October 26, 2017

Ken Follett’s 16th-century Kingsbridge saga: Christians killing Christians

Kingsbridge saga: A Column of Fire by Ken FollettA Column of Fire (Kingsbridge #3) by Ken Follett

@@@@ (4 out of 5)

A  Column of Fire is the third volume in Ken Follett‘s sprawling series of historical novels illuminating the history of England. The Pillars of the Earth, published in 1989, relates the story of the Kingsbridge Cathedral and the talented men who began its construction in the twelfth century. This first novel was followed in 2007 by World Without End, which picks up the Kingsbridge saga two centuries later, in the years just before, during, and after the Black DeathA Column of Fire continues the story through the sixteenth century,  spanning the years 1558 to 1606, when Queen Elizabeth I ruled England.

The first two volumes of the Kingsbridge saga have sold nearly eighty million copies worldwide. Together, these three books weigh in at a total of 2,965 pages. Each is peopled with a huge cast of characters, rich and poor, powerful and helpless, giving a richly nuanced picture of life in England over the centuries.

Again, as in the previous novels, Follett builds his tale in A Column of Fire around the defining events of the era: the bitter rivalry between Elizabeth and her half-sister, Mary Queen of Scots; the often-bloody struggle between Catholics and Protestants for primacy on the island; the ongoing war between England and France; the St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre of the Huguenots in France: the defeat of the Spanish Armada; the accession of James VI of Scotland, Mary’s son, as James I of England following Elizabeth’s death; and Guy Fawkes’ Gunpowder Plot in 1605. Follett skillfully interweaves the lives of his fictional characters with a long list of historical figures, including both Elizabeth and Mary, the several Kings of France who reigned during that period, and the powerful courtiers surrounding both Queen Elizabeth and the French Kings.

Two Kingsbridge families figure at the center of A Column of Fire: the rabidly Catholic Fitzgeralds, especially the brother and sister, Rollo and Margery; and the Willards, principally Ned and Barney and their mother, Anne, who are only nominally Catholic. Margery and Ned fall deeply in love as teenagers. However, Rollo and his father, Sir Reginald Fitzgerald, engineer Margery’s forced marriage to the earl who rules the county and the bankruptcy of Anne’s flourishing business, setting up the lifetime enmity between Rollo and Ned that is the central thread of the plot.

The overarching theme of A Column of Fire is the violent clash between Catholics and Protestants as Protestantism spread rapidly through Europe following the publication of Martin Luther‘s Ninety-Five Theses. During the reign of Queen Elizabeth’s half-sister, Mary I (1553-58), hundreds of Protestants were burned at the stake for heresy. Queen Mary came to be known as Bloody Mary. Despite an early commitment to religious tolerance, Queen Elizabeth (1558-1603) ordered the murder of even more English men and women—although for treason, not doctrinal differences. Meanwhile, across the Channel, French Kings and nobles murdered hundreds of the Protestant Huguenots.

Reading the Kingsbridge saga may require a great deal of time and effort. I found the effort well worthwhile, and it was all enjoyable.

I read a lot of historical fiction. For reviews of many other engaging novels in this genre, go to 75 readable and revealing historical novels.

September 6, 2017

From the brilliant Indian author Amitav Ghosh, a sweeping historical novel set in Burma

Indian authorThe Glass Palace: A Novel, by Amitav Ghosh

@@@@@ (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.



August 31, 2017

Propulsive action in a tale of World War II espionage

World War II espionage

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.



July 16, 2017

A murder mystery set in the Holy Roman Empire

holy roman empireWolf on a String: A Novel by Benjamin Black

@@@@ (4 out of 5)

Except for the title, which I found unfathomable, I enjoyed this novel immensely. The author, Irish writer and Booker-Prize-winner John Banville, writes murder mysteries under the pen name Benjamin BlackWolf on a String is indeed a mystery, and a puzzling one at that, though it’s more intriguing as historical fiction. It’s the first of his novels I’ve read in that genre, but by no means the first he’s written. In fact, the book’s 16th-Century setting in Prague is familiar territory for Banville. He wrote at least four previous novels grounded there, including the Revolutions Trilogy about scientists Copernicus, Kepler, and Newton.

The action in Wolf on a String unfolds during December 1599 and January 1600. The narrator, Christian Stern, relates the tale in old age, many years later. As a young man, Stern had traveled from his hometown in Bavaria after leaving his father’s funeral. He has come to Prague, capital of the Holy Roman Empire, in hopes of gaining a position as an adviser to the Emperor Rudolf II. Unfortunately, on the very day of his arrival in Prague, Stern stumbles (drunk) upon the corpse of a young woman in a narrow street under the shadow of the imperial castle.

As Black writes in opening the novel, “Few now recall that it was I who discovered the corpse of Dr. Kroll’s misfortunate daughter thrown upon the snow that night in Golden Lane. The fickle muse of history has all but erased the name of Christian Stern from her timeless pages, yet often I have had cause to think how much better it would have been for me had it never been written there in the first place. I was to soar high, on gorgeous plumage, but in the end fell back to earth, with wings ablaze.”

Black could hardly have picked a more interesting time and place to set his novel. Rudolf II was moody, unpredictable, indifferent to rule, and probably insane. He was surrounded by sycophants and cunning criminals who were at war with each other for the emperor’s favor. Many historians credit Rudolf’s misrule as having paved the way for the tragic Thirty Years War (1618-48) in which Protestants and Catholics murdered one another on battlefields and in towns all across the European continent. However, Rudolf’s obsession with alchemy and the occult arts led him to attract many men to his court who would later prove to play major roles in advancing the scientific revolution. Among them were the astronomers Johannes Kepler and Tycho Brahe, both of whom make cameo appearances in the novel.

Christian’s misfortune is to be drawn into the treacherous intrigue in the imperial court and forced to deal with the two most senior officials in the Holy Roman Empire as well as the empress and the court physician, Dr. Kroll. All four have interests that conflict with each other’s—and with the emperor’s. When Rudolf impulsively charges Christian with responsibility for discovering who murdered the young woman, he finds himself at the mercy of all four. This is not a game that Christian can win.

Now about that title. Despite Black’s explanation midway through the novel, I couldn’t figure it out. So I looked the phrase “wolf on a string” up on Wikipedia. Here’s what I found: “A wolf tone, or simply a ‘wolf,’ is produced when a played note matches the natural resonating frequency of the body of a musical instrument, producing a sustaining sympathetic artificial overtone that amplifies and expands the frequencies of the original note, frequently accompanied by an oscillating beating (due to the uneven frequencies between the natural note and artificial overtone) which may be likened to the howling of the animal. A similar phenomenon is the beating produced by a wolf interval, which is usually the interval between E and G of the various non-circulating temperaments.” Got it? Not I. I’m more confused than ever.

Banville writes general fiction under his own name and mysteries under the pseudonym Benjamin Black. Earlier, under that name, he wrote a series of seven novels set in 1950s Dublin that feature the curious coroner, Dr. Quirke, who finds himself embroiled in knotty investigations of crime along with his collaborator, Inspector Hackett. I’ve posted reviews of all seven books on this blog.

For reviews of all the novels in the Dr. Quirke series, check out The Quirke series of Dublin crime novels from Benjamin Black.

June 22, 2017

A superb new novel about defectors in Moscow

defectorsDefectors: A Novel by Joseph Kanon

@@@@@ (5 out of 5)

The disappearance of British diplomats Donald MacLean and Guy Burgess in 1951 and the subsequent revelation in 1956 of them as defectors to the Soviet Union shocked the world and has subsequently provided fodder for a virtual cottage industry of spy novels. Only much later did it come to light that MacLean and Burgess were just two of the notorious Cambridge Five. Both men make cameo appearances in Joseph Kanon‘s terrific new spy novel, Defectors. 

The book opens in Moscow in 1961, where an American publisher named Simon Weeks is just arriving to visit his notorious brother, Frank. Twelve years earlier Frank had defected to the Soviet Union and became “the man who betrayed a generation.” Now he is writing a memoir that Simon’s firm will publish. Unaccountably, the KGB has granted Frank permission to write and publish the book.

Simon and Frank are the sons of a former senior New Deal official. They’re descendants of an eminent old New England family. Both are Harvard-educated because Harvard was, like so much else, a Weeks family tradition. Through childhood and adolescence, Simon idolized his older brother. He followed Frank to Harvard and then into the OSS in World War II. Now, the anger he felt when Frank defected in 1949 is surfacing again. Because of obvious omissions in the manuscript he received, Simon wonders how much of the truth Frank is telling. After all, as Simon learns very quickly, Frank remains a dedicated and active KGB officer, as he is quick to point out. But Simon can’t afford not to publish the book, which clearly will be a huge bestseller.

Putting aside his doubts and anger, Simon settles down to work on the memoir with his brother under the watchful eye of Frank’s minder and bodyguard, a KGB colonel. But Frank cooperates only marginally, interrupting to insist that Simon take time out to walk in the park with him and visit Moscow landmarks. It soon becomes clear that Frank has an ulterior motive: he wants Simon’s help to defect back to the United States. With great reluctance, Simon quickly becomes embroiled in a complex, mysterious, and perilous plot to help Frank and his ailing wife escape the Soviet Union. Kanon tells the tale with great attention to detail and deep regard for his characters. As in so many of his other bestselling books, the author has thoroughly researched his topic. He conjures up a picture of the Soviet Union under Nikita Khruschchev that is both chilling and credible.

You might also enjoy my post 48 excellent mystery and thriller series.

April 20, 2017

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.


February 27, 2017

A deeply affecting novel of the Holocaust

HolocaustThe German Girl: A Novel, by Armando Lucas Correa

@@@@ (4 out of 5)

In a moving first novel, Armando Lucas Correa tells the story of The German Girl, a tale of the Holocaust loosely based on historical fact. The “German girl” is Hannah Rosenthal, the blonde, blue-eyed, 11-year-old daughter of a wealthy and prominent Jewish family in Berlin. As Hannah reflects about suffering abuse from her non-Jewish neighbors, “We were more German than they were.” So it is unsurprising that, after Hannah is accidentally photographed on the street early in 1939, she finds her picture on the cover of a Nazi propaganda magazine, Das Deutsche Mädel, which translates as “the German girl.”

An unusual perspective on the Holocaust

By extension, the “German girl” is also Hannah’s great-niece, Anna Rosen, who is also 11 years old. It’s 2014, and she lives in New York City with her mother, a former Spanish literature professor at Columbia University. Hannah and Anna’s story is revealed in a series of alternating memories related by the two pre-teens. The scene shifts from Berlin to New York to Havana, with a lengthy stay on board the German ocean liner that brought Hannah and her mother to Havana.

The scenes in Berlin accurately reflect the hatred and brutality of the Nazis directed toward the country’s large Jewish population—and the active complicity of most of their neighbors. But the Holocaust as it is generally described isn’t fully in place until well after World War II is underway. Correa writes about the Holocaust from an unusual perspective, never coming near a concentration camp or witnessing mass murder. Most of the action in The German Girl takes place in Berlin and on board the ocean liner in 1939, in New York in 2014, and in Havana over the years from 1939 to 2014. But the specter of the Holocaust is never absent. Every one of the characters in this deeply affecting novel acts under its influence.

The German girl’s story, chronologically told

Hannah lives in Berlin in a palatial apartment with her heiress mother and her father, an eminent professor and leader within the Jewish community. As the noose tightens around Berlin’s Jews, Hannah’s father finally succeeds in buying the necessary visas for the family to enter Cuba and later the U.S. as well as first-class passage on the liner St. Louis. Their two-week passage to Havana is largely pleasant—until the Cuban government invalidates their visas and denies them the right to land. Somehow, the professor arranges privately to allow Hannah and her mother to disembark. They consider their stay in Havana to be temporary, but it proves to be permanent. In 2014, Hannah’s great-niece Anna visits Havana with her mother in hopes of learning about her father, who disappeared before Anna was even born. In the weeks they spend with the now 87-year-old Hannah, Anna learns the answers to some of the many secrets surrounding the Rosenthal/Rosen family. In the course of the women’s recollections, we also learn a good deal about life in Cuba before, during, and after the Revolution.

The historical background

As Correa relates in an Author’s Note at the conclusion of this novel, the journey of the ocean liner St. Louis that rests at the core of this story really took place. “At eight in the evening of Saturday, May 13, 1939, the transatlantic liner St. Louis of the Hamburg-Amerika Linie (HAPAG) set sail from the port of Hamburg bound for Havana, Cuba. Most were in transit to the United States; they possessed American visas but had not yet been cleared to enter the country.”

The St. Louis was carrying 900 passengers, the vast majority of them German-Jewish refugees, and 231 crew. All but a handful of those passengers were refused entry into Cuba, even though they held valid entry visas. Then, both the United States and Canada turned them away, too. World War II had not yet begun, and none of the three governments wished to antagonize increasingly powerful Nazi Germany. Anti-Semitism played a major role in the refusal, too. Many weeks later, after intense negotiations, the nearly 900 remaining passengers were released from the ship in Antwerp, from which they traveled to Great Britain, France, Holland, and destinations in Belgium. As Correa notes, “Only the 287 taken in by Great Britain were safe. Most of the remainder of the former St. Louis passengers suffered the horrors of war or were exterminated in Nazi concentration camps.”

January 27, 2017

The human cost of World War II

human costEveryone Brave Is Forgiven by Chris Cleave

@@@@@ (5 out of 5)

Here is Britain’s World War II as viewed through the perspective of five young people. Their varied and often cruel experiences stand in for the evil and disruption of the war that comes to upend all their lives. The action unfolds month by month from September 1939, when Britain enters the war, through June 1942. The larger events that come to dominate their lives are the London Blitz, the evacuation of British children from London to the countryside, the Nazi Blitzkrieg advance into northern France, the devastation of Allied shipping by Germany’s U-boats, and the siege of Malta, where British forces are trapped under siege from the German and Italian air forces.

Mary North rushes to volunteer for war service less than an hour after war is declared on Germany. She is 18, the daughter of a Conservative Member of Parliament who is angling for a place in the Cabinet. Expecting a glamorous role in intelligence, Mary is assigned instead as a schoolteacher for a classroom of children about to be evacuated to the countryside. She takes on the job with enthusiasm, quickly developing an unorthodox approach to teaching that engages the children.

One of Mary’s pupils, Zachary Lee, proves especially rebellious. He’s 11, an African-American whose father plays the leading role in a London minstrel show. Mary soon learns Zachary is severely dyslexic, though the term isn’t yet in use. She develops a special relationship with him in the face of the racist abuse he suffers every day. Determined to help nonetheless, she sets out to teach him to read and write despite his disability.

Tom Shaw, 23, decides to give the war a pass. He holds an administrative role in the ministry of education. When Mary is fired from her teaching job because she has befriended her students rather than acted in the dictatorial manner expected of her, she finds her way to Tom to demand another class to teach. It’s not long before they fall into bed together.

Meanwhile, Mary’s best friend, Hilda Appleby, wants only to find a husband. She is much less pretty than Mary and is constantly complaining that Mary steals the men she’s set her eyes on. This issue takes center stage when Tom and Mary bring Hilda together with Tom’s flatmate, Alistair Heath. Hilda falls for him, but Alistair has eyes only for Mary. Hilda’s jealousy strains her friendship with Mary.

All these relationships sound utterly conventional and uninteresting when described in shorthand, as I’ve done above. But there’s nothing conventional about the circumstances, which soon twist and warp their young lives. The Blitz and the Siege of Malta loom especially large, and none of their lives is ever the same. And there’s nothing the least bit tedious about the story as Chris Cleave tells it. His narrative style is captivating. The dialogue sparkles brightly, brimming over with wit. Especially in the early chapters I found myself laughing out loud as I came to fall in love with these finely drawn characters.

This is the history of World War II through a microscope, beautifully rendered.

About the author

Everyone Brave Is Forgiven is the fourth of Chris Cleave‘s novels. His first, Incendiary, was published in 20 countries and won major awards. My review is here. He is also the author of Little Bee, which appeared on US bestseller lists for months. Cleave is a columnist for the Guardian newspaper.


January 6, 2017

Keeping a secret in Victorian England

victorian englandBelgravia by Julian Fellowes

@@@ (3 out of 5)

In all six seasons of Downton Abbey on PBS, I don’t recall a single upper-class character who could fairly be described as nasty. Julian Fellowes, who created and wrote all of the series, served up aristocratic characters who most reasonable people would call “nice.” However, perhaps because of the skill the actors brought to their roles, they were essentially believable. In the context of the time portrayed in the series (1912-1925), each acted out in ways that fit the circumstances. (There were exceptions among the servants downstairs.) By contrast, Fellowes’ third novel, Belgravia, is peopled with characters who are either consistently “good” and others who are unfailingly “bad.” Compared to the celebrated television series, Belgravia is cartoonish.

The novel opens in Brussels in June 1815. At a ball held by the Duchess of Richmond, English nobility and senior officers in the British Army mingle with the few others fortunate to attend. Among them is the Trenchard family, James, his wife Anne, and their young daughter Sophia. Though he rose from poverty, James is now the chief supplier to the Duke of Wellington’s forces and is a favorite of his. Sophia is desperately in love with one of the Duke’s officers, Lord Bellasis, an aristocratic young captain. They sneak off together. Then a messenger comes rushing in to inform the Duke that Napoleon’s army is nearing the outskirts of the city. The Battle of Waterloo is about to begin. In it, the British army will lose a great number of its officers. The young captain is among those who are killed.

The scene shifts to London in 1841, the fourth year of the reign of Queen Victoria. James has grown very wealthy through shrewd investments in property development. His partners have erected new buildings on large stretches of the city, including magnificent new homes on Belgrave Square and in surrounding Belgravia. Victorian England is in full flower.

Soon we learn that James and Anne’s daughter, Sophia, died shortly after giving birth to Lord Bellasis’ son. The plot turns on this fact. Fellowes’ novel depicts the extraordinary efforts that James and Anne make to conceal the fact that they have a grandson. Once Lord Bellasis’ mother, Lady Brockenhurst, learns about her grandson, she goes to extreme lengths to conceal his relationship to her family, too. This is the secret at the heart of the novel. Keeping that secret results in a cascade of unfortunate circumstances that could only have unfolded in Victorian England, where appearances seemed so much more important than reality.

The story is engaging enough, but it hinges on the antics of two extremely unpleasant young men and one unpleasant young woman. All grew up wealthy and privileged. All three are greedy, self-centered, and calculating. They come straight out of the world of melodrama: each would qualify as evil in another context. Perhaps melodrama reflected reality in Victorian England. But I expected more from Julian Fellowes. I’m a fan of historical fiction. But this novel doesn’t make the grade.


November 10, 2016

Film stars, partisans, and Nazi generals in 1945 Italy

Nazi generalsThe Girl From Venice by Martin Cruz Smith

@@@ (3 out of 5)

Martin Cruz Smith is best known for the eight novels featuring Moscow police investigator Arkady Renko. I’ve read and admired them all. (You can find reviews of three of those novels here, here, and here.) However, before creating the character of Arkady Renko in 1981, Cruz had written 17 previous works of fiction, all of them mysteries and nearly all under pseudonyms. His latest book, The Girl From Venice, appears to be a more serious undertaking. It’s a standalone novel set in Venice in the closing weeks of World War II. Though sometimes described as a thriller, it’s billed as a love story. I found it disappointing.

A fisherman who’s more than a fisherman

When we first meet Vincenzo (“Cenzo”) Vianello, we’re led to believe that he’s a simple fisherman who lives in a village just outside Venice. He’s nothing of the sort, however. He’s a painter whose work is admired locally, and his older brother, Giorgio, is a war hero and one of Italy’s most famous film stars. Cenzo so closely resembles Giorgio that he’s able to pass for him.

The SS and the extermination of Jews in Venice

The Girl From Venice is Giulia Silber. As the novel opens, Cenzo discovers her floating in a lagoon. She looks dead but is simply faking it. When a German patrol boat stops Cenzo’s boat for an inspection, she somehow manages to hide undetected. But a drunk SS officer goes on a rampage on the boat, inadvertently threatening her life. Cenzo kills him to save her. It turns out that Giulia is Jewish. She was the only one to escape from the mental hospital where she, her family, and other wealthy Venice Jews had been hiding out for several years. Even though Germany has clearly lost the war, and the end is no more than a few weeks away, the SS has mounted a search to find and kill Giulia.

Nazi generals, movie stars, and a “Swiss” film director

In the unfolding action, we meet Nazi generals who want to sue for peace, a “Swiss” film director, Giorgio and one of the actresses he’s sleeping with, the Argentine consul and his wife, and a bartender in Cenzo’s village who is connected to the partisans. At the center of the story is Cenzo’s courageous effort to move Giulia out of harm’s way toward the American lines. Naturally, along the way, the two fall in love despite the disparity in their ages: she’s 18, he’s 28.

Others have written better novels along these lines

Other American authors have covered similar territory and written better stories along these lines. Philip Kerr, Alan Furst, and Joseph Kanon, in particular, have all dug deeply into the reality of Europe under the Nazis and produced thrillers that are engrossing, grounded in historical fact, suspenseful, and entertaining. The Girl From Venice comes up short on this yardstick.

You might enjoy more my post 48 excellent mystery and thriller series.

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