Medal of Honor Recipient Theodore Roosevelt

(Lt. Colonel Theodore Roosevelt)

When ranking American presidents Theodore Roosevelt is usually positioned among the top five in American history.  His life is fascinating as a number of biographies highlight.  Probably the most impactful is Edmund Morris’ biographic trilogy among many others.  Roosevelt’s life reflects a weak child growing up in New York City who overcame his physical limitations who thrived on being physically fit; a career that included being New York City Police Commissioner, Governor of New York, Assistant Secretary of the Navy, and the presidency.  Along the way he evolved into a central figure in the Spanish-American War and a committed naturalist and conservationist.  After his political career ended his exploits continued as he engaged in sustained travel and continued his writing centering on history and nature.  Clearly, a full life.

To tackle Theodore Roosevelt as a subject of historical fiction is quite an undertaking.  However, novelist Jeff Shaara was undaunted and committed to the task resulting in his eighteenth historical novel, THE OLD LION: A NOVEL OF THEODORE ROOSEVELT.  Shaara originally made his mark authoring GODS AND GENERALS and THE LAST FULL MEASURE, which are the prequel and sequel to his father’s award winning novel, THE KILLER ANGELS.  Among his novels are topics that include the American Revolution, the Mexican War, the Civil War, World War I and II, the Korean War and his latest which he is about to complete on the Cuban Missile Crisis.

Edith Roosevelt, First Lady stock photo.

(First Lady, Edith Kermit Carow Roosevelt)

Choosing Roosevelt as the focus of his novel created a dilemma.  How does an author pick and choose areas of concentration in such a rich life when the book is not supposed to be a traditional biography?  Shaara has done so with ease and class as he delves into important public and private aspects of the former Rough Rider.

Shaara begins the novel pointing to two important components of Roosevelt’s development, his battle with asthma and his relationship with his father.  Both provide the key motivations developing physically as Alfred Adler, an important Neo-Freudian has written that individuals who suffer from a self-perceived inferiority complex strive their entire lives to achieve superiority to overcome it.  In Roosevelt’s case his lungs and his father’s encouragement and acting as a role model for his son allowed him to develop “the strenuous life,” which led to his obsession with natural history and his love of nature.

Throughout the book, Shaara formulates a Roosevelt that is never far from his need for adventure and his naturalist education.  Shaara picks and chooses very carefully scenes from his protagonist’s life.  Each segment is well written, and it allows the reader to develop an intimate relationship with future “Bull Moose.”  Shaara does not provide a writer’s note, a la Steve Berry, which would explain his sources and what he considers fact and fiction.  Doing so would greatly enhance the reader’s experience and trust in the material presented.

Shaara’s tool in organizing the novel is a series of interviews conducted by New York Times reporter Hermann Hagedorn which took place at the end of December 1918 which allows Roosevelt to look back on his life and fill in gaps that are not fully developed by the author.  Shaara uses the interviews as a bridge between the time Roosevelt left for the Dakotas in 1887 and his experiences in the war with Spain in 1898.  Shaara focuses on his family and career and his commitment to reform – rooting out corruption as Civil Service Commissioner, New York City Police Commissioner, and Assistant Secretary of the Navy.

Kermit Roosevelt

(Kermit Roosevelt)

The structure of the novel is effective with Hagedorn’s interviews filling in the gaps.  At first Roosevelt’s constant battle with asthma and his relationship with his father is stressed.  Shaara moves on to a section, perhaps his best dealing with Roosevelt’s commitment to ranching and living in the Dakota Badlands as a vehicle to decompress after the deaths of his mother and his first wife Alice within a twenty-four hour period.  The section highlights his relationship with “real” cowboys and cattle ranchers and the difficulties of running a successful cattle business.  This is followed with a detailed discussion of events leading to and the actual fighting of the Spanish-American War which turned Roosevelt into a hero and a viable candidate for high office.  Shaara moves on to an exploration of Roosevelt’s rise to the Vice Presidency and Presidency once William McKinley is assassinated and implementing a progressive agenda.  Shaara’s last section brings the novel to a close.  Entitled “The Old Lion,” the author again employs Hagedorn to ferret out of Roosevelt his reactions to The Treaty of Portsmouth, taking the Panama Canal, difficulties with William Howard Taft, escaping assassination, and dangerous sojourns to Africa and the Amazon where he almost perishes.

Shaara’s Roosevelt is a dichotomy.  He employs his effusive personality and energy to his legislative agenda as President.  His “Square Deal” includes a reform agenda which mostly passes Congress and encompasses issues of improving working conditions, controlling trusts, and race.  It is interesting to read his views dealing with non-white Americans and trying to improve their lot, and at the same time engaging in a foreign policy based on Social Darwinism.  Foremost, Shaara’s Roosevelt is an egoist which he balances with great empathy for others especially members of his Rough Riders during the Spanish-American War for which a great deal of respect and trust for him by his men is reciprocated.

The book is clearly not a complete biography in novel form as Shaara stresses certain aspects of Roosevelt’s life.  The two most important components are his family whose credit goes to his childhood companion Edith Crow who becomes his second wife and his children.  Second is his commitment to the environment developing nature preserves, national parks, and conservation.  A wonderful book that encompasses this aspect of Roosevelt’s life is historian Douglas Brinkley’s mammoth work; THE WILDERNESS WARRIOR: THEODORE ROOSEVELT AND THE CRUSADE FOR AMERICA.

Against the backdrop of the Wild West, San Juan Hill and the jungles of Brazil, the White House appeared to be less satisfying for Roosevelt. Perhaps this explains why the sections of the novel that follow his presidency read more like straightforward and familiar history. Many of the details and events in this section are nevertheless significant and lively. We see Roosevelt confront racism in Congress after meeting with Booker T. Washington at the White House, we learn how the term “Speak softly and carry a big stick” evolved and we discover the origin of teddy bears.  The novel, if that is a correct characterization of Shaara’s work, is thoughtfully written and provides many insights into the most energetic and effusive person who dominated his presidency and the time period in which he lived.

Theodore Roosevelt

Jamie MacGillivray: The Renegade’s Journey by John Sayles

(Fort Duquesne – near Pittsburgh)

If you are a fan of Ken Follet and other practitioners of well-developed historical fiction in books that weigh a great deal then screenwriter and director John Sayles’ latest work THE RENEGADE’S JOURNEY: JAMIE MacGILLIVARY is one you should seriously consider.  Sayles, the author of YELLOW EARTH  and A MOMENT IN THE SUN now tackles the adventures of two fictional 18th century Scots – the main character is Jamie MacGillivary, a landless follower of Bonnie Prince Charlie, and Jenny Ferguson, a poor crofter’s daughter swept up in the avenging British against the Jacobite Rebellion.  The two characters dominate and leave historical figures such as Generals George Washington, James Wolfe, Robert Monckton, James Braddock, and the Marquis de Montcalm in the background as Sayles captures the competing alliances of the mid-18th century and the horrors of war through the trials and travails of Jamie and Jenny.

Sayles frames his novel with the Battles at Culloden in Scotland and the Plains of Abraham in Quebec, Jamie and Jenny will find themselves imprisoned under demeaning conditions and sent into indentured servitude in the English colonies.  From there their lives will diverge before they  come together later in the novel.

However, Sayles will first engage the reader with the details of the Battle of Culloden, a nasty confrontation that saw the British rout a Jacobite* army of Highlanders, Irish, Scots in the French service and English deserters, a rather difficult group to herd together as a formidable force.  The army was created to support the claims of Bonnie Prince Charlie, so named for his boyish good looks who was the grandson of the exiled English King, James II who was removed during the Glorious Revolution and was replaced by William and Mary on the English throne.  His father, James III, known as the “Old Pretender” in exile and in September 1745 his son, the would be Charles IV landed with a small army on the west coast of Scotland and with 2400 men entered Edinburgh.  Within two months with 5500 men, he crossed into England and headed toward London.  However, on April 16, 1746, the third son of King George II, the Duke of Cumberland defeated this rag tag army at Culloden.  The “Young Pretender” would escape by ship to France where he would continue to try and recover the English crown for his father and himself.

Bonnie Prince Charlie portrait and new facial depiction

(Bonnie Prince Charlie)

The main protagonists will find themselves in desperate situations.  Jamie was wounded and survived under a pile of bodies before being captured by the Redcoats, and later by Native-Americans.  He would meet Jenny, who had been beaten and raped by British soldiers as they are separately sent to the English colonies.  Sayles describes Jenny’s plight as she is sent to Martinique where she is purchased by a French artillery officer, Lt. St. Cyr who will take her under his wing as his lover and friend showing off a white woman in Creole society.  Later, St. Cyr is ordered to Canada to fight the British, taking Jenny with him.   Jamie finds himself a slave on the Georgia plantation of Jock Crozier, a nasty individual that results in Jamie and his slave cohorts escaping, only to be captured by the Lenape tribe where he is put to work. Sayles uses Jamie as a vehicle to explain the shifting alliances in Europe as Hapsburg Emperor Charles VI issues the Pragmatic Sanction to gain support for his daughter, Maria Theresa, to succeed him on the throne.  At first, Frederick the Great of Prussia agrees then conquers Silesia, and the result is the beginning of the Seven Years War in Europe in 1756, a continuation of the French and Indian War in the colonies between France and England that began in 1754.  The situation lends itself to Sayles’ entertaining phrasing as Native-Americans describe negotiations in Europe as “old men wearing other men’s hair while they dicker over a treaty across the great water.” (328)  The key in the colonies is the Ohio Valley which the French and English desire for the Fur trade and military outposts.  As English colonists in Pennsylvania and Virginia want to move west this presents the French with the opportunity to ally with Native tribes.

In telling his story Sayles has the marvelous ability to create scenes whereby it feels as if the reader has an intimate relationship with the main characters.  His description of the Atlantic passage and enslavement in the Caribbean and the English colonies mirrors the historical record.  It is clear that Sayles has engaged in prodigious research and travel to the sites he has written about which allow him to convey intimate details of battle, treatment of prisoners, life on a plantation, interacting with Native tribes, and how his characters experience misfortune and at times luck as Jamie realizes how lucky he is to be alive as he states, “a French invasion scuttled by storms at sea, a bullet made to cripple or kill him only passes through his flesh, the whim of a bewigged magistrate on the day before hanging – all seems more accident than design.” (243

Sayles creates a series of characters, but there are a number who are key to the story.  Apart from Jamie and Jenny there is Macheod Lachlan, a bard whose mission in life is to amuse his clan brethren.  His goal in life is to entertain all who come in contact with him.  There is Keach, an evangelical Christian who spots the glories of God as he tries to convert everyone.  Jamie’s brother Dougal, thought dead at Culloden, miraculously survives, and Ange, who develops a loving relationship with Jamie.  Numerous characters come and go.  Some disappear for hundreds of pages then all of a sudden reemerge.

James Wolfe

(British Major-General James Wolfe)

Jamie must have passed through an identity crisis as at the outset of the novel he is portrayed as a Highland Scotsman fighting with the French against the British.  He is captured and sold as a slave in Georgia.  Later he is taken in by the Lenape Indians whose tribe he will eventually become a trusted member.  Jamie’s life mirrors the wars that are described throughout.  First, the British and French fight in Scotland.  Then the fighting moves on to the Ohio Valley in the American colonies.  As the fighting shifts across the Atlantic, both powers try to convince various Indian tribes to join their crusades.  White settlers are seen by Native-Americans as squatters stealing Indian land resulting in extreme violence.  Lastly, the French  and British find themselves fighting different Indian tribes.  As Sayles describes the many conflicts we witness guerilla and conventional warfare which at times produces modern weaponry such as long range artillery.

As the novel follows Jamie and Jenny through servitude, revolt, escape, and romantic entanglements — pawns in a deadly game other historical figures of the era appear – the devious Lord Lovat, future novelist Henry Fielding, the artist William Hogarth, a young and ambitious George Washington, the doomed General James Wolfe, and the Lenape chief feared throughout the Ohio Valley as Shingas the Terrible.

Sayles is an excellent wordsmith; however, it does take time to adapt to the Erse, a Scottish or Irish Gaelic language as well as the French phrasing which appears regularly.  Sayles does this to create authenticity, but at times it detracts from the reading experience and makes it difficult at times to follow what is occurring.

*Jacobite’s were the supporters of James VII of Scotland and II of England.  Jacobus is Latin for James.

File:Fort Duquesne (1758) P6210244.JPG

(Fort Duquesne – near Pittsburgh)


Gondolas and vaporetto in Canal Grande, Venice-Italy Venice - Italy July 5, 2022. View of Grand Canal in Venice, Italy with vaporetto and gondolas navigating on water. City Stock Photo

(Venice, Italy)

Exceptional historical fiction should exhibit a number of important characteristics.  First, is the story believable.  Second, does it accurately blend historical fact with fictional characters in developing its plot?  Third, are there multiple storylines within the larger narrative that come together in a rational and seamless manner?  Lastly, the writing style that maintains the reader’s interest.  If this was a checklist for successful historical fiction then Steve Berry has met all the criteria in his Cotton Malone series.  Berry, along with his wife Elizabeth are founders of History Matters, an organization dedicated to historical preservation, and an emeritus member of the Smithsonian Libraries Advisory Board along with being a New York Times bestselling author.  Berry has written eighteen Cotton Malone Novels and to this point I am up to number ten, THE PATRIOT THREAT.  As in the previous nine Berry has written, Malone has been thrown into a situation where international threats dominate.  The book is fast-paced and should appeal to non-history buffs in addition to those who enjoy a complex mystery with many moving parts.

THE PATRIOT THREAT returns a number of characters from previous books.  Chief among them is Malone’s old boss from an elite intelligence division within the Justice Department called the Magellan Billet.  Stephanie Knell, his old boss contacts Malone who is retired and running a bookshop in Denmark and asks him to locate a rogue North Korean who may have acquired some top secret Treasury Department files that could be detrimental to American national security.

Berry begins his tale in the White House of Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1936 as former Treasury Secretary Andrew Mellon is summoned.  Their conversation is contentious as both men despise each other, particularly when the Internal Revenue Service has found that Mellon has cheated on his taxes for over $ 3 million.  Mellon offers to donate the money that will result in the National Art Gallery to offset what he owes and as he leaves he presents FDR with a piece of paper with the picture of a newly printed dollar bill connected to make a pentagram.  What does it mean, and from this point Berry has peaked the reader’s interest to continue to read on.

North view of the Smithsonian Castle

(Smithsonian Museum, Washington, DC

Berry immediately takes the reader to Venice where Malone finds himself hanging from a helicopter in a situation that has gone out of control.  Berry then switches to Atlanta, GA at Magellan Billet Headquarters as Stephanie Nell discovers a breach in the security system, supposedly involving a Treasury official. 

Berry has created a number of scenarios that will cause the reader to wonder how they will all fit together.  The first involves Kim Yong Jin, a son of North Korea’s “Great Leader” who was first in the line of succession until what was viewed as an indiscretion removed him from the family hierarchy and forced him into exile.  His younger half-brother assumed his position as next in line to succeed his father.  Kim’s anger and jealousy knew no bounds.  He created a playboy image so he would not appear to be a threat, unbeknownst to his brother he was plotting to seize power.

The second scenario involves the American Secretary of the Treasury, Joseph Levy who is trying to recover department documents which he believes posed a significant threat to the US economy.  This pitted him against the Justice Department which employed the Magellan Billet.  The missing documents dealt in some way to the passage of the 16th amendment and the right of the federal government to collect income taxes.

The third scenario involves a historical character named Haym Salomon who loaned the American government $800,000 to finance the American Revolution and was never repaid.  The family tried for years to gain repayment, but they were never compensated.  In 1925 then Secretary of the Treasury blocked any payment, and probably took the Salomon repayment documents which showed that the family was owed close to $330 billion.  In 1937 FDR ordered an investigation over the validity of the claims and Mellon’s role.  In the end the Salomon family never received any repayment.

The fourth scenario centers on a self-published book by a tax cheat who had fled the United States during his tax evasion trial named Anan Wayne Howell, who wrote THE PATRIOT THREAT which lays out the argument against the 16th amendment.  The question is how does this all fit together and what role did Andrew Mellon and Franklin Roosevelt play in the process.

Malone’s role begins rather benignly.  Hired by Stephanie Knell to observe the transfer of $20 million to “Dear Leader,” the money is a target of his brother.  The situation deteriorates and Malone finds himself knee deep in something he doesn’t quite understand.

Berry provides many insights into life in North Korea.  The poverty, malnutrition, ill health, lack of electricity, lack of freedom is on full display.  Berry explores in detail through Hana Sung, Kim’s daughter, what life was like in North Korean labor camps where people are worked to death, executed, or both.  Life in the north is harrowing and anyone deemed a threat to the regime is immediately removed to a labor camp or is shot on the spot.

Berry poses an interesting question as to whether the federal income tax is legal.  In doing so he integrates historical characters like Haym Soloman, George Mason, Andrew Mellon, Robert Morgenthau, Franklin Roosevelt, and Philander Knox and a number of fictional ones.  The book is classic Berry leaving the reader to continually ponder what will be the next turn in the novel and how everything, no matter how disparate comes together.  The next novel in the series is THE 14TH COLONY which has a strong Cold War bent and involves the possibility of Canada as part of the United States.


Grand Canal in Venice Grand canal on sunny day in Venice, Italy Venice - Italy Stock Photo



Albert Speer, Adolf Hitler, and Arno Breker on Trocadéro in front of the Eiffel Tower. A crouching cameraman films Hitler for the cinema newsreel. Paris, 23 June 1940.

On June 14, 1940, the German army marched into Paris beginning an occupation that would last for four years.  The arrival of the Germans was the culmination of a six week invasion that saw French forces melt away in defeat and the French government agreeing to an armistice on June 22, 1940.  The French government would move to Vichy in the south where they set up a collaborative regime under World War I hero, Marshal Philippe Petain.  The new government would defer to the Nazis who set up their occupation regime in the north, beginning a period of limited freedom for Parisians, greatly reduced food supplies, and an overall sense of fear as to what would come next.

With the occupation serving as a backdrop British author Chris Lloyd who held a lifelong interest in World War II, including resistance and collaboration in occupied France has embarked on a series of novels centering on French Investigator Eddie Giral.  The first in the series is THE UNWANTED DEAD set in Paris which earned the HWA Gold Crown Award. Giral would spend the war trying to navigate the occupation, seeking a road between resistance and collaboration, all the time transforming himself into becoming who he needs to be to survive.

Lloyd begins the novel with the arrival of the German army in Paris on June 14.  Immediately the German High Command orders all French citizens to be disarmed and to remain in their houses for the next few days.  Giral, has other concerns as a sealed railway car is discovered with four dead bodies probably killed with chlorine or some other gas.  Giral decides it is his obligation as a “French cop” to investigate the deaths and determine who was responsible.  The four dead bodies turn out to be Polish refugees, one of which is from the Polish village of Bydgoszcz.  The situation becomes even more complicated when Fryderyk Gorecki, another Polish refugee from the same village jumps from the roof of his home with his young son Jan committing suicide as the Nazis enter Paris.

Jewish men wearing the mandatory yellow badge in the Jewish quarter of Paris.

(Jewish quarter of Paris, 1941)

For Giral the smell of the gas returns him to the trenches of World War I and introduces a character reminiscent of the late Philip Kerr’s Bernie Gunther, oozing with attitude and a conflicted morality that powers a complex, polished plot.  At the same time Lloyd develops the Giral character he successfully frames the French experience under the Nazis.  The Germans who have just conquered most of Europe in a few weeks mostly are haughty, arrogant, and have little respect for the French.  Lloyd accurately conveys the internal politics of the Nazi occupation including the competition between the German army, the Gestapo, and SS for controlling Paris.  The duplicity and infighting among the Germans is on full display in Lloyd’s rendition of the early Nazi occupation and it appears quite accurate.

The Parisian ambiance is clear as Lloyd takes the reader into the underside of Paris and the conflicting feeling of the French many of whom are right wingers like Detective Auban who works with Giral that believe the French government was weak and led them astray fostering a deep respect for German efficiency and in some cases racial beliefs leading to French collaborations to the detriment of the French resistance.

The desperation of the French people is evident through suicides, attempts to escape the city, locking themselves in their homes, and abandoning their previous lives by fleeing the Germans.  As the Germans arrive 2/3 of Parisians flee the city, leaving only the poor, the old, and the police.  As Giral puts it, “Paris was still there, but it was no longer Paris.

Lloyd has created an interesting character in Giral, a man with tremendous personal baggage dating back to WWI.  Giral survived the war but did not survive the metal anguish of life in the trenches.  Unbeknownst to him he develops post-traumatic stress disorder which will destroy his family as he leaves his wife, Sylvie, and their five year old son Jan-Luc to survive on their own.  Giral is also guilt ridden because his parents blame him for his older brother’s death as he joined the French army in 1916 following in his brothers’ footsteps and was killed at Verdun.  Lloyd integrates the year 1925, at times alternating chapters dealing with 1940 to dig into Giral’s personal issues which seem to percolate throughout the novel.  For Giral, once a respected policeman, his methods and own baggage at times reduce him to a weak figure who in 1925 seeks refuge in an American jazz club and cocaine.  Giral manifests his personal issues with a nasty habit of “putting his foot in his mouth” especially when it comes to his son who he is trying to protect from the Germans at the same time he is trying to make amends for deserting his family.

Places where you can still find evidence of World War II in Paris: Hotel Lutetia

(Nazi Command Post at French Hotel, June, 1940)

Lloyd’s grasp of history is strongly exemplified by Giral’s conversations with former Black Harlem Hell fighters who fought for the United States in World War I.  Giral is shocked that these men do not want to live in their home country, but he understands when they describe the racial situation in the United States and how they were better off in France. Another interesting example is Lloyd’s description of the French surrender to the Germans at Compiegne using the same railway car used by the allies in 1918.  This time with Hitler present.

Lloyd’s plot lines are well conceived.  What does the gassing of the refugees and the suicide of a man and his son have to do with each other.  When American reporters become involved Giral’s eyes are opened to a larger issue – how to get across to the world the atrocities the Nazis have committed in Poland and other areas in order to convince the United States to join the war and for the Soviet Union to break its pact with the Hitlerite regime.  More and more Giral becomes obsessed with learning the truth and balancing that truth with the larger goal of defeating the Nazis.  In so doing an interesting series of characters become important.  Major Hochstetter, an Abwehr Nazi officer who is the liaison to the French police who plays a duplicitous role throughout.  Lucja and Janek, members of the Polish resistance whose main goal is to tell the truth to the world.  Katherine Ronson, a freelance American journalist looking for a Pulitzer Prize.  Hauptmann Karl Weber, an officer in the 87th Infantry Division of the Wehrmacht, and a series of others.

How these diverse personalities and storylines come together make the novel an excellent read.  For Giral how many sacrifices must he make as he navigates the Nazi obstacle course in his quest for the truth, while at the same time holding onto his moral compass and seeing the larger issues that may be more important than his own murder investigation.  For Giral it is a constant question as to who he can trust.  Journalists, colleagues, certain Germans, union workers, but in the end he must rely on his own instincts.  The next book in the series is PARIS REQUIEM and I look forward to continuing to follow Eddie Giral’s career and life story.

Galesburg Register-Mail

STASI CHILD by David Young

Tall grey and brown buildings with a lower building in front
Tall grey and brown buildings with a lower building in front

(STASI Headquarters, East Berlin)

To maintain power for over 40 years while their people starved and plotted to escape, the East German Communist Party had to get very good at controlling people and undermining anti-state activists. But outright street violence and assassinations weren’t good for the Party image, so the Ministry for State Security got creative. Better known as the Stasi (the German acronym), these secret police were the “Schild und Schwert der Partei” (Shield and Sword of the Party). Their sole function was to keep the Communist Party in power. They did not care how.  At a certain point they had 91,000 employees, 5,600,000 East German citizens were under suspicion for anti-party activity (about 1 and 3 people), all out of a total population of 17,000,000.  The  level of surveillance and infiltration caused East Germans to live in terror—you really never knew if you could trust anyone—though most had no idea of the scope of these activities until after the Berlin Wall fell.  With this in the background author, David Young, an English novelist created a crime thriller series featuring a fictional Volkspolezi detective, Karin Müller, set in 1970s East Germany. Young’s debut novel STASI CHILD won the “CWA Endeavor Historical Dagger” award for the best historical crime novel of the year.  The novel is the first of six iterations of his Karin Muller series which immediately captivates the reader who will find it difficult to put down.

The novel begins with Oberleutnant Karin Muller and her deputy, Unterleutnant Werner Tilsner, find themselves in bed with each other after a night of drinking.  Both are married, Muller is aghast and Tilsner has an arrogant smirk on his face.  This is just background as they are immediately summoned to a murder scene at the Berlin Wall.  When they arrive they are met by STASI Oberstleutnant Klaus Jager who informs them he is in charge, even though it comes under the jurisdiction of the Kriminalpolizei or KRIPO.  This arrangement will prove interesting throughout the novel.  The crime scene is made up of a murdered young girl whose face could have been destroyed by wild animals and Jager informs Muller she is in charge of the investigation to determine the identity of the body, the cause of death, and the killer.  The problem that arises is that Jager has informed her that his preliminary investigation concludes that the girl was shot fleeing the western side of the Berlin Wall trying to enter East Germany.  Her task is to provide evidence to support Jager’s conclusions.

The situation is further exacerbated after Jonas Schmidt, the KRIPO scientist, and Professor Feuerstein, the KRIPO pathologist examine the murder scene and conduct an autopsy and their findings do not support Jager’s scenario.  Muller is immediately caught up in a situation where she is losing control.  When She and Tilsner were trying to identify the victim, they came across a teenage girl named Silke Eisenberg who had run away successfully to West Berlin.

Young is a superb practitioner of the Cold War thriller.  He does an excellent job creating the ambiance and jargon of the time period as the East German government (DDR) is having difficulty keeping its citizens from trying to escape to West Berlin, despite the building of the Wall in 1961.  Young has created a multi-faceted plot that leaves the reader wondering how it all fits together.  There is the murder investigation that Karin Muller is hoping to solve.  There is the role of STASI and the concept that no one wants the perpetrators to be found.  We must also deal with Karin’s husband Gottfried who is arrested by the STASI. Lastly, the role of the reform school at Profo-Ost and the plight of Irma Behrendt and her friend Beate Ewert who tries to commit suicide.

Young creates a number of interesting characters.  Jonas Schmidt, the fumbling forensic scientist and Krimminaltechniker.  Klaus Jager, a man with an agenda that is difficult to figure out.  Karin’s husband, Gottfried, a teacher, an idealist, whose situation deteriorates from the outset of the novel as he watches western news programs and frequents a church where the pastor is under surveillance.  Matthias Gellman, a confused star crossed teenager who make a number of poor decisions.  Lastly, Franz Neumann, a sinister character who runs Profo-Ost.  There are the usual bleak characters that run the reform school and a host of others.

Karin faces dilemmas throughout the novel.  She admires her country’s efforts to raise up the position of women in society as she is the highest ranking woman in the People’s Police.  But, on the other hand the male dominated leadership in the police community creates doubts in her belief in the system.  Further, her view of East German society is questioned as she and her partner travel to the west where for the first time she sees the luxuries and everyday thriving of a capitalist culture.  Deep down she is shocked by the number of missing girls in East Berlin, a number that dwarfs those missing in the west which is in large part why she is determined to find the murderer of the girl by the Berlin Wall.  Karin also feels guilty over her marriage and she wonders if there is anything she can do to help her husband.

Fans of the late Philip Kerr and his Bernie Guenther character and Martin Cruz Smith’s Arkady Renko should enjoy Young’s foray into the cold war thriller.  The dialogue is crisp and the juxtaposition of east and west is well conceived.  All in all a success, and I look forward to the next book in the series, STASI WOLF.

A door with a sign reading
A door with a sign reading

MY FATHER’S HOUSE by Joseph O’Connor

(St. Peter’s Square, circa 1944)

The role of the Papacy and the Catholic church in general has been placed under an unrelenting  historical microscope since the 1930s.  Historians such as John Cornwell, David I. Kertzer, Michael Phayer, Susan Zuccotti, and others have analyzed the role of Pope Pius II and Vatican officials to be in many cases wanting when it came to their actions, or lack of thereof when it came to Benito Mussolini and Adolf Hitler, in addition to the absence of a strong  response to the Holocaust.*  Pius who has been labeled “Hitler’s Pope” by many historians when discussing his refusal to speak out against the Nazi genocide whether fairly or unfairly, but his “moral silence” throughout the war stands out.  This is not to say that most or even a majority of church officials felt comfortable with Vatican policy as there were numerous acts of bravery by Catholic officials, priests,  and their followers to hide allied POWs and Jews and smuggle them out of Europe to safety.

One of these individuals was Monsignor Hugh O’Flaherty, an Irish priest who together with likeminded compatriots risked their lives to save as many Jews and POWs as possible right under the noses of the Nazi executioners.  In MY FATHER’S HOUSE, author, Joseph O’Connor has written a marvelous work of historical fiction detailing events from the Fall of 1943 when Germany took control of Rome and Gestapo boss, Obersturmbannfuhrer Paul Hauptmann ruled the city with maniacal efficiency.  O’Conner’s work is the first volume in a trilogy delineating “the Rome Escape Line.”

(Monsignor Hugh O’Flaherty)

O’Flaherty was an Irish Catholic priest and senior official of the Roman Curia and was responsible for saving 6500 allied soldiers and Jews.  He had the ability to evade traps set by the Gestapo and Nazi SD earning the nickname, “The Scarlet Pimpernel of the Vatican.”  O’Connor’s portrayal is one of suspense and intrigue creating a gripping World War II drama featuring the unlikeliest of heroes.** 

What separates O’Connor’s approach to historical fiction is his ability to turn facts into believable fiction.  As Sara Moss points out in her review published in The Guardian; “O’Connor is clear that his characters are “not to be relied upon by biographers or researchers” and that sequences “presenting themselves as authentic documents are works of fiction”. The writer’s challenge is to balance the messy improbability of what actually happened with the structural requirements of the novel.  O’Connor achieves this balance partly through characterization and voices strong enough that we eagerly follow them through uncertainty, mundane and disappointment as well as high-stakes jeopardy. The novel is built out of the present-tense close third-person narrative of the priest, Hugh O’Flaherty, the technique historical fiction owes to Hilary Mantel, interspersed with fictional interviews conducted for a radio program in 1963 with the seven people running the escape line under Hugh’s direction. All have distinctive and often very funny voices: they are Irish, English, Italian, aristocrats and shopkeepers.”***

The novel begins on the night of December 19, 1943, when Delia Kiernan, the wife of an Irish diplomat is driving a black Daimler embassy car through the streets of Rome with a groaning passenger in the back seat.  She will soon be joined by a black clad man in the front seat.  Once they reach a hospital for the injured man, Father O’Flaherty brow beats a Nazi guard in gaining treatment for Major Sam Derry, an escaped British prisoner of the Royal Regiment of Artillery.

O’Conner does a wonderful job employing dialogue and character monologues to convey to the reader the Irish mindset in Rome during the latter stages of the war.  His descriptions of O’Flaherty are priceless.  The Monsignor sets up a choir as a front for his clandestine operations.  It helps that Kiernan was a professional singer before the war. The choir itself takes on many characters each with their own quirks.  There is Kiernan, Sir Darcy Osborne, the flamboyant British Ambassador to the Vatican, John May an indispensable fixer, Contessa Giovanni Landini, Marianna DeVries, a freelance journalist based in Rome, and others.  All contribute to O’Flaherty’s goals but are used by the author as a tool of providing background for each character and past and future events through interviews of each in chapter form taken in 1963.


(Herbert Kappler, Chief of Security Police and Security Services for the SS and all police units deployed in Rome during the occupation)

In this vein O’Connor employs clever strategies to lay the background foundation for his story line, particularly his use of O’Flaherty’s “Last Will and Testament” should he ever be seized by the Gestapo as a means of conveying the history of Irish subjugation by the British, and in turn Irish hatred and distrust of England and her armies.  The document provides insights into who the Monsignor really was, a thoughtful and courageous individual whose voice is used to describe the nature of Nazi rule and the horrors they engaged in.   

Another approach that is quite effective is integrating interviews of important characters years later alluded to earlier.  A few stand out.  Those include interviews with Enzo Angelucci, an important member of the choir.  Contessa Giovanna Landini, a widower having emotional difficulties meets O’Flaherty by chance and describes how this new friendship provided purpose to her life and the ability to move on.  The British Ambassador hiding in the Vatican, Sir D’Arcy Osborne’s Christmas eve 1943 report to The War Office, Whitehall, London and his assistant and fixer, John May from London’s East End who provides the flavor of the underground that exists in Rome.  The importance of the later interviews is that they provide varying views of the Monsignor; his character, foibles, belief system, and other aspects of his personality that made him so special.

O’Connor uses Paul Hauptmann, the Nazi Commander of Rome as a foil against O’Flaherty.  Entering the Monsignor’s confessional, he accuses him of “false virtue,” arguing his actions have made the situation worse for prisoners.  As the novel progresses it seems clear that O’Flaherty is on thin ice with Hauptmann who blames him for running an escape line for POWs out of Rome and that at any moment the priest will be caught and executed.  Hauptmann is modeled on his historical counterpart, Herbert Kappler,  Chief of the Security Police and Security Service for all SS and Order Police units deployed in Rome.

Eugenio Pacelli’s coronation as Pope Pius XII on March 12, 1939.

(Pope Pius II)

O’Conner’s dialogue reflects O’Flaherty’s tenacious nature whether in debate, securing funds, new locations for prisoners and what he perceives as his life’s mission once he visits a POW camp.  O’Flaherty is not afraid to stand up to the lowliest Nazi, to Hauptmann, or even arguments with Pius XII who opposes his actions.  Perhaps the best description of the Monsignor was “Hughdini,” coined by John May alluding to the amazing things that the padre has accomplished in saving so many and standing up to the Nazi beasts.  The key event that everyone in the choir is building up to is the Rendimento (in English performance), in this case the movement of POWs from one hiding place to a safer one Christmas eve, 1943 as Hauptmann and his thugs are closing in.

O’Connor’s priest steals many scenes by exhibiting the courage of his convictions and under fire.  The result is a gripping novel with the unlikeliest of heroes.  O’Flaherty’s “choir” is a ragtag group dedicated to spiriting those threatened by the Nazis to safety.  Their code revolves around “the Library,” of which they are known.  Individual escapees are books, and their hiding places, shelves.  The cat and mouse game O’Connor creates with Hauptmann is well developed, and his frantic mission through the streets of Rome is vividly managed.  It is hard not to be drawn into the story, but more so the courage and commitment of the Monsignor whose life work is to save others.

*For a further discussion of this topic see Tim Parks, “The Pope and the Holocaust,”  New York Review of Books, October 20, 2022; and a rejoinder by Michael Hesemann, “The Silence of Pius XII: An Exchange,” New York Review of Books, November 24, 2022.

**See the film, “The Scarlet and the Black” starring Gregory Peck and Christian Plummer for an interesting portrayal of Monsignor O’Flaherty’s work during this period.  In addition you might consult Stephen Walker’s Hide & Seek: The Irish Priest In The Vatican Who Defied The Nazi Command.

 *** Sarah Moss, “My Father’s House” by Joseph O’Connor review – the priest who defied Nazis,” The Guardian, February 2, 2023.

A DEATH IN VIENNA by Frank Tallis

Vienna Austria Skyline - Wrapped Canvas Photograph

(Early 20th century Viennese skyline)

If you are a fan of Caleb Carr’s trilogy, THE ALIENIST, THE ANGEL OF DARKNESS, and SURRENDER NEW YORK which focus on murder investigations of Dr. Laszlo Kreitzer, an early practitioner of psychoanalysis as a tool is solving violent crime you will enjoy the works of Frank Tallis.  Tallis, a clinical psychologist and author of over fifteen fiction and non-fiction titles has written A DEATH IN VIENNA, the first of his seven Max Lieberman novels.  Lieberman is a scientist who supports many of the innovative ideas put forth by Dr. Sigmund Freud and applies them when conducting investigations with his colleague, Detective Oskar Rheinhardt.

The novel begins with Detective Rheinhardt called to the scene of the death of a beautiful Viennese medium Charlotte Lowenstein.  Her body is found in a room that can only be locked from the inside, she is shot through the heart, but no gun is located.  Since the victim was a medium the possibility of something supernatural occurring is considered, but after Lieberman, the detective’s good friend is called that reasoning is rejected especially when one of Lowenstein’s clients is also found dead in a locked room beaten to death. 

File:Sigmund Freud LIFE.jpg

(Sigmund Freud)

As the novel evolves the reader is exposed to the ambiance of fin-de-siecle Vienna, the seat of the Austro-Hungarian Empire at the turn of the twentieth century.  The characters, scenery, dialogue, and cultural representations all speak to Vienna at the turn of the 20th century.  There are a number of intrigues that take place at the same time.  Dr. Lieberman assists Detective Rheinhardt with cases but also must devote his time to his patients.  One in particular highlights the ideas of Dr. Freud. 

Miss Amelia Lydgate is a governess working for the Schelling family when she develops hysterical paralysis and a cough with no organic reasoning for these maladies in addition to a secondary personality.  Lieberman rejects the approach of a colleague, Dr. Wolfgang Gruner who applies electrotherapy in the hope of  achieving a cure.  Their interactions highlight the divergence of opinion regarding psychoanalysis in Vienna at the time and Tallis does an excellent job recreating the debate of Freud’s theories by reproducing realistic dialogue providing the reader with a sense of where the study of psychology existed at the time.

Other scenarios emerge as the investigation into Frau Lowenstein’s death proceeds.  The medium had a large circle of followers who were with her right before her demise.  There was a languid count, a luscious heiress, a businessman, a solid bank manager and his wife, a conman, and a seamstress.  Any of these people may have been responsible for the death, but there is little evidence linking any of them to the crime. The murder appears to be one of stagecraft accomplished through smoke and mirrors – for Lieberman it appears to be a crime of illusion.

Tallis does a wonderful job recreating activities among his characters that reflect the historical period.  A visit to museums and concerts highlighting the works of Gustav Mahler and Gustav Klimt.  The reaction to the rise of anti-Semitism in Vienna led by the likes of Karl Lueger.  The accusation and conviction of a Jew for ritual murder who supposedly used the blood of the victim for making matzoh.  Further the reader is witness to a Friday night sabbath dinner at the Lieberman’s with the entire family highlighting Jewish tradition, the use of Yiddish, and overall captures the Jewish experience at the time.

(Gustav Mahler. Taken in the loggia of the Court Opera House by Moriz Nahr – 1907)

Tallis integrates the murder of Karl Uberhorst, a former lover of Lowenstein (among many!) and someone who may have held many of the dead medium’s secrets.  There is a plethora of interesting characters apart from Lowenstein’s circle including Commissioner Brugel who is dissatisfied with the speed of solving the case.  Inspector Victor von Bulow, an arrogant know it all who is called to assist in the investigation.  Madame Yvette de Rougemont, a supposed medium who is really an actress, and Cosima von Rath, the fiancée of Hans Bruckmueller, a member of Lowenstein’s circle.

Tallis has constructed a careful whodunit. He guides the reader throughout from the crime scenes, the debate of the application of psychoanalysis in solving crimes, the use of traditional and newer police methodology, and the interaction between characters very nicely.  The murder mystery is well written with particular emphasis on Viennese society and culture and the story has become a mini-series on Public Television entitled “Vienna Blood.”  The story is fast paced combining science and traditional approaches to criminology and I look forward to reading other novels involving the duo of Lieberman and Rheinhardt.

View of Vienna in the sunrise, Austria Austria, Central Europe, Central Vienna, Europe, Vienna - Austria Vienna - Austria Stock Photo

(Vienna, 1902)


Godless: University College London, 19th century.

(Oxford University, circa, 19th century)

Novels that first appear as esoteric can be deceiving.  Such is the case with R.F. Kuang’s new novel, BABEL: AN ACANE HISTORY.  Kuang is a Marshall Scholar with an MPhil from Cambridge and an MSc in Chinese Studies at Oxford, in addition to being a PhD candidate in East Asian Languages and Literatures at Yale and  is the perfect individual to construct an engaging novel that encompasses the sacred of Oxford’s prestigious Royal Institute of Translation known as Babel, and a treatise on the inequities of British society in the 1830s and the evils of colonialism as practiced by London and its empire.  Though there is an element of fantasy and science fiction, not my favorite genres, in the novel there is enough sound historical information and character development to obviate any preconceived notions I may have had.

Set in Oxford and its environs, Kuang creates a series of characters who have been recruited by Oxford scholars in order to manipulate the use of foreign languages as a diplomatic tool to enhance Britain’s control of its empire and maximize its accumulation of wealth.  Oxford scholars recruit native speakers with excellent language skills, bring them to Oxford to hone their linguistic talent in the service of Her Majesty’s government.

The most important character is Robin Lovell, a randomly chosen name by a young Chinese boy who is recruited by Babel professor Richard Lovell to leave his home in Canton and study at Oxford and further explore Mandarin, his Chinese dialect.  Robin will be enlisted by what turns out to be his half-brother, Griffin by way of Professor Lovell who after three years at Oxford leaves and joins the secret Hermes society, an organization presented as a sort of “Robin Hood” type that steals silver bars, manuscripts, and other valuables from the university and redistributes them world-wide as a means of degrading British imperialism.  At first, Robin is unsure of his choice as he has become part of a cohort of other young scholars, Ramiz Rafi Mirza from Calcutta; Victoria Desgraves, a Kreyol woman of Haitian descent; and Letitia Price, a white woman from Brighton, England.  They have developed a wonderful relationship since they are mostly the epitome of non-Caucasian British society.

Canton Harbour, China, 19th century

(Canton, China harbour, 19th century)

As Kuang develops her novel racism is a dominant theme that seems to permeate each section of the book as British racism dictates the manipulation of these scholars to further the empire.  Kuang has written a derisive critique of British imperialism and colonialism in general as she examines marginalized indigenous people and the inequality that colonialism fosters be it encompassing race or gender.

Kuang delves into a number of aspects of Oxford topography and society.  For the reader, one gets the feel of what it is like to study at Oxford and navigate its many constituents and structure.  Kuang’s love and respect for Oxford’s institutions and scholarship comes through seemingly on every page.  She describes the labyrinth that is Oxford, and her overall admiration and deference in addition to certain negativity that exists.

Silver bars emerged as the key component of the empire and the basis for all aspects of society from the linings of canals, gutters, clock towers, hansom cabs, military needs, in addition to other aspects of British infrastructure.  According to Griffin the empire could not exist without silver, and the accumulation of silver could not be successful without the role of the translators ensconced at Babel.

Kuang displays a deep love for language and literature and has created an amazing novel highlighted by her command of the history of British imperialism.  If one is interested in the causes and the implications of the Opium War (1839-1842) when Britain went to war against China to protect its opium trade developed through India whose goal was to safeguard its accumulation of silver.  In discussing events surrounding the coming war, the role of parliament, the “silver” industrial revolution,” and certain characters Kuang highlights her facility with British history and her ability to integrate historical events into the flow of the novel.  A case in point are negotiations with Commissioner Lin ZeXu, appointed by the Emperor to end the debilitating opium trade and the dialogue reflects true historical documentation,* in addition to discussions of movements such as the Chartists, and certain politicians like Lord Palmerston.

Portrait of Chinese scholar and official Lin Zexu.

(Commissioner Lin Zexu)

There are a number of themes that surface in the novel.  First the accumulation of silver controls world trade and therefore world power.  In a possible doffing of the cap to 2023 her silver argument can easily be substituted with today’s trade in “computer chips” to control world power.  Another theme centers around the cohort that Robin becomes part of.  The group is made up of four individuals from diverse cultures who develop a warm and caring relationship with each other providing intense emotional support when they faced dangerous situations.  The four were not traditional Babel types of students and were chosen because of their language skills reflecting the racism and misogyny of Oxford’s program.  There are disagreements, but in the end their friendship could not overcome the society each was raised in.

One of the more interesting observations that Kuang makes revolves around Lovell’s hatred for the Chinese people and China itself, and his admiration of Chinese culture leading to the accumulation of Chinese artifacts.  As Victoire points out, “there are people after all and then there are things.”

This is an exceptional novel that has its academic components (notes on many languages and footnotes are in large supply) but it evolves into an important story of friendship caught up in the Industrial Revolution and England trying to enhance its power world-wide by dominating international trade.  Kuang’s affinity for language produces a well written style that absorbs the reader and though there is this fantasy/sci fi element to the novel I enjoyed it greatly.

*For those interested in this historical topic I highly recommend Stephen R. Platt’s IMPERIAL TWILIGHT: THE OPIUM WAR AND THE END OF CHINA’S LAST GOLDEN AGE and an earlier publication by Hsin-pao Chang, COMMISSIONER LIN AND THE OPIUM WAR.

University College and Queen’s College, Oxford, 18th-century engraving © Bridgeman Images

(Oxford University, circa. 19th century)

ACT OF OBLIVION by Robert Harris

Oliver Cromwell

(Oliver Cromwell)

If one is looking for a volume that encompasses history with a touch of fiction to round out the storyline then Robert Harris is an author to be considered.  Of the many novels that Harris has written including a trilogy about the struggle for power in ancient Rome; FATHERLAND which raises the possibility of a deal between Adolf Hitler and President Joseph P. Kennedy in 1964; ARCHANGEL, which focuses on the northern Russian port that hides Joseph Stalin’s secrets; AN OFFICER AND A SPY, centers around the Dreyfus Affair in 1890s France; V2, spotlights the Nazi missile program during World War II; MUNICH which delves into the September, 1939 conference which took place at the height of Anglo-French appeasement before World War II; and my favorite, CONCLAVE concentrating on the Vatican machinations in electing a new Pope. 

Harris’ fifteenth and latest novel is his first foray set predominantly in America, ACT OF OBLIVION which begins in 1660 England where Colonel Edward Whalley and his son-in-law Colonel William Goffe flee England accused of being part of the plot that resulted in the execution of Charles I that marked the culmination of the English Civil War and the restoration of Charles II to the English throne.  As in all of his novels, Harris has the unique ability to blend historical figures with his own creations, developing absorbing plots that are counter factual at times, but also toes the historical line.  If you enjoy John Le Carrie, Alan Furst, Martin Cruz Smith, David Liss, Ken Follet or Len Deighton, Harris’ work will prove most satisfying as he possesses an uncanny knowledge of the historical period he chooses to develop for his stories based on sound research and character development. 

In his current effort Harris begins by introducing the reader to the general outline of the English Civil War in the 17th century that resulted in the beheading of Charles I on January 30, 1649, bringing to power Oliver Cromwell as Lord Protector.  The trial of Charles I and his ultimate death brought about a written death warrant, the Act of Oblivion that was signed by 59 men, including members of Parliament, Cromwell’s New Modern Army, and important politicians of the period.  Two of the signees were Colonel Edward (Ned) Whalley and his son-in-law, Colonel William Goffe.  As the novel evolves 57 of the 59 were either captured and executed, died of natural causes, or committed suicide.  Whalley and Goffe are the two that remained alive after Charles II was restored to the throne in 1660.  Enter Richard Naylor, one of the few made up characters in the story whose role throughout the novel is to hunt down any remaining regicides.

King Charles I, by Unknown artist - NPG 4516

King Charles I

The backdrop to the novel is religion and politics.  All the characters seem deeply religious, particularly Whalley and Goffe and those who would hide them from Naylor and the Privy Council.  Religion permeates the dialogue, politics, and emotions of the day as prayer, meeting houses, and conflict between Catholics and Puritans appear regularly as the story unfolds.  Whalley and Goffe escape England and leave their families in 1660 as they are about to be arrested.  This begins an odyssey that takes them across the Atlantic to Boston and into the Connecticut Valley hiding in Guilford, Hartford, and New Haven, Connecticut, and later Hadley, Massachusetts. 

Along the way Harris does a superb job developing characters such as John Davenport who led the New Haven colony and saw it as “God’s millennial kingdom;” Captain Thomas Breedon, a royalist, rich merchant; Sir George Downing, a chaplain in Cromwell’s army who turned out to be an English spy; John Ditwell, a member of parliament and judge at Charles I’s trial; Dan Gookin, lived near Harvard College and escorted Whalley and Goffe to America, and the Reverend John Russell, the leading political and religious figure in Hadley, Massachusetts.  There are many more characters, the most important being Naylor who takes on a role similar to Jean Valjean in Les Misérables, as his intrepid nature and personal tragedy leads him to follow Whalley and Goffe from England to the New England colonies, Dutch New Amsterdam, Holland, at first by himself and a few others, later to return with four men o’war.

Harris’ character portrayals allow the reader to feel they know these individuals and their thoughts.  Harris spares no detail in telling his story and he is able to fill in the historical gaps by employing Colonel Whalley as he writes his memoir that includes his family, but most importantly fighting for Cromwell in the English Civil War and the reign that followed.  Harris’ portrait seems based on the biography of Cromwell written by historian Antonia Fraser and is balanced and accurate.  As Harris develops these characters he displays the lack of scruples revealed by many self-appointed Puritan ministers, those who fought for Cromwell and switched to support the restoration of Charles II, Royalist and Roundhead spies and a host of others.

Over time as Naylor fails to bring the two remaining regicides to England, the Lord Chancellor, Sir Edward Hyde orders him to end his search and become his private secretary as the English people have moved on from capturing Whalley and Goffe.  From that point on Harris focuses on Whalley and Goffe’s lives and actions as they still must remain in hiding.

Harris has excellent command of historical events and movements.  He is able to weave the British seizure of New Amsterdam and the resulting Anglo-Dutch naval war, the return to plague to England in 1665, the Great London Fire of 1666, and King Philip’s War of 1774 into his story that enhances the legitimacy of Harris’ work.  Other aspects that opened this reader’s eyes was the detailed description of how the regicides were executed.  English barbarism is on full display as bodies were dismembered and some body parts were returned to families as a warning.  The battles of the English Civil War are carefully described highlighting Cromwell’s strategy and the roles of Whalley and Goffe.  Also important, is how Harris paints the difficulties faced by colonists who left England for America.  Harris follows them into the western interior and analyzes why they settled where they did, how they dealt with Native-Americans, their survival of brutal winters, and their ability to grow food and ultimately build settlements.

The Execution of Charles I of England

(The Execution of Charles I of England / Artist unknown, Wikimedia // Public Domain)

Harris has written a fast paced wonderfully detailed story of a modern manhunt that weaves between Restoration era London and pre-revolutionary New England.  Harris brings the past to life through the writing and dialogue of his characters and personal details such as scratchy wigs, rough leather boots, and the sparseness in which people lived.  To his credit Harris does not allow himself to become entrapped by Christian doctrine in his storytelling and concentrates on the simplicity of faith and the anti-monarchical feelings of characters who will find a natural home among the dissenters and Puritans in New England.  ACT OF OBLIVION is a wonderful novel about a divided nation whose people suffer from physical and emotional wounds caused by war.  As Alex Preston writes in his The Guardian review of August 30, 2022, Harris has authored an important novel in that it shows the power of forgiveness and the intolerable burden of long-held grudges.

Oliver Cromwell

(Oliver Cromwell)


Emperor Franz Joseph I, 1898 (b/w photo)

(Autro-Hungarian Emperor Franz Joseph)

At the turn of the 20th century the Austro-Hungarian Empire resembled a major power.  It had gone under major industrial changes in the previous decades, had a large standing army, and had reached a political compromise in 1867 that fostered the creation of the Dual Monarchy.  However, beneath the surface there were key issues that would contribute to its decline.  First, the empire consisted of eleven major ethno-language groups scattered across the empire: Germans, Hungarians, Polish, Czech, Ukrainian, Slovak, Slovene, Croatians, Serbs, Italians and Romanians, some loyal, but most with their own agendas particularly those of Slavic descent.  The military, though large, was partially a caste system with Austrian officers and soldiers from a diverse population.  The empire was split between an industrialized west and a rural east that produced a great deal of conflict. 

Leading this “house of cards” was Franz Joseph who came to the Austrian throne in 1848 and was a weak leader who deferred to others in decision-making.  After 1905 the empire was tied to Germany which nine years later would lead them into World War I and its final demise.  For some the history of the empire may seem boring, but through the use of historical fiction one can get an accurate portrait of Austro-Hungarian society, political upheavals, and an overall lack of unity.  Perhaps the best novel written that conveys the true nature of the empire was authored by Joseph Roth who has often been overlooked as a writer by Anglo-Saxon critics.  I came across the book, THE RADETZKY MARCH while visiting a Viennese bookstore a few years ago and learned it was considered a classic by many literary scholars with a story that follows the Slovenian Trotta dynasty through three generations emblematic of the fate of the empire itself.  The novel is about identity and belonging encompassing as Roth writes “those days before the Great War.”

(Author, Joseph Roth)

The genius of Roth’s work is his ability to capture the “bars, houses, railways, and dusty roads of Austria-Hungary through highly distinct individuals.”  Roth himself was a strong believer in the empire and made his living as a novelist and newspaper writer.  He produced sixteen novels, his best being THE RADETZKY MARCH.  When reading the book one major question struck me; how can the mundane existence of an officer in the pre-World War I Austro-Hungarian Empire be part of one of the greatest European novels of the 20th century?  After reading Roth’s work I know why.

The title itself is interesting.  The concept of the Radetzky March stems from Johann Strauss’ 1848 composition that celebrated the victory of Field Marshal Radetzky at the Battle of Custoza.  Along with the Blue Danube waltz, the piece became an unofficial Austrian national anthem.  In the novel it symbolizes the glory days of the decaying multinational empire.

The novel begins in 1859 at the Battle of Solferino, the last engagement of the second War of Italian Independence.  During the fighting the founder of the Trotta family, an infantry Lieutenant emerges as a hero for saving the life of the young Austrian Emperor, Franz Joseph.  As a result of this display of bravery the wounded officer was elevated to the Order of Maria Theresa, and ennobled.  From that point on he was known as Captain Joseph Trotta of Sipolje, a Slovenian village.  Despite this honor Trotta found it difficult to adapt to his new station in life as he was now cut off from a lengthy line of his peasant ancestry.  From Roth’s description he became a competent officer, a good and loyal husband, and rejected all forms of ambition and pretense.  These attributes would dominate the Trotta dynasty in the future.

Roth applies humor, sarcasm, and insightful details into the psyche of each character.  A case in point is Joseph Trotta’s anger over his role in saving the Emperor as being inaccurate in its portrayal in children’s books.  He felt he was not the hero he was made out to be, and when he complained to the War Ministry, including the Emperor he was told to accept his portrayal whether accurate or not.  He would resign from the army, miss the Austro-Prussian War of 1866, and accept a generous sum of money and a barony from the Emperor and return to working the soil, his chosen path in life.  He would go as far as discouraging his son Franz from a military career and study for a law degree instead.

Franz would go on to become a District Commissioner and his relationship with his son, Carl Joseph, would form a window into the decline of the Empire itself.  Carl Joseph’s relationship with his father is a convoluted one.  At first it appears to be founded on traditional Victorian values relating to father and son.  At times little communication or contact, but deep respect for each other persists.  As it evolves Carl Joseph becomes more autonomous and his father moves on from his duties as a parent, especially when his son contemplates leaving the army.  However, by the novels’ end they came to rely on each other for emotional support.

The Graben in the 1860s

(Vienna circa 1860-1866)

The conservative empire is exemplified by the relationship between Franz and Carl Joseph.  Strict observance, conformity, and lack of emotion would dominate their interactions throughout the novel until Carl Joseph’s crisis of conscience toward the end of the story.  In discussing this relationship Roth develops the most mundane details which in reality are signals that point to Austro-Hungarian society ranging from extra-marital affairs, the lack of letters between father and son, the portrait of Joseph Trotta that  dominates the District Commissioner’s home, to the ingredients of soup served each week at Sunday dinner. 

Roth develops a theme that subtly compares the differences in the different Trotta generations as it evolved from a conservative approach to society with all its proprieties and its ills to one of individualism and nationalism which would contribute to the weakening of the empire.  When Franz Joseph was a young Emperor and the District Commissioner’s father saved the monarch, a certain correctness was accepted by all.  In the most painful episode in the book highlighting accepted behavior, two young men are bound by the military code of honor to fight a duel to the death over an insulting remark as honor is everything in that hierarchal, monarchical world, resulting in the death of the two men.  Another stunning example of the importance of tradition occurs as officers learn of a rumor that Archduke Franz Ferdinand has been assassinated in Bosnia.  The news encroaches upon a gathering of officers and aristocrats who elect to continue their celebration rather than consider the implications of the news.  This provoked a split among the Austrian and Hungarian officers highlighted by comments by Lieutenant Charles Joseph that they should be ashamed of their actions in such circumstances.    As time progressed and the Great War was on the horizon, the younger generation exemplified by Carl Joseph sought greater freedoms and autonomy that the older generation had difficulty coming to grips with.   Carl Joseph, against his own wishes, is part of that world, but not a good fit for it.  The conformers who believe in the system and its perpetuation require stifling human feeling and the result is the rejection of any social change which Roth presents as the brush workers problem who want revolution if conditions of employment are not improved.  In fact, by the end of the novel Carl Joseph rejected tradition by engaging in affairs with the wives of compatriots, found himself in debt from gambling at a casino at his frontier post, and resigning from the army.

(Vienna, circa, 1900)

No matter the scene or situation Roth presents characters that always seem to relate to the Trotta dynasty and how they rose from their peasant background to a barony.  The characters that Roth develops are interesting and their fundamental place in the novel is how they affect Franz and Carl Joseph.  These individuals include, Dr. Max Demant, a Jew who hated the military who was a close friend of Carl Joseph who was unaware of the affair his wife had with the youngest Trotta.  Count Wojoiech Chojnicki, a Trotta family friend who believed the Austro-Hungarian monarchy had already fallen apart.  Frau Valerie von Taussig, a former beauty who ages gracefully and was romantically involved with the younger Carl Joseph.  “Old Jacque,” Franz’s manservant who served for decades as a slave and confidant.  Dr. Skovonnek, Franz’ everyday chess partner. Professor Moser, a poor artist who painted the portrait of Joseph Trotta and the Emperor who were Franz’s closest friends.

Roth’s description of the aging Franz Joseph is marvelous.  It delves deeply into the Emperor’s mindset, particularly in old age as he insists on participating and observing army maneuvers at the Russian border where Carl Joseph is posted.  Roth’s wording is precise as we witness an old man trying to evaluate his life’s work.  Commentary related to church services are indicative of Roth’s thought process and its application to the Emperor; “He had the feelings of having to pull himself together in God’s presence, as before some superior, and he was already so old!  He could have made it a little easier for me!  Thought the Emperor.  But God is even older than I am, and his ways are just as mysterious to me as maybe to all the men in my army.”

Roth loved the empire and its stagnating military.  The condition of the military is brought out by Carl Joseph’s posting to the Russian border and that and the overall plight of the empire becomes a tragedy in Roth’s mind because he believes that something could have been done to avoid the cataclysm that was approaching and in the end would result in the dissolution of the empire at Versailles.

Roth has authored a novel of the life of an officer in the Austro-Hungarian empire that must have been boring.  But it is the virtue of Roth’s style that boredom becomes interesting as a spiritual state.  It is this state that has a nostalgic charm of its own and the novel itself explains much about Europe’s past which would succumb to the battlefields of World War I.

File:Portrait of Emperor Franz Joseph in Ljubljana.JPG

(Austro-Hungarian Emperor Franz Joseph)