Tag Archives for " Nazi Germany "

Philip Kerr’s Bernie Gunther novels

Bernie Gunther novels - A Quiet Flame - Philip KerrPhilip Kerr’s series of historical novels featuring Berlin detective Bernie Gunther span the years of Hitler’s rise to power, German rearmament in the 1930s, World War II, the post-war years in Germany, and the flight of top-ranked Nazis to South America. Twelve Bernie Gunther novels have been published to date. A thirteenth, Greeks Bearing Gifts, is due to be issued in 2018.

Top Nazis figure in every one of these novels, and his portraits of them are convincing. His protagonist, ace homicide investigator Bernie Gunther, is in some ways a standard-issue tough cop like those who populated the crime fiction of the 1930s and 1940s. He’s a big guy who can usually take care of himself in a fight. He’s cynical—what used to be called a “wise guy”—who is prone to run his big mouth far more often than he should. He repeatedly finds his way to the beds of beautiful women. And, of course, he is brilliant at his work.

But Bernie serves a larger literary purpose. A social democrat who never consented to join the Nazi Party, he’s a foil for the never-ending parade of high-ranking Nazis he meets in the course of his investigations. Bernie isn’t just a non-Nazi; he’s openly anti-Nazi, and he doesn’t care who knows it. Somehow, improbably, he has managed to survive more than two decades in conflict with the Nazi leadership. His consummate skill as a detective saves him every time.

Below are the dozen Bernie Gunther novels that have appeared in the series to date. You can access what I’ve written about them by clicking on the link to the right of each review.

  1. March Violets (1989), set in 1936: A vivid snapshot of Nazi Berlin
  2. The Pale Criminal (1990), set in 1938: A serial killer in Nazi Germany
  3. A German Requiem (1991), set in 1947-48: Another excellent novel in the Bernie Gunther series by Philip Kerr
  4. The One from the Other (2006), set in 1949: An anti-Nazi detective in Hitler’s Germany
  5. A Quiet Flame (2008), set in 1950: An eye-opening detective novel about Nazis in Argentina
  6. If the Dead Rise Not (2009), set in 1934 and 1954: From Hitler’s Germany to Batista’s Cuba
  7. Field Gray (2010), set in 1954, with flashbacks over 20 years: Bernie Gunther’s life in flashbacks
  8. Prague Fatale (2011), set in 1941: A hard-boiled detective in Nazi Germany
  9. A Man Without Breath (2013), set in 1943: Mass murder in the Katyn Forest
  10. The Lady from Zagreb (2015), set in 1942-43 and 1956: Cynicism and romanticism in Nazi Germany
  11. The Other Side of Silence (2016), set in 1956: An exciting chapter in the Bernie Gunther saga
  12. Prussian Blue (2017), set in 1939 and 1956: In Philip Kerr’s latest, Bernie Gunther confronts top Nazis and the Stasi

In Philip Kerr’s latest, Bernie Gunther confronts top Nazis and the Stasi

top Nazis in Prussian Blue by Philip Kerr

Prussian Blue (Bernie Gunther #12), by Philip Kerr

@@@ (3 out of 5)

In a series of twelve novels to date, British author Philip Kerr has examined the boundless cruelty and corruption that reigned in Nazi Germany. Kerr has done his research. Top Nazis figure in every one of these novels, and his portraits of them are convincing. His protagonist, Berlin homicide detective Bernie Gunther, is in some ways a standard-issue tough cop like those who populated the crime fiction of the 1930s and 1940s. He’s a big guy who can usually take care of himself in a fight. He’s cynical—what used to be called a “wise guy”—who is prone to run his big mouth far more often than he should. And he repeatedly finds his way to the beds of beautiful women.

But Bernie serves a larger literary purpose. A social democrat who never consented to join the Nazi Party, he’s a foil for the never-ending parade of high-ranking Nazis he meets in the course of his investigations. Bernie isn’t just a non-Nazi; he’s openly anti-Nazi, and he doesn’t care who knows it. Somehow, improbably, he has managed to survive more than two decades in conflict with the Nazi leadership. His consummate skill as a detective saves him every time.

In Prussian Blue, the twelfth novel in the series, the scene shifts back and forth from 1956 to 1939. In ’56, Bernie has been working under a false name as the concierge at the most exclusive hotel on the Riviera. Invited to dinner at another expensive hotel, he finds himself confronting General Erich Mielke, the thoroughly unsavory character who ran the Stasi in Communist East Germany. Mielke threatens to kill Bernie’s estranged wife unless he consents to travel to England and assassinate a Stasi agent there (one of the many women he has bedded). Bernie has done a lot of things, but assassination is out of the question. When he soon afterwards escapes the handlers Mielke has assigned to him, Bernie sets out on a desperate flight by train, automobile, bicycle, and foot in hopes of hiding out in West Germany. The squad of handlers is run by Friedrich Korsch, a former Nazi who had served as Bernie’s assistant on a huge murder case in 1939. Korsch’s reappearance calls up memories of that case, which involved a daisy chain of top Nazi officials. In one flashback after another, we meet Reinhard Heydrich, Martin Bormann, Rudolf Hess, and other top Nazis, including Bormann’s younger brother, Albert. Other key officials, including Adolf Hitler himself, remain behind the curtain, stage right.

All the preceding entries in the Bernie Gunther series speed along at a fast clip, accelerated by surprising bouts of action and Bernie’s nonstop wise-guy banter. The suspense is palpable. The only recurring flaw is that the dialogue is sometimes simply too smooth, witty, and cynical. However, Prussian Blue disappoints for two reasons: Bernie’s flight from the Stasi seems endless and becomes tedious after awhile, and both his dialogue and his private thoughts run on far too long. On several occasions, I found myself getting impatient, wishing for an editor: this book could have been about one-third shorter. It’s still worth reading for the historical perspective on the Nazi leadership.

If you’re unfamiliar with the Bernie Gunther series and want to read one of the better entries, go to Bernie Gunther’s life in flashbacks or Mass murder in the Katyn Forest. If your taste runs to detective fiction, see My 15 favorite detective novels.

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.



An excellent Maisie Dobbs novel from Jacqueline Winspear

Maisie Dobbs: Elegy for Eddie by Jacqueline WinspearElegy for Eddie (Maisie Dobbs #9), by Jacqueline Winspear

@@@@ (4 out of 5)

Throughout his life, Eddie Pettit was considered “slow.” Naive and trusting to a fault, he was indeed slow to understand much of what was said to him. But Eddie had two great gifts. He possessed a prodigious memory, not just for numbers and circumstances but for images (eidetic memory) as well. Today, he might be diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome. But Eddie’s second gift made him truly exceptional. Literally born in a stable, he had a lifelong affinity for horses, and they for him. Eddie Pettit could calm even the most excitable horse and was widely known for his talent.

But now Eddie Pettit is dead, victim of what was purportedly an accident at a paper factory where he was visiting friends. Five of his mates from the old neighborhood in Lambeth have come to visit Maisie Dobbs in hopes she will uncover the truth about Eddie’s death. Like all of them, Maisie had been born into poverty in Lambeth. Now, however, she is Cambridge-educated, well-established as an “investigator and psychologist,” and a wealthy woman as the heir of her late mentor. Without hesitation, Maisie takes on the assignment, declines payment, and launches an investigation with the help of her two assistants, Billy and Sandra.

The search for the truth about Eddie’s death brings Maisie and her small staff face to face with anti-union organizing, a string of mysterious murders, a police cover-up, and a conspiracy to prepare Britain for war with Nazi Germany. It’s 1933, and Adolf Hitler has just seized power as German Chancellor. Winston Churchill is agitating for the country to rearm, but few are listening. This is a story set in a particular time and place, and it all fits.

All the novels in this series portray Maisie as contemplative, but none more than Elegy for Eddie. All the while the investigation unfolds, Maisie struggles with her relationship with the aristocratic James Compton. They live together on and off as husband and wife and attend social events together. Increasingly, though, Maisie doubts whether she can marry James. (“They had ventured out with their hearts towards honesty, but had scurried back to protect their feelings.”) She is also struggling with what today we might call liberal guilt. The large fortune she inherited from her mentor, Dr. Maurice Blanche, weighs heavily on her—and it provides her with the means to solve other people’s problems, which she does all too frequently. She resists criticism from friends who point out that intervening in other people’s lives can lead to resentment. Overall, Maisie puzzles who she is and where her life is going: “What did she want her life to be considered well-lived? How could she honor both her past and at the same time take on a future that offered so many more opportunities than she might ever have imagined?”

Elegy for Eddie is the ninth book in the growing Maisie Hobbs series, now thirteen in number. Author Jacqueline Winspear, born and educated in Great Britain, emigrated to the United States in 1990. She now lives in Marin County, California.

My review of Maisie Dobbs, the first novel in the series, is at A female detective like no other. The second, Birds of a Feather, is here: The cost of war hangs over the action like a shroud, and the third, Pardonable Lives, is here:  Maisie Dobbs: living the legacy of World War I. I reviewed #4, Messenger of Truth, at Class resentment in Depression-era England, and #5, An Incomplete Revenge, is at The pleasures of reading Maisie Dobbs. My review of the sixth in the series, Among the Mad, is Shell shock, madness, the Great Depression. The seventh, The Mapping of Love and Death, is Another great detective novel from Jacqueline Winspear, and the eighth, A Lesson in Secrets, is Nazis, pacifists, and spies in 1930s Britain. You might also be interested in my list of 48 excellent mystery and thriller series.

My new book: a fresh look at dystopian novels

new bookAfter the inauguration of Donald Trump as President of the US, The Handmaid’s Tale, 1984, and Brave New World returned to the bestseller lists. The reemergence of these classic dystopian novels prompted me to take a closer look at the genre. In the months that followed, I refreshed my memory of the three classics and other dystopian tales, re-read some, and read dozens of others for the first time. Along the way, I’ve reviewed a great many of those books. At some point about three to four months ago—I don’t remember exactly when—I decided to pull together all my thoughts about the field in a new book. Maybe 15,000 words, I thought. But, to nobody’s surprise except my own, the project grew into a 52,000-word manuscript. It’s available now on Amazon.

Hell on Earth: What we can learn from dystopian fiction

If you’re a science fiction fan, like to speculate about the future, enjoy reading novels that challenge your preconceptions—or if you’re simply concerned with the direction our society is taking—you’ll enjoy my new book, Hell on Earth: What we can learn from dystopian fiction. Well, maybe not enjoy, but find it thought-provoking.

You can learn more about the new book here for the Kindle edition, or here for the paperback. CreateSpace set the paperback price at $9.73. The Kindle edition costs just $2.99. Click here for a free preview of the book.

About the new book

Dystopian fiction reflects the world as it is and imagines what the future might hold. In an age of eroding civil liberties, a widening gap between rich and poor, unending conflict abroad, the increasing impact of climate change, and the ever-present threat of pandemic and nuclear holocaust, dystopian novels are relevant as never before.

Hell on Earth analyzes 62 dystopian novels. I’ve categorized the books by the themes that are dominant in them: totalitarianism, climate change, nuclear war, overpopulation, genetic engineering, religious extremism, artificial intelligence, runaway consumerism, and pandemic. I’ve added my own thoughts about a global financial collapse and terrorism, and, just for fun, discussed five alternative histories in which Nazi Germany wins World War II. After all, life under the Nazis would certainly rate as a dystopian experience.

Each chapter includes a brief introduction to the topic, followed by a short discussion of each of two or more novels and a concluding section in which I’ve analyzed the prospects that the calamity described in those novels will actually come about. In the book’s final chapter, I’ve extended that discussion, speculating on the likelihood that one or more of these trends or technologies will lead to a future none of us would want to live in.

I’ve published Hell on Earth through CreateSpace and Kindle Direct Publishing, services of Amazon.com. Although nearly all my previous books were published by established publishing houses, I elected to self-publish in this way because I feared that the extra six to twelve months required to work with a publisher would drastically reduce the timeliness of the book.

A brief excerpt from the Introduction

Sometimes we read because we’re scared.

Novels such as 1984 and Brave New World that depict a grim future for Western civilization have been popular for decades. As the threat of nuclear annihilation became clear in the 1950s, the number of such titles multiplied, and their popularity quickly grew. The trend continued as other factors entered public consciousness: increasing awareness of the threat posed by global climate change, the emergence of deadly new communicable diseases, and the growing use of artificial intelligence to take on jobs held by humans—among other nightmarish trends. Now, if anything, the popularity of such novels is accelerating. Ever since the election of Donald Trump as President of the United States on November 8, 2016, millions of Americans have been fearful of what might lie ahead.

Should we fear that Mr. Trump is leading us down the road to a totalitarian future? The answer is obviously no. The difference between “alternative facts” and Newspeak is enormous.

But should we be scared? That’s a very different question. I’m firmly convinced the answer is yes. The many dystopian novels I’ve read have helped me understand that. Read on, and it may help you, too. 

You can read my review of one of the nonfiction books that figures in Hell on Earth here: Surveying the future of technology in the mid-21st century. Another is here: Will robots create a jobless future?

Another excellent novel in the Bernie Gunther series by Philip Kerr

philip kerr

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.”

Berlin in the wake of World War II

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.

A treacherous assignment in post-War Vienna

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.

Philip Kerr on “collective guilt”

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.”

About Philip Kerr

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.


A Soviet spy in Nazi Germany

soviet spyA Single Spy by William Christie

@@@@@ (5 out of 5)

1936. Soviet Azerbaijan. Alexsi, in flight from the violence of an orphanage since the age of thirteen, is living on the streets of Baku when he falls in with a gang of tribesmen who live by smuggling goods over the border between the Soviet Union and Iran. “After a few trips he had more rubles hidden away than most party bosses in the Soviet Union, let along sixteen-year-olds.” Thus opens William Christie‘s gripping espionage novel, A Single Spy, his eighth book.

Alexsi is no ordinary Azeri teenager: he is educating himself by reading books in libraries; he speaks Russian, Persian, German, and some English; and he is a resourceful and ruthless fighter who carries a knife hidden away in his clothing. Then, while reading at the Baku General Library he is seized by Soviet secret police (NKVD), tossed into a crowded railcar, and shipped off to Moscow. There, after days of deprivation in the depths of the Lubyanka, he is taken to be interrogated by a humorless older man with an air of authority. The man’s name is Lukashev, and he is senior NKVD officer.

Lukashev poses a choice to Alexsi: either enter training as a Soviet spy or face execution for his crimes—which, of course, is no choice at all. Thus the young man enters adulthood through a grueling, months-long education in spycraft and survival skills. Following a real-world test in Moscow infiltrating a group of dissident students, Alexsi learns about the assignment for which he has been so carefully selected: he is to go undercover in Germany, impersonating a childhood friend with an uncle in Munich who is a high-ranking Nazi diplomat. As the Nazi’s long-lost nephew, whom he’d last seen as an infant, Alexsi is to worm his way into the Nazi world and seek out ways to gain access to valuable secrets. Lukashev, counting on Alexsi’s resourcefulness, tells him, “We gather information by many means, but a single spy in the right place and at the right moment may change the course of history.”

In A Single Spy, we follow Alexsi’s life from 1932, when he was an abused child in an Azeri village, to 1943, as a double agent working for the Soviets within the Abwehr. The action rockets from Azerbaijan to the Iran to the USSR to Germany, then to Switzerland and Turkey en route back to Iran. Christie paints a convincing picture of every location where he sets his story, and he steadily builds suspense toward a climax full of surprises. His command of details about the German military in World War II is impressive. The book contains information I’ve read nowhere else about German weaponry and the organization of the German general staff. It’s an impressive performance. Christie’s tale is grounded in history, hinging on two well-established facts. First, though Soviet spies and Winston Churchill himself informed Stalin well in advance of the German invasion, the Soviet leader refused to believe them—with millions of Russians dying as a result. And the Nazis did mount an elaborate (and of course unsuccessful) plot to assassinate Churchill, Roosevelt, and Stalin when they met at the Tehran Conference late in 1943. Christie seems to get it all right.

Recently, I posted an article entitled “My 10 favorite espionage novels.” You can find it here.

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.


Reading “The Handmaid’s Tale” in the Age of Trump

Handmaid's TaleThe Handmaid’s Tale, by Margaret Atwood

@@@@@ (5 out of 5)

In a front-page essay in The New York Times Book Review for March 19, 2017, Margaret Atwood reflects on writing her science fiction classic, The Handmaid’s Tale. “Back in 1984,” she notes, “the main premise seemed—even to me—fairly outrageous. Would I be able to persuade readers that the United States had suffered a coup that had transformed an erstwhile liberal democracy into a literal-minded theocratic dictatorship?” In 2017, with a simple-minded, authoritarian President holding the reins of government in Washington, DC, and all manner of intolerant extremists in the wings, that premise no longer seems preposterous.

An otherwise unnamed woman referred to as “Offred” (meaning a woman possessed by a man named Fred) relates the story of her life both before and after the shooting of the President, the machine-gunning of Congress, and the suspension of the Constitution. Her recollections of life with her lover and later husband Luke intertwine with the grim story of her enslavement as a Handmaid. In a society where the fertility rate has declined, Offred is an attractive young woman who has been attached to a household led by an aging Commander and his Wife in hopes that she will become pregnant and bear the Wife a child to raise. Atwood introduces us only gradually to the full extent of the horror in which Offred and other women live in the Republic of Gilead. Though Atwood based much of her story on elements of the Puritan religion that once held sway in Cambridge, Massachusetts, where the novel is set, there is a greater resemblance between the sect that governs Gilead and both ISIS and Boko Haram. In all three societies, women have been reduced to the status of chattel, viewed as vessels for bearing children.

Offred is “a refugee from the past.” As she reflects, “We are two-legged wombs, that’s all: sacred vessels, ambulatory chalices.” Aunt Lydia, one of the taser-bearing older women who indoctrinate younger women like Offred, justifies this state of affairs with allusions to the prevalence of rape and pornography before Gilead was founded: “‘There is more than one kind of freedom,'” she asserts. “‘Freedom to and freedom from. In the days of anarchy, it was freedom to. Now you are being given freedom from. Don’t underrate it.'” Offred’s response to this logic typifies that of other women: “We lived, as usual, by ignoring. Ignoring isn’t the same as ignorance, you have to work at it.”

In her New York Times Book Review essay, Atwood poses, and answers, three questions. Is The Handmaid’s Tale a feminist novel? The author’s response suggests that depends on what’s meant by “feminism.” Second, is the novel antireligious? Atwood at length says no. “It is against the use of religion for tyranny, which is a different thing altogether.” Finally, third, is The Handmaid’s Tale meant to be predictive? “No,” the author explains, “it isn’t a prediction, because predicting the future isn’t really possible: There are too many variables and unforeseen possibilities.” To that I say Amen.

Those commentators who liken the Trump Administration to the Fascism of Benito Mussolini, much less to Hitler’s Nazi Germany, are far off base. Whatever might come of the would-be dictatorship aborning in Washington, DC, today will be unlike anything that has come before. I’m sure Margaret Atwood would agree. In concluding her New York Times Book Review essay, she writes: “In the wake of the recent American election, fears and anxieties proliferate. Basic civil liberties are seen as endangered, along with many of the rights for women won over the past decades, and indeed the past centuries. In this divisive climate, in which hate for many groups seems on the rise and scorn for democratic institutions is being expressed by extremists of all stripes, it is a certainty that someone, somewhere—many, I would guess—are writing down what is happening as they themselves are experiencing it. Or they will remember, and record later, if they can [as did Offred in The Handmaid’s Tale]. Will their messages be suppressed and hidden? Will they be found, centuries later, in an old house, behind a wall? Let us hope it doesn’t come to that. I trust it will not.”

For other important dystopian novels, see my post, A brief look at 15 notable dystopian scenarios.

Forced sterilization, fascists, and serial murder—in Denmark

Forced sterilizationThe Purity of Vengeance (Department Q #4) by Jussi Adler-Olsen

@@@@ (4 out of 5)

Many Americans harbor an image of Denmark as one of the most progressive and livable countries in the world. That may well be the case—the country’s rankings on global indexes support it—but you might well gain a different impression of Denmark if you read the crime thrillers written by Jussi Adler-Olsen. The (s0 far) seven novels in his Department Q series introduce readers to Denmark’s underclass, the struggles of its immigrant population, its ruthless anti-immigrant right wing, and violent crime much like what plagues every other wealthy country. The Purity of Vengeance, the fourth in Adler-Olsen’s series, revolves around the country’s shameful history of forced sterilization and the fascists who promoted it for many decades.

Three brilliant misfits

Department Q, the cold case unit of the Copenhagen Police, is staffed by three brilliant misfits. Detective Carl Mørck is still wrestling with guilt and pain two years after one of his partners was killed and the other paralyzed from the neck down in a shootout he thought he should have prevented. He is a disagreeable sort, disliked by most of his colleagues. Carl’s assistant, Asaad, is a physically imposing Syrian immigrant with a mysterious past and a tendency to violence. Rose, the unit’s “secretary,” is a bossy schizophrenic with awesome research skills. She has little respect for Carl and regularly shows it. These three mismatched people hold forth from former storage closets in the basement of Copenhagen Police HQ. This is the motley team that initiates an investigation into the simultaneous disappearance of four seemingly unconnected people in 1987 in The Purity of Vengeance.

Two parallel plotlines

While Department Q begins its slow inquiry into the curious case of the disappearing Danes, a new fascist organization called the Purity Party is readying itself for the upcoming elections, when it hopes to gain seats for the first time. The party’s autocratic leader is an 87-year-old physician named Curt Wad. He’s a fertility doctor who is widely rumored to have performed a great many abortions over the years, most of them unauthorized. Wad is a clever and articulate spokesperson for the party and is steadily gaining adherents through frequent television and radio interviews.

No reader of crime fiction will be surprised to learn that these two plotlines—the 25-year-old disappearances and the rise of the fascist party—will eventually intersect. However, there is a great deal of action along the way, and lots of surprises. Adler-Olsen has written a top-flight thriller, with palpable suspense until the very end.

Forced sterilization in Denmark’s recent history

As The Economist explained in a 1997 article entitled “Here, of all places,” Nazi Germany was not the only place where dark-skinned and mentally or physically disabled people were classified as inferior and sometimes forcibly sterilized. “All four main Nordic countries—Denmark, Finland, Norway and Sweden—brought in eugenics laws in the 1930s. More remarkably, some of those laws stayed on the statute books until the mid-1970s, though apparently they were not latterly used very often.” About 11,000 Danish women were forcibly sterilized under such laws between 1929 and 1967. The plot in The Purity of Vengeance rests on this disgraceful history.

Go to Jussi-Adler Olsen’s Department Q thrillers for links to my reviews of the whole series. You might also enjoy my post 48 excellent mystery and thriller series.

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