Stern Men, by Elizabeth Gilbert

This 2000 work is a remarkable first novel that I have heard little about. It recreates the life of lobstermen on two rival islands off the coast of Maine. It is particularly notable for its casual, underwritten style. And is further notable for breaking a traditional rule of fiction—show, don’t tell. For the novel begins by describing the history of the two islands, Fort Niles and Courne Haven, then the history of their local lobster industry, including life on the lobster boats, and continues by introducing the rivalry among families of the two islands. This creates the novel’s initial tension, as the lobstermen on Fort Niles are more independent, while those on Courne Haven are more collaborative.

The novel first introduces Mary Thomas, the mother of the novel’s main character, Ruth Thomas. Mary was “adopted” by the wealthy Ellis family on Fort Niles to serve as an aide to one of their daughters. But after Mary marries and has Ruth, she leaves the island and never returns. Ruth, who does not know why her mother has vanished, is taken in by the neighboring Pommeroys. But it is then decided that this girl be exposed “to something other than lobster fishermen, alcoholism, ignorance, and cold weather.” And so Ruth is sent away, against her will, to a private high school in Delaware with support from the Ellis family. Upon returning, however, as a determined and smart young woman, she insists that Fort Niles is her true home. And as she tells Mrs. Pommeroy, she will refuse to discuss with Mr. Lanford Ellis anything further about her future, because from now on, “I’m not going to do a single thing with my life that the Ellises want me to do. That’s my plan.”

She says this because she senses her life being overseen by the wealthy patriarch of Fort Niles, the elderly Mr. Ellis, who resides on the island only during the summer months. And she is not comfortable with her life being controlled by someone else. But what is she to do? She tries to ignore the possibility of becoming one of the stern men of the title, those uneducated youth of both islands who are able to earn a living only by the backbreaking work of dumping empty lobster traps into the ocean and then pulling them out weighted down with lobsters. (Stern in the title also suggests the attitude that these young island men need to survive their rough life, as well as deal, along with their captain, with the rival lobster boats from the other island.)

Nothing dramatic happens, however, among these lobster families to draw the reader into this book. What does so is the simple conversations that reveal their complex relationships. As a review in Mirabella says, “the novel is Emersonian in its clarity and Austenian in its sly social observations.”

So what does draw the reader on is the humanity of these islanders, and the relationships that develop even within their frequent rivalries. Plus, the author’s unobtrusive style. As a result, it is like dropping in on various colorful Maine characters, such as Ruth’s taciturn and rigid father Stan, called Greedy Number Two for the intensity of his lobster hauling; Angus Adams, her father’s crusty pal, called Greedy Number One; Simon Adams, called the Senator, who fears the ocean but wishes to establish a local museum of natural history; Rhonda Pommeroy, a widow and amateur beautician who takes in Ruth and is her best pal; and a persistent Cal Cooley, a toady to Mr. Ellis.

And so, it is the casual relationships among these interesting characters that draw the reader on. For example, it begins with the lobstermen of the two islands. The tension mounts when some drop their lobster traps into an area claimed by a lobsterman from the other island. After which the rivalries become personal.

Along with the wit of both the author and Ruth as they deal with these rivalries., our main curiosity is about whether this young woman will find her true vocation, and whether it will be on the island—or elsewhere, as Mr. Ellis seems to encourage. We have hopes for her, however, when she declares at one point, “Watch me! Watch me, world! Look out, baby!” She surely seems capable, if only she finds herself.

But the author introduces another level of reality, along with the mulishness of these Maine residents; and it is through her dialogue. For both men and women use scatological and irreverent exclamations that emphasize their homey, down-to-earth attitude, an attitude that reflects little value being given to education. Such as that which Ruth has received, with the aid of Mr. Ellis.

Moreover, the author also observes her characters, as I said, with a certain wit, and this helps to keep the reader at a distance. Which is not unlike how Ruth’s witty conversation often helps her to control her dealings with her flighty father, the supporting Mrs. Pomeroy, the persistent Cal Cooley, the imposing and elderly Lanford Ellis, and her rediscovered mother, as well as with the stubborn Senator Adams, the persistent and haughty pastor Toby Wishnell, and with his nephew Owney, in whom she sees the possibility of love—and another reason to remain on the island of Fort Niles.

Finally, in a strange Epilogue, Ruth achieves her dreams. I call it strange, because we do not follow her life as she achieves personal fulfillment. Presumably, the author feels she has already established the characteristics of Ruth that make this possible. And as a bonus, there is even a small surprise for the reader when Ruth agrees at last to meet the domineering Mr. Ellis to discuss not just the future, but their future.

Gilbert presents here the complexities of a simple life, and the fragility of depending on a single occupation. And fills these two islands with colorful characters whose narrow view of life limits them. Except, it does not limit Ruth, who is both smart and feisty. In fact, we see her as the hope of a new generation. And at the end of the novel, many islanders seem to realize this as well.

While the subject of Gilbert’s Eat, Pray, Love never drew me to that well-known work, I thoroughly enjoyed The Signature of All Things, and this first novel now makes me still more interested in Gilbert’s fiction. (August, 2019)

The Force, by Don Winslow

I have never read a novel quite like this 2017 work. A police novel so vivid, so cynical, so hard-boiled, so honest, and so brutal. The Force is the Manhattan North Special Task Force, part of the New York City Police Department, which means it covers Upper Manhattan including Harlem. The story centers on Sergeant Denny Malone, a decorated 18-year veteran, a tough Irishman who rules his domain like a king. A king with an iron fist.

“The people,” he says, “don’t know what it takes sometimes to keep them safe and it’s better that they don’t. They may think they want to know, they may say they want to know, but they don’t.”

This is the story of why they don’t.

We meet Denny on the first page as he is locked up by the Feds. The novel then becomes the story of how this honest, idealistic cop became a dirty cop. How he became dirty as a result of the race war, the turf war, and the drug war, between the blacks and the Dominicans of Harlem. How he kept the peace among those gangs by looking the other way at times, accepting money from them at times, and in one case convincing himself it made sense to steal millions of dollars in confiscated heroin. He justified it by calling it financial security for his three-man team in case their corruption was discovered; otherwise, it would disappear into the system, including into the pockets of people they reported to.

We also meet the other two members of his team, Phil Russo, who is Italian, and Bill Montague, who is big and is black. The three love each other, believe in each other, and back each other up. There is no racial or ethnic element here. They regard one another as true brothers.

The first half of this novel sets up their own relationship, an often difficult relationship with their superiors, and the dangers policemen confront when dealing with violent gangs who are dueling for control of the Force’s territory. This section is a powerful portrait of police work. It does not advance the story, but deepens the roles of both the policemen and the gangs. It especially shows how, step by step, arrogant policemen like Malone, Russo and Big Monty can become corrupt.

Once Denny has been arrested, we learn how the wheels of justice work. He is pressured to betray everyone he has dealt with, beginning with insignificant street people, but also extending to both gang leaders with whom he has kept the peace and to other policemen who have been corrupted by the system. He is especially pressured to betray his partners, Russo and Montague—a betrayal that at first he refuses to make. But more pressure is put on him, threatening his family. Making him realize that if he gives in to that will hate himself. And at this point, a moral level is introduced. Leaving the reader to see both the good and the evil in this trio of men. And perhaps in all policemen. Which realization brings home the toughness of their job. And which appears to be a major point of this novel.

Once this point is reached, however, Winslow’s ending for his novel becomes less convincing. For Denny is told that a tape exists of a cop shooting a black man in the back, and if this is released, there will be a citywide revolt. And since he knows the drug lord who has the tape, he is told that if he obtains it, he will allowed back on the Force. But if he fails, public riots will spread across the city. And then to other cities. But is it really believable that Denny’s bosses will give him the responsibility to resolve this far greater problem? For civic leaders to ask this arrogant cop to save their city from destruction? To become a hero again? This seems to me to be too big a role for one man, even for this policeman we have identified with.

And, yes, he does achieve a kind of peace. But it is at a high cost. In the novel’s terms, he is allowed to vent too much. And in his own terms, he unexpectedly turns on his superiors, and then risks all to get revenge on the last rival drug lord. Whereupon, despairing of his own future, with justice hovering behind him at every turn, the author gives him an easy out that is too much for me. It is just too neat. It provides an ending to his story, but it is more an ending achieved by the author than one achieved by Denny himself.

But despite such a major caveat, this is a powerful novel. What gives it its richness and its depth is its awareness of morality and of justice. Not simply whether the end justifies the means. It also asks: as a representative of justice, being a policeman, should I be doing what I am doing? Am I allowed to administer justice, such as shoot evil people? Such as take their bribes? Such as steal their goods? And this comes home to roost when Denny is asked to go against the policeman’s code and betray his fellow officers. This is when he finally touches the guilt that his conscience has allowed him to ignore—the appeal to betray his brothers in arms.

Another richness not to be ignored is the smart dialogue that establishes the relationships among the different levels of policemen, as well as their relationships with the different level of gangsters. These policemen also deal frankly with their own conflicting interests. They even convert an innocent Jewish rookie like Dave Levin to their illicit and immoral ways. But most of all, this trio of detectives commit to each other. Until they are tempted not to. By weighing their family’s freedom against that of their partners.

What makes this novel stand out is the tension among the policemen, and with their superiors, the street people, and the gangs. As Janet Maslin says in her New York Times review: “[Winslow] paints a realistic tableau of police privilege, pragmatism, racial bluntness, street smarts, love of partners, and loyalty to what they call the Job.” She also writes: “Cops, gangsters, drug dealers, high-end madams: They all turn out to be in business together.”

This novel certainly prompts me to seek out more Don Winslow novels. From warlords to drug lords to society’s victims, he has captured elsewhere the underside of American society and earned many literary laurels. How have I missed reading his work until now? Was it because I associated the author’s name with that naval hero, back in the day, of comic strips, radio serials and, movies? (August, 2019)

Midnight in Europe, by Alan Furst

This 2014 novel is a fast read, and a highly polished and professional work of espionage. But it has little depth, No, for example, moral issues. Or psychological issues. And no real danger confronts its hero, Christian Ferrar, a Spanish exile who is a lawyer at a distinguished French law firm in Paris.

What this novel does achieve is an effective portrait of pre-war Europe. This is a strong point of most of Furst’s novels, and here he focuses on the Spanish Republic’s efforts to obtain anti-tank canon and artillery shells for use against the more powerful armaments employed by the forces of Francisco Franco in the Spanish Civil War.

Ferrar’s two assignments are finding the canon and the specific shells that fit the Republic’s older weapons, and then arranging their delivery to the Republican forces in Spain. Which involves fast-moving but routine events, requiring Ferrar and his colleagues to ferret out the armaments from Eastern and Central Europe. Which also means he must deal with idealists and gangsters, and with arms traders and aristocrats, plus Max de Lyon, a mysterious arms merchant. Encounters with them also capture the 1930’s atmosphere, as they range from shady Paris nightclubs to the city’s plush apartments, as well as from a brothel in Istanbul to a dockyard in Poland,

But one of the novel’s problems is that there is little linkage among these events; they simply present hurdles to be overcome. That is, there is no building of suspense, no solving of one problem that leads to the next. Nor are there serious villains who offer threats to Ferrar’s two missions. The only problems are getting control of the armaments and making the delivery.

But, of course, such missions turn out to be not that simple. In one case, the team loses control of the cannon shipment and must take over a train in Poland to deliver it. In another, the shells are found in Russia, but Stalin’s policy refuses to sell the shells to his supposed allies, the leftists in Spain. And so, after the shells are found, they must be stolen, hidden on an ancient steamer, and then transported across the Black Sea and the Mediterranean. This sequence builds high drama as the novel draws to a close.

There are personal detours, of course, to flesh out Ferrar’s character and pique our interest. For example, he is a ladies man, and has at least three affairs during the course of his undercover work. He also has other responsibilities at his French law firm that fill out his life as a lawyer, but do not impact the search for armaments. At other intervals, Furst captures the atmosphere of European life, where people know that war is approaching but are not sure when and where. Still further atmosphere is created on a Paris-Berlin express train at night, on hectic car rides in Paris and Poland, and the climactic voyage through a storm and outrunning a patrol boat.

When in mood for a fast-paced thriller, another tale by Furst would be welcome. But despite the atmosphere, these works are not literature, and they lack the psychological probing and moral complexity that is a trademark of the best espionage novels. (July, 2019)

Nostalgia, by Dennis McFarland

This beautiful 2013 novel about the horrors of the American Civil War should be on the shelves of every reader who is interested in serious literature about that conflict. McFarland offers here the story of Summerfield Hayes, a well-off youth who has just lost his parents and who abandons his only sister, beloved Sarah, to enlist in the Northern army. He says it is his only course if he is to serve the nation he loves. What he does not tell her is that he is also troubled by “the wrong kind of dreams” about her.

And war, of course, brings its own kind of dreams, surrealistic dreams of confusion and exaggeration, and disturbing dreams of terror and pain. And private Hayes will discover this during his first battle, the three-day Wilderness campaign of 1864 in which both armies endure major losses but in which the North begins its final victorious drive into Virginia.

But if reality is distorted by war, the structure of the novel reflects an equivalent distortion. We are introduced to Hayes on the battlefield, bleeding, dirty, and hungry, and with no sense of time or where he is. And feeling abandoned by his colleagues, his mind escapes into his past. He recalls early baseball exploits and then relives his life in the Brooklyn home he now shares with his bossy and sensible sister. After which, he recalls his fellow soldiers before the battle, and then refocuses on his struggle to flee the battlefield.

At this point, the reader is as lost as Hayes is. Where is this novel headed? Especially when we suddenly shift to a field hospital, where Hayes joins many new characters and where he is so traumatized, by an experience that we have not fully witnessed, that he cannot speak. But as his hospital life becomes both tender and vivid, the reader feels the beginnings of solid earth under his feet. Which becomes even more solid when his memories return to the battlefield and he again confronts the confusion of fog and smoke and noise, the moaning wounded, and the still images of death littering the ground. Then he is truly overwhelmed by trauma when a shell burst renders him senseless—just as he kills a horribly wounded colleague who is begging to die—and he discovers he cannot talk.

Indeed, the title, Nostalgia, suggests such trauma, which we now call the PTS syndrome but which back then made its victims candidates for an asylum. The title also, however, has another meaning in this novel. An unspoken meaning. For the word’s Greek roots are a blend of “return home” and “pain.”

It is when we move back and forth between Hayes alone on the surrealistic battlefield and silent in his hospital bed that the power of this novel truly blooms. In sharp contrast are, first, the loneliness and desperation of Hayes in the field, and, second, the humanity of the patients, doctors, and wardens in the hospital, some of them cruel but most sympathetic to his internal suffering. Most sympathetic of all is a mysterious, bearded man called Walt.

The Wilderness Battle cost up to 30,000 lives on the two sides, and one senses the brutality of that three-day battle as Hayes reels lost and alone through smoke-filled fields and beneath burning trees. Separated from his regiment, he fears being called a deserter and shot. But all he encounters is men with bloody limbs, men crying out in pain, and men firing blindly at an unseen enemy. He even hallucinates an entire field of dead men rising up and charging the enemy breastworks that confront them.

But literary work is based on human interaction, and if one follows McFarland reluctantly away from the battlefront, one soon becomes immersed in the hospital scenes. Men lie there, still crying out in pain, demanding morphine for amputated limbs, with some doctors sympathetic but one suspicious of Hayes because he has no visible wounds. This is when Walt comes to Hayes’ aid. “You’ve been badly harmed….But I think you’re hurt is a particular way. You strike me in your silence as someone who [awakened] from a terrible dream, then looked down and saw the scar it had left on you…I mean to be your friend…to set you straight when you’re selling yourself short.” Indeed, Walt will later penetrate Hayes’ silence and get him to speak.

With help from Walt and a sympathetic doctor, Hayes is released from the hospital and allowed to return home in order to recuperate. Nostalgia in part, remember, means return home. At first, I was reluctant to follow him there, for I felt the final meaning of the novel was to be found near or on the battlefield. But no, this is to be a novel about the release from pain. Of which there are different kinds.

Then Hayes and his sister Sarah confront their own feelings (nostalgia also means pain), and why Hayes went off to war. Whereupon, Walt arrives again, and helps Sarah to understand her brother. He talked, she says, “about the curative effects of love. He said love’s like truth, that no matter what form it takes, not matter how haplessly it’s expressed, one must try to see to the heart of it, and forgive any of the ugly bits.” And just as he once talked of people “ having more than one side” when talking about a nation split over state’s rights and slavery, Walt means this double vision to apply to human feelings as well. All of which culminates in a beautiful scene at a ballpark that brought tears to my eyes, as Hayes finds a new fulfillment and the personal peace that war had tried to destroy.

This novel has brought unexpected subject matter to the McFarland canon. He is an author I have long admired, especially for his explorations of family tensions. He does so again here, but it is hidden in much more dramatic subject matter. And one can easily miss that aspect of Hayes and his sister’s relationship. Instead, one is swept up by this 19th century tale of warfare and its repercussions, a tale that is vividly told. In fact, as David Goodwillie wrote in The New York Times, “McFarland’s description of 19th century life, from the intricacies of musket warfare to the formative years of our national pastime, are stunning in their lyricism and detail.” He concludes: “Nostalgia is a perfect Civil War novel for our time, or any time.”

Amen. This novel equates national tension with family tension. And the resolution to both is found in our humanity. In our love. (July, 2019)

The Miracle, by John L’Heureux

Father Paul LeBlanc is handsome and charismatic, but also troubled. Not because he questions the war in Vietnam, papal infallibility, and the primacy of individual conscience, all of which puts him in conflict with the Boston hierarchy. Rather, it is because he cannot commit himself to his vocation, nor establish a true relationship with the God he serves. And so as this 2002 novel begins, he is transferred to a small church on the New Hampshire coast; and, forced to admit his troubled vocation, he appeals to God. Since he cannot find himself to love others, including God, he prays that God will love him—and says he will do anything in return if God will only do so.

And then, the housekeeper at his new rectory, Rose, sees her daughter Mandy die of an overdose. But, refusing to accept her daughter’s death, she prays for her to survive. In fact, the church’s dying pastor, Father Moriarty, sees her alive in a dream. And she does survive. Which intrigues Father Paul. What did Rose do? Is it a miracle? He wants to deny it, but cannot. And he decides it isn’t the miracle he needs to understand; it’s Rose.

L’Heureux has more on his mind here than if there was a miracle. He explores what this presumed miracle means to others. Father Paul, especially, needs to know how Rose revived her daughter. What capability for miracles does Rose have within her? And his fascination with Rose turns this novel toward the bond between human love and divine love. And about the doubts his new attraction to Rose raises in his faith and in his worthiness as a priest.

Meanwhile, a parishioner, Anna Kathryn Malley is herself attracted to the handsome Father Paul. She even sees him as a “man she might marry one day.” When she reveals that she has never been able to commit herself to a man, he realizes it is his own problem as well: human relationships. But a priest need not commit himself to such relationships, she says, whereas her life has been one of continual failure at them. Eventually, Father Paul realizes that this good person needs help. And he is a priest. And as each begins to understand the other’s failure, they begin exploring their mutual need. Whereupon, the reader wonders where this new relationship is going.

Meanwhile, Mandy dies again, irony of ironies, and seems to be a victim of a miracle gone wrong. Now begins the heart of this novel. Father Paul is drawn to comfort the bereaving mother. And finds that this is expressed in a lust for her. For if he can possess her, he thinks, he will finally understand that miracle. “And is it lust,” he ssks, “to want to understand a miracle?” She, in turn, has long looked upon this attractive priest with equal fervor. And so by letting his body fulfill itself sexually, he relates to another person. But if he has fulfilled his role as a man, he is drowning in guilt.

In the morning, both are sorry, but there are no regrets. Only guilt. Whereupon, Anna Kathryn helps Father Paul realize that while God will forgive him for this sin, the priest cannot forgive himself. And when he raises new doubts about his vocation, Father Moriarty, his own body betrayed by ALS, suggests to Father Paul “you became a priest because you wanted God’s approval. But God doesn’t need you. Or me.”

Father Paul, however, cannot shake his guilt, or his lust. In fact, in his dreaming of a kiss, Rose turns into Anna Kathryn. Is it now Anna Kathryn he wishes to possess? For the rest of the novel, Father Paul is torn between his desire for the two women and how this conflicts with his wish to remain a priest. What is remarkable is the understanding of the priesthood in this novel, such as one’s responsibilities to God, to the faithful, to fellow priests, and to oneself. This comes across most beautifully in Father Paul’s conversations with his supervisor, Monsignor Glynn, and with Father Moriarty. “Tell me to stop being a priest,” he says to Glynn. “I’ve come a long way from wanting to be a saint. Isn’t that that the next step?”

Both priests are sympathetic to Father Paul and his internal travail, but both treat him, first, as a fellow human being trying to deny his own humanity. They remind him that he has a relationship with God, yes, but it is a relationship that he needs to have, not one that God needs to have with him.

These priests are themselves human, not representatives of God, or of their Church. They fully understand the weaknesses and uncertainties of being human. And L’Heureux surely presents such effective portraits because he himself was once a priest. Who left the priesthood following the upheaval that Vatican II brought to the Catholic Church. Indeed, what this novel suggests is that such modernization did not go far enough in acknowledging the humanity of both priests and the faithful.

Meanwhile, Father Paul and Anna Kathryn are drawn closer together. At the beach, he says, “Tell me about your boyfriends.” And she: “Tell me about God.” Later, she invites him on a picnic to tell him that she loves him. But at the key moment, both are frozen speechless. And later, she writes, “You are incapable of happiness, and I incapable of living without it.”

Father Paul realizes that “his idea of God was simply egoism turned inside out.” Thus, “extinguishing the self to make it perfect meant getting rid of everything human.” This is accompanied by the one melodramatic scene in the novel, a scene in which Father Paul convinces himself of one thing while doing another. It is not entirely convincing, but it does lead to him facing reality, and recalling the earlier advice of the dying Father Moriarty: “Try loving somebody besides yourself for once.”

L’Heureux winds up this story of the three priests and the two women somewhat poetically, as each reaches a self-realization. Father Paul, says, “I don’t want to love God, any God. I want to love someone.” While Rose decides that having sex, including with a priest, “was like getting even with God,” presumably for the loss of her daughter. And Father Moriarty “reaches up and his hand fades in darkness, and another hand grasps his. [And] this new…dark is more light than humankind can bear.”

In sum, this novel explores the link between faith and love, and how a crisis in one can lead to a crisis in the other. As Bruce Bower sums up in The New York Times, this is “a delicately nuanced portrait of recognizably human individuals making what they can of life.”

This reviewer needs to read more works by L’Heureux. (July, 2019)

Munich, by Robert Harris

From the first page to the last, one reads this 2017 novel as if one is experiencing history. As if the reader is in each scene, watching and eavesdropping as Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain and Adolph Hitler, along with their respective entourages, meet at Munich in 1938 in their brief and famous effort to avoid a new world war.

We are brought into the scene by two presumably fictional characters, Paul von Hartmann, a minor official in the German Foreign Office, and Hugh Legat, a rising British diplomat who is fluent in German and is a private secretary to Chamberlain. The two diplomats first met as students at Oxford University and have drifted away from each other, but now they meet again because Hartmann, part of an anti-Hitler movement in Germany, has sent a message to the British that he has a document verifying Hitler’s plans to conquer Europe. And so the British send Legat to Munich with Chamberlain with orders to contact Hartmann, for if the British can obtain those plans, they can expose Hitler before he can put them into action.

The novel consists of alternate meetings by each side as both the English and the Germans scheme over four days on the German threat to swallow parts of Czechoslovakia. These meetings will conclude with a joint statement and the famous Chamberlain declaration that his efforts had achieved “peace for our time.” What is remarkable is the suspense that Harris has created here, even when the actual outcome of the Munich meeting is so well known.

The first explanation for this suspense, I believe, is our fascination at learning, step by step, what really happened. We are there at both private meetings in which the German, English, Italian and French leaders meet with their entourages to discuss strategy and deal with their colleagues, and then at a public meeting as the two main leaders confront one another. Such details, along with a vivid description of the Munich environment, including ever-present German crowds in the street, reveal not only the author’s extensive research but also his ability to convert the dry findings of that research into the realistic details of his fictional world.

The second reason for suspense is our concern for the two fictional characters, Legat and Hartmann, given the impact they attempt to have on this historic confrontation. Both face obstacles from their own colleagues, first to being able to meet and, second, being able to join forces to convey Hitler’s specific plans to Chamberlain. In fact, one scene builds to a dramatic meeting with Chamberlain in which the two diplomats confront him. From history, the reader knows that the efforts of these two young men will prove ineffectual, but we read on to learn whether their effort to sabotage the Munich negotiations will be discovered and whether or how they will be punished.

History has judged the Munich mission a major failure based on false Allied hopes and German duplicity. A failure, especially, of Neville Chamberlain. But in this novel, Chamberlain is continually seen in a positive light. His views of Hitler are always forthright, never obsequious. Indeed, he is constantly cheered by German crowds during his public appearances in Munich, and then is later hailed by the English populace and the English press when he returns home. For he has saved both sides from the horrors of war by reluctantly accepting a limited German takeover of Czechslovkia. His rationale is that he has negotiated with Hitler in order to buy the time Britain needs to rebuild its depleted military.

Patrick Anderson sums up Harris’ approach to Chamberlain in his Washington Post review, writing that the novel “offers a painful look at an honorable man, longing for peace, but confronting an adversary who had only conquest in mind and only contempt for Chamberlain’s good intentions. …Chamberlain would be accused of appeasement,” Anderson continues, “but Harris sees a man haunted by hundreds of thousands of English deaths in World War I, barely 20 years earlier, and desperate to buy time.”

John Fund explains the author’s approach to this novel in National Review: “Harris has taken on a herculean task in trying to rehabilitate Chamberlain, and he makes a valiant attempt. In interviews promoting the book, he has said that his ‘slightly rebellious nature’ led him to challenge some sacred tablets about World War II. He said that when he was growing up in post-war Britain, it was rarely mentioned that four-fifths of the war occurred on the Eastern Front, that Stalin had killed far more people than Hitler, and that Britain had ten times the number of planes during the Battle of Britain that it had had at the time of Munich two years earlier. Harris said that these contradictions ‘have really infected my writing career ever since, starting with Fatherland.’”

Given Harris’ past success in recreating history, not only in Fatherland, which depicts a world in which Germany has won World War II, but also in his successful novels set in ancient Rome, one should not be surprised that his “rebellious nature” in evaluating traditional history also prompted him to offer a different take on Chamberlain’s strategy in Munich.

In another interview, author Harris told NPR: “You couldn’t get two figures in history more unalike; and yet, contrary to popular myth, I think it’s Chamberlain that got the better of Hitler at Munich. Hitler did not want to be there. He wanted to be at the head of his army advancing on Prague.” In fact, Harris says that Albert Speer in his memoirs wrote that “ at a dinner party it all came pouring out [of Hitler]. He said the German people have been duped, and by Chamberlain of all people. And even at the end of his life in 1945, Hitler was saying, ‘We should have gone to war in 1938, September 1938 would have been the perfect time.’”

Given the terrible state of the British supply of fighter aircraft in 1938, this certainly has the ring of truth. And the result is that we can thank Robert Harris for another successful novel offering a refreshing view of history. Indeed, I look forward to many more. (July, 2019)

The Shot, by Philip Kerr

This is another take on the assassination of JFK. But not the one this reader was thinking about as he picked up this 1999 novel. This complicated but fascinating prequel to 11/22 in Dallas is set in 1960 just after the presidential election. Present, however, are many of the same participants who have long been implicated in the Dallas assassination. That is, the Mob, the Cubans, the FBI and the CIA, and an unknown, cold-blooded killer. But this killer is named Thomas Jefferson, and he is so cold blooded that while he is introduced as plotting to kill Fidel Castro for the Mob, he ends up plotting to kill the newly elected president, John F. Kennedy, for the Cubans.

In 1960, the Mafia, under Sam Giancana, was angry at Fidel Castro for kicking them, with their profitable casinos, out of Cuba, while the U.S. government was even more angry because Fidel had turned Cuba into a Communist state. So in this novel the two sides join forces in a plot to kill the Cuban leader, finally settling on using Thomas Jefferson, who has proven in the past his skill at contract murders.

And then, there is an unexpected death, whereupon Tom Jefferson disappears, and the proposed Castro assassination is no longer in effect. Moreover, Jefferson has disappeared with a large Mafia down payment of $150,000 for killing Castro, and the Mob can’t let him get away with that when he has done nothing to earn it. So it sends an ex-FBI sleuth, Jimmy Nimmo, to find him. But the Mob also learns something else, that Jefferson has switched sides and intends to kill JFK, and they tell Nimmo that he cannot let that happen. For they are depending on the new president, whom they helped elect by packing the ballot boxes in Illinois, to dispose of Castro in the upcoming invasion of Cuba, and are convinced, moreover, because of their past ties to Kennedy’s father, that JFK will help them return to Cuba and run their casinos again.

It is all rather complicated, given that the Government and the Mob are collaborating so closely. Indeed, at their many planning sessions, it becomes difficult to determine where the actual loyalties lie for a mix of characters who represent both sides of the law. Which, in turn, often makes it difficult to recall these characters relationships, and why are doing what they are doing.

This is particularly true regarding Jimmy Nimmo, who takes over the entire center of this novel. We follow him as he seeks to find Thomas Jefferson and bring an end to the threat that Jefferson represents for both JFK and the Mob’s major plans for Cuba. However, when Nimmo himself comes to an inconclusive end, and it has no real impact on the novel’s assassination attempt on JFK in January, 1961, the reason for Nimmo presence in this novel suddenly seems quite calculated.

In fact, one wonders if the author has not turned Nimmo into a major character precisely to distract us from the latest activities of Jefferson and an old friend, and now an FBI operative, Alex Goldman. Especially when those two set up an assassination scenario in Harvard Yard. For the author then introduces a big surprise, a major twist. And the reader wonders why. Why have these friends acted as they have? What do they hope to achieve?

On the final pages the reason for their decision does become clear. Indeed, their actions project the reader forward to what will actually happen three years later on 11/22. But like much of the novel, as interested as we are in learning where author Kerr is going with this story, we also have to endure a long and complicated journey to reach this novel’s theory about what and who lay behind Kennedy’s actual assassination. In other words, we have witnessed, in this alternate history of 1960 and 1961, a proposed solution to the disputed events of 1963.

One reads this novel with the November, 1963 assassination always present in one’s mind. And one can see the application of the action here to that historic event. But the events here also seem very calculated, deliberately paralleling the rumored behind-the-scenes actions of 1963. They are convincing enough to be credible, but they also serve the novel’s suspense. And then also set up the twist. But while the twist makes logical and political sense here, it also requires a major reversal of character, a reversal that reflects a certain logic and yet at the same time fails to be convincing.

Kerr is a true professional as a writer, but one senses that he is writing here to convey a message. About the collaboration that might well have prompted the events of 1963. And then he adds the twist that all thriller writers like to offer at the climax of their work. In other words, the twist is not intended to apply to his behind-the-scenes portrait of the assassination. It is meant to stand on its own. And for the record, it does not last in one reader’s memory as long as does the collaboration between the Mafia and the U.S. government—and all that that relationship implies. (June, 2019)