Mad Blood Stirring–an evocative title if there ever was one, and fitting to the forgotten piece of racial history that the phrase represents. In the ruinous wake of the War of 1812, prisoners from battle are still being held in the infamous Dartmoor prison (Pegasus Books). While fighting in the war zone may have officially finished, it is clear that dangerous feelings are festering within these walls of captivity between the white and black prisoners.

Brought alive to us by esteemed BBC host Simon Mayo, Mad Blood Stirring is a tale inspired by true events and impeccably researched, yet unbelievable in its essence. With vivid personalities and impressive depth, Mayo takes us to the first ever all-black Shakespeare production staged by segregated American prisoners of war.

As countries piece together treaties and decide how to handle the return of the prisoners of war, the occupants of Dartmoor prison are not sitting idle. The conditions of the prison are horrifying. The facility is overcrowded, disease-ridden and barely contains the violence that errupts between rival gangs inside.

The black prisoners are confined to block 4 of the prison, and create their own theatre group in order to help pass time. An authoritative presence among the prisoners of this block, towering over most in height and brutality, King Dick surprisingly steers the production. The comical dichotomy of King Dick’s tough prison exterior and theatrical passion was not purely a conjuring of Mayo’s creativity. Historical records recount that such an individual existed in the prison, though Mayo surely animates him in a wonderfully witty and lethal form.

Another highlight of the story is the unlikely yet steadily developing relationship between Habs and Joe Hill, ringing through the chaos and tension. These two play opposite leading roles as the stars Romeo and Juliet.

Rivaling gangs and an improbable relationship are not the only parallels to the famous Shakespeare play. Like Romeo and Juliet, Mad Blood Stirring is divided among five acts.  As the “stirring” verb in the title connotates, the suspense and tension slowly sizzle, building until an explosive final act with “…scores to settle, bones to break and pride to restore.”

The conflict between the American prisoners and British guards, the inmates of different races and scandalous affairs among those in postitions of power make this novel a hot read. While the event Mayo covers is dated, he contributes an engaging contemporary perspective by exposing racism for its inherent cruelties and giving attention to homosexuality in a time when such relationships were often heavily disguised or stifled.

As an author who has a strong historical background, but usually sticks to the thrillers, I commend Mayo for branching out to a genre he clearly carries passion and talent. In war’s aftermath, Mayo has shone a dramatic spotlight on a hotbed of racial tension and a unique pursuit of creativity that will leave readers rapt from the story’s beginning to its conclusion.

Mad Blood Stirring is now available for purchase.

Learn more about Simon on his Author Profile page.


Simon Mayo is one of England’s most admired radio presenters. He has worked on BBC radio since 1982 and is now the presenter of Drivetime on BBC Radio 2. He lives in London.

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