For all my admiration of Julian Symons as a novelist, as well as as critic and historian, one of his novels has always passed me by. Until now, that is. The book in question is The Broken Penny, first published in 1953, and Symons' only attempt at writing a political thriller. In the first edition of his Bloody Murder, Symons invited Edmund Crispin to comment about his writing, and Crispin - though positive generally - was less than enthusiastic about the book. I suppose that may have influenced me.
More recently, I discovered, to my surprise, that Symons had quite a soft spot for the novel, so I thought I'd give it a go. And I was even more surprised to discover that it's a good book, far superior to a good many thrillers I've come across. Interestingly, it seems that Symons based the central character, Charles Garden, very vaguely on George Orwell...
Garden is a man of 45, and has a history of political radicalism, although the war has left him somewhat disillusioned. It is the post-war period, when the map of Europe has been redrawn, and it seems that a small country - not named, but shaped like a broken penny - may offer a foothold for Britain and its allies who are concerned by the power of Russia. A man named Arbitzer from that country is now based in Britain, and he is seen as a suitable leader for a movement of insurgents.
Against his better judgement, Garden is persuaded to join Arbitzer and his family as they return to the Broken Penny, but the planned revolution rapidly unravels. A tale of one double-cross after another unfolds. It's all done rather excitingly, and it's not like any other Symons novel. I was impressed. The Broken Penny is a book of its time, but it's an entertaining story which deserves to be better known.