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February 1, 2016 BOOKLIST
Find more A Hard-Boiled Gazetteer to World War II
In the last 10 to 15 years, we have seen a remarkable resurgence in mystery and espionage fiction set prior to and during WWII. Not that there haven’t been novels and mainstream movies about the war from 1945 onward, but there is something different about this latest flowering. Like the war melodramas of the 1950s, the work of such writers as Alan Furst and Philip Kerr draws on the familiar images of trench-coated intrigue and whining Gestapo sirens, but their heroes are not the noble idealists portrayed by, say, Robert Taylor or Gregory Peck in the first wave of war movies. What Furst and others have done is to water down their heroes’ DNA with healthy doses of cynicism and ambiguity. In Furst’s WWII books and in those by Kerr, Joseph Kanon, John Lawton, Jonathan Rabb, and many others, we see heroes whose commitment is to individual rather than national values, even to hedonism rather than patriotism, yet who are pulled into the conflict anyway. These men and women take tremendous risks, even act heroically, but they do it with a kind of tired resignation, as if an undertow were pulling them down. That’s not to say they aren’t romantic—you can’t light a cigarette on a dark Paris street in 1938 without being romantic—but they are also utterly unsentimental. That is what makes the new wave of wartime thrillers noteworthy: they portray what is perhaps the twentieth century’s most terrifying yet perversely romantic period without letting the romance turn the terror into sentimental goo.
Furst’s best books tend to be set in France—both before the war and during the occupation—and there are many fine crime novels set in London during the Blitz. But by far the most popular location of WWII thrillers over the last 10 years has been Germany itself. Nazi noir, as these books have come to be called, may take place in the early 1930s, during the last hurrah of the Weimar Republic, when Cabaret-style decadence made merry to the backbeat of high-kicking storm troopers, or it may be set in wartime Berlin, when Armageddon seemed only one more round of bombs away. Either way, what gives Nazi noir its flavor is the juxtaposition of individual lives against totalitarian terror. Hard-boiled literature has always flourished in repressive climes, where the cynicism of the heroes has a perfect foil. So it is in Nazi Germany, though the effect is intensified dramatically. It’s one thing for Philip Marlowe to crack wise in the presence of tough cop; it’s another thing altogether for Bernie Gunther to do the same in front Hermann Goring.
Representative title: Rag and Bone. 2010. Soho, $25 (9781569478493).
Billy Boyle, special investigator with General Eisenhower’s staff, is assigned to find the murderer of a Russian security officer in London during the buildup to D-Day. Benn shrewdly combines the political cat-and-mouse game with the murder investigation, offering a fascinating glimpse of the wartime intelligence world (Allies spying on Allies) and how it laid the groundwork for the Cold War.
Deadly Embrace. By Robert J. Mrazek. 2006. Penguin, $13 (9780143038375).
Mrazek follows in the footsteps of Ken Follett to offer yet another scenario of how the Nazis might have set about learning the wheres and whens of the D-Day invasion. In fact, the D-Day aspect of the plot is a little flimsy, but along the way to a melodramatic finale, Mrazek delivers an atmospheric rendering of London life in 1944, complete with air raids, ration coupons, genteel poverty, and ubiquitous fog.
Double Cross Blind. By Joel Ross. 2005. Anchor, $6.99 (9781400078813).
This debut thriller plays the what-might-have-happened game, too, but it goes a different way. The setting, as with Follett and Mrazek, is wartime London, but the scenario, as with Martin Cruz Smith’s December 6, concerns Pearl Harbor. An American soldier in London in 1941 must match wits with a German spy who may know something about an imminent Japanese attack. Ross’ grasp of the political dynamics behind Pearl Harbor gives his novel an extra dimension.
Eye of the Needle.
By Ken Follett. 1978. Harper, $13.99 (9780060748159).
Follett can be a clunky writer, but he was hitting on all cylinders in this classic thriller about a German spy, Henry Faber, who has learned the truth about D-Day—that the landings will take place in Normandy—and needs only to communicate his knowledge to the German High Command. Ah, but there was no e-mail in 1944, and Faber must kill his way across England and Scotland, mainly using his trusty stiletto (hence, his nickname, “the Needle”) to make a rendezvous with a submarine in the North Sea. Only a lonely, repressed woman stands in his way.
Representative title:Second Violin.2008. Atlantic Monthly, $24 (9780871139917).
This sixth entry in Lawton’s series starring London copper Troy begins with the German takeover of Austria in 1938 and extends through the Blitz. There is a mystery to be solved here—the murders of several East End rabbis—but it takes a backseat to the broader historical material, including the stories of several Viennese Jews and of Troy’s brother’s experience in a British internment camp, where he plays second violin in the camp’s orchestra. The plot strands aren’t connected all that elegantly, but taken together, they form a rich tapestry of the early war years in Britain.
Representative title: Without Conscience. 2008. Minotaur/Thomas Dunne, $23.95 (9780312382100).
The second Johnny Hawke novel, starring a private investigator in WWII London, again draws effectively on the Blitz-torn atmosphere of the city under blackout, “where everything is reduced to a dim silhouette or a vague shadow.” This time Hawke, who lost an eye in a training accident and was mustered out of the army, gets involved in a murder case that takes him into the demimonde of transvestite society and may have implications for national security.
Representative title: No Human Enemy. 2008. Minotaur/Thomas Dunne, $24.95 (9780312376703).
This fifth in Gardner’s projected six-volume series deals with life in London shortly after D-Day. The tide may be turning in the war, but you wouldn’t know it from the V-1 rockets raining down on London. Reserve Squad member Suzie Mountford and her boss (and lover) Tommy Livermore are called in when a church destroyed by a rocket unearths a previously murdered body. Gardner is no Alan Furst when it comes to the interplay of mood and meaning, but he knows the wartime era and capably reconstructs it, especially the despair Londoners felt when the V-1s sent them back to the cellars yet again.
Representative title: Dollmaker. 2002. Soho, $12 (9781569473467).
Janes’ excellent series takes the idea of hardworking cops solving crimes while war rages to another level by placing the action in Nazi-occupied Paris and creating the ultimate odd-couple sleuthing pair: Jean-Louis St-Cyr of the French Surete and Herman Kohler of the Gestapo. This installment, set in 1943, concerns the murder of a U-boat captain, but—as is true throughout the series—it’s the premise and the unusual relationship between the heroes that hold our interest.
Representative title: Red Gold. 1999. Random, $15 (9780375758591).
It’s 1941, and movie director Jean Casson (from The World at Night) is back in Paris, on the run from the Gestapo and trying to stay alive without attracting attention. What makes Casson so appealing, and this novel so entertaining, is the way Furst refuses to let his hero off the hook; here’s a Resistance fighter whose cynical antiheroism doesn’t evaporate in the last reel. Casson fights out of weary pragmatism, and he dreams mainly of a good meal and a decent glass of wine. What more could you ask of WWII espionage: all the romance, all the drama, but none of the mushy idealism.
Representative title: The Pale Criminal. 1990. Penguin, $4.95 (9780140153934).
Kerr’s Bernie Gunther series moves from three prewar novels, of which this is the second, through several more tales that begin in the postwar era and then flash back to events either in Weimar Berlin or during the war itself. This one is set in 1938, with the German citizenry awaiting the results of Hitler’s Munich Conference with Neville Chamberlain. Meanwhile, Chandlerian PI Gunther, cynical to the bone and unabashedly anti-Nazi, tracks a serial killer. Kerr offers a believable vision of how ordinary Germans tried to write off Hitler and his cohorts as just another gang of stupid politicians.
Garden of Beasts: A Novel of Berlin 1936. By Jeffrey Deaver. 2004. Pocket, $7.99 (9780743437820).
Deaver’s thriller is set against the 1936 Berlin Olympics, scene of Jesse Owens’ triumph. The focus here, though, is a German-born hit man for the American Mob who agrees to avoid prison by traveling to Berlin to assassinate a key member of the Third Reich. Deaver isn’t known for historical fiction, but he takes the genre in stride, delivering his signature sense of story and startling plot twists.
The Good German. By Joseph Kanon. 2001. Picador, $14 (9780312426088).
Kanon is a master at surrounding a legendary historical moment with a labyrinthine thriller plot and an involving love story. Here that historical moment—Berlin at its most postapocalyptic—drives both the thriller, which involves American and Russian attempts to snatch German rocket scientists, and the love story, which must rise phoenixlike from the rubble of bombed-out buildings and ruined lives. Kanon hits every note just right, from the wide-angle descriptions of Berlin’s pockmarked moonscape to the tellingly detailed portraits of the city’s shell-shocked survivors.
Representative title: A Trace of Smoke. 2009. Forge, $24.95 (9780765320445).
It’s 1931 in Berlin, and Weimar decadence is in full flower, though the Nazis are gaining ground. Hannah Vogel is a crime reporter attempting to investigate her brother’s murder, even though it requires her to penetrate the inner sanctum of the brownshirts. Cantrell nails both the life-is-a-cabaret atmosphere and the desperation lurking inside the champagne bubbles.
The Informer. By Craig Nova. 2010. Crown/Shaye Areheart, $26 (9780307236937).
Nova’s take on Nazi noir goes back to 1930, with Germany slipping further into the muck of Weimar decadence while a repressive alternative clicks its heels in the background. The focus is on two women: a cop trying to find a serial killer and a prostitute whose deformity possesses erotic appeal for the city’s sensation-craving denizens. An entrancing mood piece in which an effective flash-forward takes us to 1945 and contrasts forced Weimar gaiety with post-Armageddon rubble.
Representative title: Potsdam Station. 2011. Soho, $25 (9781569479179).
It’s April 1945, seven years after American journalist John Russell was forced to leave his family behind in Berlin to escape the Nazis. He is now in Russia, tying to talk his way back into Germany with the advancing Red Army. The fate of Russell and his family drives the narrative, but it’s Downing’s nightmare vision of the horrors of the Russian attack on Berlin that holds the reader. As Russell’s wife puts it, “There were too many ways to be killed and too many hours in the day.”
The Katyn Order. By Douglas W. Jacobson. 2011. McBooks, $24.95 (9781590135723).
The war is winding down but not in Warsaw, where Resistance fighters have staged the doomed Warsaw Uprising. Set against street-to-street combat, two Polish loyalists, one an American, search for the Katyn Order, proof that Soviets authorized the murder of 20,000 Poles in 1940. Fascinating if appalling history material combines with razor-sharp combat scenes and a moving romance.
The Second Objective. By Mark Frost. 2007. Hyperion, $7.99 (9780786891221).
Frost bases this fascinating thriller on declassified documents relating to Operation Greif, a Nazi scheme to send English-speaking Germans, dressed as American GIs, behind the lines in the days prior to the Battle of the Bulge. But there was a “second objective”: send a smaller group of commandos, including an American-born German, to France to assassinate Eisenhower. Frost builds his characters beautifully and, like Follett, somehow manages to generate incredible suspense in the face of historical fact.
Representative title:Shadow and Light. 2009. Farrar/Sarah Crichton, $26 (9780374261948).
In 1927, Chief Inspector Nikolai Hoffner of Berlin is caught up in a two-pronged case: the theft of a new device to synchronize sound and action on film and the brownshirt plan to rearm Germany. There’s plenty of Weimar decadence on view here, but it’s the fascinating slice of film history overlaid with a sense of the gathering storm that gives the novel its punch. That and Hoffner himself, a noir hero in every way, from his unquenchable thirst for potables to the inevitability with which he finds himself caught in the riptide of history.
The Sleepwalkers. By Paul Grossman. 2010. St. Martin’s, $24.99 (9780312601904).
Like Philip Kerr’s Bernie Gunther, Grossman’s Willi Krauss is a hard-boiled police detective in 1930s Berlin, but unlike Gunther, Krauss is a Jew and would surely lose his job had he not solved the infamous Child Eater case. Now he’s landed another headline grabber, but the closer Willi comes to cracking the case—several women who have gone missing seem connected to a celebrity hypnotist—the closer he also comes to wearing out his tenuous welcome with the Nazis.
Representative title: Carte Blanche. 2006. Europa, $14.95 (9781933372150).
Near the end of the war, Milan is in chaos, with the south liberated by the Allies and the north under the control of the Nazis and a collaborationist government run by Mussolini. Commisario De Luca, caught between the various factions, is trying to solve the murder of a local power broker. The plot is tangled, but the appeal here is mood: the darkened city streets, teeming with danger; the trench-coated hero, dodging from shadow to shadow, hoping to get to the bottom of the problem in front of him but, contrarily, trying to stay off everybody’s radar.
Spies of the Balkans. By Alan Furst. 2010. Random, $26 (9781400066032).
In addition to his Parisian WWII novels, Furst has set two books in the Balkans, where spies gather from across Europe to sip espresso and trade innuendos. Here, in the late 1930s in a northern Greek port city, the plotting concerns when Germany will invade the Balkans and then Greece. Costas Zannis, a Greek policeman, is drawn into the intrigue, but his real goal is to find a safe port for himself and his lover. Furst brings into high relief that moment when the most cynical individualists realize that even they stand to be trapped in the coming crossfire.
The Information Officer. By Mark Mills. 2010. Random, $25 (9781400068180).
The German siege of Malta, a lesser-known WWII campaign, provides the fascinating backdrop for this appealing mix of war novel, mystery, and love story. As the bombs rain down, British “information officer” Max Chadwick faces a dilemma: Should he cover up the fact that a serial killer who preys on exotic dancers may be a navy man? Mills makes excellent use of his historical material, but he’s also a fine stylist, and he brings a remarkable degree of eloquence and emotional depth to his story.
Japan and the Pacific
December 6. By Martin Cruz Smith. 2002. Pocket, $15 (9781416577751).
What was Tokyo like on the day before the day that shall live in infamy? Ask Harry Niles, a nightclub owner in Tokyo’s Asakuza district, where West and East meet in the pursuit of pleasure. Considered “too Japanese” by his fellow Westerners and a spy by the Japanese, Harry has a plan to trick the Imperial Navy into not attacking the U.S. His goal isn’t to save the world for democracy but, rather, to save his own brand of multicultural hedonism in a place he loves. A remarkable evocation of place.
Red Sky in Morning. By Patrick Culhane. 2008. Morrow, $24.95 (9780060892555).
Culhane is a pseudonym for genre renaissance man Max Allan Collins. Drawing on the war experiences of his father, he spins an old-fashioned navy drama in the mold of The Caine Mutiny. Ensign Peter Maxwell is a junior officer on board a munitions ship en route to the South Pacific when he finds himself forced to solve a murder in order to quell a mutiny. Shipboard melodrama, WWII action, and solid amateur sleuthing meld into an infectiously readable adventure.
The Devil Himself. By Eric Dezenhall. 2011. St. Martin’s/Thomas Dunne, $25.99 (9780312668822).
Meyer Lansky, dying in Florida in 1982, agrees to talk with White House intern Jonah Eastman, grandson of one of Lansky’s Mob associates back in the day. Eastman has been charged with getting the real story from Lansky about the Mob’s participation in tracking Nazi spies in New York during WWII. The novel works because of the richness of the historical material and the charismatic characterization of Lansky. “Kvetching toward oblivion,” he tells his story to young Jonah from the cynical perspective of a man who has learned that governments are far less trustworthy than gangsters. Entertaining home-front espionage.
Los Alamos. By Joseph Kanon. 1997. Island, $7.99 (9780440224075).
The Manhattan Project lives on in the American imagination more than 65 years after Robert Oppenheimer and his band of scientists exploded the first atomic bomb on a patch of New Mexico desert they called Trinity. In a perfect mix of spy novel and love story, Kanon interweaves period detail with a superbly constructed plot concerning the murder of one of the project’s security officers. It’s easy to forget that the Manhattan Project was, above all, part of the war effort, but Kanon captures that historical moment with palpable ambience.
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