You know quality when you see it and with Alan Furst’s books set in Europe in and around World War 2 you know that quality is guaranteed. His new bookYou know quality when you see it and with Alan Furst’s books set in Europe in and around World War 2 you know that quality is guaranteed. His new book, Mission to Paris is no exception. Frederick Stahl, an Austrian-born film actor based in the USA is sent to Paris in 1938 by Warner Brothers to star in a film about partisan politics in Eastern Europe. While leading a life of luxury in Claridges Hotel with all the trappings of celebrity, he is drawn into the complex politics of the time and before long finds that his life is in extreme danger.
Alan Furst always bases his books on impeccable research and there is tons of period detail in his descriptions of pre-war Paris, a moody city of contrasts with incredible luxury on the one hand and dingy back-streets populated by poor and desparate people who live in fear of their lives. For despite political accords and treaties, there is no doubt that the Germans are coming.
Within a couple of days of his arrival, Stahl is being courted by people who see his usefulness. German intelligence services are deeply embedded in the city and work via old friends and colleagues, as well as through sympathetic French Fascists who see the future of their country as a vassal nation dominated by a powerful neighbour but at least free from Communists and Jews.
He soon finds himself being invited by a powerful group of Germans to judge a short film festival in Berlin. At first Stahl resists this invitation fofr he is glad to have shed his German background and has no desire to do anything to support what he sees as Nazi thuggery. But he consults the American Ambassador who seems to think it would be no bad thing to attend, especially if he could make a small delivery while he was there . . . and as with all good spy novels, one simple task is never the only thing you are asked to do but merely the first and the simplest.
Berlin turns out to be a terrifying place. Stahl is in a privileged position, unlike the people he sees in the streets wearing a yellow star. The film festival goes well but coincides with a night of action against the Jews during which Stahl finds himself advised to stay in his hotel from where he observes bands of thugs running down the street outside. Later on he comes to understand that he was in Berlin during the terrible Kristallnacht, the night of broken glass.
Stahl finds himself embroiled in a complex affair of the heart which has dangerous political implications and before long we wonder whether his own life is to be in danger from the assassin we meet in the first pages of the novel?
Paris in 1938 is a glitzy and glamorous place, but full of traps and dangers for those who find themselves embroiled in the political turmoil of the times. Alan Furst has the knack of placing his readers right there, turning the pages rapidly, one after another as the tension mounts. I am tempted to compare Furst with John Le Carré or Graham Greene but despite similarities he is really in a class of his own. A fine writer and a fine book to join so many other of his works, all of equal quality....more
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, taAfter 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....more
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 DickensianThere 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....more
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 writinC 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)....more
My First Wife is a semi-autobiographical novel by German-Jewish writer, Jakob Wassermann (1874-1933), a prominent writer of the time, but little knownMy First Wife is a semi-autobiographical novel by German-Jewish writer, Jakob Wassermann (1874-1933), a prominent writer of the time, but little known in English speaking countries because of the lack of translations of his work. As far as I can tell, this new translation by Michael Hoffman is the only novel published in English, although Wassermann’s Wikipedia entry shows a long list of over 30 books and plays.
Penguin Classics are promoting this book as “the rediscovered masterpiece of love, hate and obsession” and I have to agree that this is as good an eight-word summary as you could get, being a portrait of an awe-inspiringly dreadful courtship, marriage and divorce, which today would probably end up in the pages of the Daily Mail.
In his afterword to the book, Michael Hoffman tells us that My First Wife is, “the true account of Jakob Wassermann’s marriage to Julie Speyer of Vienna, with almost nothing omitted or changed”. As I read the book I gained the impression of a heart-felt personal testimony, raw in emotion and painful to read, not only because of the suffering the writer went through but also with a feeling that perhaps his wife deserved better treatment from her family and her husband.
Alexander’s future wife, Ganna, was born into the family of a wealthy steel magnate. With five sisters, she was the ugly duckling of the family, a wilful and difficult child who “did not know the meaning of obedience”. Her father submitted her to “twice-weekly prophylactic beatings” in order to cure her of the habit of lying (how times have changed – no attempt is made to suggest that Ganna’s adult behaviour is anything to do with her treatment as a child).
As other sisters are married off, Ganna’s parents begin to despair of ever finding a husband for her, but she has her own plans. As she grows up, so she develops a deep interest in literature and gathers a small salon around her who meet fortnightly to talk about the latest books and to discuss Ganna’s own philosophical essays. She reads a book by the young author, Alexander, and is so impressed with it that she decides to seek out the author, launching on a campaign to ensnare him which today might be called stalking. Ganna engineers a meeting with Alexander and then proceeds to write letters to him. He ignores the first two or three then replies to the next, not realising that “from the moment I first wrote back she had acquired in perpetuity a right to be answered”.
Alexander and Ganna begin to meet up, on a casual basis from Alexander’s perspective, but with the purest passion from Ganna’s. When Alexander leaves for his summer tour of remote places, Ganna manages to visit him in a remote farm-house, Alexander’s annoyance being tempered by a sense of pity for the strange girl before him.
Through a combination of inertia and folly, Alexander allows himself to be betrothed to the obsessive Ganna, finding that her father, far from being concerned about her marriage to a penniless author, is prepared to attach a large dowry to her, which will allow him to continue to live independently and devote himself to writing.
Once married of course, Alexander finds that the solitude and reflection-time that fed his writing is now impossible to find. Ganna takes up all his waking moments for marriage has removed from her brain all thought of poetry, idealism and love of literature and replaced it with domestic concerns, a mawkish devotion to her relatives and within no time at all, a series of pregnancies and ensuing babies.
Although money has been settled on the young couple, this is Germany between the wars and before long inflation is eating into their investments. Poverty adds a further level of family disharmony. Alexander manages to write further books, but in the most uncomfortable circumstances and he longs for his previous life before he met Ganna, whose neuroses are now in full flood and driving him to distraction.
I won’t spoil the book by describing what happens next – the cover already says that the marriage self-destructs so I have breached no confidences so far. However, the nightmare of this marital breakdown exceeds most divorces in its awfulness and threatens to ensnare Alexander in life-long misery, ruining subsequent relationship and making it extremely difficult for him to continue his career as a writer. Having become embroiled with Ganna, Alexander finds it impossible to ever get away from her because her own and her family’s tentacles reach far into Alexander’s personal and business life.
Of course, we often read in the papers of painful divorces but this one, being described by a skilled writer, comes alive on the page in all its awfulness. My only feeling on reading the book is that Alexander brought this all on himself, ignoring every possible warning signal, but being seduced by the prospect of financial security for the rest of his life.
My First Wife is a good read and deserves to be in Penguin’s Modern Classic series. It introduces a renowned German novelist of the last century to English speakers and no doubt more translations will follow....more
Dave Lamb is a self-obsessed 54 year old man who’s business partner has told him to take some time off work to cool an affair he has had with a subordDave Lamb is a self-obsessed 54 year old man who’s business partner has told him to take some time off work to cool an affair he has had with a subordinate. He is upset and disoriented, being unable to return to Cathy, his wife, but remembering his comfortable life with her with nostalgic longing.
Bonnie Nadzam’s book, Lamb opens with Dave sitting inside his truck after his father’s funeral, smoking a cigarette, when an 11 year old girl breaks away from a couple of friends and walks towards him, “a lop-sided purple tube top and baggy shorts and brass-coloured sandals studded with rhinestones . . . she was possibly the worst thing he had seen all day”.
The girl tells Dave that she has been dared by her friends to ask him for a cigarette. After a few minutes of banter, the truck leaves the car-park, with Dave driving and Tommie sitting next to him. This begins one of the most disturbing books I have read in a long time but also one I could hardly put down once I had started it.
Dave seems to be on a mission to rescue the girl from what he perceives as a sort of trailer-trash life. He wants to restore the innocence she lost while living in neglectful chaos with her harassed mother and her drifter boy-friend. He sees in Tommie an opportunity to do some good in the world, but his motives are terribly mixed and he finds himself involved in ever-deeper levels of deceit as they drive off on a lengthy road-trip to the Rockies.
Writers talk about the “voice” they are creating, and in Dave and Tommie we have powerful descriptions of two very well-drawn characters – Dave the utterly self-deceived loser who really believes he is saving Bonnie’s life by abducting her, and Bonnie, the naive, pre-adolescent, wise and innocent at the same time as she accepts Dave’s assurance that they can turn round and go home any time she wishes. I found myself squirming with horror as the “relationship” develops – Dave’s words of reassurance so plausible yet shot through with delusions of proxy-parenting which he should never be attempting.
It is Dave’s voice which shocks the most. While professing care for Bonnie as he promises her that this is “just a vacation”, he subtly builds a picture of an idyllic future so little in tune with the girl’s best interests -
"And I’ll fry you eggs in the morning, and butter you a thick piece of cold bread, and I’ll slice the bacon myself, and bring you hot chocolate, and you’ll sit on the wood rail fence in your night-gown, and I’ll put my jacket over your shoulders, and we’ll balance our plates on our kneed and watch the sun come up while we eat. And when I have to leave the house to go to work you’ll wait for me, won’t you? You’ll sit on the fence and watch the dirt road till you see me coming back to you".
Bonnie Hadzam has degrees in Environmental Studies and English Literature and she writes beautifully about the landscape of the Rockies and the semi-derelict towns that the couple pass through. Indeed, for a first novel this is remarkably assured writing, building up as much tension as any thriller while somehow making a statements about the contrast between innocence and corruption and the impossible longing to do better with our lives.
For Dave is a hopeless case. In abducting Bonnie, he genuinely believes that he is on some sort of welfare mission -
"And there was nothing wrong with all that, was there? With a guy like him buying a kid like her a nice lunch, spoiling her a little? It was good for her. It was just a little tonic for his poisonous heart. Right? Why shouldn’t he have that? It was good for them both. And so it was good for everybody – because that’s how goodness works. It spills like water, bleeds into everyone, into everything, into trees, rivers, cracks in sidewalks. And Christ, it gave him such a nice feeling to put that nice new coat on her, to button it up right beneath her freckled chin".
He he can only indulge himself by dressing up his fantasies in a cloak of charity. As the book develops we see Dave’s darker motives emerge but strangely, they are not so much paedophilic as narcissistic. Dave is not obsessed with under-age girls, but rather with anyone who will listen to him and who will allow him to pander to his deluded self-image – a child can do this as well as anybody.
The writer never lets the reader settle down with this story. It has twists and turns in abundance and nothing is exactly as it seems. We never quite know who is telling the story – the narrator seems to shift from Dave himself to a third-party observer, sometimes dispassionate and at other times offering a wry commentary on the unfolding events.
This book has had a big impact in America where reviewers rightly laud Bonnie Nadzam for her narrative gifts. She is also a master of dialogue, creating the sort of conversations you’d overhear in a diner between these two people at opposite ends of their life experience. Readers found the book profoundly disturbing while being more or less agreed that it is totally memorable and something not to be missed. Lamb is not a horror novel; it is far more than that, for the terror is subtly created in the reader’s mind rather than being explicit on the page. I’ve a feeling we will hear much about Lamb in coming months....more