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)

CLOSED CIRCLES by Viveca Sten




Sandhamn Island In The Stockholm Archipelago

(Sandhamn Island, Sweden)

Viveca Sten continues her Sandhamn murder series with her second installment CLOSED CIRCLES in which she continues her “softer” approach to the Swedish noir.  Unlike other authors, Sten chooses to mostly leave out the blood and gore and presents violent acts in a much more acceptable fashion, though the story does begin with a murder.  The victim Oscar Juliander, a womanizer and corrupt lawyer is shot as he stood by the boat’s steering column, the “Emerald Gin,” as he jockeyed for position at the Round Gotland Race.  Juliander was the first vice chairman of the Royal Swedish Yacht Club (RSYC) and a successful bankruptcy lawyer.  He was killed when the starting gun went off to begin the race which coincided with the bullet that resulted in his death.

Sten interestingly constructs her plot through a number of characters that appeared in STILL WATERS the most important of which are Detective Inspector Thomas Andreasson; Nora Linde, a lawyer and old friend of Andreasson; Carina Persson, an administrative assistant on the police force who was in a relationship with Andreasson; and Detective Inspector Margit Grankvist, Andreasson’s partner.  Sten introduces a series of new characters aside from Juliander which reflect the social status and lifestyles of RSYC members. They include Ingmar von Hahne, the yacht club secretary; Hans Rosensjoo, Chairman of the RSYC; and Martin Nyren, head of facilities for the RSYC among numerous others.

From the outset the dominant question revolves around who killed Oscar Juliander.  There are a number of interesting theories.  First, though married he had over thirteen mistresses over the years who he had made certain promises to.  Second, he was scheduled to replace Rosensjoo as Chairman of the RSYC, perhaps someone was jealous or had other plans.  Third, Juliander lived his life well beyond his financial means, i.e., how did he afford his lavish sailboat, leading to the supposition that the Russian mob may have been involved.  Fourth, Juliander was fond of drugs.  Fifth,  he was in possession of a crooked credit card linked to an offshore bank account that was difficult to penetrate, and lastly someone might have been focused on killing members of the RSYC’s board of directors.

For about two-thirds of the novel the plot line zeroes in on the investigation of Juliander’s death until a second killing takes place.  As you continue to read you expect some sort of defining moment, but Sten continues and strings you along.  To facilitate the story line Sten delves into the private life of Andreasson and Linde’s private lives in much more detail than in STILL WATERS.  For Andreasson his involvement with Carina Persson, fourteen years younger and the daughter of the Chief of Police puts him in a quandary, how to break it off and not anger anyone.  In Linde’s case her marital difficulties with her physician husband Henrik continues from the prequel as she inherits an old mansion that she wants to maintain, and her husband does not.  The marriage had difficulties before this new issue, and it is a focal point in the story as she turns to Andreasson for advice and he in turn looks to her for professional assistance in dealing with banking regulations to help solve the murders.

Namn: Viveca Sten.  Ålder: 60 år.  Bor: I en villa norr om Stockholm. Sommarhus i Sandhamn i Stock-holms skärgård.  Familj: Man och tre vuxna barn.  Gör: Är författare, juridisk rådgivare, styrelseledamot och föreläsare.
(Author, Viveca Sten)

Juliander’s vehicle for his wealth was a foreign credit card set up through a secret bank account.  The way banking regulations were set up, particularly in Liechtenstein it was difficult to obtain banking records.  Sten spends time explaining how these regulations impeded criminal investigations especially in certain countries.  It seemed the only way to penetrate this vehicle of corruption was if the issue revolved around terrorism or drugs.  In Juliander’s case it appeared that the protective wall was just about money laundering or other forms of accumulating wealth.

As the novel progresses Sten integrates the fears and angst of a number of characters, among them is Diana Soder who fears for her life because of a number of threatening e-mails.  Further the wives of RSYC board members have their own agendas as do a number of other somewhat shady characters.  Sten’s work flies by as you read as the translation from Swedish by Laura A. Wideburg is well done.  I enjoyed CLOSED CIRCLES and I hope to continue reading the series, with GUILTLESS, next up.

Sandhamn, Sweden Oh The Places You'll Go, Finland, San Francisco Skyline, Denmark, Touring, Norway, Sweden, Scandinavian, Semester

(Sandhamn Island, Sweden)

STILL WATERS by Viveca Sten

Sandhamn, Stockholm Archipelago

(Sandhamn Island)

Sandhamn Island was a picturesque spot across the water from Stockholm.  It possessed an interesting maritime history and how it evolved into a tourist spot mostly for the affluent.  It was a calm location where people left their doors unlocked and people went about their lives in a considerate relation to their neighbors.  During the spring and summer, it served as a retreat for visitors from city and for the most part nothing out of the ordinary occurred except for seasonal boating regattas.  The islands off Stockholm serves as the backdrop for Viveca Sten’s Sandhamn murder series.  The first STILL WATERS translated by Marlaine DeLargey is the first installment of eight other volumes is a cleverly conceived murder mystery.

The plot builds upon several characters led by Inspector Thomas Andreasson, a fourteen-year veteran of the Nacka municipality violent crime unit.  Andreasson’s private life is a sad one in that one night he and his wife found their three-month-old daughter dead in her crib.  The trauma and emotional strain would lead to a divorce and a very lonely life for the former married couple.  Next, is Nora Linde, a lawyer, and a childhood friend of Andreasson whose husband is a doctor in Stockholm and refuses to consider any change to their living situation when she is offered a promotion creating a great deal of tension.  Lastly is Margit Grankvist a close colleague of Anreasson and a very sharp individual who possesses a very analytical mind.

Sten’s writing is clear and engaging and it seems that each time the story begins to make sense she adds another twist, and the police have no idea concerning the murders that have taken place on the island and have no clue who might be the next victim.  No one on the island would be leaving their doors unlocked in the foreseeable future.  The beautiful island experiences two deaths that seem related.  The first is Krister Berggren, a very lonely man, who is discovered in a fishnet and rope around his waist.  He had been in contact with his cousin Kicki Berggren who also turns up dead.  Is it a coincidence or is it something nefarious going on?  Soon a third body turns up found by Nora Linde and it seems that the victim, Johnny Almhut had been with Kicki the last night of her life.

The police have a hard time making the connection among the three victims as Anreasson uses a methodical approach to the investigation.  Step by step building upon information that he and his team come across they get closer and closer to solving the murders, then it appears out of the blue, Stern shifts the story line in another direction.  She introduces the possibility that a smuggling operation from Systemet, a wine manufacturing company that had been in the Strindberg family business dating to the 19th century.

When Anreasson has difficulties making progress he turns to his childhood friend Nora Linde. Together, they attempt to unravel the riddles left behind by two mysterious outsiders—while trying to make sense of the difficult twists their own lives have taken since the shared summer days of their youth.  The plot will not keep you on the edge of your seat until the last chapter or two, but as it progresses Stern has the knack to draw you in without the blood and gore of other murder mysteries.

Sten’s novels have been made into an extraordinarily successful television series that is available on Netflix which I highly recommend.  After reading STILL WATERS I look forward to the next in the series CLOSED CIRCLES which continues the professional relationship of Anreasson and Linde in a manner that is not the typical Swedish “noir,” but more of a settled and less violent approach.

Sandhamn, Sweden Oh The Places You'll Go, Finland, San Francisco Skyline, Denmark, Touring, Norway, Sweden, Scandinavian, Semester

(Sandhamn Island)

BLUFFING MR. CHURCHILL by John Lawton

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”)

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)

THE RED LOTUS by Chris Bohjalian

Sunset at Halong Bay from Cat Ba Island in Vietnam

(Northern Vietnam)

Alexis Remnick met Austin Harper in her Emergency Room in a Manhattan hospital after he had been brought in with a gunshot wound in his bicep.  She cleaned the wound, stitched him up as a result their relationship began.  Alexis had been an ER doctor for three years in a NYC hospital but had never met Austin who was a development officer at the same hospital.  It was an environment in which she thrived as the adrenaline rush of the ER allowed her to overcome her own anxiety and depression that plagued her since she was a teenager when she engaged in “cutting.”  In the ER, her public person was transformed, and she became an expert doctor, while Austin was a bicycle junkie who had a past that Alexis, despite dating him for seven months, was unaware of.

This is how Chris Bohjalian, the author of 21 books, many of them New York Times bestsellers, and a number of which have been made into films, begins his latest novel, THE RED LOTUS which may be one of his best efforts to date.  At a time when the United States is being hit with a massive pandemic where predictions of death are currently between 100-240,000 people Bohjalian’s novel is scary to say the least.  Once he introduces the backstory Bohjalian immediately shifts the focus of his novel to Vietnam where Alexis is lying on the beach at a resort in Hoi An where she and Austin had traveled so Austin could pay homage to his father who was wounded and his uncle who had died in the Vietnam War.  Austin had left the bike touring group to travel a seventy-mile route to pay his respects and disappears.  Alexis’ texts and calls go unanswered as Austin has been kidnapped during his ride but left behind a lemon-yellow Psych energy gel and two chocolate flavored packets on the trail which Alexis and the group leaders came across as they searched for him to no avail.

Bohjalian writes with an intensity that produces an atmosphere that  seems as if could be cut with a knife.  One of the most disconcerting aspects of the novel is that rats play such a significant role.  Bohjalian is very careful by drawing the reader into what appears to be a love story for about one-third of the plot before he provides hints about where he is taking you.  There are energy gels, cuts on Harper’s fingertips, possible research labs in New York and Vietnam as things begin to come together.  The author has created a complex plot that in many ways deals with our current fears as one of the important characters alludes to the fact that all pandemics begin in some way with rats.  Bohjalian provides more information about rats that most readers would ever want to know.  Interestingly, North Korea becomes part of the larger picture as three people are murdered in a lab in Da Nang, of course involving rat research, while most of us are worried about “Dear Leader” and his quest for nuclear weapons!

The story of course is about human avarice and the mental sickness and greed that drives people.  Douglas Webber, a wealthy freelance travel writer and expert dart aficionado, Sally Gleason, Harper’s boss and Webber’s lover, Dr. Wilbur Sinclair, a viral/bacteria researcher at the hospital where Remnick, Harper, and Gleason are employed, Oscar Bolton, who replaces Harper as Webber’s minion, along with Bao and Giang and other thugs in Vietnam who form the cabal designed to inflict a pandemic and of course make a great deal of money.  One of the most interesting characters is Ken Sarafian, a retired New York City cop in his seventies who is forced to revisit his service in Vietnam and cope with the death of his daughter who recently died of cancer is hired by Remnick to investigate her boyfriend’s death.  His wit and quiet nature belie a though ex-cop who is advised not to take the case but becomes trapped by the decency of its cause.  Remnick can’t seem to let go and her questions and doubts lead her to uncover aspects of Harper’s death that don’t seem to fit which will make her safety very questionable as Webber grows suspicious.

Other important characters include, Capt. Nguyen Quang, a member of the Canh Sat Company Dong (CSCD) of the Da Nang Police Department’s mobile terrorism unit.  By integrating Quang and his cohorts Bohjalian provides insights into how Vietnamese professionals go about solving a criminal case that appears to be a threat to millions.  Toril Bjornstad, an FBI legal attaché stationed in the United States Embassy in Phnom Penn provides support and information to Remnick and Harper’s parents who just cannot accept the fact that their son was a liar and schemer who after a life of getting away with things has gotten himself in too deep.  The key to the novel is Remnick’s use of her ER medical skills that were developed to diagnose patients to uncover how and why Harper died.  As the plot evolves the ending might seem too predictable, until it wasn’t.

The story transverses Vietnam from Da Nang, Hanoi, and Ho Chi Minh City to New York and Washington, D.C.  At each stop important twists and turns occur as people keep dying.  Bohjalian is a master of the thriller with a nice human touch at times.   He doles out information very carefully be it about murder, its investigation, and research into rat behavior and the danger they represent.  He develops his characters with expertise and reflects a great deal of compassion for them.  He knows how to draw the reader along to the point where a seeming love story evolves into something much more dangerous and complex.  If you have enjoyed his previous books, his latest effort may top them all.

Map of Vietnam

Political Map of Vietnam

VICTIM 2117 by Jussi Adler-Olsen

Berlin street (Imago/Jürgen Ritter)

(Berlin, Germany)

The most despicable tragedy of the last decade has been Bashar al-Assad’s war on the Syrian people to retain power.  The actions of the Russian and Turkish governments have exacerbated the situation that has produced the death of over 400,000 people and created over 5,000,000 refugees.  In VICTIM 2117, Jussi Adler-Olsen’s latest work, the author introduces the Syrian catastrophe at Ayia Naba, a beach in Cyprus as 37 bodies have washed ashore having drowned in the Mediterranean Sea in an attempt to escape their home country.  At the same time there is an emotionally stunted young man who recently graduated high school named Alexander who lives in Copenhagen.  Alexander is a virtual gamer who claims 2080 wins and in his demented mind has added the 37 drowning victims he read about in the newspaper to his total, 2117.  This milestone now reached has set in motion Alexander’s plan to kill his parents and wreak havoc on the public.

 

(Jussi Adler-Olsen, author)

If this plot line was not enough, Adler-Olsen focuses on Joan Aiguader, a self-promoter and a struggling free-lance journalist for a newspaper in Barcelona who has hit rock bottom until he becomes interested in the increasing numbers of refugee drownings, particularly 37 in Cyprus.  Twisting his story line further Adler-Olsen zeroes in Assad, a member of Department Q of the Copenhagen Police  Department who has appeared in most of the author’s previous novels.  It seems that Assad has kept his past hidden from Carl Morck his superior in Department Q who believed that the man who had introduced himself ten years ago as “Hafez el-Assad, a Syrian refugee with green rubber gloves and a bucket by his feet.  But inside he was really Zaid al-Asadi: special forces soldier, language officer, Iraqi, and almost fluent Danish speaker.  The man was one hell of a gifted actor.”   Assad’s tortured past involves what transpired 16 years previously at the hands of a Sunni terrorist and former official under Saddam Hussein named Abdul Azim or Ghaalib, a man who had kidnapped Assad’s pregnant wife and two daughters who Assad believed were dead for all of those years.

For those familiar with Adler-Olsen’s previous novels, VICTIM 2117 will not disappoint.  For those who are reading his work for the first time you probably will become hooked as he has deftly created a story with resonance today as he intertwines a series of plotlines.  Apart from Assad and Morck a number of characters from previous novels appear, though VICTIM 2117 can stand alone.  Adler-Olsen takes the reader back to Fallujah in Iraq at a time when United Nations weapons inspectors are looking for Saddam’s Weapons of mass destruction (WMD).  Events that take place are part of Assad’s past but they tie into a great deal of contemporary evidence, particularly newspaper photos of Marwa, Assad’s wife, and daughter appearing alive as well as a photo of the body of Lely Kebaki, an old woman who had taken care of Assad’s family when he was a boy as they had to flee Iraq and Saddam.

Assad’s life before Department Q is quite revealing and he will be supported by Morck and company, Roe and Gordon, including the new Chief of Homicide, Marcus Jacobsen.  Adler-Olsen provides a tense novel with a number of twists and turns linking the past and the present.  Morck’s quick wit and sarcasm is on full display as is the commentary provided by his assistant Rose, a depressive personality who has returned to Department Q after an absence of two years.

Adler-Olsen may have been a juggler in a previous life because he is able to maintain a number of plots floating in the air, all at the same time.  VICTIM 2117 is a complex story that as you read on it is very difficult to put down as Assad tries to locate his arch enemy and rescue his family who he is afraid he will not recognize and conversely will not recognize him.  As the novel is about to come to fruition and you think the terror will subside, Adler-Olsen introduces another twist that will leave you hanging.  If the book is as satisfying as I believe you will probably want to consult Adler-Olsen’s previous seven books dealing with the adventures of Department Q.

THE GODS OF GOTHAM by Lynsay Faye

Map of Broadway and Anne Over Time

(New York City in the 1840s)

I am always looking for realistic historical fiction, which is both accurate and creative.  It must reflect the time period it encompasses, and its fictional and non-fictional characters must be believable.  In the case of Lynsay Faye’s novel, THE GODS OF GOTHAM I was pleasantly surprised.  The book introduces Timothy and Valentine Wilde, two brothers that are as opposite as day and night.  Orphaned in childhood because of a fire they survived in New York City’s underworld in the 1820s and 30s.  Timothy will emerge as a strong individual who is hard working and honest, his brother Val will become what his brother describes as an alcoholic, drug addict, extortionist, thief, gambler, cheat, corrupt and violent, but he loves him in his own way.

Faye’s novel is the first of a trilogy involving Timothy Wilde as her main character.  After surviving a devastating fire in New York City in 1845, loosing everything Timothy rebuilds by accepting a position as a police officer in a department that was newly created because of what seemed to be daily murders on the city’s streets.   Wilde will make an excellent policeman as he is able to maximize his intuitive skills he learned as a bartender.  His brother Val becomes an officer on the force and the two of them make quite a combination as Val does not exhibit the same empathy and altruism of his brother.  Faye’s plot is fully integrated with the atmosphere in New York City in the 1840s.  The issues of Irish immigration, nativism, the corruption of city government, and the debauchery that runs rampant is background to what appears to be a mass murder of twenty two people, a number of which are children who appear to be Irish and are employed at Silkie Marsh’s brothel.

(Newspaper row (Park Row) in New York City in the 1840s)

Faye posses a superb knowledge of New York City politics, night life, characters endemic to the city, its culture, and its numerous ethnicities.  The odors of the city come across vividly to the reader and helps establish an ambiance that places one in a different time period.  Faye is able to capture the bigotry against Irish Catholics in a meaningful way from the outset of the novel, as she delves into the hatred for the Irish poor that saw over a million people leave their homes in Ireland because of the almost genocidal attitudes of the British government in the 1840s and their response to the potato blight and famine.  The corruption of ward politics is on full display reflected in the machinations of the Democratic Party and how its dispensed jobs and social services to the city’s inhabitants.  In fact, that patronage system is how Timothy and Valentine became policemen in the first place.

The new police department would be headed by Justice George Washington Matsell, a rather short, balding, large man who will surprise the reader with his cleverness and intellectual dexterity.  Other important characters include the reverend Underhill and his daughter Mercy, who Timothy will love no matter what behaviors she engages in.  Bird Daley, a precocious ten-year-old who witnesses the burial of most of the bodies and accidentally runs into Timothy on the street creating an interesting friendship.  Mrs. Boehm, a wonderful woman who makes end meet as a baker.  Dr. Peter Palsgrave whose actions will shock the reader.  Father Connor Sheehy of St. Patrick’s Cathedral.  Jacob Piest, a brilliant investigator.  Silkie Marsh, a madame who knows where all the secrets are buried, and numerous Irish immigrants and street toughs whose lives are in a constant battle for survival.

Faye has created an interesting juxtaposition between two brethren with different moral codes.  One a tool of a corrupt political system, the other a bit naive with a strong sense of right and wrong.  Faye has also captured the street vernacular that existed at the time and lends itself to the book’s authenticity.  The undercurrent that pervades the novel is carefully crafted and historically accurate as Chief Matsell and his force try and keep the bodies secret for fear that if the truth emerged and the murderer was Irish it could touch off violent riots that would result in the deaths of countless people.  In addition, if the murders took place under the auspices of the Democratic Party, the Whigs would replace them in power.  As you read the book one wonders who the possible serial killer might be.  Is it Valentine, perhaps a Protestant trying to create a situation that would send the Irish back across the Atlantic, or is it Silkie Marsh and her hired hands?  The end result will surprise you as Faye weaves a web that is difficult to dissect.

If you are a fan of Caleb Carr’s works or the film “Gangs of New York” the novel should whet your appetite and be very satisfying.  It is an unsettling read at times, but if you want a feel for a city that grew from about 60,000 in 1800 to half a million in just fifty years this book will offer many insights that can explain what such a demographic explosion could lead to.

 

Map of Broadway and Anne Over Time

(New York City in the 1840s)