Posts Tagged ‘morality’

The German Agent by J Sydney Jones

November 13, 2014 4 comments

The German Agent by J Sydney Jones

Recently, I’ve been giving some thought to the nature and morality of war. Putting this in context, over the years, a number of nations have attempted to characterise the initiation of hostilities as being “just” in the abstract philosophical sense of the word. The preemptive nature of each attack across national boundaries is said to be moral when the utilitarian rule of proportionality is satisfied. That the harm resulting for the few injured or killed during the attack will be outweighed by the good for the majority of citizens who survive. Of course, this requires us to overlook the morality of inflicting the actual injury or death of all the victims in the first wave of the attack and assess the extent of the benefits retrospectively: something the victor has no difficulty in doing when in control of the measurement process. One of the wars in which neither side thinks the proportionality test was satisfied is the ironically named Great War. This was war by attrition. The side still having some men able to fight would win. Indeed, so many died that any measurement and balancing process became rather meaningless. So chaotic was the management of this war that any progress made in the ebb and flow of the conflict was often due to simple luck or accident.


The German Agent by J Sydney Jones (Severn House, 2014) is built around the history of the Zimmermann Telegram which, in 1917, was a backdoor deal between Germany and Mexico that the latter would enter the Great War should the US decide to intervene against Germany. The idea was that Germany would assist Mexico to recover Texas and so tie down US forces on home soil. This book explores the political and dangerous physical world of negotiation when an equivocal America is to be tempted into joining with Britain in fighting against the German Empire. The problem from Britain’s point of view is twofold. It must be able to satisfy the Americans the telegram is genuine. But in doing so, it must attempt to conceal the fact the intelligence service has cracked the code in which it was written. Once the Germans realise the telegram has been intercepted, they need to prevent it from being delivered to the Americans. In this, they rely on an agent, Max Volkman.

J Sydney Jones

J Sydney Jones


His background is not quite standard. He managed to survive one of the many futile charges across No Man’s Land, killing an impressive number of the “enemy” in the process. He was decorated for his heroism but, when he showed little enthusiasm for returning to the frontline, they retrained him as a spy. He should be the perfect weapon. He’s gone beyond fear, facing death and not flinching. But in reality, the experience has left him damaged. He’s not the coldblooded killer the Germans think him to be. This does not mean he’s incapable of killing. Far from it. But this is a man whose mind is trying to decide what’s right for him. After two years in America as a sleeper, he’s to intercept the British man thought to be carrying the Telegram. Almost immediately, he has to kill a local, an innocent civilian, an old man who just happens to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. In trench warfare, death is dispensed anonymously. This is the first time he has killed someone face-to-face. This is murder. It’s unsettling to a man like this agent. In a war, killing the enemy is the job. By killing the enemy, you are shortening the war and protecting your comrades in the trenches. In a neutral country, killing an old man is what? Perhaps this is a question only a man with a conscience would ask. Well, as this book’s plot develops, the question becomes more personal and less avoidable.


The problem with the book is easily stated. Because the actual history of the Great War is reasonably well known, there’s little suspense. The average reader will know whether the agent succeeded in preventing the Telegram from being delivered to the US President. This does not mean the book is without interest and some excitement. Obviously, the agent is initially determined to carry out his role and there are some good chase sequences and the way in which he stalks the British man carrying the relevant information is fascinating. But the focus of the book fails to create any real degree of empathy with the protagonist. It would have been possible to give us a better view of the man as his fledgling conscience comes back into play and he has real decisions to make. Those with a more jingoistic view of the world will want to cheer if the German fails and boo if he succeeds. In the end, perhaps, neither response is appropriate because he proves just as human as the rest of us. This leaves me slightly ambivalent. The German Agent is beautifully written and the details of the period hold great interest but, for me, it lacks dynamic tension. It’s a book I admire but I’m not entirely convinced it succeeds as a historical thriller.


A copy of this book was sent to me for review.


Shockwave by Andrew Vachss

May 23, 2014 3 comments


Shockwave by Andrew Vachss (Pantheon Books, 2014) is another of these books that challenges the reader to decide why we read books. One possible explanation is the naive hope they will somehow produce a sense of enjoyment. A good author is one who will transport the reader to another place where interesting, morally instructive and inspiring things will happen. Or we may expect laughs sufficient to help us temporarily forget the misery in our lives. This list is as long as those preaching escapism will know. So what do we make of books that show us a darker side of life? Let’s take vigilanteism as an example. The protagonist in these books is an individual who ignores the current social systems and laws. Whereas ordinary citizens must wait for the police to act and courts to adjudicate, favoring always the presumption of innocence and the right to due process, the vigilante becomes judge and executioner, arbitrarily short-circuiting all the safeguards society has put in place, and dispatching all those deemed unworthy to continue living. So our protagonist identifies a rapist, kidnaps him and, in a quiet place where no-one can hear him scream, cuts off his testicles and allows him to bleed to death. Is this entertainment? Well no. The author does not intend to describe such a scene to make us laugh. The author is offering us a alternative social model in which individuals with strength and determination flout the law and impose their own punishments on those felt deserving.

This is a first-person narrative about the life and times of a young man who had the “good” fortune to be rescued from a life of misery by an older man who worked for the resistance during World War II. Knowing the world is dog-eat-dog, this man teaches the boy how to survive. As soon as he appears old enough, the boy enrolls in the French Foreign Legion and learns more skills. More importantly, he gains a new identity and French nationality. There’s no longer any link to his past. When he has served his time, he continues to work as a mercenary, amassing wealth and giving himself the chance to make a clean break and live a life of peace should be opportunity arise. When he’s seriously wounded, the first stage of his physical recovery is managed by a nurse working for Médecins Sans Frontières. Some years later, he meets her and discovers she has burned out. What used to be self-sacrifice in a noble cause has become an unendurable burden as the mountain of bodies resulting from man’s inhumanity to man is finally too much. They bond and move to what’s intended to be a quiet haven where both can recover from their past life experiences. Except people like that can never really switch off their moral compasses. Wherever they are, they find themselves unable to look away when they see injustices that will not be remedied by the local law enforcement systems. In such situations, is not triage not justified?

Andrew Vachss

Andrew Vachss

It may be a girl who has been raped but, when our couple look further into the situation, they discover there’s a small group of young men who target young women and, for various reasons, the law enforcement officers will not take action. How many victims would you tolerate if you had the will and the skills to remedy the situation in a permanent fashion? Or suppose you became aware that a down-and-out schizophrenic had been charged with a murder he almost certainly could not have committed. Indeed, the more you looked into the situation of this body washed up on the shore, the more convinced you became this was a professional hit. Yet the local DA has the simple political drive to reassure his neighbours they are safe from the homeless that live in the nooks and crannies of the town and countryside around them. This defendant is a convenient scapegoat to close a case and secure re-election. There’s no personal malice involved. It’s just a simple political expediency in operation. For our protagonist, there’s just one problem. The usual clandestine extermination of the wrongdoers will achieve nothing. Without positive evidence exonerating the schizophrenic, he will go either to jail or a mental hospital. So either the DA must agree to withdraw charges or a court must formally acquit of all charges. This is a challenge and, in a sense, the only thing that saves the book from wallowing in amorality. In a sense, this is a situation that can only be resolved by someone altruistic helping in the defence of an indigent defendant. A rich defendant could use his or her wealth to buy the services of private inquiry agents to ferret out the truth. A poor man with mental disabilities has nothing given the public defence attorney has no budget with which to buy in expensive services.

On balance, there’s just enough in the book to leave us on the right side of the moral line although there are an alarming number of bodies that are left at the end. It’s not always easy to extract information without breaking a few eggs. Allowing for the ease with which the right information comes into our hero’s possession once he starts looking, this is a smoothly constructed plot about an interesting character. Even though I may not sympathise with his methods, I can at least understand why he is what he is. To that extent, Shockwave is a success.

For the review of another book by Andrew Vachss, see Urban Renewal.

A copy of this book was sent to me for review.

Work Done For Hire by Joe Haldeman

work done for hire

Work Done For Hire by Joe Haldeman is a very interesting book from a man better known for his science fiction. For the most part, this is a contemporary or near future thriller which adopts a somewhat metafictional structure. Since the nature of the plot is clearly intended to build up to an unexpected outcome, I will be careful to avoid anything too explicit in this review. I’ve probably read too many thrillers and SF novels to be taken by surprise. One of the flaws of the book is that, once you are given confirmation your suspicion is correct, there’s no effort made to retrace steps to explain how it was all done. I’m not saying setting this up in the real world would be impossible, but it would have felt more reassuring if Haldeman had offered a few words. Perhaps the US military really does surgically implant tracking devices into its key assets and another group could hack the device and follow him around. Or there’s some other near-future technology in play here. Whatever it is, the author should come clean. As to the actual ending, it’s less than rational and rather perfunctory. As one of the US military might say, this has grown into something of a clusterfuck and wrapping up all the loose ends and consequences in a single paragraph is the worst kind of lazy writing. This seems to be an author who thought of a plot which nicely got our protagonist into a mess and then couldn’t work out how to resolve it. So he threw down a few paragraphs at the end and hoped no-one would notice the arbitrary way in which everything came screeching to a halt.


So what can I safely say about this? Well, meet Jack Daley who was a sniper in the latest conflict. He picked up a wound in his leg and was invalided out. This leads to the usual PTSD problems and he’s heading for the usual scrap heap when he meets the right young lady. He writes a book about his experiences which is not unsuccessful, but no publisher seems very interested in his next book. Then his agent comes back with an offer from a film producer. They have a script outline and are looking for someone to novelise it. Actually, the studio doesn’t want a full novel. Novelette length is sufficient. If the studio likes it, they will build it into a shooting script with a big bonus if it’s made into a film. Note this is pie-in-the-sky future financial security. He’s only sure of the small advance. Throughout the book, we therefore get to read the chapters in this novelette as they are written. Indeed, it’s not impossible to see the emerging science fiction horror story as offering at least two points of interest. The hook for the story is a man down on his luck who’s paid to act as bait for a serial killer. It’s left ambiguous as to whether this Hunter is human or an alien. All we can say about this creature is that he eats those he kills. The second feature is the writing process influences the direction the fiction takes. As our writer as protagonist feels threatened, so his novelette becomes more gory. Obviously a sniper has a different view of the process of killing. His subconscious may therefore be taking the novelette in a direction the studio might consider unfilmable.

Joe Haldeman

Joe Haldeman


Everything is moderately conventional for the first third of the book. Our protagonist begins to demonstrate he’s not the greatest writer of horror which may be sfnal and we get to meet the woman in his life. He then receives a rifle with instructions to set it up for a hit and then stand ready for instructions. If he fails to obey, the voice on the telephone makes the usual threat that “they” will kill his girlfriend. So begins an exploration of how far each side of the potential bargain is prepared to go. Although Daley is not a banker, he’s used as a literary device to explore the phenomenon of moral hazard. He’s been a paid killer for the government. Now he’s asked to continue in his trade for private hire. This plot development might be more interesting if he was told who he was supposed to kill, but because the precise details of what he’s expected to do are never made explicit, the extent of the dilemma is not allowed to develop. Put simply, what we see of his writing suggests he’s never going to make it as a novelist, and he has no other real skills with which to earn a living. Resuming his life as a well-paid killer would pay all the bills and enable him to live a comfortable life. Unfortunately, the details remain largely theoretical and this aspect of the plot loses its impact.


This leaves me thinking Work Done For Hire is undercooked. Far more could have been done to bring the near-future technology into focus. The inclusion of an entire novelette inside the novel slows down the action and leaves less room for the thriller to build and be resolved coherently. The metafictional opportunity to use the fiction as an internal mirror is never seriously exploited. Although the characterisation of Jack and Kit is good, particularly when they go on the run, the book itself never really decides what it wants to do with two such interesting characters. The actual plot mechanism used in the final quarter of the book is very clichéd and makes little sense given what has gone before. So even though there are good features, I can’t really recommend you read this which, for a novel by Haldeman, is disappointing.


For reviews of other books by Joe Haldeman, see:
The Accidental Time Machine


A copy of this book was sent to me for review.


Urban Renewal by Andrew Vachss

December 28, 2013 1 comment

Urban Renewal cover_full

In a long life, I’ve known a number of career criminals including one charged with murder. As people to meet in pubs and ordinary social settings, they are remarkably unremarkable. But in the right context, of course, they do radiate a certain menace. So books like Urban Renewal by Andrew Vachss (Vintage Crime/Black Lizard, 2014) are always interesting because they walk the narrow moral line for authors in that they describe the ordinariness of these people’s lives interspersed by often cold-blooded outbursts of crime. To that extent, they reflect an underlying reality about life. Even the most deadly killers have families and friends. When they are not out on a job, they like to relax and do boring stuff. Indeed, it’s this time of being human that grounds them. Without this, they would be like mad dogs and bark so long and loud that even the most dense detective in the city would be able to identify them. It’s the quiet ones you never see coming.

For the author, there’s a dilemma. If the villain as protagonist is painted as completely “evil”, the majority of readers might find the reading exercise fascinating but only in a macabre way, i.e. many horror novels trade on the inherent evil of key characters to create the appropriate emotional response. But the more redeeming character features the author allows the protagonist, the less intimidating he or she becomes. At an intermediate stage this leads us to the vigilante. This is a socially useful individual who uses extralegal strategies to defeat the real evil around him. As readers, we’re invited to forgive the fact he or she kills the really bad guys because this activity satisfies the utilitarian criterion of delivering the greatest good for the least cost. Indeed, this plot usually introduces the human before the resort to criminality. This can be a loving parent whose child is kidnapped, raped and killed in a gruesome way. The police suspect who’s responsible but do not have enough evidence to justify the expense of a public trial. Our protagonist therefore takes the suspect somewhere quiet and asks pertinent questions with a cattleprod or electric drill. If guilt is established, we accept revenge as a justification for doing away with this pond scum. Should it prove not to be the kidnapper but other offences are admitted, we’re still encouraging our hero in the extermination campaign. The next one he takes will be the actual kidnaper. It will all work out for the best. One of the classic tropes is the apparently timid man or sexy woman who learns martial arts and how to shoot. They then walk the darker streets and back alleys inviting muggers and rapists to strike. This satisfies our general desire to have the streets turned into safer places for ordinary people. Since the police have to wait for the criminals to attack, this more proactive approach is more efficient.

Andrew Vachss

Andrew Vachss

In Urban Renewal, we have a tight group who are unquestioningly loyal to each other. Cross is the brains. As Marlon C Cain was a career criminal as a juvenile and ended up in the ultimate “pen” with Vernon D Lewis aka Ace. During their stay, they met an already massive individual who later becomes known as Rhino. This trio will add Princess, Tracker, Tiger and others. In a way, they become a family of misfits and outlaws whose only interest in life is survival and self-advancement. Their services are for sale, but this is not a simple murder for hire operation. They are far more sophisticated than that. More to the point, for all they would die for each other, they have no code of honour or morality. They do whatever it takes to earn the next buck, and then move on in search of the next. This makes them a very valuable resource to organised crime in their city (for now Chicago). It also means they are very carefully watched. If they become too dangerous to the mob or other criminal groups, the conflict would be short and brutal.

This is the second novel to feature Cross, but there are also short stories offering different views of the group and how it operates. The title gives us the theme. The group literally decide to invest their time (and some of their money) in a street which could be gentrified if the local gangs would decide to leave it alone. The homes are bought at the bottom of the market as the mortgage defaults cascade through the neighborhood. Now all they have to do is clear out the local rats. But at a metaphorical, we also see one of the group deciding he would like to live in one of these houses. This is a major psychological shift. His apartment is fortified and in a poor part of the city. He’s not suddenly transforming into an upwardly mobile social stereotype, but it’s nevertheless a form of renewal. Whereas Cross might otherwise have been less than committed to the role of pest control officer, the group must now work for real.

The other plot threads deal with an attempt to place a mole inside his organisation, a how-to become a player guide, disposing of inconvenient people, playing one mob leader against his ambitious deputy, and street racing 101. Although all these elements are woven into a relatively coherent whole, there’s a slight feel of fix-up as the structure tends to be slightly episodic. The upshot of all this is a book which holds interest. For all their amorality, the group is inadvertently a force for good. A part of Chicago ends up a better neighborhood in which civilians can live without harassment from local gangs, drug pushers and prostitutes. Several senior gangland figures are removed from their posts which disrupts the activities of their organisations. Some low-level thugs are persuaded to move up to better levels and an exploitative grifter gets his just deserts. Because these socially desirable results are not directly intended, we are denied the chance to accept Cross as a vigilante. He will always be too far off the reservation for acceptance. Nevertheless, Urban Renewal is worth reading. It’s not glorifying evil. Andrew Vachss simply catalogues the murders dispassionately and passes on.

For a review of another book by Andrew Vachss, see Shockwave.A copy of this book was sent to me for review.

Ghostman by Roger Hobbs


There has always been a fascination with the personalities of those who break the law. In part, this is because we have sneaking admiration for those with the confidence to take on the “system”. We revere Robin Hood because, as the leader of a guerilla force using forested lands as concealment, he was able to run a communist revolution against the King and his barons by forcibly redistributing the wealth of the nobility to the downtrodden peasants. We fear other criminals because they directly threaten us. So in cultural and political terms, we accept law-breaking when it achieves the justice we expect from our governmental organisations. We approve of extra-judicial or extra-legal methods when the aims of the law-breakers match our own needs. There’s then a grey area inhabited by individuals like Billy the Kid or John Dillinger who have achieved legendary status even though their behaviour was probably antisocial to the majority. Their notoriety elevates them from mere criminals to potential heroes. During Prohibition and the Great Depression, governments were having serious public relations problems, and the reputation of banks was even lower. Hence, the activities of bootleggers and bank robbers like Dillinger were like adventure stories, lifting the spirits of the common people and distracting them from the drudgery of their lives. For the bootleggers and bank robbers, of course, this celebrity status was ultimately self-serving. They were selling us rotten booze at inflated prices because we were hopeless alcohol addicts and they were stealing from the banks who’ve been stealing from us, the people. So it’s perfectly possible for violent offenders to avoid the classification of evil and become heroes, celebrated in all the media. Using the word in its widest sense, outlaws can be heroes. You only have to think of Batman and other vigilantes to see how we embrace the extra-legal when we think governments are failing us.

Roger Hobbs

Roger Hobbs

In crime fiction, we have Parker by Richard Stark (Donald E Westlake) as probably the most prolific of the criminals as (anti)hero. More recently, we’ve had a professional hitman as protagonist in Calling Mr King by Ronald De Feo, the Good Thief series by Chris Ewan, and so on. In the last six months, the cinema has produced a slew of amoral films including Arbitrage in which our “hero” kills his mistress and makes millions out of fraud, Snitch in which a father commits multiple crimes to get his criminal son out of jail, Pain and Gain in which three incompetents kidnap and murder people, and so on. It seems the creative have decided now is the right time to bring us stories from the darker side of the moral spectrum.

All of which brings me to Ghostman by Roger Hobbs (Knopf, 2013) in which our protagonist is a seasoned criminal who has made a career out of robbery and, where necessary, murder. His true claim to fame within the criminal fraternity is his ability to blend in and disappear (like Lee Child’s Jack Reacher, he lives completely off the grid). He’s the ultimately invisible man which gives him great flexibility to move around a city and achieve his aims. We start with him approached by a fixer he worked for five years ago when his misjudgment caused a big bank robbery to fail. He feels a sense of guilt and therefore agrees to help out to even the balance between them. This fixer has organised another robbery, this time at a casino, which has also gone very wrong. He needs our hero to pull the fat out of the fire. The intention had been to use the money from the casino to pay for drugs. Our hero is therefore to recover the stolen money and prevent the fixer’s late payment to the drug distributor from turning into a war. As introductory stories go, this is not unreasonable but, of course, nothing is quite what it seems.

During the course of the resulting story, our hero meets a whole range of people, only one of whom is explicitly on the side of “justice”. Everyone else is criminal to some degree, some quite violently and dangerously so. The navigation from start to finish against the clock is therefore fraught with difficulty as various people try to kill him and/or acquire the stolen money. So this book is not for everyone. There are descriptions of torture and varying degrees of violence. Since I insist on continuing to call him the hero, you will understand he’s actually out to get a result that matches his own ethical code. Although this need not have been the case, what he does is actually useful to local law enforcement agencies. That helps to sell him as a more acceptable “hero”. Indeed, I confess to finding the book a success despite the somewhat gratuitous Russian Roulette scene — I’m not wholly convinced he would go quite that far even though it’s a dangerous situation. The idea he’s a modern parallel of Aeneas is also interesting, i.e. that he’s being “saved” or saves himself so he can fulfill his destiny. But there’s a certain lack of coherence to the character and, despite all the fascinating detail, many of the plot elements are familiar. Against this I set the fact this is a first novel. Under the circumstances, I forgive the author. This is a genuinely great debut and I will be waiting to see where the next book takes him.

A copy of this book was sent to me for review.

Available Dark by Elizabeth Hand

Available Dark by Elizabeth Hand (Minotaur Books, 2012) is a challenging book in several quite different ways and it’s difficult to offer a review without too many spoilers. So let’s start with the relatively uncontroversial elements. This is the second book using the character of Cassandra Neary (Cass for short), the first being Generation Loss, set in Maine. However, there’s no need for you to have read the first. You can simply accept there’s a risk Cass may be accused of involvement in the death described and so finds it expedient to be unavailable for interview by law enforcement officers. It would be inconvenient to explain how and why she was in the right place at the right time to take a photograph of the victim.

This sets the tone for this second book. When starting out as a photographer, Cass made a name for herself through the publication of Dead Girls. As the title suggests, this was a collection of photographs which, in an artistic way, captured images of death. Because of this, she has a cult following among those who collect the memorabilia of the dead. Unfortunately, it also represents the high or low point of her career, depending on your point of view. She gets by, earning just enough to pay the rent in New York, but never really wants to break into the “big time”, whatever that may be. In part, this reflects her punk lifestyle in which drugs and alcohol fuel her endurance from one day to the next. There’s an essential and deep-seated alienation that prevents her from forming any real relationships. Her one true love from High School, Quinn O’Boyle, was hauled off to jail and she has not seen him since. The circumstances described in Generation Loss were the first time since school that she’d actually spent quality time with people. That this ended in death was unfortunate and, in a way, ironic. Her cult followers believe she has a rare talent, an eye that captures the essential nature of death through the lens of her old Konica. She confirmed that by allowing one of the photographs showing the latest death in Maine to be published in Stern.

Elizabeth Hand and a wall with an anti-nuclear tattoo

Now she’s off to Finland to authenticate a set of six pictures for Anton Bredahl, a rich collector. Why should she agree to go? Apart from the money, it gives her the chance to meet Ilkka Kaltunnen, a photographer who also has a flair for photographing people near or after death. For a while, he was immensely popular, his pictures appearing in the glossy pages of magazines like Vogue. Then nothing. This starts her off on a journey and involvement, both direct and indirect, in a number of deaths. So here’s the question. Does someone “famous” always deserve a diarist/journalist/photographer to shadow daily activities and record events as they occur? Or, put another way, what’s the function of a person who takes photographs? I’m reminded of the photograph taken by Nick Ut of a girl in Vietnam called Kim Phuc. She was running naked down a road following a napalm attack. He won a Pulitzer. She won months in hospital and years of pain. Vietnamese doctors saved her life because the photograph made her famous, but at what cost? She became a communist propaganda pawn, forced to endure media intrusion. Even her defection to, and subsequent political asylum in, Canada could not take the continuing physical and emotional pain from her. She was a victim of war and was further victimised because of that photograph.

Elizabeth Hand introduces us to a world in which people collect and deal in the memorabilia of death. As an author, she takes no moral stance on this trade. It’s simply described for what it is. Yet what is the real power of the photographs? Why are they collectable? What is their value in monetary and other terms? In some cases, the photographs could be trophies collected by the killers and their fans. At the scene of each murder, the murderers’ shadows record the detail of each death for the enjoyment of those in the group. Or they could be for blackmail, containing critical evidence that would identify the killer(s). In addition, the book contains descriptions of different types of metal music that celebrate aspects of death and cultish belief systems. When the action moves to Reykjavik, the need to understand the relationship between the music and the photography grows stronger. When we later add Norse myths and rituals, it all grows very dark — hence the ambiguity in the title of the book.

To be able to take a picture, there must be enough ambient light for the camera to function. This leads to a complex game between the photographer and the environment in which selection of the lens, the shutter speed, the type of film and the availability of light from different sources all come together in the expression of true art. Even in today’s high technology world of pixels, art transcends mere skill to celebrate what the photographer sees through the lens. So how does a photographer capture the pictures? How is there enough dark content to photograph? How is there enough light so viewers can see clearly enough what has happened? Perhaps the best pictures are always the result of careful staging. Yet this does not explain the power of photographs such as taken by Nick Ut. The problem is that he and other war correspondents hover like a carrion birds on battlefields waiting for just the right moment when they can capture a life in danger or about to be extinguished. History is made up of the pictures and the other descriptions they bring back. People collect the uniforms, the weapons used and the medals awarded for valour. They visit the sites of great battles, studying maps and role-playing the parts of generals and foot-soldiers. They play first-person shooter games and read fictional accounts of combat. So, as a society, it’s morally acceptable to be interested in death caused during war or situations where the combat is dignified as honourable. But it’s somehow qualitatively less acceptable to be interested in death caused in the commission of crime or as part of a ritual.

Available Dark is a powerful book. It’s written with a wonderful eye for detail. However, I have serious reservations about the credibility and coherence of the plot, and I’m not convinced by the moral equivalence of the context for the action. Why must photographers end up like voyeurs observing the rape of life or the desecration of death, particularly when there are ritualised or cultish overtones to the situations? Surely, they are allowed to look away. This is not a book for everyone. I would rate it as a brilliant failure. The writing is wonderful but. . .

For reviews of other books by Elizabeth Hand, see:
Errantry: Strange Stories
Last Summer at Mars Hill

A copy of this book was sent to me for review.

Voices of the Dead by Peter Leonard

February 7, 2012 2 comments

When you start off any review, it’s as well to talk about the elephant in the room first. This clears the air. Not that elephants regularly pollute the atmosphere with foul gasses, you understand, but we need to keep a proper sense of proportion so we can see past the beast to the “real” issues. Voices of the Dead (The Story Plant, 2012) begins with an introduction from the father about his son. This is Peter Leonard‘s fourth novel. His father, Elmore Leonard, has been writing for slightly longer and has managed to build up quite a name for himself. I think he’s published forty-nine novels — I always have trouble counting over ten when I run out of fingers — and has written screenplays for both cinema and television. So here comes a simple truth. Peter is not his father. On the evidence of this book, he’s a talented writer on the merits. Perhaps more importantly, he’s neither ashamed nor intimidated by admitting the relationship. This distinguishes writers like Joe Hill who start off their careers without broadcasting the identities of their more famous parents.

The book begins in what feels a conventional way but, after a few more pages it becomes obvious this not a book like any written by Elmore. It’s altogether darker with sensibilities that would not sit comfortably in a genre western or suspense-oriented thriller. In dealing with the Holocaust, an issue in history that tends to raise emotions, Peter Leonard is taking a risk. Our protagonist is called Harry Levin. He’s a survivor, but not because he was strong. At the age of thirteen, he was left for dead, buried in a mass grave. The action starts in 1971. This keeps the ages of those involved credible for the decisions on flight or fight. The catalyst is the death of Harry’s daughter in a traffic accident. The driver was hopelessly drunk but has diplomatic immunity, which triggers Harry’s desire for revenge. Except the moral nature of this desire changes when the identities of those involved are revealed.

In theory, the passage of time gives us a better perspective on the events of the past. When an author has no direct experience to draw on, he must imagine how it felt to be a survivor. It should provide a way of presenting the trauma in a more objective way. So Peter Leonard gives us a fairly straight description of how Harry escaped death and subsequently left Germany. There’s little commentary and the emotional content is kept to a minimum. Nevertheless, the modern reader comes with a complex set of emotional responses to the Holocaust. Today, there’s more silence on the subject, yet this lack of voices can be as loud as speaking when we consider the status of Jews in societies around the world and view the difficulties faced by Israel. In the period immediately after WWII, the discourse was full of condemnation and the politics of revenge. Some believe the establishment of the state of Israel was, in itself, an act of revenge against the state of Germany. The din death squads were active until 1960 and the trial of war criminals has continued into this century, most recently in 2009 with the case of Heinrich Boere, a former SS member charged with three murders.

Peter Leonard turns his back on books

Thematically, we are in the same territory as The Iron Tracks by Aharon Appelfeld in which Erwin Siegelbaum murders the camp commandant, Colonel Nachtigel, who killed his parents. This brings him no peace of mind. Murder is hardly the most noble of human actions and it’s rarely rewarded with salvation when the motive is revenge. Ironically, it may be easier to kill a man if you see him as a monster, but this process to dehumanise an individual Nazi is what the Nazis did on a national scale to Jews as a justification for their extermination. In a way, this captures the problem for Peter Leonard. If Voices of the Dead had been written in the 1970s, it would have been sufficient that the son was resuming his acquaintance with the man who killed his father. As it is, even though he’s set the story in the past, the modern reader might not approve revenge based purely on what happened during the war. To us, this is old history. Peter Leonard therefore makes his unrepentant Nazi continue life as a serial killer (and a drunk driver), i.e. if anything he’s become even more monstrous with the passage of time. There’s then a further change to defuse the scale of the moral decisions Harry must take on his journey. His initial attempt to kill is frustrated. This produces what we may term a cooling-off period. There’s a chance for all interested parties to reflect and pull back from the precipice. What happens after this is slightly more mainstream.

I have a slight problem with the characterisation of Harry. The German language is inevitably linked to the experiences of his childhood. It’s also the language of those who took the family to the camps and murdered his father. This should taint the language in the ears of the child, raising an emotional question mark over its use. Coming to America, Harry solves the problem by learning a new language in which he can distance himself from his memories. Over time, the fear and anger subsides, and he remembers the happier moments with his parents before the war and, less frequently, immediately before the family is taken. Yet in 1971, he seems able to drop back into German without hesitation. Further, although there are minor resonances when he actually returns to Germany and visits the scenes of his past, there’s little sense of any underlying trauma. In this, I think the novel somewhat pulls its punches.

Overall, the choice of the Holocaust as the main theme may mean some readers will be deterred from reading it. This would be a shame because Voices of the Dead is beautifully written and relatively dispassionate in its handling of difficult issues. It may not deal with the complexity of the moral issues but, in its silences, it does speak powerfully about the past and how we should react to it.

A copy of this book was sent to me for review.

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