(Communist partisans march into Sarajevo at the end of W.W.II)
Luke McCallin’s second installment of his Gregor Reinhardt series is as compelling and nuanced as his first, THE MAN FROM BERLIN. Two years later, THE PALE HOUSE, finds Reinhardt reassigned from the Abwher, German intelligence to the Feldjaegerkorps, a new branch of the military police with far reaching powers. The assignment came about following a failed attempt on Hitler’s life that brought a severe crackdown and purge against anyone suspected of having questionable loyalty to the Fuhrer. Reinhardt had surreptitious links to the German resistance and was worried about his friends and allies. McCallin creates an unimaginable plot that will place Reinhardt in situations that will call on him to dig deep within himself to survive.
(Yugoslavia during World War II)
In late March, 1945, near Sarajevo, among rumors of deserters Reinhardt comes across a massacre of civilians. Along with a colleague, Lt. Max Benfeld, Reinhardt investigates the site as a crime scene employing what remained of his past police skills. After examining the bodies and other evidence he concludes that what occurred was perpetrated by the Ustase, a Croatian fascist ultranationalist party. Reinhardt locates three survivors and crosses an Ustase checkpoint and brings them to Sarajevo to try and save their lives. Reinhardt becomes obsessed with the massacre and he begins to wonder if murder was the norm and acceptable behavior in the city as it was surrounded more and more by communist partisans. As the Germans slowly withdrew north the Ustase wanted to control what remained of Croatia, but they were riddled by different factions with their own agendas. It was a world dominated by the likes of Vjekoslav Lubaric, the head of the Sarajevo Ustase and Ante Putkovic, who used dice to determine the innocence or guilt of his prisoners. The Ustase were not an effective fighting force, but were excellent at mass killing.
Reinhardt’s investigation has many threads. As he tries to bring some semblance of reason to his work he encounters a number of interesting characters. War Crimes Division jurist, Major Marcus Dreyer, an old friend from the First World War and post war Berlin asks for his help in his own investigation. It seems that Dreyer suspects German Major Edwin Jansky of a number of illegalities as he is in charge of a Penal Battalion made up of condemned men from all over the Balkans. It is accepted that Jansky and his men are corrupt and taking advantage of the chaos in the region to rob it blind. However, Dreyer believes that Jansky and his men may have something to do with the earlier massacre and a number of other murders.
It seems that death becomes Reinhardt’s specialty. Summoned to an ambush site of dead German soldiers, he finds another five mutilated bodies that were not meant to be found. As in THE MAN FROM BERLIN Reinhardt has to deal with jurisdictional issues, but in the present situation they lead to greater personal danger for himself and those around him. Throughout the dialogue McCallin provides a number of asides that fills the reader in with information about Reinhardt’s past. By doing so we see the further evolution of Reinhardt’s character and moral code as well as how his personal tragedies have affected him.
The mutilated bodies become the axle on which the novel spins as Reinhardt once again has to rely on allies that previously might be considered enemies. As the story unfolds these allies are somewhat surprising, Suzana Vukic, whose daughter, a Croatian nationalist journalist had been killed, the communist partisan leader, known as Valter, Vladimir Peric, and Alexious, a Greek soldier of fortune trying to save his family. As McCallin has Reinhardt deal with these relationships he is able to convey the horrors perpetuated by the Ustase as the war begins to wind down. All the Germans seemed to care about was the withdrawal of as many troops as possible and were not concerned with the actions of their former allies, except for Reinhardt and a few others. But, is Reinhardt reading the situation correctly, is it the Ustase or perhaps rogue Germans with links high up the chain of command?
As the plot broadens Reinhardt is trying to link the massacres of civilians, the murder of German soldiers, and the corruption that seems to exist everywhere. McCallin creates a web of deceit that is hard to fathom and the conclusions that Reinhardt reaches are difficult to predict as is the final act in the drama that unfolds. Once again, McCallin leaves an opening with his final paragraph that will be continued in his recently released third installment, THE DIVIDED CITY.
(Communist partisans liberate Sarajevo at the end of World War II)