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J SS Bach

J SS BACH . . . Between the covers

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This is not a conventional crime novel. There are victims, for sure, and perpetrators of terrible acts which still, when described, take the breath away in their depravity and cold, organised manifestation of evil. English academic Martin Goodman (right) MGhas written a starkly brilliant account of Nazi oppression in Central Europe in the late 1930s. He achieves his broad sweep by, paradoxically focusing on the fine detail. One family. One teenage boy, Otto Schalmek. One fateful knock on the door while Vienna and most of Austria are waving flags to welcome ‘liberation’ in the shape of the Anschluss.

 

JSSBThe Schalmek family are Jewish. That is all that needs to be said. The family becomes just a few lines on a ledger – immaculately kept – which records the ‘resettlement’ of Jewish families. Otto is taken to Dachau and then to Birkenau. His ability as a cellist precedes him, and he is sent to play in the house of Birchendorf, the camp Commandant. His wife Katja is the artistic one, and her husband merely seeks to keep her entertained by using Schalmek as a kind of performing monkey who plays Bach suites on the cello in between sanding floors and mopping up shit in the latrines.

 

The great irony is that Katja is unable to hear Schmalek’s artistry. She is, quite literally, deaf to the Baroque intricacies being played on the stolen Stradivarius. She is, however able to hear through her fingertips as she places her hands on the cello while Schalmek plays. She is pregnant, and although her other senses cause her to be repelled by the captive cellist’s physical state, there is an almost erotic connection between the two.

History, in the shape of Hitler’s madness and the relentless march of the Red Army, intervenes, and the death camps are liberated. Birchendorf is captured and arraigned for war crimes, while his wife and their young daughter manage to lose themselves in the flood of genuine refugees from the devastation caused by war. They manage to escape to a new life in Australia, while Schalmek also survives but goes on to become a revered composer whose rare performances are cherished by the international concert-goers.

Goodman’s book spans the years and the continents. Having been shown the shattering of the Schalmek family we go from the Nuremburg trials to late 1940s Canada and then, via Sydney in the 1960s, on to 1990s California, where Katja’s grand-daughter Rosa, an eminent writer and musicologist, seeks an audience with the elusive and very private genius Otto Schalmek. Rosa Cline is determined to write the definitive biography of Otto Schalmek, but their relationship takes an unexpected turn.

Another fine novel which walks the same bloodstained roads is A Lily of The Field by John Lawton. Again we have a teenage Jewish musician, also a cellist, who is dragged from the family home in Vienna and sent to the death camps. Like Goodman’s Otto Schalmek, Meret Voytek survives in hell due to her musical brilliance. Her Nazi captors may be brutal murderers, but they are not artistic philistines. There, the resemblance between the novels ends. Voytek is saved by Russians who intercept the Death March from Auschwitz, but her post-war life becomes entangled with Cold War espionage.

Screen Shot 2019-06-04 at 19.52.58is a distinctive and beautifully written novel, full of irony, heartbreak and a scholarly brilliance in the way it portrays the human devastation of Hitler’s assault on the Jews. Yes, there is the almost obligatory account of the depravity and sheer horror of the camps, but Goodman also brings a sense of great intimacy and a telling focus on the small personal tragedies and discomforts – an interrupted family meal, a tearful and hurried “goodbye”, and a new grandchild never to be cuddled by grandparents. Crime fiction? Probably not, in the scheme of things. Thrilling, often painful, and full of psychological insight? Certainly. J SS Bach is published by Wrecking Ball Press and is out now.

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ON MY SHELF . . . June 2019

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A MISCHIEVOUS BOOK PERSON on Twitter last week sought suggestions on trigger words in CriFi book titles which induce an automatic sinking feeling in the prospective reader. I weighed in with  ‘Papers‘, ‘Code‘, ‘Conspiracy‘, ‘Legacy‘, ‘Ultimatum‘ and, worst of all, the one which will have me reaching for the nearest box set of DVDs or even checking out the backlog of Peppa Pig episodes I record for my granddaughter, the dreaded four-letter word ‘Girl‘. Happily, those fateful words are missing from a bumper crop of new books on my shelf.

KEEP YOU CLOSE by Karen Cleveland

Keep You CloseA writer who spent years working for the CIA and the FBI – as well as graduating from Trinity College Dublin and Harvard – is going to be an author to be reckoned with. Karen Cleveland’s 2018 best-seller Need To Know hit all the right buttons for readers who like psychological anxiety, tension and that delicious schadenfreude  that washes over us when we watch someone’s domestic bliss unravel. Cleveland taps into her FBI background with her latest thriller, as FBI analyst Steph discovers something in her teenage son’s bedroom which turns her world on its head. This is out in Kindle on 13th June, in hardback on 27th of the month, and is published by Bantam Press.

 

CLEAR MY NAME by Paula Daly

Cover037Carrie Kamara languishes in prison, sent down after an open-and-shut investigation and trial where she was convicted of murdering her husband’s mistress in a cold blooded attack fueled by humiliation and jealousy. The evidence? DNA. Conclusive, isn’t it? Or is it? Tess Gilroy is a tireless campaigner for Innocence UK, a charity which exists to overturn miscarriages of justice. When she takes on Carrie’s case she is initially swept along by her burning desire to establish the truth, but as she mines down into the detail of the case, she realises, to her horror, that she will be forced to confront some very uncomfortable issues of her own if she is to secure Carrie’s freedom. Again, this is from Bantam Press but you will have to wait until 8th August to get your hands on a copy.

ONE WAY OUT by AA Dhand

One Way OutThe issue of Muslims in Britain, and the extent to which they do – or don’t – integrate with mainstream non Islamic communities is a source of continuous political and social media debate where, as a rule, more heat than light is generated. Dhand has established his Bradford-based copper D.I. Harry Virdee with three previous novels, Streets of Darkness (2016), Girl Zero (2017) and City of Sinners (2018). Now, Virdee becomes personally involves in a campaign by an extreme right wing group who are targeting Muslims in the Yorkshire city of Bradford. The Patriots have one specified target, the leaders of a group of Islamic extremists known as Almukhtaroon. Virdee has to make decisions which threaten not only his own life, but the lives of his family – and the future well-being of thousands of fellow Bradford citizens. I promise I am not it the pay of Bantam Press, but this is one of theirs, too, and it will be available from 27th June.

J SS BACH by Martin Goodman

JSSBThe author is a distinguished British academic who has written extensively on Roman and Jewish history. There are no Romans in his latest book – a work of fiction – but the fate of European Jews in the late 1930s is examined here in painful detail. Otto Schalmik and his family are dragged from their Vienna home and sent first to Dachau, and then to Birkenau. Due to his consummate skill as a cellist, and the intense love of Bach displayed by the camp commandant and his wife, Otto survives. Years later, when he is an internationally revered artist, his world and that of the commandant’s wife and granddaughter collide, with unexpected personal consequences. Published by Wrecking Ball Press, Martin Goodman’s novel is available now.

A KILLING SIN by KH Irvine

AKSIrvine’s novel, like One Way Out, visits the fraught and potentially explosive world of relations between British Muslims and their host country. Islam. Is it a religion? Certainly. Is it a race? Well. clearly not, as the faith bestrides many nationalities. Is Islam immune from criticism? Here lies the rub, explored in painful detail in this startling debut from an author who grew up in Scotland and now lives near London. The book was her 50th birthday gift to herself, believing you are never too old to try something new. Her day job has taken her to board rooms, universities and governments all over the world and has included up close and personal access to special forces. In A Killing Sin, three women from across the religious, political and racial divide in modern Britain find that their lives mesh together against the backdrop of a national political and social emergency. A Killing Sin will be published by Urbane Publications on 4th July.

THE BOY WHO FELL by Jo Spain

TBWFJo Spain has a dazzling ability to write stand-alone crime novels which hit the spot every time, but she is also canny enough to know that most crime readers like a good series, and hers is right at the top of the  ‘unmissable’ list of modern police procedurals. In his latest case, Dublin copper Tom Reynolds has just been promoted, but he is asked to take an interest in an uncomfortable case which is well below his new pay grade. A teenager appears to have been pushed to his death from the window of an abandoned house. The case has extra spice because the house was the scene of a savage domestic murder years earlier and the dead boy is judged by the pathologist to have been the victim of a homosexual rape shortly before his death. Reynolds takes on the case as a favour to a fellow Garda Síochána officer who is related to the mixed race teenager suspected of the rape and murder. Quercus will be publishing this latest episode in the casebook of Tom Reynolds on 27th June. For more on Jo Spain and to discover why I am a huge fan of her writing, click this link.

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