‘My spies tell me you’re on the hunt for someone with stories to tell’ – read an excerpt from the action-packed adventure Whisper of Death
 More about the book!

Penguin Random House has shared an excerpt from David Lambkin’s new spy novel Whisper of Death!

Paul Morgan, a washed-up novelist in Zanzibar, meets Angelika and her guardian, retired British spy, Sandollar. Sandollar recounts his deadly WWII spy career and sends Morgan on a mission to find the psychopathic spymaster who betrayed him.

Morgan is ensnared in a web of deceit and murder, uncovering a secret the British spy establishment wants hidden.

Whisper of Death is an action-packed spy adventure, filled with Nazi gold, assassinations, and dark secrets, sweeping from Zanzibar to the Tanzanian wilderness, from London to deepest Africa.

The book will be launched on Thursday 18 July 2024 at Exclusive Books Hyde Park.

Read the excerpt:

Funguo Private Island, Zanzibar Archipelago September 2002

The retired spy and the orphan girl came into my life the night before I was booked to fly out from Funguo, the tropical island that lies forty nautical miles north-east of Zanzibar, right in the middle of the Pemba Channel.

I had been sailing the East African coast on Zanzibari dhows for three months, researching my article about the mediaeval Arab sea trade for International Traveler magazine, and at the end of the assignment I was bone-sore, salt-pickled and weary in my heart. I wanted solid earth under- foot, cold wine, crisp sheets, a deep bath and somewhere quiet to write. So I spoiled myself and booked rooms at the Monsoon Hotel on tiny Funguo Private Island. I couldn’t really afford it but winter nights had been chilly out on the ocean, and it was good to feel spring in my bones again.

Each morning I woke with the sun and wrote on the balcony outside my first-floor rooms when the air was cool, turning three months’ rough sailing into words. When I looked up from my work at midday, the sea was always lilac and faded lime inside the reef, coral beds showing violet and cobalt further out. In the forenoon, sails curved like sharks’ teeth lined the far horizon where fishing dhows moved with the wind, and at night I lay awake in the darkness listening to the sea sulk along the beaches, and thought about death and love.

At dusk on my last night I felt the melancholy that fills me whenever I leave a place that has made a mark on my heart. It was time for a spirit-lifting gin, probably two, possibly more. I put away my laptop when I heard the village muezzin call the faithful to evening prayers, went down the rickety fire escape and walked through the overgrown gardens and palms to the beach bar. The lodge staff were lighting paraffin lanterns, and out past the lamps’ yellow light the world was fading to indigo. Daudi the barman spotted me coming through the trees and handed me a tall glass. ‘Habari jioni, rafiki. Here. Three Boodles, lots of ice, top up with green coconut water, all in a chill beer glass. You wrote?’

‘A bit.’

‘You must try harder. You can have many gins tonight to help you. I got four madafu on ice, all full of milk.’

The glass was running with condensation. I took it down to a table at the edge of the sea, kicked off my boat shoes, sat with my feet in the warm sand and took the first perfect sip. The other tables were empty. Yesterday the south-west monsoon had blown grey veils of rain across the sea from the northern cape of Zanzibar, puckering the shallows and starring the beach, and wealthy guests had fled with their consorts to sunny weather in the Caribbean or the Maldives. My phone pinged. A text from Michael Trengrove, my agent in London. Where’s the book you promised me, you lazy shit? Two years late. What good is a novelist who can’t write a novel? Where are you? What are you doing?

I texted back: Book going well. In East Africa doing research.

Which was not entirely untrue. The fee from International Traveler would not last forever; I needed an advance to get me through the summer. So I’d persuaded my dhow captains to drop anchor up and down the Swahili coast, from Mikindani in the south to Kiwayu in the north, and had gone ashore in search of my imagined protagonist: a haggard-eyed gin-soak with a broken heart, melancholic eyes and a fund of tales about monsoons and betrayal and lost love. I soon discovered that the days of grand misfits who railed against fate and traded mediocrity for adventure are long gone. Life is now banal: earning, paying the bills, lying awake worrying in the dead hours between twelve and four. But that last night on Funguo, fate or chance finally took pity on me. Perhaps it is no accident that funguo means ‘key’ in Swahili.

Daudi appeared and handed me a note, saying, ‘Miss Mary send you a barua.’

The note read: Please join me for a cocktail. It was signed Mary. This was not an invitation; it was a summons. Miss Mary was the ageless and famously misanthropic owner of Funguo Island and the Monsoon Hotel. Old sailors, swarthy dhow captains and grizzled conservationists all talked of her with affection and awe. I said, ‘I had no idea Miss Mary was still living on Funguo. She must be getting old.’

Daudi shrugged. ‘Miss Mary don’t get old. She still ride round Funguo on her pikipiki. You know – her baisikili na moto, her motorbike. What the note say?’

‘Miss Mary wants me to have a drink with her.’

‘You better go.’

Paraffin lanterns lit the path beneath the palms and I was beckoned on by small tongues of flame. Two tiny rust-coloured suni watched me from the shadows, eyes bright, black noses quivering. Perhaps Miss Mary was the outcast of the islands I’d been looking for. It was rumoured up and down the coast that she’d lost her parents in the Thirties in a car accident in Kent, that she’d inherited the family fortune and had sailed to East Africa in search of adventure the moment she turned sixteen. There were tales that she’d run with Maasai moran across the bleached plains below Kilimanjaro, had been a safari guide for rich American hunters in the Mara and the Serengeti, a pearl diver off the Laccadive Archipelago, had steered her Gipsy Moth by the stars on night flights across Kenya, Uganda and Tanganyika. She certainly had stories to tell. Would she tell them?

The two-storey hotel showed white ahead of me. Slender iron pillars supported the balcony and the knicker-lace eaves. The shutters were blistered, the white clapboard walls and green wriggly-tin roof buckled by sun. Magenta bougainvillea twined through the trelliswork. A Sikh wearing a long black kanzu and a white turban stood guard at the entrance, a folding-stock AKM slung over his shoulder. I said, ‘Miss Mary?’ and he nodded gravely at the open front door. I mounted the steps and entered reception. No one tended the desk. There was a yellow spill of light from the adjacent bar, lit by candles and paraffin lanterns. Reclusive, I had not yet ventured there.

I walked into the bar and found walls hung with clocks, their mechanisms all ticking. Clocks large and small, ornate and gilded, brass, silver, gold, chrome. Ships’ clocks, station clocks, bedside clocks, carriage clocks. A tall woman with long white hair worn in a plait stood at the bar, one shoe cocked onto the brass rail. She wore an ankle-length black taffeta skirt, a man’s pleated evening shirt, a moire bow tie and a tailcoat of ancient cut. She was smoking a stinky cheroot, and a pack of playing cards lay neatly on the bar top in front of her. There was a long-healed stab wound beneath her left cheekbone.

I held out my hand. ‘Good evening. I’m Paul Morgan.’

She said, ‘Gin and coconut milk, isn’t it?’ and turned to the barman. ‘And a large Lagavulin, please, Mustapha, moja barafu.’ She drew on her cheroot and said, ‘My spies tell me you’re on the hunt for someone with stories to tell. I wanted to have a look at you.’ Her face was lined, the skin lightly tanned. Her eyes were violet.

‘Well, thank you, Miss Mary. I haven’t found anyone interesting – until now.’

She laughed. ‘Very slick, but I’m not your storyteller.’ She took a half-hunter from the top pocket of her dinner jacket. ‘Your storyteller will be along a bit later. He’s an old friend, on his way from Unguja to sort out my chef, who’s come down with malaria. His name’s Amedeo Sandollar – my friend, not my chef. He should be here within the hour. He’s got stories to tell.’

Mustapha put my drink on a paper coaster. I said, ‘What makes you think he’s my storyteller?’

She raised her glass towards me and we drank. ‘I know him well.’ She paused. ‘He’s bringing a girl with him. An important girl. Angelika.’

‘Important to whom?’

‘Important to you.’ She paused, looked down into her whisky, tinkled the ice cube with her finger, looked up at me and said, ‘If you want a story that should be told, ask Sandollar and the girl about a massacre that happened recently in the bush of Mozambique. And ask Sandollar what happened in Lourenço Marques on the night of the thirty-first of October 1939.’

‘Lourenço Marques? Halloween? Hobgoblins and pumpkins?’

‘Not only. In less crass times Halloween wasn’t about bats and pointy hats; it was a festival of the dead. Ghosts walked the earth.’

I said nothing.

She shook her head. ‘So cynical, so assured.’ She tapped me firmly on the chest. ‘The numinous intrudes on our world more often than you think.’ She pointed over my shoulder. I turned. Three paintings hung on the back wall, each about one metre across by three high. The light was bad; I could see no details. Miss Mary led me to them. As my eyes adjusted to the gloom I saw that the paintings depicted women from a nightmare: snakes for hair, eyes dripping blood, clawed bat wings rearing behind their backs. I could see names gold-leafed at the top of each canvas: Alecto, Megaera, Tisiphone. The names stirred memories of Mr Perold, the Classics master at my prep school in Tunbridge Wells, declaiming dactylic hexameters in the freezing classroom. ‘They’re Erinyes,’ I said. ‘The Greek goddesses of retribution.’

‘Yes. Alecto, goddess of anger; Megaera, punisher of jealousy; Tisiphone, goddess of vengeance.’ She tapped my chest again. ‘Wrong has been done, Mr Morgan, and you must right it. Tisiphone will be your guide.’ She led me back to the bar.

I said carefully, ‘Why do you think I can do anything about murders and righting wrongs?’

‘I hear things. You’ve hunted a lot and you’ve been knocking around Africa’s small wars for decades, reporting from the combat zones. And you’re the kind of man who learns the mortal skills necessary to survive in dangerous places. I also hear you’ve sometimes inhabited a very grey area between combatant and correspondent. You felt sorry for the victims of sadistic rebels and went to war to protect the poor and suffering.’

‘Who told you?’

She shook her head. ‘I’ve said enough. Talk to Sandollar and Angelika. You’ll like her, she’s an extraordinary girl. And thank you for coming. I rarely meet a guest I like.’

She drew hard on the cheroot, stubbed it out in a brass ashtray and looked at her watch. As if on cue, all the clocks began to chime. ‘You must go, your storytellers are almost here. And I have a gift for you.’

She reached into her tailcoat pocket and handed me a small golden figurine that hung from a plaited leather thong. ‘My spies tell me you wear talismans. Add this.’

The figurine was of a nude woman, perhaps two centimetres long. Her body was encircled by serpents, her bat wings were spread. Miss Mary said, ‘Bend a bit,’ and slipped the cord over my head. I felt the figurine settle cold against my chest.

‘Tisiphone, goddess of vengeance, will protect you. But before you go,’ – she fanned out the pack of cards – ‘humour me. Take a card.’

I chose one and turned it over. The nine of spades. She looked at it for a moment, raised her eyes and murmured, ‘Kentish gypsy cartomancers call this “a whisper of death”.’ She held out her hand. ‘À bientôt, Paul Morgan. Take care on your quest. There’s danger.’

She gave me one last violet look, opened a green baize door and disappeared into the darkness beyond.



Categories Africa Fiction International South Africa

Tags Book excerpts Book extracts David Lambkin Penguin Random House SA Whisper of Death

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