THE FIRE MAKER by Peter May

Beijing map

(Beijing and its metropolitan area)

After visiting China, many times from the early 1980s through the advent of the 20th century, author Peter May has witnessed the evolution of Chinese society from one that suffered under the cruelties of Mao’s Cultural Revolution.   Beginning in 1966 the Chinese dictator sought to reinvigorate his revolution as he feared death by purging the older generation according to psychiatrist Robert J. Lifton in his book REVOLUTIONARY IMMORTALITY.  Once Mao passed from the scene pragmatists like Deng Xiaoping guided China through a period of modernization that has culminated in making China the superpower she is today.  May uses this evolution in China as a focal point in the preparation of his six volume fictional compendium entitled the China Thrillers.  These works of fiction allow May to present a nuanced historical picture of China as he develops his story lines, the first of which is entitled THE FIRE MAKER.

The novel centers around the relationship between Margaret Campbell,  a forensic pathologist and sassy character who left her position in the city of Chicago to accept a six week exchange with the People’s University of Public Safety in Beijing, China.  It appears she is trying to gain  personal space because of the breakup and death of her husband and hoped to share her professional skills with her Chinese colleagues.  Her interactions with Li Yan, recently promoted to Deputy Section Chief, Section One of the Beijing Municipal Police force, is one that develops slowly ranging from the acrimonious to one of mutual respect to romantic involvement.  Through their relationship May does an excellent job in reflecting the atmosphere of China in the late 1990s in Beijing as China was beginning to evolve into a dominant superpower on the world stage.

The dialogue between Campbell and Li Yan allows May to review the contentious relationship between the United States and China.  Their back and forth centers on China’s unconscious inferiority when compared to America’s perceived superiority toward the Middle Kingdom.  Their arguments center around the issues of civil and human rights with each character bringing up events from Tiananmen Square to the Vietnam War in their frequent exchanges.  By doing so May allows the reader to gain insight into Sino-American discourse that has produced so much angst between the two for decades.

The plot focuses on three murders.  The first, the immolation of Chao Heng, a former senior technical advisor to the Minister of Agriculture who was suspected of being a pedophile and a drug addict. Campbell, whose specialty is the autopsies of burn victims is brought in and convinces Li Yan that the victim did not commit suicide but was murdered.  The second victim, Mao Mao, a known drug user, and the third is an itinerant laborer from Shanghai named Guo Jingbo.  The question is whether the three murders are separate and coincidental or are they linked in some way.  The key for Li Yan is the discovery of Marlboro cigarettes at the site of each crime scene and his “gut” instinct.

(Palace Museum, Forbidden City, Beijing, China)

May integrates a great deal of Chinese government policy in the late 1990s and its impact on family life.  Examples include the government’s “one child” policy and its approach to the civil rights of its citizens.  May also delves into Chinese history and philosophy through the application of Confucian ideals and in entertaining scenes that reflect the concept of feng Shui and is able to juxtapose the old China with a modernizing China very clearly.

May introduces a series of interesting characters apart from Campbell and Li Yan.  Li Yan’s uncle Yifu is a colorful individual whose reputation includes that of being a phenomenal police officer during his career.  Li Yan looks up to his uncle who taught him English and convinced him to train and study in the United States and whose shoes he would like to fill.  Bob Wade is a computer profiler who plays the role of Campbell’s guide and handler.  May Yongli, a chef and lifelong friend of Li Yan is a partier who tries to get his compatriot to loosen up and enjoy life.  Lotus, is a prostitute and May Yongli’s girlfriend.  Constable Li Ping is in charge of security surrounding Campbell but finds herself left out of most important situations.  Johnny Ren, a freelance Triad hitman from Hong Kong.  There are various other Chinese officials introduced along with detectives and low level government bureaucrats as the story lines unfold.

Margaret’s work with Li exposes her to a broad section of Chinese culture and opens her eyes to a vastly different world that she comes to respect. As the case evolves, she and Li Yan become more aware of a cover-up by highly placed government officials who have developed a genetically engineered form of rice to meet China’s food supply needs.  Margaret is set up for death by an alcoholic plant geneticist, Li Yan is framed for the death of his beloved uncle, and both must run for their lives in the hope that they can tell the world what they know of a dangerous secret that could lead to disaster after what appears to be three murder committed by a professional hit man.

The novel is not overly violent and exhibits a slow meandering pace that catches fire after several hundred pages.  The novel succeeds as a taut thriller, but more importantly as a window into China in the late 1990s.  As is the case in most mystery series, the conclusion of the novel leaves an opening that will be filled in the next installment of the Campbell-Li Yan relationship entitled, THE FOURTH SACRIFICE.

(Beijing, China)

SLEEPING BEAR: A THRILLER by Connor Sullivan


(Alaskan wilderness)


We have all heard the expression, “like father like son.”  In the case of Connor Sullivan his approach is markedly different from his father Mark.  In his excellent debut thriller, SLEEPING BEAR: A THRILLER, Connor Sullivan has written a taut suspenseful story that describes the plight of the Gale family who live in Montana but find themselves in the midst of the remnants of the Cold War with Russia that dates to the former Soviet Union.  Mark Sullivan’s approach is different in that he develops true historical figures and events and morphs them into novel format as he did with Pino Lella, an Italian teenager who guides Jews escaping the Nazis across the Alps in his award winning BENEATH THE SCARLETT SKY, and Emil and Adeline Martel who must decide what do as the Nazis push their way into the Ukraine in his most recent novel, THE LAST GREEN VALLEY.  Both authors are wonderful story tellers who know how to lure the reader into their fictional web, but their techniques diverge as Mark relies on historical characters, and Conner recreates a tableau from the past, but his presentation is fictional.

Conner Sullivan’s debut focuses on the plight of Cassie Gale, a former Army Ranger, who has reached the depths of despair after she finds her husband Derrick after he hanged himself in the family barn.  Other issues have also influenced Cassie’s psychological downfall and she decides to travel to the Alaskan wilderness to try and get her “head on straight.”  While camping she is kidnapped and winds up in a Russian prison, a plight she cannot understand.  Cassie is not the only American who has been kidnapped in the same manner from the Alaskan terrain.  Paul Brady, a former chief Petty Officer on Seal Team Two suffers from PTSD from tours in Iraq and his attempt to solve his personal issues in Alaska also bring him to a Russian prison.  A third person, Billy French, a young environmentalist who had met Cassie north of Dawson City in the Yukon has also been taken by the Russians.

Cassie happens to be the daughter of Jim Gale, a former CIA operative whose family is unaware of his past and it is interesting how Sullivan creates a scenario that links his past and present through Russian General Viktor Aleksandrovich Sokolov, Chief of SVR Lines, the Illegal Directorate in the Russian Foreign Intelligence Service.  Sokolov is an eighty-one-year-old who has strong ties to Russian president Vladimir Putin and is a throwback to the old Soviet Union in charge of torture for the KGB.

As the novel unfolds each character’s role emerges and the plot becomes increasingly complex.  Sullivan does an excellent job presenting the bureaucratic in fighting in the Russian intelligence agencies, the lack of law enforcement in Alaska to help locate and rescue those that have gone missing, the inner workings of the Gale family, and the links between Russian spies in America that include Ned and Darlene Voight who have helped the Russians extract Americans from Alaska for over thirty years to be used for experiments by Captain Akulina Yermakova, a pseudo psychologist for the Russian GRU, int heir Science Directorate.

The question that eventually dominates the novel is what is the relationship between Sokolov and Gale, and what does Cassie and her sister Emily have to do with it.  A series of interesting characters are brought to the fore that include Sergeant Meredith Plant, six months pregnant, who oversees finding Cassie for the Alaska Bureau of Investigation.  Others include Max Tobeluk, a drunken Alaskan Public Service Officer in Eagle, Alaska, Ralph Condon of the Canadian Mounted Police, Peter Trask, Emily Gale’s husband, Maverick, Cassie’s ex-Marine guide dog who plays a major role, Eve Attla, a Han village elder who knows the people and region of the search better than anyone, Susan Carter, Director of the CIA, Prescott McGavran, Gale’s handler when he was known as Robert Gaines, Earl Monks, the FBI’s expert on locating missing persons in Alaska, among several others.

Sullivan writes with an intensity and determination that makes SLEEPING BEAR: A THRILLER the type of mystery that is difficult to put down.  Sullivan uses the captured Americans as victims of a sick Russian entertainment practice of pitting them against the dregs of the Russian Gulag in combat against each other as well as conducting medical experiments on those extracted from Alaska.  Higher ups wager on this “sport” and it contributes to the tenseness of the Navy Seals rescue mission.  Sullivan’s debut is the type of book you read from cover to cover during cold winter nights when you want to curl up with a book and not pay attention to the time!

Bowhunting the Alaskan Wilderness

(A bull moose with antlers in velvet stands knee deep in the colorful tundra of Denali National Park)

TRESPASSER by Paul Doiron

(ATV Riding in Maine)

After whiling away the hours reading Paul Doiron’s THE POACHER’S SON and enjoying it immensely, I decided to move on to the second iteration of Maine Game Warden Mike Bowditch in TRESPASSER.  The book lived up to my expectations as Doiron develops a taut plot that carries through the three hundred plus pages that justified the time spent with Warden Bowditch.

Doiron continues to develop Bowditch’s life story and character after the events in THE POACHER’S SON.  In TRESPASSER, Bowditch continues to show up at murder investigations and when the higher ups warn him off and tell him to tend to his “warden” duties” he can’t control his curiosity which are based on his empathy and sensitivity to the cases that emerge.  In the current situation Bowditch finds himself chasing a demented family bent on using their ATVs in order to anger their neighbors as they destroy private property and deal drugs.  Further, there is another father and son partnership engaged in similar activities as Doiron’s commentary of the “interesting” types of people who live in certain parts of Maine seemed justified.  Apart from his Warden duties, Bowditch has a sixth sense when it comes to crime.  Bowditch follows up a call of an accident where automobile has struck a deer and the driver just walks away from the accident and disappears.  The State Trooper who showed up late to the accident scene is incompetent and full of himself leaving Bowditch holding the bag.  Later, Ashley Kim, a graduate assistant at the Harvard Business School is found dead after being sexually assaulted in her mentor’s house – of course discovered by Bowditch.

The problem that emerges is that the crime is reminiscent of a murder seven years previous where a young lady is raped and murdered, and controversy surrounds the conviction of one Erland Jefferts who receives a life sentence.  However, the prosecution withheld evidence and cut corners raising the question as to whether Jefferts was railroaded.  A group referred to as the J Team made up of Jefferts Aunt and Uncle and a series of lawyers are convinced he is innocent which creates a number of theories as to whether Jefferts was in fact guilty and what is the relationship to the death of Ashley Kim.  Of course, Bowditch pursues his own investigation and lo and behold he locates the individual who was the prime suspect, Professor Hans Westergaard dead in his car.

Doiron is master in plot development.  He slowly allows his story to unravel with numerous twists and turns that draws the reader in.  In my case after a few pages, I was hooked and I decided to get comfortable and read the novel through in one sitting absorbing the plot, the author’s commentary describing “Mainers,” the ecology of the region, and the intricacies of Bowditch’s life.  As Doiron develops his whodunnit the two murder cases come together as number of people begin to feel uncomfortable. Among them is one of Doiron’s new characters, Assistant Attorney General Danica Marshall, a tough and attractive prosecutor who does not care for Bowditch.  Other new characters include Calvin Barter, a sexual predator and drug dealer; Dave and Donnie Drisko, poachers who replicated the actions of the Barter family; Knox County Chief of Police, Dudley Baker, among others. 

Doiron reintroduces characters from his first novel. Sgt. Kathy Frost, Bowditch’s boss reappears as does Charley Steven, the retired Game Warden pilot, Sarah Harris, Bowditch’s girlfriend, and Detective Mike Menceri, who seems to be in a running argument with Bowditch throughout the novel.  For our protagonist he seems to have a career death wish as he continually angers higher ups by his actions.  But he is obsessed with finding justice for victims whether they are non-human or human.  For Bowditch, whose own life was recently shattered by violence turning away from these crimes is not an option.  His investigation has reopened old wounds among the locals and the rich summer “invaders” and because of his persistence he puts his life in danger as well as the women he loves as he has touched a nerve among certain people who refuse to allow him to solve the case.

Doiron’s first two novels can stand alone but I would recommend they be read one after the other and then move on to third the installment in the Mike Bowditch series, BAD LITTLE FALLS.

(ATV Riding in Maine)

THE POACHER’S SON by Paul Doiron

A few weeks ago, my wife and I were browsing in a wonderful bookstore in Camden, Maine and I asked the lady behind the counter for any recommendations by local authors that were of the “mystery” genre.  She immediately mentioned Paul Doiron, the editor and chief of Down east: The Magazine of Maine.  I purchased a copy of Doiron’s first iteration of his Mike Bowditch series; THE POACHER’S SON and it did not disappoint.

Doiron’s main character, Mike Bowditch is a game warden in northern Maine and through his eyes the author conveys what that avocation entails on a daily basis.  His descriptions are impeccable especially dealing with vacationers, particularly those who emanate from Massachusetts.  The usual approach that Bowditch takes during boating and fishing season is to check boat registrations, fishing licenses, and floatation devices and periodically he will come across people who resent his questions and only offer abuse until they comply with his requests.  The stories he relates are priceless as he discusses the traffic on Route 1 as Massachusetts residents clog the roads heading north and to his credit, he refrains from describing their regional nickname, “Mass holes.”

Doiron also relates Bowditch’s job description, expectations, and the public’s view of what he does.  Bowditch is perfect for the role based on his longing for privacy and his commitment to the animals he must police and prevent being abused by the public.

Aroostook County Foliage Scenic Drive

The novel itself revolves around the murder of a Somerset County police officer, Bill Brodeur, and Jonathan Shipman, a lawyer for Wendigo Timberland LLC, a company who purchased a great deal of land and forest in the northern timberland which would result in the eviction of numerous lease holders who have lived in the region for over thirty years.  One of the lease holders is Mike’s father Jack who he had been estranged from for years.  It seems the state police and local authorities are convinced that Jack Bowditch was the murderer, and for some reason Mike, who has a very low opinion of his father and describes him as a “saloon brawling logger with a rap sheet of misdemeanors and the public persona of a Tasmanian devil.”  Mike is fully aware what an SOB his father is, but he could not accept the fact that he was a murderer.  Despite his feelings concerning his upbringing and his father in general he decides to risk his career in order to prove his innocence as Jack believes that he is being framed.

The hazards of Mike’s career choice are on full display as he must confront people who have vendettas against animals, particularly bears who take the law into their own hands when their property is attacked.  In this current situation he is up against law enforcement, local individuals, and even his stepfather who believe that his father is a murderer.  Mike’s fear is that if his father does not turn himself in, he will be killed as he killed a police officer.  As Doiron develops his plots, he integrates Mike’s upbringing, and we learn a great deal about him as well as his dysfunctional parents who divorce when he is nine years old.

Doiron develops a series of interesting characters, the first of which is Charley Stevens, a retired game warden who still fly’s his pontoon plane throughout the region to assist the state police.  Stevens is a perceptive individual who served as Mike’s mentor when he decided to become a game warden.  Katherine Frost is a Sergeant and Mike’s boss who does her best to help salvage Mike’s career when he engages in a number of  self-destructive actions while trying to save his father.  Other important characters include Sarah Harris, Mike’s ex-girlfriend who he still loves; Brenda Dean, Jack’s girlfriend; Russell Pelletier who ran the Rum Pond Sporting Camp, Vernon Tripp, the owner of the Natanis Trading Post, and Truman Dellis, Brenda’s father, all of whom had reason to kill the Wendigo lawyer.  Lastly, Detectives Wayne Soctomah and Mike Menceri who are in charge of the murder investigation and believe Jack is guilty.

Doiron’s environmental views are front and center in each chapter as is his love for the ecology of the region.  He writes with wit and a certain amount of sarcasm and weaves a web of intrigue that enhances the story line and contributes to the reader’s experience.  Two key themes that dominate the novel are Maine’s changing landscape and unconditional love between a father and son despite their negative history.  The novel is about relationships and  outdoor adventure and is a sterling debut which became an Edgar Award finalist and easily absorbs the reader’s attention. Having completed THE POACHER’S SON, I will begin the next installment of Mike Bowditch’s path in life, TRESPASSER and other books in the series.

Thunder Hole, Acadia National Park
Thunder Hole, Acadia National Park

THE FORGER’S DAUGHTER by Bradford Morrow

Cover art

Will is a reformed rare book and manuscript forger who has spent the last twenty years on the straight and narrow living a placid existence with his loving wife, Meghan and two daughters Nicole and Maisie.  This idyllic life will be upended as an old enemy of Will has aggressively confronted the eleven year old Maisie in their Hudson Valley, NY home and forced a package upon her that was to be given to her father.  Will fervently believed that he had settled all accounts and claims from his past but now in Bradford Morrow’s exquisite sequel to THE FORGERS, entitled THE FORGER’S DAUGHTER he is faced with a decision that could upend his family and their way of life. 

Morrow is a talented novelist who in 2014 decided to write a thriller that depicted the underside of the rare book and manuscript world, a world in which Morrow was well versed.  His readers will be quite satisfied with his latest effort as he continues to impart the seamier side of his protagonist’s avocation.  After his daughter is attacked, Will is confronted with Henry Slader who has reappeared after being released from prison having served a sentence after brutally attacking Will with a meat cleaver while he and the family were living in Kenmare, Ireland severely damaging his right hand when he refused to go along with Sadler’s demands.  Lingering in the background throughout the novel is the murder of Meghan’s brother Adam Diehl, another practitioner of literary forgery twenty years earlier, and Will’s own sordid literary  past.


(author, Bradford Morrow)

Morrow’s approach to preparing and writing a mystery thriller is intellectually satisfying with his repeated references and excerpts from the works of numerous literary figures including, Edgar Allan Poe, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, and W.B. Yeats.  As in the first novel, Morrow’s obsession with anything related to Doyle and his Sherlock Holmes character pervades the story.  Morrow places Will in a very tenuous position as Slader demands that he reproduce a copy of Edgar Allan Poe’s first book TAMERLANE which with only twelve known copies in circulation is considered the holy grail of American letters.  The story unfolds carefully and selectively as Will and Meghan co-narrate the story telling the tale through alternating chapters.

The novel travels evocatively from upstate New York farmhouses to Manhattan auction houses, and there’s an aptly gothic tinge to the tense drama that ensues.  Will does not realize how dangerous Slader’s request and threats pose to his family as to complete the task he must coopt his twenty year old daughter Nicole who he has trained and imparted his knowledge and calligraphical skills over the years. 

Shops in village of Rhinebeck, New York, USA Stock Photo

(Rhinebeck, NY downtown)

Despite his misgivings Will proceeded as he felt a weird kinship with Slader who he realized was his equal in the dark craft of forgery.  While he mistrusted Slader he was somewhat envious of him as he concluded that the two of them had survived the machinations against each other and had shattered each other’s lives in significant ways as they had been extremely competitive even before they formally met.  Will concluded that Slader was no worse a transgressor than he was himself and started to accept the idea that had they been collaborators instead of competitors, God knows what satanic masterpieces they might have produced.  But what Will most regretted was that he would have to involve Nicole in the project.   

The novel progresses as Will and Meghan narrate chapters sharing their emotions and misgivings about what Slader had roped Will into doing. Through Will and to a lesser extent Nicole the reader will be exposed to the mechanics of preparing forgeries and the emotional toll that it takes.  Further, Morrow relates how the avocation of bookselling was carried out and the numerous steps involved in preparing, pricing, and selling books to book dealers, private citizens, or the general public.

As is the case in all of Morrow’s novels he is a master in creating meaningful characters.  In THE FORGER’S DAUGHTER they include Henry Slader, a narcissist who is the source of many of Will’s demons; Nicole, Will and Meghan’s perceptive and talented daughter; and Atticus Moore, Will’s rare old book compatriot who reemerges after twenty years.

After spending most of the novel in upstate New York in their Hudson Valley farmhouse Will and Meghan will return to Manhattan and make a spectacular discovery in their bookstore.  The discovery will lead to an unexpected turn in the plot line that produces a wild finish to the novel.  You do not have to be an obsessive book devotee to enjoy THE FORGER’S DAUGHTER as it stands alone as a wonderful literary thriller.

THE FORGERS by Bradford Morrow

Lighthouse at Montauk point, Long Islans Lighthouse at Montauk point, Long Islans. montauk stock pictures, royalty-free photos & images

(Montauk, LI lighthouse)

After reading Bradford Morrow’s PRAGUE SONATA I knew that I had to move on to another of his novels.  The choice I made, THE FORGERS, is an excellent and absorbing story that delves into the corrupt and invidious nature of the rare book collector’s world in addition to a murder mystery that is dominated by love and obsessions.  The novel begins in the upscale community of Montauk, NY, a town located on the eastern most tip of Long Island where the postman on a routine delivery enters a beachfront cottage and discovers the body of a local resident with its hands cut off.  The scene is littered with manuscripts by political and literary figures from an earlier era with other rare books splayed on the floor.  Book inscriptions were torn from works on Lincoln, Churchill, Twain, Dickens, and Arthur Conan Doyle.  Many of the books were torn to shreds and the victim, Adam Diehl, a book collector seems the subject of a ruthless and senseless murder.

The narrator of the novel is named Will, though for some reason Morrow does not divulge his name for the first half of the book.  The murder seems rather odd as many valuable books were not taken or damaged.  Will is dating Diehl’s sister, Meghan and never really got along with her brother.  Meghan operates a bookstore in the East Village and Will and Adam had been book forgers which is the only thing they had in common.  Morrow delves into the emotional attachment that rare book collectors share as Will points out the eroticism, emotion, and true happiness that forging a manuscript or inscription gave him.

East Village Books, 99 St Marks Pl, New York, NY. exterior storefront of a used bookstore in the East Village neighborhood of Manhattan. Stock Photo

Will is a complex character whose forging career ended abruptly when an unknown source turned him into the police.  He was convicted and given probation ordering restitution to his victims and he served his time and thought it was all behind him.  Trying to live on the straight and narrow was difficult because for Will, forging was an addiction that he could not share with Meghan who he deeply loved.  The murder itself will soon become a cold case though Will had come across an invoice from a Henry Slader when they were cleaning the cottage after the police had wrapped up the case.  Slater seemed to have purchased some of Adam’s books and forgeries and was receiving monthly installments from Adam.  Will suspected Slader but had no proof.

Will shared the forger’s life with Adam but also a love of the works of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle the creator of Sherlock Holmes in addition to any letters or manuscripts that dealt with the author. Will’s obsession with Holmes began in childhood and he had purchased a number of Holmes materials from a dealer in Providence, RI.  The materials were a fraud, but Will admired the forgery as the finest he had ever seen reflecting his love of his craft and his admiration for others  who pursued the same avocation as he did. 

Will had begun to receive threatening letters in a forged Henry James script at the time he started dating Meghan.  He assumed they were from Adam, but after his murder the letters continued.  Will was haunted by the letters and was afraid that their author would turn him into the police as Adam’s murderer.  At the same time Will was convinced that the author of the letters was the true murderer.

Best Kept Small Town 2017
(Kenmare, Ireland)

After marrying, Meghan and Will decide to sell off all their possessions and move to Ireland.  Will took some of the proceeds from selling his valuable collections to pay Slader off, hoping the letters would stop and he would be able to begin a new life with his bride in Ireland.  Will’s wish was not to be granted as new letters arrived as they were moving, and he was convinced that he was being stalked by Slader after their relocation.

Morrow is a superb novelist, a teacher at Bard College, and the editor of the distinguished literary magazine, Conjunctions.  He himself is a serious book collector with a particular interest in books inscribed by their authors to notable friends, or volumes that once belonged to other famous people.  As the novel unfolds it is obvious that Morrow has a particular love of rare books and when he has Will add inscriptions that are perfect forgeries to the front-end papers.  Will is extremely talented  and states that “when I am finished copying a warm personal epistle to one of the author’s friends, for instance, a part of my soul merged with Doyle’s.”  Will prided himself on fooling the experts.

Morrow’s writing has almost a lyrical quality to it be it a mundane conversation or references to poets or masters of fiction.  As Morrow proceeds, he periodically turns to the past as Will acknowledges his artistic mother who taught him his calligraphic skills, and his wealthy father who taught him about collecting rare books and the pleasure that it brought him.  When Morrow returns to the present, Meghan and Will are in Ireland trying to escape the past, but the past seems to rise up as they cannot escape Adam’s death and the threats against Will.

This is an audacious novel with intricate details ranging from the Irish countryside, the shape of letters and the type of ink used to scribe, to unpacking a complex story that may move slowly at times, but the language is precise and at times beautiful.  Obviously, I greatly enjoyed the book and if you do, we are in luck because after seven years Morrow has just published the sequel, THE FORGER’S DAUGHTER.

Montauk Lighthouse and beach aerial shot Montauk Lighthouse and beach aerial shot, Long Island, New York, USA. Beach Stock Photo
(Montauk, LI lighthouse)

GERMANIA by Harald Gilbers

Bombed Out Berlin
(Berlin at the conclusion of World War II)

With the untimely passing of Philip Kerr that ended his wonderful Bernie Gunther series I have been searching for a replacement that deals with police investigations within Nazi Germany apart from a total focus on the Holocaust.  I have explored Volker Kutscher’s Gereon Rath mysteries whose focus is at the end of the Weimar era as the Nazis are about to come to power.  The series is very satisfying as is Harald Gilbers novel, GERMANIA, the first to be translated from the German with two to follow.  Gilbers’ protagonist is a Jewish investigator named Richard Oppenheimer who had been fired long before the case that the author introduces.  The book was first published in Germany in 2013 and received the Friedrich Glausner Prize for best crime fiction debut.

The novel begins in bombed out Berlin in May 1944 where people gear up on a nightly basis for allied bombing. Oppenheimer and his wife Lisa, an Aryan are huddled together in the Jewish house where they live with other families in very crowded conditions.  One evening the SS shows up at the house and they transport Oppenheimer to a murder scene.  Since he has been let go as a detective years before Oppenheimer is at a loss as to why the SS is interested in his opinion.  The employment of Oppenheimer is the brainchild of Hauptsturmfuhrer Volger of the SS who believes that Oppenheimer’s past experience with a serial killer would be valuable with his investigation.  As Oppenheimer becomes involved in the case it seems that the murder of Inge Friedrichsen is only the first as two other women, Julie Dufour and Christina Gerdeler have also been victims within the last year.


The Lebensborn program was created by the SS in late 1935 in order to promote the growth of Germany’s healthy “Aryan” population. The term Lebensborn itself means “Fount of Life.” The program was designed to be the wellspring of future generations descended from those whom Nazi authorities deemed “racially valuable.” It originally focused on encouraging SS men to have large families and discouraging unmarried, pregnant “Aryan” women from seeking illegal abortions.

Front cover of a Lebensborn program brochure
(the symbol of the Nazi Lebensborn program)

Gilbers does an excellent job creating the ambiance of Berlin in May 1944 as the Nazi capital has become an obstacle course ridden with rubble from allied bombing.  Gilbers’ command of the history of the period is quite extensive as Albert Speer and Hitler’s grand architectural plans for the new city of Germania (to replace Berlin) are neatly integrated into the story.  Gilbers development of the Hildegard von Strachwitz’s character (Hilde) brings forth Kristallnacht as she begins her close friendship with Oppenheimer as she rescued him from an SA mob during the evening’s destruction.  Hilde, a rabid anti-Nazi and physician has done a great deal of work in psychiatry and become Oppenheimer’s alter ego as he tries to solve the murders.

Gilbers’ dive into Nazi history focuses on the distrust and deadly competition within the SS as Volger and Oppenheimer deal with their investigation that could involve the Nazi Lebensborn program.  Nazi racial theory called for pure blooded Germans and with the cost of Hitler’s war effort millions of German males would be needed to fight for the Fuhrer, so the program was ratcheted up.  It seems that Inge Friedrichsen had been a secretary at Klosterhide, one of the many Lebensborn sites the Nazis created, in addition her son Horst was part of the program.

It is clear to Volger that Oppenheimer is an excellent investigator, and he accepts the pressure from SS hire ups that he is working with a Jew.  The interaction between characters is one of the strengths of the novel.  The Volger-Oppenheimer dynamic is important as is the Hilde-Oppenheimer relationship.  For Oppenheimer he is in a quandary.  Should he assist in tracking down the killer or take advantage of an opportunity to get his wife and himself out of the country as Gilbers describes the plight of Jews in the east.

Heinrich Himmler
(Heinrich Himmler)

The story line unfolds very slowly, and the reader does not become aware of the murder of Dufour and Gerdeler until about a third of the book has passed.  Gilbers picks up the pace about halfway through the novel as the Nazi shadow begins to dominate.  To Gilbers’ credit he incorporates little known aspects of life under the Nazis as a few thousand German Jews were still living in Berlin because like Oppenheimer they were married to a Christian woman.  In addition, he refers to Oppenheimer’s use of Pervitin, a stimulant to get through the day, as well as its pervasive use by German troops, particularly tankers on the eastern front.

Gilbers does a nice job allowing the reader to project into the recesses of the killer’s mind as he describes the methods the killer used to eliminate his victims, the staging of the murders, and disposing of their bodies.  Certain aspects of the crime lead one to believe that the killer is a member of the SS which adds to the level of horror as Gilbers’ novel unfolds but its conclusion takes on a much different path.

For a debut novel GERMANIA is a success and it makes me want to read the next installment of Richard Oppenheimer’s adventures.  Hopefully, the English translation will appear soon as he has left the reader wondering what the fate of Oppenhiemer and his wife Lisa is.

The area extending north beyond the Brandenburg Gate was later controlled by Soviets for almost 40 year. Note the portrait of Stalin in the center.
(Berlin at the end of WWII)

HERESY by S.J. Parris

Armada Portrait Queen Elizabeth I
(Queeen Elizabeth I)

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

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

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

(Giordano Bruno)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



Jeffrey Archer (Image: Jeffrey Archer/via Facebook)

(Author, Jeffrey Archer)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

THIS WAS A MAN by Jeffrey Archer

MPs are being asked to sign an Early Day Motion calling for further research
(English House of Parliament)

In the final installment of his CLIFTON CHRONICLES, THIS WAS A MAN Jeffrey Archer has to resolve what has happened to Karin Brandt, Giles Barrington’s spouse but also a double agent that the Russians have uncovered.  Her handler has led her into the woods and her plight along with Emma Clifton’s quest to learn how her husband Harry’s father died after World War I are the launching points that after five hundred pages brings Archer’s seven volume family saga to an end. 

Overall, the entire series was a worthwhile read, but the last book at times does not measure up to some of the earlier ones.  First, how many iterations of Lady Virginia Fenwick can one absorb as like a weed she continues to sprout her strategies to acquire wealth in exchange for nothing no matter how much poison she emits and has dumped on her.  The entire episode dealing with the widowed Duke of Hertford is a bit much as is her relationship with Desmond Mellor and attempts to control Mellor Travel.  Second, many of the scenarios are a bit contrived as is witnessed by the relationship between Paulo Reinaldo, a Brazilian playboy and pseudo art student and Jessica Clifton, Samantha and Sebastian Clifton’s daughter.  When the relationship explodes in newspapers, of course Aunt Grace rescues her from being expelled from the Slade School of Fine Arts.  Interestingly, Lady Virginia even plays a role in this situation!

Margaret Thatcher
(Former English Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher)

Apart from scenes like these there are a number of plot lines that are absorbing and fit Archer’s creation of a cliff hanger at the conclusion of each section.  Emma’s relationship with the new Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and appointment as Undersecretary of Health in the House of Lords is interesting as is Archer’s description of English politics as the Conservative Tories replace Labour at 10 Downing Street.  The plight of Freddie, the supposed son of Lady Virginia, soon to be adopted by Giles and Kristin Barrington with the actions of Elly May Grant in the background trying to recoup the money that Lady Virginia coerced from her then fiancée Cyrus Grant is eye opening.  Further we return to the machinations of Desmond Mellor, Adrian Stone and Jim Knowles as they try to take over Farthings Kaufman Bank with a new villain, Conrad Sorkin introduced as they all vie to seize control of Mellor Travel.  Interestingly, a number of these characters wind up dead.  This convoluted web is important and here Archer deftly weaves his conspiratorial magic and even has time to follow the ups and downs of Giles Barrington’s political career.  There are numerous subplots that will maintain the reader’s attention, but again, Lady Virginia seems to be everywhere with hit men, corporate espionage, politicians like Thatcher, Neil Kinnock, Michael Foot, and Dennis Healy ever present.

Emma Clifton remains a dominant character as is her growth as a businesswoman and a person who does not tolerate the picadilloes of others.  The evolution of Harry Clifton as a writer from his William Warwick series to one of substance is important as is the growth of Emma and Harry’s son Sebastian who moves seamlessly through the London banking scene.  Other characters who reappear include Griff Haskins, Giles’ campaign manager, Hakim Bishara, Sebastian’s corporate ally, in addition to the cast of low life’s mentioned earlier. Newer members of the cast include Kelly Mellor who is able to outwit everyone to control her father’s company, Conrad Sorkin, an international crook, and the Brazilian lover, Paulo Reinaldo who seduces Jessica away from her art career for a period of time.

In November, 1989, East German students sit atop the Berlin Wall at the Brandenburg Gate in front of border guards. The destruction of the once-hated wall signaled the end of a divided Germany.
(The end of the Berlin Wall, 1989)

Perhaps the two highlights of the novel center around the debate in the House of Lords between brother and sister, Giles representing the Labour Party, and Emma, the Tories.  Second is the eulogy presented by Giles for his friend since childhood that encompasses the type of character Archer developed in Harry Clifton and the extraordinary life that he lived.  Archer has the ability to create mundane scenes, but also the most intense and absorbing. 

At a time of pandemic Archer’s final volume and the series in general is a wonderful escape from quarantine and anxiety.  If it is prose one is looking for, Archer has his moments, but most often the writing is somewhat pedestrian with a touch of irony and humor.  The book is full of sometimes totally unexpected twists but is written with authenticity, including a knowledge of cricket that should impress the reader.  Whether he is describing speeches in the House of Lords; the interior of Buckingham Palace; the boardroom or the visitor room of a prison, Archer is writing about what he knows.  If there is a dominant theme in the series, it is the strength of family with the Barrington’s and Clifton’s reflecting their moral values and, in most cases, the “good guys” come out on top.  When the pandemic ends and you are once again off to vacation or just the beach Archer’s work will enhance as you while away the hours dealing with numerous subterfuges and double-crosses, as he brings his series to a deeply emotional conclusion.