THE BISHOP’S PAWN by Steve Berry

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(The Lorraine Motel, Memphis, TN, April 4, 1968 and the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King)

For a retired historian picking up a Steve Berry novel is like revisiting an old friend.  Berry’s central character Harold Earl “Cotton” Malone, lawyer, former member of an elite Justice Department group, pilot, and naval officer, leads the reader through interesting plot lines within the context of fascinating historical palates.  In his latest iteration of Cotton Malone, Berry returns the reader to Malone’s early career by examining his first mission that dealt with the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King and the Civil Rights Era.  We are exposed to a great deal of information that is not available in Berry’s other novels, and in THE BISHOP’S PAWN the author fills in the blanks that have existed throughout the series.  The subject of Berry’s latest effort is very timely as we approach the 50th anniversary of the assassination of Dr. King at the hands of James Earle Ray.

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(Rev. Jesse Jackson, Dr. Martin Luther King, Rev. Ralph Abernathy)

THE BISHOP’S PAWN is different from all other books in the Malone series.  Berry presents his story in the first person, something he has never done.  Usually Berry narrates his stories through multiple characters and viewpoints, but in this case the single narrator creates an inviting immediacy.  Further, it is a much more personal approach as we learn a great deal more about Malone’s background and his relationships, particularly with Stephanie Nelle, who would become his boss at the Magellan Billet, a special investigative unit within the Justice Department.  At the outset of the novel Nelle and Malone meet for the first time in a Jacksonville, Florida jail where Lt. Malone is being held as a suspect in a shooting while a member of the US Navy.  Nelle offers Malone his first mission as she had pegged him correctly in that he was bored as a JAG officer in the Navy and this afforded him an opportunity to prove himself in a more challenging environment.  Malone’s mission was to recover a waterproof box that contained what could be considered important historical files and a gold coin worth approximately $1 million in the area off Key West.  This would be a pattern which would mark their relationship for many years to come as Nelle did not present the entire story leaving out details that could place Malone in a very precarious position.

Berry introduces a number of interesting characters from Juan Lopez Valdez, former FBI, CIA and possibly linked to James Earle Ray; the Reverend Benjamin Foster, who was present at the Lorraine Motel, the night Dr. King was assassinated and was a member of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference; Coleen Perry, Rev. Foster’s daughter who is obsessed with the contents of the waterproof box and her father’s role in the civil rights movement; Tom Oliver, retired Deputy Director of the FBI under J. Edgar Hoover who was in charge of COINTELPRO, Hoover’s counter-intelligence program developed to target groups that he believed were threats – especially “Black Nationalist” groups that had to be “neutralized; and Jim Jansen, former FBI who is a major impediment to Malone’s mission.  These characters are all intertwined as the plot emerges – what is in the files in the waterproofed box?  What role did the FBI possibly play in the assassination of Dr. King?  How does the relationship between the FBI and the Justice Department fit?  What are the agendas of each major character, particularly, Nelle, Foster, and Oliver?

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Berry’s grasp of history is at its usual high level.  His description of individuals, i.e., J. Edgar Hoover is quite accurate, especially his obsession with Dr. King and supposed communist influence over the Civil Rights Movement.  Further, some of the documents Berry integrates into the dialogue are straight out of FBI files that became available years after Dr. King’s death that lend credence to conspiracy theories that have made the rounds for decades.  It is clear that the FBI wants to eradicate any evidence that it was involved in the King assassination.  But the problem that emerges is that there are remnants of the FBI of the 1960s that still influence policy, as opposed to the more open new generation of FBI bureaucrats who have a different approach to historical accuracy.

As is the case in all of his novels, Berry offers a writer’s not at the conclusion of the story that highlights what is considered factual history and what the author has made up employing his artistic license.  The result is that Berry has created an intricate example of counterfactual history that may not be as farfetched as might appear at first glance.

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THE BOOKWORM by Mitch Silver

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(Moscow State University)

Larissa Mendelova Klimt is a full professor of history at Moscow State University specializing in geopolitical history, a field that debunks traditional historical interpretations.  At the conclusion of her introductory class lecture a young “thug” confronts her with a shopping bag with six Dictaphone recordings dating back to World War II.  Since Klimt is about to complete her latest book, THE GREAT PATRIOTIC WAR she is seen as an expert and is offered a large sum of money to listen to the tapes and uncover a secret related to a book that Hitler had at his desk before he decided to invade the Soviet Union.  Klimt is the pivotal character in Mitch Silver’s second historical novel, THE BOOKWORM, which also happens to be Professor Klimt’s nickname.  Klimt’s personage is very important to the novel as her character interacts with her twin brother’s oil refinery work in Valdez, Alaska.  In addition, the discovery of an ulnar bone with handcuffs on its wrist at a London construction site which had been hit by a V-2 rocket in 1944, by a soon to be murdered worker named Davidson Gordon is difficult to explain.  Further, the presence of a leather case that had been attached to the buried bone heightens a sense of mystery.  At this point Silver has set elements of his plot that attracts the reader’s attention, particularly when the ulnar bone is discovered a man in a walker yells at a television set, “Fools! You’ve no idea what you’ve got.”

Many well-known historical figures will make their appearance; among them are Noel Coward, the British playwright, Anthony Blunt, who was outed as a Soviet spy after the war, the actress Marlene Dietrich, Ian Fleming, later of James Bond fame, and John F. Kennedy.  Silver’s develops a formula to present his counter-factual history.  His approach is to develop something that appears to be believable and blends it with something that has actually occurred.  British intelligence directs Blunt to prepare a forgery outlining a historical prophecy for Adolf Hitler.  Blunt develops a scheme were by a prophecy is given by Michel de Nostradamus and it is imprinted on the cover leaf of a bible.  The bible will be given to the German dictator and it calls for a German invasion in the east.  The hope was that Hitler would act on the prophecy and turn his attention away from England during the Battle of Britain.  This is an interesting scenario, a fit farfetched, but its outcome is something that Winston Churchill would have adopted immediately.

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(Hitler’s Wolf Lair)

Silver’s competing plot deals with an announcement by the United States of a major oil strike in the Alaskan Wilderness Reserve.  Lara’s twin brother and an American are working in Valdez at the end of the oil pipeline when they notice a problem with the texture of the oil.  The American either commits suicide or is murdered as they have fallen upon something much larger than they realized.  It appears that there is a race to gain drilling rights under the Arctic Circle.  Based on previous agreements the Russian claim rests on their energy rights on the Lomonosov Ridge under the Arctic Circle.  Fortunately for the Russians the American president is a “Trump like figure” who does not accept global warming and wants to open Alaska to commercial drilling.  The Russian leader offers the American president a deal; Moscow would surreptitiously supply the United States oil as a means of showing how successful the Alaska drilling was, and in return Washington would drop any opposition to Russian Arctic claims.  This would guarantee the reelection of the “Trump like figure” and allow him to pursue his goal of maintaining America’s dependence on fossil fuels.  The deal would last either four to eight years, and by that time the United States would be totally dependent on fossil fuels, and Russian oil.

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(Anthony Blunt)

These two plot lines seem to be very diverse and a number of questions arise; first, how do the plot lines intersect?  Second, what role does Professor Lara Klimt play in this process?  Third, was the bible real, and if it was where was it?  Lastly, how does Lara’s ex-husband, Viktor, a Russian intelligence officer fit into the story?  When these questions are finally answered this reader emerged unsatisfied.  The novel seemed to have great potential, but its ending is rather pedestrian.  The first half is intense and believable, however, the last half of the book leaves a lot to be desired as the interaction of certain characters produces an ending that cannot be considered dramatic.

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(Moscow State University)

 

 

MUNICH by Robert Harris

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(Chamberlain and Hitler at Munich, September, 1938)

For those who are familiar with the works of Robert Harris they are aware of how the author develops fictional characters that are integrated into important historical events.  He has the knack of developing individuals like Xavier March in FATHERLAND, George Piquart in AN OFFICER AND A SPY, Tom Jericho in ENIGMA, and Fluke Kelso in ARCHANGEL in presenting accurate scenarios that make one feel that these characters are real.  Harris is a master of historical fiction, but his new characters Hugh Legat and Paul von Hartmann in his latest novel, MUNICH are somewhat lacking in reaching the standard for fictional historical characters when compared to previous novels.

Whether one is familiar with J.W. Wheeler-Bennett’s MUNICH: PRELUDE TO TRAGEDY, David Faber’s MUNICH: 1938, APPEASEMENT AND WORLD WAR II, Giles MacDonogh’s 1938: HITLER’S GAMBLE, and Telford Taylor’s MUNICH: THE PRICE OF PEACE the best historical monographs on the Munich Conference, they will realize as they read Harris’ new novel how immersed the author is in his subject matter, and how accurate is his command of detail.  From the get go British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain is an appeaser questioning why should England go to war for the Sudetenland and repeat the carnage of World War I.  Adolph Hitler is presented as an expansionist bent on Lebensraum (living space in the east) and achieving self-determination for all Germans, Benito Mussolini is a puffed up narcissist who resents being in the Fuhrer’s shadow, and Edouard Daladier is tied to Chamberlain’s coat tails and takes no initiative.

The novel’s plot rests on the assumption that Legat, a British Foreign Office functionary, and von Hartmann, a German bureaucrat will be able to change European history by their machinations during the four days of the Munich Conference.  The hope is that the German resistance can convince Chamberlain to stand up to Hitler which would allow the German army to support a coup against the Fuhrer.  The concept of the German army supporting a coup is debatable, but it is a feasible plot.  The problem with this approach is that the heightened tension that Harris tries to create does not really materialize.  I feel this way because I have read a good deal of the books on the topic that are recommended at the end of the book, and the fact that the results of Munich are well known.  Further the concept of “appeasement” and the term Munich are dirty words for American politicians also make the novel’s plot somewhat of a stretch to accept.

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(Mussolini, Hitler, Daladier, and Chamberlain at Munich)

To Harris’ credit he has a marvelous talent in providing intricate details as his characters communicate.  Be it a description of a Remington typewriter, the way an SS uniform is contoured, or how members of the British delegation appeared in rumpled suits his eye for the minute is amazing.  In fact one of the more interesting aspects of Harris’ approach is his ability to use the body language and facial expressions of his characters as a means of providing a window into their thinking.   The author also has the knack of introducing important primary materials integrated into his story.  Chamberlain’s speech to Parliament as he reports that Hitler has invited the four major powers to Munich to settle the Sudeten problem is a case in point.  Another example is the introduction of the November, 1937 Hossbach Memorandum that outlined Hitler’s goal of Lebensraum (living space) in the east, and his plans for future expansion through war. These are just two examples of how throughout the novel Harris relies as much as possible on primary sources.

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(Chamberlain speaking at an airport in London upon returning from Munich promising “peace in our time”)

Perhaps one of the most surprising aspects of Harris’ presentation is his portrayal of Chamberlain’s raison d’tre in dealing with Hitler.  He does not see Chamberlain as an appeaser but a skillful negotiator who stalls for time as he gets Hitler to agree to a settlement with the Czechs over the Sudetenland, and also accepts the concept of a stronger Anglo-German approach to peace.  In fact in a recent interview (January 19, 2018) on NPR’s “Morning Edition” Harris argued that Chamberlain was the victor at Munich because the war was postponed for a year allowing the English to gain the support of the Dominions and the Empire as a whole, and provided time for the British military production to begin to catch up with Germany.  Further he argues Hitler never wanted to go to Munich, but once Mussolini introduced a conference to settle differences, the Fuhrer had no choice but to attend and forgo Operation Green, the seizure of the Sudetenland and Czechoslovakia as a whole.  Harris’ discussion raises the arguments of British historian A.J.P. Taylor whose 1961 book THE ORIGINS OF THE SECOND WORLD WAR was greeted with disdain at the time of its publication.

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(satirical cartoon commenting on the Munich Conference)

For those with little or no knowledge of Munich the book will be a satisfying read, but for those a bit older with a knowledge of European history leading to the Second World War, the plot will be quite predictable.

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(Chamberlain and Hitler)

 

THE LAST DAYS OF NIGHT by Graham Moore

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(Edison’s light bulb)

Recently, an old friend recommended the book EMPIRES OF LIGHT: EDISON, TESLA, WESTINGHOUSE, AND THE RACE FOR ELECTRICITY by Jill JonnesWhen I looked it up I came across a wonderful historical novel that seemed to encompass the same material, THE LAST DAYS OF NIGHT by Graham Moore which took a somewhat different approach to the subject matter.  Today we live in a time when technological change is constantly fostering a transformation in our daily behavior and outlook. This change is unparalleled in our history and each day it seems as if another life altering innovation has taken pace.  Many of today’s discoveries have had, in some way, their origin in the late 19th century, described by Mark Twain as the “Gilded Age.”  It is that time period that is the stage for Graham Moore’s latest novel.   The book, which in part reads as a work of non-fiction opens as a poor Western Union man is electrocuted as he works to repair wiring located in front of a building on Broadway in Manhattan on May 11, 1888.  One of the witnesses to this unfortunate death is Paul Cravat, a lawyer, and a central character in Moore’s plot.  Later that day, Mr. Cravath was summoned to the offices of Thomas Edison, a man who for the previous six months was involved in litigation with Cravath’s only client.

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(George Westinghouse)

It seems that Mr. Cravath represented George Westinghouse, a rich engineer and manufacturing dynamo whose production facilities and laboratories were centered in Pittsburgh.  Westinghouse and Edison were involved in patent infringement lawsuits against each other, and Cravath a recent graduate of Columbia Law School and a new partner in the firm Carter, Hughes, and Cravath was dealing with a $1 billion suit Edison entered into against Westinghouse.  The issue came down to who had developed the better light bulb.  Westinghouse argued that he had not stolen anything from Edison’s product and had created a better bulb based on his own research.  The problem for Edison was that his bulb was only effective for short distance since it was powered by a direct current or DC, while Westinghouse was working with another scientist to power his bulb by alternating power or AC which produced light over greater distances.  If Edison was successful in his numerous lawsuits, numbering at least 312, he would then hold a “monopoly on light, as he would be seen as the inventor of the incandescent bulb, which no one else could manufacture.

The story produces a number of historical characters that Moore develops.  Of course we meet the power hungry (no pun intended) Thomas Edison whose financial and political influence dwarfs that of George Westinghouse.  Other important personages include Nikola Tesla, an eccentric Serbian immigrant whose scientific discoveries include furthering the distance that an AC electrical system can deliver.  Tesla’s lawyer, Lemuel Serrell who plays an important role as does Agnes Huntington, a Metropolitan Opera performer that Cravath finds alluring, J.P. Morgan, the richest man in America, Alexander Graham Bell, the inventor of the telephone, Cravath’s father Erastus who was not impressed with his son’s work and held to a strict moral code, Charles Batchelor, Edison’s right hand man, and New York City Police Commissioner, Fitz Porter.  By exploring these diverse historical characters Moore takes the reader inside New York society, cut throat industrial competition, and the corruption associated with the politics of the period.

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(Niklas Tesla)

The monologues that Moore presents are very informative as he explains the scientific breakthroughs that Edison, Westinghouse, and Tesla produced.  As he does so the author seems to meditate on the values of the “Gilded Age.”  The role of power, money, and domination are all evaluated as well as a somewhat higher moral stance that does not bow to the pressure of achieving success.  To his credit, the author provides a detailed note at the end of the book that explains what is factual in the novel – most of the story – and what is a product of the author’s imagination.

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(J.P. Morgan)

In part, the novel reads like a mystery as a number of actions that emerge border on the criminal.  It seems as if certain characters will stop at nothing to achieve their goals.  The legalities of patent law are explained in full and the core of the novel rests on the idea that “Westinghouse created objects. Tesla created ideas, while Edison, was busy creating an empire.”  The result is that each approached “science, industry, and business” in incompatible ways. (105)  The book can also be seen as a morality parable, particularly when one reaches its conclusion.  A story that is the epitome of corporate intrigue, can also be seen as a battle against right and wrong.

Moore writes in a very engaging manner and blends facts with fiction in creating an excellent historical novel that students of the period and the general reader will find fascinating.

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(Edison and his light bulb)

THE CASTLE OF KINGS by Oliver Potzsch

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(The Trifels castle)

In a July 20, 2016 interview with the New York Times, author Oliver Potzsch remarked that in his latest book, THE CASTLE OF KINGS his goal was to write a “German Ken Follett” type novel.  The story is set in the Holy Roman Empire during the 16th century.  At the time Germany was made up of a large number of principalities whose princes owed fealty to Charles V, the Holy Roman Emperor.  The period described in the novel is in the midst of the 1524-1525 Peasant Wars between the German princes and their peasants who revolted against the high rents they were charged to work the land.  The situation was also exacerbated by the continued religious struggle that was launched by Martin Luther that would lead to the Protestant Reformation.

The novel begins in the Palatinate, a small German principality that the Rhine River navigates.  Mathis a sixteen year old boy is returning from an errand delivering horseshoes for his father who is the blacksmith for the castle of Trifels.  On his route through the small town of Annweiler he passes a large gathering of people who are about to witness the hanging of three individuals, one of which is Mathis’ own age.  Due to the socio-economic catastrophe caused by the plight of the peasants, families were starving and the therefore resorted to poaching, a crime punishable by death.

The novel itself meanders with a Folletesque tinge.  We find a developing love story between Agnes, a falconer, and daughter of a knight who is the castellan of the Castle at Trifels, and Mathis, who is the son of a blacksmith.  As Agnes and Mathis are confronted by the mores and social norms of the time period one is reminded of the love story between Ned Willard and Margery Fitzgerald in Follett’s latest novel, PILLAR’S OF FIRE.

The novel presents two worlds that are on a collision course.  Agnes’ father Philipp Schluchteren von Efernstein represents the feudal code of knights and the courtesies that men offered each other even on the battlefield.  There are a number of scenes, both peaceful and violent whereby this plays out.  Efernstein’s beliefs are confronted by modernity, particularly when it came to the battlefield.  The development of gun powder and artillery is replacing courtly combat that relied on broad swords.  Efernstein has difficulty accepting this and the kinds of agreements one must make with other Dukes, Counts, and former knights in order to survive.  This generational gap is also seen in the relationship between Mathis and his blacksmith father, Hans Weilenbach who has casted swords and armor for decades and now must deal with a son who has become an explosive expert.

Potzsch has created a number of story lines which all seem to intersect.  Mathis’ development as an expert in the deployment of artillery and his relationship with Agnes who must deal with a stubborn father.  The presence of robber knights like Hans von Wertingen and their impact on the local economy and the lives of everyone, Dukes and peasants included.  Agnes’ obsession with her dreams which present a 13th century figure named Johannes of Brunswick  and his alleged conspiracy haunts her – what do they mean and what is his relationship to her contemporary world?  The relationship between Erfenstein and a young Count, Frederick von Lowenstein-Scharfeneck who enter into an alliance which has a major impact on all the major characters, the machinations pf Mayor Bernwart Gessler of Annweiler, the role of the Peasants Revolt and the rebels who live in the forest who organize to deal with the high burden of taxes and the demands not only by secular leaders, but the Catholic Church itself.  Lastly, and most importantly is Agnes’ quest to learn the history and significance behind a ring that belonged to Frederick Barbarossa that falls into her hands leading Agnes to a monastery where the secrets are hidden.

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Potzsch has woven an intricate and complex plot that makes excellent use of German history.  The conflict between Luther and the Church, the peasants and the princes, and princes against princes dominates.  What emerges is a series of flawed characters that Potzsch develops with remarkable detail.  Efenstein, Agnes, Mathis, and von Lowenstein-Scharfeneck have already been mentioned.  But individuals like Father Tristan, Agnes’ confessor and medical healer, Shepherd Jockel, a peasant leader, and Melchoir von Tanningen, a traveling minstral and swordsman, in addition to the brotherhood of 12 whose secrets can alter the course of European history contribute greatly to plot development.

Potzsch’s creativity creates many twists and turns as the murders and disingenuous behavior on the part of a number of characters continue to mount.  Potzsch describes beautiful landscapes, dark castles, Rhine River rapids, information about arquebuses, falconets, mercenaries, and a wonderful summary of the Hohenstaufen and Habsburg monarchies.  This is a big book, but an engrossing and enchanting one at times that is well worth the read.  Again, if you enjoy Ken Follett, you most certainly will enjoy Oliver Potzsch.

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(The Trifels Castle)

THE PRAGUE SONATA by Bradford Morrow

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(Prague, Czech Republic)

At the end of World War I Jaromir Laska is killed on the battlefield leaving an orphaned daughter with his most prized possession, an old music manuscript.  The daughter, Otylie was packed off to live with an aunt in Prague where she remained until 1939 when the Nazis seized control of her country.  So begins Bradford Morrow’s brilliant new novel, THE PRAGUE SONATA where the music manuscript became the centerpiece of Otylie’s memory of her father.  Its origin and composer would become an obsession for Otylie and her husband Jakub who owned a small shop that was a mishmash of Jewish and Czech culture.  Otylie feared that the manuscript/sonata would be lost to the Nazis, and to save it she would disperse it in three parts; one to herself, one to her husband Jakub, and the final piece to their friend Irena Dorfman. The story line will begin at what appears to be an academic search, but it evolves into a mystery that will grip anyone with a sense of hope.

Morrow presents a remarkable story within a larger narrative.  The key character is Meta Taverner, a musicologist who lives in New York who years later comes into contact with Irena Dorfman.  Meta was quickly taken by Dorfman who was ninety years old when they met.  Dorfman tells Meta the story of the missing sonata pieces and gains a promise from Meta that she will try to track down the pieces and reunite them.  Meta’s search and life form the core of the novel, but the characters past and present are also of extreme importance.  For Meta the sonata is an authentic 18th century work, hauntingly beautiful, and the work of a master composer, but the question is which composer.

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(The north-western, Old Town side of Na Příkopě Street)

Morrow exposes the reader to a panorama of Czech history; from the end of World War I, the Nazi occupation, the Allied liberation, the arrival of the Soviet Union and its repression, to the Velvet Revolution of 1989, and finally freedom.  Each character is placed in the proper course of events and their reactions become part of the accurate historical flow of the novel.  Morrow has an excellent grasp of history and the scenes he creates conform nicely to the historical record, except for one minor error in dealing with the assassination of Reinhard Heydrich.

The most important characters include Jakub Batos, Otylie’s husband who joins the Czech resistance against the Nazis; Daniel Hajek who would make Otylie’s life whole again, Paul Mandelbaum, Meta’s mentor at Columbia University; a pair of Czech musicologists, Professors Petr Wittmann and Karel Kohut who appear to have their own agendas that are ego driven; Tomas Lang whose sister Johana had part of the sonata in her possession; Johana herself who seemed to despise everyone; Gerrit Mills, a newspaper stringer who develops a personal interest into Meta’s work and person; and a number of others.  All characters are well developed and have their own specific identities and needs, particularly Meta who appears to be going through a severe identity crisis at the time that Irena Dorfman provides the story of the manuscript.  For Meta, who was training to be a concert pianist before an accident severely injured her right hand, Irena’s request provides her with an opportunity to provide meaning to her new career as a musicologist, as well as solving a very important question that deals with music, and the legacy of a family that was broken apart by war.

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(End of Charles Bridge leading to Old Town Prague)

Morrow follows Meta’s quest in detail and integrates a great deal of Czech, and in general European music history and their composers, throughout the novel.  Further, Morrow takes the reader on a wonderful tour of Prague featuring local flavor, neighborhoods, and succeeds very nicely in examining human memory, music, and need.   If you are familiar with Lauren Belfer’s AND AFTER THE FIRE: A NOVEL Morrow’s work will be just as satisfying, but on another level it is more of a humanely epic tale.

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(Prague, Czech Republic)

A COLUMN OF FIRE by Ken Follett

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(Queen Elizabeth I of England)

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

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(Mary Queen of Scots)

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

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

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(King Philip II of Spain)

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

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(St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre, 1572)

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

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(The defeat of the Spanish Armada, 1588)

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

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(Queen Elizabeth I at Court)

PRUSSIAN BLUE by Philip Kerr

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(Hitler’s Berghof retreat)

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

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

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

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

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(Hitler in his Berghof study)

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

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

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(Hitler’s Berghof retreat)

MISSISSIPPI BLOOD by Greg Iles

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

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

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

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

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

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

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BLACK CROSS by Greg Iles

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(Nazi medical facility conducting “research”)

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

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

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

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

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

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(Heinrich Himmler)

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

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

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(Totenhausen, conducted Nazi medical research on children)