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Sister Mary Murderous

Favorite genres are traditional mystery, police procedurals, espionage, Eurocrime, literary fiction and nonfiction history, especially WW2 and Cold War.  I write about crime fiction at Read Me Deadly (www.readmedeadly.com)

Fear and Consequence

Three-Martini Lunch - Suzanne Rindell

The competitive world of New York publishing in the 1950s comes to life in Suzanne Rindell’s second novel, after The Other Typist.  Rindell illustrates the time and place through the stories of three characters:


Cliff, the son of privilege who is convinced he will show The Old Man up by publishing the next great American novel;


Eden, who burns with ambition to be a book editor knowing how hard that will be considering the restricted prospects of women and Jews in the professional workplace;


Miles, a black son of Harlem, a graduate of Columbia, a young man who is compelled to solve the secrets of his late father’s time in the military and to understand himself.


This book is a lot longer than Rindell’s first, which always makes me wonder if it will be a case of second-book bloat.  I do think this could have been tightened up with some judicious editing.  And editing might help get the book off to a better start.  It’s quite a slog at the beginning, I think in part because she starts with Cliff, who is a self-absorbed, minimally talented brat.


But the book does finally draw the reader in, and once it does it’s compelling reading.  The three first-person narratives fit neatly together and the plot in which each plays a part is satisfyingly intricate.  But it’s not just a puzzle to be solved; it’s emotionally affecting.


Thinking about the book after reading it, I realized that it’s about fear and the consequences of acting out of fear; consequences that are visited on more people than Cliff, Eden and Miles, and that these three must live with the rest of their lives.  This fits in well with the larger, fear-based issues of the characters’ time and place as well, including anti-Semitism, homophobia and the Red Scare.

A blast from the past for Baby Boomers. Interesting for others, too

Witness to the Revolution: Radicals, Resisters, Vets, Hippies, and the Year America Lost Its Mind and Found Its Soul - Clara Bingham

It’s a strange feeling when your formative years are suddenly treated as part of History with a capital H.  But it makes sense for Clara Bingham to collect oral histories of the tumultuous 1969/1970 when so much happened, including Woodstock, Daniel Ellsberg leaking the Pentagon Papers, the shootings at Kent State University, the fatal bombing of a campus building at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and the My Lai massacre..  Reading this brought so many memories flooding back. 


In the Vietnam war era, people watched the nightly news, usually with either Walter Cronkite on CBS or Huntley and Brinkley on NBC.  Everyone was getting the same news, and the lead story just about every single night was the war.  And although the civil rights movement was a source of plenty of political action, it was the Vietnam war, and the draft, that galvanized political rebellion across the country.  The antiwar rebellion was related to many other movements, like feminism, earth consciousness, marijuana/LSD promotion, rock music.


Since these are recollections (with succinct commentaries and historical notes by Bingham), you will read different perspectives of the same events.  A story from a demonstrator at the 1968 Democratic party convention in Chicago is followed by one from an FBI agent.  Stories of activists who went underground are accompanied by recollections of those whose job it was to try to track them down.  Recollections of the New York trial of the Black Panther 21 come from one of the defense lawyers and from the presiding judge’s son, who was just nine years old during the trial, but vividly remembers the firebombing of his family’s home and the rigid security measures his family lived under for the remaining months of the trial.  Many of the recollections are self-justifying, but quite a few of the interviewees also express regret and a changed perspective.


There are famous names in this volume, like Jane Fonda, Oliver Stone, Joan Baez and Carl Bernstein, but many other less well-known figures who, in many cases, were even closer to the big events of the time, including student journalists at Kent State and Wisconsin, Kent State shooting victims, soldiers who served in Vietnam, veterans of numerous action groups, including several members of the Black Panthers and the Weather Underground, musicians who played at Woodstock, government insiders, members of the FBI and local law enforcement.  The cast of characters is huge, and you will get to know them as you go through the book, but there is also a helpful set of “Voices” endnotes with thumbnail biographies of each of them.


One of the most interesting parts of the book is the story of how the SDS became the Weather Underground and moved so far into doctrinaire extremism that it forgot that a revolution needs to make a case to the people to succeed.  Just as mainstream America was beginning to see real problems with the war in Vietnam in the late 1960s, some political actors moved into extremist theater and violence that pushed many Americans away.  Bingham and some of the Voices suggest that an opportunity may have been lost to end the war much earlier.  I used to watch the news with my WW2 veteran father, and he could see that something was very wrong about the way things worked in Vietnam, that it wasn’t his kind of war at all, but the style of young antiwar activists was offensive to most of his generation and made it difficult for them to speak openly in opposition to the war.


I’m impressed by Clara Bingham’s ability to organize these oral histories both chronologically and thematically.  The use of these first-person recollections animates the history, but Bingham’s organization keeps the narrative moving and gives it coherence.  It is only toward the very end that it loses focus a little.


Though this is a long book, it’s so immersive that I was always eager to return to it. It compares favorably to a recent book with a similar subject, Bryan Burrough’s Days of Rage.  Burrough’s presentation is disjointed and he goes into such excruciating detail that he drains the life out of the story.  Bingham does a much better job of stitching the disparate stories into a cohesive narrative and conveying a lot of information without getting bogged down in detail.

How NOT to Plan for Retirement: Crime Boss Edition

Once a Crooked Man: A Novel - David McCallum

Things go elaborately and spectacularly wrong when the Bruschetti brothers decide to retire from the crime business, and New York actor Harry Murphy accidentally overhears their plans for murderously cleaning up some loose ends.  Harry decides to warn one of the brothers’ targets, and the more the brothers try to clean things up, the messier they get––for them, for Harry, for the beautiful and feisty British police agent Harry teams up with, and for various compatriots of the brothers, family members and law enforcement.


The action careens around like a pinball arcade game, bouncing from one catastrophe to another, and back and forth between England and New York.  The violence is frequent but not too graphic, the cast of characters is huge and colorful, and it’s easy to see this being turned into a caper/thriller movie.


I’d have liked to see a bit more character development with Harry and the other main characters, and there is a sexual plot point late in the book that struck a false note for me, but on the whole I found this to be an entertaining read and a winning first writing effort by longtime actor David McCallum.


Disclosure: The publisher provided a free advance reviewing copy of Once a Crooked Man.

Two spies walk into a restaurant . . .

All the Old Knives - Olen Steinhauer

Normally, you'd think that would be your classic espionage "meet," and the rest of the story would include things like following shadowy figures down foggy, dark European city streets, smoke-filled ops rooms at MI-6, dead drops, shootouts and car chases.  But not a one of those things happens here.  In fact all the book's action takes place in that restaurant and in flashbacks to an office in Vienna a few years earlier.  And yet, despite the limited scenes, characters and action, this is one of the most tautly thrilling espionage books I've read in years.


Henry and Celia were lovers and fellow CIA agents in Vienna when a terrorist hijacking went very wrong on the tarmac at the city's airport after their inside agent's identity was discovered by the terrorists.  Was the agent betrayed and, if so, how?  After that terrible tragedy, Celia left her old life, married, moved to the paradise of Carmel, California, and became a stay-at-home mother to two kids.  Now, Henry calls to say that he's in the area for a conference and would love to get together for dinner.


At the restaurant, they begin with that polite chit-chat of old colleagues and lovers; they talk about mutual friends and work acquaintances, Celia's kids and husband, the beauty of Carmel.  With each glass of wine (and there are many) and each bit of perfectly composed California cuisine, the talk becomes deeper and more intense.  They circle each other, looking for vulnerabilities that will bring out the truth of their old relationship and what really happened that terrible day in Vienna.  These old knives can still slice.


The story is told in the alternating voices of Henry and Celia. Is one of them an unreliable narrator?  Are both of them?  This is a quick read, but completely engrossing. I was gripping the book so hard I left indentations. When I reached the end, nearly everything Henry and Celia said now appeared in a different light. Highly recommended.


Note: I received a free advance copy of the book for review.

Berlin after the war, before the Wall

Leaving Berlin: A Novel - Joseph Kanon

I've always enjoyed Joseph Kanon's books, which are thrillers set in various places around the world, but all taking place shortly after World War II.  Kanon mines that same ground over and over because it's one of the richest veins of material you could ever hope to find.  The war has ended, but not the fighting. It is just a different kind of battle, and the players shifted around. No more Allies fighting Nazis; now it's the Cold War, with Berlin being dead center in the new conflict.


Alex Meier, Leaving Berlin's protagonist, had been a celebrated young novelist in Germany in the 1930s.  Alex was a Social Democrat with a Jewish father, and neither one of those was a good thing to be once the Nazis took over. But he was friends with the younger members of the powerful von Bernuth family, and their father got Alex out of the country before it was too late.  Alex's parents never got out.


Alex made a new home in the US, married and had a son. Then, along came the Red Scare and, suddenly, a young German socialist was in danger from the government yet again. To avoid being deported from the US permanently and losing all contact with his son, Alex agrees to act as a US government agent by returning to Berlin for a time; in particular to the Soviet Occupied Zone, where several other leftist German exiles had returned, the most prominent being playwright Berthold Brecht. Alex's assignment is to provide information about his friends in the new Germany, and if he does a good job, the promise is that he can return to the US.


Berlin in 1949 was about the most interesting place imaginable. Interesting in the usual sense, but also in the sense of the old curse, "May you live in interesting times."  The city was divided into four occupation zones for each of the Allied powers, but there was no Berlin Wall yet.  Tensions between the Soviets and the other Allies were increasing by the day, as the Soviets tried to squeeze the Allies out of the city, deep within the eastern half of the country, which the Soviets planned as a satellite state.


Along with the political and military Cold War, there was also a so-called Cultural Cold War. The Soviets and the West vied for superiority in literature, music, theater and all the other arts. The Soviets lavished privileges on artists who could burnish the reputation of communism around the world. Alex, who is well remembered as a novelist, is welcomed warmly in the Soviet Occupied Zone and treated as a valued member of the new socialist dream society. As an instantly prominent artist comrade, he can eat and drink off ration at the Kulturbund and is awarded a nice apartment all to himself, with a view to the street rather than the drab rear. 


Alex quickly finds that Berlin is full of secrets and lies, with danger and betrayal all around him. This is no longer the city of his youth. His childhood home is rubble and his old and new friends may not be what they seem. Alex's reconnecting with his old love, Irene von Bernuth, who is now the mistress of a high-level Soviet military man, excites his US intelligence contacts, but it endangers Alex's heart and much more. What was supposed to be a quick and easy job soon turns deadly dangerous, and Alex must rely on his wits to save himself and those he still feels loyal to.


I've read a lot of espionage thrillers, but this one had of the most satisfyingly twisty-turny plots ever; enough to make your head spin and heart pound. Along with the complex and exciting plot, Kanon delivers a large cast of realistic characters, starting with Alex, but also including childhood friends (especially Irene von Bernuth), Soviet officers, Alex's minder from the Party, intelligence contacts and more. Kanon also has a gift for invoking the atmosphere of the ruined city and what Berliners do to survive in the new reality.


This is Kanon's second book set in Berlin, with the first being The Good German (2002), made into a movie starring George Clooney and Cate Blanchett. This is a very different story, but also one that would make a terrific film. I feel sure of that, because Kanon's powerfully evocative writing turned it into a story that played out in my head as a movie while I was reading.


Another particular strength of the book is the focus on the return to East Berlin of so many members of the cultural and intellectual elite who missed their homeland and were true believers in the communist cause. They included Brecht and writers like Arnold Zweig, Anna Seghers and Stefan Heym. Initially celebrated and given privileges not available to others in the workers' state, the returnees who spent the Nazi years in the West, rather than in Moscow, soon found their situations changed.


Stalin and his henchmen began an "anti-cosmopolitan" campaign in 1950, targeting those who had spent time in the West. Many were expelled from the Communist Party, imprisoned on trumped-up charges and worse. If you'd like to read more on the subject, you might try Edith Anderson's Love In Exile: An American Writer's Memoir of Life in Divided Berlin (Steerforth Press, 1999). Or, to read about Bertold Brecht's tumultuous history with his native country, as well as his friends, colleagues and lovers, check out a new book by Pamela Katz: The Partnership: Brecht, Weill, Three Women, and Germany on the Brink (Nan A. Talese, January 6, 2015).


Notes: I received a free advance copy of the book for review.

Herron goes hardboiled

Nobody Walks - Mick Herron

After a long career as an ops agent for MI-5, Tom Bettany had had enough.  He'd gone undercover for years to bust the McGarry crime organization, and that experience was a stain on the soul.  When his wife was diagnosed with a brain tumor, he quit to be with her and their son, Liam.  After Hannah died, the estrangement from Liam that had begun during his undercover years turned to a complete split.


Bettany became a bit of a drifter, leaving England for France and taking strenuous physical jobs, like his latest one in a meat packing plant.  When he gets a call saying that Liam died from a fall from his apartment balcony, where he had been smoking a powerful new strain of marijuana called muskrat, Bettany comes home.  Not just to go to the funeral, but to find out exactly what happened.


It doesn't take much of his old intelligence skills for Bettany to figure out that Liam's death was no accident.  Now he needs to find out who is responsible and make them pay.  With no official sanction and a fierce thirst for revenge, though, Bettany's methods of investigation lack a certain subtlety.  In short order, he has problems with a whole raft of dangerous characters, including the muskrat distribution gang's kingpin, McGarry gang members, and the muscle for Liam's boss, a multi-millionaire video game creator.  And when he gets a call from MI-5, that's not good news, either.


I got to know Herron's writing in the last couple of years, when I read his Slow Horses and Dead Lions, books about a group of MI-5 agents who have been exiled from Regent's Park, where the real intelligence action is, to Slough House because of various screwups and misdeeds. These castoff agents are expected to resign at the sheer humiliation, but they're determined to hang on, distinguish themselves somehow and scrape their way back across the Thames.


The Slough House series books are terrific thrillers, stylishly written and with plenty of of cynical humor.  One running schtick is how the Slough House boss, the slovenly and casually offensive Jackson Lamb, is able to puncture the two top iron ladies at Regent's Park, Ingrid Tearney and Diana Tavener.


You definitely don't have to read the Slough House books to enjoy Nobody Walks.  It stands on its own and has a different style.  There is not much humor to be had in Tom Bettany's story.  This is a grim and gritty revenge thriller.  You can't call Bettany likable, but he's a riveting character and the story is both action-packed and thought-provoking, with plenty of twists and turns.  If this book were made into a movie––which would be a great idea––I could see Daniel Craig or Liam Neeson playing Bettany.


If you have read the Slough House books, I think you'll get a kick out of seeing the iron ladies, and you may wonder, as I do, whether Nobody Walks is the end of the Bettany story or if there will be a sequel.  And if there is a sequel, might the Slough House gang come along for the ride?

Pulp fiction revenge fantasy against Hitler. Seriously.

A Man Lies Dreaming - Lavie Tidhar

How in the world can I describe this book?  It's definitely the most unusual story I've read in a long time.  It jumps back and forth between the dream of a man, Shomer, who is an inmate at Auschwitz, and a pulp fiction story about an alternate history in which Germany falls to the Communists rather than the Nazis and Adolf Hitler flees to England and becomes a private detective in London.


Wait, what?  Seriously, this is the story.  Does it sound offensive?  I can definitely see that the notion is offensive, but it reminded me a little bit of the Quentin Tarantino movie, Inglourious Basterds, in that it's a little like a revenge fantasy; a lousy fate we wish could have happened to Hitler and his henchmen.


"The Fall," as the Communist takeover in Germany is called in this novel, happened when the Nazis were a fairly new party.  Hitler was known outside Germany, but not well.  This allows him to adopt a new name, Wolf, and not be recognized by many people.


The reason why this is a revenge fantasy is that Wolf is absolutely pathetic.  He's poor, spectacularly unsuccessful, and a series of almost comically bad things happen to him after he's forced by his penury to take a case from that classic trope of pulp fiction private detective stories, the mysterious, glamorous dame––a Jewish one.  Humiliations galore!


I can't say much more about the plot without being spoiler-y, but I'll just say that it's deliriously entertaining.  At the same time, though, the Shomer portions leaven the story and keep us tethered enough to reality so that it's not frivolous.  Like good pulp fiction noir, there's a real morality play going on underneath the private detective formula.

The legendary last novel by the author of Get Carter

GBH - Ted Lewis

Ted Lewis was the author of Get Carter (initially titled Jack's Return Home), the inspiration for the Michael Caine classic noir crime drama.  The hard-living Lewis died in 1982 at age 42, and the legend has been that his last novel, GBH, not Get Carter, is his real noir masterpiece.  The problem is that GBH (which stands for the crime of Grievous Bodily Harm) went out of print in the UK almost instantly after it was published in 1980, and it wasn't published in the US.  But now we can all find out if the GBH of legend is the real deal.


In GBH's two-track narrative, crime boss George Fowler alternates between his life in London, where he ruthlessly hunts for the traitors within his organization, helped by the members of his ever-shrinking trusted inner circle.  The London chapters are called Smoke, and they alternate with chapters titled Sea, in which Fowler is now in a coastal town, where he is as alone and bleak as the the off-season beachfront.


The story is gritty, deep dark noir.  Fowler's business is extremely nasty porn, and he's relentless, ultra-violent and increasingly unhinged in his pursuit of his betrayer.  As the chapters alternate between Smoke and Sea, we learn how Fowler has come to the state he's in when he retreats to his luxurious, but empty, seaside house, and what the consequences will be of the choices he's made.


Lewis's prose is stripped down and searing.  One aspect of it I wasn't crazy about is its purposeful lack of clarity. Names are given, but we don't know who they are for some time.  We don't even know Fowler's first name for awhile, nor what his criminal empire is all about or why he's having various members of his organization tortured.  I thought the story was more than tense and compelling enough not to need this element, which just seemed gimmicky to me.


Noir fans will want to give this vintage London crime drama a read.  Some, maybe even most, may find that the clarity issue that bothered me adds an air of creepy suspense.


Note: I was given an advance copy of the book for review.

Some of the nicest people in the world are capable of just about anything

The Lady from Zagreb - Philip Kerr

This latest adventure of Bernie Gunther, cynical German gumshoe, takes place mostly in 1942, in Germany, Switzerland and Germany, with some flash-forwards to 1956 on the Côte d’Azur.  The 1942 Bernie is back home in Berlin from his time in Smolensk as an investigator with the Wehrmacht War Crimes Bureau.  (Yes, there really was such a thing, and no, of course the Nazis didn’t investigate their own genocidal atrocities.)


Coming back to Berlin is a lot better than being in Smolensk, but it has its drawbacks.  Bernie, no fan of public speaking, is coerced into giving an address at an international criminal conference.  He’s also once again summoned by Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels (whom Bernie calls––though rarely aloud––“Mahatma Propagandhi”  or “Joey the Crip”) to do a little job for him.  The job is to travel to Yugoslavia to get a message to a certain Father Ladislaus from his long-lost daughter, who is now up-and-coming film starlet Dalia Dresner.


Goebbels has a yen for Dalia, which is what prompts his insistence that Bernie should do this favor.  When Bernie meets Dalia, he’s immediately smitten too and will do whatever she asks.  Yes, even go to Yugoslavia.  That’s a tall order during the war, when the Nazis’ allies, the Croatian Ustaše, were bloodily laying waste to Serbs and Jews, and every bend in the road could lead to an ambush by various flavors of partisans.  Bernie’s visit to Yugoslavia is brief, but possibly even a worse experience than Smolensk.


The plot thickens back in Berlin, with Goebbels “asking” Bernie to go to Switzerland on another Dalia-related errand, and SS spymaster Walter Schellenberg adding a side job that turns into a spy/counterspy drama worthy of a James Bond film.  If you’ve read the Bernie Gunther books, you’ll know that no matter how unrelated Bernie’s two jobs appear, their paths will converge at some point, and the meeting will be explosive.


Kerr wasn’t quite as skillful as usual in bringing his two story threads together.  The Swiss story was far stronger, and I found myself wishing Bernie could have spent more time in Zurich, getting into trouble with spies of various stripes.  The trip to Yugoslavia was almost perfunctory.  And Kerr, who normally weaves history seamlessly into his story, presents the saga of Yugoslavia during World War II through a long and stilted chapter of expository speech from Dalia to Bernie.


But Bernie, the German Sam Spade, is his usual acerbic self.  More than a little ground down by nearly 10 years of coexisting with Nazis, he’s still open to love––or a reasonable facsimile.  As always, he’s the bottom-line reason for reading this series.  It’s good to know he’ll be back in 2016, as Kerr writes in his Author’s Note, in a new novel to be titled The Other Side of Silence.


Note: I was given an advance copy of the book for review.

I had low expectations––and they still weren't met

17 Carnations: The Royals, the Nazis and the Biggest Cover-Up in History - Andrew Morton

Andrew Morton is not an author I'd seek out for authoritative history, so I wasn't anticipating that when I decided to read this book.  Also, the title is a tip-off that this shouldn't be approached very seriously.  The "17 carnations" is a reference to the scurrilous and unproven rumor that Nazi Ambassador to England, von Ribbentrop, had an affair with Wallis Warfield Simpson at the same time she was having one with the Prince of Wales (later Edward VIII, later the Duke of Windsor), and that the Ambassador daily sent her 17 carnations to memorialize their 17 sexual trysts.


Still, the book description promises that we'll receive the full story behind a "daring heist ordered by King George VI [and] the smooth duplicity of a Soviet spy" over "damning letters" between a Edward and the Nazi high command, and more revelations about Wallis's affair with Ribbentrop.  All in all, a "saga of intrigue, betrayal, and deception suffused with a heady aroma of sex and suspicion."  What a crock!  If that description makes you want to read this book, put your credit card away, because it doesn't at all accurately describe its contents.


Morton trots out some well-worn stories about the couple's sex lives, but he keeps it brief and that's fine with me.  What I wanted to hear about was the information Morton supposedly unearthed from extensive archival resources, and this heist story.  To put the second part first, there was no heist.  There are a couple of pages of the book describing a couple of British representatives taking a bunch of files from a German schloss held by American forces at the end of WW2, as Soviet forces approached.  It was in broad daylight and the only arguably heist-like element was that they didn't wait for approval from the American officer in charge.


As for the for all this information about Edward and the Nazis, there is nothing particularly new or helpful in this book.  Morton refers repeatedly to the so-called Windsor File, but he is very unclear about its contents.  Instead, he describes, in mind-numbing detail, the attempts by the British monarchy and government to destroy the file, or at least suppress its appearance in the documentary history project that was ongoing in the years after the war.  Their attempts were unsuccessful, and the history of the Windsor File has been detailed in previous books and journal articles.


Interspersed with this documentary story, Morton describes Edward and Wallis's pathetic and wasted lives after his abdication, with particular focus on the couple's vapidity and selfishness.  Nothing new there, either.


I am at a loss to see the point of this book.


Note: I was given an advance copy of this book for review.

A document chase around central Europe

Basic Law: A Mystery of Cold War Europe - J. Sydney Jones

If you read a lot of thrillers, you know the basic structure of the document-based type.  There is a chase by multiple characters after some document or manuscript, either because it’s valuable for its rarity or because its exposure would harm some of the chasers or their masters.


In this case, the mcguffin is the memoirs of Renate Müller, a well-known leftist political figure in Germany.  As the book begins, “Reni” has been found dead, an apparent suicide.  Her old lover, Sam Kramer, travels north to the funeral from Vienna, where he is a jaded political reporter.  There, he learns that he’s been named Reni’s literary executor. Her publisher tells Sam that they paid Reni a sizable advance on her memoirs and ask him about the manuscript.


Not only has Sam not found a manuscript, but he suspects that Reni’s death was not a suicide.  The quest is on.  In his search, Sam is joined by Randall, an old friend who, along with Sam and Reni, was part of a group of seven friends whose political activities in 1968 Prague led to disaster for one of their group.


As Sam and Randall travel around central Europe––and even to Crete––chasing down clues to the manuscript’s location, questions arise about their old friends––and their new enemies, who seem to be all around and not willing to stop until they’ve eliminated Sam.  Before Sam cracks the case, he’ll expose dirty politics from a lot of Germans over the last 50 years, from old Nazis to Stasi members to neo-Nazis.


The novel is a slow starter, but it gets going about one-third of the way through and after that it’s an absorbing chase.  I wish Jones had been clearer about when the contemporary part of the story is set.  I spent a lot of time trying to figure that out.  Well, just FYI, it’s 1994, shortly after the end of the Cold War, but a time of political ferment in the new Germany, with the rise of new right-wing parties.  My other slight quibble with the story is that Jones’s characterization could be stronger.  I didn’t get a very three-dimensional feel to Sam’s character.  All in all, though, this is a readable thriller and should be of particular interest to those who enjoy late 20th-century espionage tales.


Note:  I was given an advance copy for purposes of review.

My favorite read of the year so far

Crooked Heart: A Novel - Lissa Evans

Crooked Heart is the story of Noel Bostock and Vee Sedge, a couple of misfits in England during World War II. Noel is a 10-year-old orphan boy, living with his eccentric godmother, Mattie, in her rambling old house near Hampstead Heath. Mattie was a suffragette in the '20s and has a disdain for anything conventional, including the evacuation of children at the beginning of the war, keeping a house tidy, finding a new school for Noel when his old one closes, or listening to the local ARP Warden's lectures on air raid precautions.


Mattie decides to educate Noel herself, going on nature field trips to the Heath and setting him essays on subjects like "Would You Rather Be Blind or Deaf?," What is Freedom?" and "Should People Keep Pets?." Noel is happy not to have to go to school with other children, since his experience is that they are usually stupid and like to bully him for his nerdiness. When Noel and Mattie are not in session in their home school, Noel reads detective stories and Mattie sings old protest songs:


Mattie's eccentricity becomes more marked as she falls victim to dementia. At first, it can be amusing, like when she can't remember the last name of the architect of St. Paul's Cathedral, though she knows it's a bird's name, like Owl or Ostrich. Noel reminds her that it's Sir Christopher Wren, and she thanks him, but responds "I can't help thinking 'Sir Christopher Ostrich' has a tremendous ring to it." The sad day eventually comes when Noel must be evacuated from London.


In St. Alban's, an odd boy like Noel doesn't find any quick takers, but the promise of government subsidy eventually persuades Vee Sedge to take him in. Vee is middle-aged, the sole support of her dotty mother, who spends her days writing letters to Prime Minister Winston Churchill, and Vee's lump of a son, Donald, who uses his heart murmur as an excuse for utter sloth. Vee is barely scraping by, cleaning houses and doing other odd jobs.The war gives her a chance to make some much-needed money on the fiddle, like so many others. Vee's particular scam is to collect for fake charities. The problem is, she's just not very good at it; too nervous and bad at keeping her stories believable and consistent. Noel, the world's youngest management consultant and business partner, turns Vee's business into a far more successful entrepreneurial effort.


From this point, the plot thickens, with Vee and Noel discovering other much more serious crimes afoot. This partnership will evolve in ways both comical and heart-warming, and these are a couple of characters who feel so real you'll miss them

when you close the covers. But don't forget, this is an English story, which means that just as there was very little sugar allowed by a wartime ration book, this is a story that is never overly sweet.  It reminded me a bit of John Boorman’s wonderful semi-autobiographical memoir of his boyhood in wartime England, the movie Hope and Glory.

Hardboiled behind the Iron Curtain

Innocence; or, Murder on Steep Street - Heda Margolius Kovály, Alex Zucker

After World War II, Czechoslovakia had a brief period of democracy until 1948, when it fell to a Communist coup and became a satellite of the USSR.  Like so many European Communist states during the Stalin era, party apparatchiks could suddenly find themselves accused of imaginary crimes against the state and lose their positions or even their lives.  State Security officials and their informants monitored and reported on activities of ordinary citizens, so that one never knew if co-workers, friends or even family members could be trusted not to be informers.


That’s the background of Heda Margolius Kovály’s Innocence, or Murder on Steep Street.  Helena Novákova’s world is turned upside down when she loses her job at a publishing house and her husband is arrested and imprisoned as a spy. He isn’t, but truth isn’t a priority in the paranoid security state.


Now Helena is an usher at the Horizon cinema in Prague, along with several other female ushers, a manager, a concessionaire and a lone male projectionist.  When a young boy visiting the theater is murdered, all of the staff fall under official scrutiny.  There doesn’t seem to be any mystery about whodunnit, but all the other staff members still have plenty of secrets, veiled by layers of lies.


At the same time that we read about the dual lives of the various Horizon staff members, another thread is Helena’s attempts to find help for her husband.  These two threads come together in an unexpected way.  It’s intriguing, but the wrap-up is murky and strays past enigmatic to confusing.  In a few other places the writing lacks clarity.  Overall, though, I still found it a very readable and atmospheric story. 


It might seem a little strange to have a crime novel told in hardboiled style when it’s set in Prague in the 1950s, but I got used to it quickly, especially since the stripped-down bluntness of the style fits the bleak, paranoid time and place. When you find out that Kovály was herself a translator of Raymond Chandler’s books, it makes even more sense.


Knowing Kovály’s own story isn’t necessary to appreciate this stark story of pervasive falsity and fear, but I think it does add something when you know how close this was to home for her.  She and her first husband were Holocaust survivors who made it home to Prague, where her husband became an enthusiastic Communist.  He was caught up in the infamous Slánský show trials and was executed.  When you know that, Helena’s thoughts and actions are especially moving.


If you’re interested in knowing more about Kovály, her memoir is stunning.  Its title is Under a Cruel Star: A Life in Prague 1941-1968, and I highly recommend it.


Note: I received a free advance copy of this book for purposes of review.

An evolutionary history

KL: A History of the Nazi Concentration Camps - Nikolaus Wachsmann

This is an excellent overview of the vast Nazi KL system and its history from the 1930s through the end of World War II.  Wachsmann’s writing is particularly lucid, with a very readable mix of anecdotal and archival/statistical documentation.


The largely chronological organization helps reveal the evolution of the camps.  It’s easy to have just one picture of how the KL worked, but Wachsmann does a fine job showing how the camps not only had different purposes from each other, but that the purposes and methods of operation changed over time.  One example he explores is how the work camps became statistically less deadly in 1943, in response to Himmler’s orders to make prisoners more of a labor resource to outside industry.


Another particular strength is Wachsmann’s showing how Nazi ideology swayed––and sometimes very far––to serve war expedients and the ambitions of commandants and their superiors.  He enlivens his work by illustrating his conclusions with examples of particular individuals, both well-known historical figures and numerous people whose fate was to be swept into the brutal world of the camps.


Wachsmann tackles some of the conventional wisdom about the camps and the prisoners (such as that all kapos were sadists, that prisoners became completely dehumanized, that women formed close bonds but men didn’t), presents his views and reasons for his conclusions.  Wachsmann has a clear-eyed, pragmatic and logical style.  He is no prisoner of ideology in his approach.


Along with another stellar recent work, Sarah Helm’s Ravensbruck, this will be a resource for years to come.

The PCU battles fire, murder, anarchy, corruption–––and time

— feeling excited
Bryant and May and the Burning Man - Christopher Fowler

The Peculiar Crimes Unit’s decrepit offices are located in the City of London, that ancient square mile that was home to London’s original settlement and is now jammed full of the skyscrapers housing the metropolis’s financial institutions.


Hardly anybody lives in the square mile anymore, which makes the P in PCU seem like it should stand for Precarious at times.  The PCU has very little in the way of modern technology; nothing like the kind of assets that would allow it to combat the financial crimes that are headquartered in the square mile.


But as this twelfth book in the series begins, a case arises that is right up the PCU’s alley.  Financial shenanigans in the banking world have led to increasingly large and violent protests in the City.  One bank is firebombed, killing a homeless man dossed down under cardboard boxes in its entryway.


The PCU suspects this was murder, not accident, and their conviction is cemented when there are more murders; seemingly unconnected killings, executed in bizarre ways reminiscent of punishments common in more ancient times.  As each day passes, demonstrations against the bankers and other presumed-to-be-corrupt wealthy people escalate.  Arthur Bryant suspects that the mystery killer will take advantage of the upcoming Halloween and Guy Fawkes Day to pull off even more spectacular murders.


As always, the PCU gets no support––or even respect––from other police units.  This time, their particular nemesis is Darren “Missing” Link, who hamstrings them, ostensibly to prevent their interference with an ongoing fraud investigation.  Like everybody else, all Link sees in the PCU is a ragtag bunch of misfits, led by the spectacularly untidy and decidedly eccentric old man, Bryant.  Like the rest of the force, he just doesn’t understand that Bryant’s encyclopedic knowledge of the history of London is what will make all the difference in the investigation.


Each member of the PCU faces a crossroads in this book, which gives it a bittersweet, elegiac feel.  After 12 books, the PCU members are like old friends.  I hope to see them again, but if not, I wish them well and thank Christopher Fowler for letting us know them.

Looking through a kaleidoscope at four key days in World War II's last weeks in Europe

Swansong 1945: A Collective Diary of the Last Days of the Third Reich - Walter Kempowski, Shaun Whiteside

Swansong 1945 is a translation of the last volume in Walter Kempowski’s 10-volume compilation of contemporary documents (including diaries, reports, interviews, letters, notes, newspaper articles and more) from a wide range of people, documenting World War II from those individual points of view.  The viewpoints range from forced laborers, prisoners and infantrymen with the Allied and Axis armies to generals and heads of state.


During World War II, Kempowski (who was born in 1929 and died in 2007) was a teenager living in Rostock in Germany’s northeast.  He was a fan of jazz music and not so much of his required membership in the Hitler Youth, where he was punished for his bad attitude.  Toward the end of the war, he was drafted into a unit providing messenger services for anti-aircraft facilities.  His father was killed in action on the eastern front less than two weeks before the war’s end in Europe.


Three years later, while visiting his family in his home town of Rostock, in northeastern Germany (which was, of course, part of the Soviet occupation zone) he and his brother and mother were imprisoned as western spies. After eight years, he was released and was allowed to move to West Germany.


In a series of autobiographical novels, Kempowski wrote about his own experiences during and after the war, but he wanted to do something more, something that would present a fully faceted view from those who lived through it.  In the 1980s, he placed ads in German newspapers asking people to send him whatever types of documents they might have that would show what they were doing and thinking during the war.  The response was strong, and he used a mix of those responses and published materials to compile Das Echolot: Ein Collectives Tagebuch (The Sonar: A Collective Diary), from 1993 to 2005.  It appears that Swansong 1945 is the only one of the series to be translated into English (at least so far).


Along with Kempowski’s novels, Das Echolot is a key work in what is known in German as Vergangenheitsbewältigung, roughly translated as coming to terms with the past.  This word is used, in general, to mean analyzing, discussing openly and dealing with the responsibility of Germany for World War II and the Holocaust.


The subtitle of Swansong 1945, saying that this is a collective diary of the “last days” of the Third Reich is more accurate than you might think.  The entries reproduced in this volume are all from just four days in the last weeks of the war: April 20, 1945, which was Hitler’s 56th (and last) birthday; April 25, the first meeting of US and Soviet troops in Germany; April 30, the date of Hitler’s suicide in the Berlin bunker; and May 8, which marked Germany’s unconditional surrender to the Allies.


By presenting this birds-eye view of those tumultuous last days of the war, Kempowski powerfully demonstrates just how chaotic it was, how rapidly events changed and how difficult it was to come by accurate and up-to-date information.  Some people are fooled by Goebbels’s propaganda, while others record their doubts and even ridicule the Reichsminister.  If you know your World War II history already, many of the passages will jump out at you.  There are several entries from ordinary Germans upon hearing about the Allies’ finding the horrific conditions in the concentration/death camps.  More than once, the Germans say it’s dreadful, but what about the atrocities of the Poles against the Germans that started the war.  Of course, we know that those atrocities were staged, and that knowledge is a terrible demonstration of the success of Joseph Goebbels’ deadly cynicism.


Some observations, about the weather, food and the like, remind us that even in the midst of what historian Max Hastings calls “the greatest and most terrible event in human history,” daily life goes on.  This kaleidoscopic view of the last days of the war makes a fascinating and illuminating supplement to traditional history and, with one caveat (which I discuss below), I recommend it to anyone with an interest in learning about the war’s end in Europe.


I do wish Kempowski had included some brief biographies of some of the people whose diary entries are included in the book.  A person’s name is given and, most often, the caption will say something like “forced laborer,” “British/American/Red Army soldier,” and so on.  But, inexplicably, it says nothing after many names, including names like “Bernard Law Montgomery.”  Yes, of course, most people who read this book know that’s the British Field Marshal, but it still seems strange not to note that.  And it should be expected that there will be some readers who don’t know who Montgomery is.


The omission of biographic information is more problematic with people like Marie “Missie” Vassiltchikov and Mathilde Wolff-Mönckeberg.  There is no indication that Vassiltchikov was a Russian princess who fled to Germany after the Russian Revolution, worked at various German government offices during the war and was well-acquainted with several members of the July 20 plot to kill Hitler.  Mathilde Wolff-Mönckeberg was the cultured Hamburg mother of five children, all living abroad, who wrote a long series of unsent letters to her children during the war. I knew about Vassiltchikov and Wolff-Mönckeberg already, but how many readers won’t know their stories?  And I’m sure there are other names in the book that don’t mean anything to me but whose back stories would add more richness to the reading. I wish Kempowski had starred at least some of these names and put brief bios of them in an appendix.


If it were not for the omission of brief biographical notes, I would have given the book five stars.