Seventeen years in the writing, British crime writer Howard Linskey's labour of love is based on real events from 1942, when two assassins targetted "the man with the iron heart", Reinnhard Heydrich. While Heydrich is perhaps less known to a modern readership than others who rose to the top of the Nazi regime, he was perhaps the man who could have been Hitler's heir, and the story behind his assassination shows how much of a threat he represented in the war's early stages.
Linskey opens the book with a foreword about his own fascination with "Operation Anthropoid", but then steps back and allows his characters to do the talking. He may be obssessed with this period of history, but as an experienced novelist, he also knows how to tell a story that will really hook the reader,
A big problem with many novels set during this era is an urge on the part of the author to show off their research, but Linskey manages to add depth and context to his world without overwhelming the reader; the art of showing instead of telling is on fine display here.
Linskey's decision to show both the allies and Nazi POVs also results in some of the book's best scenes. As thrilling as the build up to the assassination is, where the book really chills is in the scenes where we learn of Heydrich's plans as regards "the final solution", and the political fighting among the higher level Nazis as they each attempt to curry favour with Hitler while assuring that no one else is alongside them.
But the story of Josef Gabcik and Jan Kubis - the two men looking to kill Heydrich - is what drives this book, and the tension as they implement their plan becomes unbearable in the later stage. But as boys-own-adventure as the premise may be, Linskey never forgets the cost of war and the real cost of decisions made in the heat of the battle. In an afterword, he quotes from a memorial to the two men: "Freedom is something that has to be paid for." The Man With the Iron Heart never forgets that it is dealing with real world events and personalities, and that while Operation Anthropoid was important in winning the war, it came with other consequences that were more personally devastating.
Linskey's earlier novels with No Exit Press - and his later novels for Penguin - have established him as a crime novelist and noirist par-excellence, but Hunting the Hangman shows another side to Linskey, with a book that will appeal not just to thriller readers, but to anyone with an interest in 20th century history.
Varg Veum (lit: Lone Wolf) is a private investigator in the classic mould - the direct descendant of Sam Spade, Philip Marlowe and (perhaps most of all) Lew Archer, he's a cynical operator who retains a stubbornly compassionate streak despite everything he's seen. Immensely popular in Staalesen's native Norway (there's even a statue of the character erected in the city of Bergen) he's only recently begun to catch the attention of British readers, and with good reason.
Wolves in the Dark is the latest of the Varg Vuem novels, sympathetically translated into English by the excellent Don Bartlett, and published by the "literary crime" indie publisher Orenda Books, and it is possibly one of the finest yet. Still suffering from the loss of his love, Karn, Veum has been continuing to work as a private investigator even as he spirals into alcohol-fuelled blackouts and a highly risky personal life. But then traces of child pornography are found on his computer. Veum knows he's innocent, but his recent behaviour has left gaps in his memory that he can't account for.
Determined to prove his innocence, Veum must retrace his steps to find the people who would want to frame him for such a horrendous crime, but he soon realises the answers he seeks may be even more troubling than he ever suspected...
Staaelesen's prose, as translated by Bartlett, gives this Norwegian thriller a unique voice that eschews the soul-searching of some of his contemporaries for a more active and immediate kind of story-telling. Comparisons to Ross MacDonald's Lew Archer novels are decidedly deserved here, as the Veum novels are both page-turning and deeply personal. There's a nice line in subtle humour, too, that only reinforces this sense of Veum's classic heritage. There's a hint of Chandler that sneaks in when being Veum is being taken back to his cell early in the novel:
"...I took the lift back down to Hades. I wondered if I should look for a coin or two to place on my eyes, then I remembered all my small change had been taken from me earlier in the day..."
Even if you think you've read everything Norwegian crime has to offer, Staalesen offers up something unique and gripping. The Varg Veum books respect the history of the US PI novel while adding a unique perspective to a familair formula. Vuem is a fascinating set of eyes through which to view the world, and this contemporary entry in a series which has been running in the seventies is proof of his longevity. Wolves in the Dark is gripping, playful, clever and unsettling. In short, its everything you could want from crime fiction in any language.
(Note: The book will be released 15 June 2017, and this review is based on a review copy supplied by the publishers)
Although I spend much of my time reading for edits rather than pleasure, I still try and fit in reading for fun. This occasional blog will record brief thoughts on some of the books I'm reading on my "off time"
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