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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Blackout, by Simon Scarrow

This is a book which, in my humble opinion, does live up to its hype, with reviews from Anthony Horowitz & Damien Lewis, no less. It could be seen as an analogue of SS-GB, by Len Deighton; although the main difference, apart from the location, is that the former is set in the real world, albeit a fictional protagonist, whereas the latter is set in the imagined ‘alternate reality’ of a Britain conquered by Germany in 1940. This book is one of a numerous series of books on the subject of conflict and/or warfare in different timeframes by this author: he has also co-authored with Lee Francis & T J Andrews. The protagonist in Blackout, published in 2021 by Headline Publishing Group, ISBN 978-1-4722-5856-4 [paperback], is Criminal Inspector Horst Schenke of the Kripo [Kriminalpolizei]; Scarrow uses British terminology wherever possible, even down to the inexorably ubiquitous Nazi Party salutation “Hail Hitler”, but since there are few direct equivalents of military ranks, Scarrow does use the German terms.

It is December 1939 in Berlin, which is a sensible timeframe for a murder thriller story set there, because the country is now at war, with all the consequent exigencies & paranoia, but it is before the shock & physical effects of an Allied fightback started to appear; whether Scarrow has one or more sequels in mind as the war progresses is not indicated. Schenke has avoided military service, to his shame, because he has a permanently injured knee, courtesy of an accident during his former career as a driver for the prestigious Silver Arrows Mercedes-Benz racing team: he was lucky to survive the crash, but it left him with a game leg. He is, however, a diligent & moderately successful police officer, and he is “requested” by Heinrich Müller, the head of the Gestapo [Geheime Staatspolizei, State secret police] to investigate the death of Gerda Korzeny, aka Gerda Schnee, a once-famous actress whose career ended somewhat abruptly when she married a rich Berlin lawyer. Schenke is confused as to why he has been conscripted in this way, because the death did not occur in his area; however, he has so far resisted pressure to join the Party, which has been assuming ever more influence over all aspects of German life, including the police, and he quickly realises that, as well as having no obvious allegiance to any of the fractious factions which Hitler’s system has produced, he could be a very convenient fall guy if he discovers anything the Party deems inconvenient.

Schenke is initially unamused to be assigned an “assistant”, who just happens to be an SS Scharführer [sergeant] by Müller, and he sees it as an obvious device to keep tabs on him & his investigation [the officer’s name is Liebwitz, which I think is a nice little in-joke for German speakers, as the young officer has no sense of humour]; however, on reflection, Schenk realises that this could actually be an advantage, given the clout that even a sergeant in the Gestapo with SS accreditation can wield; he also shows assiduous diligence in his work. Also, Müller gives Schenk a letter of authority, which proves to be useful a few times. When another woman is murdered in almost identical circumstances, Schenk begins to wonder if, perhaps, this isn’t an investigation of one murder which could prove to be uncomfortably sensitive but, instead, one of a series by a psychopathic killer willing to take advantage of the wartime blackouts; further investigation by one of Schenk’s team suggests that this could, indeed, be the case… This is as much as I can reveal without spoiling the plot, but the tension as the investigation nears its conclusion is very well built, and the dénouement is very plausible, so if you enjoy a thriller with a wartime historical context, I can heartily recommend this book, and I would not be sorry to see a sequel.