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)

THE KING’S DECEPTION by Steve Berry

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(Queen Elizabeth I of England)

Every few months after reading a series of authors I always seem to come back to Steve Berry.  He is a superb purveyor of historical fiction that seems about 90% fact and 10% artistic license.  Picking up another Berry volume is like satisfying a fix for someone seeking a history lesson wrapped inside a taut mystery that involves complex, yet fascinating characters.  In my latest adventure, THE KING’S DECEPTION, Berry as usual does not disappoint as he transports the reader back to Tudor England with Henry VIII near death imparting an important secret to his sixth wife, Katherine Parr.  The thought that immediately comes to mind is what could this possibly have to do with Cotton Malone, a former Justice Department agent for the Magellan Billet, his son Gary, and a boy named Ian Dunne who as a favor to his former boss Stephanie Nelle has agreed to transport to London and turn him over to the Metropolitan Police.  The problem for Malone begins as soon as he lands in London both boys are kidnapped.

As with all of his books within the first hundred pages Berry has developed a number of conflicting plot lines that are very disparate, and one wonders how they can all come together.  As is his forte, Berry has created a series of tracks for the novel to rest.  First, is personal as Malone’s ex-wife Pam has recently told him that his son Gary is not his biological child.  Second,  Daedalus, a secret organization whose duty is “Domine, salvam fac Regnam,” which translated means, “Oh Lord, keep the queen safe.” What queen they serve is part of the mystery.  Third, a rogue CIA agent named Blake Antrim who has a professional and personal agenda that will shock Malone, the CIA and others.  Third, the upcoming release by Scotland Yard of Abdelbaset al-Megrahi, a former Libyan intelligence officer convicted in 1988 of 270 counts of murder for bombing Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland.  Fourth, what game is MI6, under the leadership of Sir Thomas Matthews playing.  Lastly, the roles of secondary characters like Kathleen Richards, an agent for London’s Serious Organized Crime Agency (England’s version of the FBI), Miss Mary, the owner of “Any Old Bookstore” in Piccadilly Square and her twin sister Tanya, and Farrow Curry, a CIA contract analyst who was murdered when he was close to breaking Robert Cecil, Elizabeth I and James I Chief Minister’s code hidden in his journal.

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(The Great Hall, Hampton Court Palace, England)

The United States was incensed that London refused to pressure Scotland to block the release of al-Megrahi and the CIA was trying to block the British from doing so.  The King’s Deception was the CIA plan to prevent his release.  As he brings all of these strands together, Berry integrates a great deal of historical information.  Berry returns us to the machinations of the Tudor Dynasty dating back to Henry VII carrying us forward through the House of Hanover and beyond.  As Berry builds the tension Malone faces a number of crises, one of which is very personal.  For the first time Malone must deal with his family and shows himself to be a caring father, a side we have not seen before.  As is the case in all of Berry’s books, Malone is always racing against the clock as the suspense surrounding events unfolds.  Further, only Steve Berry could create the tangled web that questions the legitimacy of Elizabeth I’s reign and its impact on English history.

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(Sir Robert Cecil, Elizabeth I and James I’s Chief Minister and Secretary of State)

Malone will uncover a series of documents relating to the Tudor Dynasty that could rock England.  After completing Berry’s eighth iteration of Cotton Malone I agree with Eileen Brady’s comments in Mystery Scene, “the documents also hint of a vast treasure hidden hundreds of years ago by the last of the Tudors. As they travel from London to Windsor Castle to the university town of Oxford, Berry gives the reader picture-perfect descriptions of the famous sights and infamous back alleys of England. The theme of birth, deception, and family binds all the divergent stories together to finish in an explosive ending.”  Each of Berry’s novels is crafted to be enjoyed on its own. If you haven’t read any of them yet, “this would be a delicious book to start with.”

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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.

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(Monticello, Thomas Jefferson’s Virginia home)

THE ACCOMPLICE by Joseph Kanon

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(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.

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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.

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(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.

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(1960s Buenos Aires, Argentina)