I learned of the amazing John Linwood Grant when I read the book A Study in Grey. I instantly fell in love with Major Redvers Blake and have been wishing and hoping I could read more about him. Well, Virginia, dreams really do come true…
A Different Kind of Soldier
Autumn bleeds in tawny shades, a suspicion of winter hiding under sodden foliage. And if I have an ‘autumnal’ character in my tales, it can only be Lieutenant, later Captain and then Major, Redvers Blake. His khaki uniform is shorn of the reds and vivid yellows of autumn, though – it is a dull reminder of death, which is always on his horizon. All Hallows Eve is, for him, just another day of troubled and departed souls.
Blake’s time in South Africa during the Boer Wars left him with a permanent stammer and a dead father; his mother, driven insane, left him with the burden of being a physical sensitive. He can feel, can listen to the world around him if he touches it – which means he remains gloved whenever possible. Bloody-minded and occasionally insubordinate as he is, his masters eventually place him in Military Intelligence, and try to have as little to do with him as possible. From there he deals with those strange ‘incidents’ which others dismiss or cannot grasp, either working on his own, with Special Branch or with the regular army (one or two readers might spot the source of the Royal North Surreys, the regiment to which he is attached at various stages in his career).
I have tracked him from the Second Boer War, through the Edwardian era, through ab-natural threats, espionage, a Balkan crisis or two, into World War One, and beyond. He has saved some, shot or had hanged many more, and done his duty to a dead Queen; he has worked with the great minds of the period, even with a reluctant Mr Sherlock Holmes:
Holmes stared at him. “You are no John Watson, Captain Blake.”
“Indeed not. He was courageous, steadfast and m-m-many other noble things. I have no d-d-delusions about my own character. I lie, p-p-perjure myself, and deceive d-d-decent folk. In the last week alone I’ve killed a man with the revolver you saw, and p-p-probably sent at least one other to the gallows.”
There was a sudden tiredness about the detective’s face.
“It seems that I was correct to retire,” he said. “This is not my world.”
Two new Redvers Blake tales came out this year. The first is a story of insanity and art in turn of the century Paris, ‘In Service to a Distant Throne’, included in the Stygian Press anthology Y. Blake is sent to track down a British agent embedded in the feverish artists’ circles of Montmartre, a man whose communications have become delusional, incomprehensible.
The second is a bleak episode early in his career, ‘At Vrysfontein, Where the Earthwolf Prowls’, where Blake faces the horrors of the Boer War concentration camps. That one is the final story in my latest collection, Where All is Night, and Starless:
Blake stares at the huddle of displaced women and children in the wagon. The woman whose son was screaming has a baby in her arms, a small thing which is too quiet, as if to compensate for the sounds its older brother has been making. She has a flat, dirty face, and her eyes are full of red-rimmed anger at the English officer on his fine horse. The officer who watched as his troops burned the family’s farmhouse and took the cattle.
“Are you content?” she asks in Afrikaans. “They will be quiet, maybe, until I bury them.”
“I did not want this duty, mevrou.” His horse moves restlessly, and he comforts it with one gloved hand. He has no such comfort for the woman, or for himself…
Here, though, is a vignette I wrote for the talented writer Doungjai Gam Bepko, something which I posted briefly for her on Facebook. It references one of Blake’s few journeys to the East for his Military Intelligence masters, and hasn’t been in print or on any website, until now.
The clearing by the river smells of damp soil, sweat, and dying empires; cinnamon bitterns rise from the reeds, a brief clamour of alarm…
Blake smiles. It helps with the pain, and it confuses the French officer, who fingers the leather flap of the holster, uncertain.
“You are not in Burma now, Captain Blake” says the sous-lieutenant. “Go back to Rangoon and drink quietly, for your own sake. The Chao Phraya valley is neutral, not territoire Britannique. Your Lord Salisbury said this, on behalf of your own government, and you should listen to him.”
Behind the Frenchman, rattan sways. Yellow silk whispers between the slender canes.
“Can’t d-d-do that, old chap.” Blake’s smile does not fade. “My Lord Salisbury is dead, his ulcerated b-b-body crammed into a wooden b-b-box. He says very little, these d-d-days.”
“Capitaine…” The sous-lieutenant draws out his revolver, a decision made. On either side of him, soldiers of the Third Republic begin to load their rifles. Pride and shame make them eager to end this, eager to leave an Englishman in a foreign grave.
Blake’s left hand grips the carving he found in the ruins of the village – the wooden figures of a squat bird, the beak broken away by a heavy, careless boot. He looks down at it; there is blood on his fingers, though not as much as wells from his wounded shoulder.
“This speaks to me, though,” he says, mastering his habitual stutter for a moment. “It tells me that three nights ago, your men came down from hill patrol – where they should not have been – and took their pleasures by the Chao Phraya.”
The sous-lieutenant trembles. He is twenty two years old, and has a girl in Chanthaburi who he loves almost as much as he loves his Normandy wife. Ordering the death of another European, an officer, is not easy, but…
Yellow silk slips past the spines of the rattan, yellow silk, then brown. Sturdy material, not the finery of court. Four sisters were not in the small fishing village when the French came to call – Blake met the women later, whilst he was closing lifeless eyes, sparing the sky such terrible stares. Despite an initial misunderstanding, they believed him when he said he could find the French. They believed him when he asked them to follow his path, and to wait for their moment.
He lets the carving slip to the forest floor. The signal…
Four sisters; six soldiers. Doungjai Song breaks from the rattan and the trees, her curved knives held low; Doungjai Sam is behind her, a fishing spear held high. Doungjai Nueng, the oldest, has a Siamese Mauser rifle, and Doungjai Si, almost a child, waits with a knotted cord in her hands, ready to tend to those who fall.
Louis Abras, with semen still crusted on his trouser leg, dies first, the serrated spear-head in his gut. The sous-lieutenant, who was not present on that shameful night in the village, who might have lowered his gun and waited for judgement, chooses badly and fights back. He falls last, a Mauser bullet in his heart, spared the twist of Doungjai Si’s cord around his neck. He will not see Chanthaburi – or Normandy – again.
One of the sisters murmurs something to the others, and they begin to drag the bodies to the Chao Phraya, which – Blake has been told – has many, many catfish of a remarkable size and an even more remarkable appetite. Doungjai Song has a bullet wound in her arm, but otherwise…
Doungjai Nueng – all the name she ever offered Blake – kicks one of the corpses. The lines on her dark skin are deep, her expression deeper.
“Where will you go?” she asks in her own tongue, and he understands well enough.
His smile has left him, because it is no longer of value. He was sent here for intelligence on the French, but does not care for what he has learned. Not that he is greatly surprised. He rarely is.
He bows to her, because sometimes you just do. “Why, b-b-back to Rangoon, of course. To d-d-drink quietly.”
She nods, and turns away. Silk flows between trees and creepers, flows smoothly like the great river, and Blake is alone.
Redvers Blake is also featured in various other anthologies, such as The Chromatic Court (18thWall) and A Winter’s Tale (Pavane Press). Where All is Night, and Starless (Trepidatio, July 2021) is available in paperback on Amazon, with eformats available directly from the publisher.
“A far-reaching collection, imbued with beautifully deft prose, where dark humour, melancholy and ghoulishness effortlessly share the same space as though in cosmic alignment with the fates.”
John Linwood Grant is a professional writer/editor from Yorkshire, UK, with some seventy short stories and novelettes published during the last five years in venues such as Lackington’s Magazine, Vastarien, and Weirdbook, and in several award-winning anthologies. He writes dark contemporary fiction and period supernatural tales. His novel The Assassin’s Coin (IFD), features the feared Edwardian assassin Mr Dry, from the collection A Persistence of Geraniums, and the related novel 13 Miller’s Court (with Alan M Clark) won the 2019 Ripperology Books award. He is also the editor of Occult Detective Magazine and various anthologies. His second collection of weird fiction, Where All is Night, and Starless, is out now from Trepidatio. He is ageing, sarcastic, and has his own beard. He can be found regularly on Facebook, and at his eclectic website GreyDogTales.