Reviewed by Ian Thomas Shaw
From the battlefields of Italy to a regimental reunion in Yorkshire, Jim Napier weaves an intricate tale of murder, theft, betrayal and dishonour in Ridley’s War. And one would expect no less from one of North America’s most prolific crime fiction reviewers. The novel shows a deft understanding of the genre and is executed with originality and diligent research.
When London detective George Ridley accompanies his father to a celebration of D-Day, he is expecting little more than a weekend indulging a few ageing veterans reminiscing over endless rounds of beer. Their first evening in the local pub is tragically disrupted when the senior Ridley steps out for a smoke and is violently assaulted. The younger Ridley is outraged and determined to find his father’s assailants. When the local cops don’t seem up to the job, he calls in a favour from his colleague Inspector Colin McDermott. The father succumbs to his injuries, and McDermott steps up the murder investigation while tip-toeing around the sensitivities of the local constabulary.
The hypothesis of a simple robbery gone wrong begins to morph into something much more sinister. Just before his death, the elderly Ridley had told his army mates how he had seen an Italian painting in the home of the retired regiment’s commander, Brigadier Baker-Simms, noting how familiar it looked. Moreover, Baker-Simms, who was hosting the regimental reunion on his family estate, seemed quite upset when he surprised the older Ridley admiring the painting. McDermott, a former art theft investigator, digs into the regiment’s activities during the war in Italy and Baker-Simms’ extensive art collection. The plot twists and turns, keeping the readers on their toes with a waltz of expanding scenarios for the murder and other crimes.
While the chapters set in rural Yorkshire have their charm, the transcription of the local dialect can be a bit off-putting for those of us who are not unrepented anglophiles like the author. I found the passages in Italy where McDermott seeks to uncover the truth in a small Calabrian village were much more to my liking. Here, Napier demonstrates a softness to his writing, nothing brusque, just a slow unravelling of facts from the past. Perhaps, it is my particular penchant for war stories of the lesser-told Italian campaign and my appreciation for the beauty of Southern Italy that make me more appreciative of this part of the novel. That said, there was one chapter in a Travellers’ camp (Romani/Gypsy) in Yorkshire, which was a noteworthy commentary on race relations in contemporary Britain. Insights like this are rare in crime fiction, and Napier would do well to develop more of them in his future writing.
Overall, Ridley’s War is a solid crime novel with superb character development, and a strong contribution to the Colin McDermott crime series, started by Napier’s debut novel, Legacy.
Ridley’s War is published by Friesen Press.