Ghosts of the West, by Alec Marsh

Nicola Cornick

Highly entertaining whilst packing a historical punch.
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Those readers of the same vintage as I am may remember Dick Barton, Special Agent, the television programme at least, if not the original radio series. The iconic music from that series was playing in my head whilst I was reading Alec Marsh’s Ghosts of the West, conjured up by the marvellous atmosphere of derring-do, and the thrills, twists, rogues and dames who populate this historical mystery.

Ghosts of the West is the third book in the Drabble and Harris series set in the 1930s and featuring the eponymous pair of sleuths whose unlikely friendship – dipsomaniac journalist and rather more disciplined professor of history – takes them to exotic places in the interests of unravelling fiendishly complicated crimes.

In this adventure it is a case of grave robbery that sets the ball rolling. Before long there has been the theft of a priceless Native American artefact from the British Museum, swiftly followed by murder. The dauntless duo embarks for the United States in pursuit of both the artefact and the truth, and they start to uncover a political conspiracy that is more far-reaching and dangerous than they could ever have imagined.

The story entwines three separate periods of history; whilst set in the 1930s with the threat of war in Europe looming ever larger, it also touches on the seventeenth-century tale of the Native American Princess Pocahontas and delves more deeply into the troubled nineteenth-century period in American history when legendary names such as Red Cloud, Sitting Bull and Crazy Horse battled the US army to preserve their rights to the Native American lands. This was not a period of history that I knew a great deal about so I was fascinated – and horrified – to learn more about that unequal struggle and the historical wrongs meted out. The book eloquently demonstrates the Native American transition from their traditional way of life to the new one that was enforced on them by the settlers. It is a conflict that has plenty of resonance in the current day as well as throughout history. I thought that the title was very apt, conjuring up as it does the legacy of the Wild West as well as the spiritual elements of the Native American experience.

This is the best sort of historical novel, though. Whilst providing a prism to view the past through the attitudes and experiences of its characters, it never forgets that it is here to entertain us. The action of the story really hots up onboard the SS Empress of the Atlantic when Harris is kidnapped and Drabble is accused of murder. From then onwards it is a race to the end, the pages turning quickly as our heroes battle to outwit an alliance of marvellously varied villains and the plot takes one twist after another. The style, which reminded me of PG Wodehouse mixed with John Buchan or Geoffrey Household is full of humour and wit, and there is even a romance for the dashing Professor Drabble. Ghosts of the West is highly entertaining whilst packing a historical punch.

Nicola Cornick is a bestselling novelist and the author of The Other Gwyn Girl.