After reading C J Samson’s "Dominion" it was interesting to read another book set in the same period. Simon Tolkien’s new book, Orders from Berlin, ta...moreAfter reading C J Samson’s "Dominion" it was interesting to read another book set in the same period. Simon Tolkien’s new book, Orders from Berlin, takes place in a London suffering from the Blitz, with Hitler’s forces massing on the French coast and preparations being made in London for what seems to be the inevitable German invasion.
The book opens at a briefing session in which Adolf Hitler is quizzing his commanders and generals about when to invade Britain. We see the meeting thought the eyes of Hitler’s right hand man and head of the Gestapo, Richard Heydrich, who finds himself disgusted by the time-serving military men who in his eyes lack the necessary resolve to take action while the formidable British Navy still has command of the waters of the English Channel.
After the meeting, Heydrich and Hitler discuss the situation and Hitler reveals that he is more concerned about the threat from the East and he would prefer to make peace with Britain – but only Winston Churchill stands in the way: Churchill has possessed the British people with his hatred of the Nazi’s and his talk of blood and sacrifice and has turned the people away from making peace with Hitler. Heydrich reveals that he has a very high quality agent in the British Secret Service who now has access at the highest levels. It should be possible for him to feed information to the British to convince them that they cannot win against Germany and that there only hope is to reach an armistice.
The scene moves to London where we sit in on a top-level meeting between intelligence chiefs. A new man, Charles Seaforth has risen through the ranks quickly by providing very high quality information from his agents in Germany. He has the ear of the chief of intelligence, but his deputy, Thorn, has serious doubts about the new man.
Following the murder of a retired intelligence chief, the book soon develops into a mixture of first-class detective fiction and an espionage story. Tolkien has complete command of his material and inter-weaves all the strands of his story into a thrilling and convincing whole – a book I could barely put down while I was reading it.
Tolkien’s descriptions of London during the Blitz are superb and obviously the product of meticulous research. The British story of the Blitz to this day tends to focus on plucky and cheerful Londoners who “carried on regardless” whereas Tolkien reminds us of the rows of cardboard coffins disintegrating in the rain revealing their gruesome contents before being deposited in mass graves. His characters fight their way past hoards of homeless people living in insanitary conditions in tube stations,
- with the stink of hundreds of unwashed bodies crammed together in the fetid, airless atmosphere. The heat was extraordinary after the cold outside; some of the men were stripped to the waist, and most of the children were half naked . . . (lying on) filthy mattresses and battered suitcases, several that were serving as beds for tiny babies.
Above ground it is little better,
- You could tell from the pushcarts and prams piled high with their remaining possessions – pots and pans and teddy bears, all that they had been able to salvage from the wreckage of their bombed-out homes. It was a nightmare existence they led, these urban dispossessed, shunted from one rest centre to another, surviving on inadequate rations until they were finally found somewhere to live.
Scenes such as this add much to the atmosphere of the book and give a sense of urgency to the quest to find the murderer. I particularly like Detective Trave who never takes things at face value but niggles away at inconvenient evidence until he finds fault with it. I also liked the character of the retired intelligence chief’s daughter Ava who brings a human interest to the novel with her struggle to understand her marriage to the awful Bertram.
I think it is the novel’s range which gives it so much interest. At one point we are following Detective Trave around London following up his murder inquiry, and then in the next chapter we find ourselves visiting Adolf Hitler in the Eagle’s Nest where is in in conference with Heydrich. The scene then changes to the headquarters of MI5 where we read of the power struggles between two senior officers, one of whom is actually a senior enemy agent. It is to Tolkien’s credit that he handles all these scenes well and makes his readers feel party to the secret scenes he portrays – at one point Heydrich visits Hitler to fine him studying a model of the mausoleum he intends to create for himself in Berlin as a memorial to his achievements (for Nazism was all along a cult of death rather than life).
This is altogether a fine book which combines the genres of police procedural, political thriller and spy story into a highly readable whole, full of 1940s wartime atmosphere.
Simon Tolkien is J R R Tolkien’s grandson and while this book bares no relationship to the Middle Earth in Lord of the Rings, Orders from Berlin shares a theme of the battle between good and evil when both sides are vying for very high stakes. I am sure Simon’s grandfather would have been proud to read this fine novel and to realise that his talent has been passed on to future generations.(less)
There seems to be a tradition that novels set in Victorian London should be read in the dark days around Christmas. There’s something about Dickensian...moreThere seems to be a tradition that novels set in Victorian London should be read in the dark days around Christmas. There’s something about Dickensian themes which seem to suit this time, and in Tom All Alone’s there is plenty of general murkiness and gloom to match what we in Britain see outside our windows.
Tom All Alone’s is essentially a detective novel. Charles Maddox, a young ex-policeman has set himself up as a thief-taker. His Uncle, who Charles reveres, was an eminent detective and has mentored young Charles from his early boy-hood in the skills of his work, but alas is now a very elderly man but is still available as a sounding-board to Charles when particularly tricky problems need to be solved. Charles receives a commission from the scheming lawyer Edward Tulkinghorn but soon realises that this is a poisoned chalice which will lead him into some very dark places.
Lynn Shepherd is not constrained by the limits of Victorian sensibility in describing the gruesome murders which follow, nor the terrible conditions of the London slums in which the murders take place. We are taken on a tour around the narrow passages of central London, going in and out of coffee houses, rat-catching pits, disease-ridden brothels, foetid inns and rancid slums with no need to cover up the vile conditions of the time. Perhaps the most shocking descriptions the fate of the mentally ill (and those unfortunates who ended up in private asylums because their family wanted them safely out of the way).
A parallel narrative interleaves with the story of Charles’ investigations. A young woman called Hester writes in the first person about her life in The Solitary House, which at first appears to be an idyllic setting peopled by kindly people who form a strong community of mutual support and close friendship. From the start, Hester seems to be an untrustworthy narrator; things seem too good to be true and we want to know what exactly is going on here? As the novel develops a sinister tone creeps into Hester’s writing and the two narratives soon begin to feed into each other, increasing the sense of mystery (and horror) behind Charles’ investigations.
Lynn Shepherd is a highly-skilled writer. I read this quite long book in three days and looked forward to resuming my reading whenever I put it down. Sometimes a book is good but you still have to slog through it but with Tom All Alone’s I was swept up into the atmosphere of London’s loathsome alleys and felt as if I was accompanying Charles Maddox as new layers of the horrific plot were revealed. Her character writing is excellent and she manages to achieve many distinctive voices. I especially liked Inspector Bucket which achieved just the right mix of sincerity and duplicity.
For a long time I have been hoping to find a Victorian era novel to equal Michel Faber’s masterpiece The Crimson Petal and the White, and I think Lynn Shepherd has got pretty close to it in Tom All Alone’s. I was also reminded of Sarah Waters’ book Fingersmith with which Tom All Alone’s shares some common themes. From the afterword, I get the impression that Tom All Alone’s is one-off novel but this reader at least would be delighted to hear that it is the first in a series. Charles Maddox is a strong and appealing character who could be developed over many further books and I hope the author produces a follow-up before too long.(less)
C J Sansom has become well-known for his “Matthew Shardlake” series of historical fiction set in 16th century England. He also has a talent for writin...moreC J Sansom has become well-known for his “Matthew Shardlake” series of historical fiction set in 16th century England. He also has a talent for writing novels set in the last century, with Winter in Madrid being a fine novel by anyone’s standards. For his latest novel, Dominion, Sansom has returned to the mid-twentieth century to write an “alternative history” novel in which Britain surrendered to Germany soon after the Dunkirk retreat.
We have a scenario in which Winston Churchill lost his battle with those who wished to appease Germany whereupon Germany suddenly invaded Denmark and Norway. Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain resigned and was replaced by Lord Halifax, and the Germans attacked the Low Countries and France. The British retreated from Dunkirk and and then France and Britain sued for an armistice.
A treaty was signed, between Germany, France and Britain which left Britain intact, but minus an air-force. The Germans were allowed to take over the Isle of Wight and establish a military base there. Britain had the humiliation of seeing a powerful and fortified German Embassy established in London with Gestapo officers in residence. The Battle of Britain and the Blitz were avoided and friendly relations were established with the German government, strongly supported by the press and the BBC.
Germany’s Eastern Front continues to be a running sore and as the book opens in 1952. Germany has won Moscow and huge swathes of Russian territory but is unable to get the upper hand with both sides continuing to make devastating losses. The Crimea on the other hand is now German territory and has been settled with German farmers, the original occupants having vanished from the face of the earth.
British Jews have been allowed to stay in their homes but now have to wear lapel badges. The rest of Europe’s Jews have been dealt and already the concentration camps of the holocaust are being decommissioned.
With a scenario like this, there is plenty of scope for a riveting novel. As the book opens we learn that Winston Churchill, now in his 80s is leading a resistance movement comprising communists, trade-unionists (those who have not yet been shot!), liberals of all persuasions and large numbers of people who are disgusted with that the government has done.
The book focuses on David and his wife Sarah who live a relatively comfortable life in North London. David works as a Civil Servant in the Dominions Office and deals with those Australia, Canada, South Africa and other Empire nations. He has a terrible secret however – his mother was Jewish, meaning that he himself is a Jew. His father however went out of his way to suppress this fact but it only seems a matter of time before the truth of his origins will come out.
David is slowly inveigled into taking part in Resistance activities by making photographs of important secret documents at Whitehall office. This leads him into the other major thread in the first half of the book – an old university friend, Frank, is now languishing in a mental hospital having nearly killed his brother, an American émigré scientist who has secret knowledge about new nuclear weapons. Soon David is being approached by the Resistance to make contact with Frank to try to find our how much he knows about the new weapons, not knowing that the Gestapo are also interested in Frank for their own purposes.
C J Sansom has filled the book with detail about this new Britain, a nation which is not far off being a puppet state under German masters. The population is divided with many approving of the new regime and its ability to bring a sort of peace to a troubled Europe. The Church of England has split in two with an official wing, almost an agent of the state and a new confessing church who protest about the new measures. The unemployed are now in agricultural work-camps and it only seems to be a matter of time before the Jews are rounded up and shipped off to follow the fate of their mainland European cousins.
I found this to be a fascinating read. My only complaint being that it is possible a little too lengthy at 450 pages. Sometimes I felt that a bit of editing wouldn’t have come amiss, although I appreciate the care which Sansom took to fully develop his themes and to make sure that al the loose ends were tied up. It must be a rare skill to manage a narrative as complex as this one, while at the same time providing so much detail about the barely-recognisable Britain: a grey 1950s vassal state, locked in low-level poverty and under-development, humiliated by treacherous leaders and suffering from an ever-increasing climate of fear. I found it to be a wholly believable world and as good a “what might have been” story as any.
This book would appeal to anyone who enjoys political thrillers, anyone with an interest in alternative histories but also by anyone who enjoys a meaty, entertaining read by a master story-teller. I’d give it four out of five stars, the missing star being because I felt it would have been a better book had it been 250 pages rather than 450 pages. Many other readers however seem not to have been bothered by the books length so perhaps I was being an impatient reader on this occasion.
For sharper, more tightly-written novels based on the intrigues and politicking of the World War 2 era and its aftermath I would recommend the latest books by Alan Furst (Mission to Paris) or Philip Kerr (Prague Fatale).(less)