There are probably as many novels as there are people who experienced the devastation and ultimate freedom of World War II. But there is no novel - featuring either the Korean, Vietnam, or Middle East conflicts, that continue to be considered popular literature. An exception is Matterhorn by Karl Marlantes, about the struggle from the perspective of all the Nam participants, in what was then a divided nation. Another is Lotus Eaters by Tatjana Soli about a woman photojournalist’s role, in relationships and conflict, weeks before the Saigon airlift. While there are surely more, these two are the most recent that that come to mind.
As of today there are three new extraordinarily engaging titles, again with the backdrop of WWII. In Peter Robinson’s Before the Poison, an American, Chris Lowndes, buys an English country home, sight unseen. Only after he’s moved-in does he hear the story of former owner, Grace Fox, murdering her husband. She was then being executed for the crime, now fifty years before Lowndes moved in. After learning about Grace, Lowndes sets out to prove Grace’s innocence. She was living a seemingly idyllic marriage and the few who remember her, knew her for her kindness and generosity. How could this fine woman murder anyone? That’s what Chris Lowndes wants to find out.
Philip Kerr’s Prague Fatale continues the tale of the cynical detective Bernie Gunther who reluctantly serves as a bodyguard to the Nazi’s Reinhard Heydrich, who fears for his life. He is so good at his job that the country’s leaders overlook his anti-Nazi sympathies. (Gunther is introduced in Kerr’s trilogy Berlin Noir). Gathered in a country home are many of the Gestapo’s key leaders where Heydrich hopes Gunther can reveal the conspirators. Gunther’s new girlfriend is his only break during a difficult assignment, and she tells Gunther she spends her days with friends.
Alan Furst’s Mission to Paris has movie star Frederic Stahl in Paris to shoot a movie, just as the German army makes its presence and demands known to the French. Stahl’s international fame is a Nazi propaganda prize and they prod and then force the star to host a Berlin film festival. He finds a way to help the Allied cause, even if he is reluctantly going to Berlin. This spy thriller is a classic example of Furst’s unquenchable talent.
Each of these mysteries provides a fascinating reading experience. I trust there are other stories from conflicts that can be as successful transferred into fiction.
Jim is a bookseller at Warwick's