THE BONE TREE by Greg Iles

The Bone Tree (Penn Cage Series #5)

Greg Iles begins his latest novel in his Penn Cage trilogy by reintroducing the term “The Bone Tree,” which forms a very important component of his story of the same name.  According to Iles, the Bone Trees’ location was the dumping site of a radical KKK offshoot from the 1960s called the “Double Eagles,” where they deposited the bodies of their victims.  Historically, it may have formed a killing ground that dated to the pre-Columbian years of the Natchez Indians.

The novel itself begins where, NATCHEZ BURNING, Iles’ previous effort ended with Penn Cage, the mayor of Natchez, MS and a former Houston prosecutor lamenting his decisions that led to the death of Henry Sexton, a journalist who spent decades investigating the deaths of 12 civil rights murders from the 1960s, and Sleepy Johnson, who had witnessed two of those murders and the fire that destroyed all of Sexton’s evidence.  Cage suffers from extreme guilt that he allowed his father, Dr. Tom Cage’s disappearance cloud his judgement, as his father had been accused of murdering his former nurse as well as a Louisiana State trooper, in addition to jumping bail.  With an all-points bulletin with a shoot to kill order facing his father, Penn Cage must figure out how to save his father from himself in an environment of political and legal corruption that dominates the state of Louisiana at all levels.  When an author prepares to write a trilogy they expect that each volume can stand alone.  In this case, despite the fact that Iles’ provides a great deal of background to link the novel with its predecessor, it might prove difficult for the reader to understand certain components of the story without reading the previous book.

Dr. Tom Cage is resigned to his own death.  With a severe heart condition, accused of two murders, on the run for jumping bail, with assassins after him, he has given up until he receives a text from his future daughter-in-law Caitlin Masters.  Masters, the editor of the Natchez Examiner informs Cage that she is pregnant and he realizes that he now has something to live for, another grandchild and possibly a name sake.  At the age of 73 he see himself anew as the patriarch of a larger family.  Having escaped the assassination by two thugs, Tom’s dilemma is what should be his next course of action.  Iles’ novel has many subplots and one of them is how Tom will navigate his situation.  Another is how his son Cage, and Masters will handle events particularly the remnants of violence and corruption existing in Louisiana in the immediate aftermath of Hurricane Katrina despite the death of Brody Royal, the perceived puppet mastering murderer from NATCHEZ BURNING.

We learn that the true source of lawlessness in the state aside from the greedy real estate developers, bankers, and politicians whose vision is to rebuild New Orleans in their own image by forcing out blacks from neighborhoods and ethnically cleansing the city in order to make millions of dollars, are elements in the Louisiana State Police (LSP). To achieve their goal they need to control the New Orleans Police Department, employing Forrest Knox, second in command of the LSP, as an ally.  Forrest Knox is the head of the Knox family crime organization who are at the center of the Double Eagle faction, and is involved in a statewide meth operation along with an army of avaricious politicians and hungry police officers that have allowed him to build a criminal network with unrivaled reach and power in the southern part of Louisiana.  As a Lt. Colonel in the Louisiana State Police Knox has tremendous influence on events, but as Head of the Louisiana State Police he would become totally insulated from any legal problems from the FBI or other agencies.  As he tries to achieve his goal by destroying his superior officer the novel becomes a fast ride for the reader as the different threads that Iles has created come together.

One of the threads involves the jurisdictional differences that exist between the FBI, state and county law enforcement.  Each has its own agenda and conflicting interests, for example, John Kaiser, the FBI Special Agent’s investigation of possible links between Tom Cage, the Double Eagles, Carlos Marcello, and the Kennedy assassination permeate the novel.  For Penn Cage and Concordia Parish Sheriff Walker Dennis solving the civil rights murders by bringing down Forrest Knox and the Double Eagles, and exonerating Tom Cage is paramount. The reader is also privy to the inner working of the Knox family operation that includes County Sheriff Billy Knox, and a murdering psychopath, Snake Knox, in addition to the Lt. Colonel in the Louisiana State Police. Each agenda is intertwined with each other, and Iles does a masterful job in creating a constantly evolving scenario that keeps the reader mesmerized.

The book exposes the reader to a great deal of violence, betrayal, menace and at times is very intense.  Despite the fact its genre is crime fiction it does an exceptional job highlighting many aspects of human behavior, especially the tragedy of race relations that dominates our history.  THE BONE TREE also exemplifies the role that the past plays in our lives and how difficult it is to escape its tentacles.  The book is illustrative of a line by William Faulkner: “The past is never dead.  It’s not even past.”  (Washington Post, May 11, 2015)  Iles’ work is illustrative of this theme and to his credit he has created an evocative story that will cause the reader to look forward to the concluding volume of his massive trilogy which is due out later this year or early 2017.

What follows is a great interview conducted by the Christian Science Monitor and Greg Iles in April, 2015.

‘Natchez Burning’ author Greg Iles discusses ‘The Bone Tree,’ the twist-filled sequel

Iles’s new book, ‘The Bone Tree,’ includes an investigation into the JFK assassination. ‘If Oswald did not act alone, then I would say there’s a 95% chance that a conspiracy of the size and type that I laid out in this book is the most likely thing to have happened,’ Iles says.

By Erik Spanberg APRIL 21, 2015

 

Greg Iles calls himself a 20-year overnight success story. This despite the fact that his first book, published in 1993, hit The New York Times best-seller list.

Iles mentions the possibility of overnight success while discussing a soon-to-be-announced cable TV adaptation of his 2014 epic novel, “Natchez Burning.” He promises a series or miniseries with the production quality of “True Detective” or “Game of Thrones.” Until all the contracts are signed, though, he is forbidden from disclosing which network is buying the rights.

“Natchez Burning,” published last spring, spanned 800 pages and blended the pulse-pounding machinations of a thriller with Southern Gothic elements while dazzling the likes of Ken Follett and Stephen King. AARP Magazine described the atmospherics and narrative as a mash-up of William Faulkner and Stieg Larsson. Most of all, “Natchez Burning” left readers desperate to know what happens next in the lengthy tale of violence, corruption, and racial strife.

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Now comes “The Bone Tree,” the second book in Iles’s trilogy. The novel picks up where the last one left off but veers off in the direction of constant action and twists and turns without answering one of the central questions posed in the earlier book.

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Instead, Penn Cage, the mayor of Natchez, Mississippi, and Iles’s main character (Penn happens to be both an author and former prosecutor), spends much of his time trying to find his father, a small-town doctor accused of murder, and sorting out whether his family played a role in the death of President Kennedy at Dealey Plaza.

At the same time, conspiracies involving New Orleans mobsters, rogue CIA operatives, and other nasty characters thwart Penn as he teams with crusading reporters and a hell-bent FBI agent in an attempt to solve a string of cold cases from the Civil Rights era.

Late next year or in early 2017, Iles will publish the last book in the trilogy. Whether Penn can save his hometown and his shattered family is one of several prominent questions left to be resolved in the final book.

Penn Cage starred in several stand-alone novels before Iles was in a near-fatal car wreck four years ago in his hometown of Natchez. Doctors kept Iles in a medical coma for eight days after the crash and his injuries included a torn aorta and the loss of his right leg below the knee.

He still struggles with rehab, but his writing career is on a roll. And he remains a member of The Rock Bottom Remainders, a literary garage band featuring Amy Tan, Dave Barry, Stephen King, and Scott Turow, among others.

Iles was the singer and guitarist in his own rock band, Franky Scarlet, after graduating from Ole Miss in 1983. Later, he ditched rock and roll for a career in thrillers, a path similar to the one taken by Norwegian thriller writer Jo Nesbo.

Before setting off on a book tour, Iles spoke to the Monitor about chasing the ghosts of JFK and Civil Rights victims as well as what’s ahead for the self-proclaimed overnight sensation. Excerpts from our conversation are below.

On his interest in President Kennedy’s assassination:

I really wasn’t [intending to go there] and I’ll tell you what’s funny. There’s a guy who interviewed me for Publishers Weekly [Lenny Picker in 2013]. They did a thing on the 50th anniversary [of the assassination and the fiction and nonfiction books around JFK’s death]. And this guy’s going to kill me. Because he called me and he quoted me a couple of times in the article, but I kept telling him, ‘Look, these books really are not about the Kennedy assassination. I’m really not going there.’

And, then, while re-writing the next book, I found myself doing that [laughs]. I felt so guilty. I thought, this guy is going to think I was lying to him. It’s just that the more I sort of slid southward towards New Orleans and found out more about the [Louisiana crime boss Carlos] Marcello stuff, the more I just couldn’t resist it.

On how much he blends fact and fiction in his depiction of November 1963:

In a general way, I would say that the basic thesis of what I’m putting forth is, if Oswald did not act alone, then I would say there’s a 95% chance that a conspiracy of the size and type that I laid out in this book is the most likely thing to have happened. The fact is that none of these grand conspiracy theories are really even possible.

If you really boil away all the sensationalism and you say what really could have happened and who truly had a motive to kill him, you’re left with a pretty small group of people.

I don’t want to get too much into saying things about the Marcellos or people like that, but I think the points in the book are very well taken, which is we tend to look at the killing of a president as this massive thing of epic proportion. Whereas the guys who had that kind of power and especially at that time, when the kind of scrutiny that exists now did not exist, I think guys like that would not at all have been intimidated taking that kind of action.

Especially since they were embedded in the process to try to assassinate [Cuban dictator Fidel] Castro [before Kennedy was killed]. I think all those things facilitated toward making the killing of a president a mundane thing. I guess what I’m saying is I think [a conspiracy like the one detailed in “The Bone Tree”] could’ve happened. I’m not saying it did happen, but it surely could have, and it’s far more plausible than most of the things [people have suggested].

On why he decided to write a trilogy:

The real sort of Paul-on-the-road-to-Damascus moment with this trilogy came four years ago when I was almost killed on Highway 61 and was in a coma and everything. It happened at a point where I had realized the book had grown beyond the bounds of a single book and that the first book, there was no way it could stand alone, nor could the second stand alone and I was about to have to break all the rules of mainstream fiction.

My publisher was trying to adapt that, they weren’t real happy with it. And that was the process I was in when I got hit by a truck and nearly died. So when I came out of that, I just really no longer gave a damn what the rules were, what the publisher thought or whether it sold. At that point, I said, you know, I’m writing about Mississippi and Louisiana, I’m writing about my family, I’m writing about race and the South and America. When you’re going to do that for real, you can’t worry who gets mad or who doesn’t think it fits in a box. So I just threw away the rule book.

On writers he admires:

I’m one of the main speakers at [a festival] in New York in July. I’ve never met a guy who I always idolized [when I was] a young writer in my career and that’s Nelson DeMille. DeMille’s early work especially. [Now] I’m actually going to get to meet him.

[A few weeks ago] I got to meet Pat Conroy and that was just one of those bucket-list moments. We just talked and we just bonded instantly and we talked on the phone subsequently. Those are some of the little joys you find.

On his main character:

A lot of people have always asked, is Penn Cage me? And I say no. There’s an early character in an earlier novel, “Mortal Fear,” that’s closer to me. Penn sort of began as a Grisham-esque character. He’s an attorney and kind of a noble guy and almost too good to be true. I never set out to write a series at all, but about every seven years, he would come back to me. Before I knew it, there were three [Penn Cage] books and “Natchez Burning’ turned into [a trilogy]. Penn tends to be an observer more than an action hero, but I think in “Natchez Burning,” even though he starts that way, because of the destruction of the image of his father makes him question everything, I think now we’re dealing with a Penn who no longer has his feet on the ground. That’s an exciting thing for the reader.

On “The Bone Tree”:

As the middle book, it had always been sort of a more conventional thriller and made more concessions to genre. I went back and thought, I really don’t want to do that. Because the third book, the conclusion, is better than “Natchez Burning,” that’s how good it is. And the second book I felt like, OK, it’s a good book, but it’s a more conventional thriller and “Natchez Burning” deserves more than that. So that’s why it took a while: I went back and really re-wrote that book.

A lot of the stuff in these books are very close to reality. This isn’t just made-up stuff. [A former New Orleans and Natchez police officer Iles knew] had either a copy or office notes of the entire Jim Garrison Kennedy investigation in his possession over in Ferriday, Louisiana. There are a lot of weird things that went on.

The Bone Tree (Penn Cage Series #5)

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NATCHEZ BURNING by Greg Iles

(1964 voter registration demonstration in MIssissippi)

Greg Iles’ fourth novel in his Penn Cage series, NATCHEZ BURNING takes the reader back to a time period in American history when the civil rights movement was gaining its footing expressing the needs of black Americans as they had to deal with the daily injustices and violence that existed in large segments of American society.  Denied their rights as citizens, black Americans turned to organizing themselves for political action which did not sit well, particularly in the Deep South.  Iles begins his story in 1964 in a Louisiana parish where Klansman burned down the music store of a black citizen, and murder its owner, and a young man suspected of dating the richest man in the parish’s daughter.  At this point the leader of the KKK faction decides that the Klan was not going far enough to maintain “white society” and form their own more radical and violent faction labeling it “the wrecking crew,” made up of World War II and Korean War veterans who were facile with explosives and weapons.  As usual Iles’ mastery of American history stands out as he weaves in historical events as Klan members discuss the killing of three northern civil rights workers in Philadelphia, MS, the training of Cuban refugees for the Bay of Pigs, and commentary about the assassination of John F. Kennedy, and plans to kill Martin Luther King, and possibly Robert F. Kennedy.  Iles flashes forward to 1968 and we learn that the “wrecking crew,” named, “Double Eagle” carried out the murder of a former navy and civil rights worker who is working to register black voters in Mississippi, among eleven others.  In addition, the Klansman have gang raped his sister, who happens to be Violet Turner, Penn Cage’s father, Dr. Tom Cages’ nurse.

As the reader becomes more engrossed in the plot, Iles’ pushes forward to 2005 and a phone call from Natchez, MS District Attorney, Shadrack Johnson who despises, Penn Cage, now mayor of Natchez, and informs him that his father is being accused of carrying out the physician assisted suicide of Violet Turner.  Cage, aware of his history with Johnson is wary, but once convinced the threat is real as Turner’s son, a Chicago attorney, wants to prosecute Dr. Cage, Penn confronts his father whether the charges are accurate.  Dr. Cage refuses to answer questions and cooperate and the reader wonders what do events dating back to the 1960s have to do with the charge against Dr. Cage.  Iles, as he has done in all his previous novels has lured the reader into his story through the characters he develops, a number of which have appeared in previous novels.  Iles has the knack to fill in events from previous books so the reader is brought up to speed so references to earlier situations make sense.  Now that the reader is hooked, Iles takes the reader on an interesting journey as the plot unfolds.

The plot itself is very complex involving a corrupt and savage billionaire named Brody Royal who had strong links to mafia types like Carlo Marcello and Santo Traficante; Royal’s son-in-law, Randall Regan, a violent and sadistic killer; the Knox family, that includes Forrest Knox, the Director of Louisiana State Police Investigation Bureau; Claude Devereux, the lawyer for the “Double Eagles; Henry Sexton, a local newspaperman who has been tracking the civil rights murders for decades, and numerous savory and unsavory characters.  Iles provides a wonderful history of Natchez, MI as well as an overview of the corruption of Louisiana politics.  A number of racist and crooked characters from the past are mentioned including former governor, Edwin Edwards and white supremacist, David Duke.  Iles’ integration of the history of the region is highlighted by Hurricane Katrina as we witness the devastation of the storm and the attempt by Brody Royal and his henchmen to rebuild the city in their own image by forcing blacks citizens out of areas destroyed by the storm, and implementing the reconstruction of valuable real estate to remake the city of New Orleans.

The core of the novel centers on Penn Cage’s crisis of conscience in dealing with his father, a man who he respects greatly.  Penn has difficulty accepting the accusations against his father and what it is doing to his family, but Tom Cage has grown very recalcitrant as he refuses to cooperate with his son’s inquiries.  The question at the forefront is what is Tom Cage hiding, and how can his son save him from himself.  Along the way witnesses to the civil rights murders of the 1960s die off, and others disappear as Penn gathers his forces and assets to try and vindicate a father.  For Penn, the most ethical man he had ever known may have withheld critical evidence for over forty years, and he begins to wonder whether his father’s life story may have been a lie.

The book never disappoints, and despite its length (it is almost 800 pages) it keeps the reader riveted to their seats and wanting to push further and further to see how all the corruption and murder that are discussed come together and work themselves out.  What is important about Iles’ effort is that it exposes the racial hatreds that dominated the south for what seems like an eternity.  It provides the book’s audience with an audacious history from a period that many would like to forget; in addition to the motives, weaknesses, and strengths of the characters portrayed.  NATCHEZ BURNING is a powerful story that will continue in the second installment of Iles’ trilogy, THE BONE TREE.

(Freedom Summer, 1964 Mississippi)

THE GEORGETOWN SET: FRIENDS AND RIVALS IN COLD WAR WASHINGTON by Greg Herken

(Joseph and Stewart Alsop,  journalists who greatly impacted American foreign policy during the Cold War)

When one discusses the value of real estate one usually encounters the phrase “location, location, location.”  This could be the theme of Greg Herken’s THE GEORGETOWN SET: FRIENDS AND RIVALS IN COLD WAR WASHINGTON, a book centered on a Georgetown, Washington, D.C. neighborhood after World War II, whose residents included the Alsop brothers, Jack and Jaqueline Kennedy, Ben and Tony Bradlee, Allen and Clover Dulles, Dean and Alice Acheson, Philp and Katherine Graham, Averill and Marie Harriman, Frank and Polly Wisner among others.  Within the group you had a future president and Secretary of State, the head of the CIA and other operatives, two ambassadors to the Soviet Union, influential journalists, and the owner and editor of the Washington Post. The neighbors who were known as the “Georgetown Set,” were at the forefront of American policy as the Cold War began and evolved, as Dean Acheson entitled his memoirs, they were PRESENT AT CREATION, and a few of them lived to see the curtain fall on the conflict with the communist world.  These individuals were not only neighbors, for the most part, they were close friends.  They had attended the same boarding schools and universities and “believed that the United States had the power—and the moral obligation—to oppose tyranny and stand up of the world’s underdogs.”  They held a sense of duty and the belief in the “rightness of the country and its causes—which were, more often than not, their own.”

Unlike today, it was a time of consensus in foreign policy in dealing with the Soviet Union, partisanship was an afterthought.  The outset of the Cold War produced the Marshall Plan, the Truman Doctrine, Point Four, and NATO, but the mindset of these individuals would also lead to mistakes embodied in the disastrous coups of the Eisenhower era, the Bay of Pigs, and the Vietnam War.  Greg Herken tells the story of these influential people, how their ideas dominated American policy, and what the ramifications of that influence were.  The reader is exposed to intimate details and tremendous insights as these power brokers are examined, and it makes for a fascinating read.

(Katharine Graham, owner and editor of the Washington Post)

The narrative focuses on the most important foreign policy debates of the 20th century, where the residents of Georgetown aligned themselves, and how their views affected the success or failure of presidential decision making.  Once the Nazis and the Japanese were defeated in 1945, the foreign policy debate focused on the communist threat and the motives of the Soviet Union.  The debate was symbolized by George Kennan, who at one point was head of the Policy Planning Staff in the State Department as well as stints as ambassador to the Soviet Union and Yugoslavia; and Paul Nitze, former Secretary of the Navy, and author of NSC-68 which along with Kennan’s “X Article” formed the basis of American policy toward Russia for well into the 1980s.  The debate centered on “whether it was America’s moral example or material power that kept the Russians at bay” during the Cold War.   Many other individuals draw Herken’s discerning eye during the period, the most important of which were Joseph and Stewart Alsop, the journalism brothers who advised presidents, and helped articulate positions on Vietnam and Cuba that some would argue pushed our nation’s chief executives into making unwise policy choices.

At times the book reads like a biography of the Alsop brothers as Herken develops their careers as the centerpiece of the monograph.  Of the two, Joseph Alsop dominated their relationship and developed numerous sources within the national security apparatus in presidential administrations from Truman through Nixon.  Joseph Alsop had his own agenda and his columns created enough pressure on Lyndon Johnson that many believe forced him to consider Alsop’s readership when making decisions about Vietnam, a subject that Alsop seemed obsessed with and had difficulty accepting any information that contradicted what he believed.  The Alsops hosted numerous dinner parties that were used as conduits to different presidential administrations as conversations yielded information that turned up in their newspaper columns.  Herken almost makes the reader as if they are invited guests to the Sunday night gatherings among the “Georgetown Set” and at times the reader might feel like a “fly on the wall” as you witness history being made.  In addition to the Alsops, the inner sanctum of the Washington Post is laid bare as great events are reported.  We see the newspaper under the stewardship of Philip Graham at the outset of the Cold War until his suicide, when his wife Katharine takes the reigns of the paper and turns it into a strong competitor to the New York Times. Reporting on Watergate, My Lai and other issues reflected Katharine Graham’s growth as the head of a major newspaper and her dominant role in Washington politics.

(Frank Wisner II, the son of an OSS and CIA operative who developed and implemented numerous covert operations during the Cold War.  Wisner II developed his own diplomatic career and did not follow the career path of his father)

The book also centers on the evolution of the American intelligence community from the Office of Strategic Services (OSS) during World War II to the creation of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA).  Herken focuses most of his attention on Allen W. Dulles, who worked under Wild Bill Donavan who headed the OSS, and would later head the CIA under President Eisenhower and for a short time under John F. Kennedy; and Frank Wisner, an OSS and CIA operative who was known for his outlandish covert plans, i.e.; trying to overthrow the government of Albania, dropping propaganda leaflets and intelligence operatives behind the “iron curtain” among many of his projects.  CIA involvement in Vietnam, Iran, Cuba, and Guatemala are dissected in detail and Herken correctly points to current issues that date back to Dulles, Wisner, and numerous other individuals in the intelligence community, and how they negatively affected American foreign policy for decades.

(President John F. Kenndy and First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy were frequent visitors in the “salons” of Georgetown)

The books serves as an important window into the lives of people who dominated the American foreign policy establishment throughout the Cold War.  Herken seems to assess all of the major decisions that were made during the period, as well as evaluating each of the characters presented and how their lives affected the course of American history.  Many of the individuals that Herken discusses are well known, but others are brought out of the shadows.  One of the most interesting aspects of the book is when Herken muses about the lives of the children of the “Georgetown Set,” and how the generation gap that developed in response to the civil rights and anti-war movements of the 1960s affected the next “Georgetown” generation.

Herken writes with flair and has exceptional command of his material and sources and has offered a unique approach to the causes and results of the Cold War that should satisfy academics as well as the general reader.

THE CHURCHILL FACTOR: HOW ONE MAN MADE HISTORY by Boris Johnson

(English Prime Minister Winston Churchill, August 27, 1941)

If you are looking for a personal, breezy hagiography of Winston Churchill then Boris Johnson’s THE CHURCHILL FACTOR: HOW ONE MAN MADE HISTORY will be of interest.  Johnson’s effort is not a traditional biography of the former occupant of 10 Downing Street, but a manifesto imploring the reader to consider the genius and greatness of Churchill.  Johnson is concerned that as time has passed fewer and fewer of the non-World War II generation have forgotten or are not aware of Churchill’s accomplishments as he states at the outset “we are losing those who can remember the sound of his voice, and I worry that we are in danger….of forgetting the scale of what he did.”  For the author, World War II would have been lost, if not for Churchill, and he further argues that the resident of Chartwell House and Blenheim Palace saved civilization and proved that one man can change history.

Johnson’s writing is very entertaining.  His phrasing is both humorous and poignant, i.e., “the French were possessed of an origami army! They just keep folding with almost magical speed.”  In his description of Churchill, he looked “like some burley and hung over butler from the set of Downton Abbey.  However, aside from the humor presented, Johnson has a serious purpose as he seems to want to align himself with Churchill as a means of furthering his own political career.  The question is what do we make of Johnson’s THE CHURCHILL FACTOR?  Many who are familiar with Johnson’s career can foresee this Member of Parliament, mayor of London, former editor of The Spectator, and columnist for the Daily Telegraph pursuing the leadership of the Conservative Party, and at some point attaining the position of Prime Minister.  By manipulating Churchill’s legacy as a comparison to certain aspects of his own life, Johnson may have hit upon a vehicle for his own political ascendency.  Johnson suggests certain similarities with his hero, but then upon reflection he negates them, but for those who are familiar with the British political system, Johnson’s ambitions are clear.

Johnson’s thesis rests on rehabilitating the less savory aspects of Churchill’s personality and politics, at the same time presenting him as the genius who saved the world from Nazism.  Johnson strongly suggests when reviewing the political choices that existed in England as the Dunkirk rescue was ongoing in May, 1940 there was no alternative to Churchill.  Neville Chamberlain and Lord Halifax were both appeasers and wanted to make a separate peace with Germany.  Johnson reviews Churchill’s career as a journalist, soldier, and social reformer to reflect on his preparation for taking on Hitler, and does not find him wanting in any area.  The author tackles the opposition to Churchill within the Conservative party and why he was a lightning rod for his opponents.  Johnson explains why he was so despised by many head on.  He argues that Churchill, like his father Randolph, suffered from a lack of party loyalty and we see that both followed their own path when it came to shifting parties and then returning to the conservative fold.  In addition, Churchill helped bring on ill will by always being a self-promoter and political opportunist.  Churchill made a number of errors during World War I and later, in his career.   The following come to mind: the fiasco at Antwerp in October, 1914, and Gallipoli in September, 1915 that forced many to question his ability as a military strategist when he was First Lord of their Admiralty. Further, Churchill’s ill-fated plan to block the Bolshevik victory in Russia after World War I, as well as fighting to prevent Indian self-government where not well thought out.  Lastly, Churchill’s support for Edward VIII’s desire for a divorce and forfeiture of his throne angered many conservative back benchers.

(Churchill’s March 5, 1946 “Iron Curtain Speech” at Westminster College, Fulton, MO)

Johnson presents Churchill’s bonifedes as a military leader by spending a good amount of time reflecting on Churchill’s bravery.  He discusses Churchill’s love of planes and desire to develop an air force.  He reviews his combat experience in the Sudan, the Boer War, India and the trenches of World War I.  He concludes that Churchill’s own personal bravery allowed him to ask whether other candidates in 1940 had the experience and demeanor to lead England against the Nazis.  Johnson also tackles some of the negative charges against Churchill.  For Johnson, Churchill is a social reformer in the context of being a capitalist and a free trader.  He argues that next to his mentor, Lloyd George, Churchill had great concern for workers and the lower classes.  For Churchill, workers were the bedrock of the British Empire and without them the empire would collapse.  Johnson points to Churchill’s championing of Labour exchanges, a Trade Board Bill to enforce minimum wages for certain jobs, unemployment insurance with worker, government and employer contributions, a 20% tax on land sales in order to fund progressive programs and redistribute wealth.  Churchill was concerned that if the needs of the workers were not met, unrest could “scuttle” British power overseas.  One might argue that Churchill was somewhat of a hypocrite based on some of his racist and imperialist goals, Johnson would say that he was nothing more than being politically pragmatic.  Perhaps Churchill’s “compassionate conservatism” was years ahead of George W. Bush.

The author rests much of his argument on Churchill’s amazing work ethic and the motor of his exceptional brain.  Johnson offers a great deal of evidence to support his claim, i.e., Churchill’s prodigious writing that earned him a Nobel Peace Prize for Literature at the age of seventy-five.  Churchill’s work developing tank technology during World War I, his role in creating the boundaries for the Middle East, the partition of Ireland, and diplomacy during World War II to save England from the Nazis and rallying his own people.   Lastly, the use of his personal charm to “drag” the United States into World War II.  Once out of power Churchill sought to warn the west about Stalinist expansionism.  His “Iron Curtain” speech in 1946 made public his concerns, but Churchill had internally warned his cabinet and FDR at least a year earlier.  As in the 1930s when he warned about Nazism, as World War II came to a close he was seen as a war mongerer by many.  Despite the fact that he was correct in both cases, this did not help him politically at home or in his relationship with President Truman, as he was soon out of office.  Once he returned to power in 1951, and with the death of Stalin in 1953, Churchill worked for a summit of the great powers as he was deathly afraid of a thermonuclear war.  Though he did not achieve his goal, after he left office for good in 1955, a four power summit did take place.  For Johnson, in the end, Churchill’s ideas prevailed, from his speech in Fulton, MO in 1946 to the final collapse of the Berlin Wall in 1989.  Churchill had called for rapprochement between France and Germany, and a united Europe all of which was eventually achieved.

(Cairo Conference, 1921, Churchill is on the left, Gertrude Bell in the center, and T.E. Lawrence on the right)

One of the major blemishes that exists in dealing with Churchill’s career lies in the sands of the Middle East.  As Colonial Secretary he had to undue the negative results of the Hussein-McMahon Correspondence, the Sykes-Picot Agreement, and the Balfour Declaration all issued during World War I making very contradictory promises that Johnson describes as “Britain sold the same camel three times.”  The story of the Cairo Conference and Churchill’s influence on the creation of Iraq, Transjordan, Syria, and Palestine has been told many times, but even Johnson must acknowledge that what Churchill had created, though it lasted for decades was bound to come a cropper.  Further Churchill’s optimism concerning Jewish-Palestinian relations was ill-conceived.  Johnson, as his want, does not blame Churchill, but the selfishness of both sides, particularly the lack of Arab leadership, a rationalization to deflect away from Churchill anything the author finds unacceptable.     Despite his errors the author proposes that Churchill, even in old age, was a man ahead of his times, and based on his amazing career who is to say that Johnson was wrong.

(Potsdam Conference, July, 1945, Churchill, Truman, and Stalin)

Perhaps the major criticism one can offer is how the author presents his material.  I for one enjoy objective biography, not subjective hero worship, particularly when there are so many instances of a lack of source material to support the author’s conclusions.  However, if one is interested in a fast read encompassing Churchill’s entire career, Johnson’s effort could prove to be intellectually challenging, and entertaining.