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Wednesday, 21 August 2013 00:00

Demons Walk Among Us

by Paul Simon

by Jonathan Hicks

(Y Lolfa, £8.95)

In this sequel to The Dead of Mametz, Jonathan Hicks (below) has defied literary gravity - this second novel is even better than his impressive first outing.

Demons Walk Among Us is quite simply even more compelling, horrifying and gratifying a read than its fine predecessor.

It picks up on the story of Captain Thomas Oscendale of the scorned military police, who faces not only the almost ritualised slaughter of the first world war's killing fields in Gallipoli and Ypres, but also the depredations of a vicious serial killer targeting war widows in his home patch of Barry, south Wales.

Their murders are as horrific and as stylised as the advance and counter-advance of the imperial armies.

But are they linked and if so how? And what of the rumours of a much-decorated British officer being a liar and a coward? Is he a murderer as well?

The twin scenes of slaughter - one domestic and precise, the other martial and indiscriminate - certainly affects Oscendale's balance. And it is in his and indeed others' reactions to the killing fields that Hicks articulates the mental as well as the physical devastation of mechanised warfare.

Thus the author is able to delve deeper into Oscendale's character, his fears and vulnerabilities. We see him exposed and challenged as never before. He is stretched to his limits. He grows more brittle as he faces some of the harshest realities imaginable.

As a military historian, Hicks is able to set this very personal reaction within an utterly well-researched and believable diorama.

His descriptions of the claustrophobic and dangerous conditions inside an early British tank under fire and Oscendale's witness to a necropolis of a gassed German bunker are stand-out episodes.

But the author is emotionally connected enough to empathise with the bleakness and vulnerability of young widows in a desensitised and bullying society.

With the British Establishment desperate to interpret the first world war from its own standpoint as the 100th anniversary of the start of the conflict approaches, let's hope that there is another Oscendale book planned for publication to smash through its ridiculous myths.

Oscendale is building up to be a thoroughly compelling creation and Hicks is already a masterful and first-rate novelist.

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