THE HISTORIANS by Cecilia Ekback

(Kiruna mine from which the novel is based upon)

Swedish born author Cecilia Ekback has written a very complex and believable novel that focuses on the possibilities of a Scandinavian Reich that could have emerged during the Second World War.  At a time in the publishing world when there is no shortage of World War II based historical fiction, Ekback’s new book THE HISTORIANS stands out for its character and plot development and the creation of a scenario that is quite credible.

Set in Sweden during World War II the book reintroduces that country’s controversial role during the conflict.  Claiming neutrality, the Stockholm government accommodated the Nazi regime by allowing the passage of over two million German soldiers through Sweden.  Further, Swedish iron ore shipped to the Berlin regime was critical for Nazi wartime production of steel, and lastly Swedish railroads allowed the transport of the German 163rd infantry division with its equipment to pass from Norway to Finland.  It was only after 1944 with the German war effort heading for defeat did Sweden share military intelligence and allow the allies to use Swedish airbases.  Hardly the actions of a country that could be relied upon during war.

The book opens in 1943 with the Nazi regime pressuring Sweden to increase its supply of iron ore.  Laura Dahlgren, part of the Swedish trade delegation negotiating iron ore access with the Germans discovers the body of Britta Hallberg, a former classmate at Uppsala University and a member of a close knit group of five friends, tortured and murdered.  It seems that Britta had become a “sparrow” or Swedish spy whose job was to get close to German diplomats, but was also finalizing her university thesis entitled, “Nordic Relations Through the Ages: Denmark, Norway and Sweden on a New Path”  which was delivered to Jens Regnell, Secretary to the Minister of Foreign Affairs after her death.  The question was why the thesis was delivered to Regnell, and did her research have anything to do with her murder.

The Royal Swedish Ministry of Foreign Affairs

As Ekback develops her dramatic plot another death takes place that of Daniel Jonsson, an archivist at the Swedish Foreign Ministry.  First it seemed a suicide, but as evidence accumulated it was clear it was murder.  When a bomb goes off in Dahlgren’s apartment it is clear that anyone who investigates Swedish racial policy is a threat and are in danger.

The core of the plot revolves around a meeting that took place in 1914.  Referred to as the “The Three Kings Meeting” it was made up of monarchs and foreign ministers of Denmark, Norway, and Sweden.  They discussed the possibility of the creation of a Scandinavian Reich under one strong leader based on the supremacy of the Nordic race.  A committee was created to study the feasibility of the concept.  By 1939 a second meeting was held and the program was formally shut down, but in reality the ideas related to a new Reich remained to be implemented by powerful forces within the Swedish bureaucracy and body politick to not only carry out the unification of the governments involved but also to ethnically cleanse and eliminate the Sami, an indigenous people who lived in the northern part of the Scandinavian peninsula as well as parts of Norway, Finland, and Russia.  It is estimated they numbered between 50,000 and 100,000.

As Dahlgren and Regnell investigated they learned that it was possible that certain elements were conducting human experiments on the Sami, with many people disappearing from the Blackasen Mountain area where iron ore was mined.

An image posted by the author.
(the author)

An interesting component to Ekback’s novel is how she integrates Nordic myths and symbols into the plot.  The vehicle she chooses is the unlikely friendships among Dahlgren, Britta Hallberg, Erik who was a hothead and a fool in many ways, Matti, who seemed sober, totally focused on his job for Finland, and Karl-Erik, who seemed to be the brightest during their debates while at the university.  During these discussions Sweden’s racial policy emerges, and after Britta is murdered they grapple with how best to discover what happened to her and why.  When the remaining four try to find the underlying cause of what is going on, unimaginable things occur.

As Ekback develops her novel a number of important questions emerge.  First, were members of the State Institute for Racial Biology conducting experiments on the back side of the Blackasen mountain?  Second, was there an actual plot to create a Scandinavian Reich and purify the “lesser” Nordic types?  Third, why were authorities who investigated Britta’s murder being stymied?  Fourth, who were the people who were trying to create the new Reich?  Lastly, do these elements still exist in Swedish society?

Ekback’s approach in creating her story was to start slowly introducing a myriad of characters that at times is difficult for the reader to digest.  As she moves along her storyline develops momentum as the reader begins to wonder if this type of scenario was actually feasible.  Every author of historical fiction faces the dilemma as to how far from “historical truth” they can deviate from and not lose their readers.  Ekback takes the reader right up to the line between truth and fiction and fashions a searing novel that may be speculative in nature but in the end is quite satisfying and sheds light on Sweden, whose machinations during World War II are part of the historical record as certain individuals dallied with “Nazi leanings.”  Ekback has authored a blistering novel, once you get past the early development of the plot, it will be difficult to put down.

(Kiruna mine, which the novel is based on)

BROOKLYN by Colm Toibin

I will begin with a confession – I have never read a Colm Toibin novel until now.  After reading a review of his new novel, THE MAGICIAN, I thought it was time to introduce myself to such an exceptional novelist.  I went to my card catalogue, another confession I have a personal library of over 7500 volumes, and found I owned one of Toibin’s earlier efforts, BROOKLYN.  Since I grew up in that New York borough in the 1950s and 60s it was karma. 

BROOKLYN reflects Toibin’s mastery of fiction and is the work of a superior writer.  Beginning in Enniscorthy, in Ireland’s County Wexford in 1951, Eilis Lacey, a bookkeeper who lived with her mother and sister is offered a part time job in Miss Kelly’s grocery store which she accepts because of the lack of other opportunities. Soon, Father Flood, a priest whose parish in Brooklyn appears regaling Eilis of employment opportunities for bookkeepers in New York City.  Flood will arrange for Eilis to work at Bartocci and Company located on Fulton Street in Brooklyn along with passage to America and a room at Mrs. Kehoe’s boarding house.  Eilis realized this was quite an opportunity but felt guilty about leaving her mother and sister.  She will ignore her feelings of guilt and depart for a new life in America, not realizing that behind the scenes her sister Rosa had pushed for this move that would afford her sister greater opportunities.

Toibin easily conveys the ambience of living in Enniscorthy and Brooklyn in the post war world.  The author is sensitive to the difficulties that a young single girl faces when she tries to adapt to a new culture and the problems that arise.  His writing style offers an intimacy with his characters that enhances the reader’s experience.  There is a softness and imperceptibility with his phrasing that makes the novel flow, but it does not take away from the deep emotions that are portrayed. 

File:Main Street, Wexford. (15766237904).jpg
(Ireland’s County Wexford)

What sets Toibin’s writing apart is his ability as a male writer to understand and present the mind set and feelings of female characters – even insights into what life was like for a single Irish girl just arriving in America.  Eilis’ concerns are presented in a thoughtful and private manner that reflects insights into her character and the crisis of confidence that she regularly experiences.

Toibin is very careful to lay out social class differences throughout the novel.  First, in dealing with how the Irish are perceived on the ocean liner crossing the Atlantic.  Second, the commentary exhibited by the young women in Mrs. Kehoe’s boarding house reflected by remarks centering around the “negro” clientele that were beginning to shop at Bartocci’s department store.  Third, the juxtaposition of Italian and Irish families in Brooklyn through their language and cultural mores – a case in point is Italian family life in the Bensonhurst, Brooklyn which the author conveys with the accuracy to a reader who grew up in this neighborhood. 

The novel presents a series of highs and lows which make up the human experience.  Relationships, joy, death, and sadness are all present in Toibin’s easy pace that makes reading BROOKLYN feel as if you are gliding over each page.  When Eilis seems to have finally adjusted to life in Brooklyn attending night courses in accounting at Brooklyn College, working during the day, and developing a wonderful relationship with Antonio Giuseppe Fiorello all seems well.  Unexpectedly, Father Flood delivers the news that Eilis’ sister Rosa has died, and she must return to Ireland for a visit.  What occurs on that visit may overturn the peace and happiness that she has finally found in America.

Eilis is a simple girl bordering on womanhood who Toibin presents with sustained “subtlety and touching respect.  He shows no condescension for Eilis’ passivity but records her cautious adventures matter-of-factly, as if she were writing them herself in a journal.”*  This is a wonderful story about what it is to have a home and the ability of different locations to assert themselves over an individual.

Reading a novel by Colm Toibin has been a pleasure and I will certainly pick up THE MAGICIAN, his latest work, a historical novel about the German writer Thomas Mann.

  • Liesi Schillinger, “The Reluctant Emigrant,” New York Times, May 1, 2009.
86th St - Bensonhurst Brooklyn NY Old Vintage Photos and Images
(Bensonhurst, Brooklyn NY 1951)

ARCHANGEL by Robert Harris

The eBay seller of this “perfect condition” Stalin statue says it was auctioned off by the Czech town of Litomerice “many years ago.”
(Stalin Statue)

It is obvious that Robert Harris is one of the best purveyors of historical fiction who can be found on the shelves of any bookstore.  Whether exploring the Munich Conference, the German missile campaign during World War II, a trilogy that explores the struggle for power in ancient Rome, the machinations of a Papal conclave, or the Dreyfus Affair are among his fourteen bestselling novels.  The depth and varied subjects of his writing reflect the breadth of historical knowledge and his commitment to producing historical fiction that is readable and interesting for everyone while creating stories that are made up of actual events and characters among those that he develops as his plots evolve.

I decided to return to one of Harris’ earlier books, ARCHANGEL a story that centers on the possibility that Joseph Stalin may have prepared a notebook with a number of fascinating commentaries.  The story begins with the death of Stalin early in the morning of March 3, 1953, and the gathering of the Soviet leadership who are trying to decide what to do about his death and succession.  Immediately, Harris shifts his focus to a conversation between Papu Gerasimoch Rapava, a guard in the compound where Stalin died who had access to his body and the “notebook,” and Fluke Kelso a former Oxford professor who gave up his academic position to move to New York and concentrate on his writing.  The conversation takes place four decades after Stalin’s death with Kelso plying Rapava with alcohol as he tried to gain access and knowledge of the missing notebook.

Map of Russia and Arkhangelsk

Harris has firm control of historical events and offers keen insights into the motivation and actions of key personalities.  A case in point is his treatment of KGB head Lavrenty Beria who was convinced he was next in line to replace Stalin as leader of the Soviet state.  In actuality he had rubbed Malenkov, Zhukov, Khrushchev, and company the wrong way and was dead within three months of Stalin’s passing.  Soon Rapava becomes a KGB target as he is suspected of possessing the “notebook,” and Harris details his torture, imprisonment in the Gulag for fifteen years, and his survival.  It is interesting how Harris portrays the “new” Russia of the 1990s through Rapava’s eyes once he is released from prison.  His shock at the changes that have taken place in Moscow where remnants of Stalin have been removed along with other observations of his country as it becomes an oligarchy of wealth under Boris Yeltsin and later  Vladimir Putin.

Kelso finds himself in Russia at a historical conference at the Institute of Marxism-Leninism which was attended by Rapava.  Kelso will meet the Russian and try to uncover truths about Stalin.  Frank Adelman another historian believes that Rapava is setting Kelso up to gain money and that his fellow historian is too bent on journalism and publicity as opposed to meaningful  history.

Harris paints a damning portrait of Moscow in the late 1990s with dust and soot in the air, frozen puddles, sullen people, among many negative characteristics. .  Harris is able to integrate historical treatises to his plot reflecting his knowledge of Russian historiography and a wonderful description of the Lenin Library and the Central Library of the Russian Federation.

Kelso is  described by Adelman as “a fattening and hungover middle aged historian in a black corduroy suit,”a damning appraisal of the former Oxford historian.  Kelso’s circle of acquaintances includes Vladimir Mamantov, a former KGB operative who remains a true Stalinist and wants to protect Stalin’s memory and wants to find the “notebook,” and use it as a means of returning Stalinism to power in Russia. Through Mamantov Harris portrays the remaining Stalinist enclave in Russian society who still admire Stalin, and the fact that the former KGB agent was arrested in 1991 in the plot to overthrow Mikhail Gorbachev tells a great deal.  It seems Rapava has a daughter, Zinaida who gives the “notebook” to Kelso and a Satellite News reporter named O’Brian.  Further it appears Stalin may have had are relationship with Zinaida’s mother Anna Safanova, a house cleaner who may have produced a son, an heir to Stalin.

Arkhangelsk, Russia from above, photo 1

(Cathedral of the Archangel Michael)

As Harris weaves his web the novel centers on the quest for the notebook that involves a Russian SVR agent, Feliks Suvorin who tracks Kelso and O’Brian to the north country and a run in with “Stalin’s possible heir,” that may not end well. The northern city is Archangel which remains a hotbed of Stalinism and produces a perilous adventure for all concerned as the SVR and Spetsnaz soldiers may have met their match with the son of Stalin. 

As Harris continues his web he makes a number of important historical observations the most important of which focuses on Russian workers and peasants, who under the Tsar had nothing while the nobility owned the country.  Later the workers and peasants owned nothing, and the Party owned the country.  Later, the workers and peasants still owned nothing, and the country’s is owned as usual, “by whoever has the biggest fists.”  Today it is the oligarchs and Putin.

Harris’ plot line is farfetched, but it does lend itself to an interesting story leading the reader on to learn what the truth is and if the “notebook” actually is meaningful and what makes so many people willing to kill to acquire it.  A dominant theme that Harris develops is the memory of Stalin among the Russian people.  He remains quite popular as historically Russia has always had a father/Tsarist type leader who was tolerated as  all knowing.  Then came Lenin, Stalin, the Brezhnev types, and now Putin, all with similar autocratic tendencies. 

Though I would not call Archangel one of Harris’ best novels it is worth the read because of its subject matter and the author’s commentary on what Russia has become or still remains.

(Stalin Statue)

AMERICA’S FIRST DAUGHTER by Stephanie Dray; Laura Kamoie

Mrs. Thomas M. RandolphMrs. Thomas M. Randolph, (Martha Jefferson.)

Thomas Jefferson is one of the most complex figures in American history.  Author of the Declaration of Independence, Governor of Virginia, Minster to France, Secretary of State, Vice President, and finally President Jefferson is synonymous with the founding of our nation.  His reputation has always been one shrouded in controversy.  Was he an ideologue who favored revolution or the pragmatist who engineered the purchase of the Louisiana Territory in 1803?  During the last few years, his reputation has experienced a downturn in large part because of Ron Chernow’s biography of Alexander Hamilton which formed the basis for the Broadway production of the musical “Hamilton” which highlighted the rift between Jefferson and our first Secretary of the Treasury.  As a result, Hamilton’s persona as perceived by the public has improved, and the sage of Monticello’s declined in the eyes of the public. 

According to Stephanie Dray and Laura Kamoie in their historical novel, AMERICA’S FIRST DAUGHTER, Martha “Patsy” Jefferson Randolph, Jefferson’s eldest daughter was responsible for a good part of what we know about her father as she was his constant companion at Monticello, Washington, or Paris in addition to assuming the role as his protector following the death of his spouse.  Writing a work of fiction based on the life of such a devoted daughter whose primary goal was to protect her fathers’ reputation at a time when it was open season on any hint of scandal is quite an undertaking.  To Dray and Kamoie’s credit they have done an efficient job telling the story of America’s founding and Jefferson’s presidential administration  through the eyes of his daughter.

(Thomas Jefferson)

Relying on over 18,000 letters written by Jefferson and numerous other sources the authors have constructed a historical novel that focuses on the relationship between Jefferson and his eldest daughter and the other figures, major and minor that dominated their lives.  The vehicle the authors employ in telling their story must be taken with a grain of salt as Patsy Jefferson had an agenda of protecting all aspects of her father’s life and legacy and therefore the concept of objectivity was missing from her repertoire.

Almost immediately the reader finds Patsy defending her father against charges of cowardness when the British attacked near Monticello.  None other than Patrick Henry called for an investigation of Jefferson and his role as Governor of Virginia as he ran off rather than confront the British during the American Revolution.  To the author’s credit they do not shy away from controversial aspects of Jefferson’s life including his relationship with Sally Hemings and the birth of their son, his views concerning slavery and promising to free Sally and her brother James only after his death, his role during the French Revolution, his disagreements with George Washington and Alexander Hamilton, among many other instances.

William Short, by Louis LeMet. Thomas Jefferson Foundation, Inc.  Photograph by Edward Owen.(William Short)

The authors convey the bond between father and daughter which was forged by the death of Martha Jefferson, Thomas’ wife, and Patsy’s mother.  This relationship forms the backdrop for the entire novel as at first, she would protect him from committing suicide as his grief seemed to place him on the edge of madness.  This relationship is not a healthy one as Patsy in large part became her father’s surrogate spouse and mother as she over protected him and had difficulty criticizing him.  She would sacrifice her relationship with Jefferson’s secretary in Paris, William Short and return to Virginia to be with her father rather than marrying him.  This behavior is due in large part to her promise to her dying mother to care for her father and the result is a rather uncomfortable relationship as they were constantly in each other’s company playing duets together, her anger at a possible liaison between her father and Maria Cosway, a married woman as she saw it as a betrayal of her mother’s memory, and her reaction to catching her father in the embrace of Sally Heming.

Sally Hemings
(Sally Hemings)

The novel is built upon dialogue developed from thousands of letters consulted, but is disappointing as insights into Jefferson’s behavior, belief system, and policies are not dealt with in a meaningful manner.  The authors place little emphasis in these areas as the first 40% of the novel are taken up with Patsy’s relationship with William Short which focused on slavery, courtship, her father’s state of mind, and his needs and emotions.

Monticello Estate Tour, Gray Line
(Monticello)

The authors give Jefferson a great deal of credit for launching the French Revolution through  his friendship with the Marquis de Lafayette and his authorship of the Charter of rights which later would morph into the Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen.  The key for both men was the marriage of pragmatism and principle to achieve their goals.

There are a number of memorable scenes portrayed in the novel.  First, James Heming’s declaration of freedom from slavery while serving as Jefferson’s cook while in Paris and demanding freedom for his sister Sally before the Jefferson’s returned to Virginia.  Second, Patsy’s humiliation and anger upon learning that Sally was pregnant with her father’s child.  This continued with Patsy’s anger as she felt she gave up her relationship with William Short to care for her father and felt she was in competition with Sally Heming for her father’s attention – not a healthy situation.  Third, scenes that convey Jefferson’s need to control and dominate others out of his fears of being abandoned as his wife did by dying, as did his daughter Lucy who also passed away, Patsy’s desire to take her vows and join a convent, James desire for freedom, the death of his son with Sally Heming, and Jefferson’s argument that Patsy should marry Thomas Randolph whose wealth would help pay off the debts that Jefferson had incurred in Paris and the needs for Monticello.  The novel presents a man who stood in the way of his daughter’s marriage and reflects a selfishness and self-centeredness, traits that dominated his private and public life.

The author’s diligence can be excessive as they recount scandals, the lives of so many Virginia cousins, and disinheritances.  At times, the prose is sappy and becomes tiresome as Patsy consistently recounts her emotions as they pertain to Short, her husband Thomas Randolph and her father.

The book is well researched but should not be relied upon as a historical tool to be relied upon as Patsy’s version of history as presented by the authors is biased and in too many cases too self-centered and mundane as Jefferson’s legacy and honor must be maintained no matter the cost.  The book entertains a number of themes that dominate the storyline.  First, the concept of honor and the expectations of how a Virginia gentleman should act.  Second, Thomas Jefferson could do no wrong as a father, grandfather, president etc.  Third, Patsy dominates the story controlling the flow of events and visitors to the White House and later to Monticello.  Fourth, the highs and mostly lows of Patsy’s marriage to the demented Thomas Randolph and its effect on their children appear on each page.  Fifth, the importance of Sally Hemings; concubine, mother of Jefferson’s children, and overseer of the aging sage of Monticello.*  Lastly, the novel seems to shift from one disaster after another with little that can be categorized as domestic peace.

Overall, the novel is interesting and interesting at times, but one should pursue further research before accepting many of the author’s themes.

*see THE HEMINGSES OF MONTICELLO: AN AMERICAN FAMILY  by Annette Gordon-Reed.

(Martha Patsy Jefferson Randolph)

CHINA: THE NOVEL by Edward Rutherfurd

(the Opium War 1839-1842)

For years I read the panoramic novels of James A. Michener.  His multi-generational plots, historical knowledge, all-encompassing detail, and character development were very satisfying, and I always looked forward to his latest release.  When he passed a void resulted in my reading agenda until I discovered Edward Rutherfurd.  In 1987 I read Rutherfurd’s first novel, SARUM which immediately sparked my interest because of his approach to writing, history, lineage of different generations, and an assortment of interesting and fascinating characters.  I dare say he was “Micheneresque!”  Other novels soon followed; RUSSKA, LONDON, THE FOREST, THE PRINCES OF IRELAND, THE REBELS OF IRELAND, NEW YORK, and PARIS – all very satisfying and engrossing living up to the bar he set with his first novel. 

I was looking forward to his next effort which was published last week, CHINA: THE NOVEL.  The novel does not present the scope and panorama of his earlier works, and there are a few questions about organization, but it still was a satisfying read.  The novel begins with events leading to the 1839 Opium War between England and the “Middle Kingdom” and carries the reader through Chinese history beginning with the Opium Wars, the Taiping Rebellion, the Boxer Rebellion, and finally the 1911 Revolution.  Through its characters Rutherfurd tries to present each event and different attempts at reform that sought to throw off the western imperialist yoke.  Over time these occurrences would lay the groundwork for the rise of Mao Zedong and the Chinese Communist Party which emerged after World War I, consolidated its support among the peasants in the 1930s and during World War II, and finally defeated the Guomintang (Nationalist Party) in 1949 and began the Maoist rule over China which dominated the former “Celestial Kingdom” until the early 1980s.

Opium War Imports into China, 1650-1880

The book seems to be organized in two parts, the first centers around the opium trade and a series of characters from British merchants, Chinese traders, government officials, and a number of ancillary families.  The second part focuses on the life of one individual in particular,  Lacquer Nail whose character is somewhat contrived and how the Chinese government tried to defeat the foreign imperialists, but to no avail.  Rutherdurd does a credible job integrating true historical figures with fictional characters.  At the outset, the key historical figure that is portrayed accurately is Lin Zexu, who was a Chinese head of states (Viceroy), Governor General, scholar-official, and High Commissioner who was charged by the emperor to rid the country of the opium trade that was bankrupting the kingdom because of the outflow of silver to pay for the opium.  The next important character is fictional, Jiang Shi-Rong who rose to become Commissioner Lin’s personal secretary.

From the outset of the novel, it is clear that Rutherfurd has done his homework as he exhibits a firm grasp of Chinese history and culture.  His explanation of the reasons for and the impact of foot binding on women is engrossing as is his description of the Forbidden City, the metropolitan exams to become a scholar-official, the language employed by Chinese officials, the differences between Han and Manchu Chinese, the dichotomy between northern and southern China, as is the presentation  of historical figures like James Bruce, 8th Earl of Elgin, the weakness of the Xian Feng Emperor, Prince Gong, regent from 1861-1865, the Empress Cixi, Lin Zexu, Edmund Backhouse, a British oriental scholar and linguist among others. 

Map 3: China's Treaty Ports, 1860

(Map 3: China’s Treaty Ports, 1860.)

Fictional characters abound with the key figures including John Trader, a British merchant who engages in the Opium trade as a means of impressing Agnes Lomond in Calcutta; Cecil Whiteparish, Trader’s cousin and  missionary; Mei-Ling a Chinese woman who provides a window into the misogyny of Chinese culture; Nio, Mei-Ling’s “brother” who is a pirate and eventually joins the Taiping movement to overthrow the Emperor; Guanji, a Manchu officer; the Odstock brothers who lived off the opium trade; and Mr. Liu who is bent on destroying Lacquer Nail.

Rutherfurd navigates the different factions within the Chinese government and the disagreements and friction among the characters very nicely.  A case in point is the Eunuch system and what one went through to become one and how they achieved wealth and power in the Forbidden City in dealing with the Emperor. Rutherfurd is able to develop a number of stories within the larger story of the novel very carefully.  Chief among them revolves around the Taiping Rebellion, an uprising commanded by Hong Xiuquan, the self-proclaimed brother of Jesus Christ. Its goals were religious, nationalist, and political in nature; Hong sought the conversion of the Chinese people to the Taiping’s syncretic version of Christianity, to overthrow the ruling Qing Dynasty, and a state transformation.  At times it appeared that the British might ally with the Taiping’s in order to secure the opium trade and other commodities like tea.

The overall theme of the novel is the history of China between 1839 and 1911 that was dominated by British imperialism, later joined by other European powers and the United States.  As Rutherfurd develops the novel he integrates other important historical information germane to his topic, i.e., the recruitment of Chinese labor to work on the railroads in the United States, the politics of the British parliament, events in India, among others.  If one is conversant in Chinese history during this period, you will be able to relate to what is evolving.  If not Rutherfurd clearly presents the rhythms of the Chinese approach to life and how it conflicted with western expectations and why conflict was inevitable.

Forbidden City
(The Forbidden City, Beijing, China)

Cultural superiority is a dominant theme as the Chinese saw the west as barbarians who were inferior to the Confucian way of life, and western lack of respect for Chinese culture seeing the Chinese people as animals in many cases.  The causes and results of the two Opium Wars are reviewed and their effect on Chinese society and politics stand out.  Rutherfurd spends a great deal of time on the Taiping Rebellion which many historians see as laying the groundwork for Maoist thought with their agrarian reform ideas, however over 40 million Chinese would die during the conflict.  The author also takes a deep dive through his characters as the Chinese try to reform themselves after the Taiping Rebellion with the rise of the Empress Cixi but to no avail.  The Boxer Rebellion becomes front and center at the turn of the 2oth century as does the rise of Sun Yat-Sen and his ideas that resulted in the 1911 Revolution that followed the death of the Empress Cixi.

Empress Dowager Cixi, who died 109 years ago today.

(Empress Cixi)

The earlier sections of the novel are much more engaging because of its focus on the Chinese family apart from the opium trade.  The later sections of the novel are exhausting with its focus on court life and attempts to deal with the west.  From the title of the book, one would hope its focus would be more on the Chinese people themselves without providing such a prominent occidental slant.

The book at times can be unwieldly, but slowly it will captivate you and make you want to complete its 763 pages.  Rutherfurd will lay out the difference between eastern and western culture and one might question the goals and complexities of each.  Though I do not think the book flows as evenly as previous Rutherfurd novels, the book provides an education in of itself through its historical and myriad fictional characters and is worth the read.

*****************************************************************************

If you have found the events and personalities presented in the book interesting, I would recommend the following: THE BOXER REBELLION  by Diana Preston; AUTUMN IN THE HEAVENLY KINGDOM by Stephen R. Platt; IMPERIAL TWILIGHT: THE OPIUM WAR AND THE END OF CHINA’S LAST GOLDEN AGE by Stephen R. Platt; EMPRESS DOWAGER CIXI  by Jung Chang; GOD’S CHINESE SON by Jonathan Spence or any other books on Chinese history written by Spence.

Image 1: A “stacking room” in an opium factory in Patna, India. On the shelves are balls of opium that were part of Britain’s trade with China.

(A “stacking room” in an opium factory in Patna, India. On the shelves are balls of opium that were part of Britain’s trade with China.)

THE LAST GREEN VALLEY by Mark Sullivan

(Stalinist Gulag)

A few years ago, I read an unforgettable novel BENEATH THE SCARLET SKY by Mark Sullivan.  His approach toward fiction exhibited the unique ability to blend historical events and characters with his own imagination and further documentation to produce a work of exceptional, what he describes as historical fiction based on real life stories dealing with World War II and its aftermath.  The skills developed in BENEATH THE SCARLET SKY are on full display in Sullivan’s latest effort, THE LAST GREEN VALLEY which transports the reader to late March 1944 as World War II is ending as the Soviet army moves west through the Ukraine.  As the Russians push the Germans out of the Soviet Union Sullivan’s most important characters Emil and Adeline Martel must decide if they should follow the German army under SS protection westward or should they remain in the Ukraine and risk seeing their family torn apart as Emile would be sent  to Siberia by Stalin’s forces, and Adele and her sons would become orphans of the state.  The decision making process is paramount, and Sullivan’s back story is centered on what might you do if you found yourself in the situations that the Martel’s faced as they tried to escape Hitler’s and Stalin’s grip.

The novel focuses on the extended Martel family that includes Emil, a farmer, his wife Adele, and their two children Wilhelm and Waldemar, along with their grandparents and uncles and aunts.  Sullivan’s writing is very descriptive and from the outset the reader finds the Martel’s in a number of precarious situations as they decide to follow the German army westward.  Sullivan has an excellent command of history and is able to integrate the historical past in each situation. 

One of Sullivan’s techniques is to alternate historical periods.  The immediate situation finds the Martel’s trying to survive during the spring and summer of 1944 which is balanced by scenes from the late 1920s through the earlier part of World War II.  A case in point is Sullivan’s description of life in the Ukraine and the conditions they were forced to endure under Stalin’s plan to collectivize Russian agriculture and to starve peasants living in the Ukraine or accuse them of being Kulaks, capitalist farmers who threatened the Soviet regime and sending them to what Alexander Solzhenitsyn describes as the Gulag Archipelago.  The result is the “Red Famine” that Anne Applebaum develops in her book of the same title which witnesses the death from starvation of millions of peasants throughout the 1930s.

The key to the story is the Nazi concept of volksdeutche, ethnic Germans who were invited by Catherine the Great to live in the Ukraine and assist Russian peasants to increase their agricultural yields.  These people were referred to as “Black Sea Germans” and lived between Odessa and Kiev until the Russian Revolution.  With the rise of Stalin, they were seen as a threat and were labeled Kulaks and many including Adele’s father, Karl Losing were sent to Siberia for over fifteen years, and Emile’s father spent seven years working in the Siberian mines developing lung disease.

Stalin’s order to starve the Ukraine in 1933 is referred to as the Holodomor as Russian soldiers destroyed wheat crops killing millions forcing Emile to question the existence of god, compared to his wife’s faith in the church.  Sullivan’s description of how Emil changed because of Stalinist policies, the war, the effects on his family are heart breaking, particularly how he was haunted by SS Hauptsturmfuhrer Haussmann because of incidents involving the slaughter of Jews by the SS at Dubossary on the Romanian border that took place in 1941.  Further, Emil has difficulty dealing with members of the Selbstschutz a group created by the SS made up of Romanians whose task was to kill Jews.  One in particular, Nikolas is a threat to Emil and his family.

Picture
(Author, Mark Sullivan)

The Martel’s harrowing journey west by wagon then cattle car is described in detail.  Faced with avoiding German and Russian tanks, planes, and artillery the family does its best to live another day.  Despite the nature of the story Sullivan does his best to present the humanity of people and inject humor whenever possible even under horrendous conditions, i.e.; when four year old Will needs to pee in a jar or out the back of the wagon as they travel westward.  Laughter was such a rarity – it was cherished when it occurred.

Sullivan offers repeated poignant scenes throughout the novel.  Whether it is Adele realizing she is living in an apartment house that used to house Jews in Wielun, Poland or that she and her family were wearing clothing stripped of Jews before they were gassed, she has difficulty coping.  Another is the dilemma Emil is forced to deal with as he is ordered to shoot a Jewish father and three children by the SS.  Emil refuses to do so at first, but when threatened with his life and never seeing his family again he finally succumbs to the pressure, but in the end, he never carries out the order.  In Emil’s mind he has already executed the innocent Jews and cannot except the fact he did not kill them.  For four years he carries the burden that he is an unworthy human being and a murderer until an unusual figure convinces him that god was looking out for him even though he had denigrated God the entire time.  Throughout their journey Emil and Adele try and keep the faith that they will see each other again even when it appears it will never come to pass.  Their journey is such that it is difficult for the reader not to become emotionally involved with Sullivan’s characters.

Speaking of characters, both real and imagined, Sullivan presents a number of fascinating individuals particularly the Romanian Corporal Gheorghe who suffered a head injury at Stalingrad.  He comes in contact with Emil and his family putting forth a strong belief in god and with his empathetic nature then after losing contact with him they meet again in a Soviet labor camp four years later where the Corporal has an amazing impact on Emil’s life providing him with a new way of seeing the world, and a new way of thinking.

Sullivan is a fantastic storyteller and researcher.  He spent a great deal of time with the immediate Martel family and their descendants while researching the book, and even walked in their footsteps through Ukraine, helping him capture the drama and emotion of their journey.  It is the type of story that makes it difficult for the reader to put the book down as its hold on you makes you wonder about how certain inhabitants of the earth do the things they do, how people have the intestinal fortitude to survive, and the importance of memory and hope in confronting situations beyond their control.

Bleak: Soviet inmates at the frozen prison camp in Norilsk, Siberia, in 1945. The camps, often in the middle of nowhere, were surrounded with barbed wire and watchtowers

(Soviet inmates at the frozen prison camp in Norilsk, Siberia, in 1945) 

THE VIETRI PROJECT by Nicola DeRobertis-Theye

Rome's incredible skyline needs to be seen to be believed
(The skyline of Rome)

Nicola DeRobertis-Theye’s debut novel THE VIETRI PROJECT is a well-conceived and imaginative work of historical fiction that presents an intimate portrait of a complex young woman trying to evade her uncertain future that will lead her to discover a great deal about her family, her own life, and the pitfalls we all face.  The story revolves around Gabriele, a young woman who recently graduated college and works in a bookstore in Berkley, California.  Immediately, Gabriele tells the reader about a man named Giordano Vietri who lives in Rome and orders fifty somewhat obscure books which she is put in charge of locating and shipping to Italy.  Once the order is filled it is followed but a series of new ordersfor hundreds of books which in the “Amazon era” seemed surprising.  Gabriele becomes fascinated by Mr. Vietri, though she knows nothing about him.  By coincidence it appears that Vietri’s address is located near where her mother grew up and not far from where Gabriele spent a number of summers during her teen years visiting relatives.

Gabriele becomes obsessed as the book orders keep appearing at the same time, she is approaching her twenty-fifth birthday and as she begins to reevaluate her life, she becomes upset.  Her solution is to leave the bookstore and travel the world finally winding up in Rome in search of Mr. Vietri. As her search for Vietri proceeds she is given a box that contains a book by one of Vietri’s neighbors and she hopes that the book will provide a road map to locate her target.  As her search unfolds Gabriele renews her relationship with her cousin Andrea who tries to assist her in her quest.

As the novel unfolds it becomes more and more personal for Gabriele in that her 25th birthday holds tremendous significance as when her mother reached the same age she was diagnosed as a schizophrenic which provokes a great deal of guilt.  Gabriele learns details of her mother’s life before she turned twenty-five and blames her birth on the development of her mother’s disease.  DeRobertis-Theye writes with a great deal of sensitivity as she expertly explores Gabriele’s inner thoughts as she searches for meaning to her life and how she fit into the larger world.  Gabriele’s fear is that as she reaches the same age as the onset of her mother’s sickness she too will suffer from mental illness and be institutionalized.

(Benito Mussolini, King Victor Emmanuel III, and high officials of the Italian military photographed in Ethiopia in 1936)

A stolen electric bill offers Gabriele information which she is convinced will lead her to Vietri, so she decides not to abandon her search and remain in Rome.  DeRobertis-Theye introduces a number of important characters which will reorient Gabriele’s life.  One of these, Ianucci Loredana, a seventyish widow who lives in an expensive part of Rome rents her a room in her apartment which will begin a relationship that will force Gabriele to learn a great deal of her mother’s past as Ianucci is the mother of Gabriel’s mother’s best friend while growing up.

DeRobertis-Theye creates a sense of realism throughout the novel as she integrates contemporary events into the story, i.e., the Amanda Knox trial, the death of Muhammar Qadhafi, refugees caused by the Arab Spring, Silvio Berlusconi, and the reign of Benito Mussolini.  Mussolini’s fascist reign in Italy is explored through the eyes of an author who has written a biography of an Italian artist who was arrested in 1935 for articles written for an anti-fascist Italian newspaper.  It seems the artist came from the same village, Aliano as Mr. Vietri and wrote a memoir that recounted his time in the Vietri home village; a widow whose husband served with Vietri in World War II; and a journalist who wrote a story about a pottery company named Vietri.  However, what is deeply important is Italy’s uncomfortable history that includes the brutality of an Apennine village that the author presents in the 1930s along with the atrocities perpetrated by Italian troops in Ethiopia (Abyssinia) during its occupation and the murder of Jews under Mussolini.

Gabriele’s search for Vietri unfolds very slowly at the same time she uncovers a great deal about her own family.  The key is whether Gabriele finds Vietri, but in reality, does it matter in the larger dilemma of Gabriele’s life.  The novel itself relies on the nature of identity, personal and national, along with the dangers of secrecy.  For Gabriele she has come of age in a broken world, along with a family that seems to have been broken for generations.

THE VIETRI PROJECT is a strong first novel with an absorbing story line that focuses in large part on how one survives in a world rife with violence, destruction, and madness.  The dominant theme is Gabriele’s need to be defined only by her true inner self, even if she was unsure who, or what, that was.

Rome

(An aerial view of Rome, Italy)

MURDER IN OLD BOMBAY by Nev March

Bombay, India, late 19th century
(Late 19th century Bombay, India)

When a new historical mystery earns the “First Crime Novel Award” by the Mystery Writers of America it will always spark my interest.  This was the case with Nev March’s first novel, MURDER IN OLD BOMBAY.  Set in India in 1892 during the height of British rule, the book centers around the death of two women who at first seemed to have committed suicide, but after careful examination the cause of death does not make sense.  The chief protagonist who comes to that conclusion is Captain Jim Agnihorti, a recently retired soldier whose cultural background is half English and half Indian.  Agnihorti is a fascinating character as he evolves from a soldier with twelve years of experience, Dragoons, and Bombay Regiments to either a journalist or a detective.  He was injured in the line of duty in Karachi in 1890 and nominated for the Victoria Cross, but since he was not a full blooded Englishman, he earned the Indian Order of Merit.

At the outset Agnihorti is lying in a hospital bed in the Poona Military facility recovering from a wound suffered in a skirmish on the wild northern frontier.  While resting he read a newspaper article from which he learned about a supposed double suicide where two women fell from a university clock tower in broad daylight.  For Agnihorti the case did not add up especially when three men charged with the crime were acquitted.  After his release from the hospital the retired soldier contacted the husband and brother of the two victims, Mr. Adi Framji.  Looking to his future Agnihorti obtained a job as a journalist at the Bombay Chronicle.  But when Framji hired him to investigate the death his career as a journalist ended, and his new avocation as a detective began.

March’s first novel is more than a murder mystery but a thoughtful beautifully written examination of the Indian caste system, the intense poverty that existed in the Raj, the virulent racism and condescension by the British, and the dangers of tribal and frontier fighting in India and Afghanistan. Since Agnihorti is of mixed blood, at times he is a victim of British self-righteousness and the Indian upper caste.  March provides the reader with the texture of Bombay as it appeared at the end of the 19th century.  The street urchins, the enslaving of young girls for sex, and the extreme wealth of the Franjis and other families are on full display.

Painting of  Sepoy Mutiny, 1857
(Sepoy Rebellion, 1857)

Of course, in any novel there must be a love interest and March does not let the reader down.  Agnihorti falls for Diana Framji, Adi’s sister but since he is of mixed blood, and does not fit into the Indian caste system his hope for a lasting relationship seems destined to fail.   Burjor, Diana’s father warns Agnihorti that he would not be an acceptable husband even though the family thinks highly of him particularly since his investigation is designed to protect the family.  In addition, Burjor is trying to arrange a marriage for Diana to a person of the proper caste. There is a great deal of drama within the family with the murders, but also it appears that they are hiding something and Agnihorti has to pull information out of them very carefully.

There is also a political component to the story as two characters emerge.  Rani, the Queen of Ranjpoot and her nephew Nur Suleiman especially when Suleiman is caught burglarizing the Framji mansion by Agnihorti.  It is also possible that Suleiman is Akbar, one of the men acquitted of the murders.  If Agnihorti identifies Prince Suleiman who was next in line to become regent of Ranjpoot the British could use it to take over the princedom along with hundreds of estates.  It appears that the murders are a pawn in a political power struggle between the British Raj and the Rani for control of Ranjpoot.  When Agnihorti is attacked it is evidence he is a threat to Suleiman and his family interests.

March does not shy away from exploring the poverty that is endemic to 19th century India.  An excellent example are the scenes depicted as Agnihorti disguised as a tribal fighter travels from Bombay to Lahore to investigate a possible link to Kasim who used to live and work for the Framji family and his investigation.  Along the way Agnihorti buys a young girl, Chutzki out of slavery and as they travel together, they are joined by three young boys and a baby who are refugees from the tribal warfare.  Agnihorti brings them to Simla where the Franjis are spending the summer.  Soon the children are left behind as Agnihorti is pressured by a British commander to pursue a mission to Lahore while his investigation continues.  It is an extremely dangerous undertaking but Agnihorti takes Raza,  one of the boys with him who knows the frontier region along with a British escort, Subaltern Ranbir Singh.

Image result for India map

March possesses an excellent command of the history of the British Raj in 19th century India.  Her integration of the 1857 Sepoy Rebellion against British rule is spot on as is her approach of weaving the uprising into the overall flow of the novel.  As the story comes to a head the Framji family history during the rebellion becomes a bone of contention that becomes a major threat and helps explain March’s plot that she develops over hundreds of pages.**

india1857

March effectively builds tension as the novel unfolds particularly as Agnihorti departs the British base and tries to carry out his military mission and find evidence against the killer he seeks.  Throughout the novel an overall concern is that Agnihorti suffers from PTSD with the attendant nightmares, flashbacks, headaches, fears because of what happened in Karachi in 1890.  As he pursues his missions his guilt about the past continues to resurface and he must learn to overcome them to continue.

Agnihorti is a devotee of Sherlock Holmes and throughout the novel there are constant references to Conan Doyle’s hero’s techniques.  Agnihorti himself is a fascinating character.  A bastard who did not know his father, a personal bridge between British and Indian culture, and a sense of honor and pride that carries him forward.  March has done a magnificent job in introducing the Captain James Agnihorti character and it is clear that she is a superb storyteller and I look forward to her next literary effort.

** For further information regarding the Sepoy Rebellion see THE GREAT MUTINY INDIA 1857 by Christopher Hibbert and THE GREAT MUTINY by Richard Collier.

(Late 19th century Bombay, India)

HERESY by S.J. Parris

Armada Portrait Queen Elizabeth I
(Queeen Elizabeth I)

For those of you who are familiar with C. J. Sansom’s novels that center around Matthew Shardlake during the reign of Henry VIII, Iain Pears’ AN INSTANCE OF THE FINGERPOST, and perhaps the novels of Hillary Mantel that focuses on Henry VIII’s vicar, Thomas Cromwell you might do well to consider S.J. Parris’ (the pseudonym of British journalist Stephanie Merritt) novels whose main character Giordano Bruno is a true historical figure set during the reign of Elizabeth I.  Parris’ exploration of Bruno’s beliefs, life’s work, and talents emerge in the first of seven novels entitled HERESY a story that has the inauspicious beginning of Bruno sitting in the privy at San Domenico Maggiore in Naples reading Erasmus’ COMMENTARIES.  When he is caught with this reading material, he is forced to throw it into the cesspool.  One must remember that in 1576 anyone in Catholic Naples who criticizes Catholicism is committing blasphemy and a crime that a Father Inquisitor might deem worthy of death.

The author employs Bruno’s life journey as an excellent vehicle to portray the religious schism that has overtaken Europe since Martin Luther nailed his 95 Thesis to the Castle church door in Wittenberg, Germany in 1517, and for Parris’ purpose its later impact on the reign of Elizabeth I who has rested her throne on the Act of Supremacy issued in 1558.  Bruno provides a superb foil against Catholic teachings as his life’s journey consisted of joining a monastery as a teenager and taking his vows at San Domenico Maggiore which he would come to reject after thirteen years.  He would wander Italy teaching and staying one step ahead of the father Inquisitor who had branded him a heretic.  He would escape to Geneva, where he was also branded as a heretic this time by the Calvinist power structure, Paris, and finally to England.  While in Paris, King Henri III would become his patron and would then travel on to London where he will be recruited by Elizabeth I’s spymaster, Sir Francis Walsingham to penetrate the Papist hotbed at the universities at Oxford. 

Parris’ dominate theme that permeates the novel is the schism between Catholics and Protestants as Bruno had traveled to England to write books which he believed would rock Europe to its foundations and search for a book that proved the universe was infinite going much further than Copernicus’ heliocentric theory of the universe, a book written by the Egyptian sage, Hermes Trismegistus.  Bruno believed that a universe without end existed, as did a universal soul which we are all part of.  Bruno subscribed to the view that “the divinity is in all of us and in the substance of the universe with the right knowledge, we can draw down all the powers of the cosmos.  When one understands this, we can become equal to God.”

(Giordano Bruno)

Parris’ plot unfolds as Bruno is accompanied to Oxford by Sir Philip Sidney, an aristocratic soldier-poet who he had met in Padua, and palatine Albert Laski, a conceited Polish poet.  Bruno’s purpose is to engage the Rector John Underhill of Lincoln College in a disputation.  Before the debate can take place, Bruno comes across the body of Roger Mercer one of the fellows who dined regularly at Underhill’s table.  It appears that the rest of the college is at pains to cover up the murder and Bruno’s charge is completely changed, and it appears that someone has created a grisly scenario in the name of Catholicism or is it Protestantism.  Bruno’s investigation allows Parris to accurately convey life in the English countryside during the period sprinkling in seedy taverns, mysterious bookshops, in addition to Oxford’s world renown libraries.

Francis Walsingham (c1532-1590) 'spymaster' to Elizabeth I. He is frequently cited as one of the earliest practitioners of modern intelligence both for espionage and internal security. His network penetrated the heart of Spanish military preparation, gath... : News Photo
(Sir Francis Walsingham)

Parris has employed a number of characters to carry out her story line.  Each character associated with Oxford and its colleges seem to reflect English arrogance and an anti-Oxford bias throughout the novel.   The most important individuals include Rector Underhill’s daughter, Sophia  an interesting individual who craves learning and resents the role of woman in English society.  Bruno’s main foil within the college is the Bursar Walter Slythurst with other individuals like James Coverdale who will now accede to the office of Deputy Rector with the passing of Mercer, William Bernard, a fellow who had been the librarian in 1569 when the library had been purged of heretical materials, Master Richard Godwyn, a mild mannered  librarian and fellow, Gabriel Norris, a student who used his long bow to kill Mercer’s assailant, Rowland Jenks, a bookseller who chopped off his own ears, Mr. Cobbett, an alcoholic porter involved in security, and Thomas Allen a student whose father, the former sub-Rector and teacher had been unceremoniously removed from the college resulting in his son’s loss of his scholarship.

Parris has written an atmospheric thriller dropping Bruno into the paranoid world of Oxford Papists which he must navigate to survive intellectually as he tries to solve the murder of Mercer, and unravel Oxford’s tangled loyalties, some of which border on treason.  As the novel unfolds a number of other Oxford fellows are murdered as Bruno becomes part detective as well as a humanistic philosopher who seems ahead of his time as he tries to offer further enlightenment to Europe.

On the whole the novel is well conceived, and once the reader acclimates themselves to Parris’ dialogue, they will become engrossed and will be exposed to a fascinating historical mystery.  The next installment of Parris’ Bruno series PROPHECY examines an astrological phenomenon that portends the death of Elizabeth as her throne is constantly threatened by her Catholic cousin, Mary Queen of Scots.

Queen Elizabeth I of England in her coronation robes, c.1600. Wiki Commons.(Queen Elizabeth I of England in her coronation robes, c.1600)

THE CLIFTON CHRONICLES, a seven book series by Jeffrey Archer (a synopsis)



Jeffrey Archer (Image: Jeffrey Archer/via Facebook)

(Author, Jeffrey Archer)

Recently I had the pleasure of spending a few weeks with two English families; the Barrington’s and the Clifton’s.  The family members form the core of English novelist Jeffrey Archer’s seven volume CLIFTON CHRONICLES mostly set in Bristol and London from the immediate post World War I period through the early 1990s.  For this reviewer, Archer’s compilation served as a wonderful distraction to the COVID-19 19 pandemic and other disconcerting events that have been ever present.  The series focuses on family values, a host of interesting characters, moral and immoral, and repeated plot twists and turns beginning with volume one, ONLY TIME WILL TELL and concluding with volume seven, THIS WAS A MAN.

Archer employs the literary technique of allowing his major characters to tell their side of the story as it unfolds.  Each character recounts how they see events and Archer allows their individual stories which are different to eventually come together.  Archer recapitulates important details from each novel allowing the reader to explore each novel separately, but I would recommend that the story be read from volume one onward.  Each section zeroes on one character in which Maise Clifton, Harry and Emma Clifton, Sebastian Clifton, Jessica Giles Barrington, Lady Virginia Fenwick, all play major roles. 

The characters run the gamut from those mentioned to Sir Alan Redmayne a cabinet secretary in charge of MI6 reflecting Archer’s integration of espionage into his storyline along with a possible “sparrow” or Russian double agent Karin Brandt who Giles Barrington falls in love with.  Baroness Cynthia Forbes-Watson, an eighty year old retired MI6 agent.  Cedric Hardcastle and his son Arnold, the Barrington Shipping Company lawyer play significant roles as does Hakim Bishara, a Turkish banker who works with Sebastian Clifton to head the Farthings Kaufman bank.  Aaron Guizburg and his father are Harry Clifton’s publishers at Viking Press, and Anatoly Babakov who has written UNCLE JOE telling the truth about Stalin finds himself in the Soviet Gulag allowing Harry Clifton to rally world opinion to free him. 

There are a number of individuals who engage in periodic corporate machinations from trying to  take over Barrington Shipping, Farthings Kaufman Bank and Mellor Travel.  We meet Adrian Sloane, Jim Knowles, and Desmond Mellor who form a troika of undesirables.  Adding to the list is Conrad Sorkin an international gangster.  Historical figures abound as Margaret Thatcher plays a prominent role befriending Emma Clifton.  Other Prime Ministers who appear include James Callaghan, Ted Heath, and Harold Wilson; in addition to politicians like Michael Foot and Dennis Healy who have a tremendous impact on the political career of Giles Barrington.

The one character who seems to pop up all the time is Lady Virginia Fenwick, Giles Barrington’s ex-spouse.  She is a schemer out for revenge against anything Barrington or Clifton.  She is involved in assorted plots to destroy both families and secure her wealth.  My favorite is how she convinces the Duke of Hertford, a recent widow to be his wife.  But she is also involved with the “undesirables” already described and their numerous corporate shenanigans.

Archer plays close attention to British politics in the House of Commons and House of Lords in each novel as the political careers of Giles Barrington and Emma Clifton evolve.  Archer is deeply knowledgeable about British elections and the legislative process as he weaves them into his story.  Apart from politics and corporate issues Archer integrates a number of ancillary situations involving the Clifton family including; Jessica, a precocious young artist; the rise of Sebastian to head the Farthings Kaufman Bank; Harry’s arrest in the Soviet Union working to free Anatoly Babakov; and Emma’s rise to head Barrington Shipping, and becoming her  Undersecretary of Health in the House of Lords under Margaret Thatcher.

There are numerous other characters who interact with both families which reflect Archer’s command of history and new events.  Archer does a wonderful job in character development and presents the chronological growth of each person and their impact on others. Archer is the master of the literary cliffhanger as at the end of each novel a situation is created that is designed to cajole the reader on to the next volume.

At a time of pandemic Archer’s  volumes and the series in general is a wonderful escape from quarantine and anxiety.  If it is prose one is looking for, Archer has his moments, but most often the writing is somewhat pedestrian with a touch of irony and humor.  Whether he is describing speeches in the House of Lords; the interior of Buckingham Palace; the boardroom or the visitor room of a prison, Archer’s writing is authentic.  When the pandemic ends and you are once again off to vacation or just the beach Archer’s work will entertain as you while away the hours dealing with his numerous subterfuges and double-crosses, as in the end he will bring his series to a deeply emotional conclusion.

Lord Archer claims to earn £10,000 an hour from his books, rising at 6am to write by hand
(Author, Jeffrey Archer)