Get Blog Posts Via Email

View RSS Feed


Posts Tagged ‘World War II’

THE SHADOW DISTRICT by Arnaldur Indridason: Book Review

Iceland during World War II was changing, and the changes weren’t to everyone’s liking.  Before the war the country was a small farming community, remote from the rest of the world, ruled by Denmark.  But in 1944 Iceland became an independent republic while at the same time undergoing major social changes due to the influx of American and British troops who were stationed there before being sent to fight in Europe.

As in other countries where foreign armies were present, this created problems; in Iceland that became known as the Situation.  British and American soldiers were dating Icelandic women who were impressed by the foreigners’ sophistication, politeness, and wealth, a welcome change from the rural and unworldly Icelandic men, at least as they were perceived by the young women.

In wartime Reykjavik, Ingiborg is facing this problem.  Deciding to disregard her father’s stern prohibition about dating an American, she and her lover Frank have sneaked off to the abandoned National Theater, a favorite place for illicit romance.  Scarcely have they arrived when Ingiborg trips over some cardboard, and when she and Frank look down they see the body of a young woman.  Ingiborg wants to call the police, but Frank prevails and they flee the scene.

Fast forward to present day Reykjavik, where the body of an elderly man is found in his apartment after his neighbor calls police to say she hasn’t seen him in several days.  He’s lying peacefully on his bed, fully clothed, but obviously quite dead.  At first, given his advanced age, the police conclude that he died in his sleep, but the autopsy required by law shows that Stéfan Thórdarson was suffocated.

Konrád, a retired Reykjavik detective, has an interest in the case.  He has vague childhood memories about the murder in the Theater; it happened in his neighborhood, the Shadow District.  He seems to recall that his father had some connection to it, but he can’t remember exactly what it was.  He gets permission to search the apartment of the dead man, which is almost completely free of any personal items except for a photo of a handsome young man and three newspaper clippings about the death at the Theater.

The Shadow District goes back and forth in time between 1944 and now.  No one has ever been arrested in the young woman’s murder, even though it bore a resemblance to the disappearance and presumed death of another woman in northern Iceland a few years earlier.  The only seeming connection between the two deaths was the mention of Huldufólk in both cases. 

Huldufólk are elves or hidden people in Icelandic folklore, sometimes amusing and sometimes evil.  Shortly before the disappearance of the northern woman and the death of the woman in Reykjavik, each had spoken about being attacked by these elves.  The belief in these mythic beings runs deep in the country, even today.  And although many people say they don’t really believe in the hidden people, no one wants to totally dismiss them.

Arnaldur Indridason is one of Scandinavia’s most popular writers, winner of the Glass Key, the award for the best Nordic mystery novel, in 2002 and 2003.  The Shadow District is his first in a new series, and it’s a terrific beginning.  As always the author’s characters and plot are believable and engrossing, and the glimpses into Icelandic history are an added plus.

You can read more about Arnaldur Indridason on many websites.

Check out the complete Marilyn’s Mystery Reads at her website.  In addition to book review posts, there are sections featuring Golden Oldies, Past Masters and Mistresses, and an About Marilyn column that features her opinions about everything to do with mystery novels.



A SINGLE SPY by William Christie: Book Review

A Single Spy is an outstanding thriller.  Actually, more than simply a thriller it’s a novel about history, war, trust, loyalty, and a young boy’s determination to survive.

The novel begins in 1936 Azerbaijan, with a teenaged Alexsi Ivanovich Smirnov at the head of a mule train in the desert on the Soviet border with Iran.  He’s leading a group of Shahsavan tribesmen, Azeri-speaking Iranian nomads, who are smuggling goods across the border.  But a troop of Russian soldiers is waiting for them, guns ready.  Ever alert to danger and to treason, Alexsi manages to evades both the tribesmen and the soldiers, but after his escape he’s still a lone boy on the streets of Baku.

Two weeks later Alexsi is picked up by the police and transported “somewhere in the Soviet Union,” which turns out to be Moscow and the infamous Lubyanka prison in particular.  Proving the total control and observation that the authorities have over the populace, Alexsi’s interrogator knows nearly everything about him–his orphaned state, his ability to speak and understand German, and his need to take care of himself in any way he can.

The interrogator, Grigory Petrovich Yakushev, has Alexsi sign a note promising to spy for and to be true to the Soviet Union.  He’s told to pick a code name, known only to the GUGB.  Alexsi chooses “Dante” because he’s familiar with the Divine Comedy, although he tells Grigory he’s only read the Inferno completely and didn’t finish the other two parts of the epic poem.  When the agent asks why he didn’t continue reading, Alexsi tells him, “Hell was much more interesting than heaven.”

Alexsi is a protagonist who will quickly get you on his side.  He does things you won’t approve of, but you understand why he does them.  He’s always looking out for number one because if he doesn’t look out for himself, who will?  He’s alone in the world, with no family or friends to protect him, and certainly the government wants him only for his abilities–his brains and his facility with languages–and would murder him in a minute if his death were deemed necessary to the powers-that-be.

A Single Spy takes the reader from Azerbaijan to Moscow to Berlin to Iran.  Alexsi is always in danger, whether from the Afghani tribesmen, the Nazi military, or the Russian secret police.  He can count on no one’s loyalty or permanent protection and must depend on his own sharp wits to keep alive.  As he discovers during his days in Berlin, even the people who supposedly want to hear the truth from him really don’t; they simply want to have their own ideas and prejudices supported.  Over and over again the message is brought home–you can’t trust anyone but yourself.

William Christie has written a fascinating book, a look into both the mind of a young man forced into the most dangerous situations possible and the looming nightmares of the twentieth century personified by Stalin and Hitler.  A Single Spy is a tough, graphic read and well worth your time.

You can read more about William Christie on many internet sites.

Check out the complete Marilyn’s Mystery Reads at her web site.



CRITICAL MASS by Sara Paretsky: Book Review

V. I. (Vic) Warshawski’s friend Lottie Herschel was rescued from the Holocaust, transported to England on the Kindertransport with another young girl, Kathe Saginor.  That was more than seventy years ago, but the long arm of history has reached into present-day Chicago, bringing with it lies, betrayals, and murder.

Lottie was a child of the upper middle class in Vienna before the war.  Her playmate Kathe was the granddaughter of the Herschels’ seamstress.  Kathe’s own mother, Martina, was too involved in her scientific career to care for her daughter.

The two girls were separated upon their arrival in England and didn’t see each other for years afterward.  They led very different lives until Kathe, now renamed Kitty, ended up in Chicago, the city where Lotte resides and has a medical practice.  Lotte never married, but Kitty married an American serviceman and has a daughter, Judy, who became a drug addict and dealer.  It is Judy whose story precipitates Vic’s involvement in Lotte and Kitty’s tangled histories.

Searching for Judy, Vic finds an abandoned crystal meth-making house, a starved dog, and a man’s corpse.  When Vic tells Kitty what she has found, Kitty lets Vic know in no uncertain terms that she has no interest in where her daughter is or what trouble she is in now.

But Kitty is very concerned about Judy’s son Martin, who left their home and his job ten days ago and hasn’t been seen or heard from since.  Cordell Breen, the president of the company where Martin works as a computer programmer, wasn’t told that Martin hasn’t been at work for more than a week, and he is now concerned that the young man may have taken some important confidential information with him.

Critical Mass goes back and forth between the present in Chicago and the late thirties and early forties in Vienna.  Martin’s great-grandmother, Martina, was a brilliant physicist who lost her research and teaching jobs because she was Jewish.  She continued as best she could, reading scientific journals and making copious equations about heavy water and atomic molecules, often disagreeing with the conventional wisdom of the time.  Her research was ignored due to her religion and gender, but she persevered.  Sent to a concentration camp during the war, Martina was never heard from again.

Despite opposition from Kitty and Lotte, Vic decides to look for Judy and eventually for Martin.  This involves her with the family of Benjamin Dzornen, Martina’s mentor in Vienna and winner of the Nobel Prize for physics.  The remaining Dzornens, his two daughters and a son, have only contempt for Kitty, her daughter, and her grandson.  There’s a secret connecting these families–the Herschels, the Saginors, and the Dzornens–and Vic is determined to find out what it is, in addition to locating Martin and Judy.

V. I. is, as always, tough, determined, and willing to put herself in dangerous situations to get at the truth.  Warned off by friends and foes alike, she continues her search in order to ferret out the story of Kitty’s family.  Critical Mass is a powerful novel with fascinating characters, and the plot resonates with historical truths many people would prefer to forget.

You can read more about Sara Paretsky at her web site.

Check out the complete Marilyn’s Mystery Reads blog at her web site.





SPIES OF THE BALKANS by Alan Furst: Book Review

Salonika, Greece, in October 1940. World War II has been going on for a year, and Greece is not yet involved.  But the population knows that the invasion by the Nazi or Fascist troops cannot be far behind.  By 1941, Germany has overrun Slovakia, Hungary, Roumania (the old spelling), and Bulgaria.  Greece, with its huge coastline and its proximity to the Balkans, cannot be allowed to remain neutral.

Constantine Zannis, known as Costa, is a police detective in the port city of Salonika. He is involved with a British woman who is ostensibly in Salonika to run a ballet school, but that is merely her cover.  In fact, she is an espionage agent, a spy, and she is given orders to return to England as soon as it becomes obvious that Greece will soon by invaded by the Nazis.

Her replacement, Francis Escovil, has heard how Costa was able to help a German-Jewish woman slip two young children out of Germany and into Turkey.  Now Escovil wants Costa to give him the names of people in Germany who are working against the Nazis.  He doesn’t want to apply pressure on Costa, doesn’t think that will work, but he wants those names.  And Costa doesn’t want to give them to him, he just wants to go on helping Jews escape in his own way.

The characters in Spies of the Balkans are international. In addition to Costa (Greek) and his lover Roxanne (British), the reader is introduced to Celebi, the Turkish consul; Emilia Krebs, a Jewish woman helping others out of Germany; Salmi Pal, a Hungarian criminal living in Salonika; Ivan Lazareff, a friend in Bulgaria.  All these disparate people are working willingly or not to stop the Nazis.

Spies of the Balkans is a look back to the beginning of the Second World War in Greece. It was a poor country, very much unprepared to face the enormous armies of Germany and Italy.  But its people were fearless fighters, and the overwhelming odds against them did not stop them from trying to protect their homeland from invasion.

The novel traces the steps taken by the various individuals to get Jews and other resisters out of Germany and the occupied countries.  Money was needed, of course, to obtain forged papers–birth certificates, visas–and to be used for bribes, when necessary.  What is fascinating is those who helped people escape without asking for, or accepting, money.

When Emilia Krebs comes to Costa to ask for his help in getting two children out of Germany and into neutral Turkey, she says, “I can never thank you enough.  For helping me.”  “You don’t have to thank me,” he said.  “Who could say no?”  The goodness and naivete in his statement still resonate more than seventy years later.

Alan Furst has written a book that is difficult to put down. Each clandestine operation that Costa takes part in is different from those before it, and each one depends not only on him but others.   One misreading by Costa of someone he has asked for help and his life and those of the refugees would be forfeit.

Calling Spies of the Balkans a thriller is calling it by its true name. It’s a great read from first page to last, and that’s no hyperbole.  The last page will bring you to tears.

You can read more about Alan Furst at his web site.

THE DEAD OF WINTER by Rennie Airth: Book Review

It’s difficult for an author to write a trilogy featuring a former police detective that goes from just after World War I to the middle of World War II and make it believable. After all, the question facing authors as to whether or not to have their characters age is a hard one.  But in the third book in this series featuring former Scotland Yard inspector John Madden, Rennie Airth shows that it can be done, and done convincingly.

The Dead of Winter opens with a prologue. It’s 1940 in Paris, and Maurice Sobel, a French Jew, is getting ready to leave his country, one step ahead of the invading Nazis. His wife and sons have already reached America, but Sobel wants and needs to close his business and bring some capital with him to the United States.  He converts the money he receives for his business into easy-to-carry diamonds he purchased from a Dutch dealer working in Paris.

Two nights before his planned leave-taking he receives a phone call from a friend who knows that Sobel is getting ready to leave France, asking if he would be willing to take two Polish refugees along with him to Portugal.  Sobel agrees, and on the night he receives the diamonds and is doing last-minute preparations prior to departure, he hears his doorbell ring.  Sobel opens the door, expecting to see his traveling companions, and it is the last thing he does.  His throat is encircled by a thin wire, and Sobel drops to the floor, dead.

Now it’s November 1944, and the war has been going on for more than five years in Europe. Men too old to fight have been given jobs on the Home Front.  One of these air wardens, whose job it is to see that the blackout in London is strictly observed, is walking his beat when he sees a young woman in front of him carrying a basket and a bundle.  She seems apprehensive but refuses his offer to walk with her and help her carry the items, saying her destination is just around the corner.  When he turns that same corner less than a minute later, he stumbles over her; her slight body is twisted, and she has a broken neck.

Scotland Yard is almost ready to call the murder one of the too-frequent acts of violence that have come to the city since the beginning of the war.  The only reason the Yard hesitates is that the girl, Rosa Nowak, is identified as a land girl, a farm helper, who is working for former Inspector John Madden of the Yard.

Rosa came to England as a refugee, having lost her parents and siblings to the Nazis, and her quiet demeanor and inexpressible sadness had touched Madden’s family.  Madden wants to make certain that Scotland Yard is doing all it can to find her killer.  When a prostitute comes forward several days later to say she may have seen the man who killed Rosa, the police are anxious to get a complete description of the man.  But before they can call her in for a second interview, her landlady calls the Yard to tell them that she has been killed, garrotted.

Other murders follow, and Scotland Yard fears it has a paid assassin on its hands, perhaps the first that the country has seen.

Rennie Airth’s trilogy seamlessly takes the reader from World War I England to World War II England.   Years have gone by, but John Madden is as interesting a character as he was in the first novel.

You can read more about Rennie Airth at his web site.

Check out the complete Marilyn’s Mystery Reads at her web site.

LAST RIGHTS by Barbara Nadel: Book Review

The houses are destroyed, the food is rationed, the nearly nightly bombing raids have the residents of the East End fearing for their lives.  This is London in 1940, as shown in Barbara Nadel’s crime novel Last Rights.

Francis (Frank) Hancock, third generation undertaker, is still reeling from his years in the trenches of The War To End All Wars. Except it didn’t, as the Luftwaffe’s bombings clearly show at the beginning of World War II.  Unlike most of the other East Enders, including his mother and sisters, Frank can’t be persuaded to go into the Anderson, the bunker-like corrugated steel paneled structure provided by the government outside his home.  Instead, Frank runs through the streets of his neighborhood during every air raid, recognized by his bemused neighbors as “the Morgue’s son,” until the bombing is over.

On one such night, Frank comes upon a man clawing at his chest and screaming that he has been stabbed.  Frank tries to stop him, not believing him, but the man curses and runs away.  But his body turns up at Frank’s undertaking parlor two days later.  The man turns out to have been a local tough named Kevin Dooley, with a vicious mother who is about to turn Kevin’s widow and her daughter out on the streets.

Although Pearl Dooley, Kevin’s widow, was abused by her late husband, she insists to Frank that she still loved him.  And maybe she did, Frank thinks.  Who knows what goes on between a man and his wife?  But the Dooley family, headed by Kevin’s mother, doesn’t want anything to do with Pearl, and when Frank tells the coroner that Kevin had told him he was stabbed, a further investigation proves that he indeed died from being stabbed with something long and thin put directly into his heart.

Even though Frank believes he did the right thing by telling the coroner that this might have been a murder rather than a result of the bombing, the undertaker is upset when Pearl Dooley is arrested for the crime. Given her family history, with a mother who had been hanged as a murderess, things don’t look good for Pearl.  And when Frank finds Pearl’s sister Ruby, whose own boyfriend has just died under suspicious circumstances, it simply adds more weight to the idea of “bad blood.”

Frank Hancock is a man who is still reliving his time in the trenches of Flanders. He’s an outsider in homogeneous England, having a white father and an Indian mother.  He’s a man who runs wildly and stutters during air raids.  He’s a man still dealing with his guilt at having killed German soldiers during the first World War, even though they were the enemy.

The characters created by Barbara Nadel are incredibly real. Frank’s sister Aggie has been left by her husband when he ran off with her best friend, and she dresses too provocatively for her sister Nan’s repressed tastes.  Fred, the neighborhood bobby, simply wants to clear the murder case without having to do much work in order to do so.  Pearl, Ruby, and the two other sisters of the dysfunctional Reynolds family have never recovered from their traumatic childhood and live in fear that someone is trying to get revenge for the killing more than twenty years earlier of their mother’s lover.  Or perhaps it would be more accurate to say one of their mother’s lovers, as each of her four daughters had a different father.  For its insights into war-torn London and its citizens’ psyches, Last Rights is a book to read.

You can read more about Barbara Nadel at