Reading DJ Taylor's new novel was a peculiar experience for me. By an unnerving coincidence, he turns out to have constructed his plot around some of the historical events and personalities at the heart of a non-fiction book on which I've been working.
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Those events reached their climax during the early stages of the Second World War when a secretive group of British fascists led by Captain Archibald Ramsay reached a potentially history-changing accommodation with Tyler Kent, a debonair, womanising employee of the US Embassy in London, who was stealing vast quantities of confidential documents.
Such is this saga's intrinsic drama and seductively noir-ish quality that it has already provided the narrative motor for another recent novel: Laura Wilson's deservedly popular Stratton's War. I opened both of these novels with a sense of trepidation, swiftly banished by the pungent authenticity of their opening chapters.
Until one has read a few pages of The Windsor Faction, Taylor's choice of title seems merely a matter-of-fact allusion to the House of Windsor and, more specifically, to King Edward VIII and his political allies. Embedded within it, however, is a sly pun that signposts the novel's playful tone and its status as a modish blend of fact and fiction.
Like Dominion, CJ Sansom's latest bestseller, The Windsor Faction re-imagines the war's initial phase, particularly the now little-known British fascist campaign to make peace with the Nazis. While Dominion portrays the grim aftermath of such an arrangement, this novel concentrates on the illicit manoeuvrings of campaigners striving to secure a treaty.
In Taylor's alternative history, the king's mistress, Wallis Simpson, dies in a car crash, her death averting the abdication. The monarch is then courted by a group of fascist peace campaigners using the real-life writer, Beverley Nichols, as their amusingly louche intermediary. Through pastiche journals, which showcase Taylor's facility as a pitch-perfect mimic of mid-century idiom, The Windsor Faction follows Nichols's efforts to persuade the King to make a broadcast opposing the war.
Intercut with these stylish entries is the tale of a fictitious upper-middle-class girl named Cynthia Kirkpatrick, who lives within the orbit of the conspirators. When she swaps colonial India for the blacked-out streets and dingy rented rooms of wartime London, she finds herself embroiled in a half-hearted romance with Tyler Kent. Before long, she's approached by MI5, who want her to work for them.
From this rich material, only loosely connected to the real-life adventures of Kent and friends, Taylor has crafted a compulsively enjoyable novel, veined with breezy charm. Drawing on the work of Orwell, MacLaren-Ross and other literary masters of that nicotine-stained era, he gives us a persuasive vision of London during the Phoney War, and Britain at that pivotal moment when the course of history could have been so different.
Paul Willetts's 'Rendezvous at the Russian Tea Rooms' will be published by Penguin next year
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