A game of spies, a brutal murder, the fate of an Empire…
The North Sea, October 1904 – When Russian warships bombard the Hull trawler fleet, killing innocent fishermen, public outrage pushes Britain and Russia to the brink of war, the sparks from which could inflame the entire Continent.
Doctor Ingo Finch, once of the Royal Army Medical Corps, is long done with military adventuring. But when a stranger seeks him out, citing a murderous conspiracy behind the infamous “Dogger Bank Incident”, Finch is drawn back into the dark world of espionage.
With Whitehall, St Petersburg and rival Bolsheviks vying to manipulate the political crisis, the future of Britain, and Europe, is at stake…
A gripping and compulsive historical crime thriller, The Cold North Sea is an explosively entertaining read for fans of Abir Mukherjee and Philip Kerr.
About the Author
Jeff Dawson is a journalist and author. He has been a long-standing contributor to The Sunday Times Culture section, writing regular A-list interview-led arts features – interviewees including the likes of Robert De Niro, George Clooney and Angelina Jolie. Jeff is the author of a number of non-fiction books, including Back Home: England And The 1970 World Cup, which The Times rated “Truly outstanding”, and Dead Reckoning: The Dunedin Star Disaster, which was nominated for the Mountbatten Maritime Prize.
Jeff Dawson is a journalist and author. He has been a long-standing contributor to The Sunday Times Culture section, writing regular A-list interview-led arts features (interviewees including the likes of Robert De Niro, George Clooney, Dustin Hoffman, Hugh Grant, Angelina Jolie, Jerry Seinfeld and Nicole Kidman). He is also a former US Editor of Empire magazine.
Jeff is the author of three non-fiction books — Tarantino/Quentin Tarantino: The Cinema of Cool, Back Home: England And The 1970 World Cup, which The Times rated “Truly outstanding”, and Dead Reckoning: The Dunedin Star Disaster, the latter nominated for the Mountbatten Maritime Prize.
Read an Excerpt
The North Sea – October 21st, 1904
Joseph Smith watched the deckhands run the line out from the starboard boom. In the last throes of daylight it snaked across the water – till the steam capstan took up the slack and, with a crack, it whipped taut.
The trawler kicked and the screw shaft whined. Bulging with a ton of herring, the twin nets would place even greater strain upon the rattling boiler. When they'd hauled them in earlier, Joseph feared they'd be dragged under, the stern barely a foot above the waves.
Joseph ... Joe ... waded shin-deep through the squirming mass of slippery silver and positioned himself well clear. He felt the watchful stare of the bosun. The sudden flex of a rough hemp rope could shear off fingers – even a limb, he'd been warned. Against a turning boat or swinging outrigger, it could crush a man dead against the gunwale.
Glad he had survived this much on his maiden voyage, Joe reached into his oilskin and pulled out his smokes. Fourteen years old but he felt like a man. He stroked his chin and fancied there were bristles to rasp. The bosun rolled his eyes. Beside him in the Crane's wheelhouse, Captain Smith, Joe's father, was squinting through the telescope. He had placed his boy in the bosun's care.
The speed picked up and the Gamecock fleet went about its business, dragging the depths, harvesting the fathoms. A day out from Hull, the boats were well over the Dogger Bank now – shallow ground but fertile. Darkness fell and the fog crept about them, the sea relatively calm, just a gentle swell. Though as every hand had cautioned Joe, it could change in an instant as the Arctic weather funnelled down from the north or the winds swung from a benign wet westerly to the savage dry stab from the east.
The bosun had asked Joe to observe the fleet's 'Admiral'. He was up ahead in a converted smack, a sailing boat with a steam engine implanted. The Admiral had been sending up rockets to indicate his tack – red for port, green for starboard. He'd then hung a blue lantern from the foremast, the signal to shoot the trawl. The Crane had done the same. One by one a string of azure pearls wound through the mist, forty beads in total spread over three square miles.
In autumn the weather was cold but tolerable. This was nothing, the old salts would add – veterans of long hauls to the Faroes and Iceland. One, a smiling white-beard, regaled Joe with tales of deadly squalls and fifty-foot waves and chipping the ice off the rigging. Not what it used to be – those days when you caught your fish, came home and flogged your wares on the quayside.
The Gamecock, a 'box fleet', was a different proposition – sitting there for five weeks, heaving in fish, having others do its bidding. A company cutter had been up before sundown for the first day's catch; another would arrive at dawn.
The cutters were refrigerated, packed with ice. They would ferry the fish directly to London then return with supplies. No romance in that, it was tutted – just a factory process, and with too many opportunities for a swindle. The coalers would be back and forth, too. And then the mission ships, selling tobacco and woollens, providing also, on request – not that many men did – something to read.
Joe, nominally the 'cook' but essentially a skivvy, went below to the tiny galley, made tea and toted mugs to the bridge. He moved on to two of the hands and the second engineer. The others were hot-bunking between watches, all of them cultivating an infernal stink.
Nets cast, the blood-splattered deck crew got back to gutting and rinsing the several hundredweight of fish slithering around them. Herring was the fleet's chief prize. They had spawned on the Dogger and were moving en masse towards the Skagerrak. Knives were ground, fish bellies were slit, gulls screeched and swooped. The fish were sorted into boxes (hence 'box fleet') – herring, cod, some pollock, the rest thrown back to churn in the wake.
Back on watch, Joe counted the lights. To the east and south were other fishing boats, probably Dutch or Danish; sometimes, off Scotland, they'd run into Norwegians, they said. Two points off the starboard bow, maybe three miles distant, came the shapes of bigger vessels travelling south and Joe shouted it up to the bridge. They were lit fore and aft. Not fishermen – probably Royal Navy, the bosun mused. The Home Fleet had been out on manoeuvres.
They had encountered the navy before, Joe was told. Sometimes a destroyer or frigate would dispatch a launch and buy up some stock for cash, a sum to be split between the crew in the absence of the company cutter ('Not a word to anyone, lad').
These ships, however, were moving with purpose. They were on course to pass close by and, at their current speed, would throw up quite a wash. Definitely warships – you could see the guns now. But not British. The Royal Navy always kept a good line, said the bosun. This lot were irregular, the lead ship steaming ahead while the others strained to keep up. And now their lights were going out ...
The skipper grabbed his loudhailer and yelled something to the Mino, the nearest trawler on the port side. She was too far away to hear. The bosun sounded the steam horn and the call was echoed throughout the fishing fleet – a signal to the warships, indicating their presence. The men paused in their gutting. The lead vessel, now less than a mile away, was at least slowing. The others in its party appeared to catch up, beginning to fan out.
The first ship was huge, looming through the mist, the thick air muffling its sound – a great silhouetted wall of turrets and muzzles and giant stacks belching smoke. It was a cruiser, possibly even a battleship, someone said. But definitely not British. You could just make out the unusual script on its bows.
The Hull boats tooted again – this time a welcome. Some trawler-men waved. But there was nothing in response. The skipper shrugged, the bosun muttered. He looked down at the deckhands and motioned for them to get on with their business.
With a tremendous squeal, a rocket went up. It made Joe jump. Way above, a red star burst and drifted down. Acrid smoke rolled across the water. It was not from the Admiral this time. It had come from the first warship. It was steering exceptionally close.
There were shouts now in a foreign tongue. Joe threw his hands to his eyes as searchlight shutters were clacked open and an intense beam of light swept the Crane's deck. It hurt to look, too dazzling. You could hear the whirr of a motor – a gun turret ...? A barked, guttural order ...
And then ...
In a ferocious whirl of phosphorescent white and a crack like thunder, a plume of spray shot twenty feet into the air. It was as if the sea itself were now crashing down upon them, hundreds of pounds of water pulled earthwards. They flinched and turned their backs. There were bellows and yells as the searchlights swept and, to a metallic rattle of breeches and magazines, deck cannon began the methodical pom-pom-pom of raking the nearest fishing boats from stem to stern.
The bosun ducked and curled into a ball. In the wheelhouse, shrapnel and splinters were flying in a demonic blizzard. He pressed his hands to his ears to stave the din. Through a crack in the boards he looked out. The Crane's bows had gone; water was gushing in, swirling in a torrent.
To the port side the Mino lay shattered, cleaved through its main deck. Men were flailing in the water, being sucked under by heavy oilskins. The Moulmein, too, had been badly hit, its funnel gone, the superstructure shredded. Some men waved fish in the air, protesting innocence, as if they were white flags.
It was quiet for a moment and then more chaos ... The lead vessels were rotating their guns. Though this time they were turning away to fire, inexplicably, on the tail of their own line, a mile or more to the rear. There were great orange flashes as the guns of the stragglers returned the favour.
Stray shells screeched overhead in an incessant banshee wail, the lead warship, the battleship, the apparent prized new target. They smashed into the water some hundred yards or so behind the Crane, kicking up jagged teeth of foam. On the foremast of the battleship, towering above the water, a blue lamp was hastily illuminated – not unlike the fishermen's. It was a signal of sorts. Soon the shelling ceased.
The bosun coughed on cordite, wafted smoke from his eyes and yelled with all his might a great animal rage of defiance. On the rail of the warship sailors leaned over, quizzical but unmoved, casually observing the carnage as one might contemplate a sunset. One of the men flipped a cigarette into the water. The bosun recognised the uniform ... the hooped blue and white undershirt beneath the V of the tunic, the tally ribbons trailing from the cap.
The engines surged and the lead warship moved on, offering no succour, no lifebelts, no concern for the great flotsam wash now sweeping the floundering survivors. Its accomplices began scattering. The Hull boats had had no chance to flee, weighed down by their nets. A nearby trawler, the Gull, had cut its lines to motor over, its deckhands reaching out. The Crane was tilting, fast going under.
In the wheelhouse, the bosun lay the body of the skipper down and jumped back to the deck, praying the man's son hadn't seen. But Joe was transfixed by the prone third mate, gutting knife still in hand, a great ragged hole where his face used to be. The bosun wrested off his oilskin and lay it over him. His name was Leggett, he said.
To a desperate call from Rea, the chief engineer, a dazed Joe waded down into the darkness to try and work the pump. The skipper's lad was brave, knew the bosun. He had seen what had happened. The two emerged a minute later, their labours to no avail. Joe helped round up the others. They were abandoning ship.
There were over thirty warships, someone was shouting – of the ones they could see; probably more out there in the fog. They needed to get out of there. A parting warship tooted its foghorn as if in friendly farewell. It was that, for the bosun, which really twisted the knife.CHAPTER 2
Finch shrugged off his overcoat and planted himself in the safe remove of a window seat. He regarded his ale. It was an object of devotion – the tawny hue, the beads of sweat, the overflow of soft, sudsy head. He waited for it to settle, an essential part of the pre-noon ritual. Then, and only then, did he take the first sacred sip, letting the alcohol infuse the sweet spot budding behind the eyes – source of 'the bliss' as he had come to call it (which alternated with 'the dagger').
He rested an elbow on the windowsill. The thin light of autumn strained behind low, grey cloud. On the roof opposite, a jackdaw flapped over crumbling tiles. It was so quiet within the pub – just the ambient crackle from the inglenook – you could hear the bird squawk.
The road formed a narrow cut between looming, gabled buildings. A section of Watling Street, the thoroughfare had once channelled the Claudian legions. Later, as the coaching route between London and the north, it became studded with inns. After that had come the railways, decline. And now ...
The thing announced its presence long before you could see it – a distant rasp that rose with proximity then swelled, via punctuating splutters, into a metallic cacophony. And then it came, hurtling along the cobbles, bouncing over ruts, before shifting down through the gears to a pedestrian pootle. In what seemed an act of supreme impertinence, it slow-rolled to idle right outside the window, a mechanical hum that resonated round the bar room and shook a horse brass off the wall.
'Good God!' blurted a man with a white walrus moustache. He set down his port, craning his neck.
The automobile was bright yellow – a Spyker, Finch recognised. It had green leather upholstery and a beaming wide-eyed female passenger, her broad-brimmed hat tied down with a chiffon scarf. The driver was trussed up in tweeds, goggles and a preposterous pair of flared leather gauntlets.
He yanked the handbrake lever, big enough for a railway signal box, then hopped over the running board to raise a flap on the bonnet and go through – what seemed to Finch – the theatrics of faux-checking something or other. Seconds later he issued a thumbs-up, climbed back on board and opened the throttle. The contraption went grinding off again, accompanied by a fairground shriek from the lady friend and an unnecessary double honk of the horn.
The blessed silence resumed. Finch sighed, lit a Navy Cut, drew deep and exhaled a billowing lungful. He studied the wisps as they curled beneath the low, blackened beams, mingling with the creeping fug of woodsmoke.
On an empty table lay a copy of The Times. He nodded to the man with the walrus moustache, who gestured that the paper was free. Finch unfolded it, smacked out a crumple and sent some ash tumbling down his waistcoat. The news contained the usual catalogue of Great Power posturing: Germans sabre-rattling over Morocco; Germans sabre-rattling over just about everything ... The Anglo-French Entente, 'Cordiale' as they were calling it, ink not yet dry, was already being tested.
And now this business with the Russians ...
'Of course, it'll be war,' piped White Walrus.
The stand-off was into its third week – that grisly incident in the North Sea where the Russian battle fleet had fired upon those poor trawlers from Hull.
The man raised his walking stick, stabbing at the paper.
'Mark my words, sir ... You mark my words.'
Already embroiled in a brutal conflict with Japan, scrapping over territory in Korea and Manchuria, Russia had dispatched its Baltic squadron on the long haul to the Far East. It was why those warships had been chugging across the North Sea that night. The latest excuse being proffered by Russia's foreign minister for its bombardment of the Hull fishermen was that the Imperial Navy had simply mistaken the vessels for Japanese torpedo boats.
'No matter that the theatre of war is round the other side of the globe?' challenged today's incredulous Times editorial. Or, pondered Finch, that torpedo boats, the latest naval wonder weapon, could operate at only short range from home, hardly 10,000 miles.
Ralph, the giant barman, paused for a moment from wiping glasses.
'How about it, Dr Finch? Battleships, cruisers, destroyers, all spooked by a hundredweight of halibut?'
There was a muted splutter around the room.
'If you want my opinion ...' added White Walrus.
'I'll ask for it,' muttered Finch and rustled his newspaper, hoisting it high.
Finch groaned. The public appetite for war seemed never to dim. The press relished every moment. Britain had put on a show by closing the Suez Canal – the Russian fleet would now have to divert around the entire continent of Africa. But the fact that the diplomats were burning the midnight oil, working to construe Russia's explanation as a plausible scenario, suggested to him that no one in Whitehall seriously wanted a dust-up with Russia. Not when the real enemy lay elsewhere. For Russia, its spat with the Japanese was already proving a military disaster – an old and decadent empire humiliated by a vibrant and modernising one. Let its fleet get chastised there.
A business item drew a wry smile from Finch and memory of a distant voice: 'Buy stock in Frigidaire' – advice he evidently should have heeded. His mind slipped into the past and he felt ill again. No, not ill ... detached. Not really present. He took another restorative sip of ale, another puff on his cigarette ...
A man was slumped at the bar. His belly strained at his buttons. He raised his head.
'Should give the bastard a damn good pasting.'
'The Tsar?' echoed White Walrus. 'Hear! Hear!'
'I mean the driver of that bloody car.'
The ripple of chuckles masked the creak of the door. A smallish, thin man in a worn jacket, scarf and flat cap darted nervously to the bar and enquired something of Ralph, who stroked a wild sideburn and nodded in Finch's direction. The man made his way over, tentative, catching his thigh on the armrest of a stray, empty chair.
'Dr Finch ... Dr Ingo Finch?' he ventured.
Finch huffed and nodded, sanctity now well and truly violated. The man removed his flat cap and kneaded it in the manner of a supplicant. He kept his voice down.
'Sorry t'trouble you, sir, but someone say I might find you n'here.'
The man cast his eyes around the room, glanced out into the street, then settled on Finch again.
'You know, my surgery's a two-minute walk,' Finch offered. 'You might want to drop in there, speak to my receptionist ...'
'It's nothin' like that, sir.'(Continues…)
Excerpted from "The Cold North Sea"
Copyright © 2018 Jeff Dawson.
Excerpted by permission of Canelo Digital Publishing.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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