Other Paths to Glory won the Gold Dagger award of the CWA for its author Anthony Price. Dr David Audley is the hero of this, and other novels, by Price.
Paul Mitchell is a historian and expert on the French and Belgian battlefields of the First World War. He spends much of his time in the archive rooms of the British Commonwealth Institute for Military Studies.
His mentor and hero is Professor Emerson, for whom Mitchell worked as a researcher at Cambridge. One day Mitchell is interrupted in the archive rooms by two men, and his life changes:
“Number Two spoke this time. And whereas Number One was a huge, rumpled, soft spoken, Oxbridge type, Number Two had “soldier” written all over him, from his carefully cropped red hair, and the mirror-shine of his boots, to the bark of his voice.”
Searching questions to Paul Mitchell about a small torn piece of German trench map produced by the two men. That night, Mitchell, who lives with his mother, is brutally attacked and thrown into the canal near his house. He manages to somehow clamber out, and make it back home, to the astonishment of the police constable, who have found his “suicide note.” And Professor Emerson has died that day. In a house fire. Except it wasn’t the fire that killed him.
Dr David Audley (British Secret Service) arrives at Mitchell’s house, and persuades him to go into hiding. Assumed identity...etc.
But Mitchell is also persuaded (seduced ??) into going further than that. If he is to maximise his chances of survival he must help Audley find out what he and Emerson “knew” that has resulted in one murder and one attempted murder.
This book is somewhat of a trip down memory lane for me. The school-trip that made the biggest impression on me as a teenager was a four-day tour of the battlefields of The Somme and Flanders, the main sites of the First World War trenches where millions of British, Commonwealth and German troops were killed.
Paul Mitchell has now become Captain Paul Lefèvre (pronounced “Lefever” – English Huguenot, you see) of the 15th Royal Tank Regiment. Accompanying Audley to find out what is was that had so intrigued and excited Professor Emerson on a recent visit that he had made. The problem is that every time they find a war veteran, or local, who has something useful to say, he drops dead.
Spy novels, when well-written have the air of imparting “inside” knowledge of the machinations of global geopolitics and secret services, as if they are facts. This one is no different. Whether it is indeed true or not, we are told of how “neutral houses” work:
“...That’s the curse of open diplomacy – one side’s got to be seen to win or lose, and if neither does then it’s just as bad. So the first thing that they came up with was the hot line...Except that when its a matter of life and death nothing beats face-to-face talking...So then they set up the neutral houses...if two countries have a problem they just approach a third party for a key to a neutral house. No publicity, no TV, no questions asked, permanent top security guaranteed at head-of-state level. France is a popular country for meeting...”
We find out that the French Secret Service has called its British counterparts to help out because a “neutral house” meeting is about to take place at a farmhouse in the Somme. And there has been some murderous activity in the area lately. So they are worried.
One of Paul Mitchell’s specialities is the Hindenburg Line. In particular he has done much research into the feats of a British Regiment called the Poachers. Recognised as one of the most incredible feats of the Battle of the Somme was the manner in which the Poachers captured a ridge where there was a Prussian Redoubt, which borders onto “Bully Wood”, or Bois de Bouillet. The objective had been to attack a village called Hameau which was near Bully Wood. The Prussian Redoubt was considered impregnable, built as it was into the side of a chateau. The story of how the Poachers captured it was one of both bravery and foolishness.
But maybe also interesting to someone trying, several decades on, to penetrate an even safer and more impregnable fortress on the border of Bully Wood.
The plot is clever, but the battlefield descriptions and the recounted tales of the veteran characters make this novel as much a work of military history as of fiction.
There is no Wikipedia entry for this book. The Google Books link is here.