"Other Paths to Glory" by Anthony Price (published by Penguin Books)
Killing then and now and forever
In this instance, oldish literary art such as Price’s is being kept in the modern eye by the 20 books from the 1920s to the 1970s now re-released under the Crime and Espionage tag by Penguin Random House, who must have one of the largest back catalogues in the book trade. And of the 15 authors featured in the 20 books, we have to admit that there were several we didn’t know but do now.
Anthony Price was one of the unknown. He was born Alan Anthony Price in Rickmansworth, Hertfordshire, England, on 16 August 1928, and it is recalled that as a junior reporter on the Oxford Times in the early 1950s he was asked if he’d like to review a book for its sister paper, the Oxford Mail. It was, he was told, “only a children’s book but it’s by a local author”.
The local author turned out to be a Professor J.R.R. Tolkien, who was the Merton Professor of English Language and Literature at Merton College, Oxford University, from 1945-1959, and the book was “The Fellowship of the Ring”, the first volume of “The Lord of the Rings”.
Price took the opportunity and made an auspicious start to his career as a reviewer. He specialised in crime fiction, and his efforts in the Oxford Mail earned him high regard as a judge of the genre, so much so that in 1968 the publisher Livia Gollancz asked him to consider writing a history of the crime novel. He declined, feeling it would be too much work, but added he did have an idea of his own for a novel, if Gollancz might be interested.
They were, and when “The Labyrinth Makers” was published in 1970, it was to laudatory reviews and won the Crime Writers’ Association Silver Dagger award (secondary to the Gold Dagger for Best Crime Novel of the Year, which was won that year by “Young Man, I Think You’re Dying” by Joan Fleming).
“The Labyrinth Makers” introduced Dr David Audley and Colonel Jack Butler, respectively an academic and a solid military man working for British counter-intelligence, who were to recur in many of Price’s 19 novels over the next 19 years, concluding with “The Memory Trap” in 1989.
“Other Paths to Glory” was his fifth novel, and the Crime Writer’s Association, a UK organisation, awarded it a Gold Dagger in 1974, then in 2005 they shortlisted it for the Dagger of Daggers, a special award to be given by the association to celebrate its 50th anniversary. All books that had previously won the annual Gold Dagger were eligible, the aim being to select “the best of the best” as the top crime novel of the previous 50 years. Price’s book made a shortlist of six and the winner was John Le Carré’s “The Spy Who Came In From the Cold,” from 1963.
In “Other Paths to Glory”, an expert on the Battle of the Somme in the Great War of 1914-18, Professor Charles Emerson, is found dead at the bottom of the stairs in his home at Farley Green with the house on fire. The authorities realise it is murder and arson made to look like accidents. And then aged soldier George Davis is killed in a hit-and-run car accident while walking home after his evening pint in the local pub.
As well as these deaths, two men try to murder young military historian Paul Mitchell, an associate of Emerson, while he is walking home after researching in the Great War Documents Room of the British Commonwealth Institute for War Studies in London, where he was gathering material for a book on the First World War.
The assailants hurl him over the towpath railing into a roaring weir, but he just manages to survive after being swept along by the crashing water and luckily dashed into a pylon of the river bridge. Someone had faked a suicide note from him to his Mum.
The two mysterious officials, Audley and Butler, appear, something vaguely to do with the Ministry of Defence, perhaps, and some sort of secret intelligence thing. They have a fragment of a 1916 German trench map sent from a security counterpart in France, and they think Mitchell can help them unravel its location and meaning.
Emerson recently visited the 1914-1918 battlefields in France, and was in contact with Davis, so their deaths and the map point to something strange going on now connected with the area around the brutal Battle of the Somme in 1916.
As Mitchell escaped from the river unseen, he is missing presumed dead, and Audley and Butler “recruit” him as a war expert, warning him that if it becomes known the attempt on his life was botched, there will be no mistake next time. He has the choice of hunting with the hunters or being thrown to the wolves.
Mitchell must go underground and is put into disguise with a new identity, though from whom and from what is unclear. Now Price switches the action to France, in particular around Bouillet Wood – “Bully Wood”, to the British – which turns out to be surrounded by a double fence and guarded checkpoints, large and unfriendly dogs.
Among the now well-ploughed and cultivated farmlands of the Somme, the wood is as heavily defended a strongpoint as it was in 1916. What really happed during that long-ago murderous battle, and why is it being hushed it up all these years later? In France, there are another couple of killings made to look like accidents, the victims again all innocent and unknowing.
Apart from a gripping mystery, Price treats we readers to a fascinating historical recap. The Budapest Times atlas revealed that his Fontaine-du-Bois, Thiepval, Beaumont Hamel, Guyencourt, Miraumont, Mametz, Fricourt and the rest are real locations from 1916.
So is the Golden Virgin on Albert Cathedral, the “Glory Hole”, which is an original piece of no-man’s-land with preserved mine craters on the British sector of the Western Front, and the large Lochnager Crater created by an underground explosive charge secretly planted by British miners beneath the German front lines.
Occasional unexploded shells and grenades can still remain in the ground, and “… the trenches might have gone, the sandbags long since rotted, the millions of miles of barbed wire grubbed up and the tens of thousands of guns and tanks hauled away to be beaten into the next generation’s ploughshares, but the British had left one enduring reminder of their occupation of this narrow strip of France: they had left their dead”.
Price cleverly weaves his modern-day mystery and murders with the slaughter of the “war to end all wars” half a century earlier. Another half a century on, we catch up with his book, to our benefit. The author died on May 30, 2019, aged 90 but his art remains.