THE CITY IN DARKNESS by Michael Russell

Male and female militia fighters march at the beginning of the Spanish Civil War in July of 1936.
(Militia fighters at the outset of the Spanish Civil War)

After reading Michael Russell’s first two renditions of his Stefan Gillespie series I must say I was hooked.  The third installment is entitled THE CITY IN DARKNESS and has reaffirmed my view that Russell has the unique ability to combine components of a thriller and spy novel in the context of historical fiction.  Russell easily captures the reader’s attention and thus far all of his books have been extremely satisfying.  The novel begins in 1932 as Stefan, his wife Maeve, and their three year old son, Tom are camping.  Maeve decides to take a swim and that is the last Stefan will ever see of her.  A childhood friend of Maeve sees her swimming in the lake and drowns her.  This scene fills in the gap from the first two novels as Stefan thought Maeve’s death was an accident, but Russell develops a plot line where Stefan comes across evidence that his wife’s death may have been murder.

The action immediately shifts to the Spanish Civil War circa 1937 as Francisco Franco and his forces are approaching Madrid in a final effort to destroy the Republican government.  Brigadier Frank Ryan, commander of the 15th International Brigade made up of 400 Englishmen and Irishmen are set to blunt Franco’s advance.  As his wont, Russell creates a multi-layered disparate set of sub plots that can never seem to have any commonality.  An IRA raid on the Magazine Fort in the Phoenix Park in 1939; the death of Stefan’s wife; events in the Spanish Civil War; the possibility that Stefan’s boss, Detective Superintendent Terry Gregory of the Special Branch might be in bed with the IRA; the actions of German Intelligence in trying to use Ireland against England; and the pending release of Frank Ryan from one of Franco’s prisons all are developed fully, but one wonders how they can all come together.  A hint, as usual they all do.

Adolf Hitler and Francisco Franco of Spain meet in Gare d'Hendaye in occupied France, October 1940 to discuss possible Stock Photo

(Adolf Hitler and General Francisco Franco)

Russell is extremely interested in atmospherics and everywhere that Stefan travels is fully explored.  The beauty of the Portuguese and Spanish countryside is on full display as are the streets of Lisbon, Madrid, Burgos, and Salamanca.  The comparison of the brightness of Christmas lights in Ireland in 1939 is juxtaposed to the darkness befalling Europe.  The damage caused by the civil war is evident when Stefan arrives in Madrid.  These and other descriptions provide a unique background for the novel.

THE CITY IN DARKNESS comes across as more of a spy novel than the first two installments in the series.  Ireland’s G2, the German Abwehr, and British MI5 all play an important role as Stefan’s assignments keep shifting as at first he was in charge of investigating the number of Irish men who left to fight for England against Germany, but after the murder of a post man he finds himself in a complex investigation which accidentally provides information for what really happened to his wife seven years earlier.

Apart from Frank Ryan who had ties to the IRA and fought against Franco’s army, a number of new characters are created that carry the novel.  .  Marie Duarte, Ryan’s partner.  Billy Byrnes, the post man who disappears.  Mikey Hagan, at fifteen fought in the Spanish Civil War whose life is saved by Ryan.  Jimmy Collins, the man who knows the truth concerning the murder of three women.  Simon Chillingham, a British diplomat turned spy.  Leo Kerney the Irish ambassador to Spain.  Florence Surtees, an artist who turns out to be someone completely different.  A number of German intelligence agents and a host of others.  Characters from the previous novels who reappear include Stefan’s parents and son, Katie O’Donnell, Stefan possible partner, Colonel Archer de Paor, head of Irish G2, Terry Gregory of Special Branch, and Stefan’s Garda partner, Dessie MacMahon.

(Lisbon was a spy center during WWII)

At times Stefan feels like a pawn in a game of chess between de Paor and Gregory.  As the novel evolves Stefan breaks away from his assigned tasks and strikes out on his own to accompany Ryan out of Spain once he is released, but more importantly to learn who was responsible for killing three women that include his wife Maeve.  The cruelty and death fostered by the Spanish Civil War is an important background to events as is the possible role of Ireland as a German ally against England as World War II has just begun.  Russell’s grasp of history is clear as he discusses the civil war and the role of Franco, as is his knowledge of the IRA and the politics that surround it.

Stefan is at a crossroads in his life as until he knew what happened to Maeve he could not move on.  He blames himself for accepting her death as an accident and he realized if he were to achieve closure, he would have to do it himself before he could develop a meaningful relationship with Kate.  The number of characters and the complexity of the story at times is hard to follow, but once you figure out where Russell is going with the plot it is engrossing and you wonder how it concludes.  Interestingly, the missing post man aspect of the story is drawn from the still unsolved true-life disappearance of postman Larry Griffin in the village of Stradbally on Christmas Day, 1929.

This is an ambitious novel that blends police procedures, a spy novel, and a historical mystery that is comparable to the writing of Alan Furst and John Lawton.  Obviously, I think a great deal of Russell’s approach to historical fiction as a thriller and I look forward to reading the next book in the series, A CITY OF LIES where Stefan finds himself on a dangerous mission in Berlin.

(The brutality of the Spanish Civil War)

THE CITY OF STRANGERS by Michael Russell

(Rosalie Fairbanks, a guide to the New York World’s Fair, points to the theme of the exposition — the Trylon and Perisphere — in New York on February 22, 1939, after the entire sheath of scaffolding was removed for the first time.)

As war approached between England and Nazi Germany throughout the spring and summer of 1939 Ireland did its best to remain neutral.  The Irish government had its own issues as segments of the Irish Republican Army refused to accept the Anglo-Irish Treaty of 1921 which created the Irish Free State in January 1922.  The result was a series of attacks by the IRA against England as well as the Irish Free State. The IRA’s goal was to try and undo the treaty and force the British out of Ireland for good creating a unified Ireland of Protestants and Catholics.  The role of the United States was ancillary as support for the IRA came from certain political factions and institutions as well as private citizens that resulted in the availability of weapons, munitions, and money for the IRA smuggled out of the United States.  The wild card in this process was the relationship of the IRA and Nazi Germany.  If war broke out between England and Nazi Germany, it would avail the IRA of the opportunity to conduct rear guard action against British interests to the benefit of the Hitlerite regime.  It is in this environment that Michael Russell’s sequel to THE CITY OF SHADOWS Detective Stefan Gillespie is placed in the untenable position of navigating the situation to carry out his mission for Irish military intelligence.

(BOAC Clipper Flying Boat)

Russell opens the second installment of his Stefan Gillespie series, THE CITY OF STRANGERS with a seven year old boy witnessing the revenge killing of his father by Free State soldiers who buried the body up to its neck in the sand at Pallas Strand.  As is his want, Russell leaves this introduction and moves on, however, the reader knows it is something significant that will turn up later in the novel.

Gillespie has enjoyed the last four years working on his parent’s farm in Kilranelagh with his nine year old son Tom.  He had given up working in Dublin, the reasons for which are explained in the CITY OF SHADOWS.  Gillespie is summoned by Dublin authorities to transport Owen Harris back from New York City for questioning as he is accused of brutally beating his mother to death and dumping her body into the sea.  What follows is a rather complex plot that at times even confuses Gillespie!

Russell has created a thriller that involves Nazis, the IRA, the NYPD, New York gangsters, Irish G2 (military intelligence and a host of interesting characters each with their own agenda.  Among those characters are Longie Zwillman, a Jewish New York gangster that seems to know everyone in the city; Dominic Carroll, the president of Clan na Gael in New York which hates Eamon de Valera, the president of the Free State –  in reality Carroll was a front for the IRA; Katie O’Donnell, Carroll’s sister-in-law; her sister Niamh Carroll, who is trying to escape from her husband, Captain Adam Phelan of the NYPD and his younger brother Michael also of the NYPD; Rudolph Katzmann, a German intelligence operative; Jimmy Palmer, a black trumpeter and taxi driver, gay actors, and a host of others.  A number of characters reappear from the earlier novel, chief of which is Captain John Cavendish, who enlists Gillespie into his web, in addition to Dessie MacMahon, Gillespie’s partner.  Historical figures abound including Father Charles Coughlin, the anti-Semitic pro-Nazi radio priest; Sean Russell, IRA Chief of Staff; Robert Montieth, one of Father Coughlin’s leaders in the Union of Social Justice; Duke Ellington, the band leader, and numerous others.

(Crowds march through the streets of Dublin to commerate the Easter Rising (1939). Getty Images. Image courtesy of the Independent.)

Russell has an excellent feel for New York City in 1939.  He paints a wonderful portrait of Harlem, jazz, the coming World’s Fair, the streets of Manhattan and the New York skyline, and the St. Patrick’s Day parade.   The reader feels as if they are in a time machine as he compares the wilds of County Wicklow with the buzz, glare, noise, and ambiance of the New York City, in addition to Gillespie’s flights on the flying boat from Dublin to New York and back.

As the plot unfolds Gillespie wonders how he went from trying to find an envelope containing IRA ciphers for Cavendish and take them back to Dublin with his prisoner to helping a gangster smuggle a wanted woman out of the United States, and trying to figure out how Katie O’Donnell fits in.  This is part of the beauty of Russell’s novels as disparate plots that appear unrelated seem to all come together, but over many chapters.  An escape for an IRA currier, the death of assorted characters, and an assassination plot of George VI are all key components of the novel.

Russell’s writing is clear, concise, always calm and never over-heated.  He also exhibits a strong command of history and knows how to maintain the interest of his readers.  His Gillespie series is an exciting and comfortable read and I look forward to the next book in the series, THE CITY IN DARKNESS where Gillespie wonders if his boss, Superintendent Terry Gregory, is working for the IRA.

(1939 World’s Fair, New York City)

THE CITY OF SHADOWS by Michael Russell

Thomas Street Colourised by Pearse.

(Thomas Street, Dublin, Ireland, 1930s)

Michael Russell’s THE CITY OF SHADOWS is centered in Dublin, the Free City of Danzig, and Palestine in the 1930s.  Russell, a reader of English at Oxford, in addition to a television producer and writer has written an engrossing first novel.  The first of six books centers on Stefan Gillespie, a Detective Sergeant out of Dublin’s Pearse Street Garda Station. The series revolves around the murder of two individuals two years apart found in the mountains outside Dublin.  The first question to be asked is are the murders related, the answer is yes but not in the traditional sense.  The novel itself is tightly written and well-conceived story encompassing murder, love, and rising nationalism in Europe epitomized by Nazi Germany reflected in strong character portraits placed accurately within the context of historical events.

The story begins as Vincent Walsh is searching for a priest who he has fallen in love with.  He was to meet his lover after the Eucharist Congress at Phoenix Park in Dublin attended by over one million people and three hundred priests.  When the priest does not show, Walsh walks to Carolan’s, a gay bar near the site.  Shortly after arriving Irish Blueshirts who fashion themselves after Mussolini’s Black Shirts arrive which brings about the demise of Walsh.  The second component that is explained involves another priest, Father Francis Bryce who is having an affair with Susan Field.  The young lady becomes pregnant and is last scene at Dr. Hugo Keller’s office to undergo an abortion.  Something goes wrong and she is taken to the Convent of Our Lady of Charity of the Good Shepard which supposedly cares for unmarried pregnant woman where Mother Superior Eustacia, appalled that the young lady is Jewish pronounces her dead.

(Danzig, Poland, 1930s)

Gillespie is called in to investigate and immediately is confronted by machinations employed by Detective Jimmy Lynch and Inspector James Donaldson of the Irish Special Branch and Lieutenant John Cavendish of G2 Military intelligence.  Both men seemed to have ties to the abortion doctor in addition to the Blueshirts.  Gillespie is appalled as is Hannah Rosen, Field’s closest friend he arrives from Palestine to learn about and seek justice for her friend.  Rosen is aware that Field was having an affair with Father Francis Bryce, a college professor of philosophy who arranged the abortion with Dr. Kelly, then disappeared from Dublin.  Gillespie and Rosen come together to try and solve the murder on their own, but they may have bitten off more than they can handle.

The hypocrisy of the Catholic Church is on full display as the story evolves.  Priests seem to enjoy sexual relationships going against their vows in addition to those whose egos dominate their actions.  A good example is Father Anthony Carey who does not believe that Gillespie is raising his four year old son Tom as a good Catholic.  Gillespie whose wife Maeve had died two years earlier was Catholic and Gillespie is an atheist/Protestant, but the detective is doing the best he can with Tom living with his parents.  Father Carey is appalled and after a series of threats tries to have the Church take Tom away from his father to live with an uncle’s family.

Russell provides a vivid description of life in Dublin and the surrounding countryside.  The author integrates each character’s personal history allowing the reader to understand the context of each in the story line.  A good example of this approach is how Russell explains why Susan Field’s family left the Ukraine and its anti-Semitism as her grandfather Abraham traveled across Europe for three years before arriving in Dublin 1899.  Susan’s father, Brian a cantor at the Adelaide Road Synagogue will contact Gillespie seeking help to find out how his daughter died.

Street of Danzig in 1937 with Swastika banners
Swastika banners on the streets of Danzig (now Gdańsk) in 1937. Although Nazi Germany was yet to invade, the senate majority in the ‘Free State’ parliament were Germans with a Nazi allegiance.

Russell is on firm ground as his story progresses with certain historical events forming the background for the plot.  Whether discussing the history of the Irish Civil War, events in Palestine as Jews try to create their own state, or the Nazi drive to seize the Free State of Danzig Russell employs a strong knowledge base that allows him to introduce a number of important historical figures to make his story much more credible.  Figures such as Eamon de Valera, the first President of the Irish Free State; Joseph Goebbles, Nazi Propaganda Minister; Edward O’Rourke, the Bishop of Danzig; and Sean Lester, the League of Nations High Commissioner for Danzig; Arthur Geisler, President of the Free City of Danzig Senate; Albert Forster, Gauleiter of Danzig-West Prussia; Dr. Adolph Mahr, Director of the National Museum of Ireland and head of the Irish Nazi Party, along with a number of others are all portrayed accurately.  Fictional characters abound, the most important of which include Father Monsignor Robert Fitzpatrick, the head of the pro-Nazi Association of Catholic Strength, and Gillespie’s partner, Detective Garda Dessie MacMahon.

Russell provides the background for many of the historical controversies of the 1930s.  Religion, fascism, communism, the rise of Nazism, abortion, the division between urban and rural areas are among the topics explored.  His protagonist, Stefan Gillespie’s life is complex, particularly his budding relationship with Hannah Rosen, but Russell weaves a rich tapestry as he seems to compare the beauty of Ireland with the street of Dublin and the horrors of Nazism being played out in Danzig.  For a debut novel, Russell has done a fine job and I look forward to reading the second installment in the series,  THE CITY OF STRANGERS which transports the reader to New York in 1939 as World War II is about to break out.

View from front of Trinity College looking towards Bank of Ireland and diwn towards Westmoreland Street, Dublin Ireland History, Dublin, Vintage Ireland, Images Of Ireland, County Dublin, Eire, Dublin Street, Ireland Travel, Old London

(College Green, Dublin, Ireland, 1930s)


For a confessed bookaholic and fan of Ken Follet’s collective works what could be better than a new novel that is over 900 pages?  After having read and digested THE PILLARS OF THE EARTH, WORLD WITHOUT END, and A COLUMN OF FIRE I have long looked forward to Follet’s prequal to his Kingsbridge series, THE EVENING AND THE MORNING with great anticipation and I must confess I was not disappointed.  Set in England at the turn of the 11th century Follett, a master storyteller has conjured up a complex story of human greed, passion, slavery, clerical corruption, and political uncertainty.  The story commences from the east with a Viking raid on the village of Combe that results in devastation and loss for its inhabitants.

Follett’s new book continues the approach taken in PILLARS OF FIRE and other volumes in the Kingsbridge saga.  The reader is exposed to powerful personalities, some acceptable, others cruel and nasty. Of course, love and human emotion are factors and on full display. Even though the book takes place between 997 and 1007 AD competition, jealousy and other traits of the human condition are clear.  Follett describes what daily life was like in England and Normandy at the turn of the 11th century – the forests, castles, poor villages, ale houses, farms, whorehouses, and religious buildings.  The political machinations of the nobility and church figures dominate a good part of the plot.  During this historical period survival was key as most woman did not live past their thirties, many of which dying in childbirth, and men succumbing by their late forties.

England and her invaders in the century. 11th Century, Year 2, Coat Of Arms, Fashion History, Middle Ages, Vintage World Maps, British, England, Art

Follett immediately introduces a series of characters each with their own agenda and character flaws, some of which even have positive traits!  Follett is a master storyteller with an incredible ability to capture the reader’s attention only after a few pages.  Follet’s immediate focus is on a family that consisted of three brothers, Edgar, a ship builder and very bright, Erman, the eldest, and Eadbald both of which are common laborers with little skill.  The matriarch, Mildred has the final voice in family decisions since Pa succumbed during the Viking attack as did Edgar’s love, Sunni.  The family lost everything and is forced to accept working a rundown farm fifty miles away to survive.

Edgar emerges as one of the dominant characters that Follett creates along with a host of others.  Chief among them was another family with three brothers, Wilwulf, the ealdorman of Shiring, who held political power from the king, Wigelm the thane controls most of the forest and surrounding areas, and Wynstan, the Bishop of Shiring the leading figure in the corrupt church he rules, and of course, Gytha the deceitful mother who pulls strings behind the scene.  Follett, as in all of his novels is able to  create so many different threads and characters, weaving them together seamlessly in a story that eventually becomes clear. 

As the plot develops a number of other important individuals play important roles.  Aldred, a Monk concerned with books and learning who becomes involved in an investigation of the Bishop of Shiring, Lady Ragnhild, the daughter of Count Hubert of Cherbourg, known as Ragna who falls in love with Wilwulf when he visits Normandy to negotiate a treaty.  Ragna was kept in the dark about a number of important things after she marries Wilwulf and moves to England.  Two other people that appear over and over are Dreng, the owner of an ale house and his brother Degbert Baldhead, the Dean of Deng’s Ferry Minster and owner of numerous farms that are worked by tenant farmers and slaves.

Follett develops a number of plot lines that are important.  First, the plight of Edgar’s family following the Viking attacks.  Second, Aldred’s religious fervor and his suspicions concerning the minster in Deng’s Ferry.  Third, the relationship between Cherbourg and the English settlements in need of protection.  Fourth, the marriage of Wilwulf and Ragna.  Fifth, the corruption and deceit that seems to pervade every page.  Sixth, the machinations of church politics and the hypocrisy of monks, priests and bishops, a problem that would plague the church for centuries,  Lastly, the structure of England.  What is the relationship between a king, in this case Ethelred and the nobility who ignore his rulings?  What is the relationship between the Archbishop of Canterbury and a bishop who refuse to conform to the preaching’s of the church?  In the story that Follett conjures up we have Wilwulf the ealdorman of Shiring ignoring King Ethelred’s pronouncements, and Wynsan, the Bishop of Shiring ignoring the teachings of Elfric, the Archbishop of Canterbury.

MIDDLE AGES Collage Sheet with gryphon, unicorn and illuminations, by JUNKMILL Copyright Free Images, King Arthur, Digital Collage, Collage Sheet, Middle Ages, Renaissance, Medieval, Finding Yourself, Printables
(England during the Middle Ages)

Aside from the inherent political conflicts that exist in feudal England at the end of the dark ages Follett brings to the reader’s attention the issue of slavery.  In England during this period 10% of the population consists of slaves.  Among those classified as slaves are people in poverty who cannot provide for themselves, soldiers and ordinary people taken prisoner in war, or people punished for crimes.  These individuals consist mostly of people ages eleven to thirty who become servants, prostitutes, laborers, and any other activity their owners can think of.

As the story evolves plots seemed to be enveloped by subplots as Follett deftly springs numerous surprises on his readers.  Just when you think you know how things will play out; he shifts gears. Follett’s recreates a period fraught with the hazards, the harsh physical realities, the competing influences of politics and religion, detailed and convincing, providing a solid underpinning to the later installments of the Kingsbridge series. 

As Bill Sheehan points out in his review in the Washington Post that “Taken both individually and together, the Kingsbridge books are as comprehensive an account of the building of a civilization — with its laws, structures, customs and beliefs — as you are likely to encounter anywhere in popular fiction. Despite their daunting length, these novels are swift, accessible and written in a clear, uncluttered prose that has a distinctly contemporary feel. At times, the prose can feel a bit too contemporary, as when Ragna, ruminating on some conflict with her husband, wonders: “What was bugging him?” Mostly, though, Follett writes in a transparent style that rarely calls attention to itself, moving his outsized narratives steadily — and compulsively — forward.

Ken Follett with "Eisfieber" ("Whiteout").

While the Kingsbridge novels are in no way formulaic, they all rely on common narrative elements, such as multiple alternating story lines, a large cast of characters from all levels of society, the patient accumulation of precise period detail, and specific long-term goals, such as the building of a cathedral or, in “World Without End,” a bridge and hospital. But perhaps the key to Follett’s success is the way in which his gifts as a thriller writer have merged so seamlessly with the larger demands of historical fiction. Follett presents his worlds in granular detail, but the narratives never stand still. Something dramatic, appalling or enraging happens in virtually every chapter. Rape, murder, arson, infanticide and betrayals of every stripe follow one another in relentless succession. The result is a massive entertainment that illuminates an obscure corner of British history with intelligence and great narrative energy. THE EVENING AND THE MORNING is a most welcome addition to the Kingsbridge series. I hope it won’t be the last.”*  I agree wholeheartedly!

*Bill Sheehan, “Ken Follett’s PILLARS OF THE EARTH prequel is just as transporting – and lengthy – as his famous epic.” Washington Post, September 21, 2020.

Windsor Castle was built in the 11th century after the Norman invasion of England by William the Conqueror. King Edward III rebuilt the palace to  become "the most expensive secular building project of the entire Middle Ages in England". Edward's core design lasted through the Tudor period, during which Henry VIII and Elizabeth I made increasing use of the castle as a royal court and centre for diplomatic entertainment. Berkshire, England Stock Photo

(Berkshire, England, 11th century castle)

THE FOX by Frederick Forsyth

(Russian Cruiser)

According to John le Carre, Frederick Forsyth is among a group of spy thriller writers “that his works were the well into which everybody dipped.”  If that is the case based on the heights that le Carre has reached it is quite an endorsement of Forsyth.  A #1 New York Times bestselling author in his own right Forsyth is one of the most legendary and accomplished spy novelists of his time and the 82-year-old Englishman is considered one of the god fathers of the espionage genre.  In 1971 Forsyth then a freelance reporter published his first book, THE DAY OF THE JACKAL that brought him international success. Among his other sixteen novels is enormously successful THE ODESSA FILE and his newest and seventeenth novel, THE FOX continues his run of engrossing novels.

It begins in February 2019 as the American National Security Council computer where most of its secret data resides is hacked.  Washington asks the British government for assistance in locating the hacker.  Dr. Jeremy Henricks at the Government Communications Headquarters, the British National Security Center is brought in to assist and finds that the hacker has left no trace.  A few months later the same hacker has hit a major bank, but as in the first instance nothing was taken, however this time he has left a slight trace and is used by the SAS to locate him.  It turns out that the hacker is Luke Jennings is an eighteen-year-old autistic young man who suffers from Asperger’s syndrome.  Sir Adrian Weston a retired British spy chief is brought in by Prime Minister Marjory Graham as her unofficial security advisor to oversee the investigation.  What he learns is that Luke and three other family members live north of London in a small house where the cyber genius is ensconced in his attic with what appears to be ordinary computer equipment, but he possesses a devastating cyber mind and capability.

book, review, In Intrigue, Frederick Forsyth, Adam Helliker

If by this time Forsyth has not hooked you on his plot, he will when Luke is recruited by the British, in conjunction with Washington to work for the government in lieu of prosecution and extradition.  His first assignment is to hack a newly built Russian cruiser, the Admiral Nakhimov, the most powerful ship of its class in the world.  Moscow under the firm grip of Vladimir Putin is humiliated when the ship runs aground off the Straits of Dover because of Luke’s handiwork and seeks revenge.  The Russian autocrat places Yevgeni Krilov in charge of learning what has occurred.  Employing a series of former Spetsnaz, Albanian gangsters, and Russian billionaire oligarchs he learns of the Jennings family’s new location and proceeds to deal with the problem.  As Krilov tries to shut down Luke, the teenager under the auspices of Weston penetrates the data bases of Iran, North Korea, and Russia extracting priceless intelligence.

Forsyth’s tale has a ring of reality in our cyber infused world and the dangers to American and British national security.  He produces a series of probable characters from local Scotsman, British special forces, the Prime Minister, Russian billionaires in the grasp of Putin, gangsters, or former military types.  His commentary on world leaders is dead on particularly his recapitulation of Putin, who he refers to as “the former police thug’s” career and rise to power.  His analysis within the context of the novel is historically accurate and sounds like an analysis one would find in a monograph by Masha Gessen describing plutocratic gangsters who portray themselves as legitimate businessmen.  Part of the story line rests on the fear that Putin will use his vast resources of natural gas and a complex series of pipelines as a means of dominating Western Europe.  The British answer is to employ Luke, but Putin cannot allow this and will send Russia’s most lethal sniper, Misha to kill him. Kim Jong Un does not escape Forsyth’s scathing analysis describing the North Korean dictator as fat and ugly with a bizarre haircut who possesses a ruthlessness that is total and is obsessed with himself and absolute power.  Donald Trump also appears, but in this instance, he is seen as cooperating with the British despite Forsyth’s rather negative description of the American president.


(Kim Jong Un)

Forsyth’s knowledge of history is impeccable as his compendium of how American and British national security apparatuses work.  It is clear that Forsyth is also an authority on Russian spy tactics and its thought processes that include murder, intimidation, and intelligence gathering. Further the author has the uncanny ability to reproduce scenarios that seem real.  In addition, Forsyth’s recounting of Iranian and Israeli security needs and how they approach threats to their countries, along with information about the domestic situation in North Korea provides excellent background information.   In constructing his story Forsyth exhibits total command on contemporary events, personalities, diplomacy, weaponry, and the mysteries of spy craft.  In THE FOX, Forsyth as he does in all his novels lays out these details in a brilliant fashion and hopefully Forsyth has more novels left in his pen for the future. You will be on the edge of your seat as Sir Adrian tries to protect Luke and defeat Misha, thereby preserving world peace.

Russian missile cruiser makes call at port of Algiers in long distance deployment 925 001

(Russian Cruiser)


During gas invasion test during WWII, all civilians and wardens wear gas masks (respirators). Location: London, United Kingdom Date taken: 1941 Photographer: Hans Wild Life Images London History, British History, Modern History, Women's History, Vintage London, Old London, Vintage Photos, Old Photos, The Blitz
(London, 1941, during the “Blitz”)

John Lawton’s BLUFFING MR. CHURCHILL (published in England as RIPTIDE) is the fourth installment of his Inspector Frederick Troy series and opens with a British retaliatory strike against Berlin as payback for the continued German blitz that was pounding London a year after Dunkirk.  At this point, Brigadefuhrer Wolfgang Stahl, a British spy realizes it is time for him to leave Germany as quickly as possible.

Stahl had joined the Nazi Party in 1929 and by 1934 he had wormed his way into the confidence of Reinhard Heydrich, a high-ranking SS police official and the architect of the Holocaust.  Stahl was in part able to get into his good graces because of his shared love of Mozart.  They would play together and discuss music for hours on end.  Once the bombing ended Stahl returned to his apartment house and found a body that was a similar to himself with its face blown off.  Stahl took the dead man’s identity and began to make his way out of Germany.  The problem for Stahl was that the suspicious Heydrich had the corpses hand shown to him and he realized that Stahl was not dead.  At this point Lawton has lured the reader into the story line and in true Lawton form provides historical fiction dealing with spy craft at its best.

(WALTER RICHARD) RUDOLF HESS German Nazi leader; flew to  Britain without Hitler's  knowledge in 1941 to attempt Stock Photo

(Rudolf Hess, Hitler’s Deputy)

Lawton will develop a number of plot lines.  The dominant story revolves around the search for Wolfgang Stahl who carries with him plans for the Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union. Obviously, the Nazis want him dead because he knew too much, and the British want him to learn what he knows.  A number of important characters emerge in the chase.  The most important are Lt. Colonel Alistair Ruthuen-Greene of the British Consulate, someone who had Churchill’s ear.  He convinces Captain Calvin M. Cormack III, an American stationed in Zurich who had been Stahl’s handler to accompany him to London to identify him.  Cormack was assigned to work with Walter Stilton, Chief Inspector at Scotland Yard to locate Stahl.  When they arrive in London, another thread that Lawton develops emerges, Hitler’s deputy, Rudolf Hess had flown from Berlin to Scotland and all wonder why he has done so.

Lawton has created a taught spy novel integrating fiction with historical fact.  Examples include the Bismarck  sinking the HMS Hood, disagreements between American intelligence and British MI5 over sharing German code information as well as the British hope that the United States would soon enter the war.  Further, the debate over whether to warn the Soviets that a German invasion was imminent is presented – but in reality, as early as April 1941 Stalin ignored British warnings as he did later the day before the actual invasion.

File:Winston Churchill 1941 photo by Yousuf Karsh.jpg

(Prime Minster Winston Churchill)

Lawton does an excellent job showing the reader the horrors of the blitz.  Descriptions of bombed out streets with only one building remaining abound as people shelter in the underground, and the Home Guard searches for bodies and civilians clear damage.  Lawton zeroes in on the English vernacular focusing on accents verbiage, and dialects.  It is easy for English characters to communicate with each other, but for men like Capt. Cormack he has difficulty understanding the British at times.

Real figures and events are inserted into the plot reflecting Lawton’s command of the historical information.  He accurately describes the British rationing system along with the death and destruction that Goering’s bombers reigned on England.  Winston Churchill, Lord Beaverbrook, H.G. Wells, and Robert Churchill, a distant cousin of the Prime Minister make appearances.

Many have argued that the war created an aura of commonality for the British people as all classes faced the Nazi terror.  Lawton examines this theme pointing out repeatedly it is more veneer than fact.  The core of the story revolves around Stilton and Cormack then joined by Sergeant Frederick Troy of Scotland Yard who refuse to share their own intelligence in the hunt for Stahl.  Once Stilton passes from the scene the Troy-Cormack relationship becomes very tricky when Cormack falls in love with Kitty Stilton, a police officer and daughter of Walter Stilton who also possesses a ravenous sexual appetite and is Troy’s former lover.  Further linking the two men is that both men have strong willed fathers, Cormack’s is a decorated general turned politician, and Troy’s a renown intellectual and diplomat who emigrated from Russia in 1910, as both men operate in the shadows of their fathers. Despite these issues the two men come together and foster a working relationship that is a key to solving the crimes at hand.

The novel slowly evolves into a tightly spun murder mystery with a number of victims.  It is an espionage thriller, but also a well thought out detective story.  The next book in the Troy series is FLESH WOUNDS where Kitty Stilton plays an interesting role and I have added it to the pile of books on my night table.

(Bomb damage in London during the “Blitz”)



(Mount Everest)

The events of the last few months have created a degree of escapism that I could never have foreseen.  What was required was a novel that would take hold of my mind and carry me off to another place and absorb my emotions and attention.  The void has been filled by Justin Go’s first novel, THE STEADY RUNNING OF THE HOUR, a story that is set during World War I and its aftermath and the period surrounding 2004.  It is an absorbing and provocative story that parallels two men who are chasing life’s cruelty and happiness.  Go does this by alternating chapters involving the two periods and focuses on a love affair that seems to have gone wrong for no apparent reason and a search for the roots of that love eighty years later as one of the author’s narrators tries to uncover what has gone wrong and how it will impact his future.  These men are not related but they each face similar feelings and choices.

The story begins in an intriguing fashion as Tristan Campbell, recently graduated from college with a degree in history and thinking about graduate school receives a letter from James Prichard a London solicitor.  It seems that an estate that dates to 1924 has not been settled and he might be the heir.  Campbell flies to London to learn the details and what is expected of him.  It seems that Ashley Willingham who in 1913 at the age of seventeen inherited an enormous estate from his uncle George Ridley.  Willingham who was adrift until he met Imogen Soames-Andersson spending a week with her falling deeply in love years later tells Mr. Prichard to alter his will seven days before he joins the British expedition that will climb Mount Everest.  The link between Willingham and Campbell is that Imogen’s sister is Campbell’s great grandmother.  The problem for Campbell is that he only has two months’ time to establish the link between his grandmother Charlotte Grafton who is possibly the daughter of Willingham and Imogen with himself.  If he is able to do, he will inherit a large fortune.

Willingham is quite a character.  He and Imogen, who is charming and rebellious, the model of the post-Edwardian woman meet and fall in love a week before his departure.  Once he crosses into France he is reported to have been killed at the Battle of the Somme, but days later he turns up alive recuperating in a French hospital.  Imogen rushes to his side, something happens, and she disappears.  Willingham is also an excellent mountain climber and he is chosen to be part of the Third British Expeditionary group that will try and climb Mount Everest. The attempt is made in 1924, but Willingham perishes.  For Campbell proof that Charlotte was Willingham and Imogen’s child is rather sketchy and because of the limitations of the estate’s trust  he must present sound documentation to qualify for the inheritance.  Go takes Campbell on a dramatic chase to find evidence of his lineage encompassing travels to London, Paris Stockholm, the Swedish and French countryside, Berlin, and across Iceland.  In doing so Campbell meets Mireille in a Parisian bar and begins to fall in love.

At the outset Go has created so many characters from different time periods it can become a bit confusing.  Perhaps a fictional family tree might be warranted.  However, once you digest who is who and what role they play in the story you will become hooked and not want to put the book down as Go develops the love affair of the Bohemian Imogen and Ashley who is drawn to adventure.  Go sends Campbell on somewhat of a wild goose chase to procure the evidence he needs.  In exploring the relationship amongst his primary characters Go delves into the barbarity of war, Post Traumatic Stress disorder, and the human need for companionship, love, and excitement.  Numerous examples pervade the story including the depravity of unleashing British soldiers into a no man’s land and their deaths.  The letters between Ashley and Imogen describing their needs which should be enough for their relationship to endure, and  Campbell’s confusion about life and what he hopes to accomplish dominate the story line.

Image: Members of 1924 Mount Everest expedition

(British 1924 Mt. Everest Expedition)


Go lays out many choices for his characters, a number of which are filled with irony as Willingham survives the Battle of the Somme and the remainder of the war only to die climbing Mount Everest – one might wonder if he suffered from a death wish.  The attraction and pull of Everest in all of its awe is clear throughout Willingham’s dialogue and letters.  Will conquering Everest allow him to recapture Imogen’s love?  Go has the ability to maintain a state of tension even if the outcome is already known.  He also has the ability to bring two historical periods together and mesh them with their characters, but in doing so he has not really explored the morality of the choices they make.

If you seek an escapist novel that will make wonderful beach reading (if they open up) or just to fill time in a meaningful and entertaining manner, Go’s first novel is a winner.  Since the book was published two years ago, I am hopeful he is hard at work on his next one!


[Image: 1924 Expedition Photo]
(Base camp on Mount Everest)

THE SILENT DEATH by Volker Kutscher

Berlin by night, 1930s? Street view,

Berlin by night, 1930s? Street view, Friedrichstraße, Berlin, Germany. Stock Photo

The late Philip Kerr had his Bernie Guenther series.  Ben Pastor has Martin Bora.  Now we have Volker Kutscher’s Gereon Rath character as an addition to the German civilian police/military police genre that depicts Berlin in the 1930s, crimes during World War II as well as the Cold War.  Kutscher has followed up his BABYLON BERLIN with the second in his Rath series entitled THE SILENT DEATH where he continues the exploits and personal journey of a flawed Berlin detective who has  a very unorthodox approach to police work, much to the chagrin of the higher ups in the Berlin Police Department.  As with the work of Kerr and Pastor, Kutscher takes the reader inside the thought process and life experiences of his protagonist in a meaningful way injecting outside influences on criminal investigation be it the role of the Gestapo, the SS, or as in THE SILENT DEATH Berlin in the 1930s with the Weimar Republic teetering on the edge, as the rise of the Nazi Party proceeds quite rapidly with all it engenders.

Berlin Inspector Rath has a checkered past.  He had been on the police force in Cologne, but an incident forced his relocation to Berlin as his father a police director in Cologne arranged his transfer.  He employs a “lone ranger” approach to police work and has little respect for those above him in the police hierarchy.  He is an engaging character who must survive in an atmosphere that seems to change every day.  Kutscher does a superb job conveying to the reader what Rath is up against as the noise from Nazi murders, crimes, and demonstrations form the background of daily life in Berlin in an addition to his own intemperate ways, i.e., “punching out” Deputy Inspector Frank Brenner for making fun of his last girlfriend, Charlotte Ritter who he was deeply in love with.

Police headquarters in Berlin, 1933 Stock Photo
(Berlin Police Headquarters 1930)

Kutscher has created an interesting plot line focusing in on the German movie industry as it seems to be moving away from “silent films” to “talkies.”  The problem is that there are producers and directors who do not see the new “talkies” approach as progress and may be involved in trying to sabotage the new type of film.  Enter Betty Winter, a silent film actress who is about to make her first talkies film when suddenly she is felled by a lighting system during the filming of her latest movie.  She is crushed and dies from the flames  – was it sabotage or was it an accident?

Rath is called in to investigate but soon runs out of favor with his superior, Detective Inspector Wilhelm Bohm, a stereotypical Prussian type who will remove him from the investigation of Winter’s death.  Rath refuses to allow Bohm to impede his investigation and continues his work.  It seems that sabotage may have gone awry as Heinrich Bellman, a producer who worked with Winter is up against Manfred Oppenberg another producer who is in competition over the new genre.  As this progresses, Oppenberg’s star Vivian Franck disappears and it is up to Rath to find her.  This competition forms the first thread that Kutscher develops.

The second thread involves Konrad Adenauer, the Mayor of Cologne.  Rath’s father Engelbert travels to Berlin to introduce his son to Adenauer who seeks his help.  It seems that Adenauer is being blackmailed over certain investments and financial transactions centered in Berlin involving the transfer of a Ford Motor plant to Cologne.  In addition to taking on this task for his father, Rath must deal with his removal from the Winter case and being tasked to deal with the Horst Wessel case.  Horst Ludwig Georg Erich Wessel, commonly known as Horst Wessel, was a Berlin leader of the Nazi Party’s stormtroopers, the Sturmabteilung. After his murder in 1930, he was made into a martyr for the Nazi cause by Joseph Goebbels.  Wessel is an interesting character who has the dubious distinction to having the official anthem of the Nazi Party dedicated to him.  Wessel in reality is murdered by Ali Hohler, the former pimp of the whore Wessel is involved with.  But for Goebbles, a master of “fake news” and propaganda it was a situation that he would take full advantage of.

As in the Wessel case, Kutscher has an excellent command of German history, a case in point is the death of Gustav Ernst Stresemann the German statesman who served as Chancellor in 1923 and Foreign Minister 1923–1929, during the Weimar Republic. He was co-laureate of the Nobel Peace Prize in 1926 and his death brought about the end for any hope for the success of the Weimar Republic.

The last thread that permeates the novel is Rath’s attempts to navigate the intricacies of surviving the Berlin police bureaucracy and leadership embodied in Wilhelm Bohm.  There are many fascinating characters that Kutscher develops including movie stars, producers, politicians, and gangsters.  The book itself is a gripping read from the perspective of criminal investigation, but also the tangled private life that Rath leads.  His love life is shambles as he is in love with Charlotte who dumped him six months before Winters death, Kathi, the woman he lived with who he turned away, and his own past.

As in the tradition of Kerr and Pastor, Kutscher’s work is well worth exploring if you enjoy period crime novels subsumed with good historical fiction.  In the present instance the reader must sort out the deaths of a number of actresses and determine if a serial killer is involved.  Newspapers have already made up their minds which in part gets Rath into further trouble with his superiors.  At times, the plot seems to meander, but in the end, Kutscher produces a rousing closure.  Having completed  THE SILENT DEATH,  I look forward to reading the next installment in the series, GOLDSTEIN.

(Berlin, 1930)


Night view of Vienna, 1937

Night view of Vienna, 1937 Stock Photo

One might ask do we need another novel that deals with Nazi Germany and the Holocaust.  However, with Meg Waite Clayton’s newest book, THE LAST TRAIN TO LONDON I believe we have a novel that explores a topic that has not been mined by writers that extensively.  The story is set in the 1930s involving the Kindertransport rescue of ten thousand children from Hitler’s grasp in occupied Europe and the true story of Geetruida Wijsmuller-Meijer, a childless Dutch woman known as Tante Truus.  The story’s backdrop is Vienna as Austria is about to be victimized by an Anschluss (union) with Germany.  At the time Jews did very well in the Austrian capitol but once it was taken over by the Nazis after an earlier coup attempt in the early 1930s the plight of the Jews begins to sharpen.  Soon Kristallnacht (the night of the broken glass) will take place in November 1938 and the handwriting is literally on the wall for Vienna’s Jewish community.

As 1937 approaches  Tante Truus has already spent several years risking her life crisscrossing the border to spirit Jewish children out of Germany.  She is a fearless woman with an agile mind who is able to employ her charm with Nazi border guards in order to maneuver her charges out of a number of dangerous situations.  She is dismayed as country after country refuse to accept desperate children seeking asylum from Nazi Germany.  Despite the increasing danger of her missions she is driven to save as many lives as she can before it is too late.

Mrs Wijsmuller brought voice from Date: May 30, 1962 Location: Amsterdam, Noord-Holland Keywords: ballots Personal name: Mrs Wijsmuller! nassaukade Stock Photo

(Tante Truus)

Enter fifteen-year old Stephan Neuman, the Jewish heir to a great chocolate making fortune.  Stephan sees himself as a budding playwright and pays no attention to the political events swirling around him.  He becomes smitten with Zofie-Helene, a brilliant math prodigy whose mother, Kathe Perger edits a progressive newspaper which is overly critical of the Nazi regime.  The two adolescents enjoy each other’s company, but their carefree life is upended as Hitler’s troops begin to threaten the annexation of Austria.

Clayton is a superb writer who has constructed a mesmerizing story of danger, sacrifice, bravery, and a commitment to confront evil.  Her plot seems to run on two tracks.  First, the wealthy Neuman family focusing on the mother stricken with cancer, her husband Herman, and their two sons Stephan, seventeen, and Walter, five.  They will be removed from their palatial home at the outset, split up into a Vienna ghetto and Dachau.  This track includes the Perger family with Zolfie-Helene as the center piece.  The second track zeros in on Tante Truus who is working with the Netherlands Children’s Refugee Committee and its English allies led by Norman and Helen Bentwich to remove as many children from Nazi hands in Austria.

These tracks focus on a number of historical events that will drive the story; the Evian Conference called by President Franklin D. Roosevelt, which was invoked by the United States as a coverup for their lack of a refugee policy and fears of letting too many Jews into the United States.  Further the Anschluss between Austria and Germany and the disaster it presented Viennese Jews, and lastly, Kristallnacht which led to murder of Jews, seizure of their homes, business, and property, imprisonment, and banishment from Austrian society. The book is permeated with details of Austrian-Dutch political debates at the time through Kathe’s newspaper articles that are integrated into the novel and one witnesses the slow deterioration of Austria’s Jews in the process.

One of the many overriding dilemmas facing Jews at this time was who could they trust.  Stephen’s uncle by marriage to his aunt Lisle, Michael who is not Jewish divorces his wife, supposedly to save her, and at the same time takes over the chocolate business in order to keep it out of Nazi hands.  He promises to take care of Mutti, Stephan’s terminally ill mother, as well as his brother.  But even before the German invasion, he had become extremely alienated from his wife and her decadent “art collection” who then flees Vienna for Shanghai as her husband moves closer to Nazi principles.  Stephan is placed in the difficult position of not knowing if he can trust the lives of his family with him.

Clayton carefully describes Tante Tuss’ separate missions to Germany from Amsterdam to rescue children, then her focus shifts to leading children from Hamburg to freedom.  Her rescue mission is raised to a different level when the British government under pressure from Lionel de Rothschild and Viscount Samuels agree at first to allow 600 Jewish children between the ages of four and seventeen for temporary resettlement in England.  The measure was to be funded privately and all the government had to do was issue visas.  The angst which precedes each mission is further heightened when Germany’s sadistic head of the program in Vienna, Adolph Eichmann threatened to withdraw the offer if the smallest detail was not met.  Eichmann believed the fastest way to make Germany judenrein (rid of Jews) was to give them a choice of death, living in poverty, expulsion, or emigration to lesser countries.  Clayton describes in detail Tante Tuss interactions with Eichmann and the pressure that was placed on her and her own family in trying to save the children.

Clayton relies on a great deal of primary and secondary research which is the backbone of her novel.  Historical events and figures receive an accurate portrayal along with character development to present a truly absorbing work of fiction.  The structure of the novel is based on the author’s style of no chapter numbers, just headings that provide date and location or topic.  Many chapters are five pages or less, and others are as short as a paragraph.  The result is an engrossing read about a topic that highlights the inhumanity of Nazi immigration practices and the mostly lacking response by the world community, particularly the United States.

Stock photo of Austria Vienna Schoenbrunn Palace, Vienna, Austria

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Austria Vienna Schoenbrunn Palace, Vienna, Nov 18, 1937


2 G55 F1 1915 8 Fatally Wounded in French Field Hospital History WWI France Fatally Wounded in a Field Hospital Stock Photo
(World War I Field Hospital)

Recently I read Daniel Mason’s THE PIANO TUNER and I enjoyed it immensely.  This led me to his next book, THE WINTER SOLDIER a novel dealing with the end of the Austro-Hungarian Empire as a young medical student Lucien Krzelewski joins the army with the outbreak of World War I and is sent to a small village in the Galician Carpathian mountains called Lemnowice, the site of an aid station at the Church of Our Lady of Lemnowice.  The story encompasses a range of human emotions, the brutality of war, and an individual’s need to fulfill a void in his life and make up for what he perceives to be an error that haunts him.  Mason employs a number of characters that range from aristocrats who have seen better days, young men destroyed by war, a nurse that Lucien cannot put behind him, and a number of historical figures.

Mason’s portrayal reflects the bureaucratic incompetence of the Austrian army, the remnants of the Victorian Age at the conclusion of the Habsburg monarchy, and the desperation that war creates for individuals who long for a degree of normalcy.  Mason writes with verve and the ability to employ humor as it pertained to Austrian society, in addition to expressing the humanity of Lucien who finds himself in an untenable situation.  Lucien has not graduated from medical school and has limited practical medical experience.  He finds himself thrust into a situation with soldiers arriving for treatment for limbs that need amputation, neurological issues that today we refer to PTSD, wounds to the abdomen and other parts of the body.  He has never conducted surgery and feels inferior to the nurses he must work with.  One in particular, Margarete from the Sisters of St. Catherine takes him under her wing to fill in the gaps in his education.

The Eastern Front, where troops from Germany, Austria-Hungary, Turkey, Russia, and the Balkans fought, was larger than the Western Front.

The novel centers around Lucien’s attempts to overcome how overwhelmed he feels as he tries to treat his patients in a humane manner with limited supplies, freezing weather, and the shifting battle between the Hungarian Hussars and Russian Cossacks.  Mason reflects on the horrors of war as Lucien does his best, but many succumb after clinging to life.  One patient in particular, Sergeant Jozef Horvath encapsulates the situation that Lucien finds himself in.  Most of Lucien’s training had been in neurology and he believes he knows what is best for Horvath who has been diagnosed with nervenshock with symptoms that seem taken from psychiatrist, Robert Jay Lifton’s  landmark book on surviving trauma, DEATH IN LIFE.  Lucien does his best to deal with Horvath’s symptoms but he will lose the patient to a sadistic German officer who believes that people who suffer from combat fatigue/shell shock or whatever battlefield malady exists to be shirkers and deserters and he rips him out of Lucien’s care.  Lucien cannot get over this and blames himself for the loss of his patient.

The fate of Horvath and Lucien’s inability to let go produces nightmares and difficulty in coming to terms with what has occurred creating a major subtext of the novel.  The second subtext revolves around Lucien’s relationship with Sister Margarete who seem to fall in love with each other.  After an outing Lucien and Margarete become separated and he will spend a good part of the story searching for her as she is his first love and cannot accept that fact she is gone.  As the war winds down Lucien returns to Vienna where his mother decides he must marry which zeroes in on Lucien’s inadequacies and memories of his war experiences as he is placed in charge of a rehabilitation hospital in Vienna by his former medical school professor.

Stock photo of Vienna at the Beginning of World War I, 1914
(Vienna during World War I)

Mason has excellent command of historical and geographical detail as well as the clash of old Victorian Austria destroyed by the war and the new Austria that will be created at the Paris Peace Conference.  Once the war ends it is ironic that Lucien is deemed unworthy of being a doctor by the new Austrian government that argues that a physician at war is not well rounded enough and must return to medical school.

Mason who is a professor of psychiatry at Stanford is well placed to write a novel that deals with PTSD as he brings Lucien through his training, experiments on animals, and the dearth of facilities and care for patients.  It is a story of redemption as Lucien is pulled in many directions as he deals with his own feelings of inadequacy and loss at a time when Europe is undergoing a complete transformation as is Lucien and the patients he treats because of the cruelty of war and the incompetence of those who cause it.

A British Red Cross hospital in France during the conflict which claimed 6 000 men s lives per day

(World War I Field Hospital)