First in a series of period mysteries following Oxford Ancient History Fellow Duncan Forester, Gavin Scott’s The Age of Treachery (Titan Books) takes us to post-war England in 1946, to a Europe still reeling from the devastating effects of the second world war. There we meet Forester, a former Special Operations agent recovering from active service and the loss of a loved one, striving to rebuild a quieter life in academia, when he gets pulled into a dangerous mystery.
During a university High Table, we meet one of Forrester’s colleagues, a “mediocre scholar and provocateur” named David Iyall who causes a stir at the dinner by challenging a visiting Norwegian professor with assertions about the connections between Nazism and Norse mythology. When the boorish Iyall is later found murdered in the snow, the prime suspect proves to be a friend and colleague named Gordon Clark. Iyall had reportedly beaten Clark out for a coveted academic position – and was cuckolding Clark to boot – but Forrester believes the man is innocent. As he investigates Iyall’s murder, he learns of the existence of an ancient Norse manuscript that may have occult encryptions within it.
Forrester’s queries take him across Europe to a trashed-out defeated Germany, then to Norway, in search of information about the mysterious ms. In so doing, he rouses the interest of some sinister types with long-standing connections to the Nazis. Though the war may be over, the atmosphere of paranoia and suspicion has, if anything, grown more intense, and Scott excels at capturing this. At times, reading his descriptions of the European cityscape, in particular, I kept flashing on scenes from Carol Reed’s The Third Man.
As an added bonus for literary Anglophiles, Treachery also features cameos by literary figures like J.R.R. Tolkein, C.S. Lewis and Ian Fleming – the former two adding pertinent background info about Norse mythology, while that last provides insight into some prominent figures with connections to Hitler. At times, this historical playfulness gets a bit much (as when our hero randomly runs into Thor Heyerdahl on a train), but for the most part, it’s good fun.
Forrester returns to Oxford to solve the murder mystery – but not before several near brushes with death, including a flight through the Norwegian woods with a lovely countess who we suspect will return in later volumes. If Forrester occasionally comes across as a stiff-lipped variation on Robert Langdon by way of Indiana Jones, it’s worth noting that author Scott had a hand in The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles. Age of Treachery isn’t as frenetically action-packed as a full-blown Jones movie – its pace is more deliberate per the strictures of the classic detective fiction genre – but you can see some of its roots. As for the actual murder mystery that sparks this all, it’s cleverly constructed.
Age of Treachery proves a promising start to a series planned to take us through at least two more ages and two more mythologies, Greek and Judeo-Christian, respectively. In an era where political treachery and religious belief seem to have become overly entwined, I’m particularly curious about where Scott will take that third volume.