Monday, 12 June 2017

Novels about the Third Reich, Part One: Philip Kerr’s Prussian Blue

This review, originally published in Critics at Large, is reproduced on this site because Kerr's novels on the Third Reich reinforce the themes I discussed in That Line of Darkness: The Gothic from Lenin to bin Laden, (Encompass Editions, 2013.)
Novelist Philip Kerr. (Photo: Alberto Estevez)

A new release of a Philip Kerr novel is always a welcome addition to an oeuvre of more than thirty books, including his highly-received Bernie Gunther novels. From the 1989 publication of March Violets to Prussian Blue (Marian Wood Books/Bantam, 2017), Kerr has now churned out twelve novels about the acerbic-tongued German detective who has led a checkered life from the trenches of World War One, then as a homicide Berlin cop working for Kripo (the criminal division of the German police), as a private detective, a reluctant member of the SS during World War II, a Soviet POW, to being a fugitive living under aliases in places such as Argentina and France. Throughout, Kerr’s historical research is impeccable enabling him to convey vividly the atmospherics of the times and delineate adroitly the historical actors. Because his focus is on character and hard-boiled Chandlerian dialogue – the cynical wise-cracking Gunther rarely abstains from verbal jousts with often powerful personalities – Kerr astutely avoids providing unnecessary expository information unless it is revealed through the characters and is vital to our understanding of the period.

Sunday, 28 May 2017

The Spirit of David McCullough in The American Spirit

This review, originally appearing in Critics at Large  is reproduced here since it reveals how certain historical actors refused to cross that line of darkness in large part because they were well read and a keen historical awareness unlike the current President.

David McCullough, author of The American Spirit. (Photo by William B. McCullough)

“We must all read history…”  – John Adams, in a letter he wrote to his wife Abigail. 
“Make the love of learning central to your life.” – David McCullough in The American Spirit.
Most people may know David McCullough for his rich baritone voice as the narrator of Ken Burns’ landmark PBS series, The Civil War or as the host for twelve years of The American Experience. He is also well known for his Pulitzer prize-winning Presidential biographies of Harry Truman and John Adams – the latter adapted into an engrossing HBO series. He has written prize-winning studies on the young Teddy Roosevelt and the building of the Panama Canal. He was the subject of a wonderful portrait as a historian, raconteur and family man in the 2008 documentary Painting with Words, which is included on the John Adams DVD. In 2006, he was the recipient of the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest award a civilian can earn. Most recently, he has turned his attention to collecting his finest speeches over almost thirty years delivered at university commencements, historical societies, both Houses of Congress and the White House. The result is the lovelyThe American Spirit: Who We Are and What We Stand For (Simon & Schuster, 2017) which says as much about himself as the subjects of his mini-essays.

In his first (1989) and last address (2016), McCullough celebrates two members of Congress who he feels have not been given sufficient recognition – John Quincy Adams and Margaret Chase Smith. Quincy Adams – the son of the second President – who, after serving in several posts as Ambassador, became Secretary of State and then a one-term President (and overshadowed by his successor, Andrew Jackson). He was the only former President to be elected to the House of Representatives where he served with distinction for eighteen years, earning widespread support among his colleagues for his untiring energy, incorruptibility and his eloquence. A reader might wonder whether McCullough’s focus on Quincy Adams underscores his perception that there are few avatars of his principled spirit currently sitting in Congress primarily because they are more interested in serving their own Party than the people who elected them.

Sunday, 14 May 2017

Dead City in Steven Heighton’s The Nightingale Won’t Let You Sleep

“He sobs, shakes and chokes, he hears himself making unearthly sounds, dying animal sounds, and his attempts to control and muffle them only intensify the attack. He has to give in. As if a lifetime’s quota of grief, loneliness and regret has been concentrated into one cataclysm, he weeps until his eyes swell shut and he lies still and emptied on the floor.” This review  that originally appeared in Critics at Large reappears on this site because the destabilizing consequences of war, both for a community and the individual who has directly experienced it, is a theme both of the book under review and the two volumes of That Line of Darkness.

Author Steven Heighton.

“Any war goes on destroying lives for a lifetime.”  Steven Heighton, The Nightingale Won’t Let You Sleep
In the early 1970s the beach resort of Varosha was the jewel of Cyprus’ east coast, a destination for the global jet set until the Turkish invasion of 1974. The Turkish authorities never allowed the shop owners and local population to return after they fled. Fenced off and decaying, the city turned into a ghost town. Varosha is the major setting for the Canadian novelist and award-winning poet, Steven Heighton’s fourth novel, The Nightingale Won’t Let You Sleep (Hamish Hamilton, 2017). Its alluring locale that combines “dead hotels” in a “topiary city made of vines, wild grape and bougainvillea” is one of the most memorable features of the novel. 

Sunday, 30 April 2017

Context in Adrian McKinty’s Irish Police Procedurals

The following review, which originally appeared in Critics at Large is reproduced on this site because during the novels under review illustrate how during the Irish 'troubles"  all the paramilitary groups and the British security forces crossed that line of darkness.

Crime novelist Adrian McKinty.

If we were to only read Adrian McKinty’s sixth and most recent entry of his Sean Duffy series Police at the Station and They Don’t Look Friendly (Seventh Street Books, 2016) and his previous Rain Dogs (2015), we would be gripped by his outstanding opening chapters. In Police at the Station, we are dropped into a tableau that could have emerged from The Sopranos – except it is 1988 in Ulster, during the Irish “Troubles” in which over the course of thirty years 3,600 people were killed by Republican and Loyalist paramilitaries, and the Security Forces. Detective Sean Duffy is being prodded forward with guns to his back through a patch of woods to dig his own grave. (The 2009 film, The Crying Game, is perhaps a better comparison.) He knows this scene well. He has been the responding officer on “half a dozen bodies found face down in a sheugh, buried in a shallow grave, or dumped in a slurry pit on the high bog." Before the reader can wonder whether this series is coming to an end, the next chapter veers back to the beginning of the mess in which Duffy finds himself, the investigation of a drug dealer’s murder shot in the back with a crossbow. In Rain Dogs, Muhammad Ali is visiting Belfast as a "peace tour" and Duffy is on security detail. Although Ali did visit Ireland twice, this fictional scene has the feeling of verisimilitude, given McKinty’s description of the boxer and his face to face with a bunch of skinheads opposed to him on the grounds of the colour of his skin. It is a marvellously constructed opener even though it has nothing to do with the plot that follows.

Monday, 17 April 2017

An Act of Mercy Finds its Karma Years Later in I Who Did Not Die

This review that originally appeared in Critics at Large is reproduced here because it is a moving example of how the refusal to cross a line during the Iran-Iraq war  had a hugely positive effect for two people.

Zahed Haftlang and Najah Aboud, authors of  I Who Did Not Die.


“When I crashed back to earth, I had no more faith in anything. I didn’t believe in God, in humanity, or in war. There was no time for such devotions, as blood seeped from my forehead and chest, and all around me men were being executed as they begged for their lives. There was only one truth left: I was going to rot in a mass grave with hundreds of other forgotten soldiers…. I opened my eyes and saw a child soldier pointing a rifle at my temple. He was so small that he had to roll up the sleeves and pant legs of his uniform. The boy had been brainwashed to hate me. I spoke as softly as I could. ‘Please,’ I said ‘I’m… just like you.” 
- Najah Aboud, I Who Did Not Die
It is rare that I would cite such a long passage from a book as an epigraph, especially when it is on the back of the dust jacket. But this description from I Who Did Not Die: A Sweeping Story of Loss, Redemption, and Fate by the Iraqi, Najah Aboud, and the Iranian, Zahed Haftlang, with the assistance of journalist Meredith May (Regan Arts, 2017), is possibly the seminal moment in this astonishing alternating-narrative memoir about the horror of the Iraq-Iran war and its aftermath. Iraqi forces had seized the Iranian city of Khorramshahr and committed ghastly atrocities, killing all the men and raping the women. In 1982, Iran retook the city and came close to annihilating the Iraqis. Najah was almost one of them as he crawls into a bunker to die, but Zahed’s intervention dramatically altered the lives of both men.

In what follows the words quoted above, Najah slowly removes the Koran from his breast pocket; Zahed grabs it and pages through it and finds a photo of a beautiful woman and a baby. It is not the Koran that makes the difference and saves his life: it is the photo that for Zahed defines Najah’s humanity. Instead of following orders to execute all Iraqis, including the severely wounded Najah, Zahed feeds him water, injects a pain killer and bandages him up, admonishing him to be very quiet while he looks for a way to hook up an IV drip, before assuring, at considerable risk to himself, that Najah is transported to a medical tent and a doctor who will attend to him. He follows that up with a hospital visit where, despite their inability to communicate in each other’s language, their body language and emotions more than compensate. Najah will not forget the “angel” who saved his life even though, as Zahed departs, neither expects to see each other again

This episode is a powerful expression of the better angels of our nature, a bolt of light in the ghastly Iran-Iraq war. Had they encountered each other under similar circumstances a year later, after Zahed suffered the tragedy of losing the two most important people in his life and was bent on revenge, Nahjah’s fate would likely have been very different. As it was, however, Zahed was thirteen when he joined Iran’s Basij paramilitary, running away from a home where his father repeatedly beat him. When he and the other child soldiers were used as human minesweepers to clear the fields for the armed Revolutionary Guards, he balked and saved himself by training as a medic. The fact that he hadn't killed before – there is sufficient evidence that the first kill is the most difficult and combatants initially resist it – and didn't want to kill because of the guilt that he was afraid would forever haunt him also helped Zahed to make his decision to spare Najah’s life. 

Sunday, 2 April 2017

A German Family that Refused to Conform: Joachim Fest’s Not I

This review that originally appeared in Critics at Large appears on this site because the memoir is about a family  that refused to cross a dark line during the Third Reich.

The Fest family: (from left, back row) Winfried, Hannif, Wolfgang, and Joachim and (front row) Elisabeth, Christa, and Johannes.

“One sometimes had to keep one’s head down, but try to not look shorter as a result!” 
“They [Germans] have lost their passion for introspection and discovered their taste for the primitive.” 
 Johannes Fest, father of Joachim Fest, from Not I: Memoirs of a German Childhood
Throughout his professional career, first as a radio journalist and later as an historian and as a biographer of Hitler and Albert Speer, Joachim Fest was haunted by the question: how did Germany, a country almost obsessed with culture, descend into Nazi barbarity? In his final and most personal work before his death in 2006, Not I: Memoirs of a German Childhood (Other Press, 2014), Fest explores the reverse question: how was it possible that his family maintained its moral bearings and did not succumb to the mass hysteria engulfing the country? The answer starts with his uncompromising father, who is, at least in the first half of the book, the central figure of this remarkable memoir that tracks the author’s life into young adulthood. Fest, the son, takes his title from his devout Catholic, proudly Prussian, father, whose inspiration is derived from St. Matthew’s Gospel: “Even if all others do, not I.” The author pays tribute to his father (and mother) by serving up a memorable tale of courage and stoic endurance of “the revolting Nazi period” reminding us that simple human decency is possible even during an oppressive tyranny.

Monday, 20 March 2017

Electioneering at the Vatican: Robert Harris’ Conclave

The reason for including this review, that originally appeared in Critics at Large, on this site I cannot explain as it would give too much away, except that transgressions occur, the most surprising occurs near the end of the book.

Author Robert Harris. (Photo: Karen Robinson)

"Power brings a man many luxuries, but a clean pair of hands is seldom among them."
– Robert Harris, Imperium
As a former political reporter, Robert Harris has considerable knowledge of the corridors of power and an understanding about the frailties and flaws of those who exercise it. He brings those qualities, along with a passion for detailed accuracy and compelling plots, to his historical and contemporary political thrillers. One only has to think of Ghost Writer and its film adaptation Ghost, Harris’ thinly-veiled, withering portrait of former British Prime Minister, Tony Blair; An Officer and a Spy, whose protagonist, Georges Picquart, was the French officer who initially fingered the arrest of Alfred Dreyfus, but whose investigation convinced him that an injustice had occurred thereby invoking the wrath of his superiors; or The Fear Index whose protagonist, Alex Hoffman, a mathematics nerd who runs a vastly successful algorithmic hedge fund, whose vulnerabilities set him up for a financial and emotional crash. Harris' latest foray, Conclave (Alfred A. Knopf, 2016) is an engaging investigation into the political machinations and personal liabilities of those seeking the Keys of St. Peter when the Catholic cardinals assemble to elect a new Pope at Vatican City.