Blackstone and the Endgame by Sally Spencer is tenth in a historical police procedural series featuring Inspector Sam Blackstone (available October 1, 2013).
Spencer is a pseudonym for Alan Rustage, who also writes under the pseudonym James García Woods.
Set in London in 1916, during the First World War, the plot is set into motion by German submarine attacks on British shipping, which have caused a crisis in food supplies. Blackstone is unexpectedly asked by Special Branch to pay a large sum to a mysterious informant, without backup support. His misgivings about the assignment, which he shares with his sergeant Archie Patterson, are quickly proven accurate. He finds himself disgraced and on the run, no surprise to the reader, since the opening scenes of the novel show him in desperate straits.
‘I’m not dying,’ Blackstone said, in a voice that was weak and cracked, but still loud enough to cause several people to turn their heads. He stopped walking and clung to the nearest lamppost for support. ‘I’m not dying,’ he said again–though in a softer tone this time. Yet he knew that he was. He had fought Afghan tribesmen and New York gangsters–he had been shot at, stabbed, and beaten–and he had survived.
He would probably not die that night–or even that week… in the end, the hunger and the cold–adding to the desperation and the disappointment that already weighed him down–would see him off. And dying was not even the worst possible ending. Far more terrible was the prospect of being caught. He had a vision of himself standing in the dock while the prosecutor tore his story apart with a contempt reserved only for the most despicable criminals. He could see the disgust in the eyes of the jury as the story unfolded, and hear the cold, vengeful tone in the judge’s voice as he passed sentence. What happened after that–whatever sentence was imposed–didn’t really matter. It was the trial he dreaded. It was those few days when everything he had ever worked for–everything he had ever believed in–first rounded on him and then condemned him. ‘How did I ever get into this situation?’ he wondered. But it was only a rhetorical question. He knew how he had got into it. He even knew exactly when and where it had started–could pin it down to that moment when he first looked across the desk at Superintendent Brigham.
‘But say [Brigham] had merely asked–if I’d turned him down, he’d only have sent some other poor bugger in, wouldn’t he?’
What’s intriguing about this novel is how the characters are taken out of their usual milieu. Given the historical period, in which so much is happening all over the world, trapping the characters in a standard murder mystery, far from those momentous events, might seem trite. Sending Blackstone into the thick of war-related intrigue, taking away his status as an officer of the law, and then forcing him to escape to a foreign land, expands the world of the series and gives more depth to the regular characters. The second section of the story, after Blackstone has fled to Russia, truly challenges him, as he does not speak the language and only has one point of human contact.
Vladimir previously appeared in Blackstone and the Golden Egg, third in the series, but it’s not necessary to have read that book to understand his place in this one. Vladimir completes the transformation of the plot from procedural to political thriller; he is willing to help Blackstone, but conceals the full extent of his shadowy power, seen in tantalizing glimpses amid the political turmoil in Russia that will lead to revolution. Blackstone is thus given unusual perspectives on the effects of the war on Russia, and the anti-government faction’s growing hatred for the hold Rasputin possesses over the Tsar and Tsarina.
Though perhaps not the best introduction to the series for a new reader, Blackstone and the Endgame will reward fans who are already emotionally attached to Blackstone and Patterson, because they encounter new and unusual dangers. While Blackstone has previously traveled outside England for cases, this is the first time he’s done so while being pursued. New readers and fans as well might enjoy this chance to move outside the strictures of the police procedural to engage with surrounding historical events. It will be interesting to see how this anomalous story will affect subsequent entries in this series!
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