Book Review: Hand of Glory

Hand of Glory by Susan Boulton

Dried and pickled, bestowed with magical powers and held in the highest of esteem by thieves, a Hand of Glory, retrieved from the right arm of a villain, was their gateway to a house of riches just waiting to be relieved of them. Lighted candles held aloft by the hand’s fingers predicted how many occupants were abed, and not only provided a mystical tool and protective power for the intruder, but also prevented anyone from a premature awakening until the flame was extinguished.

Such is the object of Archie Hawkins’ desire as he and his brother, Jim, have been carrying on a family crime legacy by joining the fighting at 1917 Passchendaele with the aim to scavenge loot off soldiers—and they weren’t picky whose side they came from.

On the same night they perform their ghastly duties to retrieve a hand, Captain Giles Hardy lay wrapped in barbed wire, watching as death and destruction fall all around him, convinced that he too would, and should, die. As it turns out, Hardy makes it home to Stafford, but is haunted by what he has seen as well as the ghost of a close comrade, Corporal George Adams. Drawn by a new acquaintance into the world of outdated séance and a crafty medium, the spirit realm both intrudes and lends a hand to lead Hardy to the links in his past he never knew, as he continually seeks to escape the Great War battlefields he remains tied to, even years after the Armistice.

Given that I was not entirely convinced this particular mythology was a good fit for my interests, it was fortuitous that Susan Boulton’s Hand of Glory opens with robust action playing out on the Western Front as more than one brand of battle rages. From there I was drawn into the dugouts, witnessing the death throes of men both resigned to as well as fighting death, the wet dust of the departed and all the filth, excrement and other assorted miseries of the infamous trenches. While there are indeed battle scenes, the author focuses less on them than the histories and personalities of the men they engage, and the sudden silence of remembering as unlikely suggestions purr amidst senses on the brink: the silky voice of a lover or “burning autumn leaves. The scent that lulled the English countryside into its winter sleep.” Boulton’s subtly is even subtle as she artfully weaves memories of the dying within the deafening pounds and thuds of warfare so that, not unlike some of the men themselves, we don’t realize that slipping away in such an environment could be so serene.

These are amongst Hardy’s haunted memories as he begins to piece together details surrounding thefts within Stafford of late, and the investigation he hopes will bring peace to himself as well as the departed. If I thought it would be a simple matter to just read a bit one day and put the book down, I was disabused of that notion as Boulton’s pages flew from left to right under my fingertips, my eyes greedily soaking up the story with a setting, era, plot and mythology that mesmerized my reading self. Not unlike sleepers unable to rise from their beds when a Hand of Glory’s fingers were lit, I was frozen to the folio as the tale progressed.

The War Memorial in Stafford in its current location. (It was turned round when the new Crown Court was built.)

Part of what makes Boulton’s yarn so addictive is the authenticity of the era’s presentation. Small moments and particular words make it so, and contribute to a feel of reality as the author also manages her narrative to ensure smooth progression. Early in the novel, a waitress “bobbed a small curtsey” to a group of newly-arrived patrons. Later, from Archie’s perspective, we read that “[t]he Victorians had turned the small halt into one of their gothic, wrought-iron confections, which now straddled six lines.” Here Boulton also conveys characters’ own awareness of the time they inhabit, with this reference to the now-passed Victorian era and the growth of the railways, with a small dig at the era’s predilection for excess.

It would be one thing to say Hand of Glory is a thrilling read and the pages couldn’t be turned fast enough, though this wouldn’t be doing the novel justice. Readers are swept into the story with a breathless anticipation, all the more so because the author’s words and imagery bring the scenes to a living presence, as if we are watching the real characters experience these events, or in a movie, its Hitchcockian elements—trains, domineering mother, false accusation, side-switching or suspicions of such, suspense over surprise (though there is this), the charming criminal, crucial close-ups and more—lending a weighty heaviness to a number of scenes as the camera slowly, willfully, pans across a dark, silent setting, or one in which a single element is ever-present and undisguised, but often also remains undetected.

Adams coughed, as if the smoke of the non-existent cigarette were troubling his lungs. He looked at Hardy, his ghostly eyes narrowing. “It’s coming to a bloody head, sir, after all this time. We’ve got a good chance to get it damn well done for good.”

 “Get what done?” Hardy asked, confused and angry, cursing under his breath at the nonsense of it all.

 Adams did not answer. The smoke from the cigarette gathered against the windscreen. Flames flickered. Red-hot. The gothic window of tree branches. Fingers entwined in his. The cold metal of a ring on a small finger. Hardy screamed and the illusion shattered. He slumped back in his seat, staring out at the windscreen at the night-wrapped lane that led to his home. How long he had been sitting there he did not know. His mind tumbled over and over, stressed to breaking point. Was he really here? Still in Flanders? Or, as one doctor had tried to put it, in a mental retreat where all his fears and perhaps hopes played out: a self-created purgatory?

 The author easily transfixes us not only with suspense, mystery, horror and criminal enterprise, but also imagery that, while often reminiscent of the legendary director mentioned above, casts as well its own role with lines powerful enough to stop us dead as we seek to take them in again. Boulton shows us moroseness,

Dull and reluctant, the day began

 a silken, swarthy sense of voyeurism as we follow an intruder

The moonlight crept down the hall, running pale fingers over the pictures hanging on the walls.

and the theater Hardy cannot escape.

A star shell exploded high over the battlefield, banishing the darkness for the space of its short, sputtering fall to earth. In the flickering man-made light, hell was again visible, pockmarked and drowning in the late autumn rain.

That hell follows Hardy, chained to his prior entrapment even years after release, with his investigation and journey to free himself as well as others questioning “the war to end all wars,” as character dialogue purposefully reveals no perceptions as to what anyone may or may not have gained from it all.

From the start Hand of Glory is gripping, taking us to an England transitioning into a new world forged from flames while the old still undergoes its destruction. Its people, forward-looking and dated alike, walk side by side, and Boulton utilizes their shared language—the feel and character of it—to depict Hardy and others within this transition as they examine that circumstance and what it will mean for all involved.

That the paranormal mixes with historical fiction and wartime storytelling is quite clever and makes the novel stand out from either genre. Boulton takes that one step further by writing a story that carries readers along quickly as the action and suspense build up through a cast of characters intricately linked to the past as their paths converge in their post-war present. Some of this is recognizable before or as it occurs, but the manner in which it does, itself brings us back to stories of the past attached to readers (or viewers) urging on their heroes or shaking fists at baddies, this reader involvement entangling with the action and furthering the sense of urgency previously built upon by the author. It’s an innovative kind of old story that will capture new readers in its imaginative, disturbing grip.

War medals of the author’s grandfather, the real George Adams, who, as she writes in her dedication, “made it home in 1919.” The medals are 1914-15 Star, British War Medal and the Victory Medal, referred to by veterans as Pip, Squeak and Wilfred. (Click image for more information.)

About the author …

My name is Susan Boulton and like the song by The Police says, I was born in the 50′s and I had the unusual distinction of arriving into this world  200 yards from where, 37 years before, Tolkien spent time thinking about hobbits.

I have lived all my life in rural Staffordshire, and have a passion for the countryside, its history, myths and legends, all of which influence my work. Married with two grown-up daughters, I now put my over-active imagination (once the bane of both my parents and teachers) to good use in my writing.

I have had short stories published in the following:

Flash spec (Volume I and Volume II) (EQ Books)

Touched by Wonder (Meadowhawk Press)

Ruthless People

Alien Skin

Golden Visions

The Dark Fiction Spotlight

Tales of the Sword (Red Sky Press)

Malevolence – Tales From Beyond the Veil (Ticketyboo Press)

“Mirror” – Kraxon Online Magazine

Novels:

Oracle  (Ticketyboo Press)

Hand of Glory (Penmore Press)

To learn more about author Susan Boulton and keep up with her news, follow her at Facebook, Twitter or her blog! She will also be at, and taking part in panels, Sledge Lit 3 at the Quad in Derby UK on November 25th 2017. This looks like a lot of fun, so go on and check it out! Hand of Glory and other works by Susan Boulton may be purchased at at Amazon or Amazon UK. Enjoy!

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A free copy of Hand of Glory was provided to the blogger in order to facilitate an honest review. 

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Photos courtesy Susan Boulton

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