A COLUMN OF FIRE by Ken Follett

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(Queen Elizabeth I of England)

At the outset I feel obligated to provide a disclaimer for the reader; Ken Follett is one of my favorite authors of historical fiction that being said his latest novel, A COLUMN OF FIRE, which follows PILLARS OF THE EARTH, and WORLD WITHOUT END in his popular Kingsbridge series is the work of a master story teller.  Set in 16th century Kingsbridge, England the novel travels through Hispaniola, Spain, France and Scotland as Follett integrates the political and religious strife of that period.  At first it seems Follett has written a love story between Ned Willard who is returning from a year abroad tending to the family business in Calais, and Margery Fitzgerald, the daughter of the mayor of Kingsbridge.  Their relationship comes to symbolize the religious divide that has overtaken England and the rest of Europe.  Margery’s father is Reginald Fitzgerald and is an ardent Catholic, while the Willards lean towards Reformation.  The conflict goes beyond religion as it carries over to a fierce commercial and political competition between the families.  Margery’s parents refuse to allow her to marry Ned, and force her into a marriage for economic and social advancement.

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(Mary Queen of Scots)

Follett immediately lays out the historical landscape facing England in 1558 in a conversation between Ned and his mother Alice, Reginald Fitzgerald and his son Rollo, the Earl of Swithin and Margery’s future husband Bart.  The conversation is mediated by Sir William Cecil, the future Elizabeth I’s estate manager and Secretary of State under Henry VIII.  After the death of Francis II, Cecil’s goal is to prevent violence since Mary Tudor was childless and arrange a peaceful transition for Elizabeth I.  For Catholics like Rollo and his family, Elizabeth is illegitimate and they favored Mary Queen of Scots to assume the English throne.  For the Fitzgerald family if Elizabeth I, who they strongly believed was Protestant assumed the throne she would undo all of Mary’s reforms, and they would lose a great deal of their wealth.  From this brief description it is obvious Follett has written a novel full of deception, avarice, and the will to power as conspiracies abound that seem to involve almost every character.

Follett introduces many historical characters as he seamlessly integrates them into his narrative.  Mary Stuart, Mary Queen of Scots, Catherine de Medici, Henri III, Francis II, John Calvin, Sir William Cecil, Sir Francis Drake, Elizabeth I, Sir Francis Walsingham, Elizabeth’s spy master;  James I who succeeded Elizabeth on the throne in 1603; King Philip II of Spain, and Guy Fawkes.  He also creates a number of interesting fictional individuals.  Aside from the Willards and Fitzgeralds, especially Rollo, Margery’s brother, Follett offers Pierre Arumande de Guise a dangerous schemer and social climber; Alison McKay, a childhood friend of Mary Stuart who becomes her aide; Sylvia Palot, a Protestant bookseller; and Barney Willard, Ned’s brother.

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(King Philip II of Spain)

The novel seems to have a number of themes and stories that run parallel to each other whether they take place in England, France, Scotland, Spain, and Hispaniola.  Follett’s talent as a writer and story teller are on full display as he arranges for Ned Willard and Pierre Arumande de Guise to meet and become rivals as the French component of the story collides with that of the English.  The author has an excellent command of historical events and personalities and he effectively weaves his fictional characters in such a seamless manner that you actually believe they might be real.  Further, Follett’s misogynistic dialogue is emblematic of the time period as are other dialects that are presented.

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(St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre, 1572)

Many significant historical events are replicated in the book particularly the St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre of 1572; the execution of Mary, Queen of Scots; the English defeat of the Spanish Armada in 1588; and the Gunpowder Plot of 1605.

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(The defeat of the Spanish Armada, 1588)

A COLUMN OF FIRE is an educational and enjoyable read as we follow the course of English and European history over a period of fifty years.  Follett has so much material to work with and it is a joy to see the results of his voluminous research.  The current novel is part of a trilogy but can be read independently as any allusions to the pre-1588 period are easily explained.  Follett is a wonderful writer and if you choose to engage his current work it is sure to be entertaining.

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(Queen Elizabeth I at Court)

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PRUSSIAN BLUE by Philip Kerr

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(Hitler’s Berghof retreat)

The title of Philip Kerr’s latest Bernie Gunther novel, the 12th in the series is PRUSSIAN BLUE, a title that is either the antidote for a nasty odorless and colorless poison or the color of Prussian Army coats worn during the Great War.  The novel that includes the usual array of Nazi historical figures takes places rotating between Nazi Germany in October, 1939 and France during April, 1956.  Kerr deftly moves back and forth between the two time periods as Gunther must weave his way among Hitler’s Nazi henchmen and East German Stasi secret police.  The mysteries in two separate time periods seem disconnected for part of the novel and then hints emerge and finally the two time periods come together.

Gunther learns about “Prussian Blue” at a dinner on the French Riviera from General Erich Mielke, a Nazi era acquaintance who happens to be the Deputy Head of the East German secret police – the Stasi.  It is October, 1956, and Mielke has a simple proposition for Gunther, kill another old acquaintance, Anne French who is living south of London.  If Gunther chose not to cooperate the Stasi head would arrange his death, by hanging, which is used to convince him take on the task, or by other means.  Supposedly, once the mission is accomplished Gunther would be assigned to West Germany setting up a neo-Nazi organization that would desecrate and vandalize Jewish sites in order to discredit the Bonn government.  Gunther, always a resourceful individual finds himself caught between a rock and a hard place.  However, Bernie being Bernie, decides to escape from his Stasi chaperoned train ride to Berlin and make his way into the French countryside.

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As in all the Bernie Gunther novels, Kerr’s command of history is impeccable and he does a wonderful job integrating accurate events and figures into the flow of the story.  This is evident when Kerr introduces Reinhard Heydrich, the Chief of the Reich Main Security Office, also known as “the butcher of Czechoslovakia” who summons Gunther to a meeting in April, 1939.  Gunther is told that he is being dispatched to solve a murder that has taken place in Berchtesgaden, the site of Hitler’s Berghof retreat.  It seems that the Fuhrer’s birthday is only a week away, and the murder of Dr. Karl Flex, a civil engineer has put a damper on the coming festivities.  In true Kerr fashion, Gunther must work with Martin Bormann who sees himself as Hitler’s right hand man.  Upon meeting Bormann, Gunther is told he must solve the murder within seven days or else.  If the Fuhrer will not visit until the murder is solved, and if Gunther fails, Bormann could lose his esteemed position in the Nazi hierarchy (which would make his rival Heinrich Himmler very happy!).  Despite Bormann’s seeming power, Heydrich wants Gunther to spy on Bormann while he is conducting his investigation, in addition to gathering dirt on Ernst Kaltenbrunner, the SS Head in Austria who is in the midst of a number of extra-marital affairs, something Hitler frowns upon.    As in the first story line, Gunther is once again caught in the middle and though he has always been a resourceful detective, a Social Democrat and not a Nazi Party member, he may not have the skill to navigate these situations.

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Kerr creates a number of characters to augment his Nazi/Stasi types.  Friedrich Korsch is a good example, a clinical assistant to Gunther in 1939, by 1956 he is a Stasi agent in charge of making sure that Gunther carries out his mission to London.  Through this character Kerr describes how Nazi training before the war was put to good use by the Stasi in East Germany in the post war world as the skill set to be successful in the two organizations are quite similar.  Kerr employs Gunther’s sarcasm as a tool to show the continuity between the Nazis and the Stasi, in addition to cutting remarks about the lack of French bravery and the immorality of Nazi society.  Kerr also explores the byzantine world of Nazism and the political rivalries within the Nazi hierarchy as he unveils the egoism, corruption and cruelty of the likes men like Heydrich, Himmler, Bormann, Kaltenbrunner and others.

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(Hitler in his Berghof study)

It appears that Kerr has read the new book that describes drug use among Nazi security services and the military, BLITZED by Norman Ohler that describes the use of meta-amphetamines before and during World War II.  As Bormann gives Gunther the drug pervitin he becomes more alert, productive, and while on the drug he seems to lack fear.  As the plot evolves Gunther discovers that meta-amphetamines are being diverted from civilian to military use as part of the run up to the war which seems to have a great deal to do with his murder investigation.

As in all the Gunther novels, Bernie is the ultimate survivor who has committed acts in the past that weigh on his conscience, and in his own intrepid way manages to move on.  As is evident in previous installments Kerr has a strong handle on historical research, character development, and the ability to surprise and capture his readers.  PRUSSIAN BLUE should be added to the list of successful Bernie Gunther novels, and hopefully number 13 will follow.

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(Hitler’s Berghof retreat)

MISSISSIPPI BLOOD by Greg Iles

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When I finished reading Greg Iles’ THE BONE TREE the second volume of his Natchez Burning trilogy it was clear the third installment would be equally suspenseful and the type of book that I would not want to put down.  I was not disappointed as MISSISSIPPI BLOOD drew me in, grabbed my attention, and would not release me.  Iles begins the conclusion of the trilogy by using old newspaper articles as a vehicle to review or present material from the first two books.  It is 2006, and Penn Cage, the mayor of Natchez, Mississippi is dealing with the murder of his fiancé, and is deeply troubled by his father’s refusal to talk about his past, and defend himself at his upcoming murder trial.  Compounding his father’s actions is the effect it is having on the Cage family.  Lurking in the background, soon to reemerge as one of the keys to the novel is a KKK offshoot, the Double Eagles, led by Snake Knox, a racist sociopath who will stop at nothing to keep his actions and past secrets hidden.

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A number of characters from the previous novels reappear; Shadrack Johnson, the District Attorney who prosecutes Cages father as a means of furthering his career and reputation; Dr. Tom Cage, Penn’s father; Walt Garrity, a retired Texas Ranger who fought with Tom Cage in Korea; Sheriff Billy Byrd, who hates Penn and is in bed with the Double Eagles; Quentin Avery, the diabetic attorney who defends Dr. Cage; Lincoln Turner, Cage’s half-brother from Dr. Cage’s affair with his nurse, and Penn’s mother Peggy, eleven year old daughter Annie, and a number of others.  As the novel progresses Iles integrates material from the first two books refreshing the memories of those who have read them.

Iles does introduce a number of new characters who help bring the state of excitement to new levels.  Serenity Butler, writer, college professor, native of Mississippi, and an Iraq war veteran; Terry “Toons” Teufel, the muscle behind the VK (Varangian Vindred or Viking Justice) a racist biker group somewhat aligned with the Double Eagles; Dolores St. Denis, whose fiancé was murdered by the Double Eagles at the “Bone Tree” in 1966; Cleotha Booker whose son Sam was murdered by the Double Eagles in 1966; Aaron and Roosevelt Harvin the older brothers of Keisha Harvin, a reporter who was brutally attacked by a woman acting for the VK, and a few others.  What is clear to everyone that Penn questions as he tries to figure out what his father is hiding is that if you went against the Double Eagles you would die.

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As the plot develops Iles takes the reader into the seamy underworld of racist terror from the Civil Rights era and the present.  What emerges is the depravity of southern racism that in many ways still remains today.  Through the relationship between the VK and the Double Eagles we see their world view and are exposed to the legal and political corruption that existed in Mississippi and Louisiana.   As Iles’ narrative progresses he provides the social texture that was Mississippi in the 1960s and some of which is contemporary.  Iles provides a number of important insights into southern culture by employing a realistic and engaging dialogue between his characters, particularly involving Penn, his father’s supporters, and those who want to convict Tom Cage and bury the past.

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The problem that dominates the novel is that Penn’s father is hiding important information about his life and how it impacts his trial.  Further, his close friend and lawyer Quentin Avery refuses to disclose his strategy that seems remarkably weak.  It grows worse as Doris Avery, Quentin’s young wife and Penn come to the conclusion that perhaps there is a pact between the two men, that in return for making sure he is found guilty, Dr. Cage will provide him with a painless death and release from the diabetes that has already cost him both of his legs.  For Cage it seems likely his father wants to be convicted in order to save his family from the Double Eagles, or assuage his own personal guilt.  As Doris states; “I think we’re all hostages, even though we’re walking free.  Annie, you, me…all of us.”  In response Penn states; “You mean literally?  Hostages to the Double Eagles?”  They conclude that most of the world has moved past the racist hatred that permeated Mississippi during the Civil Rights era, but not the Double Eagles and too many others.

Once the plot is laid out, the reader is taken on an imaginative, but realistic ride where it seems that the intensity of the narrative increases as you turn each page.  The events of the novel are put forth through, at times, intense dialogue, conversations, newspaper articles, and courtroom testimony that is conveyed in detail. The book is an ode to Natchez as Penn tries to overcome the city’s past and provide optimism for its future.  The book is riveting and can be tackled on its own, but I would recommend reading the three books in order.  No matter how you approach Iles’ trilogy, which is quite an achievement, you will not be disappointed.

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BLACK CROSS by Greg Iles

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(Nazi medical facility conducting “research”)

While attending the funerals of his grandparents, Dr. Mark McConnell meets an old friend of his grandfather, Rabbi Leibovitz.  For years the Rabbi worked with McConnell’s grandfather who had difficulty coping with his experiences from World War II.  It seemed that his grandfather had been awarded a secret version of the Victoria Cross, England’s highest award for “unparalleled acts of valor and devotion in the face of the enemy,” kept many secrets from his son and grandson.  McConnell is stunned as the Rabbi begins to tell him a story that dates back to February, 1944 in a place called Totenhausen located on the Recknitz River in northern Germany.  After reading Greg Iles opening salvo in the historical novel, BLACK CROSS, the reader’s interest is captured.

The first Mark McConnell is an American educated at Oxford University with a medical degree and a master’s in chemical engineering who is asked by one of Winston Churchill’s senior advisors to join a British team to research poisonous gases.  It is 1940 and England is hanging on by a thread against Nazi Germany when McConnell agrees to join the British.  Fast forward to 1944 and McConnell is asked to head a group to develop a clear poisonous gas that was more toxic than Sarin (the gas that Hafez el-Assad recently used on the Syrian people).  McConnell is a pacifist, and agrees to work only on defensive weapons, but the issue has become immediate as Churchill and the allies believe that Hitler is about to deploy a deadlier version than Sarin called Soman, another clear toxic agent that short circuits the central nervous system to block any allied landing in France.  With Normandy planning already under way and scheduled for June the Nazi threat is immediate.  McConnell’s problem is that his father had been a victim of poison gas during World War I and he witnessed the physical and mental scars throughout his childhood.

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(General Reich Commissioner for Health and Sanitation, Dr. Karl Brandt)

The allied plan is designed to warn the Nazis that they have their own supply of Sarin and Soman by destroying Totenhausen, a Nazi camp that conducts medical experiments to develop these toxic gases.  Heinrich Himmler is in a race to show the Fuhrer the possibilities of using the gases to block the allies, before an allied demonstration influences his decision making.  The plot is not an imaginary one as during the war there was a race to develop toxic gases and a defense against them.  Iles creates a number of believable characters through which he tells McConnell’s wartime experiences.  Churchill proposes to Eisenhower that the allies develop a toxic agent and use it against the Nazis in limited fashion or bomb the Nazi stockpile.  The Supreme Allied Commander refuses, arguing that President Roosevelt would never allow the United States to be the first to deploy such a weapon.  Churchill never one to be dissuaded once he made up his mind decides to go ahead with a plot of his own.

Iles has created a scenario that is historically believable.  He presents a number of historical insights that reflect the low opinion the British have of American fighting capability, and British arrogance.  Further, the conflict between Himmler’s SS, the Gestapo, and the Wehrmacht for Hitler’s “blessing” is dead on.  Historical characters that are presented seem true to life, particularly Himmler, Eisenhower, and Churchill.  The fictional characters are also extremely realistic.  Dr. Mark McConnell’s evolution from a pacifist to an individual who is willing to kill innocent people in the name of saving the Normandy invasion is credible.  Brigadier General Duff Smith who is in charge of the secret British plan to destroy Totenhausen and steal Nazi research on Soman gas is right out of MI5.  Jonas Stern, is a Zionist guerilla fighter from Palestine who had served in the British army is captured and recruited as an integral part of the plan.  Stern agrees because he wants revenge as he is told that his father had been gassed at Totenhausen and as a partisan fighter witnessed four separate Nazi extermination camps.  Other important figures include Dr. Karl Brandt who headed the research at Totenhausen and conducted numerous medical experiments and selections that resulted in the death a large number of inmates.  Iles is accurate because the Nazi doctor, Karl Brandt did conduct medical experiments and was found guilty at Nuremberg and hanged in June, 1948.  Anna Kaas, a nurse at Totenhausen, Rachel Jansen, an inmate at the camp along with her two young children, Ariel Weitz, a collaborationist Jew, and a number of other characters play important roles in the story.

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(Heinrich Himmler)

The novel raises a number of difficult questions, especially when decisions have to be made regarding who should be protected as the plan is implemented.  The issue of people “playing God,” as people have to decide who shall live, and who shall die plays out throughout the novel.  Iles also explores the evolution of human relationships during the stress of war time.  The bonding that takes place between McConnell and Stern is very interesting, as is McConnell’s relationship with Anna Kaas.  The dilemma of Rachel Jansen brings to mind the decisions that had to be made in the book/film, SOPHIE’S CHOICE.  World War II was supposedly the good war, but as Iles’ characters confront evil, there is no such thing.

Iles’ novel is suspenseful, realistic, and engrossing.  These literary traits seem to characterize all of his books.  A few weeks ago his latest work, MISSISSIPPI BLOOD, the third installment of his NATCHEZ BURNING trilogy was released and I cannot wait to get a copy and plunge right in.

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(Totenhausen, conducted Nazi medical research on children)

LIAR MOON by Ben Pastor

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(Verona, Italy, April, 1945)

Ben Pastor’s LIAR MOON is the second installment of her Martin Bora series that follows her first effort, LUMEN.  In her latest book we find Wehrmacht Major Bora lying on a gurney in an emergency room in German occupied Verona, Italy in September, 1943.  By this time the Italian government had switched sides and declared war on Germany.  Italy was divided with the north under the control of the Fascists, and the south was being liberated by allied troops as they worked their way up the Italian boot.  Bora lay in unbearable pain, having lost his left hand suffered in a grenade attack by partisan forces in which three of his men were killed.  Bora had experienced a great many deaths during the war as he had spent time in Spain, Russia, and Poland witnessing the slaughter of civil war and the eastern front.

After a few months in which he recovered somewhat he was approached by a Fascist Centurion named Gaetano DeRosa to assist in the investigation of the murder of a Fascist official named Vitoria Lisa.  The evidence in the case seemed to point to Visi’s ex-wife who was thirty years younger than him who had been divorced for months when he had been killed.  Visi’s death was deemed important because he was a friend of Benito Mussolini.

The story has a number of important threads.  First, is the death of Lisa, the local Fascist official.  Second, there appears to be an escaped convict on the loose, who may be a serial killer and the case has been assigned to Police Inspector Sandro Guidi.  Third, is the search for partisans who attacked Bora and his men who remain very allusive with mounting attacks against German troops.  At certain points all three cases overlap and Bora and Guidi are forced to work with each other leading to a rather tenuous relationship.

Pastor’s grasp of history is admirable and she presents her story through the perspective of Bora and Guidi.  Bora is the central character and he continues to be the same flawed man that appeared in LUMEN.  He is deeply troubled professionally and on a personal level.  He is a Wehrmacht officer who is morally against the war, but as a good soldier he carries on.  He deplores the tactics employed by his government, particularly the SS who seem to be hunters who have no respect for human life.  The Final Solution of the Jewish problem is ongoing and he resents being co-opted into assisting in the transportation of Jews, priests, and partisans to death camps.  On a private level he worries about his marriage to his wife, Dikta, an equestrian who still does not know about the attack on her husband that left him with a prosthesis for a left hand and shrapnel in his body.  Bora worries that they do not have an intellectual relationship and find that physical attraction is what keeps them together.  Bora would like to have a child as he fears he will not survive the war and would like to leave some type of legacy.  The problem is that his wife’s activities do not lend themselves to a successful pregnancy.  Pastor introduces Sandro Guidi to work with Bora.  Guidi seems to have his own issues as he still lives with his mother and suffers from an extreme lack of confidence.  He is a foil for Bora, as each point out the deficiencies that each seem to suffer from.  Guidi is an integral part of the plot, and tends to soften Bora’s personality.

Pastor’s approach to creating a good mystery is to begin her story with what seems to be a rather routine murder investigation and then tries to spin into a detailed plot with tentacles that reach out to numerous characters amidst the military situation in Italy in the Fall and Winter of 1943-44.  Her approach was very successful in LUMEN, but it does not work as well in LIAR MOON as the story evolves almost in slow motion, and lacks the excitement of her previous effort.  However, the plot results in a surprising ending and an interesting twist to Bora’s relationship with Guidi.  Though the book was somewhat disappointing there is enough here to make me move on to read her next Bora installment, A DARK SONG OF BLOOD.

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(Verona, Italy, April 26, 1945)

LUMEN by Ben Pastor

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(Cracow, Poland, 1939)

The key figure in Ben Pastor’s excellent historical mystery LUMEN seems to be a murdered nun.  Mother Matka Kazimierza was not just any nun.  Known as the “Holy Abbess,” Kazimierza was considered a visionary who could supposedly predict the future.  In early October, 1939 her body is found in a convent in Cracow, Poland by a German officer who was surreptitiously meeting with her as he tried to cope with the approaching death of his four year old son.  The Germans were slowly wrapping up control of Cracow following their invasion of Poland on September 1, 1939.  In addition they were implementing joint occupation of the country, as per the Nazi-Soviet Pact of August 26, 1939, as the Soviet Union had invaded Poland in mid-September to seize their half of the country.  The German Commander, Lt. Colonel Emile Schenck appoints Captain Martin Bora to head up the investigation into the nun’s death.

LUMEN is the first in Pastor’s well received series of historical mysteries that take place during World War II that Capt. Bora, a well-educated Ph.D from the University of Leipzig, and veteran of the Spanish Civil War is the main character.  For the investigation of the “Holy Abbess” Bora, a Jesuit himself must collaborate with Father John Malecki, an American priest from Chicago who had been sent by the Archbishop to study the phenomenon of Matka Kazimierza.  Once she was murdered he was instructed to remain in Cracow and assist in the investigation with the German authorities.

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(Nazis marching through Cracow, Poland during World War II – a city that made it through the war unscathed)

Bora faced a number of difficulties in dealing with the case.  First, his roommate Major Richard Retz had a very productive love life that made Bora very uncomfortable as he was expected to stay away from their apartment for Retz’s liaisons.  Second, were his personal values.  Though only in Cracow for a short period of time he witnessed a number of things that more than troubled him.  The use of Jewish slave labor; executions; beatings; revenge killings; rape; massacres; seizure of private property; enforcement of racial laws; and the destruction of books and documents from university libraries all went against his moral code.  Third, he resented the constant lectures from his commander concerning what was expected of the pure blooded Aryan male – propagate the Reich for the next generation.  Lastly, trying to work with Father Malecki whose loyalties and values seemed to conflict with his own.  As the story evolves Bora’s moral confusion no longer controls him as he witnesses what Nazism has brought to Poland.  Bora’s consciousness raising awareness stems from seeing Ukrainians hanged, and “Polack farmers” shot, and while some remained alive locked in a barn to be burned to death.

Pastor has an excellent grasp of historical events that are woven into her story.  German-Russian distrust is on full display over boundaries and accusations that each side is engaging in atrocities.  The action of the German SD, or secret police reflect everything Bora finds reprehensible about Nazi rule.  The competition between the Wehrmacht and the SS for control of certain investigations, jurisdiction, and territorial oversight is analyzed carefully.

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(Main Square, Cracow, Poland, 1948)

The core of the story involves why the “Holy Abbess” was murdered?  Was it a result of her predictions for the future?  Did she help the Polish underground?  These questions factor into the investigation as does the Abbess’ predictions as to whether they were apocalyptic or political.

Pastor does a remarkable job developing her characters, particularly the relationship that grows between Bora and Father Malecki.  The author also develops the characters of a number of Polish actresses, especially Ewa Kowalska and her daughter Helena Sokora who were both involved with Bora’s roommate.  There are numerous other characters from the Polish Archbishop, SS Captain Salle-Weber, Lt. Colonel Nowotny, the German coroner, among others who greatly impact the plot.

Pastor’s novel is a combination of the Catholic faith, politics, ethics, as some are conflicted by events, while others seem to enjoy what ultimately will lead to the Holocaust and murder of countless Poles.  Lumen (light) and darkness are in conflict with each other throughout the story and through Bora’s quest for truth the reader should have a satisfactory read.  If you are a fan of Philip Kerr’s Bernie Guenther series you will especially enjoy Pastor’s work.   I look forward to enjoying, LIAR MOON the next installment of the Martin Bora series.

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(Cracow, Poland, during World War II)

JUDAS by Amos Oz

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(a neighborhood in West Jerusalem)

It is December, 1959, Shmuel Ash, an asthmatic university student preparing his thesis on “Jewish views of Jesus” decides to abandon his studies and leave the divided city of Jerusalem.  Ash’s girlfriend, Yardena has decided to breakup with him and marry a previous boyfriend. With his research stalling, and learning that his father’s finances have been ruined over a lost court case he can no longer support his student lifestyle, so he decides to embark on what he hopes will be a coping journey.  Shmuel is an overly sensitive and emotional individual who has doubts about his own virility and cannot avoid tears when he witnesses mundane events.  He loves to debate others, but does not have any interest when people present their views, and he now finds himself at the age of twenty-five in crisis.

Upon posting a notice of the sale of his possessions, Shmuel sees an ad for a companion to a seventy year old cultured invalid offering a room and some money.  Shmuel answers the ad in a house on the western fringe of Jerusalem and after speaking with Gershom Wald, a cantankerous intellectual who suffers a number of health issues, and his forty five year old daughter in law, Atalia Abravanel he decides to take the position.  We will learn that Wald and Abravanel are haunted by the memories of two other people; Shealtiel Abravanel, Atalia’s dead father, and Micha, Atalia’s late husband killed in the 1948 War of Independence, who was also Wald’s son.  Amos Oz’s new novel, JUDAS focuses on the three characters that are alive, but a number of those who have passed play a significant role in the story.  The major part of the book consists of dialogue between Wald, Atalia, and Shmuel as they discuss religion, the proper role of Zionism, the legacy of the 1948 War, and issues pertaining to their private lives.

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David Ben-Gurion, the Jewish leader during the 1948 War and Israeli Prime Minister plays an important role, almost as a foil for Oz.  Shealtiel Abravanel, Atalia’s father had been a member of the Zionist Executive Committee and the Council of the Jewish Agency before and during the war and he was the only one who opposed Ben-Gurion’s approach toward the Palestinian Arabs, eventually being forced to resign from both positions.  Oz uses Gershon Wald to debate the justification of a Jewish state.  He presents Arab fears of the Jews through the words of Wald and in conversations with Shmuel he discusses his admiration for Ben-Gurion and his Zionist vision.    For Oz, Ben-Gurion stands for the justification of the founding of the Jewish state.  For the Palestinian people, the 1948 War is referred to as Al Naqba, or the Catastrophe.  For Atalia and Wald, the same term applies because one person lost a son, and the other a husband, and with that undercurrent seemingly always be in the background.

In a sense Oz’s characters make the book a referendum on Ben-Gurion’s leadership.  Wald and Shmuel debate whether Ben-Gurion was correct in his refusal to try and reach some sort of an accommodation with the Palestinians and forgo the concept of a Jewish state.  In addition, Ben-Gurion agreed to the Sevres pact with the British and French leading up to the 1956 Suez War.  A war that proved to be the death knell of Britain’s Middle East Empire, but it also linked Israel to two dying colonial powers (the French would eventually withdraw from Algeria in 1962), creating a schism with the United States, and elevated Nasser’s status at home and the Arab world to new heights.

Shmuel and Wald spend six hours each day talking, arguing, and listening to the news on the radio, and for Shmuel, he at times had to succumb to Wald’s soliloquies on numerous topics.  Be it Darwinism, the concept of love and hate, the validity of medieval critiques of Jesus, the Crusades, the plight of the socialist revolution following the disclosures by Khrushchev concerning Stalin in February, 1956, or Shmuel’s thesis “Jewish views of Jesus,” Wald would hold court, but gradually Shmuel would respond in his own thoughtful manner.  Further, Shmuel would listen each day as Wald would pontificate, sometimes with a malicious tone on the telephone for what seemed like hours on end to the two or three friends that he still maintained.  Despite what some would see as an ordeal, Shmuel developed affection for Wald and their relationship flourished.  But, what most gnawed at Shmuel was the secrecy that existed, particularly on the part of Atalia, with whom he develops a rather curious relationship.  He seems to be falling in love with a woman twenty five years older than himself, and she continues crawl out of her shell, then subsumes herself to a life of bitterness.

Throughout much of the novel Oz puts forth meditations concerning the life and death of Jesus zeroing in on the writings that focus on the validity of Christianity and its place in history.  Much of what Oz has to say emerges from Shmuel’s research, which centers on his understanding as to why the Jews rejected Christianity.  For Shmuel, Jesus was not a Christian, he was born and died a Jew and it never crossed his mind to found a new religion.  Christianity’s creation was the work of Paul and his cohorts and they invented its concepts and ceremonies.  Shmuel believes if only the Jews had accepted Jesus, their history of persecution would not have taken place.  The one thing Shmuel cannot come to terms with is why the Jews refused to accept him, since all Jesus wanted to do was “purify the Jewish faith of all sorts of self-satisfied cultic accretions that had attached themselves to it, all sorts of fatty protrusions that the priests had cultivated and that the Pharisees had burdened them with…. [The Jews] were groaning beneath the yoke of the rich, bloated priesthood in Jerusalem.” (113)

The concept of betrayal goes to the core of Oz’s thought process.  We witness it almost from the outset of the novel.  Shmuel fantasizes about replacing his parents with people he can relate to on a different level.  Shmuel’s grandfather may have been a double agent during World War II for the British.  Obviously, Judas’ actions toward Jesus. The entire discussion concerning Atalia’s father involving his “treasonous” acts against the creation of the state of Israel, Ben-Gurion, and the Jewish people.  Lastly, Atalia’s behavior for her job recounts a number of examples of betrayal as are her feelings for Shmuel, particularly as the novel comes to a close.

In summation, the novel is a journey for Shmuel Ash that takes him to a secluded place where he meets two individuals suffering from loss.  All three characters seem to be at different stages of the Eriksonian life cycle with different needs and roles to play in each other’s lives.  They argue, love each other in their own way and produce affection that will linger, in a sense love that each person could not fathom three months earlier as Shmuel enters Atalia and Gershon’s lives.  Oz orchestrates the journey, he begins it, and knows when to bring it to a conclusion.

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(West Jerusalem, Israel)

 

THE PALE HOUSE by Luke McCallin

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(Communist partisans march into Sarajevo at the end of W.W.II)

Luke McCallin’s second installment of his Gregor Reinhardt series is as compelling and nuanced as his first, THE MAN FROM BERLIN.  Two years later, THE PALE HOUSE, finds Reinhardt reassigned from the Abwher, German intelligence to the Feldjaegerkorps, a new branch of the military police with far reaching powers.  The assignment came about following a failed attempt on Hitler’s life that brought a severe crackdown and purge against anyone suspected of having questionable loyalty to the Fuhrer.  Reinhardt had surreptitious links to the German resistance and was worried about his friends and allies.  McCallin creates an unimaginable plot that will place Reinhardt in situations that will call on him to dig deep within himself to survive.

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(Yugoslavia during World War II)

In late March, 1945, near Sarajevo, among rumors of deserters Reinhardt comes across a massacre of civilians.  Along with a colleague, Lt. Max Benfeld, Reinhardt investigates the site as a crime scene employing what remained of his past police skills.  After examining the bodies and other evidence he concludes that what occurred was perpetrated by the Ustase, a Croatian fascist ultranationalist party.  Reinhardt locates three survivors and crosses an Ustase checkpoint and brings them to Sarajevo to try and save their lives.  Reinhardt becomes obsessed with the massacre and he begins to wonder if murder was the norm and acceptable behavior in the city as it was surrounded more and more by communist partisans.  As the Germans slowly withdrew north the Ustase wanted to control what remained of Croatia, but they were riddled by different factions with their own agendas.  It was a world dominated by the likes of Vjekoslav Lubaric, the head of the Sarajevo Ustase and Ante Putkovic, who used dice to determine the innocence or guilt of his prisoners.  The Ustase were not an effective fighting force, but were excellent at mass killing.

Reinhardt’s investigation has many threads.  As he tries to bring some semblance of reason to his work he encounters a number of interesting characters.  War Crimes Division jurist, Major Marcus Dreyer, an old friend from the First World War and post war Berlin asks for his help in his own investigation.  It seems that Dreyer suspects German Major Edwin Jansky of a number of illegalities as he is in charge of a Penal Battalion made up of condemned men from all over the Balkans.  It is accepted that Jansky and his men are corrupt and taking advantage of the chaos in the region to rob it blind.  However, Dreyer believes that Jansky and his men may have something to do with the earlier massacre and a number of other murders.

It seems that death becomes Reinhardt’s specialty.  Summoned to an ambush site of dead German soldiers, he finds another five mutilated bodies that were not meant to be found.  As in THE MAN FROM BERLIN Reinhardt has to deal with jurisdictional issues, but in the present situation they lead to greater personal danger for himself and those around him.  Throughout the dialogue McCallin provides a number of asides that fills the reader in with information about Reinhardt’s past.  By doing so we see the further evolution of Reinhardt’s character and moral code as well as how his personal tragedies have affected him.

The mutilated bodies become the axle on which the novel spins as Reinhardt once again has to rely on allies that previously might be considered enemies.  As the story unfolds these allies are somewhat surprising, Suzana Vukic, whose daughter, a Croatian nationalist journalist had been killed, the communist partisan leader, known as Valter, Vladimir Peric, and Alexious, a Greek soldier of fortune trying to save his family.  As McCallin has Reinhardt deal with these relationships he is able to convey the horrors perpetuated by the Ustase as the war begins to wind down.  All the Germans seemed to care about was the withdrawal of as many troops as possible and were not concerned with the actions of their former allies, except for Reinhardt and a few others.  But, is Reinhardt reading the situation correctly, is it the Ustase or perhaps rogue Germans with links high up the chain of command?

As the plot broadens Reinhardt is trying to link the massacres of civilians, the murder of German soldiers, and the corruption that seems to exist everywhere.  McCallin creates a web of deceit that is hard to fathom and the conclusions that Reinhardt reaches are difficult to predict as is the final act in the drama that unfolds.  Once again, McCallin leaves an opening with his final paragraph that will be continued in his recently released third installment, THE DIVIDED CITY.

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(Communist partisans liberate Sarajevo at the end of World War II)

THE MAN FROM BERLIN by Luke McCallin

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(Nazi occupied Sarajevo, 1943)

If one could turn the clock back to the 1990s when men like Slobodan Milosovic and places like Srebrenica were in the news they would recall the horror that they felt. People could not fathom what the Serbs, Croats, and Muslims hoped to gain from all the violence, particularly since the origins of the conflict go back at least to the 4th century AD with the creation of the Byzantine Empire.  The events of World War II are also part of the Balkan puzzle that we still grapple with today that are displayed in a very thoughtful and chilling manner in Luke McCallin’s novel THE MAN FROM BERLIN.  The war forms the backdrop for the fight between the Ustase, Serb nationalists, and partisan forces as they struggle for the soul of postwar Yugoslavia.

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On his third tour of Yugoslavia during World War II, Abwher Captain Gregor Reinhardt finds himself recovering from a drinking binge the night before when he summoned to report to Major Ulrich Freilinger to investigate the murder of an intelligence colleague, and a woman he was with.  A number of problems immediately emerge, one, Reinhardt has not worked a murder case in over four years, and second, the Sarajevo Police Inspector Putkovic claimed his department had jurisdiction in the case, in addition it appeared that the policeman put in charge, Inspector Andro Padelin a member of the Ustase, was a racist and anti-Semite and cared only in solving the crime against Maija Vukic.  Vukic was a well-known film maker and journalist who was a fervent supporter of a Croatian state and freedom from the Serbs.  The fact she had once danced with Reinhardt at a Nazi Party function did not detract from his main goal of locating the killer of Stefan Hendel, the Abwher agent.

There are numerous candidates for the murderer.  Was the individual a Chetnik, a Slavic Nationalistic guerilla force; an Ustase, Croatian fascist; a Yugoslav Royalist; or a member of the partisans under Jozip Broz Tito; or perhaps someone else?  Reinhardt not only has to navigate these groups but there are also SS fanatics and some who want to get rid of Hitler on the German side.  With so many contending groups fighting for control in the Balkans McCallin does a nice job conveying the contentious atmosphere that existed in Yugoslavia that permeates the novel.  What is clear is that the politics of the Balkans throughout the war was byzantine and extreme.

The characters that McCallin creates are unique and at times very difficult to comprehend.  They are people with principles or are they confused or in fact traitors.  Whatever the truth may be the reader will develop respect for certain individuals and scorn for others.  McCallin’s characters are indeed fascinating, among them are Dr. Muamor Begovic, a medical examiner for the Sarajevo police, but also a communist partisan.  Major Becker, a nasty and sadistic individual who is second in command of the Feldgendarmerie or military police and a former Berlin Kripo detective with Reinhardt. Captain Hans Thallberg, an officer in the Geheime Feldpolizi (Secret Police) who admires Reinhardt and tries to assist him.  Inspector Andro Padelin of the Sarajevo police or Ustase, ordered to work with Reinhardt.  General Paul Verhein, the German commander 121st Jager, whose life journey and loyalties are hard to imagine.  Among these individuals McCallin introduces many people from Reinhardt’s past.  His wife Caroline, son Friedrich, Rudolph Brauer, his best friend, and Colonel Thomas Meissner, his mentor that provide insight into these person Reinhardt will become.

Reinhardt was a man who loved his country, but hated what it had become.  He treasured the friends he made in the army, but grew to hate the uniform they wore.  After the 1936 Olympics, Kripo, the Berlin police were integrated into the Gestapo and Reinhardt had refused to join.  He was posted to Interpol because the Nazis needed his aura of professionalism and his solid reputation.  Once it became clear he was working to perpetuate Nazism he became conflicted because he needed the money to pay for his wife’s medical treatments before she died.  Colonel Meissner would step in and gets him transferred to the Abwher, German intelligence, which reflects what a flawed and conflicted man he was.
It is as an Abwher agent that McCallin develops Reinhardt’s character and the story that forms the core of the novel.  As McCallin spins his tale it is a searing ride with a conclusion that is nuanced and compelling.  It is a plot that should rivet the reader to each page, and fortunately the author brings his story to an ending in such a manner that he leaves enough room to create a sequel entitled, THE PALE HOUSE.

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(Nazi occupied Sarajevo, 1943)

THE GIRL FROM VENICE by Martin Cruz Smith

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(World War II Venice)

For those that are familiar with the work of Martin Cruz Smith the author of GORKY PARK, STALIN’S GHOST, TATIANA, among others, his latest effort, THE GIRL FROM VENICE should prove very satisfying.  The novel is centered in Venice in the small fishing village of Pellestrina.  One evening during the spring, 1945, Innocenzo Vianello, a poor fisherman is watching allied planes pass overhead on their way to rain havoc on Turin, Milan, or Verona, as he tries to secure his catch, when he notices a body floating in the water.  The body turns out to be a survivor of a Nazi SS raid on San Clemente, a mental institution.  The survivor is Giulia Silber, from a wealthy Jewish family, whose parents, aunts and uncles, in addition to many others have been seized by the Nazis and are presumed dead.  Cenzo, against his better judgement rescues the girl and immediately is confronted by an SS boat in a lagoon.  It seems the SS is looking for the escaped Jewess.  Cenzo hides the girl and an incident will occur that makes him as much of a target as Giulia.

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(Benito Mussolini and Adolf Hitler)

Smith’s writing is very clear and he does a remarkable job developing the relationship between Cenzo and Giulia, from teaching her to be a fisherman, how to enunciate as not to appear upper class, friendship, and finally falling in love.  For Cenzo thinking about his own miseries pale in comparison to what Giulia has been through and he becomes very protective of her.  They are both in a quandary as to how to proceed when Cenzo’s friend, Eusebio Russo, who was a smuggler, arranged to take Giulia north and turn her over to Communist partisan to allow her to escape.  However, at this point Cenzo and Giulia realize they might mean more to each other than they thought.

As the novel progresses the reader will come across a number of interesting characters.  There is Cenzo’s brother Giorgio a famous actor and follower of Mussolini who he is estranged from.  Nido, the owner of a bar in Pellestrina, who along with his good friend Cenzo oppose the war after their experiences fighting against Haile Selassie’s forces in Abyssinia.  Colonel Steiner, a Nazi officer that may have turned against Hitler.  Steiner claims he needs to locate Giulia as she is the only witness to what happened at San Clemente when Steiner’s conduit to the Americans disappeared, Vittorio Silber, Giulia’s father.  The catch is Steiner wants Cenzo to work with his brother to find her.  Maria Paz Rodriguez, the wife of the former Argentine Counsel in in Salo, the capitol of the remainder of the Italian Socialist State.  Paz is an interesting character as she is an excellent forger for both Jews and Germans who are fleeing.  Otto Klein, supposedly a neutral Swiss filmmaker, but he has ties to the black market, Joseph Goebbles, and seems to want to bring down the Germans.  Farina, an Italian Fascist who cannot understand that the war is lost.  Lastly, Dante, the partisan leader whose loyalty is to communism.

There is a Kafkaesque quality to the story.  As the war winds down everyone thinks it is almost over and they begin to contemplate their lives once hostilities will come to a close.  They wonder who will be in charge and most conclude the Germans will just leave, but Italian fascists and partisans will battle for Italy’s soul.  Smith provides unique insights into society in the “capitol,” Salo.  The nerves of the people are being shredded as they worry about who they will be able to trust.  Cenzo will undergo a remarkable transformation as he tries to find Giulia and has to deal with his brother Georgio, but also has nightmares over the death of his younger brother Hugo, who had been killed by an American pilot the year before.  The novel has an undercurrent that pervades each page as Cenzo, also a talented artist had painted a picture of the scene where his brother Hugo had been killed.  The problem is that Cenzo is transfixed by what he has created, and it takes him almost to the end of the story to finally understand what his unconscious was telling him.

The novel itself is an indictment of Mussolini’s regime and the marionettes that followed him.  Smith’s dialogue reeks of sarcasm as he points to the weaknesses and incompetence of Italian fascism.  Il Duce is a comic figure, however the story that he is a part of is not.  Martin Cruz Smith’s new book is worth engaging and I recommend you take a few hours, get comfortable with a glass of wine, and enjoy-it will be bellissimo!

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(June 25, 1941, the Venice Conference)