These Honored Dead; and Perish from the Earth (Lincoln and Speed 1&2), by Jonathan F Putnam

Summary: Abe and Joshua thwart crime in pre-Civil War Illinois

In March 1837 newly qualified lawyer Abraham Lincoln, just arrived in Springfield, enquired at the general store if the manager, Joshua Speed, knew of any accommodation he could rent. Speed did and immediately sub-let half of his own double bed above the store to Lincoln. So began perhaps the closest friendship of both men’s lives.

Me and Abe

All that is in the history books. What is not in the history books is that subsequently Abe and Joshua established a formidable crime fighting partnership – incorporating Speed’s younger sister, Martha, when she arrived in town – to combat evil doers across the state of Illinois. Something in the spirit of the classic John Ford movie Young Mr Lincoln, this is the conceit of Jonathan Putnam’s series of books which begin with These Honored Dead, and Perish from the Earth. (Both titles come from Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address.)

The books are narrated by Speed, who over the course of the first two, becomes something of an unofficial investigator for Lincoln as he tries to defend his clients from accusations of murder.

The books are wonderful on multiple levels. They are a fine introduction to aspects of the politics and culture of pre-Civil War Illinois, exploring how these impacted on Lincoln’s own evolving political thinking. They are an elegantly written portrait of a burgeoning friendship between two young men who are, at the beginning at least, on opposite sides of the issue of slavery. Both Speed and Lincoln were migrants to Illinois from Kentucky. But while Speed came from a wealthy slave-holding family, Lincoln was from a background so poor that, as a child, his own father ended his schooling and sold him to a neighbour to pay off a debt. These life experiences manifest in different attitudes to the murderous “peculiar institution” when it intrudes into these stories.

The books take details of this historical period, and the biographies of real people who rarely are granted more than a sentence in a history book and breathe life into them. This elegantly illuminates aspects of history which many may feel they know, but cannot easily empathise with. Added to this is Lincoln’s own warm laconic humour and some twisty plotting and the result is something pretty close to irresistible.

V2, by Robert Harris

Summary: a fine cat-and-mouse style thriller set in the final bloody days of a European civil war

Towards the end of the Second World War the Germans launched a rocket assault on the UK. First with V1 “doodlebugs”, a sub-sonic flying bomb, lethal but possible to be brought down by fighters or anti-aircraft guns. The subsequent V2 rocket however was a different beastie altogether. A supersonic rocket carrying a one tonne warhead, the V2 was impossible to intercept once launched and would strike London without warning and at random. While not as murderous as the RAF’s civilian bombing campaign on Germany, they still had the capacity to wreak a particular brand of lethal terror on a war weary population.

As with his recent book, Munich, Harris takes this historical background and foregrounds it with his own fictional creations: on the British side, a young Women’s Auxilary Air Force (WAAF) officer, part of a team trying to locate the launch sites of the V2 rockets in the Low Countries; on the German side, a rocket engineer, dreaming of space flight but trying to survive the war by causing the needless death of hundreds, an atrocity he finds increasingly troubling. Sympathetic as these characters are, the war means that their allotted roles are to spend its last days trying to kill each other.

V2 is a fine war-time thriller that also offers a melancholic exploration of this most horrific of European civil wars. Nevertheless, unlike the bleak, bleak vista of his last book, The Second Sleep, V2 does carry a glimmer of hope at the end.

The Children of Jocasta, by Natalie Haynes

Summary: The story of Oedipus is more complex than you might think

The Irish playwright Frank McGuinness has described Sophocles’ play, Oedipus the King, as the first police procedural, focussing on Oedipus’ hunt for the culprit responsible for the plague on Thebes. So powerful a vision did Sophocles present that Natalie Haynes herself has argued in her spectacularly entertaining radio series, Stand Up For The Classics, that it has reverberated ever since in the personae of every brooding murder detective to have gotten their own TV show … apart maybe from Miss Marple.

Undaunted by the weight of this literary heritage, Haynes has imagined her own version of the tragedy of Oedipus and his family. Focussing particularly on two of the characters that Sophocles left rather silent, Jocasta and her daughter Ismene, Haynes has managed to craft something of a multi-generational political thriller that put me in mind of Seamus Deane’s masterpiece, Reading in the Dark.

Like Deane’s book, The Children of Jocasta follows the efforts of a young person, Ismene in this case, to unearth the truth of their family’s history. This has been kept from her and her siblings because it represents some rather awkward truths for the powers that be in her present-day Thebes. While there are a few differences between ancient Thebes and 20th Century Derry, human nature remains the same. And like Deane, like Sophocles, Haynes story is filled with compelling and believable characters confronted with some horrible dilemmas.

Haynes has thrown in a few sexy analogies to apricots – something she has pointed out elsewhere would not have been available in Greece for another thousand years – but the rest of her context is resolutely realistic. There are no “deus ex machina”, peculiar riddles, or flying monsters. Swords may glitter beautifully, but they also make horrible messes of human bodies, and power represents a prize that some may sacrifice even the closest bonds of family for.

As with her wonderful account of the Trojan War, A Thousand Ships, The Children of Jocasta brings new, predominantly female, perspectives on stories that many of us may feel we already know inside out. In doing so, she again finds the power to surprise and delight her readers with an exquisite piece of writing.

Catch 22, by Joseph Heller

Summary: Yossarian’s sanity almost drives him mad.

I once had a boss who had to vacate his office in favour of his superior because the said superior had discovered that his own office was two square feet smaller than that of my boss.

Anyone familiar with the world of work will have similar stories to tell about the petty jealousies and mindless bureaucracies that can blight this aspect of our lives. But such stupidities rarely threaten our lives – unless of course you are a health care worker depending on Boris Johnson for PPE during a global pandemic.

Mindless bureaucracy and petty jealousies are rarely the central themes of fictional portrayals of war, even though they are a frequent discussion in military history: Grant and Lee’s arguments over protocol at Cold Harbour, for example, that cost the lives of so many wounded. Or General Mark Clark’s career of incompetence during the Second World War’s Italian campaign.

Catch 22 sought to remedy that however. Bureaucracy, pointless protocol, military etiquette, get rich quick schemes dominate the narrative because it is these that dominate the priorities of those who don’t have to risk their lives.

However for the novel’s anti-hero, John Yossarian, none of these things matter. He just wants to survive. Unlike his superiors, Yossarian knows what flack can do to a human body. He just wants the unrelenting terror of operations to end and to go home. However Yossarian discovers no matter how often he braves the guns of the Herman Goering division, he still has to fly. His superior’s dreams of martial glory leads him to keep pushing up the mission count in the hope that this will help him to become a general. Yossarian, like his pal the Chaplin, does not have the comfort of insanity or selfishness to cushion him from the pity of war, and so hovers perpetually on the edge of breakdown.

Catch 22 is a sprawling book, hopping amongst characters and their diverse but interconnected misadventures. Such is its complexity that George Clooney’s exceptionally fine television version of the story required robust editing of the narrative elements.

It is often described as a satire, and it certainly is rich with black comedy. But Joesph Heller was himself a veteran of 60 combat missions, like Yossarian, as a bombardier in the Italian campaign. So the horror of that experience is never far from the surface, and is something that moves centre-stage in the final chapters of the book.

Some years after Catch 22 was published a reporter put it to Heller that he had not written anything as good since. “No,” said Heller. “Neither has anyone else.”

Lincoln in the Bardo, by George Saunders

Summary: the restless dead, and their thoughts on the mid-19th century state of the union

In certain schools of Buddhism the “Bardo” is an intermediate place between death and rebirth or heaven. It is into this Purgatory that William Wallace Lincoln, third son of Abraham, arrives in 1862.

Unlike the other children who arrive there Willie lingers, longing to see his father again. Some of the older ghosts – a young man regretful of his suicide, a middle-aged man pining for his young wife, a elderly minister fearful of what lies beyond – worry about what will befall Willie if he stays too long. So they take it upon themselves to help the young fellow move on. As a result they encounter the devastated president, come to visit the grave of his beloved son.

Lincoln in the Bardo is a strange book. Literary critics call it “experimental”. Portions of it, those providing the historical context, are edited from the vast literature of Lincoln and the Civil War. Into this context George Saunders creates a sort of American “Cré na Cille”, populating his narrative with the ghostly denizens of the graveyard where Willie lies.

A cross-section of American society from independence until 1862 is here: white supremacists dwelling alongside the slaves dumped in a common pit; wealthy misers rubbing ectoplasm with alcoholic down-and-outs. They reflect the nation at the moment of crisis that Lincoln confronts. Their stories, their memories of their past lives and their gossip on the current scandals of the graveyard society, are by turns hilarious and shocking, always entertaining and ultimately gripping.

At first President Lincoln’s presence in the midst of this cacophony of voices seems almost incidental. But it is not. Rather his presence is catalytic, provoking profound changes to the social order of the Bardo just as he is about to lead profound changes to the order of the Union.

Lincoln may sometimes be thought of as one of the last fatalities of the Civil War. But he wasn’t that. George Floyd may hold that dreadful distinction at the time of writing, but of course that won’t last for long. But Lincoln, alongside the likes of Martin Luther King, offers a glimpse of how much better America can be when it confronts its own original sins of slavery and genocide. That idealism echoes in this book.

Blood and Sugar, by Laura Shepherd-Robinson

Summary: A gripping historical detective story, probing the dark heart of the system of slavery that made Britain rich.

The origins of Britain as a leading commercial and industrial nation lie in two comparably genocidal events: the trans-Atlantic slave trade, and the conquest of India.

These are atrocities that the majority of British people know little about. Insofar as they may be aware of the slave trade they probably only know of William Wilberforce’s parliamentary campaign to end it. The painstaking and arguably more important work by Clarkson, Sharpe, Equiano and the Quakers, that made parliamentary action possible by shifting the tide of public opinion against this industrialised trafficking of human beings, is much less well known.

Well, if British people remain ignorant of this for much longer, it will not be for Laura Shepherd-Robinson’s want of trying.

Blood and Sugar starts with the gruesome murder of an abolitionist lawyer in the slave port of Deptford. But, horrific as this event is, as veteran of the American war, Harry Corsham, discovers when he begins to probe into the death of his erstwhile friend, this is not the worst thing that those responsible for the slave trade have done.

Blood and Sugar is a gripping and richly detailed historical detective thriller that probes unflinchingly into the savagery of the trans-Atlantic slave trade. Its power is magnified by its verisimilitude: while the foreground figures may be fictitious there is nothing made up about Shepherd-Robinson’s descriptions of the horrors of the Middle Passage and the tortures routinely inflicted upon enslaved Africans.

Shepherd-Robinson has already gained deserved praise from other exemplars of the historical detective story. But even if comparably entertaining to the best of this genre Blood and Sugar is something altogether more important. It is an act of remembering, bringing to, potentially, a whole new audience one of the foundational events of modern Britain. If readers are also stirred to remember that slavery still afflicts some 40 million people across the globe, many of them still in conditions akin to those described in this book, then all the better.

Blood and Sugar is a mighty accomplishment.

The Greek Myths, by Robert Graves

Summary: myth as a prophesy of war

In the Greek Myths, Robert Graves provides a sprawling and comprehensive survey of these stories from creation to the return of Odysseus to Ithaca. The approach is mostly “chronological” though some portions, such as Agamemnon’s return and the vengeance of Orestes, are placed in the narrative before temporally subsequent ones, such as the sack of Troy.

Many of these stories are now perhaps best known from classical literature such as Homer, Virgil, Aeschylus or Sophocles. But here Graves tries to be true to their oral origins, acknowledging that there are a variety of versions of the stories, including differences in some of the reported names of the characters and indeed in some of the stories’ conclusions: Some say that Theseus felt bad about abandoning Ariadne, for example; or some say that Iphigenia was rescued by the goddess Artemis, not trussed up and slaughtered like a goat by her own father.

These stories have been cleaned up over the years, often for children, by the likes of Charles Kingsley or Roger Lancelyn Green. But here the “heroes” are as they were – an array of bloody men, and a few bloody women, from an era when the only balm from trauma was the facade of martial glory.

Hence it is difficult to see the story of Theseus as anything other than the story of an idealistic young man descending into increased horror and cruelty as a result of a career of killing that he enters in the hope of fame and glory. Heracles comes across as little more than a psychopath: extraordinary that someone should decide to make a Disney cartoon out of that one. Odysseus is clever and brave, but also venial, untrustworthy and brutal, breaking his word to those Trojans to whom he promised protection, and personally murdering Hector’s infant son, amongst other vile and treacherous deeds in his career of war and wandering,

Perhaps this volume makes better sense as a work of reference than an a work of narrative. But, taken in total, these stories give a shockingly stark portrayal of the effects of violence and warfare on both the victims and the perpetrators. Perhaps this was part of their appeal to Graves, himself a veteran of the carnage of the First World War.

Neither the Trojan War nor the wars of the Twentieth Century seem to have done much to dispel the attraction to war for a certain class of human. So in telling these stories, as well as his own war experiences elsewhere, Graves may have realised that he was also heir to Cassandra, the princess of Troy, gifted with the power of perfect prophesy and cursed with the knowledge that even her most desperate warnings would never to be heeded no matter how menacing the approaching “smell of blood”.

Nights in Armour, by Sam Thompson

Summary: a fine novel of ordinary people at war and the horrendous consequences of violence

There’s an echo of Hill Street Blues, the seminal 1980s cop show, in this book. Like that series this book also encompasses a teeming cast of characters, police of all ranks and paramilitaries, to paint a portrait of what it was like to be a peeler in the North of Ireland in the shadow of the 1981 hunger strikes.

Thompson does not paint a heroic picture. His characters are flawed. Some are bigots. Some are fearful. All are human, living cheek by jowl with violence and death. Traffic accidents, riots, assassinations, attacks on themselves all take their toll as the British Government’s “Ulsterisation” increasingly places them in the forefront of the conflict and hence on the receiving end of the paramilitary offensive.

Thompson’s descriptions of violence are particularly striking. A former cop himself he writes these with the forensic clarity of someone who has seen what firearms and explosives do to human beings and human bodies.

Nights in Armour is a fine novel of war in all its ghastliness. It should be read by every young Irish person with romantic notions of what the Troubles were actually like. And it should be read by every English politician prepared to jeopardise the fragile peace in Ireland for their ludicrous dreams of reclaiming faded British imperial grandeur.

The Fall of the Stone City, by Ismail Kadare

Summary: a dream-like account of the nightmare of totalitarianism

In 1943 the German army approaches the Albanian city of Gjiorkaster, planning a brutal reprisal for an ineffectual Albanian ambush on the column. However the city is home to a close university friend of the German commander, and at a dinner between the two the salvation of the city is negotiated.

Or maybe not. What actually happened at the dinner is a source of much speculation, not least by the Communists who take power after the Germans. They begin to wonder is this actually evidence of some existential threat to their system.

This is a novel of the competing rumours that emerge from this dinner, each as haunting as the dark folk tales that swirl around the city and that these rumours echo. It is a book about the history and culture of Albania, and how the myths of the past cast their bloody influence across time right up to the present day.

It is a strange and haunting story, beautifully written and elegantly translated..

The Things They Carried, by Tim O’Brien

Summary: a profoundly moving American meditation on the war in Vietnam, rightly regarded as a classic

The Things They Carried is an extraordinary book. An exquisitely written, deeply moving, sometimes extremely funny, sometimes simply horrifying, collection of linked short stories revolving around the soldiers in “Alpha Company”, including one called Tim O’Brien, who after the war becomes the author of this book.

The Vietnamese are generally only minor characters in this book. But while the book is a tender portrait of American troops in Vietnam, it does nothing to glorify the US engagement in that war, which is clearly seen as pointless and immoral. O’Brien’s first encounter with a dead Vietnamese is with an old man killed by an indiscriminate air bomardment of a village called in reprisal for a brief and ineffective sniper attack on O’Brien’s own platoon.

The terrorism that the Americans practice upon the Vietnamese is so routinised that it is almost unremarked upon, frequently considered by the troops as little more than youthful hi-jinks. O’Brien reminds the reader that those doing this, the American GIs, are just kids, mostly conscripts barely out of high school, unleashed from the bounds of civilisation and morality, desperate just to survive and unconcerned about those who die in order to ensure their survival.

But of course not all survive. Vietnamese action repeatedly bleeds the Americans, and vice versa. In one chapter O’Brien meditates on the humanity of a dead Vietnamese soldier, killed in his ambush, and, like his killers, someone who probably wished he was somewhere else, living his own young life rather than being involved in ending the young lives of others.

The Things They Carried, since its publication, has come to be regarded as a classic of American literature and O’Brien as one of the finest writers of his generation. The accolades are deserved.