Munich, by Robert Harris

Summary: a tense journey to the heart of banal darkness

As Hitler masses his troops on the border with Czechoslovakia, threatening an invasion that will draw Britain and France into a general European conflagration, Chamberlain, the British Prime Minister contemplates how to avoid war. Surely the sacrifice of a small nation to a tyranny is a reasonable price to pay?

As the leaders of Germany and Britain circle each other two relatively low level civil servants on either side, Hugh Legat and Paul Hartmann, one-time friends at Oxford, begin to renew contact in a bid to avert what is coming.

Harris’ latest thriller is based around the infamous 1938 international conference in Munich. But its most powerful theme for me was the empathetic exploration of the nascent German Resistance. Hartmann, a character who bears a striking resemblance, physically and biographically, to the real Resistance leader Adam von Trott, seems a little mad to his old friend Legat. But Hartmann has seen the true face of Nazism and understands the “power of unreason” that has gripped Germany. So he does not share the British delusions that Hitler is just another politician who reasonable men can do reasonable business with.

Harris has written “counter factual” thrillers, such as “Fatherland” set in a 1960s Germany in which Hitler has won the war, as well as ones more scrupulously rooted in fact, such as the superb “An Officer and a Spy” about the Dreyfus Affair. Consequently one isn’t too sure exactly how this particular story is going to turn out.

The result is a fine and tense exploration of this historical moment, and how even the best of motives can result in the most catastrophic of consequences.

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The Pale Criminal, by Philip Kerr

Summary: A bleak tale of serial murder as the Nazis prepare to liquidate Berlin’s reputation for toleration

It’s 1938 and Bernie Gunther is enjoying a decent living in Berlin as a private detective, blackmail and missing persons a speciality. Unfortunately Reinhard Heydrich has not forgotten him. He press-gangs Bernie back into the police to oversee the investigation into an apparent serial killer, one who is butchering Aryan schoolgirls in a manner that bears striking resemblance to what anti-Semitic propaganda portrays as Jewish ritual blood sacrifice.

I didn’t enjoy this particular outing of Bernie Gunther as much as others in the series. Perhaps it was the bleakness of the subject matter. Perhaps it was the violence of the plot. Perhaps it was that the portrayal of life in the tolerant capital of a state that has set itself on a path to self-destruction through its surrender to atavistic racism felt a bit close to the bone in post-Brexit London. Perhaps it was the way the recurrent invocation of “the will of the people” by the Nazi characters as justification for their every squalid deed that bothered me: it was like spending my leisure time with a bunch of moronic Brexiteers invading my reading. Perhaps it was a combination of all these things.

Aside from this there is still much to recommend the novel, its labyrinthine plot reflecting the tortuous descent into evil of the nation in which it is set; its detailed historical research and well drawn characters, even the monster Heydrich is recognisably human. And of course it has at its centre Bernie Gunther as our guide: morally compromised, lonely, and striving to be decent. In spite of all he remains likeable and with a firm grip on his flawed humanity. Still one of the greatest literary detectives.

Lamentation, by CJ Sansom

img_1225Summary: Henry VIII really wasn’t a nice man. What could possibly go wrong if you upset him?

Matthew Shardlake, the lawyer protagonist of Sansom’s series of Tudor detective novels, is asked by the queen, Catherine Parr, to help with a most delicate matter. A book she has written, Lamentation of a Sinner, has disappeared from her private apartments. The book contains some ideas that the king, Henry VIII, might find heretical and hence could lead to her death, possibly by fire as a heretic.

Shardlake, smart, a bit grumpy, and tolerant is a compelling guide through the insanity of Tudor London. Here the idea of freedom of conscience is little known and life and death depend on being seen to be slavishly devoted to the whims of the king’s religious pronouncements. In this book Shardlake guides us through a labyrinthine plot involving multiple cases, complicated by suspicions of religious orthodoxy and multiple murderers with opaque motives and loyalties.

There is a pervasive sense of dread to this book. It is clear from the outset, a horrific multiple execution by burning, that even well-liked characters from earlier books are not safe, and skill, intelligence and decency are faint protections from the capricious cruelties of tyranny.

One bonus to this book is a detailed historical note at the end in which Sansom speculates on a range of historical issues – from the cause of Henry VIII bloating and death (untreated type 2 diabetes, Sansom reckons) to the fate of Catherine Parr. In this Sansom notes that Elizabeth I, as a child, was sexually abused by Thomas Seymour, Parr’s last husband. Disturbingly this sordid tale was turned into a romantic drama, Young Bess, in the 1950s. This led me to wonder what sort of sick mind would ever wish to turn the story of a child abuser into that of a romantic hero played by Stewart Granger?

The Shardlake novels are a fine portrayal of life in a theocratic police state, inviting us to imagine what life in such places may be like in the contemporary world, and reminding those of us lucky enough to live in the secular and more tolerant West, that we are not so far removed from the less tolerant societies that still disfigure our planet.

The Red Moth, by Sam Eastland

Summary: So, apart from the genocide, tyranny, and the purges, Stalin really wasn’t such a bad old stick

As the German Army is approaching the gates of Leningrad, a light aircraft is brought down by Russian troops. The couriers on board are carrying a painting of a red moth.

When news of this peculiar cargo reaches Stalin, his suspicion is aroused. So he summons his best investigator, Inspector Pekkala, to enquire into the meaning.

Inspector Pekkala is something of a literary cousin of Philip Kerr’s inspired creation Bernie Gunther, another honest detective in the midst of a monstrous system. However unlike Gunther, who is believably worn down over the years by violence and compromise, Pekkala seems almost superhumanly incorruptible: undiminished and undaunted, even in the face of Stalin’s rage.

The interplay between Pekkala and Stalin is very entertaining, but it did bother the history student in me. In these books Stalin comes across more as a stern police captain rather than the genocidist whose paranoid purges of his own military and bureaucracy brought his country to the brink of ruin. Yet both Pekkala, and his side kick Kirov, manage their intimate service to this psychotic in a way that keeps their hands clean, the consciences clear, and their integrity as human beings undimmed. This aspect of the story does demand that whatever structure the reader is suspending their disbelief from has to be stretched a bit further to cross this historical chasm.

This quibble aside, The Red Moth is a hugely entertaining excursion to the battlefields of the Eastern Front, and Eastland’s familiarity with the milieu of Stalinist Russia does paint an engaging portrait of life in those bloody times.

The Other Side of Silence, by Philip Kerr

It’s 1956 and Bernie Gunther, social democratic Berlin detective, and former whipping boy of Heydrich and Goebels, is living incognito on the French Rivera, working as a hotel consierge with only a regular bridge game by way of diversion. However, as usual, trouble, in the form of a former Gestapo acquaintance intent on blackmailing the English novelist, Somerset Maugham, finds Bernie.

While the main action in this novel relates to the Cold War, significant parts of what happens find their origin much deeper, in Nazi era Germany, and in particular the 1945 Battle of Königsberg that has featured in other novels of the series, in which Bernie was captured by the Soviets. For Bernie “the past is not dead, it is not even past,” as William Faulkner put it elsewhere.

The same can also be said for the character of Somerset Maugham in this novel, whose clandestine life as a British agent and as a homosexual comes back to haunt him.

The Bernie Gunther series is a particularly rich and wry meditation on history. This instalment is no exception, and as always Bernie remains an engaging guide though Europe’s shameful past. True he has become morally diminished by years of war and bloodshed, but he still struggles to hold on to a sense of humour and some modicum of basic human decency in the midst of it all. And that, sometimes, may be the best any of us can hope for.

Burial Rites, by Hannah Kent

imageAgnes Magnusdottir has been condemned to death for her involvement in the murder of two men, one of them her lover. As she awaits confirmation of her sentence she recounts the events leading up to these deaths to a young priest, appointed as her spiritual advisor, and the members of the family she has been billeted with.

Burial Rites is a sort of a Nordic “Crime and Punishment”. It is beautifully written and desperately sad, a story of both the physical violence that destroys lives, and the violence of poverty that destroys hope as well.

It is a very rich book – a portrait of a poor rural community on the edge of the world in northern Iceland at the beginning of the 19th Century; a whodunnit; a book about the redemptive power of decency.

At the heart of the story is Agnes – a fiercely intelligent woman cursed by the bad luck of her birth – finally finding a place in a family and a community as a sword of Damocles, in this case an executioner’s axe, hangs over her.

It is a fine work, extraordinary also that it is Hannah Kent’s first novel.

An Evil Eye, by Jason Goodwin

 An Evil Eye is the fourth book in Jason Goodwin’s series about Yashim, an official in the Ottoman Court of the 19th Century with a particular penchant for investigation. A eunuch, butchered as a teenager by the enemies of his father, his status means he is privileged access to the harem as well as the city and so is frequently entrusted with some of the Court’s more sensitive enquiries.

In this book a body is found in the water tank of an Orthodox monastery outside of Istanbul bringing with it the suspicion that perfidious Christians have murdered a Muslim. Yashim is sent to investigate and hopefully stave off an ugly incident. Of course the body is merely the tip of a much more dangerous and labyrinthine plot that threatens the entire stability of the Ottoman State.

Jason Goodwin is an historian. He has written an earlier history of the Ottoman Empire, and so knows his stuff. This is one of the greatest pleasures of his books – he transports the reader to bustle of 19th Century Istanbul and Yashim is an elegant and erudite guide through its diversity. Yashim is not only a man of action but also a polyglot and cook – I was inspired, with modest success, to attempt three of his culinary efforts over the course of reading this book.

 In his investigations Yashim is assisted by his close friend Palewski, the Polish Ambassador to the Ottoman Empire. Of course at the time in which the book is set Poland doesn’t exist, subsumed by the empires of the “Great Powers”. But the Ottoman Empire insists on maintaining the embassy of its old enemy. At the very least it annoys the Russians. Palewski also has one of the best lines I’ve come across in while: “If you go on saying and believing the same things for long enough, the world will eventually come around.” That should be a motto for anyone who has ever strived for a more humane world.

I must confess that for the fourth time reading one of Yashim’s adventures I am still not very clear on what happened. I think this, to an extent, is a result of quite complex plots with a myriad of characters and various strands running from the harems to the Court, to the international embassies and their spies and diplomats, to the back streets and waterfronts of Istanbul. Perhaps I should simply be paying closer attention to the final pages of the book.

In spite of these reservations I will be picking up the next instalment of the adventures of Yashim and Palewski. They are tales of escapism like few others.