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75 readable and revealing historical novels

historical novels - all the light we cannot see - anthony doerr

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.)

World War II

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)

US politics

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)

American history

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, 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)


European history

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)


European espionage history

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)


Asian history

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 superb historical novel about the opium trade by Amitav Ghosh (Sea of Poppies – Ibis Trilogy #1)

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)


African history

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 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.

A novelist revisits the Russian Revolution

Russian RevolutionLenin’s Roller Coaster (Jack McColl #3) by David Downing

@@@ (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.



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.


A thriller about Vatican politics

vatican politicsConclave: A Novel, by Robert Harris

@@@@ (4 out of 5)

Over the course of my life six new Popes have been installed by the Catholic Church. Robert Harris’ new thriller, Conclave, is about the next election. Set a few years in the future, when a man closely resembling Pope Francis has either retired or died, the novel depicts in minute detail the process of electing his successor. It’s all written from the perspective of the Dean of the College of Cardinals, the man who presides over the election.

I am not now and never have been a Catholic. Somehow, though, I found Harris’ reverential accounting of the liturgical and atmospheric details to be bearable. Yes, there’s a lot of praying, and considerable repetition when that’s called for in the process. Still, Conclave hums with the same tension and anticipation that I’ve come to expect from Robert Harris’ work. No doubt about it: this is a work of suspense.

Harris highlights the powerful forces that divide today’s Catholic Church. He brings to life the ongoing battle between traditionalists and reformers. But he makes beautifully clear that the division is far more complex than is often represented in the news media. He also shows how other factors deepen the currents of jealousy that cleave the institution. These include the clannishness of the Roman Curia and of the many Italian Cardinals, the split between European and Third World loyalties, the venality of so many senior Cardinals, and the raw ambition that rises to the surface when 118 men enter a room and know that one of them will be elected the most powerful religious figure in the world.

About the author

A former journalist, Robert Harris has written a number of nonfiction books in addition to the eleven novels that have put his name on the map. Most are historical fiction. The best known of these are Fatherland, Enigma, Archangel, and The Ghost, all of which have been adapted for film or television. He has also written a superb trilogy set in ancient Rome.


Inside the fight for Israeli independence

israeli independenceCity of Secrets: A Novel, by Stewart O’Nan

@@@@ (4 out of 5)

A Latvian Jew freed from imprisonment in World War II internment camps makes his way to Palestine in 1948 and joins the Haganah, the Jewish paramilitary organization that led the fight for Israeli independence. His new name is Jossi. He operates as a courier in Jerusalem, part of a small cell that includes an older woman with whom he had fallen in love.

Terrorism and the struggle for Israeli independence

Then the Haganah merges with the far more radical Irgun, and the stakes for Jossi rise dramatically. Jossi and others in his cell are quickly drawn into terrorism designed to kill British soldiers in the occupation force. Jossi is terrified. This is the picture that emerges early in Stewart O’Nan’s new thriller, City of Secrets.

“He wasn’t weak enough to kill himself,” O’Nan writes, “but wasn’t strong enough to stop wanting to. There was always the question of what to do with his old life, memory seething inside him like a disease.” Having lost his whole family in the Holocaust, Jossi is haunted by nightmares of the experience. Even his deepening love affair causes nightmares about his dead wife.

O’Nan skillfully portrays Jossi’s evolution from a frightened refugee into a terrorist. Along the way, we learn a great deal about the tactics of the Israeli independence movement. As history has recorded, the consequences were sometimes tragic. City of Secrets deals with the country’s most notorious act of terrorism. As historical fiction, City of Secrets contributes to our understanding about the road to the State of Israel.

About the author

Stewart O’Nan is the author of seventeen novels and a half-dozen other works. He is American.

A gripping historical thriller

historical thrillerThe Devils of Cardona, by Matthew Carr

@@@@@ (5 out of 5)

The Devils of Cardona is superb historical fiction masked as a thriller. It works beautifully on both levels.

A gripping historical thriller

This gripping historical thriller is set in 1594, more than a century after Ferdinand and Isabella set in motion the Spanish Inquisition. Six years earlier, the English had destroyed the Spanish Armada with the aid of a massive storm. But Spain still reigned as the world’s most powerful nation. The Spanish Empire covered all of Central and South America, much of North America and the Caribbean, a wide swath of North Africa, the Netherlands, the Kingdom of Naples, and a chunk of Central Europe. And throughout Spain and the New World territories, the Inquisition competed with civil authorities for supremacy. This is the historical backdrop to Matthew Carr’s engrossing and well-researched new novel.

A criminal judge takes on the Spanish Inquisition

A priest is brutally murdered in Belamar de la Sierra, a small town in the eastern province of Aragon. Rumors swirl around the crime about a mysterious Muslim Redeemer who has set out to murder Old Christians. The town is heavily populated by Moriscos — Muslim converts to Christianity — giving credence to the official version that the Redeemer is a local man. (Converted Muslims and Jews were widely thought to continue practicing their old religions in secret.) A close counselor to the king summons a wounded veteran named Bernardo de Mendoza to investigate the crime. Mendoza is a criminal magistrate in Castile, many miles to the west of Aragon. Though he is a womanizer and adulterer, Mendoza is widely known as incorruptible. He sets out quickly with his ward, who serves as a scribe, and several armed companions to faraway Aragon. There he finds himself facing hostility from the provincial Inquisitor and a powerful nobleman.

Local opposition stalls Mendoza’s progress for many weeks. Meanwhile, a series of additional murders and the rape of two nuns terrify the populace. The murders are attributed to the Redeemer; three Moriscos from Belamar de la Sierra are charged with the rape by the Inquisitor. Mendoza is skeptical of the charge and the rumors about the Redeemer, and he is no friend of the Inquisition. As the weeks go by, the situation becomes progressively more tangled, as other forces in contention come to light. Though he finds his life in jeopardy on several occasions, Mendoza stubbornly pursues the truth. As the plot unfolds, conflict among the clashing forces escalates to pitched battle. There are surprises all along the way. The Devils of Cardona is a terrific read.

About the author

Matthew Carr is the author of several widely acclaimed works of nonfiction, including Blood and Faith: The Purging of Muslim Spain. He is a journalist and broadcaster. Carr lives in England.



A vivid snapshot of Nazi Berlin

nazi BerlinMarch Violets (Bernie Gunther #1), by Philip Kerr

@@@@ (4 out of 5)

In 1936, Berlin is abuzz about the civil war in Spain and the coming Olympics. Hitler’s henchmen are crisscrossing the city to erase many of the outward signs of the anti-Semitism that fuels the Nazi regime. Under cover of false fronts and euphemistic names, Hermann Goering is building a fearsome air force and Heinrich Himmler is terrorizing the nation with the thugs he has recruited and trained in the SS and the Gestapo. Dead bodies are turning up in the Spree with disturbing regularity. For Germany’s Jews, obtaining the exit visas necessary for escape has become almost prohibitively expensive.

A powerful industrialist, a diamond necklace, and a double murder

Enter Bernie Gunther, a former police inspector and hotel detective, now a private investigator. Though an outspoken anti-Nazi, Bernie has somehow managed to survive in the darkening mood of the country. He is fondly remembered for cracking a headline-grabbing murder case while still on the police force.

A mysterious late-night summons takes Bernie to the palatial home of Hermann Six, one of the country’s wealthiest and most powerful industrialists. There he learns that Six’s beloved daughter, Grete, and her husband have been murdered in their bed and the safe in their home burglarized. Six is intent on recovering an enormously expensive diamond necklace without calling in the police. He offers Bernie a fee equivalent to several years’ worth of investigative work — to recover the necklace, not to identify the killer, which the police have undertaken to do. Bernie also knows it would be dangerous to turn down such a powerful man.

A vivid snapshot of Berlin under the Nazis

It quickly becomes apparent that the case is far more complicated than Herr Six has explained. First, it is clear that the police cannot solve the murder. Then first one, then another, troubling character in the drama comes to Bernie’s attention. Among them are Six’s trusted private secretary, a gorgeous film star, a pair of thuggish Gestapo detectives, an underworld criminal gang reminiscent of the Aryan Nation, and even Hermann Goering himself. Along the way, Bernie hires a new assistant, a glamorous young woman, with whom he falls in love. As the investigation unfolds, the complications multiply and threats to Bernie’s life emerge again and again. Though framed as a detective novel, March Violets works beautifully as historical fiction. Philip Kerr does his research.

About the author

March Violets, published in 1989, is the first of Philip Kerr‘s twelve novels in the Bernie Gunther series. It kicked off a trilogy (“Berlin Noir”) that he wrapped up in 1991. The fourth novel, The One From the Other, didn’t appear until fifteen years later, in 2006, following a long string of stand-alone novels. Kerr was an advertising copywriter before he turned to writing fiction. His work has included young adult as well as adult novels.

African Roots through African eyes

RootsHomegoing: A Novel, by Yaa Gyasi

@@@@@ (5 out of 5)

Yaa Gyasi’s extraordinary debut novel, Homegoing, traces the story of a Ghanaian family over more than two centuries through the lives of two branches of its descendants, one in Ghana, the other in the United States. The book opens in the mid-eighteenth century, when the slave trade was at its peak, follows the rollercoaster fortunes of the family through the turbulent years of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, and concludes in present-day Ghana, where two descendants of the family have returned to explore the land of their ancestors — and the meaning of their lives. The tale in Homegoing parallels the story told in Alex Haley’s Roots over roughly the same period.

Unforgettable characters

Gyasi has a marvelous way with words. In brief chapters, using the most economical language, she celebrates the lives of her characters in ways that will stay with readers for a long time to come. Beginning with Effia and Esi, the two half-sisters whose descendants people the novel, through the generations to follow, Gyasi spells out the legacy of slavery without resorting to stereotypes. There is evil on every side: in the British who manage and profit from the slave trade; in the Asante and Fante warriors and traders who deliver their captives to the British; in the American slave-owners and their successors, who impose lynching and Jim Crow; and in the Northerners who sustain housing segregation and practice racism with only slightly less malice than their Southern counterparts. Yet the members of the family are far from blameless: all the stereotypical afflictions of Black America are to be found here, from the cruelty of recent Irish immigrants to the drug addiction and broken families, yet each of Gyasi’s characters, no matter how unexpected, is easy to believe. This is a novel that meets the sensibilities of our time, when the passage of history has allowed us to gain perspective over the evil in our past. This is historical fiction at its best.

A big step up from the original Roots

Forty years ago, in 1976, a 900-page book titled Roots: The Saga of an American Family was published to enormous acclaim. Its author, Alex Haley, was widely known for The Autobiography of Malcolm X, published in 1965. Roots won a Pulitzer Prize, a special citation in Letters for what was marketed as a novelization based on the actual history of Haley’s family.

Roots begins with the story of a man named Kunta Kinte, kidnapped in 1767 from his home in The Gambia at age 17 and sold into slavery. The tale ends two centuries later in the United States, when Kinte’s descendants — including Alex Haley — have achieved success with their hard-fought freedom.

Roots was quickly made into an epic television miniseries viewed by a total of 130 million people. Later, Haley and his book came under fire from several directions, charged with simply inventing his family history. He was also accused of plagiarism by several authors, and one of them prevailed in court. Critical treatments appeared in a devastating BBC documentary (banned by U.S. networks) and in numerous influential publications, including the Village Voice. In an article in the Voice, for example, one author wrote, “Virtually every genealogical claim in Haley’s story was false.” Though much of the criticism was doubtless grounded in racism or simple envy, even a close friend of Haley’s, Professor Henry Louis Gates of Harvard, concedes that it’s time to “speak candidly,” adding that “most of us feel it’s highly unlikely that Alex actually found the village from whence his ancestors came.” Despite all the controversy, the Pulitzer Jury refused to rescind the award to Haley.

Whatever else might be said of Alex Haley, he was a masterful storyteller. But so is Yaa Gyasi, and she has done us the favor of noting upfront that her book is a novel.

Other reviews of the novel

The New York Times ran not one but two reviews of Homegoing. The first, a brilliant essay by the African-American scholar Isabel Wilkerson, ran on the front page of the New York Times Book Review on June 12, 2016. A second review, by Times critic Michiko Kakutani, appeared in the daily paper two days later. Both reviewers found a lot to like in the novel.

Wilkerson’s review, which sprawled over three pages, referred to the book as “hypnotic” and as Gyasi’s “intimate rendering of the human heart battered by the forces of conquest and history.” She dwelled at length on the emotional power of the novel’s chapters in which “the villages of West Africa come alive.” However, Wilkerson took exception to what she saw as the stereotyping in the chapters set in the United States. “What might have happened had Africans stood together against Europeans?” she asked. It’s a good question. Sadly, history shows us that didn’t happen — although, as Gyasi’s novel makes clear, Asante warriors held out against the British in a series of wars stretching across the last three-quarters of the nineteenth century. In other words, Wilkerson was hardly the first to ask the question.

Kakutani finds the inspiration of Homegoing not just in Roots but also in Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude and Thomas Mann’s Buddenbrooks. To my mind, she was reaching to make a literary case that is hard to justify. Though Gyasi explore the mysticism that held sway in the villages of Ghana in centuries past (if not yet today), it’s difficult to find the magic in Homegoing. However, since both Garcia Marquez and Mann won the Nobel Prize in Literature, perhaps we can envision an equally bright future for Ms. Gyasi?

About the author

Yaa Gyasi, now 26, spent seven years researching and writing Homegoing, including two years at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, where she was rewarded an M.F.A. She was born in Ghana, raised in Huntsville, Alabama, and now lives in Berkeley, California. According to TIME, she received a seven-figure advance for this novel, her first book.

This book is included in my list of The 10 best books of 2016.

From Hitler’s Germany to Batista’s Cuba

Hitler's GermanyIf the Dead Rise Not (Bernie Gunther #6), by Philip Kerr

@@@ (3 out of 5)

If the Dead Rise Not is either the third or the sixth novel in Philip Kerr’s series about the indomitable Berlin detective Bernie Gunther. The ranking depends on whether you take into account the three much earlier books in the Berlin Noir series that introduced the voluble and sarcastic German investigator.

From Hitler’s Germany to pre-Castro Cuba

If the Dead Rise Not opens in Berlin in 1934. Bernie Gunther has left the Berlin criminal police, the KRIPO, because he can’t stomach the politics of the force under the Nazis — or, for that matter, of the country as a whole. Adolf Hitler seized control of the government a year earlier, and his violence-prone minions are clamping down on Jews, Gypsies, and dissidents alike. To make ends meet, Bernie is now working as a house detective at the Adlon, the city’s finest luxury hotel. The owners tolerate his outspoken anti-Nazi sentiments and his constant sarcasm. In pursuing an investigation at the behest of Frau Adlon, who owns the hotel with her husband, Bernie becomes involved with a beautiful American newspaper reporter and a ruthless American gangster. As his investigation unfolds, putting Bernie at ever-greater peril, the action suddenly shifts to Havana in 1954. There, under the shadow of Fulgencio Batista’s brutal regime and the growing insurgency led by Fidel Castro, Bernie (predictably) encounters both Americans once again.

The picture Kerr paints of both Berlin and Havana is richly detailed and firmly grounded in historical fact. Though the plot is complex and challenging, the style is less worthy of praise.

A problematic writing style

Five years ago, I reviewed the fourth novel in the series, a book entitled The One from the Other. As I sat down to write this piece, I took a look at that earlier review. This, in part, is what I wrote in commenting on Kerr’s style:

For example, here’s how Bernie describes his meeting with one incidental character: “Frau Klingerhoffer . . . was working on a leg of lamb like a mechanic going after a set of rusty spark plugs with a wrench and a rubber hammer. She didn’t stop eating for a moment. Not even when I bowed and said hello. She probably wouldn’t have stopped if the lamb had let out a bleat and inquired where Mary was.”

Cute, eh? So’s this: “There was something in his face I didn’t like. Mostly it was just his face.”

But this stuff is non-stop in The One from the Other. There are paragraphs in which Kerr uses as many as four similes and metaphors to describe a character or a scene. It gets a little old.

Funny thing: I was going to write this review making precisely the same points. I’d even highlighted several similar passages in If the Dead Rise Not to be quoted in this review! Philip Kerr gets an A for creative imagination but a D for readability. It’s difficult to swallow all this exaggerated language without stopping to sigh with exasperation at every other paragraph.

About the author

Philip Kerr‘s first novel featuring Bernie Gunther, March Violets, was published in 1989, quickly followed by The Pale Criminal and A German Requiem. The One From the Other, the first of nine subsequent Bernie Gunther tales, didn’t appear until 2006. Kerr has also written more than two dozen other books.

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