The challenge of writing a thriller set in a historic period is that we know what happened. My Jeffrey Flint series was set in the world of archaeology where historical events are facts, but the crime plots take place in the modern day.
However, Blackshirt Masquerade is set in 1935 in a Britain under the threat of fascism. The characters don’t know the depths to which fascism sank and how it was decisively defeated, but modern readers do.
Even if we know our history, tension can be created against a fixed backdrop of the later twenties and thirties, as for example in the excellent television series Babylon Berlin. Innumerable crimes, misdemeanours and cunning plots can be fitted into the ‘Golden Age’ with only passing nods to the historic timeline. Much happened that is not in the history books. Even if writing a thriller faithful to a well-known event, such as Robert Harris’s Munich, a great deal of the dialogue, plot and behind-the-scenes action needs to be made up.
The historical novelist will conduct extensive research, then set much of it aside, keeping only the nuggets that add richness to the story and provide the context.
Disgraced army officer Hugh Clifton is persuaded by an old colleague working for the Security Service to infiltrate Sir Oswald Mosley’s British Union of Fascists. He teams up with socialite Sissy to investigate her missing friend and they uncover a plot to undermine British democracy. A twist of fate turns him into a hero of the Blackshirt movement. Invited to join the sinister fascist intelligence unit Department Z, Hugh must choose between who to trust and who to betray.
Blackshirt Masquerade, history has run just as the books say it did. Itfollows the timeline of 1935 as closely as the plot allows, even down to who was winning at cricket. Keen students of history will know that by that date, Mosley’s movement was in decline. Not only did his party not take power, but it also never won a seat in an election. It was a disorganised, under-funded, faction-ridden shambles that seemed a much bigger threat at the time than it does now. The fear of what the British fascists could have become is what drives the characters.
Britain never became fertile ground for fascism, so Mosley is now little more than a bogeyman. The modern reader rests cosy in the knowledge that all will turn out well but changing a few of those inconvenient facts raises the possibility that history may not unfold as it should. What happens if Hugh fails?
Published by the Historia Imprint of Level Best Books, 22 March 2022.