I’m an impatient reader. This means, among other things, that I don’t enjoy long, intense, and as far as I’m concerned pointless novels about random peoples’ (usually) tragic lives. As my English teacher’s old aunt said when he offered to take her to a Shakespeare play, “Murder, rape, incest – no thanks, I have enough of that at home!”
The New Mrs Clifton, published by Elizabeth Buchan in 2016, is one of those books that I generally avoid, but with two mitigating features. It has an interesting and apparently well researched setting, World War II Berlin and London immediately after the war. And it starts with a hook for readers like me. Buchan has managed to add an element of mystery to her story by beginning it with the discovery in 1974 of a woman’s body buried in a London garden. The scene immediately switches to 1945 and introduces four women, one of whom will presumably somehow end up buried in the garden. With the solution to the mystery to look forward to, I read and enjoyed the relatively long (401) pages and quite tragic story.
For anyone who might be interested in reading the book, I can add that the story concerns a young Englishman who comes home immediately after the war with a German bride, to the consternation of his two sisters and his jilted fiancee.
I can wholeheartedly recommend The Zookeeper’s Wife, published by Diane Ackerman in 2007 and recently made into a movie. I haven’t seen the movie, but I can see why Ackerman was interested in writing the story and why it could make a good movie. The story provides a fascinating insight into some aspects of World War II, from the often described Warsaw Ghetto to the lesser known activities of the Polish Underground, and especially the part played by zookeeper Jan Zabinski and his wife Antonina.
Added to the drama and suspense provided by the setting, the fact that Antonina kept a diary must be what made the story irresistible to a conscientious writer of non-fiction, one who makes an effort to be accurate and avoid making up details to fill out the material. Here I’m inserting my only quibble – you don’t have to put every detail you learn into your book. Ackerman apparently noticed in a photograph that Jan Zabinsky’s wrist seemed hairy. I can understand that she wanted to utilize every bit of information she had, but by dragging in mention of the “hairy wrist” she creates what seems to be an inappropriate distraction. Was Jan Zabinsky unusually hairy? Did this hairiness affect the story in some way?
The movie almost makes itself. You have wartime Poland, with bombing and invasion by German, and later Russian, soldiers. You have a zoo full of exotic animals to add an unusual touch to the setting. And finally, you have a series of colorful characters, refugees from the murdering gestapo, who are given shelter in the zoo.
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.