THE FOX by Frederick Forsyth

(Russian Cruiser)

According to John le Carre, Frederick Forsyth is among a group of spy thriller writers “that his works were the well into which everybody dipped.”  If that is the case based on the heights that le Carre has reached it is quite an endorsement of Forsyth.  A #1 New York Times bestselling author in his own right Forsyth is one of the most legendary and accomplished spy novelists of his time and the 82-year-old Englishman is considered one of the god fathers of the espionage genre.  In 1971 Forsyth then a freelance reporter published his first book, THE DAY OF THE JACKAL that brought him international success. Among his other sixteen novels is enormously successful THE ODESSA FILE and his newest and seventeenth novel, THE FOX continues his run of engrossing novels.

It begins in February 2019 as the American National Security Council computer where most of its secret data resides is hacked.  Washington asks the British government for assistance in locating the hacker.  Dr. Jeremy Henricks at the Government Communications Headquarters, the British National Security Center is brought in to assist and finds that the hacker has left no trace.  A few months later the same hacker has hit a major bank, but as in the first instance nothing was taken, however this time he has left a slight trace and is used by the SAS to locate him.  It turns out that the hacker is Luke Jennings is an eighteen-year-old autistic young man who suffers from Asperger’s syndrome.  Sir Adrian Weston a retired British spy chief is brought in by Prime Minister Marjory Graham as her unofficial security advisor to oversee the investigation.  What he learns is that Luke and three other family members live north of London in a small house where the cyber genius is ensconced in his attic with what appears to be ordinary computer equipment, but he possesses a devastating cyber mind and capability.

book, review, In Intrigue, Frederick Forsyth, Adam Helliker

If by this time Forsyth has not hooked you on his plot, he will when Luke is recruited by the British, in conjunction with Washington to work for the government in lieu of prosecution and extradition.  His first assignment is to hack a newly built Russian cruiser, the Admiral Nakhimov, the most powerful ship of its class in the world.  Moscow under the firm grip of Vladimir Putin is humiliated when the ship runs aground off the Straits of Dover because of Luke’s handiwork and seeks revenge.  The Russian autocrat places Yevgeni Krilov in charge of learning what has occurred.  Employing a series of former Spetsnaz, Albanian gangsters, and Russian billionaire oligarchs he learns of the Jennings family’s new location and proceeds to deal with the problem.  As Krilov tries to shut down Luke, the teenager under the auspices of Weston penetrates the data bases of Iran, North Korea, and Russia extracting priceless intelligence.

Forsyth’s tale has a ring of reality in our cyber infused world and the dangers to American and British national security.  He produces a series of probable characters from local Scotsman, British special forces, the Prime Minister, Russian billionaires in the grasp of Putin, gangsters, or former military types.  His commentary on world leaders is dead on particularly his recapitulation of Putin, who he refers to as “the former police thug’s” career and rise to power.  His analysis within the context of the novel is historically accurate and sounds like an analysis one would find in a monograph by Masha Gessen describing plutocratic gangsters who portray themselves as legitimate businessmen.  Part of the story line rests on the fear that Putin will use his vast resources of natural gas and a complex series of pipelines as a means of dominating Western Europe.  The British answer is to employ Luke, but Putin cannot allow this and will send Russia’s most lethal sniper, Misha to kill him. Kim Jong Un does not escape Forsyth’s scathing analysis describing the North Korean dictator as fat and ugly with a bizarre haircut who possesses a ruthlessness that is total and is obsessed with himself and absolute power.  Donald Trump also appears, but in this instance, he is seen as cooperating with the British despite Forsyth’s rather negative description of the American president.

Image:

(Kim Jong Un)

Forsyth’s knowledge of history is impeccable as his compendium of how American and British national security apparatuses work.  It is clear that Forsyth is also an authority on Russian spy tactics and its thought processes that include murder, intimidation, and intelligence gathering. Further the author has the uncanny ability to reproduce scenarios that seem real.  In addition, Forsyth’s recounting of Iranian and Israeli security needs and how they approach threats to their countries, along with information about the domestic situation in North Korea provides excellent background information.   In constructing his story Forsyth exhibits total command on contemporary events, personalities, diplomacy, weaponry, and the mysteries of spy craft.  In THE FOX, Forsyth as he does in all his novels lays out these details in a brilliant fashion and hopefully Forsyth has more novels left in his pen for the future. You will be on the edge of your seat as Sir Adrian tries to protect Luke and defeat Misha, thereby preserving world peace.


Russian missile cruiser makes call at port of Algiers in long distance deployment 925 001

(Russian Cruiser)

BLUFFING MR. CHURCHILL by John Lawton

During gas invasion test during WWII, all civilians and wardens wear gas masks (respirators). Location: London, United Kingdom Date taken: 1941 Photographer: Hans Wild Life Images London History, British History, Modern History, Women's History, Vintage London, Old London, Vintage Photos, Old Photos, The Blitz
(London, 1941, during the “Blitz”)

John Lawton’s BLUFFING MR. CHURCHILL (published in England as RIPTIDE) is the fourth installment of his Inspector Frederick Troy series and opens with a British retaliatory strike against Berlin as payback for the continued German blitz that was pounding London a year after Dunkirk.  At this point, Brigadefuhrer Wolfgang Stahl, a British spy realizes it is time for him to leave Germany as quickly as possible.

Stahl had joined the Nazi Party in 1929 and by 1934 he had wormed his way into the confidence of Reinhard Heydrich, a high-ranking SS police official and the architect of the Holocaust.  Stahl was in part able to get into his good graces because of his shared love of Mozart.  They would play together and discuss music for hours on end.  Once the bombing ended Stahl returned to his apartment house and found a body that was a similar to himself with its face blown off.  Stahl took the dead man’s identity and began to make his way out of Germany.  The problem for Stahl was that the suspicious Heydrich had the corpses hand shown to him and he realized that Stahl was not dead.  At this point Lawton has lured the reader into the story line and in true Lawton form provides historical fiction dealing with spy craft at its best.

(WALTER RICHARD) RUDOLF HESS German Nazi leader; flew to  Britain without Hitler's  knowledge in 1941 to attempt Stock Photo

(Rudolf Hess, Hitler’s Deputy)

Lawton will develop a number of plot lines.  The dominant story revolves around the search for Wolfgang Stahl who carries with him plans for the Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union. Obviously, the Nazis want him dead because he knew too much, and the British want him to learn what he knows.  A number of important characters emerge in the chase.  The most important are Lt. Colonel Alistair Ruthuen-Greene of the British Consulate, someone who had Churchill’s ear.  He convinces Captain Calvin M. Cormack III, an American stationed in Zurich who had been Stahl’s handler to accompany him to London to identify him.  Cormack was assigned to work with Walter Stilton, Chief Inspector at Scotland Yard to locate Stahl.  When they arrive in London, another thread that Lawton develops emerges, Hitler’s deputy, Rudolf Hess had flown from Berlin to Scotland and all wonder why he has done so.

Lawton has created a taught spy novel integrating fiction with historical fact.  Examples include the Bismarck  sinking the HMS Hood, disagreements between American intelligence and British MI5 over sharing German code information as well as the British hope that the United States would soon enter the war.  Further, the debate over whether to warn the Soviets that a German invasion was imminent is presented – but in reality, as early as April 1941 Stalin ignored British warnings as he did later the day before the actual invasion.

File:Winston Churchill 1941 photo by Yousuf Karsh.jpg

(Prime Minster Winston Churchill)

Lawton does an excellent job showing the reader the horrors of the blitz.  Descriptions of bombed out streets with only one building remaining abound as people shelter in the underground, and the Home Guard searches for bodies and civilians clear damage.  Lawton zeroes in on the English vernacular focusing on accents verbiage, and dialects.  It is easy for English characters to communicate with each other, but for men like Capt. Cormack he has difficulty understanding the British at times.

Real figures and events are inserted into the plot reflecting Lawton’s command of the historical information.  He accurately describes the British rationing system along with the death and destruction that Goering’s bombers reigned on England.  Winston Churchill, Lord Beaverbrook, H.G. Wells, and Robert Churchill, a distant cousin of the Prime Minister make appearances.

Many have argued that the war created an aura of commonality for the British people as all classes faced the Nazi terror.  Lawton examines this theme pointing out repeatedly it is more veneer than fact.  The core of the story revolves around Stilton and Cormack then joined by Sergeant Frederick Troy of Scotland Yard who refuse to share their own intelligence in the hunt for Stahl.  Once Stilton passes from the scene the Troy-Cormack relationship becomes very tricky when Cormack falls in love with Kitty Stilton, a police officer and daughter of Walter Stilton who also possesses a ravenous sexual appetite and is Troy’s former lover.  Further linking the two men is that both men have strong willed fathers, Cormack’s is a decorated general turned politician, and Troy’s a renown intellectual and diplomat who emigrated from Russia in 1910, as both men operate in the shadows of their fathers. Despite these issues the two men come together and foster a working relationship that is a key to solving the crimes at hand.

The novel slowly evolves into a tightly spun murder mystery with a number of victims.  It is an espionage thriller, but also a well thought out detective story.  The next book in the Troy series is FLESH WOUNDS where Kitty Stilton plays an interesting role and I have added it to the pile of books on my night table.

(Bomb damage in London during the “Blitz”)

THE STEADY RUNNING OF THE HOUR by Justin Go

 

(Mount Everest)

The events of the last few months have created a degree of escapism that I could never have foreseen.  What was required was a novel that would take hold of my mind and carry me off to another place and absorb my emotions and attention.  The void has been filled by Justin Go’s first novel, THE STEADY RUNNING OF THE HOUR, a story that is set during World War I and its aftermath and the period surrounding 2004.  It is an absorbing and provocative story that parallels two men who are chasing life’s cruelty and happiness.  Go does this by alternating chapters involving the two periods and focuses on a love affair that seems to have gone wrong for no apparent reason and a search for the roots of that love eighty years later as one of the author’s narrators tries to uncover what has gone wrong and how it will impact his future.  These men are not related but they each face similar feelings and choices.

The story begins in an intriguing fashion as Tristan Campbell, recently graduated from college with a degree in history and thinking about graduate school receives a letter from James Prichard a London solicitor.  It seems that an estate that dates to 1924 has not been settled and he might be the heir.  Campbell flies to London to learn the details and what is expected of him.  It seems that Ashley Willingham who in 1913 at the age of seventeen inherited an enormous estate from his uncle George Ridley.  Willingham who was adrift until he met Imogen Soames-Andersson spending a week with her falling deeply in love years later tells Mr. Prichard to alter his will seven days before he joins the British expedition that will climb Mount Everest.  The link between Willingham and Campbell is that Imogen’s sister is Campbell’s great grandmother.  The problem for Campbell is that he only has two months’ time to establish the link between his grandmother Charlotte Grafton who is possibly the daughter of Willingham and Imogen with himself.  If he is able to do, he will inherit a large fortune.

Willingham is quite a character.  He and Imogen, who is charming and rebellious, the model of the post-Edwardian woman meet and fall in love a week before his departure.  Once he crosses into France he is reported to have been killed at the Battle of the Somme, but days later he turns up alive recuperating in a French hospital.  Imogen rushes to his side, something happens, and she disappears.  Willingham is also an excellent mountain climber and he is chosen to be part of the Third British Expeditionary group that will try and climb Mount Everest. The attempt is made in 1924, but Willingham perishes.  For Campbell proof that Charlotte was Willingham and Imogen’s child is rather sketchy and because of the limitations of the estate’s trust  he must present sound documentation to qualify for the inheritance.  Go takes Campbell on a dramatic chase to find evidence of his lineage encompassing travels to London, Paris Stockholm, the Swedish and French countryside, Berlin, and across Iceland.  In doing so Campbell meets Mireille in a Parisian bar and begins to fall in love.

At the outset Go has created so many characters from different time periods it can become a bit confusing.  Perhaps a fictional family tree might be warranted.  However, once you digest who is who and what role they play in the story you will become hooked and not want to put the book down as Go develops the love affair of the Bohemian Imogen and Ashley who is drawn to adventure.  Go sends Campbell on somewhat of a wild goose chase to procure the evidence he needs.  In exploring the relationship amongst his primary characters Go delves into the barbarity of war, Post Traumatic Stress disorder, and the human need for companionship, love, and excitement.  Numerous examples pervade the story including the depravity of unleashing British soldiers into a no man’s land and their deaths.  The letters between Ashley and Imogen describing their needs which should be enough for their relationship to endure, and  Campbell’s confusion about life and what he hopes to accomplish dominate the story line.

Image: Members of 1924 Mount Everest expedition

(British 1924 Mt. Everest Expedition)

 

Go lays out many choices for his characters, a number of which are filled with irony as Willingham survives the Battle of the Somme and the remainder of the war only to die climbing Mount Everest – one might wonder if he suffered from a death wish.  The attraction and pull of Everest in all of its awe is clear throughout Willingham’s dialogue and letters.  Will conquering Everest allow him to recapture Imogen’s love?  Go has the ability to maintain a state of tension even if the outcome is already known.  He also has the ability to bring two historical periods together and mesh them with their characters, but in doing so he has not really explored the morality of the choices they make.

If you seek an escapist novel that will make wonderful beach reading (if they open up) or just to fill time in a meaningful and entertaining manner, Go’s first novel is a winner.  Since the book was published two years ago, I am hopeful he is hard at work on his next one!

 

[Image: 1924 Expedition Photo]
(Base camp on Mount Everest)

THE SILENT DEATH by Volker Kutscher

Berlin by night, 1930s? Street view,

Berlin by night, 1930s? Street view, Friedrichstraße, Berlin, Germany. Stock Photo

The late Philip Kerr had his Bernie Guenther series.  Ben Pastor has Martin Bora.  Now we have Volker Kutscher’s Gereon Rath character as an addition to the German civilian police/military police genre that depicts Berlin in the 1930s, crimes during World War II as well as the Cold War.  Kutscher has followed up his BABYLON BERLIN with the second in his Rath series entitled THE SILENT DEATH where he continues the exploits and personal journey of a flawed Berlin detective who has  a very unorthodox approach to police work, much to the chagrin of the higher ups in the Berlin Police Department.  As with the work of Kerr and Pastor, Kutscher takes the reader inside the thought process and life experiences of his protagonist in a meaningful way injecting outside influences on criminal investigation be it the role of the Gestapo, the SS, or as in THE SILENT DEATH Berlin in the 1930s with the Weimar Republic teetering on the edge, as the rise of the Nazi Party proceeds quite rapidly with all it engenders.

Berlin Inspector Rath has a checkered past.  He had been on the police force in Cologne, but an incident forced his relocation to Berlin as his father a police director in Cologne arranged his transfer.  He employs a “lone ranger” approach to police work and has little respect for those above him in the police hierarchy.  He is an engaging character who must survive in an atmosphere that seems to change every day.  Kutscher does a superb job conveying to the reader what Rath is up against as the noise from Nazi murders, crimes, and demonstrations form the background of daily life in Berlin in an addition to his own intemperate ways, i.e., “punching out” Deputy Inspector Frank Brenner for making fun of his last girlfriend, Charlotte Ritter who he was deeply in love with.

Police headquarters in Berlin, 1933 Stock Photo
(Berlin Police Headquarters 1930)

Kutscher has created an interesting plot line focusing in on the German movie industry as it seems to be moving away from “silent films” to “talkies.”  The problem is that there are producers and directors who do not see the new “talkies” approach as progress and may be involved in trying to sabotage the new type of film.  Enter Betty Winter, a silent film actress who is about to make her first talkies film when suddenly she is felled by a lighting system during the filming of her latest movie.  She is crushed and dies from the flames  – was it sabotage or was it an accident?

Rath is called in to investigate but soon runs out of favor with his superior, Detective Inspector Wilhelm Bohm, a stereotypical Prussian type who will remove him from the investigation of Winter’s death.  Rath refuses to allow Bohm to impede his investigation and continues his work.  It seems that sabotage may have gone awry as Heinrich Bellman, a producer who worked with Winter is up against Manfred Oppenberg another producer who is in competition over the new genre.  As this progresses, Oppenberg’s star Vivian Franck disappears and it is up to Rath to find her.  This competition forms the first thread that Kutscher develops.

The second thread involves Konrad Adenauer, the Mayor of Cologne.  Rath’s father Engelbert travels to Berlin to introduce his son to Adenauer who seeks his help.  It seems that Adenauer is being blackmailed over certain investments and financial transactions centered in Berlin involving the transfer of a Ford Motor plant to Cologne.  In addition to taking on this task for his father, Rath must deal with his removal from the Winter case and being tasked to deal with the Horst Wessel case.  Horst Ludwig Georg Erich Wessel, commonly known as Horst Wessel, was a Berlin leader of the Nazi Party’s stormtroopers, the Sturmabteilung. After his murder in 1930, he was made into a martyr for the Nazi cause by Joseph Goebbels.  Wessel is an interesting character who has the dubious distinction to having the official anthem of the Nazi Party dedicated to him.  Wessel in reality is murdered by Ali Hohler, the former pimp of the whore Wessel is involved with.  But for Goebbles, a master of “fake news” and propaganda it was a situation that he would take full advantage of.

As in the Wessel case, Kutscher has an excellent command of German history, a case in point is the death of Gustav Ernst Stresemann the German statesman who served as Chancellor in 1923 and Foreign Minister 1923–1929, during the Weimar Republic. He was co-laureate of the Nobel Peace Prize in 1926 and his death brought about the end for any hope for the success of the Weimar Republic.

The last thread that permeates the novel is Rath’s attempts to navigate the intricacies of surviving the Berlin police bureaucracy and leadership embodied in Wilhelm Bohm.  There are many fascinating characters that Kutscher develops including movie stars, producers, politicians, and gangsters.  The book itself is a gripping read from the perspective of criminal investigation, but also the tangled private life that Rath leads.  His love life is shambles as he is in love with Charlotte who dumped him six months before Winters death, Kathi, the woman he lived with who he turned away, and his own past.

As in the tradition of Kerr and Pastor, Kutscher’s work is well worth exploring if you enjoy period crime novels subsumed with good historical fiction.  In the present instance the reader must sort out the deaths of a number of actresses and determine if a serial killer is involved.  Newspapers have already made up their minds which in part gets Rath into further trouble with his superiors.  At times, the plot seems to meander, but in the end, Kutscher produces a rousing closure.  Having completed  THE SILENT DEATH,  I look forward to reading the next installment in the series, GOLDSTEIN.

(Berlin, 1930)

THE LAST TRAIN TO LONDON by Meg Waite Clayton

Night view of Vienna, 1937

Night view of Vienna, 1937 Stock Photo

One might ask do we need another novel that deals with Nazi Germany and the Holocaust.  However, with Meg Waite Clayton’s newest book, THE LAST TRAIN TO LONDON I believe we have a novel that explores a topic that has not been mined by writers that extensively.  The story is set in the 1930s involving the Kindertransport rescue of ten thousand children from Hitler’s grasp in occupied Europe and the true story of Geetruida Wijsmuller-Meijer, a childless Dutch woman known as Tante Truus.  The story’s backdrop is Vienna as Austria is about to be victimized by an Anschluss (union) with Germany.  At the time Jews did very well in the Austrian capitol but once it was taken over by the Nazis after an earlier coup attempt in the early 1930s the plight of the Jews begins to sharpen.  Soon Kristallnacht (the night of the broken glass) will take place in November 1938 and the handwriting is literally on the wall for Vienna’s Jewish community.

As 1937 approaches  Tante Truus has already spent several years risking her life crisscrossing the border to spirit Jewish children out of Germany.  She is a fearless woman with an agile mind who is able to employ her charm with Nazi border guards in order to maneuver her charges out of a number of dangerous situations.  She is dismayed as country after country refuse to accept desperate children seeking asylum from Nazi Germany.  Despite the increasing danger of her missions she is driven to save as many lives as she can before it is too late.

Mrs Wijsmuller brought voice from Date: May 30, 1962 Location: Amsterdam, Noord-Holland Keywords: ballots Personal name: Mrs Wijsmuller! nassaukade Stock Photo

(Tante Truus)

Enter fifteen-year old Stephan Neuman, the Jewish heir to a great chocolate making fortune.  Stephan sees himself as a budding playwright and pays no attention to the political events swirling around him.  He becomes smitten with Zofie-Helene, a brilliant math prodigy whose mother, Kathe Perger edits a progressive newspaper which is overly critical of the Nazi regime.  The two adolescents enjoy each other’s company, but their carefree life is upended as Hitler’s troops begin to threaten the annexation of Austria.

Clayton is a superb writer who has constructed a mesmerizing story of danger, sacrifice, bravery, and a commitment to confront evil.  Her plot seems to run on two tracks.  First, the wealthy Neuman family focusing on the mother stricken with cancer, her husband Herman, and their two sons Stephan, seventeen, and Walter, five.  They will be removed from their palatial home at the outset, split up into a Vienna ghetto and Dachau.  This track includes the Perger family with Zolfie-Helene as the center piece.  The second track zeros in on Tante Truus who is working with the Netherlands Children’s Refugee Committee and its English allies led by Norman and Helen Bentwich to remove as many children from Nazi hands in Austria.

These tracks focus on a number of historical events that will drive the story; the Evian Conference called by President Franklin D. Roosevelt, which was invoked by the United States as a coverup for their lack of a refugee policy and fears of letting too many Jews into the United States.  Further the Anschluss between Austria and Germany and the disaster it presented Viennese Jews, and lastly, Kristallnacht which led to murder of Jews, seizure of their homes, business, and property, imprisonment, and banishment from Austrian society. The book is permeated with details of Austrian-Dutch political debates at the time through Kathe’s newspaper articles that are integrated into the novel and one witnesses the slow deterioration of Austria’s Jews in the process.

One of the many overriding dilemmas facing Jews at this time was who could they trust.  Stephen’s uncle by marriage to his aunt Lisle, Michael who is not Jewish divorces his wife, supposedly to save her, and at the same time takes over the chocolate business in order to keep it out of Nazi hands.  He promises to take care of Mutti, Stephan’s terminally ill mother, as well as his brother.  But even before the German invasion, he had become extremely alienated from his wife and her decadent “art collection” who then flees Vienna for Shanghai as her husband moves closer to Nazi principles.  Stephan is placed in the difficult position of not knowing if he can trust the lives of his family with him.

Clayton carefully describes Tante Tuss’ separate missions to Germany from Amsterdam to rescue children, then her focus shifts to leading children from Hamburg to freedom.  Her rescue mission is raised to a different level when the British government under pressure from Lionel de Rothschild and Viscount Samuels agree at first to allow 600 Jewish children between the ages of four and seventeen for temporary resettlement in England.  The measure was to be funded privately and all the government had to do was issue visas.  The angst which precedes each mission is further heightened when Germany’s sadistic head of the program in Vienna, Adolph Eichmann threatened to withdraw the offer if the smallest detail was not met.  Eichmann believed the fastest way to make Germany judenrein (rid of Jews) was to give them a choice of death, living in poverty, expulsion, or emigration to lesser countries.  Clayton describes in detail Tante Tuss interactions with Eichmann and the pressure that was placed on her and her own family in trying to save the children.

Clayton relies on a great deal of primary and secondary research which is the backbone of her novel.  Historical events and figures receive an accurate portrayal along with character development to present a truly absorbing work of fiction.  The structure of the novel is based on the author’s style of no chapter numbers, just headings that provide date and location or topic.  Many chapters are five pages or less, and others are as short as a paragraph.  The result is an engrossing read about a topic that highlights the inhumanity of Nazi immigration practices and the mostly lacking response by the world community, particularly the United States.

Stock photo of Austria Vienna Schoenbrunn Palace, Vienna, Austria

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Austria Vienna Schoenbrunn Palace, Vienna, Nov 18, 1937

THE WINTER SOLDIER by Daniel Mason

2 G55 F1 1915 8 Fatally Wounded in French Field Hospital History WWI France Fatally Wounded in a Field Hospital Stock Photo
(World War I Field Hospital)

Recently I read Daniel Mason’s THE PIANO TUNER and I enjoyed it immensely.  This led me to his next book, THE WINTER SOLDIER a novel dealing with the end of the Austro-Hungarian Empire as a young medical student Lucien Krzelewski joins the army with the outbreak of World War I and is sent to a small village in the Galician Carpathian mountains called Lemnowice, the site of an aid station at the Church of Our Lady of Lemnowice.  The story encompasses a range of human emotions, the brutality of war, and an individual’s need to fulfill a void in his life and make up for what he perceives to be an error that haunts him.  Mason employs a number of characters that range from aristocrats who have seen better days, young men destroyed by war, a nurse that Lucien cannot put behind him, and a number of historical figures.

Mason’s portrayal reflects the bureaucratic incompetence of the Austrian army, the remnants of the Victorian Age at the conclusion of the Habsburg monarchy, and the desperation that war creates for individuals who long for a degree of normalcy.  Mason writes with verve and the ability to employ humor as it pertained to Austrian society, in addition to expressing the humanity of Lucien who finds himself in an untenable situation.  Lucien has not graduated from medical school and has limited practical medical experience.  He finds himself thrust into a situation with soldiers arriving for treatment for limbs that need amputation, neurological issues that today we refer to PTSD, wounds to the abdomen and other parts of the body.  He has never conducted surgery and feels inferior to the nurses he must work with.  One in particular, Margarete from the Sisters of St. Catherine takes him under her wing to fill in the gaps in his education.

The Eastern Front, where troops from Germany, Austria-Hungary, Turkey, Russia, and the Balkans fought, was larger than the Western Front.

The novel centers around Lucien’s attempts to overcome how overwhelmed he feels as he tries to treat his patients in a humane manner with limited supplies, freezing weather, and the shifting battle between the Hungarian Hussars and Russian Cossacks.  Mason reflects on the horrors of war as Lucien does his best, but many succumb after clinging to life.  One patient in particular, Sergeant Jozef Horvath encapsulates the situation that Lucien finds himself in.  Most of Lucien’s training had been in neurology and he believes he knows what is best for Horvath who has been diagnosed with nervenshock with symptoms that seem taken from psychiatrist, Robert Jay Lifton’s  landmark book on surviving trauma, DEATH IN LIFE.  Lucien does his best to deal with Horvath’s symptoms but he will lose the patient to a sadistic German officer who believes that people who suffer from combat fatigue/shell shock or whatever battlefield malady exists to be shirkers and deserters and he rips him out of Lucien’s care.  Lucien cannot get over this and blames himself for the loss of his patient.

The fate of Horvath and Lucien’s inability to let go produces nightmares and difficulty in coming to terms with what has occurred creating a major subtext of the novel.  The second subtext revolves around Lucien’s relationship with Sister Margarete who seem to fall in love with each other.  After an outing Lucien and Margarete become separated and he will spend a good part of the story searching for her as she is his first love and cannot accept that fact she is gone.  As the war winds down Lucien returns to Vienna where his mother decides he must marry which zeroes in on Lucien’s inadequacies and memories of his war experiences as he is placed in charge of a rehabilitation hospital in Vienna by his former medical school professor.

Stock photo of Vienna at the Beginning of World War I, 1914
(Vienna during World War I)

Mason has excellent command of historical and geographical detail as well as the clash of old Victorian Austria destroyed by the war and the new Austria that will be created at the Paris Peace Conference.  Once the war ends it is ironic that Lucien is deemed unworthy of being a doctor by the new Austrian government that argues that a physician at war is not well rounded enough and must return to medical school.

Mason who is a professor of psychiatry at Stanford is well placed to write a novel that deals with PTSD as he brings Lucien through his training, experiments on animals, and the dearth of facilities and care for patients.  It is a story of redemption as Lucien is pulled in many directions as he deals with his own feelings of inadequacy and loss at a time when Europe is undergoing a complete transformation as is Lucien and the patients he treats because of the cruelty of war and the incompetence of those who cause it.

A British Red Cross hospital in France during the conflict which claimed 6 000 men s lives per day

(World War I Field Hospital)

THE PATRIOTS by Sara Krasikov

A photo of Gulag prisoners in Perm (undated).
(A photo of Gulag prisoners in Perm (undated).

In March 1953, the Russian people could breathe a sigh of relief with the death of Joseph Stalin. From 1929 to 1953 roughly 15 million people were exiled to what Alexander Solzhenitsyn framed as the Gulag Archipelago and another 7-8 million were sent to other parts of the Soviet Union resulting in the deaths of countless millions. Stalin’s paranoid motivation was to seek scapegoats for starvation caused by forced collectivization and the purges and show trials that followed during the course of the 1930s. The Great Patriotic War against the Nazis produced another 20 million casualties and following its conclusion Stalin’s paranoia visa vie the west heightened resulting in the increase in internal deportations to the Gulag sweeping up hundreds of thousands or perhaps millions more. At the time of his death Stalin had organized an antisemitic campaign known as the Doctor’s Plot.  In 1951–1953, a group of predominantly Jewish doctors from Moscow were accused of a conspiracy to assassinate Soviet leaders resulting the arrests of numerous Jews and possibly laying the groundwork for a massive pogrom of Russia’s Jewish population. Once Stalin died in early March 1953 the “collective leadership” instituted an amnesty that led to the release of hundreds of thousands of exiled prisoners.

The tension, fears, and horrors of the Stalinist system as well as life in Russia under Vladimir Putin are accurately portrayed with compassion by Sara Krasikov in her novel THE PATRIOTS. In her opening scene we meet Florence Fein as she arrives at the train station in Saratov having just been released from exile after seven years. Her twelve-year-old son Julian is present to meet her, but he hardly recognized her and chose to return to his orphanage. From this point Krasikov dives into the lives of her main characters, a number of which represent a dysfunctional American family who will acquire a Russian branch when Florence Fein decides to move to Russia to volunteer her service for the Soviet regime. Fein is the main protagonist as we follow her idealistic journey to Stalin’s planned city of Magnitogorsk past the Ural Mountains. Jewish from the Flatbush section of Brooklyn she had grown dissatisfied with the inequalities of American life during the depression. Bored and tired of her daily routine she had no idea what forces would be unleashed and what evils she would witness and come to accept in acts of expediency to her idealistic vision for the Soviet system.

Cenzura.

(Stalin visiting an area of the Gulag)

Krasikov will develop the dysfunctional family she has created decade by decade alternating lives and experiences of family members in segmented chapters. There is Florence Fein and her husband Leon Brink, who had been born in New York, abandoned by his father he would become a journalist for a foreign outlet of the Russian news agency TASS. Their son Julian, also known as Yulik born near the Volga River in 1979 would return to America and become an engineer who had expertise in “ice breakers.”  He would travel to Russia for his company as oil is discovered in the Russian Artic. While in Russia he sought to convince his own son Lenny who had been working for nine years at a Russian equity firm before he was let go to return to the United States. Numerous other characters appear as Krasikov takes the reader through the 1930s and post war period and what it was like to live under Stalin. She shifts to the period after the collapse of the Soviet Union and focuses on Putin’s plutocracy and the difficulties it posed for the lives of ordinary Russians. Throughout the novel the issue of moral clarity continuously emerges.  Decisions that characters must make are up against conforming to Soviet principles or doing what is ethically correct no matter what the psychological and physical price that must be paid.

Among the other characters Krasikov develops is Grigory Gregorevitch Timofeyev, Florence’s boss at the Soviet State Bank who taught her how to achieve proletariat respectability. Comrade Subotin, the typical NKVD functionary will entrap Florence to observe her colleagues at the Institute of Philosophy, History, and Literature and betray her friend by giving false testimony to be used in Stalin’s Show Trials. Ivan (Vanya) Kablukov head of corporate security at L-Pet will try and blackmail Julian to support his companies shipping bid as a means to procure millions in kickbacks under the Putinist system. Alyosha “Alcoholic” a friend of Lenny who reflects the decadence of Putin’s Russia. Seldon Parker, Leon’s friend who along with Florence worked at the Jewish anti-Fascist Committee, and later would become a target of the secret police.  Essie Frank, Florence’s close friend who she met on the ship carrying them across the Atlantic on their voyage to Russia, later she would betray her to the NKVD. Captain Henry Robbins, an American Air Force pilot shot down over Korea and imprisoned in the Gulag would become Florence’s savior. There are many other important characters on display who allow the author to delve into the intricacies of the two time periods of Russian history she explores.

Lubyanka is headquarters of the FSB (KGB) and affiliated prison on Lubyanka Square in Meshchansky District of Moscow, Russia. It is a large Neo-Baroque building with a facade of yellow brick.
(Lubyanka Prison, home of the NKVD, KGB, and now FSB)

Krasikov’s mastery of history is on full display no matter what events she  chronicles. For example, the murder of Sergei Kirov, the Leningrad Party Secretary on December 1, 1934. His popularity was seen by Stalin as a threat to his leadership and after a Cheka investigation it was found that Kirov “camouflaged enemies in the employ of foreign intelligence.”  All the historical evidence points to a NKVD hit ordered by Stalin which touched off the Show Trials of the late 1930s as Stalin needed a scapegoat for the millions who succumbed to starvation during collectivization. The dialogue reflects Soviet revolutionary verbiage throughout as does the descriptions of employment, the distribution of living space, and access to commodities.

Another historical example is the visit of the new Israeli Foreign Minister, Golda Meyerson (Meir) to Moscow in 1949 and its implications for Florence, Leon, and a number of other characters. In many cases Krasikov’s language emits sarcasm and humor, but in most cases, it is dark reflecting the plight of her characters. These traits are on full display as Florence has difficulties understanding all the people “unmasked” as enemies of the state that appeared daily in newspapers. Russia supposedly suffered “from a collective muteness that permeated the nation” as “wreckers and saboteurs” were responsible for industrial accidents and not meeting the quotas set by state five-year plans.

The Mystery of the Kirov Assassination

(Sergei Kirov)

 

Krasikov’s historical analysis embedded within the novel is clear and accurate. Her description of Ambassador to the Soviet Union, Joseph Davies reflects the tools of a historian as she develops his views and relationship to Franklin D. Roosevelt. Her commentary on pre-war and post-war events and their impact on the Soviet Union and the United States is top notch. Insights into the behavior of historical figures be it Stalin’s or Putin’s lackeys is eve opening. The amount of historical research that Krasikov engaged in creates a sound infrastructure for the entire fictional account that rings of truth.

The novel engages in a number of storylines that seem interchangeable. The key one that brings everything full circle revolves around Julian’s frustration and attempts to understand why his mother acted the way she did and clung to her idealistic beliefs when the evidence  that should have shattered them did not move her. Further, he could not comprehend why his parents hid the fact that they were trying to leave the Soviet Union right before they were arrested. In addition, he could not fathom why his mother survived and his father did not. Part of the reason Julian travels to the Soviet Union on business in 2008 is to get a hold of the KGB dossier on his parents to try and learn the truth in Putin’s Russia where everyone seems out to extort you.

Sretenka Street in Moscow, 1930

Sretenka Street in Moscow, 1930 Stock Photo

Nathaniel Rich writes in his review entitled “The Patriots’ Charts a Family’s Reverse Journey From Brooklyn to the Gulag,” New York Times, January 24, 2017 that THE PATRIOTS is a historical romance in the old style: multigenerational, multinarrative, intercontinental, laden with back stories and historical research, moving between scrupulous detail and sweeping panoramas, the first person voice and a kaleidoscopic third, melodrama and satire, Cleveland in 1933 and Moscow in 2008.  It contains a wartime romance, a gulag redemption story, a kleptocratic comedy of manners, a family saga.”  Who could ask for anything more? This is a superb novel that stays with you long after you put it down. Explore and enjoy as this is a work of literature that warns us about authoritarian tendencies actions, and its ultimate danger – its insidiousness that traps the lives of its citizens under the weight of its boot.

(It would be an understatement to describe the gulags as hellacious. Inmates would toil on large-scale construction, industrial, and mining projects for at least 14 hours per day in the harsh subzero winter conditions of Eastern Europe. Without any safety equipment, prisoners were expected to chop down trees, dig up dirt, and pick through the frozen ground with rudimentary and ineffective tools and their bare hands.)

 

A DARK SONG OF BLOOD by Ben Pastor

(June, 1944, the liberation of Rome)

One of the best ways to study and learn about the events and personalities of World War II is through historical fiction.  The genre has produced a myriad of authors of which the late Philip Kerr whose main character Bernie Gunther a sarcastic and wise cracking Gestapo officer from the 1930s onward is special.  Gunther despised the Nazi regime and was able to navigate the politics and horror in his own pursuit of justice.  With the passing of Kerr another author has attracted my attention, Ben Pastor who has created the character of Martin-Heinz von Bora , a Major in the Wehrmacht who finds SS and Gestapo policies to be abhorrent, but believes in Germany and is willing to fight for his country as he did on the eastern front.  Bora is tasked to investigate a series of murders in Pastor’s series and he too must navigate the minefield that is Nazi vendettas and murders.  In Pastor’s third iteration of her Bora novels, A DARK SONG OF BLOOD, Bora finds himself in Italy in early 1944 as the allies are making their way toward Rome and he is assigned to investigate three murders; first a secretary at the German Embassy, Magda Reiner; his former tutor and mentor Cardinal Hohmann; and Baroness Marina Fonseca, a close friend of the Cardinal.

BHC 000406 General Mark Clark and Geoffrey Keyes in Rome 1944

(General Mark Clark, Commander US Fifth Army, accompanied by MajGen Geoffrey keyes, Commander US II Corps, proudly stand at the gates of Rome, the prize that Clark had striven so hard to make his own.)

Bora must work with Sandro Guidi an inspector in the Italian Police Department.  The two men have a tenuous relationship that played out in Pastor’s previous novel LIAR MOON, and their attitude toward each other has carried over to Pastor’s new novel.   Bora is a tortured individual as he related to Guidi in imparting his feelings about his brother, a pilot who was killed on the Russian front.  Bora maintains a great deal of guilt as he believes he was responsible for his brother’s death after convincing him to enlist.  Further, he was forced to identify the body after his brother crashed.  Bora is also haunted by his experiences that took place at Stalingrad as Germany sieged the city for over 900 days.  Later in the war Bora would suffer a catastrophic injury losing a hand to a terror explosion in Lagos, Italy which also resulted in a nasty limp.  Bora’s marriage is under a great deal of strain as his wife Dikta resents his service in the army and the fact she has seen him for only three months out of five years of marriage.

(General Albert Kesselring)

At the outset Pastor’s story is a bit uneven.  We know the death of Magda Reiner resulted from a fall from a fourth-floor window at the German Embassy which has reacquainted Bora and Guidi to investigate.  Pastor also introduces an inordinate number of characters very quickly which requires the reader to pay careful attention.  It takes about a hundred pages for the reader to feel comfortable and once the information is digested the novel is easier to navigate as events build upon each other, particularly the relationship between Bora and Guidi.

Bora is a decent man who finds himself in an untenable situation.  He suffers from nightmares and guilt related to the death of his brother and his activities rooting out partisans on the Russian front.  To further unsettle Bora his wife Dikta will visit only to inform him that she has had their marriage annulled.  He is a sensitive person for the most part and all he desires is for the war to end so he can remarry and raise a family.  Guidi, Pastor’s secondary protagonist lives in a rooming house with a series of interesting characters one of which is Francesca, a pregnant young woman who he finds he is falling in love with.  The problem is the identity of the father, possibly Antonio Rau who may be a member of the Italian resistance.  His relationship with Pietro Caruso, the Police Chief of Rome is flawed to say the least and eventually Caruso will fire Guidi and try and have him executed.  Bora will step in to save Guidi, but their relationship remains “iffy” as they try and solve three murders as various Nazi and Italian officials create numerous roadblocks inhibiting their progress.

Stock photo of WWII Execution Of Rome Police Chief, Rome, Italy

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(WWII Execution Of Rome Police Chief, Pietro Caruso)

One of the strengths of good historical fiction is the blending of a story with factual information with real events.  Further, the integration of historical figures and fictional characters is a seamless way to enhance any plot.  Pastor possesses these strengths in abundance witnessed by Bora’s interactions with his superior General Siegfried Westphal who had been an operations officer under General Edwin Rommel and was now Chief of Staff for General Albert Kesselring.  Other historical figures who are intertwined in the story include, Rome’s Nazi SS Chief Colonel Herbert Kappler, Pietro Caruso the Police Chief of Rome, General Maelzer, the Nazi Commandant of Rome, and SS General Karl Wolfe among others.

The suspects in the three murders appear unrelated, but they are numerous.  In the case of Reiner, Pietro Caruso, SS Captain Egon Sutor a former lover, and Rodolfo Merlo, the Secretary-General of the National Confederation of Fascist Unions are all strong possibilities.  As far as the deaths of Cardinal Hohmann and Baroness Fonseca evidence points to a crime of passion and a dual suicide which Bora refuses to accept.

Pastor is able to bring all of these elements to the fore and slowly unravels a plot that brings the murders, Nazi obstructionism, and allied movements together in creating a strong addition to the historical fiction relating to World War II.  In my mind Martin Bora has replaced Bernie Gunther to satisfy my need for a World War II historical fiction fix and I look forward to reading, TIN SKY, Pastor’s fourth novel in the series which shifts to events in the Ukraine.

How an American spy helped liberate Rome, 75 years ago
Allied troops in liberated Rome. Photo: War Office/Imperial War Museums

APEIROGON: A NOVEL by Colum McCann

(Israeli settlers waving the flag at Palestinian demonstrators by the “separation wall”)

The Palestinian-Israeli conflict has transpired for at least a century if one accepts the Balfour Declaration as its origin in 1917 and it developed into an ongoing struggle for its participants in 1948 with the creation of the state of Israel.  After numerous wars, intifadas, and a daily application of violence the toll on all people has been horrendous.  With that as a background Colum McCann introduces his latest novel, APEIROGON an attempt to provide insight into suffering and the intangibles that allow this conflict to persist to this day.  According to the dictionary an apeirogon is “a polygon having an infinite number of sides and vertices” which fits the structure of McCann’s work.  The author describes his new book as “a hybrid novel with invention at its core, a work of storytelling, weaves together elements of speculation, memory, fact, and imagination” the core of which is the relationship between Rami Elhanan, a sixty-seven year old Israeli whose daughter, Smadar was killed in a 1997 suicide bombing in Jerusalem, and Bassam Aramin, a forty-eight year old Palestinian whose daughter, Abir was killed by an Israeli rubber bullet on the West Bank in 2007.  McCann’s inspiration to write the novel is the real-life friendship between Rami and Bassam, two men united in their grief and their life’s work was to tell the story of what happened to their daughters.  The book is labeled a novel but in reality, it is a combination of fiction and non-fiction whose events are recognizable to those who follow the region, though even what appears to be fiction can be categorized as real.

McCann employs birds as a symbolic means of describing the plight of the Palestinian and to a lesser extent the Israeli people.  The migratory birds who travel freely know no boundaries which is in sharp contrast to the limitation of movement for the Palestinian people who must navigate “the Wall” constructed by the Israeli government to separate the West Bank and Israel, the numerous military checkpoints that are employed by the Israeli government, and the Israeli policy of apartheid.

The retelling of Rami and Bassam’s life histories is poignant.  Rami fought in the 1973 Yom Kippur War is married with four children living in Jerusalem with a career as a graphic artist.  Bassam was a militant in his youth and at seventeen was imprisoned, beaten and tortured.  He would remain incarcerated for seven years and upon his release his life took a different turn as he pursued poetry, married and became the father of five children.  His family lived in the village of Anata which is located next to the Shu’fat refugee camp.

Israel is a society under constant surveillance either by the Mossad, military patrol, satellites, and blimps.  McCann effectively describes Rami’s dilemma as a person who has seen too much violence and believes that peace can only come through honest negotiations and compromise.  He “often felt that there were nine or ten Israelis inside him, fighting.  The conflicted one. The shamed one.  The enamored one.  The bereaved one.  The one who marveled at the blimp’s invention.  The one who knew the blimp was watching.  The one watching back.  The one who wanted to be watched.  The anarchist.  The protestor.  The one sick and tired of all the seeing.”  Bassam would go on to co-found Combatants for Peace which is used by McCann to delve into Israeli-Palestinian frustrations and hatred for the status quo as he explores the daily indignities that the Palestinian people experience.

Map of West Bank

McCann defines the effect of the Nakba on the Palestinian people, and the effect of the Holocaust on Israelis.  He compares the two and how they have similar meanings to their individual victims.  McCann integrates the history of the Holocaust and the Palestinian-Israeli conflict throughout.  The removal of Palestinians from their homes during the 1948 war, life in refugee camps along with a very disturbing description of Theresienstadt, and Smadar’s grandfather’s inability to discuss surviving the concentration camps for many decades comes to the fore.  Bassam will travel to England to enroll in Bradford University to earn an advanced degree in Holocaust studies.  He wanted to talk and learn about the use of the past as a means of justifying the present.  “About the helix of history, one moment bound to the next.  About where the past intersected with the future.”  For Bassam he needed clarity for the past, present, and the future.

Rami and Bassam met at a hotel picnic table where eight Israelis and three Palestinians were gathering for the Combatants for Peace.  Rami had founded his own organization Parents Circle and was curious when his son Elik had invited him to attend.  To be a member of the Circle one had to have lost a child, to be one of the bereaved.  This was the beginning of an important personal relationship as Rami and Bassam would learn to lean on each other in crisis’.

Numerous historical figures appear throughout McCann’s rendition of the Palestinian-Israeli crisis.  Biblical figures abound, Roman history is recounted, the 19th century explorer-philosopher, Sir Richard Burton, Albert Einstein, Sigmund Freud, Mohammad Ali, John Kerry, Yasir Arafat, Pablo Picasso, Philippe Petit, General Matti Peled, Smadar’s grandfather and peace advocate, and George Mitchell, the last person who was tasked to bring peace to the region.  McCann accurately describes the “smashed jigsaw” that Mitchell confronted that included PLO, JDL, LEHI, PFLP, ALA, PIJ, CPT, IWPS, ICAHD, AIC, AATW, EIJ, JTJ, ISM, AEI, NIF, ACRI, RHR, BDS, PACBI, BNC and the difficulty of deciding where to begin.

To compare the raw emotions that Rami and Bassam have dealt with is heart rendering.  But also, the realization by Rami that it is “a disaster to discover the humanity of your enemy, his nobility, because then he is not your enemy anymore, he just can’t be.”  As each has to deal with the Israeli bureaucracy and military as it tries to learn the plight of their daughters on the day they were murdered is heart wrenching.  It is symbolic of the time period in which we live.  Novels dealing with this topic are at times a product of events. In the 1990s with the Oslo Accords, novelists could be more upbeat, but today as each side has retreated into belligerent isolation with Donald Trump making a farce of the peace process it is not surprising what McCann delivers in his novel.  But the lesson that emerges is that “the only revenge is making peace.”

As Julie Orringer writes in her New York Times, February 24, 2020 review, “Apeirogon is an empathy engine, utterly collapsing the gulf between teller and listener.  By replicating the messy nonlinear passage of time, by dealing in unexpected juxtapositions that reveal latent truths, it allows us to inhabit the interiority of human beings who are not ourselves.  It achieves its aim by merging acts of imagination and extrapolation with historical fact.  But it’s indisputably a novel, and to my mind, an exceedingly important one.  It does far more than make an argument for peace; it is, itself, an agent of change.”

“I began to think, Rami tells us in his central chapter, that I had stumbled upon the most important question of them all:  What can you do personally, in order to try and help prevent this unbearable pain for others?

McCann has registered his answer, one so powerful that it impels us to find our own.”

The Separation Wall and the Sh'uafat Refugee Camp are seen following a snow storm, on February 20, 2015. Yotam Ronen / Activestills.org

(Separation wall between Israel and the West Bank)

THE GODS OF GOTHAM by Lynsay Faye

Map of Broadway and Anne Over Time

(New York City in the 1840s)

I am always looking for realistic historical fiction, which is both accurate and creative.  It must reflect the time period it encompasses, and its fictional and non-fictional characters must be believable.  In the case of Lynsay Faye’s novel, THE GODS OF GOTHAM I was pleasantly surprised.  The book introduces Timothy and Valentine Wilde, two brothers that are as opposite as day and night.  Orphaned in childhood because of a fire they survived in New York City’s underworld in the 1820s and 30s.  Timothy will emerge as a strong individual who is hard working and honest, his brother Val will become what his brother describes as an alcoholic, drug addict, extortionist, thief, gambler, cheat, corrupt and violent, but he loves him in his own way.

Faye’s novel is the first of a trilogy involving Timothy Wilde as her main character.  After surviving a devastating fire in New York City in 1845, loosing everything Timothy rebuilds by accepting a position as a police officer in a department that was newly created because of what seemed to be daily murders on the city’s streets.   Wilde will make an excellent policeman as he is able to maximize his intuitive skills he learned as a bartender.  His brother Val becomes an officer on the force and the two of them make quite a combination as Val does not exhibit the same empathy and altruism of his brother.  Faye’s plot is fully integrated with the atmosphere in New York City in the 1840s.  The issues of Irish immigration, nativism, the corruption of city government, and the debauchery that runs rampant is background to what appears to be a mass murder of twenty two people, a number of which are children who appear to be Irish and are employed at Silkie Marsh’s brothel.

(Newspaper row (Park Row) in New York City in the 1840s)

Faye posses a superb knowledge of New York City politics, night life, characters endemic to the city, its culture, and its numerous ethnicities.  The odors of the city come across vividly to the reader and helps establish an ambiance that places one in a different time period.  Faye is able to capture the bigotry against Irish Catholics in a meaningful way from the outset of the novel, as she delves into the hatred for the Irish poor that saw over a million people leave their homes in Ireland because of the almost genocidal attitudes of the British government in the 1840s and their response to the potato blight and famine.  The corruption of ward politics is on full display reflected in the machinations of the Democratic Party and how its dispensed jobs and social services to the city’s inhabitants.  In fact, that patronage system is how Timothy and Valentine became policemen in the first place.

The new police department would be headed by Justice George Washington Matsell, a rather short, balding, large man who will surprise the reader with his cleverness and intellectual dexterity.  Other important characters include the reverend Underhill and his daughter Mercy, who Timothy will love no matter what behaviors she engages in.  Bird Daley, a precocious ten-year-old who witnesses the burial of most of the bodies and accidentally runs into Timothy on the street creating an interesting friendship.  Mrs. Boehm, a wonderful woman who makes end meet as a baker.  Dr. Peter Palsgrave whose actions will shock the reader.  Father Connor Sheehy of St. Patrick’s Cathedral.  Jacob Piest, a brilliant investigator.  Silkie Marsh, a madame who knows where all the secrets are buried, and numerous Irish immigrants and street toughs whose lives are in a constant battle for survival.

Faye has created an interesting juxtaposition between two brethren with different moral codes.  One a tool of a corrupt political system, the other a bit naive with a strong sense of right and wrong.  Faye has also captured the street vernacular that existed at the time and lends itself to the book’s authenticity.  The undercurrent that pervades the novel is carefully crafted and historically accurate as Chief Matsell and his force try and keep the bodies secret for fear that if the truth emerged and the murderer was Irish it could touch off violent riots that would result in the deaths of countless people.  In addition, if the murders took place under the auspices of the Democratic Party, the Whigs would replace them in power.  As you read the book one wonders who the possible serial killer might be.  Is it Valentine, perhaps a Protestant trying to create a situation that would send the Irish back across the Atlantic, or is it Silkie Marsh and her hired hands?  The end result will surprise you as Faye weaves a web that is difficult to dissect.

If you are a fan of Caleb Carr’s works or the film “Gangs of New York” the novel should whet your appetite and be very satisfying.  It is an unsettling read at times, but if you want a feel for a city that grew from about 60,000 in 1800 to half a million in just fifty years this book will offer many insights that can explain what such a demographic explosion could lead to.

 

Map of Broadway and Anne Over Time

(New York City in the 1840s)