Book Review

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Stasi Child, by David Young

This is the first book in this series, featuring East German Volkspolizei [People’s Police] officer Karin Müller, her deputy Werner Tilsner, and their regular companion on investigations, Kriminaltechniker [Forensic officer] Jonas Schmidt. I have already reviewed a later story, Stasi Winter, very recently and, although I do mention some of the characters’ backstory in it, because I had already previously read the first one, but not reviewed it, I thought it would be worth reacquainting myself with it, and my readers, if you feel that a more detailed knowledge of the characters’ progress would benefit your understanding of the later story [and any others in the series I might be lucky enough to find]. It is February 1975 and, notwithstanding the inevitably bleak east German winter climate, the postwar communist régime is well & truly entrenched and operating relatively efficiently, the way that communist régimes do: enforcing their control through paranoia & terror, with little enjoyment and few benefits for the Citizen Comrades.

At this point in their careers, Karin is an Oberleutnant [First Lieutenant] and Tilsner is an Unterleutnant [Second Lieutenant]; Schmidt doesn’t have a rank, as such, so his designation will not alter, for the foreseeable future, at least. At the instigation of a Stasi [secret police] officer, Oberstleutnant [Lieutenant Colonel] Klaus Jäger, they are requested to investigate an unusual incident: the body of a young girl has been found near the Wall in a cemetery in the Mitte district of Berlin, where they are based, so a short hop in a car from their offices, normally. There is something unusual about the case, though, hence the Stasi’s interest: contrary to the normal demise suffered, according to the official position, by Citizens foolishly attempting to escape the democratic paradise of the People’s Republic, the dead girl was apparently shot from the West while entering the East—the immediately available evidence appears to support this hypothesis. On closer inspection, however, certain elements arouse suspicion, plus the fact that, despite having been specifically requested by Jäger, which is supported by Karin’s superior, Oberst [Colonel] Reiniger, the Stasi’s involvement should not be mentioned, unless absolutely necessary.

The parlous state of Karin’s marriage; her husband Gottfried has only recently returned from a ‘re-education’ stint teaching at the youth reform school on the island of Rügen, in the north of the country [a location which will again feature in the later story]; and a possible infidelity with Tilsner [the complete recall of which is impossible, as a result of excessive alcohol intake the previous evening] at the start of the story, only serve to make life difficult for her: Tilsner seems to affect a blithe disregard for such complications. They have been instructed to ascertain the identity of the victim, but to disregard the circumstances causing her death; of course, telling Karin this is almost guaranteed to have the opposite effect and, before long, she realises that they will have to tread very carefully, despite Jäger’s involvement being a confusing mixture of qualified assistance and admonishment: Karin is canny enough to know that Jäger must be holding something back. Interspersed with the current action, commencing nine months earlier, is the continuing story of another later returning character: the red-haired fifteen-year old Irma Behrendt, who is a resident at the youth reform school on Rügen, whose life is made wretched by the combination of exhausting work & repressive living conditions.

Before long, Karin’s enquiries take the team to Rügen, but at this stage, Irma is not included in the investigation: it is only later, when the focus of the case moves to the Harz mountains, in the centre of the country, but the mid-western boundary of the DDR, that the connection is made. More I cannot reveal! This is a very good introduction to the series, and it lays the groundwork with all the frustrations & complications of living in a repressive country, whose régime many people still found reasons to support, but which is now looked back on with a mixture of many conflicting emotions: I will be very happy to find other stories in this series. The paperback I read was published in 2016 [2015] by Twenty7 Books, London, ISBN 978-1-7857-7006-7.

Book Review

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Last Flight to Stalingrad, by Graham Hurley

This is not the first of the author’s Spoils of War series I have read: in fact, it is at least the third, and possibly the fourth, but it is the first I have chosen to review, for a variety of reasons [none of which was that the other ones were less enjoyable]. It is actually the penultimate book in the series, as of 2021, so I am not doing my readers any favours by jumping in here, for which I apologise. The backstories of the main characters don’t need conveying in any great detail which might compromise enjoyment of earlier stories, so they are standalone to that extent, but I would recommend, in advance of, and notwithstanding the following review, locating the earlier stories, if possible, which comprise, in sequence: Finisterre, Aurore, Estocada, Raid 42, the current book, and Kyiv [sadly, again relevant]. As you might be able to infer from the title under review here, the subject of the series is World War II and slightly before, but the stories are set in a variety of locations, partly to demonstrate the many countries adversely affected by the tragic events therein described.

This is a story which culminates in an act of revenge; not an act or a process which is subject to an easy or simplistic moral judgement; but the story also concentrates on one of the most devious, whilst also demonstrably successful, of the vile characters in the heinous hierarchy which comprised the National Socialist government of Germany from 1933 to 1945. It is Joseph Goebbels, who was Reichsminister for propaganda, and it is the relationship of a fictional character called Werner Nehmann with him which forms the backbone of this narrative. Nehmann is not German: he is from Georgia, but he assumed a German name for purely practical & expedient reasons, and Goebbels has come to rely on Nehmann’s journalistic prowess, which can sometimes involve surprising Goebbels with copy which doesn’t always strictly toe the party line, but which Goebbels has hitherto tolerated and even, in general, capriciously or mischievously encouraged. However, Nehmann is under no illusions as to Goebbels’s credulity, and as events progress, Nehmann comes to realise that Goebbels is a lot cleverer than he thought, and has always been a few steps ahead in the chess game which is their lives.

The timespan of the narrative begins in early July 1940, when Nehmann is effectively living in a confiscated apartment, ‘belonging’ to a rich fellow Georgian, Guramishvili, on the Wilhelmstraße in Berlin, and runs to mid-January 1943, when the tide of the war is turning against Germany, which is painfully obvious to all except the Führer, and his circle of slavish devotees. Goebbels makes the mistake of entrusting Nehmann with a billet doux to be delivered in Rome to Goebbels’s former Czech mistress, an actress by the name of Lida Baarova, who fled to her native Prague, after suffering a nervous breakdown as a result of the vilification she had received, orchestrated by Goebbels himself after being instructed in no uncertain terms by Hitler, who adored Goebbels’s three children, and also had a soft spot for his wife, Magda, to end the very public extramarital relationship. Nehmann tries a very risky manoeuvre in the course of this operation, thinking that it will give him leverage against Goebbels, but he is only too well aware that it could also prove to be his undoing.

The narrative includes at least one other real character, in addition to Goebbels: Generaloberst Wolfram von Richthofen, who was a cousin of the Red Baron, and was one of Hitler’s favourites, as a result of his swashbuckling prowess, and Nehmann has some interaction with him, during the German military’s ill-fated incursion into Russia. Aside from the fictional characters, whose dealings with real characters such as Goebbels are not consequential when set against real events, the narrative broadly follows the real course of the war during this time period, so scholars of real history who also enjoy historical fiction should not be disappointed with this story, although I was irritated by a few mistakes & inconsistencies, but I won’t detail these, because overall, they shouldn’t detract from enjoyment of a decent wartime yarn; and, as stated, the previous stories are worth seeking out. The paperback I read was published in 2021 by Head of Zeus Ltd., London, ISBN 978-1-7885-4756-7.

Book Review

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Dead at First Sight, by Peter James

This story actually precedes one I have previously reviewed here, Left You Dead, so one major decision taken by Detective Superintendent Roy Grace towards the end of this narrative might suggest a certain course of events which appears not to have been followed, according to the situation in which Grace & his entourage find themselves in the later story; having said that, this possible disjunction should not deter anyone, especially ‘fans’ of the Grace canon, from reading either story. Grace is, for the most part, ‘in a good place’, apart from the regular [and unwelcome] monitoring of his activity by his superior, ACC Cassian Pewe which, although he is generally able to ignore it, nevertheless forms an irritating background buzz to his work environment.

This story represents a return to a subject which James has tackled before: online dating, in Want You Dead; but in this one, the focus of the story is the money-extraction scams which heinous criminal organisations perpetrate, targeting lonely individuals who sign up to online dating agencies, hoping to find a partner, generally after a previous partner has died, or otherwise left their lives, so the majority of them tend to be in an older age group and, unfortunately, not always as discerning as they should be, when it comes to ‘hard-luck’ stories spun by ostensibly genuine [and obviously physically attractive, of course, going by their profile photographs] individuals who are evidently very much in love with their targets, but desperately in need of large amounts of cash, for various reasons. These schemes normally work very efficiently, fleecing the poor victims with no chance of recompense, especially as the criminal organisations tend to be based overseas, outside British legal jurisdiction, but in the story, two of the perpetrators, albeit originating from Ghana, are actually based on Grace’s ‘patch’, in Brighton.

Two women who have become suspicious about the identity of their online amours, have ended up dead: one in Germany, and the other one in Brighton; the latter one has been in contact with a local gay motivational speaker, telling him that his image has been found on several online profiles, of which he was completely unaware—this leads him to become dangerously involved in the situation. Into this mix is thrown a returning character, an American contract killer, known as “Tooth”, with whom Grace has previously come into contact, but despite being injured, managed to avoid capture & arrest by Grace. Tooth is under contract to a crime boss based in Jersey, Channel Islands, although the relationship is fractious, to say the least, and Tooth is seriously considering retirement upon completion of this contract.

As should be apparent from the foregoing, because of the number of different characters in this narrative, there are several different strands operating concurrently, but as ever, James manages to keep the action flowing smoothly, without becoming bogged down in detail, but the reader can be assured that all the procedural details have been meticulously researched, so are undoubtedly accurate. The dénouement is not reached without any hitches, but the conclusion is satisfying, and should leave the reader eager to read further instalments, ideally in sequence, but that should not necessarily be a priority. The paperback I read was published in 2019, by Pan Books, an imprint of Pan Macmillan, London, ISBN 978-1-5098-1641-5; as usual, two very helpful maps of Brighton, and the surrounding area of Sussex, are printed at the front of the book, before the commencement of the story.

Book Review


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The War of the Poor, by Éric Vuillard

This is a very short book; only 66 pages; and set in a large font [not specified, but probably at least 12pt] with wide line spacing; so it should possibly more accurately be described as a booklet or a tract; but no matter: the subject matter is important. It is essentially true, albeit with a certain amount of permissible embroidery, given its historical setting, for the sake of continuity & completeness; it was translated from the original French, La guerre des pauvres, first published in 2019, by an award-winning author in his own right, Mark Polizzotti. I have a few observations about the significance of the text, including a personal connection but, at the risk of appearing to opt for a lazy response, given the fact that this is a non-fiction narrative, there is no plot, as such, to spoil, so I hope my readers will forgive me for quoting in large part from the synopsis at the front of the book, on the inside front cover.

This story concerns a subject which is very important to me, and it is the story of a man whose “terrible and novelesque life casts light on the times in which he lived — a moment when Europe was in flux and history was being written.” So far, so hyperbolic: here I could observe that Europe is again in flux [so what have we learned in between?], but surely, the writing of history is inevitable with the passage of time, so that statement is superfluous? “The history of inequality is a long and terrible one, and it’s not over yet [sadly, true]. The War of the Poor tells the story of a brutal episode from history, not as well known as tales of other popular uprisings, but one that deserves to be told [definitely]. Sixteenth century Europe: the Protestant Reformation takes on the powerful and the privileged. Peasants, the poor living in towns, who are still being promised that equality will be granted to them in heaven, begin to ask themselves: and why not now, here on earth? There follows a furious struggle. Out of this chaos steps Thomas Müntzer: a complex and controversial figure, who sided with neither Martin Luther, nor the Roman Catholic Church. Müntzer encouraged the poor to question why a god who apparently loved them seemed to be on the side of the rich.”

All well & good, and some of my observations could be seen as prejudice, for which I apologise, but they spring from my agnosticism, so I consider The Church, of any flavour, and religion in general, to be fair game. First & foremost, I was somewhat surprised, but also agreeably gratified, to read of a personal connection with the beginning of Müntzer’s ‘career’ in 1520 when, after emerging as a child from the trauma of his father’s execution, and reading The Bible which was produced with the new-fangled process called printing, “he enrolled as a student in Leipzig, then became a priest in Halberstadt  and Brunswick [Braunschweig], then a provost here and there, then, after considerable tribulations among the Lutherite plebeians, he emerged from his hole in 1520, when he was named a preacher in Zwickau.” The beginning of the next chapter nails it for me: “Outside the borders of Saxony [Sachsen], hardly anyone knows Zwickau. It’s just another backwater.” For non-German speakers, there’s an added complication: it’s difficult to pronounce—the combination of the ts consonants, followed by the v pronunciation of the German w is admittedly not easy, but not impossible, with practice. I was there for 6 months at the beginning of 1993; so, only two-and-a-bit years after one of the most momentous events of modern times, whose repercussions were to affect the whole of the soon to be reunited Germany for years to come, and the whole European continent, albeit somewhat less so, and to varying degrees in the different constituent countries. At the end of the GDR, Zwickau was where ‘Trabis’ were built, then VW took the plant over.

My overall concern with the story is that, although Müntzer was fighting for the rights of the common man, he was doing so within the confines of Christianity, and expecting his followers to be willing adherents also; it is reasonable to argue that those were the times in which they lived, when morality & religious observance were seen as inseparable, but he did set himself up as a fundamentalist demagogue: “He cited Luke: ‘Bring hither mine enemies, and slay them before me.’ He cited the psalms: ‘The Lord will smash down the old pots of clay with his rod of iron.’ … But … Müntzer introduced another populace, more invasive and tumultuous, a real populace, the poor laity and the peasants. This was a far cry from the catechistic generality of kindly Christian folk; now it was about ordinary people.” It all ended badly, of course: after several armed confrontations, and even a few victories, Müntzer was captured and beheaded, leaving history to be written by the victors. “These scurrilous legends come along to bow the heads of renegades only after they have been denied the right to speak. Their sole purpose is to make the tormenting voice sound within us, the voice of order, to which we are ultimately so attached that we surrender to its mysteries and hand it our lives.” Apparently, “Nietzsche took inspiration from him, from the Müntzerese gush and extravagance. But Müntzer is a man of action … He quotes Daniel: ‘Power will be given to the people.’ We’re a long way from Nietzsche.”

We’re also a long way from “Power [being] given to the people”, but at least the power of religion is being cumulatively reduced, although we still have some way to go. The paperback I read was published in 2022 [2021] by Picador, London, ISBN 978-1-5290-3855-2.

Book Review

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The Mitford Trial, by Jessica Fellowes

When I saw the name Mitford in the title of this book, my mind immediately suggested a connection with Oswald Mosley, who was a very prominent personality in my book Black Shirt and Smoking Beagles, the biography of my grand uncle Wilfred Risdon, who worked closely with OM from 1930 until just before the start of the second world war. This book being reviewed is actually one of a series by this author, featuring the Mitford family, but this particular one does have a tangential connection with Mosley, hence my interest was piqued. If the author’s family name is familiar, it is because she is the niece of the author Julian Fellowes, who created, according to Ms Fellowes’s website, the television series Downton Abbey, with which many people [not including me, however, for ideological reasons] will be familiar; although how many of these would be able to name the writer is another matter. Without wishing to cast any aspersions, the success of the television production was very useful for Ms Fellowes, as she has written five “official companion books”. The first book in the Mitford series, The Mitford Murders, was her tenth book, and the book under review here is her fifth Mitford book. From the information given on her website, it would appear that the lady is very much part of the upper classes so, presumably, she knows of what she writes.

This also begs another question—how close is her relationship with the Mitford family, because it might be considered incautious to write about the albeit avowedly fictional exploits of a real family, without some sort of dispensation, especially as a family such as this might tend toward the litigious if its reputation should be impugned, notwithstanding real & documented historical events. This closeness or otherwise is not stated, so can only be guessed at. In this story, former lady’s maid Louisa Cannon is asked to spy on Diana Mitford; who later went on to marry Oswald Mosley, despite his known philandering; and her younger sister Unity, a fervent supporter of Hitler from around the time of his accession to the post of Chancellor in Germany. This spying is to take place on a cruise to Italy, and Louisa is unenthusiastic about the idea, especially as the man who persuades her to do it, “Iain”, is not prepared to reveal for whom he is working [but it is probably fairly safe to assume that it must be MI5]; his only ammunition for expecting her to comply is to play on her patriotism, telling her bluntly that Germany is preparing for war, which must be prevented at all costs, and the Mitfords’ possible knowledge of, and connection with these preparations could be vital to the British government. Despite having only just married a detective sergeant with Scotland Yard, the excitement she feels at being asked to undertake this underhand mission overrules her misgivings, especially as she is exhorted to reveal nothing of her task to her new husband.

The narrative appears to be historically accurate; I would have been surprised if it had not been; there are precious few direct references to Mosley’s political activities, but one is right at the beginning of the book, on Louisa’s wedding day: a rally at Trafalgar Square on the 15th of October 1932, only a couple of weeks after the founding of the British Union of Fascists at the former New Party office in Great George Street, London. Apparently, “the crowds are bigger and more rowdy than expected…”, so all police leave is cancelled, and Guy, Louisa’s new husband, must accompany his superior, DCI Stiles, in a car to the meeting. Stiles seems biased against Mosley for no discernible reason, although perhaps this is just a reflection of his copper’s innate fears of public disorder, if the lower orders are given something to encourage them to be rebellious: “I don’t like the idea of that many people [at a London rally] thinking the BUF has got something to offer them.” This is endorsed by the reaction of a cockney beat copper, who happens to be in the car with them: “Sounds all right to me, if you ask, guv: [Ramsay] MacDonald’s a shower, isn’t he? A traitor to the Labour party. We need a real leader, someone who believes in the Brits and the working man.” I’m not sure about that term “Brits”, but I don’t have the time for the research to prove that an anachronism.

There is a murder on the cruise, and it just so happens that Guy is, fortuitously, also available to help unmask the perpetrator, because he joined the cruise in mid-stream [although not literally], as he couldn’t bear to be parted from his new wife for so long so, because the death occurred in international waters, he assumes control of the investigation. The relationships involved with the murder suspects are somewhat murky, and there is also a historical element to them, so they take quite some untangling, and the added complication is that Louisa is not able to reveal her reason for being less than forthcoming with information about the Mitfords. The murder, and the consequent trial, is based on a real murder which took place in 1935, but I will reveal no details of this, as it could easily prove to be a plot spoiler; the character of “Iain” is loosely based on Maxwell Knight, of MI5 and, according to Fellowes, the MI5 file on Mosley was opened in 1933, “with a report from Detective Constable Edward Pierpoint, who had been at a fascist public meeting in Manchester.” I would question if a public meeting can be described as “fascist”, but no matter; what I am reasonably sure of is that, as Mosley’s first Director of Propaganda, Wilfred Risdon would have been responsible for organising this meeting.

This is quite a decent ‘whodunnit’, aside from any observations on class in early 20th century British society; then again, it is almost impossible to escape those, especially if one includes the epitome of this genre, Agatha Christie, so they can be seen as background colour, which helps to shape the characters. This book was published in paperback by Sphere [Little, Brown Book Group] in 2021 [2020], ISBN 978-0-7515-7397-8.

Book Review


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V2, by Robert Harris

A Robert Harris novel is always an enticing prospect, for me, and this one didn’t disappoint, because I knew in advance that it would be based on meticulous research. The science & technology which facilitated this murderous & potentially catastrophic final chapter of the war is well known & catalogued, as is the personnel on both sides who were involved, although Harris did invent the British defence unit in the story, and the principal German character; what he doesn’t specify is whether the named casualties of the rockets were real, but it would seem disrespectful if they weren’t, so I think it must be safe to assume that they were. The idea for the novel came to Harris after reading the obituary of a 95-year old ex-WAAF officer who had been posted to Mechelen, Belgium, in November 1944, and then her two-volume memoir. It is also well known that Wernher von Braun and other scientists involved in Hitler’s last desperate attempt to subdue & conquer Britain were persuaded [although probably not a great deal of persuasion was necessary] to work for the USA, albeit in secret, because of the sensitivity of their recent enemy status, in the USA’s postwar ballistic missile, and subsequently civilian space programmes: this extraction operation was known as Operation Paperclip.

The narrative is effectively a two-hander with, on the one side, the German participants; most of whom are scientists, but there are also some military characters; and on the other side, the British participants, the protagonist being the WAAF, Section Officer Angelica Caton-Walsh, known as Kay, based on the aforementioned officer, Eileen Younghusband. Kay works at Danesfield House; renamed RAF Medmenham after the closest village, near Marlow in Buckinghamshire; she is a photographic analyst in the Central Interpretation Unit, working in what was known as Phase Three: examination of recent aerial photographs from the enemy theatre of operations for potential longer-term tactical use. She has been having an affair with Air Commodore Mike Templeton, but Mike is injured when the building in which his London apartment is located, Warwick Court — near Charing Cross, just off Chancery Lane in Holborn — is badly damaged by a V2 rocket strike; Kay receives only very minor injuries. She is more emotionally wounded when Mike warns her against accompanying him to the hospital, but she is pragmatic enough to know the reason for that.

She is asked to accompany her section leader, Wing Commander Leslie Starr [known as The Wandering Starr, for fairly obvious reasons with so many female subordinates], to a meeting at the Air Ministry to formulate an urgent response to the exponentially-increasing number of disastrous V2 incidents. To her amazement, Mike is there, hobbling on crutches and swathed in bandages, but he acts as if they have never previously met; although this is, again, not entirely unexpected, Kay resolves to make a clean break and request a transfer to a forward new radar analysis unit which is proposed for the closest location in Belgium to the apparent launch site of the latest V2s: Scheveningen, in Holland. The female officers needed for the new unit have to be mathematicians, but Kay’s mathematical prowess is rudimentary, although she knows her way around a slide-rule & logarithmic tables, so she feels confident enough to prevail upon Mike to facilitate her transfer, as one last favour. The idea is that the trajectory of the rocket’s flight, and hence the launch position, can be retrospectively calculated using the first observed position after launch, direction, and speed, then factoring in the strike location and working back using the flight parabola.

On the other side, at Scheveningen, is an old colleague & friend of von Braun from their early days of rocketry experiments, the technical liaison officer from the Army Research Centre at Peenemünde. He is keen to improve the efficiency of the rockets, especially in view of the investment the Nazis have made in their development, and several embarrassing & costly failures [both in financial and human terms] have always been a cause for concern; latterly, he has begun to consider the implications of his actions: both he & von Braun were always more interested in the rockets’ potential for space exploration, and von Braun, particularly, saw the war as an unavoidable distraction from their main purpose, but also with the advantage of providing funds & facilities to achieve that. Graf’s anxiety is exacerbated by the arrival of SS Sturmscharführer Biwack of the National Socialist Leadership Office, one of the Nazi Party commissars, recently embedded in the military on the Führer’s orders, to kindle a fighting spirit: “Real die-in-a-ditch fanatics.” He has full security clearance, and it is obvious to Graf that, as well as his stated purpose, he will also be snooping everywhere, always on the lookout for lack of enthusiasm or even possible sabotage.

The action progresses from one side to the other and, naturally, anti-fascists will root for Kay & her associates, but it is not difficult to also feel some sympathy for Graf; less so for von Braun, perhaps, as he never hesitates to use his SS credentials to further his career & aims, although he does assist Graf in more than one sticky situation. The outcome of the war is known, of course, and not too much space is devoted to the race against time to locate the launch sites, but it is nicely paced, and there is also a neat little coda where Kay & Graf actually meet: entirely fictitious, of course. Overall, I found the book reassuringly enjoyable, although I do have a couple of minor [and very personal] quibbles: for me, it was disappointing to see American terminology used in a couple of places, e.g.: wrench for spanner, flashlight for torch. US troops were stationed in Britain in 1944, but British usage would have prevailed, plus the character where they were used was German. Also, the author uses what I consider as the lazy habit of referring to a German army officer as Nazi, when not all were members of the Nazi party: many were actively critical of it, dangerously so. I don’t cite these as a deterrent, however, so I would unconditionally recommend it. I read the hardback version, published in 2020 by Hutchinson, London, part of the Penguin Random House group: ISBN 978-1-78-633140-3. There is also a Wikipedia article, which gives more background to Operation paperclip.

Book Review

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The Final Solution, by Michael Chabon

This is not a Holocaust story, per se [but see below], but a Sherlock Holmes story [I seem to be reading a few of these pastiche/hommage stories latterly: is this synchronicity? Or is it just fantasy?]; except that it isn’t: nowhere in the narrative is this revered name mentioned, although the narrative is structured in such a way that no alternative can be considered. There has to be a reason for this, although Chabon, whilst not specifically evasive, is somewhat elliptical in his explanation, in the “About the Book” end section, which is the transcription of an interview with Steve Inskeep, host of NPR’s Morning Edition, in December 2004, following this book’s publication. He says “The first writer that [ouch!] I really fell in love with was Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, and in particular his Sherlock Holmes stories, and the first story that I ever wrote was a Sherlock Holmes story. It was a kind of pastiche. … It was called ‘The Revenge of Captain Nemo’.”

Asked if he went back & reread that story to prepare him for this latest book, he says: “No, I didn’t.” Other than that, the only reasoning which throws any light on his decision to leave the protagonist unnamed is a desire to direct more credit to the original author: “I found it was all just still so vivid to me, and I think that’s a testimony to what a truly fine writer Sir Arthur Conan Doyle is, and I don’t think he is really given enough credit for the quality of his writing. … [Inskeep: Do you hope that there might be people who will pick up this Sherlock Holmes story, this mystery that you’ve written, who might not otherwise have read some of your work?”] You know what I would really hope would be that a lot of people who might be inclined to pick up this book and read it because it’s one of my books, might then think, ‘Hey, maybe there’s more to this Arthur Conan Doyle than I thought there was’, and go back and pick up some of those fantastic stories.” So: still no categorical admission — I’ll keep my observations to myself, but I find this somewhat uncomfortable.

As I also do with the book’s title, notwithstanding the subtitle: A Story of Detection. Chabon is quite open about his Jewish heritage; in 2005, his latest novel, entitled The Yiddish Policemen’s Union, was set in Alaska, in Chabon’s imagined alternative Jewish homeland. That said, I am ambivalent about the title of the book under review; it feels uncomfortable to borrow the notorious title of a ghastly genocidal scheme for a novel, despite the association, in a different context, with the story’s main character being appropriate [although, *Spoiler Alert!* — given that he survives to potentially continue detecting at the end, it might not be his final solution to a mystery?], and that the other main character, a nine-year old boy called Linus Steinman, is evidently an escapee from the Holocaust, by virtue of having been allowed to leave Germany during that awful period; but, on the other hand, it could be argued that Chabon has more right to claim ownership of the reference than someone not of his heritage, so perhaps I’m just being pernickety.

The boy is lodging with a family consisting of a high-church Anglican vicar, the Reverend Panicker, who is “a Malayalee [sic] from Kerala, black as a boot-heel”, his wife, “a large, plain, flaxen-haired Oxfordshirewoman [sic]”, their son Reggie, and several other lodgers. The boy is mute, possibly the result of some past trauma, but he also has an African Grey parrot, who speaks mainly, but not exclusively, German which consists predominantly of strings of seven single-digit numbers; although it also is given to singing, and “reciting bits and scraps of poems of Goethe and Schiller known to every German schoolchild over the age of seven.” The boy had already encountered the retired detective, when the latter was concerned enough to tear his thoughts away from his beloved bees to persuade the former to remove himself from the electrified railway line at the back of the detective’s house, along which he was walking.

When one of the Panickers’ lodgers is murdered, and the parrot disappears, the detective, despite currently having no appetite for the vicissitudes of his former calling, is persuaded to investigate; there is, of course, a local police Inspector, the grandson of an Inspector of the detective’s former acquaintance, Sandy Bellows, who, along with his lumpen colleague, DC Quint, defers to the great former detective in this curious case. The case is solved successfully, inevitably, but I did feel that Chabon was trying too hard to emulate the contemporary style in which Conan Doyle wrote, making it feel, for me anyway, unnecessarily verbose. That said, it is a short novel; perhaps more accurately a novella, at 120 pages in length, including some quite good full-plate monochrome pencil drawings; so it is not an onerous undertaking to read it, and the conclusion is neat, as should be expected. The paperback edition I read was published in 2008 by Harper Perennial, London, ISBN 978-0-00-719603-6.

Book Review

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An Officer and a Spy, by Robert Harris

This is a weighty tome, running to 608 pages and, ordinarily, I might be deterred by this, but seeing the name of Robert Harris on the cover was all the incentive I needed to convince me to read it, having read a few of his books before now. Also, I was curious to discover how well he would handle a real historical situation, although he is no stranger to setting fiction in different time periods; this book concerns l’Affaire Dreyfus, or The Dreyfus Case, and I had vague recollections of having to apply myself to it in History lessons at school but hitherto, I wouldn’t have been able to present a cogent synopsis of the events that transpired. Given that these events actually happened, Harris’s freedom to create a fictional narrative was necessarily somewhat constrained, but he tells the story from the point of view of a fellow army officer, Marie-Georges Picquart, previously professor of topography at the École Militaire, now deputy to the head of the Third Department of the War Ministry (Operations & Training), who soon after Dreyfus’s conviction becomes promoted to Head of the Second Department, the Statistical Section, otherwise known as Intelligence; this arrangement had been in operation since Napoleon’s time.

Before his public military degradation (an essential part of his punishment, involving the removal of all his regimental uniform decorations & the ceremonial breaking of his sabre, in front of the first military parade of the Paris garrison) Dreyfus allegedly confessed to the captain guarding him that he did indeed pass documents to the Germans, but Picquart decides this is unreliable, which is helpful for him, as he had just given a verbal report to the Minister of War that Dreyfus continued to protest his innocence at the parade, in contravention of normal custom. Alfred Dreyfus, captain of the 14th Artillery Regiment, certified General Staff Officer & probationer of the army’s General Staff, was found guilty of delivering to a foreign power or to its agents in Paris in 1894 a certain number of secret and confidential documents concerning national defence; he was a Jew from Mulhouse, which was in the disputed Alsace Lorraine territory, now part of Germany, following the humiliating defeat by Germany in the 1870 Franco-German war; he also spoke with a slight, but discernible German accent, which was another thing, in addition to being identifiably Jewish, which counted against him. Unfortunately, at that time, institutional anti-Semitism was casually accepted as an attitude by the majority of the population, including Picquart himself.

In addition to the humiliation of the military degradation, Dreyfus’s penalty also included discharge from the army and deportation to a fortified enclosure for life: this was Devil’s Island, 15km from the coast of the penal colony at Cayenne (French Guiana, on the north east coast of South America); the island was reopened especially for Dreyfus, although there were many who called for the death penalty for what they considered to be a heinous crime, particularly in that time of heightened tension between France & Germany. It was once Picquart became established in his position as head of the Second Department that his suspicion begins to grow that Dreyfus has, indeed, been falsely accused, and that a despicable miscarriage of justice has occurred, especially when he learns that secrets are still being passed to the Germans so, albeit somewhat unwillingly at first, he makes it his mission to discover the truth, even if that means that Dreyfus is innocent; unfortunately, in the course of his investigations, he encounters obfuscation, opposition, and outright hostility from his superiors, but also, which proves to be more dangerous, for his career and even, potentially, his life, from his own close colleagues. He suffers many tribulations, threats, and even murder attempts during the course of the narrative, but he proves to be strong enough to survive them all, and the help he receives from a few valued friends, and later associates, a few of whom are as illustrious as the author Victor Hugo, whose publication J’Accuse eventually proves to be powerfully influential, contributes to his eventual success.

This is not to spoil the plot: the story is known, and can easily be researched, but where Harris succeeds is in weaving a plausible narrative for the character of Picquart. Harris himself says at the beginning of the book:

None of the characters in the pages that follow, not even the most minor, is wholly fictional, and almost all of what occurs, at least in some form, actually happened in real life. Naturally, however, in order to turn history into a novel, I have been obliged to simplify, to cut out some figures entirely, to dramatise, and to invent many personal details. In particular, Georges Picquart never wrote a secret account of the Dreyfus affair; nor did he place it in a bank vault in Geneva with instructions that it should remain sealed until a century after his death. But a novelist can imagine otherwise.

Robert Harris

I can highly recommend this book, and I don’t think you need to be an aficionado of history to be able to appreciate it: it’s a thumping good story, including a criminal conspiracy (which never seem to go out of fashion!) and it’s always good to be able to read a story which has any sort of resolution, especially a positive one. The paperback I read was published in 2014 by Arrow Books, London [part of the Penguin Random House Group], ISBN 978-0-09958-088-1.