Berlin Red, published by Sam Eastland in 2017, is the latest in the series featuring Russian detective Inspector Pekkala that began with Eye of the Red Tsar. That was a highly entertaining book with an original setting (for detective stories), namely Russia at the transition between the tsarist and Stalinist eras. I can’t remember offhand which of the subsequent Pekkala books I read, but it wasn’t quite as interesting as the first.
In Berlin Red we have arrived at 1945 and Pekkala has once again been drafted by Stalin, this time to help extract a British agent from Berlin. This book has the quantity and quality of background detail that made Eye of the Red Tsar so fascinating, and of course the same admirable though enigmatic star, Pekkala. According to the publisher’s blurbs, Eastland is the grandson of a London police detective, so deserves much credit for the formidable amount of reading and research that must have gone into the writing of these stories.
I can’t help forming an opinion of a writer’s personality from the characters they create, and by this rule of thumb Eastland is a nice guy. Pekkala’s mission is aided by a number of decent people and even some of the bad guys have their good moments.
The cover blurbs on Chris Petit’s “The Butchers of Berlin, published in 2016, include “darkly atmospheric” and “A gripping police procedural – one so shrouded in guilt, suspense and outright dread it almost approaches horror”. Maybe an air raid going on in the background makes people being flayed alive and eaten by pigs “darkly atmospheric”, but I think in order to approach horror it has to do a U-turn and backtrack.
As Petit writes it, there were some normal people in Berlin in the waning days of World War II, but not very many. There is an elderly Jew who kills a police informer and commits suicide, a young Jewish woman who was a witness and ran away, a young German from the financial crimes division of the police who is drafted to look into the homicide, a Gestapo internal affairs investigator who becomes involved, the young policeman’s English mother, and a German woman who employed the young Jewish woman as a seamstress. That’s almost everybody who isn’t a depraved sadist. Considering the many characters who are depraved sadists, the young policeman and his Gestapo mentor, who are tasked with finding the person responsible for a series of flayed corpses, are spoiled for choice.
Bottom line – this is a surrealistic take on a police investigation with super-size helpings of blood and gore.
A Hero in France, Alan Furst’s latest historical espionage novel, was published in 2016. Set in World War II Paris, it’s as good as the cover blurbs claim:
Thorough research of the history, people, and places – Check.
Meticulous recreation of the atmosphere by inclusion of real details and anecdotes – Check.
Creation of a plausible protagonist who epitomizes the heroism of good and capable but relatively ordinary people under extreme circumstances – Check.
Furst also routinely includes a few sex scenes in his books, ranging from standard to slightly daring. Since not all of them seem to flow naturally from the narrative, I assume they are all part of his formula for success.
One of the cover blurbs compares him to John le Carré, which I don’t think is much of a compliment. Le Carré started out well, but spiraled downward into an obsession with the evils of America that poisoned his later books. Maybe, if you have to get all your hatred of the U.S. off your chest, it would be better to write some opinion pieces instead of letting it dominate your fiction. Just saying.
I have just read Unbroken, Laura Hillenbrand’s best seller about Olympic runner and World War II prison camp survivor Louis Zamperini. I don’t know whether I’ll ever see the movie, which is apparently not up to the level of the book, but in any case I prefer to read the book first so that I know the real story. In this case, though, I don’t see what Hollywood would want to exaggerate – the story is amazing just as it is.
Since this is a best seller, there’s no need to talk about the main story – the wild kid who is saved from disaster by channeling his talents and excess energy into competitive running and seems set to win Olympic gold before being sent to the Pacific battlefield in World War II and eventually surviving starvation and torture in Japanese prison camps. Of all the story’s characters, from heroic soldiers to sadistic prison camp guards, the one I couldn’t get out of my mind is someone who is never identified by name in the book; the criminally incompetent officer who sent Zamperini and his luckless crew mates on a futile mission in a death trap of a plane. There must have been many similar incidents during a war, but the direct line between the incomprehensible action of this officer and the horrible deaths of some of the crew and the experiences that ruined the lives of the survivors makes him unforgettable.
Hillenbrand has done a great job of researching both historical events and the period setting.
I bought Michael Russell’s “The City of Shadows” as a murder mystery based on the blurb on the cover – “A missing woman. Two mysterious murders. A city shrouded in secrets.” The most relevant of these phrases turned out to be “A city shrouded in secrets.” The book is really about the period immediately prior to World War II in Ireland and also in Danzig, at the time a free city belonging neither to Poland nor to Germany.
A lot of research is required for a book like this, but the advantage of choosing such a recent period is that sources are plentiful and the author is limited only by his time and patience. Russell has done an impressive job in bringing this particular era to life, from the streets of Dublin to Irish farming country to the rise of Nazi sentiment among the ethnic German population of Danzig.
In Ireland, we learn about the swirling political currents of the time and the power of the Catholic church over everything from police investigations to family life, a power that not so many years later we think of only in respect to countries like Iran or Saudi Arabia.
Russell ties all of this together with a plot involving a young Jewish Irish woman who returns to Dublin from Palestine to look for a friend who has disappeared, an Irish policeman, and a priest who tries to avoid the Irish police by finding refuge with the bishop of Danzig. It’s fascinating.
The Monuments Men, by Robert M.Edsel, chronicles the massive looting by the German occupiers in Europe during World War II of art, artifacts, and in fact anything that could somehow be detached from its position and moved. The monuments men of the title are the small group of mostly American and British soldiers of the Monuments, Fine Arts, and Archives section of the allied forces who were sent to find and retrieve the stolen treasures.
It’s a fascinating story, including cat and mouse games between brave defenders of their nations cultural icons and the rapacious conquerors, and detective work involving dangerous journeys in places where battles were still raging. of course, many irreplaceable works of art were nevertheless lost or damaged, including hundreds of paintings by Klee, Miro, and other modern masters which were simply burned when the Nazis reached Paris.
Before the invasion of northern Europe, General Eisenhower, the Supreme Commander of the Allied Expeditionary Forces, issued an order instructing all commanders to preserve centers and objects of historical and cultural significance. His foresight mitigated the loss and destruction. It’s hard to avoid the comparison with the looting of the museum in Baghdad after the invasion of Iraq, whose military planners apparently never studied Eisenhower during their training.
The Spies of Warsaw is the perfect spy thriller, and Alan Furst is the perfect writer of spy thrillers. One of the reasons his books are so satisfying is that he has had the intelligence to choose Europe on the verge of World War II as the setting for his stories. This means that there is no shortage of truly important events, fascinating characters, and dangerous situations.
The hero of the present story is a sympathetic French officer serving as military attache in Warsaw. He is one of those who have the sense to realize that the Maginot Line will not protect France against an assault from Germany and he carries out a suspenseful mission to prove it.
Furst has a remarkable ability to recreate the places and circumstances of the period and as a quote from the Guardian claims on the cover, he writes beautifully.