CITY OF DREAMS by Don Winslow

(Providence, RI)

There is no novelist that can compare with Don Winslow’s novels that deal with the drug cartels and organized crime, their operations, what it was like to be inside these murderous organizations, and what it was like to try and end their reign of drug induced terror.  If you have read Winslow’s cartel trilogy; THE POWER OF THE DOG, THE CARTEL, and THE BORDER then you have experienced the depth of the author’s knowledge of the drug trade in well-written, deeply insightful, and carefully crafted works.  Winslow is the author of twenty-three bestsellers, many of which have been made into films.  His latest is the Danny Ryan trilogy which begins with CITY ON FIRE followed by his latest work, CITY OF DREAMS where we become reacquainted with Mr. Ryan who is now on the run from the FBI, the Mob, and the police as he tries to create a new life for himself in California.  The crime fiction genre has no shortage of memorable mob sagas by such practitioners as Mario Puzo, James Ellroy, and Dennis Lehane.  With its large cast of memorable characters and low-key allusions to classical literature, in CITY OF DREAMS  Winslow provides incontrovertible evidence that he is part of this elite group, and perhaps is the best among them with his wit, erudition, and riveting approach to storytelling.

Winslow begins the novel describing the end of an organized crime war between the Irish and Italian mobs for control of the New England market, circa 1988.  The Murphy’s, which Danny Ryan belonged to, lost the war to the Moretti family, and Ryan and his crew are driving south on I95 trying to escape the feds, the cops, and most of all the Moretti’s.  Peter Moretti had set up the Murphy gang and they fell for what appeared to be an effective drug heist, but it backfired resulting with Ryan and his crew on the run and Moretti trying to recover millions of lost drugs.

The novel’s plot centers on Ryan who, when push came to shove, dumped $2 million worth of heroin  into the ocean and killed a dirty FBI agent named Phil Jardine.  The problem for Ryan is that the FBI’s national sub director for organized crime, Reggie Moneta was Jardine’s lover and she wants revenge against Ryan no matter the cost.  For Ryan, who winds up in San Diego and later Las Vegas life is hard.  Right before he left Providence, RI his wife Terri died of cancer.  Further, his father the old leader of the Murphy gang, suffers from dementia and is institutionalized.  Ryan also has a young son Ian and is broke.

Winslow’s story presents the dysfunctional nature of mob families.  The Moretti’s are a case in point as Peter and Paul Moretti, brothers, do their best to make the other look bad.  As the novel unfolds one gumba is screwing another’s wife, one of the gambas daughters commits suicide, and all are looking for the next drug deal that will set them up for life.  Interestingly, one of the affairs is between Peter Moretti and Cassandra Murphy even as their families are trying to kill each other.

The author’s writing is serious, witty, and extremely entertaining.  His characters’ experiences are fodder for Winslow’s sarcasm and somewhat perverted view of human nature that permeates the novel.  It is clear the FBI and the mob want Ryan dead, but the former head of the CIA and currently a Georgetown University professor, Evan Penner wants him alive, which allows Winslow to introduce a number of characters that help create varied plot twists.  There is Brent Harris, a former student of Penner who is a DEA agent with the Southwest High Intensity Drug Trafficking Task Force. He will track Ryan down in Las Vegas and convince or blackmail him into doing his bidding against the Baja Cartel and its leader Domingo Abbarca.  Other important characters include Madeline McKay, Ryan’s mother who has done very well financially as a courtesan to feds, cabinet members, judges and other officials as a “high class courtesan,”  who has morphed into a “dotting” grandmother.”  Celia Moretti who hates her husband Peter is screwing Vinnie Calfo who will eventually become head of the crime family.  Lastly, Reggie Moneta who is obsessed with killing Ryan even when she is told by higher ups to stand down telling associates she “wants Ryan delivered like KFC. In a bag or in a box.”

Map from Providence to San Diego

Perhaps the most entertaining section of the book is the author’s insight into the Hollywood film industry, particularly comments that show how “the Hollywood film industry and the criminal class intersect.”  It centers on two members of Ryan’s crew, “the Alter boys,” Kevin Coombs and Sean South who weasel and threaten their way onto the set of a film about the New England mob as “consultants.”  The film entitled, “Providence” has a “Danny Ryan type figure” and when the “Alter boys” want a larger stake in the film the producer pushes them away resulting in negative happenings on the set.  Eventually Ryan is contacted to reign in his crew, invests in the film himself, and meets its star Diane Carson, just out of rehab.

The result of all of the machinations Winslow introduces is a continuing drug war involving the FBI carrying out an off-book operation against a Mexican cartel, a continuing war with the remnants of the Murphy and Moretti crime families, Danny Ryan seemingly working with the feds to survive, and a Hollywood film, resulting in a fascinating plot as Ryan falls in love with a Hollywood starlet.  The progression of Ryan’s life involves numerous twists and turns, the result of which makes for a sweeping tale of family, revenge, and survival as he confronts the reality of what he hopes his life will turn out to be.

Eiffel Tower, PAris

(Las Vegas, NV)

As Maureen Corrigan writes in her April 27, 2023, review in the Washington Post, ”before journey’s end, Danny will also be hunted down by a Mexican cartel run by a psychopath named Popeye Abbarca, whose men will comb roadside motels and bars, thirsting for Danny’s blood and that of his kin. Though inflected with occasional reflections on the absurdity of the human condition, “City of Dreams” is no picaresque; instead, as his many fans have come to expect from Winslow, this latest novel in a projected trilogy is unrelentingly tough, tense and violent. Distinct from its predecessor, “City on Fire,” in the geographical sweep of its story, “City of Dreams” reads like one long breathless drag race between Danny and his many enemies on the all-American road to Nowhere.”

By the end of the new novel, Danny and the few friends he has left are on the run again, setting the stage for the trilogy’s upcoming conclusion, CITY IN RUINS.

Old mill

(Providence, RI)


 Independence Monument in Kyiv. View from drone

(Independence Square, Kyiv, Ukraine)

Without a doubt Martin Cruz Smith is a master of the international thriller.  His Detective Arkady Renko series is exceptional in plot development, writing style, and a character who combines wit, sarcasm, and self-deprecation.  With the war in Ukraine in its 15th month, Smith tackles some of the background for Putin’s illegal invasion in his 10th iteration of the Renko series.

What separates Smith from others who practice the “thriller” genre is his ability to offer important and accurate insights into contemporary Russia in his novels.  His expertise as a Kremlin observer was readily apparent in his previous works including; GORKY PARK, STALIN’S GHOST, THE SIBERIAN DILEMMA, WOLVES EAT DOGS, POLAR STAR, and RED SQUARE as they are in his newest novel, INDEPENDENCE SQUARE.    

The title of the book would have one believe that the story took place in Kyiv during the 2014 Orange Revolution that occurred before Putin’s seizure of Crimea.  The Russian autocrats’ actions were a result of a corrupt election that produced an emotional reaction by the Ukrainian people who demonstrated against a corrupt election in Maidan Square, the precursor to Independence Square.  The Orange Revolution would have a profound effect on the way Ukrainians perceived themselves and their national identity. For the first thirteen years of independence, the political, cultural, social, and economic boundaries between Ukraine and Russia had remained blurred. Most people on both sides of the border continued to regard the fates of the two notionally separate countries as inextricably intertwined. This changed dramatically in 2014 when millions of Ukrainians mobilized in defense of free elections.

Crimea is an autonomous region in Ukraine. The Crimean population has shown much stronger support for Russia than Ukrainians in Kiev and the West. Map by Jerome Cookson, National Geographic

Putin would go on to try and Russify Crimea after the invasion and his illegal annexation of the region.  His goal was to secure what he argued was illegally given to Ukraine decades before and was the home of the Russian fleet at Sevastopol.  Further, it provided him with the opportunity to ethnically cleanse Crimea of the Tartars much like Joseph Stalin did towards the end of World War II.  This background permeates the novel and provides an understanding as to what motivated Putin.

Smith’s work revolves around the Democracy Forum, an organization that opposes Putin’s tyrannical rule.  Further, applying character dialogue, Smith explains oligarchic corruption, the origin of Putin’s personal wealth, and the Kremlin’s fraudulent regime.  Further, the author introduces a series of characters, some new and some from previous novels.  Of course, Arkady Renko dominates the story as he tries to solve three murders and determine how they are linked together.  Tatiana, his ex-lover who he has still not gotten over as she left for Kyiv on assignment for the New York Times without telling him.  New characters include Lenoid Lebedev, the leader of the Forum for Democracy, Fydor Abakov, head of the rackets in Moscow asks Renko to locate his daughter Karina who appears to be a Forum for Democracy member and has gone missing, Uzeir Osamanov, a friend of Lebedev and his daughter Elena, another Forum for Democracy supporter, Alex Levin a computer hacker, and lastly, the Werewolves, a biker gang that comes across as Putin’s “Hell’s Angels.”

The author has created an intricate plot involving three murders.  Renko is dispatched to solve the first, but that will lead to two more deaths and travel from Moscow to Kyiv, to Sevastopol.  For Renko old and new demons emerge.  First, he will come across his former lover in Kyiv, second, he is not sure of Karina’s loyalties, third he learns that he has contracted Parkinson’s disease which he tries to deal with as he conducts his investigations.  Interestingly, there is an autobiographical element to Renko’s health as the author has been diagnosed with the same disease.

Distant view of new Crimean bridge in Kerch strait

(Kerch Bridge)

Smith conveys the corruption of the Russian state very carefully.  The most useful example he points to is the Kerch Bridge that links Crimea to the Russian mainland.  One of Putin’s St. Petersburg thugs Konstantine Novak is a governor in Crimea and was in charge of building the bridge.  The bridge cost billions of rubles and as with any major project kickbacks were standard adding to Putin’s wealth.  In addition, Novak will take a share of the proceeds for himself, not a smart thing to do under Putin.

Renko remains the archetype of an honest cop working for a corrupt regime who, despite the roadblocks he must deal with, usually emerges as a stronger person.  Smith has delivered another solid work of international crime thriller and I recommend it to Smith’s fan base and to those who have never tackled one of his novels.

Nezalezhnosti square in Kiev

(Independence Square, Kyiv, Ukraine)


Medal of Honor Recipient Theodore Roosevelt

(Lt. Colonel Theodore Roosevelt)

When ranking American presidents Theodore Roosevelt is usually positioned among the top five in American history.  His life is fascinating as a number of biographies highlight.  Probably the most impactful is Edmund Morris’ biographic trilogy among many others.  Roosevelt’s life reflects a weak child growing up in New York City who overcame his physical limitations who thrived on being physically fit; a career that included being New York City Police Commissioner, Governor of New York, Assistant Secretary of the Navy, and the presidency.  Along the way he evolved into a central figure in the Spanish-American War and a committed naturalist and conservationist.  After his political career ended his exploits continued as he engaged in sustained travel and continued his writing centering on history and nature.  Clearly, a full life.

To tackle Theodore Roosevelt as a subject of historical fiction is quite an undertaking.  However, novelist Jeff Shaara was undaunted and committed to the task resulting in his eighteenth historical novel, THE OLD LION: A NOVEL OF THEODORE ROOSEVELT.  Shaara originally made his mark authoring GODS AND GENERALS and THE LAST FULL MEASURE, which are the prequel and sequel to his father’s award winning novel, THE KILLER ANGELS.  Among his novels are topics that include the American Revolution, the Mexican War, the Civil War, World War I and II, the Korean War and his latest which he is about to complete on the Cuban Missile Crisis.

Edith Roosevelt, First Lady stock photo.

(First Lady, Edith Kermit Carow Roosevelt)

Choosing Roosevelt as the focus of his novel created a dilemma.  How does an author pick and choose areas of concentration in such a rich life when the book is not supposed to be a traditional biography?  Shaara has done so with ease and class as he delves into important public and private aspects of the former Rough Rider.

Shaara begins the novel pointing to two important components of Roosevelt’s development, his battle with asthma and his relationship with his father.  Both provide the key motivations developing physically as Alfred Adler, an important Neo-Freudian has written that individuals who suffer from a self-perceived inferiority complex strive their entire lives to achieve superiority to overcome it.  In Roosevelt’s case his lungs and his father’s encouragement and acting as a role model for his son allowed him to develop “the strenuous life,” which led to his obsession with natural history and his love of nature.

Throughout the book, Shaara formulates a Roosevelt that is never far from his need for adventure and his naturalist education.  Shaara picks and chooses very carefully scenes from his protagonist’s life.  Each segment is well written, and it allows the reader to develop an intimate relationship with future “Bull Moose.”  Shaara does not provide a writer’s note, a la Steve Berry, which would explain his sources and what he considers fact and fiction.  Doing so would greatly enhance the reader’s experience and trust in the material presented.

Shaara’s tool in organizing the novel is a series of interviews conducted by New York Times reporter Hermann Hagedorn which took place at the end of December 1918 which allows Roosevelt to look back on his life and fill in gaps that are not fully developed by the author.  Shaara uses the interviews as a bridge between the time Roosevelt left for the Dakotas in 1887 and his experiences in the war with Spain in 1898.  Shaara focuses on his family and career and his commitment to reform – rooting out corruption as Civil Service Commissioner, New York City Police Commissioner, and Assistant Secretary of the Navy.

Kermit Roosevelt

(Kermit Roosevelt)

The structure of the novel is effective with Hagedorn’s interviews filling in the gaps.  At first Roosevelt’s constant battle with asthma and his relationship with his father is stressed.  Shaara moves on to a section, perhaps his best dealing with Roosevelt’s commitment to ranching and living in the Dakota Badlands as a vehicle to decompress after the deaths of his mother and his first wife Alice within a twenty-four hour period.  The section highlights his relationship with “real” cowboys and cattle ranchers and the difficulties of running a successful cattle business.  This is followed with a detailed discussion of events leading to and the actual fighting of the Spanish-American War which turned Roosevelt into a hero and a viable candidate for high office.  Shaara moves on to an exploration of Roosevelt’s rise to the Vice Presidency and Presidency once William McKinley is assassinated and implementing a progressive agenda.  Shaara’s last section brings the novel to a close.  Entitled “The Old Lion,” the author again employs Hagedorn to ferret out of Roosevelt his reactions to The Treaty of Portsmouth, taking the Panama Canal, difficulties with William Howard Taft, escaping assassination, and dangerous sojourns to Africa and the Amazon where he almost perishes.

Shaara’s Roosevelt is a dichotomy.  He employs his effusive personality and energy to his legislative agenda as President.  His “Square Deal” includes a reform agenda which mostly passes Congress and encompasses issues of improving working conditions, controlling trusts, and race.  It is interesting to read his views dealing with non-white Americans and trying to improve their lot, and at the same time engaging in a foreign policy based on Social Darwinism.  Foremost, Shaara’s Roosevelt is an egoist which he balances with great empathy for others especially members of his Rough Riders during the Spanish-American War for which a great deal of respect and trust for him by his men is reciprocated.

The book is clearly not a complete biography in novel form as Shaara stresses certain aspects of Roosevelt’s life.  The two most important components are his family whose credit goes to his childhood companion Edith Crow who becomes his second wife and his children.  Second is his commitment to the environment developing nature preserves, national parks, and conservation.  A wonderful book that encompasses this aspect of Roosevelt’s life is historian Douglas Brinkley’s mammoth work; THE WILDERNESS WARRIOR: THEODORE ROOSEVELT AND THE CRUSADE FOR AMERICA.

Against the backdrop of the Wild West, San Juan Hill and the jungles of Brazil, the White House appeared to be less satisfying for Roosevelt. Perhaps this explains why the sections of the novel that follow his presidency read more like straightforward and familiar history. Many of the details and events in this section are nevertheless significant and lively. We see Roosevelt confront racism in Congress after meeting with Booker T. Washington at the White House, we learn how the term “Speak softly and carry a big stick” evolved and we discover the origin of teddy bears.  The novel, if that is a correct characterization of Shaara’s work, is thoughtfully written and provides many insights into the most energetic and effusive person who dominated his presidency and the time period in which he lived.

Theodore Roosevelt

THE 14TH COLONY by Steve Berry


Reading a new Steve Berry novel is like visiting an old friend.  No matter the plot line the reader immediately reaches a comfort level with the knowledge that the author is a master of historical fiction who has the ability to capture your attention and take you for an educationally thrilling ride.  He has the ability to create believable scenarios involving new and returning characters performing in a pseudo-historical thriller at a high level.  In the eleventh iteration of his Cotton Malone series, THE 14TH COLONY Berry meets expectations by producing a searing plot that evolves slowly and more importantly developing a realistic storyline which could have actually taken place.

Berry begins the novel with the June 7, 1982, meeting between Pope John Paul and President Ronald Reagan at the Vatican.  The topic was Poland and the threats and oppression meted out by the Soviet Union.  At the time the Kremlin’s hold over its Eastern European neighbor was weakening even as they tried to crush the Solidarity labor movement which emanated from Gdansk.  The two men had recently survived assassination attempts, one by a man obsessed with a Hollywood actress, and one by a Bulgarian assassin in the pay of Moscow.  The two men spoke in conspiratorial tones to undo the February 1945 Yalta Agreements concerning Poland and help diminish Soviet control of its Eastern European satellites.  Reagan’s approach was a massive Pentagon rearmament which he knew the Soviets could not afford and the goal was to have them spend themselves into oblivion.  Berry’s description of the meeting and other historical events throughout the book relies on a certain amount of conjecture, but also a solid grounding in historical accuracy, which he clearly explains in his writer’s note at the end of the book.

St. John's Church, Washington, D.C LCCN2011631449.tif

(St. John’s Church, Washington, DC)

The scene swiftly shifts to the present day with a Russian surveillance plane flying over Lake Baikal in southern Siberia with Cotton Malone aboard which will soon be brought down by a SAM missile.  Berry lays out Malone’s mission which was to learn about the machinations of a former KGB agent, Alexsandr Zorin and Vadim Belchenko, an old archivist for the KGB’s First Directorate.  The agenda of the two men was clear – revenge against the United States for the destruction of the Soviet Union.  Zorin, in particular, was apoplectic about events from 1989-1991 when he moved to southern Siberia where he was joined by like-minded people setting up their own community.  It appears that the Kremlin was split between hardliners who supported a mission against the United States and those who did not.

Berry reintroduces a number of important characters from previous novels.  Stephanie Nell, the head of the Justice Department’s Magellan Billet has been fired as a new president is about to replace Danny Daniels.  Cassiopeia Vitt, Malone’s former lover, whose relationship redevelops throughout the novel.  Luke Daniels, a Malone protégé and nephew to President Daniels also  plays a major role.  New characters aside from Zorin and Belchenko include SVR agent, Nikolai Osin who had requested American help and lays out for Nell what she is up against in the closing hours of her time in office.  Jamie Kelly, an American who spied for the Soviet Union for decades and had in his possession important intelligence information.  A number of officials from the Society of the Cincinnati, a fraternal society created by General Henry Knox, our first Minister of War after the American Revolution to look after revolutionary officer’s interests, even after the army was dissolved.  Zorin’s girlfriend and SVR agent, Anya Pedrova, plays a limited role as do a number of others.  Berry also includes historical figures like Pope John Paul, Ronald Reagan, and former KGB head and Soviet Premier Yuri Andropov.

No photo description available.

(Author, Steve Berry)

Zorin was convinced of a US plan called “Forward Pass,” supposedly agreed to by Reagan and John Paul to destroy the Soviet Union.  He believed it was implemented creating chaos and allowing oligarchs to steal the resources of the Russian people and create a criminal mafia that controlled his homeland.  His revenge would be based on a plan developed by Andropov in 1984 to decapitate the American government.

Berry carefully lays out his plot as Zorin’s obsession plays out.  His vehicle is Andropov’s plan which was based on the location of “suitcase nuclear weapons,” or RA115s, five of which were disseminated in the early 1980s in the event of nuclear war with the US.  The question was whether the weapons were still operable after twenty-five years and how would they be employed.  A second plot line that rests on a good deal of historical fact is How the Society of Cincinnati’s held documents outlining an American plan to invade and seize Canada called the  l 14th colony which Berry ties into Russian resentment which is left for Malone and his cohorts to dig up and solve.

Stock Photo: geography / travel, USA, politics, second war of independence, 1812, map, from 'America its history and people', Washington DC, 1944, private collection.

(War of 1812 map)

It is a race against time as intelligence showed that the Kremlin was fixated on a number of documents.  First, Andropov’s plan to assassinate the American leadership; secondly the “zero amendment” which refers to the 20th amendment of the US Constitution that deals with presidential succession, and lastly the Tallmadge Journal written by George Washington Chief of Intelligence.  Andropov dies in 1984 so his plan cannot be implemented, but Zorin and company have resurrected it for the January 20, 2009, inauguration of the new president Governor Warner Scott Fox, an intelligence and foreign policy neophyte who along with other members of his new administration where skeptical about to accepting advice from a soon to be former President Daniels, Stephanie Nell, or Cotton Malone.

As in most spy thrillers time is of the essence, and it becomes a race to negate what the assassins hope to achieve.  As per usual, Steve Berry has concocted an absorbing thriller in creating THE 14TH COLONY where he explores flaws in our Constitution and the presidential succession act, the secrets (both real and made-up) of America’s oldest fraternal organization, the Society of Cincinnati, and our sometimes contentious relationship with our northern neighbor.  The book engages the reader from the outset and keeps them in a vise-like grip until the conclusion of the novel. In addition to the breakneck speed, character development is just as well-developed as in previous Malone thrillers, with each character having their own set of demons as well as long held grudges that are plaguing them.  Some might argue that the book is a little drawn out with the violence that is interjected, but for me it is just about right.

Siberia map


British Empire

Every so often a historical monograph produces a heated debate that places the author on the defensive for his or her views.  In our current world the term “wokeness” has worked its way into discussions of what should be taught and explored about our past.  The general view of those who are champions of this line of reasoning is that anything that disturbs our view of the past, places whites in an unfavorable light, and explores issues such as slavery, anti-immigration, possible racism, misogyny, etc. should not be taught in our schools.  This has led to book banning, violence when school boards meetings, and politicians who like to raise the woke agenda as a tool to gain or retain political power.  

In this environment enters Nigel Biggar’s new book, COLONIALISM: A MORAL RECKONING which supports the idea that the British Empire was not fundamentally racist, unequal or shamelessly violent.  Bigger argues the Empire had the capacity to learn from its errors and correct them.  Further, as the Empire evolved it became motivated by a sense of Christian altruism intent on preparing those who they colonized to assume self-government as liberal democracies.  Progressive historians are appalled by this view of history, and it is hard to classify Biggar’s argument on a wokeness scale.  Should his ideas be banished because they support a thesis that most find unacceptable, or should it be taught and discussed because of its support for the positive aspects of empire, which in the case of England outweighed any negative components.

Sadly, in the United States we live in a society that is in the grip of educational experts who support the woke agenda, individuals such as Ron DeSantis, Ted Cruz, Josh Hawley and others who appear in the media daily offering their convoluted viewpoints.  For them the College Board which oversees AP courses must adapt their curricula, i.e.; AP African Studies to avoid criticizing whites and exploring slavery.  Further books that they find offensive must be banned, and if a school board does not conform to their views they are met with threats and at times violence.

Prof Nigel Biggar

(Author, Nigel Biggar)

Whether we are exploring the past by American or British historians on topics that place their perspective pasts in a positive or negative light, academic freedom and intellectual curiosity should be the gold standard of education.  In both societies many feel threatened by the study of slavery, genocide against native populations, and prejudice that led to violence against non-white ethnicities.  If we accept the premise of the wok curriculum our future will become distorted as we refuse to honestly evaluate our past as a means of avoiding mistakes as we prepare for the future.

Professor Biggar who possesses a Ph. D in Christian Theology from the University of Chicago finds himself in the midst of the wok debate.  His new book encompasses the errors and positives as he perceives the impact of the British Empire on history.  Whether you agree with his thesis or not, he deserves the right to be published and read by those who wish.  Biggar’s call for a moral reappraisal of colonialism has not been met with open arms, but he argues historians have made people feel much too guilty about Britain’s colonial past.  He further argues that we must recognize the good and bad related to empire and his book is an attempt to create a moral balance sheet as we study the past.

The book itself had a rocky road to publication as one publisher stalled publication for months then withdrew Biggar’s contract.  Finally, when published it has entered the wokeness debate.  Biggar asks eight questions which he addresses throughout the monograph:

(1) was the imperial endeavor driven primarily by greed and the lust to dominate;
(2) should we speak of colonialism and slavery in the same breath, as if they were the same thing;
(3) was the British Empire essentially racist;
(4) how far was it based on the conquest of land;
(5) did it involve genocide;
(6) was it driven fundamentally by the motive of economic exploitation;
(7) since colonial government was not democratic, did that make it illegitimate; and
(8) was the empire essentiallyviolent and was its violence pervasively racist and terroristic.

Portrait of Chinese scholar and official Lin Zexu.

(Commissioner Lin Zexu)

As Biggar answers the questions he presents what seem to be reasonable arguments, though some are difficult to absorb.  He begins by arguing that we should not judge the past by the present as circumstances from previous centuries often vary from our own therefore it is difficult to morally judge the past.  Once Biggar explores the concept of motivations for empire he argues there was no main British motivation for empire.  But, he then argues that in many cases it was a protective tool against an enemy.  For example, England had no choice but to go after Spanish colonies to protect itself as Philip II sought to destroy Protestantism.  If we accept Biggar’s thesis it is clear that all territory England conquered in North America and the Caribbean was due to encroachment by foreign powers like France but in reality the motivation existed apart from protection of its own territory – the motivation was profit and money be it from the fur trade, natural resources, textiles, areas to place recalcitrant citizens etc.   Biggar needs to examine the concept of trade in greater detail if we are to accept his argument.  One cannot tell me that the East India Company was altruistic and were not motivated by profit.  Everything they did be it improving education or health rested on the bottom line profit.  One can argue that native people were backward and therefore superior civilizations had the right to rule them.  But as Ruth Benedict, the noted anthropologist and mentor to Margaret Meade has argued that “all cultures are equally valid, as long as they meet the needs of the existing culture.”  It is clear that certain cultures are backward according to “British” standards, but does that give them the right to oppress in the name of uplifting them for profit? 

Biggar does admit that “motives can be corrupted by vices, of course, and we have already seen evidence of greed and impudence.  Yet some degree of moral corruption is an invariable feature of human affairs infecting even the noblest of endeavors.  Moral malice or weakness is universal, but it need not be central or systematic.”  The author cannot have it both ways.

In discussing slavery Biggar argues that the British should be praised for abolishing the slave trade in 1807 and slavery in general in 1834.  Hurrah, but what of the 150 years of slavery that existed previously in which they were a practitioner?  What of the African slave trade or the fact that slave owners were compensated for lost slaves to the tune of 20 million pounds.  Interestingly, in Africa British slave traders played rival chieftains off against each other to further the trade or the fact that freed slaves were given little once they were freed, many of which stayed with masters as a means of survival.  British altruism is clear as slaves had to work (or be apprenticed) for 40-45 hours per week over a six year period to be freed!  Biggar seems to forget the legacy of slavery, its profitability for a century and a half, and the impact on the lives and families of slaves as they were separated at the slave auction, but as Biggar states “involvement in slavery was nothing out of the ordinary.” 

A major accusation against proponents of Empire is that of racism and prejudice.  Biggar argues that it was marginal as practiced by the Colonial Office and “the empire’s policies…were driven by the conviction of the basic human equality of members of all races.”  There is a myriad of statements by British officials one can refer to like that of Foreign Secretary Arthur Balfour that stated that it was unimaginable to equate a man from Central Africa as equal to that of a European or an American.

Biggar also argues that violence was never a major component of the Empire.  I would point to the Boer War of 1899-1902 and the use of concentration camps as a tool to defeat their perceived enemy.  The Opium Wars cannot be seen as nothing but violence against a government that sought to slow or eradicate the Opium trade.  Commissioner Lin’s demands of 1839 may have been off putting for the British ruling class, but it was a plea, perhaps in wording that came off as superior, but it was designed to protect the Chinese people from drugs which the British used to gain a favorable balance of trade. What of the Sepoy Rebellion of 1857, was not that violent.   Perhaps the Amritsar Massacre of April 1919 would come under the heading of extreme violence when British General Dyer ordered his troops to open fire on an unarmed crowd of men, women, and children trapped in an abandoned walled garden during a Sikh festival.   I would also point to the Mau Mau rebellion of the 1950s against British rule and oppression – the result was war crimes committed by both sides.  What about the 1956 Suez War where the British attacked Egypt because Gamal Nasser, a nationalist Arab leader had the temerity to seize the Suez Canal.  If one reads the comments of Prime Minister Anthony Eden and Foreign Secretary Selwyn Lloyd at the time they are more than just tinged with racism.  Biggar has been praised for setting these examples in their proper historical context, but that does not take away from the British attitude towards those who disagreed with them and their use of violence.

Photo of Nasser in black and white

(Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser)

For liberal imperialists, the “backwardness of non-Europeans, justified colonialism.”  Liberty and equality were the prerogatives of the privileged societal elites. In addition,  Biggar implies that the Empire was acquired by a series of accidents.  Once achieved it was designed to civilize the colonies, and train them for self-government.  If this is so why was the period of decolonization so bloody?  The bottom line is that the study of British colonialism is morally complex, so why is his thesis so simplistic? I agree with Kenan Malik’s view of Biggar’s work which appeared in the February 20, 2023, edition of The Guardian where he argues “Biggar’s real concern is not with the past but with the present. Denigrating colonialism, he claims, is an ‘important way of corroding faith in the west.’ Yet, in seeking to challenge what he regards as cartoonish views of imperial history, Biggar has produced something equally cartoonish, a politicized history that ill-serves his aim of defending ‘western values.’  After all, to rewrite the past to suit the needs of the present, and to defend people’s rights only when politically convenient, is hardly to present those values in a flattering light.”

Just remember the old joke” “Why doesn’t the sun set over the British Empire?” “Because you can’t trust the British at night!”

(The British Empire)


Former Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher in 1987.

(British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher)

A few weeks ago, former President Bill Clinton visited Northern Ireland in commemoration of the 25th anniversary of the 1998 Good Friday Agreement that mostly ended the violence of the period known as “The Troubles” that had prevailed since the 1960s.  Clinton’s administration helped negotiate a multi-party agreement between most of Northern Ireland’s political parties, and the British-Irish Agreement between the British and Irish governments.  To this day the agreements have been held with a minimum of violence, but decades of ill-will between all sides and the January 2020 Brexit Agreement has created a series of obstacles which at times makes the situation tenuous.

For years, the Irish Republican Army (IRA) and its splinter groups resorted to violence to achieve an independent republic free of British rule.  One of the most violent attacks occurred on October 12, 1984, with an assassination attempt against Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher.  The attack perpetrated by the IRA is detailed in a new book by Dublin journalist Rory Carroll, THERE WILL BE FIRE: MARGARET THATCHER, THE IRA, AND TWO MINUTES THAT CHANGED HISTORY.  The monograph offers an in depth account of the attempted assassination, as well as the manhunt it precipitated.  Carroll’s work also presents insights into how the perpetrators behind the attack were caught.

Thatcher had been staying at the Grand Hotel in the English seaside resort of Brighton for the 1984 Conservative Party Conference when a timer bomb exploded in the early hours of October 12. While Thatcher and her Cabinet ministers escaped with their lives, five people were killed in the blast, and over thirty were injured.

(Patrick Magee)

The IRA claimed responsibility for the bombing the next day, threatening further assassination attempts in their statement: “Mrs. Thatcher will now realize that Britain cannot occupy our country and torture our prisoners and shoot our people in their own streets and get away with it…..Today we were unlucky, but remember we only have to be lucky once. You will have to be lucky always. Give Ireland peace and there will be no more war.”

The above quote according to Carroll rattled Thatcher who became convinced she would be successfully targeted in the future.  It appears she was deeply troubled despite the aura of the “Iron Lady” that she tried to project. 

At times Carroll writes like a novelist creating a political thriller.  He takes the reader through each step that leads to the assassination attempt.  He describes the important personalities involved, the background history that led up to the attempt to kill Thatcher, the process the IRA and it’s England Department went through in developing their strategy, the actual construction of the bomb, the explosion that destroyed the Grand Hotel, and the investigation that followed.  In each instance Carroll writes clearly and is able to draw the reader’s interest as if the story were fiction, but as we know it actually occurred.

Thatcher deplored the Irish Revolution that sought a “free state.”  Despite the approach by police against any Irish demonstration, treatment of prisoners, and an overall policy of discrimination, Thatcher focused on her plan to revolutionize the English economy and tried to ignore her Irish problem.  Her view was that the IRA, Provos, England Department or anyone who supported the cause were criminals and should be treated as such.  They were no longer political prisoners.  The labeling of the IRA as “criminal” was hated by its leadership because they needed to be considered as a political problem for its own legitimacy against British colonialism.

Gerry Adams

(Gerry Adams)

The use of hunger strikes by the IRA became an effective tool to raise awareness of the cause.  In October 1981 after a prison hunger strike that resulted in the death of Bobby Sands who was elected to Parliament while imprisoned, reflected public and worldwide support.  Ten would starve to death and according to Carroll, Thatcher refused to budge.  Three days after the hunger strike ended, the government granted de facto special status to H-Block prisoners, but it was too late as a boiling rage convulsed the republican movement.  Marchs turned into riots and it “congealed into a hatred of Thatcher, a visceral, personal hatred no British leader had evoked since Oliver Cromwell centuries earlier.” For Republicans, Thatcher was a murderer and revenge was the operative word.

From this point on Carroll describes how the IRA/England Department went about trying to secure their revenge.  In doing so he develops a series of mini biographies of the important characters.  Of course, Thatcher is discussed from a number of angles with an analysis that takes the reader inside 10 Downing Street and her thought processes.  Peter Gurney, a fifty year old “expo” of the Explosive Section of the Metropolitan Police Anti-Terrorist Branch provides insights as to how “bomb” experts went about tracking down a given bomb and how to defuse and use it in an investigation.  David Tadd, the Head of Fingerprinting at Scotland Yard’s Anti-Terrorist Branch plays a key role in identifying the bomber.  Joe Cahill, an IRA fundraiser who successfully raised money and equipment among American Irish gangsters like Whitey Bulger and Libyan leader Moammar Qaddafi.  He excelled at donor relations, fiscal management, and gun running.  Patrick Ryan, a former Catholic priest was the linchpin of the IRA’s global supply network who laundered money and smuggled weapons that kept the Provos in business.  Gerry Adams, the Sinn Fein leader who tried to develop a political strategy along with the use of violence.  A prominent character who Carroll can not reach a conclusion as to his culpability for the assassination attempt.  Detective Chief Superintendent Jack Reece, the Head of Sussex Criminal Investigation was in charge of capturing the bomber was out of his league as his experience was crime and domestic issues, not terrorism and bombings.  Lastly, Patrick Magee, one of the IRA’s best operatives and the man who put the bomb components together, planted the bomb at the Grand Hotel, and then escaped.

Carroll does yeoman’s work in setting the scene for the assassination attempt, describing in detail Magee’s bomb preparation.  Further he explores Thatcher’s obsession with her speech at the Conservative Party Conference at the hotel, and the actions of numerous participants at the conference and what their expectations were. 


(Peter Gurney)

Carroll’s reconstruction of the bomb blast and its path through the hotel detailing the impact and damage to people and property is surreal.  Carroll goes on to recreate the investigation narrowing down leads and possible evidence which led to Roy Walsh, a.k.a. Patrick Magee employing a registration card and a palm print as the key to identification.

Carroll has written a meticulous account of the Brighton bombing.  According to Sean O’Hagan in his The Guardian review the book is a “deftly constructed narrative punctuated by dramatic moments that often seem determined by the fickle hand of fate as much as by rigorous planning, intelligence gathering, and dogged adherence to a cause.  Elsewhere, Carroll’s prose possesses the steady, accumulative thrust of a police procedural drama, particularly as the investigation into the bombing gathers pace and the search for the perpetrator intensifies. Magee was caught after a frantic pursuit through Glasgow and served 14 years in prison before being released under the terms of the Good Friday agreement. In an interview in 2002, he said: “I regret that people were killed; I don’t regret the fact that I was involved in a struggle.”

In the end Thatcher escaped death, most probably through fate and a great deal of luck.  It is interesting to ponder what might have ensued had the assassination attempt been a success.  Perhaps there would be no Brexit and England would not have tilted to the right domestically and economically, but we will never know for sure.

*Sean O’Hagan. “Killing Thatcher by Rory Carroll review – meticulous account of the Brighton Bombing, The Guardian, April 23, 2023.

Margaret Thatcher speaks to the press for the first time after being elected Conservative Party Leader.

(British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher’s press conference)