Tuesday, July 17, 2012

The gathering storm

Recently I've read a couple of novels set during what Winston Churchill called the gathering storm in England--1939, with Hitler marching across Europe and Neville Chamberlain believing that appeasement would work. Give them Sudentenland, and they'll leave England alone, a policy which Churchill loudly denounced. The first novel, Mr. Churchill's Secretary, by Susan Elia MacNeal, opened my eyes to the situation in England. With the German threat hanging over the country, the IRA was determined to do the German's work for them--bring England to its knees by bombing railroad stations and the like. Their intricate plots were completely separate from Germany and Hitler. And there was great resentment of the US for not entering the fray.This novel is basically a cozy mystery and while I enjoyed the plot, I was much more interested in the historical background, which did include blitzes and quite a few scenes with Churchill. One thread is the limited opportunities for women--Maggie Hope graduated at the top of her class from a prestigious American women's university and is as well trained as England's sharpest intelligence minds, but she is only qualified to be a typist. By a fluke, she becomes the one to take Churchill's dictation and eventually has an opportunity to use her considerable intelligence skills.
The second book, which I just finished, is more of a puzzle. It's Francine Matthews' Jack 1939, set a bit earlier in 1939, before Germany took Poland and began bombing London. Jack is twenty-two-year-old JFK suffering from a severe but undiagnosed illness (probably the Bright's disease later diagnosed). He goes to England, where Joe Kennedy is America's ambassador, to wander Europe doing research for his senior thesis at Harvard, using a diplomatic passport.
This is a suspene thriller in every sense of the term. We know the hero--Jack, who is is sick all the time, often feverish, unable to hold food down, medicating himself, thin and frail. We know the heroine if there is one--Diana Playfair (I looked on Google and she doesn't seem to be a historical character). We know the villains--Reinhard Heydrich, the obbergruppenfuhrer, chief of Hitler's main security office and a thoroughly merciless man (historical figure) along with Hans Obst (apparently fictional), an equally merciless killer skiled with a knife. And we know the prize--an address book listing those who donated to the Sisters of Clemency, a charity which funneled funds to aid the Nazis in defeating Roosevelt in the American election--a list which includes Joe Kennedy. (Complicated enough for you?) Most of the above is historical but what bothered me in this novel was sorting the historical from the fictional, some of which seems improbable. Jack skitters across Europe, Obst at his heels, passing through checkpoints and closed borders and escaping death by a hair's breadth. Suspense at its best but, to me, bothersome. Jack does go from wanting to get the address book to save the famly reputation to wanting to get it for the cause of America--a touch of Camelot to come?
Joe Kennedy is as you would expect--authoritarian, dictatorial, self-centered. Rose, whom I always greatly admired, comes across as less admirable--a social-climbing, self-centered, self-indulgent woman who is distant from her children, even when Jack may be dying. Jack is not much of a surprise--intelligent, foolhardy, an eye for the skirts, enjoying a good drink. But then, he expected to die at any time anyway--why not in an adventure rather than a hospital bed? It's hard to give up Camelot.
But these books have piqued my interest in the pre-WWII years, and I want to read more.

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