Wednesday, December 31, 2014


It's been a long time since I ripped through a 600-page book as quickly as I did with this alternate history thriller by C.J. Sansom. It's another variation on the theme of Hitler winning the war. This time, Lord Halifax becomes British prime minister in 1940 instead of Churchill and signs a separate peace with Germany.

The story picks up in 1952 as a disaffected civil servant, David Fitzgerald, joins the resistance, led by a Churchill in hiding, opposing the pro-Nazi government of Lord Beaverbrook. He photographs secret documents in the Dominions Office where he works, playing on the affections of a coworker to get access to files. Then he is given a special mission to rescue an Oxford classmate, Frank Muncaster, who has been confined to an asylum after he pushed his brother out a second-floor window in his home. His brother, a scientist working on weapons research in the U.S., had confided information on his project to Frank, who was horrified and went into a rage at the information.

The plot turns on this, admittedly, far-fetched premise, but part of Sansom's artistry is that he convinces the reader to go along with it. If any novelist's task is to make the reader care about his characters, Sansom achieves this with flying colors. He carefully controls the suspense as he takes time to explore extensive backstories not only for David, but for Frank, for David's wife Sarah, and eventually for the German Gestapo agent set on their trail, Gunther Hoth.

David and Sarah have lost their only child, who died in a tumble down the stairs. David learned from his mother on her deathbed that she was Jewish, a fact concealed after her family immigrated to Ireland, making him half-Jewish -- or, as he reminds his friend in the novel, since there is no such thing as a half-Jew in the Nazi world, making him Jewish. The only other person who knows this is his father, safely emigrated to New Zealand, but David lives in fear his secret will be revealed.

Much of the narrative tension comes from the growing strain between David and Sarah, as he pursues his life of secrets and lies. She of course first suspects an affair, and David's mission-related flirtation with his coworker fuels this suspicion. There is also the fragile trust between Frank and David, who was one of Frank's few friends in university. Frank is unstable, an odd child bullied and shunned through school and fearful of the secret he has learned from his brother.

And so the plot progresses through a credibly rendered 1950s London unmarked by the ravages of a war that never took place, with forays to the asylum in Birmingham, and eventually the flight of Frank, David, and his resistance colleagues as they seek to keep Frank and his secret out of clutches of the German, or even the collaborating British.

This builds to a satisfying climax over a couple of hundred pages as the resistance mission scrambles to achieve its goal against the backdrop of an ailing Hitler nearing death and the prospect of civil war in Germany over his succession. Sansom even makes an historic smog in London an important factor in the plot.

Sansom is a skilled writer and the book is a pleasure to read. I had read Dissolution and perhaps another one of the Shardlake novels, set in Elizabethan England, as well as Winter in Madrid, but I am fascinated by these alternate histories. This one bears comparison to Fatherland and is at least as good if not better.

There is evidence of sloppy or nonexistent editing. A car's headlights are turned off twice within the space of a paragraph. We are told one of David's resistance colleagues bonded with Frank after sharing the story of her brother, but then several pages later treated to a scene where she is actually doing the sharing.

But these scarcely interfere with the flow of the narrative, enlivened by sharp sketches of the other characters -- David's pompous superior at work, a Special Branch officer assigned to work with the Gestapo in tracking down Frank, a female resistance operative who falls in love with David while assisting him in the rescue of Frank, complicating his strained relationship with Sarah, and several other skillfully drawn minor characters who don't remain two-dimensional plot devices.

Sansom discloses in passing in the acknowledgements that he was diagnosed with bone marrow cancer during the writing of the book and underwent (apparently successful) treatment, making his accomplishment even more admirable.

Sunday, December 21, 2014

Instruments of Darkness

This noir thriller by Robert Wilson brings the Gold Coast of West Africa to life in all its seedy and seamy glory. The hero, Bruce Medway, shuttles back and forth between Togo, Benin and Ghana, with forays into Nigeria and a glimpse of Ivory Coast, the way the rest of us go to Baltimore or Arlington. The lawless chaos that coexists in the coastal capitals of Lome, Cotonou and Accra with the country club gentility of the white expat population is the ideal setting for a convoluted mystery involving smuggling, drugs, payoffs and treachery.

Wilson is a good writer who makes this background vivid and believable. I enjoyed his bestseller, A Small Death in Lisbon, but was unfamiliar with these earlier thrillers set in Africa until I came upon this book in the second-hand bookstore in Austin, South Congress Books. Apparently they were largely unavailable in the U.S. until the success of Lisbon.

The first-person narration is done with a jaunty, if sometimes forced, humor, but witty enough to make you laugh out loud on occasion. However, none of the characters, including the narrator, elicit any consistent sympathy from the reader. Characters that appear quirky and eccentric eventually are unmasked to be psychopathic or sadistic in a way that requires too much suspension of disbelief. The array of women characters are vampy and have an almost fetishist obsession with smoking. Medway's travails -- a succession of beatings, captivity and brushes with death -- matches Dick Francis's characters in its relentless masochism. Motivations are murky and some characters are strictly utilitarian, fulfilling their role in the plot without engaging the reader.

It is, in short, not a great book, though quite readable. It could be the indelible atmosphere of expat life in West Africa will draw me back to one of the three other novels Wilson sets in this world, but maybe not.

Friday, December 12, 2014

An Officer and a Spy

I actually thought this novel by Robert Harris would be a kind of alternate history, like his Fatherland, using the Dreyfus Affair as a springboard for an imaginative historical thriller.

But it is a dramatic retelling of the Dreyfus Affair, based on the voluminous documents and featuring the historical characters -- first and foremost Georges Picquart, the army officer who stubbornly followed the evidence clearing Dreyfus and leading eventually to his exoneration.

As Zola exclaimed at one point in the novel (who knows, perhaps he really said this), "Such a tale has never been told." It is totally gripping. Minute details of the original trial, the second trial that once gain found Dreyfus guilty and the denouement of exoneration, which might have been tedious in less gifted hands, become a mountain of clues worthy of Sherlock Holmes or Perry Mason.

It is told in the first person from Picquart's point of view, so there is no moralizing, no distance, no distractions. It is about the intricate framing of a Jewish officer through misplaced zeal and the determination of an officer, who thought Dreyfus was guilty and was unwittingly even part of the conspiracy to frame him, who was willing to put honor above ambition and follow the trail that showed it was indeed someone else who delivered those trifling secrets to the Germans, that Dreyfus was simply a convenient (Jewish) scapegoat, that the coverup of the this miscarriage of justice was worse than the crime itself.

Picquart is immensely sympathetic, though not unflawed. Dreyfus, on the other hand, is portrayed as decidedly unsympathetic, possessed of a stiff pride and arrogance that did nothing to help his cause. Both were terribly wronged by the army they loved, but both returned to service. Dreyfus actually came out of the reserves to fight in World War I and died in the 1930s. Picquart became Minister of War and was spared the tragedy of the war when he died falling of his horse.

The novel is a lovely map of Paris, each street there today as it was in 1895. Picquart meets Zola, Debussy and a host of other personalities from that period in the City of Light. The glory and shame of France live side by side in this fin-de-siecle cocoon that has such a dark underbelly.

I feel immeasurably enriched to have such a detailed understanding of the Dreyfus Affair. Its role in history can hardly be underestimated and the New York Times had a headline this week about growing anti-semitism in France. Plus ca change!

A wonderful book.

Monday, December 8, 2014

The Water's Edge

Karin Fossum is not just another Scandinavian writer cashing in on the current fashion for detective stories from that region. Her spare, direct narration has more in common with classic hardboiled than with the florid Stieg Larsson, and only slightly less florid Jo Nesbo. Her Oslo detective, Konrad Sejer, does not suffer the inner torment of a Kurt Wallander or Harry Hole or Erlandur.

Fossum sketches in the bleak northern landscapes that are so essential to Scandinavian noir. But her focus is more on the quirky relationships that alternate between terse exchanges and more extended riffs between characters. One of her hallmarks, apparently, is the time she spends with minor characters -- as, in this instance, with the couple who find the body of the abused boy that opens this case. We see much more the interior life of the wife, Kristine Ris, than we do of Sejer himself. And in many ways, the novel is as much her story as it is Sejer's and his effort to solve the mystery of first one pedophile killing and then the disappearance of a second boy.

But Sejer's conversations with his Dr. Watson, Jacob Skarre, on why they became policemen and what is the positive contribution they can make are also entertaining, and somehow manage not to interrupt the flow of the narrative, but in fact let the reader catch his breath before galloping off after the next clue.

Another hallmark of Fossum's tales, it seems, is some sympathy for the villain. She neatly creates the circumstances that contribute to their flaws without any liberal, heart-on-sleeve gushing. It is Sejer's insight into this human condition that enables him to unravel the mystery, ignore the red herrings, double back on overlooked clues, and try to mend the damage to those who are not directly the victims of the crime -- or rather the killing, but it is not sure in some cases that a crime has been committed.

Sejer tracks down the perpetrator of the deaths in this mystery. Fossum leaves some sympathy for them as well as for other characters who might just as easily have found themselves branded as criminals if they had been equally unlucky and in the wrong place at the wrong time. I'm curious now to read a second Fossum novel with Sejer to see how many of these traits are repeated.