Tag Archives for " World War I "
@@@ (3 out of 5)
When the Russian Revolution erupted in 1917, it was by no means clear that Vladimir Lenin’s Bolsheviks would come into power. Even after Lenin and his allies seized the reins of government in Moscow and Leningrad late in the year, the Communist Party’s control of the country was deeply in doubt. The party was indebted to a shaky coalition partner, the Left Revolutionary Socialists. Royalist forces, later dubbed the Whites, were forming armies led by former czarist officers and rapidly regaining territory. A Czech army of 50-100,000 men was operating in tandem with the Whites. And the Western Allies—British, French, and Americans—were invading the country from the north. Chaos reigned in Russia.
In the midst of this fluid and uncertain situation, Jack McColl, a Scot employed by the nascent Secret Service (MI6), enters the country on a mission to help undermine the Bolsheviks. Meanwhile, his unlikely lover, Irish-American journalist Caitlin Handley, is in Russia reporting on the Revolution. Caitlin is a radical with friends among the Bolsheviks and the Left Socialist Revolutionaries. This is the premise on which Lenin’s Roller Coaster is based. It’s the third novel in David Downing’s series featuring Jack and Caitlin.
Somehow, in an earlier book in the series, the two fell in love in the midst of a Secret Service operation in Ireland. There, they were on different sides, too. In fact, Jack was responsible for the death of Caitlin’s younger brother, Colm, who “had been hanged in the Tower of London two years earlier, after taking part in an Irish Republican plot to sabotage the transporting of British troops to France. McColl had caught and arrested him, albeit after offering to let him escape.” Improbably, Caitlin is well aware of Jack’s role in Colm’s death and fell in love with him, anyway.
Mansfield Cumming (the original “C” of MI6) has sent Jack to Russia with vague orders to connect with other agents already in place there. Cumming explains, “Our job is to shore up what’s left of the Eastern Front and prevent the Germans and Turks from exploiting the Russian collapse.”
Lenin’s Roller Coaster relates Jack and Caitlin’s experiences as they make their way to Moscow with painful slowness. Jack enters from the south, through Iran. Caitlin’s route takes her to Vladivostok on Russia’s easternmost coast, then westward on the Trans-Siberian Railway. Both trips take many weeks and expose the lovers to repeated danger. While Downing’s description of the Russian Revolution as it unfolded across the vast expanse of the country is fascinating from an historical standpoint, the slow progression of the plot is tedious. The book works well as historical fiction, not so well as a thriller.
@@@@@ (5 out of 5)
It’s 1932, Maisie Dobbs’ third year in business as an “inquiry agent.” (That’s British for private detective.) As usual, Maisie’s life is complicated. Her assistant, Billy Beale, is working shorter hours to care for his wife, who has just been released from a mental asylum. Maisie’s beloved mentor and former employer, Dr. Maurice Blanche, is in declining health. And two attractive, wealthy men are pursuing her despite her reluctance to take time away from her work. Her agency is doing well even in the Depression. Then a friend she’d known from her service as a nurse in the Great War writes from America to ask that she help an American couple freshly arrived in London.
The Cliftons, it turns out, are in their late seventies. Edward Clifton had emigrated from England to the U.S. as a young man. There he built a huge property development business, in which their children are now assuming leadership. He and his wife just arrived from France, where the remains of their youngest son were uncovered in an old battlefield. Letters uncovered with his body reveal that the young man had had an affair with a young woman during the war. Maisie’s assignment is to locate her. But Maisie discovers almost immediately that the job isn’t just an old missing-persons case: a close reading of the autopsy report makes clear that Michael Clifton didn’t die in battle. He was murdered.
While spending time with the dying Maurice and navigating the attentions of two competing would-be husbands, Maisie sets out to determine who murdered Michael Clifton and identify his long-missing lover. Her investigation immerses her in the dynamics of the large and complicated Clifton family. Then, when the aged Cliftons are attacked in their hotel and left to die, Scotland Yard enters the scene. Maisie is then forced to collaborate with the detective who has caused a great deal of trouble for her in the past.
The Mapping of Love and Death is the seventh novel in Jacqueline Winspear’s delightful Maisie Dobbs series. (The reference to mapping in the title refers to Michael Clifton’s chosen profession as a cartographer and his work in a British Army cartography unit on the front lines in France.) As in its predecessors, World War I looms large in the background. Winspear deftly portrays the difficulty the English had to leave behind the terrible consequences of the war even a decade and a half later. However, the shocking conclusion to this novel reveals that future books in the series may take a turn toward the coming, Second World War. Given the skill she demonstrated in the first seven novels in the series, I’m looking forward to more from Jacqueline Winspear.
@@@@ (4 out of 5)
There are several ways to approach history. You can focus on the broad political and social trends in society at large and how they evolve over time. You can look into the history of technology, or business, the arts, or any other single discipline. You can study the leading individuals whose careers shaped the times in which they lived. Or you can approach the subject through the lives of one individual, one family, or one place. Often, the last of these options makes for the most satisfying reading. Thomas Harding’s The House by the Lake covers the otherwise familiar territory of 20th century German history by telling the stories of the five families who inhabited a single home over the course of the last hundred years. The picture he paints is vivid and compelling.
Much of The House by the Lake is dominated by the saga of the author’s family, the Alexanders, who built a vacation home on the shores of a lake near Berlin in 1927. They were prosperous, assimilated Jews whose fortunes rose during the turbulent 1920s and then fell precipitously as the Nazis came to power. The house they built became home to a succession of four other families in the decades following their flight from Nazi Germany in 1934.
In many ways, the story of this house must resemble what took place in other homes from which German Jews fled or were seized and shipped off to the death camps. Like so many other Jewish homes and businesses, ownership passed to a succession of Nazi families, some of them ideologically committed, others simply opportunistic. What makes this particular story truly remarkable is its location. Built on the shore of a lake in a picturesque village, the home’s front yard was bisected by the Wall constructed by East Germany in 1961. Until the Wall was demolished in 1989, the Alexander house lived in its shadow.
By relating the story of his family’s former home, Harding adds a new perspective to the unfolding of German history from World War I, through the years of the Weimar Republic, the twelve-year reign of the Nazi Party, the establishment of the two post-war German states, and, finally, the period of reunification and the prosperous years that followed in the late 20th and early 21st centuries.
@@@@@ (5 out of 5)
If your taste in crime fiction runs to blood, guts, and gore, you’re unlikely to enjoy reading Jacqueline Winspear‘s Maisie Dobbs series. If, instead, you favor a more cerebral approach focused on three-dimensional character development and psychological insight, you’ll find exactly what you’re looking for in Winspear’s outstanding work.
Maisie Dobbs is a brilliant young working-class woman who gained an elite education under the sponsorship of the aristocratic family that employed her as a maid. Cutting short her university studies, she volunteered as a nurse in World War I, where she witnessed the conflict’s senseless carnage first-hand and was wounded by the same artillery shell that eventually killed her fiance. Now, after years of apprenticeship with a physician who was involved in top-secret intelligence work, she is on her own. Maisie bills herself as a “psychologist and investigator,” and she quickly proves her skill in both arenas.
In Among the Mad, the sixth novel of twelve (so far) in the series, 33-year-old Maisie finds herself and her sidekick, Billy Beale, pressed into service by New Scotland Yard’s secretive Special Branch. Together with her on-again, off-again friend and collaborator, Inspector Stratton, and the head of Special Branch, she is charged with finding the man who has threatened the Prime Minister himself. The wide-ranging search takes her and her colleagues into the worlds of Britain’s emerging Fascist Party, the militant labor movement, the country’s growing chemical-warfare program, and the network of asylums where shell-shocked soldiers and others deemed “mad” are locked away.
The action in Among the Mad unfolds over the last week of 1931 and the first month of 1932, a time when Britain was experiencing the worst of the Great Depression. As its title suggests, one of the book’s overarching themes is the primitive care of mental illness in that era. As in previous novels in the series, the persistent impacts of World War I loom large, too. But equally important is the emphasis on the desperation of the millions of men now out of work, many of them veterans of the war. With cameo appearances by two prominent historical figures—Labour Prime Minister Ramsay MacDonald and future Fascist Party founder Sir Oswald Mosley—Among the Mad qualifies as a superior historical novel as well as first-class detective fiction.
@@@@@ (5 out of 5)
If you’ve been paying attention, you can’t have missed the changes in the character of advertising over the course of your life. Certainly, I have. Chances are, you were born in the age of radio, at the earliest. If so, you’ve witnessed a string of new technologies enter the realm of news and entertainment, almost always paired with aggressive advertising sooner or later: network television, cable TV, the personal computer, the Internet, and the smartphone.
In his insightful history of the business of advertising, Columbia University law professor Tim Wu casts a wider net. Beginning with the advent of the penny press in the 1830s, he explores in telling detail the now centuries-long battle between the commercial interests who want to seize our attention for their own ends and the individuals who want to keep our lives private and access news, information, and entertainment without distraction. This is a colorful story, and Wu tells it well.
Though Wu opens with the introduction of the Sun in New York in 1833, his history more properly begins much later in the 19th century with the emergence of the advertising industry to sell Snake Oil and other patent medicines. (Yes, Snake Oil Liniment was actually a widely sold product Good for Man and Beast.) “From the 1890s thr0ugh the 1920s,” he writes, “there arose the first means for harvesting attention on a mass scale and directing it for commercial effect . . . [A]dvertising was the conversion engine that, with astonishing efficiency, turned the cash crop of attention into an industrial commodity.”
Beginning in the early years of the 20th century, Wu frames his story around the development of radio and the four “screens” that have dominated our attention over the decades that followed: the “silver” screen (film), television, the personal computer, and the smartphone. The author relates the history of each of these technologies as a human story, describing the often outrageous personalities who pioneered and dominated each of these media in turn. However, in focusing on radio and the four screens, Wu overlooks the billboards that mar every urban line of sight and barely mentions the direct mail that floods our mailboxes. Though less than comprehensive, his historical account is engrossing and enlightening.
Here you’ll learn about the development of propaganda by the British government in World War I and its perfection by Nazi Germany . . . the first radio serial that was a smash hit (the grossly racist “Amos ‘n Andy“) in the 1920s . . . the invention of the soap opera in the 1930s . . . the battle between the networks on radio and later on TV from the 1930s through the 1990s . . . the development of geodemographic targeting for ads in the 1970s . . . the emergence of celebrity culture in the 1980s and its perversion by reality television in the 2000s . . . the wild proliferation of blogging in the 2000s . . . the identity theft committed by Google and Facebook in the 2000s and beyond . . . and, finally, “unplugging” and the emergence of free online streaming services like Netflix in the 2010s. This is not a pretty story.
The author is not a fan of the “new media” that have come to hold our attention in recent years. “The idealists had hoped the web would be different,” he notes, “and it certainly was for a time, but over the long term it would become something of a 99-cent store, if not an outright cesspool.” Similarly, Wu’s judgment about the advertising industry is harsh. “[U]nder competition, the race will naturally run to the bottom; attention will almost invariably gravitate to the more garish, lurid, outrageous alternative . . .” It’s difficult to find fault with any of this.
He’s the man who coined the term “network neutrality.” A specialist in media and technology, Tim Wu has written several books and numerous articles, all nonfiction. His work has influenced the development of national media policy under the Obama Administration.
@@@ (3 out of 5)
What is it that keeps fans reading book after book in a series of detective novels? I should know as well as anyone, since I keep going back again and again to the work of Michael Connelly, Karin Slaughter, Henning Mankell, Jacqueline Winspear, James Lee Burke, Cara Black, John Sandford, Tana French, Elizabeth George, Sara Paretsky, and others, embarrassingly too numerous to mention. These writers have few things in common other than ingenious plotting and strong writing. There is one thing, though: their protagonists are unfailingly interesting.
I’d hoped I might think the same about Inspector Ian Rutledge. I’ve now followed Charles Todd‘s accounts of the man through the first three books in the series featuring the intrepid Scotland Yard detective in the years following World War I. Having just struggled through Search the Dark, the third of nineteen books to date, I’ve decided I’ve had enough of Charles Todd. (As you may be aware, the name is actually a pseudonym for the mother-and-son writing team of Caroline and Charles Todd.) Inspector Ian Rutledge and his ghostly sidekick, Hamish MacLeod, have tried my patience for the last time.
The central conceit in this series, or at least in the first three novels, is that Inspector Rutledge suffers from what then was called “shell shock.” Wracked with guilt over a murder he was forced to commit in the course of the war, he is literally haunted by the man he killed. This device could work well in one book, or even in two. But it has already become tedious in the third.
If you want to read detective fiction set in England during the 1920s and 30s, I suggest you turn instead to Jacqueline Winspear’s fascinating Maisie Dobbs series. Enough said.
@@@@ (4 out of 5)
Maisie Dobbs’ private practice as a “psychologist and investigator” is taking off when she receives a curious assignment from a wealthy journalist celebrated for her front-line reporting in World War I. Georgina Bassington-Hope explains that her twin brother has died, and she is convinced he has been murdered despite the police and the coroner’s conviction that his death was an accident. She wants Maisie to dig deeply and find the truth. Over the following weeks, Maisie’s life will be dominated by this unsettling case.
Georgina’s brother, Nick, was a brilliant painter whose work was beginning to earn him a fortune when he tumbled from a scaffold where he was about to hang his masterpiece. Maisie finds it difficult to obtain evidence that his death was anything but accidental: the case is a complex intellectual puzzle. Her thoroughness, obsessive attention to detail, and refusal to take anything at face value eventually lead Maisie into dark corners where the truth eventually emerges. The story is unsettling but it lacks the repeated violence of so much other detective fiction. Maisie works with her brains, not her fists.
Messenger of Truth, the fourth in Jacqueline Winspear’s venerable series of Maisie Dobbs novels, is set in the closing days of 1930 and the early months of 1931. With the terrors of World War I still vivid in every mind, the Depression is in full force. Unemployment is rampant, and the fascist politician Oswald Mosley is gaining a following with his demagogic message. The ostentatious wealth of Georgina’s family contrasts with the desperation all around. Maisie’s class awareness rises as the gross inequities weigh on her more and more heavily. Having been born and raised close to the edge of poverty, Maisie has gained an education only through the lucky accident that the aristocratic family that employed her “in service” has given her opportunities for education and advancement closed to millions of others.
@@@@ (4 out of 5)
Before the advent of World War II, the “Great War” — World War I, the “war to end all wars” — was the most tragic event in modern history. Earlier, Attila’s rampage through Asia and Europe was probably more traumatic. However, in the early decades of the twentieth century, as the Continent’s best and bravest young men fell by the hundreds of thousands in one pointless battle after another, scarcely any observer could imagine a worse fate for civilization.
It’s easy to see how those events could have cast such long shadows over the later years of the unfolding twentieth century. The subsequent history of every major combatant nation, and every new sovereign state created out of the wreckage of the war, was shaped in large part by the blunders and miscalculations of that terrible event. So were the lives of so many millions in Britain, Germany, Central and Eastern Europe, the Middle East, and China. Increasingly, historians of the twentieth century are inclined to suggest that the two world wars are more properly seen as a latter-day Thirty Years’ War, a singular event marked by a brief and turbulent pause in hostilities.
In her series featuring the “Psychologist and Investigator” Maisie Dobbs, the English mystery writer Jacqueline Winspear dwells at length on the legacy of World War I. Pardonable Lies, the third novel in the series, is grounded in that theme, as are both of her previous books. Set in 1930, a dozen years after hostilities ended, Maisie, her now brain-dead fiancee, her assistant, her best friend, her mentor, and virtually every other major character in the novel bears deep scars from the conflict. As the Great Depression gathered steam, it was impossible to live in England and not be deeply affected by the staggering cost of the war.
Maisie Dobbs is a detective unlike any other. Trained over many years by the mysterious and brilliant French physician, Maurice Blanche, and by Khan, the aging South Asian mystic he sent her to, Maisie has been imbued with such lessons as “seeing was not necessarily something one did with the eyes; there was a depth of vision to be gained from stillness . . .” In Pardonable Lies, Maisie puts teaching such as this to the test, outmaneuvering Scotland Yard and cleverly sidestepping several threats to her life.
After a long apprenticeship with Dr. Blanche, Maisie is now well-established in a practice of her own. She is supported by her resourceful assistant, Billy Beale, a former soldier who has finally left the wounds of war behind. Together, the pair take up two parallel and similar investigations, one official, the other a favor for Maisie’s best friend, Patricia Evernden Partridge. In both cases, Maisie must return to France to determine what became of two promising young men, both of whom were reported missing and presumably killed in the war. Winspear skillfully weaves the two plotlines together, converging them in a highly satisfying climax. Pardonable Lies is a satisfying read both as historical fiction and as a mystery story.
Though born and educated in England, Jacqueline Winspear has lived in the United States since 1990. The first two novels in the Maisie Dobbs series both won the Agatha Award; the next two, including Pardonable Lies, were nominated for the same award. She began writing the series in 2003. Her most recent novel was published in 2016.
@@@@ (4 out of 5)
Maisie Dobbs, by Jacqueline Winspear, is the inaugural entry in a series of detective novels, now twelve in number, featuring the work of the brilliantly intuitive “Psychologist and investigator” as the 1930s unfold. In the first of the novels, it’s 1929, and Maisie is just setting out to establish her practice independently of her long-time mentor, Maurice Blanche, who has just retired. Maisie Dobbs won the Agatha Award for First Best Novel, and it’s no wonder: the book fits in the crime genre only imperfectly and is entirely unpredictable. Maisie’s fascinating backstory dominates the tale.
As the novel opens on the cusp of the Great Depression, we learn that Maisie served as a nurse behind the front lines on the Western Front in World War I. Opening her independent practice, she is drawn into a seemingly simple case to satisfy a wealthy man that his wife has been loyal to him. What she learns while pursuing the case well beyond what her client has required, leads her into a much wider investigation, one fraught with violence. First, however, we learn how Maisie came to be where she is.
Maisie is the daughter of a widower who ekes out a living selling vegetables from his cart. They live on the south side of the Thames, the poor side. At the age of thirteen, she is taken into the home of a wealthy aristocratic couple, one of her father’s customers, since her father doesn’t feel able to take adequate care of her. She enters “into service,” beginning a story that at first resembles “Upstairs, Downstairs” or “Downton Abbey.” However, Maisie is exceptionally bright and shortly begins to transcend the limitations of her employment. She is a voracious reader and camps out in the mansion’s library at every opportunity. Through her efforts to educate herself she is introduced to Dr. Blanche, who will become, first, her mentor, and then her employer.
Blanche is a uniquely intriguing character who possesses not just a medical degree but an unusually wide range of influential contacts as well as wisdom that is more in tune with today’s sensibilities than with those of the 1910s and 20s. His advice for her, sparingly offered, is often brilliant. “Allow grief room to air itself,” he tells her. “Be judicious in using the body to comfort another, for you may extinguish the freedom that the person feels to be able to share a sadness.” Later, he says “Stay with the question. The more it troubles you, the more it has to teach you.” Then, introduced to an old friend of Dr. Blanche who appears to be a yogi, “she learned to sit in deliberate silence, and learned too that the stilled mind would give insight beyond the teaching of books and hours of instruction, and that such counsel would support all other learning.” More New Age than Roaring Twenties, as I’ve intimated.
Lying about her age and enlisting as a nurse midway through World War I, Maisie eventually makes her way to France, where some of the book’s most revealing, and most dramatic, scenes take place. Few history books convey such a vivid sense of what life on the Western Front was like for the men who fought there, and often lost their lives or their limbs.
This is an exceptional novel that rises above the conventions and expectations of the detective genre. It’s worth reading as historical fiction in its own right.
A British author who emigrated to the United States in 1990, Jacqueline Winspear is the author of thirteen novels, twelve of them in the Maisie Dobbs series.