DEEP RIVER by Karl Marlantes

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

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

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(Lumber industry in Pacific Northwest)

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

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

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(The wood economy in the Pacific Northwest)

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

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

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(Columbia River)

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METROPOLIS by Philip Kerr

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(Berlin, 1928)

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

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(Reichstag Building, 1928)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

**mercy bullet.

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MAD BLOOD STIRRING by Simon Mayo

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(Dartmoor Prison)

Simon Mayo is one of England’s most well-known broadcasters who began a writing career six years ago with a bestselling children’s trilogy.  The radio disc jockey first attempt at adult fiction is his new book,  MAD BLOOD STIRRING set at the conclusion of the War of 1812, a war that lasted three years and for many historians is considered America’s second war for independence.  The book begins as the captured crew from the American ship, Eagle is marched to the notorious English prison, Dartmoor.  Once inside the prison, the sailors led by Joe Hill interrupt a boxing match were a black boxer, on the verge of winning his match is beaten with a wooden plank.  As the match ends Hill announces to the hundreds in attendance that the United States and Britain have signed a peace treaty and the war is over.  The response from a group of black prisoners named Habakkuk (Habs) Snow, Ned Penny, and Sam Snow who were taken from their ship, the Bentham, eighteen months before is one of skepticism and disbelief.

Dartmoor housed over 6000 American prisoners during the War of 1812 of which there were roughly 1000 black sailors.  Using the captured sailors as his main characters, Mayo has written a five act play that somewhat mirrors a Shakespearian tragedy.  The core of the story revolves around the life of American prisoners of war seized by the British during the fighting.  With the conflict over, the POW’S where be released, however, the American Congress needed to ratify the Treaty of Ghent as the British Parliament had.  During the interim the prisoner’s life would continue in the seven cell blocks that made up the prison as they had for the previous eighteen months.  Murder, physical attacks, nasty personal confrontation, poor food, little freedom, and of course segregation of whites from blacks was the order of the day.  Block number four housed the black prisoner population and was led by a former Maryland slave who was six feet eight and commanded great respect.  King Dick, whose real name was Richard Craftus ran a tight ship, but had a soft spot for Shakespeare and his men.

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(Richard Craftus, King Dick)

There is a high degree of historical accuracy in Mayo’s presentation.  Block four did stage Shakespearean productions, including Romeo and Juliet, the signing of the Treaty of Ghent did not produce the immediate release of the prisoners, and the hostility between rival prisoner groups did explode into violent bloodshed.  Mayo builds upon the historical backdrop to produce a novel that  that wreaks of loyalty, doomed love, and a series of dashed dreams.  The themes are numerous from British haughtiness, blatant racism, the role of theater in assisting prisoners to deal with their daily plight, the fear of smallpox, human relationships, and the daily monotony of prison life.

Mayo has created an interesting template for his novel juxtaposing a theater group of black prisoners performing Shakespeare as a major construction for the story, that can be considered its own play.  The constant references to the Bard, be it Othello and other plays and the rehearsals for Romeo and Juliet within the confines of Dartmoor is surprising and it seems to carry much weight throughout the novel.

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The most important relationship that emerges from the story is that of Joe Hill, the sixteen-year-old white sailor and that of Habs Snow, a black prisoner.  Their friendship is a testimony to their survival and its greatest test revolves around a kiss that takes place in a scene from Romeo and Juliet as Hill portrays Juliet, and Habs plays Romeo.  It is a test of the mores that exist in the prison but also in society at large.  There are other sideshows to the main plot; the affair between Dr. George Magrath, the prison physician and the wife of the prison commander Captain Thomas Shortland; the actions of Horace Cobb and Edwin Lane two members of the “Rough Allies,” a thuggish gang that despises black prisoners as much as they do the British; in addition to many others that exist throughout Dartmoor’s seven cell blocks.

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The story culminates with a nasty prison riot that upends several important relationships and leads one to believe that Mayo has written a novel that should be the basis for a film script.  The book could be enhanced with greater character development and depth of story, but it is a satisfying yarn, that should attract the reader’s interest as Mayo brings his plot to conclusion with several twists and turns.  If the book is turned into a movie script, a a good production staff can enhance the storyline and create a moving experience for a possible viewership.

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(Dartmoor Prison)

THE PERILOUS ADVENTURES OF THE COWBOY KING, A NOVEL OF TEDDY ROOSEVELT AND HIS TIMES by Jerome Charyn

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(Theodore Roosevelt in the Dakota Badlands)

In Jerome Charyn’s last book I AM ABRAHAM the author presents an unforgettable portrait of Lincoln and the Civil War.  He boldly narrates his story in the first person and mixes his brand of humor with Shakespearean like tragedy.  In his current effort Charyn takes on the character of Theodore Roosevelt,  entitled, THE PERILOUS ADVENTURES OF THE COWBOY KING: A NOVEL OF TEDDY ROOSEVELT AND HIS TIMES. As he has done in the past, Charyn speaks in the first person beginning with Roosevelt’s relationship with his father, “Braveheart” as a boy during the Civil War and follows his career as an Assemblyman in the New York State legislature, serving as New York City Police Commissioner and Governor of New York, organizing the Rough Riders, to the precipice of the presidency.  As in most of his books when he resorts to a first-person narrative, Charyn possess the uncanny ability to get inside the mind of his protagonist and speak in very accurate historical terms, adding a dash of humor and sarcasm, in conjunction with an exceptional imagination.

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Charyn’s first book was published in 1964 and he has not lost any of his verve for writing, particularly entertaining, but meaningful historical fiction.  There are numerous biographies of Theodore Roosevelt ranging from Edmund Morris’ trilogy, single volumes by H.W. Brands, Kathleen Dalton, David McCulloch, and of course Roosevelt’s autobiography.  Reading a novel about Roosevelt is like riding an unbroken horse.  It usually proceeds at a gallop, then a canter, resulting in a full sprint.  Numerous characters appear, and thankfully Charyn has prepared a “Dramatis Personae” at the outset delineating all the major and secondary characters with a brief sentence or two for each. This is a great tool for the general reader who is not familiar with the Jay Gould’s, Roscoe Conklin’s, Dr. Leonard Wood, William Winters-White, Boss Thomas Platt, J.P. Morgan, Buffalo Bill Cody, and Josephine, Roosevelt’s pet cougar among the many historical figures that are recreated that appear in rapid-fire fashion throughout the novel.

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(The Rough Rider)

The Roosevelt family is accurately portrayed, particularly the roles of Bamie, his sister who became his mother, overseer, and confidante after the deaths of his mother and young wife Alice.  Whether it is conversations within the Roosevelt family or “Robber Barons,” political hacks, or other important historical figures Charyn’s dialogue and commentary reflect the author’s knack of gaining entrance into Roosevelt’s thought process.  It seems as if the author has obtained an intimacy with Roosevelt’s mind that allows the reader to feel as if he is in a private conversation with “Teddy.”  The reader can touch Roosevelt’s emotional pain as his beloved Alice and mother pass away the same night or the reemergence of his relationship with his childhood friend Edith Carow who he goes on to marry.  The emotional torture Roosevelt deals with as he must decide to forgo widowhood as its implications for his sister Bamie and his daughter Baby Alice is on full display and is indicative of Charyn’s ability to present the emotional torture that Roosevelt experiences, but at the same time exhibit the talent to describe it in a sensitive and meaningful manner.

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(Edith and Theodore Roosevelt)

Charyn is correct that Roosevelt was never without a cause, and once he was committed it was full speed ahead be it the corruption he dealt with as New York Police Commissioner, trying to push the United States into war with Spain as Undersecretary of the Navy, or his formation and financing of the Rough Riders for the war over Cuba.  In all these situations Charyn’s descriptions, scene recreation and dialogue are priceless as Roosevelt confronts the corrupt Pinkertons as Police Commissioner, his approach to training men for war, and the Battle for Kettle and San Juan Hills during the Spanish-American War.

Charyn’s Roosevelt is an obstreperous, emotional, and generous person who cared about those stricken by poverty, his soldiers, and it seemed anyone down on their luck.  We gain insights into the family man and his softer side.  However, this is not a hagiographical approach to fiction as Roosevelt’s flaws are readily apparent from his temper, racism, and intolerance for those who opposed him.  Overall, an entertaining read and a remarkable success as it could not have been easy writing a fictional account of a man whose actual  life fostered so many examples that seem made up.

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THE LIBRARIAN OF AUSCHWITZ by Antonio Iturbe; translated by Lilit Zekulin Thwaites

 

Image result for photo of the gate of auschwitz(The approach to Auschwitz)

The horrors of the Holocaust are well known and the figure of 6,000,000 is imbedded in our memory.  However, another figure that emerges that is just as repugnant to human consciousness is 1.5-1.6 million.  This is the figure associated with the number of children who perished in the Holocaust.  The Nazis had no compunction about killing children be it for ideological reasons that made them a danger to the 1000-year Reich or the fact they were unwanted.  Some were killed in retaliation for partisan attacks or others were part of the Action T4, the eradication of children with disabilities.  No matter the cause of death; Joseph Mengele’s medical experiments, clearing ghettos, the Nazis deemed that children needed to be eliminated.  Of the 6,000,000 that perished over 1,000,000 lost their lives at Auschwitz-Birkenau, of that figure it is hard to determine exactly how many were children.  Whatever the figure their existence at Auschwitz left them vulnerable to medical experiments, hard labor, and the constant fear of death.  To survive, any activity that seemed to be a hint of normalcy was important.  In Auschwitz a small school with a tiny library was allowed for children which becomes the focal point of Antonio Iturbe’s wonderous book, THE LIBRARIAN OF AUSCHWITZ. Translated by Lilit Thwaites.

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(Dita Polachova [Kraus])

The book is reminiscent of Markus Zusak’s THE BOOK THIEF for the tone that it sets.  The book is based on the experience of Dita Kraus who along with her parents was deported to Terezin in 1942, later in December of 1943 they were sent to Auschwitz where Dita was separated from her parents.  She would serve as the librarian in the block set up for children in Birkenau, with only a handful of books. Fredy Hirsch, a sports instructor from Prague ran the children’s block, and he along with a handful of teachers filled the children’s time with educational and cultural activities. One of these young educators was Otto (Ota) Kraus, Dita’s future husband.

“In March 1944, half of the children living at the children’s block were murdered, and their beloved Fredy Hirsch also died. In May, Dita and her mother were sent to Hamburg, Germany, where they were put to back-breaking labor. From Hamburg, the two women were transported to labor camps, and then in March 1945 to Bergen-Belsen, which was liberated several weeks later by the British Army.” (www.yadvashem.org/remembrance/archive/2014/torchlighters/kraus.html)

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(Dr. Josef Mengele and his experiments)

Kraus describes Iturbe’s work as being based on extensive conversations with her, along with other research and sources.  “It is a story born both from my own experiences and the rich imagination of the author.”  Though the narrative mirrors what Kraus experienced it stands on its own as literary witness to what she, her family, and so many others had to cope with each day, and the final toll it took on its victims.

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(Dita Kraus)

For the children who attend Alfred Hirsch’s school in Block 31 the question that dominates their world is why they should study when there’s little chance they will leave Auschwitz alive?  Hirsch’s rationalization is that Block 31 should be an oasis for children as they had little hope each day.  The reality is that 521 children received somewhat of an education in Block 31, but they live in constant fear of becoming a specimen in one of Dr. Josef Mengele’s morbid experiments.  For the children, the location of Block 31 is on the path of deportees walking from their transport to the showers and their death reinforced their plight.  For the teachers, how do you teach children when they can hear the noise attendant to victims who will shortly be gassed?

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(Dita and Raja Engländerová-Žádníková, Hagibor 1941)

Iturbe presents many characters who either suffer from tortured relationships or they torture themselves through anxiety and fear of what the future holds.  The author has a nose for detail and the sensibilities of his characters. Each character has their own way of coping.  For Dita, the protagonist it is being a librarian for the inmates and the danger that is part of her existence.  Dita treats her library which consists of eight paper books and six living books as if she is a doctor, perhaps a surgeon as each time a book needs repair, she stitches them back to life. For Rudi Rosenberg, who is the camp registrar, exposing him to the numbers associated with death he begins a relationship with Alice Munk, a young desperate Jewess.  Then there is Victor Pestek, a member of the SS, who develops a friendship with Renee Neumann.  For Fredy Hirsch it is to allow the children to focus on something other than their situation, for him when a child smiles it was an act of defiance.  For Ota Kelle, it was to teach children about Palestine and the future.  For Liesl Adler, Dita’s mother she must deal with the void that the the death of her husband has caused, and poor Professor Morgenstern, it was to act like a fool. As Iturbe develops these characters he integrates a historically accurate picture of what transpired in Terezin and Auschwitz, and brings along important historical figures like Mengele, Adolph Eichmann, Johann Schwarzhuber, Elisabeth Volkenrath, and Rudolf Hoss.  The language and behavior of the Kapos and SS, the description of the clothing and work of the inmates, the Wagnerian music in the background are all true to history.

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(Ota B. Kraus)

For Dita to survive, Iturbe describes her relationship with books that she treats as if they were sacred texts. She immerses herself into H.G. Wells’ A SHORT HISTORY OF THE WORLD, Thomas Mann’s THE MAGIC MOUNTAIN, Alexandre Dumas’ THE COUNT OF MONTE CRISTO, and Jaroslav Hasek’s THE ADVENTURES OF GOOD SOLDIER SVEJK in order to understand the world in which she lives, and as a means of surviving each day.  As Dita communes with the book’s characters she questions many things including who she can trust in a world where rumors and lies dominate.  One of the survival  tools that Dita develops is creating a photo album in her head, something the Nazis could not take away from her as they worked to deprive children of their childhoods.

Aside from telling Dita’s story Iturbe engages in several philosophical aspects of life and survival, particularly in a concentration camp.  The human capacity and spirit for overcoming all obstacles emerges as does the importance of books in our everyday lives.  The book’s audience should be wide, and I encourage all to invest the time to experience it.

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(The gate to Auschwitz)

THE CARTEL by Don Winslow

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(Jaurez, Mexico border with the US)

“Mexico, the land of pyramids and palaces, deserts, jungles, mountains and beaches, markets and gardens, boulevards and cobblestoned streets, broad plazas and hidden courtyards, is now known as a slaughter ground.

And for what?

So North Americans can get high.” (THE CARTEL, 314)

 

“Hard to believe that 2010, the annus horribiis of the Mexican drug war, has finally come to an end.

The final tally of drug related deaths in Mexico in 2010 comes to 15,273.

That’s what we count now, Pablo thinks, instead of counting down to midnight.

We count deaths.” (481)

 

Don Winslow’s second installment of his narco trafficking trilogy, THE CARTEL seems nastier than THE POWER OF THE DOG.  The cast of characters is similar, but new ones are introduced that seem to be derived from the depths of humanity, and in this case the pit that is known for its violent drug culture.  However, Winslow’s opening leads the reader to believe that the story line might go in a different direction as the reader is introduced to a bee keeper tending his bees in a monastery and during his free time he is at prayer.  One should not be fooled as the bee keeper is Art Keller, the hero of THE POWER OF THE DOG, a former CIA operative and DEA agent who has been fighting narco traffickers for over thirty years.  Once Keller is reintroduced so is Adan Barrera, narco kingpin and the bane of Keller’s and the DEA’s existence.  In fact, Winslow points out that Barrera is even rated 67th most powerful man in the world by Forbes  magazine. The latest version of Winslow’s trilogy has all the elements of the first, but it might be my imagination, but it feels more violent and a steeper climb into the underworld of drugs that seem to seep into every crevice of Mexican society, government, and justice.  In addition, it is also a tale of two major business organizations that fight to the death for market share – it is eerie how this story unravels.

The hatred between Keller and Barrera is heightened as Keller fakes the funeral of Barrera’s daughter to lure him into a trap that results in his arrest and imprisonment.  THE CARTEL is the perfect sequel as Barrera puts out a $2 million contract on Keller who is forced to live like a fugitive in Mexico and America.  From inside Puente Grande Prison, supposedly Mexico’s harshest maximum facility, Barrera is treated as a “king” and begins to rebuild his drug empire.  Business is booming, which fosters envy from all those narco kingpin wan bees who believed he was out of the picture – the result is civil war, revenge, violence, torture, all emanating from within the narco world, but also outside as many innocent people are killed.  The civil war becomes extremely convoluted as the cartels keep switching sides, making it difficult to follow who is killing who, and for what reason.

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(Mexico border at El Paso, TX)

While inside prison Barrera meets Magna Beltran, who becomes his mistress.  Beltran is just one example of the new characters that Winslow creates to carry his new novel.  She was arrested for drug running when she meets Barrera and he courts her as if they were on the outside.  She is an ambitious woman who realizes once her looks are gone, she will be discarded.  She worms her way into Barrera’s good graces and develops a drug business of her own and becomes a major narco player.  Other important characters include Osiel Contreras who heads the Gulf Cartel and the Zeta army made up of former special forces soldiers, deserters,  and police that is trained and led by a former soldier, Heriberto Ochoa.  Ochoa oversees the Zetas as they try and infringe upon other cartel territories.  Eddie Ruiz, a former high school football star who, as with most characters in the book becomes involved in the drug trade as he builds himself a small empire but is forced to join Barrera for protection from Contreras’ Zeta army.  It appears that each narco head has his own private army with the latest weaponry to go after each other and protect their investments.  Winslow is very astute or sarcastic as he points out that in the old days, the narco leaders would be at the forefront of the fighting, but now they send their own private forces to do their dirty work.  The violence becomes so bad that as cartel armies go against each other one gets the feeling they are in Iraq,  Syria, or Afghanistan.  In fact, the drug wars became terror wars with indiscriminate killing to intimidate and sow fear, rather than conquer targets.

Winslow uses Barrera’s desire to expand into the Juarez cartel as a vehicle to explore the socio-economic problems of Juarez, a city that lies across the river from El Paso as well as the inability of the authorities to provide protection for its citizenry.  Using Pablo Mora, a reporter for El Periodico as a tool to explain how the police have a difficult time solving crimes, the reporter explains why the structure of policing is inefficient, and why duties are distributed in such a manner that they overlap creating redundancy and incompetence.  With combinations of city police, state prosecutors and police, federal prosecutors and police, a grab bag of intelligence agencies from the city, state, and national governments, and of course the influence of the cartels which have their own police forces made up of current and retired officers it is amazing that the police can accomplish anything for the public good.  Mora’s work provides insights into cartel policies and their impact on Mexican and American society.  Mora is an important character as Winslow tries to integrate somewhat of a “normal” individual into the story, but he too suffers as his four-year-old son moves to Mexico City due to divorce.

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(supposed caravans unwelcome at US border)

Another exceptional character is Marisol  Cisneros, a physician who Keller falls in love with.  She is stubborn to the point that she puts her safety in question.  Refusing to back down to the violence wrought by the cartels in Valverde, her home village where she runs a medical clinic for the poor, her story provides further evidence for the ruthless behavior employed by the sociopaths that head the cartels.

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(The Author)

Winslow’s ability to invent unusual characters that capture the reader’s attention is limitless.  Two Mexican government officials, Louis Aguilar and Gerardo Veras begin working with Keller, but their loyalties are questioned making it hard to determine what their agendas are, and which one can be trusted.  Keller’s relationship with DEA head Tim Taylor reemerges and the results are interesting to say the least. Eddie Ruiz acquires the nickname of “Crazy Eddie,” or “Narc o Polo” and he eventually allies with Jesus “Chuy” Barajos, an eleven-year-old boy from the barrio who is trained as an elite soldier by the Zetas.  After a series of events he switches sides, joins Ruiz, and acquires the nickname “Jesus the Kid.”  It seems that Chuy found religion when he was picked up by a religious cult called La Familia Michoacana, led by a cult figure, named Nazario. The cult engages in good works for Jesus providing food, medical care, and housing throughout the barrios of Mexico and American border regions.  The problem of course is how this is funded, and you can guess it was paid for by the “meth trade,” whereby the family had built its own drug empire which of course had intruded on another cartel’s area of control.  Another family/cartel is headed by Diego Tapia, who along with his two brothers are allied with Barrera, until they aren’t.  If there is a common theme to many of the characters it is their fear of going to sleep, which brings them dreams about all the murders they have witnessed, covered, implicated, or for a few committed.  For Pablo it is “the dead, the dying, the grieving.  The dismembered, the decapitated, the flayed.” (559)

There are other characters and story lines that emerge for the reader to discover, but they all revolve around the drug trade, the domination of supply and distribution, particularly the burgeoning heroine epidemic in the United States, corruption of the Mexican government and law enforcement, and the violence as the cartels go to war with each other, with certain personalities continuing their vendettas.

At times Winslow’s sense of humor emerges as he points out that NAFTA, does not stand for the North American Free Trade Agreement, but “the North American Free Drug Trade Agreement.”  THE CARTEL  is a bit longer that THE POWER OF THE DOG, but it packs an even greater punch and will keep the reader riveted as it expands its exploration of the drug trade from Central and South America feeding the habits of American citizens.  Winslow is a master of numerous story lines that eventually converge.  The reader needs to be on their toes not to miss a step as the author unveils his plot very carefully, i.e.; Keller’s off book investigation of the Mexican justice system after he helped ignite the cartel civil war.  The book is an eye opener and difficult to put down.  After I finished reading, I can only imagine what new twists and turns Winslow will introduce in the third installment of his trilogy due out this February, entitled, THE BORDER.

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THE POWER OF THE DOG by Don Winslow

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(Border checkpoint between Tijuana and the United States)

 

“A war on terrorism, a war on communism, a war on drugs.

There’s always a war on something.”  That is the human condition I am                                  afraid……”

Art Keller, San Diego, 1999

 

Don Winslow begins THE POWER OF THE DOG with the murder of nineteen people by Mexican narco-traffickers in the nation’s capital in 1997.  This is a signal to the reader that the tale that is about to unravel will not be for the squeamish, but also it provides a hint of what is to come.  In addition, it reflects how the drug trade operates, and it feels extremely contemporary.  If you choose to continue, Winslow will take you on an unbelievable thirty ride inside American law enforcement and narco traffickers as the drug trade in South and Central America is presented in a brutal fashion.

Winslow’s protagonist, Art Keller, is a DEA agent who had moved over to the agency from the CIA with a background in the Phoenix (assassination) Program during the Vietnam War. Keller’s presence in the DEA is controversial as the agency dislikes what they perceive to be “CIA Cowboys,” that results in a consistent theme of shutting Keller out from DEA policies.  Keller witnesses the murders of the men, women, and children, and blames himself for what has occurred because he had recruited the perpetrators of the murders, Adan Barrera.

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Winslow will turn the clock back to 1975 to provide context and a path to understanding for the reader by introducing Operation Condor, a plan to take down Don Pedro Aviles and his narco empire.  The novel focuses on the Sinaloa cartel at the outset and a joint US-Mexican operation to destroy the poppy fields and Aviles’ operation to take down the Mexican drug trade.

Keller’s background from growing up in the San Diego barrio without a father, his time in the CIA, and the attitude of DEA hire ups toward him help form his worldview.  For Keller, his goals are clear and the government bureaucracies that seems to get in the way are just obstacles to overcome.  When the DEA shuns him, he strikes up a relationship with the Barrera family; first with Adan and his brother Raul, then with their uncle, Miguel Angel Barrera (known as Tio) of the Sinaloa State Police.  These relationships form the core of Winslow’s narrative as Keller feels that Tio who he worked with to stop the drug trade used him as a means of taking out the Aviles network and create his own under the guise of the federacion.  Keller works diligently to rectify that wrong and assuage his guilt because of the murders.  However, since this is about Mexico and the narco trade they are not the only murders, and not the only examples of Keller’s revenge, a major theme of the novel.  Other themes include the narco civil wars between competing cartel factions, the corruption of the Mexican government, and the American obsession with anti-communism.

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From the outset Winslow fosters a narrative of distrust – who are the good guys?  Winslow also manufactures a realism as he describes the drug trade that seems right from the front pages of current newspapers.  His story line development is taught as he introduces people who seem very believable in the roles they are assigned.  Characters like Tim Taylor, Keller’s DEA boss; Bishop Jan Parada, whose life’s work is to help the poor and believes in liberation theology; the Barreras; the Piccone Brothers, who add an Italian mob element to the story; John Hobbs, CIA Station Chief for Central America who oversaw US pseudo enforcement and cooperation with the Cartels; Salvatore Scachi, a Special Forces Colonel, CIA asset, made Mafia wise guy, and a participant in the Phoenix program in Vietnam;  Fabian Martinez, a Tijuana narco wanna be;  Obop and Sean Callan who emerge as focal characters in the Irish mob in New York’s Hell’s Kitchen and assassination experts; and Nora Hayden, sometime prostitute, sometime mistress, sometime US intelligence source who are all fascinating keys in what Winslow is trying to convey.  With a myriad of characters, the reader needs to pay close attention, particularly the juxtaposition of Keller and Anan Barreras as they begin as “friends,” but the relationship rests on each using the other to achieve their agendas.

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Winslow has excellent command of history and he integrates important events to enhance his story.  The discussion of the September 19, 1985 Mexican earthquake (8.0 on the Richter scale) that resulted in over 5000 deaths reflected the weakness of the Mexican government and emphasizes that apart from the US, the main source of aid would come from the Vatican and Narco bosses.  The insights fostered by Winslow’s discussion of the earthquake are important as it took pressure off the Cartel as Mexico City had to rebuild.  Another important historical theme is the role of communism and American foreign policy to Central America.  The Reagan administration was obsessed with the rise of the Sandinistas in Nicaragua fearing the spread of its socialist ideology throughout the region.  Reagan did not want to see another Cuban model  and supported the Contra movement to defeat the Sandinista’s.  The funding of the Contras would lead to the Iran-Contra affair later, but in 1985 the model was clear, the Mexican Trampoline where coke was flown up from Columbia to El Salvador, then transported to Mexico where it was shipped to Mafia bosses in the United States for distribution.  The Mafia paid for the drugs with weapons and military hardware for the Contras with the full knowledge of the CIA.  It is interesting that Barrera was funding Contra training camps in El Salvador for the CIA!

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The pseudo alliance between the CIA and the cartels to block leftist politicians and union leaders from achieving power is historically accurate.  Winslow points to programs like “Red Mist,” that applied assassination as a means of getting rid of any opposition, ostensibly creating a Phoenix program for South and Central America, and Operation Cerberus, a conspiracy to equip, fund, and train the Contras through the sale of cocaine.  Coordination involved hundreds of right-wing militias and their drug lord sponsors, a thousand army officers, a few hundred thousand troops, dozens of separate intelligence agencies, police forces, and the church.  American funding allowed the militias to carry out their mission that would lead to Death Squads in El Salvador and Guatemala resulting in the death of over 200,000 people. Later,  A disgusted President Bush finally withdrew US support for a program he was deeply involved with as Vice-President.  It is also interesting how Winslow blends the approval of NAFTA by the US congress to help bring Mexico out of poverty, so the drug trade needed to be kept off the front pages.

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(cartel drug deal gone bad in Mexico)

Winslow also takes the reader inside the cartels as they compete for “market share,” sources for product, and distribution networks.  The narco kingpins try and make it sound like a normal capitalist enterprise, however the corruption, violence, intimidation, extortion, murder is all part of their business model.  They own segments of the police, the justice system, cooperation of elements in the Catholic Church, and government powerbrokers as they bribe and coerce all components of society to achieve their ends.  Throughout the book there are numerous plot shifts and alliances that seem to change at the whim of the characters.  Each change is unpredictable and keeps the reader paying rapt attention.  The bottom line is that these interactions are despicable and produce feelings of disgust with American intelligence operatives and the deals they make – though in their own minds their rationalizations are completely justified.

Winslow has written a scary novel with a very believable scenario.  It is thoughtful, well written, and eye opening for those who are unaware of the depth of the drug trade.  For those who have become hooked on the subject matter, Winslow has written a sequel, THE CARTEL, with a third volume due out in February 2019, called THE FORCE.

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(border checkpoint between Tijuana and the United States)

 

THE PIANO TUNER by Daniel Mason

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(A French Erard piano)

 

Imagine you are an unassuming piano tuner living in London.  You are bespectacled, self-effacing and a master of your craft, particularly when it comes to a special type of piano.  Your wife Katherine thinks the world of your talent and you have a special relationship.   All seems well, then you are summoned to the British War Office in 1886 and you are told about a strange request from a Surgeon-Major who is stationed in the eastern area of Burma.  This scenario forms the basis of Daniel Mason’s exceptional first novel, THE PIANO TUNER.

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The core of the novel takes place in the far reaches of the British Empire where the War Office is concerned about French encroachment on Burma that could lead to issues in India.  The French are ensconced by the Mekong River close to Siam which borders on Burma.  There is growing discontent among the princes in the region, but the British have a special individual who seems successful in maintaining support for the British in this region called the Shan states.  The individual is Dr. Anthony J. Carroll.  The Surgeon-Major, his military title is a Renaissance type of person whose interests know no bounds.  He has been stationed in Burma for over twelve years and has become an expert in the fauna and flora of the region, the culture of the people, has conducted a myriad of medical research to help the Burmese, and possesses a love of music.  Carroll lives in a far-flung outpost in eastern Burma, called Mae Lwin, and among the natives he is seen as a poet-soldier.  One of the keys to Carroll’s success is an 1840 Erard grand piano which he had the War Office send him.  It seems music is a means of calming the people of the region who see it as having wonderful powers.  The problem is that the humidity and brigands in the region have reduced the piano’s efficiency.  Hence the call to London to dispatch a piano tuner to Carroll’s jungle fort east of Mandalay, Burma.  This is Carroll’s stated request, but his goals run deeper.  He needs his piano repaired, but he needs a kindred soul to help him maintain peace in the region without the dispatch of more British troops.

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(Colonial Burma)

The recipient of that request is Edgar Drake, a London piano tuner with expertise in repairing and tuning Erard pianos.  Drake is also a dilettante when it comes to knowledge.  Though he was not formally educated at the schools of the British upper class, his self-education places him on an intellectual level above most British prep school types.  These men, Carroll and Drake are the chief protagonists of the novel and their relationship, though unusual is the key element as the story evolves.

Mason introduces many characters, and for each one a picture forms in the reader’s mind as to their strengths, weaknesses, looks, and the personalities that are behind the mask which is their public face.  Mason conveys his story through several vehicles including letters from Drake to his wife, the writings of Carroll, as well as the myth and traditions of the Burmese people. Individuals like the infamous bandit, Twet Nga Lu; Captain Trevor Nash-Burnham of the British army; Nok Lek; a fifteen-year-old fighter who protects Carroll; Khin Myo, Drake’s female caretaker all have important roles to play.

The manner of late 19th century British imperialism is present for all to see.  The haughtiness and racism of British officers is clear as is seen in several instances as the Burmese people do not measure up to English standards.  Mason conveys the interactions between the British and Burmese people very carefully and the underlying feelings of each is easy to understand from the dialogue. Mason takes the reader on a journey that begins in London and takes Drake across the Middle East and Southwest Asia until he reaches Burma.  In so doing the sights and sounds of ocean and river travel in these areas are fascinating.  Once Drake has arrived, he experiences Burmese culture particularly the “puppet dramas” that are endemic to the region.  The topography of Burma is explored in detail and as the novel progresses one wonders if Drake will ever return home.

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Mason is a literary craftsman with elements of Joseph Conrad throughout the novel.  His sentences flow as do his descriptions and dialogue that easily capture the interest of the reader.  His plot moves at a very even plane, then it reaches a crescendo as Drake is placed in an untenable position as Carroll tries to implement his own agenda which British higher ups are totally against.  A key element to the novel concerns Carroll; what does he really believe, is he trustworthy, and in the end is he another “Kurtz” type figure from Conrad’s THE HEART OF DARKNESS or a Russian spy?

Mason’s own background makes the subject matter of the novel a perfect fit.  When he was a young medical student with a biology degree from Harvard, he studied malaria on the Thai-Burmese border and in northeast Burma.  In fact, he wrote the novel “between lessons at medical school.”  This makes him almost an authority on certain aspects of the region and contributes greatly to the success of the novel.  Mason’s ability to integrate the history of the region makes the violent nature of British imperialism as it tries to consolidate its hold on eastern Burma much clearer.  If there is a weakness to the novel it is the amount of time spent on Drake’s journey to Burma and what he experiences which take up almost two-thirds of the book, however this is offset by Mason’s expertise in the technical detail and methodical tuning of the piano and his discussion of malaria treatment once Drake becomes ill.

Whatever flaws exist, they are superseded by a dramatic and intense story that has left this reader excited to read Mason’s new novel, THE WINTER SOLDIER that deals with war, medicine, family, and the sweeping panorama of history surrounding World War I.

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(A French Erard piano)

BABYLON BERLIN by Volker Kutscher

Image result for photo of Weimar Berlin 1929(Weimar Berlin, 1929)

After recently visiting the Jewish quarter of Budapest, former Nazi sites in Nuremberg, and several German towns along the Danube and Rhine Rivers, 20th century German history has taken hold of my thoughts.  When I travel I have a personal tradition of trying to discover regional authors who have written historical mysteries about countries I have visited.  In this case I have come upon, Volker Kutscher’s first novel, BABYLON BERLIN, which introduces Book I of his Gerson Rath series.

Gerson Rath is an interesting protagonist who stems from a somewhat questionable background.  A former Cologne detective, he was forced to leave that police department due to a shooting incident where Rath was strongly implicated.  Because of the influence of his father, Police Director Engelbert Rath, he was able to transfer to a vice squad in the Berlin Police Department as an investigative detective.  From that point on Kutscher provides an insightful look at the underside of Weimar Berlin in 1929 as the depression looms and right-wing parties begin to proliferate.  Kutscher explores the role of drugs, pornography, and the actions of immigrant elements and their effect on German crime, politics and society in general.

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(Weimar Berlin, 1929 witnessed the rise of the Nazi Party)

Rath soon finds himself involved in a series of vice raids, but his heart is in solving homicides, not busting pimps, prostitutes, or porno-film producers.  After several murders take place, Rath sees an opportunity to solve them as a vehicle of self-glorification to gain a promotion to the Homicide Division.  He keeps information from his superiors, becomes involved in an accidental murder which he hides, false in love with a stenographer in Homicide, all on the way to achieving a promotion, due in large part once again to his father’s influence.

As Rath proceeds with his own investigations, the pervading atmosphere in Berlin is one of fear of communist demonstrations that could lead to a coup against the government.  This fear was further reinforced with the emergence of a group called the “Red Fortress.” Pre-Hitlerite Berlin is on full display as we witness the rise of anti-Semitism and the Nazi Party, the cafes and dance halls infested with alcohol and cocaine, opium dens, mob killings, corruption, and labor unrest.  Berlin is a city where Communists and ultra-nationalists are at war with each other to wreck the Weimar Republic’s fragile democracy. Another component to Kutscher’s plot emerges as Rath discovers a connection with a circle of oppositional Russian exiles who try to purchase weapons with smuggled gold stolen from Stalinist Russia.  Rath’s actions and machinations should be self-destructive as he himself becomes a murder suspect.  Rath is a character with many secrets, which include PTSD from combat in World War I, and Kutscher has no compunction about presenting Rath as an individual who is morally compromised as he tries to achieve a greater good for his city.

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(1929, Hitler the politician in Weimar Berlin)

Kutscher introduces several interesting characters to carry his novel.  Among them are Charlotte Ritter, a stenographer in the Homicide Department that Rath falls in love with; Elizabeth Behnke, Rath’s landlady who is jilted by Rath after a one night stand; Detective Chief Inspector Wilhelm Bohm, a boisterous commander that Rath must deal with; Dr. Magnus Schwartz, the coroner who repeatedly tests Rath’s reaction to autopsies;  Berthold Weinert, a newsman and neighbor of Rath; Commissioner Zorgiebel, a friend of Rath’s father, who needed publicity the way an addict needs his drug fix; Bruno Wolter, Rath’s partner;  Countess Svetlana Sorokina, whose family held $80 million worth of gold; Alexej Ivanovitsch Kardakov, worked to smuggle gold into Germany; and Johann Marlow, a cocaine dealer linked to the Red Fortress plot. Other criminals and interesting personality types are also present representing the Russian mob, drug dealers, murderers, and Nazis, all designed to complete a complex plot line that meanders throughout the novel.  For Rath, as the investigation proceeds he is forced to ask himself; “how was it that every time he learned something new about the case, he understood less than before?”

Kutscher has written a fast-paced story that seems to twist and turn from page to page.  It will keep the reader’s attention through an excellent translation from German and the end result should surprise everyone.  The end of the novel forms the basis of a continuing series involving Detective Investigator Rath in the second installment, entitled, THE SILENT DEATH.  For those interested, BABYLON BERLIN, currently forms the basis of a new series on Netflix.

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(Weimar Berlin, 1933)

THE UNFORTUNATE ENGLISHMAN by John Lawton

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(Berlin Wall)

John Lawton is perhaps one of the best practitioners of the art of Cold War noir.  He has written two separate series that deal with historical events behind the Iron Curtain and other areas and each has a scintillating plot that reeks of historical probability.  The third installment of Lawton’s Joe Wilderness series, THE UNFORTUNATE ENGLISHMEN is an excellent example of this successful genre.  The novel is set in the early 1960s with Nikita Khrushchev master of the Soviet Union in competition for the hearts and minds of third world countries with John F. Kennedy.  In England MI6 is growing concerned about Soviet nuclear capability as are the Americans.

The story unfolds with a return to post war Berlin when former MI6 operative Joe Wildnerness accidently shoots a woman who is involved with a plot to smuggle a nuclear physicist out of East Berlin to send her to newly created state of Israel.  Wilderness is arrested and is freed by the West German authorities through the intervention of Alec Berne-Jones, an MI6 fixture for years, who happens to be Wilderness’ father-in-law.  In return for his freedom, Wilderness agrees to rejoin MI6.  Further, Lawton introduces Bernard Forbes Campbell Alleyn, a British Squadron Leader who is shot down over Silesia in March, 1963, captured and finally liberated by the Russians.  The NKVD, never would never miss an opportunity, takes the body of Alleyn which they have recovered and use his identity and substitute an agent, Leonoid L’vovich Liubimov to infiltrate the British Defense establishment.

British Intelligence has its own plans to infiltrate the Soviet Defense apparatus.  It seems that their entire Russian operation has been rolled by a treasonous spy by the name of George Blake, who of course had ties to the Cambridge Five.  MI6 decides to develop an “out of the box” agent, Geoffrey Masefield, an expert in metallurgy who suffers from low self-esteem, but had delusions that he could be a successful spy.  The story that is concocted deals with idium, a rare metal that Masefield, posing as an industrial representative will try and purchase in Moscow.  The goal is to gain Soviet interest in Masefield which would allow him to visit certain sites that might be of interest.  Lawton’s development of Masefield’s character and spy ability is classic and his adventures in Russia become a core of the novel.  Masefield develops a relationship with Tanya Dmitrievna Tsitikova his “Russian watcher,” of course a KGB spy, as well as Professor of Physics Grigory Grigoryevich Matsekyolyev of the Leningrad Polytechnical Institute, who also is a KGB spy, which makes for interesting scenes and dialogue.

Lawton’s novel is presented in layers.  First, introducing the major characters and their possible relationship to the world of intelligence.  Second, developing each character fully, and lastly tying them together in an intricate plot that attracts the readers complete attention.  While doing so Lawton integrates historical events, concepts, and figures that provide the novel with an air of accuracy when applied to the course of the Cold War.  Events that are easily recognizable are the Kennedy-Khrushchev meeting in Vienna, the U2 Incident, the building of the Berlin Wall, trading of spies, among others.  The realism that is evident does at times seems at times to be a tad far fetched as is evidences by Wilderness’ meeting with Khrushchev on the western side of the newly constructed Berlin Wall in late September, 1961.  But to Lawton’s credit his sarcasm papers over several situations as his somewhat dark humor presides.

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Lawton presents all the clichés associated with the world of spies through the character of Masefield.  Further, the reader gets a sense of Moscow during the Cold War with the lines for poor quality goods, the black market, overcrowded and run down housing, and the ever present KGB which seems to be everywhere.  Other important characters play important roles.  Wilderness’s wife, Judy, a saucy BBC producer, and daughter of her husband’s boss tries to keep her husband on track.  Tom Radley is an incompetent British MI6 Station Chief in Berlin who makes a series of errors, Nell Burkhardt who was close with Wilderness after the war and finds herself running a refugee camp, the Marooned Centre in Berlin in the early 1960s, Frank Spoleta, a self-indulgent CIA operative who seems to alienate everyone he encounters, among others.

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(President John F. Kennedy and Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev)

British intelligence chiefs are in a quandary as to how to further employ Masefield.  Wilderness is extremely skeptical in extending Masefield’s leash, so he can try and penetrate the Soviet Defense Ministry further.  On the other hand, Radley, the Berlin Chief wants to provide his agent carte blanche.  The result is that Radley’s view is put forth leading to disastrous consequences and his removal from his position.  At this point the novel takes on an exceptionally serious hue as M16 officials, Wilderness, and his father-in-law must change course in order to contain the intelligence gaffe, and deal with the fallout that may foster more drastic Soviet actions.

Lawton, as per usual has written an exciting Cold War mystery, with strong character development, the ability to integrate the unusual into his dialogue and story line, and take the reader back and forth from post war Berlin to the machinations of the 1960s.  For those who enjoy David Downing, Olen Steinhauer, Philip Kerr, or Luke McCallin, they will find Lawton to be equal to, if not a step up in his approach to Cold War espionage.  Lawton is a great read, no matter what book of his you might pick up, so enjoy.

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(Berlin Wall, upon completion)