A Reluctant Femme Fatale In Postwar London

'War Damage'

Any atmospheric mystery set in 1940s London needs a femme fatale, a woman so desperate to know who killed her husband (or to have her husband killed) that she'll do anything — "Anything," she coos, leaning forward just enough to offer a glimpse down her top — if you can help.

Regine, the heroine of Elizabeth Wilson's War Damage, could easily be a femme fatale if she'd just embrace the role. She may lack the conscious cruelty, but she does have the requisite desperation. Her dearest friend, Freddie Buckingham, has been murdered, and if the tabloids — spurred on by his salacious sexual habits — start to delve into his life, they might stumble upon dark truths about her and her friends.

War Damage
By Elizabeth Wilson
Paperback, 256 pages
Serpent's Tail
List Price: $14.95

Read An Excerpt

Regine is a woman who gets what she wants, despite living in the postwar "years of austerity," when everything from food to clothing is rationed. Possessed of charm, money and a familiarity with the black market that she picked up in Shanghai, she uses her feminine wiles to persuade Detective Murray to dedicate himself to the case as if it were the murder of his own brother. Her own past is tightly tied in with Freddie's — her years of associations with men on the run from the law, the truth behind the careful lies she constructed about her family history — and any delving into the gossip of his lifestyle is sure to damage her reputation. She has a respectable life in London now, with the perfect (but secretly perverted) husband, the part-time job in publishing, the parties everyone from world-famous dancers to high-level politicians attend.

Elizabeth Wilson i i

hide captionElizabeth Wilson is a visiting professor at the London College of Fashion.

Elizabeth Wilson

Elizabeth Wilson is a visiting professor at the London College of Fashion.

In Regine, writer Wilson has created a character we understand and sympathize with, yet whom we still hope a little bit will be humbled. Regine easily manipulates men but is ambivalent about the power she has over them. She's resourceful enough to have crawled her way from low beginnings to London's high society, but despite being bored by it all, she's terrified of a fall from grace.

Wilson was a researcher before she published her first mystery, Twilight Hour, in 2007. As a novelist, she exploits this talent — War Damage is thick with detail — but never lets the research overrun the plot. From the language her characters speak to the jewelry they wear, everything feels perfectly authentic, as if the book had been written during the time in which it is set. With one exception: Where writers from the 1940s may have used innuendo to explore homosexuality and kinky sex, Wilson goes directly at it. The first page has two schoolboys fooling around on a sofa, and things just get dirtier from there. It may have been the age of austerity in the markets, but not in the bedroom.

Salacious, yes. But when was that ever a bad thing?

Excerpt: 'War Damage'

'War Damage'
War Damage
By Elizabeth Wilson
Paperback, 256 pages
Serpent's Tail
List Price: $14.95

LANGUAGE ADVISORY: This excerpt contains language some might find offensive.

ONE

'How did you get a key?'

Charles slid his smile sideways, but didn't answer as he unlocked the art annex door. The neglected appearance of this outbuilding reflected the status of fine arts at the school. Easels and shelves for paint and brushes left little floor space for pupils, since the studio also functioned as an office, and was furnished with a couple of old wooden filing cabinets, a desk, two bentwood chairs, and a sagging antique chaise longue. A partition separated this studio from a dark room at the back.

Charles locked the door again on the inside, leaned back against it and stared at Trevelyan — Harry — whose eyes widened with fear and adoration. Charles knew it would be all right then. 'Oh God!' he murmured. He took hold of the boy's shoulders, steered him towards the convenient sofa, pushed him down on to it and was about to undo his flies. But then he paused and took the boy's face — so gently — between his hands and kissed him. Charles' heart was beating frantically. His passion was going to kill him. And the boy wanted him too. He was stiff. Charles was shaking as he undid the heavy flannel and his throbbing prick rung a groan from his throat. Trevelyan came almost at once with a little strangled whimper.

Charles left a stain on the sofa. He didn't care. He lay back, breathing heavily. But as time passed a fearful lethargy came over him. He smiled at the boy and stroked his hair. But the obsession that had sustained him since the end of last term and all through the summer holidays had leaked away with his sperm and he was left with a feeling of utter emptiness.

'Hadn't we better go?' Trevelyan was trying to tidy himself up. 'What if Carnforth came in?'

Charles laughed. 'He won't, will he? Everyone's gone home. That's why I told you to bring your stuff — we don't have to go back to main school.' For the annex, located at the far end of the playing fields, was near the goods entrance so that it was easy to come and go without being seen. Anyway, no-one came down here after school; except, of course, the art master himself. And if Carnforth had by an unlucky chance turned up, well ...

'But ... ' Trevelyan dimly sensed that there was more to it than that.

'Actually,' drawled Charles, 'Carnforth lent me the key. I told him I wanted to finish my back drop — for the play, y'know.'

Trevelyan still looked puzzled.

'He's a fan of the ballet, you see.'

'Oh.'

'He cultivates me.'

Carnforth had lent him the key some time ago, when Charles had actually needed to work on the back drop, but Carnforth didn't know that Charles had had a copy made.

'What d'you mean?'

Charles gazed at Trevelyan from under his eyelashes. 'My mother's a famous ballet dancer. Didn't you know? Carnforth thinks if he smarms up to me it'll please her.'

Trevelyan mouth opened. His father, a rich Baptist businessman, took a dim view of the theatre and dance in any form. But this unexpected information only added to the hideous excitement he'd experienced during the past half hour.

'Yes ... darling.' The endearment — daring, unthinkable in this environment — came straight from his mother's world, and the cruelty of it excited him again. He leaned forward and seized the boy quite roughly, pulling his head back and kissing, almost biting, his neck, as he felt for his prick through the coarse flannel of his trousers. The kiss too was unthinkable, almost a kind of blasphemy.

'I'll be so late home.' Trevelyan looked scared now.

'Tell them you had an extra art lesson or something.' But Charles's incipient erection subsided. He was bored again. 'It was an art lesson in a way,' he murmured, and smiled to himself. 'You're right, though. We'd better go.'

'Suppose Mr Carnforth — ' and Trevelyan looked round the untidy, battered room. Charles put an arm round the younger boy's shoulders. 'God — you're shivering. Don't worry. I can twist Arthur Carnforth round my little finger. Everything'll be fine.' And he rumpled the boy's hair.

Trevelyan's eyes were as round as saucers. Charles smiled, but didn't enlighten him, other than to murmur languidly something he'd heard Freddie say: 'Love takes the strangest forms.' Trevelyan, of course, had no idea what he was talking about.

Charles locked the annex and slipped the key into his pocket. They walked to the periphery of the playing fields and through the gate, which gave, unexpectedly, onto the main road. Fortunately Trevelyan lived in the opposite direction from Charles, so they didn't have to travel together, which would have been boring. Trevelyan scampered across the road, and Charles waited for the bus to Hampstead underground. He could have walked from there, but he felt tired, so travelled on by tube to Camden Town. It was a relief to escape the sweaty, smoke laden carriage, but he still felt listless as he walked up Parkway.

He cheered up slightly as he remembered it was Thursday and Freddie would probably be there when he got home. And indeed, he was. He'd brought a red-haired woman friend along as well.

From War Damage by Elizabeth Wilson. Copyright 2009 by Elizabeth Wilson. Published by Serpent's Tail. Used by permission of the publisher. All rights reserved.

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