London 1949. Speedway fever runs high.
Its stars are the working class heroes of a Blitz-torn city emerging from the ravages of war. With cash in their wallets and hoards of adoring fans, these dirt-track chancers enjoy a life of speed, celebrity and sex.
But as Bermondsey Bullets defend their league title, they are rocked by the death of star rider Des Fenton in a mid-race smash.
It's the start of a new and dangerous chapter for stadium security boss Reg Calloway, as he's dragged into the dark side of life at the track, with echoes of his own troubled wartime past.
When Des Fenton hit the barrier at seventy miles an hour, his bike had bucked him, thrown him and snapped him like a twig. This wasn't meant to happen to Des. Dashing Des had the luck of the devil. He was Pattie Moxon's lucky star. In twenty years of speedway riding he'd never copped more than a few broken fingers. Des was good. Des was the Bullets' ace. Quick off the tape, king of the first bend. Nothing could touch him. Until tonight.
Yep, Dashing Des comes a cropper early on. And Pattie Moxon - owner of the Bermondsey Bullets speedway team - smells foul play. Head of stadium security, Reg Calloway, is put on the case. What Reg uncovers is beyond anything even his dour view of humanity can imagine.
As Reg follows one lead after another through the dark streets of post-war London, delving beneath the glamour of the speedway scene, the shadow of the war looms over all. It is 1949. London is still largely a bombsite peopled by the broken and the lost. One of them being Reg, himself. Connections to the war run deep throughout the novel, portrayed brilliantly by Morgan.
Indeed, the era is portrayed so superbly, so genuinely, it felt at times I was living in 1949 and reading a just published novel. It is hard to describe how Morgan achieves this effect. Maybe it is dilligent research. Maybe it is the strong characterisation and magnificent use of the popularity of the post-war speedway scene as a backdrop. Or the references to the popular films and music of the day. In truth, all of these play a part. Ultimately, though, it is only the quality of the writing that can produce such a stunning effect.
The plot rattles along at a cracking pace, driven by Reg's desire for the truth - however awful it turns out to be. Reg is nothing but dogged. But what raises him above many a protagonist is his own sense of the darkness within himself. A darkness he knows is capable of the most extreme violence.
I cannot finish this review without mentioning the incredible dialogue.
Here is an example. Reg has ruffled a few feathers and is confronted by a bruiser in a tunnel:
The man ahead stopped. He was a pug-faced bruiser, five foot ten and barrel-chested, with muscled arms and ham-hock fists. He was big enough to block the tunnel all by himself.
'Are you Calloway?'
His Liverpudlian accent was deep and phlegmy.
'Are you going to let me by?' Calloway replied.
'Answer the question, pal. Are you Reg Calloway?'
Calloway looked behind him. The other man was short and wiry, with dark leathery skin and swallow tattoos on his neck and hands. He would be the dangerous one. He'd compensate for his size by fighting dirty.
'If I'm Calloway, what then?'
'Then I've got a message for you.'
'So pass it on and get out of my way.'
'Steady, pal. I don't see reinforcements turning up any time soon.'
'Who says I need them?'
'Fighting talk, eh?'
The big man laughed to himself and spat between his feet. The small man behind said nothing. Calloway braced himself.
Blood and Cinders is a truly brilliant novel, available in paperback and ebook on the following links: