(George C. Marshall was chosen as TIMES man of the year in 1943)

When one thinks of the great World War II generals the names George S. Patton, Omar Bradley, Dwight D. Eisenhower, Douglas Mac Arthur, and Bernard Montgomery seem to always enter the conversation.  However, one of the most important military figures of the war never seems to be mentioned, that individual is George C. Marshall.  The former Chief of Staff under Franklin Roosevelt and Secretary of State and Defense under Harry Truman had a tremendous impact during and after the war, and even has his name placed on one of the most important initiatives taken by the United States after 1945 to help rebuild Europe, the Marshall Plan.  Marshall never did command troops on the battlefield but his impact on the military was substantial and his role has been the subject of a great deal of debate among historians.  The latest effort is a new biography written by Debi and Irwin Unger with the assistance of Stanley Hirshson.  The book, GEORGE MARSHALL is a comprehensive examination of Marshall’s career and a detailed analysis of Marshall’s role in history.

In the January 3, 1944 issue of Time magazine, Marshall’s photo adorns the cover as “man of the year.”  The article that accompanied the photo stated that George C. Marshall was the closest person in the United States to being the “indispensable man” for the American war effort.  One must ask the question, was this hyperbole justified?  According to the Unger’s the answer is a qualified no.  After analyzing Marshall’s policies they conclude that his shortcomings outweigh his successes ranging from his poor judgment of the individuals he placed in command positions to his underestimating the number of troops necessary to fight the war, particularly in providing replacements for men killed or wounded in combat.  In addition, they criticize Marshall for his approach to training and preparing American soldiers for combat which was painfully obvious during the North African campaign and other major operations during the war.  The authors argue their case carefully supporting their views with the available documentation, though there is an over reliance on secondary sources.

Everyone who has written about Marshall and came in contact with him all agree that he epitomized the characteristics of a Virginia gentleman.  He presented himself as aloof and honest, and though a rather humorless and direct person no one ever questioned his character.  This persona remained with Marshall throughout his career and emerged during policy decisions, diplomatic negotiations, or his dealings with the divergent personalities that he had to work with.  The narrative points out the importance of Marshall’s association with General John J. Pershing during World War I and the first major example of Marshall losing his temper over policy, and having the target of his tirade take him under their wing.  The story follows Marshall’s career in the post-World I era and his association with men like Douglas Mac Arthur, Dwight Eisenhower and others who he would enter in his notebook as people to watch for in the future.  The majority of the book deals with Marshall’s impact on American military planning.  In the 1930s he worked to train National Guard units, but he also worked with the Civilian Conservation Corps which brought him to the attention of President Roosevelt.  From this point on his career takes off.  By 1938 he becomes Deputy Chief of Staff at the same time the situation in Europe continued to deteriorate.  By 1939, after an overly honest conversation with Roosevelt about the state of US military preparedness, the president impressed with Marshall’s seriousness appointed him Chief of Staff.

The author’s integrate the major events in Europe and the Far East up to and including the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, but they do not mine any new ground.  As the book analyzes the major components of Marshall’s career, the authors have a habit of presenting the negative, then produce some positives, and finally concluding their analysis with the mistakes that Marshall supposedly made.  A number of examples come to mind.  Roosevelt haters for years have tried to blame the president for the events of December 7, 1941 and the authors examine Marshall’s culpability for how unprepared the US was for the attack.  The Ungers examine numerous investigations of the attack on Pearl Harbor and seem disappointed that more of the blame did not fall on Marshall.  They seem to conclude as they comment on his appearance at a Congressional hearing that “Marshall’s demeanor may also reveal a degree of self-doubt-indeed pangs of conscience-at his own imperfect performance in the events leading to Pearl Harbor.”   The Congressional investigation criticized Marshall and Admiral Harold Stark for “insufficient vigilance in overseeing their subordinates in Hawaii……[and] deplored Marshall’s failure on the morning of the attack to send a warning to Short on a priority basis.” (367)

(Marshall announced the European Recovery Program that bears his name at a commencement speech at Harvard on June 5, 1947)

It is painfully obvious based on the author’s narrative that the United States was totally unprepared for war.  They credit Marshall for doing his best to lobby Congress to expand the American military and institute a draft and then extend it.  In 1942 Roosevelt wanted to strike at North Africa, but Marshall believed that the American needs in the Pacific and plans to assist the British in Iceland and Northern Ireland would create man power shortages if the strike in North Africa went forward.  The authors criticize Marshall for not presenting his case forcefully enough to Roosevelt which would cause manpower issues later on in the war.  In planning for the war Marshall argued that a force of 8,000,000 men and 90 divisions would be sufficient to win the war.  Throughout the war there were constant worries that certain strategic decisions would not be successful for lack of manpower.   The author’s point to the cross channel invasion of France, having enough troops to take on the Japanese once the Germans were defeated, and the landing at Sicily to make their case.  They do praise Marshall for trying to reform the military command structure by always placing one general in charge in each war theater, be it D-Day, Torch, or other operations.  They also praise Marshall for trying to reform the training of American troops, but at the same time they criticize him for the lack of morale of American soldiers and their supposed lack of commitment to defeat the enemy.   Marshall would partly agree with the authors conclusions as he admitted that the soldiers sent to North Africa “were only partly trained and badly trained.” (168)

As mentioned before, Marshall maintained a list of men he though would be invaluable in leading American troops during the war.  The authors have difficulty with some of his choices and argue that he was a poor judge of character in others.  “On the one hand we note the names of fighting generals George S. Patton, Robert Eichelberger, Courtney Hodges, J. Lawton Collins, and Lucian Truscott,” and administrators like Dwight Eisenhower and Brehon Somervell, but on the other hand we find the likes of Lloyd Fredendall and Mark Clark, which provoked a respected military correspondent like Hanson Baldwin of the New York Times to have written “the greatest American military problem was leadership, the army he concluded, had thus far failed to produce a fraction of the adequate officer leadership needed.” (208)

(Marshall in conversation with General Dwight D. Eisenhower)

Many of the criticisms that the authors offer have some basis, but their critique goes a bit too far by suggesting that Marshall was indirectly responsible for the death of his step son, Allen at Anzio as he had placed him in range of peril because he facilitated his transfer to North Africa after he completed Armored Force School at Fort Knox.  The most effective historical writing is one of balance and objectivity, but at times the Ungers become too polemical as they try to downgrade Marshall’s reputation.  Granted Marshall had never led troops in combat, but as a logistician, administrator, and diplomat he deserves to be praised.  Marshall’s ability to deal with British generals and their egos was very important to the allied effort.  His ability to work with Winston Churchill and argue against the English Prime Minister’s goals of a Mediterranean strategy and movement in the Balkans as part of retaining the British Empire merits commendation.  His ability to navigate American politics and strong personalities was also a key to victory.

Once the authors have completed their discussion of the war they turn to Marshall’s role as Secretary of State.  They correctly point out that it took Marshall some time to realize that Stalin could not be trusted and had designs on Eastern Europe.  They are also correct in pointing out that the European Recovery Program that bears his name was not developed by the Secretary of State but by a talented staff that included the likes of George Kennan, Chip Bohlen, Dean Acheson, Dean Rusk, and Robert Lovett.  Marshall’s importance was lobbying Congress to gain funding for the program.  The authors also give Marshall credit for trying to work out a rapprochement between the Kuomintang and the Chinese Communists after the war, a task that was almost impossible. The authors describe the heated debate over the creation of the state of Israel that Marshall vehemently opposed based on the national security needs of the United States and dismissed the political and humanitarian calculations of Clark Clifford and President Truman. A position the authors feel that when looked upon from today’s perspective was quite accurate.   Finally, the authors give Marshall a significant amount of credit for the creation of NATO.

(Marshall greets President Truman at the conclusion of World War II)

f Marshall’s term as Secretary of State is deemed successful by the authors his one year stint as Secretary of Defense is seen as flawed.  The main criticism of Marshall deals with Douglas MacArthur and the Korean War.  After taking the reader through the North Korean attack on South Korea and the successful Inchon landing the authors describe in detail the dilemma of how far to pursue North Korean troops.  The question was should United Nations forces cross the 38th parallel into the north and how close should American bombing come to the Yalu River that bordered on Communist China.  According to the authors when the Communist Chinese troops entered the war it was not totally the fault of MacArthur because of the unclear orders that Marshall gave.  According to the authors Marshall’s orders were “tentative and ambiguous,” thus confusing the American commander.(464)  The limits on what the President allowed were very clear and when General Matthew Ridgeway, who replaced MacArthur as American commander was asked “why the chiefs did not give MacArthur categorical directions the general responded “what good would that do?  He wouldn’t obey the orders.” (467)   It appears the authors can never pass on an opportunity of presenting Marshall in a negative light.

Overall, the book is well written and covers all the major components of the Second World War.  It does less with Marshall’s role as Secretary of State and Defense, but if one is looking for a different approach to Marshall’s career this book can meet your needs as long as you realize that there are segments that are not very balanced.  Even in the book’s last paragraph they feel the need to make one last negative comment, “all told, the performance of George Marshall in many of his roles was less than awe-inspiring.” (490)


(The author)

When a person turns sixty-five it is supposed to be a major demarcation in one’s life.  Since that milestone will achieved next Monday I guess I have entered a new realm and should begin thinking about my own mortality.  For Christmas my son-in-law, Jonathan, asked me to give him a copy of Atul Gawande’s book, BEING MORTAL: MEDICINE AND WHAT MATTERS IN THE END.  Being the dutiful father-in-law and a self-confessed bookaholic I readily complied.  I read the dust jacket and thought at some point I should read Gawande’s work.  Further, my wife and I spent a few weeks in Cabo in January and met a number of our friends, two of whom, David and Monty are physicians and they raved about the book and how it provoked them to reexamine the approach they had taken in dealing with patients throughout their long and successful careers.  As a result, the time has arrived and I felt that part of my catharsis of being eligible for Medicare would be spent with Dr. Gawande.  I must say I could not put the book down and it opened my eyes to many things that I really had not thought about pertaining to my own, and my wife Ronni’s mortality.

From the start Gawande points out that most doctors are not trained to deal with end of life issues and decisions that people must make.  Doctors really do not know how to talk to people dealing with their mortality and how they can help them.  Gawande asks many important questions in his work.  Probably the most important deals with whether the solutions doctors offer the terminally ill will enhance their last days, or will they make their situations worse.  Medicine is designed to solve problems and nothing is more threatening to a clinician than confronting a problem they cannot solve.  Offering a patient a myriad of options ranging from surgery, chemotherapy, radiation, drugs etc. in far too many cases detracts from a person’s end of life experience, than actually helps them.  Gawande states that his book is “about the modern experience of mortality-about what it’s like to be creatures who age and die, how medicine has changed the experience and how it hasn’t, where our ideas about how to deal with our finitude have got the reality wrong…..Lacking a coherent view of how people might live successfully all the way to their very end, we have allowed our fates to be controlled by the imperatives of medicine, technology, and strangers.”(9)

Gawande’s work addresses his theme in a meaningful, honest, and sensitive fashion.  He integrates numerous interviews with patients and practitioners to form a marvelous narrative that readers can understand and relate to.  He includes the personal stories of his wife’s grandmother and his own father as he tried to cope with how best to facilitate their end of life experience.  With these and numerous case studies he presents, he himself is educated by palliative nurses and physicians on what questions patients should be asked and how they should be approached.  The key question lies in the patient’s phenomenological world; how do they feel?  What do they expect from their remaining time, and most importantly how much medical intervention do they want to put up with in terms of the quality of life they hope to enjoy as time draws to a close?

One of the key components as to a patients quality of life toward the end is where they want to be, a hospital, under hospice care, assisted living, nursing home, or in their own homes.  Gawande explores all of these options describing real people and the decisions they and their families have to make.  In 1790 only 2% of people lived to be over sixty-five, today that figure is about 20%.  As the post war baby boom generation comes of age that figure will dramatically increase. But has society adapted to the new demographic problem it is now facing?  The answer is a resounding no! We now have fewer and fewer geriatric physicians at a time when they are desperately needed.  Is aging a medical problem?  For most doctors it isn’t, but for a geriatrician it is.  People cannot stop their bodies from aging, but there are ways to make it more manageable and avert some of its worst affects.

The author does an excellent job integrating aspects of the history of medicine into his narrative providing the reader the context for the points he is trying to develop.  Issues of institutionalization, dependency, and many others are thought provoking for a society that tries not to deal with the final phase of life.   How to make life worth living when we are weak and frail and can’t fend for ourselves anymore should be something that doctors and their elderly patients should confront together from the perspective that Gawande introduces.  Another important question remains; “what makes life worth living when we are old and frail and unable to care for ourselves?”(92)  Do we want safety or happiness?  Happiness for the elderly is mostly centered on self-sufficiency and how do you maintain the joy of life for the infirm?  Gawande’s approach addresses these concerns in a very positive manner.  He freely admits his own inadequacies in this area, but he tries to explore and develop solutions that center around the dignity of those facing death in the near future.

For Gawande, people want to be the authors of their own lives and he believes that society has finally entered an era that the medical community is starting to believe “that their job is not to confine people’s choices, in the name of safety, but to expand them, in the name of worthwhile life.”(141) Perhaps the most profound statement in the book is “you live longer only when you stop trying to live longer.”(178)  The greatest failure in how we treat the sick and aged “is the failure to recognize that they have priorities beyond merely being safe and living longer; that the chance to shape one’s story is essential to sustaining meaning in life; that we have the opportunity to refashion our institutions, our culture, and our conversations in ways that transform the possibilities for the last chapters of everyone’s lives.”(243)  Gawande closes by reiterating that medicine can do a great deal of damage when we fail to acknowledge that such power is finite and will always be.

BEING MORTAL is a powerful book that seniors, their families, physicians, and members of Congress should have as required reading.  It will provide insights into one of the most important health issues we face today.

ACT OF WAR by Jack Cheevers

(The USS Pueblo in January, 1968)

Recent events between the United States and North Korea cast a long shadow over relations between these countries.  The “supposed” computer hacking of Sony pictures by North Korea, the disagreement over North Korean attempts to develop nuclear weapons, and a host of other issues like North Korean attacks against South Korean ships makes the appearance of Jack Cheevers’ ACT OF WAR rather timely.  Cheevers, a former political reporter for the Los Angeles Times presents a comprehensive study of the North Korean seizure of the USS Pueblo, an American spy ship trolling international waters in January, 1968.  Today we worry about North Korean threats to South Korea and Japan, but in the 1960s the United States was in the midst of the Cold War and only a decade out from the end of the Korean War.  Embroiled in Vietnam, the United States continued to spy on the Soviet Union, Communist China, and North Korea throughout the period.  One might wonder why the North Koreans would seize an American ship at that time.  The answer probably rests with North Korean dictator, Kim Il-Sung’s hatred for the United States, and when presented an opportunity to give Washington a “black eye,” Kim could not resist, especially with the United States caught up in the quagmire of Vietnam.

According to Cheevers, American loses while spying in the region were not uncommon before the Pueblo was seized.  Between 1950 and 1956, seven American reconnaissance aircraft were shot down over the Sea of Japan or near Siberia, resulting in the loss of forty-six US airmen, with another sixteen lost to a typhoon. (2)  The Pueblo was part of a top secret Navy program to pack refurbished US freighters with advanced electronics to keep tabs on the Soviet Union’s expanding Pacific and Mediterranean fleets.  The program called for seventy ships, but only three were built, one of which was the Pueblo.  The loss of the ship with its sophisticated surveillance gear, code machines, and documents was one of the worst intelligence debacles in American history.  Subsequent congressional and naval investigations revealed “appalling complacency and short sightedness in the planning and execution of the Pueblo mission.” (3)  The goal was to determine how much of a threat existed for South Korea, since North Korea’s Stalinist leaders were committed to unifying the peninsula, an area were 55,000 American troops stood in the way of a possible invasion.  This book is important as we continue to unleash covert operations worldwide, as it shows what can happen when things do not proceed as planned.

(Capt. Loyd Bucher and his crew seized by North Korea in January, 1968)

Cheevers offers a detailed description of the planning of the mission and what emerges is that Captain Lloyd Bucher was given command of a ship that was not in the best condition and was overloaded with top secret documents, many of which were not needed for the mission.  A full description of the seizure of the ship, the incarceration of the crew, their torture and interrogation, their final release, and the Naval and Congressional investigations that’s followed are presented.  The ship was supposedly conducting “oceanic research,” and many of the crew were not fully cognizant of the Pueblo’s spy mission.  What separates Cheevers’ work from previous books on the subject is his access to new documentation, particularly those of the Soviet Union, and American naval archives.  Further, he was able to interview a large number of the Pueblo’s original crew.  This leads to a narrative that at times reads like a transcript or movie script of many important scenes, particularly the North Korean seizure of the ship, the interactions of the crew during their imprisonment, and the Navy Court of Inquiry which was formed to determine if Capt. Bucher and his crew had conducted themselves appropriately.

The first surprising aspect of the book is the lack of training the crew experienced, and how they should respond if attacked.  Bucher was told by naval officials not to worry because he would always remain in international waters beyond the twelve mile limit the North Koreans claimed.  Further, Bucher was not given the appropriate equipment to destroy sensitive documents and equipment, even though he requested it.  In addition, the two linguists assigned to the mission hadn’t spoken Korean in a few years and confessed that they needed dictionaries to translate radio intercepts or documents, and in addition, the overall crew was very inexperienced.  The bottom line is that there was no real contingency plan to assist the Pueblo should North Korea become a problem.  It was clear no naval assistance would be forthcoming in the event of an attack, and Bucher would be on his own.  Once the attack occurred it appears Bucher did his best, knowing the United States would not entertain a rescue operation.

(The Pueblo crew in captivity)

The seizure of the ship compounded problems for the Johnson administration.  The Tet offensive was a few weeks away, the Marine fire base at Ke Sanh was isolated, the anti-war movement in the United States was growing, and the South Korean President, Park Chung Hee wanted to use the situation to launch an attack on North Korea.  Cheevers reviews the mindset of the American government as well as the public’s reaction to the seizure and accurately describes President Johnson’s reluctance to take military action.  The United States did deploy battle groups to the Sea of Japan as a show of force, but with no plan to use it, it was a hollow gesture.  A far bigger problem was reigning in President Park, whose palace was almost breached by North Korean commandos shortly before the Pueblo was seized.  Cheevers’ dialogue between Cyrus Vance, Johnson’s emissary and Park is eye opening as was the meeting between Johnson and Park later in the crisis.  If Park could not gain American acquiescence for a military response, he requested hundreds of millions of dollars of military hardware instead.  There were 30,000 South Korean troops fighting in Vietnam, and Park had promised another 11,000, and Johnson wanted to make sure that Park did not renege on his commitment.  Cheevers does a commendable job always placing the Pueblo crisis in the context of the war raging in Southeast Asia.

Cheevers’ absorbing description of how the Americans were treated in captivity is largely based on interviews of the crew.  The brutality of their treatment and the psychological games their captures subjected Bucher and his crew was unconscionable.  The beatings, outright torture, lack of hygiene and malnutrition the crew suffered through are catalogued in detail.  The pressure on the Johnson administration domestically increased throughout the incarceration until a deal was finally reached.  The issue revolved around the North Korean demand of an apology which was finally papered over by a convoluted strategy that produced a US admission of spying at the same time they offered a strong denial.

Perhaps the most interesting part of the book is Cheevers’ coverage of the hero’s welcome Bucher and his crew received and how the Navy investigated who was to blame for the ship’s seizure.  The fact that Bucher surrendered his ship without a fight to save his crew did not sit well with naval history purists.  For the Navy, the men were expendable, but the intelligence equipment and documents were not.  The details of the Naval Court of Inquiry headed by five career admirals, three of which had commanded destroyers during World War II and the Korean War concluded that Bucher should be court-martialed, but were overruled because of public opinion.  The questions and answers from the trial reflect how difficult a task it was to investigate the seizure and find a scapegoat for the Navy.  Throughout, Bucher never lost the respect of his crew and his leadership allowed his men to bond, which in large part is responsible for their survival.

Cheevers should be commended for his approach to the crisis, the important questions he raises, and the reconstruction of testimony both Naval and Congressional.  ACT OF WAR seems to me the definitive account of the seizure of the Pueblo and its ramifications for the Navy, the intelligence community, and politicians.  It is an excellent historical narrative that reads like a novel in sections of the book.  It is a great read and a superb work of investigative reporting.


(The Sinai Desert, the possible location of the lost Library of Alexandria, Egypt)

What if the biblical basis for the Israeli state was incorrect?  What if the real evidence for the creation of the Jewish state was in western Saudi Arabia?  What if the ancient translations that led to the writing of the Old Testament from old Hebrew and Greek were open to an interpretation that could destabilize both Israel and Saudi Arabia and reorient the geopolitics of the Middle East?  Intertwine the writings of St. Augustine and St. Jerome; add some nefarious characters that would stand to enhance their power and monetary profit, and sprinkle in American politics and you have the basic premise of Steve Berry’s novel, THE ALEXANDRIA LINK.

The book is part of Berry’s series featuring Cotton Malone, a retired member of the U.S. Justice Department’s elite Magellan Billet who lives in Copenhagen and operates a bookstore.  The story begins with a scene from April, 1948, when the British gave up their mandate over Palestine realizing that they no longer have the power to broker a peace between the Arabs and Jews.  We meet George Haddad, a nineteen year old Palestinian who grows frustrated interrogating a man who had come to speak with his father.  The man came with ideas pertaining to a peace settlement, but two weeks before the man’s visit his father had been killed.   Haddad was in no mood to chat with another peace messenger in the midst of the nakba, “the catastrophe,” and executed his prisoner.

The novel quickly shifts to contemporary Copenhagen where Cotton Malone is confronted by his estranged wife, Pam informing him that their son Gary was kidnapped.  The ransom for Gary’s release is the “Alexandria Link,” something only Malone and a few others have knowledge of.  The result is a bombing of Malone’s bookstore and violent confrontation that leads to Gary’s release.  Despite this release the plot begins to further evolve as Malone realizes that he must uncover the “Alexandria Link,” which is the location of an ancient Egyptian library supposedly located in Alexandria.  According to George Haddad, now a grown man, a philosopher and theologian, within the library lays evidence that God’s covenant with Israel delineated in the Bible may be mistaken.  The Israeli and Saudi governments do not want this information to become public knowledge and their security services work to block any progress in discovering the library and its artifacts.  In the United States the Vice President is allied with a European syndicate, called the Order of the Golden Fleece, whose chair, Alfred Hermann is determined to destabilize the Mideast for the economic and political benefit of his cabal.

The plot brings Malone from Copenhagen, to London, Lisbon, the Sinai with his new companion his ex-wife Pam.  Characters from previous novels have major roles; Henrik Thorvaldsen, a Jewish Danish billionaire and close friend of Malone; Stephanie Nelle his former boss in the Justice Department; and Cassiopeia Vitt, an art historian and well trained in the military arts.  New additions include the previously mentioned Alfred Hermann; Dominick Sabre, an operative hired by Hermann who later in the book goes by the alias James McCollum who has his own agenda when it comes to the “Alexandria Link;” Larry Daley, a presidential advisor with his own plans; Attorney-General Brent Green who seems to support a number of positions; and President Robert Edward Daniels, Jr.

As with all of Berry’s novels in the Malone series the reader must pay careful attention as the author integrates legitimate, theoretical, and counter-factual history with contemporary events and politics.  Historical figures permeate the narrative as they are interwoven to support or discredit what the fictional characters deem important.  The plot line concerns power politics and wealth but Berry tries to base much of his action on uncovering “knowledge” as a weapon in the geopolitics of the Middle East.  In this case the knowledge rests on the concept that God’s promise to Abraham for a Jewish homeland in Canaan as written in the Torah is not accurate, thereby debunking the major argument in the Jewish religion for Israel’s existence.

As the story progresses we witness Mossad agents enter and leave.  Further an assassination plot to remove the President of the United States seems to be on the table.  A proposed deal between al-Qaeda and elements in Washington is in place.  Saudi assassins seem to appear everywhere.  There is even an interesting visit by David Ben-Gurion to the Alexandria library and a host of other interesting historical occurrences that may or may not have ever occurred.  Thankfully Berry provides an addendum at the end of the book to inform the reader as to what he has made up and what actually took place.  But what cannot be denied is that he has chosen a topic that has tremendous relevance to current geopolitics in the Middle East.  There is no doubt that the books opening scene displaying the hatred between Palestinians and Jews still remains in place today.  All we have to do is point to the events of last summer between Israel and Hamas.  Though a very good yarn, Berry does provide some important contemporary issues to contemplate.

Berry has written numerous historical novels and though I have only read three, I look forward to continuing to explore his Cotton Malone series as they are interesting, educational, and very entertaining.

EVA’S EYE by Karin Fossum


Karin Fossum’s first novel in Her Inspector Sejer series, entitled EVA’S EYE is more than a murder mystery.  In a sense it is a morality play as a young divorced woman who suffers from extreme poverty must make a number of choices that she hopes will better her life, her aged father, and her seven year old daughter.

The story opens in a Norwegian town as Eva Marie Magnus and her daughter Emma are sitting by a river contemplating the depths of the water and a possible visit to McDonalds.  While chatting they notice a face floating in the water, then the entire body of a man comes to the surface.  To Eva, it appears that the body has been in the water for a prolonged period of time.  Instead of immediately calling the police, Eva dials her father.  Shortly thereafter, a woman does phone the police and an officer is dispatched to the scene.  The officer pulls the partially decomposed body from the water and Inspector Konrad Sejer takes over the crime scene as a man, Emil Einarsson, missing for over six months, seems to have turned up.

The investigation starts off simply with the widowed Inspector Sejer trying to unravel the case.  Coincidentally,   another murder had taken place a few days before Mr. Einarsson had disappeared.  The core of the novel surrounds the exploration of Sejer’s lonely existence and how he tries to link the two murders, Einarsson, and a prostitute named Maja Durban.  As he approaches the investigation, Sejer befriends the eight year old son of the murdered man, Jan Henry.  As a character, Sejer appears as a very warm and sensitive person, not the somewhat typical wise cracking cop that often is presented in crime mysteries.  Sejer cares for the boy and his own mother who is institutionalized with dementia.

Fossum does a wonderful job developing her characters, particularly the females.  The reader is exposed to the world of prostitution, poverty, and the inability of people to overcome situations that they themselves have created.  In addition, though a crime novel, Fossum lends insights into the lonely lives of the elderly and how they try to get by on a daily basis.  Perhaps the most interesting aspect of the book is how the protagonist tries to rationalize her decisions, which most would categorize as immoral, as a means of overcoming poverty and improving the lives of her family members.  The story is told from the protagonist’s female perspective and is intriguing as the story evolves.

Fossum’s first Inspector Sejer novel is fast moving, even though whatever violence is present is subsumed to the moral dilemmas that constantly emerge.  This is a very quick and captivating read, and I look forward to reading the second volume in Fossum’s Inspector Sejer series.


(April 24, 1975 Baader-Meinhof Gang seizure and explosion of the West German Embassy in Sweden)

When I first read Leif G.W. Persson’s BETWEEN SUMMER LONGING AND WINTER’S END I was thoroughly impressed with his plot and character development.  Now, having completed his second novel, ANOTHER TIME, ANOTHER LIFE my respect for his ability to develop a complex story line that builds from the first few pages has been raised to another level.  Persson brings back Lars Martin Johannson, now head of a special new operations division within the Swedish Security Police (SePo).  He also develops other characters that are both witty and knowledgeable on the one hand, and other characters that can be described as plain “fucking idiots,” by Johannson’s friend and impeccable inspector, Bo Jarnebring.

The opening of the novel revisits April 24, 1975 as six terrorists, who appear to be members of the Baader-Meinhof Group, sneak into the West German Embassy in Stockholm.  During the occupation two German bureaucrats, one thrown out of a window, the other shot in a stairwell are murdered.  The Swedish forces who confront the situation are ill equipped and poorly trained to deal with the situation.  The end result is an explosion, with everyone surviving, but one individual.  What follows is a “keystone kop” operation among different government officials as to how to handle the investigation.  At the top levels of government a decision is reached to return the surviving terrorists to Berlin before they can be thoroughly interrogated, thereby sabotaging any investigation.  The head of homicide is completely frustrated and the final report on the incident is totally sanitized.

Fifteen years later, Bo Jarnebring and his new partner, Anna Holt are called in to investigate the murder of Kjell Goron Eriksson, a bureaucrat at the Central Bureau of Statistics.  From this point on the novel gains momentum as the new murder investigation does not proceed smoothly and is led by the previously mentioned, “fucking idiot,” Chief Investigator Evert Backstrom and his equally incompetent partner, Inspector Wiijnbladh.  Predictably, the murder is not solved and is filed away.

In the interim the Berlin Wall comes down and the Soviet bloc is freed from the remnants of Stalinist oppression.  Persson provides an accurate summation of the historical events that led up to, and the final collapse of Erich Honaker’s East German regime.  Enter, the STASI, the CIA, and Swedish national security interests adding another layer to an already complex story.  Always in the background is the 1986 unsolved assassination of Swedish Prime Minister Olaf Palme and possible links to certain characters.  As a SePo task force is created under Chief Inspector Wiklander and STASI and other registered files are examined a new element to the plot is added.  What emerges is what role could Swedish citizens have played in the 1975 terrorist seizure and explosion of the West German Embassy.

What separates Persson from other political novelists is his ability to tie together a number of story lines together forming a complex plot developed layer upon layer.  In the present example; how does the terrorist attack on the West German Embassy, the murder of a Swedish bureaucrat, the 1989 collapse of the Berlin Wall*, and the vetting of an undersecretary in the Swedish defense ministry for a possible cabinet position relate to each other.

Persson weaves a trail of intrigue over a twenty-five year period.  It involves numerous characters and important historical events.  Along the way we witness the death of a number of individuals central to the plot line.  Persson creates a number of enigmatic characters from the incompetent Backstrom; Anna Holt and two other talented female colleagues; Mike Liska, a CIA agent posted to Sweden in November, 1989 who predicted the exact moment when the Berlin Wall would fall; and of course the well respected Lars Martin Johannson.  The author does a commendable job providing insights into the Swedish National Security establishment and develops a number of interesting scenarios.

As attempts to tie events into one conceivable case that can be prosecuted the protagonists are up against a twenty-five year statute of limitations that is about to expire.  The question arises that higher ups in the Swedish government may be placing road blocks in their path.  In addition, what is the role of the STASI, CIA, and SePo?  Did the Swedish security and defense industry interests and perhaps the American intelligence community leak information to prevent a leftist leaning candidate for a cabinet position relating to defense from assuming office?  Do certain disappearances of former officials play into the story?  All of these questions add to the depth of the narrative.

Paul Norlern’s translation from the Swedish does not detract from Persson’s tightly written novel.  In fact, my only criticism is Persson’s somewhat sexist approach to female investigators that are woven into the story.  Overall, Persson has written another successful novel, and I look forward to reading his latest, FREE FALLING AS IF IN A DREAM.

*see The Collapse: The Accidental Opening of the Berlin Wall,Oct 7, 2014, by Mary Elise Sarotte

reviewed in http://www.docs-books.com

A FAITHFUL SPY by Alex Berenson

(Osama Bin-Ladin’s al-Qaeda strong hold in Tora Bora, Afghanistan before US bombing is 2001)

Alex Berenson’s first novel, THE FAITHFUL SPY introduces us to a new type of operative in the war on terror.  John Wells is a CIA agent who goes underground trying to infiltrate al-Qaeda before 9/11.  He is successful in penetrating the terrorist organization and proves his metal in Chechnya, Afghanistan, and Iraq.  While embedded inside al-Qaeda he develops an attraction to Islam as a way of life and converts.  Wells, who originally hailed from Montana remains loyal to his country despite his conversion, but will disappear from CIA radar for over ten years creating doubts about his reliability.   He finds many practices in America difficult to accept which in part, is why he turned to Islam.  Despite his commitment to his new religion, he finds al-Qaeda to be abhorrent and he never entertains the idea that he will not protect his country.

The novel begins shortly after 9/11 on the Shamal plain north of Kabul.  Wells is leading a group of Taliban and al-Qaeda fighters into a trap, but at the same time he must avoid American F-15 bombers circling overhead.  At the same time Jennifer Exley, Wells’ CIA handler is aboard the USS Starker off the coast of Virginia waiting to interrogate another American who has ”flipped” to the Taliban.  Her goal is to learn more about Jalal, Wells’ Islamic name as she has not heard from him in two years.  From this point on the novel evolves into a suspenseful story that is stunning in detail.

Berenson creates fascinating characters which are true to life.  Omar Khadri, travels freely in the United States and has set up a number of hidden cells throughout the country.  Farouk Kahn, a physicist who has possessed enough nuclear material to create a dirty bomb.  Tourik Durant, a graduate student studying micro-biology at McGill University in Montreal is developing a strain of Y pestis to unleash pneumonic plague.  We are also presented with various CIA characters apart from Exley; Ellis Shafer and Vincent Duto who disagree over Wells’ loyalty.

The author exhibits excellent command of historical events.  Whether discussing operations in Afghanistan or the United States, the actions taken by his characters ring true.  Whether describing the rendition of suspected terrorists and their subsequent interrogation, Berenson strikes an accurate chord.  He integrates historical nuances of the war, particularly the internal factions within al-Qaeda, the role of the U.S. military, and the attitude of American politicians.  His discussion of Osama Bin-Ladin, the actions of the Pashtun tribes, the Northern Alliance, and the Taliban are accurate and provide the reader a history lesson while they become immersed in the plot surrounding Wells.  Legitimate historical figures permeate the storyline ranging from Ayman al-Zawaheri, al-Qaeda’s number two person to A.K. Kahn, the Pakistani nuclear scientist who exports his expertise.

Berenson’s opposition to American Iraqi policy is apparent.  Throughout the book we are privy to his feelings about torture and other techniques employed to gain information from prisoners.  As we read on American errors in Afghanistan become clear as the Bush administration drops the ball and invades Iraq under false pretenses.  Overall, Berenson has created a credible scenario with a new type of character.  John Wells believes he has failed his country by not warning his handlers about 9/11 and other events, and wants to make sure he does not fail again.

As a side bar to Berenson’s first effort, the New York Times reporter earned the Edgar Award for A FAITHFUL SPY and has written a number of sequels developing the character of John Wells in a number of interesting ways.

THE LAW OF DREAMS by Peter Behrens

(The Irish countryside during the 1846-1850 potato famine)

Over the years a myriad of books dealing with the Irish potato famine and the resulting immigration to the United States have appeared.  Some are non-fiction and others fall into the historical fiction category.  Peter Behrens’ novel, THE LAW OF DREAMS is a wonderful addition to the historical fiction genre encapsulating the plight of the Irish in mid-nineteenth century England as they made their way across the Atlantic.  What separates Behrens’ effort from the rest is the poignancy and sensitivity of his story and the development of his characters.

The novel begins as Own Carmichael, returns from the county seat at Enis where he is informed by his land agent, who manages the affairs for the landlord, the sixth Earl that he must “eject” as he terms it, the peasants who work his land.  The reason given is that it is more profitable to raise sheep for mutton than have the peasants work the land.  The agent warns Owen he must carry out the landlord’s orders or he would be responsible for the rent.  For the agent, “sheep, not people is what you want to fatten.  Mutton is worth money.  Mutton is wanted, mutton is short.   Of Irishmen, there’s an exceeding surplus.” (5) As he returns to the farm, Owen contemplates what choices are available to him.  As he walked home he passed women and their naked children who were scrounging in a turnip field for survival.  From this point on Behrens’ novel unfolds through the eyes of Fergus, a fifteen year old boy whose family is about to be “ejected.”

The core of the novel takes place in the late 1840s as Behrens describes Fergus’ life once alonenes is forced on him.  We follow him through the Irish countryside, aboard ship to Dublin and Liverpool, the strenuous Atlantic crossing, and his final arrival in Canada.  Throughout, the reader is exposed to the horrendous conditions which the Irish must cope; hunger and poverty permeate every page.  From the fields, the work house, railroad construction, or aboard ship, people make life altering decisions each day.  Along the reader’s journey, Behrens provides heart rendering descriptions of the Irish underclass as they have to deal with their daily travails.  From descriptions of Liverpool’s shanty areas, red light districts, to labor on the railroads, the reader is enveloped by the story.  Evidence of the Industrial Revolution’s grip on English towns and cities are everywhere.  Fergus chooses the life of a tramp on the road over the freedom of the railroad for a time, and then gives in to his loss of freedom as he realizes he must go to America.

What makes this novel a success is its ability to integrate the underclass that the Irish poor represent throughout the storyline.  We witness Fergus’ family’s struggle to survive under a tenant based land system that is skewed toward the land lord.  A system designed to keep Irish peasants in poverty from generation to generation.  We witness the death of Fergus’ family something that is easily predictable based on the situation.  Next is Fergus’ struggle to survive living on the road as a tramp, a path with its own self-contained rules that represents a very violent society.  Rural life is a day to day battle, but once Fergus meets Arthur we are provided a window into the racial divide that the Irish confront each day in Liverpool.  Be it street riots, life in a brothel, working laying railroad tracks, or trying to avoid becoming a victim of typhus, the hard ships endured by Fergus seem to constantly multiply.  Perhaps the most stirring aspect of the story is the voyage on the “Laramie” that brings Fergus and Molly together as they try to reach America and avail themselves of a life of freedom and opportunity.

Throughout, Behrens develops an interesting dynamic among his characters.  Arthur, who tries to educate Fergus in a world apart from serfdom, and Molly, a hardened women who employs her body as a tool to live another day.  Once Fergus falls in love with her we are privy to a caring but cruel relationship.  On board ship we meet Mr. Ormsby who will change Fergus’ life.   We are exposed to the individual stories of the passengers who we must admire for their courage as they try to escape poverty and make their way across the ocean.  Each person has their own fears and anxieties about their pasts and what awaits them in the future.

Behrens’ dialogue reflects the social class divide and ethnic nationalism that pervades Ireland that includes the rural and urban existence of the English poor.  The author’s command of language, the dialects he presents and the meaning of each phrase provides insight into a story that he tells that reflects the experience of his own family.  As he makes transitions from each scene to the next, be it Fergus’ experience in the work house, the bog boys tramping in the countryside, life in the Dragon House brothel, or coping with typhus aboard ship we experience the nasty side effects of the Industrial Revolution that drive men like Mr. Coole to abandon his religion to bring his children to America.  All of these characters create their own stories within the overall plot line that captures the reader’s attention and keeps them turning the pages.  Behrens is very adept at introducing new characters and then dispatching them, with only Fergus feeling their loss as they pass through the novel.  The end result is that the author leaves the reader wondering what will happen to Fergus, a question that can be easily resolved by reading his latest novel, THE O’BRIENS.