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WW2 HISTORICAL FICTION (3) – The Pale House

TPH spread

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.

WW2 HISTORICAL CRIME FICTION (1) A Lily of the Field

EVERYONE LOVES A GOOD LIST, and I’m no exception. To kick off a series of features on historical crime fiction, I am starting with my own favourite period – World War 2. I just missed it, by a couple of years, but both my mother and father served, as did my wife’s parents, and so ‘The War’, as it was always known in our house was – and remains – very much part of my consciousness. My selection is subjective, and there is no order of merit, but each of the five is a cracking read.

ALOTFA LILY OF THE FIELD by John Lawton

Lawton is a master of historical fiction set in and around the war. His central character is Fred Troy, a policeman of Russian descent. His emigré father is what used to be called a ‘Press Baron’. Fred’s brother Rod will go on to become a Labour Party MP in the 1960s, but is interned during the war. His sisters are bit players, but memorable for their sexual voracity. Neither man nor woman is safe from their advances.

Apart from being an elegant and sharp-tongued writer, Lawton’s great skill is to people his books with real personalities of the period. Sometimes they are thinly disguised, but more often than not they play themselves. Across the spread of Fred Troy novels, we meet, in no particular order, Nikita Kruschev, the entire Labour Shadow Cabinet, Winston Churchill’s gunmaker and an American presidential candidate.

Fred becomes one of London’s top coppers, but to categorise the novels as police procedurals is accurate only in as far as that there are policemen in the books, and they occasionally have procedures. All this being said, Troy is in the background during much of A Lily of the Field. We follow the life of teenager Méret Voytek, a brilliant young Viennese cellist. Through her own naivete and a tragic act of fate, she is caught holding a bundle of anti-Nazi leaflets while traveling on the tram. She is taken by the SS and ends up in Auschwitz. Meanwhile, her parents have been likewise detained, and their family home ransacked.

In the bitterest of paradoxes, the Auschwitz commandant, has a musical ear, and so he puts together an orchestra made up of the many skilled inmates. One of their bizarre duties is to play beautiful music as their less talented companions trudge off to work in the morning. Méret plays for her life, literally. The physical privations she undergoes are heart-breaking, but still she plays, still she clings on to what is left of life.

In January 1945, with the Russians approaching from the east, and the British and Americans from the west, the Germans realise that the game is up. Auschwitz inmates who are too infirm to walk are shot, and the remainder are sent out, under guard, to start the infamous Death March. In the freezing conditions few survive, but just as Meret is about to succumb, their column is overtaken by a Russian detachment. Salvation? Hardly. The first instinct of the Russian soldiers is to rape the women. Méret is saved by a no-nonsense officer. At this point, Fred Troy aficionados will recognise Major Larissa Tosca, Fred’s one-time lover. She has, in her time, spied for both America and for Russia, but here her cap bears the Red Star.

Long-time Lawton readers will know that he leaps about between the years with a sometimes bewildering agility. True to form, the climax of this book is played out in post war London and Paris. Méret’s rescue by the Russians has come at a price, and we find her tangled up in the spy ‘games’ which characterised much of the Cold War period. Lawton is much too clever a writer just to tell this one tale, however gripping it may be. Woven into the fabric is another thread which involves an interned Hungarian physicist, Dr. Karel Szabo, who ends up as a key figure in the American efforts to build and test the first atomic bomb.

One of the key figures from the spy ring of which Méret is a part is murdered in London, and it is then that Frec Troy becomes involved. For all his many qualities, Troy is an inveterate womaniser, but he is not a sexual beast, and the late scenes where he spends time with the fragile Méret, still beautiful but old before her time, are haunting in their compassion.

‘Troy had never heard her laugh. It was like that moment in Ninotchka when Garbo laughs on-screen for the first time. It is not merely that she laughs, but that she laughs so long and so loud.

As the laughter subsided she was grasping at words and not managing to get a sentence out.

“Oh, Troy ….oh, Troy..this is….this is a farce. Don’t you see? Viktor taught us the same part.”
“We’re two left-handed women trying to dance backward. Neither of us knows the man’s part.”

She reached up her sleeve for a handkerchief to dab her tears and found none. Troy gave her his, a huge square of Irish linen with an overfancy  ‘f’ in one corner.

Being drunk did not make her loquacious. In that, she was like Troy. At two in the morning Voytek was deeply asleep in front of the fire. Troy picked her up, astonished at how little she weighed, carried her upstairs and slid her into the spare bed. She did not wake. He went to his own bed.’

A Lily of the Field is far from being a dry history novel where the factual details are more important than the plot and the dialogue. It is tense, funny, occasionally very violent, and written with a style and fluency which leaves lesser authors struggling in Lawton’s wake. A final little gem, which I only noticed recently. If you look closely at the cover, you can see Méret Voytek, in her red coat, moving away from us. With her cello slung over her shoulder, she walks into history.

A Lily of the Field is available in all formats, and John Lawton has his own Amazon page
and website.

 

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