THE UNWILLING by John Hart (to be published in June, 2020)

To begin I would like to thank the representative from St. Martin’s Press for contacting me and asking me to review John Hart’s latest novel, THE UNWILLING before publication.  I found the novel to be an exceptional read with an intricate storyline, interesting characters, and a series of themes that directly and indirectly touch a range of human emotions.  The book should measure up to Hart’s previous thrillers which have won numerous awards, particularly two consecutive Edgar Awards.

The evocative novel begins with the release of Jason French from prison after serving two and a half years that followed three tours of duty in Vietnam.  Jason has been linked to drugs, guns, and rumor has it he killed 29 people in the war and possibly two more while at Lanesworth State Prison.  Jason is a broken man who comes from a somewhat dysfunctional family with an older brother Robert, the family favorite killed at Ke Sanh, and a younger brother, Gibson or “Gibby” who idolizes his brothers but has been kept in a protective bubble by his parents, particularly by his mother who is still grieving the loss of her first son and shuns Jason.  William French, the father is a detective for the Charlotte Police Department and is doing his best to maintain some sort of normality and in the end save his family.  He loves his sons equally but was distraught over his inability to communicate with his middle son who he feels he no longer knows.  He and his wife try to keep Gibby away from his brother, creating further resentment driving them closer together.

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(Author, John Hart)

The powerful novel explores the depths of human depravity.  These depths are a function of many things, but foremost in Hart’s mind is the Vietnam War and how it affected Jason French and turned him into something his reflection in the mirror could never condone.  Further, the novel reflects a father who has lost one son and perhaps another because of the war and as the story progresses, he fears he is about to lose his youngest.

Hart’s plot in part pits two men who cannot overcome their demons.  One, called X is a wealthy psychopath scheduled to be executed in a few months.  X uses his wealth as a vehicle to dominate a corrupt prison on the inside and through his tentacle’s certain lives on the outside.  Second, Jason French, a man shattered by war and a family destroyed by the same war who does not recognize how deep his emotional issues are and how to obtain help.  While imprisoned Jason was manipulated by X and did something to him that wants revenge against him and his family.  He will arrange a murder that implicates Jason resulting in his return to prison and the control that X fosters.  Gibby believes his brother has been abandoned and tries to locate the killer and in doing so becomes caught in X’s web that caused the death of another woman that is linked to Gibby.

Hart has a very tight conversational writing style that allows him to tell the story mostly through Gibby as narrator.  He has the ability to drill down into the core of each character presenting their flaws and upside.  He knows exactly when to shift the focus from one character to another as the thriller evolves and allows his plot to play out maintaining a sharp focus on keeping the reader glued to the written page.  If I were to compare Hart’s work with another author, Pat Conroy comes to mind, but without the inherent southern prose as well as the intensity of Greg Iles.  Further, he has been compared to John Grisham and Scott Turow but for me he has taken the genre of crime fiction to a new level.  In the end the best way to describe John Hart’s writing is that he is a master storyteller.

PURGATORY RIDGE by William Kent Krueger

Giant waves crash into large cliffs on Lake Superior at Split Rock Lighthouse State Park during Wednesday's storm on the North Shore. (Clint Austin / caustin@duluthnews.com)
Giant waves crash into large cliffs on Lake Superior at Split Rock Lighthouse State Park during Wednesday’s storm on the North Shore. (Clint Austin / caustin@duluthnews.com)

William Kent Krueger has written another exceptional thriller in his third Cork O’Conner novel, PURGATORY RIDGE with the main character seemingly having righted his marriage and filled the voids that emerged in previous mysteries.  As he has done in his other works, he has combined the beauty of nature in northern Minnesota, reservation life and economics, and of course a work of fiction that produces angst and fear.  Krueger is a master of novels that run on a number of tracks.  In the present iteration of Cork O’Conner, the conflict between lumber interests and environmentalists dominates.  Further, the death of a young man who drowned along with many others in a shipping accident on Lake Superior explains a great deal of what transpires.  The question that immediately comes to mind is how the plight of white pine trees  known as Our Grandfathers by local Native-Americans, the tragedy of the “Alfred M. Teasdale,” and an explosion at the Lindstrom Lumber Company all fit together.

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The puzzle that Krueger offers reflects the animosity between logging interests represented by Lindstrom Lumber and the actions of environmental groups in the courts, demonstrations, and at times violence.  In this instance the loggers are opposed by the “Army of the Earth,” and on another level the conflict involves the interest of those who make their living from the logging industry against those of the Anishinaabe Indians on the Iron Lake Reservation.

Krueger returns a number of important characters from previous novels one of which is Nancy Jo O’Conner, who is the lawyer  for the Anishinaabe Ojibwe in their fight against the loggers to save the white pine trees.  It appears that Aurora, the home of the O’Conner’s is on the eve of war and after the explosion at Lindstrom Lumber that killed Charlie Warren, the traditional chief of the Iron Ojibwe Indians, the death count has begun.  The conflict between “red” and “white” leaps off the pages and it is a continuation of the troubles that came to a head two years earlier over fishing rights that cost Cork O’Conner his job as sheriff.  Other returning characters include, Henry Merloux, the Anishinaabe medicine man who seems “all wise” and has known Cork his entire life.  Wally Shanno, the Tamarack County Sheriff,  Helmut Hanover, the editor of the Aurora Sentinel, whose nickname is “hell,”  and the O’Conner children and Aunt Rose.

New characters that take prominent roles include John Le Pere who was the only survivor aboard the “Alfred M. Teasdale” and witnessed the drowning of his brother Billy.  Wesley Bridger, a former Navy Seal who partners with Le Pere in trying to show negligence by the Fitzgerald Shipping Company and recover damages while explaining why the ship sank.  Joan Hamilton, an environmentalist known as “Joan of Arc of the Redwoods,” and her son Brent who belongs to the “Army of the Earth” who refer to themselves as Eco-Warriors.  Lastly, Grace Fitzgerald, author and poet who is married to Magnus Karl Lindstrom III the owner of Lindstrom Lumber whose father had been the owner of Fitzgerald shipping.

Le Pere’s grief is palatable and has shadowed his life for over fifteen years leading him to behavior that is the result of forces he cannot control when all he is seeking is justice.  The  O’Conner family will be dragged into the nastier aspect of the existing conflict resulting in the  family moving closer together.  Underlying family issues is whether Cork should run for reelection as Sheriff which Nancy Jo fears will rip apart the progress that has been made in restoring their relationship.  Krueger’s plot will come full circle before its conclusion that encompasses a number of flawed characters, but the prolonged tension of the story remains until the very end, an ending the reader will not be able to anticipate.  Krueger’s writing will not win any awards for fine prose, but it does maintain the reader’s interest throughout and does not disappoint as the Cork O’Conner series remains a hit.  The next installment is entitled, BLOOD HOLLOW.

 

BOUNDARY WATERS by William Kent Krueger

Welcome sign on south end of town, Aurora Minnesota, 2009

In BOUNDARY WATERS William Kent Krueger continues the saga of Cork O’Conner who still remains apart from his family with hopes of resurrecting his marriage.  The hurt that was present at the end of IRON LAKE has dimmed but it remains just below the surface.  Cork still lives in the back of a Quonset Hut, that doubles as a hamburger stand in season.  The second installment of the series opens with a woman hiding in the wilderness of northern Minnesota that is known as the Boundary Waters region where she hopes that her close friend Wendell Two Knives, a Anishinaabe Native-American will locate her and bring the supplies that are necessary as winter is not far behind.

The immediate question is what the woman called Shiloh is running from, who is chasing her, and for what reason.  The novel digs into the past and Shiloh’s birth is in question as is the death of her country music star mother Marais Grand.  What secrets are buried in the past as the murder took place fifteen years earlier and it seems to involve the role of the FBI, the California State Police and Attorney-General, and organized crime.  Grand had a checkered past with me and we spend a good part of the novel trying to determine who her father is.

“Fall Colors” – Northern lights over Boulder Lake near Duluth, Minnesota 
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The core of the novel is the search and rescue mission launched by Cork from Aurora to locate her and save her life.  In doing so a number of questionable characters emerge.  Supposedly the FBI has returned under the auspices of Booker T. Harris and two other agents.  The question is are they really acting for the Bureau or do they have a different agenda.  The California Attorney-General has a significant interest in finding Shiloh as does organized crime boss Vincent Benedetti.  As Krueger develops his story his keen sense of the dramatic and mystery dominate.  The wilds of northern Minnesota and its pitfalls are on full display as is Native-American myth and lore in the persons of Stormy Two Knives, and  his amazing son Louis.  Other important characters include Willie Raye better known as “Arkansas Wille, the head of Ozark Music and Charon/Milwaukee, a killer for hire who also possesses a modicum of a conscience.

The divide between law enforcement and the treatment of Native-Americans is clear by the interaction of the Two-Knives family and the supposed FBI agents.  Another common theme is the issue of Native-American casino ownership and the money it generates.  It is clear the new revenues for the Iron Lake Reservation have improved the quality of life for its people, but a dilemma is present as more and more strangers keep pushing near the reservation with gambling, vacation, and investment plans.

Krueger has a way of inducing the reader’s interest by the tight dialogue between characters that emits new information.  It appears as if the author is stringing the reader along but in doing so he keeps the reader totally immersed in the story, a story that keeps changing as the search for Shiloh continues.

Characters that appeared in IRON LAKE are present in this thriller.  Nancy Jo, Cork’s wife now feels tremendous guilt about her marriage.  Her sister Rose is present and keeps the family that includes five-year-old Steven, twelve-year-old Annie, and the teenage Jenny who is beginning to feel her oats.  Tamarack County Sheriff Wally Shanno, who replaced Cork in law enforcement a few years earlier is an important figure as is Anishinaabe medicine man Henry Merloux.

A number of murders occur as the story unfolds, some seem related to Shiloh’s disappearance, but others seem unrelated.  Questions abound as to what country music might have to do with the murders in addition to the death of Shiloh’s mother fifteen years earlier.  Krueger is a master of tying all of these loose ends together as he has followed his first Cork O’Conner thriller with another that is equally well done.  If you enjoy taut mysteries with a human touch Krueger’s latest work should be satisfying.  For me it is on to the third iteration, PURGATORY RIDGE.

Welcome sign, Aurora Minnesota, 2009

IRON LAKE by Willam Kent Krueger

One of the many snowmobile trails in Voyageur National Park in northern Minnesota // Photo via Voyagaire Lodge

(Northern Minnesota in Winter)

A few days ago, I was perusing the isles of one of my favorite bookstores and came across the works of William Kent Krueger.  I read a number of book jackets which piqued my interest in his main character Corcoran (“Cork”) O’Conner, the former sheriff of Tamarack County, MN.  Krueger has written seventeen novels involving “Cork” and I decided it would be best to start at the beginning with his first installment, IRON LAKE.  In thinking about Krueger’s work the names of James Lee Burke, Henning Mankell, and Craig Johnson all come to mind.

We are introduced to Cork’s family at the outset.  Three children, Jenny, a precocious fourteen-year-old, Steven, five years old, eleven-year-old Annie, and his wife Nancy Jo.  Cork is concerned about his children as he and Nancy Jo, a powerful lawyer in Aurora, MN have separated, and he is trying to keep the family together.  The core of the plot begins to unfold immediately as the local paper boy Paul LeBeau finds the body of Judge Robert Parrant in his home when delivering the daily paper after hearing an explosion.   Cork is contacted by Paul’s mother Darla as Paul has gone missing.  The problem is that Cork is no longer sheriff, but many townspeople turn to him when they have problems.

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(Author, William Kent Krueger)

In a town like Aurora, population 3752 this type of incident is rare and exceptionally disturbing.  For Cork, who is part Irish, and Anishinaabe Indian who was once a cop on the dangerous southside of Chicago horrible crimes are nothing new. The death of the judge and the missing boy will lead Cork on a path of discovery that will hit very close to home.  Darla believes her son has been kidnapped by her husband, Joe Johns who has experienced many bad breaks in the past and has turned to alcohol.

Krueger develops the backgrounds of his characters very slowly.  Once completed, the insights into each character, allows the reader to understand why people act as they do.  In the case of Cork, it goes back to the death of his father at the age of fourteen when Sam Winter Moon takes him under his wing.  Fast forwarding to the period when he was sheriff, we find ourselves in the midst of conflict between the Anishinaabe Indians and local resort owners on Iron Lake which falls in part on the Indian reservation.  During a demonstration dealing with control of the lake Cork is confronted by a demonstrator who he is forced to shoot leading to a recall election that costs Cork his job.  The recall was pushed by Judge Parrant.    Later Cork is haunted by the fact that he may have over reacted, but he is cleared of any wrongdoing.  Other background that Krueger provides deals with  the development of a casino on the reservation and other financial opportunities for the white community as well as Native-Americans.  Krueger does an exceptional job seamlessly integrating the past, which include Native-American myths, and questionable financial activities.

Krueger develops a fascinating group of characters that dominate the story.  Tom Griffin, a priest who is known for his ancient motorcycle and snowmobile has the nickname of “St. Kawasaki.”  Wanda Manydeeds is a tough woman who runs a shelter on the Iron Lake reservation and in the past was part of the American Indian Movement and is the sister of Joe Johns.  Sam Winter Moon, Cork’s father’s closest friend and is steeped in Native-American myth and culture.  Molly Nurmi, Cork’s friend and waitress at Johnny’s Pinewood Broiler.  Helmuth Hanover lost a leg in Vietnam and is a pugnacious newspaper editor at the Aurora Sentinel.  Sandy Parrant, the judge’s son, a developer, politician, and a man not to trust.  Henry Meloux, the Anishinaabe medicine man.  Wally Schanno, the new sheriff.  Harlan Lytton, an unstable man who lived in the woods with his dog Jack the Ripper.  There are other important characters particularly as they relate to the Minnesota Civilian Brigade, a militia that has its own agenda.

As the plot plays out Cork is confronted by a number of personal issues, and his life begins to deteriorate, but a number of murders recenters his outlook and he wonders why they all seem to lead back to him.  The murders appear disparate but the key to the novel is how Krueger ties them all together including old Native-American myths.

The book is an enjoyable read that captures the readers attention from the outset.  Krueger has the ability to draw emotional responses from the reader as they become immersed in each character.  For me it is obvious the respect that Krueger holds for Native-Americans and the landscape of Northern Minnesota which provides a wonderful setting for the novel.  Lastly, I was unable to put it down, and cannot wait to begin the second iteration of Cork O’Conner, BOUNDARY WATERS.

Winter scene on a rural northern Minnesota farm Stock Photo - 4288501

(Rural Northern Minnesota)

ASSAD OR WE BURN THE COUNTRY: HOW ONE FAMILIES LUST FOR POWER DESTROYED SYRIA by Sam Dagher

(Hafez al-Assad and son Bashar al-Assad)

In the last few years a number of important books dealing with the Syrian tragedy have appeared.  They all reflect the gruesome nature of how Bashar al-Assad and his family have clung to power as they have slowly destroyed their country by killing over 500,000 people and creating millions of refugees.  Many of these books are journalistic accounts of Assad’s murderous policies or personal memoirs as their authors scream on the written page for the world to listen and act.  Sam Dagher, a reporter for the Wall Street Journal new contribution to this ever-growing list  is his ASSAD OR WE BURN THE COUNTRY: HOW ONE FAMILIES LUST FOR POWER DESTROYED SYRIA which focuses on the generational saga of the Assad and Tlass families, once deeply intertwined and now estranged by Assad’s bloody quest to retain the country that his father seemingly bequeathed to him.

Since the 2011 Arab Spring Syria has emerged from hopes of democracy and some type of governmental reform that was the calling card for the Middle East as the west which could not make up its mind as to what should be done to stop the ongoing slaughter.  President Barrack Obama’s feckless approach fearing American involvement in another Middle Eastern country as he tried to extricate the United States from Iraq and Afghanistan or President Donald Trump’s callous and amoral abandonment of the Kurds last month leaving Iran, Hezbollah, and Russia with a further foothold in the region reflects the bankruptcy of US policy in the area and raises the question of what might have been done differently.

A scene from Hama after the 1982 massacre.

Dagher the last western journalist to be kicked out of Syria in 2014 relies on interviews with Assad’s former army commander, Manaf Tlass, now a defector, numerous other witnesses and participants in the events described, and his own extensive first-hand experience reporting from Damascus to take the reader behind the scenes to explore a ruthless family that is responsible for the destruction of Syria and the resulting chaos that still haunts the region. Dagher puts forth a number of important themes that dominate the narrative.

First,  Bashar al-Assad inner struggle to live up to his father to justify his own reign which led him to replicate the violence that had been used in the past.  Second, the role of the Tlass family particularly Manaf’s evolution from childhood friend of Bashar, a key cog in implementing his violent strategy, and finally breaking with him and achieving asylum in France.  Third, how the Assad family, including Bashar’s brother Maher, cousins like the Makhloufs, a number of which led different segments of the Mukhabarat ruled the country.  Fourth, Bashar’s inability to manipulate the west as successfully as his father.  Fifth, how the Assad family helped arm Hezbollah and its militias and allowing their patrons, Iran to protect him.  Sixth, the evolution of Bashar from a young western oriented individual who many Syrians and foreign governments saw as the hope for reform in Syria to one who quickly learned that to preserve power he had to crush the aspirations for general political reform and all challenges to the system.  For Bashar continued to repeat the comment; “you can only rule these people with the shoe” which became a nasty reality for the Syrian people.

The al-Assad Family and the Syrian Government

Dagher provides exceptional coverage of the Arab Spring and its impact on Syria.  He follows the developments of the protests and opposition and the Assad regime’s response.  There is special focus on cities of Hama that feared a replication of the slaughter and destruction that resulted in the death of 10-20,000 Syrians at the hands of Hafez al-Assad in 1982; Homs, Daraa, Aleppo, and Damascus itself.  As the violence spread in 2011 and 2012 different factions within the Assad government, the army, even inside the Mukhabarat began to appear.  This fracturing was also evident on the part of the opposition as they tried to figure out a plan to deal with the regime’s violence.  As the foreign media and You Tube began to show the truth of what was occurring Bashar resorted to describing events as “fake news,” all part of a western conspiracy to overthrow him.  “Like his father before him, it was absolutely vital for Bashar to shift the narrative from one about a brutal clan and regime killing protesters and political activists to that of a state battling armed insurgents and gangs linked to a foreign conspiracy.”

Dagher is correct that once the west with its UN mandate overthrew Muhammar Gaddafi in Libya, Bashar close minded approach to the opposition became even more recalcitrant to the point that he would destroy his country instead of stepping down.  The Russians felt the US had lied about its approach to Gaddafi, and Putin vowed he would not let that happen to the Assad’s.  For the Bashar his vision was clear, and he would do anything to remain in power as he seemed to purposely lose territory to ISIS as a means of scaring the world even if it meant sacrificing a few thousand of his own militiamen and conscripts.  Bashar was willing to pull out from peripheral areas deemed unimportant and allow ISIS to seize them and carry out their version of atrocities.  This would fit Putin’s realpolitik, also as now Assad and the Russian President could argue that they were saving the world from Islamic terrorism.

Russian president is also set to meet leaders of Iran, Turkey to discuss a postconflict settlement in Syria

The Assad regime’s duplicity whether under Hafez or Bashar is evident throughout the narrative.  Dagher stresses how neither could be trusted but the west needed Syria as a means of controlling terrorism, its Middle East peace plans, events in Lebanon, and Israel.  Washington at times was naïve in dealing with the Assad family and when it was obvious that something needed to be done they could not act, i.e.; Obama’s “red line” with chemical weapons which he did not enforce, refusal to provide weapons to certain opposition groups etc.  Bashar craved rewards for engaging the West at the same time he fully embraced Iran, Hezbollah, and “the so-called axis of resistance against the West.”  The corruption of the Assad regime is on full display as they practiced the tactics of a typical mob family.  Dagher focuses on a number of interesting characters like Rami Makhlouf, another cousin who developed business partnerships with the regime and by 2010 his companies controlled almost 65% of the Syrian economy; Hassan Nasrallah, the head of Hezbollah; Hafez Makhlouf, who was deeply involved as head of the Mukhabarat when Hama was destroyed; Atief Najib, head of the Mukhabarat during the Arab Spring who implemented Bashar’s violent approach to demonstrators among many others.

Dagher performs an important service explaining what really transpired in Syria during the Arab Spring.  He concentrates on a number of important personages  including Bashar, Maher, his younger brother, Manaf, a host of cousins and protestors like Khlaed al-Khani, an artist who survived the Hama debacle in 1982 as a little boy in which his father was killed, Darwish Mazen, a human rights lawyer who was imprisoned and repeatedly tortured by the regime before he was released and went into exile in Germany, and Sarah Masalmeh, who survived the destruction of Daraa to join the opposition eventually fleeing the country with her brother to create an easy to understand narrative that the general reader can absorb.  As the protests and violence spread Dagher has an uncanny knack of zeroing in on Bashar’s thinking, the impact of foreign interference in events, and the devastation that the Syrian people as a whole had to deal with.

The author delves out a great deal of criticism for the Obama administration, much of which is on point.  When Bashar’s regime used barrel bombs on civilians, delivered chlorine bombs on opposition cities targeting civilians, among the atrocities delivered by air either by Syrian or Russian forces in 2014, Obama refused to consider a no-fly-zone.  Obama did authorize non-lethal aid to rebels and hundreds of millions of dollars to assist refugees but in the end when confronted whether to deal with the Assad regime and its massacres or the Islamic State, Washington chose ISIS.  However, once Donald Trump was elected any pressure on the Assad regime ended.  Trump’s bromance with Putin and his own authoritarian tendencies shut the door on any assistance to the Syrian opposition that was being decimated.  Trump as Dagher points out probably secretly admired Assad as he had the type of power in his country that Trump craved.

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(A mother and father weep over the body of their child, who was killed in an alleged chemical weapons attack on Ghouta, Syria, on August 21, 2013)

In the end the winner of the Syrian civil war was Russia as Putin was now the arbiter of the Middle East, a renewed great power, and used the war as a means of testing over 200 new weapons.  Turkey also is a victor as President Erdogan made his peace with Bashar and Trump’s abandonment of the Kurds a few months ago allowed the Turkish military to root out the Kurds and set up the buffer zone Ankara had always wanted.  Iran and its puppet Hezbollah remain a bulwark in maintaining the Assad regime’s rule and provides Teheran with cudgel to hammer its enemies and threaten its arch foe Saudi Arabia.  Lastly, of course is the Assad regime.  No matter how many crimes against humanity they engaged in, they remain in power as France and Germany have given up trying to remove him from power, and the United States is seen as unreliable as Trump continues to kowtow to Putin in all areas.

Dagher’s monograph is part memoir and part a history of the Assad family that explains how we have gotten to where we are in Syria.  His easy prose and analysis is important because he has created the most comprehensive history of what has transpired which is an important service for those who seek to understand American policy in addition to why Bashar al-Assad and his cronies still remain in power and continue to inflict countless deaths on the Syrian people.

Giant images of Bashar al-Assad and his late father Hafez al-Assad at the Damascus hotel. Photo by Getty Images.

(Hafez al-Assad and Bashar al-Assad)

THE JEFFERSON KEY by Steve Berry

(Pictures USA Monticello Pond Mansion Cities Houses Design Building

(Monticello, Thomas Jefferson’s home in Virginia)

I began reading Steve Berry novels over a decade ago beginning with THE TEMPLAR LEGACY.  Mr. Berry’s command of history and his innovative approach to storytelling were readily apparent and having read seven more of his works I have never been disappointed.  Berry’s central character Harold Earl “Cotton” Malone, lawyer, former member of an elite Justice Department group, pilot, and naval officer, leads his readers through interesting plot lines within the context of fascinating historical palates.  Malone retired to open a bookshop in Copenhagen, Denmark hoping to achieve some sort of peace, but trouble always seems to knock on his bookshop’s door.  Berry has developed a series of characters that have joined Malone that have provided further insights into his life and character.  Stephanie Nell, his former boss at the Magellan Billet, a special investigative unit within the Justice Department, Cassiopeia Vitt, a Renaissance woman with bite, and Edward Davis former Assistant head of the National Security Council and currently Chief of Staff to President Danny Daniels. all add to his novels as do numerous other characters.  The seventh installment of the Malone series is THE JEFFERSON KEY which finds our protagonist confronted with the attempted assassination of the President of the United States; the Commonwealth, a secret society of pirates who date back to the American Revolution; a secret cipher originally belonging to Thomas Jefferson;  unraveling a mystery fostered by Andrew Jackson, and the need to locate a document forged by the Founding Fathers.

(author, Steve Berry)

As in all of his books Berry has concocted a very complex plot with multiple characters who play important role.  The key in this Cotton Malone adventure is the Commonwealth, a secret organization whose power rests upon a letter of marque that authorized preying on the nations enemies as privateers that began against the British and Spanish during the American Revolution.  The letter was in the form of an agreement that was to last in perpetuity as given by George Washington.  All was well for the four families that made up the Commonwealth until Andrew Jackson stole the proof of the letter from Congressional journals that had used a cipher developed by Thomas Jefferson to unlock evidence that the Commonwealth acted legally and could never be prosecuted.  Interestingly, other presidents tried to stand up to these privateers, men like Abraham Lincoln, James Garfield, William McKinley, and John F. Kennedy, all were assassinated.  From this historical background Berry formulates his narrative, a story that consists of shifting alliances among the characters, and constant switching from scene to scene.

It seems that the Commonwealth, which is dominated by Quentin Hale whose great, great grandfather received the original letter from Washington in 1793 is being prosecuted by the Justice Department for numerous offenses that include hiding over a billion dollars in offshore accounts, and running into trouble with the CIA because of its financial machinations in Dubai.    Berry has created an amazing array of characters each with their own agenda ranging from Andrea Carbonell, the head of the National Intelligence Agency who covets Stephanie Nell’s position as head of the Magellan Billet.  Jonathan Wyatt, a former agent who lost his job because of Malone seeks revenge and seems in cahoots with Carbonell.  Clifford Knox, Hale’s right-hand man who has no issue in killing for the Commonwealth.  All seek the cipher created by Jefferson which would unlock information that each could use to achieve their goals, but the people who wanted to prosecute the Commonwealth wanted to keep the cipher hidden.

Bath,North Carolina Map

Malone and Vitt have been dispatched to save Nell who has disappeared and thwart efforts to use the cipher to end federal prosecution, in addition to deal with family issues involving the First Family.  Berry has employed the Constitution, secret codes that would make Dan Brown envious, a firm grip on history, murder, assassination, pirates and a host of other tools to lay out his story line which in the end has created a thriller that should capture the imagination of the reader.

*************************************************************************************

A Letter from Author Steve Berry

Cotton Malone is known for his overseas exploits. A former-Justice Department operative, who can’t stay out of trouble, he’s found adventures in all parts of Europe (The Templar LegacyThe Paris Vendetta), Central Asia (The Venetian Betrayal), Antarctica (The Charlemagne Pursuit), the Middle East (The Alexandria Link), and China (The Emperor’s Tomb). But he’s never had an American adventure. Until now.

The Jefferson Key was great fun to research. My wife Elizabeth and I traveled to New York City; Washington, D.C.; Bath, North Carolina; Monticello; and Richmond, Virginia. Monticello was particularly interesting since the terrific novelist, Katherine Neville–author of The Eight and The Fire–played host. Katherine serves on the estate’s board of directors and she led us on a behind-the-scenes tour that helped formulate a number of scenes that would later appear in the book. We spent a wonderful day there, wandering the halls and staircases, snapping pictures, checking out every nook and cranny. In Richmond, we stayed at The Jefferson, a grand hotel that also makes an appearance in the story.

Bath, North Carolina was similarly intriguing. Three hundred years ago, Bath was a hotbed for Atlantic pirates, a bustling port and a ship building center. Its location, on a quiet inlet of the Pamlico River, not far from open ocean, made it ideal for both. And though it’s now a sleepy village of about 300 residents, delving into its colonial and pre-colonial past was exciting. After all, pirates are fascinating–but they don’t match the Hollywood stereotype. The real thing is even better, and The Jefferson Key deals with the real thing.

The research for this novel spanned 18 months, which is normal for my books. Along the way, we uncovered a secret cipher originally possessed by Thomas Jefferson; concocted a mystery for Andrew Jackson; and created a centuries-old document envisioned by the Founding Fathers themselves. It was fun exploring American history, especially the Constitution, which forms a huge part of this plot. With every book there’s a challenge to describe the story in as few words as possible. For this one, we came up with this: Four United States presidents have been assassinated–in 1865, 1881, 1901, and 1963–each murder seemingly unrelated. But what if those presidents were all killed for the same reason–a clause in the United States Constitution, contained within Article 1, Section 8–that would shock Americans.

Got you interested?
I hope so.
Enjoy the Jefferson Key.

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(Monticello, Thomas Jefferson’s Virginia home)

THE ACCOMPLICE by Joseph Kanon

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(1960s Buenos Aires, Argentina)

For the remaining survivors of the Holocaust the term “statute of limitations” is meaningless, they still want justice.  No one knows how many of Hitler’s murderers remain alive or where they might be, but for the few their culpability in the Nazi death machine should merit capture, trial, and punishment no matter their age or medical condition.  As in the recent novel ONCE WE WERE BROTHERS by Ronald H. Batson, the obsession on the part of a few to bring these criminals to justice dominates the story line as does Joseph Kanon’s latest novel, THE ACCOMPLICE.  Kanon, a prolific novelist whose books include THE GOOD GERMAN, LOS ALAMOS, ALIBI, and his most recent novel LEAVING BERLIN has once again written a thriller based on what appears to be actual events exhibiting a superb command of history and the characters that have driven it.

Kanon’s current effort begins in 1962 in a Hamburg restaurant where a Holocaust survivor and Nazi hunter named Max Weill is having dinner with his nephew Aaron.  Max’s brother who happens to be Aaron’s father and his son Daniel and wife Ruth perished in the Nazi death camps and Max wants justice as he cannot forget the atrocities he witnessed as a prisoner in Auschwitz.  Max tries to convince his nephew who is an American CIA agent to track down Dr. Otto Schramm, a camp doctor wo assisted Joseph Mengele with his deadly experiments that led to the death of Max’s family.  Aaron is reluctant but after Max has a heart attack he agrees to try and find this doctor.  The problem is that at the end of the war there was a “ratline” for Nazis to escape Europe and travel to South America, in Schramm’s case Argentina under the dictatorship of Juan Peron.

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Kanon has set the stage for a fascinating story as following the capture of Adolph Eichmann and his trial in Israel in 1961 interest in capturing these “desk murderers” is at its height.  It seems while Max was having a heart attack in the restaurant, he spotted Dr. Otto Schramm walking in the street, the same Schramm who conducted sterilization experiments and made selections for the gas chambers.  The same Schramm that sent Max’s son and wife to their deaths.  The same Schramm that Max, a physician was forced to work with in Auschwitz.  Kanon will eventually center his story in Buenos Aires as Aaron’s life is about to change due to many conflicting and complicating factors.

Many historical currents emerge in Kanon’s story.  The role of Mossad in capturing Eichmann is in the background throughout reflected in the character of Nathan who is part of the Israeli embassy in Argentina.  The role played by the ratline after the war is reflected in Monsignor Luis Rosas.  What life was like in Buenos Aires for former Nazis and the Peron regime and the successor government took care of them.  Flashbacks to the concentration camps and their victims constantly appear.  Importantly, Kanon delves into the role the United States played in coopting former Nazis into the service of the CIA as a tool against the Soviet Union during the burgeoning Cold War.  Not a very ethical move on the part of Washington policymakers but the fear of the communist menace allowed the United States to make a number of “problematic” decisions.

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(author, Joseph Kanon)

Other characters that Kanon effectively develops include Fritz Gruber, who was Max’s partner in hunting Nazis.  Goldfarb, a sewing machine factory owner in Buenos Aires who assisted Aaron and the Mossad.  Dr. Markus Bildner, a Nazi who had been in charge of Schramms sterilization experiments under Mengele and assisted Schramm in his desire to leave Argentina.  Jamie Campbell a CIA operative in Buenos Aires assists Aaron at first in his quest for justice.  But once higherups in Washington have other ideas for Schramm it becomes a battle to keep the Nazi doctor away from the CIA as well as the Israelis who want to kill him.  Aaron goal is to send him to Germany for trial  which becomes very difficult once governments become involved.  The most important character is Hannah Crane who turns out to be Schramm’s daughter.  The give and take between her and Aaron is fascinating as they do the love dance, or perhaps she is just a means to getting her father.  Their relationship has a touch of realism as Aaron begins to fall for her, but the memory of his promise to Max clouds his judgement.

The story moves along at a fast pace, but Aaron and his cohorts find themselves in a dangerous web and Kanon carries this process to the end of the novel.  One might think they know what the ending of the plot will result in – but they will be quite surprised.  Kanon has once again delivered an interesting story, tinged with historical accuracy, and the result is that the reader may not be able to put it down.

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(1960s Buenos Aires, Argentina)

UNDER OCCUPATION by Alan Furst

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(Paris under German occupation during WWII)

For devotees of the writings of Alan Furst, the superb purveyor of historical fiction dealing with pre-World War II and World War II historical fiction, a new novel, UNDER OCCUPATION, his first book since 2016 has just been published.  After fourteen previous successes that include THE POLISH OFFICER, THE SPIES OF WARSAW, SPIES OF THE BALKANS, and THE FOREIGN CORRESPONDENT, Furst has constructed a story that provides the reader what it was like to live under German occupation in France during 1942 and 1943.  As the war began to turn against “the Boche” after Stalingrad and the allied landing in North Africa the French people began to have a glimmer of hope, not realizing they had another two years of suffering under German oppression.  The concept that Furst develops is based on fact as Polish prisoners in Nazi Germany smuggled detailed intelligence to the Paris and the resistance throughout the war, in addition to cooperating with British intelligence.

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Furst’s story line rests with Paul Ricard, a writer of detective and spy fiction who finds himself walking to a Parisian café when shots ring out as a man runs by and knocks him to the ground.  The man is mortally wounded but before he dies Ricard tries to assist him.  The stranger sticks a piece of paper in his pocket which turns out to be an engineering schematic with the hand printed German word “Zunder” and the French word, “detonateur.”  Ricard has just turned in his latest novel, MIDNIGHT IN TRIESTE to his publisher and Furst makes the important point that these types of novels are essential for the French people to try diverting their attention away from their plight.

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Ricard will be coopted into trying to find the source of the schematic and why it was important so it can be conveyed to British intelligence.  IN getting to know Ricard the reader will follow the evolution of a detective spy novelist into a resistance fighter working with MI6.  Furst creates a number of important characters to carry his plot.  Adrian, Ricard’s handler.  Colonel J.P. de Roux, a former member of French intelligence introduces Ricard to Leila, a member of the Polish Resistance whose family has assisted others oppressed by war since the beginning of the 20th century ranging from the Czarist Ohkrana to Ottoman Turks during World War I.  Other characters follow, all who play an important role in trying to deliver the finished product to the British.  Ricard and Kaisa, another immigrant Pole travel to Kiel and learn from Polish workers who were seized after the 1939 invasion of their country to work on German submarines as machinists and welders that the schematic was for a U- Boat torpedo detonator that could blow a ten-foot hole into any merchant ship it encountered.  Once the device is delivered to British assets, Ricard and company are now tasked to steal a completed torpedo and some how turn it over to the British.

Furst’s plot unfolds very carefully as he has the knack of integrating previous historical events into his story.  He provides an accurate picture for what life was like under Nazi occupation.  For those who supported Vichy and Marshall Petain, life was tolerable, however if you had a skill that the Germans needed you were rounded up and sent to slave camps in Germany to facilitate German war production.  Furst comes up with an interesting term, “desk murderer” as he describes the work of Wehrmacht SS Major Erhard Geisler whose bureaucratic function was to prepare lists of possible industrial workers, Jews, Gypsies etc. that would seal their fate – work for the Reich or die in an extermination camp.  Even Ricard found himself on a list as a writer – someone who could prepare propaganda for Goebbels disinformation machine. Picard’s career in the resistance expands to include creating a safe house to  keep agents safe and eliminating anyone French or not who did not conform to resistance needs.

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Janet Hulstrad, a book reviewer asked Furst in a 2016 interview upon the publication of his previous novel, HERO OF FRANCE, why he had chosen the period 1933 to 1943 for his novels.  His response; it was an “intense….amazingly dynamic period of time. People were very passionate, they may have been passionate about politics, but they were also passionate about each other, partly because it was as if the world is coming to an end, so we’d better do whatever we’re going to do before that happens… *  Furst’s description fits the pattern of most of his novels including UNDER OCCUPATION, which draws the reader into the lives of his characters who face many life threatening decisions.  These characters are well developed, and their interactions are presented in a thoughtful manner as Ricard, an espionage novelist now finds himself in the midst of his own real-life spy thriller.

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(Author, Alan Furst)

Furst is a master of the plot, but he also possesses a superb literary style that allows the darkness of the overall atmosphere he describes to be somewhat poetic allowing hope for the human condition to shine through.  For the French under occupation each day presented a dilemma, how much should we cooperate and/or how much or how could we fight back.  It is clear that Furst loves Paris and the French people with his descriptions of French food and culture as things to be admired despite the novels setting.  Furst latest effort highlights a heroic effort by those who resisted the Germans, efforts that in total went a long way to finally defeating the Germans in 1945.

*Interview with Alan Furst, author of the Newly Released “A Hero of France” By Janet Hulstrand – May 31, 2016, Bonjour Paris.

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(Paris under German occupation during WWII)