William Ryan burst on the literary scene in 2010 with debut novel, THE HOLY THIEF, the first of his Captain Alexi Korolev trilogy that takes place during the 1930s Stalinist regime in the Soviet Union. His second and third volumes in the trifecta, THE BLOODY MEADOW and THE TWELFTH DEPARTMENT set Ryan apart from other historical crime writers as he continued to navigate the justice system under Stalin. THE CONSTANT SOLDIER is a departure for Ryan as it is a standalone novel that begins with his protagonist, Paul Brandt, a Wehrmacht soldier, wounded on the eastern front experiencing flashbacks on a hospital train bound for Hamburg. Brandt slips into unconsciousness taking him back to his relationship with his mother, and a young woman named Judith who has disappeared, for which he blames himself.
Ryan easily catches the attention of the reader with an absorbing story of a man who suffered severe injuries and wondered what he could do with the rest of his life. The time period is late 1944 and early 1945 in the Upper Silesia part of Poland that had been under Nazi occupation since 1939. However, as the novel unfolds Russian troops and tanks are making their way west endangering any Germans in their path. Brandt returns home to the family farm and notices an emaciated young woman who is being held prisoner at an SS “Rest Hut” near the farm. He is convinced that the woman is Judith, whose real name is Agneta Gruber who Brandt last saw her before the war broke out when they were arrested for anti-Nazi activity in Vienna. Given the choice of death in prison or the army, Brandt enlisted in the Wehrmacht, but retained a guilt that he had abandoned Agneta years before.
The physically debilitated Brandt, against the wishes of his family decides to accept a job at the Rest Hut as it’s steward as a means of trying to rescue Agneta and four other woman as the SS had begun murdering their prisoners. Ryan creates the backstory of the relationship between Brandt and Agneta and Brandt’s obsession with saving her and assuaging his guilt. The remorse Brandt feels goes beyond his relationship with a woman he still loves to righting the many wrongs he committed on the eastern front as a soldier.
Once Ryan introduces the suicide of an SS officer named Schmidt the novel begins to branch out from the single track of Brandt’s hopes for saving the woman to the Holocaust. It seems his commander Obersturmfuhrer Friedrich Neumann orders Brandt to destroy Schmidt’s diary and other possessions which delineates what the SS has done on the eastern front murdering Jews. Ryan manages the Holocaust with subtlety as he does not become involved in descriptions of mass murder, but he provides a number of hints concerning the horrors that have occurred. For example, Neumann’s comment that he did not want to remain in Kiev and sought his transfer to Upper Silesia. He like everyone knew what was occurring as he stated, “he hadn’t planned to become a murderer, he didn’t think. It just turned out that way.”
Ryan does an excellent job juxtaposing a comparison of Brandt’s and Neumann’s beliefs and attitude toward the war, what they witnessed, and been involved in. Both men develop doubts and disgust at themselves as they pondered their future. They realize the Russians are not far away when Ryan introduces a third track to the novel through the character of Polya Kolanka, a female T-34 tank driver, one of the few in the Russian military. We follow her quest to reach Germany and her experiences as the Soviet Union is about to overrun the Germans.
As Ryan’s plot evolves Brandt must navigate between a number of interesting characters. There is Mayor Weber, a drunk with power who distrusts Brandt and has no compunction about killing. Second in importance is the sadistic Scharfuhrer Peichl who reveled in beating prisoners. Hubert, a partisan fighter in the forest who is in love with Brandt’s sister Monika. Lastly, the four woman who are imprisoned with Agneta.
Ryan has authored a taut novel that expresses the dilemmas faced by Germans and Russians as the war winds down. The reader wonders what will become of Brandt and whether he will be able to save the woman he loves, among others. The novel is well written and follows the facts of World War II to a tee. The novel is in part based on the experiences of Karl Hocker, an adjutant to the last Commandant of Auschwitz and he incorporates photographic documentation created by Hocker that had disappeared until 2005. Many of the pictures were taken at a rest hut near a small village called Porabka, about twenty kilometers from Auschwitz. Ryan uses this factual information to recreate a fictional account of an SS Rest Hut and introduces characters that reflect the hazards and emotions that their situation has fostered.
THE CONSTANT SOLDIER is an excellent read and I look forward to his latest standalone novel, WINTER GUEST which will be released this October.