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Book Review : A Scream in Soho by John G Brandon ( British Library Publishing )

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This book is one of the new editions of the successful British Library Crime Classic series. A Scream in Soho which is the 10th title in the British Library Crime Classics series was first published in 1940 within the era widely acknowledged as the golden age of British detective fiction

A Scream in Soho’s writer John G Brandon (1879-1941) was born in Australia but lived in Britain where he wrote over 100 crime novels. Coming to Britain as a prize fighter before starting his writing career, Brandon is all but forgotten today. His prolific writing career also included contributing to The Thriller magazine and some of the Sexton Blake mysteries.

A Scream in Soho is set in London during the 2nd world war, where the streets of London were under black out conditions and conspiracies abound regarding foreign nationals and their potential for espionage. Brandon cleverly weaves the cosmopolitan mix of people who were living around Soho into his plot, concentrating on the Italian and German eating places catering for the rising Italian, Austrian and German refugee population. Brandon shows a great deal of sympathy for these refugees but acknowledges that there are  ‘ugly little black sheep who creep into every flock and, indeed, are there only for their own ulterior purposes.’

Our story begins with a piecing scream heard by our hero Detective Inspector McCarthy. Rushing to the scene of the scream the only clues are a blood covered handkerchief and a blood splattered door step.   McCarthy born and bred in Soho is a larger than life character whose good looks and quick mind is well known in the area and he quickly galvanises the local populous in the search for the body and the murderer. Brandon further introduces the espionage potential with the theft of British anti-aircraft defence plans which McCarthy is ordered by his superiors to investigate.

Soho in our story becomes a hive of detective activity with McCarthy taking risks to his own life, as well as the residents of Soho. The seedier side of Soho is revealed throughout the story and its environs brought to life in the superb pacey narrative that Brandon uses.

The questions raised by the novel would have sent a chill into the lives of the wartime British population and reinforced some of their suspicions regarding the people they had perhaps lived and worked with for many years. A Scream in Soho is a book that captures the essence of the period, where Britain is at war, but not yet under fire. It is this illustration of the ‘phoney war’ that will fascinate the modern reader and offers some insights into how the blacked out Soho streets were the scene of considerable conflict and intrigues.

Brandon was more of the fast paced thriller side of the murder mystery genre rather than the more sedate whodunits of Agatha Christie and Dorothy L Sayers. He was one of a number of prolific writers catering for a huge demand for these types of books who are generally overlooked and their reputation has tended to fade over time. It is ironic that these books were written quickly to reflect the fast moving contemporary events in London, however we now are more interested in them for their historical interest.

This book will appeal to those who like the Sexton Blake and Bulldog Drummond fast moving thriller, however the main character transcends the restrictions of that particular genre, Detective Inspector McCarthy is a likeable hero with a sense of humour with a genuine affection for the Soho area and for its inhabitants.

Visiting London Guide Rating – Highly Recommended

If you would further information or buy a copy of the book, visit the British Library shop website here

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