Valancourt Books, 2018
originally published 1959
I picked up this book based on its description as a "gripping thriller," but I'm not so sure I'd agree with that label. Thriller, no. Gripping, yes: once I started it I couldn't stop reading.
The Feathers of Death centers around the army regiment known as Martock's Foot, which dates from England's Civil War and has been now posted to a fictional country known as Prepomene, a British colony where there have been "rumblings of rebellion." The regiment is a sort of closed little society within itself, professing standards, "moral or otherwise" that are "liberal, tolerant, civilized and worldly," according to the narrator of this story, Captain Andrew Lamont. He reveals that
"...as is usual in regiments where most officers have reckonable social standing quite apart from their Army rank, relations between the officers were very informal,"and that "a very easy relationship could and did exist between commissioned and 'other ranks.' " We also learn that the men were "by nature respectful, docile, loyal and, above all, responsive to kindness . . ." so that there was none of the "prying into mess bills, complaints about gambling, or investigations of sexual morals so common in the dowdier regiments." Even when some of the officers become aware that Lynch has become attracted to young Malcolm Harley, they pass it off as "infatuation at worst. Passing fancy. Here today, gone tomorrow." But as the situation between Lynch and Harley becomes more widely known, tensions begin to grow both among the officers and among Harley's companions, threatening the long and carefully-established order within the regiment and ultimately leading to a moment of personal reckoning that results in tragedy.
Obviously, there's much more to this book but I don't want to give away any more than necessary. I was fascinated by Alistair Lynch more than by any other character -- the author has afforded him a level of complexity that allows the reader to simultaneously blame him for his abuses of power, yet in a way, admire him for breaking the rules. But there are also questions of complicity, justice, of class tensions, male friendships and more that arise throughout the story, as well as the qualities that hold this small but close regiment together. All of these factors taken together make for an intense few hours of reading. I will also say that while this is a story written in the 1950s and set within the space of the British military, this book does not end up as either an indictment of or a moral commentary on homosexuality -- on the contrary, the author approaches the subject in his thoughtful, well-grounded and no-nonsense approach to this story.
Very very much worth the read; I so wish I could say more but that won't be happening. It is a very human story, and one I recommend highly.
ps/don't miss the fascinating introduction to this Valancourt edition, but save it until the end.