NO GOOD MEN AMONG THE LIVING by Anand Gopal

(Kandahar Air Base, Kandahar Province, Afghanistan-American Air Base)

As we approach the “supposed” end of the American presence in Afghanistan it is useful to examine what might have been had the United States followed a somewhat different path.  How did the war in Afghanistan go so terribly wrong?  After a promising beginning with progress on Afghani infrastructure and some democratic improvements it has become a “Potemkin country” whereby health and educational improvements touted by the government are a sham.  President Obama has promised that American troops would exit the Afghani Theater completely; however based on events in Iraq and the performance of Iraqi forces against ISIS (the Islamic State) the Pentagon is now going to leave a residual force of about 13,000 troops in Afghanistan.  Based on the current situation on the ground Anand Gopal’s book, No Good Men among the Living is a timely reevaluation of the American mission to Afghanistan, and what is important about the book is that it tries to examine what seems to have gone wrong through Afghani eyes.

It is generally accepted that the first major error the United States made in Afghanistan was taking our eyes off our mission and redeploying American forces for the invasion of Iraq in 2003.  An invasion that resulted in the removal of Saddam Hussein, but little else, based on the current plight of that country.  Had the United States not turned away from Afghanistan and devoted its resources and talents to that country it is possible the situation we face today, the fear that once we withdraw the Taliban will continue its war on the Kabul government and eventually replace it might be different.  As 2014 comes to a close the Taliban has resurrected itself in the south and it seems that only Kabul is under government control.  Did events have to evolve as they have, perhaps not, as Gopal suggests.

(Former Afghanistan President Hamid Karzai)

Anand Gopal, a journalist who has covered Afghanistan, Egypt and Syria for a number of important newspapers, and other news outlets attempts to explain what has gone wrong by following three people; a Taliban commander, an American supported warlord, and a village housewife who tries to remain neutral.  By pursuing this approach Gopal provides the reader unique perspectives from which they can discern what the truth is concerning America’s attempt at nation building in Afghanistan.  Gopal provides a brief history of Afghanistan dating back to 1972.  He jumps to the Soviet invasion and summarizes the war conducted by the mujahedeen against Soviet troops.  Gopal continues with greater depth in confronting events as the United States ignored the emerging civil war that took place between 1992 and 1996 and turned away from Afghanistan to pursue other interests.  Gopal’s discussion of the Taliban’s refusal to turn over Osama Bin-Laden after 9/11 receives detailed treatment as does the American invasion and the evolution of the war in Afghanistan through 2013.  Gopal’s historical treatment is insightful on its own, but what separates his approach from others is his concentration on the indigenous perspective.

The first individual we meet is Mullah Cable, whose real name is Akbar Gul, a Taliban disciplinarian before 9/11 who fought against the Northern Alliance.  Gopal asks how such a person declared war against the United States.  He goes on to say that “in his tale I found a history of America’s war on terror itself…a glimpse of how he and thousands like him came to…become our enemy.” (9-10) Gul witnessed the excesses of the Taliban and turned away from its leader Mullah Omar.  He also witnessed the power of American air strikes and the devastation they caused.  Unsure of what to do he would escape to Karachi, Pakistan.  The second character Gopal concentrates on is Jan Muhammad who was imprisoned and beaten by the Taliban for over a year.  A former mujahedeen commander against the Soviet Union, he emerged as the governor of Uruzgam province after the American invasion.  He befriended Hamid Karzai and eventually grew to be a powerful war lord and ally of the United States.  The third character, Heela, is perhaps the most important of Gopal’s choices.  A woman who faced Taliban extremism, the murder of her husband, maintained her dignity throughout a tumultuous period and emerges as a member of the Afghani Senate in 2011.  All three provide a different perspective that is integrated throughout the narrative as Gopal discusses events in a non-chronological fashion, and how they might have been different had the United States pursued a more enlightened policy.

(The author)

Gopal’s central argument is very simple.  American officials believed that jihadi terrorism could be defeated through the military occupation.  In the wake of 9/11 that seemed feasible.  But when one traveled through the southern Afghani countryside a different interpretation emerges.  The contradiction is embodied in the sprawling jumble of what was Kandahar Airfield, the home of Burger King, barbed wire, and internment cages.  It was the nerve center of American operations in southern Afghanistan.  Gopal points out that “a military base in a country like Afghanistan is also a web of relationships, a hub for the local economy, and a key player in the political ecosystem.” (107)  The US developed relationships with warlords throughout the region and began relying on them for intelligence.  These were mostly the same warlords who were responsible for the atrocities during the 1990s.  The problem emerged that these warlords cared more about their own power as it related to other warlords so they provided intelligence designed to get rid of their own enemies, not intelligence that would effective against the Taliban.  What repeatedly occurred was that individuals and villages that were anti-Taliban and pro-American were arrested and bombed by the Americans.  The internment cages and resulting torture that ensued resulted in little intelligence and at times the release of those individuals by the Americans with a slight apology.  Instead of building relationship that could foster confidence, in the end the US and its allies drove people into the arms of the Taliban.  A good example is Jan Muhammad, who used the United States to settle scores with tribal enemies and enrich himself and secure his own power by feeding the US false intelligence.  The US would kill, arrest, torture Muhammad’s enemies, in a sense doing his dirty work, and as long as he was loyal he could carry on under the auspices of the United States. The US conducted raids against anyone it understood to have been remotely connected to the previous Taliban regime, even after they had put down their weapons and gone home.

(Afghani refugees outside Kabul)

Gopal describes in detail the American justice and prison system developed at the Kandahar and Bagram air bases, and how they were linked to Guantanamo.  Interrogators made little attempt to reconcile existing intelligence with any fresh information that was obtained.  If you entered this system your jailers became further and further removed from the battlefield as you would be taken from place to place.  Some of the charges bordered on the absurd, i.e., being accused of supporting the Northern Alliance, an American ally.  Poor intelligence, poor coordination between different commands, and basic bureaucratic incompetence plagued American administration of the region.  This was exacerbated by being manipulated by certain “warlord types” resulting in the arrest, torture, and imprisonment of many who were actually pro-American and working for the Karzai government.  It was no wonder that by 2005 the Taliban experienced resurgence as the American presence was seen as an occupation and the Karzai government, a venal and vicious puppet of Washington.

By 2007 the United Nations “estimated that the Taliban had reclaimed control of more than half of rural Pashtun territory countrywide.  By year’s end, officials had logged more than five thousand security incidents-roadside bombings, kidnappings, assassinations, ambushes.” (207)  As we approached 2009, following his election, President Obama launched a mini-surge that was somewhat effective, but as we approach the end of the American commitment we must ask was it worth it.   For years we have known that the Karzai government was extremely corrupt and a road block for our mission, even though as we have seen, American patronage was ultimately responsible for the mess.  Gopal finds that we are repeating our errors as we try and circumvent the central government “and deal with local power brokers, unwittingly cultivating a new generation of strongmen,” who have their own agendas. (274)  By 2013 there were roughly 60-80,000 armed private security employees in the country, “almost all of them working for Afghan strongmen.  Add to this 135,000 Afghan army soldiers, 110,000 police, and tens of thousands of private militiamen working for the Afghan government, the US Special Forces, or the CIA, and you have more than 300,000 armed Afghan men all depending on US patronage.  You can’t help but wonder:  What happens when the troops leave, the bases close, and the money dries up?” (276)  You should also ask:  What would have happened had the US understood the provincial culture of the Afghan countryside better and made different decisions?

The major criticisms of Gopal’s book do not take away from its overall importance.  He spends little time on the role of Pakistan and ISI, its intelligence service that fostered Taliban terror as it pursued its own agenda in Afghanistan, while at the same time publicly supporting its ally, the United States.  The recent Taliban massacre of the school house in Peshawar shows that their double game can often bite them.  Next, the Taliban, at times comes across as a virtuous movement of oppressed ethnic Pashtuns, who are fighting a just cause against a corrupt government and an invading force.  As Kim Barker points out in her New York Times review of the book on April 25, 2014, “the sole serious Taliban massacre comes nearly three-quarters of the way through, in an account of how Talibs slaughtered a busload of Afghans on their way to find work in Iran.”

You may not agree with all of Gopal’s findings and analysis, however he presents a unique approach to his research and is well worth a read for those still trying to figure out what went wrong, and what the future of Afghanistan might be.

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THE FARM by Tom Rob Smith

(The southern Swedish rural countryside in winter)

When I began reading THE FARM, Tom Rob Smith’s new book I had certain expectations having read his trilogy of thrillers dealing with the Soviet Union; CHILD 44, THE SECRET SPEECH, and AGENT 6.  From the first paragraph I grew curious, but very surprised.  The story line was nothing like his previous books.  This effort begins with a phone call from Chris, living in rural Sweden calling his son, Daniel who resides in London.  Daniel’s parents had lived in London, but because their finances had succumbed to the 2008 recession they had taken what funds remained and purchased a small farm in Sweden, hoping to live out their retirement in that idyllic setting.  Chris informs Daniel that his mother, Tilde was on her way to London, having been released from a psychiatric hospital.  Chris had taken her there because of her strange behavior and he wanted to warn his son that doctors felt she was suffering from a psychosis and she was not to be believed once she arrived at Heathrow Airport.  Each character seems to have a number of secrets that emerge during the course of the story.  For Daniel, it was the fact that he was gay and living with his partner Mark.  Daniel had been unable to tell his parents, which was why he had not visited them since their departure for Sweden.  Once Tilde arrives, Daniel is faced with the core of the novel, was his mother mentally ill, or where her suspicions against his father true.  Who was he to believe?

Most of the story is told by Tilde as she reads to Daniel from her Journal. She maintained the journal while she suspected that Chris and another farmer, Hakan Greggson, and others were involved in a criminal cover-up that she had investigated.  Tilde argues that there was a conspiracy against her which is why she left Sweden, feeling the only one she could turn to was her son.  As the narrative evolves Daniel questions whether he really knows either parent based on his mother’s strange presentation.  He blames himself for neglecting his parents as he sees that the situation he is confronted with holds a great deal of information he was unaware of.  Daniel wonders that if he had paid greater attention to what was occurring while he was growing up he would be able to make sense of what was now happening.  Once his father follows his mother to London the novel becomes even more seductive as it draws the reader further into its plot.

The question throughout is whether Tilde is mentally incapacitated.  But one must ask, is her behavior abnormal, or is the situation she has been placed in abnormal.  As the existential phenomenologist, Thomas Szaz argued, it is not the person who is ill, but the environment that they must survive in that is responsible.  Perhaps, Tilde is just behaving as she is as a coping mechanism to survive an emotionally debilitating situation.  The reader doesn’t really know as they continue the journey that the author has prepared for them.  It has been suggested by another review that some of what Smith has created is based on his own experiences.  Be that as it may, the narrative is in part suspenseful, and in part deeply distressing.  I will stop here as to not delve any deeper because the story will continue with many twists and turns as Daniel tries to come to some sort of closure as to how he feels about his parents, and what is the truth.  In a sense the book is all about truth and the journey to find peace.  It is a superb story and Tom Rob Smith has provided further evidence as to what a talented writer he has become.  I read the book in two sittings; if you open its cover, and turn the pages you should experience the same desire to read on.

When Books Went to War by Molly Guptill Manning

(The most popular book read by American GIs during WWII)

As a professed bibliophile I was intrigued when I learned of the publication of When Books Went to War by Molly Guptill Manning.  The concept of the book was fascinating and it seemed to me that the topic, the impact of reading on American military personnel during World War II has never been given much attention.  Now, with Manning’s monograph we have a short history of the role of books during the Second World War ranging from Nazi book burnings, the ideological war between Nazism and Democracy, the diversion provided to American soldiers that allowed them to endure, and the impact on the publishing industry that led to the production of the mass market paperback.   Manning has written a wonderful book as she integrates her theme in relation to the important events that took place during the war.

(Nazi book burning, May 10, 1933)

According to Manning there was no escape from the fear of dying during World War II.  Whether on land, sea, or in the air American GIs faced the likelihood that they or someone very close to them would not survive.  Any diversion from the anxiety that soldiers faced on an everyday basis was welcomed.  As Manning describes it, “the days were grinding, the stress was suffocating, and the dreams of home were often fleeting.  Any distraction from the horrors of war was cherished.  The men treasured mementos from home.  Letters from loved ones were rare prizes.  Card games, puzzles, music, and the occasional sports game helped pass the hours waiting for action or sleep to come.  Yet mail could be frustratingly irregular—sometimes taking as long as four or five months to arrive—and games and the energy to play them could not always be mustered after a long day of training or fighting.  To keep morale from sinking, there needed to be readily available entertainment to provide some relief from war.” (xiii-xiv)  The answer that evolved was the creation of book editions designed for soldiers; portable and accessible for those in combat, rehabilitation, or other wartime situations.

Manning begins her narrative with a Nazi book burning rally on May 10, 1933.  The purpose of the rally organized by Adolf Hitler’s Minister of Public Enlightenment, Joseph Goebbles was “to ensure the purity of German literature” and rid Germany of ideas “antagonistic to German progress.” (2)  The works of Sigmund Freud, Emile Ludwig, Thomas Mann, Erich Maria Remarque, among many others were tossed into the fire, no longer available to German students.  Thousands of book burnings took place nationwide including major universities.  It is estimated that the Nazis burned over 100 million books during their reign of terror.  This set the stage for an aspect of the war that was apart from the battlefield as Hitler fought to eliminate democracy and free thought.  The American Library Association (ALA) described Nazi actions against intellectual freedom as a “bibliocaust,” their weapon of choice was to encourage Americans to read, and once the United States became an active belligerent supply books to American soldiers.

(An American GI relaxing with a book in Guadalcanal)

Manning reviews the history of how America organized the distribution of books to American soldiers.  Beginning with conscription and the military training that followed the ALA and other organizations were created to gather and distribute books to American GIs.  At first, the effort was based on collecting donations from the public at large, but when that was deemed inadequate; because of the increasing number of men in the military, the fact that hardcover books which had been the staple of the American publishing industry before the war were much too heavy to be taken into combat, also, the supply of books was being exhausted, and finally many books that were donated did not meet the needs of the troops.  The Victory Book Campaign (VBC) which had been in charge of book donations turned to the American publishing industry to solve the problem as one company, Pocket Books had already begun publishing paperbacks.  The magazine industry had developed miniature editions for servicemen and they were very successful, so why not the book industry.

The key for infantry soldiers and those near the front was to travel as light as possible, and at the same time meet the needs of soldiers who craved reading to make the non-combat time go quickly.  Manning provides details how the paperback volume evolved and how it caused a revolution in American publishing.  Publishers joined together to create the “Armed Services Edition” (ASEs) of hundreds of titles under the auspices of the Council of Books in Wartime.  Problems did develop in the production and distribution of these volumes but once these problems were solved millions of books came off the presses and were distributed overseas and to military facilities at home.  One of the more interesting insights that Manning provides centers on unpopular books before the war that would emerge as best sellers later on.  F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby and Betty Smith’s A Tree Grows in Brooklyn are cases in point.  The impact of these books on soldiers was profound.  Manning includes numerous letters written by GIs during the war extolling the virtues of the books they read, and the need they filled.  GIs were interviewed after the war and expressed similar feelings.

As men waited on Landing Craft in the English Channel for the D Day landing, many turned to books.  A.J. Liebling, a war correspondent for New Yorker magazine wrote that one infantry man told him “these little books are a great thing.  They take you away.” (99) Many soldiers developed a relationship with the authors they read.  Katherine Anne Porter’s Short Stories touched the hearts of many soldiers and she received over 600 letters.  Betty Smith, the author of A Tree grows in Brooklyn received 1500 letters a year and answered each one.  As one private wrote, “Books are often the sole means of escape for GIs….I haven’t seen many a man who never before had the patience or inclination to read a book, pick up one of the Council’s and become absorbed and ask for more.” (111)  In fact many soldiers would become lifelong readers because of their experiences during the war.  Manning deftly captures the emotions that soldiers felt as they identified with the literature they read.  It brought them home and gave them hope for the future, and helped them deal with the present.  Manning must have scoured many sources to come up with the letters she integrates into the narrative and it provides tremendous insight for the reader into the minds of the soldiers who fought. The program to supply books did provoke some controversy, particularly as the 1944 Presidential election approached.  Senator Robert Taft amended the Soldier Voting Act which created a partisan battle over the ballots that soldiers would use.  Taft’s amendment, titled Article V stated no book could be sent to soldiers funded by government funds that “…contained[ed] political argument or political propaganda of any kind designed or calculated to affect the result of any election.” (136-7) The Council responsible for choosing titles and the War Department afraid to run afoul of the legislation trimmed the approved list and books such as Charles Beard’s The Republic, Catherine Drinker Bowen’s Yankee from Olympus, and E.B. White’s One Man’s Meat, along textbooks for military education courses were no longer available.  The Council led the opposition arguing that books available in the United States now were not available overseas for American soldiers.  Manning characterizes the conflict as nothing more than a Republican attempt to hold down Roosevelt’s vote since 69% of GIs polled said they would vote for a fourth term.  Whether accurate or not Manning presents both sides of the argument, as Republicans were forced to amend the legislation, ostensibly overturning Article V.

Once the war ended there was an obvious correlation between the success of the Council on Books in Wartime and postwar developments.  Under the GI Bill of Rights veterans were allowed a free college education.  Eventually 7.8 million veterans took advantage of this opportunity and many did so because of the reading habits they developed during the war.  For those who were not avid readers before the war, the Victory Book Campaign was responsible for showing men they could thrive at book learning and studying after the war.  “After all, if they could read and learn burrowed in a foxhole between shell bursts, surely they could handle a course of study in the classroom.”  Further the American publishing industry continued publishing paperbacks revolutionizing the industry.  Numerous publishers began producing paperbacks and sales went from 40 million in 1942 to 270 million in 1952, and by 1959 hardback sales were overtaken by those of paperbacks, changes directly related to the ASE’s of the war. (191)

Molly Manning has examined a different aspect of World War II and its influence on post war America.  Her thoughtful approach and reasoned analysis has produced a wonderful story that needed to be told.  It is a reflection of American values and deserves to be read by a wide audience.

I AM PILGRIM by Terry Hayes

(Bodrum, Turkey where much of the novel takes place)

If you are a devotee of suspense and thrills I AM PILGRIM is for you.  If you enjoy fast action and an ever changing plot, Terry Hayes’ first novel is for you.  If you want to become engrossed in a story that has well developed characters, with interesting backgrounds, with an author who has written award winning screenplays, then this book is for you.  If you react well to a story line that constantly is shifting and has tremendous depth, then you cannot go wrong with I AM PILGRIM.  It has been a long time since I have read a spy thriller that has grabbed my attention the way Terry Hayes has done.  A screen play writer with many credits, Hayes’ has done an exceptional job with his first effort at fiction.  The book centers on a number major plot lines.  One, as the book opens the reader is presented with a murder in a fleabag hotel in Manhattan.  The main character has many aliases and I will refer to him as the narrator, has a theory dealing with the homicide that is outside the traditional investigative box.  Second, is the relationship that develops between the narrator and Ben Bradley, a New York detective, who was badly injured in the attacks on the World Trade Center.  Third, is the development of a strain of smallpox that bypasses the available vaccine that is created by an Islamic fundamentalist physician, referred to as the Saracen, who fought against the Soviet Union in Afghanistan, and has grown to hate Saudi Arabia and the United States. 

There are other stories within the major story; the narrator’s relationship with his parents is important as he witnessed the death of his mother at a very young age and was adopted by a rich Greenwich, CT couple.  Bill and Grace Murdoch were not especially warm parents, particularly Grace who did not want the child, and made him quite aware of her feelings.  Bill was able to create an emotional bond with the boy and the narrator developed great respect for him.  The narrator explains that growing up in this environment and attending a New England prep school was great experience for developing “other identities” needed for his survival upon graduating Harvard and being recruited by intelligence services.   The Saracen’s life history explains why he evolves into a terrorist.   He was born in Saudi Arabia to a father who hated the United States.  A zoologist who was considered moderate by Saudi  standards was arrested and executed by Saudi officials for criticizing the royal family.  The Saracen witnessed the hanging and left his family as a teenager and was radicalized in a mosque and became a hero fighting against the Soviet Union.  He attended medical school and using his role as a physician developed his “small pox strain” to seek revenge by unleashing a pandemic in the United States that would force the US to withdraw support for the Saudis.  Lastly, the investigative techniques employed by the narrator as he tries to link the murder in New York with the actions of the Saracen.

One of the major keys to the story is a book that the narrator had written on modern investigative techniques.  It seems that the murderer in New York read the book and planned her homicide using the narrator’s ideas on how to avoid detection and commit the perfect crime.  For the narrator, 9/11 is the turning point in his life as he realized that because of the intelligence mistakes made the “entire intelligence structure would be torn apart.  It had to be rebuilt.  Nothing in the secret world would ever be the same again…people in government would only have interest in secretly policing the covert world; they would only be interested in secretly policing the Islamic world.” (53)  The narrator felt he did not fit in the new world and decided to retire.  Hayes’ views on contemporary issues come through clearly as the novel progresses and the current debate over the Senate report on torture and the CIA would certainly have been woven into the story had it been available when the book was written.  The author’s attack on the 9/11 intelligence failures and the role of our politicians is very accurate and is food for thought.  Hayes’ thriller may be the basis of a future screen play as its constant movement from one geographic region and time frame to another would play well on a movie screen.  Eventually the narrator is called upon to try and head off a biological catastrophe and forgoes retirement.

Hayes’ has an excellent command of the geo-politics of the Middle East and the historic subtleties that he describes concerning Islamic culture and the radicalization presented through the eyes of the Saracen.  As the story progresses it is easy to understand his hatred toward the west and the Saudi regime and why he chose the life path he pursued.  Hayes does a superb job developing the overall storyline, but also the subplots that accompany the larger ones, i.e.; Scott Murdoch and Jude Garrett were the same person.  Hayes jumps back and forth between the activities of the narrator and the Saracen, but his approach makes sense and it is easy to follow.  The author deftly develops the narrator’s characters whether it is Scott, Murdoch, Peter Campbell or other that were used during his career in “the shadows.”  Hayes’ insights into the “dark world” of intelligence are interesting as the narrator states “how the secret world never leaves you—it’s always waiting in the darkness, ready to gather its children back again.”  The narrator tried to live a normal life but as a former participant in “the shadows” he comes to realize that it might never be possible.  Based on our current relationship with Turkey and its indirect support for ISIS, the author’s characterization of the Turkish government and its police and intelligence services is on the mark.  By using a Turkish detective and staging a second homicide in a Turkish city, Hayes has the opportunity to provide the reader many insights into the Turkish government’s mindset in dealing with threats to their security.

 Surprises abound throughout the book and the ending is surreal as torture, psychological warfare,  plot lines and major characters all come together.   For a first effort Hayes has done a remarkable job and I look forward to his next book, THE YEAR OF THE LOCUST, due to be released in June, 2015.  I assume a year later the film version of I AM PILGRIM will be released!

I AM PILGRIM by Terry Hayes

(Bodrum, Turkey where much of the novel takes place)

If you are a devotee of suspense and thrills I AM PILGRIM is for you.  If you enjoy fast action and an ever changing plot, Terry Hayes’ first novel is for you.  If you want to become engrossed in a story that has well developed characters, with interesting backgrounds, with an author who has written award winning screenplays, then this book is for you.  If you react well to a story line that constantly is shifting and has tremendous depth, then you cannot go wrong with I AM PILGRIM.  It has been a long time since I have read a spy thriller that has grabbed my attention the way Terry Hayes has done.  A screen play writer with many credits, Hayes’ has done an exceptional job with his first effort at fiction.  The book centers on a number major plot lines.  One, as the book opens the reader is presented with a murder in a fleabag hotel in Manhattan.  The main character has many aliases and I will refer to him as the narrator, has a theory dealing with the homicide that is outside the traditional investigative box.  Second, is the relationship that develops between the narrator and Ben Bradley, a New York detective, who was badly injured in the attacks on the World Trade Center.  Third, is the development of a strain of smallpox that bypasses the available vaccine that is created by an Islamic fundamentalist physician, referred to as the Saracen, who fought against the Soviet Union in Afghanistan, and has grown to hate Saudi Arabia and the United States.

There are other stories within the major story; the narrator’s relationship with his parents is important as he witnessed the death of his mother at a very young age and was adopted by a rich Greenwich, CT couple.  Bill and Grace Murdoch were not especially warm parents, particularly Grace who did not want the child, and made him quite aware of her feelings.  Bill was able to create an emotional bond with the boy and the narrator developed great respect for him.  The narrator explains that growing up in this environment and attending a New England prep school was great experience for developing “other identities” needed for his survival upon graduating Harvard and being recruited by intelligence services.   The Saracen’s life history explains why he evolves into a terrorist.   He was born in Saudi Arabia to a father who hated the United States.  A zoologist who was considered moderate by Saudi  standards was arrested and executed by Saudi officials for criticizing the royal family.  The Saracen witnessed the hanging and left his family as a teenager and was radicalized in a mosque and became a hero fighting against the Soviet Union.  He attended medical school and using his role as a physician developed his “small pox strain” to seek revenge by unleashing a pandemic in the United States that would force the US to withdraw support for the Saudis.  Lastly, the investigative techniques employed by the narrator as he tries to link the murder in New York with the actions of the Saracen.

One of the major keys to the story is a book that the narrator had written on modern investigative techniques.  It seems that the murderer in New York read the book and planned her homicide using the narrator’s ideas on how to avoid detection and commit the perfect crime.  For the narrator, 9/11 is the turning point in his life as he realized that because of the intelligence mistakes made the “entire intelligence structure would be torn apart.  It had to be rebuilt.  Nothing in the secret world would ever be the same again…people in government would only have interest in secretly policing the covert world; they would only be interested in secretly policing the Islamic world.” (53)  The narrator felt he did not fit in the new world and decided to retire.  Hayes’ views on contemporary issues come through clearly as the novel progresses and the current debate over the Senate report on torture and the CIA would certainly have been woven into the story had it been available when the book was written.  The author’s attack on the 9/11 intelligence failures and the role of our politicians is very accurate and is food for thought.  Hayes’ thriller may be the basis of a future screen play as its constant movement from one geographic region and time frame to another would play well on a movie screen.  Eventually the narrator is called upon to try and head off a biological catastrophe and forgoes retirement.

Hayes’ has an excellent command of the geo-politics of the Middle East and the historic subtleties that he describes concerning Islamic culture and the radicalization presented through the eyes of the Saracen.  As the story progresses it is easy to understand his hatred toward the west and the Saudi regime and why he chose the life path he pursued.  Hayes does a superb job developing the overall storyline, but also the subplots that accompany the larger ones, i.e.; Scott Murdoch and Jude Garrett were the same person.  Hayes jumps back and forth between the activities of the narrator and the Saracen, but his approach makes sense and it is easy to follow.  The author deftly develops the narrator’s characters whether it is Scott, Murdoch, Peter Campbell or other that were used during his career in “the shadows.”  Hayes’ insights into the “dark world” of intelligence are interesting as the narrator states “how the secret world never leaves you—it’s always waiting in the darkness, ready to gather its children back again.”  The narrator tried to live a normal life but as a former participant in “the shadows” he comes to realize that it might never be possible.  Based on our current relationship with Turkey and its indirect support for ISIS, the author’s characterization of the Turkish government and its police and intelligence services is on the mark.  By using a Turkish detective and staging a second homicide in a Turkish city, Hayes has the opportunity to provide the reader many insights into the Turkish government’s mindset in dealing with threats to their security.

Surprises abound throughout the book and the ending is surreal as torture, psychological warfare,  plot lines and major characters all come together.   For a first effort Hayes has done a remarkable job and I look forward to his next book, THE YEAR OF THE LOCUST, due to be released in June, 2015.  I assume a year later the film version of I AM PILGRIM will be released!

THE DAY OF ATONEMENT by David Liss

(18th century Lisbon, Portugal)

In David Liss’ new book, The Day of Atonement we meet Sebastiao Raposa, a thirteen year old boy who is forced by his mother to flee Lisbon because of the actions of the Inquisition.  In the mid 18th century Portugal is in the midst of a virulent Inquisition that targets any one and anything for what it perceives to be a violation of the Catholic churches precepts.  Sebastiao’s father has been seized by the Inquisition and his mother knows that she and her son will be next.  She convinces a former business associate of her husband, Charles Settwell to smuggle Sebastiao on a ship that was sailing for Falmouth, England.  The young man will make his way to London where he will remain for ten years before returning to Lisbon in 1755.  He assumes the identity of a business man named Sebastiao Foxx to seek revenge against Pedro Azinhiero, the Inquisitor who had destroyed his family and forced him to forsake a young girl, Gabriela,  who he believed would someday become his wife.  Unhappy as to what he had become in London he chose to return to Lisbon to gain the satisfaction of destroying the Inquisition and restoring his self worth.

While in London Sebastiao came under the tutelage of Benjamin Weaver, a character that Liss had developed in previous novels; A Conspiracy of Paper, A Spectacle of Corruption, and more recently, The Devil’s Company.  Weaver is a former Jewish boxer, now a “thief taker” (“a person paid to find people and other things” (42) who Liss employs to explore the corruption, economic panic and anti-Semitism among other ills of society.  In his new novel Liss has Weaver teach Sebastiao the art of deception and the skills needed to catch and punish thieves.  Sebastiao’s family was among many Jewish families that had been forced to convert to Christianity generations ago.  They were called “New Christians” but many maintained their religion in secret.  Though raised a Catholic, while in London Sebastiao was circumcised and renewed his commitment to Judaism.  Once in Lisbon he meets a number of characters who play an important role in his trying to achieve his goals, however the more people he meets the more difficult it becomes to maintain his new identity and carry out his wishes.

Sebastiao meets with Charles Settwell, who has fallen on hard times, when he learns that his father may have been betrayed to the Inquisition, as Settwell states, “I fear he was the victim of a plot to take his wealth and throw him to the dogs that he might expose the crime.” (65)  Further, the Inquisition is still angry that his father’s wealth was not recovered.  This and further information make Sebastiao aware that his task had become more complex.

(tidal wave that resulted from the earthquake that hit Lisbon, November 1, 1755)

At first Liss seems to describe a plot of simple revenge by a child grown into manhood against a corrupt priest.  The goal of revenge quickly grows in proportion to include; ensuring the safety of a number of individuals, and paying a few past debts relating to his father and his childhood.  This is the dilemma that Liss’ protagonist must confront as he is faced with a contest of wills with Pedro Azenhiero, the man he set out to kill, but also is the man who threatens all those he loves from his past.  As the story unfolds Sebastiao falls deeper and deeper into the abyss of human deception.  One after another of his beliefs and relationships seem to fall by the wayside.  Liss weaves an engrossing tale full of foul characters, deceit, and a yearning for love and stability.  What emerges is that Sebastiao comes to the realization that his inability to judge others has allowed him to fall into a trap that he must figure a way out of.  Sebastiao’s actions become clouded in moral judgment as he must make decisions that will alter the lives of all around him.  He is confronted with his inability to murder the Inquisitor when Lisbon falls victim to a major earthquake.

Liss presents wonderful word pictures through his prose.  The scenes he paints of 18th century Lisbon are effective and accurate.  His description of Lisbon during the earthquake reflects the intense preparation that Liss engages in once he sits down to prepare a story.  He produces marvelous character sketches and allows the reader to enter the phenomenological world of each individual and watch their own emotions rise and fall depending on how a given scene evolves.  Liss confronts what is the dichotomy of life, the quandary of human emotion.  The issues of greed, revenge, temptation, love, kindness, sincerity are all explored.  Is atonement and redemption possible?  I guess what it comes down to is that people are nothing more than a mixture of flaws and virtues.  All of which are explored in Liss’ wonderful novel.

MYSTERY ON THE ISLES OF SHOALS by J. Dennis Robinson

(Aerial picture of the Isles of Shoals about eight miles off the Portsmouth, NH coastline)

A few nights ago I had the pleasure of listening to J. Dennis Robinson speak at a local bookstore near my home in Portsmouth, NH.  I am a recent resident of the area and have been following Mr. Robinson’s “history” column in the Portsmouth Herald since my arrival.  These articles and the book STRAWBERY BANKE: A SEAPORT MUSEUM 400 YEARS IN THE MAKING also written by Mr. Robinson have educated me and sparked my interest in the rich history of the seacoast region.   His new monograph MYSTERY ON THE ISLES OF SHOALS has further broadened my knowledge of the area, as he has produced a first class “whodunit” about a story that everyone with knowledge of this 1873 murder knows the outcome.  Robinson in his recent talk claimed not to be a historian, but a history writer.  As a retired historian myself I believe I have the background to recognize and praise a true historian, which is certainly the case with Robinson.  His literary training has certainly assisted his prose and writing style, but the research techniques and historical knowledge are a wonderful combination that has produced an exceptional monograph that should interest a wide ranging audience apart from the seacoast region.

Robinson begins by reviewing the history of the various theories and myths that have emerged years after the murder of two Norwegian immigrant women, Karen and Anne Christiansen by a Prussian immigrant, Louis Wagner.  The author points to the novel and Hollywood film that distort the facts of the case, but a significant part of the public seems to accept as truth.  For Robinson the alternative history of events is incorrect and he takes on the task of setting the historical record straight.  In his examination of events and evidence, Robinson leaves no stone unturned in uncovering the truth.  Since a key part of the story involves the ability of someone to row from the mainland to Smuttynose Island, a considerable distance in 1873, Robinson provides numerous historical examples to prove that the distance traveled by Wagner the evening of the murder was easily accomplished.  In fact, during his talk last week, he introduced a seventy five year old fisherman who had accomplished the task last June.

(Louis Wagner and the murder weapon)

Robinson’s monograph is more than a history of the murder of the two Norwegian women.  It explores the pre-crime activities of the characters involved, the arrest, trial, and execution of the murderer.  It is a history of the seacoast region as far north as Thomaston, Maine and south to the Portsmouth region.  The author takes the reader back 6000 years when Native Americans thrived in the waters that make up the Gulf of Maine.  He describes how glaciers created the nine islands that make up the Isles of Shoals among the 3000 or more islands that are located along the jagged coast of Maine. (13)  Robinson describes the arrival of John Smith in 1614 and the settlement of New Hampshire in 1623.  Robinson’s history obviously concentrates on the history of the then “crime of the century” and the characters involved, but he also takes on the lives of the participants in the story after Wagner’s execution following them until they pass on.

Robinson focuses on immigration, the development of the islands, and the state of fishing in the region as he sets the stage for the reader.  The most important characters are Louis Wagner the perpetrator of the crime and his victims.  But Robinson also spends a great deal of time developing the other main characters that include John and Maren Hontvets, whom Wagner was trying to rob before his victims got in the way, with Maren escaping and emerging as the most important witness at the trial.  The reader is also introduced to the local politicians involved, the prosecution and defense attorneys, key witnesses, prison officials, and many more.  In doing so the reader gets to know all involved and because of Robinson’s captivating prose they almost feel they have become part of the story.  Throughout, Robinson has a fine eye for detail, be it discussing the history of the murder weapon, an ax that in part resides in the Portsmouth Atheneum, an old membership library on Market Square in Portsmouth.  Robinson goes on to provide a history of the ax as tool in American history, as well as showing that the use of one as a murder weapon was not unique.  This is the type of detail that the author repeatedly interjects into the narrative enhancing the reader’s experience.

For the layman who is interested in the plight of the New England fishing industry during the second half of the nineteenth century, Robinson lays out the problems that the industry faced in detail.  He explores how the sources of fish were being depleted and the need to locate new fishing grounds which drove fisherman up and down the coast to locate new sources.  The problem was that those regions grew scarcer and scarcer necessitating the use of larger and larger boats that local fisherman could ill afford.  One of the few who could was John Hontvets, who purchased long trawl lines and built a sturdy schooner in order to survive.  It was the jealousy that Wagner felt towards John Hontvets that probably drove him on the night of March 5, 1873 to steal a dory and row out to the Hontvets’ home on Smuttynose Island expecting to find only three women present to steal what he thought was between $600 and $1000 hidden somewhere on the premises.  Robinson describes in minute detail the murder and succeeding events leading up to Wagner’s capture in Boston.  Robinson zeroes in on the conversations that Wagner had before and after the crime throughout the book.  It reflects an inordinate amount of research and command of the material.  What is interesting is that Wagner repeatedly provided oral snippets of what Robinson describes as “confessional outbursts,” that puts the reader inside Wagner’s thought processes and leads us to believe he subconsciously wanted to be caught and convicted.

Robinson plays special attention to the personalities of the attorneys involved and the strategies they pursued.  The trial is reviewed very carefully and the material that is available from the trial transcript is mined very carefully by Robinson as he integrates a degree of sarcasm and humor as he dissects the myths and alternate histories that emerged after Wagner’s conviction.  Robinson takes the reader into Wagner’s jail cell, his escape and recapture, and after all the legal wrangling dealing with the death penalty and which state, Maine or New Hampshire had jurisdiction over the case, to the execution of Louis Wagner on June 25, 1875.

For those interested in the economic development of the Isles of Shoals at this time great detail is provided.  The building of tourist hotels, the attraction of Boston literary types and the wealthy are delineated carefully, particularly Cecilia Thaxter who grew up and lived on Smutty nose, who gained fame as a poet and writer.  Her article in the Atlantic Magazine, “A Memorable Murder,” “was something risky and powerful when it appeared in 1875,” but she has been “credited as a founder of true crime literature.”  (301)  “Like a great poet, the crime writer must also replicate the tempest that rages inside the mind of the killer tapping into his jealousy, vengeance, ambition, and hatred,” as nineteenth century essayist, Thomas De Quincy has written, something that Thaxter easily accomplished.  According to Robinson, her article could have served as a model for Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood, and Norman Mailer’s The Executioner’s Song.

Robinson concludes the last section of the monograph by following the history of the main characters after Wagner’s execution.  The reader learns of the fate of Celia Thaxter, the legacy of the Hontvets family and Ivan Christiansen whose wife was murdered, as well as the deathbed confession hoax that tried to shift the blame for the crime onto Maren Hontvets.  Not to be excluded are a number of key witnesses as well as the prosecution team of George Yeaton and Attorney General Harris M. Plaisted and Wagner’s intrepid lawyer Judge Rufus Tapley.

As the books comes to a close, Robinson dissects the pseudo-historical novel based on the murders, Anita Shreve’s Weight on the Water and the Hollywood film of the same name based on the book.  Despite the presence of Sean Penn and a $16 million budget, the film was essentially a flop, though it seems to be downloaded more and more today by those interested.  However, for Shreve the novel made her a literary talent as she has a film based on her book added to her many publications.  Lastly, Robinson includes extensive author’s notes that are a treasure trove of information that for those interested, can lead to wonderful new discoveries. Overall, considering that many people who are drawn to this subject matter are already privy to the story and its outcome, Robinson has done a remarkable job of synthesis creating an interesting compilation of information some old, but much that is new.  I recommend it highly for those who are interested in a scintillating murder story, but more so an overall history of the seacoast region in the latter part of the nineteenth century.

THE SECRET HISTORY OF WONDER WOMAN by Jill Lepore

When I was teaching I used to show excerpts of The Wizard of Oz to my students.  My goal was to provoke discussion to ascertain whether its author, L. Frank Baum purposely created the story as a parable for monetary reform in the 1890s expressing some of the ideas of three time presidential candidate, William Jennings Bryan.  The question often arose as to whether the film actually represented a historical analysis or observation of the then contemporary events. After thinking about this concept for many years I am still not certain.  In reading Jill Lepore’s newest book, The Secret History of Wonder Woman I have some of the same uncertainties, but as Baum had done, Lepore proposes many ideas that should provoke animated discussion.  Lepore’s thesis revolves around the life of William Moulton Marston, the creator of Wonder Woman, the character he developed, and the ideas that he put forth.  According to Lepore this comic strip character is central to the development of feminism.  “She is the missing link in a chain of events that begins with woman suffrage campaigns in the 1910s and ends with the troubled place of feminism fully a century later.  Feminism made Wonder Woman.   And then Wonder Woman remade feminism, which hasn’t been altogether good for feminism.”  Wonder Woman was not an ordinary comic book character, “she was at the center of the histories of science, law, and politics…..Wonder Woman’s debt is to the fictional feminist utopia and to the struggle for woman’s rights.” (xiii)  For Lepore, “Wonder Woman has been fighting for woman’s rights for a very long time, battles fought but never won. [It] is the story of her origins-the stuff of wonders and of lies.” (xiv)  For me it is difficult to accept the argument that a comic strip character was central to the development of feminism and that Wonder Woman is the missing link in understanding the struggle for woman’s rights.   Lepore presents the reader with a unique approach, and having read a number of her previous works I was interested in pursuing her latest effort in which she posits a thesis that is both unique and intellectually challenging, making it seriously worth considering.

The Secret History of Wonder Woman is a well researched monograph that is part biography of William Moulton Marston and a socio-political history of his life time that produces Wonder Woman.  To the author’s credit she weaves Wonder Woman cartoons from the 1940s throughout the monograph relating how a given comic strip fits into the pattern of events in Marston’s life and his unique family structure.  The book also contains a colorful insert of numerous Wonder Woman comic strips side by side with a narrative that explains each, and places them within a historical context.  Characters in the comic strips are paired with actual historical figures and events that they supposedly represent that further Lepore’s argument, but I leave it to the reader to determine if the author achieves her goal.

Throughout the book Wonder Woman is interfaced with the history of feminism, whether it is the work of Margaret Sanger fighting for birth control or Emmeline Pankhurst’s struggle to achieve woman’s suffrage.  The man she credits for creating Wonder Woman, William Moulton Marston is an interesting and eccentric character in his own right who earned a Ph.D in Psychology from Harvard, but during his career he failed to maintain academic posts at American, Tufts, and Columbia universities.  His own research centered on the systolic blood pressure test that became one of the components of the modern polygraph test, though he claims to have invented the lie detector.  He was convinced about the connection between emotion and blood pressure and how men and woman react differently to the same situation.  Marston was also committed to woman’s rights and he lived a somewhat bohemian lifestyle as he was married to Elizabeth Holloway, who shared his research and writings and was certainly his intellectual equal, but he also lived with his former graduate student and researcher, Olive Byrne.  He fathered two children with each, but Bryne’s children were told that their father had died and they all lived together in the same household, so in a sense Marston had two wives.

( Left to right: Marjorie Wilkes Huntley, O.A. Byrne, Pete Marston,  William Moulton Marston, Olive Byne, Donn Marston ,Sadie Elizabeth Holloway)

Lepore also produces a history of the comic book industry dating back to 1933 including the role that Marston and his wife/wives played.  It was at this time that Charles Gaines, the publisher of Superman magazine hired Marston as a consulting psychologist who convinced Gaines that what he needed to counter attacks on comics was a female super hero.  The period of 1920 through the 1960s is often seen as a dormant period in feminist history by some.  For Lepore in the 1940s “there was plenty of feminist agitation in the pages of Wonder Woman.” In a 1944 issue of Wonder Woman a biography of Susan B. Anthony was contained calling her the “liberator of Womankind.”  The issue also contained the story “Battle for Womanhood,” The story and drawings mirrored the suffragist’s use of war as they had in the 1910s.  “In the First World War, suffragists suggested that war was keeping women in a state of slavery.  In the Second World War, Marston suggested that women’s contributions to the war effort were helping emancipate them….there are eight million American women in war activities-by 1944 there will be eighteen million!” reports one of the characters, dragging a ball and chain. (225)  Marston strongly intimates should woman achieve equality or even power over men, war will end.

Marston saw himself as a scholar and that his Harvard background and life’s work lent itself to consider that Wonder Woman and the research behind her creation was a scholarly enterprise.  This belief ran into strong opposition from the academic community, but one should strongly consider that there is a strong element of scholarship in Marston’s work that Lepore describes in detail.  Further, if one can see past Marston’s unusual approach and high powered ego you can see the work of a genius that has not achieved much recognition.   However, his rationale for creating Wonder Woman as he wrote is American Scholar magazine in 1943 is very convincing; “not even girls want to be girls so long as our feminine archetype lacks force, strength, and power.  Not wanting to be girls, they don’t want to be tender, submissive, peace loving as good woman are.  Women’s strong qualities have become despised because of their weakness.  The obvious remedy is to create a feminine character with all the strength of Superman plus all the allure of good and beautiful women.”

Lepore’s narration of the important figures in twentieth century feminist history is important as it places Marston’s story in the proper historical context.  Lepore’s succinct and snappy prose tells the story well as she goes from Marston’s life to his use of Greek mythology to justify the creation of his super hero.  Marston may come across as a “bit different” than most people of his profession, but that difference was probably his genius and that’s what it took to foster the creation a comic book character, whose origin in Greek mythology could explain and work towards fulfilling the goal of achieving women’s equality.  Following Marston’s death from cancer in 1947 Holloway tried to take over the preparation and writing of the comic strip.  She was rejected by the publisher and with subsequent writers Wonder Woman’s popularity declined only to reemerge again in the 1970s.  Lepore follows the feminist movement throughout the 1970s and 1980s as it splintered and seemed to pass into the background.  What makes her monograph important is that she was able to unlock the secret of Wonder Woman’s origins, as she points out that it was a history that was waiting to be written, and whether you accept her findings or not, it is a story that is well told.

If Wonder Woman could return to her 1940s persona she could comment on why certain politicians opposed the Lily Ledbetter Fair Pay Act of 2009, guaranteeing equal pay for women, as it was an issue in the recent midterm elections.  If Marston was alive today, I am certain what words he would have put in her mouth.  Lepore has written an important historical work through the life of William Moulton Marston, his family, and those who worked with and against him.  The question remains should he be considered a major player in the woman’s movement, the question is an open one, but Lepore should be praised for presenting an interesting and challenging monograph that delves deeply into the question.  As Gloria Steinem has written in the initial issue of Ms. Magazine in 1972, “looking back now at these Wonder Woman stories from the 40s, I am amazed by the strength of their feminist message.”