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1950s

GREEKS BEARING GIFTS . . . Between the covers

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philip-kerr“One of the greatest anti-heroes ever written,” says Lee Child of Bernie Gunther, the world weary, wise-cracking former German cop, and sometime acquaintance of such diverse historical characters as Reinhard Heydrich, Joseph Goebbels, Eva Peron and William Somerset Maugham. I was several chapters into this, the latest episode in Gunther’s career, when I heard the dreadful news of the death of his creator, Philip Kerr (left) at the age of 62. “No age at all,” as the saying goes.

We rejoin our man in 1957, where he is eking out a living in the economic miracle that is Konrad Adenauer’s West Germany. The prosperity and new international respectability created in a country that just ten years earlier lay devastated by war, has largely passed Gunther by. Under an assumed name, he is working as a mortuary attendant in a Munich hospital. It is not his ideal job, but as he says:

“So, until I could find myself something better, I was stuck with it and my customers were stuck with me. I certainly didn’t hear any of them complaining about my bedside manner.”

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After being blackmailed into taking part in a financial scam involving local politicians, Gunther manges to come out of the affair smelling, if not of roses, like something fairly neutral, like amaryllis. He is rewarded with a new job – that of an insurance adjuster, investigating fraudulent claims and saving his employers precious deutschmarks. Gunther reflects, with typical hard nosed perception, about the state of modern West Germany, with the Third Reich having done one of the most spectacular disappearing acts in history.

” Germany would try its best to be nice to everyone and, in the interests of making money, everyone else would try their best to forget what Germany had done during the war. Bureaucracy and trade were to be my country’s new method of conquering Europe, and lawyers and civil servants were to be its foot soldiers.

adenauerHitler could certainly have taken a lesson from the Old Man (Adenauer, left) It was not the men with guns who were going to rule the world but businessmen …. with their slide rules and actuarial tables, and thick books of obscure new laws in three different languages.”

Gunther is sent to Greece to investigate the sinking of boat used by a German maker of underwater films, but soon he finds the owner shot dead through both eyes, and a trail of deception and murder that links the sunken boat to the shameful treatment of Thessaloniki’s thousands of Jews during the war. They were deceived, robbed, brutalised – and finally shipped off to the death camps – by men who seem to be still alive and well in Athens.

As Isaac Watts wrote so memorably, “Time, like an ever rolling stream, bears all its sons away..” and Gunther, while not dead yet, is not the man he was. He suffers a minor heart attack while chasing one of his suspects, but his remedy is not one that would appeal to modern cardiologists.

“But straightway I knew what needed to be done: I lurched into the café, ordered a large brandy, and lit a cigarette but not before snapping the filter off the filter to smoke it plain and get my breath. The old remedies are usually best. Throughout both wars it was a strong cigarette and a tot of something warm that kept the nerves in check, especially when the shells were falling around you like rocks at Muslim stoning. Once the nerves were sorted, the bullets wouldn’t touch you; and if they did, you hardly cared.”

Part of the delightfully complex plot involves the intervention of the Israeli secret service, the fearsome Mossad. The woman who is heading up their Athens operation is witheringly sarcastic when Gunther claims that, albeit under trying circumstances, he had kept a relatively clean conscience during the 1930s and 1940s.

” I’ve heard of the unicorn, the griffin, the great auk, the tart with a heart, and little green men from outer space. I’ve even heard of the good German, but I never thought to see one myself. You never voted for the Nazis, and you never liked Hitler. I suppose there was even a Jew you helped to survive the war. You hid him in your lavatory for a couple of days. And of course some of your best friends were Jews. It amazes me how many of us died.”

This is a magnificent book. Gunther’s cynicism, his basic decency, and his ability to keep the candle flame of his conscience flickering in the dark while still keeping his head attached to his body, are described by an author at the very peak of his powers. Philip Kerr may have passed from the sight of men, but Bernie Gunther is immortal.

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FRIENDS AND TRAITORS … Between the covers

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After a pause of some years, during which he has introduced the character of Joe Wilderness (Then We Take Berlin, The Unfortunate Englishman) John Lawton re-introduces his most beguiling character, Frederick Troy. Troy is the son of a Russian emigré-turned-newspaper-baron, but he has turned his back on that world (if not its riches and status) to become a London copper. Learning his trade as a bobby on the beat in WWII London, he rises to become one of the top policemen of his generation. His older brother, Sir Rodyon ‘Rod’ Troy has turned to politics, and in this novel he is Shadow Home Secretary in the 1950s Labour Opposition of Hugh Gaitskell.

FATFriends and Traitors focuses mostly on the 1951 defection – and its aftermath – of intelligence officer Guy Burgess, to the Soviet Union. A huge embarrassment to the British government at the time, it was also about personalities, Britain’s place in the New World Order – and its attitudes to homosexuality. Burgess’s usefulness to the Soviets was largely symbolic, but the crux of the story is the events surrounding Burgess’s regrets, and heartfelt wish to come home. Troy interviews him in a Vienna hotel.

“’I want to come home.’
‘Yes,’ said Troy softly. ‘I’d guessed as much.’
‘I miss it all. I miss London. I miss the clubs. I miss the Dog and Duck. I miss the Salisbury. I miss the reform. I miss the RAC. I miss the Gargoyle. I miss that bloke in the pub in Holborn who can fart the national anthem. I miss Tommy Trinder. I miss Max Miller. I miss Billy Cotton. I miss Mantovani. I miss my mother. Oh God, I miss my mother.’”

Troy becomes caught up with what is later revealed to be a plot within a plot – within a subterfuge – within a brutal exercise in double dealing. One thing is for certain, though – the British establishment has no intention of a ‘kiss and make up’ process with Burgess. Rod Troy is summoned to 10 Downing Street to meet Prime Minister Harold Macmillan, who conceals his razor sharp political awareness by pottering about the kitchen in a tatty cardigan, making tea:

“But then, the old man could be amazingly elliptical, subtle to the point of obscurity, to the point where half the nation had willingly misunderstood his ‘never had it so good’ speech. However, there was nothing elliptical about ‘I don’t want Burgess back – at any price.’”

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One of the joys of the Fred Troy novels is the vast repertory company of characters, some fictional and others actual, who appear throughout the series. One such is the beguiling Hungarian musician Méret Voytek, who took centre stage in A Lily of the Field (click the link to read more). Voytek, now a Soviet agent, and Troy are temporarily reunited as part of the subterfuge surrounding Burgess’s attempts to return to Britain.

“He’d not set eyes on Voytek since the day he’d stuck her on the ferry to Calais ten years ago. At twenty-four she’d looked older than her years, her hair prematurely, brazenly white after a year in the hands of the Nazis. Now, she had more flesh on her bones, she had dyed her hair back to its youthful black, no longer wearing white as the badge of her suffering.”

AR-AM348_LAWTON_12S_20160302163714Lawton (right) was born in 1949, so would have only the vaguest memories of growing up in an austere and fragile post-war Britain, but he is a master of describing the contradictions and social stresses of the middle years of the century. Here, he describes Westcott, a notoriously persistent MI5 interrogator, sent to quiz Troy on the events in Vienna:

“His generation had not worn well. A childhood in the over-romanticised Edwardian Age, an adolescence spent wondering if the Great War would last long enough to kill him, and then thrust out into the twenties, into the General Strike and the Depression – the Age of Disappointment – and the thirties, what Auden had called ‘that dirty, double-dealing decade’ – one not designed to leave a man with any memories of heroism, cameradie, or death”

Fred Troy is something of an anti-hero. His attitude towards women would have him outed in the comments section of today’s Guardian, and his approach to moral certainties would, at best, be described as pragmatic. Over the course of the series, he beds many women, but Friends and Traitors has him attached (but not exclusively) to a wholesome lass from Derbyshire, called Shirley Foxx. They go to her home town, to rediscover and reclaim the house where she grew up. In the use of evocative product names, Lawton has found a sharp weapon, and he is not afraid to use it:

“He found her in the bedroom. Childhood spread out across a handknotted rag rug – one large doll, one small lacking its left arm, half a dozen Ladybird books, a dozen Collins classics, a shrivelled bouquet of posies in a faded red ribbon, a bar of soap in the shape of Minnie Mouse …”

While Shirley is trying to exorcise her childhood in order to make sense of her new life, Troy beds another woman but is then called to investigate her murder. Having sorted out her parents’ house, Shirley makes a surprise return to Troy’s London flat in St Martin’s Lane:

“’But it’s done now. The loo works, hot and cold running in a new sink, the house is let and Rosie and Malcolm installed. I am …..home!’ Of course she was. He didn’t think he’d noticed his home in days. He had fallen through a hole in time and space. He had lived with the dead, and could not handle the living woman in front of him.”

To put it simply, Lawton is a writer who transcends genre. His prose is subtle, stylish, pared back to the bone, but translucent, crystal clear. His portrayal of Britain and its place either side of WWII is masterly: he reflects the country’s disappointments, its uncertainties and how it seems to be stumbling, torchless, through a world of darkness quite beyond its comprehension. The Fred Troy novels lack the sequential timeline of Anthony Powell’s A Dance to the Music of Time cycle, but in every other sense they are its equal.

Friends and Traitors is available here,
and you can check reading options for the other Fred Troy novels.

MURDER IN MT MARTHA … Between the covers

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Some novels tread a well-worn path. The path is well-worn because it is safe, easy to follow, and will guarantee that the traveller arrives at his or her destination with the minimum of unnecessary effort. Crime fiction genres tend to operate like paths, with familiar landmarks and way points. Just occasionally a book comes along which jumps away from these genres and, in doing so, steps off the path and heads off into unknown territory.

jsMurder In Mt Martha is one such book. For those who have never visited Melbourne, Mount Martha is a town on the Mornington Peninsula, best known as what we Brits would call a seaside town. The ‘Mount’ is a shade over 500 ft, and is named after the wife of one of the early settlers. Author Janice Simpson (left)  has taken a real-life unsolved murder from the 1950s as one thread, and created another involving a present day post-grad student who is interviewing an old man about his early life in the post-war Victorian city. Simpson has woven the two threads together to create a fabric that shimmers, shocks and surprises.

Nick Szabo is a pleasantly feckless second-generation Australian, whose parents and grandparents were Hungarian. His source of anecdotes and atmosphere is the elderly Arthur Boyle. Arthur lives alone apart from his cat, and watches with a mixture of incomprehension and anger modern Melbourne streams past his window.

mimmSimpson keeps Szabo blissfully unaware that Arthur Boyle is a relative of Ern Kavanagh. Arthur only recalls him in fits and starts, believing that he was his uncle, but Simpson lets us into the secret as she describes Ern’s life over half a century earlier. The book opens with a graphic description of the brutal murder of an innocent teenager whose parents have reluctantly allowed her to travel alone to her first party. There is never any doubt in our minds that Ern Kavanagh killed the girl, but we are kept on a knife-edge of not knowing if he will get away with the murder.

I have to declare an interest and say that I lived and worked in Melbourne back in the day, and so the minutiae of suburban life, particularly the way people spoke, the obsession with horse-racing and, of course, the ‘footy’, struck a chord with me. I would like to think, however, that readers who have never been within a thousand miles of Australia will be convinced and drawn in by Simpson’s superb writing.

Aside from the murder mystery, there is a beguiling sub-plot involving Szabo, his determinedly Hungarian grandmother, and a visitor from Budapest who may be about to turn on its head their conception about their family tree. Again, history is embedded in the narrative. In 1956, when Melbourne hosted the Olympic Games, there was international turmoil when 48 Hungarian athletes chose not to return home. ‘Home’ was, of course, suffering under the brutal Soviet repression of a national uprising against communist rule.

The writing is beautifully nuanced throughout. The dialogue, whether it is contemporary or taking place in a suburban 1950s kitchen, zings with authenticity. This is not a long novel, being just short of 300 pages, but it is one that hooked me in very quickly, and I was genuinely sad to reach the end. That being said, there are few crime novels whose structure and substance allow them to be read through again at a later date, but I suspect that is one such novel.

Without, I hope, spoiling the conclusion to this remarkable book, it might be said that justice was eventually done, albeit in a roundabout sort of way. But then again, the last hanging in the state of Victoria was in 1967; depending on one’s views of capital punishment, a convincing argument could be therefore made that justice was not only blind, but bereft of its other senses too.

Murder in Mt Martha is already published and is available here.

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