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Book Review

Book Cover

Bernice Summerfield
Secret Histories


Editor: Mark Clapham
Big Finish
RRP: £14.99
ISBN: 978 1 84435 471 9
Available 31 December 2009

In a tumble-down church on an isolated planet, Professor Bernice Summerfield discovers more than she bargained for on her latest excavation. An old crime is uncovered, and Benny is asked to find out what she can about the culprits. The long-dead victims are surprisingly talkative, but they ask for something in return. They want someone to tell them stories. With an audience of the dead to entertain, Bernice tells them stories from her life and those of her friends, spanning the distant past to her recent present, from before civilisation to the depths of space...

There isn’t a single, overall theme to the nine short stories in this anthology, though they are connected by a frame narrative, written by the book’s editor, Mark Clapham, in which Benny tells stories to some potentially dangerous life forms in order to keep their minds occupied. The first few tales are linked by similarities Bernice observes between said dangerous life forms - telepathic devices installed in the skulls of some supposedly long-dead human soldiers - and various technologies she has encountered during her travels. These range from behaviour-controlling military equipment in Lance Parkin’s “A Game of Soldiers” to the crystalline component of a “God machine” in Jim Smith’s “A Gallery of Pigeons”, Eddie Robson’s “The Firing Squad” and Mark Michalowski’s “The Illuminated Man”. The latter three stories are essentially part of the same narrative, a time-travel adventure in which Bernice, Adrian and Peter are hurled back to different points in Earth’s past. Later stories go a bit off-topic and are linked only by Benny’s stream of consciousness as she struggles to think of more tales to tell the skulls.

The stories’ settings are spread throughout Bernice’s lifetime, from her younger days (in “A Game of Soldiers” and Paul Farnsworth’s “Cooker Island”) to right after the tenth and most recent season of her audio adventures (the “God machine” trilogy and the frame narrative), though none of them take place during her time with the Doctor. Nick Wallace’s “Turn the Light On” reminds us of the Fifth Axis Occupation in Season 4, while Cody Schell’s casual reference to a still living Jason Kane in the otherwise light-hearted “You Shouldn’t Have” prompts recollection of the horrific circumstances of his death in Season 8. Richard Freeman’s “The Song of Old Man Bunyip” probably occurs shortly after Season 9’s The Adventure of the Diogenes Damsel (a story directly referenced in “A Gallery of Pigeons”), as Benny appears to be using the Time Ring given to her by Straxus.

My favourite stories are “Cooker Island”, “You Shouldn’t Have” and Jonathan Dennis’s “Redacted”, all of which contain endearingly and fascinatingly bizarre life forms - animated domestic appliances, humans adapted to a flower- and insect-dominated ecology, and gecko-like beings respectively. However, the latter two tales also have serious sociological messages to impart, especially the revisionist nightmare of “Redacted”. “A Game of Soldiers” and “The Firing Squad” also make compelling reading.

Conversely, though my expectations of “A Gallery of Pigeons” were high, due to the involvement of Dr John H Watson and Mycroft Holmes, the writing is rather stilted and is littered with typos such as repeated words, presumably left over from a previous edit.

For the most part, however, it’s no secret that Secret Histories will entertain its audience - though in this case the skulls will most likely still be living and contain brains!


Richard McGinlay