THE JEFFERSON KEY by Steve Berry

(Pictures USA Monticello Pond Mansion Cities Houses Design Building

(Monticello, Thomas Jefferson’s home in Virginia)

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

(author, Steve Berry)

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

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

Bath,North Carolina Map

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

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

A Letter from Author Steve Berry

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

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

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

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

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

File:Thomas Jefferson's Monticello Estate.jpg

(Monticello, Thomas Jefferson’s Virginia home)

THE ACCOMPLICE by Joseph Kanon

Image result for photo of buenos aires 1960s
(1960s Buenos Aires, Argentina)

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

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

Image result for photo of dr. otto schramm

 

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

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

Image result for photo of dr. otto schramm
(author, Joseph Kanon)

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

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

Image result for photo of buenos aires 1960s
(1960s Buenos Aires, Argentina)

UNDER OCCUPATION by Alan Furst

Image result for photo of paris under occupation
(Paris under German occupation during WWII)

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

Image result for photo of authors alan furst

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

Image result for photo of paris under occupation

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

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

Image result for photo of paris under occupation

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

Image result for photo of authors alan furst 
(Author, Alan Furst)

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

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

Image result for photo of paris under occupation
(Paris under German occupation during WWII)

THE FIRST STONE by Carsten Jensen

Image result for photo of Helmand Province
(Helmand Province, Afghanistan)

After eighteen years of combat in Afghanistan the war grinds on.  The Taliban has reemerged, and it appears that a negotiated solution with some sort of governmental power sharing is far in the future, if ever.  The war has produced a number of important novels like Elliot Ackerman’s GREEN ON BLUE, John Renehan’s THE VALLEY, and Nadeem Aslam’s THE BLIND MAN’S GARDEN.  The latest entry into this genre recently translated from Danish is Carsten Jensen’s THE FIRST STONE.  The book is exceptional, and it presents the Danish perspective on the war when most books on Afghanistan tend to focus on American soldiers.  Jensen is able to show that there is a universality when to comes to combat in Afghanistan dealing with numerous warlords and the Taliban that knows no delineation between the nationalities of NATO members who conduct the fighting.

At the outset Jensen, who has visited Afghanistan since the 1980s and the Soviet occupation numerous times, focuses on the camaraderie that exists among members of Third Platoon.  Each character is introduced and the interplay between them reflects how they believe in and support each other.  There are a number of important individuals that emerge; Andreas, a.k.a. “side kick” a filmographer who carries his camera everywhere creating a video record of the war.  Rasmus Schroder, the platoon leader, a former video gamer with a strange approach to warfare and life in general will become a major actor in Jensen’s plot.  Lukas Moller, the chaplain leads his men through the daily crisis of war shifting his beliefs from situation to situation.  Hannah, the only woman in the platoon appears to be ensconced in an emotional straight jacket.  Colonel Ove Steffenson, the Platoon Commander will make some poor decisions that affect everyone, and Naib Atmar, an Afghan warlord who for a time worked well with Steffenson.  Another major character is Sara, a former medical student from Kabul whose family is wiped out by the Taliban.  She is forced to marry a warlord and gives birth to a son which along with the war traumatized her and will lead her to a mystical self that impact all around her.  Lastly, Khaiber, a Danish-Afghani who is a member of the Danish Secret Service who is tasked to investigate the platoon when everything seems to go wrong.  His task becomes increasingly complex when his father, a mujahedeen enters the picture.

Related image

Jensen leads the reader on a fascinating journey of men in combat.  First, he explores the special relationship among the soldiers.  Second, he places the platoon in a combat situation when two members are killed and how the platoon deals with their loss.  Third, the linkage between the war they engage in each day, and the developing violence at home.  It appears they are now fighting terrorists in theater as well as in Denmark.  Lastly, the ambush that kills thirteen members and what it does to the remainder of the unit.  It seems that a traitor may have been involved and what should be done about it dominates a large part of the story.  Steffensen as commander faces numerous crises; the deaths of the local mayor, his interpreter, civilians, and his own men creates questions of leadership and how to rectify a bad situation.

Jensen seems to cover every angle of the war. The relationship between violence at home and in Afghanistan dominates.  He explores why someone might become a traitor and what that individual hopes to gain from it.   Soldiers receive a great deal of training, but they cannot be trained to deal with every situation – how do platoon members react and cope?  How does one quantify leadership, effectiveness and failure?  What is the difference between a Taliban member setting off an IED with a cell phone and a drone dropping bombs seemingly out of nowhere?  The author develops the role of DarkSky, a Blackwater type company led by Mr. Timothy who has contracts with the US military.  The role of outsourcing the war is an important aspect of the novel.  Further, Jensen zeroes in on certain characters and pays particular attention to Hannah whose love obsession will be replaced by hatred and the need for vengeance and what it does to her and her compatriots.  Hannah is transformed from being emotionally involved with someone and being a subservient soldier to a woman with “blood lust,” which is very disconcerting as these feelings spread throughout the platoon.

Image result for picture of danish soldier in afghanistan
(Danish soldiers in Afghanistan)

The author pinpoints the evolution of the Danish platoon from a more “humane” approach to war to a more negative attitude towards the Afghans, particularly when they return home from Christmas leave after confronting accidents and deaths at home.  This can be seen in the tone of Chaplain Moller’s sermons as he has moved on from books and science fiction to domestic killing and the need to protect Denmark from terrorists.  The result is attendance at sermons skyrockets as he tries to equate the 1525 German Peasants Revolt/Thirty Years War to 9/11 and the period that followed.  The novels strength is that it zeroes in on the crisis of conscience that soldiers experience in Afghanistan and how it affects them emotionally on a daily basis.  Each character has to learn to mourn, accept the unacceptable, and learn to move on and carry out their duties, which at times makes them behave rather erratically.

Image result for photo of carsten jensen
(Carsten Jensen, author)

The crisis of confidence is evident early on when Girishk Mayor Ali Shar, a purist who believes in the common people and democracy refuses to make deals with the Danes.  Steffensen will come to agreements with warlords, but he cannot develop a relationship with the Mayor who will be assassinated, probably by the local police commissioner.  The corruption of Afghanistan abounds, the results of an American bomb going astray killing numerous Afghan civilians whose relatives are paid for their lives, the horrors of war as seen through the eyes of Simon, the medical assistant, and the Taliban tribunal whose sentences seem barbaric to foreigners, but justice to Afghanis brings the novel a high degree of tension throughout.   These situations are all present for the reader to digest raising the question; why are we still there?

According to Tobias Grey in his September 1, 2019 New York Times book review;

Jensen likes to give his fiction an epic sweep. This worked well in his 2006 novel, WHY WE DROWNED which has, according to his publisher, sold more than a half million copies worldwide in 20 languages. But unlike that novel, which kept skillful control of its seafaring narrative, “The First Stone” is sabotaged by too many baggy subplots. It’s also stomach-churningly violent. The biblical heft of Jensen’s title suggests what he’s searching for, but far too often the narrative devolves into a gruesome parade of suffering.

The savagery of ordinary Afghans toward their enemies appears to know no bounds. Mutilated victims are scattered everywhere: “The villagers have flayed the skin loose from the middle of the forehead and rolled it down to the chin; it resembles a rubber mask pulled halfway down by an exhausted carnival worker.” Truth or fiction? Whatever the answer, Jensen’s novel coldly depicts a region that remains stubbornly cast in Rudyard Kipling’s mold.

Image result for photo of Helmand Province
(Helmand Province, Afghanistan)

STAR OF THE NORTH by D. B. John

Image result for photo of Kim jong-il
(Kim Jong-il)

At a time when Donald Trump refers to North Korea’s “Dear Leader,” Kim Jong-un, as a man he admires greatly despite the fact that his military keeps testing rockets over the Sea of Japan, it is fortuitous that a novel has appeared that delves into the “Hermit Kingdom” of North Korea.  D.B. John’s second novel STAR OF THE NORTH focuses on the authoritarian reign of Kim Jung-Il during 2010 and 2011 before Kim Jong-un took over the leadership role.  John integrates a number of important aspects of the Kim regime throughout the novel.  He explores the slave labor system, the rocket program that raises fears of nuclear weapons, the paranoia that is ever present among North Korea’s population, the class system that has party elites dominating the ruling structure, and the chemical warfare threat that North Korea presents.  John’s insights into the system rises from a series of interesting characters that he has created, a number of which reflect real people who have survived the North Korean regime.

Image result for images of kim jong un
(Current leader of North Korea, Kim Jong-un)

John, one of the few westerners to have visited North Korea begins his story in June 1998 as two students at Sangmyong University, Park Jae-hoan and Williams Soo-min are spending an afternoon at Condol Beach on Baengnyeong picnicking and taking photographs.  In the midst of their reverie they disappear.  The Inchon Metropolitan Police and the South Korean Coast Guard conclude after an exhaustive search that they must have drowned and end their investigation.  But, did they really disappear?  More importantly, why?

Twelve years later Charles Fisk, a CIA operative visits Dr. Jenna Williams, an Assistant Professor at Georgetown’s School of Foreign Service and the sister of Williams Soo-min.  Fisk is out to recruit Williams using her missing twin sister as bait.  From this point on John develops his plot line with three separate tracks that will come together very nicely.  First, the road Jenna Williams chooses is giving up her professorship and joins the CIA in an attempt to locate her sister when she learns that she had been kidnaped twelve years earlier.  Second, is the path taken by Cho Sang-ho, an official in the North Korean Foreign Ministry with the equivalent rank of Lieutenant-Colonel, who is sent to the United States to negotiate with the Americans at the United Nations.  Lastly, the life of Moon Song-de, a poor peasant woman who sold food and other items under a bridge in Pyongyang with other poverty-stricken individuals in an effort to survive as she wages her own personal battle against the state.

Image result for satellite photos of north korea prison camps(Satellite image of North Korean slave labor camp)

John does an exceptional job focusing on the machinations of North and South Korea.  Further, his exploration of the lives of everyday North Koreans who deal with oppression, lack of food bordering on starvation, and the anxiety of never knowing what will be ordered by “Dear Leader” is eye opening.  John’s effort is enhanced by an appendix where he describes North Korean personages, missile programs, the cult of Kim, kidnaping of foreigners, the Gulag/slave system, guilt by association and other aspects of life in North Korea.

One of the strengths of John’s novel apart from the superb story he has created that borders on contemporary realism is relating how the “Hermit Kingdom” functioned.  Whether discussing the hierarchic nature of the Communist Party that ruled the country, the vast Gulag/prison slave system, or how Pyongyang conducted its foreign policy the detail and accuracy of daily life within this paranoid dictatorship is exceptional.  Each character has a role to play as the horrors of North Korea emerge and affect them all as John takes the reader inside Camp 22, an element of the surreal world of slave labor that dominates Kim’s prison state in a graphic manner.

Image result for satellite photos of north korea prison camps
(Satellite image of North Korean slave labor camp)

A surprising aspect of North Korean life that John puts on full display is the leaderships emphasis on “pure” bloodlines and its own paranoia when it comes to the United States and the west.  John has the rhetoric of the North Korean Communist Party down to a tee and expresses the realism that pervades the novel.  The voyage taken by Jenna Williams is heartwarming and cutthroat and lends itself to an engrossing story that is ongoing as I write.

Patrick Anderson concludes in his Washington Post (May 17, 2018) review that “STAR OF THE NORTH builds to a gripping climax. Cho, having escaped the prison camp, is desperately trying to reach China, even as Jenna, still searching for her sister, sets out to confront the Dear Leader himself. Can either possibly survive? It’s an exciting ending to a novel that, in addition to being highly entertaining, suggests the difficulties we face in dealing with a small, distant nation with values and beliefs so different from our own.”

Image result for photo of Kim jong-il(Kim Jong-il)

ONCE WE WERE BROTHERS by Ronald H. Batson

Image result for photo of zamosc, poland during WWII
(Zamosc, Poland as a ghetto during WWII)

In 2004, the night of charitable gala for the Lyric Opera of Chicago, Ben Solomon, a survivor of the Nazi death camps walks over to a guest and points a German Lugar P08 at his forehead.  The guest, Elliot Rosenzweig, a major Chicago philanthropist and supporter of the opera is supposedly a Holocaust survivor.  Solomon is tackled and arrested.  His motivation rests on his claim that Rosenzweig is a former SS officer named Otto Piatik who murdered Jews during the war.  Rosenzweig is incredulous but refuses to prosecute.  Solomon not satisfied decides to initiate a lawsuit against Rosenzweig in civil court to prove he was a mass murderer and stole money, jewels, and other property from his family.

Thus, begins Ronald H. Batson’s successful first novel, ONCE WE WERE BROTHERS, the first in a series that focuses on two characters, Liam Taggert, an investigative reporter, and Catherine Lockhart, a lawyer.  Almost immediately Batson draws the reader’s interest as Rosenzweig vehemently denies the past that Solomon swears by.  A past that saw both men grow up in a small Polish village of Zamosc with Piatik abandoned as a child by his parents and raised by Solomon’s parents.  Solomon approaches Taggert and Lockhart to take his case and after an initial reluctance to do so because of Rosenzweig’s reputation and the fact that the events Solomon describes was over 70 years ago they are drawn into Solomon’s narrative and work to prove his accusation.  Whether Solomon is right or not, Batson has created two wonderful characters, who have their own personal baggage as ONCE WE WERE BROTHERS is the first of five installments that focus on the work of Taggert and Lockhart.

Image result for photo of zamosc, poland during WWII

From the outset Batson transports the reader to Zamosc, Poland following Hitler’s assumption of power in 1933.  The author relates the plight of Jews in Germany and the rise of anti-Semitism in Poland throughout the 1930s and how it impacted the Solomon family and the Jews of their village.  He follows the historical timeline throughout the war as the Solomon family is separated.  As far as Batson’s command of history it is usually accurate, but there is a major glitch in his timeline.  He puts forth the character of Ilse Piatik, Otto’s mother as the secretary to Reinhard Heydrich, a major figure in the creation of the Final Solution, but he dates its origin to 1935 when he states, “she knew about the plans for the Final Solution.”  Most historians of the Holocaust argue that the Final Solution was not decided upon and implemented so early and that it took until the invasion of the Soviet Union when the Nazis were confronted with millions of Jews in Russia that extermination plans began to crystalize.  Batson use of historical characters is accurate, particularly Hans Frank, the Governor-General of the Polish occupied territories during World War II and Reinhard Heydrich, one of the driving forces behind the Holocaust until his assassination by Czech fighters on June 4, 1942.  Further, Batson’s exploration of the role of the Judenrat is important, particularly when seen in the context of the ethical and personal dilemma’s it presented for Ben’s father.

Batson provides the Solomon family background through the life of Ben Solomon as he traces his childhood and adolescence in Zamosc throughout the 1930s.  Solomon’s relationship with Piatik is carefully explored in full as the Nazi threat begins to unfold.  As the story is recounted something darker seems to be hidden and Batson does a nice job drawing it out just enough to keep the reader on the edge of their seat.  If there is an aspect of the novel that is very disconcerting as a former educator it is Lockhart’s seeming ignorance when it comes to the Holocaust, i.e.; she did not know what a Jewish ghetto was and other information. I realize that many claim to be ignorant of the Holocaust, but she is presented as an educated person.

Image result for photo of hans frank
(Hans Frank, the butcher of occupied Poland)

The politics and pressures of working in a major law firm are on full display and the role of local politics is ever present as Rosenzweig puts pressure on Lockhart to end her investigation, while conducting his own investigation.  The Rosenzweig character is an interesting one as Taggert delves into his background and the case that he might be Piatik unfolds.  There are a number of twists and turns as the story plays out and the reader wonders whether Rosenzweig is actually a Nazi murderer and overall the story is quite believable and makes for good historical fiction.

Batson, an attorney, originally self-published his novel.  It was later picked up by a major publishing house which has greatly benefited his readership.  The book adds to the myriad of novels that regularly appear concerning the Holocaust, but this one has a new twist and it is worth looking at an old story.  The Taggert-Lockhart relationship emerges, and it will form the basis of four other historical novels that I look forward to reading.

Image result for photo of zamosc, poland during WWII
(Zamosc, Poland as a Nazi Ghetto during WWII)

BY GASLIGHT by Steven Price

Image result for photos of London in the 1880s
(Victorian London, 1880s)

When I approach a 700-page novel I do so with trepidation and expectation wondering if the effort will be worthwhile.  In the case of Steven Price’s BY GASLIGHT, a multi-generational biographical noir mostly set in late 19th century London one must conclude that Price has produced a fascinating story encapsulating a violent period in history with many original characters amongst actual historical figures.

Image result for photo of william pinkerton
(William Pinkerton)

Price, a Canadian poet and novelist has written a marvelous story set in London, Civil War America, and South Africa spanning the 1860s through the late 1880s.  The plot line is in part a biography of William Pinkerton, the son of Allan Pinkerton, Civil War spy and founder of the Pinkerton Detective Agency and the fictional Adam Foole, a man of questionable business interests that dates back to a diamond heist in Port Elizabeth, South Africa in 1863.  Each man possesses an agenda that was formulated in the past.  For Pinkerton it is the hunt for a criminal his father never apprehended, an elusive thief named Edward Shade.  On the other hand, Foole is seeking  a woman he has not seen for over ten years and realizes he has always been deeply in love with her.  The novel focuses on how each man searches for answers and the relationship they develop.

Image result for photos of London in the 1880s
(Victorian London, 1880s)

As Price unwraps his story the tastes and sounds of London form a backdrop of poverty that centers on thieves, dock workers, and the general underclass that permeates London’s houses for children, sewers and hovels.  Historical periods are clear as the author alternates from the American Civil War with its brutality and vengeance to London in the 1880s infected with a criminal element and poverty that seems to dominate everyday life.  This is further highlighted by Price’s ear for Victorian London and its underworld slang.

Character development is effective, particularly that of Foole, Shade, Charlotte Rickett, John Shore, the Pinkertons, the Uttersons, among many others.  A great deal of research is evident from Price’s work reflected by its historical accuracy and the authenticity of its characters.

Image result for pictures of allan pinkerton

The plot line moves slowly from the outset as each character is introduced.  The plot seems to center on Charlotte Rickett who from childhood was trained as a thief and a grifter in a London workhouse for indigent children.  She was rescued by a pseudo-uncle who furthered her education for a life of crime.  Charlotte’s life will take her to South Africa, India and back to London until her supposed death that resulted in dismemberment and mutilation.  Charlotte’s plight will become an obsession for Pinkerton and Foole.

Image result for pictures of allan pinkerton
(Allan Pinkerton, Lincoln’s master spy during the Civil War who laid the ground work for later American spy agencies)

The novel highlights the horrors of the American Civil War and the poverty that dominates post 1873 Depression London.  Scotland Yard and the Pinkerton Agency are developed as a dam to prevent further criminality and murder.  Aside from Charlotte’s horrible death, the novel zeros in on the fate of Edward Shade, a shadowy character surrounded by myth who may not even have existed.  Rickett and Shade foster an alliance between Pinkerton and Foole that allows Price the opportunity to create numerous subplots as twists and turns abound in each chapter.

Image result for photo of pinkerton's detective agency

According to Price in an interview with the Vancouver Sun, “I think of it as a novel about a detective, rather than a detective novel, ultimately Gaslight is about parents and children, and our inheritance of grief, and how we come to with the unfinished business of life.”  The course of the novel certainly reflects what Price wanted to achieve as each character is tied to their upbringing and how their socialization impacted the choices they made in later life.

Ian Weir writes in the Toronto Globe and Mail,

The narrative touches on themes relating to grief and loss, and the relationship of sons to fathers. There are nods as well to the nature of truth and storytelling, the unreliability of memory, and the conundrum of appearance and reality. But it is difficult to say what these add up to, in the end. The novel – for all of its force and ingenuity – struggles to reach beyond its own specifics.

But those specifics are splendid, nonetheless. And it is a tribute to Price’s skill and power that we never – well, almost never – pause to ask whether the novel really needed every last one of its nearly 750 exquisitely crafted pages.*

In creating the story, Price has written a book that is both challenging and rewarding for the reader due to its length, time periods that seem to turn on a dime, and its multiple characters.  If one works their way through, the time spent with BY GASLIGHT will be well worth it as Price has pulled out all the stops to capture the readers attention and maintain it for hours on end.

*Ian Weir, “Steven Price’s By Gaslight pulls out all the stops, Toronto Globe and Mail, August 19, 2016.

Image result for photos of London in the 1880s
(East End, London, 1880s)

THE LUDWIG CONSPIRACY by Oliver Potzsch

Image result for photo of Ludwig II of Bavaria
(King Ludwig II of Bavaria)

King Ludwig II of Bavaria is one of the most enigmatic figures in world history.  Assuming the throne in 1845 at the age of nineteen the monarch known as “mad King Ludwig” or the “fairy-tale king whose castle, Schloss Neuschwanstein was the model for Walt Disney’s company logo died on June 14, 1886 probably by suicide, but the actual cause of death remains a mystery.  Novelist Oliver Potzsch makes Ludwig II the centerpiece of his novel, THE LUDWIG CONSPIRACY, a historical thriller that centers on an encoded diary of one of Ludwig’s confidantes and a love story that follows diverse historical periods.

If you are a fan of Robert Harris, Steve Berry, William Martin and others of the genre that alternates between the past and the present providing historical lessons and context as a means of solving a contemporary mystery, Potzsch’s effort should be right up your ally.  Employing Dan Brown’s vehicle of ciphers and codes, and in this case German legends and poetry as literary tropes, Potzsch returns the reader to late 19th century Bavaria as he develops his story.

Image result for schloss neuschwanstein castle pictures
(Schloss Neuschwanstein Castle)

Potzsch is best known for his HANGMAN’S DAUGHTER series set in 17th century Bavaria, which is based on his ancestors, the Kuisls, a notorious dynasty of German executioners.  My favorite Potzsch book is THE CASTLE OF KINGS  set during the German Peasants Revolt of the 16th century which features an iconoclastic noblewoman with a flair for falconry.  Potzsch states he wrote the book to move away from torturing and killing and focus on castles, knights, secret chambers and hidden treasure .  In THE LUDWIG CONSPIRACY he delights his readers with a tale that deals with political machinations, monarchial intrigue involving Bismarckian Prussia and Bavaria under Ludwig II as he focuses on how the “mad monarch” may have died.

The format is a contemporary one in which Munich rare book seller, Steven Lukas becomes involved in a conspiracy related to Ludwig’s death when he becomes in possession of evidence that Ludwig may not have committed suicide.  As the story develops Lukacs becomes the target of the Cowled men, a secret order who are bent on proving that the monarch was in fact murdered.

Image result for schloss neuschwanstein castle pictures
(Schloss Neuschwanstein Castle)

Ludwig’s life is an ostentatious spectacle in which he lived in his own dream world.  This approach to life saw him build castles as his raison d’etre for living but resulted in bankrupting the Bavarian treasury and produced numerous enemies among the Council of Ministers who are out to depose him by declaring him insane.  When he died on June 14, 1886 probably by suicide, a method we cannot totally confirm numerous questions arose surrounding his passing.

Potzsch once again has proven himself to be a master of the historical thriller as Lukacs must navigate his possession of evidence that Ludwig did not commit suicide and the Cowled Men who seek to retain and purify the king’s historical reputation.  The vehicle for Lukacs’ involvement is the discovery in his bookshop of the memoirs of Theodor Morat, the assistant to Doctor Max Schleiss Lowenfeld, royal physician to Ludwig that is hidden on a shelf in his establishment.  The memoirs are located in a wooden box and once discovered the novel gains speed as the bookseller is teamed with Dr. Sara Lengfeld, an art historian and detective.  The author creates a mystery anchored in reality, sophisticated plotting, and makes good use of a real historical puzzle that is equal to the Da Vinci code.

Image result for photo of ludwig ii of bavaria
(Ludwig II, later in life)

As with any historical fiction one wonders how much is factual.  In the present case it is accurate to state that when it comes to Ludwig’s death nothing can be definitively proven.  His death is wonderful fodder for conspiracy theorists and Potzsch includes a separate glossary that is meant for those who like to delve into that arena.  Numerous characters are included, some figments of the author’s mind and others actual historical figures.  Among the wonderful individuals that are created include Theodor Morat, Maria, a peasant girl who is a servant and confidante of Ludwig, Albert Zoller, an eccentric expert on the Bavarian monarch, Luise Manstein, the mad industrialist, and of course Lukacs and Lengfeld.  Among hitorical personages is Otto von Bismarck, Chancellor of the recently unified German state, the Cowled Men, and Ludwig himself.

All in all, Potzsch has written a fascinating yarn with a firm grounding in history.  It is a fascinating story that should satisfy conspiracy theorists, and historical fiction aficionados.  It is a book that is worth picking up when one wants to become engrossed in a story and watch their reading pastime fly by.

Related image

 

DEEP RIVER by Karl Marlantes

Image result for photo of the Columbia River

In DEEP RIVER, author Karl Marlantes moves on from his description of a company of Marines in Vietnam who tried to recapture a mountain top base that formed the basis of his award-winning book, MATTERHORN and his unique description of combat in his memoir, WHAT IT IS LIKE TO GO TO WAR.  In his latest effort he takes on a different type of warfare centering around the battle between labor and capitalists in the Pacific northwest at the turn of the 20th century through 1932.  Focusing on a Finnish immigrant family, the Koskis, Marlantes delves into the problems faced by immigrants as they arrived in Oregon and southern Washington, not far from the Columbia River as they struggled for survival as they are swallowed up by the lumber industry.  The result is a family epic that spans an important segment of American history as well as a fascinating read that you will look forward to each time you pick up the book.

Marlantes employs a literary epic approach to convey his story beginning with the difficulties that the Finnish people faced under Czarist rule in the 1890s.  As revolution began to permeate Finnish villages the Koski family found themselves caught up in the whirlwind that surrounded the oppressive rule of the Romanovs and attempts by revolutionaries to free their country and establish some sort of Socialist utopia.  Events resulted in the breakup of the Koski family as Taipo, the father is arrested and later dies in captivity, and the children Ilmari, Aino, and Matti immigrate to America.  Each chooses their own path, Ilmari leaves first and takes advantage of the 1862 Homestead Act in Knappton, Washington; Aino, who turned to socialism and organizing opposition to the Czarist regime is arrested, tortured, and raped as she is implicated in a plot to assassinate a Czarist bureaucrat and winds up in the same area  working in a logging camp near her brother; and the youngest of the three, Matti has visions of creating his own logging business after being exposed to the hard labor of the northwest forests.  The Koski family is not the only one fractured by the Czarist regime as the Langstrom brothers are torn from each other; Gunnar a socialist revolutionary facing arrest and his brother Askel, who fears the Okhrana, the Czarist secret police escapes to Sweden and later to America.

Image result for columbia and nehalem valley railroad
(Lumber industry in Pacific Northwest)

Marlantes develops many important characters to go along with the Koski siblings, including historical ones like the International Workers of the World (IWW) organizer and rabble rouser, Joe Hill and many others.  Each character is introduced in the context of the Koski family and how they fit into the growing conflict between labor and lumber management.  Aino is haunted by the love she left behind and her increasing radicalization throughout the book that leads her to organizing loggers for the IWW that results in splitting her family.  Ilmari is a deeply religious man who organizes a congregation for the church he builds, marries and focuses on family life.  Matti and Aksel will come together to try and take advantage of the increasing demand for lumber due to World War I.  The trials and tribulations of each gather force and capture the imagination of the reader throughout the over 700-page story.

Image result for lumberjack archive

Marlantes does a superb job explaining how the lumber industry functioned in the early 20th century and how cruel and dangerous it was for the loggers many of which were Finnish and Swedish immigrants.  Wages were low, living conditions appalling as labor exploitation by lumber barons led to strikes and violence created by the IWW as each demand; straw to sleep on or an eight-hour day created greater angst on the part of both sides.  Marlantes develops the tension in the narrative very carefully as he introduces the different characters and their families in the context of historical events.  The crisis for labor and the IWW is laid out and its impact is presented through strikes in Nordland and other areas and the role of government is explored.  Congress first gave the land to the Northern Pacific Railroad to build a transportation network in a rather corrupt bargain.  The railroad would sell the excess land for profit to lumber barons, who employed soldiers and police to break up any attempt at strikes or unionization.  As law enforcement wished to stifle dissent in the name of national security, it led to the Espionage Act of 1917,  which has a certain resonance to arguments made today by certain elements in Washington, DC.  Other important historical events are woven into the story including the Spanish flu, the Palmer Raids, and the onset and effect of the Depression.

Image result for lumber industry southern washington in early 20th century
(The wood economy in the Pacific Northwest)

Marlantes uses his family epic to convey a microcosm of American labor history focusing on lumber capitalists, loggers, the role of the federal government, the Red Scare that followed World War I, and the impact of the Stock Market crash of 1929.  His description of the plight of loggers as they try to better themselves and for some, like the Koskis and Aksel who try to make it on their own, the forces that try and keep them under control, and the wish of loggers and later fishermen to be successful capitalists is heart rendering and very complicated.

The authors grasp of Finnish culture and traditions is exemplary and adds a great deal to the story line.  He offers his own families past and his childhood memories as a motivation for pursuing his chronicle of the Koski family .  Marlantes has offered the reader a gift and having completed it I thank him greatly.

Image result for photo of the Columbia River

(Columbia River)

METROPOLIS by Philip Kerr

Image result for photos of 1928 Berlin, Germany

(Berlin, 1928)

Sadly, last March British author Philip Kerr passed away.  Kerr was a prolific writer of over thirty books, including works of adult fiction and non-fiction, in addition to writing children’s books under the name, P. B. Kerr.  At the time of his death he had just completed his last novel entitled, Metropolis, the last iteration of his successful Bernie Gunther series that dealt with German history from the 1920s through the Cold War.  Kerr, one of my favorite purveyors of historical fiction consistently laid out his view of Nazism, its effect on Germany, and how Germany navigated the Cold War through the eyes of Gunther.  METROPOLIS  is the 14th book in the  series and the reader has experienced the progression of Gunther from his time as a Berlin detective, a reluctant member of the Gestapo, and the course of his career in and out of law enforcement during World War II and the Cold War.

Image result for photos of 1928 Berlin, Germany

(Reichstag Building, 1928)

The series is not presented in chronological order as we witness the rise of Nazism, the coming to power of Adolf Hitler, German’s defeat in World War II, and how Germany fits into the post war world.  Despite the lack of chronological continuity, Kerr makes it easy for the reader to follow German history through Gunther’s experiences.  It is interesting that the final volume is set in Weimar Berlin in 1928, a city that resembled Babylon which according to Gunther “was a byword for iniquity and the abominations of the earth, whatever they might be.”

Metropolis begins with Gunther’s promotion from the vice squad by Bernhard Weiss, Berlin’s Chief of Criminal  Police to a position on the Murder Commission.  A move that will change Gunther’s life in that from this point on everyone he meets has the capacity to commit murder and he must size them up.  The first case deals with the murder of three prostitutes by a serial killer nickname “Winnetou,”* and the investigation reflects the underside of what Berlin has become – a dichotomy of rich and mostly poor who will do anything to survive.  Kerr has an excellent command of history as he weaves events and personalities throughout the novel.  In this case, it is the stirring of the Nazis as a political party, worker unrest exacerbated by the Communist Party,  the inflation of 1923 and what it has done to the savings and daily cost of living for the people of Berlin.

Related image

A major theme that permeates the story is the effect of World War I on the soldiers who survived the carnage of the trenches and the battlefield overall.  Today we refer to it as post-traumatic stress disorder, after WWI it was called shell shock for which over 80,000 German soldiers were under medical treatment in 1928.  For eugenicists of the period, Berlin was infested with crippled combat veterans who survived in their “cripple carts”, crutches, and severe pain.  They are paralyzed, suffer from anger issues, flashbacks, survival guilt, and as Robert Jay Lifton, an American psychiatrist who specializes in surviving extreme trauma has pointed out, deal with the loss of self as they try to cope each day.  For those living in Berlin in 1928 their lives offer a version of some sort of trauma daily; i.e., the violence pursued by Nazis and Communists, the lack of food, homeless in shelters, thousands living on the street, unemployment etc.

Kerr’s theme is carried forth as the Murder Commission learns of a series of murders of disabled veterans perpetrated by a man referred to as Dr. Gnadenschuss** by the press, who are killed by one bullet to the back of the head.  Some argue that the murderer is doing society a favor by doing away with the constant reminder that Germany lost the war.  For these eugenicists, the Weimar Republic must be cleansed for Germany to recover her strength, and the weak must be weeded out.  These views are accepted by many including Doctors, Konrad Biesalski and Hans Wurtz who administer the Oskar-Helene rehabitation facility for veterans whose ideas on medical care and social integration are at best, Neanderthal.

Philip Kerr, 62, Author of ‘Gunther’ Crime Novels, Is Dead

Philip Kerr at his home in London in 2016. At his death he left behind a Gunther manuscript titled “Metropolis.”CreditNina Subin/Putnam Books

The scars that have infected Gunther’s soul come to the fore throughout the novel.  As in other books in the series, Gunther’s daily existence is a battle in dealing with his past, the moral choices he makes, and what he has become.  Gunther’s sardonic and sarcastic commentary is a defense mechanism to cope with what ails him.  He is aware of what the war has done to him, but he is able to compensate for his feelings and thoughts through his firm belief in what he is accomplishing as an officer of the law living in Berlin under the aegis of the Weimar Republic, a seedy, sexy, and cosmopolitan edifice that is out of step with the growing fascist threat to the rest of the country.

Kerr pursues many strategies in conveying his material.  One approach stands out the best, the soliloquies that Gunther has with himself, particularly when he enters an imaginary conversation with Mathilde Luz, a young Jewish worker who was the first victim.  At the suggestion of Bernhard Wiess, Berlin’s Chief of Criminal Police, Gunther is encouraged to place himself in the shoes of the victim as a tool in solving the murder.

Taken as a whole METROPOLIS is detective story and a nasty murder mystery that will maintain the interest of the reader throughout.  It is a tale of vice and horror that works and lives up to the standards that Kerr has developed in his previous novels involving Detective Gunther.  As Adrian McKinty writes in The Guardian the book is “wonderfully plotted, with elegant prose, witty dialogue, homages to German Expressionism and a strong emotional charge, this is a bittersweet ending to a superb series.” (The Guardian, 4 April 2019)

*fictional Native-American hero from the novels of Karl May. The term means “burning water.”

**mercy bullet.

Image result for photos of 1928 Berlin, Germany