Tag Archives for " World War II "
@@@@@ (5 out of 5)
The brilliant Indian author Amitav Ghosh is one of India’s greatest gifts to readers the world over. His deeply affecting historical novels relate the history of South Asia in fascinating detail, reflecting years of intensive research, both on-site and archival. Anchored securely in time and place, Ghosh’s characters virtually leap off the page. They’re hard to forget.
The Glass Palace is a case in point. The novel sprawls across more than a century of Burma’s history, from the British invasion of northern Burma in 1885 until 1999. The story opens in the Mandalay neighborhood surrounding the residence and seat of government of Burma’s last king, Thebaw Min. In the palatial surroundings of his palace, Thebaw awaits the arrival of British troops who have moved up from the south to incorporate the kingdom as a whole in their empire. With little ceremony, he, his ruthless queen, and their daughters are hustled down the Irawaddy to Rangoon. Then they are bundled onto a ship and sent to a small town on India’s west coast. There, Thebaw lived out his days in exile.
The central characters are Rajkumar Raha and Dolly, a handmaid to the Second Princess. She is ten years old as the novel opens. Dolly is “a timid, undemonstrative child with enormous eyes and a dancer’s pliable body and supple limbs.” Rajkumar, who is just one year older, is a poverty-stricken orphan stranded in Mandalay by the captain of the ship he had crewed. When the two are briefly thrown together in the chaos surrounding the British invasion, Rajkumar instantly falls in love with Dolly. He remains smitten for many years until they meet again near the residence of the exiled king in India.
Though the focus in The Glass Palace is the history of Burma, the conflict at the core of the tale is the three-way tension between the Burmese, the British, and the Indian businessmen such as Rajkumar became as an adult. It’s essential to the story to note that two-thirds of the troops in the British invasion force were Indian as well, a great many of them Sikhs from the Punjab. The story leaps from 1885 to 1905 to 1914 to 1941 to the 1960s, 70s, 80s, and 90s, through four generations of the descendants of Rajkumar, Dolly, and their close friends. The key chapters devoted to the Second World War in Burma and Malaya are especially affecting. If, like me, you had no prior knowledge of Burma’s history, you’re sure to get a vivid picture of the events that most deeply shaped its evolution before the 21st century.
In addition to the Burmese King and Queen, there are several other historical figures that enter into this story: Mahatma Gandhi; Subhas Chandra Bose, the right-wing extremist who led the Indian National Army against the British in the Second World War; General Aung San, Burma’s independence leader, who was assassinated before taking office as president; and Aung San’s daughter, Aung San Suu Kyi, who now serves as the country’s preeminent elected leader.
The Glass Palace was published in 2000. Amitav Ghosh is better known for his later Ibis Trilogy. I reviewed all three novels by this extraordinary Indian author at A superb historical novel about the opium trade by Amitav Ghosh (Sea of Poppies, 2008), A brilliant Indian novel about the first Opium War (River of Smoke, 2011), and An outstanding Indian novelist looks at the Opium War (Flood of Fire, 2015). And for a long list of other historical novels I’ve enjoyed, go to 75 readable and revealing historical novels.
Bodyguard of Deception, by Samuel Marquis
@@ (2 out of 5)
In a foreword, Samuel Marquis opens his historical novel Bodyguard of Deception with the assertion that the book “is the story of Operation Cheyenne precisely as it happened during the Second World War and has been concealed for the past seventy years by the U.S. and British governments.” This operation, which according to the author unfolded between May 24 and June 6, 1944, involved the theft by German spies of the Allies’ most closely guarded wartime secrets. (As anyone with a modicum of historical knowledge will know, those were the days leading up to the fateful Normandy landings that set the Allies on the road to the annihilation of Nazi Germany.) Marquis even cites specific recently declassified documents with lengthy filenames that have the ring of authenticity. Yet the events as he describes them in the novel stretch credulity to the breaking point: the coincidences are jaw-dropping. And they never happened. Google Operation Cheyenne. You won’t find anything.
When I finished reading the book, those seemingly impossible coincidences forced me to rush to the author’s note at the end. There, Marquis writes that “more than fifty historical figures populate the pages of Bodyguard of Deception.” He then precedes to list them individually. Some of those listed do not appear as characters in the book. (They’re simply mentioned in passing.) But the main characters whose interrelationships give rise to the coincidences that bothered me are not included in that list. In other words, the story as Marquis tells it simply didn’t happen. He even admits in the end that “the novel is ultimately a work of the imagination and entertainment and should be read as nothing more.” In other words, this is not historical fiction.
Oh, more thing: this tale of World War II espionage rests on the successful infiltration of a German spy in England in 1944, where he is shown to have stolen the Allied plans for the invasion of Normandy—among other closely guarded secrets. To the best of my knowledge, that never happened. Accumulated evidence over the years, as memoirs have been written and historical documents declassified, indicates that the British captured and turned every single German spy sent to the United Kingdom. And the FBI captured every German spy operating within the United States during the war.
In other words, I feel cheated. I could have done without that bogus foreword—or those exceedingly unlikely coincidences that any self-respecting novelist should be ashamed to concoct.
Furthermore, the book is not well written. The narrative is awkward at times, and the dialogue forced. There is a scene toward the end of the book in which Adolf Hitler is portrayed in a way that history doesn’t support. Literature, this isn’t.
So, why didn’t I give up in disgust somewhere in the middle of the book as those improbable coincidences began to appear? I was sorely tempted, again and again, but I soldiered on in the belief that Marquis was describing actual events. And, the book’s abundant flaws aside, the action is propulsive. Marquis tells a suspenseful story. If that’s enough to induce you to read the book, have at it. But don’t expect to learn anything about the history of World War II espionage.
There are many novels on the same subject that are solidly grounded in historical fact. In a recent post, 75 readable and revealing historical novels, I included a section on World War II that contains links to my reviews of nine novels about that period.
Though I read a great deal of historical fiction, I gravitate toward certain topics, as you can see in the list below of the 75 historical novels I’ve, read, enjoyed, and reviewed over the past seven years. My favorite subjects are European history, including many historical spy novels; World War II; American history, especially political history; and Asian and African history.
You’ll also find that several authors show up multiple times: Geraldine Brooks, Thomas Fallon, Olen Steinhauer, Alan Furst, and Joseph Kanon—in the last three cases, because of especially insightful series they’ve written.
I’ve grouped the 75 novels below in the categories indicated above. Within each category, the books are listed in alphabetical order of the authors’ last names. (For a much longer list of historical novels categorized by country, click here.)
The human cost of World War II (Everyone Brave Is Forgiven, by Chris Cleave)
A deeply affecting novel of the Holocaust (The German Girl, by Armando Lucas Correa)
In an alternate history, the Nazis occupy England (SS-GB, by Len Deighton)
This novel richly deserves the Pulitzer Prize it won (All the Light We Cannot See, by Anthony Doerr)
An extraordinary World War II spy story grounded in historical fact (The Best of Our Spies, by Alex Gerlis)
A deeply affecting novel of the French Resistance (The Nightingale, by Kristin Hannah)
A brilliant novel explores life in Nazi Europe (The Glass Room, by Simon Mawer)
A well-written novel about British espionage in World War II (Tightrope, by Simon Mawer)
A brilliant novel of the Warsaw Ghetto (The Book of Aron, by Jim Shepherd)
Who wields the real power in Washington, DC? (Echo House, by Ward Just)
A terrific political history novel (Dewey Defeats Truman, by Thomas Mallon)
America’s third Red Scare (Fellow Travelers, by Thomas Mallon)
Ronald Reagan deconstructed in a new Thomas Mallon novel (Finale: A Novel of the Reagan Years, by Thomas Mallon)
Watergate through a novelist’s eyes (Watergate, by Thomas Mallon)
Was politics during the Great Depression really like this? (All the King’s Men, by Robert Penn Warren)
Isabel Allende’s triumphant new novel spans the Western Hemisphere (Maya’s Notebook, by Isabel Allende)
James Bond, lies within lies, and coming of age in the 1960s (True Believers, by Kurt Andersen)
Revisiting black humor (not Black humor) (Sneaky People, by Thomas Berger)
In Colonial America, the first Native American goes to Harvard (Caleb’s Crossing, by Geraldine Brooks)
The untold tale of the absent father in “Little Women” (March, by Geraldine Brooks)
Hired killers, the California Gold Rush, and lots of surprises (The Sisters Brothers, by Patrick DeWitt)
Unforgettable characters in 19th century San Francisco (Frog Music, by Emma Donoghue)
A hilarious tale of Colonial America by two history professors (Blindspot: A Novel, by Jane Kamensky and Jill Lepore)
Love, disease, and self-deception: the life of Typhoid Mary (Fever: A Novel of Typhoid Mary, by Mary Beth Keane)
Leon Trotsky, Diego Rivera, and the Red Scare (The Lacuna, by Barbara Kingsolver)
Suspenseful historical fiction that’s hard to put down (World Gone By, by Dennis Lehane)
A thoughtful, action-packed crime story (Live by Night – Coughlin #2, by Dennis Lehane)
American history, laughing all the way (The Good Lord Bird, by James McBride)
A clever detective novel set in Colonial America (The Constable’s Tale: A Novel of Colonial America, by Donald Smith)
She was the country’s first female deputy sheriff (Girl Waits With Gun, by Amy Stewart)
Sex, drugs, and revolution: Berkeley in the 70s (All Our Yesterdays, by Erik Tarloff)
Geraldine Brooks’ outstanding novel about England and the Plague (Year of Wonders, by Geraldine Brooks)
The strange story of the Sarajevo Hagadah (People of the Book, by Geraldine Brooks)
A gripping historical thriller (The Devils of Cardona, by Matthew Carr)
A suspenseful tale of Holocaust survivors in post-war London (The List, by Martin Fletcher)
Cicero, witness to history (Dictator – Ancient Rome Trilogy #3, by Robert Harris)
The Dreyfus Affair, reenacted in a suspenseful spy novel (An Officer and a Spy, by Robert Harris)
Ancient Rome, before the fall (Conspirata – Ancient Rome Trilogy #2, by Robert Harris)
The IRA, the KGB, MI5, and the Corsican mob all conflict (Touch the Devil – Liam Devlin #2, by Harry Patterson writing as Jack Higgins)
An engrossing novel about Irish terrorists’ real-life attempt to kill Margaret Thatcher (High Dive, by Jonathan Lee)
A searing inquiry into life during the Chechnyan War (A Constellation of Vital Phenomena, by Anthony Marra)
A beautifully written tale of love, courage, and faith (The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet by David Mitchell)
A fully satisfying murder mystery set in post-war Europe (The Bridge of Sighs (Ruthenia Quintet #1), by Olen Steinhauer)
An historical thriller set under Communism in Eastern Europe (The Confession – Ruthenia Quintet #2, by Olen Steinhauer)
Inside the mind’s eye of Eastern European Communism in the 1960s (36 Yalta Boulevard – Ruthenia Quintet #3, by Olen Steinhauer)
Love, betrayal, and terrorism behind the Iron Curtain (Liberation Movements – Ruthenia Quintet #4, by Olen Steinhauer)
A powerful tale of life in Eastern Europe during the fall of Communism (Victory Square – Ruthenia Quintet #5, by Olen Steinhauer)
Still a lively read among classic spy novels (A Coffin for Dimitrios, by Eric Ambler)
Niccolo Machiavelli, private eye (The Malice of Fortune, by Michael Ennis)
Alan Furst’s superb novel, “Spies of the Balkans” (Spies of the Balkans, by Alan Furst)
At the dawn of World War II, a Hollywood film star in an espionage novel (Mission to Paris, by Alan Furst)
Arms merchants and spies in a thriller set during the Spanish Civil War (Midnight in Europe, by Alan Furst)
Vive la Resistance! (A Hero of France, by Alan Furst)
One of the best espionage novels of recent years (Kingdom of Shadows, by Alan Furst)
A brilliant novel of the French Resistance (Red Gold, by Alan Furst)
Romance intrigue and betrayal in post-World War II Istanbul (Istanbul Passage, by Joseph Kanon)
A Nazi-hunter in post-war Venice in a suspenseful novel of intrigue (Alibi, by Joseph Kanon)
From Joseph Kanon, one of the best of today’s spy novels (Leaving Berlin, by Joseph Kanon)
An author of spy novels to rival John Le Carre (The Prodigal Spy, by Joseph Kanon)
German emigres in Hollywood in a captivating historical novel (Stardust, by Joseph Kanon)
A brilliant novel that spans a thousand years of Chinese history (The Incarnations, by Susan Barker)
A biblical story, brilliantly retold (The Secret Chord: A Novel, by Geraldine Brooks)
A brilliant Indian novel about the first Opium War (River of Smoke – Ibis Trilogy #2, by Amitav Ghosh)
An outstanding Indian novelist looks at the Opium War (Flood of Fire – Ibis Trilogy #3, by Amitav Ghosh)
Khaled Hosseini in Berkeley, in person and in print (And the Mountains Echoed, by Khaled Hosseini)
A haunting tale of love and loss spanning India and America (The Lowland, by Jhumpa Lahiri)
Sheer reading pleasure, with a dollop of magic, in a historical novel (The Oracle of Stamboul, by Michael David Lukas)
A superb novel digs for roots in Israel’s modern history (The Debba, by Avner Mandelman)
The human toll of social change (The Lives of Others, by Neel Mukherjee)
The Vietnam War through Vietnamese eyes (The Sympathizer, by Viet Thanh Nguyen)
Inside the fight for Israeli independence (City of Secrets, by Stewart O’Nan)
Love, loss, and war in post-independence Africa (Half of a Yellow Sun, by Chimanada Ngozi Adichie)
A brilliant novel of love, hope, and the Rwanda genocide (Running the Rift, by Naomi Benaron)
African Roots through African eyes (Homegoing, by Yaa Gyasi)
An historical novel set in East Africa early in the 20th Century (Assegai, by Wilbur Smith)
A German Requiem (Bernie Gunther #3), by Philip Kerr
@@@@ (4 out of 5)
It’s 1947. Berlin is a shambles. The meager amount of food available is rationed, leaving the surviving German population on the verge of starvation while the occupying forces eat their fill. The city is sharply divided between the eastern, Soviet-occupied zone and the rest governed by the three Western Allies. In the western zone, German women known as “chocoladies” sell sex for food, cigarettes, and alcohol. In the east, rape by Russian soldiers is nearly inescapable. As Bernie Gunther reflects, “These days, if you are a German you spend your time in Purgatory before you die, in earthly suffering for all your country’s unpunished and unrepented sins, until the day when, with the aid of the prayers of the Powers—or three of them, anyway—Germany is finally purified. For now we live in fear. Mostly it is fear of the Ivans, matched only by the almost universal dread of venereal disease, which has become something of an epidemic, although both afflictions are generally held to be synonymous.”
These are the conditions under which former Berlin homicide detective Bernie Gunther and his wife Kirsten stagger from day to day. Though she was a schoolteacher in the past, she now works as a waitress in an American bar open only to servicemen. Because she frequently arrives home late he suspects she is sleeping with an American officer to obtain the coffee, butter, and chocolate that’s obviously from the American PX. To flee the unpleasantness, Bernie accepts a strange and lucrative job offered by a colonel in the Soviet MVD (precursor to the KGB), he agrees to accept it even though it will require him to travel to far-off Vienna and probably spend a long time there.
On the surface, the job appears straightforward. A German black marketer, one of Bernie’s colleagues years earlier on the murder squad, has been imprisoned by the Americans on a charge of murdering one of their officers. But quickly the assignment proves to be anything but simple. As Bernie digs into the details of the case, he becomes convinced that the man is innocent of the crime he’s charged with, even though he has done a great many terrible things in his life. However, attempting to prove that leads Bernie into a tangled affair involving American counter-intelligence, the MVD, the recruitment of German intelligence officers by the USA, and an organized campaign to protect former SS war criminals from exposure. Two high-ranking, real-world Nazi war criminals— Heinrich “Gestapo” Müller and Arthur Nebe—play crucial roles in the tale. Like other novels in the Bernie Gunther series, Kerr skillfully builds suspense while digging deeply into Bernie’s complex personality.
Bernie has a great deal to answer for, having been dragooned from the Berlin homicide squad into the service of Josef Goebbels and later Heinrich Himmler and commissioned as an SS officer. He had refused to participate in the mass killing of Jews in Latvia, been reassigned to the Eastern Front, and was later imprisoned in a Soviet POW camp, never having stooped to the arrogance and cruelty of those he served with. But Bernie feels distinctly uneasy whenever he encounters cold, disdainful treatment at the hands of the Americans he encounters. Although “it is certain that a nation cannot feel collective guilt,” Bernie notes, “that each man must encounter it personally. Only now did I realize the nature of my own guilt—and perhaps it was really not much different from that of many others: it was that I had not said anything, that I had not lifted my hand against the Nazis.”
In 1989-91, Philip Kerr wrote the first three novels in the Bernie Gunther series. A German Requiem concluded the trilogy. Fifteen years later he resumed the series, adding an additional ten novels to date (the last of which, Greeks Bearing Gifts, is scheduled for publication in 2018).
Previously I’ve reviewed most of the other novels in the Bernie Gunther series. One review is at A hard-boiled detective in Nazi Germany. Another is here: An exciting chapter in the Bernie Gunther saga.
In recent years I’ve read and reviewed 13 nonfiction books published in the 21st Century about aspects of American foreign policy. I’m listing them here, in alphabetical order by the authors’ last names. Each title is linked to my longer review.
Though little known outside the realm of specialists, Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger collaborated with the Pakistani government in murdering hundreds of thousands of people in 1971 in what today is Bangladesh. Their complicity in that genocidal event has finally come to light in Gary J. Bass’ outstanding work of modern history, The Blood Telegram. Bass, a professor of politics and international affairs at Princeton University, makes effective use of newly opened secret archives and other primary sources as well as interviews with many of the surviving players in the drama.
Racist attitudes were so prevalent and unchallenged in the U.S. at the turn of the 20th Century that the president of the American Association for the Advancement of Science—the founder of anthropology in the country—could observe, “The Aryan family represents the central stream of progress, because it produced the highest type of mankind, and because it has proved its intrinsic superiority by gradually assuming control of the earth.” In hindsight, then, it should be no surprise that such celebrated figures as President Theodore Roosevelt and his successor, William Howard Taft, would speak openly about America’s “destiny” to dominate Asia and the Pacific, imposing the benefits of Aryan civilization on the “Pacific niggers” (their term for Filipinos) and “Chinks.” This is the persistent theme of best-selling author James Bradley’s portrayal of Roosevelt and Taft in The Imperial Cruise.
James Bradley argues in The China Mirage that cultural and historical ignorance, political miscalculation, bitter bureaucratic infighting, and media manipulation led not just to U.S. involvement in World War II but, by extension, in the wars in Korea and Vietnam as well. Bradley regards all three wars as having been unnecessary. While his argument may be overextended, the book is filled with fascinating accounts of the Chinese Exclusion Act, the China Lobby, the rise of the Soong family to power in China, the origins of the oil embargo that triggered Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor, and the Chinese Revolution.
When it comes to Iran, the purveyors of news have done an especially poor job of keeping us informed. As David Crist makes clear in this illuminating report on the three decades of conflict, tension, miscalculation, and profound misunderstanding that have characterized our two countries’ relationship, we have indeed engaged in what can only be described as war for several extended periods. And when I say war, I mean soldiers, sailors, and air force pilots shooting at one another, laying mines, launching missiles at ships and ground facilities, and generally forcing one or both of the two governments to decide between escalation and retreat. The book is full of surprises.
Though the U.S., Great Britain, and France all withheld support for the Spanish Republic, three other leading powers of the day plunged into the conflict with enthusiasm: Nazi Germany, Fascist Italy, and the Soviet Union under Josef Stalin. Adolf Hitler and Benito Mussolini regarded the war in Spain as a dress rehearsal for the larger conflict to follow. Their lavish support for Generalissimo Franco in the form of airplanes, tanks, rifles, artillery, and some 100,000 soldiers and airmen was decisive (80,000 from Italy, 19,000 from Germany, in addition to 20,000 from Portugal). Only the USSR faced off against the Nazis and Fascists, supplying weapons and ammunition, and its support was a mixed blessing: Stalin sold Spain ancient weapons at inflated prices. He also dispatched hardline political commissars to weed out anyone who didn’t rigidly follow the Party line, and their ruthless behavior was surely a factor in the defeat of the Republic. Some 2,500 American volunteers and a passel of American reporters (including many famous names) waded into the midst of this maelstrom. Adam Hochschild does a brilliant job bringing the era and the people of the time back to life.
Award-winning journalist Stephen Kinzer draws our attention to the principal figures in the two factions that lined up in opposition to each other before the Spanish-American War. What might be termed the imperialist faction was led by Senator Henry Cabot Lodge, then-New York Governor Theodore Roosevelt, and publisher William Randolph Hearst. These three men were largely responsible for pushing the United States into war with Spain. Former U.S. Senator and Union Army general Carl Schurz, William Jennings Bryan, former President Grover Cleveland, and later Andrew Carnegie led the opposition. Mark Twain came to the debate belatedly, becoming the most recognizable voice of the anti-imperialist movement once Roosevelt was in the White House. Superficial histories of the years just before and after the turn of the 20th Century give the impression that America’s drive to war with Spain and the seizure of its overseas colonies was irresistible and inevitable. Kinzer makes abundantly clear that this was not the case.
In the years 1933-41, a passion for isolationism and growing anti-Semitism gripped the American psyche, keeping President Roosevelt from speaking out against the growth of Nazism and the ever-tightening vise of oppression and violence directed at Germany’s tiny Jewish minority (about one percent of the population). In the Garden of Beasts, a finely-crafted and exhaustively researched little book, casts a considerable amount of light on the reasons underlying this shameful episode in American history. It’s the story of Professor William Dodd and his family, beginning in the year 1933 when Roosevelt appointed him Ambassador to Germany. In an admirably restrained manner, Erik Larson portrays their initial sympathy and support for the Nazi regime, turning gradually to revulsion and leading eventually to Dodd’s becoming one of the most prominent anti-Nazi lecturers in the United States.
It seems exceedingly unlikely that President James K. Polk would come to many minds as an example of the most important men who have served in the office. Yet a very strong case could be made that Polk’s single four-year term (1845-49) was, indeed, among the most consequential times in U.S. history—and that Polk himself was the prime mover. Robert W. Merry powerfully advances that argument in A Country of Vast Designs: James K. Polk, the Mexican War, and the Conquest of the American Continent. It was Polk who transformed the United States into a continental power. Earlier presidents—Thomas Jefferson (Louisiana Purchase), James Monroe (acquisition of Florida), Andrew Johnson (purchase of Alaska), and William McKinley (Gadsden Purchase)—indeed added considerable swaths of territory to the nation. But James K. Polk added all the rest, including nearly all the Southwest and all the Northwest of today’s United States. He led the country into a brutal, lopsided war with Mexico and negotiated with England over the northwest boundary of the U.S.
Some Americans seem to have the impression that the U.S. relationship with China began in 1972 when Richard Nixon flew to Beijing. In The Beautiful Country and the Middle Kingdom, journalist and long-time Beijing resident John Pomfret puts this mistaken impression decisively to rest. In truth, the destinies of the two countries have been closely linked for more than a century—and began when the U.S. shed its identity as a British colony in 1776. As Pomfret writes, “America’s first fortunes were made in the China trade from 1783 until the early 1800s.” And American missionaries began arriving in the 1830s. Pomfret surveys the two-and-a-half centuries that have elapsed since English-turned-American traders first visited China. In fact, trade between the U.S. and China is one of the dominant themes of Pomfret’s analysis. Two other themes emerge clearly in The Beautiful Country and the Middle Kingdom: the disproportionately large role played by American Protestant missionaries, and the importance of U.S. influence both in building China’s educational system and in educating millions of Chinese in American universities. This is a fascinating book about a topic that few Americans understand clearly.
Call it selective memory: we tend to forget that the survival of our democratic system was by no means assured on March 4, 1933, when Franklin Delano Roosevelt was sworn in as president. With the country paralyzed by twenty-five percent unemployment, shuttered factories, insolvent banks, and rapidly falling prices for farm commodities and consumer goods alike, both Communism on the Left and fascism on the Right were rapidly gaining adherents. It was far from clear that a catastrophic clash of the extremes could be prevented. Contemporary events in Europe suggested that even the best-educated and most sophisticated societies could all too easily turn dangerously radical: barely more than a month earlier, Hitler had been named Chancellor of Germany. In The Money Makers, historian Eric Rauchway reviews the economic policies that FDR deployed to rescue the nation from a similar fate, steering the country on a moderate course through the years of the Depression and the world war that followed.
One of democracy’s most remarkable characteristics is the sheer volume of closely guarded information that can be reported and published without resulting in jail time or torture for the authors. Counterstrike, a remarkable bit of longitudinal reporting by two veterans of the New York Times, brings to light a host of insights and behind-the-scene details about America’s decade-long campaign against Al Qaeda and its affiliates and imitators. The principal theme of Counterstrike is how in the course of the past decade “the government’s force of professional counterterrorism analysts has grown from a group small enough to know each other’s phone numbers to a vast army linked by supercomputers processing thousands of bits of data in nanoseconds.” And, by no means incidentally, spending tens of billions of dollars in the process. However, the overarching theme of Counterstrike is the gradual maturation of American counterterrorist policy in the opening decade of the 21st Century, shifting gradually from one bent simply on using brute force to kill or capture terrorists to a much more sophisticated and broad-based policy of deterrence drawn from the playbook of the Cold War.
The sheer scope of the Vietnam War was far greater than that of the U.S. military efforts in Iraq or Afghanistan. More than 10 times as many Americans died in Vietnam than in Iraq and Afghanistan combined. Even more significantly, some 3.8 million Vietnamese died in that conflict, according to the best available estimate, while Iraqi and Afghan casualties are measured in hundreds of thousands. In Kill Anything That Moves, Nick Turse exposes the grim reality of the U.S. role in that war: the infamous My Lai Massacre was merely one of thousands of incidents in which American troops indiscriminately killed Vietnamese civilians.
Hitler and the SS became truly frenzied about exterminating the Jews of Europe only in the final stages of the war, when it was obvious to anyone (except perhaps Hitler himself) that Nazi Germany had lost. In 1944, Jay Winik brings to light how the U.S. State Department, many of whose officials were overtly anti-Semitic, took deliberate steps to sabotage any action by FDR’s White House to save at least some of the Jews. Winik recounts this story in excruciating detail: “the State Department was now using the machinery of government to prevent, rather than facilitate, the rescue of the Jews,” he writes. “The fear seemed to be, not that the Jews would be marched to their deaths, but that they would be sent to the Allied nations.” The Department has the blood of more than a million people staining its already sad record of amorality.
From the earliest days of the republic, the United States has been deeply engaged with other countries, despite George Washington’s famous admonition in his Farewell Address not to “entangle our peace and prosperity in the toils of European ambition.” (Contrary to accepted opinion, he didn’t use the term foreign entanglements.) France intervened in the American Revolution—in fact, our country might well not have gained its independence otherwise. During the presidencies of Washington and John Adams, New England merchantmen carried on a lively trade with China. When Jefferson was in office, he sent the U.S. Navy and a detachment of Marines to battle the Barbary Pirates. In 1812-14, during the administration of James Madison, the U.S. was at war with Great Britain—again. Later that decade, under the presidency of James Monroe, American troops under the command of General Andrew Jackson seized key settlements in Florida, forcing Spain to cede the territory to the U.S. Throughout the 19th Century, the U.S. Army and American settlers collaborated in a continuing campaign to annex the territory of more than 600 Indian nations. In mid-century, when James K. Polk lived in the White House, the U.S. grabbed more than 500,000 square miles of territory from Mexico. The trade in cotton with Great Britain made many Southerners rich and provided them with a “justification” to enslave African-Americans by the millions. During the latter half of the 19th Century, foreign investment in American railroads, the bonds of state governments, and manufacturing played a central role in financing the Industrial Revolution in the United States. The country was “the world’s largest recipient of foreign capital,” and thus the world’s greatest debtor nation. Then William McKinley and Theodore Roosevelt ushered in the age of American imperialism—and the country has never since stopped entangling itself in foreign affairs, despite recurring bouts of isolationism.
@@@@ (4 out of 5)
In The Secret War, his illuminating revisionist history of secret intelligence in World War II, the British journalist Max Hastings questions the value of what has come to be called “humint,” the product of spies working undercover. In Hastings’ view, spies had little effect on the outcome of the war. “Intelligence gathering is inherently wasteful,” Hastings writes. “Perhaps one-thousandth of 1 percent of material garnered from secret sources by all the belligerents in World War II contributed to changing battlefield outcomes.” Even code-breaking, including the deciphering of high-level Nazi and Japanese codes, played a relatively small role in the Allies’ victory, though one that was much greater than that of undercover operatives.
Even if Hastings doesn’t overstate his case—some argue he does—the romance of espionage has captured the public imagination. The exploits of spies have encouraged the growth of a veritable cottage industry in espionage fiction ever since the end of the Second World War. Graham Greene, John le Carré, Ian Fleming, Len Deighton, Alan Furst, Eric Ambler, and scores of others have generated thousands of stories about spies. Some, like most of Fleming’s, are fanciful and often laughable, pitting a superhero against supervillains, none of them bearing the slightest resemblance to real people. Others convey an impression of the true experience of undercover work, as many former intelligence agents have attested.
Alex Gerlis, a BBC researcher, has written three spy novels in recent years: The Best of Our Spies (2012), The Swiss Spy (2015), and Vienna Spies (2017). In his most recent book, Gerlis explores the contending forces of British intelligence, the NKVD, and the Gestapo in the closing years of World War II in Vienna.
Gerlis’ tale revolves six principal characters. Rolf Eder, who is Viennese, and Katharina Hoch, a German, are matched by British intelligence for a sensitive mission in Vienna, masquerading as a married couple. To assist them, they are to locate and meet with Sister Ursula, an Austrian nun who has been helping the British since the war started. Viktor Krasotkin, one of Moscow’s top spies, is dispatched to Vienna, in part to undermine their mission. His handler is Ilia Brodsky, a senior Soviet official who has “the ear of Stalin.” Above all, the spies from both nations must elude capture by the sadistic Kriminaldirektor Karl Strobel, the Gestapo’s top investigator of Communists and resistance fighters.
The British spies’ mission is two-fold: to find and eliminate Viktor and to rescue Austria’s most prominent anti-Nazi politician, Hubert Leitner, who has been hiding in the city for seven years. Meanwhile, Rolf has a private mission of his own: to learn the fate of the fiancee he left behind in Vienna when forced to flee to Switzerland several years earlier. And Viktor hopes to reunite with his lover, who is now married to a Nazi army officer. All these conflicting aims play out over the course of two years in Vienna, “a city that rivaled and possibly outdid Munich in its enthusiasm for the Nazis.”
Gerlis successfully captures the mood of wartime Vienna, with his detailed descriptions of life on the streets and the ever-present pall cast over the city by the Nazi occupation. On the surface, the leading characters might appear to be cartoonish. But Gerlis succeeds admirably in making them believable, with the possible exception of Karl Strobel (although other Gestapo officers appear more lifelike). In action that shifts rapidly from London to Zurich to Vienna to Moscow and back, the plot moves forward at a rapid clip. Vienna Spies is a satisfying read. My only complaint is that no one seems to have proofread the book. It’s full of missing prepositions, transposed words, and other glaringly obvious errors.
On “Science Friday” (June 2, 2017), which I heard on my local NPR station, KQED, host Ira Flatow interviewed author Richard Rhodes and Diane Kruger about Hedy Lamarr. Rhodes wrote the book reviewed here. Kruger will star in a film and TV mini-series based on Lamarr’s life. Because of the increased interest in that amazing woman, I’m re-posting my review of the book.
Hedy’s Folly: The Life and Breakthrough Inventions of Hedy Lamarr, the Most Beautiful Woman in the World, by Richard Rhodes
@@@ (3 out of 5)
A quarter-century ago Richard Rhodes won the Pulitzer Prize for Nonfiction for a masterful history, The Making of the Atomic Bomb, and he has received numerous plaudits in the years since, both for nonfiction and fiction. But I don’t see any prizes in his future for this half-hearted little effort.
There’s nothing lacking in the material. It’s relatively well-known that Hedy Lamarr, a stunning film superstar of MGM’s Golden Age in the 1930s and 1940s, invented a secret weapon for the United States during World War II. However, the story—her extraordinary background, her flamboyant collaborator, and the the U.S. Navy’s ham-fisted response to their invention—was largely lost in obscurity and official secrecy until Richard Rhodes took it upon himself to write it up. I turned to the book with great anticipation—and was hugely disappointed.
The story is astonishing even in outline.
A famously beautiful young Austrian woman named Hedwig Kiesler, daughter of a successful Viennese banker, found her incipient stage and film career interrupted when she married one of the richest men in Austria, a munitions manufacturer who happily participated in rearming Nazi Germany and supporting the most extreme of his country’s anti-Semitic Right-Wing politicians. (Hedy—she used the short form of her first name even then—was Jewish, though she hid that fact throughout her life, and her children learned about it only once she died.)
Before she escaped from her first marriage, Hedy silently sat in on dinners and informal gatherings organized by her husband and attended by high-ranking Nazi generals and admirals. With an amazingly retentive memory, she fled with detailed knowledge of the Nazis’ most advanced weaponry—without her husband suspecting a thing, because to him she herself was just an object.
Soon after fleeing Vienna disguised as one of her maids in 1937, the year of the Anschluss with Germany, Hedy was recruited to MGM by Louis B. Mayer. Once in Hollywood, renamed Hedy Lamarr and dubbed “the most beautiful girl in the world” by Mayer (though others had previously tagged her with the phrase), she quickly became a major star. Although none of her films were especially memorable, they were successes at the box office and kept her in the limelight for many years.
Meanwhile, unbeknownst to nearly everyone who knew her in Hollywood, Hedy continued her life-long passion for inventing in her spare time. Once war had broken out in Europe, she devised a concept for a naval super-weapon—a torpedo guided by wireless radio, unlike the wired torpedoes then in widespread use. Together with her collaborator, George Antheil, an avante-garde composer whose concerts had sometimes caused riots in Paris and New York, Hedy offered the weapon to the U.S. government late in 1940.
Hedy had dropped out of high school to play a part on the Vienna stage, and she was neither a reader nor an intellectual of any stripe. However, she was clearly brilliant. The profound innovation she devised (with practical help from Antheil) was a system to make it impossible for enemies to jam the radio transmissions from the ship to the torpedo. This innovation, first called frequency hopping and much later spread spectrum, “enabled the development of Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, the majority of cordless phones now sold in the US, and myriad other lesser-known niche products. The Global Positioning System (GPS) uses spread spectrum. So does the U.S. military’s $41 billion MILSATCOM satellite communications network. Wireless local area networks (wLANS) use spread spectrum, as do wireless cash registers, bar-code readers, restaurant menu pads, and home control systems.” Rhodes goes on for line after line, citing a plethora of additional applications of this seminal technology. In short, Hedy’s was one of those rarest of inventions that opened up vast new landscapes of possibility for engineers for many decades to come.
So, given the obvious appeal of the weapon she and Antheil had devised, one might think that the U.S. Navy, offered the patent in 1944 after seemingly endless vetting by a series of government scientists and engineers, would immediately put it into production. But no—the Navy classified the file top secret and stuck it in a filing cabinet. It was only discovered nearly 20 years later when an engineer working on a military contract chased down a rumor about Hedy’s invention, turned up the file, and began putting it to practical use.
A more nimble writer than Rhodes might have turned this story into a blockbuster. But sadly Rhodes devoted more space to the ups and downs of George Antheil’s career than to Hedy’s, and he goes on for page after tedious page about the mechanics of the wireless system, making the invention itself the principal character. Years ago, Tracy Kidder managed that beautifully in Soul of a New Machine. Perhaps as yet more information comes to light about this remarkable tale, Kidder or someone of comparable talent will do justice to one of the most remarkable women of the 20th Century.
@@@@ (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.
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.
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.
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.
@@@@ (4 out of 5)
Once upon a time French classicists derived the principles of drama from Aristotle’s Poetics, proclaiming the “three unities.” This restrictive concept required that a play depict only a single action that takes place in a single location within a single day. These rules didn’t last long. But modern crime novelists sometimes inadvertently mimic them. They tell stories in which “something happens,” and not much else. They write about a single case and its solution by one or more investigators. Other characters, and other events, serve primarily as background to make the tale more believable. The bestselling Swedish detective novelist Camilla Läckberg does not write books that way. A case in point is The Hidden Child, the fifth in her series of novels featuring small-town police detective Patrik Hedström and his wife, Erica Falck, who writes popular true-crime books.
What sets off Läckberg’s work from that of so many other crime novelists is the sheer complexity of her plots and the large number of well-defined characters that appear in her stories. What’s more, many of those characters, even some incidental to the principal plot, learn and grow in the course of the book. “Something happens” to each of them. In The Hidden Child, Patrik and Erica are both central to the story. Their lives are eventful, and they gain new insight from what they’re experiencing. But that’s also true of many of their colleagues, family, and friends, as well as a number of characters who play roles in the case that brings them all together. And Läckberg’s account of the case rockets back and forth from the present day to 1944 and 1945, when circumstances set in motion a tragic course of events that lead to latter-day murders.
To oversimplify the story, Erica discovers a World War II Nazi medal among the few items that remain from the life of her mother, who died in an automobile crash four years earlier. While she succumbs to curiosity and sets out to learn how and why that medal came into her mother’s possession, Patrik becomes independently involved in helping his colleagues in the police investigate the brutal murder of the old man to whom Erica turned for information about the Nazi medal. (He was an historian and a collector of Nazi artifacts.) Meanwhile, Patrik’s insufferable boss, Mellberg, becomes involved in an affair that—finally, for the first time in the series—proves that he isn’t just stupid, lazy, and self-important (although he is all of those things.) Lots else happens, too. Lots. Yet I didn’t often find it necessary to turn back to earlier pages to sort out the identity of the other characters, each of them with their own storyline.
Camilla Läckberg is a very talented writer. The Hidden Child is a superior piece of work—suspenseful, captivating, and believable.
Over the past seven years, I’ve read and reviewed 60 espionage novels. My ten favorites are listed below. Though my preliminary list included multiple titles by three authors (Alex Berenson, Charles Cumming, and Ross Thomas), I’ve limited myself to a single title from every writer. I gave every one of these ten titles a score of @@@@@ (5 out of 5) on its review. I’ve listed them in alphabetical order by the authors’ last names.
Alex Berenson is a former New York Times reporter whose novels are distinguished by deep research as well as a convincing mix of character development and plotting. In Twelve Days, Berenson’s hero, John Wells, formerly of the Special Forces and the CIA, rushes to head off a U.S. war with Iran. The novel drips with suspense.
Few episodes in the history of espionage have attracted so much attention as the betrayal of the Trinity Five, the five former Cambridge University scholars who turned to Communism in the 1930s, became spies for the USSR, and defected in the years following World War II. Charles Cumming skillfully posits a sixth man in the conspiracy in The Trinity Six.
The “Night Soldiers” series is the collection of Alan Furst’s loosely connected espionage novels set in Europe in the years leading up to and during World War II. In Kingdom of Shadows, the sixth book in the series, a young Hungarian aristocrat living in Paris in 1936 takes on a dangerous mission to Budapest at the behest of his uncle, a Hungarian diplomat.
A young English aristocrat becomes embroiled in a complex international plot when he sets out to investigate the mysterious death of his father following World War I. The Ways of the World is one of the more than two dozen thrillers Robert Goddard has written. His novels usually have an historical element and settings in provincial English towns and cities, and many plot twists. All that’s certainly the case in The Ways of the World.
The Eagle Has Landed has sold more than 50 million copies, but it’s just one of the more than 80 thrillers Jack Higgins has written. His work has been translated into 55 languages. This iconic thriller, set in wartime England, dramatizes a Nazi plot to assassinate Winston Churchill. The tale is told from the perspective of the German soldiers sent to kill the wartime Prime Minister.
Joseph Kanon’s spy novels reek of authenticity. Set in the years immediately following World War II, they conjure up the fear and desperation that hung over Europe in the early days of the Cold War, when it seemed as though open war might well break out between the two emerging superpowers. For Leaving Berlin, Kanon has chosen as his setting the bleakest possible time and place: rubble-strewn Berlin in 1949 as the Allied airlift to embattled West Berlin was underway.
On the cover of A Delicate Truth, Gibraltar looms like the vast bulk of reality weighing down on the idealism and sense of duty that preoccupy the novel’s protagonist, as they do in so many of the works of John Le Carré. The subject of this story is a shady joint UK-US anti-terrorism operation in Gibraltar. The caper is executed under cover of darkness by a combined force of handpicked British Special Forces and mercenaries in the employ of a mysterious American defense contractor. It all sounds unlikely—but so does much else that is happening in this unlikely world of ours! In any case, it’s a lot of fun to read.
In The Travelers, Chris Pavone weaves a tale so baffling that you’re likely to be shocked again and again as the truth at the heart of the story gradually floats to the surface. Pavone’s subject matter is espionage. The scene shifts rapidly and frequently from New York City to Mendoza, Argentina; Falls Church, Virginia; Paris; Capri; Istanbul; and other spots around the globe, including the Spanish Pyrenees and rural Iceland. The suspense is intoxicating.
Dame Stella Rimington retired in 1996 as Director General of MI5, Britain’s counter-intelligence service, the only woman ever to have served in the post. Her first novel, At Risk, introduces her alter ego, MI5 officer Liz Carlyle. In At Risk, Carlyle is tasked with thwarting a terrorist who is about to enter the country—an “invisible” capable of blending perfectly into English society. The terrorist’s identity, and his or her intentions, are unknown. Not only does Rimington know how the counterespionage business works, she’s able to describe it with great skill — and create a great deal of suspense in the process. At Risk is an espionage thriller that fulfills its promise.
Set late in the 1960s, The Singapore Wink features two retired Hollywood stuntmen, a disheveled veteran FBI agent, an aristocratic classic car salesman, the head of Singapore’s part-time security service, a greedy left-wing Singapore politician and his “Dragon Lady” daughter, plus several assorted mobsters. Together, they make for a very fine mess. Ross Thomas died twenty years ago at the age of 69, leaving behind a much-praised body of work that included twenty-five novels about political corruption, crime, and espionage as well as two nonfiction books.