The late Mal Peet was a writer of extraordinary gifts. His work was varied, intelligent and challenging, and he strained at convention while telling powerful and moving stories. His estate has been publishing the manuscripts he left behind; it is with sadness that I note that this is probably the final one. Few other authors who write ostensibly for children have matched his range: in many ways he resembles Robert Westall, whose output over forty or so novels was consistently excellent and who was unafraid to treat difficult themes.
Here, Peet returns to fatherhood, war and what it means to be good. Martin is a young man of the upper middle classes who has been left traumatised by the Second World War and by what he saw in Belsen. He drifts from seeing a psychiatrist to pub fights to dropping out of Cambridge. A random introduction from his platoon commander sends him to work as driver and odd job man at Burra Hall, where Mr Godley lives almost alone, brooding over his dead son (whose uniform graces a dummy in his house) and his beautiful Rolls-Royce Phantom.
Martin soon starts to take the place of the lost son. What follows is a thrilling study of pain, grief and evil, with the mechanics of a murder mystery powering the plot. What is honour when all else seems to be falling apart? What is a man’s life worth