Hazel McHaffie

Domestic psychological thrillers

Although I’ve read a large number of thrillers in an effort to understand the secrets and techniques that make for success, I’ve come across surprisingly few that fit more precisely into the family-based variety I’ve been trying to create myself; ‘domestic’, so-called ‘real-life’ fiction. So when I saw Until You’re Mine by Samantha Hayes in a supermarket second-hand charity corner at the weekend, I snapped it up. And I read it in two days.

I love the cover (her trademark style apparently), and the strap-line spoke to me: To create her family she will destroy yours. My kind of territory, huh?

And it got better and better the more I read about the book and its author. She’s dipped a toe in being a barmaid, a fruit picker, a private detective, a factory worker; she’s lived on a kibbutz, holidayed on Cornwall (my home county)… – a colourful life even before she took up crime writing. And in her novels she focuses on current issues, designed to challenge the reader to think, What if this happened to me or my family? Exactly what I try to do.

And indeed, Until You’re Mine bears some striking similarities to my own new novel, Killing me Gently, which becomes available for purchase this coming weekend*. Both are based around a young career woman, trying to adapt to being a mother; things clearly not being what they seem to be; threats hanging over families; marriages and relationships in peril.

In the case of Until You’re Mine, there are three principal women involved. Claudia Morgan-Brown has a history of numerous previous pregnancies all ending in miscarriages or still births – leaving her feeling ‘ an unworthy shell of a woman‘ and ‘a freak‘. Around perfect families with perfect babies ‘jealousy stuck in my craw like a bowlful of mud shoved down my throat.’ And yet her job – a job she loves – revolves around parents and children. As a social worker heading up a child protection team, she’s constantly dealing with dysfunctional, violent, abusive, disadvantaged families. Nor is she a stranger to the painful experience of removing children from their inadequate or unfit parents.

And it’s in the course of her work that she goes to check out the welfare of 2-month-old twin baby boys, Oscar and Noah Morgan, whose mother has just died of pancreatic cancer. They are being well cared for, but Claudia falls in love with their so-recently bereaved father, James, who reciprocates the emotion. ‘He was hurting. I was hurting. Together, we were mended.’ And now she’s heavily pregnant with James’ baby, but determined to keep working up till her due date and take the minimum of time off after the birth.

Husband, James, is a naval officer, a submariner, away for long stretches of time. And in reality Claudia knows very little of his past life. She does know, however, that he has inherited wealth from his first wife, enabling them to live in a huge and beautiful house, and that he has secrets about which she knows nothing. They decide to hire a live-in nanny to enable Claudia to keep doing what she’s good at.

Enter Zoe Harper, who comes with impeccable credentials, and is clearly really good with children. The twins adore her. We, however, know from the outset that Zoe isn’t what she appears to be. She lives in the ‘centre of an ever-changing lie’. We know she is preoccupied with pregnancy and babies. We know she’s recently left an intense relationship but still longs to make contact with her past. We also know she has her own agenda and is on a mission which somehow relates to counting down to the birth of Claudia’s child.

The third woman is Detective Inspector Lorraine Fisher. She’s dealing with domestic crises at home – an errant husband and a rebellious teenage daughter determined to abandon her education and career prospects, leave home and marry her boyfriend. And on the work front Lorraine is dealing with two cases of pregnant women being sliced open and left for dead. Both the victims had troubled pasts and had been in the care of social services. Both had been wanting to terminate their pregnancies early on but for some reason had not gone through with it. Both babies and the first mother have died, but the second mother has survived, and somehow the survivor is the link between the social worker, nanny and detective.

Through the eyes of all three women we inch forward towards the critical date – the birth of Claudia’s baby girl. It’s tense, gripping stuff. But the three stories simply don’t hang together. Who is to be believed? Three women desperate to become mothers. Three women juggling competing demands. Three murders already. We’re counting down the days to deadlines with huge trepidation. The suspense keeps us glued to the pages. The killer twist in the tale, when it comes, is brilliantly executed. And the last sentence is perfection.

Phew! A serendipitous find but highly recommended. And I’ll certainly be hunting down more of Samantha Hayes’ books.

* Yep, at last! We’ve had a few glitches in the publishing process this time, hopefully now ironed out. More on this next week.

 

 

 

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Thrills, chills and perils

As you know, I’ve been studying other people’s thrillers to try to pinpoint the magic ingredients; how to maintain suspense and build tension and fulfill expectation.

Part of the secret lies in the hooks offered from the outset – as with any book, I guess, but particularly with a thriller.

So how about this for a scene setter on the first page?
People on the island village understood there was some kind of psychiatric institution on their doorstep. Only a few who worked there knew it housed a handful of the most disturbed female juvenile criminals in the Netherlands.

You just want to know what heinous crimes these girls have committed, don’t you?

Well, orphaned sisters Mia and Kim, two of the Timmers Sisters triplet singing group, from a little fishing town called Volendam in the Netherlands, have been incarcerated there for ten years, forgotten for the most part. They were just eleven years old when they were detained. Why? For killing someone.

OK, what kind of a someone? A musician called Rogier Glas, savagely hacked to death with a kitchen knife, his penis cut off and rammed down his throat. Gee whiz! Can you picture eleven-year-olds this out of control?

And now those girls are twenty-one. Beautiful. Telepathic. Obsessed by the number three.

And that’s just chapter one of David Hewson‘s Little Sister!! Yep, I’m hooked!

Add in Pieter Vos, a ramshackle senior police officer in the serious crimes squad, who lives on a shambolic houseboat on the canal with his diminutive fox terrier Sam and you’re into classic crime-writing territory.

Track back into the history … the girls’ mother, father and sister all murdered … every investigative report into the atrocity – electronic and paper copies – mysteriously shredded. And you’re feeling the chill. The girls, tested and analysed and schooled to the nth degree, and now deemed ‘sufficiently normalized’ to be released under supervision, are freed into ‘a universe without boundaries, real form or substance‘ with no experience or real knowledge of the adult world. Only to vanish. The unsuspecting member of staff designated to drive them to a halfway house, also vanishes; his car, his clothes, discovered in thickly weeded slimy water.

The blood runs cold. We’re only at page 50! And I’m staying up way past my bedtime, transfixed.

A brutally murdered body is found not far from that psychiatric institution, yet no CCTV detected anything suspicious. Another body turns up in a deserted farmhouse. Threats, disappearances, malpractice, hush money … it’s all there, dragging us further and further into the murky depths.

What exactly has been going on at the psychiatric institution? what was the dead nurse doing? where are the girls? what exactly is the last remaining member of The Cupids band afraid of? are the girls a danger to others or are they in danger themselves? – the questions get increasingly convoluted as more and more dirt is dug up. And gradually all the pieces of the macabre and disturbing picture slot into place.

The sentences are oddly constructed and staccato at times, and occasionally I got lost in the Dutch names, but it was worth persevering. and I defy anyone to preempt the truth when it finally emerges, or to better the ending.

So, the verdict? For me, it’s a successful technique. A real thriller. And I’ve learned a lot in the process of reading/analysing it. Thank you, Mr Hewson.

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NHS successes and failures

Last week I had yet another full examination by a consultant as part of my follow-up cancer care. Meticulous head to toe inspection. I’m overwhelmed by the efficiency, skill and compassion I’ve experienced at first hand in the years since I had the primary tumour removed. It could not be bettered.

And who could fail to be awed by the detailed reporting by the BBC this week of the Pakistani conjoined twins, Safa and Marwa Ullah. Two years old and recently separated.

Vast teams of top ranking practitioners working to give those two little girls as good a future as possible. The sight of the grateful mother, a widow with seven other children, kissing the hands of the surgeons said it all.

But I’ve also seen things go pear-shaped – for relatives and friends as well as those I’ve read about. And according to the media, a new publication, the NHS Resolution report, provides a worrying picture of the rise in claims for compensation. In England alone, in 2018-19,10,678 new claims were made for clinical negligence. The costs in payouts increased by £137 million to almost £2.4 billion! (NB. this includes legal costs not just the money paid to the claimants.)  Mind blowing statistics, aren’t they? Furthermore some 10% of those claims related to perceived deficiencies in maternity care but, because these are extra costly, they represent a disproportionately high percentage of the total costs.

 

 

As the CEO of the Medical Defence Union said, this amount of money could have funded over 15 million MRI scans or 112,000 liver transplants. What a sobering reality check.

I feel a mixture of emotions: regret for those people whose care has fallen short certainly but also anxiety for those whose practice is called into question as well as for the NHS as a whole. Every example of negligence exacts a toll from the patients and families concerned. But the spiralling costs of compensating dissatisfied clients affects us all. Our world renowned health care system is buckling under the strain. Something has to give.

One of my ongoing files for a possible future novel is labelled RESOURCE ISSUES. My life-long aversion/allergy to numbers has kept it low down in the pile, but it might yet become a front runner if this state of affairs continues to escalate.

 

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Patrick Branwell Brontë

Who hasn’t heard of Daphne du Maurier? Her novel Rebecca was an instant success and has never stopped selling. Jamaica Inn, My Cousin Rachel, Frenchman’s Creek … all classics of English literature. But du Maurier herself had her own insecurities. As she wrote to a Brontë scholar who helped her with research into the life of Patrick Branwell Brontë: ‘My novels are what is known as popular and sell very well, but I am not a critic’s favourite, indeed I am generally dismissed with a sneer as a bestseller and not reviewed at all … I have no illusions to that.’

Hey, most of us would be more than content with being recognised as a best-seller! But her works of non-fiction are certainly far less well known, so when I came across a copy of The Infernal World of Branwell Brontë, I snapped it up.

A life-long fan of the novels by the Brontë sisters, du Maurier was increasingly intrigued by their feckless brother Branwell, (1817-1848), and after a visit to Haworth and the Brontë Parsonage, she set about writing what she hoped would be taken as a serious and scholarly story of his life that would rescue him from relative obscurity as she saw it, and her from dismissal as a literary lightweight.

With a history of mental ill health in both herself and her husband, Daphne came to Branwell’s life with considerable sympathy and understanding. Indeed she recognised that the genius of the three Brontë sisters owed much to the inspiration and imagination of their only brother Patrick Branwell, who was nevertheless ‘long maligned, neglected and despised‘. Branwell, she concluded, failed in life because he was unable to distinguish truth from fiction, reality from fantasy. His own ‘infernal world‘ as a lonely alcohol-dependent only son and second-rate writer simply didn’t equate to the brilliance of his imagination.

Pampered, adored and spoiled as a youth following the death of his mother, subject to nerve tremors and convulsions (epilepsy in the 19th century was associated with insanity), he was considered too highly strung and overwrought to be sent to school. Accordingly he was home educated.

He was a precocious child with a photographic memory and a phenomenal capacity to learn and recollect information, coupled with an extraordinary ability to use both hands equally dexterously and write different things at the same time. He was also highly strung and excitable, with a nervous temperament, volatile, and subject to extreme mood swings. Very shortsighted and small for his age – he stopped growing at fourteen – he spent his time making up stories in microscopic writing and living in a fantasy world. His secluded and narrow upbringing coupled with the constant company of three sisters, meant that he arrived at an age of maturity with an almost childlike innocence, an immensely frustrated young adult.

Familiar with illness and death – he lost his mother and two beloved sisters before he was eight – he felt haunted and apprehensive all his life. His father’s religious views awed and terrified him and he turned his back on the strict moral code inculcated from childhood and took to keeping low company, drinking to excess, and succumbing to opium addiction (in those days opium was easily obtained and cheap). Laudanum softened the nagging voices and disappointments, coloured his drab world, and turned nightmares into delicious dreams. He joined the Freemasons at one stage, but gave them up after a time, unable to live up to their expectations, and consumed by fear that he had betrayed their secrets while inebriated.

Though a talented painter, prolific writer of poetry, plays and prose, he met with repeated failures and disappointments. No patronage was forthcoming. Crushed by the callousness of editors and writers alike, who simply failed to even acknowledge his letters or samples of his work, with no real sense of how good or bad his writing was, and sheltered from real life, he drifted from one disaster to another.

Even his short and inglorious tenure as a station-master at an insignificant branch line with the new Leeds and Manchester railway company, ended when he was dismissed for negligence, careless book-keeping, absence from duty and a strong suspicion of theft, leaving his pride severely dented: ‘He, Branwell Brontë, the brilliant versatile genius of the family, had not been able to hold down the trumpery job of station-master on a branch line.’ His own ignominy was thrown into starker relief by the industry of his sisters who were gaining both experience and knowledge, broadening their horizons, going out to work, establishing reputations, travelling, furthering their education with learned men.

Through his sister’s connections he eventually found a post as tutor to a young teenage lad, but it too ended abruptly. Something happened – something ‘bad beyond expressing‘ – when tutor and pupil were left alone, which remained unidentified. Branwell once again deadened his shame with drink. Depression overwhelmed him. Violent mood swings from despair to high elation and back followed. The convulsions increased.

Meanwhile his three sisters, Charlotte, Emily and Anne, began to find some measure of acclaim for their writing – under the pseudonyms of Currer, Ellis and Acton Bell – driving Branwell further and further into his world ‘walking arm-in-arm with the dark figure of MISERY‘. Amazing today to think their novels – Wuthering Heights, Agnes Grey, The Professor – were rejected by a dreary round of publishing houses, but initially that reality fed into Branwell’s conviction that it was useless for unknown writers to attempt to enter the literary world. But then, unexpected success and instant acclaim came for Jane Eyre, which quickly became the talk, not only of literary London, but amongst the whole of the country’s reading public. The identity of its author was known only to Charlotte’s sisters; Branwell, with whom she had plotted and colluded and created their ‘infernal world‘ throughout their childhood, must not be allowed into the secret, ‘for fear of causing him too deep a pang of remorse for his own time misspent, and talents misapplied.‘ In fact Branwell did know, but would not give them the satisfaction of knowing he did.

I agree with Justine Picardie in her introduction to the book: this biography, whilst fascinating, is rather weighed down by du Maurier’s ‘excessive diligence‘. But she has my sympathy. It must have been an impossible task to sift the truth from the writings of such a dissolute and deluded mind; and apparently she found the good people of Howarth very reluctant to talk about the facts of the past. So I for one will applaud her for her serious efforts, but turn back to her novels as testament to her own brilliance.

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Mr Dickens and his Carol

You may well have seen reviews of a new book just published under the title, Edward Lloyd and His World: Popular Fiction, Politics and the Press in Victorian Britain. It tells the story of publisher Edward Lloyd, (1815-1890) who ‘helped shape Victorian popular culture in ways that have left a legacy that lasts right up to today. He was a major pioneer of both popular fiction and journalism but has never received extended scholarly investigation until now.’ But the book will most likely catch your attention because of its references to Charles Dickens. For he was one of the victims of the opportunist publishers, playwrights, journalists, who cashed in on other people’s success by producing parodies of their novels. Dickens himself was outraged by these plagiarists but powerless to prevent them – this being the age before the Copyright Act of 1842.

It nicely resonated with me because I’ve just finished reading a lovely book on the same subject and era: Mr Dickens and his Carol by Samantha Silva, which might not be ‘scholarly’ but the basic premises are all there. Dickens losing popularity … his impotent rage at the charlatans who steal his ideas … his publishers needing a success .. money problems … a feckless father … a growing brood of children … Messrs Chapman and Hall suggesting a short Christmas story … ‘hardly a book at all‘ … mayhap including a ghost or two? So, though her story is a work of fiction, Silva has built upon the work of Dickens’ biographers as well as his own words, to create a playful but plausible and enjoyable re-imagining of how one of the best loved classics came into being. She herself recognises that Dickens aficiandos and scholars might well bristle at the liberties she takes, but she writes from a position of both admiration and affection for the man, keenly aware that a ‘good biography tells us the truth about a person; a good story, the truth about ourselves.’ Well said!

Silva’s physical book has a beautiful look and feel – velvety smooth cover (hardback), the kind of volume you hold with reverential gentle hands and stroke with sensual pleasure. It’s her debut work, published in 2017, but her writing is assured and the story beautifully realised, capturing the evergreen heart and style of Dickens’ own tales.

It’s described as a ‘fan letter‘, even a ‘love letter‘, to the ‘Inimitable Boz‘, that says ‘I know you were a flawed man who had a heart as big as the world. That you saw Christmas as a time to reconnect with our humanity and revel in even our smallest blessings. And that you lived with so much darkness, inside and out, but leant – urgently and frantically – always towards the light.’

As we know, Dickens’ Christmas novel was heralded as a ‘national benefit‘, a ‘personal kindness’ to everyone who reads it. Indeed Dickens is revered for his capacity to portray understanding and empathy for one’s fellow-man, and to highlight the human capacity to rise above adversity and sorrow. ‘Despite what is cold and dark in the world, perhaps it is a loving place after all.’ Not only was he writing at a time and in a place where squalor, poverty, injustice, inhumanity, and disease prevailed, but he personally knew abandonment, poverty, disloyalty and hardship. As a small boy, when his father and the rest of the family were admitted to the debtors’ prison, Charles was left to fend for himself. His father was feckless all his life and a perpetual drain on Charles’ resources. We so often glean a romanticised view of the period in films and dramatic reconstructions, but the written word reminds us of the horrors and humiliations of his time.

And so in Mr Dickens and his Carol we follow Dickens as he tramps the gritty fog-filled streets in search of inspiration; as he rails against the constant racket of a busy household with six children and an extravagant wife and an endless stream of people demanding money. How he managed to write at all in such conditions escapes me! But here he is, filled with foreboding lest he be unable to afford toys for each of his children at Christmas, give his usual contributions to worthy charities, and stay out of the poorhouse. Nor is his fame assured and protected. Martin Chuzzlewit has flopped; acting troupes are plagiarising his work; his relatives trading his possessions for cash, his publishers tightening the screws.

Under intolerable pressure, temper, patience and good humour desert him. His wife leaves him just before Christmas taking the children to Scotland until he can be more reasonable. He takes refuge under a pseudonym in lowly accommodation, sleep and appetite and mental clarity all forfeit. Melancholy swallows him up.

‘Like any man, he’d known a good share of knocks in his thirty-some years. Hard knocks at lesser doors, insistent rap-rap-raps on wind-bitten, rain-battered doors whose nails had lost all hope of holding. And with fame came gentler taps at better doors, pompous, pillared, and crowned thresholds in glazed indigo paint, like his own door two floors below, where the now-polite pounding was having no effect at all.
Because there are times in a man’s life when no knock on any door will divert him from doing the thing at hand, in particular when that thing is a goose-feather pen flying across the page, spitting ink.’

So, there he is, finally, sleep deprived and physically drained, but re-energised, as he pours all his disappointment and anger and resentment and agony into his writing, creating and fleshing out Scrooge and Fezziwig and Cratchit and Marley. Haunted in his own mind, he revels in the introduction of fictitious ghosts as he reviews life, past, present and future, his own personal hauntress encouraging him to capitalise on experience: ‘Let the spectre of your memory be the spark of your imagination.’ And gradually, gradually, the all-consuming power of writing cures him of his jaded perspective, and he discovers that his mental museum is still ‘where he left it, the corridors stacked high, shelves overflowing.’

Having recently finished writing my own latest novel I very much related to Dickens’ relief when The Christmas Carol was finished.
Dickens laid down his pen. There was a frisson in finishing, a great rush of feeling for the life of his characters, all the Crachits and Fezziwigs, Fred and his wife, and Scrooge most of all. He didn’t want to say goodbye; he wanted to keep them close, where he might watch over them. But he knew that the end of his book was a beginning of their life without him, and he must let them be born into the world, and welcomed, as he felt sure they would be. Still how grateful he was to have known them at all.’

It’s a heart-warming story, well told. And I can’t resist sharing a few gems of Silva’s writing:
John Dickens:  ‘his whole face was a ruin’
Marshalsea Debtors’ Prison: ‘a prison of perpetuity, a forever place of no release’
Dickens’ mood: ‘melancholy is the mother of invention’

Highly recommended.

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Is it ever right to take a life?

With all the events marking 75 years since D-Day and the Battle of Normandy, and other war-related events, my mind has been travelling the well-worn path of … is it ever justifiable to take a life? And is there a kind of life that’s worse than death?

Then for the last two Thursdays those questions have swirled again, watching Susanna Reid interviewing inmates awaiting execution in maximum security prisons in the USA for her series: Death Row: Countdown to Execution. The state of Texas supports the death penalty, and the locals appear to take it in their stride, but Susanna found it unsettling just being in the town with the execution chamber, to know exactly when a human being was being walked to that gurney, strapped down, given that lethal shot of Pentobarbital. She wanted to know exactly what was happening, how everyone felt – the convicted man, the family, the witnesses, the townspeople. She’d met these men briefly in the last few days of their lives, and in spite of their criminal backgrounds, it clearly troubled her.

Many inmates are held on Death Row for decades (the average 12 years) and massive amounts of money are spent on appeals even up to the eleventh hour. Fewer than 2% are exonerated but the process has to be gone through, seeking additional years or days of life if nothing else. For those who are the victims of the crimes (and that often includes the family of the convicted man) the death brings a form of closure; but opponents believe that society should not sink to their level. After all, as they said, we don’t rape rapists, we don’t steal from burglars; why should we kill murderers? ‘We should be better than that.

And against all this my mind goes to my own area of particular interest, viz the issues around assisted death for people on a different kind of trajectory: those with incurable, degenerative illnesses; trapped for years in many cases, with no hope of a reprieve. Their own kind of death row; their own kind of hell. And our society – too humane to kill convicts – is also unwilling to countenance patients ending their own lives when the pain, the suffering, the indignity, are intolerable. Is this justice? Is this fair? Is it humane? As Scottish former Rugby Union player Doddie Weir (who has Motor Neuron Disease himself and has just buried his mother after a fairly short experience of cancer) said this week: Being a farming boy, when there is no hope with the animals you are able to put them out of their misery, but with humans it is not allowed. It does not seem fair sometimes.

So many truly difficult questions; so many nuances and valid perspectives. I studied this topic in depth before writing Right to Die, published in 2008. I’ve repeatedly returned to it since. Eleven years on we’re no further forward in terms of the law. Assisted suicide is still illegal; doctors who help a person to die still face a jail sentence of up to 14 years. However, public opinion has swung much more towards some provision to help people caught up in these intolerable situations, helped in no small measure by the brave souls who have shared their harrowing experiences openly. Then in March this year, the Royal College of Physicians declared neutrality on the subject. And this week the Royal College of General Practitioners has said it will consult its 53,000 members on whether the time has come to drop their opposition to assisted dying. The wheels grind oh so slowly, but they do seem to be turning.

What do you think?

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The Other Hand

How about this for the blurb on the back cover of a book?
We don’t want to tell you what happens in this book. It is a truly special story and we don’t want to spoil it. Nevertheless, you need to know enough to buy it so we will just say this:
This is the story of two women. Their lives collide one fateful day, and one of them has to make a terrible choice. Two years later, they meet again – the story starts there …

Brave publisher, huh? Trusting author.

Well, I did buy The Other Hand by Chris Cleave, on the strength of this intriguing sales pitch. I was hoovering up books in Scotland’s National Book town, after all! And wow! it is indeed a special story. It was shortlisted for the 2008 COSTA Novel Award and has attracted terrific reviews: ‘a feat of literary engineering’,  ‘a timely challenge to reinvigorate our notions of civilized decency’, ‘profound, deeply moving and yet light in touch, it explores the nature of loss, hope, love and identity with atrocity its backdrop’. All richly deserved.

I can’t reveal the plot to you because the instruction from the publisher is specific:
Once you’ve read it, you’ll want to tell your friends about it. When you do, please don’t tell them what happens either. The magic is in how it unfolds.

And ‘unfolds’ is the right world. The past and present are seamlessly woven together, each action having an influence which ripples out to create a reaction, which in turn has new consequences. Masterly plotting. And the writing is wonderful, the voices and dialogues pitch-perfect. Somehow the author manages to juxtapose gut-wrenching horror and laugh-out-loud humour without compromising either. I’ve no idea how he does it. From the first line: Most days I wish I was a British pound coin instead of an African girl‘ to the closing Nigerian proverb: If your face is swollen from the severe beatings of life, smile and pretend to be a fat man, this book will hold you in a vice-like grip at once shocking and deeply affecting but also entertaining.

Star of the show is the character who pens the above first sentence: Little Bee, a 16-year-old orphaned Nigerian refugee with impeccable Queen’s English. Indeed she often likens herself to ‘Queen Elizabeth the Second of England’. She and her story will haunt you for days after you’ve read her final words. And we all need to wake up to stories like hers.

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Alone in Berlin

Having just read a book about the German side of the Second World War and posted a review last week, I segued smoothly into another one about German resistance to the Nazis, which I bought at the same time.This one is Alone in Berlin by Hans Fallada (translated by Michael Hofmann).

The author’s own biography reads like an exaggeration but he is generally accepted as one of the foremost German writers of the twentieth century. However, after allegedly writing this book in twenty-four days, he died before Alone in Berlin was published, the victim of his own abuse of alcohol and drugs, but not before he had informed several relatives that this was a ‘great novel’. It was in fact a reworking of a real-life case to which Fallada had been given access. His contention in the book is that morality under Nazi rule was not measured by the size of the effort made to stand up against tyranny and atrocity, but by doing something, rather than simply capitulating and accepting evil. But as the afterword explains, though ‘there was substantial and heroic resistance to the Nazi regime at all levels of German society, from aristocratic officers in the army to brutalized inmates of concentration camps … this resistance was unsuccessful, in the sense that the regime was destroyed by the foreign armies which conquered it rather than by internal rebels who overthrew it.’

The book recounts numerous small acts of defiance and rebellion on the part of many anti-Nazi dissidents, but the main story centres on the Quangels. Otto Quangel is an insignificant taciturn emotionally-stunted man working as a shop foreman in a furniture factory (now given over to producing coffins) and living with his wife Anna in a run-down tenement block in Berlin. When his only son is killed in battle during the invasion of France, he hatches a determined plan to fight back against this unjust war that has robbed them of their family and future: he will write and secretly distribute postcards, decrying the government, urging civil disobedience and workplace sabotage. It’s an unspectacular and unsophisticated effort, limited to a small area, but as Anna says, whether acts are big or small, no one could risk more than his life. The main thing was: you fought back in whatever way you could; tried to stay decent, have no part in the evil being perpetrated and promoted all around you. Otto tries to be vigilant, not get caught, firm in the conviction that the longer you could fight, the longer you were being effective against brutality; there was no value in dying early. Besides, he wanted to be there when the regime fell, to be able to say: we were there; we were fighting our own war.

Inspector Escherich of the Gestapo, immediately deduces the writer of the anonymous propaganda is a poorly educated workman who recently lost his only son. Give him time, and he’ll reveal more details about himself. It just requires patience and alertness and he will hunt down ‘the Hobgoblin’. But as the months go by he develops grudging admiration for this wily person whose postcards arrive in his office every week.

Two years on, 233 cards and 8 letters have reached the Gestapo. Escherich has been removed and tortured; Inspector Zott has taken over the investigation. Zott’s methodical approach leads him to very similar conclusions to his predecessor but he is convinced the postcard writer works with the city trams. This certainty allows the Quangels to avoid capture the first time they fall under suspicion, but then Otto makes a fatal mistake. And after a long patient vigil, the now-reinstated Inspector Escherich pounces, determined not to let any irregularities in procedure abort his moment of glory. By this time his painstaking mapping shows 259 cards have been handed in; and he is confident in his profiling of the sender.

But Quangel is appalled when he learns not only that a mere 18 cards have been left in circulation, but that his actions have terrorised the very people he wanted to free. ‘I never wanted that! I never thought that would happen! I wanted things to get better, I wanted people to learn the truth, so that the war would end sooner and the killing stop – that’s what I wanted! I didn’t mean to sow terror and dread, I didn’t want to make things worse than they are already! Those wretched people – and I made them even more wretched!’

The Inspector points out he didn’t stand a chance; he is a gnat pitting himself against an elephant. ‘You, an ordinary worker taking on the Führer, who is backed by the Party, the Wehrmacht, the SS, the SA. The Führer, who has already conquered half the world and will overcome the last of our enemies in another year or two? It’s ludicrous!’

Nevertheless, it’s Quangel who emerges the moral victor. When he points out to the Gestapo officer, ‘You’re working in the employ of a murderer, delivering ever new victims to him. You do it for money; perhaps you don’t even believe in the man. No, I’m certain you don’t believe in him’  – it’s the inspector’s gaze that is lowered. He has become Otto’s only convert.

As one dissident tells a rather complacent colleague who seems content in his personal happiness with his wife and coming baby, ‘You’re robbing mothers of their sons, wives of their husbands, girlfriends of their boyfriends, as long as you tolerate thousands being shot every day and don’t lift a finger to stop the killing. … your apathy made it possible.’ Real decency demands protest. And somehow the quiet dignity and courage of this ordinary couple, even under severe provocation in prison, convey a powerful message. 

It’s a substantial tome and the English is a tribute to the translator. The rather unusual switching of tenses, points of view and perspectives, owes more to the author’s style than the translator’s, I suspect. But, to my surprise I found it held my attention effortlessly in spite of the slow pace, minimal action and limited plot. Oh, and I had to smile at Otto’s description of reading: ‘something superfluous that only high-up people went in for, people who did no proper work.’ Hmmm!

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75 years on

6 June 1944, saw the largest combined land, air and naval operation in history; D-Day. Seventy-five years on to the day, it seems fitting that I should mark it in some way. What better for the purposes of this blog than to write about a book that challenged me in many ways to think again about what has been done in the name of honour, duty and country.

I found The Dark Room by Rachel Seiffert, (shortlisted for the Booker prize in 2001) in the Christian Aid book sale last month. Every now and then I do try to upgrade my literary antennae by reading something from the higher literary shelves! Besides which, my son is an authority on some of the themes it covers; I think we should try to understand what it felt like ‘on the other side’; and the blurb appealed.

The book tells the stories of three ordinary Germans, the descendants of Nazis/Nazi sympathisers.
Helmut is ‘a young photographer in Berlin in the 1930s who uses his craft to express his patriotic fervour‘. Hmm. Well, I’ve read another debut manuscript recently which does something similar – still to be published, so I can’t add a link yet. Both raise issues for me. How far would I have risked my life to expose the horrors of persecution and discrimination in those circumstances?
Lore is a 12-year-old girl in 1945 who ‘guides her young siblings across a devastated Germany after her Nazi parents are seized by the Allies‘. Hmmm, that same year my parents were doing their best to cope with the vicissitudes of life in this country, altered forever by the same war. They struggled with the tensions of conflicting ideologies and family security and public censure. Would I have held fast to my principles and risked so much?
Michael is ‘a young teacher obsessed with what his loving grandfather did in the war, struggling to deal with the past of his family and his country’. Hmmm, my uncle died at the age of 20 on the battlefields of the Somme, in WW1, fighting for the other side. I regret the senseless waste of his life, but I see him as collateral damage, ‘doing his duty’ as he perceived it. How differently would I feel if he had ordered millions to the gas chambers, or shot children in cold blood, or even stood by condoning such barbarity? Would that be ‘doing his duty’?

So this book resonated in many ways, and challenged me to think again about guilt, and responsibility, and both personal and national culpability. Are any of us completely blameless? How much are we accountable for what is done on our behalf? After all, as the famous quote has it, The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing’.

There are two passages in The Dark Room that highlight the importance of facing squarely what is done in our name. Both come from Michael, the young teacher who’s obsessed with the discrepancy between the two faces of Askan Boell; one the loving grandfather who amused him with drawings, and dandled him on his knee; the other a Waffen SS officer who countenanced and carried out the deaths of an untold number of innocents. Michael’s struggling with the whitewashing of history he sees in the education of German students:

They are being taught that there are no perpetrators, only victims. They are being taught like it just happened, you know, just out of the blue people came along and did it and then disappeared. Not the same people who lived in the same towns and did the same jobs and had children and grandchildren after the war.

I just think they should read about the people who did it, too. The real, everyday people, you know. Not just Hitler and Eichmann and whoever. All the underlings, I mean. The students should learn about their lives, the ones who really did the killing.

Having allowed himself to go there, Michael finds himself consumed with rage and shame. And appalled at the wanton refusal to accept reality that he encounters in his family. Even his own mother denies the possibility that her father was a brutal killer. She was twelve when he returned after the war. Yes, he was a soldier, he killed other soldiers in battle, she accepts that, but not … not murder. Because she ‘knew him‘ – her loving father.  ‘He was my Papa. Always Askan. Just the way he was … he wasn’t capable …’  How would we feel in their shoes? Would we even want to know?

And even those most intimately involved reconstructed the truth. As one of Michael’s informants, Josef Kolesniki, a collaborator, says: those in authority said killing the Jews was the thing to do. They didn’t order anyone to do the killing, so they absolved themselves of the responsibility: they said the men voluntarily chose to pull the trigger. But the men aiming the guns were doing what they’d been told was right, so they weren’t  responsible either. Is it possible for us too to completely delude ourselves and deny all moral responsibility for what we do? Could we too be sucked into an evil system and lose our own moral compass?

And it’s these big challenges underpinning the tales of three young Germans that lift The Dark Room into a different league. I’d be lying if I said I enjoyed the book, or the writing style. But I did appreciate the bigger messages. It’s only by honestly facing such issues that we can take those vital steps towards learning from the mistakes of the past.

 

 

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The Enzo Files

The Enzo Files by Peter May are billed as a ‘mix of whodunit, investigation, thrills, suspense and humour’. They feature a forensic scientist of Scots/Italian descent, called Enzo Macleod who, thanks to a reckless wager, takes on the challenge to solve seven cold cases reported in a book by the widower of the seventh case, journalist Roger Raffin. The stories are all set in France (where May currently lives) and he clearly knows the country well.

Extraordinary People is the first novel in the series: ten years ago Jacques Gaillard, a distinguished scholar, expert in the history of early French cinema, a celebrity with contacts and friends in the highest echelons of society, simply failed to turn up at the end of the August holiday in 1996. Armed with modern technology and a total disregard for the justice system, Enzo begins digging. He applies modern techniques to a few remaining artefacts and soon finds out that Guillard was murdered and probably dismembered in front of the very church altar before which he had worshipped for thirty years, the deed being covered up by the slaughter and incineration of a pig on the same spot.

Little by little Enzo unravels a series of puzzles in the macabre treasure hunt – finding bones and assorted artefacts in each site, all leading him to the next body part and set of clues. ‘An extreme IQ test where cracking the clues was rewarded with the pieces of a murdered man.’ But powerful people and clever minds are determined not to allow the truth to emerge. The government and then his employers warn him off the detective work. Scarcely veiled threats come from a minister and a judge. He persists, but one after another, key people whom he suspects were involved are found dead just as Enzo is about to talk to them, and before long he himself is singled out to be the next victim. But the identity of the last suspect appalls him – it’s someone he knows.

I confess this first book in the Enzo series didn’t quite live up to my expectations of Peter May. It’s more Google-searching than scientific know-how, and large chunks of regurgitated information bog the story down. Much of the setting reads like a French travel guide too! The supporting cast are more promising, and indeed much of the leg work is done by a young student assistant Nicole. The suspense is slow in starting and gets watered down and lost in the morass of Google information. So sorry, Mr May, I wasn’t enamoured of this one.

Nevertheless I persevered. I’ve learned not to judge any writer on a single work. And the second one irritated me less. It feels as if May has got rid of all the background information he wants to share and is settling down to the meat of the search. In The Critic, Enzo is searching for answers to the disappearance of famous and seriously influential wine critic, Gil Petty. Winemakers’ reputations and businesses are lost and found on the basis of his assessments. But then Petty’s body is discovered pickled in wine. More deaths follow and again Enzo’s own life and that of his informants are in danger. May cleverly drops in enough real people and places and wines and historical details to give this one a ring of authenticity. My main niggle was a rather annoying habit of using French words in italics where an English word would have been wholly appropriate and less pretentious.

Fast forward to Cast Iron and the sixth unsolved case in Roger Raffin’s book, and by now the cast of supporting characters are fully fleshed out and we’re rooting for them. This cold case involves the twenty-year old daughter of a judge, Lucie Martin, whose body was disposed of deep in a lake back in 1989, but an unusually hot summer 14 years later reveals it. It’s now 22 years since it happened, and yet someone is still desperate to prevent the case being solved. And this time Enzo’s own daughter Sophie is abducted and in mortal danger. The pressure is on big time: Enzo must stop his investigation or else …

It seems nobody is the kind of person they purport to be, paternity is a flexible concept, and once again Enzo is devastated to find people he trusted and loved are in fact villains. And he himself has changed – ‘everything about him … everything he had known and understood … everything he had been … ‘ the very bedrock on which he had built his life had fallen away beneath his feet … he is a stranger haunting his own past.’

Reading one book after another by any author has its benefits and disadvantages. With this series I found that little by little the characters grew on me and the overall picture consolidated reassuringly. I was glad I’d persevered beyond the first one. However reading several on the trot has its drawbacks. It’s a bit like TV series set in small villages/cities like Midsommer/Oxford where one detective solves murders regularly. Totally implausible. And what are the chances of every single cold case involving violent people bent on silencing Macleod and anyone else getting near to the truth? Vanishingly rare. Sigh! Except … in this instance, by the 44th chapter of the sixth book it all makes sense! Now that’s clever plotting … if you have nerves of steel and the confidence of a few million fans!

 

 

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