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EIGHT HOURS FROM ENGLAND . . . Between the covers

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Anthony-Quayle-848x1024-848x1024To many of us who grew up in the 1950s Anthony Quayle was to become one of a celebrated group of theatrical knights, along with Olivier, Gielgud, Richardson and Redgrave. Until recently I had no idea that he was also wrote two novels based on his experiences in WW2. The first of these, Eight Hours From England was first published in 1945 and is the fourth and final reprint in the impressive series from the Imperial War Museum.

Major John Overton, stoically unlucky in love, combines a rather self-sacrificial gesture with a genuine desire to be at ‘the sharp end’ of the war. He chases up casual acquaintances working in the chaotic bureaucracy of London military administration and, rather randomly, finds himself sent out to Albania in the final days of December 1943. The chaotic country – ruled until 1939 by the improbably-named King Zog – had then been annexed by Mussolini’s Italy but after Italy’s surrender to the Allies in the autumn of 1943, German forces had moved in and had a tenuous grip of the country.

The brief of Britain’s SOE – the Special Operations Executive – was to fan the flames of behind-the-lines resistance in occupied countries. Admirer’s of Waugh’s Sword of Honour trilogy will recall that in Unconditional Surrender Guy Crouchback is sent to co-ordinate similar activities in nearby Yugoslavia but, like Crouchback, Overton finds that the situation on the ground is far from straightforward. On the one hand are the Communist partisans, but on the other are the Balli Kombëtar, a fiercely nationalist group who hate the Communists just as much as they hate the Nazis.

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New Year’s day 1944 brings little physical comfort to Overton, but he is determined to make a difference and, above all, wants to take the war to the Germans. In the following weeks and months he meets unexpected obstacles, chief among them being the Albanians themselves. Their character baffles him. He remarks, ruefully.

“The misfortunes of others were the only jokes at which Albanians laughed, the height of comedy being when another man was killed.”

His courage, tenacity and sheer physical resilience are immense, but are sorely tried. Overton’s private thoughts are never far from England:

“I stayed a while longer looking out over the grey Adriatic where in the distance, the island of Corfu was dimly visible between the rain squalls. It was an afternoon on which to recall the hissing of logs in the hearth of an English home and the sound of the muffin-man’s bell in the street outside.”

EHFE coverOf the three classic reprints which feature overseas action Eight Hours From England is the bleakest by far. The books by Alexander Baron and David Piper bear solemn witness to the deaths of brave men, sometimes heroic but often simply tragic: the irony is that Overton and his men do not, as far as I can recall, actually fire a shot in anger. No Germans are killed as a result of their efforts; the Allied cause is not advanced by the tiniest fraction; their heartbreaking struggle is not against the swastika and all it stands for, but against a brutally inhospitable terrain, bitter weather and, above all, the distrust, treachery and embedded criminality of many of the Albanians they encounter.

Overton survives, after a fashion, but is close to physical and spiritual breakdown. The heartache which prompted his original gesture is not eased, and the method of his dismissal by the young woman provides a cruel final metaphor:

“I put my hand into my pocket and pulled out what I thought was my handkerchief. But it was not: it was Ann’s letter. The blue writing paper had gone pulpy; the writing had smeared and wriggled across the page. Not a word was now legible.”

Quite early in the book, when Overton reaches Albania to replace the badly wounded former senior officer, the sick man makes a prophetic statement as he is stretchered aboard the boat to take him to safety:

“For a moment Keith did not speak and I thought he had not heard me, then the lips moved and he said slowly, and very clearly:
‘I wish you joy of the damned place.’”

Click on the covers below to read my reviews of the other three IWM classic reprints.

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PLENTY UNDER THE COUNTER . . . Between the covers

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T redhis 1943 novel by Kathleen Hewitt is the third in the excellent series of Imperial War Museum reprints of wartime classics, but couldn’t be more different from the first two, From The City, From The Plough and Trial By Battle. Whereas they were both literary novels shot through with harrowing accounts of men in battle, Plenty Under The Counter is an almost jolly affair, a conventional murder mystery set against the trials, tribulations and financial opportunities of civilian life in wartime London.

PUTC coverA jolly murder? Well, of course. Fictional murders can be range from brutal to comic depending on the genre, and although the corpse found in the back garden of Mrs Meake’s lodging house – 15 Terrapin Road – is just as dead as any described by Val McDermid or Michael Connelly, the mood is set by the chief amateur investigator, a breezy and frightfully English RAF pilot called David Heron on recuperation leave from his squadron, and his elegantly witty lady friend Tess. He is from solid county stock:

“There was his Aunt Jane, enduring the full horror of only having two servants to wait on her. There was an uncle, retired from the Indian Army, now clinging like a cobweb to the musty armchairs in his club.”

R redeaders will not need a degree in 20th century social history to recognise that the book’s title refers to the methods used by shopkeepers to circumvent the official rationing of food and fancy goods. More sinister is the presence – both in real life and in the book – of criminals who exploit the shortages to make serious money playing the black market and for whom deadly violence is just a way of life.

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Hewitt gives us plenty of Waugh-ish social satire on the way, partly courtesy of David’s friend Bob Carter, a young man with what they used to call ‘a dodgy ticker’. Turned down from active service he expends his energy on extracting donations from rich people in order to open a bizarre club, where he hopes that people of all nations (barring Jerry, the Eyeties and the Nips, of course) will mingle over a glass or two and thus further the cause of nation speaking unto nation. There is also the grotesque Annie, who serves as Mrs Meake’s maid of all work. Annie is painfully thin, a little short of six feet tall, and the first thing that most people see of her when she enters a room is her teeth.

T redhe ingredients simmering away in the pot of this murder mystery are exotic. There is Mrs Meake, matronly now in her middle age, but still dreaming of the days when she was a beauty in the chorus line on the London stage; her daughter Thelma, a thoroughly spoiled brat who has movie aspirations above her ability; also, who was the swarthy seafaring man trying to sell a fancy-handled knife in the local pub? David’s fellow residents at 15 Terrapin Road are a study in themselves – Cumberbatch, the retired rubber planter with a secret in his room; Lipscott, the Merchant Navy man besotted with a waif-like girl, and the misanthropic Smedley, with his limp and a sudden need for £100.

Kathleen Hewitt WC_01_AThe story rattles along in fine style as the hours tick by before David has to return to the war. He has two pressing needs. One is to buy the special licence which will enable him to marry Tess, and the other is to find the Terrapin Road murderer. Hewitt (right) is too good a writer to leave her story lightly bobbing about on the bubbles of wartime champagne (probably a toxic mix of white wine and ginger ale) and she darkens the mood in the last few pages, leaving us to ponder the nature of tragedy and self-sacrifice.

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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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THE GREAT DARKNESS . . . Between the covers

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Cambridge, in the early autumn of 1939, is like every other city and large town across Britain: war has been declared, the army is everywhere – as are rumours of German spies and infiltrators under every metaphorical bed. Observers scan the skies night and day vainly searching for enemy aircraft while in Belgium, the British Expeditionary Force sit waiting the German Army’s first move. In hindsight, of course, we know that this was the ‘phony’ war, and that Hitler’s forces had, for the moment at least, more pressing work further east.

Jim004In this febrile atmosphere are many men and women who have memories of “the last lot”. One such is the latest creation from Jim Kelly, (left) Detective Inspector Eden Brooke. He saw service in The Great War, but were someone to wonder if his war had been ‘a good war’, they would soon discover that he had suffered dreadful privations and abuse as a prisoner of the Turks, and that the most physical legacy of his experiences is that his eyesight has been permanently damaged. He wears a selection of spectacles with lenses tinted to block out different kinds of light which cause him excruciating pain. For him, therefore, the nightly blackout is more of a blessing than a hindrance.

One of Brooke’s stranger habits is moonlight bathing in the River Cam. It is on one such visit to the river that he overhears a conversation. Because of blackout, he can see nothing, but it seems a group of ‘squaddie’ soldiers under the command of an NCO are digging pits to bury something – and it is not a pleasant job. Daylight, and an inspection by one of Brooke’s officers, provides no answer.

With the mysterious burials in St John’s Wilderness nagging away at him like a toothache, Brooke must divert his attention to violent deaths. With military minds convinced that barrage balloons will prove the answer to death being delivered from the skies by the Luftwaffe, the ‘blimps’ are tethered all over the city. To us, they have a slightly comedic aspects, but when one breaks free from its mooring and catches fire, the results leave no-one laughing. As the balloon careers across the Cambridge rooftops it trails a deadly mesh of netting and steel cable. A man, subsequently identified as American research student Ernst Lux, has been caught up in this obscene accidental fishing expedition and when his body eventually returns to the ground it looks as if it has been savaged by some dreadful predatory beast. The second death is just as brutal but mercifully quicker. The body of Chris Childe, a conscientious objector and an active member of the Communist Party, is found slumped over his parents’ grave in Mill Road Cemetery. He has been shot through the head at point blank range.

Brooke is pulled this way and that with the investigations, but then there is a further complication. Three lorries, running on false plates, are found parked up on Castle Hill, their drivers gone. When the investigation gathers speed it becomes clear that this is an operation in black market meat, controlled by criminal gangs in Sheffield. Brooke is convinced that there is a military connection between all these events, but in order to make any sense of them he needs to get straight answers from the top brass at regional army HQ out at Madingley Hall. The Inspector is, literally, an ‘old soldier’ and he knows precisely how the military mind works, so attempts by officers such as Colonel George Swift-Lane to ‘baffle him with bullshit’ are doomed to failure.

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The relationship between the deaths, the digging and the dirty dealing are eventually laid bare by Brooke’s intelligence and persistence. Kelly’s writing has never been more atmospheric and haunting; he gives us one spectacular and horrific set-piece when a demonstration by the Auxiliary Fire Service goes terribly wrong, and he makes sure that the killer of Chris Childe dies a death more terrible than that of his victim. Above all, though, we have a brilliant and memorable new character in Eden Brooke. There is a little something of Christopher Foyle about him, although his wife Claire is very much alive, but Brooke’s son is also away doing his bit, with the BEF in Belgium, waiting for the push that would eventually. just seven months later, drive them into the sea.

 

Brooke’s portrait is subtle, nuanced and, while revealing up to a point, leaves us with the impression that this a man who we may never completely understand, and that he is someone whose actions, thoughts and decisions will always have the capacity to surprise us. I can only say to Jim Kelly, “Thank you, Mr K – this is as brilliant and evocative a piece of crime fiction as I will expect to read all year. You’ve gone and done it again!”

The Great Darkness is published by Allison & Busby and will be generally available on 15th February.

For a background to Jim Kelly’s work and his use of landscape, place and history in his novels, click the link below.

LANDSCAPE, MEMORY – and MURDER

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THE POSTMAN DELIVERS … Gardner, Haden & Thomson

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As we get within shouting distance of Christmas, and the Great Shut-Down, this week’s post has something of a military look about it, with two historical novels set in and around World War II. The first book out of the festive wrapping paper, however, is the latest thriller from Lisa Gardner, Look For Me.

Look For MeLook For Me is a return to active duty for Boston Detective D D Warren. In the twelfth book of an obviously popular series, Gardner brings back a character – Flora Dane –  from an earlier book, Find Her, in which Dane was a resilient but haunted survivor of kidnap and abduction. Now, Dane’s thirst for vengeance on her tormentor is a mixed blessing for Warren who is faced with a murder scene of almost unimaginable violence. Four members of the same family lie slaughtered in the family home, a refuge transformed into a charnel house. But where is the fifth member of the family? Has the sixteen year-old girl escaped, or is her disappearance the prelude to an even greater evil? Look For Me is published by Century, part of the Penguin Random House group, and will be available in early February 2018. You can pre-order a copy here.

JanPolish history in the twentieth century shows us a region constantly in the thick of conflict between rival military forces. It was the scene of many of the battles on the Eastern Front during WWI, and Poland suffered hugely at the hands of the Nazis during WWII. The very worst concentration camps set up by Hitler were on what is now Polish territory. Then, post-war, came what was, to all intents and purposes, a Russian occupation. Peter Haden’s novel Jan actually deals with a real person, his uncle, Jan Janicki and his exploits both before and during the Nazi occupation of his homeland. The novel tells of a flight from desperate domestic poverty, the humiliation of working for the ruthless German invaders, but then a determination to fight back, which sees Jan laying his life on the line to support the Polish resistance movement. Jan is published by Matador, and is available from their website, or from Amazon.

Doug ThomsonFrom Poland to Italy, where much of A Time For Role Call by Doug Thompson (left) is set. Former Professor of Modern Italian language, history and literature, Doug Thompson draws on his intimate knowledge of Italy to write a lively novel with a feisty protagonist and colourful cast of supporting characters. Sally Jardine-Fell is recruited by the wartime Special Operations Executive to travel to Italy. Her mission? To insinuate herself into the life of none other than Count Galeazo Ciano, Foreign Minister to Il Duce – Benito Mussolini – himself. Inevitably, things do not go according to plan, and, despite both the war and Mussolini himself becoming consigned to history, events conspire against Sally, and she finds herself in a cell, charged with murder. A Time For Role Call is published by Matador, and is available from their website or from Amazon.

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MOSKVA … Between the covers

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It might be thought that all the books about the problems of law and order in communist and post-glasnost Russia have already been written. Didn’t Martin Cruz Smith corner the market with his accounts of Arcady Renko and his tussles with the authorities? Or what about Boris Starling and Vodka, his tale of gangsters and oligarchs in a Russia struggling to come to terms with the free market?

Moskva cover Jack Grimwood’s Moskva sets out to convince us that there is room for one more tale of conflicted lives in a modern Russia full of paradox and uncertainty. The book came out in hardback earlier this year, and is now available in paperback, from Penguin. Does Grimwood, who made his name writing science fiction and fantasy novels, hit the spot?

Tom Fox is one of those rough, tough individuals who is paid by men in suits to go to dangerous places and do unpleasant things for Queen and Country. He has, however, been doubly traumatised: firstly, a tour of duty working undercover in the bitter sectarian war in Northern Ireland has left him psychologically scarred; secondly, his marriage is pretty much over after his teenage daughter drove her Mini into a tree at 80 mph. Suicide? Drugs? No-one knows for sure, but the blame game has been played to its conclusion, and Fox has lost. Now, in the winter of 1986, his instability is such that his paymasters and handlers in London have packed him off to Moscow, ostensibly to write a report on the state of religion in Gorbachev’s Russia but, in reality, he has been sent far away to keep him out of trouble.

 As soon as Fox makes the acquaintance of ambassador Sir Edward Marston and his wife, he is left in little doubt that he is as welcome as a man with something vile on the sole of his shoe trampling over the embassy Axminster. At a reception Fox meets Sir Edward’s fifteen year-old step-daughter Alex and, noticing that she has self harm marks on her lower arms, makes a flippant remark which he soon has cause to regret.

“Beneath her cuffs, not quite visible and not quite hidden, raw welts crossed both wrists. A blunt knife would do it.
‘What’s it got to do with you anyway?’
‘Nothing.’
‘Exactly’
‘Wrist to elbow,’ he said.’Wrist to elbow. If you’re serious.’”

Despite their disdain for Fox, Sir Edward and his wife Anna soon have need of his rough talents when Alex goes missing. There is no ransom note, and no apparent motive except a possible link with the body of a dead boy found frozen in the snow near The Kremlin. Fox is an excellent linguist, and his near-perfect Russian enables him to ‘go native’ in the search for Alex.

His investigation takes him to a back street drinking den run by Dennisov – a one-legged veteran of Russia’s Afghanistan war – and his sister Yelena. Their father is a distinguished veteran of that most blood-stained period in modern history which ran from 22nd June 1941 to 9th May 1945, known with reverence by many Russians as The Great Patriotic War. The further Fox digs into the mystery of Alex’s abduction, the more he realises that there is a motive – but one which has deep roots in the days and deeds of April 1945 when the Russians unleashed 20 armies, 6,300 tanks and 8,500 aircraft to crush the defenders of Berlin.

Grimwood_3The breadth of this novel in terms of time sometimes makes it hard to work out who has done what to whom. Patience – and a spot of back-tracking – will pay dividends, however, and the narrative provides a salutary reminder of the sheer magnitude of the numbers of Russian dead in WWII, and the resultant near-psychosis about The West. To top-and-tail this review and answer the earlier question as to whether Jack Grimwood (right)  “hits the spot”, I can give a resounding “Yes!”. Yes, the plot is complex, and yes, you will need your wits about you, but yes, it’s a riveting read; yes, Tom Fox is a flawed but engaging central character, and yes, Grimwood has sharp-elbowed his way into the line-up of novelists who have written convincing crime novels set in the enigma that is Russia.

Moskva is available in hardback, paperback and Kindle.

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WW2 Historical Crime Fiction – (5) A Man Without Breath

katynPhilip Kerr’s Bernie Gunther novels bestride the 20th century, from the rise of the Nazis in 1930s Germany to the post war period when many countries still sheltered mysterious German gentlemen whose collective past has been, of necessity, reinvented. Gunther is a smart talking, smart thinking policeman who has kept his sanity intact – but his conscience rather less so – by dealing with such elemental forces as Reinhardt Heydrich, Joseph Goebbels, Juan and Evita Peron, and Adolf Eichmann.

amwbreathA Man Without Breath (2013) sees Gunther is working for an organisation whose very existence may seem improbable, given the historical context, but Die Wehrmacht Untersuchungsstelle (Wehrmacht Bureau of War Crimes) was set up in 1939 and continued its work until 1945. In 1943, on a mission from the Minister for Propaganda, Joseph Goebbels, Gunther is sent to Smolensk and entrusted with proving that the thousands of corpses lying frozen beneath the trees of the nearby Katyn Forest are those of Polish army officers and intellectuals murdered by the Russian NKVD, and not those of Jews murdered by the SS.

The action is set against a resurgent Red Army slowly grinding its way west, and a small but growing body of opinion among the more aristocratic members of joseph-goebbels-speaf9d239the German military that Hitler is a dangerous upstart who has already damaged the country beyond repair, and must be stopped. Adrift on a sea of violent corruption, Gunther constantly plays the role of the decent man, but in the end, he follows one theology, and one theology only. If he wakes up the next day with his head firmly attached to his shoulders, and has feeling in his extremities, then he has done the right thing. His conscience has not died, but it is far from well; it competes a whole chorale of competing voices in his head, each wishing to be heard. As he is left helpless by the world of spin and disinformation orchestrated by Dr Goebbels, (right) he must resort to his basic copper’s instincts to protect himself and uncover the truth.

The Katyn Forest murders are a matter of historical record, but it is only in relatively recent times that Russia has officially admitted responsibility for the massacres. As recently as 6 December 2010, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev expressed commitment to uncovering the whole truth about the massacre, stating “Russia has recently taken a number of unprecedented steps towards clearing up the legacy of the past. We will continue in this direction”.

History tells us that the dead of Katyn included an admiral, two generals, 24 colonels, 79 lieutenant colonels, 258 majors, 654 captains, 17 naval captains, 85 privates, 3,420 non-commissioned officers, and seven chaplains, 200 pilots, government representatives and royalty (a prince and 43 officials), and civilians (three landowners, 131 refugees, 20 university professors, 300 physicians, several hundred lawyers, engineers, and teachers, and more than 100 writers and journalists.

We know the terrible details but Gunther only has his suspicions. Kerr weaves a brilliant tale where Gunther’s arrival at the truth has the ironic consequence of removing culpability for the deaths from one group of brutal criminals and bestowing it upon another. Those of us who are old enough to remember the post-war years, if only as children, will be familiar with the feeling that the Russians were bastards every bit as awful as their Nazi opponents, but at least they were our bastards – at least until they reached Berlin.

A Man Without Breath is available in all formats.

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WW2 HISTORICAL CRIME FICTION (4) – The Dead of Winter

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Rennie Airth, a South African by birth, now lives in Italy, but I mention these details only because his descriptions of wartime England in The Dead of Winter are so evocative that it is hard to believe that the writer did not experience the conditions at first hand. More of this in a while, but first, the story.

air_raid_wardens_wanted_-_arp_art-iwmpst13880We are in the weeks leading up to Christmas 1944, deep in what would prove to be the last winter of a war which, thanks to the Luftwaffe, had brought death and destruction to the doorsteps of ordinary people in towns and cities up and down the country. German aircraft no longer drone over the streets of London; instead, the Dorniers and Heinkels have been replaced by an even more demoralising menace – the seemingly random strikes by V1 and V2 rockets. Despite the fact that the rockets need no visible target to aim at, the ubiquitous blackout is still in force. An Air Raid Precaution Warden, whose job has become as redundant as that of those manning anti-aircraft batteries, makes a chilling discovery. He stumbles – literally – on the body of a young woman. Her neck has been broken by someone clearly well-versed in killing, and the only clue is a number of spent matches lying by the body.

The dead woman is soon identified. She is Rosa Nowak, a Polish girl who has sought refuge in Britain, and has been working on a farm in Kent. What was she doing in London? Visiting her aged aunt, apparently. The police struggle to find a motive for the killing. It wasn’t sexual, it wasn’t robbery, so who on earth stood to gain from the murder? The investigation is led by Chief Inspector Angus Sinclair, a senior detective who might have retired years ago, were it not for the manpower shortage in the Metropolitan Police caused by the war.

With one of those wonderful coincidences which only ever seem to happen in crime novels, Sinclair learns that the farm where Rosa had been working is none other than that owned by a former colleague – John Madden. Rennie Airth introduced us to the former Inspector in River of Darkness (1999) and we followed his progress in The Blood Dimmed Tide (2004). Madden served with distinction in The Great War, but the conflict has left him with scars, more mental than physical and, despite marrying, for the second time, a country doctor who he met in River of Darkness, he still grieves for the deaths of his first wife and their young daughter.

ration-bookThere is more than a touch of The Golden Age about this novel, but it is much more than a pastiche. Although the killing of Rosa Nowak is eventually solved, with a regulation dramatic climax in a snow-bound country house, Rennie Airth allows us to breathe, smell and taste the air of an England almost – but not quite – beaten down by the privations of war. Many of the characters have menfolk away at the war, including Madden himself and his wife Helen. Their son is in the Royal Navy, on the rough winter seas escorting convoys. The contrast between life in the city and in the country is etched deep. In the city, restaurant meals are frequently inedible, the black market thrives unchecked due to depleted police manpower, and even the newsprint bearing cheering propaganda from the government is subject to rationing. Travelling anywhere, unless you are fiddling your petrol coupons, is arduous and unpleasant.

“Though inured like all by now to the rigours of wartime travel, to the misery of unheated carriages, overcrowded compartments and the mingled smell of bodily odours and stale tobacco, he was still recovering from his trip down from London that afternoon when for two hours he had sat gazing out at a countryside that offered little relief to the eyes weary of the sight of dust and rubble, of the never-ending vista of ruined streets and bombed-out houses …..”

There is an element of the modern police procedural about the book, but such is the quality of Airth’s writing that we willingly forgive him for John Madden’s occasional flashes of insight which redirect the well-intentioned but bumbling coppers in their search for the killer of Rosa Nowak.

In addition to the two previous John Manning novels, our man returns in The Reckoning (2014) and is set to make another appearance in 2017 with The Death of Kings.

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WW2 HISTORICAL FICTION (3) – The Pale House

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It may have been difficult for people of my parents’ generation who lived – and fought – through the grim years of WWII to distinguish one German from another. It is entirely understandable that the differences between card-carrying members of the Nationalsozialistische Deutsche Arbeiterpartei and the ordinary soldiers, sailors and airmen who carried out their wishes might be rather academic, especially if your street had just blown up around your ears, or you were sitting at a table clutching a telegram informing you that your husband, brother or son had been shot dead or drowned in battle.

 The first author to write fiction from the viewpoint of the German military was the controversial Danish author known as Sven Hassel. His first novel Legion of The Damned (1953) was the first in a series describing the war through the eyes of men in the 27th (Penal) Panzer Regiment. The books were immensely successful, particularly in the UK, in spite of the fact that Hassel – real name Børge Willy Redsted Pedersen – was widely regarded as a traitor in his native land, because of his war service with the Wehrmacht.

More recently, Philip Kerr has written a series of very cleverly researched and convincing novels centred around a German policeman – Bernie Gunther – who manages to keep his self-respect more or less intact, despite working alongside such monsters as Reinhard Heydrich, Josef Goebbels and Arthur Nebe. The series has Gunther involved with all manner of military and political events, from the rise of Hitler in the 1930s right through to the days of the Peron rule in 1950s Argentina.

Gregor Reinhardt, like Gunther, is a former officer with the Berlin Kriminalpolizei, but lacks Gunther’s ability to duck and dive, bob and weave. He is forced out by the Nazis, but Luke-McCallin_website-cropped-June-2014finds employment as an officer in the Feldjaegerkorps. His creator, Luke McCallin, (right) introduced us to Hauptmann Reinhardt in The Man From Berlin (2014). In The Pale House (2015) Reinhardt is still at the extreme edge of what was, by 1945, the crumbling empire of The Third Reich. He is in Sarajevo, where the situation is, to put it mildly, anarchic. On one side hand are the Croation nationalists, the Ustase. They are, in theory, the allies of Germany, but only insofar as they have a common enemy, the communist Partisans, who are slowly gaining the upper hand.

This unholy Balkan Trinity is completed by a thoroughly disillusioned and war-weary German army who are aware, despite the failed von Stauffenberg plot to assassinate Hitler, that there is a savage and brutal race taking place between the Allied forces and the Red Army – the finishing line being Berlin itself. As the German military try to make their inevitable retreat from Sarajevo as orderly as possible, Reinhardt still has his job to do. In particular, he must find who is behind a series of mass killings, where the corpses are found with their faces disfigured. His investigations lead him to the Ustase headquarters on the banks of the Miljacka river.

The headquarters, known as The Pale House, is where the Ustase administer the beatings, torture and eventual murder of those they deem to be a threat. Even more disturbing to Reinhardt than the brutality of his notional allies is the fact that their excesses seem to be linked to his own countrymen – in particular, officers within the Feldgendarmerie, a more rank-and-file military police force than his own.

The Pale House is a gripping and brutal account of a war zone which tended to be overshadowed by the even more dramatic events further to the West. Reinhardt is, emphatically, a good man, and Luke McCallin’s skill is that he presents to us someone who loves his country, despite what it has become. We get a hint, in the final paragraphs, that Reinhardt will survive the political and military firestorm which is about to engulf him and his comrades, and that he will return – in another place, and with other crimes to solve.

You can find out more about the Luke McCallin and Hauptmann Reinhardt at the author’s website.

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