Moontrug loves reading about magical places (taking strolls through Narnian woods, high-fiving Legolas in Rivendell and sipping butterbeer in Hogsmeade) but she’s also a fan of stories rooted in the real world, of plots bound up in places she’s been. And she was very excited to see that author, John K. Fulton, has set a children’s book in Dundee, a city half an hour away from where Moontrug grew up.
Dundee, 1915. Twelve-year-old Nancy Caird is desperate to do her bit for the war. So when she suspects one of her teachers of being a German spy, she’s determined to foil his plans, and ropes in the reluctant Jamie Balfour to help her uncover the scheme. Midshipman Harry Melville is on his first voyage aboard HMS Argyll as it forges through the black and story North Sea, unaware of both hidden rocks and German plots that threaten the ship. When Nancy and Jamie’s suspicions are confirmed, and they discover HMS Argyll is in deadly danger, they’re drawn into a web of espionage, secrets, and betrayal, where no-one is as they seem and no-one can be trusted.
Right from the opening line, ‘Nancy kept to the shadows as she followed the spy’, Fulton sets the pace for his war-time thriller. And Moontrug loved Nancy’s impetuous nature – creeping out of bed at night to investigate crimes and making friends with boys in graveyards… Her friendship with Jamie is really well drawn and the two provide an exciting spy duo. Moontrug also loved the inclusion of suffragette Jean who boldly declares: ‘Women were meant to stand with men, shoulder to shoulder, as equals’ in a time when women didn’t even have the vote.
Fulton perfectly captures the clandestine world of spies and all the excitement and danger lurking there: ‘He spun the cylinder with a practised air and snapped it shut with a flick of the wrist’ and the tension rises as Nancy discovers the truth behind characters’ pasts: ‘Then, unexpectedly, she heard the unmistakable sound of a key turning in the lock.’ It is perhaps this weaving of invented spy plot with historical details from the sinking of the Argyll that makes the story work so well. Indeed the language used to describe the scenes on board the Argyll was richly evocative and Moontrug could almost feel the dark, cold seas buffeting against the ship. Fulton creates a real sense of foreboding as the Argyll draws ever nearer the Bell Rock in the fog and the rain and the thrashing waves.
But set alongside the action and the drama, Fulton touches on the pathos of war, of men coming back from The Front with memories so awful they can only make jokes to deal with the trauma – and of little boys left in Scotland without fathers to look after them. Moontrug loved the humour Lachlan and Hector brought to the story, especially when Hector asks the doctor if, after his injures, he’ll ever be able to play the fiddle. The doctor replies: ‘I see no reason why not,’ to which Hector responds with, ‘Grand, because I could never play before.’
The topographical details of Dundee, combined with the historical events on board the Argyll and the excitement of spies combine to make this a convincing and exciting spy thriller for children. And the last line of the book is just wonderful…