DEATH WITHOUT COMPANY by Craig Johnson

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Craig Johnson’s sequel to his successful THE COLD DISH which introduced Absaroka County Sheriff Walter Longmire is entitled DEATH WITHOUT COMPANY.  Many of the same characters reappear including retired Sheriff Lucian Connally, who resides at the Durant Home for Assisted Living, Longmire’s constant foil, Victoria (Vic) Moretti, Henry Standing Bear, Longmire’s closest friend since childhood and owner of the Red Pony Bar, as well as Ruby, the person who is really in charge of Longmire’s office, and Cady, Longmire’s daughter who was an attorney in Philadelphia.  Johnson introduces a few new characters, the most important of which are newly hired deputy Santiago Saizarbitoria, and “dog,” Longmire’s new companion that he never got around to giving a name.

The current Longmire episode begins with the seemingly routine death of Mari Baroja at the Durant Home for Assisted Living.  A seemingly normal occurrence at the facility turns out to be a possible investigation as it appears that Lucian was once married to Baroja for three hours over fifty years ago.  It seemed the two ran off to get married at a young age when Baroja’s Basque father and uncles had the marriage annulled.  The first part of the book is dominated by the question, what was Lucian hiding, and why?

Johnson’s empathy for the historical plight of Native-Americans seems to drip off of each page.  His constant references to their treatment by the US government and life on the “rez” (reservation) is present in character dialogue and background descriptions providing the reader with an accurate picture of Native-American life.  Johnson is a very nuanced and descriptive writer as he is able to set a scene and comfortably places the reader among the characters, i.e.,  Lucian’s ruminations of his past life.

The first third of the book is spent reacquainting old reader or acquainting new readers with the main characters and how they interact, and the dynamics of the Baroja’s family, particularly when it emerges that they control a great deal of methane production on the Four Brothers Ranch which they own – production that is worth millions.  All the evidence points to Mari’s death as one of natural causes, until a lab report that she had been poisoned by naphthalene, an ingredient in moth balls.  It turns out that Mari was susceptible to this poison and Lucian’s insistence that she did not die of natural causes finally rings true.  Further evidence of foul play is obvious when Mari’s doctor, the Holocaust survivor Isaac Brumfield is involved in a car accident and is almost killed.  Further, Mari’s granddaughter Lana is attacked in her bakery, but survives. It turns out that Mari was worth millions and had changed her will fourteen times, the last being a few days before she died, and it appears that the case may also rest on a missing can of Metamucil.

From this point on Longmire is in full investigative mode.  He relies on Standing Bear and Vic, his deputy to gather information and evidence concerning family members as it appears they have the most to gain.  He also uses his daughter’s legal expertise as she arrives in the midst of events to celebrate Christmas.  In so doing we learn a great deal of the history of how dysfunctional the Baroja family was, especially once the will is read and it appears the largest portion of Mari’s wealth went to her granddaughter Lana, and her twin daughters Kay and Carol receiving substantially less.

Johnson’s current effort, along with the television series “Longmire” are superb entertainment.  They reflect the avarice of human nature, excellent plot development, and twisted and surprising endings.  I recommend the entire series, both video and the printed word and look forward to KINDNESS GOES UNPUNISHED, the next installment in the Longmire saga.

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THE MIRACLE OF DUNKIRK by Walter Lord

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(the evacuation from Dunkirk)

A few days ago I saw the film “Dunkirk” which attempted to convey the importance of the rescue of 338,000 men off the coast of France across the English Channel in late May and early June, 1940.  The film does an excellent job presenting the plight of British and French troops as they lined up on the beaches to be extracted from the threat of German tanks, artillery, soldiers and bombers.  What the historian, Walter Lord refers to in his classic study, THE MIRACLE OF DUNKIRK is a series of crises that allowed many components of British society to take part in the rescue of these men.  Though originally published in 1982, Lord’s book has lost none of its punch and command of events that led to the evacuation, the evacuation itself, and its implication for the overall war effort.  When reading Lord’s work today it still reflects a historian who had mastered the craft of narrative history and allowed the reader to take part in the action being described.

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The approach taken in the film is reflected in Lord’s work.  It presents three important elements of the rescue; the outnumbered  brave British pilots who met and tried to neutralize German Stukas, the employment of anything that would float represented by a family fishing boat, and the men stuck on the French beaches trying to survive German bombing.  All aspects help capture the bravery, spirit, audacity of the British people that allowed them to save their army – an achievement that would go a long way in finally defeating the Nazis five years later.

Having seen the film I decided to read Lord’s highly readable study of what occurred.  Events in France shocked many, particularly Prime Minister Winston Churchill who was informed early on the morning of May 15, 1940 by French Premier Paul Reynaud that the French had been defeated after the Germans surprised them by attacking through the supposedly impenetrable Ardennes Forest.  German Panzer Divisions poured through the French countryside trapping the British Expeditionary Force (BEF), two French armies, and all Belgium soldiers, nearly one million men pinned against the sea at Flanders.

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Lord does a superb job describing British resiliency as they tried to block the German advance at the same time they instituted a massive withdrawal to save the BEF.  Lord points out French arrogance in dealing with the British, how quickly their troops and leadership became demoralized, and how the British were confronted with French “invisibleness” as they tried to cope with the German advance.  British policy seemed to always have to take in to account the French state of mind.  Once the French had given up, the BEF command had to prod them to hold certain areas so an escape route could be protected.  Further, the French felt they were not being treated equally once the evacuation began to gather steam.  They wanted the use of British ships and equal extraction of soldiers.  Churchill was very cognizant of French sensitivities as he was afraid of losing an ally at a time when things were becoming desperate.

Once the Germans realized what was occurring as the BEF and its allies began retreating north they worked to close off any access to French ports, be it Boulogne, Calais, and Dunkirk.  The Germans were spreads very thin and were stunned the allies did not attack their flanks as they raced for the beaches.  Luftwaffe head, Herman Goring grew jealous of Heinz Guderian’s Panzer unit and pleaded with Hitler to halt the German advance and allow his air force to complete the job of wiping out the BEF.  Hitler was concerned about his armor and viewed Paris as his main target so he went along with Goring.  This decision was very telling as it gave the BEF three days to organize its retreat before Hitler changed his mind – probably creating the opportunity for the “miracle” at Dunkirk.

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Perhaps Lord’s best chapter, “Operation Dynamo” deals with how the Admiralty bureaucracy organized the diversified types of ships and crafts that would take part in the rescue of the BEF.  On May 14, 1940 the BBC called for “all owners of self-propelled pleasure craft between 30 and 100 feet in length to send all their particulars to the Admiralty within fourteen days.”  Lord provides intricate details how this miracle at sea was organized under the leadership of Vice Admiral Betrum Ramsay who was located deep in the White Cliffs of Dover.  The result was a “strange fleet of ferries, hoppers, dredges, barges, coasters, and skoots.”  Once Boulogne and Calais fell, Dunkirk was the only option.

What sets Lord’s work a part from others is how he integrates the private stories and individual experiences of the soldiers and civilians who came to their rescue during the evacuation.  The harrowing trip across the channel and back avoiding German mines and bombers, placing the reader with the heroic individuals Lord describes.  Lord presents a number of important personages in his narrative that include King Leopold III of Belgium who quickly surrendered to the Germans, General Bernard Montgomery who organized his troops to fill the gap in the BEF escape route, and General Gort (Viscount Lord) who was in charge of BEF at Dunkirk, among others.  In addition, Lord has interviewed numerous survivors, civilians, and officers whose personal experiences helped create a fascinating narrative that began with a disorganized movement of troops onto the beaches, the need to create a pier to allow ships to pick the men up, and organizing the men into small units that would make for an efficient extraction.  What resulted at times was “bewildered waiting” and trying to avoid being hit by German bombers.

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The British command also had to make important choices as a number of destroyers dispatched to evacuate men began to be sunk.  Churchill and company were concerned that the losses were too much in light of what they thought would be a long war.  At one point a number of destroyers were withdrawn.  What facilitated the evacuation was low cloud cover and smoke for a good part of the end of May, 1940.  As the Admiralty withdrew the destroyers the void was filled by car ferry’s, fishing boats, open motor launches, barges, cabin cruisers, trawlers, and rusted scows – ships/boats of every conceivable type.  By the end of May, it became a deluge of “little ships.”  These craft were mostly unarmed and many were piloted by everyday civilians, a number of which were on their maiden voyage with little knowledge of nautical equipment.  The ingenuity of the British was seen as troops cannibalized materials from wherever they could, be it partially sunken destroyers, damaged buildings etc. all to create a temporary pier or mole so rescue boats could come astride and extract as many men as possible.

By the end of the evacuation 224,686 of the BEF and 123,095 French soldiers were evacuated.  This would be a problem for Churchill for the remainder of the war as the French believed that the British did not do their utmost to save French soldiers. Lord also does a marvelous job detailing the intricate and frosty relationship between England and France, especially as the Germans began to turn their attention away from Dunkirk and moved their panzer divisions to conquer Paris.

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The significance of the evacuation lay in the large number of British troops that were saved.  Guns and vehicles could be replaced, but not the only trained troops that Britain had left.  It would form a nucleus of the great allied army that would win back the continent.  Further, leaders such as Lt. General Alan Brook, Major-General Harold Alexander, and Major-General Bernard Montgomery “all cut their teeth at Dunkirk.”  In addition, the evacuation electrified the British people and gave them a sense of purpose that the war previously lacked.  It was an opportunity for ordinary citizens to feel they had made a direct contribution to the war effort.

Lord has written a highly readable account of the rescue of allied forces from Dunkirk.  An accomplishment many historians credit for saving Britain from being forced out of the war with Germany.  Though written and researched over thirty five years ago it still stands as the best narrative of the rescue and provides numerous insights into the mindset of the hundreds of thousands who survived the Nazi onslaught in the late spring of 1940.

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(the evacuation from Dunkirk)

THE COLD DISH: A LONGMIRE MYSTERY by Craig Johnson

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The last week or so my wife and I have been binging on the Netflix program, Longmire.  We have found it almost addictive as each program leaves the viewer hanging anticipating the next episode.  The characters are fascinating as is the Wyoming landscape that is presented.  This being the case I thought it would be interesting to see where the mindset for the program derived.  It seems the series was the brainchild of the novelist Craig Johnson whose first effort was entitled THE COLD DISH: A LONGMIRE MYSTERY, part of a fifteen book compendium.  Johnson has what I would characterize as a soft sarcastic approach to dialogue and writing in general.  He sprinkles in the beauty of Wyoming and the intricate relationship between life on an Indian reservation and the town of Durant.  The main character is Sheriff Walter Longmire, a cultured man educated at USC and an individual who served in Vietnam.  Longmire became a widow three years before the story begins when his wife Martha suffering from cancer was murdered while undergoing chemotherapy in Denver.  Longmire comes across as a disheveled man living in a partially completed log cabin on the outskirts of Durant.  The people closest to him are his daughter Cady, a lawyer who lives in Philadelphia, and his childhood friend Henry Standing Bear who is Longmire’s link to the reservation and served with Special Forces in Vietnam.  A great deal of the socialization that takes place in the novel is centered in the Red Pony tavern which is owned by Henry and the local police station.

Johnson has created an eclectic group of characters as the plot unfolds.  His department consists of Deputy Victoria Moretti, a former Philadelphia cop who carries her own personal and professional baggage.  Ruby is the lady in charge of the office who runs a very tight ship and at times acts as Longmire’s conscience. Deputy Brian Connally, known as “Turk” has a very dysfunctional relationship with Longmire.  Jim Ferguson is the Head of Search and Rescue, and Lucien Connally is the former crusty old sheriff who lives in an assisted living complex who serves at times as Longmire’s alter ego.

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Johnson does a wonderful job integrating the native culture and everyday life of the Cheyenne Indian reservation to the reader.  The problems of the reservation range from the lack of education, drugs, alcoholism to the constant struggle for survival.  The Indian bureaucracy put in place by the US Department of the Interior often comes in conflict with Longmire and his office as the fight against federal control is ever present with the many rules and regulations that exist on the reservation which Longmire navigates like a minefield.  Longmire relies on Henry as his guide throughout the plot and is one of the strongest characters that Johnson creates.

The novel opens with Johnson bringing the reader up to date on all the major characters then launches into a scene at the Red Pony when Longmire informs Henry that Cody Pritchard has been found dead amidst a herd of sheep outside of Durant.  Pritchard was among a group of four teenagers who four years earlier had raped and sodomized an emotionally challenged Indian girl whose trial split the entire community, white and non-white.  When three of the four boys served less than two years, and the fourth received probation and 100 hours of community service, the animosity spilled over.  The death four years later brings a number of people to the conclusion that Pritchard, who was the least apologetic over what had been done was murdered in a revenge killing.  Later in the novel when another of the boys is killed, Longmire is confronted with a very dangerous case.

Longmire is a loner and still grieves over the death of his wife.  He has difficulties establishing and maintaining relationships with others, particularly women.  His friends pressure him to seek the companionship of someone, but his awkwardness and guilt over the death of his wife is a stumbling block as he has a habit for saying the wrong thing.  Despite these shortcomings Johnson introduces Vonnie Hayes and through their relationship we can see what a tortured individual Longmire has become.

The reader is taken through the wilds of Wyoming as Longmire and Henry seek the killer and it is a very suspenseful journey.  As the novel reaches its climax the reader will be stunned with the path that the author takes.  Johnson has created the basis for a very effective and entertaining series and the television program along with his novels are well worth the time to experience them.

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SONS AND SOLDIERS: THE UNTOLD STORY OF THE JEWS WHO ESCAPED THE NAZIS AND RETURNED WITH THE ARMY TO FIGHT HITLER by Bruce Henderson.

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(The burning of a Jewish synagogue during Kristallnacht)

During World War II there was a little known group of men who were trained at Camp Ritchie, Maryland.  Their extensive classwork and field training was designed to prepare them to interrogate German prisoners of war and gather intelligence to be used against Nazi forces.  What became known as the “Ritchie Boys” was formed in mid-1942 and was made up of 1985 German born Jews who had immigrated to the United States in response to Nazi persecution particularly after Hitler’s rise to power in 1933,  Kristallnacht in November, 1938, and the events of 1941.  Most of these German-Jewish boys arrived without parents and siblings and had to adapt to their new homeland on their own.  Part of the reason was due to the racist/anti-sematic attitude on the part of a number of important State Department officials like Breckenridge Long who as Assistant Secretary of State helped set American immigration policy.  The journey of the Ritchie Boys and their impact on the Second World War is aptly told by Bruce Henderson with compassion and insight in his latest book, SONS AND SOLDIERS: THE UNTOLD STORY OF THE JEWS WHO ESCAPED THE NAZIS AND RETURNED WITH THE ARMY TO FIGHT HITLER.  The story of the Ritchie Boys takes them through their wartime experiences in gathering important intelligence from German POWs, their participation in a number of important battles, including the Normandy invasion, Operation Market Basket, the Battle of the Bulge, liberation of extermination camps, and their efforts after the war to locate family members.

In the first part of the book Henderson focuses on the early plight and immigration of a number of men who would become Ritchie Boys.  They include Martin Selling, who was rounded up after Kristallnacht, separated from his family, imprisoned in Dachau and after his release made it to the United Kingdom due to the work of a Jewish relief agency that eventually provided a visa to enter the United States.  Gunter Stern, who would change his name to Guy grew up in a middle class family in Northern Germany and as the situation for Jews deteriorated in 1937 he was sent by himself to the United States to live with an uncle in St. Louis because the State Department refused to allow the rest of his family to immigrate.  Stephan Lewy was placed in an orphanage after his mother died and the economic fortunes of his father collapsed.  After his father was released from a concentration camp and they experienced Kristallnacht he left Germany for Paris leaving his father and step mother behind.  Werner Angress was not a very good student and he was sent to an agricultural farm in Poland where he found success.  Once things deteriorated in Berlin his father developed a successful plan for the entire family to escape and go to Amsterdam.  In 1939 Angress escaped from Holland and left for America.  Lastly, Victor Brombert, another teenage boy was smuggled out of Germany in 1933 and moved to Paris, however, during the Vichy regime he left France to experience a harrowing voyage to New York and safety in 1941.

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(Guy Stern)

All of the boys experienced the emergence of Hitler, their removal from schools, harassment by Hitler Youth, and the collapse of their families as parents were arrested, businesses confiscated, and the eventual separation.  All witnessed and were affected by the 1935 Nuremberg “Blood” Laws, Kristallnacht, and the difficulty of emigrating in part because the Nazis seized their assets and only allowed them to take a pittance of their wealth out of the country.  Henderson further explores the difficulties as they had to navigate the exclusionary immigration laws of the United States and their enforcement by elements in the State Department.  Jews were required to provide affidavits from American citizens that they would take care of their relatives financially, along with other documentation that took a great deal of time to obtain.  The work of David Wyman provides an inside look into the “old boys club” of the State Department and their arcane views when it came to race and Jews.  Henderson describes the heroic efforts of the families as they realized that only one family member would be allowed to leave and in most cases it was the eldest son with the hope they could reunite later.

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(American soldier and survivors of the Wobbelin concentration camp)

The boys that are the center of the story would become naturalized American citizens before they were sent overseas to fight the Nazis.  Henderson describes their training and dispatch to England to participate in the Normandy landing.  Since native Germans would have knowledge of Nazi/German culture and colloquial language the Ritchie Boys were in high demand to interrogate POWs.  The individual stories Henderson presents reflects the importance of the Ritchie Boys to the allied war effort.  Particularly interesting is Werner Angress who was attached to the 82nd Airborne and with little training parachuted behind German lines.  His later intelligence gathering leading up to and during the Battle of the Bulge was very important.  Another insightful segment deals with Victor Brombert’s participation in the 28th Infantry Division as he experienced combat in Belgium and Northern France and predicted the Battle of the Bulge which was ignored by hire ups.  Perhaps one of the most ingenious of the Ritchie Boys was Guy Stern who after Normandy was made Head of Survey and his reports were distributed to all allied commanders including General Eisenhower.  Along with another Ritchie Boy named Manfred Ehrlich, who changed his name to Fred Howard, he developed a number of unusual schemes in order to extract information from POWs.

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(Werner Angress, his mother and two brothers after the war)

Henderson tells a number of wonderful stories including the visit of Marlene Dietrich as part of the USO, the capture of Hauptmann Kurt Bruns who ordered the death of two captured Ritchie Boys, how the Ritchie Boys had to overcome the skepticism of some officers who accused them of being German spies, and at times the guilt they felt when they had to use unorthodox methods to extract information from POWs.  Perhaps the most poignant part of the book is when the Ritchie Boys confronted the Holocaust when they witnessed the concentration camps.  Stephan Lewy arrived at Buchenwald with the Sixth Armored Division, Guy Stern arrived at Buchenwald three days after its liberation, Werner Angress witnessed the Wobbelin concentration camp, and when Manny Steinfeld arrived there he could not escape the possibility that his sister and mother were murdered there.

Overall, Henderson tells a remarkable story.  It is told clearly integrating numerous interviews with the Ritchie Boys and accompanying research.  My main criticism involves the method of sourcing which is very ineffective and difficult to attribute information.  As a historian I would love to have been able to match materials to citations so I might have pursued certain aspects of the book further.  However, the topic is fascinating and Henderson has done these men a great service by telling their story.

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(The burning of a Jewish synagogue during Kristallnacht)