The Italian Alps,1944. The Resistance is fighting a bitter battle against German forces on the treacherous mountains of the Valtellina. Eighteen-year-old Sandro Bellini falls in love with the wife of his Commander. No good can come of it.
London,1999. Michael Keats is mourning the death of his wife, killed in a hit and run accident in Northern Italy. His discovery that she had been having an affair devastates him and he sets out to find the identity of her lover.
That journey leads him to the villages of the Valtellina, where he becomes embroiled in a crime of treachery and revenge. The brutal repercussions of the war are still reverberating, and as Michael uncovers the truth of his wife’s affair, he reveals five decades of duplicity and deception.
Excerpt from Partisan Heart
he resolved to go down to the sorting office as soon as he
was dressed. It wasn’t far and the air would do him good
after spending the whole of the previous day mooching
around the house and then drinking far too much whisky
The sorting office had a 1950s feel to it. It resembled a school
building and reminded Michael a little of the large comprehensive
school he had attended what seemed like another
He followed a sign directing him to ‘Collections’, walking
through a swing door into a dingy room with a large counter
at one end.
In this obviously neglected space, Michael stood feeling
similarly neglected. No one came and there was not a sound
from anywhere. Behind the counter was a low partition
beyond which there were rows of wooden shelving with
pigeon holes filled with parcels of all shapes and sizes.
Soon a woman appeared and Michael explained he was
collecting a parcel for his wife. The woman absently took the
card, checked the address and disappeared into the dinginess
behind the partition. She returned after a minute or so with
a large brown paper parcel, about a foot by one- and- half feet
in size. A typed, white label showed Rosa’s name. Michael
showed the woman his driving licence for ID, signed a form
and left the office clutching the parcel.
It was soft to the touch and sealed so completely with
brown packing tape that, when he got home, he was forced
to hunt down a pair of scissors to open it. Inside, wrapped
in a piece of thin clear plastic of the kind dry- cleaners use
to wrap clothes, he was surprised to find a man’s jacket. He
searched for a letter or a note accompanying it and found
one in an unsealed envelope, its letter- head denoting that
it was from a hotel, the Lighthouse Inn, in Dumfriesshire,
Scotland. Puzzled, his eyes quickly took in the short message
written on it:
Dear Mrs Keats, we are delighted to be able to return to
you a jacket found in the room you occupied during your
stay in our hotel in April. We hope to see you again at the
Lighthouse Inn soon.’ It was signed ‘J. Stewart, Manager.
Michael’s eyes returned to the jacket. It was light brown
with a faint check of a darker hue stitched through it.
Expensive, he thought, looking at the label, which displayed
an Italian name of which he had never heard. But that was
no surprise to him. Fashion and clothes had never been much
of an abiding interest with him.
He put the jacket on, approving of the lightness of its cloth,
but found that its chest size was at least a couple of sizes bigger
than his thirty- eight. The sleeves hung down below his fingertips
and the shoulders dropped a couple of inches too low.
The owner was undoubtedly a big chap, he thought, eyeing
himself in the long mirror that formed one of the doors of
a wardrobe in the bedroom. Shame, he thought. I might have
just hung on to it had it fitted.
This was obviously some kind of mistake. Rosa had not,
to his knowledge, been in Scotland recently. She had gone
away in April, the month that the note claimed she had
been at the Lighthouse Hotel, but that had been a trip to
Newcastle on a photographic assignment for some magazine
Certain that a mistake must have been made, Michael
pulled off the jacket, laid it on the bed and resolved to ring
the Lighthouse Inn later that day to let them know that they
were mistaken and that he would post it back to them.
As he got ready to head into town, however, it nagged at
him, tugging at his thoughts. Whenever he tried to push it
to one side it would return, like one of those irritating flies
that can plague you in a hot climate. You swat them away
and within a minute or two they return to buzz around your
food or drink. How had the hotel come to connect Rosa with
this item of clothing? It was unlikely, after all, that there was
another combination of names like hers in the country – Rosa
Keats – and, apart from that, how would they have come into
possession of her address?
‘Hello, Lighthouse Inn, Mary speaking. How may I help
you?’ The voice was soft and musical. He asked to be put
through to ‘J. Stewart’ and explained the reason for his call.
‘Well, Mr Keats, the thing is . . .’ – there was hesitancy in
J. Stewart’s voice because the delicacy of the situation had
suddenly made itself very apparent to her. Husband receives
man’s jacket in post. Jacket doesn’t belong to him but has been
left behind by male companion of his wife. ‘. . . The point
is, we were quite certain the jacket belonged to Mrs Keats’s
companion because we had the room refurbished shortly
before their stay, but found out after they left that the plumber
had made a right mess of some of the pipes and water was
leaking down onto the ceiling of the room below. When the
bed was moved to lift the floorboards, we found the jacket.’
She hesitated, before adding nervously, ‘But, of course, there
might be some other explanation.’ There was a silence at the
other end. ‘I’m sorry,’ she said, eventually.
Surely not, he thought. Oh, Rosa, surely not. There must be
some kind of mistake. Ten minutes after he had hung up, he
was staring out of the window watching the world go about
its business as if nothing had happened, as if everything had
not just taken a step in the wrong direction. He had been too…
Gordon Kerr was brought up in the Scottish new town of East Kilbride. After graduating from Glasgow University, he lived in France before working in the wine trade in London for 18 years. He next worked in bookselling and publishing. He has written numerous books in a variety of non-fiction genres – wine, history, biography, true crime, humour, art, poetry and travel. He has a wife and two children and lives in West Dorset and southwest France.
1. How did you get started writing?
I’ve been writing since I was about fifteen. I enjoyed poetry at school – I know, not normal! – and so, the first things I wrote were poems. The very first I composed in response to seeing a young American girl on television whose boyfriend had been killed in Vietnam. She was about seventeen and I was very moved by her grief and extremely angry about the pointlessness of that war, and of any war. It’s probably a very good job I no longer have the poem! But from that time on I wrote, and still write, poems. These led me into writing song lyrics and I was in a band when I was still in my teens. We got together again a few years ago after 40 years and are writing and recording again. My writing eventually began to get me jobs in marketing and over the years I have written countless catalogues, leaflets and adverts. Finally, someone asked me to write a book – non-fiction – and since then I’ve been fortunate enough to have had dozens published.
2. What drew you to write a novel?
It was the story, really. It kind of arrived fully-formed in my head. George Harrison once said that songs somehow find their writers, not vice-versa and it was a bit like that with The Partisan Heart. It just came together without a huge amount of planning and preparation. The idea came from my many visits to the Valtellina in north Italy where my sister-in-law lives. I heard stories about the war in the area and about the partisans who fought in the mountains there. The area is beautiful and atmospheric and seemed perfect as the backdrop to a thriller. So, I was writing my non-fiction books as my day job and then in the evening jumping into the fictional world I was trying to create. I almost wore out my keyboard!
3. Which writers past or present have influenced your style of writing?
I love all kinds of writing and writers, but I suppose in the genre in which I am writing, I would have to make special mention of the Berlin Noir novels of the late Philip Kerr (no relation!). His creation, the hard-bitten detective, Bernie Gunther, is a masterpiece of cynicism and cunning. The last book has just been published and I will really miss Bernie. Amongst other writers I enjoy are Joseph Kanon, Olen Steinhauer, Alan Furst and Tom Rob Smith. I am a huge fan of the books of the great thriller writer, Eric Ambler. I particularly enjoy stories in which the hero is an amateur who stumbles into perilous situations and in a number of Ambler’s books – such as Journey into Fear and The Mask of Dimitrios – that is exactly what happens.
4. When you first started writing did you find it hard to get publisher interest?
I guess I am lucky in that I have worked in the book world for many years, in bookselling, publishing and as a writer. Therefore, I know a lot of people in that world. I also had a track-record as a writer of non-fiction books which undoubtedly helped. Even with that, however, it can be difficult and I did write another novel quite a few years ago that never found a home. Even if you know the right people, it still has to be a compelling story and the writing has to be up to scratch.
5. There are many interesting characters in your Novel, do you have a particular favourite one?
I’m quite proud of the female character, Helen, in the book. She’s strong, courageous and she knows her own mind. She uses her initiative and her actions help the hero who sometimes can be a bit weak. She is so strong that in the sequel that I’m toying with at the moment, she isn’t present. There’s too much world out there for her to be tied too long to someone.
6. What kind of research have you have to undertake for your Novel?
Part of the novel is set during the Italian Civil War that was fought towards the end of the Second World War. So, I obviously had to delve into that period of Italian history. At the same time, though, I was very conscious that I was writing fiction and not history; so the book is light on historical detail. I think Mussolini’s name is mentioned once, just to give background to the fighting that was going on. I also heard a lot of stories from my sister-in-law’s family about the war. Her father-in-law, for instance was transported to Germany to be used as forced labour. So, it was all around me, especially in the first years when we went to the Valtellina, when the generation that fought in the war was still alive.
7. Are the characters in your books based on any real life?
No, I’m afraid they are entirely fictional, both the characters from the war and the ones in more contemporary times.
8. Do you have a particular favourite scene in the book and why?
There is a recurring dream that the main character has. It has no real meaning, although it appears at first to be heavy in symbolism. I like the randomness of it. I think stories benefit sometimes from having a passage like that, that really doesn’t drive the action forward in any way, but ladles on the mystery and the atmosphere.
9. Do you see any of your characters personality in yourself and vice versa?
I’d love to think that I would be as enquiring and as bent on the truth as Michael Keats, the journalist who is the hero of the book, but the truth is that I would probably run a mile from some of the situations he gets himself into. Still, you never know how you might react when you are thrown headlong into a certain scenario. He is driven by grief and anger, I guess, and perhaps if the same thing happened to me as did to him, I too would want to seek out the truth in order to obtain some closure.
10. If you can, would you give us a sneaky peak into any future novels you might planned?
As I said above, I am planning a second novel featuring Michael Keats. It seems silly not to and these days people seem to enjoy seeing a character develop as he or she gets into scrapes through a series of novels. He’ll be in Italy again, and perhaps there will be another link to the past that informs a set of circumstances in the present. It’s all still some way off, though, and I have a history of the Korean War to write before I get to it.
11. If you had the opportunity to write a novel with any writer alive or dead, who would it be and why?
I wouldn’t mind going on a car journey across America with Jack Kerouac and Neal Cassady at the wheel, writing and shouting poetry as we went. Although I would be a stumbling wreck by the end of the journey, it would have been a lot of fun! And what a novel we would have. Maybe call it Off the Road!
12. Do you have words of advice you can share with anyone who is interested in writing a novel?
My advice would be to just DO IT! I have so many friends who talk about writing their novel, but for some reason they don’t. For me it was a natural thing because writing is just what I do. Even if I wasn’t being paid to do it, I would still do it. If you’re a writer, write!