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An Elvis-themed restaurant, a five-year-old murder, and Inspector Rebus

Elvis-themed restaurantThe Black Book (Inspector Rebus #5), by Ian Rankin

@@@@ (4 out of 5)

Read any one of the 21 novels published to date in the Inspector Rebus series, and you will have no doubt that Ian Rankin, is a native Scotsman, and proud of it. You’ll rush to the dictionary from time to time to look up strange words known only to the inhabitants of that cold and rainy land. And you’ll read about people actually eating haggis—willingly! (They even ask for it in restaurants!) This is all evident in The Black Book, the fifth entry in the series, a more mature effort than the four novels that precede it. John Rebus seems to have grown into his skin. His relationships with his colleagues in the Edinburgh police have fallen into a familiar pattern. And the underlying mystery is, characteristically, impenetrable until close to the end. Rankin is in fine form in this excellent example of detective fiction.

The standout elements of The Black Book are an Elvis-themed restaurant (in Edinburgh!), the complex and sometimes treacherous internal activity of the Edinburgh police, and our first extensive exposure to Morris Gerald “Big Ger” Cafferty, John Rebus’ white whale. (Yes, that restaurant is fictional.)

The story opens as a young man staggers into a butcher shop with a knife wound in his abdomen. He refuses to reveal anything about how he came to be stabbed, or by whom, and the butcher—his uncle, it later develops—professes to know nothing, or even to recognize the younger man. While Inspector Rebus and his two charges, Detective Sergeant Brian Holmes and Detective Constable Siobhan Clarke, labor to learn what happened, another attack takes place, much closer to home. As Holmes is leaving his favorite hangout, an Elvis-themed restaurant, he is savagely hit on the head in the parking lot and sent into a coma. Eventually, Rebus learns from Holmes’ girlfriend that he had been preoccupied lately because of something he had recorded in his notebook, the “black book.” Rebus soon decodes Holmes’ cryptic abbreviations, learning that Holmes had been on the trail of information about a five-year-old unsolved murder. This is the mystery that is central to the plot.

As Rebus and Clarke work in secret to unravel the mystery—they have been assigned to what they regard as a futile surveillance detail—it quickly becomes clear that the city’s rich and powerful are somehow involved. Apparently, both the owner of the prosperous local brewery and his son as well as Big Ger Cafferty seem to have been present in the building where the murder took place. Rebus’ dogged attempts to learn the truth about what happened there five years ago expose him and his brother to vicious attacks and result in getting him suspended from the police force. Of course, all will work out in the end. The Black Book is, after all, a murder mystery in a series. The hero must triumph in the end so the author may tell another tale.

I’ve reviewed a number of Ian Rankin’s Inspector Rebus novels. One is at Devil worship and murder in this early Inspector Rebus novel. Another is here: Inspector Rebus goes to London to catch a serial murderer. These are among scores of detective novels I’ve reviewed over the years. You can find a list of my favorite series at 48 excellent mystery and thriller series.

Multiple murder in the Australian outback

multiple murderThe Dry: A Novel, by Jane Harper

@@@@ (4 out of 5)

If you’ve ever been to the desert in central Australia, you’ll find it easier to envision the setting in Jane Harper‘s thriller, The Dry: the featureless landscape, the stifling heat, the desolation, the sheer loneliness that the landscape inflicts on you. The novel is set somewhere south of the desert, in drought-ridden farming and sheep-herding country, but it still conjured up memories of my brief visit to the Alice Springs area more than a decade ago. It’s difficult to understand how or why anyone would choose to live in such a place. It’s somewhat easier to picture a multiple murder in such a forbidding environment.

Aaron Falk has returned to Kiewarra twenty years after he and his father had fled the town, hounded by accusations that one or the other of them had murdered Aaron’s teenage friend, Ellie Deacon. He’d been living ever since in Melbourne, far to the south, lately working as a federal investigator specializing in financial fraud. He’d returned reluctantly to attend the funeral of his boyhood best friend, Luke Hadler, his wife, and five-year-old son. They’d all been brutally shotgunned to death in a gruesome multiple murder, and Luke himself was suspected both by the townspeople and the police who’d been called in to investigate. But Luke’s parents are certain their son didn’t kill his family and himself. They’ve pressed Aaron to find out what happened. Against his better judgment, Luke has consented to stay for a week to look into the case.

Aaron quickly finds he isn’t welcome back in Kiewarra. He’s still suspected of murdering Ellie Deacon two decades earlier. Unfortunately, Luke had no alibi for the period when Ellie was killed. He’d only avoided arrest because Luke had persuaded him to tell the police that the two of them were together at the time. It hadn’t then occurred to Aaron to suspect that Luke was only gaining an alibi for himself, but now he wonders because all evidence points to murder-suicide in the deaths of the Hadler family.

Are the two mysteries connected in some way? We suspect as much, but any explanation will clearly be a long time coming in this award-winning novel. With few allies other than Luke’s aging parents, Aaron struggles against fierce resistance from the townspeople and his own suspicions as the investigation unfolds. Jane Harper tells the tale through flashbacks to Aaron’s teenage years and narrative about the increasingly complex case that only slowly becomes clear as Aaron pursues the elusive truth.

To read my review of another, somewhat similar mystery, go to An engrossing small town thriller. For links to dozens of other mysteries and thrillers, see 48 excellent mystery and thriller series.


Harry Hole investigates a two-decade-long string of serial murders

serial murdersThe Snowman (Harry Hole #7), by Jo Nesbo

@@@@ (4 out of 5)

It’s difficult to surpass the fiendishly complex plotting on offer in every one of the Harry Hole novels by Jo Nesbo. Other thriller writers may equal Nesbo’s skill in one or even several books, but few (if any) are better. In The Snowman, the seventh entry in the Harry Hole series, the surprises keep coming, one atop another, as the suspense builds steadily as Harry approaches the resolution to another case of serial murders. If you can unravel the mystery early in this book, your deductive powers are greater than mine. As a long-time reader of mysteries and thrillers, did I anticipate a couple of the revelations? Yes. But the adroitness with which Nesbo weaves the elements of his story together still kept me guessing until the end.

As The Snowman opens, Inspector Hole has just turned 40. He is unaccountably sober, for a change, and he’s exercising regularly. His long-time lover, Rakel Fauke, has kicked him out of her house because she forever finds herself in second place after his job. Now Rakel is on the verge of marrying a jovial, even-tempered physician who is Harry’s opposite in so many ways. For Rakel’s eleven-year-old son Oleg, however, the separation is a tragedy. He dislikes the doctor and thinks of Harry as “Dad.”

At the Crime Squad, Harry is now working with a sharp new detective recently transferred to Oslo from the Bergen police. Katrine Bratt may even be Harry’s equal as an investigator—and as a workaholic. Together they set out to explore a missing-persons case that is, in fact, probably a murder. A young woman has mysterious disappeared from her home, leaving behind a distraught husband and five-year-old son. Then a second woman disappears. Her decapitated head is found atop a snowman in the woods near her farm. Now Harry and Katrine are convinced they have a serial killer on their hands—and Harry is the only Norwegian police officer ever to have captured a serial killer or to have studied serial murders with the FBI. He quickly becomes convinced that the murders taking place in 2004 are somehow linked to a notorious murder in 1980 that was followed by the disappearance of the homicide detective who was investigating the case.

In recent years, I’ve read and reviewed most of the other Harry Hole novels. One of my reviews can be found at Harry Hole, the Salvation Army, and a gay Croatian hitman. Another is at Gypsies, bank robbers, and the Norwegian police.

If series like the Harry Hole novels interest you, take a look at a recent post of mine: 48 excellent mystery and thriller series.


A Swedish thriller without crazed serial killers

Swedish thriller The Lost Boy (Fjällbacka #7), by Camilla Läckberg

@@@@@ (5 out of 5)

If you read Scandinavian noir but have had your fill of deranged serial killers, pick up a copy of The Lost Boy by Camilla Läckberg. Like the preceding novels in her bestselling Fjällbacka series, The Lost Boy shines with in-depth characterization and complex plotting that offers surprises to the very end. If you’re insightful about psychology, you might pick up well in advance on a couple of the plot’s major twists and turns—but it’s very unlikely you’ll catch them all. Camilla Läckberg is good!

In a devastating car crash, Ericka Falck’s infant nephew died and she was forced to undergo a Caesarian to give birth to premature twin boys. To compound the terror, Ericka’s husband, Detective Patrik Hedström, immediately collapsed from what appeared to be a heart attack. But months have passed, and finally all’s well in the Falck/Hedström home. The twins are thriving, their two-year-old sister dotes on them, and both Ericka and Patrik are fully recovered: Patrik had collapsed from stress, not a heart attack. But Ericka’s younger sister, Anna, was in the car and suffered an abortion in the crash. Now she is despondent and unresponsive to her children, her husband, and Ericka.

Against this backdrop, six other stories begin unspooling. A former classmate of Ericka’s has hidden in her cottage on a nearby island with her five-year-old son; her husband has been murdered, and they hope to evade the same fate. In flashbacks to the 1870s, a young woman living on the same island has been virtually enslaved by her cruel husband. A brother-and-sister team of con artists, having swindled a fortune from the town of  Fjällbacka, is preparing to flee. The town’s treasurer has been murdered, too. A battered wife and her two children are holed up in Copenhagen, having fled Sweden. And Patrik’s incompetent boss, the chief of police, is getting on the nerves of the two younger lesbian women who live with him and his girlfriend. (One of them is her daughter.) Yes, a whole lot happens in a Camilla Läckberg novel!

If there is any overarching theme to The Lost Boy, it’s domestic violence. The investigation Patrik and his colleagues undertake into the murder of the town’s treasurer gives them (and the reader) a window on the issue and how it’s dealt with in Sweden.

About the author

Camilla Läckberg was born in Fjällbacka, Sweden, the setting for all her novels about Patrik Hedström and Ericka Falck. She has written ten novels to date in the Fjällbacka series. As best I can tell, all have been translated into English. The most recent, The Witch (2017), isn’t available in the United States at this writing. Of the other nine, six have appeared in Kindle editions. I’ve now read and reviewed all six.

Child soldiers, bank fraud, and eccentric police in a Danish thriller

Child soldiersThe Marco Effect (Department Q #5), by Jussi Adler-Olsen

@@@@ (4 out of 5)

In a region of Cameroon populated by people outsiders call pygmies, a Danish development project has gone off the rails. Then, shortly after a visitor from the Danish foreign ministry is glimpsed on a visit, the local liaison between the project and the Danes is brutally murdered. Back home in Denmark, one of the foreign ministry officials involved in the project goes missing. We’ve learned that a senior official in the ministry and top executives at a Copenhagen bank are involved in a massive fraud. Meanwhile, troubles mount for a 15-year-old boy who is enslaved as a thief and a beggar by a band who style themselves Gypsies. We know there are connections among all these circumstances. But Carl Mørck doesn’t.

Detective Inspector Carl Mørck and his unlikely sidekicks, Asaad and Rose, take on the official’s disappearance despite being warned off the case. All three have a long history of doing exactly what they want—and nothing more. Carl thinks of the two as unstoppable: “The two of them together were like a herd of stampeding gnu on the plains of Africa. Heads down and full steam ahead, and if he wasn’t going to join in, he’d better get out of the way.” Until now, they’ve been able to get away with acting only on their own because they close cases at an unusually high rate for the Copenhagen police force. But now their boss, the head of the homicide department, is retiring unexpectedly. And his boss, no friend of Carl’s, is moving temporarily into the job. To keep an eye on the three misfits of Department Q he assigns an awkward third-year law student as a spy, thus complicating the team’s efforts to uncover the truth behind the official’s disappearance and presumed death.

As Mørck, Asaad, and Rose dig into the circumstances of the official’s disappearance, more complications arise. That 15-year-old-boy, Marco, emerges as the central figure in the case. The boss’ spy frustrates the investigation with inappropriate and unauthorized questions directed at suspects. All the while, Marco is on the run from the head of the “Gypsy” clan, who wants him dead for defying him.

It’s all a fine mess—an investigation that’s far more complicated than it has any right to be. But, as the three hapless investigators in Department Q stumble toward a resolution, it’s a whole lot of fun.


Pedophiles, serial murder, and the Holocaust in a Swedish psychological thriller

pedophilesThe Crow Girl: A Novel, by Erik Axl Sund

@@@@ (4 out of 5)

If you favor mysteries and thrillers full of surprises, you’ll love The Crow Girl by the Swedish writing team that publishes under the name Erik Axl Sund. No matter how shrewd and analytical you might be, I predict that you won’t figure out who’s who and what’s what until at least close to the end of this staggeringly complex novel. And, unless you read at a blistering pace, this is not a book you’ll finish at one sitting: the hardcover edition runs to 784 pages.

To say that I enjoyed this novel would be misleading. At times it’s gruesome beyond belief. And I found the constant use of long Swedish place names distracting. Yet the writing is devilishly clever. It’s difficult to put the book down. In fact, I found it impossible.

It’s difficult to exaggerate just how complicated this story is. It’s a tale about pedophilia, serial murder, unhappy marriages, dissociative identity disorder, a fundamentalist Christian sect in Lapland, the Great Famine in the Ukraine, the Holocaust, and Swedish police procedures. Got that? No? I understand. I could never have imagined a single story linking all these themes.

The Crow Girl opens like so many other crime stories. The mutilated body of a young immigrant boy is discovered, and Detective Superintendent Jeanette Kihlberg from the Stockholm police is assigned to the case. But neither the police chief nor the prosecutor who both have authority over her will provide her with the necessary resources. Then the bodies of two other young boys are found nearby. Evidence links the three murders, so Kihlberg is faced with tracking down a serial killer, on her own time when necessary.

To gain insight into the psychopathology of serial murderers, the Superintendent enlists the help of a brilliant psychologist, Sofia Zetterlund. It soon develops that both women are stuck in unhappy marriages, so you’ll quickly begin to wonder where that will lead. And that’s only the first of a long list of complications and surprises that come to light again and again in this masterful tale.

The Crow Girl is the first book in the Victoria Bergman trilogy. The remaining two books in the trilogy are not yet available in English translation, nor is the authors’ fourth novel.



A delightful Ross Thomas novel about con men, a $5 million bribe, and a rebellion in the Philippines

con menOut on the Rim, by Ross Thomas

@@@@@ (5 out of 5)

Ross Thomas‘ inimitable thrillers were originally published between 1966 and 1994. (Ross died the following year.) More recently, most of his work has been brought out in new editions, each with an introduction by a prominent contemporary of his who wrote mysteries and thrillers, too. Introducing Out on the Rim, one of Thomas’ last novels, Donald E. Westlake comments “The dialogue zings, the story twists like a go-go dancer, and you often can’t tell the players even with the program.” Amen to that.

Published in 1987 and set a year earlier, Out on the Rim is a roller-coaster of a tale that moves from Washington, DC, to Los Angeles, to Manila and Cebu City in the Philippines, to Hong Kong, and back to Washington, DC, for a typically ironic and very satisfying conclusion. The focus of attention is Booth Stallings, a “terrorism expert”—he holds a Ph.D. and wrote a book on the subject—but Thomas shifts the point of view from Stallings to each of a number of other intriguing characters whose principal occupation seems to be double-crossing each other.

There’s Artie Wu, the brilliant and corpulent “Pretender to the Chinese Imperial Throne.” (He claims to be the illegitimate son of the illegitimate son of Pu Yi, the Last Emperor.) Wu’s partner in crime is Quincy Durant, a sociopath who works cons with him. Others frequently refer to him as “that f***ing Durant.” Maurice Overby, “House-sitter to the Stars,” known to most as Otherguy Overby (the other guy always did it), is also a con man. He always works at an angle about 45 degrees off course from everyone else. Georgia Blue, a cashiered former Secret Service agent, may not be licensed to kill, but it’s clear she is fully capable of doing it. Alejandro (Al) Espiritu, who fought the Japanese with Stallings, is now the leader of a rebel movement in the south of the Philippines. Also appearing are Al’s wife and sister, assorted CIA agents, a Philippine homicide detective, and an Australian expatriate in Manila who is selling secrets to so many governments that he can’t keep them all straight. As Donald Westlake says, “you often can’t tell the players even with the program.”

Shortly after his 60th birthday, Booth Stallings is recruited to return to the Philippines after more than 40 years to reconnect with Al Espiritu. His assignment is to persuade the rebel leader to accept a $5 million bribe to leave the islands for exile in Hong Kong. Stallings will be paid a fee of $500,000 for the job (about a million dollars in 2017). To help carry out this dangerous assignment, he turns to Otherguy Overby, who connects him with Wu and Durant. Stallings plans to fly to Manila with the other three men, but then the man who recruited him insists that his bodyguard, Georgia Blue, join the team. Immediately after their arrival in the Philippines, the trouble starts—and it doesn’t let up until the very end of this delightfully convoluted story.

An Edinburgh brothel, an honest MP, and two murders in another great Inspector Rebus mystery

Inspector RebusStrip Jack (Inspector Rebus #4), by Ian Rankin

@@@@ (4 out of 5)

In Ian Rankin’s Strip Jack, the fourth novel in his long-running murder mystery series, the newly promoted Edinburgh police Inspector John Rebus is decidedly unenthusiastic about the latest assignment from his sanctimonious boss, Chief Superintendent “Farmer” Watson. Rebus is ordered to join a large task force assembled for a midnight raid on a high-end brothel, where he dreads the idea of unmasking members of the city’s elite. However, once the police have stormed the house, he is surprised to find Gregor Jack MP sitting on a bed with an unclothed young woman. Jack has a reputation as both a man of integrity and a diligent representative of his constituency’s interests in London. “Most MPs, Rebus wouldn’t have given the time of day. But Gregor Jack was . . . well, he was Gregor Jack . . . ‘Mild’ was an adjective often used about Jack. So were ‘honest,’ ‘legal’ and ‘decent.'” Though fully clothed himself in the brothel, Jack’s carefully cultivated image is in tatters after he is marched in front of the cameras on his way to the police van that will take him into the station for questioning.

For Rebus, there are three questions to be answered: who informed the Chief Superintendent about the existence of the brothel, why was the MP found there, and who tipped off the press? These three questions turn out to be the key to unraveling a complex mystery surrounding two presumably linked murders that bedevil the police and entertain the press for weeks on end. Another, much less urgent case—the theft of several rare first editions from the home of a divinity professor at the University of Edinburgh—also proves to be crucial to identifying the murderer.

In the course of the investigation, Rebus and his colleagues are forced to navigate through the byzantine relationships among the friends surrounding Jack and his wife, Elizabeth, who is one of the murder victims. Rebus is convinced that one of these family friends is Elizabeth’s murderer, but a homeless and seemingly deranged man has confessed to both murders—and then fled. The Chief Superintendent and the Chief Inspector who is Rebus’ immediate superior are focused on tracking down the man and imprisoning him for both crimes. They’re under pressure from the police, and from Elizabeth’s influential father, to close the case quickly. Rebus is convinced that the man’s confession is full of holes. But he must work around his bosses to follow his instinct on a parallel investigation.

Strip Jack was published in 1992 and reflects police procedures and the technology available at that time. For example, a telephone booth figures in the mystery in a major way.

In the John Rebus mysteries, Ian Rankin makes generous use of words known only to Scots. For instance, “Both men had zippered their jackets against the snell wind and the occasional smirr.” Because Rankin is himself Scottish and has lived in Edinburgh for most of his life, I don’t hold this against him. Certainly, it’s easier to excuse than the pretentious practice of some English-language writers to sprinkle words and phrases in French or Italian throughout their books.

The title of this novel comes from a card game called “Strip Jack Naked” that is also sometimes known (in Scotland, presumably) as “Beggar Thy Neighbour.”

Overpopulation in fiction and on film

overpopulationMake Room! Make Room!, by Harry Harrison

@@@ (3 out of 5)

In 1973, American filmgoers were shocked by a film entitled Soylent Green, starring Charlton Heston and Leigh Taylor-Young. The film depicts New York City in 2022 with a population of 40 million. The streets are crowded with homeless people, but those few with jobs and a place to live in a dilapidated apartment are little better off: starvation is no more than a slender paycheck away. Water and food are rationed. Most people barely survive on food substitutes from the Soylent Corporation. Euthanasia is encouraged. When the Soylent Corporation introduces a nutritious new wafer of “high-energy plankton,” Soylent Green,  the demand is far greater than the supply. At length we learn that the bodies of the aged who submit to an early death are processed in a Soylent Corporation plant and converted into . . . yes, Soylent Green.

Overpopulation is the central issue

The film was loosely based on science fiction writer Harry Harrrison‘s novel Make Room! Make Room!, which had been published six years earlier—emphasis on “loosely.” Harrison did not envision a society fed with the products of human remains. Soylent steaks consist of soybean and lentil. Nor did euthanasia figure into his story; instead, the Eldsters constitute an aggressive pressure group often to be found demonstrating on the streets of the city. Harrison’s concern was overpopulation, a subject of intense public debate in those days. (Paul Ehrlich‘s seminal work, The Population Bomb, was published just two years after the novel, further raising the profile of the issue.)

Other themes enter into Harrison’s story, such as global warming, depleted natural resources, failing government, violent conflict over restricted water supplies, and corruption, and the deterioration of the city’s housing stock and infrastructure. For example, motorized transportation is rare. Pedicabs have replaced taxis, and “tugtrucks” carry commerce around the city. But Harrison could not have been clearer that his central concern was overpopulation. The food shortage has become so severe that the price of a bottle of whiskey is unattainable except to the rich. “There was almost none being made now because of the grain shortage . . . ”

Overpopulation isn’t an issue just in New York City or the USA. “All of England is just one big city . . .” Rural areas in the U.S. are crowded, too—and everyone, everywhere, suffers from the endless crush of humanity. Typhoid and dysentery are spreading rapidly because of the lack of water for sanitation. “The whole country is one big farm and one big appetite.” This is a Malthusian nightmare.

Here’s how one rioter describes the pathetic lives people live in 1999 New York: “The authorities have seen to it that we cannot work no matter how fit or able we are. And they have fixed the tiny, insulting, miserable handouts that we are supposed to live on and at the same time see to it that money buys less and less every year, every month, almost every day . . .” Rations of food, water, and other necessities, even paper, are repeatedly cut. The housing stock is so inadequate that “cavemen” populate the subway tunnels and millions sleep on the streets.

A police procedural that ends in tragedy

The central figures in Harrison’s tale are 30-year-old Andrew (Andy) Rusch, a detective third class in the New York Police Department, and Billy Chung, a teenager driven by hunger to become a burglar. Andy shares a single room with an old man named Sol. Billy lives with his large family in Shiptown on one of the many old Liberty Ships that have been strung across the Hudson River and converted into slum housing. When Billy burgles an apartment in a wealthy housing development—one that’s not just gated but surrounded by a moat as well—he accidentally murders the owner. Unfortunately, the owner is a notorious mob figure named “Big Mike” O’Brien who serves as a liaison between the “syndicate” and the city’s political establishment. Andy is assigned to the case. Almost invariably, murders are essentially ignored; there are simply too many to bother. Most police time goes into riot control. But the syndicate pressures the police department to solve Big Mike’s murder—because the Boss fears that it was the work of a rival mob in New Jersey. Andy grudgingly pursues the case, working 18-hour days for weeks. His only reward is meeting Big Mike’s mistress, Shirl; the two fall in love, and Shirl moves in with Andy and Sol. All’s well at first. But when Andy gets close to tracking down Billy and is working virtually around the clock, Shirl leaves him. The story ends in tragedy. There is no escape from Harrison’s gloomy vision.

Harrison’s view of overpopulation is simplistic

Sol tries to explain the problem of overpopulation to Andy, explaining what he’d observed in Mexico in 1949: “They never baptize the kids until after they are a year old because most of them are dead by that time and baptisms cost a lot of money. That’s why there never used to be a population problem. The whole world used to be one big Mexico, breeding and dying and just about staying even.” What changed was the arrival of modern medicine. “Everything had a cure. Malaria was wiped out along with all the other diseases that had been killing people young and keeping the population down. Death control arrived.” Sol contrasts “death control” with population control, which he asserts is the sole solution to overpopulation. He rails against Congress, which, under pressure from religious zealots, has resisted decades of efforts to legalize population control.

About the author

American science fiction author Harry Harrison wrote 58 novels. He was a popular figure in the science fiction community. He died in 2012 at the age of 87.




In an alternate history, the Nazis occupy England

alternate historySS-GB, by Len Deighton

@@@@ (4 out of 5)

In the literature of alternate history, Nazi Germany often wins World War II. Philip K. Dick’s The Man in the High Castle, Fatherland by Robert Harris, and Jo Walton’s Farthing Trilogy (Farthing, Ha’penny, and Half a Crown, all reviewed here) are prominent examples. There are many others, of which the one I’ve read most recently is SS-GB by the British thriller writer Len Deighton.

A favorite theme in alternate history

It’s November 1941. World War II ended in Europe on February 19 when Great Britain surrendered to Nazi Germany. A puppet Prime Minister has replaced Winston Churchill, who is imprisoned in Germany. King George VI is being held in the Tower of London. Jews have been rounded up and sent “to the notorious concentration camp at Wenlock Edge.” A curfew is in effect in London. Rationing is severe throughout the occupied zone. Thousands of British soldiers are being held in POW camps or in forced labor camps on the Continent. Everywhere, there are “signs of battle damage unrepaired from the street fighting of the previous winter. Shell craters, and heaped rubble, were marked only by yellow tapes, soiled and drooping between roughly made stakes.”

At Scotland Yard, Detective Superintendent Douglas Archer reports to SS General Fritz Kellerman, “whose police powers extended over the whole country.” The Superintendent is “Archer of the Yard,” “the Sherlock Holmes of the 1940s.” He’s the country’s most famous detective because of his success in closing several high-profile murder cases. Archer and “the other half of the murder team,” Sergeant Harry Woods, are investigating a mysterious murder when they receive word that an SS Colonel is coming from Germany under express orders from Reichsfürer Heinrich Himmler to take over the case. Archer will now report to the new man, Dr. Oskar Huth. Huth lives up to the reputation of the SS for arrogance and ruthlessness. As the story advances, the murder case becomes fraught with connections to high-level intrigue. Archer, Huth, and Kellerman warily circle around each other in a high-stakes game that puts all their careers—and their lives—at risk.

Resistance is widespread

Meanwhile, Resistance to the German occupation is growing. As one woman remarks to Archer, “‘In the towns it’s just bombs and murdering German soldiers. In the country districts there are bigger groups, who ambush German motorized patrols . . . ‘” But Resistance is underway at a much higher level: senior British officials in the puppet government are plotting to release the King from the Tower and spirit him off to the United States, where he can lead an eventual effort to bring the Nazis to account. Archer discovers that his seemingly straightforward murder investigation is closely related to this plot—and he becomes deeply involved in the dangerous action that follows.

Not only did Deighton live through World War II as a teenager—he was born in 1929—he thoroughly researched this topic. SS-GB is alternate history of the first rank.

About the author

Len Deighton is often ranked with John le Carre and Ian Fleming in the pantheon of spy novelists. His most familiar books include The Ipcress File, Funeral in Berlin, and the Samson series (Berlin Game, Mexico Set, London Match, and subsequent novels). At this writing, he is 88 years old.


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