red carpet.
She stares at me, speechless. I take her hand and lead her through the doorway and into the marble-bedecked foyer of the hotel.
‘Do you need a few minutes?’ I ask, gesturing in the direction of the ladies’ room.
The girl nods. She’s wearing no make-up except natural-coloured lipstick, and her face is as pale as the Adlon’s marble pillars.
‘Can I have my coat?’ she asks. ‘I’ll wait for you in the lobby bar. What will you drink? I ask, handing her the raincoat. ‘Anything… you choose,’ she says with the ghost of a smile. Moments like this are what make my life bearable.
Shimmin writes with great style and confidence; his prose is sharp and clearly the author has spent time, a great deal of time, polishing every last word of his manuscript – I cannot fault him on the quality of his writing nor the perfection of his edit. And there is another element to A Kill in the Morning – it weaves in a little science fiction towards the end. The transition from espionage narrative to the sci-fi scenes towards the latter part of the book is not an easy one to accomplish, yet the author pulls it off. And he writes these sci-fi sections well too – even if the story does go a bit nuts at the end. Shimmin succinctly describes A Kill in the Morning as ‘James Bond versus the Nazis.’ It’s a great tag line. And I think it’s a great read.
Read an interview with Graeme Shimmin, on Literary 007. https://literary007.com/2018/08/07/james-bond-versus-the-nazis-interview-with-graeme-shimmin/
About Dick Woodgate – Dick is a writer and furniture maker in rural Kent. His love of espionage fiction, Fleming in particular – and telescope led to start writing his first novel, Cold Star. Find more here – https://www.dickwoodgate.com/