(William Heinemann, 1985)
When I was sixteen or so, my father told me about the many careers of the late John Freeman: war hero, Labour MP, Minister, star television interviewer, editor of the New Statesman, High Commissioner to India, Ambassador to Washington, and chairman of London Weekend Television.
In other words, my father deadpanned, he threw his life away.
Clare Francis isn’t quite in Freeman’s league, but not far off. The first woman to captain a yacht in the Whitbread Round the World Race in the late 1970s, she had several other yachting accomplishments to her (household) name and wrote three accounts of her sailing adventures.
In 1983, she turned to fiction and has written a number of classy thriller/mystery novels. I have enjoyed several of them, but only one – A Dark Devotion (1997) – has stayed on my shelf for re-reading, the others having been despatched to charity shops.
Only one. Until now.
Red Crystal, her second novel, is in some ways a rather strange book. In effect, it is an alternative history of Britain in the autumn of 1969, in which (spoiler alert) a home-grown but foreign-trained terrorist group emerges, clearly based on the real-life Angry Brigade but far more deadly and professional that that somewhat-hapless bunch of would-be revolutionaries.
Neither a conventional what-if? novel nor a retelling of real-life events with a few names changed, Red Crystal creates its own reality, bringing about a ‘1969’ similar to the real one but eerily different.
The axis of the narrative is the relationship between Nick Ryder and Gabriele Schroeder, respectively a radical student and a left-wing freelance photographer. But neither is what they seem: Ryder is an undercover sergeant in the Special Branch and Schroeder (British, despite the surname) is a leader of the terrorist group Crystal Faction. Considerable tension is generated by the fact that each believes the other’s story and they embark on an affair.
Ryder believes the ‘photographer’s’ left-wing contacts can supply him with useful insights, if not intelligence, while Schroeder mistakes Ryder’s ability to break into houses and cars (a useful skill for an undercover officer) as evidence of previous subversive activity and accomplishments that can be pressed into service for The Cause.
The first section of the book takes place in 1968, with rioting in Paris and big demonstrations in London against the Vietnam War. Schroeder makes contact with a ‘charity’ that supplies Soviet-financed support to radical groups in the West.
She is trained in Italy by an outfit bearing a remarkable resemblance to the Red Brigades, while Ryder beavers away in London, monitoring a febrile left-wing scene.
Nick didn’t actually hate them or anything like that. In a curious way he actually admired them – the clever ones at least – for the way they stuck at it. The problem was, they weren’t to be trusted. They advocated lunatic policies and, like all zealots, turned a blind eye to the means.
Holed up in Italy with Giorgio, a comrade/boyfriend, Schroeder studies the news from Britain.
[It] reflected the usual preoccupations of a capitalist society: the bank rate, growing inflation, the number of strikes. The strikes, she noted, were not reported as a sign of workers’ desperation, but as a bad omen for world trade and the profits of fat capitalists.
And yet the stories interested her – very much, in fact. She discerned a strong current of pessimism. The newspaper seemed to think that everything was going to get much worse – strikes, inflation, trade. Reading between the lines, they seemed to worry about a possible recession and widespread social unrest.
She tells Giorgio they are on the move.
‘We’ll leave tomorrow.’
Giorgio shot an angry look. She touched his cheek. ‘Will you come with me?’
She said carefully, ‘To Britain. Eventually.’
Giorgio asked resentfully, ‘But what is there to do in Britain?’
‘What there is to do,’ Gabriele said, ‘is to operate on our own.’
With weapons, explosives, multiple identities and enough money to rent expensive and anonymous premises, the Crystal Faction is in business in a big way. A campaign of letter bombing with mixed results (this does partly reflect Angry Brigade activity) is followed by a parcel bomb delivered to the home of the Metropolitan Police Commissioner, which kills his wife.
More ambitious still, the Crystal Faction kidnaps the Attorney General, hides him on a farm, attaches him to explosives and tells the British Government that he will be blown to pieces unless a number of comrades are released from prison and a fully-fuelled aeroplane is made available at Heathrow.
The public is well aware of all of this – there is no attempt, as there would be in, for example, an episode of The Professionals (ITV, 1977-1983), to put a lid on reporting until the hostage is rescued. Intertwined with the murder and kidnap is the discovery, at different times and in different ways, by both Ryder and Schroeder of their respective lovers’ true identities.
If the Ryder-Schroder relationship is one axis of the tale, a second is that between Schroeder and Victoria Danby, a distant relation of the Attorney General. Not that the two women spend much time together, but Victoria – kind, trusting and seeking affection – is everything Gabriele is not.
Special Branch comes out of the tale quite well. I’ve always been wary of a police squad set up to monitor political activity, and, of course, Inspector Regan of The Sweeney (ITV, 1975-1978) hated them, which was good enough for me. But here, they are competent and dedicated and, somehow, reassuring.
Indeed, it was particularly impressive to learn that Ryder and colleagues have been assigned a surveillance duty in Neasden at ‘the strike at the photographic processing place’, a clear reference to the Grunwick dispute. Given the Grunwick affair did not kick off until 1976, this shows Special Branch as even more perceptive than we may have thought.
In contrast to the death and destruction wreaked by the Crystal Faction, the Angry Brigade managed to injure just precisely one person, using a parcel bomb. She was a housekeeper, a member of the working class, caught up in an attempt, presumably to kill, John Davies, Trade and Industry Secretary.
The timing of this novel is interesting, given by 1985 not only was any notion of home-grown urban guerrilla warfare in Great Britain risible, but that year saw the rout of industrial militancy with the collapse of the miners’ strike. In the same year, the ferocious police assault on a convoy of New Age travellers – the ‘Battle of the Beanfield’ – suggested official tolerance of radical lifestyles and social alternatives was in very short supply.
To end where we began – a rather strange book, and a very good one.