Book review: A Chance Kill - Barbara Cartland meets Len Deighton in wartime

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 14 February, 2015, 10:48pm
UPDATED : Saturday, 14 February, 2015, 10:48pm

A Chance Kill
by Paul Letters
SilverWood Books

Paul Letters writes and teaches in Hong Kong, and his second world war romance, A Chance Kill, blends patches of diligent research with too many adjectives. The 300-page book flits between Blitzkrieg kisses and Phoney War action but SilverWood Books allows the author's war-torn couple to wander too long across occupied Europe. After 100 pages of Barbara Cartland meets Len Deighton, some readers might root for the Reich to finish the lovers off.

The story begins in 1939 Warsaw, where the chestnut-haired Polish heroine, Dyta, soon establishes her feisty credentials as the capital braces for the German invasion. The author then sends her on his refugee grandmother's wartime journey to Paris, where in half a page the pale, lithe 17-year-old learns about Hermès scarves; realises how a married man has "gradually crept into her heart"; and witnesses "the French cockerel's finale, a headless twitch" as the victorious Germans arrive.

Dyta reaches Bordeaux, and takes a boat to Britain. On board, she meets shot-down British pilot Tom, who has "something Cary Grant about [his] midnight brown eyes", just as the invading panzers mass on the banks of the Gironde. When the Wehrmacht obligingly commences perhaps the most inaccurate artillery bombardment in chick-lit, Tom hears the "whistle" of the incoming shells, "overcame his English reserve and seized the young woman by the shoulders".

As the hapless ship steams to freedom, Nazi "Stukas" and submarines hold back to let Dyta show Tom that she's attractively bright, and prone to "red-faced embarrassment". From then on, they pine for each other from afar: he in a Blenheim bomber, and she as a promising spy. Their fleeting, Bad Sex Award sex is the book's biggest disappointment, however.

The author has researched the Blenheim bomber from respected sources, but he recreates the events rather than probe the emotions of an historic raid. Letters convenes hard-drinking airmen in pubs, but could have described more deeply the terror of flying an outdated deathtrap, and the effect of the Blenheims' many crew losses on Tom's relationship with Dyta.

Tom tests the Mosquito, and the reader braces for 633 Squadron-type missions, but instead Letters finds a different way to perpetuate the romance's uncertainty.

This book's best scenes are in Czechoslovakia, where Letters recreates resistance activity but skims over its repercussions. Dyta shoots more hard stares than Germans, but she always looks good. The author has a window dresser's eye for the heroine's hair and clothing, but leaves too many loose ends in Warsaw.