War Stories: Oddly Timely?

Can focusing on another low point in Western civilization sidetrack you from obsessing over the current news cycle? Does seeing how another generation coped with agonizing stress help? These engrossing World War II stories are like biting your lip as a distraction from a different pain. Click on the novel title for my Amazon affiliate link.

The Interpreter

AJ Sidransky’s political thriller has a fresh and appealing story line. The war in Europe is winding down when US Army Intelligence recruits Vienna-born GI Kurt Berlin to help in its interrogations of captured Germans—Nazis, Wehrmacht officers, and members of the SS and Gestapo.

When he reluctantly agrees, he finds himself face-to-face with the Nazi who had a terrible impact on his own family. He’s in the excruciating position of keeping his own emotions in check, but can he sustain it? Read my full review here.

Night of Shooting Stars, Ben Pastor

The Night of Shooting Stars

Latest in author Ben Pastor’s award-winning World War II-era political thrillers about colonel Baron Martin von Bora, late of German military intelligence. Because his former unit was believed to harbor anti-Nazi army officers, Bora must keep looking over his shoulder when he’s asked to investigate a strange murder. Is it a trap? What he keeps uncovering are dangerous hints about a plot threatening Adolf Hitler himself. Read my full review here.

The Winds of War
War and Remembrance

The audiobook of Herman Wouk’s 1971 saga, The Winds of War, is long (45 hours, 46 minutes) and engaging—perfect for my daily 40-minute walk. There are an awful lot of characters in this story of events leading up to World War II—American, English, German, Polish—many of them real-life politicians and military leaders. At the core of the story is a single family, fictional US Navy officer Victor “Pug” Henry, his wife, his three adult children, and their significant others. Pug is desperate to command a battleship, but naval intelligence duties in the capitals of Europe keep delaying that assignment. You get a well-rounded picture of the multinational political forces and military maneuvering in the late 1930s, packaged in a rich skein of interesting plot lines. The book ends shortly after the attack on Pearl Harbor.

War and Remembrance, Herman Wouk

In its sequel, War and Remembrance (56 hours), Pug is still in the Navy, son Warren is a Navy flyer stationed on an aircraft carrier in Pearl Harbor, and son Byron is a submariner. Byron’s situation is complicated by his marriage to Natalie Jastrow, a Jew stuck in fascist Italy. With these three men in different branches of the Navy, Wouk thrillingly (for me) recreates many of the important battles and strategies of the war in the Pacific.

You may recall ABC’s 1980s miniseries of these books with Robert Mitchum as Pug Henry (Interestingly, all three children were played by different actors in the two productions.) Reportedly, a new adaptation, to be co-written by Seth MacFarlane is in the works.

The Winds of War was a best-seller, but the critics didn’t love either book. Too much emphasis on historical accuracy over character development, they thought. Exactly what made me enjoy it! It’s like an education about the war in an easy-to-digest package, with Wouk’s main point, the key word “remembrance.”

The audiobooks are narrated brilliantly by Kevin Pariseau, who kept me company all summer.

****The Bells of Hell

cocktail

By Michael Kurland – If Nick and Nora Charles in The Thin Man series could be a refreshingly witty corrective for 21st century gloom-and-doom, then Michael Kurland’s The Bells of Hell may be just the book to prove it. There are dark deeds afoot by Nazis and Communists in the late 1930s, but the main characters in this historical thriller are plunging into these events with their equilibrium and senses of humor intact.

Lord Geoffrey Saboy is a British ‘cultural attaché’—that is, a spy in the British Secret Service—working in Washington, DC, along with his wife, Lady Patricia. Lord Geoffrey is gay, so though the couple is close, he doesn’t begrudge his wife her amorous dalliances, some of which are for pleasure and some in service to her own approach to sleuthing. An old friend of Lord Geoffrey’s, US counter-intelligence agent Jacob Welker, has the ear of President Roosevelt, which occasionally comes in very handy.

In March 1938, a Communist agent from Germany, arrives in New York, and in a matter of days, is found naked, tied to a chair in an empty warehouse, tortured to death. Unbeknownst to his Gestapo killers, there was a reluctant witness to this execution, unemployed printer Andrew Blake. Many arms of officialdom take notice when the salesman’s identity is revealed, as worries about the German-American volksbund (the “Bund”) are on the rise.

Welker talks a reluctant Blake into taking a job printing literature for the Bund. Blake is terrified by the murder he saw and almost paralyzed with fear his spying will be discovered. He laments every assignment and drags his feet in accepting each new task, proving once again that true courage is not going boldly into the unknown, but knowing the danger and going anyway. And when his German masters, in turn, ask him to spy on the Communists, he’s a pretzel of hesitation.

Kurland develops the plot in a number of interesting ways by giving Lord Geoffrey his own brush with the Nazis when he accompanies HRH Prince Edward, Duke of Windsor, on an official visit to Germany. HRH find Hitler impressive and forceful, and Saboy responds that one likely acquires the habit of being forceful when no one dares disagree. If you are familiar with the real-life affinity HRH had for Hitler, this plotline is especially intriguing.

Meanwhile, intelligence from multiple sources suggests the Gestapo is planning a major terror event in New York, which they plan to set up so that blame lands on the Communists. But what, where, and when is this to take place? These questions preoccupy the British couple and Welker, their American friend (and possible future amour of Lady Patricia).

The nicely plotted story moves along at a sprightly pace. Though the characters are dealing with deadly serious matters, they maintain their lighthearted, let’s-not-take-ourselves-too-seriously banter. Kurland captures the spirit of the times: the oppressive gloom in Germany, the uncertainties regarding impending war in Britain, and the fear of the extremists of right and left who threaten America. You may be as delighted as I am that The Bells of Hell is billed as ‘A Welker and Saboy Thriller,’ signaling the possibility of more about this engaging trio in future.

Photo: wikipedia

****Fishermen of Kérity

fishing nets

By Peter James Quirk – In 1959, when Peter James Quirk’s protagonist Tommy Kiernan goes in search of his past, he finds a more complicated and thrilling story than he’d ever imagined. Only 19 and an American college student from upstate New York, he was born in the English fishing village of Brixham to an elegant French mother and Irish father, now separated.

Two events start his quest. One night recently, a deliberately set fire destroyed Tommy and his mother’s home, and not long afterward, his mother is killed when her car plunges from the mountain highway into a ravine. Suspicion arises that these two events are not unrelated, and Tommy decides he must find out who murdered her. As she is not the type to develop enemies, he believes the killer is someone from her mysterious past.

Clues to her life in Brittany might lie in her beautiful artwork. Tommy finds her journal, sketchbook, and a bit of shocking information. When Breton fishermen helped her escape the Nazis in 1940, she was already pregnant, which means the big Irishman, Francis Thomas Kiernan, isn’t his father after all.

His mother’s painting, Fishermen of Kérity, suggests where to start in trying to fill in the details of her life. Tommy travels to Kérity on the Breton coast, hoping to meet some of Jackie’s long-ago friends. Did any of them survived the war, do they know who his birth father was, and will they talk to him about any of this? Author Quirk does an excellent job evoking the Breton community as the threat of war materializes into invasion, occupation, and retribution. It is a sad, dangerous time.

Quirk, born and educated in England, now lives in the United States. The knowledge of the sea he gained as a fisherman and with the British Merchant Marine gives the book’s scenes on the Breton docks and sailing the French coastline a nice realism. While I enjoyed the historical content that makes up most of the book, the scenes set in 1959 Vermont—Tommy’s romance and his clumsy methods for finding his mother’s killer—are less convincing.

This is a short novel (169 pages), quickly read, and while I had the aforementioned quibble with the 1959 story, on the whole Quirk’s writing style is clear and enjoyable. He has created a memorable tale in a colorful, high-stakes setting.

Photo of fishermen’s nets: Lisa Redfern for Pixabay

Madame Fourcade’s Secret War

Author Lynne Olson drew a standing-room-only crowd at the Princeton Public Library this week to hear her discuss her latest book, a biography of a mostly unheralded Frenchwoman, Marie-Madeleine Fourcade. Fourcade ran a loose network of 3,000 spies within Vichy France during the Nazi occupation, and Olson calls it the most influential organization spying on the Nazis in the war.

Born in 1909 to wealthy parents and raised in Shanghai, she married a military intelligence officer at age twenty, and ultimately had three children. During the war, she sent the children to Switzerland for safety and did not see them for years at a time. Sometime in there, Olson says, she had an affair with pilot hero and author Antoine de Saint-Exupéry (Le Petit Prince, et al.) She survived the war and many harrowing experiences and died in Paris in 1989.

The French Resistance movement, uncoordinated and spotty though it was, came in three flavors. Two have received considerable attention in films. First, sabotage—blowing up train tracks and the like (the Sebastian Faulks novel and film Charlotte Gray depict this nicely). Then there were the heroic efforts to help downed British and American pilots escape. The third, less cinematic job of the Resistance was intelligence gathering. Where are the troops headed, the armaments stored, the ships docked? This is the kind of information the Allies badly needed and Fourcade’s huge network collected and passed on.

You’ll recall that de Gaulle was in London during the war, but when Fourcade’s brother traveled there to offer the network’s services, characteristically, he would not cooperate. But MI6 would, not realizing for quite a while that the group’s leader, code name “Hedgehog,” was a woman. She was arrested several times and escaped twice. After D-Day, she was again captured, but that night she stripped down, held her dress between her teeth and wriggled through the bars of her cell, put her dress back on, and walked away.

She and one notable young woman who worked for her were able to get the information they did from unsuspecting Germans because, for the most part, no one took her seriously because she was a woman. She’s nearly forgotten today, Olson believes, for the same reason. After the war, de Gaulle created an organization to honor the war’s heroes—1032 of its 1038 members were men.

Olson’s conclusion is reinforced by the experience of another unheralded WWII spy, American Virginia Hall. One of the several new books (movies in the making!) about her is titled A Woman of No Importance.

****The Long Road from Paris

By Kirby Williams – A book with Paris in the title two weeks in a row? It’s enough to make you stock up on croissants. While the title of this one echoes Dov Alfon’s contemporary crime thriller, A Long Night in Paris, the similarity ends there.

This is Kirby Williams’s second thriller featuring New Orleans jazz prodigy Urby Brown, an expat living in Paris as the dark clouds of Naziism spread over Europe.

Author Williams, an expat himself, effectively conveys his love of the city where he has lived and worked for many decades in real life.

The book begins with Brown’s early years in New Orleans as a white-skinned octoroon, son of a woman named Josephine Dubois and a white Frenchman who skedaddled back to France after impregnating her. In 1895, Josephine left her newborn in a Moses basket on the doorstep of Saint Vincent’s Colored Waifs’ Home. She later pleaded with Father Gohegan, the priest in charge of the Waifs’ Home, to contact the baby’s father who she claimed was a Count. The priest refused, and Josephine committed suicide.

As a teenager, Brown played his clarinet at Madame Lala’s Mahogany House (flaunting both Louisiana law and Father Gohegan’s rules), an infamous bordello that brought together top jazz players. These connections were renewed once he moved to Paris, joining the many musicians escaping U.S. Jim Crow laws.

Along with his mentor and fellow clarinetist Stanley Bontemps and his live-in girlfriend, Hannah Korngold, Brown lives in Paris in relatively peace and prosperity into the 1930s. Hannah helps Brown run his nightclub, but she is an American Jew whose future under the Nazis will be just as precarious as his own.

Williams writes Brown’s first-person story with an emphasis on what happens, not why or how. He doesn’t engage in lengthy descriptions of people, places or events and will even slide past significant dramatic opportunities. This spareness is both bothersome and energizing—bothersome because you don’t always know why Urby Brown does what he does. At the same time, it establishes a powerful narrative energy. The author apparently assumes readers have a pretty solid mental picture of the fascists and the threat they pose his characters and of Paris between the wars, and he relies on our imaginations to fill out the picture.

Within that general atmosphere of risk are the very specific risks to Urby Brown. His father, to whom he bears a remarkable likeness, is indeed a count, a confidant of Marshal Philippe Pétain, and leader of the Oriflamme du Roi, a group of right-wing thugs who parade around like stormtroopers in advance of the real thing. Murder, blackmail, and spying are their stock-in-trade.

With the arrival of the Nazis, Urby and Hannah desperately attempt to escape back to the United States, but every indication is they’ve waited too long.

Listen Up! 3 Terrific Thrillers in Audio

earphones

photo: John O’Nolan, creative commons license

Catching up on highly regarded crime thrillers of the last year, I’ve turned to audio for these:

*****Prussian Blue
By the late Philip Kerr, narrated by John Lee. This was Kerr’s next-to-last historical crime novel featuring Berlin detective Bernie Gunther, and takes place in 1939 and 1956. Lee’s reading imbues Gunther with every sly hint and ironic twist in his attitude toward the Nazis. Some of his colleagues at the time were aware: “I don’t know how you’ve survived this long, Gunther, feeling as you do.” But survive he has, and 17 years later, he’s working in France when a former colleague—now head of the East German secret police, the Stasi—demands he murder a certain woman. Rather than comply, Gunther goes on the run. Scenes of his flight across France are interspersed with recollections of a 1939 murder case at Hitler’s famous mountaintop retreat in Obersalzberg, which he was brought in to solve and which put him right in the middle of a power struggle between two of Hitler’s top men. It would be a hard job to choose which tale is more nerve-wracking. Lee’s Gunther is just right, his Nazis odious, and his Stasi enemies no better. Nominated for a 2018 Edgar Award and five stars from CrimeFictionLover.com.

****Bluebird, Bluebird
By Attica Locke, narrated by J.D. Jackson. In northeast Texas, a black man’s body is found floating in the bayou behind the only black-owned business in the tiny fictional town of Lark. Texas Ranger Darren Matthews is on suspension, but decides to poke around. One of the few black Rangers, he’s worked before on race-connected deaths and believes this is one. When he arrives in the town, the sheriff’s men are fishing another body out of the water—this one a white woman. Surely the deaths are linked, but how? And can he prove it? As he tries, Jackson’s narration expertly conveys not just Matthews’s determination, but the sheriff’s weakness, the malevolence of local Aryan Brotherhood of Texas members, the shifting moods of the dead man’s elegant wife from Chicago, who is the sort of Bluebird (messenger) of the title, and, finally, the townspeople black and white who are protecting a decades-old wall of secrets, all of whom are intriguing if just a bit predictable. Winner of the 2018 Edgar Award for Best Novel. TV series in the works.

*****The Marsh King’s Daughter
By Karen Dionne, narrated by Emily Rankin. Helena Pelletier is the protagonist in this thriller, set in the Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. She’s trying to live a normal life with her husband and two daughters, while keeping her bizarre past a secret. Rankin’s reading makes it clear this isn’t easy, and it becomes impossible when her Native American father kills two guards and escapes from prison, “armed and dangerous.” Years before, he kidnapped a fourteen-year-old girl and took her into the remote marshlands as his wife. There they lived off the land and had a daughter—Helena. Rankin conveys how much the young Helena adored her father and what he taught her about hunting, fishing, and survival. Eventually, the girl and her mother were found, and her father ended up in prison, an outcome that has left Helena deeply conflicted. Now that he’s on the run, she’s has to see whether she can live up to his nickname for her, Bangii-Agawaateyaa, “Little Shadow,” and find him before he finds her and her daughters. An international bestseller, it was frequently named one of the best books of 2017. Movie in the works.

Two Good Movies: Their Finest & The Zookeeper’s Wife

It turned out that these two weekend movies had more in common than their World War II settings, strong female protagonists, and top-notch acting. Both were marred by trailers that told too much, so no trailers today. Avoid the previews if you can, but not the movies. (Or, order the books these films were based on. Affiliate links below.)

Sam Claflin and Gemma Arterton in Their Finest

Sam Claflin and Gemma Arterton in Their Finest

Their Finest

While this drama, adapted by Gabby Chiappe Directed by Lone Scherfig, is too serious to be a comedy, it offers many laugh-out-loud moments, as well as a few tears along the way. The conceit is that the British government has commissioned a feature film that will inspire Britons and, with luck, the Americans too, to support the war effort. The subject: the inspiring evacuation of Dunkirk.

The filmmakers realize they need to appeal to women in the audience, so they hire a young woman (Gemma Arterton) for the writing team to create “the slop”—that is, the female dialog. She turns out to more than fill the bill and has the chance to find her own voice along the way.

In addition to Arterton, fine performances from Sam Claflin as the cynical head writer, Bill Nighy as an over-the-hill actor who’s never fully convinced he shouldn’t be the romantic lead, Rachael Stirling as a spy for the foreign office with a soft heart, and Helen McCrory as Nighy’s no-nonsense agent. You’ll love the Jeremy Irons cameo, in which he gets carried away delivering Henry V’s “band of brothers” speech.

Rotten Tomatoes critics’ rating 87%; audiences 77%.

The Zookeeper’s Wife

Jessica Chastain, The Zookeeper's Wife

Jessica Chastain in The Zookeeper’s Wife

On the very positive side, this drama about Jews hidden in the wreckage of the Warsaw Zoo is based on a true story. Right now, when meanness seems to trump acts of charity and compassion, that’s an important message.

At the same time, there’s quite a bit of déjà vu here, as director Niki Caro fails to plow new ground or to “capture the many layers of this unique story, relying instead on plainly-stated metaphors,” said Sheila O’Malley on Rogerebert.com, and a contrived and unpersuasive relationship between the main character and “Hitler’s zookeeper.”

Antonina and Jan Zabiński really did save more than three hundred Jews after German bombs and stormtroopers destroyed their zoo. They hid the refugees in their own home, changed their appearance, gave them false papers, and spirited them away, under the enemy’s noses.

See it for the animals, the fine performance by Jessica Chastain as Antonina, and for the reminder that even in extreme circumstances there are people who believe, as Jan Zabiński said many years later, “If you can save somebody’s life, it’s your duty to try.” Supporting performances are strong as well. Written by Angela Workman.

Rotten Tomatoes critics’ rating: 60%; audiences, 81%.

*****Moonglow: A Novel

Tarot cards

photo: Meg Lessard, creative commons license

By Michael Chabon – It’s interesting Chabon labels Moonglow a novel right on the cover, because it’s also has one foot in the memoir camp. The character Michael appears, but the book is only tangentially about him, somewhat about his mother, and mostly about her parents. And what a fascinating set of grandparents he has! The story is based in truth—bolstered by footnotes as an occasional reality check—and leavened with humor. Yet many details and conversations must have sprung from Chabon’s impeccable imagination and his obvious love for two characters called only “my grandfather” and “my grandmother” throughout.

His grandmother, a beautiful and elegant Frenchwoman, survived World War II and the camps. With little more than a set of fortune-telling cards that would be springboards for stories she told her grandson, she emigrated to Baltimore. There the would-be Dolly Levis of the synagogue hoped to match her up with their young rabbi. The night they were to meet at a temple social event, the rabbi dragged his unwilling brother along, and a match was made, just not the one the women expected.

The Frenchwoman had a daughter already (Chabon’s mother), but his grandfather accepted her a hundred percent, as is. And “as is” was not easy. She suffered from severe bouts of depression that resulted in several hospitalizations, and the delusion that a skinless horse lay in wait for her. Nevertheless, they were a good pair. Keeping bad news away from her, as the grandfather insisted upon, “suited his furtive nature. She was always threatening rain; he had been born with an umbrella in his hand.”

The main story is the grandfather’s, and the premise of the book is that he was close-mouthed throughout life until the week before he died, when he told Chabon everything. “Keeping secrets was the family business. But it was a business, it seemed to me, that none of us had ever profited from,” Chabon says.

Chabon skips gleefully back and forth across time and space in recounting his grandfather’s World War II experience (where he participated in Operation Paperclip, an effort to snatch up the German rocket experts before the Russians could get them), his lifelong fascination with rocketry and model-building (NASA obtained some of his precisely detailed models), his prison experience, businesses built and lost, and a late-life romance in a Florida retirement village where a giant python was stealing the pets.

In short, the grandfather reveals and Chabon skillfully assembles and polishes a treasure chest of experiences, Dickensian in their variety, one to be explored with delight and wonder.

For very good reason, Moonglow (affiliate link below) was selected by numerous publications as a “best book” of 2016.

Sophie Scholl – The Final Days

Sophie Scholl, Nazis

Julia Jentsch as Sophie Scholl

Netflix finally sent a movie whose queue we’d been in for years (they must have only a single copy), and wouldn’t you know, it arrived the same week we saw another based-on-a-true-story German-subtitled movie about World War II, Labyrinth of Lies. But you don’t have to wait so long, the entire 2005 Scholl movie is available on YouTube, or you can watch this snippet (trailer).

Sophie Scholl, age 21, her older brother Hans, and several of their friends were students in Munich during the war and participated in a non-violent resistance organization called The White Rose. It was 1943. Stalingrad had just been lost, the Eastern Front was a disaster, and most German military leaders saw inevitable looming defeat. It was in that atmosphere that Sophie and her brother are arrested for distributing anti-war flyers at the university, and the movie focuses on her interrogation by the Gestapo. It doesn’t involve the thuggish violence one might expect; rather, it’s a duel of wits between Sophie and her interrogator, Robert Mohr, as she refuses to name accomplices.

Raised a Lutheran, Sophie’s religious beliefs were the basis for her opposition to the Nazi regime. In addition, her boyfriend Fritz Hartnagel who served on the Eastern Front had written to her about the mass murders of Soviet soldiers and Jews that he had seen. Her final words illustrate the strength of her convictions: “How can we expect righteousness to prevail when there is hardly anyone willing to give himself up individually to a righteous cause? Such a fine, sunny day, and I have to go, but what does my death matter, if through us, thousands of people are awakened and stirred to action?”

Although the law and the punishment are clear, what is also clear is that Mohr (played by Gerald Held) comes to respect Sophie’s courage, as played so movingly by Julia Jentsch. You might be tempted to think that when the defendants appear in the People’s Court for their show trial, the court’s President is played too broadly, like a hysterical fanatic. Watch the “extras” that accompany the film—and you’ll see some footage made at the trial. The actor playing the judge got it exactly right. As Roger Ebert said in his review: “Those who know their actions are wrong are often the loudest to defend them, especially when they fear a higher moral judgment may come down on them.” The extras include a lengthy interview with Sophie and Hans’s younger sister, Elisabeth, as well. Today, in Munich and elsewhere, there are numerous memorials to Sophie and Hans and The White Rose.

This award-winning film, directed by Marc Rothemund, was an Academy Award nominee for Best Foreign Language Film in 2005.

Rotten Tomatoes critics rating: 87%, audiences: 88%.